Maiello: Defeat the Press
Wolraich: Obama at the Gates of... Gates
I like Alaska a lot. This is my fourth trip up, and I remember each of them, and their details, very well. How the bald eagles looked circling the rocky beach at Homer in the dusky 12:30 in the morning light. The moose that staggered out into the road in Kenai and just stood there. Suicide moose. The purple flowers in the waist-high grass in the cliffside Russian cemetery, at Ninilchik. What I like about Alaska, though, is the sense of place Alaskans give it. The way they create the concept of Alaska by living there, and cherishing the place. This piece is a brief tour of place, written in the middle of the night in the sky with the moon off the wing.
First, Alaska. It's a little daunting flying into Alaska. Reminiscing about Ted Stevens' death the other day, a friend observed chirpily that "there are lots and lots of plane crashes in Alaska!" Outside the Anchorage area, which is much like the lower 48, Alaskans live a surreal existence, bound to the physicality of the land, sea, and air. They fly floatplanes between islands. They shoot bears. They make things from wood. They have a state roadkill lottery. It is the last frontier. John McPhee's stunning book-length set of essays, Coming Into the Country, is an eloquent testimony to the life still found there. It is a life of wood and smells and fires and bitter stinging cold and wet wind and boats that take stupid risks and mostly men who fly drunk but more often fly brave, because you have to be sometimes. It is a place. A rich fat fucking place full of wildness. And the people who live there, outside the city, are living. I love Alaska because people shouldn't live there so much, and people, a lot of very different and independent people, commit themselves to this place so fully, and passionately.
To another place. In a Mississippi River channel island in the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois, you can run on a two lane road near an arsenal. There's a forest on your right. Suddenly, there's a clearing in that rightward forest of a few acres of flat grassy land. It's rows of graves, orderly military graves in neat lines running far away from the road. They form what is nearly a square, framed by lush, beautiful northern Illinois forest. And they're Conferederate graves, well over a thousand of them. You know this, because each of them has a Confederate flag, clean and new, a century and a half after the southern men and boys died losing a war to perpetuate slavery. They died for slavery ninety years after Thomas Jefferson equivocated about how to discuss slavery in our founding documents. Which Jefferson did twenty years before fathering an interracial family with a slave who cared for him. Jefferson's will set free some slaves, but not others. And not the mother to his children. The arsenal gravesite, jarring when you see it, is a place of profound reconciliation. Men and boys who fought and died in a hideously bloody war. And in the state that gave us Lincoln and took him back dead, the Confederate men and boys have fresh flags in a beautiful northern forest. I like the gravesite more than I like Jefferson.
There's a restaurant in Boston you should go to. It is so Boston, it is the essence of what Boston is distilled down and amplified, and wrapped around you like a warm jacket in a chilly tavern with a nice, cool, fresh-pumped ale in your hand. The restaurant is called the Union Oyster House, and it's the oldest restaurant continuously in operation in America. It's in downtown Boston, right around the corner from Faneuil Hall, the old public marketplace, framed by cobblestones. It's near the cemetery where Sam Adams and Crispus Attucks lie, near where the real Tea Party happened with real patriots. The restaurant has deep brown wood window frames, and the most delightfully irregular interior. There's an oyster bar in the ground floor. Upstairs are wooden dining booths. They're absurdly narrow, with highbacked, shallow seats that frankly aren't very comfortable. One is called the John F. Kennedy booth. John F. Kennedy really liked the Union Oyster House. And when he went, he'd sit in this one booth. Durgin Park nearby, in the heart of the Faneuil mall area, does a more brisk business. But the place you need to go is the Union Oyster House. Order the lobster. Once you have, you've been to Boston.
In downtown El Dorado, Arkansas, a town in southern Arkansas not far from Bill Clinton's native Hope, is a memorial to the Confederate war dead. It's not a place of profound reconciliation. I was there once with an expert on OSHA, an eighty year old man from Louisiana, who owned a canine called a redbone coonhound. I asked him how he thought the black folks in El Dorado felt about the war memorial. He didn't like the question. He told me there were many people in those parts who remembered well how General Sherman treated Georgia. He told me they resented it. I spent much of a year in El Dorado. The food was so remarkably poor. Fried meats, fried vegetables. Watery iced tea. Horrible baked goods. And a town square with a little bank, a little hardware store, diagonal parking, a town square of dying stores with pleasant middle-aged clerks that could be in central Ohio, or western Iowa. Except for the memorial to the Confederate war dead. El Dorado could be the impossibly green rolling hills, the creeks, the thick forests, the swelter. But for me, it's simply the memorial.
We crave a sense of place everywhere, in literature, in food, in photography, because we want to live. To live is to write yourself on the land, to take in what space there is and spread yourself on it, like how people spread the ashes of their loved ones, but all electric and moving like we living people do. Traveling is the very act of living. Little wonder the best wines are wines in which we taste the stony soil of Burgundy in a French pinot, or the best foods those in which we get the richness of the cocoa bean from which South American porcelana is harvested. In our mouths, we are traveling. As we taste, we are living. We are inventorying the world, putting our hands and tongues around it, which is all there is to do.
We ooh and aah over novels with a rich sense of place, so we can remember all these places we've never really seen. Kent Haruf's Plainsong just aches this way, giving you leathery-faced stoic old men made from the plains of eastern Colorado and their slow prairie town that you've never seen, but see. Ansel Adams gave America its western places. Here, America, it's the Snake River. Look over here, you have Half Dome. And Hernandez has its Moonrise, and you are the third person omniscient, looming over the scene. You have these places, you are these places, you are the rich rich blood that dances from the earth. Like the Hopi creation story of the mudhead stepping into this world from a hole in the Earth near the silty grey flow of the Little Colorado River in a deep channel of a canyon. Like omniscient you.