I spent all weekend at the wonderful Emerald City ComicCon, dressing up, watching my friends do great things, and working a booth. So I don’t have a post today, but just for funsies here’s a link to the Photographic Novel I did for six years. This was our last convention selling the books in person, and maybe the last thing I do for Night Zero. Of course, I’ve said that many times before…
I got to Pipestone National Monument 20 minutes before the visitor’s center was supposed to close. I had never heard of it before, but I was looking to take a break from driving and I saw a sign on the highway with an arrow pointing off to the side. National Monuments tend to be pretty interesting, and they’re almost always worth the stop. The ranger behind the counter told me that the monument was there to preserve the quarry where Native Americans get the traditional stone for their pipes. Now that it’s a National Monument, only the local tribes are allowed to take rock from the quarries, and even then they must have special permits. The stone itself is seen as sacred.
The ranger pointed towards the back of the visitor’s center and told me that there was usually a craftsperson back there working on a pipe. I followed where he pointed and saw a middle-aged Native American man sitting on a stool and fashioning a pipe by hand. There was another couple already standing there watching him, a husband and wife on the early side of retirement. The man asked the artist if he was part of one of the local tribes, and the artist recited his quarter lineage through an impressive string of vowels I can neither remember nor pronounce. The man laughed out loud at the absurdity of having a name so strange and long.
“So you work and live around here?” the man asked.
“Yes,” replied the artist.
“And where’s your casino?” the man said, chuckling at his own joke. I cringed.
“Up in North Dakota,” the artist replied, without anger, offense, or joy. He was used to it by now. It wasn’t worth correcting the man.
“Oh,” the man nodded. He hadn’t expected an actual answer.
I looked around the pipe museum and gallery until it closed for the evening. Upon the suggestion of the ranger I set out on the 3/4 mile walk to see the quarries. The path was easy and the prairies were calming. The walk occasionally followed along a small creek, and I watched the water forming its path over the rocks. In one corner of the walk I came upon a small waterfall where the members of the J. N. Nicollet Expedition of 1838 stopped to rest for three days, carving their initials into the rock. Nicollet and his men were mapping the upper Mississippi, and I can see why they stopped. The little waterfall is surrounded by full trees that provide shade, and smooth rocks that make for comfortable sitting. The prairies are more hospitable than the desert, but they still benefit from the occasional oasis.
I continued my walk, coming across unusual formations that had been given names and histories by the local natives. Most of the named rocks were ones that seemed to form faces. Some were endowed with prestige, such as The Oracle. I hadn’t walked far when I got to The Oracle, but I was far enough that I couldn’t see the visitor’s center anymore. No one else was on the path, and I did my best to travel back in time for a moment. I thought about being one of those early settlers, coming across a form of rock so highly valued that the locals made pilgrimages to obtain it. I thought about being one of those natives, and seeing The Oracle formed in the rock. It must have felt like destiny – seeing a face in the sacred stone. I thought about being in my car just an hour earlier, turning off the highway because of a sign and an arrow, and seeing the face of a thousand-year history. I like to think I’m closer to the artist than the tourist, but that’s just my vanity. Perhaps I turned off the road to be reminded of that. Destiny comes in all sizes.
The opening words of the sermon preached at Westboro Baptist Church on March 23rd, 2014, the first Sunday after the death of founder Fred Phelps:
“Good afternoon, everyone! I have to say, after reading the 18 billion articles Fred sent over the last few days, I’m really quite surprised to see you all here! To hear the media tell it, by this point the building should have been demolished to its foundation, the websites all offline, the tweets silenced, the vines disappeared, the faxes stopped ringing, the signs shredded, our social security numbers zero’d out, and, depending on which version of the story you read, every last man jack of us either moving to varied and separate parts of the world while all sucking our thumbs in the fetal position, all of us buried in a mass grave by our own hands, we should all be sitting on the front lawn drinking spiked Kool-Aid eating laced apple sauce waiting for a UFO to come get us, or probably worst of all, we should all have joined a Catholic church and applied to be priests, to find “true religion”. Yikes. The good old media. Gotta love ‘em. Or not. Thank God though that every article said God Hates Fags! They can say whatever they want as long as they say that!”
I’ve heard people call Fred Phelps a racist. He was a civil rights attorney.
I’ve heard people say they’ll protest his funeral. The WBC doesn’t believe in funerals. That’s why they picket them.
I’ve heard people suggest the sermon I heard on love when I visited the WBC must have been some sort of show put on because I was an outsider. Westboro has no interest in looking good to outsiders.
I’ve heard people say he was only “ex-communicated” so the church wouldn’t have to pay his medical bills. That’s not even how debt works.
He changed his mind.
He beat his children.
His daughter’s been ousted.
The rumors abound.
I’ve learned not to trust much of what I hear about the WBC because they are the unwitting masters of false advertising. They are single-minded in their goal to have as many people hear their “God hates fags” message as possible, and they are unconcerned with whatever messages might get tacked onto it in the process. The sermon I heard last summer certainly fits with the suggestion that Phelps had begun preaching a message of love, at least among church members. However the other sermons posted on the WBC website don’t tell the same story. It may be years before we know the truth, if the truth can ever be known. The death of founder Fred Phelps is equal parts fact and nonsense. Perhaps the saddest, truest thing that can be said about it is this:
At the time of his death, the world had no idea what Fred Phelps believed.
The thing people don’t realize is that you can’t just see “the world’s biggest ball of twine.” Because there are a lot of them. There’s the widest ball of twine. The largest plastic ball of twine. The heaviest ball of twine. The biggest ball of twine spun by a town. Et cetera.
While traveling the country I decide to see the world’s largest ball of twine spun by one man, which also happens to be the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota, and the inspiration for the Weird Al song by the same name.
The town of Darwin is about as bustling as you might expect for the sort of town that would advertise possession of a large ball of twine. There’s a sign on the main road pointing over to where the ball of twine sits, enshrined in its own personal glass gazebo. I park my car on the opposite side of the street and walk over to take a picture. The glass reflects the sky and it’s hard to get a good shot. It’s hard to see the thing at all, and I end up pressing my face against the walls just to get a good look.
Surrounding me and the mighty ball are several items that ensure the spot I’m standing in will appear quaint to anyone who passes through. There’s a small yellow house that has been converted into a souvenir shop. There’s a pair of railroad crossing signs, adorably removed from their natural habitat and masquerading as yard art. There’s a large, painted mailbox which holds the guest book, and a sign to indicate whether or not the “Pictorial Museum” is open. Only one side of the sign believes the shop to be open though, the other side is quite convinced that it is not. There’s an American flag in the yard, and the whole scene stands in the shadow of the Darwin water tower. It is one of the most American things I’ve seen my whole trip.
I pull at the knob of the museum and gift shop to confirm that the more pessimistic side of Shrodieger’s Sign was correct. I’m about to leave when I see a 30-year-old man pull up in his car and start walking towards the magnificent ball and its mighty fortress. I assume he must be a fellow traveler, and I stick around in hopes of watching someone admire the ball that I have come to know so well.
The man takes a casual gander at the twine, but his face is filled more with satisfaction than awe. He asks me if I’d like him to take my picture in front of the ball, but I decline. The reflections will ruin it, I tell him. He asks where I’m from, and I say Seattle. I ask where he’s from, and he says Darwin. He’s a local. He stands there for a minute, then walks up to the museum to confirm that it’s closed. He stands and stares at the ball, saying nothing.
I get back in my car and start to ready my things for the next leg of my trip. I see the man get back in his car and drive away. He wasn’t there for the ball, he was there for me. I honestly believe he just wanted to make sure no tourist went through town without getting every big-ball-of-twine-photo she desired. The town of Darwin really wants to be liked.
Back before I left on my trip, I was recounting to my friend Joe how many people had given me flack for not driving through Austin, Texas. “No!” he exclaimed. “You’re not on the ‘Austin’ tour of America. You’re on the Oregon Vortex / Big Ball of Twine Tour.”
Yes, I am. This is exactly what I came here to see.
This was tech week for my improv show, and we open tonight! I am very excited but my editing time has certainly suffered. Posting will resume next week.
I get this question a lot.
All the time, in fact.
Before I left, there was a standard set of questions people would ask: What’s your route? How are you traveling? Where will you stay? Who are you going with? What about your job?
Now that I’m home there’s just the one: What was your favorite part?
I have always had a problem with the concept of “favorite.” I admit to using the word in a hyperbolic way from time to time. And I’m not above having certain favorites. Actually, I might just have one favorite. Root Beer. Root Beer is definitely my favorite carbonated beverage. I like many others, but if you were to tell me that I can only have one for the rest of my life, that’s the one I’d choose.
But for most things I have no favorite, and I can’t imagine how I could. I don’t even have a favorite root beer (some brands are better with appetizers at a party while others are well-suited towards cleaning the house). I don’t have a favorite movie, because how can you compare The Shawshank Redemption with Strictly Ballroom? I don’t have a favorite style of music because sometimes you’re in the mood for Bob Dylan and sometimes you need Janet Jackson. I understand certain elements of experience rising above the others (see above re: root beer), but I can’t imagine having a favorite thing for all the things I’m supposed to have favorites.
So with that in mind, I took four months of my life to ride on the wind and explore every corner of this huge country that I could. Eighty different sleeping locations and 1952 waking hours of adventure, and people actually think I could pick a favorite?
On a small and limited scale, I might be able to tell you my favorite part of Savannah, but probably not my favorite part of Toronto. I could tell you the best dessert I had, but not the best dinner. I could say that camping in Texas was great because I fell asleep looking at the stars. But then again I could say that sleeping on a couch in Oakland was great because I woke up to the sound of juggling pins.
In the grand scope of my trip, as in my life, there are no favorites. There is no best. There is the day in Maine when you felt so welcomed, and there is the day in Topeka when you felt so scared. And there are all the days in between, where a thousand of your favorite things happen with every passing moment. Like cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels, the best you’ll ever be able to do with your favorite things is make a long, unending list.
“Welcome to Generica!” the Right Reverend Brian Prior announces as I pull into his driveway. Brain and his wife Staci live in the kind of planned neighborhood that all financially stable white people are supposed to live in. They like their house just fine, but neither can shake the uncomfortable feeling they get from living in structured suburbia.
My first morning in Minneapolis I drive into the city to visit Brian at work. Brian’s office is in a fairly unassuming building a few blocks away from the famous Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. I tell the receptionist that I’m here to see the bishop, and she says he’ll be right out. She offers me water, which I politely refuse. After a few minutes Brian’s assistant, a capable woman in her 30s, comes out to let me know that he knows I’m here and will be just another minute. She offers me water, which I politely refuse. She’s glued to her phone, and clearly knows his entire schedule for the day. She disappears and I watch as several employees around my age pull vinyl signs out of boxes. “I wanted to see what we have before I do a big order,” one of the young women says to another.
Brian emerges, giving his last goodbyes to a young black woman, a priest by the looks of her collar. Brian’s assistant leads me into his office, which is a minimalist wonderland. There’s an austere bookshelf on the wall which is filled but not full. The books represent varying degrees of religiosity, with some specific to the Episcopal church and others on secular philosophy. His desk is clear and clean. There’s an iPad on a stand with no external keyboard. There are no cords anywhere. I sit on a comfortable but simple couch, opposite a pair of matching chairs. The coffee table is decorated with a single, colorful bowl of peanut M&Ms. I grab a handful to help fight off my envy for his beautiful workspace.
“Tell Katrina what she should do with one day in the city,” Brian instructs his assistant with a smile. I recognize the tone. It’s the same one my boss always uses when he knows I’m better than him at something. She starts rattling off a list as Brian glides around the room, clearing away the water glasses from his last meeting.
“Would you like some water?” he asks me.
Brian has another meeting to run off to, but he takes a moment to introduce me to the young people I’d been eavesdropping on before. I ask them where I should go for lunch, and there’s much confused debate as the group tries to come up with the best recommendation. Once again I’m reminded of my own workplace, where we often can’t manage to pick a lunch locale to save our lives. Before I leave one of the young women offers me a small piece of plastic off of her keychain. It’s an unlimited pass for the city’s bike sharing program. She’ll be in the office all day, so she sees no reason I shouldn’t take advantage of it. It’s the best way to see the city, she says.
I take off, hitting destination after destination. I start with the iconic cherry and spoon sculpture in the park. I’m excited to discover that it was designed to be a bridge, but disappointed to learn that you’re not allowed to walk on the art. I grab some fried tofu at the Malaysian place the staff recommended, and ride my bike up Nicollet Mall. I quickly fall in love with the bike sharing program. It combines the best parts of both buses and taxis. The racks are spread throughout the city, and the only rule is that you have to return the bike to a rack – any rack – within 30 minutes of checking it out. I download the app to my phone to help me find the nearest racks, and I never have a problem getting a bike when I need it.
After a quick stop in the beautiful Guthrie Theater, I walk to the back of the Mill City Museum to check out the open area in the back. The rear of the building was destroyed in an explosion, and it’s been turned into an open air exhibit. After snapping a few photos I start towards the river and the Stone Arch Bridge. I see a sign indicating I’m entering “Mill Ruins Park,” and there are a few scattered pieces of old foundations around the sign. I assume they’ve named the park after the nearby old mill, and I head towards the bridge. After walking 20-30 feet I glance back towards the shore to see a scene out of a movie. Set back into the sloping riverside are the actual mill ruins. They look like they belong in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, or maybe some live-action version of Cinderella. If it weren’t for the modern city buildings less than 100 yards away, you’d swear it was the kind of place fairy magic comes from. The walls of the mill structure are crumbling so that some rooms are fully open and others completely closed – perfect for a romantic assignation with a prince. There’s water coming in and out of passageways just big enough to jump over if, for example, the treacherous Captain Barbossa was coming after you with a sword. And of course there are plenty of half-collapsed walls you can hide behind in case you find yourself in a shoot out with – or against – Indiana Jones.
After the Mill Ruins Park, the stone bridge and manmade waterfalls almost seem like a let down. There are so few adventures I can imagine having on them. I hop on a bike and make my way back towards the diocesan offices, stopping to take a photo of Mary Tyler Moore along the way. Brian and I meet up with Staci at her school, and the three of us carpool downtown for dinner. Our pizza is delicious but quick, as Brian has to run off to a men’s prayer group and Staci needs to be back at school for the parents’ open house. Other than a few passing moments at General Convention, I haven’t seen Brian and Staci since he was elected bishop and they moved away from Washington several years ago. Our time is brief, but it’s worthwhile. In planning this trip it never occurred to me that I could use it to renew so many old friendships.
I briefly consider driving out to the Mall of America, but decide I’d rather have a quiet evening back at the house. Minneapolis is a big city, and because of the bike share I was able to cover seven miles of tourism in a matter of hours, hitting every major attraction on my list. It was exhausting. Most of my big city visits are like this. There’s so much to do and see that it’s hard to slow down, let alone process. Sometimes I wonder if I’d be better off just picking one thing I really wanted to do in a city, and forcing myself to hang out in that spot until I’m overcome with boredom. It’s not a bad idea, I suppose. Maybe I’ll do it next time I’m in a big city. Unless, of course, there’s a bike share.
I wasn’t sure I belonged in the Anderson Center. I’d read about it on one of my National Geographic road trips. The site described it as “A writers’ and artists’ retreat that has a small but worthwhile collection of paintings by Warhol, Man Ray, Matisse, and more.” It sounded vaguely interesting and I had some time to kill on my way up to Minneapolis, so I decided to stop in.
It took a while to find the front door. I accidentally turned into the wrong lot and wasted a few minutes wandering around the outdoor sculpture garden. Had the heat been more forgiving or the track a bit shorter, I might have walked the whole path to see all the art. I certainly liked what I did see. Abstract sculpture tends to be pretty hit or miss with me, but the stuff at the Anderson Center was thoughtful and interesting. I snapped a few photos of the outdoor pieces before the temperature got the better of me and I made my way to the main parking lot.
The Anderson Center is a complex of several attached buildings. Some of the doors were locked, but not all of them. Some of the lights were off, but the sun was bright in the windows. Once or twice I saw a person, and briefly considered hiding. There was every indication that the public was allowed to be there, yet it wasn’t especially inviting at the moment. I was afraid if I was seen I might be asked to leave. When I was spotted, I tried to look as confident as possible. It was clear that the people walking the halls were artists, and I felt sure that they wouldn’t all know each other. I suppose I was under some ridiculous impression that I didn’t look like a complete tourist.
I started with the gallery spaces – the rooms clearly intended for outsiders. I moved into the halls, which were functional yet still dotted with sculpture and paintings. Then I started to see the signs. “More art downstairs” they proclaimed in colorful, hand-painted script. I found myself in empty workshops, much like the River Arts District in Asheville, NC. The whole building still felt unfinished, with boiler pipes running along the ceiling and cement under the hodgepodge of rugs. I turned a corner and found myself staring at a solid white door, painted over with line after line of Biblical scripture. I walked through it and found more scripture, painted on every wall like the scene from a movie where we meet the madman. I kept looking over my shoulder. Surely I was not welcome in this very private space.
Back outside I set my eyes on a freestanding water tower. There was a door at the bottom, and on a whim I reached for the knob. While plenty of doors had been open in the center, it felt especially strange for this one to be unlocked. A person shouldn’t be allowed to simply wander up into a tower. It feels too dangerous for a litigious society like ours. Just inside the door was a long, spiral staircase that led up to the top. Like the rest of the center, it was dark inside. I couldn’t resist.
There’s something inherently dramatic about a spiral staircase. No one ever felt comfortable going up or down a spiral staircase. The triangle shapes of the stairs puts one instantly off ease. Not only is one altering altitude (a dangerous endeavor in its own right), but there isn’t even the stability of equal footing for each leg. One doesn’t casually walk on a spiral staircase – one does it with purpose.
At the top of the tower I walked through a door and the disconcerting blackness gave way to sunlight. It poured in from all sides. Outside the perfectly round room was a balcony for taking in the view. Inside the room was a large table with a single chair. There were papers everywhere, organized in neat stacks with unknown rhyme and reason. Some were on the table, others were on a nearby bench. I recognized the scene instantly. This was a writing room.
Apart from the table and chair, the room was beautiful but sparse. There was a sink and a fan and not much else in the way of furniture. The ceiling was painted like the night sky, and the floor was a rich, dark wood. To me it was heaven on earth. Such simplicity, such privacy, such dedication. Whoever this writer was, she never stumbled on to her work day, and she didn’t get “accidentally distracted” from it either. She climbed up to the top of the water tower on those dark and dramatic stairs. She looked out her window and no one was on her level. Standing alone in the writing room, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of permitting I’d need to install a water tower within the Seattle city limits.
Some time ago I applied to a local writer’s retreat made especially for women. Participants would have a week or more in the island retreat center, far away from hummanity. The point was to be in nature, to have your meals cooked for you from the on-site garden, and to have an entire week of uninterrupted time to focus on your work. I was sure it was what I needed to write my next play. I hadn’t had such a retreat when I wrote my first play, but somehow I had convinced myself that I required solitude in order to write the second one. My application was rejected.
It’s true that art needs to be nurtured, it needs to be cultivated. Places like the Anderson Center are important because they remind us that if we don’t work for it, art won’t happen. At the same time, we have to be careful as artists not to assume that without an Anderson Center, art can’t be made. Perhaps less will get done. Perhaps it will be more difficult. But it can still happen. That same day in Minnesota, long before I stumbled upon my dream writing tower, I had managed to write all on my own. I had managed to write while sitting in a cafe in a rather unremarkable town an hour south. In the days before, I had managed to write while sitting in someone’s guest room, and while crammed in my car hoping the rain would stop. I’ve managed to write late at night and early in the morning. I went through five Starbucks gift cards to get my trip posts out on time. And these days I write in my home at the same little computer I had on my travels, just with a bigger monitor and full keyboard. I hem and haw about writing and editing a lot, but I still manage to get it done. By the time these trip posts are finished, I will have managed to get it done for more than a year.
And I didn’t even have my own water tower.