Saturday, June 11, 2016
On a little house in Eden Praire seen across a valley
My premonition: I would die or be seriously injured in a two-car crash on Highway 371 north of Brainerd.
Tv and radio and newspapers frequently report fatal accidents on that highway. Because I have driven that road a dozen or more times, and can summon a visual image of the highway in my imagination, I take these reports to heart. The road is dangerous: heavily traveled by people who may be tourists or, otherwise, not familiar with the environs and there are many cross-roads and distractions, big tree-lined lakes and mini-golf courses and figure-8 go-cart race-tracks as well as theme restaurants and fish shops and souvenir places, all the tacky panoply of "up north," and, because the highway was once remote and rural, but now passes among tens of thousands of lake cabins, there is always construction to widen the road, places where the driver suddenly encounters barricades or lane changes or where the road unexpectedly contracts, narrowing to sluice through a tiny town, and, beyond, Pequod Lakes, the highway is two-lanes bumper-to-bumper with vacationers heading toward Leech Lake. To the right and left of 371, lakes balloon out to the horizon and the map shows that there are hundreds of bodies of water hidden in the great forests surrounding the highway and these places are the playgrounds for the elites in Minneapolis and, even, the middle-class – lawyers from Austin and school-teachers own cabins on these lakes -- and, so, in the summer time, the road is thronged with vehicles, heavily packed, and heading to the lakes.
The way a heavy object settles into the silt of a lake bed, I formed the conviction that I would be the victim of a bad accident on 371, somewhere on the road between Brainerd and Pequod Lakes or Hackensack. This was inconvenient because a lawsuit required that I take several depositions in Walker, sixty miles north of Brainerd, a place most efficiently reached by driving on Highway 371.
Lord, where do you want this killing done
Do it out on Highway 371.
First, however, I had to bypass Minneapolis and St. Paul, a thing not easily accomplished. South of Lakeville, there is a junk emporium called Hot Sam’s. From the freeway northbound to Minneapolis, the driver can see a car shaped like a shark, several jalopies, and a flying saucer displayed on a hillside. Hot Sam’s is the place where the Twin Cities’ urban sprawl begins. To the north, there are small factories, warehouses, franchise restaurants, a business that makes burial vaults and culverts that has a vaguely classical look, a sort of Parthenon on a roadside knoll and, then, big box retailers, malls, apartment buildings, a Hallal market, car dealerships, then, suburbs with strip malls at the intersections and Chinese buffets and nurseries with glass-tiled greenhouses, the range of skyscrapers comprising downtown always on the green and humid horizon. 494 skirts the west suburbs, running between hotels and hospitals, no longer an outer loop but now embedded in the suburbs that extend for miles in all directions. The city stretches for three counties north to south, vast and desolate, as far as up to Elk River with its elegant old power-plant on a green terrace overlooking the Mississippi and small Main Street with a grain elevator and an abandoned railroad right-of-way, a conclave of 19th century brick buildings gathered on a couple of acres above the big river, this kernel of the village embedded within suburbs and strip malls extending for a dozen miles in all directions.
Once I drove from Calimesa near Palm Springs across LA and, then, north to Ventura and Santa Barbara – it seemed as if I was driving in featureless city for three hours or more. Minneapolis and St. Paul have now evolved into the same sort of formidable metropolis, an endless array of bank buildings shaped like squat, vaguely palazzo-styled towers, chain restaurants, hotels, and enormous tracts of apartments, green spaces around swamps that have now been refined into lagoons, with innumerable long, low buildings subdivided into little offices, real estate businesses, high-tech start-ups, and light industrial factories, improbable intersections where orthopedic clinics face-off with pizza places, Olive Garden restaurants, and cell-phone stores. On the distant hills, you can see big houses ranged in profile against the horizon, tracts of McMansions growing out of the loam like pale, corpse-colored mushrooms. The whole thing is intensely dispiriting, terrain that is exhausting to traverse.
The city fades away into fork-lift warehouses and huge windowless hangars where furniture is stored, farms intervening between lavish clinics and small airfields with orange windsocks and, then, a final fashion mall marking the edge of the metro, some tacky retailers offering bargains on name-brand merchandise that would be much more highly priced at the downtown outlets, a vast lot filled with recreational vehicles like whited sepulchers, places selling kayaks and canoes and trailers on which to haul your kayaks and canoes and, then, the dairy country with the big barns on stony ground between wooded hills decorated with forest-fire observation towers and fragile-looking cellphone relays.
It feels as if you have been driving in a city all of your life.
The traffic compresses, tightens, blossoms with red brakelights and, then, comes to a complete stall on Highway 371 north of Brainerd. Some emergency vehicles jet along the right-hand shoulder, hurrying northbound past the stalled traffic. Sirens compete at dissonant wailing. For a half-mile, you have tailed a squad car driven under a revolving light with its siren screaming and it is obvious that there is a bad accident at one of the intersections somewhere to the north.
The traffic in the oncoming lanes churns forward but has the aghast, glassy look of mourners at a funeral.
At an intersection, there is a ravaged car smashed into the median, another vehicle lying on its side on the roadway, a crowd of onlookers standing on the shoulder and ambulance workers groping in the guts of the broken car between the lanes. Traffic is completely stopped on the south-bound lanes, cops standing the middle of the highway where there are big plumes of sea-green windshield glass fanned out across the pavement. Something is shrouded among the cattails where the drainage ditch disgorges a dirty trickle into a frog-pond.
There you have it: death on the highway.
I reach Walker at about five-o’clock, after six-hours in the car. I spend an hour reading Adalbert Stifter’s Bunte Steine – the second story in the book, "Kalkstein" ("Limestone") about a land surveyor and a pastor in a desolate part of the Alps. The motel room overlooks one of Leech Lake’s bays, but the blue is mostly screened from me by a grove of tall pine trees.
I’ve been recommended a Mexican restaurant in town, Zona Rosa. At about seven, I drive into the village. It’s a typical up-north town in the middle of lake cabin country, a vivid display of income inequality – the people who live up here year-round are poor and live in trailer houses off gravel-roads in the woods; semi-trucks are parked by some of the trailers houses and there are wrecked cars for salvage strewn around the lot. The rich people own summer places on the lakes and, for them, there are delicatessens selling gourmet cheeses and olives from around the world, liquor stores stocked with top-shelf booze, antique shops selling Indian artifacts imported from the Pacific northwest, fashionable boutiques and wine bars set cheek-by-jowl with vicious-looking old man bars and biker emporiums and brutish main street cafes with dirty windows and formica-topped booths and counters. There is no work up here except guiding the tourists on the big, cold lakes, driving truck, or working in one of paper-mills at the edge of town. The resorts need dock boys and waitresses and chamber-maids but only from the fishing opener in May until mid-October – the rest of the year, it is cold and snowy and people hibernate in their ruinous shacks or sit drunk in the ice-houses on tundra-like expanses of Leech Lake or Mille Lacs or Winnebigosh.
The street in front of Zona Rosa has been ripped up, excavated down to the sand colored by the tannic acid and iron ore, blood-red sand and, somewhere, in the that trench, the construction workers have discovered a great boulder, big as a VW bug and that boulder is now lying in the center of the pit since no one knows what to do with it. The restaurant is "closed for construction". I hike around town for a while, get pitched out of a café because the locals have commandeered it for a banquet, and end up at small place that mostly specializes in pizzas andice-cream for the tourists. I have a plate of gyros and some tomato basil soup. It’s nice enough and the waitress looks like a girl in a pre-Raphaelite painting, a Finn, I suppose, with the luminous ghostly white skin of the Arctic twilight.
The depositions the next morning lasted for five hours. Testimony was taken in the meeting room at the hotel, a nondescript place with long tables and folding chairs that looked something like a church basement. The room was warm and this made the witnesses and lawyers quarrelsome. At about one-o’clock in the afternoon, my work done, I left Walker and drove along the south side of the big lake. The road ran in a green tunnel of underbrush and trees. Sometimes, a lake would appear suddenly, a great light-filled opening in the dense green thicket. From the road, I would glance at the lake and see white water reflecting a white-hot sky, the sun directly overhead, and the shores like shaggy green walls leaning over the shallows where a scaffolding of rickety docks was suspended over the cattails. In the midst of dense woods of this sort, the sudden apparition of a lake is undeniably dramatic, even exciting.
At Riemer, I took Highway 6 south, another road cut through the jungle, straight as an arrow with heat mirages shimmering at the vanishing point on the horizon. This was a different route south, one that avoided the lethal intersections on Highway 371. The road slumped down to Crosby. I stopped for gas at a Holiday, waiting for a pump to become free – many campers and Rvs were queued up for fuel. Skeletal old men with white faces and dark sunglasses wearing Australian bush-ranger hats moved tentatively through the aisles of the C-store carrying cups of coffee.
The woods opened up again on the great crescent of water at Lake Mille Lacs. A number of resorts and golf courses had been built on the edges of the big lake and traffic was heavy on the highway between these places. After Mille Lacs, the trees swarming the road backed away and there were farms with silos and pastures and rivers flowing in thick cocoons of underbrush, tributaries to the Mississippi River crossing the farmland.
The city began north of Elk River with strip malls crowding around highway exits and, then, frontage roads between exits also lined with fast food places, office buildings, chiropractic clinics and insurance agencies. In the oncoming lanes, northbound to the lakes, traffic was back-up and motionless for several miles. Periodically, I encountered inexplicable delays, stretches of highway where everything stopped moving for a minute or so, then, the phalanxes of cars lurching forward for a mile or five miles to the next inexplicable traffic jam. When the southbound side of the highway was stalled, the northbound side moved freely. But when the northbound lane slowed down, the traffic becoming more dense and tightly packed, then, the southbound lanes opened up and the traffic sped forward. To the right and left of the highway, chaos reigned – long lines of traffic snarled at surface-road intersections with grid-lock caused by mis-timed traffic lights that left crossroads jammed with cars and, therefore, impassable.
I couldn’t draw any conclusions about the periodic traffic jams, don’t know what caused them, or, if they could be avoided in some way. To me, the stalls seemed random. The congestion is a consequence of something very simple: there are now too many people in the world. All of them demand freedom, dignity, and happiness, but there are simply too many petitioners for these things, just as there are too many cars for the surface area of highway now available. The cities sprawl in an ungainly manner all over the landscape and you can drive half-a-day, stopping and starting, without coming to the end of the office buildings and towers and the complex intersections with ramps and overpasses.
I’m old now and won’t be around for too much longer and, in some ways, I’m glad that I won’t experience the inevitable end of all this congestion and population growth. Sooner than we expect, the world will be wholly ruined, its green charms devastated, and its people swarming in the cracks between their concrete shells and grey office blocks like so many cockroaches. The face of the earth will be a vast, interminable and hideous suburb, wholly cheerless and intentionally ugly – every intersection will look alike and directions won’t matter because every place will be the same as every other place and, therefore, no place at all. Some might say: "the more the merrier" or might remark that if a Mozart or Shakespeare arise as a matter of statistics – that is, one artistic genius for every two or three million people – then, how many world-changing geniuses are alive at this very moment and how many soon to be born as the population expands? But my response to this is simple enough: we haven’t exhausted Shakespeare’s genius nor that of Mozart so what difference will it make to have another hundred or thousand great artists – a dozen or so are all we need for a civilized life on earth and, although it seems churlish to say so, great artists in China or Africa, about which I know nothing, do nothing (or very little) to improve my quality of life.
After ninety minutes of driving in heavy traffic, stopped every ten minutes dead on the freeway, the road unclogged a little and the cars and trucks ran in a torrent from where 494 overpasses Crosstown 62 downhill to the big curve where the freeway runs east across the southern suburbs to the airport. This is Eden Prairie, the suburb where I was raised, and, so, of course, the hills over the highway and the lake glimpsed in its green bowl beneath those hills was familiar to me. These were the hills and glades of my home. Next to the freeway, on my right, a series of forty-foot acoustic walls hid the landscape. I felt a pang tugging at my heart. Although the walls built to protect the adjacent neighborhoods from the freeway roar concealed the prospect down slope, across the fields and marshes, I remembered what had once been there: old oaks crowned a high hill, a glacial tumulus and the highest in this part of the county. The trees were dignified and stood in park-like decorum on the upper ridge and crest of the hill, but the pioneer farmers in the last century had cleared the land tilting down to the marshes in the valley, cut down the trees and made a gently sloping pasture, a place where animals might graze and hay could be grown. This was a sunny slope in summer, straw-colored and, halfway up the hill, there was a little cottage, a small house painted yellow or pale pink, set on a terrace with a silver torpedo of a propane tank in the side yard. The house was solid, mounted on a concrete block basement, built, I suppose, in the late fifties, and designed like tens of thousands of similar houses ringing the inner city, soldier-housing for the boys returned from World War Two, humble shelters comprising the first suburbs wrapped tightly around the city center. (These were the kinds of home a man with some carpentry skills could build for himself, subcontracting with a concrete builder to pour the foundation and having a carpenter frame-up the place to be finished by the owner himself as time and available friends and other resources could be applied to the project.) Such houses had a small front yard, a gravel driveway leading to a tuck-under garage, a kennel for a hunting dog in the back and a charred, rusty barrel where garbage could be burnt. This specific house, pink as I recall it, or, perhaps, yellow, stood alone on the hillside, at the end of a long winding gravel drive-way with no neighbors, no other structures in sight. The people who lived in the home had not planted any trees around it and so the house stood fully exposed, even bare-naked to the eye, on the terrace below the elegant and park-like groves on the heights. I remember looking up at that house from the wet hollow below, a place fragrant with mud and swamp water, where little streams trickled down over clots of weed and tufts of prairie sod, the tinkle of falling water musical in the air. My sisters called the miniature cascades "Fishy Falls" and there were a few deep channels where you could see black tadpools swarming in the peat-water. We didn’t know the people living on the hillside, had no idea as to their names or what they did for a living. It was treacherous to approach their home too closely because they owned a couple of big dogs. I remember the dogs running free on the gravel track leading up to the house and that they seemed to be amiable animals, prancing the way that a happy dog prances when alert to its surroundings, unchained and ready to dart across open country to chase a muskrat or a squirrel, big bright tongues hanging from their jaws like red flags – the dogs seemed to smile down at you from the heights when you stooped over Fishy Falls to inspect the tadpoles swarming in the narrow slit in the turf, but hunting dogs are unpredictable and so we all knew to keep our distance. The little house on the hill was situated to look down at the swale where the freeway throbbed and, beyond that, to Bryant Lake, a narrow loch entrapped between high hills also covered with trees or staked rows of raspberries. In those days, there was no freeway barrier and you could hear the trucks shifting gears as they climbed the hill and, at night, the windows of the little house shone against the long, smooth swell of the dark pastureland rising to the shadowy woods higher up the hill – it was a companionable sight and, sometimes, it seemed that you could hear those big dogs barking above the wet, marshy valley. Some children lived in the house, but we didn’t know them – sometimes, we saw them playing with the dogs on the gravel driveway. In the summer, the children were sunburnt and seemed to always be barefoot, although from the distance at which we saw them, this certainly couldn’t be verified. Across the valley, where we lived, a couple of residential streets climbed another wooded hill and ended in cul-de-sacs – the new houses in the area had been built on the ridge opposing the height of land where the little home stood half-way up the slope. The county road, taut with curves ran through the bottom of the valley and, then, ascended the ridge where the little house stood, twisting sharply uphill to the freeway. Once, when I was a sophomore in college, I explored the woods above the little house. I climbed up the slope rising over one of the sharp "s"-turns on the county road, walking through the high grass to enter the forest. It was autumn and there was very little underbrush – the trees stood at intervals, ennobled by the park-like setting and forming a grove that stood atop of the hill. To my amazement, I discovered that at the very highest point on the ridge, the hill divided to form a hollow that cupped a small, oval pool of water, a little pond that gazed like an open eye up at the sky overhead. The little pond was invisible from the road and, of course, could not be seen from the valley or the suburban development on the opposite side of the valley where I lived. I sat with my back to an old oak tree and looked down the steep incline to the little pond. I felt a serene chill rising from the water and an unseen bird cried-out from one of the trees standing in stately array on the slope rising above the pond. I walked down the hill to the tree-line and stood there, gazing down at the little pink or yellow house, seeing the home from this unfamiliar angle, below me so that I could look at the structure’s shingle roof and see the dog kennels on the side of the house not visible from the vantage from which we normally viewed the place. One of the dogs caught my scent and, tugging a little at his chain, made a mournful cry. I withdrew a little higher up the hill into the old trees so that I would not be seen.
All these memories flooded me as I drove down the hill on 494, along the grey acoustic barrier, a forty foot high wall that stepped down the slope and blocked my view of the valley and the place where the little house had once stood. With real pain, I recalled that if the wall were stripped away, I would see a valley filled with big, ostentatious houses, places with towers and mansard roofs and broad redwood decks. The houses would rise one above the other, at each higher level more grand than those below, until I would see the largest mansions crowning the hill, half hidden among the old oak trees that had survived the construction and reshaping of the ridge. Of course, the little, isolated house (pink or yellow) was no longer on the hillside and it would be difficult to even locate the place where it had once been because the erection of the luxury homes in the valley and, on the hillside, has resulted in the entire landscape being re-contoured. Houses had been built in the very bottom of the valley – Fishy Falls was gone and no trace remained of the swampy marsh where the redwing blackbirds had once darted over the still bog water. I don’t know if the little oval pond mysteriously cupped in the depression at the very highest point in the ridge had been preserved. It’s a gated neighborhood and I don’t think visitors are welcome.
Between Princeton and Zimmerman, driving south on 169, I followed a box-shaped van with two robots mounted on its roof. The larger robot had a bulb-shaped head capped in a translucent globe; the smaller robot was like the little buddy ‘bot in Star Wars, more squat and less observant-looking. When I passed the van, I read from its side-panels that it was a "Tom-Tom Mapping vehicle" – "we map the world" was the slogan written there. From this information, I assumed that the van prowled neighborhoods, it’s robots scanning adjacent terrain to create a street-view vista of the places surveyed.
I have used many words to describe a place that no longer exists – the pink or yellow house on the slope of the hill in old Eden Prairie, Fishy Falls and watery gash in the turf filled with tadpoles, the ancient grove of trees atop the ridge overlooking 494. These words are an incantation that I invoke to bring back into some kind of shadowy existence terrain that can no longer be seen, my lost homeland. Global mapping and GPS makes pretty much all of the world accessible – you can peer down into the ravines of Bhutan or see street elevations of markets in Timbuktu. For this reason, I think, it is important to lavish attention on the places that no longer exist, the landscapes over which people have swarmed and, then, devoured like so many hungry locusts, the "sweet especial scenes," to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins, that we have now "unselved." If an apology is necessary, this is how I make it.