The Trip is Dead: Long Live the Trip

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When I came home, nothing went right. New Orleans does that to me. I’ve lived in cities that welcomed me with open arms after some time away. New Orleans is not one of those cities. We develop relationships with the places we live, and my relationship with this city has always been that of a volcanic and potentially doomed love affair. New Orleans is my girl. She is generous beyond words. She has a vicious temper. And when I come home after a few months on the road, she invariably makes me sleep on the couch.

And in this case, the couch had fleas.

It’s every traveler’s nightmare. To come home from a beautiful, difficult sojourn and find that your nest has been fouled. This took many forms for me. My refrigerator was full of rotten food and the house had been infested with tiny had bloodsucking agents of the apocalypse that swarmed my ankles and bit me to hell. The transmission on my truck was leaking so much fluid I couldn’t go a day without replacing it. My skin broke out. The money disappeared. And then I started working with the first major wave of the tourist season bringing me regular six-day work weeks as I tried to right the ship.

But the ship still floats, and my life in New Orleans has returned to something as close to normal as this town ever gets. My house is beautiful and free from pests. My truck runs better than a 25 year-old vehicle has a right to. The madness of the tourist trade is about to give way to a dead spell where I can celebrate Thanksgiving and curl up next to the space heater in my drafty room and try to point my way toward growing this blog.

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Back to the office.

In all the traveling I’ve done in my life, I’ve rarely kept a journal. What’s shocking to me, coming back after months on the road and reading through what I’ve written, is how much of the trip I’d already forgotten. Travel is often overwhelming, and some of the smaller moments, while they may lodge permanently in our bones, have a tendency to slip away through the cracks in our memories, crowded out by the moments we’ve built into stories.

What’s been even more valuable to me is the photographs, only a fraction of which I’ve shared on this site. Photographs, for me, serve primarily as writing prompts. But now, going through them, I see them for the first time as tiny memory capsules, each one bringing something I’d forgotten about back to the fore in vivid detail. I’m happy with the amount I wrote about the trip, but it’s surprising to me just how much I left out.

It’s a cascade when I let it go. The strange and wonderful brownies at the Peg House in Northern California. Shooting pool with my old friend Ayinde Russell in Denver. Happening on Buddy Wakefield in Boulder and drinking tea in a tea house that was shipped over, piece by piece, from Tajikistan. The astonishing hospitality of Charlotte and Cindy in Oakland, and my cousin Mike the Judge in Hawaii. And the probably-best-left-unfilmed tour of Honolulu dive bars with Tui Scanlan, which had us staggering into an all night diner for pancakes drenched in coconut syrup and a metric ton of greasy breakfast favorites.

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A lot of bad decisions led to this moment.

There was the horse farm in Michigan, where Karrie takes care of a number of equines, who in turn take care of her. There was the motorcycle rally in New Mexico, packed full of tricked out cafe racers, where John the Brewer took his bike for a fifty mile ride through the rich, red country north of Albuquerque. There was the re-connection with Rachel and her daughter Adele, who I’ve known almost since birth, just days after I held my brand new niece in a Chicago hospital.

It all comes back in pieces, or it all come back at once, and I’m staggered by my own luck. To have stepped out into this kind of a journey, to have been taught more than I could absorb (though I tried to grab it all), and to have the privilege of planning the next one. Sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s hard to accept that we deserve the good things that keep falling into our lives. I question it all the time. Whatever I’ve done to work my way into this existence, it’s still an accident of birth that I get to live this life. But it’s the one I have, and few things make me more grateful for it than this kind of journey.

There will be more journeys to come, and more frequent updates. I appreciate all of you who have followed me so far. Keep following.

Onward,

Nick

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FIGHT TOWNS—Detroit: The Resurrection of the Kronk Gym

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A visit to a legendary spot in the boxing community as it fights, once again, to hold on to tradition.

When I say it’s good that the Kronk is open again, one of the fighters shrugs his shoulders.

“We’ll see,” he says.

In Detroit, nothing gets taken for granted. And why should it? This town was the engine that drove the American economy, a city as grand and unstoppable as the massive finned machines it turned out of its numerous auto plants. This is where Joe Louis trained. Sugar Ray Robinson. Where Barry Gordy formed a tiny record label called Motown, whose driving, joyous sound blasted great music by great artists onto trans-oceanic airwaves.

Then, in July of 1967 the city burst into flame. Long simmering racial tensions exploded, then exploded again. Mitt Romney’s dad ordered in the National Guard and President Johnson called out the 82nd and 101st airborne. There were tanks in the streets and some 2,000 buildings burned. For five days a near state of war existed in this great city, and when it was over forty-three people were dead and over 1,100 were injured.

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National Guard troops and firefighters during the ’67 riots. (photo: Reuther Library)

The story for years has been that “white flight” from Detroit began with those riots. The reality is that, while the riots were certainly an accelerant, the process  was already underway in the years after World War II. In  1950, the population of Detroit was nearly 2 million people, with whites making up about 84 percent of that. By 1960, seven years before the riots, nearly 350,000 whites had left the city limits. By 1980, that number was over a million.

When people say Detroit was never the same again after the riots, it’s true. It’s also a way of deflecting the ugliness of what was already going down here long before 1967. 800px-White_sign_racial_hatred.What happened in Detroit that summer didn’t come out of a vacuum. Suburbs with “White Tenants Only” signs. Police carrying out indiscriminate raids in black communities. The long-standing segregation of northern cities did not escape Detroit, and despite the success of the auto industry, the city was already losing jobs to the suburbs. As the moneyed classes of the city moved into the outlying areas, they took pieces of the city with them. The suburbs remained affluent, and Detroit became a national punchline, an example of a city where everything was and would always be wrong.

So the noncommittal answer I get when I talk about the Kronk being back makes perfect sense. Detroit has been declared dead. Detroit has been declared reborn. Neither are really true. The city survives, just like the gym that produced one of its greatest trainers and one of its greatest fighters. And as for what comes next, well, we’ll see.

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The third incarnation of the Kronk is located in the basement of the Fountain of Life Church on Mettetal Street, and from its fearsome reputation, it’s a surprise to walk into such a modest little space. You don’t get the sense of what’s going on in here until you look around at the walls, taking in the posters and the photos of famous champions. This gym wasn’t just a proving ground for the great fighters of Detroit, it was a beacon for champions from all over the country.

There was a reason for that, and his name was Emanuel Steward.

Born in West Virginia and raised in Detroit, Steward was a fearsome young fighter, winning 94 of 97 fights as an amateur and taking the national Golden Gloves Championship in 1963. After passing on the chance at a professional career, he became an electrician for Detroit Edison, and might never have gone back to boxing if it hadn’t been for his brother James, who convinced Emanuel to take him to the nearby Kronk Recreation Center and show him some moves.

The original Kronk boxing gym was located in the recreation center’s basement. Built in 1921 and named after city councilman John Kronk, the old building sits abandoned today. The windows are knocked out and the brick is sprayed with graffiti. A playground behind the building is covered in overgrown grass. I stopped there to look at it and, to my own shame and discredit, I took a few photos. I’m not sorry I went to see the place, but it was wrong of me to take the pictures and I erased them minutes later. It’s not my place to show pictures of abandoned temples like this. I watched people do this for years in New Orleans, riding through the neighborhoods in air-conditioned busses with tinted windows, snapping photos of the New Orleans they saw on TV, taking home souvenirs of devastated neighborhoods as their driver droned on like they were doing a tour of the zoo.

The original Kronk Recreation Center is destroyed, and will likely never have the funding to get fixed up. If you’re a disaster pornographer, you can go take photos of it and post them on your Instagram and call them art. If you’re a boxing fan, stay away. Read about it. The old place, I’m sorry to say, is gone.

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Six months after Emanuel Steward’s first session with his brother, James was a Detroit Golden Gloves champion. Shortly after, Emanuel was asked to be the head coach of the Kronk’s boxing program. He took the job at a salary of 35 dollars a week and began one of the most impressive runs of success of any trainer in history. He was named U.S. National Coach of the year in 1977. In 1980, he coached Hilmer Kenty to a title shot in the lightweight division, where Kenty became the first world champion boxer from Detroit since Joe Louis. Over the years, Steward would train a multitude of champions, from Lennox Lewis to Michael Moorer to current linear heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitchko.

But of all the champions Steward worked with, none was more closely associated with him, or with the Kronk, than Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns.

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Thomas Hearns with Emanuel Steward. (photo: Boxingfutures.com)

Tommy Hearns. The Motor City Cobra. The Hitman. A tall, wiry kid who didn’t look like a fighter when he first entered the gym. He came in because he wanted a way to fight back against bigger kids who kept stealing from him. His first day in the ring, a better fighter broke his nose. Hearns straightened it out and came right back. Eight years later, he won his first professional title.

He was an extraordinary fighter, preposterously tall and thin, with long arms that gave him a reach advantage over almost anyone in his weight class. A fighter with those natural advantages often develops as a pure boxer, a quick moving dart thrower who depends on outpointing their opponents and keeping them at bay with their jab. What separated Hearns was that, in addition to his boxing skills, he possessed a right hand punch that could separate any normal human being from the planet. It was brutal, demonic. He would hit good fighters, even great fighters, and they would fold like a tent. He scored one of the greatest knockouts in history when he floored Roberto Duran in Las Vegas with a punch you could feel through the TV screen. At the time, Duran (one of the five greatest fighters ever to put on the gloves) had never been knocked out in 82 professional fights. Hearns totalled him in the second round. The knockout punch is impossible. It’s the only punch I’ve ever seen that looks just as fast in slow motion as it does at regular speed.

The knockout punch comes at 0:35. It is not for the faint of heart.

It was the partnership of Steward and Hearns that made the Kronk an internationally recognized name in the boxing community, but it was the conditions that made the fighters who came out of it so strong. Steward liked to crank up the heat in the basement of the building to over 90 degrees. Fighters would pour sweat as they trained. Steward would move through the haze, offering encouragement, dispensing advice. It was the kind of place that fighters would call magic, and mean it.

And, as noted, the original is gone. Like the old 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach where Muhammad Ali cut his teeth, like Joe Frazier’s gym in North Philadelphia, the original had to be replaced when the situation became untenable. In 2006, thieves stole the building’s copper piping. With no money coming in to replace or repair what needed replacing and repairing, the building closed, and the gym moved to a storefront in Dearborn, continuing with the original Kronk name.

That the Kronk survived its original shutdown was largely due to the force and reputation of Emanuel Steward. But when Steward passed away in 2012, the second location went with him.

It took three years to find a new home. Then, this past Memorial Day, with Tommy Hearns on hand, the Kronk quietly reopened in its new location at 9520 Mettetal Street.

When I walk in, four months after the grand opening, there are about five fighters working in the ring, including Lanardo Tyner, one of Floyd Mayweather’s top sparring partners. I ask Tyner if I can snap a photo of him at work for my blog.

“Yeah,” he says. “You come all that way you gotta get that shot.”

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Lanardo “Pain Server” Tyner works the bag in the new Kronk gym.

Also in the gym are a pair of brothers, Brandon Cayce and Tobias Wiggins, both of them fighters since they were kids. Cayce gets in the ring against Lanardo Tyner, and holds his own against the pro until he takes a big shot that puts him to one knee. He comes out of it fine, with a little blood on his nose, and a desire, like a lot of great fighters, to get back in the ring. He’s an amateur fighter, but here at the Kronk he gets to step in the ring with an established, title-winning professional who has sparred regularly with Mayweather, which puts him just one degree away from the man many consider the best fighter of his generation.

His brother, Tobias, is in the gym for the first time. He tells me he’s been fighting a long time, but never took it seriously. Today, he feels, is the beginning of a change in that mentality.

“My brother said he was coming out today,” he says. “Well, I wasn’t doing anything. So I came out.”

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Tobias Wiggins on his first day at the Kronk.

Sometimes it starts like that. Then the first day turns into the fifth day, which turns into the fifth week, and pretty soon you’ve built up a habit. Every one of the greatest fighters to ever put on the gloves had their first day in the gym, and something about that day made them keep coming back. They get beaten up and beaten down, and they walk right back in.

It’s impossible to separate the story of Detroit from that of the Kronk, but that story has taken on a familiar tone among the tellers. People like to espouse the popular narrative of the city that surrounds this gym: that it’s the tragic center of a tragic story, a once great city that will never be great again. But great cities like Detroit have much in common with the fighters they produce. They take their shots. They get off the mat. They straighten out their nose and they come back swinging.

This city, and this gym, have greatness in their bones. Only a fool would count them out.

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The Kronk Gym is located at 9520 Mettetal Street on Detroit’s west side. They have a website here and a Facebook page here.

On Becoming an Uncle (and a Better Brother)…

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The phone call came at one in the morning, just as I was leaving the High-Hat Lounge. My brother-in-law never sounds frantic, and he didn’t sound frantic now. But he was calling me at one in the morning, and that was a first.

My sister was going to have the baby, and they needed someone to watch their toddler. Right now. A car was already on the way.

Two years ago, I became an uncle for the first time, but I’ve hardly spent any time at all with my niece. My sister Meghan and her family live in Chicago. I live in New Orleans. But my summer travel plans had put me, partly by design, in the right place at the right time. They were going to have baby number two, and they needed someone at the house while they went to the hospital. I barely had a chance to say hello to my sister or my brother-in-law before they were out the door, leaving me with my two-year old niece.

“Lulu’s asleep,” they told me. “Just look out for her if she wakes up. She probably won’t.”

And as it turned out, she didn’t. I sat on the couch and dozed off for a while, and around 2:30 in the morning I got the text that my sister had the baby. It had been an emergency. The umbilical cord was wrapped around the little girl’s head and they had to do a Caesarian to get her out. My sister bled a lot. Everyone was scared. All of this while I was lying on the couch, there in case of an emergency at the house that never came.

If there’s one thing above all others that I’m grateful for on this trip, it’s that I was in Chicago for that moment. I didn’t do much. I slept. Ate some ice cream. And after a few hours my brother-in-law showed up and I went home. He looked a little shaken, and it wasn’t until later I found out that he went almost 30 hours without sleeping. My watch had been an easy one.

But it’s the simple fact that I got to be there. That I had a chance to be present for my sister at an unbelievably important moment and contribute something very small at just the right time. I couldn’t have done this if I hadn’t been traveling, and it’s one more notch on the column of reasons why I want to be on the road more. I’ve long thought of travel as something that took me away from old familiar places into new and exciting ones. But I’ve had a sizable paradigm shift over the past two months. This trip has been made up, primarily, of visits to familiar places to reconnect with familiar people, and the old places have become exciting because of the relationships I’m able to nurture when I’m there.

The afternoon after the birth, I went to the hospital to see my sister and the baby. It was, to say the obvious, a special moment. I’ve never held a newborn, and here was this tiny creature, not even 12 hours old, in a little crib right next to my exhausted and smiling sister. I looked at the baby and I started crying. I couldn’t explain it. She was beautiful, but there was something else that I have yet to identify, and have given up trying to. Everything in me wanted to protect this child. Every part of me was ready to face down an army to do it.

I went to Meghan and kissed her on the cheek. She thanked me for being there for them.

“Meg, I sat on your couch and ate ice cream,” I told her. “If that’s helping you out, I’ll help you out every day.”

She laughed it off, but I don’t know if she knew how much that meant to me. In all the years I’ve known her, I honest to God can’t think of a time when I really got to be there for Meg. Of the four siblings, I think we’ve always been the least alike. But when I sat in that room with her husband and her daughter, and I held my brand new niece in my arms and cried while that little creature slept, it all felt just right. This was a gift for me, to be there and get to hold that child.

We’re family. This is how we look out for each other.

Chicago: Biscuits and Whiskey

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I should know better. I always should know better. Michael puts that shot of Jeppsen’s Malort in front of me and I know, in the back of my squirming dinosaur brain, that it’s going to taste like licking a shag carpet that’s been treated with cough syrup. The first shot always tastes like that. Malort is the only liquor I’ve ever tasted that requires doing reps to come around on. If you don’t like it on the first shot (and almost nobody does), you need a second and a third. Eventually, you can grow to like the taste and, so I’m told, even love it.

Whether you like it or not, it is a pure Chicago rite of passage. And that, I suspect, is it’s true appeal. I’ve learned to tolerate Malort, and to enjoy it as part of a ritual (doing a shot of it is pretty much the first thing Michael and I do when we see each other). But I have never learned to love the actual taste of it. Still, I never get tired of seeing some East Coast bar connoisseur cringe and gag when they get their first taste of that Chicago poison. The stuff just assaults your palate, and I’ve seen people practically yank their own tongues out to get rid of the taste.

But I choke back that first shot anyway, as Michael slaps me on the side of the face and says, “Welcome home.”

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Me with Michael Polino: bartender, bar owner, and perennial bad influence.

I’m home again. I’m always home when I’m in Chicago. It’s a city that still takes good care of me, all these years after I left, and that I can still wrap myself up in when I get back. I often tell people that the only reason I don’t live in Chicago is because New Orleans exists.

Michael was practically my personal bartender at the Green Mill for years, which has been one of the greatest bars in Chicago since Al Capone used it as his personal speakeasy. I’m not a heavy drinker, but I find that my nighttime social life in Chicago revolves around bars. Like New Orleans, Chicago bars function as meeting houses. News is exchanged, stories are told. Some of these bars have regulars who don’t even drink. They just show up the same way they’d read the newspaper.

Last year, Michael opened up his own bar. It’s called the High-Hat Club, and it recently won the coveted title of “Best Malort Bar in Chicago.” It’s got a mix of deeply felt Chicago confidence with a touch of New Orleans style thrown in, including a weekly brass band concert and a menu that leans toward Louisiana. The best part, for me, was being in the bar on the night of a Goodfellas trivia contest, during which I won a fax machine, because apparently I needed one of those.

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This will come in handy when I attempt to pick up ladies in 1989.

That’s not true, though. About the best part. The best part was being in the bar at one in the morning when my brother-in-law called me to tell me that I was about to become an uncle again, and that I better get the hell over there to watch my niece so he and my sister could run to the hospital.

But that’s another story.

This story is about the family I’ve chosen, a large chunk of which resides in Chicago. And no one in Chicago feels more like family than Drew and Belen.

I met Drew first, a good fifteen years ago. Both of us attempting to be writers. He was an authority on all things pertaining to anarchy, punk rock, and philosophy. He had a poster from the Italian Communist Party in his living room because someone in Italy had simply decided that, since he accidentally wandered into the party headquarters, that he must be a member. And when Drew explained that he wasn’t a communist, he was an American, the man exclaimed, “Americano Communista! Che bella!” And gave him two posters: one for him, and one for The Revolution.

He met Belen a decade or so ago. They’re one of the best couples I know, perhaps because they are two of the best fighters I’ve ever met. I mean this sincerely. There’s nothing hidden with these two. Everything gets out in the open in loud, frequently spectacular arguments that are frequently hilarious when viewed from the outside. They are both debaters. Drew relies on his logic and Belen relies on her volume (and I have seen grown men cower in corners when Belen works herself up into a fully-formed, towering rage). And when the fight is done, they kiss and go to bed and get up in the morning and go on loving the hell out of each other.

And for reasons only they know, they continue to love the hell out of me. They’ve offered me shelter in some of the darkest moments of my life, and they are always there to put me up when I roll through town. I read a poem at their wedding. Two years ago, when they had their son Marco, they asked me to be his godfather.

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Drew and Marco.

I’m not quite certain what role a godfather has, but being in Chicago on this swing was the first chance I’d had to really spend time with the kid. Belen asked me to babysit the little squirt, which pretty much involved me chasing him around and trying to keep him from picking up anything sharp. I think the people who offer the most advice on parenting are people who don’t have kids yet. I wouldn’t think to tell anyone how to deal with a crying baby when I can barely get one to stay away from the Cuisinart.

I spent time with three critters on this trip. My godson, my niece, and my brand new niece (who I will be writing about shortly). I’m on the verge of turning 37, and I’m not a father. But the opportunity to be a part of the lives of the kids in my family is starting to feel like a priority for me. During my visit to Chicago, I found myself telling people that I would be spending a month or two every year in Chicago from now on.

I’d like that. I had aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins who were always present in my life growing up. It seemed a natural thing to have various members of the family pick me up from school. I want to be a part of their lives the same way, and I expect I’ll be turning my life toward a more seasonal existence in the coming years, following the sun, possibly even following the work. Most importantly, landing in the middle of another branch of the family as those branches continue to grow.

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Zeeshan the Biscuit Man.

 Another member of my extended Chicago family is Zeeshan Shah. A lot of friends of mine are in transitional phases right now, and the beauty is that most are moving from doing something they like to doing something they love. Zeeshan spent years working for a restaurant group that promised him his own kitchen as soon as the stars aligned. Next year, they said. And when next year came, they said next year again. After five years, Zeeshan dropped out and started his own pop-up, a biscuit centered kitchen serving breakfast in the Long Room, a longtime favorite bar of mine on Irving Park that has decided to move into the breakfast world. They serve coffee, good coffee, at the bar, and Zeeshan whips up things like a biscuit and gravy with a folded egg on top, duck egg chilaquiles, and a pork belly BLT on a biscuit. Which I suppose would make it a BBLT.

Zeeshan tells me this is a welcome change, but it’s always kind of hard to tell. You could shoot a gallon of coffee into his bloodstream and he’d still sound like he just woke up. I’ve never met a man whose excitement was harder to gauge.

“You happy?” I ask him.

He says, “Yeah,” and it sounds like he’s yawning.

 Zeeshan’s cooking up a storm, doing what he should be doing and hoping he finds a way to make this work into something bigger. He doesn’t let on, but I’m sure like the rest of us, there are concerns about the finances. Making this leap meant more control, which also meant more responsibility and a big paycut and no net if the bottom drops out. I sat there with him and my friend Alan Neff, a writer and lawyer whose counsel has been invaluable to me over the years. None of us anticipated the place we would be in five years ago. All of us are trying to do what we love. In a sense, wherever we sit in age, we often find ourselves on similar trajectories. Trying to shape something beautiful and connect with people.

This is my Chicago. I come back, every time, and I’m surrounded by people doing their work. Really doing it. Not just talking about it like I do so often. They get up, they go to their station, they hold it down. Day after day, they start and finish their watch. The days accumulate, and they find they’ve made something worth sharing. It’s a strange little life we’ve all carved out as artists, and the hardest part is convincing yourself it can’t wait. You have to put it at the front and not bow to the millions of reasons you need to be doing something else.

At a bar on the edge of town, shortly after I arrived, my friends Rachel Webster and Tim Cook gave a reading to small crowd of poets. There are a million times when it feels like the work we are doing is only something we do for each other. It often is. The trick is learning to appreciate that, and to know that the fact that your friends want you to keep going is reason enough to do it.

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The High-Hat Lounge is located at 1920 W. Irving Park Road. They have a website here.

The Biscuit Man is located inside the Long Room at 1612 W. Irving Park Road. They have a Facebook Page.

Life on the Fringe: Apache County, Arizona

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Heading deep into the desert with a friend who has made a forgotten piece of the world into her new home.

“It’s a drive,” Patricia told me, then held up the map. About an hour down the highway, we’d take an exit, drive for twenty minutes, then turn down a dirt road. “It’s another hour from there.”

I told her she was giving new meaning to “off the grid.”

It was late, so I did my best to follow her in the maze of taillights along Interstate 40. Near the New Mexico state line, we took an exit and stopped for gas, then continued down to that first dirt road. I didn’t quite believe her when she said it would be another hour, but as the road twisted and wound, as the lights of everything except our two trucks disappeared and the increasingly high weeds started to whack the undercarriage of my Ford, I started to realize how completely screwed I would be if my truck chose that moment to break down.

This is where Patricia has chosen to build her life.

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The road to Patricia’s land, as seen the following morning.

There are few places in the country more isolated than this area that Patricia has set up. It’s not just the geography. The weather has a bone to pick with anyone who decides to make this place home. Temperatures soar over 100 degrees in the summer and plummet below freezing in the winter. The wind gusts, at times, over 50 miles per hour. There are few trees for shade. There are critters aplenty (I saw a couple coyotes in the morning), minimal rainfall, and few opportunities for growing one’s own food.

Patricia loves it.

This isn’t just about going off the grid for her. There’s a higher purpose at work. She sees the land as neglected, degraded. She wants to put her time in and help it regenerate, grow, and bloom. Ideally, this eventually becomes land she could live off of full time.

We hit her property at around midnight and I looked up at the Milky Way scattered across the sky. Among other advantages, places like Patricia’s spot offer some of the greatest stargazing in the world.

“You take the Yurpee,” she said. “I’ll sleep in my truck.”

“I can’t take your house, Patricia.”

“You take it. You’re the first houseguest I’ve ever had.”

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The “Yurpee.”

Patricia bought this land two years ago. A little over a year ago, she raised the Yurpee (a combination yurt/teepee). It’s a small operation, just big enough for one person to sleep in. Many nights, particularly when the wind is howling, she sleeps in her truck. But the structure is solid, standing up to the brutal winds that roll uninterrupted across the Colorado Plateau.

Little by little, she’s putting her home together. It’s a pioneer existence, though the Yurpee makes me think more the nomads of Mongolia than of any settlers of the American West. For money, she works as a copy editor, driving into town to use the Internet, post her work, then head back to the middle of nowhere.

I’ve known Patricia for around eight years, and what makes her existence so astounding to me is that she’d never done anything like this before. Sure, she learned a lot of permaculture work while living on a farm before she moved out here, but she was working with a team of people, many of whom had been living this way for years. To suddenly snag twenty acres of land far away from anything she knows and attempt to homestead on it takes a staggering amount of guts.

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Morning view from inside the Yurpee.

In the morning, she takes me around the property. Over here, the future orchard. Over here, the strawbale. And right here, the greenhouse.

She tells me the land already looks different than when she first arrived. She heats some water on a Coleman stove, pulls out a couple of oranges, and we have a breakfast of fruit and tea in the middle of the endless sagebrush.

“I like it out here,” I say.

“You’re welcome anytime,” Patricia tells me. “I don’t get a lot of visitors.”

And from the way she says it, I gather she’s just fine with that.

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Patricia is keeping a blog of her progress on the land. It’s called Fringed Sage, and you can find it here.

The Hourglass Point: Arizona in Three Parts

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A return to a former home, my old college campus, a show I started 15 years ago, and the years when I started to grow up.

I tell my grandmother, over the phone, that this is where the pivot happened. This is where I began to shed a lost, confused, directionless adolescence and move into something resembling adulthood. When I say this, I’m standing in a plaza in Flagstaff, Arizona, and I am referring to the town itself. I went to school here, earned a degree, started a poetry reading that continues fifteen years later with no help from myself, and began to move toward a life that would fall apart, and the next life I would build from the wreckage.

There are points in our lives like an hourglass. Everything we have ever done seems to come together at one extremely narrow aperture. We sense that we were always moving in the direction of some decision or some movement forward where everything would be clear, where we would step through an invisible barrier and, on the other side, encounter a limitless sense of possibility.

If I paint that transition within myself as an arc, and if I lay that arc down on a map, it would look something like my drive through the state of Arizona.

PART I—PHOENIX

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I like to quote the David Ives when anyone asks me about Phoenix: “It’s like death, without the advantages.”

The Phoenix Valley, which encompasses the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Chandler, Mesa, and a dozen or so other municipalities, is a wasteland with all the cultural amenities one could ask for. There are nice restaurants, beautiful golf courses, and the other comforts of a city where people with money who have fled other states have brought their comfort with them. And all you have to do to access these things is to live inside a convection oven with all the personality and charm of a root canal. The streets are too wide. The houses are too big. The dominant architectural style is strip-mall. Everything is stucco. When Henry Miller’s wrote of “the air-conditioned nightmare,” this city could very easily have been what he was talking about.

I lived here for two and a half years.

One of the problems with going to college right out of high school is that many people simply aren’t ready yet. I fell into that category: an immature, confused, horny tennager (is there any other kind?) so bad at making decisions that I decided to spend my first two years of school in central Pennsylvania, surrounded by racists, homophobes, and a social life that centered around drinking until the lights went out with people I had nothing in common with.

So when I moved out to Arizona at 19, it was a relief. For a while. I went to school on a sprawling campus and continued to have no idea what to do with my life. When my mother visited me and commented on how ugly the city was, I got very pissed off at her for being right.

I only went to school here for a year and a half before dropping out and delivering pizzas while I figured out my next move. I know there are jobs way more depressing than delivering pizzas at three o’clock in the morning to drunks. I’ve had a few of them. But I’ve never worked one that left me more physically and mentally drained every day, which is not how I expected to feel at 20.

One very good thing came out of my life in Phoenix. I got started in this art form called slam poetry, and within weeks of attending my first slam, it became the center of my existence in Phoenix. I was suddenly surrounded by people who took writing seriously, and who forced me to take it seriously. I’d always enjoyed any class that involved writing, always wrote stories in some form. I was always building worlds in my head. What going to the poetry slams taught me was that this wasn’t enough. You had to sit down and do the work and do it consistently. You had to put it out there, good or bad, and if it failed, you had to learn why and come back stronger.

If I hadn’t discovered this form, I doubt I would have returned to school. At least not for a while. But I did. I enrolled at Northern Arizona University, moved to Flagstaff, and started a poetry slam in a bar called The Alley. Fifteen years later, that show is still running.

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Brent Heffron, one of the first regulars at the Flagstaff Poetry Slam.

Now, I’ve said all of this awful shit about Phoenix. But the reality is that my 24 hours there on this trip was one of the best days I’ve ever had in the city. I still have a community there, and it’s a community that has built up over the years in a strange fashion. I started off having lunch with my friend Kris, who has been through a divorce and a marriage since last I saw her, and a walk though Old Town Scottsdale. It was so good to see her I didn’t even mind that we were surrounded by chain stores and a strange little canal that only serves as a reminder that this entire water-burning megalopolis has no business being where it is.

From there, it was on to a coffee shop to see Brent Heffron. Brent was one of the first readers at the very first Flagstaff Poetry Slam 15 years ago, and I can’t recall him ever missing a show in the year and a half I ran the thing. He was one of those people that gravitate to this art form seemingly out of a vacuum. He’d never been a writer, was still trying to figure out how to express something building up inside him, and suddenly had this forum where he could bring all the strange energy boiling under his skin and give it a home. He worked harder than just about any other writer in those years that I first knew him, and we would run into each other at the National Poetry Slam for years afterward.

We spent about three hours talking, and the overwhelming impression I had was of a man very comfortable with his life. I’d seen the same thing the previous days, visiting my friend Logan, who also came up with the slam. He and Brent had competed together when they were still in school, and there was something reflected by each of them in the other. They’ve become grown men, fathers, homeowners. They’ve settled close to where they grew up and are working to improve their communities. And seeing the two of them on consecutive days, I had a revelation about travel I’d never had before. It came when I suggested Brent come to New Orleans for a visit.

“If I can,” he said. And I knew he meant it. But I realized that when he could was going to be a long time from then. He’s got responsibilities, good ones, that he is tending to. I thought about Logan, working in his garden, teaching high schoolers, raising his daughters. I hadn’t seen either of these men in five years, and it hit me that if I hadn’t come out to see them, it could easily have been another five years before we saw each other again. If I want to maintain a face-to-face relationship with them, and with the dozens of other friends and family members I have scattered around the country, that will necessitate travel. And if they can’t do it (and many of them can’t), then I will. Because I can.

Travel as a means to community.

And for all the venom I spit at Phoenix, for all the sarcasm and disdain I unleash in its direction, I find it interesting that it is the place where, fifteen years ago, I began to take my writing seriously, and the place where, all these years later, I realized there is something deeper in my need to travel. Sitting there with Brent, I stumbled upon a new reason for being on the road. It’s about family. The family I was born to, as well as the family I’ve chosen. I love both of these families, and I want to keep them together.

PART II—MEMORIES ON HIGHWAY 89A

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It’s one of the most beautiful drives in the country, a snaking road through Oak Creek Canyon and the impossibly red rocks of Sedona. It starts from the former territorial capital of Prescott, where residents once responded to a hotel fire by picking up the hotel’s bar, carrying it across the street to the grassy area around the courthouse, and continuing to drink at the displaced bar while the hotel burned down (and yes, the bar is still there). From there, it’s up to the strange little artists’ colony of Jerome, once a billion-dollar copper mine, then a ghost town when the mines when dry, and now a home to retirees and artist types who’ve made a new community thrive in this town pressed into the side of a mountain. It’s a vertical town, and you change streets by climbing stairs up to the next one. If you’re in a car, you wind down the switchbacks, then make your way to the tourist Mecca of Sedona, famous for it’s beautiful red rock mountains and its weird, overproduced, pseudo-hippie downtown, where you can find everything from fringed leather jackets to stands where a mystic will photograph your aura.

I could write a great deal about that road. But right now, I’d rather write about Christopher Lane.

When I started the Flagstaff Slam in 2000, a poet from Dallas who’d recently moved to the area became a regular, and eventually became a member of the first Flagstaff team to compete at the National Poetry Slam in 2001. When I left town in 2002, Christopher helped take over the show, then took it in directions I never dreamed of.

He founded a group called NORAZ Poets in 2003, and used it to to help facilitate workshops, run shows and, most impressively, to create the Arizona branch of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. He became one of the most important poets and community organizers in the state, performed hundreds of times for people of every age range. He’d been through extraordinary hardship in his life, and had somehow emerged as one of the most generous and thoughtful artists I’ve ever met.

One day in 2012 I got an email from Brent Heffron. Christopher had died. He lay down one day to take a nap and never woke up. He was only 40 years old.

We hadn’t been in touch for a couple of years. Not on purpose. Nothing had happened. I’d just moved into a different life and didn’t see him or talk to him much for a while. Then not at all. We simply lost touch.

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Christopher Lane (photo: Janise Witt)

When I first met Christopher, he was living in a trailer on a ridge in Oak Creek Canyon, right above a general store that sold jewelry and served impossibly good sandwiches. It was a peaceful place, both secluded and close enough to the main highway to take his motorcycle out on long rides across the state. We used to sit under the awning of his trailer and talk about writing. I was always blown away by his sensitivity, his incredible ability to empathize. He became a mentor to a lot of people in the poetry scene almost from the beginning, and it came as no surprise to me when I heard about the world-shaping work he was doing in the time after I left the state.

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Christopher lived on the ridge just behind this store.

I stopped at the old general store and walked around. I kept looking up that ridge where Christopher had his home. I’ve spent most of my life trying to learn how to write, to share what I’ve picked up, to have some small impact on the people around me. I want people to know about Christopher Lane, and I hope that talking about him and writing about his life is a small way of continuing what he did. It’s astonishing what this guy put together in Arizona in less than a decade. I’d like to have even a share of the impact on the people around me that Christopher had on me and everyone he touched. Maybe I can do that. I hope so.

PART III—FLAGSTAFF

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Flagstaff. The center of the hourglass. The pivot point. One of the most important places in my life.

And if it wasn’t for Justin and Erin, a place where I would no longer have anywhere to stay.

A couple years ago, my dear friends Justin Bigos and Erin Stalcup moved to Flagstaff. Our paths have had an interesting way of winding around each other over the years. They both teach at Northern Arizona University, where I went to school. They met each other the same place I met them: at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. And, I didn’t realize until years later, Erin  used to come out to the shows I ran while she was growing up in Flagstaff. Small world.

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Justin, Erin, and a lot of tamales.

I used to stay with these two in Brooklyn on my swings through New York. Now, they were establishing themselves in a quiet mountain town that couldn’t be more different from their last residence. We spent the evening catching up, eating dinner, and making plans to attend the Flagstaff Poetry Slam, which is still running a decade and a half after I thought it would be a good idea to start a reading there.

The Flagstaff Slam, after years of moving around, is back in the same location it started in. The location houses a completely different business in a completely redesigned room, but it was kind of beautiful for me to come back and see the show running in the same spot as it was in my early twenties. Deep down, I sort of hoped I’d see some of those old faces at the show. Brent. Logan. Dom. Julie. Frank. Josh. Suzy. Christopher Lane. But it was a brand new, very young crowd, and it all felt very far away. There was no one I knew there, and no one who knew me. Maybe that’s how it should be at this point. I’m thrilled the show is still running, but it would be foolish to say I have any real connection to it now. I started something 15 years ago, but it has taken dozens, maybe hundreds of people to keep it running this long. The show is theirs. It belongs to the city.

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Looking into the Flagstaff Poetry Slam.

The following day, Justin invited me to talk to his class about writing and traveling. I spoke for about twenty minutes, and all I really remember saying was that the best part about being a writer was the relationships you develop. Everyone I’d visited, and everything I’d done in Arizona the previous week came out of a decision to take my writing seriously 15 years ago.

We travel these strange arcs. We drop stones along the way. We hope a few of them hit the water and ripple out.

 

The Camp Verde Bugle published a nice piece on Christopher Lane’s life. You can read it here.

A local affiliate did a good piece about Christopher and the Alheimer’s Poetry Project. It’s not enough of him, but it’s something. Watch it here:

 

Tucson and the New West

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The real shock was seeing Spring again.

The last time we saw each other—the only time we saw each other—was nine years ago, in Spain. I was still married, still in my twenties. She was still a rumor until that trip, the girlfriend of my good friend Logan. They were traveling in Ireland. I was living in France. We made plans to meet up in Spain, and during that trip we shared one of the greatest days of my life. A hike through the Alhambra, dinner of wine and cheese and bread on a plaza overlooking the city of Granada as, below us, two hundred thousand people roared their support of the Spanish national soccer team.

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Me, Logan and Spring—Granada, Spain, 2006

Since that trip, Logan and Spring have moved to Mexico, broken up, moved back to the States, found their way back to each other, fell back in love, and now live in Tucson where they own a home and, less than a year ago, became the parents of two beautiful twin girls.

When Spring came out and hugged me that first morning I couldn’t think of anything to say except, “Been awhile.”

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Spring and I playing chess in Spain, 2006.

There’s a kind of sadistic delight older people take in reminding young people that they, too, will age. Having grown up with my grandparents, I considered aging to be a good career move. You get old, you retire, you spend the day telling stories to your grandkids and having cocktail parties at night. My grandparents remain the most fun people I’ve ever met.

The part I never anticipated was that, as I got older, my friends would get older too. That they would get jobs, have children, and settle into lives you couldn’t have imagined when you were in school together. In the fourteen years Logan and I have known each other I’ve watched him grow from a grinning 19 year-old skater who dabbled in poetry to an internationally touring performance artist, teacher, and activist with a deep spiritual connection to the land he lives on, and the idea that everything he can change, and everything the kids he teaches can change, begins with a relationship to the land.

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Logan Phillips in his Tucson neighborhood, 2015.

Logan and I have always been voracious travelers. We’ve both lived abroad (he in Mexico, me in France). We’ve both embraced nomadic existences for most of our lives, occasionally crossing paths in far flung points on the map. Now here we were on the back porch of a house he owned and had every intention of raising his family in. He motioned inside with his hand, referring to both his partner and his daughters. “I don’t want to do anything but work in my garden and spend time with my girls. That’s what’s most important to me now.”

For Logan, life now is all about this kind of tender care. His major concerns—raising children, gardening, running a youth poetry organization, teaching in schools—all share the common thread of helping living things grow with care and attention. In his garden, he takes me through an introduction to permaculture, a word he uses with a wink.

“It’s not like this is something new,” he says. “People have been using these techniques for centuries. We’ve just forgotten most of it in the last hundred years.”

A garden in the desert of the southwestern United States is a dicey proposition to begin with. The sun is merciless, water is scarce. Yet Logan has managed to take his garden completely off the city’s water grid, primarily by using rainwater caught off his roof, which collects in a few pots around the house, and one very large water tank that he uses to irrigate several parts of the garden.

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The water tank. Gravity is used as the water’s primary delivery mechanism.

 But rain doesn’t just hit the roof, so Logan dug ditches throughout the property to manage the flow of water during the worst storms of the year. And for the times of year when the rain isn’t falling, there are old methods of keeping the plants alive.

Perhaps the most unique method—at least to IMG_1527anyone outside of the southwestern U.S. or northern Mexico, is the use of ollas. Ollas are ceramic pots that can be used as slow release watering systems inside of larger pots. What Logan has done—and what has been done for centuries—is to place the olla inside of a larger pot so that the lid is still exposed. Then he pours water into the olla, and the soil leeches the water out through the clay in the pot. Keeping a lid on the olla also prevents water from evaporating too fast, a major concern in this climate.

The idea, Logan tells me, is to get the land back to green a little bit at a time. If he can make these plants grow this year, he can make some more grow next year. There’s no better storage vessel for water, he reminds me, than the soil itself.

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Logan uses sunflowers as trellises for climbing bean sprouts.

But for Logan, this idea of permaculture has a flaw. “I think there’s too much focus on the land and not enough on people.”

We are walking through his neighborhood, the oldest one in Tucson, to see the shrine of El Tiradito. Roughly translated as “the castaway,” this is reportedly the only shrine in the country dedicated to a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground. The buried soul was reportedly one part of a love triangle, and whether it was the woman involved or one of the men she loved depends on which version of the story you read. Regardless of the shrine’s origins, it has become a symbol of the neighborhood of Tucson Viejo. In part because of the garlanded flowers and votive candles that surround it, and the prayers written on paper and slid into openings in the stone wall. More importantly, however, this shrine has become symbolic because its very existence is the reason the neighborhood exists today.

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El Tiradito shrine.

In the early 1970’s, the city of Tucson began construction on a massive project that would have plowed under the oldest part of the city to make room for a convention center and a freeway. The first phase, which cleared the way for the convention center, was completed, but the neighborhood held on to what was left by getting the shrine of El Tiradito listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As buildings on the register cannot be torn down, the city had to abandon its freeway plans, and the neighborhood managed to live on.

When we get to the shrine, Logan immediately sets about picking up candles that have fallen over and stacking them against the far wall. I join him.

“A lot of people think some places are too holy to touch,” he explains. “But holy things need just as much care as anything else. Maybe more.”

He invites me to leave a prayer in the wall, and I do. I tear a sheet of paper from my notebook and write a prayer for my mother and stick it in the wall. It’s not lost on me that the last time I saw Logan, and the last time I saw Spring, my mother was still alive.

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Prayers left in the crevices of the wall at El Tiradito.

We walk the neighborhood for a while longer. Logan tells me about the plans for his youth poetry workshop, Spoken Futures. Almost by accident, the group has become a torch bearer in the fight to keep Mexican-American studies alive at the high school level in Tucson. This is important, because in 2010 the state of Arizona banned Ethnic Studies classes in all public schools. The decision, particularly because it seemed to specifically target the Tucson Unified School District—which has a very high number of Latino students—was seen as racially motivated. This perspective was upheld recently when a federal appeals court ruled that a lawsuit against the law could move forward.

This is not the first law to generate accusations of racism in the state of Arizona. In 2010, the state also passed a law called SB 1070, which requires law enforcement to determine a person’s immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” the person might be an illegal immigrant. Despite accusations of racial profiling (the law is known locally as the “papers, please” law), SB 1070 remains on the books.

For many of the kids Logan teaches, these laws feed into the sense that there is a new southwest, and that they are not welcome in it. They are the castaways in this new vision of America, and their isolation is a byproduct of the fear and paranoia that surround debates about immigration. Maybe it’s no accident, then, that Logan envisions the Spoken Futures program being headquartered next to the El Tiradito shrine. Symbolic of the forgotten and abandoned, the shrine still had the power to turn back powerful forces. More importantly, it exists as a reminder of what this city was in its past, and of who laid the groundwork to make much of the state what it is today.

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Eventually, Logan and I wind our way back to the house. Spring is there, and the three of us sit in the kitchen, talking and reminiscing over a life that seems a million miles away on this bright day. Or maybe not. We all shared a moment in a sunblasted country nine years ago, and today we share another moment in another sunblasted country where these two old friends of mine have made their home, and make their stand.

A garden. A writing program. A family. These are people who grow things where people tell them nothing can grow. In the evening, we go to the back porch and watch the sun go down, the light playing on the leaves of the small trees in the garden. They look impossibly green.

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To learn more about Spoken Futures, visit their website right here.

Logan’s website, for all of his multi-media work, is right here. His book, “Sonoran Strange,” is available on the site.