If you ever find yourself traveling through North Dakota on I-94, wishing for relief from the tedium of driving and the monotony of the plains, just take Exit 72 for a delightful detour through one man's imagination.
Known as the Enchanted Highway, the 32-mile stretch of two-lane county road from Gladstone to Regent showcases a collection of colossal creations by metal sculptor and retired teacher Gary Greff. Gargantuan grasshoppers, humongous fish, gigantic pheasants, the world's largest tin family—you'll find all of these and more if you venture off the interstate.
Greff dreamed up the Enchanted Highway nearly three decades ago in an attempt to revitalize his hometown of Regent, then a town of around 200 people. He'd never studied art and didn't know how to weld, but that didn't stop him. Using scrap metal, cast-off oil drums and recycled pipes, Greff just figured things out as he went along, sculpture by sculpture.
"He envisioned ten mega-sculptures, each with parking lot, picnic area and playground equipment, spaced every few miles along the road. So far, he has completed six on the Gladstone-to-Regent road, plus an additional sculpture, "Geese in Flight," on a ridge overlooking I-94 at the Gladstone exit.
Simply funneling travelers into Regent wasn't enough for Greff, though. He wanted to keep them there long enough to eat, drink, sleep, shop, and hang out a while. So he opened a gift shop, and when the town's school—which Greff had attended as a kid—closed, he and his brother converted the building into a hotel.
But not just an ordinary hotel. No, the brothers Greff wanted a hostelry in keeping with the enchantment theme. So, once again with more inspiration than experience, they turned the school into the Enchanted Castle, a 23-room hotel with waterfall walls, suits of armor, and other medieval touches. The inn even has a bar and a restaurant fittingly named Excalibur Steakhouse.
Though the hotel, bar, and restaurants have garnered glowing reviews, they haven't yet turned things around for Regent. The population has dwindled to around 170. Yet Greff is undaunted. Ever the optimist, he's working on two new sculptures to grace the hotel grounds and attract more visitors, he told the Dickinson (North Dakota) Press: a 35-foot-tall, sword-wielding knight and a 40-foot tall dragon that will breathe fire every hour.
Regular readers of HeartWood know I can never pass up roadside oddities, especially the oversized variety. My patient husband and traveling companion, Ray, knows it, too, and never objects my quests for the quirky. So when I read about the Enchanted Highway in a North Dakota tourism magazine and realized it was right on the route of our recent road trip to Seattle, I declared it a must-see. On the way out to Seattle, we had only enough time to stop at "Geese in Flight," which is currently closed to visitors, but can be viewed from the highway exit. On the way back, however, we spent an entire morning visiting the rest of the sculptures.
I was— of course—enchanted! The sculptures were even more immense and intricate than they appear in photos. It was clear, though, that some could benefit from an infusion of cash to maintain or restore them to their original conditions.
Greff's project is largely self-funded, and he does all the upkeep, including cutting the grass. He'd hoped gift shop proceeds would cover costs, but so far they haven't, he told the Dickinson Press. Neither, apparently, have the donation stations at the sculpture sites.
I only hope some kind of magic materializes to provide Greff with the means to continue and care for his work. It's a testament to the vision and perseverance of one big-time dreamer and an inspiration to all who dare to aim high.
As Greff summed it up in an article on a North Dakota tourism website, "You've got a dream. Live that dream. Don't hesitate. If I can do it, a person who didn't know how to weld and didn't have an art class, if I can go out and build 110-foot metal sculptures, I think you can do whatever you put your mind to."
Skies were dreary and heaped with slate-colored clouds, but all was bright in Sandy VandenBerg's garden, near Fremont, Michigan, when I stopped by for a tour last week.
The 75- by 80-foot flower plot, criss-crossed with paths and accented with garden ornaments, is the result of a decade-long labor of love, Sandy told me. The plot started out as a vegetable garden, edged with a border of flowers. Somehow, over the years, the vegetables disappeared, and the flowers took over. Even the flower mix evolved over time, as Sandy added more and more native plants—about 50 in all—and those plants thrived alongside the 100 or so non-natives she acquired from friends and family members who helped her get the garden started.
"The natives, they just flourish, they go crazy," Sandy says. "I let them be where they want to be."
As a native plant gardener, Sandy is part of a (pardon the pun) growing trend. Many green-thumbed growers are adding native plants to their landscapes, for a variety of reasons.
Once established, native plants generally don't need to be fussed over. Because they're adapted to local conditions, they typically require less water—a big plus for gardeners accustomed to lugging around a hose or watering can.
The gardens attract some lovely visitors, too. Native bees, butterflies, moths, bats, hummingbirds, and other pollinators flock to the flowers. The seeds, nuts, and fruits of the plants offer an enticing buffet for wildlife, and the whole plants provide shelter—all important for critters whose habitats have been fragmented or destroyed by urbanization and other factors.
As natural gardening pioneer Ken Druse writes in The Natural Habitat Garden (Potter, 1994), "a habitat-style garden of native plants welcomes the whole food chain—not just flowers, birds, and butterflies, but also a magnificent decaying tree stump teeming with life, ringed by otherworldly fluted layers of fungi."
In contrast, many of the flowers and ornamental shrubs and trees sold in nurseries are exotics from other parts of the world. While wildlife may utilize some of these plants, they aren't the plants these animals evolved to use. What's more, some exotic plants become invasive, outcompeting native species and degrading remaining habitat, the Audubon Society maintains.
Sandy's interest in native plants began when her children were small. "On walks through the woods with the kids, I started noticing wildflowers, and I wanted to learn their names." As her love of local plants grew, she thought she'd like to have some in her own garden. She started shopping at the Newaygo Conservation District's annual native plant sale and attending the workshops offered during the sale each year.
Now, she not only tends her own burgeoning garden, she also shares seeds and plants with friends. It's not unusual for her to show up at our Monday morning yoga class with a carload of coneflowers, wood poppies, and other treasures.
On our recent walk through her garden, we admired wild petunias, rattlesnake master, pink coneflowers, yellow coneflowers, false sunflowers, bee balm, queen of the prairie, boneset, wild ginger, native phlox, and maidenhair ferns, as well as a few non-native perennials.
Especially impressive: a towering cluster of cup plants. The basin formed by their large leaves catches rainwater that birds, insects, and small mammals imbibe.
The garden refreshes Sandy, too, and aligns with her yoga practice.
"I practice a yoga nidra called, interesting enough, “Moving into the garden of your heart,” by Betsy Downing, one of my yoga instructor heroes," she says. "I attended Betsy's workshops for several years in Grand Rapids. On the practice tape, she asks you to visualize moving through a garden. She refers to it as the garden of your heart, and it is there to return to anytime you need peace and tranquility. When I open the gates of my actual garden, all worries are left at the gates. Sometimes the time spent there is hard physical work, and other times I'm just spending time appreciating all the beauty of nature. I always walk back out the gates a more grounded and peaceful being."
As we wrapped up our garden tour, I asked Sandy for tips to share with gardeners who'd like to give natives a try. Matching plants to soil and site type is essential, she said. Prairie plants won't prosper in a boggy area, and woodland plants will wither in a sandy, dry site.
Druse concurs. "Never have the words don't fight the site held so much meaning," he writes. "It is the habitat gardener's guiding principle."
Another thing to keep in mind: while native plants don't need a lot of pampering, they're not exactly maintenance-free. They can grow very tall and sprawly and may need to be staked or moved to roomier sites. And while they don't need fertilizer, adding compost can give a boost to plants that like rich soil. Sandy keeps four compost piles working and adds composted material periodically.
Also important: where you get your native plants. Plants that are propagated by a nearby native plant nursery or sold by a native-plant society or legitimate plant-rescue operation are all fair game. Digging up wild plants on your own is a no-no.
As a gardener who abandoned exotic perennials in favor of native plants when we moved to our woodsy setting six years ago, I can tell you that the joys of going natural far outweigh the challenges. Since I began planting and encouraging native plants, I've been delighted to see trillium, wild geranium, columbine, lupine, butterfly weed, black-eyed susans, cinquefoil, evening primrose, bee balm, horsemint, coneflowers, blazing star, prairie smoke, wild petunia, marsh marigold, blue-eyed grass, mayapple, spiderwort, and many more make themselves at home on our property. And along with them, a colorful assortment of butterflies, bees, birds, bats, and other creatures with whom I'm happy to share our space.
For more information on native plant gardening:
Wild Ones native plant organization
Michigan Native Plant Producers Association
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Landscaping with Native Plants of Michigan, by Lynn M. Steiner
Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas W. Tallamy
The Natural Habitat Garden, by Ken Druse with Margaret Roach
All photos by Nan Pokerwinski
In a blog post earlier this year, I claimed not to be much of a souvenir shopper. While it's true that I don't cart home a lot of tchotchkes from our travels, I must confess to a weakness for one particular kind of memento.
I'm a sucker for embroidered patches from state and national parks.
My patch-collecting habit began back in my motorcycling days. Bikers love to load up their leather vests with pins and patches—some documenting attendance at rallies, others bearing pithy slogans, and still others memorializing fallen comrades. I was no exception: my vest became so loaded with loot, I could hardly remain vertical when I put it on.
Still, I collected. When Ray and I traveled by motorcycle and stopped at parks, preserves, and other points of interest, patches were the perfect keepsakes: lightweight and easily stowed in a saddlebag. As I look through my collection, I see patches from Toltec Mounds in Arkansas, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, and Land Between the Lakes on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, all collected on one especially memorable motorcycle trip to and from a class reunion in Oklahoma.
Once I got started, I couldn't stop, even when we traveled by car or motorhome and had more room for stuff. I could easily pass up shot glasses and key chains in gift shops, but patches? Never! So the collection grew, with additions from Niagara Falls, Pictured Rocks, Pompey's Pillar, Denali National Park, Grand Canyon, and another couple dozen or more locations.
Soon, I realized my travel patches needed their own home. Not only was my motorcycle vest loaded up, but a patch from Walden Pond just didn't look right next to one declaring "Die Yuppie Scum!" (Okay, I didn't actually wear that one on my vest.)
As I was poking through my closet one day, it dawned on me that I already owned the ideal travel patch display garment: a safari-style vest I had bought for a trip to Australia in 1986 and had little occasion to wear since then. I dug it out and started decorating it with some of my favorite patches. One of the first: Sleeping Bear Dunes—our annual fall color tour destination—followed by Tahquamenon Falls, Acadia National Park, and Yellowstone.
My patch-laden vest became a thing of beauty. From time to time, I'd slip it off its hanger and admire it. I'd lay out all the patches I hadn't yet attached and figure out which ones to add next and where to put them. But the one thing I never did was actually wear the thing. Because, well, it may be a thing of beauty, but it's a very dorky thing of beauty.
I took to calling it my Junior Ranger vest and treating it like a joke. Still, I kept collecting patches, vowing that someday I'd get up my nerve and wear the vest somewhere.
When I joined the Wander Women, a local women's hiking club, I thought the perfect opportunity had arrived. The Wander Women are an accepting, encouraging group. They dress for comfort and protection, even if that means wearing funny-looking hats and tucking pant legs into sock tops.
The Wander Women wouldn't make fun of my vest. Would they?
When I returned from our latest trip to the Southwest with a whole new stash of patches, I added them to my vest, determined to debut it on the next Wander Women hike. But that day it was too cold for just a vest over my shirt. So was the next hiking day. Then the weather turned warm, and—oops, too warm for anything more than a tank top.
So as of yet, no "big reveal" for the vest. But the next patch I hope to add is going to be so special, I doubt I'll be able to keep it under wraps.
Here's why: The Wander Women have set a goal of hiking--segment by segment--all 65 miles of the portion of North Country Trail that runs through Newaygo County (or at least the 50 off-road miles, as the trail follows roads in a few sections). And it happens that the North Country Trail Association has a Hike 50 campaign underway, encouraging people to hike 50 miles of the trail over the course of the year. (There's a Hike 100 campaign, too, but first things first.)
Anyone who completes the whole 50 miles gets—you guessed it—a patch.
I've been logging my miles on the North Country Trail since March, and I'm up to 23 miles now (plus more miles on other trails, but those don't count toward the patch). With the Wander Women's target to motivate me, I've got that patch in my sights. Once I get it, you can be sure I'll wear my vest with pride.
Really. I will. Unless it's too hot. Or too cold. Or too . . . you know, whatever.
Dreams, determination and a life's artistic work—that's what transformed a nondescript vacant lot in Detroit into an urban sculpture park.
City Sculpture is the creation of Robert "Bob" Sestok, who has been making art in Detroit since the 1960s. I met Bob in the early '80s, when the neighborhood now called Midtown was in its grittier incarnation as the Cass Corridor. Bob was already a fixture in that community, as one of the founders of Willis Gallery and part of the Cass Corridor Movement, a group of artists whose unconventional methods and materials reflected the crumbling, post-industrial environment of the time and were influenced by the abstract expressionists of the 1950s. Some of those artists, including Bob, were featured in a 1980 Detroit Institute of Arts retrospective exhibition, "Kick Out the Jams: Detroit's Cass Corridor, 1963-1977." (The title was a nod to the debut album of the rock band MC5, which played at the opening of an art show Bob organized in 1972.)
I've always been amazed at Bob's ability to segue seamlessly from drawing to painting to printmaking to creating massive metal sculptures. Many of those sculptures are displayed in public spaces in Detroit, its suburbs, and other locations around Michigan and beyond. Other pieces accumulated over the years in the alley behind Bob's studio.
But Bob had a bigger vision for those works: a public space to display the sculptures right in the neighborhood where they were produced. He didn't have to look far to find a good spot. A block away from his home and studio was a city-owned vacant lot that fronted the John C. Lodge Service Drive. A conscientious neighbor and his kids had been mowing the lot and keeping it trash-free, and when that neighbor died, Bob took over the job.
"I was cutting the grass and thinking, 'Why don't I own this?'" Bob recalls. So he bought the property from the city and then spent about a year cleaning it up, repairing the sidewalks, installing a fence and pouring concrete slabs for the sculptures. Once that work was done, he spent another week or so moving and positioning the sculptures.
"As soon as I did that, all of a sudden the news media got wind of it, and I was on all the television channels and in the newspaper," says Bob. "It was quite a big bang."
And quite a change for an artist who has always been more comfortable just doing his work than being in the public eye.
"I kind of shy away from stuff like that," says Bob, "but I was willing to do interviews and tell people about the work in the park. So I'm a little more public today than I have been in the past, but that's the nature of having a space like that. And it's a fun thing to have. People go there from all over the place."
Like Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project and Olayami Dabls's MBAD African Bead Museum, City Sculpture has become a destination landmark, as well as a showcase for an individual artist's life work.
"Tour buses pull up, school buses pull up, kids get out, all kinds of people," says Bob. "We give tours. People contact me if they want to have the artist's viewpoint of the park. I do a little talk. We've had thirty or forty people at a time."
He also throws a party in the park every summer. "It's kind of a big thing for me to put together," he says, "but I get local musicians and it's a lot of fun." This year's event, scheduled for Saturday, August 25, features Ethan Daniel Davidson, The Drinkard Sisters, Danny Kroha, Denise Davis and the Motor City Sensations, and Botanical Fortress.
I'd been hearing about the park since it opened in 2015, but hadn't had a chance to visit it until a few weeks ago, when Ray and I drove down to Detroit to have lunch with another old Cass Corridor friend who was back in town for a couple of days. We arrived a little early, and since the restaurant where we were to meet our friend was only a few blocks from City Sculpture, we made a side trip to the park to check out Bob's creations.
Seeing so much of Bob's work in one place was truly impressive. Thirty-two sculptures of welded steel, crushed aluminum, car parts, and garden implements are artfully arranged around the well-maintained site. A bench beneath a tree offers a place to sit and reflect. Even with traffic whizzing along on the Lodge Freeway, City Sculpture feels like a haven.
The works on display reflect Bob's eclectic approach to making art, a style he has described as the absolute lack of a single, cohesive style.
"When people ask who made all these, I tell them, 'Well, they could've been made by a lot of different people, because nothing looks the same.' There's a lot of diversity in my work. I think that keeps me moving forward."
A graduate of the College for Creative Studies (then known as the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts), Bob is known not only for his sculptures, but also for his paintings, including both permitted and unauthorized public art pieces. Among the first were murals commissioned in the early 1970s for the Edward W. Duffy Company, a pipe and tubing supply business. More recently, Bob created a mural for musician Jack White's Third Man Pressing, a vinyl record manufacturing plant in the Cass Corridor.
White remembered seeing the Duffy Company murals when he was in high school, and once he became a successful musician with his own factory, he got in touch with Bob to commission a mural for the record-pressing facility.
As for unsanctioned street art, Bob says he's pretty much "retired" from that line of work. "All the buildings I painted on were rehabbed or torn down. I said, I don't want to have my art destroyed completely."
The desire to preserve his art also has him thinking about the future of City Sculpture. "Now I'm becoming more of a businessman and trying to get corporate sponsorships," he says. "I created a nonprofit, which I'm thinking to turn into a foundation to manage the park." He plans to turn over management of the foundation to his daughter Erika, who grew up in the neighborhood and has experience in park management.
Meanwhile, Bob keeps making art and displaying his work in different venues. He recently delivered five sculptures to Michigan Legacy Art Park at Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville, and he's currently in a show at Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum in Saginaw.
"I'm a lucky guy," he says. "I've got a job for my life. I can't stop—I just keep doing my thing. I like to discover things and challenge myself. If you don't challenge yourself, you're not learning anything. You have to push yourself and reach outside of your comfort zone in order to be prolific."
With nearly one hundred sculptures, more than five thousand drawings, and some one thousand paintings completed to date, he should know.
City Sculpture is located at 955 West Alexandrine in Detroit.
To help support City Sculpture, visit https://www.citysculpture.org/donate/
Bob Sestok has exhibited at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), Cranbrook Museum of Art, and Marianne Boesky Gallery (New York City), among others, and had work in ArtPrize 2009. His work is held in numerous collections, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, Cranbrook Museum of Art,and Wayne State University. He has received grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and The Kresge Foundation.
I'm not much of a souvenir shopper. I don't need t-shirts, hats, mugs, or other paraphernalia to remind me of places I've been. However, there's something I do like to bring back from our travels: the memory of at least one interesting person we met along the way.
Some months ago, I wrote about Leroy Gonzales of Golden, New Mexico, who captivated me with his eccentric roadside assemblage and friendly banter. On our latest road trip, I encountered another colorful local character, Johnny Bones, in Tombstone, Arizona.
Our visit to Tombstone happened to fall on St. Patrick's Day, which happened to coincide with Tombstone's annual Wild West Days and Salute to the Troops. Talk about a combination of celebrations!
We rolled into town about an hour before a parade was set to step off, but the main street was already teeming with performers and local folks in period costumes. Gunslingers, cowpokes, banditos, fancy ladies, dandies, and dance hall girls mingled with the crowds and posed for pictures.
Amidst all the hubbub, one chap stood out. He wore a top hat decorated with baubles, feathers, playing cards, and a picture of an angelic orchestra. An assortment of belts—including one that looked like it might've graced a belly dancer's hips—encircled his waist. A long chain dangled from one ear; bells jangled around both ankles. Chunky rings, bracelets, necklaces, and a green bowtie completed the look.
But his outfit wasn't what made him so noticeable. Or at least it wasn't the only thing that made him so noticeable. The fellow was in constant motion, twirling, stomping, dancing a jig, and clacking two pairs of bone castanets.
We watched him perform with a group of musicians before the parade. Then the parade got underway, and our attention turned to marchers, floats, and some sweet donkeys from Forever Home Donkey Rescue Sanctuary.
Then, sure enough, here came Johnny Bones, prancing along with the other revelers. The guy was everywhere, clacking, cavorting, and wearing a smile wide as the desert horizon.
We left the bustle of the street to have lunch and watch a live OK Corral dramatization.
Then we stopped in at Historama, a hokey depiction of Tombstone's history that the website Roadside America describes as "a big, lumpy mound on a turntable, decorated with small vignettes from Tombstone's early history, set on a stage in a small theater." Blinking lights, sound effects, and clips of old Western movies enhance the 25-minute presentation, which also features narration recorded by Vincent Price in 1964. You get the picture. Funky, but fun.
Late in the day, I took another stroll through town to snap a few more photos. The main street was almost deserted by then, but there, on a sunny patch of boardwalk was our man Bones, still jumping, jiving, clacking, and looking not the least bit weary.
He seemed so naturally chipper, I imagined his life to be just one big dance party. But I later learned that he's had his troubles. Six years ago, the city of Tombstone passed an ordinance aimed at banning Bones (whose real name is Ronald Koch) from the town's historic district. He was permitted to perform by the visitor center or by the park—both at the far end of town—but those places are "dead zones for busking," Koch told Arizona Sonora News.
Somehow, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona got wind of Bones's banishment and wrote a letter to Tombstone's mayor asserting that Koch was protected by the First Amendment, as busking is considered artistic free speech.
Johnny Bones, whose costumes and talents are reminiscent of the minstrels that once performed in Tombstone's Bird Cage Theatre, was allowed to return to the heart of town, which is where I found him.
He didn't have much to say when I stopped to leave a tip and tell him how much he'd brightened my day. He just beamed and struck a pose for my camera. But if I'd asked what keeps him going, I have a feeling he would have told me what he told the Arizona Sonora News reporter: "I'm a gardener of smiles. This makes me feel fulfilled because my position in life right now is to make people smile."
On the last Wednesday of every month, I serve up a potpourri of advice, inspiration and other tidbits I've come across in recent weeks. This month -- this week, in fact -- finds us commemorating both Earth Day and Arbor Day. In the spirit of those two observances, here's a collection of quotes about nature and the planet on which we live.
As a bonus, I'm including at the end of this post, some of my favorite nature shots from our recent visit to the Southwest.
Love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need -- if only we had the eyes to see.
-- Edward Abbey
Find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there.
-- Gary Snyder
The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space.
-- Alexey Leonov, Russian cosmonaut
The universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be exploited. Everything has its own voice. Thunder and lightning and stars and planets, flowers, birds, animals, trees -- all of these have voices, and they constitute a community of existence that is profoundly related.
-- Thomas Berry
The earth is a living thing. Mountains speak, trees sing, lakes can think, pebbles have a soul, rocks have power.
-- Henry Crow Dog
When I get sick of what men do, I have only to walk a few steps in another direction to see what spiders do. Or what weather does. This sustains me very well indeed.
-- E.B. White, One Man's Meat
Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature -- the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.
-- Rachel Carson
Nature repairs her ravages -- but not all. The uptorn trees are not rooted again; the parted hills are left scarred; if there is a new growth, the trees are not the same as the old, and the hills underneath their green vesture bear the marks of the past rending. To the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair.
-- George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?
-- Henry David Thoreau
Loyd: "It has to do with keeping things in balance . . . It's like the spirits have made a deal with us . . . The spirits have been good enough to let us live here and use the utilities, and we're saying: . . . We appreciate the rain, we appreciate the sun, we appreciate the deer we took . . . You've gone to a lot of trouble, and we'll try to be good guests."
Codi: "Like a note you'd send somebody after you stayed in their house?"
Loyd: "Exactly like that. 'Thanks for letting me sleep on your couch. I took some beer out of the refrigerator, and I broke a coffee cup. Sorry. I hope it wasn't your favorite one.' "
-- Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams
And now, for a little more nature appreciation . . .
Sometimes the roads we travel take us back to crossroads that were pivotal in our past. Sometimes they show us the way forward.
Both happened on our recent trip through the Southwest. Ray and I spent most of our time in the Tucson area, a place that has lingered, dreamlike, in a cranny of my memory for decades. Though I've made a couple of quick visits to Tucson in recent years, I hadn't spent any wandering-around time there since an unforgettable visit in my twenties.
It was 1976, and I was on a meandering road trip with my boyfriend. We'd driven from northern California to Los Angeles to visit his parents, then struck out across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas before heading north to Oklahoma to see my family, venturing on to Kansas, and returning to California by way of Colorado. The stated purpose of the trip was to check out graduate schools in Arizona, Texas, and Kansas, but we planned the route to take in as many national parks, monuments and other nature-y points of interest as possible: Joshua Tree National Park, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Saguaro National Park, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Mount Lemmon, Chiricahua National Monument, Cave Creek Canyon, White Sands National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Big Bend National Park, Oklahoma's Great Salt Plains State Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Dinosaur National Monument.
We spent our days hiking through cactus forests, bizarre rock formations, lush oases, meadows and more, stopping to raise binoculars or crawl on the ground in search of unusual insects. The assortment of critters boggled my mind—from the javelina that trotted across our campsite to the jewel-like cuckoo wasps and furry velvet ants that flitted and scurried around us.
We slept out in the open—no tent—where we could watch the moon and stars and hear the night creatures. (Lucky for us, it wasn't the height of monsoon season.) Enthralled with the writings of Carlos Castaneda, I saw our surroundings as steeped in mystical power. As I contemplated the future I was heading into, I was sure it would include frequent visits to these enchanted places—as a scientist studying the flora and fauna, but also as a spiritual seeker.
Somehow, life took me in other directions. Or I should say, I made decisions that took me in other directions. And though I often thought of those places and their hold on me, I never found my way back. Until last month.
On this latest trip, Ray and I trekked through some of the places that had made such an impression on me more than forty years ago: Saguaro National Park, the Desert Museum, and Chiricahua National Monument, in addition to visiting sites where neither of us had been before--Sabino Canyon and Bisbee, to name a couple.
I expected to be wowed again by the landscape, with its unique array of plants and animals, and I was. What I didn't expect was the flash flood of memories and emotions that swept through me. I remembered the connection I'd once felt to the desert and how firmly I'd believed it would be an ongoing part of my life. I thought about the decisions I'd made that took me away from that vision, the places I wound up instead, and how easy it is for years to slip by while you're thinking, "Someday, I'll . . . "
My musings could have been an exercise in regret; instead I made a conscious decision to use those memories as a tool to explore my feelings about the paths I've traveled, where they've led me, and where I still want to go. (I'm not just talking about geography here, you understand.)
Putting myself back in my twenty-seven-year-old mind, I asked myself what excited me about the prospects ahead. What did I value in my vision of the future? Returning to my sixty-nine-year-old mind, I asked myself how much of that excitement and those values I still possess—even though I took a different route to them—and what I might still make space for in my life.
My conclusions: At twenty-six, I prized my freedom: freedom to explore whatever captured my interest, freedom to live where I wanted, freedom to spend my days doing something rewarding. I took it as a given that my explorations would keep me close to nature. That's the part I lost for a time, when I spent long days cooped up in an office, in a big city.
Now I'm living a close-to-nature existence again—not in the desert, but in another place that teems with wildlife, wildflowers, and woods—and I have my freedom back. When I think about where I want to go next, it's out to discover more wondrous places, not just to see and photograph them (though you can bet I'll do that), but also to linger long enough to experience the mystery of these places and let my spirit connect with theirs.
Photos: Nan Pokerwinski & friends
We’re back from our travels with loads of impressions and images to share in coming weeks.
Today's topic: the Tucson Festival of Books, our first stop on the trip. I wrote at length about last year's festival, and I won't repeat all the details here. (But if you're curious, you're welcome to look back at that post.)
This was my third visit to the festival, but Ray's first. In previous years, I scurried from one end of the University of Arizona Mall to the other, trying to catch as many talks on writing and publishing as I could. It was almost like being back in college (without the exams, thank goodness). This time, I took a different tack, hoping to make the weekend fun for both of us rather than dragging Ray along to talks on topics that would make his eyes glaze over. (Besides, how many more Moleskin notebooks do I really need to fill with conference scribblings?)
I scrolled through the long list of presentations and found several by mystery authors Ray enjoys, and because I'm always interested in other writers' insights, I knew I'd find their talks informative.
The festival's presentations are all free, but some require advance reservations—and those go quickly. We were lucky to snag tickets to "Setting the Bar in Mystery" by New York Times bestselling authors Greg Iles and Scott Turow. It was just plain fun to witness the interaction between the two authors, good friends who traded jibes as well as compliments. I was fascinated, too, to hear them describe their writing processes. Turow is methodical, treating writing like a day job. Iles, on the other hand, goes long stretches without writing—occupying himself with music and other interests—and then writes his books in marathon sessions, fueled by granola bars and Tab. (I hope he makes up for that with healthier habits during his non-writing periods!)
We also made sure not to miss Michael Perry, described on his website as "New York Times Bestselling Author, Humorist, Singer/Songwriter, Intermittent Pig Farmer." I first discovered Michael's writing at the 2015 Tucson Festival of Books. I had only enough room in my luggage to bring back one book, and I also wanted find a gift for Ray. When I saw Michael's memoir, Truck: A Love Story, I knew I needed to look no further. After all, memoir is my favorite genre, and Ray's all in for anything automotive.
Perry's humorous—and heartfelt—accounts of rural Wisconsin life enchanted me, and when I heard him speak at last year's festival and then read another of his books, Roughneck Grace: Farmer Yoga, Creeping Codgerism, Apple Golf, and Other Brief Essays from On and Off the Back Forty, I became an even more faithful fan.
This year, he read from his latest book, Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy. As the blurb describes it, the book is a down-to-earth look at the ideas of a philosopher "ensconced in a castle tower overlooking his vineyard," channeled by a Midwestern American writing "in a room above the garage overlooking a disused pig pen." I can't wait to read it.
As in previous years, it was heartening to be in the company of more than 130,000 book lovers, to overhear conversations about books and authors and see people browsing through and actually reading books.
But still weary and bleary from the nearly 2,000-mile drive, we could expect only so much of our brains. The festival's entertainment schedule of sixty-some performances offered restorative time-outs from nonstop literary engagement.
We applauded pint-sized musicians, whooped it up with local clog dancers, the Saguaro Stompers, and ooh-ed and aah-ed at acrobatic feats.
By the end of the weekend, we were inspired, entertained, enlightened, and ready to take on more of Tucson.
Spring is here! But before we run out to pick posies, let's take a moment to appreciate the season we're leaving behind. It may not be as eagerly awaited as its warmer, more colorful sisters Spring, Summer and Autumn, but Winter has its own chilly charms. Here's a look back at some of my favorite scenes of the season.
On the last Wednesday of every month, I serve up a potpourri of advice, inspiration and other tidbits I've come across in recent weeks. On this wintry Wednesday, I've gathered up an assortment of thoughts about the season and the pastimes--reading, writing, music, laughter, gatherings with friends--that help us get through it.
And if all of that doesn't warm you up enough, I'm throwing in a winter getaway at the end: a little jaunt down to Memphis to recap our visit to Graceland a few months ago. Believe it or not, there's a connection here. Though this isn't something I would normally have on my calendar, I happened to hear on the radio that Elvis's birthday was January 8. So come on along to Graceland for a belated birthday celebration. You just might get a taste of peanut butter-banana ice cream. It's never too cold for that!
Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.
-- Victor Hugo, poet, author, playwright
If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.
-- Haruki Murakami, author
What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.
-- John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it's the answer to everything . . . It's the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it's a cactus.
-- Enid Bagnold, author and playwright
My old grandmother always used to say, Summer friends will melt away like summer snows, but winter friends are friends forever.
-- George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows
The real purpose of books is to trap the mind into doing its own thinking.
-- Christopher Morley, author
Music brings a warm glow to my vision, thawing mind and muscle from their endless wintering.
-- Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world.
-- Anne Lamott, author
I want to watch the blue mist of the night come on,
The windows and the stars illumined, one by one,
The rivers of dark smoke pour upward lazily,
And the moon rise and turn them silver. I shall see
The springs, the summers, and the autumns slowly pass;
And when old Winter puts his blank face to the glass,
I shall close all my shutters, pull the curtains tight,
And build me stately palaces by candlelight.
-- Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal
There are more truths in a good book than its author meant to put into it.
-- Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, author and playwright
I'm not even going to try for a graceful segue, except to say, "And now, for something completely different . . . "
All Graceland photos by Nan Pokerwinski
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.