Parallel LivesIssue: Section:
What makes a place significant? Are there places that are geographically profound? Are there places that are linked? Our highways link our places, airlines have those maps of routes linking cities, a web of latitude and longitude lines connect places, and we all carry our personal links, we have routes where we once had roots.
As a member of the Jewish diaspora (and now the Northern California diaspora) living in Memphis, a place I am still surprised to find I live, I spend a lot of time thinking about place and what makes one place more significant than another. The walls of my childhood bedroom were covered with maps from National Geographic. Here in my life now, almost every night I dream that I am traveling. Last night I was in Brussels, a few nights ago I was bicycling across Africa.
One night in January of 2010 I woke up at three AM from a dream of flying. It was a dream that began glorious and then turned somewhat banal. I was levitating up over houses and fields moving at about the pace of a bird. I felt awesome and powerful as I soared over rooftops. To my left was my friend Bill who was also giddily rising up over barns and billboards. We decided to head to California and veered west. Then it occurred to me that as miraculous as our ability to fly might be, it was going to take us a ridiculously long time to get to the coast, many days probably. I woke, got out of bed, went into my studio and sat at my computer. I opened up Google-Maps and put in my home address, 3300 Woodhaven Drive, Memphis, Tennessee. (I’m still surprised when I type those three sets of double letters, me living in Tennessee, how life unfolds.) I saw my house, my neighbor’s place, the lake I live beside and I clicked the left arrow on my keyboard and moved West at about the pace I’d flown in my dream, seeing the houses go by slowly. I went at the pace I’d flown until I reached the Mississippi River (another triple-double!) and then held the left key down and blurred across the continent looking for the ocean.
When I hit the coast I saw a pair of big swimming pools and was curious what I was seeing. At the bottom of my screen was a large structure and its shadow revealed to me what I was looking at, a large cooling tower that is part of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Station. To contextualize the quickening that I felt I should explain that growing up in a small town in Northern California in the 1970’s the words “Diablo Canyon” were like the words “Death Star.” Both were places where evil empires plotted technologies that would destroy worlds and my parents’ friends were the brave rebels trying to stop it. I was amazed to find that three decades later I’d moved half-way across the continent (1729 miles) to live on the exact 1000 foot wide strip of land as the nuclear power station that sits two miles from the Hosgri fault line and one mile from the Shoreline fault (branches of the San Andreas fault). I started to think, “What else sits on this line? What happens if I go east?”
The answer is that leaving Memphis you hit: Shiloh battlefield (the bloodiest in the Civil War at the time it was fought with 3,267 men killed and 15,009 wounded in two days); then Chattanooga; the Appalachian Mountains; Spartanburg, South Carolina; Nag’s Head, North Carolina; lots of ocean; Northern Morocco; Algeria; Tunisia; Crete; Cyprus; Syria; Iraq; Iran; Afghanistan; Pakistan; Kashmir; Tibet; China; South Korea; Japan; San Luis Obispo; Flagstaff; Albuquerque; Amarillo; Norman, Oklahoma; Conway, Arkansas and back to Memphis.
Six months after I’d had the dream of flying out to California I found myself driving the interstate in that direction, considerably faster than I had flown. I had done some research and had found that the town of Moriarty, New Mexico sits exactly on the 35th parallel, the same line that Memphis rests on. Looking at the satellite view I could see that someone had used a tractor or something and written “MARY” in the field at the corner of Buford and Eunice streets.
I’d found that in Southern Albuquerque two streets, Camino Uno Blvd. and Shirk Lane straddle the 35th. So I walked that neighborhood and talked to people and took photographs. Nayda Shirk lived on Camino Uno Blvd. and was excited to hear that her back yard was bisected by this line that passes through Crete, Kyoto, Japan and Memphis. She seemed somehow pleased to hear that this piece of property she called home wasn’t just an anonymous forgotten part of a tertiary American city, but was aligned with prominent geographical locations in Europe, Africa and Asia. I was reminded of how divided we can all feel, how separate from others, especially others with different languages, different skin colors, but also how little it can take us to feel connected and related to complete strangers.
I climbed up a gate and onto a concrete wall that encircled a vacant lot. I walked along the top of the wall to the back of the property so that I could sit exactly on the line of the 35th. From there I photographed an odd little improvised structure. My guess is that it was a doghouse made out of concrete blocks. A month later I photographed another minute concrete-block structure at the 35th parallel in Kramer Junction, California. Someone lived in this structure and slept on blankets on the ground. I am sure that every latitude has its own particular character, its own personality. The 35th seems dilapidated and funky, littered with piles of concrete blocks and dirty outdoor dogs, weed-filled lots and broken pavement.
This past August I drove the small roads from Memphis to South Carolina along the 35th. Trying to stay as close to the 35th parallel as I could, I didn’t take the interstate or even the secondary and tertiary highways. I instead took roads that were usually paved but had no lines painted on them. These roads were called things like Gentry Chapel Road, Wolf Pen Road, Guys-Chewalla Road, Pumping Station Road. I got lost a lot. I carried a map on the passenger seat that I had made myself by taking screen-shots of Google Maps and digitally joining them together and printing them on a roll-printer. The result was that my map is five inches wide and thirty feet long. It sat coiled in a roll on my passenger seat and as I drove I’d unwind it. Stepping out of my car to ask directions this unusual map served as a good icebreaker. It was an odd experience to drive with a map that was so detailed and precise. When lost I would look at the map and say “Okay, if I’m back on track the road should curve to the right up ahead and then straighten out and cross a creek,” and it would. There were times when the landscape in front of me resembled the map, almost at a one-to-one scale. When lost, even if I could probably figure things out for myself I tried to stop to ask people directions whenever possible. Those conversations were the real reasons for the trip.
Around sunset I stopped and talked to a middle-aged man in overalls with a mustache who had just gotten off of work for a logging company. “I grew up in that house over there and then I moved away, lived out West, and then I moved back and I live in that house over there.” We talked about various things and I could feel a bond grow between us. He recommended that I take this dirt road off to the west just a short ways across the state line on the Alabama side. He told me that it meanders around until it hits Pickwick Lake and then it crosses back up into Tennessee. Just before we parted ways Phil asked if I believed in God and I said that I didn’t. He said that God believes in me and that he hopes I find him. I thanked him and headed down the road. I took the right turn he recommended and decided that I would try to camp on the shore of the lake. I found a little beach and swam as the sun set. There were mayflies clumsily skimming the surface of the lake and fish splashing, snatching the flies all around me. At that exact moment 1040 miles to the West on the exact same distance from the equator a hawk sat in a juniper outside of Moriarty, New Mexico and watched a tiny shadow move between two rocks.
The morning of my second day I stopped to ask a man for directions. He was walking down the road with a bandana around his head and a tall walking stick. His name was Travis Burns and while he didn’t know where I could find George Olive Road he said that his wife grew up here and she would know. I asked if he walked for the exercise and he told me he did and that he had to because of a bad motorcycle accident he’d had. He said he’d almost died. He broke his back and the doctor told him that walking would help. He had slid twenty yards along the pavement and came to a stop when he was impaled on a road-sign. At this point he lifted up his shirt to show me a scar that ran the length of his torso, where he’d been impaled on the sign. Surprised at the intimacy of the moment I shifted the conversation to politics. I asked him if it was important to him that he was a Tennessean, seeing as how he lives a mile from Alabama and some of his neighbors are Alabamans. He said that it didn’t matter too much, that people are people and while he’s proud to be a Tennessean his Alabaman neighbors were good people. I asked him how he’d feel if someone decided to build a fence along the state line preventing people from crossing like they have in Mexico and Palestine. He said he figured that there would be a war if someone did that. We talked for a while about the movement to limit Federal government in favor of state’s rights. He said he was against that, that most of the people he knew lived on some sort of federal assistance and that schools, hospitals, etc. depended on the government. At about this point a truck stopped and a friend of Travis leaned out the window and they chatted. I asked some of the political questions to the guy in the truck. His answers could have been quotes from an Occupy Wall Street protester, criticizing big business and corporate influence in government. He told me that he was off to mow some rich guy's yard, rolled his eyes and said that between V.A. assistance and the trickle-down mowing he patches it together. The truck drove off and Travis repeated his urging that I stop at his house and ask his wife directions. The way he urgently directed me to pull into the drive of the blue house around the corner and honk my horn made me think that he sincerely wanted me to meet his wife or her to meet me so while I didn’t actually need directions I decided to comply.
Mrs. Burns came out to greet me when I honked the horn. While I waited for her I spent some time admiring a wooden sculpture in her yard. It was a sort of hybrid water-wheel/lighthouse/windmill and had water flowing through it that turned a wheel and made the sails of the windmill turn. Mrs. Burns was accompanied by four or five kittens that trailed around her feet and eventually under mine. There was also a barking Chihuahua who had narrowly escaped death when coyotes carried away another dog and left her disemboweled. (Travis explained that the dog was put back together by a friend who is a local vet who fixes any animal and takes whatever payment people can get together.) I was about to ask Mrs. Burns if Travis had made this elaborate kinetic sculpture when it occurred to me that she could have made it so I asked instead who had made it and it turns out that she had. Her father was a professional cabinet-maker and she grew up working in his shop. Now she has a shop in back of her house and she makes furniture and “things.” After we had talked for a while Travis showed up and joined in the conversation. When I took my leave they offered me a watermelon off the vine and I wish I had taken one but it seemed like too much of a gift to accept at the time.
Sitting in Chubby’s Barbecue in Chattanooga, poking at the last bite of my chocolate pie, I showed my map of the neighborhood to my Waitress, Cat. I showed her how the line went right through Chubby’s and across the neighborhood. She said “Oh yeah, it goes right through the firehouse that’s next to my house!” I asked her which house was hers and she thought, pointed and we realized that her house sits exactly on the line. I could see that it gave her some pleasure to discover that her house and her workplace both straddled this line that wraps around the globe. The way that she told the owner of the restaurant about my project made it clear that Cat had some ownership in my project, she was part of it now. After I’d paid and said goodbye I walked over, past the firehouse was her place, a University of Alabama flag on the door and some tomato plants in the front yard. Just another banal little home in a forgotten neighborhood in a mostly unconsidered city, and yet part of a family with a Kyoto castle, a California nuclear plant, a Cretan ruin, an Algerian mosque, and a concrete-block dog-house in Albuquerque.