From the Road: More Undead History

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A few more pictures from the hundreds I almost compulsively shot over the past week. After I go back to work this afternoon, the pictures will turn into a long-term photo editing project that I'll never quite get to. The shot above is from the Haymarket martyrs' memorial in Forest Home Cemetery (originally Waldheim, and when you see all the Germans buried there, you know why) in Forest Park, on Chicago's western boundary.

If you grow up around Chicago, at some point you encounter Haymarket in a history lesson. It seems long ago and far away, and of course in one sense it is: The events surrounding Haymarket began unfolding in 1886. But as I observed last week at the Little Bighorn battlefield, our history is too new to be settled, or at least much of it is, and forces are still contending to define or even own some chapters. Haymarket is one of those episodes that's still the object of curiosity for many and for a few at least a living symbol of the struggle for workers' rights.

We headed out there on an outing with my dad on Sunday. We had visited about four and a half years ago, and I still remembered how to get to the cemetery and find the memorial without asking. Our rounds went like this: first the Dairy Queen on Irving Park Road, near Central Avenue; then Mount Olive Cemetery, where my dad's parents and many other family members are buried; then the house my dad grew up in, on Nashville Avenue, and the neighborhood school he attended, Joseph Lovett Elementary. At that point, he said he wanted to go out to Harlem Avenue. OK — I could do that. With no destination in mind, I suggested stopping by Forest Home.

haymarket060511f.jpg I'm still surprised to find that the monument, and the nearby grave of Emma Goldman, still draw visitors who leave flowers and other tributes (I found the same at Mother Jones's grave in Mount Olive, Illinois; and just last week, when we visited the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, I saw that folks are leaving flowers and other small remembrances for Wild Bill Hickok and Martha Jane Burke (Calamity Jane) and Seth Bullock–all notable characters on a recent HBO series. People do feel attached to these figures from the past–though for now it's best not to digress into the quality of the attachment).

Of course, not all the latter-day feeling that modern visitors develop for the Haymarket memorial is necessarily very smart. On the back of the memorial, some clever lads–why do I think the perpetrators were male?–have gone to work with markers of some kind and added the legends in the photo above ("We are the birds of the coming storm" is a quote from August Spies, an anarchist who was among those hanged after the 1886 Haymarket bombing).

Why the impulse to do something so lame? Of course, that's been the question ever since teen-agers started chiseling smart-ass hieroglyphics into Egyptian tombs way back in the day. I suppose you could make the argument that it's better to be actively engaged with the history the monument represents–you know, jumping in and joining in the dialectic–than treating the space as sacred, sterile, and dead. Had the guys with the markers showed up while I was there, I think we'd haveour own lively dialectical exploration. (Click images for larger versions.)

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Road Blog: Berkeley

And on the seventh day, I flew home from Chicago. I began and ended the journey at the North Berkeley BART station, and at the extreme ends of the train schedule (last Tuesday, I caught a 4:30 a.m. train to take an early shuttle to the Oakland airport; tonight I arrived back on the very last train of the night and got home about 1 a.m.). Here are some basics:

Tuesday, May 31: Flew from Oakland to Seattle-Tacoma airport; drove with Sakura and Eamon from the airport to Butte, Montana. (Notable stops: Roslyn, Washington; Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; Superior, Montana).

Wednesday, June 1: Drove from Butte to Spearfish, South Dakota. (Notable stop: Little Bighorn Battlefield).

Thursday, June 2: Drove from Spearfish, South Dakota., to Council Bluffs, Iowa. (Notable stops: Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery, Crazy Horse monument, Mount Rushmore, Yankton, South Dakota (cool bridge there).

Friday, June 3: We split as previously planned. I flew to Chicago from Omaha. Eamon and Sakura drove to Independence, Missouri, by way of Lamoni, Iowa (and if you’re sharp you can tell me the connection between those two towns).

Saturday, June 4: I enjoyed my leisure in Chicago. Eamon and Sakura drove into town from Independence.

Sunday, June 5: Chicago for everyone.

Monday, June 6: Eamon and Sakura drove from Chicago to Youngstown, Ohio. They expect to be in New York today (Tuesday, the 7th). I flew from Chicago to San Francisco.

Road Blog: Chicago

Today, the road trip included zero time on the road. My sister and I did walk a few blocks up the street and back, though. And Eamon and Sakura arrived after their detour from Council Bluffs to Lamoni, Iowa, and Independence, Missouri. Their drive today brought them from Independence, Harry S Truman's hometown, through 100-degree temperatures in Missouri and severe thunderstorms near Bloomington, Illinois–family home of Adlai Stevenson, who failed to succeed Truman.

Thunderstorms passed through the Chicago area, too. It's an unusual enough occurrence for me, living in the mostly thunder-free Bay Area, that I went out into Ann and Dan's backyard and recorded some of the storm as it passed. The storm and recording were less than Wagnerian in its dramatic dimension, but was plenty atmospheric. Here's an MP3 snippet:

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Back on the other end of this trip, the endless rainy season of 2010-11 continues in the Bay Area and Northern California. To define "endless rainy season," we refer to the National Weather Service record report from earlier today, which runs down a few locations that saw their rainiest June 4th ever. An earlier forecast discussion raised the possibility that some locations might exceed their monthly records for the entire month of June today (a surprising possibility, but not an amazing one: we don't get a lot of rain on average in June; the June record for San Francisco, recorded in 1884, is about two and a half inches. One earlier report ran down rainfall totals over the region through late Saturday morning. Noteworthy: the 2-inch-plus totals in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the 3-inch plus amounts in the Santa Lucia Range in Monterey County.

It's more than I want to get into in detail at this late hour, but: water. One impression driving across the northern Rockies and Plains is how wet and green everything looks (but no, we didn't see any honest-to-goodness flooding in Montana or South Dakota) In California, you think of water supply when you see all the rain (and in the mountains, snow) we've been getting as the wet season continues. The state's daily report on its largest reservoirs shows storage is more than 110 percent of average for this date and the biggest lakes are close to capacity. In the mountains, the snowpack is still at 97 percent of its April 1 average–April 1 being the date when the snowpack is at its maximum. We're two months past that now, and the snowpack is at 343 percent of normal for the beginning of June (in a regional breakdown, the snowpack for the Northern Sierra and far northern mountains is at 559 percent of normal for this date (see California Department of Water Resources/California Data Exchange Center: Snow Water Equivalents).

Road Blog: Deer vs. Cars–the Numbers

When you tell people you hit a deer while driving, you find out everyone has their own story. One of my brothers hit a deer he never saw while driving a truck in western New York State (he was checking a mirror when the animal ventured onto the roadway; his passenger explained what the loud bang had been). My other brother was driving behind a pickup that hit a large buck; the animal smashed into the truck’s windshield and the antlers penetrated the glass. My sister’s best friend hit a deer. A coworker of my daughter-in-law hit one on a Bay Area freeway, and the deer came clear through the windshield.

A 1995 study for The Wildlife Society crunched some numbers from earlier studies and came up with an annual estimate of as many as 1.5 million deer-vehicle collisions nationwide. Since then, researchers have even come up with a shorthand term for this phenomenon: DVC. The study was titled “Review of human injuries, illnesses, and economic losses caused by wildlife in the United States,” and the deer-vehicle issue was just part of the overall picture. The study considered everything from Lyme disease to bird-aircraft strikes to wildlife damage to farming and ranching and tried to tote up the cost.

For deer-vehicle collisions, the estimated cost was huge: About 200 deaths, 29.000 injuries, and more than $1 billion in vehicle damage. The study also notes: “Being hit by a vehicle is fatal to deer about 92 percent of the time. These deaths can represent economic loss that we could not estimate.” (A current estimate of overall wildlife-vehicle collisions–crashes involving “large mammals”–puts the annual number at 1 million to 2 million and direct economic losses at $6 billion to $12 billion a year.)

That 1995 report and similar studies prompted researchers at several universities to try to undertake a more systematic way of assessing the million or more crashes happening on the highways every year. One result is the Deer-Vehicle Collision Information and Research Center (you can find it at deercrash.org), which has put some harder numbers to some aspects of the issue. For instance, the DVCIR Center breaks down the number of (human) fatalities in animal-vehicle collisions from 1994 through 2007. The highest death toll was in 2007, with 223 people killed nationwide (second place was 2006, with 222 deaths). The total killed nationwide in that 14-year period: 2,398. Texas led the country in motorist fatalities in animal-vehicle collisions in 12 of those 14 years.

The collision research has also led to testing of a Roadkill Observation Collection System (ROCS), a networked handheld device with GPS that would allow road crews and others to document locations and circumstances of carcasses found on roads and ditches and upload their reports to a centralized database.

And that brings me back to the ditch along that twilight section of Nebraska Route 12 we were traveling last night when we struck a deer. Nebraska recorded 41,028 deer-vehcile collisions from 1998 through 2008 (Dixon County, where we were last night, recorded 215 of those incidents). The Deer-Vehicle Collision Information and Research Center puts the number of Nebraska fatalities at 20 from 1998 through 2007 (and 29 from ’94-’07).

Lastt: Here’s an unsentimental (and unendorsed) view of all this from Reason magazine, that bastion of libertarianism: North America’s Most Dangerous Mammal.

Road Blog: Spearfish to Council Bluffs

Every road trip seems to entail one day that gets out of hand, a day you spend a lot more time on the road than you think is wise. Today–yesterday now–was such a day. We bit off a lot, saw a lot, encountered wonderful sights, had a few friendly chats with folks along the way, and wound up with a long grind of a drive east to put us where we wanted to be tonight.

To start at the end: We got where we were going, and I’m sitting in a comfortable motel room in Council Bluffs, Iowa, better than 600 miles from where we started the day. But something happened along the way.

Jump back about 120 miles from here, to Nebraska Route 12, just west of the little town of Ponca. It was dusk. I had been pushing consistently above the 60 mph speed limit in Eamon and Sakura’s new car, a Prius. Part of my brain was doing destination math, whittling down the distance to where I’m sitting now. Part of my brain was watching the road and monitoring everything on the displays in front of me.

The highway took a righthand bend, and my habit is to look through the turn, and I’ve got to think that’s what I was doing, looking right, when the deer appeared on the left side of the road. Sakura saw it first; she said she had seen a dead deer earlier and was watching out for any that might stray onto the road. She exclaimed something, and so did Eamon, sitting in the passenger seat. I saw a brown shape crossing in front of us. “Too late” is as close as I can translate the impulse that went through my head.

Then the impact: It seemed we made impact with the deer with the right front side of the car. It slammed into the front right side of the car, too, near the sideview mirror, as it was thrown up and to the right. The thought occurred that it hadn’t flown into the windshield. That was good. Then it was gone.

I slowed and pulled onto the shoulder about 150 yards down the road. In the car, we were all shocked but otherwise OK. Eamon and I walked back to see if we could find the deer. A man in a pickup truck stopped and rolled down his window. “We hit a deer,” I said. “You all OK?” he asked. I thanked him for stopping, then he rolled on.

Eamon and I walked back, looking for the deer in the ditch. There was just enough light to see it–her, I’m reasonably certain. She had come to rest on her left side, her head to the east. She wasn’t stirring–I’m reasonably certain, too, she was killed instantly. Marvelously intact and irretrievably broken, her left eye open and bottomless. Eamon looked down at her and said, “I’m sorry.” He was stricken and started walking back to the car.

I bent down over her in the dusk. Words came out. “I’m sorry, too. I’m sorry I took your life so brutally. I’m sorry to have taken your life for no purpose. I’m sorry I sent you back to the earth here in this ditch. If there’s a spirit, I hope it has flown and is free.”

Then I walked back to the car. It has some damage to the front end. I hope it’s all cosmetic, as expensive as that’s going to be. I know Eamon was feeling pretty bad about having his new ride banged up on its first voyage. I’m sorry about that, too–really sorry. And of course for the deer and for us I wish I could make the moment different from what it was. And it occurs to me that the moment could easily have been very different, and much worse: If I had swerved and rolled the car, say, or put the car into an uncontrolled skid.

I’ll always remember that righthand curve outside Ponca.

Road Blog: Butte to Spearfish

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The charm and allure of travel: visiting new places, seeing new things, meeting new people, and perhaps choosing not to eat at a chain or “American cuisine restaurant when you’re in unfamiliar territory (that assumes of course that you’re motel stop for the night is within hailing distance of that non-chain eatery, but I digress).

Today we hit the road in Butte about half past 8 in the morning and got off the road–the same Interstate 90 on which we’d been pounding our way eastward all day–at about half past 8 in the evening. Our major stop during that 12 hours: the Little Bighorn battlefield, a little more than 60 road miles east and south of Billings. I’d been there before; Eamon and Sakura never had been, but were game.

Much has changed on the battlefield since I visited with my dad in 1988. We were motivated by both having read Evan Connell’s “Son of the Morning Star,” his discursive, wandering appraisal of Custer and the Little Bighorn–both in myth and reality, as far as anyone can get to the “reality” of Yellow Hair’s climactic moment. (The interpretive efforts at the site have become a lot more sophisticated over the past couple of decades, but today I still came across a signboard of recent vintage that said something like, “no one can know Custer’s motives” in the decisions he made before his attack and during the battle itself. One hundred thirty-five years later and the “what ifs” abound.)

I believe that around the year we visited, some Lakota or other Native American activists had caused a stir by daring to stage a parallel event and place their own memorial marker on the battle’s anniversary days, June 25 and 26. That was probably not the first time, but it was a prelude to something serious and enduring. I saw several red granite markers on the field–red, one assumes, in contrast to the white marble markers placed in 1890 to mark the locations of where members of Custer’s command had fallen–that noted the location where Lakota and Cheyenne fighters died “defending their homeland and their way of life (see photos below, and click for larger versions). And in an apparent answer to the red stones, several new white headstones have appeared noting the deaths of several of Custer’s Arikara scouts; these stones note the scouts died defending their way of life. (American history: It’s too new to be over.) Beyond the stone wars, there are other signs, too: Native American guides conducting tourists through the battle sites and a beautiful memorial to the tribes present at the battle on both sides and the losses they suffered there (bottom photo).

Anyway, we spent a couple of hours driving and strolling sections of the battlefield. I made my companions wait while I tried to record sound and take pictures and visit just one more thing over there I’ll be right back! When I finally returned to the car, I apologized and said I hope it didn’t seem to be a repeat of a long ago (1988, too) trip to the Antietam battlefield with Eamon and my brother John. Eamon was going on 9 and didn’t quite grasp what was so interesting in the landscape that every 90 seconds or so we had to pull over and start pointing and jabbering. His moment came when we made it to a famous bridge on the battlefield. Eamon climbed up on one of the sides and walked across Antietam Creek while I held my breath–it was a long way down.

After Little Bighorn, we got back on I-90 for the drive southeast into Wyoming (the route I hoped to take, U.S. 212, is closed about 50 miles east of the battlefield because of a big slide). We whirred past Sheridan and Gillette, the distant Devil’s Tower, and within sight of the Black Hills. We decided to call it quits in Spearfish instead of going on to Deadwood: cheaper motel (I got my room for fifty dollars cash paid to a Hungarian tourist. True story), earlier night.

Tomorrow, we’re looking to make Omaha. What’s between here and there?

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From top: On Interstate 90, looking back from Big Timber to the Absaroka Mountains. Three photo panel from left: a stone marking the death of a civilian member of Custer’s regiment on the Little Bighorn battlefield; a stone marking the death of a Sans Arc Sioux warrior at the southern end of the battlefield, and stones for three Arikara scouts who died fighting with Custer’s command. Bottom: Sculpture at Native American memorial at battlefield, on the northern slope of “Last Stand Hill.” Click for larger images.