Characters on the American Road

We met a variety of humans in our travels; I wasn’t always on top of my job as documentarian, or I would have collected more portraits, since they were all interesting people.

You already met Janet Saad Cook, the Richmond, VA light artist and Claire, lady of the lovely NC farmhouse. They were already in our stable of friends, so don’t count as ‘found’ characters (although they ‘count’ big-time as lovely friends).

The first time we met new folks was when we stopped in Monterey, TN. The hotel clerk sent us to the awesome barbeque joint across the street known as Rocky Pops.

Our dinner on the fire at Rocky Pop’s

Rocky Pop himself was out back smoking up the mountains with a delicious fragrance, and his daughter waited on our table. Her daughter, peppered us with questions and decided she wanted to go to California with us. Her mother nixed the plan before we could tell her that we had no room. The amazing ribs were large and meaty and smoked to tenderness on that big cooker out back. There’s no sign on the place, but it’s right across from the Super 8.


The next time I met some local characters was at the cafe in Bentonville, AR. Crystal Bridges Museum of American art has a lovely cafe called Eleven (why? whatever – it was cool) and it was so crowded when we arrived, tired and hungry, that I asked a couple if we could share their table. Elmer and Estelle have been married for 57 years. They live in eastern Arkansas on a farm where rice is their primary crop. They had come to the museum with a church group and were really enjoying it, since, as Elmer told me emphatically “we never go to them big city places.” I asked them if the Walton family of Walmart fame had done other philanthropic projects for their state. They changed the subject.

Elmer did satisfy my curiosity about the miles of flooded fields in eastern Arkansas. Once we crossed the Mississippi at Memphis it seemed the flood plain went on forever. Rice farmers use this to their advantage: allowing the river to flood fields after planting then draining before harvest. Unfortunately, the river doesnt provide all the water needed for this. They draw millions of acre feet from the Middle Clairborne aquifer.

With all that water I asked Elmer if he ever ran into snapping turtles. Oh, yes, he replied, and we swapped snapping turtle stories. Both of us were warned as kids to avoid the creatures. Elmer told me a wonderful yarn about a giant turtle whose bite was so fierce and strong that if he bit you, he wouldn’t let go until it thundered!


People-watching along the highway isn’t always a happy thing. At one lonely rural gas stop, I watched a woman exit the convenience store with fried chicken, snacks, two coffees and a black eye. There was no one in the car with her. I made up a story, and it was sad.

Later on in Oklahoma we stopped for gas (again! there was alot of that) at this place. For a long while we had been seeing signs for Indian food (not the Native American kind). This was the source:

if you look closely at the sign to the right, it’s in Hindi characters. The woman who waited on us was clearly of east Indian heritage. We heard her speaking to her children in a language we didn’t know. When asked about the OK Jailbirds newspaper, she assured us it was no joke. I loved the sign: “please purchase before reading”!

There was one more sign at this place, miles from anywhere. We believe she is protecting the giant tire from any OK Jailbirds that might try to steel a 12′ high tire.

could this be Kali?

I have more tales for you, but that’s enough for today.

What have you found along the road that surprised you lately?


Day 10: Welcome to California

A few days ago we were worried about crossing western NM and eastern AZ, and remarking on the desolate desert landscape. What the hell did I know, innocent Easterner? That was a trip through green pastures compared to today.

Leaving charming Williams, AZ after breakfast we rapidly descended from 7,600 ft to less than 400 at the Colorado River. The terrain changed and changed again, from tall pines to arid red rocks to scrub desert as we spiraled down out of the high land of the Colorado Plateau.

Looking at Needles, CA across Goose Lake, Havasu Wildlife Refuge, Topock, AZ

Seeing a watery wildlife refuge, we exited Route 40 just before the California line. Tango got to wallow in water from the Colorado that fills Goose Lake, a huge wetland surrounded by white sand desert. It was hot and windy, and a very strange place. Even a few dozen yards from the water and the landscape was unforgivingly harsh. Still, there was the scruffy town of Topock there, touting its recreational benefits.

After lunch we excitedly crossed into the Golden State and began climbing uphill again. Soon it was apparent that we were in a monumental desert world. The adjective ‘lunar’ worked its way into the conversation. Almost all the greenery disappeared and the colors grew muted. Some cactuses, a few small yuccas, tumbleweeds. And rocks, sand, wind.

Mountains were toothy and varied in color and form. Sometimes there was a totally black mountain. Later we saw more ‘malpais’ – recent lava erruptions of grainy black stone. There were no signs of life, no living things, no houses or power lines. For dozens of miles.

The Mohave Desert is over 25,000 square miles of daunting desert, stretching from Vegas into Arizona and California. It felt like the surface of Mars, only less colorful. It’s the first landscape where I couldn’t imagine surviving on my own. I like to think I am comfortable in the wilderness. But this environment was deeply hostile in my book, despite the long list of creatures who live there.

Jose and I have been on the road for over 3,200 miles and ten days. We’re tired, and so is our vehicle. Today, while watching the engine light and the temp gauge, one strap holding the bicycle broke, fortunately we caught it before it got completely loose. Later, in 30+ mph winds the cartop carrier began rattling ominously, so again we were on the hot, windy and dangerous highway fussing with straps and buckles to cinch it tighter.

After the blasted feeling of the Mohave, climbing up into the Tehachapi pass with all its windmills was exhilarating. But then the high winds had whipped the dust into a haze, and the sun was low. All those twirling pinwheels spinning on the mountainsides were mesmerizing.

After that, the rugged hills softened to a leathery tan, more green appeared and livestock to dine on it. Trees other than Joshua were a sight for sore eyes. And when we hit the first orchards in Caliente, it was like being in candy-land. The colors were so intense!

Here in north Bakersfield The air smells of flowers and manure, and its relatively humid. there are vineyards and orchards just outside of town, and they will line our route home tomorrow, the Garden Basket of the US.

Welcome to California, a huge, strange, rugged, lush state. What a first day!!

Thanks everyone for following along on this wacky adventure. There are many more tales to tell, and tomorrow, more miles to go. Stay tuned!

Day 9, part 1: Across the Desert

On this amazing day  we traveled over 450 miles and through many amazing types of terrain. We are pretty bone-weary and happy, since we ended our day with the Grand Canyon. That story is for Part 2.

This morning we left ABQ after fueling up at Starbucks and heading out old 66 for a bit. The empty desert stretched out forever before us, powdery sand and shriveled sage baking in the sun. As bleak as it was, soon there were bluffs and mesas, and we passed by Acoma Sky City as I read the amazing tale of their civilization (on Wikipedia, natch).

Whizzing along Interstate 40

Later we were sweeping through big curving red rock landscapes, passing impoverished Indian settlements and eccentric tourist traps as we ate up the miles. We got gas at Gallup, near the once-famous Hotel El Rancho, favoured by movie stars in the days of the big Western pictures: John Wayne and the like.

We crossed the Continental Divide and then the Arizona border. Somewhere our phones decided we had crossed into Pacific time as well, so the day became even longer.

Arizona brought less arid landscape: some breath of green to the range, and cattle appeared, grazing upon it. Lunchtime was a wonderful picnic at the Petrified Forest NP. Our shaded picnic table looked out over colorful hills dotted with petrified logs.The wind literally wuthered: around the rocks, the shelter, the scrub pine and sage.

Petrified Forest NP

There were lizards skittering, and birds. A few wildflowers were blooming including a cactus with orange blossoms.

After lunch, once again we were climbing. We were approaching the San Francisco Mountains and Flagstaff, gateway to the canyon lands beyond. But that’s tomorrow’s story. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, here is today’s

Josephine Report: Desert Thoughts

Patrise and I have an ongoing conversation about how we feel about being in the desert. Both of us have lived our lives in various parts of the country surrounded by water, woods, and green growing things. Today we spent a good five hours traversing the New Mexico and Arizona desert, so that gave us time to think about being in it. I find it forbidding, inhospitable, bringing up survival fears. No leafy cover, no humidity, the sun so aggressive. I know I will never choose to live in such an environment.  For Patrise, her body responds with a big “yes”! But let her speak for herself.

And yet, it’s not as simple as that for me. I’ve now participated in three retreats over the past several years in the high desert near Abiquiu with White Eagle on her sacred land, Star Dance. Although the environment of the desert there did keep me on edge, it also sharpened my senses and mental faculties. I gained an enormous respect for the living creatures there who manage to thrive in such adversity; the sparseness of the landscape did not have the same emptiness I experienced crossing the desert at 70 miles an hour.

I’m waiting for the Desert Elders to join the conversation and share their wisdom.

My two cents on the desert is that I feel a tremendous joy when in New Mexico, that seems in conflict with the lack of water. I’ve been a water person my whole life. But something literally enchants me in the Land of Enchantment. More on this later.

San Francisco Peaks

For now, zzzzz.

Bonus Post for Day 8: On the Road in the High Desert

The Josephine Report: More Highway News:

A few days ago it was my clothing strewn on the Texas leg of I-40. This morning in Santa Fe my trusty 2003 Rav4 (160,000+ miles) began sending engine-light distress signals and doing the herky-jerky while trying to shift up. This after a very expensive tab back in Clinton, MD to REBUILD the transmission!
My Albuquerque friend Marie Ginga, whom I was visiting, took me to her mechanic (open on Sunday, mirabile dictu!), he checked the transmission fluid, waved his wand over the engine, and voila! no engine light, gear shift smooth as butter.
It certainly seemed a miraculous thing, not only the mechanic on a Sunday but then the witch-doctor effect: show up and the symptoms disappear! (Later we heard that it might have been the high altitude in SF. Over 7,000 ft. has been known to challenge Toyota engines. )
We’re set to travel across 400 miles of desert to our next destination: THE GRAND CANYON. Stay tuned.
Some pictures from the Open Road:
Baja Tacos – an old Santa Fe classic
Quite a RIDE!

Day 8: Santa Fe & Albuquerque

Elizabeth Mesh of NM Artists for Hire

We’ve enjoyed another respite here in this magical place. I visited friend Elizabeth, proprietor of NM Artists for Hire. Her work brings artists into the community for special events, self expression and healing. We enjoyed walking the old town with Elizabeth as our guide, particularly admiring the churches.

St. Francis Cathedral, a gorgeous french Romanasque revival building. Church occupied this site since 1608

As artists we all had interesting projects to share. I was delighted that my friends Elizabeth and Jose shared their enthusiasm for feminist and contemporary art. Although Elizabeth had to go to work, she urged us to be sure to visit Site Santa Fe.

I loved the show – and especially Linda Mary Montano’s exhibit , in a way I haven’t connected with conceptual and performance art before.  First of all Site Santa Fe has a commitment to engaging and educating its audience. With their mileiu of contemporary art, too often people come and don’t know what to make of the work. The gallery guides are trained to interact with patrons in a way that bridges understanding, making challenging works more accessible.

If you are used to contemplating museum art in splendid isolation, it can feel a bit like being interrupted while shopping by a helpful clerk. But I went in knowing this about the facility and I engaged the guides as well. It was odd at first, and then wonderful to know I could ask (dumb) questions and get helpful response. For instance, there were quite a few videos in one part of the show, and one of them was mostly static. I asked without fear if this was the intended work, or a technical problem. Turned out it WAS a bad DVD!

Art is deliberately challenging, especially contemporary, conceptual and performance art. SITE Santa Fe has created a good model for helping people find their way into the work, where the museum staff are not just silent guardians, but there to enhance your experience.

I had some fun with Mungo Thompson’s Time Covers:

Mungo Thomson’s Time Covers at Site Santa Fe

More of beautiful New Mexico:

Big Sky Country
Dog Park Santa Fe

Day 7: Land of Enchantment

Miles traveled: 451Total: 2311

Beginning Altitude: 3605
Current Altitude: 7163

First Cactus: mile 1907
First Mesa: mile 1913

Crossing the High Plains is like driving up a ramp: flat but steadily climbing, climbing. As we approached and crossed into New Mexico the land became more furrowed, rising and falling yet climbing still. You could see the railbed, made mostly level by tunnel and fill. So many trains. Josephine counted 98 cars on one. We chased another, trying to get pics.

We had some misadventure trying to find gas, which led us to Tucumcari, a Route 66 town with many old road relics, sadly many of them closed and rusting. The town has great murals, too, that you’ll see in the photos. Later we went to visit a lake that wasn’t there.

This land is so beautiful, so much blue in the sky, the dark green trees, and the shadows on  the land. Rose and cream and sage and grey hills dotted with cedars. Huge cloud shadows trundling across the hills. The photos cant do it justice, especially shot out the car window. But here they are, anyway.

Finally we arrived in Santa Fe, where I spent time visiting with my friend Elizabeth, so good to see her!!

Can you tell, I am too tired to write a proper travelog tonight? And my adventure mate is already snoring! But here are some photos to tide you over until next time. there are certainly tales to tell.

The Mother Road
The Mother Road
Wind Farm – Texas
First Cactus – Texas
At last! (bugs on the windscreen)
Ranch House Cafe

Day 6: Into the West

Today’s mileage: 487
Total traveled: 1753
Starting Elevation: 1296
Current Elevation: 3649

We left Bentonville (aka Walmartland) Friday morning and headed out on back roads for the Oklahoma border, which we crossed in a thunderstorm. Surprisingly green, dotted with dismal small towns and chicken processors formed my predominant impressions. Dogwoods, redbud, cedar and oak make up the the Ozark forest.

AR into OK

As we rolled on the wooded landscape continued far beyond my expectation. I think I had an image of Oklahoma as a brown, barren wasteland. The eastern half of the state is quite lush, at least this time of year.

For days I’ve been scanning the landscape, alert for tiny differences. Is it dryer? are the trees different? What about the sky? Where’s the prairie? I’ve been seeking that moment when we enter into The West.


It happened rather suddenly.

I began to notice a distinctive aspect to the oak trees in the Ozarks, and it became more more pronounced in Oklahoma: short twisty trees with angular articulated limbs and bushy foliage. It’s probably Blackjack Oak. Nascent leaves accent the forms. If you’ve ever seen the cover of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians it’s THAT tree.

It turns out there is a band of particular forest type that runs in a north-south band from eastern Kansas down thru Oklahoma into the Dallas area called Cross Timbers . It forms the margin between the forested East and the grasslands of the Great Plains.

Once west of Oklahoma City we went from Cross Timbers to Grasslands, then the moment we crossed the Texas line sagebrush and tumbleweeds. And WIND.


Crossing into Texas, landscape getting flatter and every more windy, we heard a sudden kerthump above us, and simultaneously realized that our rooftop cargo carrier had flipped its lid and was giving away bags of clothes along the highway. Alas, no photo can do this moment justice. Momentary alarm, organized assault to collect underwear off the highway and strap the carrier down, and we were on our way! Plucky feminists avert disaster. Not one macho trucker paused to assist.

Grain Elevators

Grain Elevator in Groom, TX

The Josephine Report
We saw this one in Groom, Texas, on our way to Amarillo. We were traveling along the storied OLD Route 66 (decommissioned back in 1985) when we encountered this apparently abandoned and rusty old grain elevator. This brought up vivid memories of the summers I spent with my grandmother in western Kansas back in the 50s, when winter wheat was THE crop of the area. Riding with gramps on his house-sized combine — winter wheat is harvested in June — and watching the mile-long wheat trains pulled by three or more engines stopping at each town with an elevator, and then eventually disappearing over the horizon of this very flat prairie land.

So back in Groom Texas. I was looking at a relic of a bygone era. Railroad tracks are gone, rotting ties left in evidence, but the elevators still standing, waiting a very long time to sink back into the earth.

Don’t forget you can follow us on Twitter @patriseart or with #coast2coast. Also, Be sure to see today’s complete photo set on Flickr

Day 5: Artkansas

I know from family legend that I lived in Arkansas when I was a baby. My young father got involved with a uranium mining outfit that never really amounted to much. They lasted 6 months before the south drove them home. (See this post for more about that.) So technically this is not my first visit to the state.

But in effect, it is. We started yesterday, rolling across the eastern part of the state which looked like endless muddy, flooded fields. I learned today, dining with a southeastern Arkansas rice farmer named Elmer that they build up the field edges and flood them on purpose, and so when the rivers spill their banks its all good. Yep, there are alligators, Elmer told me.

We rose up in elevation at around Little Rock and climbed into the foothills of Aux Arcs, more commonly spelled Ozarks. the landscape is reminiscent of northern Penn/southern tier New York state, and is indeed a deeply eroded plain as opposed to a proper mountain range. The flora is quite wonderful. swaths of wildflowers cultivated and volunteer line the highways, one favorite being this long deep red clover.

Up we climbed through valleys and vistas to the far NW corner of the state, where a chain of small cities run together into a substantial metro area. We drove through Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and finally Bentonville. Home of Walmart and the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.visitor-center-front-2011_129826467430169589

We rolled into town and satisfied our need to visit a Super Center. (see vid below) Then, sweatshop clothing in hand, we went in search of the fabled Museum. Be sure to go to the Flickr (right) and look at all the amazing photos of that place. The architecture is AMAZING, the buildings nestle into the landscape like they’ve always been there, despite how original and contemporary they are. trails and gardens surround the place and we, and Tango, enjoyed those as much as the collection.

Josephine offers a Museum Review :

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville Arkansas

My biggest takeaway from our visit to this astonishing museum complex is the building itself. Designed by Israeli/Canadian/American architect Moshe Safdie , the museum opened in 2011 with a lot of fanfare, especially focusing on the museum’s patron, Alice Walton, daughter of Sam, and heiress to a multi-billion dollar Walmart fortune.

The building has everything that warms my heart and satisfies my soul. An intelligent and balanced relationship with the natural surroundings of water and wooded hills. Outwardly slanted glass walls bringing the natural setting into the interior spaces. Dramatic verticals that counterpoint the bowed and curved roofs of the several pavilions. A beautifully choreographed dance! This museum is designed to be seen! From many perspectives — inside and out, above and below — there are new delights. And yet the gallery spaces are quietly straightforward, not trying to grab attention away from the paintings and sculpture. A different philosophy than the two Franks: Wright and Gehry.

We took a break somewhere between the 19th and 20th centuries to walk with my dog Tango through the beautifully designed woodland trails that circle the museum. Tango, by the way, is a most excellent travel companion, zoned out in the back seat when we’re on the road, or patiently waiting our return when we’re out and about.

Josephine’s First Walmart Experience:

Day 4: Goodbye, East

Current Location: Russellville, Arkansas
Miles traveled today: 508
Miles traveled so far: 1207
Cities traversed: Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock
Significant Milestone: Crossed the Mississippi River
Roadkill Observed: armadillos (TN), turtles (AR)

What really struck me today was a sense of the land. Tennessee is a vast and beautiful collection of stony hills and lush woods. There were dogwoods all along our path for another day. Even in the rain, TN is lovely. As we rolled into Memphis and things flattened out, the sky brightened until some blue could show through, and by the time we walked to the river the clouds were mid-westy with marching cumulus.

I studied the satellite map last night and was awed by the twisty arcs of the Mississippi. I’ve never navigated that river, but I feel I know it well after reading Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory. Right around Memphis he was fished out of the river and completed his journey on a barge tow, at the insistence of the captain, due to the treacherous nature of this river.

And she did not disappoint. Like milky coffee, seething with boils and the prongs of submerged trees, I wouldn’t dare sail on anything smaller than a paddle wheel steamer. We got a good look at the broad vista from downtown along the rail tracks. Later, crossing the Hernando de Soto bridge I couldn’t see much with all the fine iron girders of not one but three bridges.

Once on the Arkansas side I was struck by how dead flat it was, and how there was no ‘urban’ – right across the line from a major city. Memphis sits up on a bluff, but the Arkansas side is flood plain and more flood plain, and it continued like that for scores of miles inland.

Take a look at this satellite pic, and notice the swirls and whorls of the current and former oxbows. This river has written herself into this land for longer than we know. It wouldn’t pay to underestimate her willingness to change her course.

ribbons and scrawls of the mighty miss

Here’s a sampler from today, to give you a feel for the road.

watercolor highway
The Mighty Mississippi
Lovely Downtown Memphis
click on this for a larger view. It’s worth it.
Elvis Lives!

Day 3: Stepping Off

from Josephine:


Today, Day Three, was the actual moment I stepped out into the mystery, into adventure, into the uncertainties and surprises of my new California life.

Our first two stops, a brief visit with artist Janet Saad Cook in Richmond, and then two nights with dear friends Claire and John Lamiman in Wentworth NC, felt like visits home, embracing the familiar and comfortable. I shared with John as I was leaving, that terror and joy were all tangled up inside me. He smiled impishly and said he loved that state. Yes. And so I asked Claire and Patrise to ceremonially step off the front porch with me, arm in arm, moving forward into my new life.

And we did step off together, with a lovely visit to two local artists’ studios*, then we hit the road west. We drove into warmer and greener spring in middle North Carolina, then climbing steadily after Hickory we went back in time to early buds and even bare trees at the summit.

Lake Tomahawk Park in Black Mountain

Lunch break was at a favorite place: Black Mountain NC, where I enjoyed heavenly Dripolator coffee and picnicked at Lake Tomahawk, with its nice view of the Seven Sisters.

My greatest regret today is not being able to show you the zooming, curving thrill of our drive through the Great Smokies. Route 40 may be an interstate, but it curves and winds and climbs and climbs and finally dives through the earth in a tunnel and pops over the eastern divide. I had my hands full driving. Besides, any time I pointed the camera at a mountain, it seemed to shrink dramatically. Hmmm.

Finally, we farted around in shopping centers in Knoxville and zeroed in on Monterey, TN as our destination for today. Comfy Super 8, dog happily snoring on the bed, a swimming pool 15′ square (but still, a pool) and, at the reccomendation of the desk clerk, scrumptious BBQ across the street.

Rocky Pop’s BBQ in Monterey, TN

You can see the smoker and woodpile out back in the pic; our ribs were huge and meaty and smoked to a brown polish, not sauced at all, just excellent meat. A family affair, Rocky Pops BBQ gets 4 stars for delicious, friendly, comfy and bargain eats.

Don’t forget, if you Tweet, follow us with #coast2coast at @patriseart.
And if you want more pics, see Flickr link at the right =>

* More on artists along the way, coming soon