Sunday Driver: “Cuba Needs More Hookers”
December 6th, 2009
To get to the Four Corners region of the American Southwest, you get off the plane at Albuquerque and take US 550 toward the northwest. But you best be sure to stock up on refreshments, gas and restroom breaks before you leave the northern suburb of Bernalillo, because that’s just about the last chance you’ll get to stop until you reach the small village of Cuba, NM (pop. 590). There, you’ll have a few places to stop and eat: McDonalds, a Subway, El Bruno’s for Mexican food, and the venerable Cuban Cafe, among a few other choices. Last time through there a few months ago, I stopped for a restroom break at the combination McDonalds/Chevron station and found this scrawled in large letters on the stall door:
Cuba’s pretty small. I suppose that Cuba could probably use more of a lot of things. But for such a small town, it struck me as being relatively self-sufficient. I guess that’s out of necessity — the nearest other town of any size at all is a ninety minute drive away.
My immediate needs resolved (the restroom break, not hookers), I decided to head over to the Cuban Cafe for lunch (split pea soup, a grilled cheese sandwich and a Coke). As I ate, I read a copy of The Cuba News (published monthly) to get a lay of the land. There was a great article about the very early days of the town’s founding as a mission outpost, another “news” article that appeared to be compiled by someone scratching down disjointed notes while watching Glenn Beck on Fox News, a rant against the local police department for their vigorous enforcement of traffic laws (Cuba is a notorious speed trap), and the usual assortment of announcements for pot luck dinners, revivals, and other community events.
But as I was reading the paper and thought that I had gotten an idea of what the local landscape was like, I came across another listing that reminded me that no place could be nailed down to just a few simple images, not even a place as small as Cuba. There in the Religion announcements, amidst the Catholics, the Baptists, the Presbyterians and Assemblies of God, there were two — two! — separate announcements for BahÃ¡’i meetings taking place around Cuba.
The BahÃ¡’i faith, if you don’t know, was founded in nineteenth century Persia and emphasizes three principles: the unity of God, the unity of religion, and the spiritual humanity of all people around the world. Their main focus is in peace around the world, and they believe that all religions in some form or another embody the wonderment of the one God that unites us all. Those are some pretty high-minded (one might say liberal) concepts. (Update: They may be “liberal” but not so much where homosexuality is concerned. But they are decidedly unconventional nonetheless.) There are an estimated six million BahÃ¡’is around the world, and out of the 590 people living in Cuba, there are enough BahÃ¡’is to support not just one, but two different meetings of the faithful for worship and meditation.Well that reminded me of a very important lesson, one that I should have known well from my own background, but that we all have a tendency to forget no matter where we come from. Wherever you go, you hold the responsibility to see exactly what is in front of you and not your preconceived expectations of what you expect to find. Any place — even an isolated town of six hundred souls — is more complex than any snapshot or isolated image can muster.
My great-grandmother used to defend her rural Kentucky background by saying that hicks are just people who don’t know anything about the rest of the world, and that you can find hicks in some mighty fancy places. With her definition, I’ve run across a lot of hicks in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Dallas, Boston, London — just about everywhere you can imagine, I’ve met people who thought they knew everything there was to know about middle America. I expected to find hicks in Cuba according to the more conventional meaning of the word, but it turned out that I was the one my great-grandmother would brand the hick. I can’t say whether Cuba really needs more hookers or not, but the world could probably stand a few more trips to Cuba.
Sunday Driver: New York to DC and Back Again
November 15th, 2009
Sunday Driver: Surrounded By Indians
October 25th, 2009
For several weeks over the past three months, my job has taken me to the Four Corners area of New Mexico on the Navajo Indian Reservation. While there, I’ve gotten a small, tentative peak at small snippets of Navajo culture from among my co-workers, the first thing being that they don’t call themselves Navajo. Instead, they call themselves Diné, which just means “The People.” The second thing I learned — and I know this runs the danger of indulging in meaningless stereotypes — is that on the whole, the Diné are a very friendly and humorous people. I am by no means an expert on Native American peoples, nor have I done much extensive traveling on Indian lands, but of the tribes and reservations that I have come in contact with, the Diné have a very different vibe about them. They are both proudly Diné and proudly American. The Diné language is a flourishing, living language, Diné land is breathtakingly beautiful, and all in all — to this outsider at least — there just seems to be this sense of belonging and permanence. That sense that the Diné are here, they’ve always been here, and they will be here forever.
My last business trip happened to coincide with the Northern Navajo Fair, held annually in Shiprock, New Mexico. It’s sort of like a state fair for the Navajo reservation. Since Shiprock was about an hour away from where I was working, and I was going to have to work through the weekend, I decided to take a Saturday evening off and make the two-hour drive to get there. That’s one hour to get to Shiprock, and another hour in traffic through that small town to park and walk to the fairgrounds. I mentioned my plans to one of my Diné co-workers. He smiled and said, “I don’t know. You might yourself surrounded by Indians.”
I did say the Diné have a great sense of humor, didn’t I?
Well, I went and had a great time. The fair itself is much like any other state or county fair. There was a midway with rides, typical fair food of funnel cakes, sausages, and turkey legs, carnies hawking games and other merchandise, livestock and horticulture exhibits, 4H and Future Farmers of America events. And a rodeo, a staple of all fairs in the American West.
And there was dust, dust like you can’t imagine. Gather thousands of people to walk around a few acres of desert, and you will stir up a fine dust that hangs in the air like a giant tan cloud. For that weekend, the Shiprock fairgrounds were without a doubt The Dustiest Place On Earth.
But of course, since this was the Navajo fair, there were several differences from your typical state fair. A traditional Pow-wow was taking place in one corner of the fairgrounds, a series of Diné community singing and dancing contests were held in a central pavilion, and just off the garishly-lit midway was a more humble, dimly-lit area of traditional Diné food vendors. While their operations were considerably simpler than the flashing lights of the corndog trailers, they had at least one huge advantage over their outside competitors: The Diné vendors constructed tents or simple plywood shelters to shield their diners from the dust.
Now each the sheltered areas were typically small, large enough to hold maybe four or five folding tables, which for me presented a small problem because I was feeling conspicuously White. I felt a great deal of trepidation about going into one of those small tents by myself, a White guy interloping among several Diné families enjoying dinner. But I found one vendor which was mostly empty, and so I decided to try that one.
It turned out to be a good choice. This vendor had arranged her tables differently from the others. Her tables were arranged in a U-shape, with diners sitting on the outside of the “U” facing the center. Since I was the only one there, I sat at the bottom of the “U” and gave her my order of roast mutton in frybread and a bottle of water. Soon after I sat down, several others joined me: an elderly couple on the leg of the “U” to my left, and a family of dancers later came in and sat along the leg of the “U” to my right. When my food arrived, two middle-aged sisters sat down to my immediate left, and an elderly gentleman crowded in to my right. Before I knew it, we had a full house.
With the configuration of the tables where everyone is facing everyone else, conversation naturally came easily. And I saw right away how foolish I was to feel out of place. The lady to my left immediately struck up a conversation with me and told me about the things I should see at the fair. She also insisted that I try the Navajo Tea, a traditional tea brewed from the Greenthread herb. So while I was sipping the tea, the elderly gentleman was telling me about himself, his late wife, his son in college, and, of course, the fact that “Navajo” is what White people call them, and that they call themselves Diné. Which I already knew, but I nodded respectfully as one would do for one’s elders, and I carefully inserted the word Diné in my conversation whenever it was appropriate to do so. Meanwhile, the lady at my left explained the grand finale performance that everyone was there to see later that night.
To give you a little bit of background, the fair begins the weekend before with a nine day healing ceremony known as the Ye\’ii Bi Chei Ceremony. It is a series of dances performed continuously by several groups of dancers. The Ye\’ii Bi Chei culminates with a grand-finale on the last Saturday night of the fair, that very same Saturday night that I happened to there. But because the Ye\’ii Bi Chei finale was scheduled to begin at 10:00 p.m. and I was looking at another two-hour drive to get back to the hotel and going to work the next day, I wasn’t able to attend. So that’s one reason why there aren’t any pictures of it. But the other, much more important reason is that photography is strictly forbidden due to the sacred nature of the ceremony.
But as I said, there was so much more to see and experience. So after everyone had finished eating and we took our leave of each other, I walked over to the central pavilion where the singing and dancing contests were being held. Those I could photograph, even though all I had on me was my cell phone. Since taking snapshots is what tourists do, I played my part. Then I pocketed my phone and just stood and watched.
Now I know we’ve all heard “Indian music” in the movies. It’s typically performed as a high-pitched wail set against the beating of a drum. Diné music, in those respects, is no different — at least superficially, and my untrained ears aren’t capable of going beyond the superficial. And when this music is performed in the movies, we White folks can only take so much of it before it becomes annoying. Maybe that’s why they keep those scenes short.
But I noticed something very different as I stood at the edge of the pavilion and listened as groups and families got up to chant and drum, while others gathered to dance in a slow circle. When you hear the drums beating with you right there, they take on the characteristics of a heartbeat. Maybe not literally, and I have no idea whether that’s what they’re intended to do, but they appear as natural and essential as a beating heart, accompanying the groups as they chanted their songs.
And what amazing songs they are. Every other performance I’ve ever attended, I’ve heard what sounds like a consciously planned, written and rehearsed performance, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And they come off as well-rehearsed — or maybe not so well-rehearsed, as the case may be. But when you go to a concert, that’s generally what you pay to see. And here too, I also witnessed what must have been carefully rehearsed performances as well — these are groups singing in perfect unison, not individuals making it up as they went along — but it didn’t sound like it.
Instead, these songs sounded as if they were not made by human effort, but were the reflection of something much larger, both inside and outside the singers. It’s like the songs welled up from the dusty ground, pushed their way through the singers’ throats, burst forth from out of their mouths and into the cool night air, and swirled up to the stars and the full moon that shined down on the fairgrounds that night. And the songs themselves don’t feel like they are confined to the moment in which they are performed. Instead, they seem to transcend time, never beginning nor ending. They remain permanent, as permanent as the Diné themselves. And all the while there is the steady beat, beat, beat, steady and strong like a heart. Like the world’s heart, giving life to the crisp autumn night, and cutting through the dust and the noise of the carnival barkers and the DJ playing Pitbull’s Calle Ocho off in the distance. It cut through all of that because the Diné are here, they’ve always been here, and they will be here forever.
I pulled my cell phone back out of my pocket and called my partner back home. “Chris,” I said, “you’ve got to hear this…”
Sunday Driver: El Tiradito
September 27th, 2009
Tucked away south of downtown Tucson lie the last remnants of the old Barrio Historico. The Barrio is the original Mexican neighborhood that was established at about the time of the Gadsden Purchase, when the entire area changed hands from Mexico to the United States. Tucson’s original barrio was decimated by the short-sighted urban renewal wave of the 1960s, but what remains is still the largest and best preserved collection of old adobe Sonoran-style building in the U.S.
It is said that the Barrio is inhabited by countless ghosts from its violent past. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but there is one legend from the old Barrio that is worth mentioning. The details of that legend are very sketchy, but it goes like this: sometime before the turn of the twentieth century there was an illicit love affair between a man and a married woman. It was an affair that was kept hidden for a very long time, but at some point the woman’s husband found out about it and murdered the man.
Because the murdered man was a sinner in the eyes of the Church when he died, he was denied a Catholic burial at the church’s cemetery. His body was barred from consecrated ground. So he was instead buried underneath his home somewhere. Today, that legend holds, he lies there still, somewhere within the crumbling walls of that old adobe home.
Whatever happened, one thing we know. The community took pity on the young man and today the brick walls which stand in for his unconsecrated grave have been consecrated by popular acclaim as a makeshift shrine known as El Tiradito (“the little castaway” or “the little discarded one”). Over the years, people have come from all over to pray at the shrine, both for the murdered lover and for others who have become lost to them. They leave small photographs, milagros, and other small tokens representing their prayer requests around the old fireplace which is now a revered nicho, and sometimes they’ll write their prayers down on small scraps of paper and leave them in the cracks of the crumbling adobe walls. And always they leave behind lit candles, typically those candles that you’ll find in Mexican grocery stores in South Tucson with images of saints printed on the sides. It is said that if you leave a lit candle at nightfall and the candle is still burning in the morning, then your prayers will be answered.
Legends have a way of growing out of small kernels of facts while ignoring other facts. My friend Homer, an archeologist and local historian tells me that he remembers reading newspaper accounts from around the 1920s in which the shrine was moved a short distance to its present location. He also says that nobody has been able to uncover historical records to verify the legend. But he also says that territorial newspaper accounts from the 1800s are full of stories about husbands murdering the paramours of their wives. Arizona was especially violent in those days and living was hard. As many as a quarter of the people who died in the 1870s met a violent end. And even today, the remains of dead bodies turn up every few years or so in unexpected places underneath streets and sidewalks whenever a reconstruction project is taking place.
But whatever the actual facts may be, legends and myths have a way of speaking to greater truths that register in the hearts of those who hold them as true. Legends lift us from the world of the mundane and carry us to the plane of aspirations and ideals. And it’s those greater ideals embodied by El Tiradito which fascinates me. This shrine, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is reputed to be the only known shrine in America dedicated to a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground. Whether that is true or not, a shrine dedicated to the memory of a sinner is a very odd thing. Shrines are the sorts of thing we’re more erect for reserve to heroes.
By all traditional understandings of morality of the day, the husband should be seen as the victim. He was the one who was wronged by his wife and her lover. And according to the frontier mores of the day, he was entirely within his rights to shoot the interloper. In fact, frontier justice demanded such an honor killing. By all rights, the man commemorated by this site would be looked upon as the villain. He’s the one who messed around with another man’s wife. But here, it’s the wife’s husband who is reviled. Why is that?
Clearly those who first carried the memory of the murdered lover knew more than we do today. What was it about the love between the murdered man and the married woman that touched their hearts? Was the woman’s husband cruel to her? Malicious to others? Was he a drunk all the time? Did he beat her? Cheat on her?
And what of the poor soul who was murdered? We can safely say he was a poor soul, otherwise his memory wouldn’t have been so lovingly tended. He clearly is the sympathetic one in the story. Why is that? Was he particularly kind? Generous of spirit? More to the point, was he the one she was meant to love and be loved by in return?
Who knows? All that we do know is that this man, the one who was reviled by the proper authorities of the day — he is now the folk hero, the one who is the beneficiary of generations of prayers and tender thoughts.
We are all familiar with the “love that dares not speak its name,” but here we have a man whose name is no longer spoken and is therefore unknown to us. And so we arrive at the greater thing which, I think, this legend represents and which no factual historical record can touch. In his anonymity, an unknown man is remembered, and he is loved because he dared to pursue a love that was prohibited to him. Yet in his pursuit of a forbidden love, his love achieved a sort of immortality that has long outlived him.
Many times love cannot be constrained by the rigid boundaries of what is considered proper, nor by the limits of a premature death. This love broke through all of those boundaries and its effects have endured beyond death and memory. It has pushed forward through the centuries and burns still today, flickering tentatively like the candles at El Tiradito, precisely because others have carefully tended it through the night so that it may greet the dawn once more.
Sunday Driver: Business or Pleasure?
September 20th, 2009
So where have I been?
Posting has been sparse here on BTB lately, and that’s partly my fault. I’ve been on travel for work, and our latest project has been sending me to a plant on the Navajo Indian Reservation in the Four-Corners area of New Mexico. The project will likely continue for the next three weeks or so, then things should return to normal around here.
I enjoy traveling for work though, even if I can’t get out and see much of anything beside the hotel, the plant site, or a restaurant that looks like every other restaurant in the country. Not everywhere is exotic or endlessly fascinating, but everywhere is somebody’s home. And getting to know somebody’s home is always an interesting opening. The Navajo are a reserved people, but that doesn’t lessen their friendliness or their gentle, good-natured ribbing. It’s fun to work when your co-workers are eager for a good laugh despite the pressure of looming deadlines and technical challenges.
One of these days I’ll stop alongside some of the roads and take some pictures. It’s a beautiful drive between work and the hotel. Four-corners is amazing — Shiprock, Aztec, Mesa Verde, Thoreau, Farmington… I hope someday soon to have the time to tell you all about it.
Sunday Driver: Simple Gifts
September 13th, 2009
Today, especially in contemporary America’s Fox News-driven style of political environment where anything smacking of shared obligations and sense of community is loudly and angrily denounced as “socialism” or worse, it’s hard to remember that communitarian Utopian ideals were an important religious and societal impulse which built great swaths of the country in the early 1800’s. These communal experiments of the Harmony Society, Zoar, the Shakers, the Oneida community, the Amana Colonies — these have all left an indelible mark on American society and its landscape.
One such group, and perhaps the most ardent in its communal strictures, were the Shakers. Founded by Ann Lee, an illiterate mill worker who was strongly influence by the Quakers, the Shakers adopted similar theological beliefs but added the some key elements which set them apart. The Shakers’ manner of worship involved ecstatic, animated movements which lent them their name and established a precedent for later pentecostal movements which would come about in the early twentieth century. They were ahead of themselves in other ways as well: because they held that God embodied both masculine and feminine elements, they believed in absolute equality between men and women. They rejected slavery and were open to all comers regardless of race. They also founded communal villages in which family relationships were abolished and celibacy became the most notable feature of Shaker life to the outside world.
Actually, celibacy was only one notable feature of Shaker life. Perhaps the other most notable feature was the Shakers’ remarkable craftsmanship in everything they made. Their view of work was best summed up by two well-known Shaker sayings: “Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow,” and, “Put your hands to work, and your heart to God.” They believed that making something well was itself an act of prayer. Simplicity, beauty, and plain functionality were guiding principles in everything they did.
There is one point of irony in the Shakers’ much-appreciated craftsmanship. Their ingenuity and fine attention to detail has made those “simple gifts” produced by a simple people in prayer have become inordinately expensive. Original Shaker pieces now command exorbitant prices among some of the world’s wealthiest collectors.
The Shakers went on to found 19 villages from Maine to Kentucky, and at their peak counted some 16,000 members. They also drew a tremendous backlash in the outside world, often with arguments similar to those used by anti-gay activists. One such anti-Shaker argument held that the Shakers represented a dire threat to civilization: if everyone became Shaker, then the human race would die out due to their insistence on celibacy.
But in the end, it was the Shakers who eventually died out. The industrial revolution and the rise of cities marked a popular shift away from farming in general, and the Shaker’s agrarian communal lifestyle quickly became obsolete. And there was, of course, that celibacy thing which went far beyond merely a ban on sex. It extended to a ban on marriage and the denial of intimate relationships of all sorts. This smacked headlong against the growing Victorian fascination of romantic love as being the foundation of lifelong attachments. And of course, communal living experiments across the country ran hard against the lure of rugged individualism which drove Americans’ both further westward and toward greater economic freedom. Against those nineteenth century developments, “United Society of Believers in Christ\’s Second Appearing” didn’t stand a chance.
One by one, the Shaker settlements were abandoned. There is only one settlement left at Sabbathday Lake near Lewiston, Maine, with four remaining residents. The Shaker village in Kentucky, Pleasant Hill, was founded in 1806 and lasted as an active community until 1910. The last Kentucky Shaker, Sister Mary Settles, died in 1923. Pleasant Hill, about 25 miles south of Lexington, is now a remarkably preserved museum where the Trustee Office building is now an Inn and restaurant.
There is another legacy that the Shakers left for us, and it’s one that everyone the world over is familiar with. Music and dance were an exceptionally important part of Shaker worship, and one song in particular not only encapsulates perfectly the Shaker philosophy, but has become an anthem for personal excellence.
Update: After I posted this, it occurred to me that the Shaker experiment had more in common with monasticism than most other communal Utopian communities of the nineteenth century. But they didn’t position themselves as a monastic alternative to ordinary life, but as an entirely separate kind of community and religion. There are still monasteries today, even though they generally are in decline. Perhaps if the Shakers had thought of themselves as providing a different way of living out a more common Protestant faith rather than the particularly unique beliefs they espoused (rejection of the Trinity, direct communication with the dead, etc.), they might have survived as well in some form. Who knows?
Sunday Driver: Thoughts on Getting Married
September 6th, 2009
As I write this, my partner Michael and I are on vacation in Winter Park, Colorado. One of my closest friends from New York City is getting married and we’ve flown in a few days before the wedding. It’s been a year since either of us has had any real time off, and despite the fact that I haven’t been able to stop myself from checking my work e-mail, it’s been a nice break.
The wedding on Sunday will be the first I’ve attended since Mike and I got engaged a few months ago, which has made me look at all the events with an eye toward our own ceremony. I take note of what I think would fit and what wouldn’t. Many of the rituals don’t — my dad, for instance, is not giving me away. So we’ve had to make up a lot as we’ve gone along; I think that suits us.
We planned the proposal together, chose matching Tiffany wedding bands and bought them, decided to go to Mario Batali’s Del Posto for dinner. As we walked over to the West Side for dinner, we stopped at Madison Square Park. We sat on a bench, and as people walked by with their dogs and children, we exchanged the rings in a place we had been many times before.
For a number of reasons, I never thought I’d get married. My experiences in reorientation therapy with Dr. Joseph Nicolosi had convinced me at a young age that being gay would mean being alone — gay relationships didn’t last. I believed that long after I gave up on therapy. But even after I disabused myself of that toxic notion, I had never met anyone I thought I could be with indefinitely.
I met Mike at a party and was dating someone else at the time. After we friended each other on Facebook, I asked him to dinner, which I knew was playing with fire. I told myself that it was just a friendly meeting, but none of my friends failed to point out that I was not telling my partner at the time. I said I did not want to upset him unnecessarily, but even I didn’t fully buy my own story. Shortly after we had dinner, my ex and I broke up, for a number of reasons, and Mike and I were dating within a few weeks.
We’ve been together for nearly two years and decided to get engaged before I left New York to work at the Prospect in Washington, DC. The thought of getting married still scares me. Walking down Fifth Avenue after having bought the ring, I remember thinking, “This isn’t just talk anymore.” It was a serious, adult thing to do, and it made me a bit nostalgic for single life, which was lonely but always infused with a sense of possibility. When I first moved to New York, I knew no one and spent much of my free time wandering the city alone, walking home from work in the World Financial Center, or back and forth across the island, or in the park. Sometimes I miss that solitude, but I forget why I miss it when Mike is off in Boston from Monday to Thursday for work.
Marriage also scares me less when I think of the fact that I can still be myself in it; I don’t have to do any last-minute repairs to make myself “ready.” And it doesn’t mean everything will be perfect. In a way, it won’t change anything. Mike and I will still love each other, still share our thoughts and feelings. We’ll fight, too. The fact that it won’t change much in our day-to-day begs the question, Why get married? We would still be together even if Connecticut and Massachusetts were not a train ride away, and even if both DC and New York did not recognized gay marriage. But our relationship doesn’t exist in a vacuum; we share it with our friends, co-workers and, in my case, I share it with readers. It is as much a public partnership as a private relationship, which is why having it acknowledged from the outside is important.
This morning, Mike and I drove into downtown Winter Park (if you can call it that) and had brunch outside. I rarely remember the things we talk about, but I do hold on to the profound feeling of well-being, and remember how the midday light shone off the glass table. It’s then when I think marriage won’t change a thing. But when I’m at a social event and someone asks me about the ring, or when I have to take a flight on my own and worry about who will take care of him if the plane goes down, I realize: maybe marriage does change everything.
Sunday Driver: Coffee In Arivaca
August 30th, 2009
Coffee shops have been springing up all over the world, with Starbucks leading the way in the commodification of the beverage. But there are still plenty of coffee shops which offer a uniquely enjoyable experience, either by their service, flavor or setting.
One such coffee shop is in a most unlikely location, on a little-traveled road in the middle of the nowhere. The Gadsen Coffee Company’s Cafe Aribac, just outside of Arivaca AZ, is one of our favorite places to spend an afternoon, although we rarely get to go there because it’s so far out of the way from where we live in Tucson. To get there, you leave the city far behind and head south toward the Mexican border, get off the Interstate at Amado, and go west on Arivaca road, a winding country road that dips and swerves through the hills and brush of the Sonoran Desert.
It’s a winding, 25-mile drive from Amado that takes close just under an hour, but the result is worth it. I can guarantee that there is no more peaceful, restful place in the world to enjoy a cup of joe and homemade desert than on Cafe Aribac’s front porch. The Buddhist prayer banners flutter in the breeze, hummingbirds buzzing around the feeders, and the peaceful desert vistas and mountains rising all around.
My partner and I found the coffee shop quite by accident, and we came to it from the opposite direction. We were taking one of our many wandering weekend drives one day alongside the Baboquivari mountains just to the west, when we decided it would be nice to find a way to cut across the San Luis mountains to the east in order to catch I-19 home. The only road going through was Arivaca Road, so off we went.
When we reached the road’s namesake less than halfway across to the interstate, we found a village caught in a time warp. The town itself is barely a couple of blocks long, and some of it looks little changed from the days of the Gadsden Purchase. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot to do there, so we continued on our journey. And that’s where we found the coffee shop, not even a mile outside of the other side of town.
That’s where we learned that there’s a whole lot more to Arivaca than meets the eye. It was originally a Pima Indian settlement, then a Mexican Land Grant ranch know as La Aribac. After the Gadsden Purchase, it was an outpost for the Buffalo Soldiers, and then a small settlement for European and Mexican miners and ranch hands. The late 1960’s saw the arrival of several bands of hippies. I don’t know how they fit in with the more traditionally-minded ranching culture, but they stayed and started a few small businesses in the area.
Arivaca is typically very tranquil, but tranquility is not synonymous with boredom. Arivaca has found itself caught up with an influx immigration and drug smuggling activities, along with a larger Border Patrol presence. That has everyone just a little bit on edge. To add to their worries, a family was attacked just last May by an offshoot of the nativist Minutemen hate group. The father and his nine-year-old daughter were killed. The mother and another daughter escaped.
But before you worry about whether Arivaca is changing, just remember where it came from. It’s been here long before the latest troubles edged their way in from outside, and it’ll still be here long after those troubles recede. Just sit back and sip some coffee, and take in the expansive view at that little cafe, and you’ll rediscover that truth all over again.
Like I said, we rarely go there because it’s so out of the way. Locals like to say “If you found Arivaca, then you’re really lost.” But if you want to get lost, it’s probably as good a place as any. Sometimes losing yourself is the best way to find yourself in this fast-paced right-this-instant-messaging world we’ve made for ourselves. Some retreat to sanctuaries or monasteries. Chris and I, when we are particularly stressed, are more likely to say, “How about a coffee in Arivaca?”
And why not? Whatever you’re looking for in a sanctuary or monastery is right there in Arivaca. There, you will see both permanence and impermanence existing side by side. You’ll see delicate beauty in a harsh landscape, harsh strength in a delicate people, and unassailable truths in a confusing world. Arivaca is barely a blink on a windy desert road, but it is a blink that has outlasted generations, centuries and nations. In that way, Arivaca is both different and indifferent: it can take us or leave us. We could all go to Arivaca only to leave it behind again, but it will always be there. One way or another, it will always be there.
Sunday Driver: Where I Come From
August 23rd, 2009
I don’t know how much of this is true, but I think I remember reading that anthropologists say that those exotic names a group of people give themselves, whether it’s an American Indian tribe or an indigenous ethnic group in Africa or South Asia, often come down to just being that group’s word for “us” or “our people.” It’s the outsiders they name, not the in-group. The in-group is just “us.”
Like I said, I don’t know how true that is but it somehow feels right. I grew up in Appalachia, which I guess makes me an Appalachian. I grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio, on the Ohio river right about where Ohio meets Kentucky and West Virginia. I don’t think I or any of my friends really thought of ourselves as Appalachians; the word didn’t really have any meaning for us until we moved away — that is, at least, among those of us who did manage move away. I mean, okay, we saw television commercials for Appalachian Power, and the mountains a hundred or so miles to the east were the Appalachian Mountains, but it was just a name to us. We were just “us,” just like the anthropologists said. It wasn’t until I left that I came to understand our Appalachian-ness.
Now, I know that Dolly Parton always says that when she was growing up, she didn’t think she was poor. Neither did I, but then again, we really weren’t poor. We were perhaps lower middle class, somewhat middle class-ish, somewhere in there. Generally better off than our neighbors, but not as well-off as middle class folks in the big cities like Columbus — which, by the way, was for us the very definition of a chic and sophisticated cosmopolitan city. Yes, Columbus. Which goes to show we really were Appalachian.
But it took me a very long time before I could own the name “Appalachian.” After all, it carries a lot of baggage in the larger American culture. Hillbillies, moonshine, “Deliverance,” — that’s just barely scratching the surface, and none of it was relevant to my growing up there. All of those images are grossly unfair to the good people who live there, including most of my own family who still make Southern Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia their home.
But over time I have come to embrace where I came from, although I have to admit that it is much easier being from there than it would be had I remained there. The further away I’ve moved, the easier it has become for me to be Appalachian. Maybe it’s the safety of distance that allows me to do this, but I doubt it. I think it’s more a matter of the perspective that that distance provides. I mean, think of it this way: we all come from somewhere, but so few of us come from a place so unique that outsiders had to give it a special name. So why not own that?
I was reminded again of where I come from when I saw this article posted on my hometown newspaper’s web site. It appears that there are a couple of people there who are still looking for Bigfoot. You know, Sasquatch, the legendary man-beast of the forests. And someone else made a documentary about them, which debuted at SXSW in Austin last year. But according to filmmaker and Portsmouth native Jay Delaney, the movie’s not really about Bigfoot, but “the trials and triumphs of life in Appalachian Ohio. It\’s not only their research, but also the struggles they face in trying to hold on to this dream they have.” This trailer gives you a very good idea of what my hometown looks like and what the people there sound like.
Watching that made me just a little homesick. I know you won’t understand that, but there it is. I’m looking forward to the DVD coming out next month.
Sometime when I was in middle school, there was a huge local Bigfoot rage going on. We suddenly heard all these stories about Bigfoot sightings in the forests and hills out in the county, but no one ever got a good, clear picture of whatever it was they thought they saw. That’s why few people took these sightings seriously. In fact, someone or someones unknown decided to have a little fun with all the talk by creating three-foot long stencils of bare footprints and spray-painting huge white Bigfoot-prints on the sidewalks all over town. To paraphrase Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, we may have been hicks but that didn’t mean we were stupid.
I never saw Bigfoot, at least not in real life. But they did come to me once in a dream. I dreamed I was hiking in the woods out by Turkey Creek Lake where I came across a family of Bigfoots — a father, a mother, and a couple of, I guess, Littlefoots? Anyway, they were in a cave sitting around a stone table about to have dinner. Daddy Bigfoot saw me and gruffly hustled the kids away, but Mamma Bigfoot stayed behind so we could talk. “You’ll have to excuse him,” she said. “He’s really very nice once you get to know him, but he just doesn’t trust people. You see, we’ve been hunted down, chased, and treated very badly by them. Humans just won’t leave us alone.”
I nodded, and felt a little bit ashamed for having encroached on their home. But she reassured me that everything was okay with a gentleness that I found very touching. I was then overwhelmed by a desire to prove that at least one human could treat a family of Bigfoots with dignity and respect. But in order to do that, there was one point on Bigfoot etiquette that I really needed to know. So I decided to broach what seemed to me a delicate subject.
“May I ask you something?”
“Of course,” she said, raising her furry eyebrows ever so slightly.
“If you don’t mind my asking, what do you call yourselves?”
She looked at me with a look of gratitude that I would ask such a question. “Why, we call ourselves ‘Our-Its.'” Wow, I thought, just as anthropologists observed so many times before. And then she reached out and put her hand on my arm, leaned in ever so slightly, and said, “You know, we really hate the name ‘Bigfoot.’ It’s so… “ she paused, then whispered, “demeaning.”
Yeah, I know just what she means.
What Is “Sunday Driver”?
August 23rd, 2009
Through the week, all of us here at BTB write a lot of serious stuff about what’s happening in and to the LGBT community. It can get pretty heavy at times. I’ve always found that one way to unwind is to take a meandering, slow journey to nowhere in particular; a sort of a brief respite before beginning again for another week. I love nothing better than getting behind the wheel and seeing where the road takes me. To me, that is pure relaxation.
That’s the idea behind a new series at BTB we call “Sunday Driver.” It’ll be a time when we can take a pause and remind ourselves about the good and enjoyable things in life. Perhaps a road-trip or weekend outing, or just some random thoughts that we’ve gathered along the way. The trip can be a real place that few people know about, or it can be a figurative destination of ideas and imagination.
And you can join in too. If you have an essay, photograph, video, or anything else that you think might be an interesting journey — whether it’s your favorite weekend getaway, unusual hobby, funny incident, poignant moment, or whatever you want to share, you can send it in. If it makes the cut, we’ll let you take the wheel for an upcoming Sunday Drive.
So tell me, where do you want to go?