Sketches of East of Here

I. Setting Out.

My brother is driving. I'm in the backseat at liberty to write. Dad, riding shotgun, shuffles through sheets of paper explaining stock valuations and physical therapy exercises.

The car is a 2015 Buick Lucerne with 62,000 miles on it and counting. Destination: Ludlow, Massachusetts, where my dad grew up, where he's from, where he still has family: his cousins, his aunt (who turns 88 in two days), his sister (who he hasn't seen in 25 years), his niece (likewise).

We left Belleville, Illinois, at 8 a.m. this morning, yours truly behind the wheel. Football (a.k.a. soccer) streams on satellite radio, channel 157, the European Championship tournament. This is the first round of the tournament, dubbed group play. Earlier, Russia knocked off Finland. Now, it's Turkey and Wales.

It's been awhile since I've been in a car's backseat. I'm enjoying it; it feels like a luxury. Like I'm flying on an airplane. What else is there to do but to read, to write? To describe, to explain, to tell?

At the first rest stop, my dad pointed at some new socks he was wearing.

"What do you think of these?" he asked...

Click to continue with my account of traveling by car to Ludlow, MA with my dad and brother to visit family there...

Coal Clams Are the New Storm Here

As we sat down at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room on our last full day in Savannah, the arrangement of food on the table drew attention.  The number of items itself was only part of the story: sweet potatoes, cheesy potatoes, fried chicken, cornbread, corn, rutabaga, cole slaw, cukes, black-eyed peas, lima beans, stuffing, barbecued pork, cabbage, green beans, jambalaya, white rice, baked beans.  All in porcelain bowls with serving spoons.  This was a family-style meal.  The way it works is that you stand in line outside the restaurant for a half an hour or so.  When one of the tables inside opens up, seven to nine of the people standing in line take a spot at the open table.  When you sit down, the food is hot and ready to go.  You grab a bowl next to you and start loading your plate.  If there’s something you want in a bowl across the table, you ask for it to be passed.  

Anne-Marie didn’t initially sit down.  She set her purse on her chair and went to wash her hands.  Brook had her hand sanitizer out.  I had mine out.  The woman seated to my right asked to use one of the bottles.  She and her husband had driven up from Miami, though they hail originally from Spain.  They had planned to be in Japan this week but canceled that trip because of the outbreak.  The other couple at our table was from Michigan, bringing the total at the table to eight.

I was conscious of the way I handled the bowls when passing or receiving them.  But I also felt resignation.  What’s done is done.  Let’s just enjoy lunch, I thought.  Reflecting back on the meal I’m wondering about the family-style concept in the age of corona.  That restaurant is an institution.  The original Mrs. Wilkes’s grand-daughter came to our table in greeting.  Yet, with the way the news is trending overseas, the word ‘inevitable’ comes to mind.  How do we stop going out to eat?  How many traditions are we willing to concede?  How many will we lose one way or another?  I mean, I’m putting pen to paper on this trip not just because I’m a writer but with a mind to meeting an assignment for a travel writing class I’m taking at Washington University in St. Louis.  My readers are my classmates.  But I don’t know, as I sit here in Savannah, ready to go home, if my class will even convene later this month.  Stanford has already gone online...

What follows is an essay I wrote one year ago as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold. After multiple unsuccessful attempts to publish it elsewhere, I am happy to publish it here on my blog today. Click here for the full essay and thanks for reading...

Physical Former

1. It is tomorrow here already.
When the vodka's gone
it means we have to sleep
And I don't want to sleep—ever!

2. Turning and twisting.
What was all that law school for?
Those early mornings, Austin city
bus, statutes, prescription glasses,
hard attitude, I
Never wrote the checks. I only ever
sued one "person," one dumb city and
It was a win but
what is that victory now?

The rest of the poem...

Onion Trucker

Bakersfield to Boston,
A little overweight.
If you saw some onions
By the side of the highway
They were probably mine.

The guy who loaded my rig
Didn't know what he was doing
So I didn't mind a few
Rolling loose back there
On Highway 58
On Interstate 40
On Interstate 44.
You didn't see any
Whole bags of them, did you?
Just so long as I didn't drop
Any whole bags.

They've already been on there for a week.
In all this sun?
I'm a little worried, to be honest.
They're paying me six grand
To get the load to Boston.
That's a lot of money.
But if I get 'em there rotten
I'll be heading back west
With nothing but onions
On my breath.

Panhandle Road

I carried a
flora & fauna
of provisions,
many of them
pure, physical
a sort of
weighted blanket.
I carried them
across the country,
burning old peat bogs
as I tooled through
buffalo lands
on cruise control
past native grasses
and sun-drenched scrub.
When it was time
to turn around,
ancient cacti
helped me
back across the desert,
pitying me my
heavy load.

I Don’t Know What It Is About A Field—Part Two

Left Tucumcari, New Mexico at 8:40. The woman at the Best Western when I checked out says, "You look like you could use more sleep." Oh, thanks! What a nice thing for you to say. Yeah, I could have used some more sleep. But other guests stirring early, doors clanging, and then someone freaking out when a cat jumped out of the hallway trash can meant it was time for me to get out of bed. That and needing to drive another eight hours today.

I'm on U.S. Highway 54 headed east. This highway takes me all the way to Wichita. Land is mostly flat. Ranch land. Cattle grazing. Mesas in the distance, to the west. Lots of Aermotors. I've realized that's a trademarked name for the old-style windmills.

Lots of empty buildings here. There were lots of them in Tucumcari, too. That town is hollowed out. Abandoned homes. I suppose Tucumcari had its day. Post World War II. Car culture. Route 66. Before passenger air travel proliferated...

The second and final part of the travelogue continues here...

I Don’t Know What It Is About A Field

In eastern Butler County the fields opened up, took on the wispy gold of uncut hay. Not long after that hills appeared. I could see the outcome of geological events, the hint of a rock facade where the road cut through. But the grass didn't mind the hills and it ran long and uncut up and down the slopes still. A valley appeared, a vantage, a vista. I thought of some of that scene from Dances With Wolves where they creep up to a crest and look down to see a herd of buffalo grazing in peace.

It would've been a good place to stop but I was going 75 and I was only an hour into the drive. It's a spot to think about, for another. A spot worth reaching over into the glove compartment and pulling out this notebook for, an emergency notebook, never been written in before, the two notebooks I did bring secure in my bag.

I'm east of Wichita, KS on U.S. Highway 54, where Butler County ends and Greenwood County begins. Hay, cow ponds, the cattle so dark against the golden light of the field, dark against the blue of the sky, against the shapely hills.

FDR had some sort of windbreak tree-planting program. A shelterbelt. I never gave much thought to windbreaks, to trees as a line against the wind. This tree I keep seeing, that is so prevalent, must have been one of the trees of choice for the shelterbelt planting. It's often got a lopsided crown and most of the time its trunk splits into two not far from the ground, a couple of feet, maybe less. This tree, whatever it is, is not at Farm. It's a Dust Bowl thing. Kansas, Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, northeastern New Mexico.

Continue with Part One of this travelogue...


I wanted to get through the first section of this notebook on this trip.  The pages in this section are edged in blue.  I've got a ways to go, sorry to say.  I did not do enough describing of areas.  I was reluctant to write in the car and thereby pissed a lot of decent words down the drain.  I would have said more about how the plains looked once we were on the eastern side of the park, looking out toward the east.  It was what I called Custer's view.  East of the park, on the fat part of the divide, the land begins the process of flattening out and it's as though you can see for miles and miles and miles.  Maybe you can.  The colors were a range of maize yellows and sun-bleached wheat whites and dull greens and then of course the blue of the sky—that dumbstruck, blue-lipped blue.  The sky was free of clouds as we drove north to Canada on Wednesday but it was accentuated and supported by fairly high altostratus on the way back down.  It was mackerel sky in spots, probably my favorite day sky.

There was champagne—well, prosecco—in our room at the Belton yesterday.  It sat in a little ice bucket on a tray along with a card of congratulations and two up-ended champagne flutes.  B had told them it was our 10-year anniversary trip, which was true.  It was the same brand of prosecco as was waiting in the fridge at our cabin (Reclusive Moose), for Patrick and Anne-Marie in recognition of their tenth.  This was not coincidence.  One of the co-owners of the cabin is the general manager at the Belton.  The other co-owner was waiting tables at the restaurant there last night.  Small town in a small world, I guess.

Continue reading about this trip to Montana and Canada...