I had been through Taos 28 years earlier, never returning as I had not been impressed when my father and I drove through in a Volkswagen Westfalia Camper back in the day. But when I mention our travels to Santa Fe, people often ask if we also visit the smaller town which is likewise known for its artists. So I thought it would be worthwhile to drive through, almost three decades later, to see what I thought.
There are two primary routes from Santa Fe to Taos. The Low Road parallels the Rio Grande River for part of the journey, while the High Road I opted for is a scenic byway which takes one through a series of tiny Spanish Land Grant and Pueblo Indian villages amidst the Sangre de Christo mountains.
The winding road was a serene 40-mile-per-hour drive with few vehicles. The only drawback was a lack of roadside restrooms, which resulted in a crowd at a pit toilet facility in the forest. We drove on to Rancho de Taos, just south of Taos proper, to find relief.
I wasn’t in the mood to stop at the little villages, opting to cruise onward, although I did pull over at an overlook on NM 518.
Overlook on NM 518 on the High Road to Taos
After the peaceful drive to Taos, the overloaded highways 68 and 64 through it were miserable. It was lunchtime, and the downtown parking areas overflowed. The overcrowded, crawling drive through town put me in a foul mood, unwilling to fight for a parking place to find lunch and then take in the art museum at Fechin House as I’d planned. I wouldn’t call it road rage, but road resentment.
Farmhouse Cafe at Taos
So I drove to the north end of town, where we ate at the Farmhouse Café and Bakery, a farm-to-table operation. The setting was pleasant enough, with pretty flowers and soothing quiet. But it was also one of those annoying hippie places that refuse to serve fountain soft drinks, and our waitress did not even know to offer their fake “Dr. Becker” version of Dr. Pepper to Wendy when she ordered. While neither of us cared for our bland turkey sandwiches, we enjoyed getting a break from the road.
Then we took a thankfully lonely drive west on US 64 to cross the Rio Grande, as my father and I had done in 1991. Wendy was interested in the buried houses we saw on the west side of the river, all with one side dug into the earth and a series of windows on the opposite side to capture the sun. The Greater World Community there is the world’s largest off-the-grid subdivision.
The next morning Wendy maintained our Pagosa Springs tradition, walking across the street to Higher Grounds Coffee Company to get us breakfast treats to enjoy on an ironing board in our room, since the hotel’s rooms lack proper tables. We then drove north up the Piedra Road 16 miles to the Piedra River, passing from asphalt road through the ever-expanding Pagosa Springs Village onto the dirt road leading toward the mountains.
They were grading the road, and I almost high-centered the minivan in trying to cross into the parking lot for my favorite trail in the area. I had to back off and park a bit down the road by the river, with us walking back up to the trailhead.
Along the way we noticed a pack in the brush below us and wondered what was going on until we spied ropes leading up to the top of the canyon. Some guys were rock climbing, and we could see a variety of pitons left behind in the bluff by previous climbers on the west side of the trail.
After returning to the minivan and driving back into town, we had a late lunch at Dorothy’s restaurant and relaxed. The next day we would head northeast to take Wolf Creek Pass across the continental divide and then descend eastward to the old coal mining town of Walsenburg to visit a rather unusual art museum.
For 12 days in June 2019, Wendy and I drove a 2,000-mile loop from Oklahoma through Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. We stayed overnight in 8 different towns, never staying more than two nights in a particular place. Despite having the luxury of traveling in Wendy’s comfortable mini-van, I suspect this is the fifth and final such big-loop road trip for us. We both found the pace grueling and agreed that our future vacations will be shorter overall but feature longer stays at particular locations. This last big loop featured an interesting mix of familiar and novel experiences and happy if brief meet-ups with two different sets of friends.
The first part of our trip followed a well-worn route for us from Bartlesville through Oklahoma City to Amarillo and onward to Santa Fe. We had previously made similar journeys in the summers of 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017. We enjoyed lunch with my parents, which featured burgers from a Five Guys on Northwest Expressway rather than the usual Johnnie’s Charcoal Broiler. 25 years ago, Johnnie’s built a large location there, which they later reworked into a smaller restaurant. We were astonished to drive up and find a Del Taco planted in its place. However, a new Johnnie’s is being built directly to the east, so I’m sure we’ll be dining there in a few months.
So we found ourselves in a parking lot near a six-story high structure of four stainless steel columns, each of which is a time capsule: the Helium Centennial Time Columns Monument. In 1868, the French astronomer Jules Janssen aimed a spectroscope at the sun’s chromosphere during a total eclipse in British India. He observed a bright yellow line of wavelength 587.49 nanometers created by cascading electrons from an unknown type of atom. Scientists would name it helium based on its solar origin. Later the same element was found mixed in with natural gas from manmade wells on Earth, such as the Cliffside Gas Field of Amarillo which would become the home of the Federal Helium Reserve.
We drove onward to finally angle up to Santa Fe, where our first stop was a late lunch at Tomasita’s so Wendy could enjoy their green chile tamales. Our meal also featured the first paper straws we’d shared as a couple, reflecting increasing environmental concerns about single-use plastics.
Nearby was the Santa Fe Motel & Inn, where we had previously stayed in one-room casitas, including the one with the patio where I proposed to Wendy in 2015. This time I had rented for two nights the Casita Bonita across the street, which included a full kitchen and large patio. She loved the crushed ice dispenser in one of the side-by-side refrigerator’s doors, something we’d see again when visiting some friends in Louisville, Colorado. It was clearly a feature the next refrigerator at Meador Manor had better have.
Across the street from the rose garden is a substation with one wall adorned by a 30′ long and 15′ foot high mosaic of a jaguar and snake. In 1995 it took six months for 21 youth muralists, ages 13-19, to place the 1″ square Venetian glass tiles that form Duality and the Fifth Sun. It seemed fitting that I would see this reference to an Aztec myth about the creation and destruction of the world even as I embarked on my summer reading project: the late Gene Wolfe’s epic The Book of the New Sun.
Duality and the Fifth Sun mosaic
Tammy Garcia’s Andrea
The way art can both attract and repel were evident outside the nearby Blue Rain gallery, where Martin Spei’s Hold Down of a fat, naked, and ogre-like man sitting on a gold box contrasted with Tammy Garcia’s Andrea, which I recognized as being a copy of the one in the Roland Sculpture Garden up on museum hill. I much preferred the latter, which depicts a Pueblo Indian adorned for the butterfly dance.
The next morning we walked downtown for the first of two breakfasts at Tia Sophia’s. Then we headed down Cerillos Road to a former bowling alley that has been converted into an art adventure called Meow Wolf. There is an elaborate back story to the adventure which neither of us bothered to explore, but we did note how the name of the project came from randomly drawing words from a hat.
Meow Wolf art adventure in a former bowling alley
The venue had plenty of visitors on a Sunday morning, enough that we two introverts were eventually overwhelmed. But it was intriguing with things like a glowing life-size mastodon skeleton you could whack to hear musical tones, a neon coral reef you walked, rather than swam, through, a three-dimensional line drawing room, and much more. At one point we sheltered in a balcony nook that featured rows of huge teeth along its entry walls. It was nice to be out of the flow of visitors until a child ran up to Wendy and yelled, “Whoa!” at the teeth, which likely caused both of us to bare our own at him.
Wendy sits in a three-dimensional line drawing
We escaped to enjoy lunch at The Plaza Southside. Then I surprised Wendy with a rose garden we had not visited previously: the Harvey Cornell Rose Park. It is a narrow sliver set aside by a neighborhood’s developers in 1957 when it was at the south edge of Santa Fe, which then had a population of about 30,000. 62 years later, the population has reached almost 85,000, and the city’s southern edge is two miles away and extends at least five miles to the southwest.
We returned to Casita Bonita, where Wendy relaxed on the patio with a robin for company. We walked to the Blue Corn Cafe for dinner, stopping by on our return walk to check on the somewhat neglected but immenserose bushes at the state capitol. Santa Fe’s wonderful food, art, architecture, and roses have made it a favorite stop for us.
Wendy with the roses at the state capitol
Our next stop on our big loop would also be quite familiar as we returned to Pagosa Springs, Colorado. But instead of our usual route up US 84 by Ghost Ranch, we would divert to take the High Road to Taos and then US 64 back west.
My own reaction when watching shows like the venerable This Old House or seeing Chip and Joanna Gaines transform houses in Waco is, “That is harder than it looks.” I have never been tempted to tear down walls in my house, replace gypsum board, or the like. I would prefer to pay others who do such things for a living handle them with confidence and competency. When the tile walls around one of the bathtubs at Meador Manor was collapsing in 2007, I was relieved that the guys from The Quarry in Dewey were willing to install new greenboard on the studs to anchor the new acrylic resin walls. But I had to remove the old tile and decayed gypsum board myself.
I did the demolition
But The Quarry installed the greenboard
The Quarry installed the new shower walls. Notice how the awful wallpaper remained unchanged.
I had to screw up my courage to tear away the lower decayed portions of the failing shower walls and buy a small reciprocating saw to free the upper sections. I managed to chip the edge of the porcelain bathtub in one spot, but overall it went well. I still happily dry off the sleek panels after each shower, thinking to myself, “I will never scrub tile grout again!”
When I purchased the house in 1994, I disliked the original 1981 wallpaper in that bathroom. Yet in 2019 it is still there, since I know my limits: hanging wallpaper is something I will never tackle. I am certain it would turn out a bit crooked or have small bubbles or curls or cutting errors which would drive me crazy. Installing a self-stick border around a window is the most I’ll tackle before calling in professionals.
The shed John and Betty Henderson provided and built for us
I’m no carpenter, so I was truly grateful when Betty and John Henderson not only purchased a Lifetime high-density polyethylene shed I had picked out at Costco for a wedding present, but John built a platform floor and assembled the shed while Wendy and I were on our honeymoon in July 2016. Three years later, it is in perfect condition and the happy home for our yard equipment and tools.
When Wendy and I were in the yard a few weeks ago, she remarked how she would like to sit on the north side of the shed, shielded from the neighbors, and enjoy the view of our next-door-neighbor’s backyard plantings and her own roses. I decided a little deck tucked against the shed would be just the thing for that, with a wood screen to give her greater privacy. I wasn’t about to craft anything myself out of wood, however. I figured there must be some sort of small deck kit I could assemble and a prefabricated wood screen I would plunk down.
Both of our patio chairs, Wilson & Fisher sling chairs we picked out at Big Lots a few years ago, had been damaged by squirrels or cats ripping through the fabric seat. So I wanted something different for Wendy’s shed deck. I opted to purchase two Devoko wicker chairs and a matching glass-topped table made of synthetic polyethylene rattan. They were delivered during the wild weather week. Wendy said it perfectly illustrated our different personalities that while we were under a tornado watch she was busily checking and preparing our interior closet refuge while I happily sat on the living room floor, laboriously screwing together the new patio furniture.
Now that we had a cute little shed deck, the pressure was on to do something about the concrete patio. It had some big long cracks when I purchased the place in 1994, and over the years I had filled them a couple of times with urethane caulking. But over time the caulking had split, allowing the freeze-thaw cycle to exacerbate the separation and settling of the concrete slab segments on the clay-rich soil. Multiple earthquakes this past decade which were induced by wastewater injection wells hadn’t helped, either.
Wood patio pavers
So the cracks were now up to an inch wide, with grass growing up through some of them. My success with the UDECX kit led me to look into what I might cover the patio with to improve its appearance. Wood patio tiles or pavers, stapled atop interlocking plastic backing grids, were simple enough I could handle them. Having spent plenty on the UDECX kit, I budget-shopped and fixed on fir wood tiles by Yaheetech, purchasing 216 one-foot-square tiles.
I watched a bunch of different videos of folks repairing various types of cracks in sidewalks and driveways. Our patio had only one long crack that was shallow and narrow enough for concrete crack sealer to work. The rest would need actual concrete patches, but even at age 52 I had never mixed any concrete before. (I know, I know; I can’t drive a stick shift, either.) So I watched videos on that as well, finally deciding that I would buy a 60 pound bag of Quikrete Sand/Topping Mix. At Lowe’s I bought the mix, a bucket, a mixing tub, nitrile gloves, bonding adhesive, a brush, and a couple of trowels. I think one is called a mason’s trowel and the other a square trowel, but to me they were pointy and flat.
Cleaning the cracks
On the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, I put the garden hose nozzle on its tightest stream and washed out the cracks in the patio, pulling out the old caulking. Almost all of the cracks were filled with dirt and teeming with worms which were rather upset by my rough treatment. I cleaned the cracks out as deep as I could. Sunday was rainy, but on Memorial Day I was able to mow and edge the yard and sweep the patio.
Then I used a heavy rake to mix the sand/topping mix with water in the tub. I painted a crack with the bonding adhesive in hopes it might help the new concrete bond with the old, then used the pointy trowel to fill it with concrete. I then used the flat trowel and brush to smooth out the top. One by one, all the cracks were filled.
Cleaned east-side cracks
The bricks of Meador Manor spall wherever water regularly contacts them. Much of the chimney façade has spalled away, revealing the red interiors of the bricks, with the same happening to all of the lowest bricks around the perimeter of the house. The bottom east corner of the chimney had deteriorated to where you could see the mortar down in the brick holes. So, in addition to the sand/topping mix, I had purchased 20 pounds of mortar repair mix. I mixed that up in my bucket and applied it liberally to the lower courses of bricks on the corner of the chimney, plumping the area up. I used the pointy trowel to cut grooves in the mortar to mimic the mortar patterns of the surrounding bricks. Given the spalling surface of the chimney and how our patio bench would obscure the area, I didn’t bother trying to tint the mortar repair concrete.
Spalling chimney bricks and patio cracks
Repaired with mortar repair and sand/topping mix
Then I applied concrete crack sealant to a lone shallow crack and began laying down the wood tiles. I kept them several inches from the edges of the patio so that I would avoid damaging them when edging. It took 18 tiles to cross the length of the patio, and I steadily laid them down. It was hot work, and on one of my cool-down rests in the manor Wendy wet a dish towel and wiped off my face and scalp, draping the cool towel over my head and providing me with Gatorade.
With renewed vigor, I finished tiling the patio and shifted the furniture back in position. Waterproof pillows that had come with the rattan chairs for the shed deck were repurposed to make the older ripped patio chairs usable again. I raised the shade umbrella and admired the rejuvenated patio.
It was fun to create a new seating area in a side yard and spruce up our patio. There are still various home improvement projects to eventually undertake, but this summer will be packed with a 12-day vacation out west, followed by a week-long conference in Philadelphia, plus plenty of Chromebook deployments and distributions along with configuration and interconnections of many online services for students and staff in the school district. I am glad I finished up these projects before June.
So wrote John Singer, a deaf-mute, in a letter he never sent, to his best friend, a fellow deaf-mute who was illiterate, dumb, selfish, and uncaring. This failure to connect and tendency to project is a repeated motif of Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a disturbing and tragic fugue of a novel with contrapuntal parts played by social misfits and outcasts in a town in the deep South. The novel explores the human struggle to be loved and to express oneself, with themes of man’s struggle against isolation, religion as self-delusion, and heroism. It is striking that this novel, #17 on Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, was begun when Carson McCullers, née Lula Carson Smith, was only 19 and published in 1940 when she was 23.
There are several fascinating characters in the novel, but the one which captured my heart was Mick Kelly, a young teenage girl in an impoverished family. She walks through town at night, sneaking into the yard of a rich couple to hide in the shrubbery and listen to their radio, as her family cannot afford one. One night she experiences an epiphany, one which spoke to my soul:
One program came on after another, and all of them were punk. She didn’t especially care. She smoked and picked a little bunch of grass blades. After a while a new announcer started talking. He mentioned Beethoven. She had read in the library about that musician—his name was pronounced with an a and spelled with double e. He was a German fellow like Mozart. When he was living he spoke in a foreign language and lived in a foreign place—like she wanted to do. The announcer said they were going to play his third symphony. She only halfway listened because she wanted to walk some more and she didn’t care much what they played. Then the music started. Mick raised her head and her fist went up to her throat.
How did it come? For a minute the opening balanced from one side to the other. Like a walk or march. Like God strutting in the night. The outside of her was suddenly froze and only that first part of the music was hot inside her heart. She could not even hear what sounded after, but she sat there waiting and froze, with her fists tight. After a while the music came again, harder and loud. It didn’t have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her—the real plain her.
She could not listen good enough to hear it all. The music boiled inside her. Which? To hang on to certain wonderful parts and think them over so that later she would not forget—or should she let go and listen to each part that came without thinking or trying to remember? Golly! The whole world was this music and she could not listen hard enough. Then at last the opening music came again, with all the different instruments bunched together for each note like a hard, tight fist that socked at her heart. And the first part was over.
This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms held tight around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. It might have been five minutes she listened or half the night. The second part was black-colored—a slow march. Not sad, but like the whole world was dead and black and there was no use thinking back how it was before. One of those horn kind of instruments played a sad and silver tune. Then the music rose up angry and with excitement underneath. And finally the black march again.
But maybe the last part of the symphony was the music she loved the best—glad and like the greatest people in the world running and springing up in a hard, free way. Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.
It was over, and she sat very stiff with her arms around her knees. Another program came on the radio and she put her fingers in her ears. The music left only this bad hurt in her, and a blankness. She could not remember any of the symphony, not even the last few notes. She tried to remember, but no sound at all came to her. Now that it was over there was only her heart like a rabbit and this terrible hurt.
The radio and the lights in the house were turned off. The night was very dark. Suddenly Mick began hitting her thigh with her fists. She pounded the same muscle with all her strength until the tears came down her face. But she could not feel this hard enough. The rocks under the bush were sharp. She grabbed a handful of them and began scraping them up and down on the same spot until her hand was bloody. Then she fell back to the ground and lay looking up at the night. With the fiery hurt in her leg she felt better. She was limp on the wet grass, and after a while her breath came slow and easy again.
Why hadn’t the explorers known by looking at the sky that the world was round? The sky was curved, like the inside of a huge glass ball, very dark blue with the sprinkles of bright stars. The night was quiet. There was the smell of warm cedars. She was not trying to think of the music at all when it came back to her. The first part happened in her mind just as it had been played. She listened in a quiet, slow way and thought the notes out like a problem in geometry so she would remember. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear and she would not forget them.
That whole passage is so strong, so true, that I am convinced the author was describing her own experience in listening to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony for the first time. Lula Carson Smith left Columbus, Georgia on a steamship after graduating high school, planning to study piano at Juilliard. But she lost her tuition money on the subway and worked odd jobs until a bout of rheumatic fever forced her return home to recuperate.
When she returned to New York, thank heaven she had changed her mind about studying music and instead enrolled in night classes at Columbia and studied creative writing under Dorothy Scarborough and Sylvia Chatfield Bates. For that bequeathed to humanity the book with that passage.
I too loved music and piano as a child, taking years of lessons. Throughout elementary school I said I wanted to be a piano teacher when I grew up. And then I discovered physics. But I still identify with Mick Kelly’s fascination and frustration with music. There are songs and music that transported me the first time I heard them and still evoke intense emotions every time they return in my life. They vary in their quality and their complexity, in their context, and in genre. And none have lost their power over me.
But maybe the last part of the symphony was the music she loved the best—glad and like the greatest people in the world running and springing up in a hard, free way. Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.
For you, Mick, it was the 3rd, and for me the 9th. But across the decades we agree…wonderful music like that is the worst hurt there could be. The whole world is that symphony, and there is not enough of us to listen.
The grin that cracks my face wide open and how I simply must wriggle and thrash my arms when I hear Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven.
How Hanson’s boisterously silly MMMBop takes me right back to how it came up on shuffle play on my first iPod, leading me to caper and dance along a slippery snowy trail at Mt. Rainier, in one of the happiest moments of my life.
How whenever I hear Bette Midler sing The Rose, I am destroyed and left in tears.
So it seems fitting that, in the weird ping-pong way of life, it was music that led me to read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Every year or two I get a hankering to take slow nibbles at a great but disturbing novel. I was perusing the Modern Library listing when I was struck by the familiarity of that title. You see, David Byrne of Talking Heads fame sang the song The Heart’s a Lonely Hunter on Thievery Corporation‘s 2005 album The Cosmic Game. Years ago I stumbled across the song and enjoyed it, with Byrne’s lyrics striking a chord, if you’ll pardon the expression.
The truth is unspoken, a promise is broken I’m under surveillance, they know what my name is I need some protection, some love and affection There’s one thousand reasons, but one is the number
Welcome to my spaceship It’s beautiful forever Well, she’s right here where you left her And the heart’s a lonely hunter
Save bottles of water and flour and sugar Turn off the AC and hang up the bed sheets Cover the windows, careful where the light goes Yank out the cable and blow out the candles
Welcome to my spaceship You’re beautiful forever She’s right here where you left her And the heart’s a lonely hunter
Perfectly molded, almost unfolded Under the counter, well, that is your nature Drip grind or roasted, buttered or toasted The greater the db’s the higher the AC
Psycho acoustics Down in the back seats Stereo nation Amplification The brave and the righteous They’re safe in their houses And one is just a number The heart’s a lonely hunter One is a number Heart is a hunter One is a number The heart is a hunter
Welcome to my spaceship You’re beautiful forever She’s right here where you left her And the heart’s a lonely hunter
Welcome to my spaceship You’re beautiful forever She’s right here where you left her And the heart’s a lonely hunter
Now, I have no idea if Byrne was thinking of the novel, or perhaps just borrowed the phrase. It comes from the poem The Lonely Hunter published in 1896 by Fiona MacLeod, which was revealed upon his death to have been the pen name of the Scottish writer William Sharp:
Green branches, green branches, I see you
beckon; I follow!
Sweet is the place you guard, there in the
There he lies in the darkness, under the frail
Heedless at last, in the silence, of these sweet
But sweeter, it may be, the moss whereon he
is sleeping now,
And sweeter the fragrant flowers that may
crown his moon-white brow:
And sweeter the shady place deep in an Eden
Wherein he dreams I am with him—and,
dreaming, whispers, “Follow!”
Green wind from the green-gold branches,
what is the song you bring?
What are all songs for me, now, who no more
care to sing?
Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on
a lonely hill.
Green is that hill and lonely, set far in a
White is the hunter’s quarry, a lost-loved hu-
O hunting heart, shall you find it, with arrow
of failing breath,
Led o’er a green hill lonely by the shadowy
hound of Death?
Green branches, green branches, you sing of
a sorrow olden,
But now it is midsummer weather, earth-
young, sunripe, golden:
Here I stand and I wait, here in the rowan-
But never a green leaf whispers, “Follow, oh,
O never a green leaf whispers, where the
green-gold branches swing:
O never a song I hear now, where one was
wont to sing
Here in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on
a lonely hill.
That poem is heartbreaking, as is the novel, which I came to with zero advance knowledge: I’d never heard of it or any of its characters. But it is a wonderful dark thing with remarkable insights into the human condition. Consider these two sentences:
The people dreamed and fought and slept as much as ever. And by habit they shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow.
A passage when a black doctor receives terrible news from his daughter also resonated with me. Have you experienced this?
Portia spoke in a low voice, and she neither paused between words nor did the grief in her face soften. It was like a low song. She spoke and he could not understand. The sounds were distinct in his ear but they had no shape or meaning. It was as though his head were the prow of a boat and the sounds were water that broke on him and then flowed past. He felt he had to look behind to find the words already said.
And then, when the terrible tragic news finally strikes him:
He waited for the black, terrible anger as though for some beast out of the night. But it did not come to him. His bowels seemed weighted with lead, and he walked slowly and lingered against fences and the cold, wet walls of buildings by the way. Descent into the depths until at last there was no further chasm below. He touched the solid bottom of despair and there took ease.
In this he knew a certain strong and holy gladness. The persecuted laugh, and the black slave sings to his outraged soul beneath the whip. A song was in him now—although it was not music but only the feeling of a song. And the sodden heaviness of peace weighted down his limbs so that it was only with the strong, true purpose that he moved. Why did he go onward? Why did he not rest here upon the bottom of utmost humiliation and for a while take his content? But he went onward.
As you can guess, the novel’s ending is rather bleak, but one character does have a brief moment of insight into the human condition:
The silence in the room was deep as the night itself. Biff stood transfixed, lost in his meditations. Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him. His heart turned and he leaned his back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror. Between the two worlds he was suspended. He saw that he was looking at his own face in the counter glass before him. Sweat glistened on his temples and his face was contorted. One eye was opened wider than the other. The left eye delved narrowly into the past while the right gazed wide and affrighted into a future of blackness, error, and ruin. And he was suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith. Sharply he turned away.
What brings meaning to life? Labor…and love. That is a more satisfying, if less funny, answer than 42. Thank you, Lula Carson Smith.
If you have ever pressed a flower in a book or observed a diaphanous jellyfish, you can grasp the difficulty of preserving their fragile beauty for later study. This is the story of a Czech/German glassworker and his son who, from 1863-1936, crafted thousands of beautiful and anatomically accurate glass models of hundreds of species of marine invertebrates and flowering plants.
An interest borne out of tragedy
Leopold Blaschka was born into a family of glassworkers arising out of the Izera Mountains on the border between the modern-day Czech Republic and Poland, a region known for processing glass, metals, and gems. As a student, he loved natural history and painting. After being apprenticed as a goldsmith and gemcutter, Leopold joined his family’s business in Aicha, Bohemia, crafting costume jewelry and other fancy glasswork.
In 1846 Leopold married Caroline Zimmermann, the daughter of a local mill owner, and they had a son, Josef. But both Caroline and Josef died of cholera in 1850. Heartbroken, Leopold was depressed and in poor health, leading a reclusive existence. A local doctor, who had a large library of natural history books, encouraged Leopold to find solace by collecting, studying, and sketching the plants in the countryside around his home.
Then Leopold’s father died in 1852. Further devastated by this loss, Leopold took time off in 1853 to visit the United States. On the outward journey from Europe, his ship was becalmed for two weeks near the Azores. Leopold spent the time collecting and drawing jellyfish and other marine invertebrates. He had never seen such animals before, except in book illustrations, and was fascinated by their glasslike transparency. He described observing their phosphorescence at night:
It is a beautiful night in May. Hopeful, we look out over the darkness of the sea, which is as smooth as a mirror; there emerges all around in various places a flashlike bundle of light beams, as if it surrounded by thousands of sparks, that form true bundles of fire and other bright spots of light, and the seemingly mirrored stars. There emerges close before us a small spot in a greenish light, which becomes ever larger and larger and finally becomes a bright shining sunlike figure.
Carolina and Rudolf Blaschka
After arriving in New York, he stayed for a few months, supplying goods to wholesale jewelers. Then he returned home to Aicha, where he married Carolina Riegel in 1854, establishing a glass workshop in his father-in-law’s house. He supervised workmen in producing glass eyes, costume ornaments, lab equipment, and other goods. In his spare time, he began crafting glass models of plants as a seemingly profitless hobby, with no idea of where his idle artmaking would eventually lead him and their only child, Rudolf, who was born in 1857.
From orchids to anemones
Leopold’s hobby caught the attention of Prince Camille de Rohan, who invited Leopold to his castle. From 1860-1862 he commissioned Leopold to produce about 100 models of nearly fifty species of orchids based on specimens from the Prince’s greenhouses. The Prince then displayed them on two artificial tree trunks in his palace in Prague. The prince also introduced Leopold to Professor Ludwig Reichenbach, the director of Dresden’s Royal Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden, who displayed the models in the garden’s pavilion in 1863. The glass orchids were later lost in a Belgian museum fire, but a bouquet of flowers which Leopold crafted in that era, shown below, survives.
Early flower bouquet by Leopold Blaschka, circa 1860-1865
Leopold moved his family to Dresden. While the glass flowers aroused little commercial interest, an Englishman living in Dresden remarked to Leopold how glass models of sea anemones, which are notoriously perishable, could adorn aquaria. He loaned Leopold a book with illustrations of sea anemones and corals.
Building a business
Remembering his own experience seeing sea invertebrates a decade earlier, Leopold used the illustrations to craft models which were purchased by museum director Reichenbach for display in dry aquaria. By 1871 Leopold had built the making of glass marine animals into a business, producing a mail order catalog that would offer hundreds of different models of anemones, worms, echinoderms, molluscs, and jellyfish. Reichenbach noted in the catalog how the glass models were better than specimens preserved in alcohol, as the glass models retained both their shape and color, while preserved invertebrate specimens inevitably subsided into dull shapeless masses at the bottom of their jars.
Young Rudolf Blaschka
Leopold and Caroline’s son, Rudolf, grew into a teenager who studied with his father and fully joined the family business by 1876 at age 19. They began maintaining living specimens in seawater aquaria, and Rudolf made a field trip to the Adriatic in 1879 to study more invertebrates.
Their work, a combination of both glassblowing and lampwork, steadily shifted from a more showy decorative style toward increased scientific accuracy. They sometimes incorporated the shells of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine gastropods and created glass bodies attached to the shells of bivalve molluscs. A fine speckled layer of pigment, often applied to the inner surface of the glass, conveyed a jelly-like translucence. Thicker skins and textures were crafted from deeper coats of paint or enamel, often mixed with a fine granular material.
A Blaschka octopus, which is quite beautiful even in its damaged state
They sold specimens to museums around the world, with some universities building up prodigious collections. They sold 784 models to a London museum, about 600 to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, 530 to a Dublin museum, 350 to Harvard’s famed naturalist Louis Agassiz, and Boston University acquired 311 of them. Harvard still has 185 Blaschka models in its Natural History Museum.
Ward’s 1878 catalog of Blaschka models
Henry Ward, a protégé of Harvard’s Agassiz, became a professor of natural science at the University of Rochester in 1860. After creating a superb teaching collection, he went into business in 1873. Ward’s Natural Science became the North American agent for Leopold Blaschka, issuing a 22-page catalog in 1878 of 630 different Blaschka models, which grew to 700 in Ward’s 1888 catalog.
French photographer Guido Mocafico was photographing jellyfish in aquaria. While researching jellyfish online, he kept stumbling across images of the glass models, mistaking them for the real thing. So he decided to travel across Europe, taking photos of Blaschka marine models, using an array of backlights to make the sculptures glow as if lit from within.
Carolina, Rudolf, and Leopold Blaschka at their Dresden greenhouse
In 1886, George Lincoln Goodale, a botany professor at Harvard, traveled to Germany to try to persuade Leopold to abandon making marine models and concentrate again on plants. Goodale had seen the marine models and knew that glass models would solve his problems with flower specimens which lost their dimensionality and eventually their color after pressing.
Leopold was reluctant, given the general lack of appreciation for his earlier plant models and the loss of so many in a museum fire. But Goodale eventually persuaded Leopold to make a few samples. Even though they were badly damaged by U.S. Customs, Goodale appreciated the work and showed them widely, convincing his former student Mary Lee Ware and her mother Elizabeth, who were independently wealthy benefactors of Harvard’s botany department, to underwrite the commissioning of glass flowers from the Blaschkas. The Wares were descendants of the Cabots, a wealthy family of Massachusetts ship merchants since the 1700s.
In 1887 the Blaschkas agreed to spend half of their time on the glass flowers, but found it difficult to split their time between the marine models and the flowers, deciding by 1890 they must devote themselves to one or the other. Harvard signed them to a ten-year exclusive contract for 8,800 marks per year, with arrangements to ship the items directly to Harvard where Mary Lee Ware and museum staff could open them safely in the presence of Customs officials.
Glass flower models in the Blaschka’s studio before being shipped to Harvard in 1891
Harvard sent the Blaschkas seeds, plant cuttings, and specimens, and the Blaschkas had their own greenhouse and garden in Dresden. The plant models were made with internal copper wire armatures with glass pieces slid onto them and attached with hide glue or melted glass sprit. The accuracy and skill of their work was amazing.
Rhododendron model by Rudolf Blaschka
In 1894 several of the Blaschka plant models were subjected to microscopic examination by Harvard botanist Walter Deane. He documented their scientific accuracy: one model he examined had 2,500-3,000 individual buds, blooms, and developing fruit, with each flower having its five petals and five alternating stamens, and the back side, even though not visible when on display, he found to be equally complete and accurate.
The Blaschkas plant models were crafted by lampwork. Instead of glassblowing with a furnace, they used the flame of a lamp to heat rods of glass which were softened and then pulled, shaped, and fused. Harvard has the lampworking table the Blaschkas used, with its foot-operated bellows providing a stream of air that intensified the lamp flame.
The lampworking table used by the Blaschkas
A letter of Leopold’s remarked, “Many people think that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact. My son Rudolf has more than I have, because he is my son, and tact increases in every generation.”
Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka
Leopold passed away in 1895, but Rudolf continued the work at a slower pace to achieve higher levels of perfection. By the early 20th century he could not buy glass of suitably high quality and started making his own, as well as the enamels which he powdered to use in paint and colored glass. Mary Ware encouraged him, supporting his glassmaking experiments.
A glass flower by the Blaschkas
A lifetime of dedication and support
Rudolf married Frieda Richter in 1911, when he was in his mid-50s. Mary remained a generous benefactor and correspondent. Rudolf’s mother, Carolina, passed in 1923. When Mary Ware visited Rudolf for the third and final time in Dresden in 1928, with six years having passed since the last shipment, she wrote of the 71-year-old craftsman, “I was daunted to see what seemed a little old man, legs that were not strong, very rounded, stooped shoulders, and an exceedingly white face. He must have dropped nearly two inches in height, his hands were somewhat out of shape from rheumatism.” But she was reassured when he showed her his new techniques for enameling the models with his powdered glasses:
His movements are quiet, deft, soft in laying down or taking up where speed or a miscalculated movement might ruin the work of hours. It all leaves you breathless that anyone can and will do such work… Mr. Blaschka’s head and bearing are very expressive, and I wished I could catch a photograph of his profile as he stood for a few moments, a plaque with a model on it held in both hands. His whole expression of absorbed, concentrated study was worth keeping, had it been possible.
A rotten apple that could last forever – one of the final works of Rudolf Blaschka
Rudolf continued making glass flowers for Harvard with a final series on rotting fruits and fungi that were shipped to Harvard in 1936. Mary Ware passed away the next year, leaving over one million dollars in assets. Her will bequeathed $600,000 to charity and education, with the largest single bequest in her will being $300,000 for completion and upkeep of the Glass Flowers and support of Rudolf and Frieda. She had supported the project for five decades.
Rudolf died on May 1, 1939. Unfinished models remained on his lampworking table. The Harvard collection had grown to 4,400 pieces representing more than 830 species of 164 taxonomic families. 780 species were modeled life-size with over 3,000 other models illustrating magnified details. They included a variety of plant parts such as flowers, leaves, fruits, and roots, including some showing pollination by insects.
The grave of Leopold, Carolina, Rudolf, and Frieda Blaschka
Frieda died in 1947. She and Rudolf had no children and neither Rudolf nor Leopold had taken on any apprentices. So their amazing skills were not passed on and their family’s glassmaking tradition was brought to an end. Together they had produced about 10,000 glass marine invertebrate models along with the 4,400 plant models at Harvard. Leopold and Carolina, together with Rudolf and Frieda, share a grave in the Hosterwitz cemetery in Dresden.
Our 2019 Spring Break included a brief vacay down in South Central. Not a vacation to LA’s South Central, mind you, but instead to south central Oklahoma, with two stops in Shawnee and a couple of nights at The Artesian Hotel in Sulphur. I had to work on Monday and on Tuesday visited the Gilcrease Museum and the Tulsa Botanic Garden, enjoying the sunny weather. But on Wednesday we loaded Wendy’s minivan and headed south.
Wendy had looked up the restaurant and noted that restaurateur Guy Fieri recommended it as part of his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show. Since he had likewise recommended Clanton’s Cafe in Vinita, which she liked, she was game to try this one.
We had to wind our way around the building to find a working entrance and were promptly seated. We both ordered one of the German dishes Dawn introduced to the historic restaurant after she bought it in 1993.
Jagerschnitzel is a pounded, breaded, and fried pork cutlet served with a brown gravy that includes bacon, mushrooms, and onions. It comes with spaetzle, a hand-cut egg noodle that also is drizzled with the gravy. I thought the Jagerschnitzel was fine, although I could live long and prosper without more spaetzle, but Wendy was truly repulsed. Afterward, she declared she had lost faith in Guy Fieri’s palate and made me promise we would not be eating at any more diners!
National travel in one state
All along our trip to Sulphur there was signage noting our passage from one tribal nation to the next. We began at our home in the Cooweescoowee District of the Cherokee Nation and then traversed the Muscogee (Creek), Sac and Fox, Citizen Potawatomi, Absent Shawnee, and Chickasaw nations, touching base with the Kickapoo and Seminole to boot. This quilt of nations within my home state reflects the forced relocations of various Native American tribes in the 1800s. The Cherokee were originally from the modern-day Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia; the Creek were from Georgia and Alabama; the Sac and Fox were from the Lake Huron and Michigan areas; the Kickapoo were from Wisconsin; the Citizen Potawatomi were from Indiana; the Absentee Shawnee were from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania; the Seminole were from Florida; and the Chickasaw were from Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee.
We were over a month too early to enjoy the Kolache Festival in Prague (which is pronounced Pray-g in Oklahoma instead of Prahg). When the Sac and Fox Reservation was terminated by an 1891 land run, many Czechoslovakians settled there. Food acts as its own preservative in some small Oklahoma towns, with kolaches in Prague preserving a taste of Czechoslavakia, pasta in Krebs recalling its Italian settlers, etc. Buffalo burgers don’t count as a remembrance of Native American cuisine, however, since Plains Indians cut the meat into thin slices which were dried until they were hard and brittle for long-term transport and consumption.
We noticed various sites named after Jim Thorpe, the renowned Sac and Fox athlete, who was born to the southwest of Prague in the lost community of Bellemont on the line separating Pottawatomie and Lincoln counties.
Gerrer was a dynamic figure, born as Robert Francis Xavier Gerrer in 1867 in France. His parents immigrated to Missouri and then Iowa, with Robert learning to play various musial instruments. When he was 23, he joined the Hulbert and Leftwich Circus as a clarinetist, playing his instrument while riding a trick bronco.
Later that year he met the abbot of Sacred Heart Mission in Shawnee, which later became St. Gregory’s, and took the train to Purcell and then a 40-mile trip by prairie schooner to the Mission to become a monk who was given the religious name of Gregory. Eight years later he was sent to Rome to study art. Gerrer traveled throughout Italy and the Near East during his time in Rome, including a mission to the Holy Land. He entered a competition of artists to paint the official portrait of Pope Pius X, and Pius selected Gerrer’s portrait, saying he chose it because Gerrer painted him true to life and did not minimize his facial warts.
Father Gerrer in 1931
Gerrer was recruited to become an art advisor and instructor at the University of Notre Dame and went on to direct and curate an art gallery there. He would spend his summers at Notre Dame, autumns in eastern cities as an artist, critic, and collector, and the remaining months at Shawnee. He displayed art and artifacts in the rectory of St. Benedict’s Church in Shawnee, where he was assistant pastor, and later in his painting studio behind the church. He moved his works and collections from the studio to the newly constructed St. Gregory’s High School and College in 1919.
Early photo of Gerrer’s museum at St. Gregory’s
Gerrer created an encyclopedic museum with everything from taxidermied animals, natural history items, weapons, and Renaissance art. By 1942 he had 218 paintings and 6,347 artifacts. He was commissioned to paint 79 portraits during his lifetime and often traded his own paintings in exchange for pieces for the museum. He passed away in 1946.
In 1957, the museum hired a director and the collection was loaned to the Kirkpatrick Science and Arts Foundation in Oklahoma City in the 1960s, eventually returning to Shawnee to occupy a new building through a challenge grant from the Mabee Foundation, with some of its features based on the Kimbell museum in Ft. Worth, Texas. Back in 2004, fellow teacher Betty Henderson and I marveled at some intricate Etruscan artwork at the museum, which was the only stop in the United States for that exhibit.
The museum walls are covered by berms
The museum is enclosed within earthen berms. Wendy and I gained free admittance via our Woolaroc membership cards, once again benefiting from Woolaroc’s participation in the North American Reciprocal Museum program, which regularly gains us free admittance to Gilcrease, Philbrook, and other museums across the country.
The main galleries have a mix of artworks
The main galleries now feature vivid red walls for the many paintings, with scatterings of armor, weapons, and other artifacts. A docent was interacting with a group of young children about Giulio Romano’s painting The Adoration of the Magi; later one of the brothers showed them other works.
As we drove from the art museum over to the town’s former train depot, Wendy and I noted the famous Shawnee Mills plant, which has operated in the town since 1897. It was bought by J. Lloyd Ford in 1906 and is still operated by third and fourth generations of his family. The plant creates flour, cornmeal, and baking mix products with the flour mill capable of producing 7,000 hundredweight (392 tons) per day of flour from Oklahoma’s red winter wheat and 3,000 hundredweight a day of milled corn products. My peers may remember their TV commercial jingle, “It’s as easy as 1-2-3, and Shawnee adds the ME.”
Pottawatomie County Museum in Shawnee’s Santa Fe Depot
A striking architectural feature of Shawnee is the Santa Fe Depot with its turret tower and tile roof. It was built in 1903-1904 and used as a depot until 1973. The Historical Society of Pottawatomie County raised funds to restore the building and opened the depot as a museum in 1982. Last year a new roadway was built for it using 1905 brick pavers reclaimed from Shawnee’s Main Street.
Sante Fe Depot in Shawnee
Buddy the Brown Bear, who turned white [photo by Cate E.]
The museum is a classic hodgepodge of treasures and trinkets. A professional curator would clear much of the dross, but I love the oddities one finds in these places. Witness the foot-long 600 volt fuse given to the museum in 2004 which once protected Shawnee’s Aldridge Hotel. It was part of the original electrical system which was removed when the hotel was renovated into senior citizen apartments, along with 400 loads of plaster and trash, 100 cast-iron tubs which each weighed 300-400 pounds, and what the construction superintendent described as a ton of pigeon droppings.
You can catch a dim glimpse of the museum’s variety of displays in photos on its website, although they strangely fail to highlight Buddy the Bear, an Alaskan brown bear shot by a Shawnee resident. The bear was stuffed and displayed for years in the window at a local hardware store. Years of ultraviolet light turned his brown fur white, making him look like a polar bear.
Depot model at the depot
The entire south room of the museum is filled with a railroad model recreation of Shawnee in 1942 by Dawson Engle. However, the museum staff noted his artistic license in including a train track circumnavigating his model. We had fun locating the mill, the depot, and noting various buildings.
The north baggage room had more train models, with an old-timer working on a malfunctioning engine. He asked me to power on the tracks so he could test it, offering to answer any questions Wendy or I might have. I’m not sure if he was relieved or disappointed that we had none. My dad picked up a big O-scale Lionel train set for me when I was a kid, and I remember being amazed and embarrassed about how much it cost my mother to buy me a single new accessory for it: a weight-activated electric semaphore. That experience convinced me it was too pricey a hobby for me.
We reached Sulphur in the late afternoon, schlepping our bags up to the Hollywood Suite which we had stayed in back in October 2013. It was still beautiful, and after dinner at The Springs restaurant I enjoyed relaxing with a good book on a window seat during the sunset hour.
3 mile hike at Bromide Hill
Wendy and I hiked 3 miles in the Platt Historic District the next day. We started out a few blocks south of the hotel, heading across smelly Rock Creek to reach the trail on its south side that led over to Bromide Hill. The hydrogen sulfide in the water gives the town its name, and later as we walked by some park restrooms Wendy and I reckoned it could be difficult to know if a restroom had malfunctioned or not.
Plum trees on Bromide Hill
The Chickasaw plum trees were in bloom up on Bromide Hill. Prunus angustifolia is also called the sand plum and ranges from Nebraska to New Jersey on the north and from New Mexico to Florida on the south. A member of the rose family, its white flowers emerge in March in Oklahoma just before the leaves emerge. The tree produces yellowish to reddish fruit in early summer. The Sac and Fox used to boil its root bark to treak canker sores and diarrhea.
Chickasaw plum bloom
The Artesian from Bromide Hill
We headed on up past the conglomerate rocks of Bromide Hill to reach the top and look out 140 feet above the town. The Artesian was off to the right; our suite was just below the leftmost dome at the hotel’s northwest corner. The next time we stay at The Artesian, I will try to book a suite on the east side of the hotel to get some distance from the noisy trucks on highway 177. But we still thoroughly enjoyed our stay there.
Wendy and I at the Vendome Well back in 2014
We made our way down to the entrance to Rock Creek Campground and over past Bromide Pavilion, which once dispensed water from Bromide, Medicine, and Sulphur springs. The flow from the Bromide and Medicine springs ceased suddenly in the early 1970s, although the nearby Vendome artesian well drilled in 1922 remained active. It has diminished over time, though, due to falling aquifer levels. While it once spewed as high as 30 feet and sent 3,500 gallons per minute into Rock Creek, in 2019 its spout reaches perhaps only a few feet. In 1998 a new well of corrosion-resistant piping was drilled 20 feet west of the original one, and the water was piped into the center of the historic structure where it still flows…and smells. Wendy and I posed by it on a 2014 visit to Sulphur.
After our hike we returned to The Artesian and had a nice sandwich lunch at its Bedré Café where we also purchased yummy orange Meltaway squares, chocolate covered espresso beans, and a can of Crisps (milk chocolate-coated Pringles) and a can of Twists (white fudge-coated Bugles) which we would give to my parents in OKC the next day. Bedré Fine Chocolate started in the former Homer Elementary School in Ada over forty years ago, and the Chicksaw Nation purchased the company in 2000.
Murray’s Folly was mine too
I thought there was still time in the afternoon to head south to Lake Murray and show Wendy its Tucker Tower. Oklahoma’s most colorful governor, Alfalfa Bill Murray, was a farmhand from Toadsuck, Texas (I’m not kidding) who grew alfalfa and could rhapsodize about the crop at length. He became a self-educated lawyer in Tishomingo, the capital of the Chickasaw nation. Years before his governorship he presided over the writing of the Oklahoma Constitution, the longest governing document in the U.S. when it was ratified in 1907. Murray strongly supported white supremacist and segregationist clauses in its draft which President Teddy Roosevelt thankfully had stricken before ratification. Oklahoma voters have tinkered with it ever since, approving over 150 constitutional amendments.
“Alfalfa Bill” Murray
During the Great Depression, Murray was elected governor with a campaign slogan that is shockingly offensive today: he railed against “The Three C’s – Corporations, Carpetbaggers, and Coons.” And we think today’s politics is extreme! Murray used the National Guard on 47 occasions and declared martial law over 30 times in four years, for everything from policing ticket sales at OU football games to patrolling oil fields.
Anyhow, the story goes that back in 1932 Oklahoma City and Tulsa wanted 3.2 beer legalized but rural politicians supported full prohibition. A deal was struck where the rural pols would vote for 3.2 beer and the city slickers would support building a lake in south central Oklahoma near the Texas border. Alfalfa Bill didn’t see the need for a lake, however, so supposedly the legislature agreed to build Tucker Tower as a summer retreat for Oklahoma’s governors in return for his support.
The veracity of that story is uncertain, but the tower was indeed built and named for Fred Tucker, a state senator. Fred said they did have trouble getting Governor Murray to go along with the lake idea, and Murray only agreed to support it if they would name the lake after him.
The tower was based on photographs of a European castle that Fred Tucker had taken in World War I. Limestone was quarried on site to build the five-story tower with observation deck, including a two-story section intended as a living area. By 1935 federal officials decided the tower was taking too long and was too expensive and halted work on it. It was left open to the elements and the public without windows, doors, floors, or ceilings. Years later the state park service completed the tower, and it opened as a geological museum in 1954. It was still a museum when I visited it some years back. In 2013 it was closed for renovation, including a $3 million 4,000 square foot addition to form a new nature center.
I projected it would take an hour to reach the tower from Sulphur, so we headed off down US 177, but we were trailed by a police vehicle for miles. I normally just stick to the speed limit anyway, but I decided to lose the fuzz by turning off toward Gene Autry. That prompts another tale: Gene Autry was a famous singing cowboy who appeared in 93 films between 1934 and 1953 and also had his own radio and television shows. Most folks know him today for his #1 hit Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and for the first recording of Frosty the Snowman as well as Here Comes Santa Claus, which he composed and performed. His signature song, however, was Back in the Saddle Again.
Autry was born in north Texas but as a teenager lived in Ravia, 15 miles east of another little town called Berwyn. When Autry bought the 1,200 acre Flying-A Ranch on the west edge of Berwyn in 1941 as the headquarters for his traveling rodeo. Townspeople drew up a petition to rename Berwyn in honor of the cowboy crooner, and all 227 residents signed on. About 35,000 people attended the ceremonies which were broadcast live on Autry’s Melody Ranch radio show on the state’s 34th birthday, November 16, 1941. Three weeks later the U.S. entered World War II, and Gene enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He sold the ranch after the war, merging his rodeo with another one and moving his operation to Colorado. His namesake town dwindled to less than 100 people by 1990, when the empty school building became the Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum.
We drove through Gene Autry, noting that the tiny town is still struggling despite having a Dollar General distribution center and other businesses to the north. We should have just pulled in there and seen the museum despite its depressing facade, but I still had my heart set on Tucker Tower. Wendy wondered if it would be too late, but I stubbornly drove onward down the Gene Autry and Mary Niblack roads to Lake Murray and arrived at Tucker Tower at 4:10 p.m.
I should have listened to Wendy! The caretaker told us she was about to close up and at best we would have five minutes to run through the tower.
New lodge at Lake Murray
I was sorely disappointed and tucked in my tail. However, we were able to backtrack and take a stroll through the park’s new lodge: a six-building complex with ballroom, restaurant, and 32 guest rooms. The $27 million project was funded by oil and gas royalties at the lake, with construction beginning in 2014 and the lodge opening in February 2017. I remember how the state’s lodges were pretty run down in the 1980s, back when I worked one summer for the Tourism Department in OKC. So I’m glad we now have new lodges at Quartz Mountain, Roman Nose, and Lake Murray. We’ve stayed at the first two, but I doubt we’ll ever stay at Murray. The “scenic drive” around the lake was mostly invasive cedars rather than lake views, and the fairly flat terrain holds limited interest for me.
We zoomed up I-35 to Davis and then over to Sulphur for dinner at The Springs, relaxing afterward in the Hollywood Suite. The next day we had lunch with my parents in Oklahoma City, dropping off the treats from Bedré and doing a little tech support by getting the online comics working again on my mother’s Chromebox and reviving my father’s old Kodak digital camera with a new battery.
Our vacay to South Central was short, unlike this blog post, and sweet. It was fun to travel in Wendy’s new minivan, and we’re both excited about taking it out west in June to our favorite late spring destinations of Santa Fe, New Mexico and Pagosa Springs, Colorado and a chance to connect with friends in the mountain state.
For our Winter Break of 2018, Wendy and I opted to return to Branson for a few days after Christmas. The first semester of this school year was never a dull moment, with each of us continually engaged in challenging technology work. So we deliberately avoided any school-related work, emails, etc. during our stay in the tourist town. We needed to relax and were ready to be pampered a bit.
Keeter Center Stay
We had enjoyed our stay at the Keeter Center at the College of the Ozarks during Spring Break 2015, so we returned there to be pampered by the attentive students of Hard Work U. They turned down the beds each night, leaving us cookies they had made and milk from the college dairy, and brought us a tasty breakfast each morning of mostly farm-to-table items. We made sure to provide gratuities for the various students throughout our stay, who work at stations across the college in lieu of tuition.
We arrived late on a Friday afternoon. After checking in, we dined at the Dobyns Dining Room in the Center, where the hosts, servers, cooks, and bakers are all students working for their cost of education. Wendy had country fried chicken, and I had prime rib. We were seated near a piano and were pleased when a student came over and began to play during the meal.
Ready for the show
The main attractions at Branson are the various live shows, and we enjoyed the old-style Presley’s Country Music Jubilee show on our previous visit. On Saturday, after a light lunch at a Subway and a walk through the Branson Landing outdoor shopping mall, we took in the Christmas dinner show at Dolly Parton’s Stampede. The show featured 32 horses with stunt riding, singing, two skaters performing on a tiny ice rink lowered from the ceiling, and various tableaux. The menagerie included camels, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, and a donkey.
The Dolly Parton Stampede Christmas Show
Dinner was markedly different from the previous day at Dobyns. We consumed without the benefit of cutlery some creamy vegetable soup, a biscuit, a Cornish game hen, a slice of barbecued pork loin, corn on the cob, a potato, and apple turnover. Thankfully they also provided warm towelettes.
I had originally hoped to hike at the Lakeside Forest on Sunday, but it was too cold and rainy for that. My plan to have lunch at the Godfather’s Pizza in Branson was also foiled, as it was closed on Sundays. I really had a hankering for their pizza, since I got hooked on it at Campus Corner in Norman back in my undergraduate days yet there are no franchises near Bartlesville. The internet revealed there was another location, open on Sundays, a 30-minute drive north in Ozark. Wendy was willing, so off we went.
Springfield Art Museum
After lunch we needed to walk, and I recalled there was an art museum in Springfield only a 20-minute drive away. At first we were the only visitors, viewing three galleries containing the exhibit El Grabado: Contemporary Cuban Printmaking. Drs. Tony and Luz Racela of Kansas City had provided from their private collection 70 prints created by 33 artists at Cuba’s Taller Experimental de Gráfica de Habana.
Most of the works were lithographs (stone-writing) where an image was drawn with oil, fat, or wax onto a limestone plate, which was treated with acid and gum arabic to etch areas not protected by the image. When the stone was moistened, the etched areas retained water and would repel oil-based inks. Then a blank paper sheet would be applied to transfer the ink from the image areas to form a printed page.
The Springfield Art Museum has over 9,000 works in its collections, built up since 1928. In its main galleries it had an exhibition that was a cross section of the collection with particular emphasis paid to the ways its works reflect our country’s history as it developed its identity. This included works by George Caleb Bingham, Asher B. Durand, Jackson Pollock, Grandma Moses, Robert Motherwell, Wayne Thiebaud, and Alison Saar.
Wendy is always on the lookout for color schemes she might use in her own paint pours, and noted Nell Blaine’s First Lyme Landscape and Michael Mazur’s Pond Rain.
Pond Rain by Michael Mazur
Living in Oklahoma, we are regularly exposed to western art at area museums. I was pleased that the museum had some pieces that broke away from the typical works reminiscent of Remington and Russell. I liked the high energy of the cartoonish lithograph Broncoby Luis Jiménez. He is better known as a sculptor, with his memorable Mustang at the Fred Jones, Jr. Museum of Art in Norman. Tragically, he was killed when the torso of a larger version of that statue fell on him in 2006 in his studio.
Bronco by Luiz Jiménez
Wendy and I both enjoyed William Schenck’s Where Have All the Cattle Gone, with its static-edged clouds, the colors of the distant hills, and the choice to render the cowboy and much of his horse in shadow.
Where Have All the Cattle Gone by William Schenk
Samuel M. Charles’ Self-Portrait
19th century and earlier American portraiture can often seem amateurish and off-putting, but the smug expression on Samuel M. Charles’ Self-Portrait made me wonder what he was thinking as he read his paper.
I loved Julie Blackmon‘s Portrait, a large photograph that appeared rather painterly, finding the composition visually interesting and the expressions on several of the children’s faces quite amusing. It is part of her Homegrown series. A native of Springfield, her works are part of permanent collections in museums across the country, reflective of her talent in composing memorable scenes.
Portrait by Julie Blackmon
Aaron Bohrod’s Rainy Night, Wilmington wonderfully depicted city signage, including the reversed embossed One Way sign in the foreground and glowing neon hotel signs. I suppose the distant running figure is more likely headed through the rain from one hotel to the other than making his way toward the dark and distant cathedral.
Rainy Night, Wilmington by Aaron Bohrod
Abstract expressionism is often cold, but I liked Jimmy Ernst’s Dayscape with its bold circle of red and strong foreground pattern against a cool cyan background, somewhat reminiscent of stained glass.
Dayscape by Jimmy Ernst
Fast Food, New Orleans by Andrew Abramoff
Wendy admired Andrew Abramoff’s skill at manipulating oil paint with photographic clarity and realism in Fast Food, New Orleans, although the subject matter struck me as banal. I wonder what he found appealing about that restaurant. Was it the giant mug of root beer on the roof? Or did he also like the decayed midcentury modern American architecture? Before coming to America, he had trained and restored 17th century icons and frescoes in Russia. Midcentury modern is getting more love these days. But having grown up surrounded by it and bearing witness to its rapid decay, I find much of it bland and depressing.
For us, the highlight of the exhibition was the immense Timing by Frank Owen. He invented his own painting system in the 1970s, building a skin of transparent polyethylene plastic and then painting and collaging layers atop it. The works were built “in verso” where the first layer is the top of surface layer of the painting we see, with the final coat the layer that was actually applied to the canvas. So he “imagines each work from the inside out.”
Timing by Frank Owen
Wendy admires Frank Owen’s Timing
Wendy loved the work, which reminded me of a series of painting pours with particularly vivid colors. Owen described such works as abstract landscapes in microcosm, a response to his working environment in the Adirondacks, with the ripples and layers of paint suggesting the movement of water as viewed from above. The museum reports that painting is the subject of the most Instagrams from its collection, and we could see why.
We had a wonderful visit at the museum; so much better than my previous one years earlier. The works were interesting, and the staff members were friendly and helpful. While I appreciated the free admission, I happily placed a donation in their box. We will certainly be back in the years to come.
And we’ll someday return to Branson, to be pampered again at the Keeter Center and take in another fun show. We took Wendy’s new minivan on this trip, enjoying its comfortable ride across some rather rough highways and having plenty of easily accessible cargo space. For longer trips with luggage it sure beats traveling in my Camry.
We returned to Bartlesville for New Years and then I went back to work for three days while Wendy remained on vacation. Having fewer distractions with school out of session, I was able to finish a couple of lingering technology projects. Soon classes will resume with us refreshed and ready to take on another semester.