Sunday, December 27, 2009

We're Home

Notes from Margo:

We’re home.

Lynn and I played a game the last few days of our Victory Lap, proclaiming awards: “Best celebrity home” (FDR house on the Hudson River). “Most egocentric exhibit” (Sam Walton museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, extolling the founder of Wal-Mart). (Jack Desrocher and Sheilah Downey stand in front of the Walton Museum, at right.) “Most original art” (totem poles made of golf bags in Washington, D.C.). “Most spectacular national park on our trip” (tie: Carlsbad Caverns and Niagara Falls). “Best bird sighting” (tie: peregrine falcon in the Hudson River Valley and sandhill cranes at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah). And so forth. “The greatest pleasure,” however, was arriving safe and sound at our home on Bernal Hill.

What did I miss the most? I missed my bed. I missed my bike. I missed puttering among my own things. I missed my friends. I missed burritos in the Mission and clay pot shrimp at Angkor Borei. But most of all, I missed the cycle of events, major and minor, that make up our family’s calendar. We missed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at the synagogue. Those were the days I felt the most adrift. And we missed Thanksgiving with our family. That was the day I felt the most homesick. We missed three months of birthdays and gatherings with family and friends – the get-togethers that tie us to our family and friends, to our community. I missed the monthly meeting with my reading group, and my weekly Torah study and the Or Shalom choir practice every two weeks. Is our community a calendar? Well, sort of. It’s an assurance that at a specific hour in a specific place, other people are making time for us, and we’re making time for them. ( "The best musicale" of the trip: In Oberlin, Ohio, Anabel Hirano, Will Rubenstein and Kenny came over to the Hohns' house. At left: Kenny and Anabel sit in with Lynn. Not in the photo is guitarist Clyde Hohn, the host.)

The great pleasure in being back home is not meant to diminish how much fun we had on our Victory Lap. It was a great trip, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The gatherings that we missed were replaced with once-in-a-lifetime reunions with far-flung folks. We saw huge chunks of the country that we’ve never seen before. We saw the Olympic rainforest in Washington state, a plethora of museums in Washington, D.C., the Mississippi as a creek in upstate Minnesota and as a mile-wide river in Arkansas and Louisiana. We saw cornfields in Kansas, Colorado, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, New York and, actually, just about everywhere. (At right: "The best bike path" of the trip, along the Missouri River near Brownville, Nebraska, snakes past a cornfield.) We saw windmills in most states, too, and a huge solar power plant in the Mojave Desert. We saw hundreds of Subways and coffee shops.

We planned our itinerary mainly as a way to see friends and relatives we’ve missed over the years. As we look back on the trip, our mental map of America is dotted with friendly, welcoming homes. We were able to see almost all the people we wanted to. We missed J.P. Uhlrich, Stephanie Salter, Mike Gray and a few dear friends in the middle of the country, because our route hewed toward the nation’s perimeter. But we found Lynn’s long-lost cousins, and mine. We made contact with friends of Lynn’s that he had lost touch with for many decades. And we had great pleasure in visiting friends and relatives who were never lost.

We’ve been home a bit more than a week now, and when we talk about our trip, we talk about luck. Let’s start with the car: We drove more than 12,000 miles, and the closest we came to an accident was running over a runaway tire. It had come off the wheel of the car in front of us. It was scary, but it did almost no damage (except to the Buena Vista Elementary School alumni frame for the license plate). After the folks in the tire-less car borrowed our jack and pulled out their spare, we drove on. We had two minor mechanical problems (the sliding door acted up, and the battery needed to be replaced). Neither slowed us down for more than a day. Big luck with the car! (The photo above, of our hardy little car with a whalefish in Wisconsin, illustrates why we called it The Guppy.)

And weather luck: We had some cold. We had some rain. But we managed to avoid any bad storms and all but the tiniest bit of snow. Some of that was planning. The final leg of our trip was going to be a drive up the eastern side of the Sierra on Highway 395 – Owens Valley, Mono Lake, and then over Donner Pass on Interstate 80 and back home. The weather report showed snow for the whole week on Donner Pass, and we changed course at the last minute. We followed a more southerly route through Bakersfield, the Carrizo Plain and up Highway 101. So we missed a big snowstorm by paying attention. But most of our decent weather was just dumb luck. (At left: It is cold in New Orleans, and we complained. About a week later, we saw news reports of torrential rain and flooding. We retract our complaints.)

Medical luck: The one time we needed medical help, we happened to be in one of the few areas in the country with a big Kaiser presence. Lynn got sick with some sort of lung infection (possibly pneumonia) in Washington, D.C. Our dear friends Alex Neill and Tibby Speer have a guest apartment downstairs in their Georgetown house. It is so luxe that they were able to make us feel like we weren’t underfoot for the week that Lynn was recuperating. That week in a campground, a Days Inn or on someone’s couch would have been more problematic and a lot less comfortable. And if that week had been in one of the many states with no Kaiser presence, well, it would have been a lot more complicated. So let's say we were lucky on the microbe front. (At right, Alex and Tibby, win the Victory Lap award for "Most agreeable hosts when the guest is ailing.")

As for the other meaning of “What did you miss?”: The Everglades is near the top of my wish list. But the southern tip of Florida just seemed too far, so we skipped the Deep South in favor of visiting Jack Desrocher and Sheilah Downey in Rogers, Arkansas. We also put off a visit to Selma, Alabama, where Lynn had covered the 1965 march to Montgomery by Martin Luther King and hundreds of other brave demonstrators for voting rights. So the Everglades and that visit to the South will have to wait. And, similarly on the northern end of our itinerary: We'll have take another trip to see Montreal. But for now, we’re home, and we’re definitely staying right here for a while.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

Editor’s note: Near the end of our Victory Lap, we happened upon two isolated land developments. Lynn had heard about them in the 1970s when he wrote a series of articles about high-pressure sales of lots in unlikely corners of the West. Think of this too-detailed report as a long follow-up story. We start here with a short version for those not sufficiently fascinated by a 40-year-old history of dreams, ripoffs and the absurd.

Notes from Lynn:

We looked at the jagged mountains and rows of palm trees before we strolled across the London Bridge (no tolls), its solid British masonry looming over Bridgewater Channel. We saw a rowboat tricked out as a Venetian gondola (rides for $6) and a banner that labeled a square barge as “Kon Tiki” ($15). We looked at a bogus Mississippi paddleboat, the Dixie Belle ($15). We admired the half-timbered, half-rented English Village, which included an empty pub and the shop for London Bridge Psychic ("What does your future hold?").

Margo had a solemn comment.

“This is the hucksterism,” she said, “that made America great.”

We had just motored across the Arizona desert to Lake Havasu City (population 56,000). Our vow to search for roadside attractions led us to walk in damp silence across the former London Bridge. It’s now an artificial span on an artificial canal in an artificial lake. The concrete core of the five-arch bridge has been artificially clad with blocks of stone, a granite costume for a fantasy of Old England amid the imported palm trees of a developer’s 50-year-old mirage.

We shivered in the cold reality of rain. It’s rare (3.5 inches per year) in the barren mountains and tumbleweed valleys of western Arizona. But that’s where an oil-and-chainsaw entrepreneur’s risky venture became the most successful lot-sales promotion of the 1960s. We forgot to sing “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” but later I looked up one of the lesser-known verses. It seemed to fit.
Build it up with silver and gold,
Silver and gold, silver and gold,
Build it up with silver and gold,
My fair lady-o.
Two days later we arrived in California Valley (population about 400, probably less): After saying goodbye to Arizona and spending the night in a bleak California town with the entrancing name of Buttonwillow, we had driven The Guppy westward on a curving road through the calm hills of the Temblor Range. We didn’t take the one less traveled by. It was the one least traveled by, and that has made all the difference. “No services for 75 miles,” says a blue warning sign on State Highway 58. No cars, either.

Soon we dropped into the flat, arid, inhospitable Carrizo Plains, site of what is undoubtedly – despite a lot of competition – the Golden State’s most fraudulent lot-sales promotion in the 1960s. We passed the Carissa Plains Elementary School (46 pupils, three teachers, eight grades and a variation of the name). It displayed a banner with a name unique among the Panthers, Cardinals, Giants and other school mascots. It could also describe California Valley’s long-gone developers or, to be more accurate, non-developers. It says: Home of the Polecats.

Editor's note: The (much) longer version begins here:

In very different ways, California Valley and Lake Havasu City are legendary among old-timers in the high-pressure sales of remote investment lots. Both promoters relied on flogging the dreams of their customers and ignoring the potential problems of harsh reality. The fast-buck memerizers of California Valley got out while the getting was good. The founder of Lake Havasu City did something rare in the annals of hucksterism. He did (nearly) everything he could to make his promises come true.

Three decades have passed since our mailboxes bulged with jiggery-pokery brochures that pitched the delights of investing in lots in dozens of faraway developments. I invented names for them: Caveat Emptor Country Club Estates, Lake of the Canards and El Rancho Gullible. The promoters varied from flim-flam men to subsidiaries of Boise Cascade and other big corporations. Most of them increased the revenue stream of big-city newspapers by buying full-page ads. The newspapers trusted the bamboozlers to be truthful.

In 1970, when I was a reporter at the San Francisco Examiner, city editor Gale Cook assigned me to look into the promises and assumptions of the lot-sales developers. His boss, editor Ed Dooley, convinced publisher Charles L. Gould to fend off the outraged manager of his display advertising department. I posed as a prospective buyer at Brooktrails, Shelter Cove, Lake of the Woods and other remote subdivisions. I wrote a five-part report (“Boom in the Boondocks”). It told how promoters offered free flights to free lodgings in rural subdivision projects outfitted with streets, a country club, golf courses, swimming pools and promises of a “gated community” to keep out the riffraff. Other projects, often called “ranchos,” offered acreage for horses and homes without promising a water supply or a sewage system.

Super-friendly salesmen, so gifted they could sell vacuum sweepings as cancer cures, would talk almost anyone to buy a lot as an “investment,” or a place to play golf, or a second home – but usually as a dream of real estate profit. At a project in the hardpan acres east of Madera, sales brochures stressed the investment opportunities of a setting ideally positioned halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Of course, the reverse is also true. No site in the San Joaquin Valley could be any further from the two big cities.

It wasn’t necessary to bribe the boards of supervisors in rural counties, according to Harold Berliner, then the district attorney in California’s Nevada County. “All it takes,” he told me, “is a good lunch with two martinis, a good steak and someone to tell them that they have Vision.” He later teamed up with a deputy state attorney general, Marshal Mayer, for a lawsuit that was settled by Boise Cascade for $70 million.

Leo McCarthy, then a San Francisco assemblyman, said the Examiner articles inspired him to sponsor reform legislation that he pushed through the state legislature. Signed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1976, it gave teeth to the feckless California Department of Real Estate. It also put an end to the state’s lot-sales era of direct-mail pitches, full-page newspaper ads and free flights to Hornswoggle Acres. It put a compress on the headaches of rural counties once so eager to support developers with pointy shoes and Vision. Once the promoters packed up their alligator bags, they left multiple ownership of little lots by urban folks who eventually woke up to the rural problems they just bought.

A housing development out in the country is a house of cards. In most cases of projects based on dreams and promises, the fall of the cards often left buyers bereft, salesmen unpaid, contractors in court, developers bankrupt and the counties holding the bag. Undeveloped properties eventually reverted to the county for non-payment of taxes and assessments. Except for a few buyers who build houses and then expect county services and school pickups, the land itself is paralyzed; like Humpty Dumpty, it can’t be put back together again.

As I learned something about the history of land-sale campaigns, I interviewed a veteran of the hard-sell campaigns of the lot-sale swindlers. He recalled with amusement that no state or federal agencies bothered then to interfere with some of the famous land-sale promotions of the middle years of the 20th century. At the top of his list were Lake Hasavu City and California Valley. They vary in many ways, but the key difference comes as no surprise to students of the history of the West.

It’s not the silver and gold. It’s water.

* * *

California Valley:

The predatory polecats in 1960 put their pencils to the map and created 7,250 parcels from 18,400 acres in a big part of an old Spanish land grant, El Chicote Rancho. The unborn city’s total of 24,083 acres is four-fifths the size of San Francisco. With streets named Beverly Hills Trail and Cambria Road, most of them existing only on plats, the 2.5-acre “ranchos” were sold to thousands of suckers intrigued by the chance to invest in “the geographic center of this spectacular California growth area with unbounded future.”

At free breakfasts in big cities and barbecues at the lodge in California Valley, potential buyers watched slide shows, ingested get-rich tales of investments in Palm Springs and peered at charts showing the increasing value of most California real estate. Salesmen came to their homes with stories of the romantic history of a 50-mile valley where the Chumash People gathered for ceremonies at Painted Rock, where outlaws hid from sheriffs and where the vaqueros spun their lariats on the historic cattle ranch. Sight unseen, lots within sight of 13,000-acre Soda Lake were promoted for “lakeside views.” Doubters were told that the State Water Project, then in the planning phase, could pass through the valley en route to Los Angeles – and turn the desert into gardens. Nothing was volunteered about the ever-present danger of earthquakes from the San Andreas Fault (map at right), which runs past Carizzo Plains and abuts the aptly named Temblor Range. It attracts geologists from all over the world. “The area has long been regarded as a site of world-class examples of strike-slip faulting,” says Stanford’s J.R. Arrowsmith in his Ph.D dissertation, “The San Andreas Fault Zone in the Carrizo Plain.”

If all 7,250 ranchos were to be built out, California Valley would today hold at least 25,000 people, hundreds of their pet horses, a prodigious appetite for water, a multimillion-dollar sewage system and at least one Wal-Mart.

Instead, the developers disappeared. A San Luis Obispo County report says they went bankrupt. Buyers complained to the county without effect, then became discouraged and left their sad little ranchos to the tax collector. The county’s Board of Supervisors waited until 1980 before adopting a land use plan that noted many a problem for home buyers, including “remoteness, poor access, inadequate roads, poor soils (alkaline), lack of water and poor sewage drainage.”

Half a century later: The 400 inhabitants occupy scattered houses with deep wells and/or potable water delivered by truck. A Community Services District maintains a fire and rescue station, a one-day-a-week county library and boxes for mail. No gas stations, no medical services, no sheriff’s substation. Trees are few. Summer temperatures rise above 100 degrees. Annual rainfall is about 7 inches in a good year. Three streets are paved. Other roads of packed dirt generate dust in the summer, mud in the winter. A motel/restaurant, no doubt constructed for the buyers of a half-century ago, appeared to be shut down when we drove by. Abandoned lots are leased for grazing. Some residents want to install fields of solar cells; others insist on solitude.

The alkaline water of Soda Lake, which is dry in the late summer and fall, is undrinkable by man or beast.

The California Aqueduct’s planners wisely bypassed Carrizo Plains and the San Andreas Fault.
Travelers to California Valley and the Carrizo Plains are urged to take their own water.

That’s the news, mostly gleaned from the Internet. We took a quick look and headed to Paso Robles and our road to home. I thought at first of California Valley as a civic tragicomedy for gullible buyers, but the greed of unscrupulous polecats didn’t really change anything. That can’t be said about the desert city with a bridge from London.

Lake Havasu City:

As we began our windy walk across London Bridge the Seventh, a D.A.R. plaque told us the transplanted span symbolizes a British-American friendship that “establishes a bond between two very different municipalities.”

Very different? True enough.

Population in Lake Havasu City is counted as 56,000, plus 10,00 to 20,000 visitors and snowbirds. It’s 12 million or so for the London metropolitan area. London was founded about 2,000 years ago. Lake Havasu City, only 46 years old, wasn’t incorporated until 1988.

Even the lingo is different. Just as G.B. Shaw said a common language separates the English and Americans, so the Londoners can’t always understand the talk of the Old West. “Blag,” “blarney” or “ballocks,” for example, don’t translate well into “hornswoggle,” “slumguzzle” or “whopper-thumper.”

Next to the plaque and flagpole we saw Robert P. McCulloch and C.V. Wood Jr. dressed in what appeared to be greenish bronze. The life-size statues are beaming with the pleased expressions that Londoners would call “over-the-moon,” as in the cow’s famous jump. The resort city’s founder and planner are inspecting bronze blueprints of the bridge they built for their town or, more accurately, the town built by their bridge.

Bob McCulloch (at right) grew up in Milwaukee, an heir of streetcar and power plant mogul Stephen Foster Briggs. He often said he was more proud of his victories in hydroplane boat races than his degree from Stanford in 1932, the depth of the Depression. Over the next few years the energetic entrepreneur-inventor formed companies for racing cars, aviation, oil exploration and small gasoline engines for lightweight chainsaws and outboard motors.

Looking for a test site in 1958 for his outboard motors, he flew over Lake Havasu – a big but half-forgotten reservoir on the lower Colorado River. It had drowned about 40 miles of ancient Indian encampments, abandoned hamlets, fishing camps, old mines, boat landings and groves of cottonwoods. The concrete-arch Parker Dam was finished in 1942. Its powerhouses pump water into the 242-mile Colorado River Aqueduct, a gift by the federal Bureau of Reclamation to the real estate industry in 12 cities in thirsty Southern California. (Court decisions later allocated half the surplus river flow to the real estate industry and cotton fields of Arizona.) On the map (at left, from google), the reservoir looks like a pregnant rattlesnake. A flat peninsula pushes like a big boot into the wide bulge in the middle of Lake Havasu (an Indian name, it means blue-green water).

Bob landed there at an abandoned Army Air Corps airfield. He bought 3,500 acres of sagebrush and blowing sand on the peninsula at Pittsburg Point.

Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood Jr., a fun-loving chili chef known as “Woody” or “C.V.”, went to work for Walt Disney as general manager and master planner of the first Disneyland. It opened in 1954, but a year later he lost his job for taking too much credit for the success of the first theme park. Walt solved that by erasing Woody’s name from the annals of the Magic Kingdom. The engineer/planner then designed other theme parks. Six Flags in Texas was a big success. Three busts followed – Pleasure Island (Boston), Magic Mountain (Denver) and Freedomland (New York City). His team was absorbed in 1961 by McCulloch, who was already determined to add “planned communities” to his portfolio of oil and chainsaws.

In 1964, he bought a lot more land from the federal government – 26 square miles of barren desert for less than $75 per acre. With Wood, he designed the streets, parcels and utilities for Lake Havasu City.

In a desert land promotion, it was no accident that “lake” became part of the name. But McCulloch didn’t just rely on watery prose and promises of a future of jobs and industry. By 1966, he had installed his chainsaw factory and three more plants in the infant city, swelling its population by 400 wage earners. They lived in air-conditioned trailers in the 100-unit park built by McCulloch on the peninsula. He also bought Holly Development and its force of real estate salesmen, who would later be called “Hello Hollies.”

Persuasive advertisements in the nation’s newspapers and magazines induced readers to sign up for free visits, meals and lodging included, in the Lockheed Electras acquired by McCulloch as his own airline. “Fly before you buy” was the sensible slogan that he used to counter competitors who, like California Valley, preferred to sweet-talk buyers into buying a lot sight unseen.

McCulloch’s fleet would eventually grow to 11 airplanes slow enough for the Hello Hollies to persuade passengers about the investment opportunities that awaited them as they circled the lake – and circled again, and again. In 1978, when the aviation campaign ended, 137,000 prospective buyers in 2,702 flights had, in Old West lingo, seen the elephant. In 40 white Jeepsters, a battalion of 50 salesmen (and some saleswomen) would haul dazed travelers to examine a wasteland converted into a dreamscape by the power of relentless rhetoric. The buyers would stay at a newly finished hotel with a waterfall roof. In an oasis of newly transplanted palm trees, many would sign the papers proffered by the smiling salesmen.
But something else was needed.

The Grand Gimmick

Both are dead, and so it’s unclear whether Bob or Woody should get credit for suggesting the unthinkable. Could they acquire London Bridge No. 7, now sinking inch by inch into the sandy bottom of the River Thames, and ship the pieces to the desert as a roadside attraction? Lake Havasu City, a community otherwise focused on speedboats and fishing, had grown to 4,000 inhabitants in 1968. Houses were replacing the trailers now being called “mobile homes,” but McCulloch had a long way to go before he could reach his goal of 90,000 population and a reputation rivaling that of Palm Springs. A grand plan evolved.

McCulloch bid $2,460,000, a sum gratefully accepted by the Greater London Council. Three years and another $7 million would go by as the granite blocks were numbered, shipped through the Panama Canal to Long Beach and trucked 300 miles to a hole in between the peninsula and what would now become the mainland. Wood had proposed a canal, the Bridgewater Channel, to separate the boot-shaped Pittsburg Point peninsula from the shoreline. A bridge, of course, is supposed to be a bridge to somewhere. On a concrete base across the canal, the blocks of granite were attached to give the impression that John Rennie’s 1831 five-arch span had been rebuilt intact. Who knew? On the walkway are elegant brass lampposts molded from cannons captured from the French at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Wood, the theme park veteran, arranged for an “English Village” with a British phone booth in imperial red. (That's Lynn with the bridge, at right. The coots are American.) Hotels, condos and a marina surround the bridge.

The Lord Mayor of London showed up at the official dedication at 1971. You might think that the scene was so absurd that Bob and Woody would have been laughed out of town, but you would be wrong. By 1980, the population had almost quadrupled to 15,909. It was 24,363 in 1990, 41,938 in 2000 and, as of 2009, an estimated 56,603.

And those figures don’t include the retirees who escape the northern snows and park their RVs and boats in McCulloch’s city. Thousands of collegians show up to frolic in the lake for spring break. And in the summer, tens of thousands of tourists show up to look at London Bridge No. 7, many of them disappointed that it’s not the Tower Bridge.

McCulloch and Wood took their billion-dollar road show in the 1970s to three other scrub-bush and chaparral sites, each with a “Fly Before You Buy” campaign modeled after the sales pitch at Lake Havasu City. As of this year, Pueblo West (near Pueblo, Colorado) had grown to 4,500 population, and Spring Creek (near Elko, Nevada), is listed at 10,500. The landmark gimmick also helped Fountain Hills (30 miles from Phoenix, Arizona), where Woody designed what is billed as “the world’s highest fountain.” Every 15 minutes, like Old Faithful, it spouts 560 feet upward. Population: 23,000, and growing.

Reality check:

We picked up a copy of the News-Herald, “serving Lake Havasu City and the Lower Colorado River Area.” In a letter to the editor, longtime resident John Dixon writes:

Who among us Havasuvians can claim any form of community pride or any type of Americana exercised here since the old man on the hill died? And with him the dream of a peaceful, clean and profitable society that would be Palm Springs and the shining new light on the mighty Colorado.

That would be Mr. McCulloch. He wasn't that old.

I am enduring the latter part of my third decade in Havasu and I raised my three kids here. But I’ve got some bad news for you – we are dying with that dream… I’ve worked downtown as a bouncer. Have you been downtown between midnight and 2:30 a.m. lately? It’s like playing dawn of the drunks with absolute zombies wandering, staggering, fighting and weeping. I don’t have time to talk to you about the synthetic heroin trade that transfers from back door to back door.

The writer yearns for the “the university we just talk about” and for medical buildings with a national health and cancer treatment research center. He says we might try “to get our children to rejuvenate the truth of the old man’s dream.” In the meantime, it’s time to clean up the lake and the town from “its alcohol-fueled, jail-filling, played-out resort-dreaming legacy…”

Other problems face the inheritors of the not-so-old man’s dream. For a time, says Havasu Magazine, recreational boaters turned Copper Canyon’s bay into “an infamous gathering spot, where hundreds of boats crowded in.” Wall-to-wall boats. No escape. Drunken skippers. Lethal dives from the cliffs. When the boat police shunted people away, social boaters coalesced at the sandbar north of the city.

The canal created by C.V. Wood has become so packed with boats in swimming weather, says the magazine, that it’s only a matter of time before somebody is poisoned by odorless but deadly carbon monoxide fumes.

As for another form of pollution, McCulloch and Wood must have put aside any thoughts of a sewer system away from the waterfront. The city’s aquifer began in the 1990s to seep contamination into the lake. On a July day in 1994 with a high of 128 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest in the 40 years of records, coliform readings compelled authorities to ban swimming. It got the attention of a citizenship not normally in favor of tax assessments. A $463 million bond issue was approved in 2001 by a 3-1 margin. As of this year, with treatment plants in place, 14,000 septic tanks had been “decommissioned” with 7,000 more to go.

Arizona’s traditional opposition to governmental oversight left Lake Havasu City with a jumble of bad zoning, confusing street patterns and a downtown that is small and hard to find. But gated communities are as abundant as golf courses (four) in a city where McCulloch and Woods neglected to set aside space for playgrounds or parks. (Sara Park and Rotary Park came along later.) We looked at real estate prices: $153,000 for a new home with three bedrooms, two baths, a three-car garage, a boat garage and other amenities; $76,000 for a five-bedroom home tagged as “immaculate”; $69,000 for a lot on Trimaran Drive; $25,000 for a mobile home with a fishing boat and golf cart; $499,000 for a large home with a pool and lake views, and so forth.

When we walked through the English Village, many restaurants and shops were empty. The economic downturn has been particularly hard on resort businesses, we were told. Of concern to many boosters is the role of the Houston-based company that gobbled up the McCulloch holdings after the founder’s land development business went sour in the mid-1970s. The details are confusing, but we know only that the developer was only 65 when found dead on Feb. 25, 1977. The authorities said he took 100 sleeping pills, 10 to 50 codeine tablets and an unspecified amount of alcohol. The Los Angeles County coroner somehow ruled it an accident.

C.V. Wood died of cancer in 1992.

The absentee owner is Charles Hurwitz, a corporate raider who forced out McCulloch’s son and Wood in 1979. He is notorious in Northern California for his failed but scary campaigns to harvest the old-growth redwoods owned by the Pacific Lumber Co. he acquired, bankrupted and then sold. His corporation, Maxxam, still has a grip on Lake Havasu City, but nobody knows what the future holds for the old man’s dream. (But we could visit the London Bridge Psychic, at left, for some insight.)

Prospectors for irony may find that the remarkable past success of Lake Havasu City’s developers could have negative consequences in the future for the growing community in the isolated valley of the lower Colorado River. McCulloch’s dream led to a teeming resort, millions of dollars in profits – and unexpected concerns about air and water pollution, dense crowds of speedboats, allegations of too many midnight drunks and an understandable uncertainty about investment by the faraway corporation that founded the city.

A greater irony is visible in California Valley. The rapacity of developers (and many a buyer) left the 24,083 acres of former ranch land available to the kit fox, the giant kangaroo rat, rare leopard lizards and a list of plants crowded out of the San Joaquin Valley. The acreage butts up against the Carrizo Plains National Monument’s 250,000 acres of habitats critical to the survival of California condors and a home to the pronghorn antelope, Tule elk, sandhill cranes and mountain plovers. And nowhere in the valley is there a bridge from London.
One last verse from “London Bridge Is Falling Down”:
Silver and gold will be stolen away,
Stolen away, stolen away.
Silver and gold will be stolen away,
My fair lady-o.
Notable: If you've come this far, you should know that this footnote has nothing whatever to do with the Trail of the Guppy. You won't be tested on this part.

Perhaps it's just as well that McCulloch didn't buy London Bridge the Sixth, which was demolished in 1831. Otherwise the Lake Havasu tour guides would be obliged to tell the tourists about the royal decorations in the 16th century, a time when Merrie England wasn't all that merrie. Pikes at the bridge's Southern Gateway featured the shriveled heads of Thomas More and John Fisher (both were sainted 400 years later). Next came paranoid Henry VIII’s once-closest adviser, Thomas Cromwell, and the alleged lovers of the obese king’s fifth wife, the doomed teenager Catherine Howard. The tradition had begun more than two centuries before when the head of Scots hero William Wallace, now known better as Braveheart, went on display in 1305. Later came the heads of rebel leader Wat Tyler and Gunpowder Guy Fawkes. At one point (in 1598) a German visitor counted 38 severed heads as outdoor advertisements to warn renaissance Londoners of the royal penalty for dissension. (Missing were the promoters of California Valley, but that came much later.)

According to the London Bridge Museum’s website, at least three bridges were built and unbuilt across the River Thames in the 900 years after the Romans floated pontoons for a crossing in the first century A.D. (The numbering of the bridges is mine because the authorities, as you might expect of Londoners, disagree about details.) In the ninth century, London Bridge the Fourth was built of timber. In the first years of the new millennium, it was fortified and blocked by King Canute and his army of Danes, but King Ethelred the Unready was, surprisingly, ready. In 1014 (accounts vary as to the date), he assembled a force of Norsemen and Saxons to put roofs on barges to fend off Danish arrows and boulders from the bridge. Then they tied ropes to the pilings and pulled away. Everybody knows what happened. That’s the number one explanation as to the origin of the nursery rhyme.
London Bridge is broken down,
Broken down, broken down.
London Bridge is broken down,
My fair Lady Lee.
London Bridge the Fifth, also a timber structure, was replaced in 1209 by a stone span of 19 arches. By my count, it was London Bridge the Sixth. Destroyed by storms and fires but rebuilt several times, the medieval span lasted more than 600 years. It was festooned by a church and about 200 businesses, many of them connected by rooms over the narrow, congested roadbed. Its image still survives as the London Bridge, but it didn’t fall down. Instead, it was so decrepit that a new bridge was commissioned, constructed and opened in 1831.

The seventh London Bridge, not nearly as scenic, would last only 136 years on the Thames. Burdened with 10,000 vehicles and 50,000 pedestrians each day, it began to sink – one inch every eight years. By 1924, the east end was about 4 inches lower than the west end. By then, the Thames was crossed by 17 tunnels and 23 bridges, including the Tower Bridge of 1894.
The London Bridge No. 7 wasn’t falling down. It was sinking down. By 1968, it was on its way to Arizona. The Guinness Book of Records would list it as “the largest antique ever sold.”

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Race Across the Desert

Notes from Margo:

We usually preface the noun “desert” with a modifier like “vast,” “endless” or “empty.” And the 1,800 miles we covered in the past week have been a rapid pass through exactly that – a vast, endless, largely empty desert.

But vast and spare don’t mean the deserts are boring. We were surprised and delighted by how the landscape offers endless change. Around Lake Havasu City, the red-tinged Arizona desert is split by the Colorado River and bounded by jagged, barren rock formations. It wouldn’t be confused with the desert around Phoenix, flat as a chess board and dotted with saguaro cacti. In the canyons and mesas above Carlsbad Caverns in southeast New Mexico, the prickly pears and other cacti grow so thickly that it seemed the Chihuahua Valley could easily support other (non-desert) vegetation.

Driving across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and southeastern California, we noted variations of sagebrush, yucca, agaves, dried ground cover, prickly pears, saguaros and mesquite. But in other parts of the desert, as in stretches of western Texas, the only crops are gravel, boulders and sand; the soil quality and lack of rain don't support a single cactus.

We drove through windstorms and even some rain, which mostly evaporated before it reached the ground. Empty blue skies changed to dramatic skyscapes with clouds that produced neon orange and vermilion sunsets.

Much of the desert is level, but then we'd pass volcanic craters (for example, in the Mojave Desert near Amboy, California). Who'd have thought, Lynn asked, that an alien spaceship would leave such a mess when it landed? We saw weird rock formations that looked like sand castles. And just when we thought we’d seen all the variety of cacti we were going to, up would pop some new sort of plant life. We saw cacti shaped like old-style hand-operated water pumps at Carlsbad Caverns. Joshua trees, looking like cheerleaders holding pompons in their upraised arms, posed near the two-lane road that was once a piece of historic Route 66 near the teensy hamlet of Ludlow, California. (We checked the historical markers and information on the Web. We quizzed the waitress at the Ludlow Café. But we still don’t know why that dusty, windblown crossroads is named after my husband.)

After we visited my cousin Kathy Macchi in Austin, we were running out of time, and I, for one, was ready to head for home. Our trip made a sudden change of pace, logging almost 300 miles a day for the last week. That’s about twice the average mileage of the earlier part of our journey, and we took much a much more direct course with almost no detours. Total mileage through arid territory: Beaumont, Texas, to Tehachapi, California: 1,863 miles.

Notable: In the Mojave Desert, on old Route 66, we saw our first rock graffiti. It went on for miles, mostly on a berm paralleling the highway that might have been an old road bed or rail bed. It was just normal graffiti, "Stephanie luvs Jason" and so forth. But all the writing was with rocks, the medium available where there's no hardware store to buy spray paint, and no walls to spray your tag on. (Photo at right.)

Also Notable: One disappointment: In more than 1,800 miles of desert, we never saw a single roadrunner. We don’t count an 11-foot Roadrunner statue billed as a tourist attraction in Fort Stockton, Texas. The cartoon character is dressed for the season in a Santa outfit. Rooted to the ground, he looks silently at traffic without so much as a “meep meep.”

Two unexpected thrills: Cactus wrens in the saguaros near Phoenix and long-billed curlews (shorebirds!!) in the arid hills near the Carrizo Plains west of Buttonwillow and Bakersfield. There are seasonal lakes nearby, it turns out, but it was a surprising and lovely sight. A dozen curlews flew over us, then landed and proceeded to peck around in the dirt around the sagebrush for food, just as they do in mudflats. It was a preview of being back in our non-arid homeland, San Francisco.

Our final odometer readings:

From Beaumont, Texas, to Austin: 280 miles

From Austin to Pecos: 431 miles

From Pecos, Texas, to Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, and on to Deming: 347 miles

From Deming, New Mexico, to Phoenix, Arizona: 328 miles

From Phoenix to Lake Havasu City: 202 miles

From Lake Havasu City to Buttonwillow, California: 341 miles

From Buttonwillow through Paso Robles to San Francisco: 288 miles

Total mileage of our trip: 11,983

Monday, December 14, 2009

Carlsbad Caverns

Notes from Lynn:

My father, John Ludlow, loved to talk to us about things he had seen – and we hadn’t. Oh, he would say with sympathy, you should have heard Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin in 1948, or, you visited Guanajuato and missed the Náhuatl carvings on the baptismal font at Iglesia de San Diego? Oh, my. Too bad. Most memorably, our family placedropper would thicken his voice and unfocus his eyes when he told us in rapt memory about the incredible beauty of Carlsbad Caverns. Sure, I would say to myself. Sure.

My father must have visited the newly anointed National Park in the 1930s, before elevators were installed. Margo and I arrived about 70 years later, but the caverns hadn't changed much in the last half-million years.

It took millions of years for water to percolate through fractures and create the enormous caves in the limestone bedrock.
It took 500,000 years for calcite-laden water to decorate this cavern, drop by drop, with statuary, ornamentation and phantasmagorical shapes that no sculptor could dream up.
It took me 70 years to get to the southeast corner of New Mexico and check out the best of my father's stories.
It took me less than a minute to discover to my surprise that my father had, if anything, understated the wonders of a fantastic art museum created by nature.

Margo and I took the elevator downward and found ourselves 750 feet below the Chihuahuan Desert in an S-shaped cathedral a little more than an acre in size. (Photos at right come from the National Park Service.) We spent almost two hours on an unforgettable trail illuminated by hundreds of concealed lights, none of them colored, in a Technicolor world of formations in hues of yellow, bronze, copper, green, red and black.

We stared at tens of thousands of stalactites that hang like icicles from the ceilings. (Margo called it "underground at the carrot farm.") We saw stalagmites rising like pointed candles, twisted arrows or sand castles built by demented children. When a stalagmite marries a stalactite, it's called a column.

We marveled at dripstone draperies, nodules that look like popcorn and the tiny stalactites called soda straws. We saw cave pearls and flowstone lily pads in pools of water. The park rangers have names for their favorites, a kind of geological anthropomorphism. We were introduced to the Witch’s Finger, Temple of the Sun and the Big Room; Rock of Ages (it's at left, shot by our totally inadequate camera), Hall of Giants and Totem Pole; the Chinese Theater, Painted Grotto and the Bottomless Pit (it isn't.)

The park, now encompassing 46,766 acres on the surface, has more than 100 other caverns not open to the public. Slaughter Canyon Cave is available for guided tours; take a flashlight. Research scientists have access to the biggest cavern, Lechuguilla Cave, with 110 miles of chambers and vaults. It was discovered only 20 years ago when someone noticed a draft from a small cave called the Misery Hole.

We pretty much had the Big Room trail to ourselves, probably because early December is not a time for crowds of tourists. Moreover, economic malaise is blamed for a huge drop in attendance from about 800,000 in 2000 to a reported 430,000 in 2007. The high cost of gasoline could be a factor – the caverns are a long drive from any big cities or any other tourist attractions.

Carlsbad Caverns, named for a nearby city, is not the largest or deepest of the hundreds of big limestone caves in this country. But its appeal is stated well by former ranger Edward J. Greene: "What it is, is overwhelming. Nothing else in our experience prepares us for the combination of immense size; intricate, delicate shapes, and overpowering beauty that is Carlsbad Cavern."

My father couldn't have said it better. To him, my apologies.

Notable: The posted speed limit on Interstate 10 in west Texas is 80 mph, but we are told by locals that the troopers don't care. When we averaged 80, even the 18-wheelers passed us.

Mileage from Carlsbad, New Mexico, to Phoenix, Arizona: 580

Mileage so far: 11,152

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Austin City Limits

Notes from Margo:

The last time Kathy Macchi invited another cousin to her house in Austin for a little visit, she stayed for 10 years. Some folks would learn to make the invitation a bit less welcoming. Not my cousin Kathy.

When I e-mailed that we'd like to visit her and her partner, Faye Rozmaryn, she answered with a big Texan "Mi casa es tu casa" e-mail, and then a list of questions: (Are you vegetarians? Any allergies? Any special likes or dislikes? What beverages do you drink? Beer? Wine? Do you like desserts? What do you eat for breakfast? Coffee? Tea? And so forth.) I answered with excessive detail and sort of expected a reply like: “A little too much information, but thanks.” Instead: “That’s exactly what we needed!!”

Austin is a beautiful, isolated, culturally rich, relatively liberal city surrounded by the vast conservative nation of Texas. So I'm guessing, from a very small sample, that people here are keen to show off the city. They seem happy to receive visitors who somehow find their way through the Lone Star State's endless flat, bleak expanses and arrive in the Hill Country of Central Texas.

I hadn't seen my cousin Kathy since we were teenagers. She moved to Austin 30 years ago from her home town, Boston. We've kept in touch on and off over the years with holiday cards and letters and the occasional e-mail, as well as updates from other members of the family. No phone calls. No real visits. There was a bit of ice-breaking to be done, for sure. But in the ice-breaking department, this was the tropical sun. Hugs. Come on in. What are you drinking? Here's where you're staying. Shall we do the grand tour of the house now or later? And can we lay on an incredible home-cooked dinner for you this evening?

The four of us talked through lunch at a local Tex-Mex place. We took a break, and then talked through dinner. (That's Faye and Kathy and I at left.) Faye is a gourmet cook, and we, of course, are an appreciative audience. She served up a perfect roast chicken that had been marinating since the day before, with salad and squash soup. The conversation continued through the evening – families, opera, travel, work, politics. Then just Kathy and I talked until well past midnight. Wow!

I'm feeling some regret for all the lost years. But the main thing is that the friendship is renewed, and we'll see Kathy and Faye in San Francisco sometime soon.

They live in north Austin in a house that they've slowly remodeled over about 15 years into a beautiful, comfortable retreat where they can relax and host their friends – expanses of wood, gorgeous tiling, walls painted in the rich, mellow colors of the Southwest. The house is laid out with the living areas open to the outside patio and pool, clearly taking advantage of the many months of good weather that Austin normally enjoys. Kathy said the city gets about five days of winter a year. The rest of the time, she can lounge around in shorts. It was drizzly and a bit cold while we were there, so it's just that our timing was a bit off.

We also visited Ingrid Weigand and George Dolis, who extended the same Austin hospitality. "Come on in, make yourself at home; let's enjoy this fish dinner from my mother's family recipe and one of George's famously complex salads." We felt completely blessed and welcomed after the long drive from New Orleans. Like Kathy and Faye, they have slowly remodeled their home over many years. Now it's a showplace for the homey warmth of wood and the earthy and elegant beauty of tile. Their home is also open to the outside, with a greenhouse on one of the decks. The upstairs bedroom gives the feel of a tree house among the branches of the huge, mature, live oak trees outside.

While we were in Austin, we visited the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, where we got the distinct impression that Texas and the Confederacy won the Civil War. But the highlight, for me, was a temporary exhibit of quilts made by ordinary people for ordinary purposes. When we toured the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, and at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, we saw the work of professional quilters for display in shows or museums – quilts as art, rather than quilts as quilts. In the Austin museum, the Joyce Gross Collection contained beautiful, expertly made quilts in traditional American block patterns, whole cloth quilts, appliqué techniques and Hawaiian quilts. Quilts as quilts.

Notable: Kenny came through the surgery to repair her broken nose just fine. Whew!! I didn't think I was that worried about it, but when Clyde Hohn called after the surgery to tell us how things went, I couldn't breath for a few minutes. Watching the weather report makes me conscious of what a bad idea it would have been to fly to Ohio right now. The Midwest in buried under snow. Kenny is cognizant, I think, of how concerned we've been, so she is calling every day to let us know she's OK. And Maryann Hohn e-mailed every day with a report. We are reminded again and again of how lucky we are.

We are now hightailing it across the vast open landscapes of the Southwest, putting in some of the longest mileage days of our trip. We're heading home.

Mileage from Austin, Texas, to Carlsbad Caverns National Park: 527

Mileage so far: 10,572

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Long Waltz Across Texas

Notes from Margo:

The sign as we entered Texas at the Sabine River: "El Paso, 875 miles." Yikes!! Daunting!! That's a long waltz across Texas. It's about four states wide.

We stayed an extra day in the New Orleans area to visit across the river in Algiers with our friends Curt Feldman and Megumi Ishiyama. Our trip's fourth and last crossing of the Mississippi was on the Algiers ferry (at left) -- a wonderful ride, right on the water, over before it starts, ending at picturesque Algiers Point. Curt and Meg, who moved to Algiers from the Bay Area, are blogging about the transition: Check out the papayas.

My sister Marion and 11-year-old nephew Shafir came over, and we laughed when we realized that all the adults in the room were bloggers. Check out Marion's blog, too, at:

Meg, working as a nurse in a cardiac intensive care ward, saw up-close and in deadly detail the results of the Southern diet -- high in saturated fats, sugar, salt and alcohol. Even some of her co-workers live this life. It sounds like some sort of denial mechanism: Let's go out for a smoke after reviving (or failing to revive) a heart attack patient. Because of Lynn's history of heart trouble, we had only two real New Orleans-style meals, delicious and dripping with fat: (1) A po'boy with deep-fried shrimp for Lynn, a po'boy with hot-link sausage for me, and (2) fried catfish for both of us. It was a full-employment guarantee for the cardiac repair folks. (It's not just Louisiana. In north Arkansas, we stopped for coffee and "homemade" pie, and it turned out the "pies" were deep-fried turnovers! And delicious.)

Curt works for an internet business that deals in virtual worlds, like Second Life. So we had this odd conversation about avatars and virtual experiences. It was sort of like a virtual conversation, using words that I sort of understand, talking about virtual purchases and virtual experiences. It almost made sense, but not quite. Lynn, the former science fiction fan, says the conversation seemed to come out of a 1960 Philip K. Dick novel about the future – and the future is now. (That's Curt, Megume and their mellow dog, Anton, in front of their home in Algiers.)

While in New Orleans, we struggled with a parenting decision. Our daughter Kenny, the freshman at Oberlin College in Ohio, got her nose broken in an intramural basketball game. She's going to need surgery to set it, which will happen Wednesday. And it's possible that I should go up there to be the mom at the bedside. That would leave Lynn alone in the vastness of Texas for four days. (He wouldn't really be alone. He could find refuge in Austin, I'm sure. My cousin lives there, as do our friends Ingrid Weigand and her husband George Dolis, who offered to take Lynn in if we decided that I should fly to Cleveland.)

Lots of factors came in -- but the swing factor is the weather report showing two waves of winter storms set to hit the whole midsection of the country. That would surely not be the time to fly in and out of Chicago and Cleveland. Our friends Maryann and Clyde Hohn in Oberlin have promised to take care of Kenny as if she were (Maryann's words) "our own little princess." But this is the first time we've left Kenny on her own in this sort of situation, and it's hard.

Leaving New Orleans, we headed out into Cajun country to the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette. We left the freeway and drove down two-lane Highway 182 under live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. We cruised past plantation mansions fronted with massive white columns. The signs outside called them "antebellum homes."

We shouldn't have been surprised – but we were – to see endless fields of sugar cane interspersed among the horse pastures and rice fields. We stopped to look at great clouds of white smoke billowing out of a sugar refinery. Huge trucks pulled into and out of the muddy loading area with towering loads of cane, even on a Sunday, even as the New Orleans Saints (11-0 at the beginning of the game) were on TV. The smell of burning sugar reminded me of the acrid odor of the old sugar-beet processing plant when I was in high school in Manteca. The conveyor belts at their crazy angles look like the abandoned and rusted sugar refineries we've seen in Kaua'i.

The Saints pulled out out an amazing come-from-behind victory on the radio as we drove past pirogues drifting on the cocoa-colored bayous, where white pelicans glided above the waterways and egrets fished, elegantly.

The Acadian Cultural Center, operated by the National Park Service, showed us how, in 1755, the British overlords in Canada expelled the French farmers and fishermen whose families had settled in Nova Scotia even before the Pilgrims landed in 1620. Shipped to Louisiana's swamps and prairies, the survivors blended with other groups and became the gumbo-cooking, accordion-playing and French-speaking folks who evolved from Acadians to Cajuns. Their journey from Nova Scotia was horrific, and many thousands died of disease and starvation. Their history in Canada was one of cooperation with Native people. They carried that on in Louisiana, mixing with Native Americans, free blacks from the Caribbean, escaped slaves, Canary Islanders, and numerous other groups. Our souvenir (French word!) is a CD of Cajun music, which is carrying us along as we head for Austin, Texas.

Notable: We stopped for coffee at a roadside store and gas station between Beaumont and Austin. The notices outside told us that we're really in Texas now. One: No weapons in here. That's a felony. And two: You can't drink liquor on the premises, but that's only a misdemeanor. About three feet inside the door was an open cooler of ice where you could buy beer one can at a time, ready to go. But I guess you have to get it all the way to your car before you start drinking. (I've since noticed that lots of the roadside stores have the same signs. I'm in favor of both those restrictions, and I suppose it never hurts to be explicit about behavior expectations, but still....)

Mileage from New Orleans to Austin, Texas: 543 miles

Mileage so far: 10,045

Monday, December 7, 2009

Mister Walton's Store

Notes from Lynn:

Sam Walton began his Wal-Mart journey in 1951 as an obsessed skinflint, an owner-manager far more concerned about the bottom line than the bottoms of people invited into his tiny office in Walton's 5 & 10. The proof is a Sweet Sue apple box in Bentonville, Arkansas. We saw it next to his battered old desk and a nail-keg wastebasket in his first store, now a museum and shrine to the late Samuel Moore Walton. Preserved behind glass, like George Washington's bedroom, Sam's old office is now an exhibit for parsimony.

The apple box was a seat for his guests.

Another kind of exhibit is planned these days in Bentonville by Alice Walton, youngest of Sam and Helen's four children. She was 18 months old when her dad furnished his office with an apple box. He went on to found a worldwide chain of 8,055 (at last count) of enormously profitable Wal-Mart discount stores, Wal-Mart supercenters, Sam's Clubs and thousands of huge stores with assorted names in 15 countries (Bhati in India, ASDA in Britain, etc.) When he died in 1992, he was the nation's richest multibillionaire.

After leaving the shrine, we walked down a curving bike path to an observation deck above what would have been known, in the the Ozarks not too long ago, as some dark holler. It is filled now with earthmovers, concrete trucks, two towering cranes, a regiment of men in hard hats and the columns of a temple under construction.

The temple is not for Alice's guests. It's for art.

Parsimony is never mentioned. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a nonprofit project envisioned and mostly financed by Sam's very rich daughter, is budgeted at $417 million – with about $350 million for the complex of galleries, auditorium, fountains and gardens. Alice, whose wealth is said to be $18 billion or so, now lives among the horsey set in Mineral Springs, a Texas town near Dallas.

She paid $35 million for "Kindred Spirits," an 1849 painting by Asher B. Durand, and more millions have been spent on one of Charles Willson Peale's portraits of George Washington and paintings by John LaFarge, Thomas Eakins, George Bellows, Eastman Johnson, Charles Bird King, Jasper Cropsey, Winslow Homer, Marsden Hartley and many other American artists.

Will art lovers find their way to the Ozarks when the museum is ready in a year or two? Who knows? Four years ago, we made our way through Spain's Basque country to visit the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, also an unlikely place for a world-class museum. (The cost of construction in 1997, including Frank Gehry's shimmering outside walls of titanium, is estimated at a mere $100 million.) Other Guggenheims are under construction in Guadalajara, Bucharest, Lithuania and Abu Dubai, but none in so isolated a town the size of Bentonville.

If you build it, according to Shoeless Joe Jackson in W.P. Kinsella's "Field of Dreams," they will come. But first the art lovers and tourists will have to find Bentonville in the once-rural slurbs of northwest Arkansas. It's now a land uglified by an acne of strip malls, industrial parks and dying villages along U.S. 540 and U.S. 62 from Rogers to Springdale to Fayetteville.

Exceptions include Bentonville's tidy courthouse square (at left). The centerpiece is the statue of a Confederate lieutenant in the 18th Arkansas, James H. Berry, later a governor and senator. Mounted on a cenotaph, he can look down on the 5-and-10 where Sam once touted his retail system as a way to encourage American-made products and to breathe life into the downtowns of America. But in 1962 he opened his first Wal-Mart in a bigger store away from the courthouse square. Then he built his own store on the edge of town, a strategy applied to all but a few of the 8,055 stores that would follow. And rare is the merchandise that isn't imported from China. (The first Wal-Mart storefront is now a heating and cooling outfit, at right.)

Bentonville's downtown is so pretty, painted and pristine that I wondered if the Walton overseers, conscious of the corporation's reputation as a destroyer of Main Streets, own or somehow subsidize buildings on the square. It's not typical of the half-abandoned downtowns so common in the 4,142 American communities where Wal-Marts are installed on the outskirts.

The story means little to friends and neighbors back in the inner Bay Area, one of the world’s few regions where Wal-Mart is known only by its reputation as an enemy of the people. That's balderdash. Sam Walton and his successors are hardly responsible for America's love of the automobile, our understandable quest for low prices and our indifference to the poverty-level wages, anti-union ferocity and ruthless business practices.

After all, Wal-Mart is no different from Home Depot, Target, Lowe's, Costco, Kroger, Levitz and other retail vampires that drain economic blood – and city sales tax revenues – from the downtowns of America. Let's not forget McDonald's, Denny's, Applebee's, Waffle House and all the other out-on-the-highway franchises that stuck a knife in the heart of the mom-and-pop cafes of yesteryear. The list goes on. Don't blame Sam or Alice or the other heirs for the devastation of Main Street, but few of Wal-Mart's workers will be able to afford entrance fees to the Crystal Bridges Museum. They are the ones sitting on apple crates.

Notable: On a street called Desire, we saw so many damaged houses that we remain in a state of shock.

Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005 with hurricane winds and flooding that broke though inadequate levees. It devastated the Crescent City and displaced thousands of people, mostly from the poorest wards.

Four years have gone by in the world's most affluent nation, and on a drive-around through the Ninth Ward we saw hundreds of homes that have been restored or rebuilt and occupied (at right is one).

And we saw hundreds more where nothing has been done to repair homes damaged by wind, flood, mold and bureaucratic apathy. We saw countless empty lots and apartment complexes with no signs of life except for official graffiti (at left) that declare a house to be uninhabitable.

At first we were just curious, interested to see the area that we'd watched on TV during the hurricane's aftermath. Then we were horribly saddened. "Each boarded up house, each barren foundation, was the end of someone's dreams," Margo said. Words don't mean much. Snapshots tell the story.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

We Did Not Learn Our Lesson

Notes from Margo:

We did not learn our lesson. We drove more than 7,500 to get from San Francisco to Boston, a 3,100-mile drive. We zig-zagged across the West and Midwest, trying to see everyone and everything. So on the way home, I thought we might just head west and drive hard in a straight line. We’re both a bit homesick, and a bit tired.

But no. We got as far west as Northwest Arkansas, and had second thoughts about skipping New Orleans, where my sister Marion lives with her son, Shafir. So, we wheeled around, headed back east and south about 12 hours – recrossing to the east side of the Mississippi River. We were rewarded with Shafir’s winning smile and several really nice visits with Marion and Shafir (that's them and me), and a visit with Shafir’s dad, Jim Wittenberg.

We also had the New Orleans treat of drinking coffee and eating beignets at Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter. A band played on the sidewalk outside for tips. The trumpet player and singer improvised "When the Saints Win the Superbowl" to the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching In." He pushed the band's CD, saying it's better than a souvenir T-shirt. You don't have to wash it. The band (at right) was mixed – black, white, young, older. But what caught our eye was the trombone player, an tiny old guy who appeared to be Vietnamese, snapping his fingers and bopping and nodding along to the rhythm.

The mileage takes its toll. But still, every day brings surprises and gifts. The distances across Arkansas and Mississippi and Louisiana are vast, reminding me of northern Wisconsin and the 11-hour drive to Lynn’s cousin Karen through the lightly populated flatlands of northwest Minnesota. The Mississippi Delta is also flat and seemingly endless, but it's totally different – lots of little towns, many in states of disrepair and deterioration, but lots of life nonetheless. The fields show the remains of the season's cotton and rice crops.

The radio stations carried us along – bluegrass and gospel, and more bluegrass and gospel. The Ludstadt team of atheist and Jewish travelers loves gospel music; we just tune out the sermons. Then as we got into southern Mississippi and Louisiana, closer to New Orleans, old-style blues came over the airways in the darkness. And we drove on.

In southern Arkansas, we stopped for coffee at a roadside café. The sign outside: “Catfish You Can Trust.” And how could we pass that up? While the white waitress poured Lynn a cup to go, the black cook asked how we were doing. He answered our return query with: “I’m still above the grass.”

In Northwest Arkansas, we had a really restful three-day visit with our old friends Jack Desrocher and Sheilah Downey. They are the only other couple we know where both played pickup basketball. Sheilah, once one of Lynn's students at SF State, was a reporter at the Examiner; Jack, an amazingly talented illustrator/cartoonist at the newspaper, was the best man at our wedding 20 years ago. Shortly after that, they packed up their daughters, Addy and Hannah, and moved to a former goat farm a few miles out of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. They lived there for about 10 years. We visited them once at their ridgetop home, where they had their own basketball court in the driveway. They had acreage, and they had created a dream playland for the kids – a zipline down the hill, full-size playhouses outdoors, ponies, dogs, cats.

They eventually tired of that, and moved to St. Louis, and then to Pensacola, Florida. After Hurricane Ivan came within a few yards of destroying their house, they sold out and moved back to Arkansas, this time to Rogers, about 30 miles from Eureka Springs. The area is the center of the Wal-Mart empire (more on this later, from Lynn). But our most peripatetic friends are about ready to move again – they are talking wistfully about being closer to the East Coast.

Through all the moves, Jack has free-lanced his illustrations, first by Fed-Ex and now by email. Sheilah has done free-lance writing and editing along with various odd jobs. They get by, although Jack says the illustration business pretty much dried up in the past year or so, as the economy has tanked. Illustrations seem to be something that publications can do without. (That's Sheilah, at right, feeding Itsie some broccoli with a fork. Their cat is bigger than both of their dogs.)

Notable: Pileated woodpeckers, with their bright red caps, were pecking at the suet in the bird-feeders at Jack and Sheilah's in Rogers, Arkansas. And a flock of white pelicans circled over us as we entered Louisiana.

Also notable: We crossed the Mississippi River for the second and third times on our trip. We crossed it going west in Northern Arkansas, and that felt great – a big step on the way home. Then after we changed directions, we backtracked across it going east from Louisiana into Mississippi further down-river.

We remembered the little creek that we crossed in Minnesota, with its big sign, "Mississippi River," and compared it to the river down here that actually looks like the Mississippi – a huge muddy waterway flanked by wide flat alluvial plains. We'll cross it again, for the fourth and last time, when we leave New Orleans heading west.

Mileage from Rogers, Arkansas, to New Orleans, Louisiana: 734

Mileage so far: 9,502