Greetings from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport! It’s bright and sunny here in the Twin Cities. It’s also 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Seeing the sunshine in such cold weather is on par with – I suspect – watching an ice cube not melt in an oven. It’s happening right before your eyes, defying logic. Logic, of course, was created by humans somewhere way back in the old timey times, and is forever develping. We humans have broken our backs adhearing to our self-created logic, no matter how often Change opens up a can of whoop-ass on us. Hey, all I’m saying is that in some other universe – or alternative time track – an ice cube is not melting in an oven. The uncertainty principle allows for such illogical events. And the uncertainty principle was a conclusion brought about by logical thinking. So it’s only logical that….bleh.
I’m waiting on my 2nd flight out of three – on my way back to New York. Grand Forks, ND to Minneapolis, MN to Philadelphia, PA to The Big Apple. It’s already a long day and I still got a long way to go. A long day, to close out a long, amazing week.
We – Matt, Greg and Jerry from the North Dakota Museum of Art, along with myself – set out from New York at 3pm on Tuesday. If you didn’t read last week’s El Jamberoo, we were charged with the task of packing up everything in deceased artist Barton Benes’ Greenwich Village apartment and transporting it all to Grand Forks, where the museum will recreate the cramped spectacle of artifacts, oddities and art out on the Great Plains. A gentle sun shined as we finished loading the trucks – which took two days. But by the time we lumbered the two hulking Penske rental trucks through the Lincoln tunnel and re-birthed them into New Jersey, the weather had turned and rain began to fall. Matt and I paired up in one truck. I drove first.
While Matt made phone call after phone call – lining up storage for Benes’ stuff, etc – I motored us onward through rush-hour on the rising and falling landscape. The rain fell harder as we puttered through Jersey and into Pennsylvania, passing towns with names like Hopatcong and Tommahanny. The traffic thinned after the Poconos – the rain stayed – and I was able to take in the scenery a little better. Interstate 80 ushered us over the huge gorges and quarries of central Pennsylvainia. The darkening sky gave Iron Country a haunted air, as the steam from rivers rose to join the darkness. Railroads ran along mountainsides and it was easy to think I was driving further back into Time, when the rails were the arteries of the nation. But after the last of the gray sky went dark, all I could see was the tracers of headlights coming my way, the taillights ahead of me, and the well lit billboards advertising everything we all need for a happy fulfilled American life. Then it was easy for me to see I was in modern times.
Since Matt was on and off the phone I didn’t think he would be able to see much along the way. But when he hung up the phone for the last time, he looked at me and said, “Isn’t it amazing how most of this country is named after Indians but we all but erased them from history. It’s just basically Geronimo and Sitting Bull in school and that’s it.”
The next day’s drive offered the same as they day before – gray skies, rain, Indian names. We crossed over to Ohio and along the Cayahoga River, Black River and Maumee River, little towns nestled in the woods along the banks. Pointy churches and pointy homes rose high, piercing the sky to let more water out. The towns were rusty and old, looked as if they hadn’t changed in many decades and would not change for many more. But I was wrong, everything changes. Even Ohio, which changed to Indiana in the late afternoon. There, the landscape was flatter. The weather changed, too. Snow began to fall and soon I couldn’t see but a few yards beyond the hood. We turned off I-80 and exited through an automatic toll booth that made change in Sacagawea dollar coins. That made good American sense – to automate, so America wouldn’t have to hire an American to do the job. The fact that the booth couldn’t make exact change was but a little matter, I’m sure, to the lawmakers who tell us they want to create more jobs. That kind of logic is right at home in some other universe, I suspect.
We stayed the night in Michigan City, Indiana and ate a Texas Roadhouse. Matt shelled out the Sacagaweas for the waitress’ tip and was amazed to see not a portrait of the Indian woman who saved the lives of Lewis and Clark and was a major factor in their success in crossing the continent, but portraits of Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B Hayes and Ullyses S Grant. I knew they erased Sacagawea from the dollar coin some time ago, and I guess it made good American sense to replace a pivotal figure in our history with presidents who’s administrations ranged from rather forgettable to downright scandalous. It was just a shame to be reminded of that in Indian-a.
The next morning – after coffee, an hour of the History Channel and commercials apealing to me to ask my doctor about testosterone defficiency – we headed further westward. We left Indiana, traveling along I-94, and after paying about $150,000 to the Illinois Toll Road System, we hit the lanes of easy Wisconsin blacktop. The land rose and fell so friendly. Little farms peaked out over the snow drifts from the previous days’ blizzard. People had to drive quite a distance to get what they needed, out there. There were no corner delis or Fresh Direct for Wisconsin farmers. The still trees, grain silos and red barns reminded me that America moves at many speeds, and that no speed was any better than the other. Americans are animals, adapted to several environments, weather shaping the morals and logic of each region. But we are all good animals, and there is room out there for all of us to feel and live the way we are compelled to live…and WE DON’T have to live the way TV anchors and bloated politicians say we want to live. I couldn’t devote much time to my American theories that afternoon, however, for I had to share the road with many 18-wheelers. Behind me, ahead of me and beside me, big rigs sped toward a deadline down by the setting sun. I had to mind the road – or else – as I motored Barton Benes’ apartment through land that would make a fine painting. The only thing that would make the painting a masterpiece would be the sun, I thought. Then BAM! The sun burst underneath the clouds just before sunset, sometime after crossing the Kishwaukee River.
The western horizon glowed in fiery yellows, reds, pinks. A Big Sky sunset – no buildings or anything else man created could hide it from me and it felt good to be out in the Great Wide Open. It felt good to be an American. It really did. Because out there in The Great Wide Open I can be the American I want to be, the American I can be proud of. When I’m away from Electric, Spoon-Fed America, I don’t have to choose one side or the other. I don’t have to choose blue or red, left or right, conservative or liberal. Out in The Great Wide Open, I am reminded that there are many more colors – and directions – known in existence than just two. Further, I am reminded that given the choice of “one or the other” is no way to exist at all. I’d gotten really wise by the time an 18-wheeler curled around me fast and close in the dark. I had to hold my lane as to not drift onto the icy shoulder. I watched the semi’s taillights grow smaller and steered my thoughts to the road, only the road. Too much philosophizing takes a driver out of the moment, leads him away from the sun and into the darkness.
We stopped at a hotel in Monticello, Minnesota for the night. We couldn’t get our things out of the back of the truck because the lock on the door was frozen. I shivered uncontrollably while Matt put a flame to the lock. My nose hairs froze and my face burned in the cold. Each of us blew big clouds of steam in the blue black night. It was -4 degrees and I was instantly reminded that I was from Texas. I felt I would crack to dust if it got any colder.
But it was -15 degrees next morning and I still held together as Matt heated the locks again. Matt’s from the North Country. He moves in a way suggesting he is very familiar to the cold. He had adapted to the weather. I figured I was adapting, or just going numb. Whatever the case, I was able to fire up the truck and pull her out onto I-94. It was a half day’s of drive to Grand Forks. The sun was shining bright behind us and I had to squint against the glare of the pure white landscape before me.
But about two hours into the drive, the sky turned white and in no time it was impossible to tell earth from sky. By the time we got to Fargo, ND, the snow was falling and the roads iced over. Waves of snow crawled across the road like little snake clouds – mezmerising – albino serpents guiding us into the underworld. I fought the temptation to follow the snakes into the white abyss until a green sign – “Grand Forks Next Exit” – hovered in the air. I exited I-29, toward Grand Forks, away from frozen hell. Minutes later, I was backing the truck into a loading dock. Then I killed the engine, jumped down from the cab. The trip was over. Such a long journey ending so quickly. But don’t they all?
Barton Benes lived in his little studio apartment at West Beth Artist Housing for 42 years. It took us two days to load up his life. It took us two hours to unload it. We had a good crew and we didn’t have to negotiate any steep stairways, narow elevators, broken cobble stones or grumpy New York shut-ins. Seeing his boxed life in the big storage room in Grand Forks made it so clear to me how life comes and goes – how grand it is while at the same time only a burp in time. Just before we left I took one last look at Bartons’ stuffed giraffe. It was wrapped in plastic, almost hidden by cardboard boxes. If it were alive, it would not be pleased with the weather of his new environment. But it would’ve adapted to it. Or died. That’s what the lesser animals do. It’s only the highest species – we who create wisdom, morals, Republicans, rape, Democrats, and logic – that has the priviledge to either adapt, die, or live miserably until we adapt or die. But out in The Great Wide Open, we are reminded that we created misery, and reminded it is a choice.