July 1, 2013
In the summers in the 1930’s my Dad and his sister Liz would travel down to Dante Virginia (pronounced “ant” with a D in front) with their mother Martha Hopkinson Tyler to visit Grandpa and Grandma Tyler. Down there, Grandpa Tyler was known as “WD” – for William Dowlin Tyler. He had come from Pennsylvania, where the Dowlins had been in the Downingtown area of Pennsylvania in a hamlet known as Dowlin Forge for generations. WD was an executive with the Clinchfield Coal Company, who had sent him to Dante in 1906 to secure mineral rights for the company. From Chief Land Agent he rose to become a Vice President of the company and spent the better part of 40 years there, engaging in the town’s development as well as the growth of the mining operation there.
On a map looking at southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky, the topography resembles a flat but wrinkled skin. Closer in, the “skin” is about 2500′ above sea level, with river gorges and creek valleys (“the wrinkles”) 1500 feet below the peaks, forming a vast network of waterways. The bending crevices are paved with small roads and rail lines, and hold hidden towns such as Dante (pronounced “ant” with a D on the front). The crevices are known as “hollers” – hollows in the mountains. Dante was originally known as the town of Turkey Foot, which described the shape of the landscape with its many hollows, such as Straight Hollow, Hospital Hollow, Lower Bearwallow Hollow, and naturally, Upper Bearwallow Hollow. One other street is named Bunchtown Road. The hotel, theater, and hospital are gone now, but the houses are still there, both of the coal workers who moved to the town, and the executives for the Clinchfield Coal company that once employed thousands across 10 towns in the Clinch river valleys of southwest Virginia. The coalworkers lived along the hollows; the executives on the top of Roanoke hill, known colloquially as “snob nob”. At present, the town is still home to a post office and school, and the old bank has been converted to a local history museum by the hard work of local citizens.
I arrived at 4:00 on June 26, a Wednesday, the one day of the week that the museum is closed. Knowing this in advance, I was hoping to find someone around town who could meet me. I parked in front of the museum and walked down to the post office where the postmaster Vickie was taking down the American flag before closing up for the day. I introduced myself and told her why I was there. She didn’t know anything about the Tyler family but she was fairly new to town. She did have the phone numbers of the three folks in town who had keys to the museum, and proceeded to call all of them, leaving messages. An older woman came in for her mail and said she thought the three had gone down to the hospital in St Paul, because one of their family had broken a hip the night before. I went back to Jewel Song and sat in the open hatch eating sunflower seeds; a pop up storm was passing through. Having driven an hour over the mountains to get here, I figured to just wait until someone came by.
The plaza where the old theater had stood was now just a cement pavement with a couple of picnic tables, and a recently built roofed wood stage faced south, topped with an old railroad sign for Dante. A girl in a motorized wheelchair and her friend sat at the picnic table, seemingly waiting for someone. CSX transportation had equipment on the rail line and men in orange vests were busy attending to it. People drove by in cars and pickup trucks and looked at me as they passed. Some of the cars were quite new – a Prius was among them.
About 20 minutes later, an older woman in white hair stopped in her sedan and pulled into the spot next to mine on the lawn in front of the museum. Her name was Bobbi, and it was her sister who had landed at the hospital with the broken hip. Bobbi hadn’t slept much as she’d spent the better part of the last 24 hours at the hospital, but the voicemail from Vickie about my visit spurred her to come see. I apologized for creating a stir and keeping her from a nap, but she demurred.
We talked about my great grandfather and she pointed me towards a thick book that had been written in 2004 on the history of the town which included several passages about my grandfather’s involvement in the town. It also included many photographs from the “Tyler collection,” which we concluded must have been the photographs my Aunt had dropped off there in 2000 as a donation. Somehow they had never gotten or lost her name, because in the forward to the book, the author bemoans not having the opportunity to thank the donor personally for what turned out to be a significant contribution to the overal oral history project and the town’s rememberance of its past. When we spoke about my GGF Tyler’s residence, she pointed me to a hand-drawn map in the book showing the houses of Roanoke Hill and their residents at the time of the company town’s peak.
Bobbi and the others involved in the museum are classic civic boosters, so I was advised on current states of things in the continuing survival of the town, and also she made sure I saw the museum gift case with t-shirts and christmas ornaments decorated with drawings of the featured buildings in the town’s past. Of course I bought the book, and a couple of t-shirts and ornaments for gifts.
Map in hand, I began to walk to Roanoke Hill Road. The sun had returned and it was a pleasant day. Not many people were about. The path to the top of the road via the old pedestrian walkway was completely overgrown, so I took the road which looped around a few times, a good bit of exercise. At the top, I found a bug-screen-enclosed pool with three kids splashing about, all around 9 years old. The Two boys were boistrious and jocular; the girl sharp and wiley, all curious about this friendly stranger with a camera.
I talked with them for a few minutes then continued walking, trying to orient myself to the map. A house on the corner seemed like it might be the place, but the number didn’t match up. I kept going up the hill and passed a house with loud dogs chasing my presence. Three teenagers came to the door to see what the dogs were barking for and I turned around and said hello. One had the phone in her hand, but when I waved, they came out – two girls and a guy. I mentioned I was looking for #762 and they looked a bit quizzical. I showed them the map, but it confused them also. After a group pow-wow we decided I must have gone too far and should return to the corner. We joked about the weather finally turning nice, and I moved on. I found myself wondering if the girl with the phone to her ear had called a parent when the dogs started barking and kept that person on the phone while we talked.
Back at the corner, I encountered a Robert Fraser, watching his pixie daughter playing in the street with the other kids, older than her. I introduced myself and my project. We looked together at the map, a picture from the book I had saved on my iPhone, and came to the conclusion that it was the house we were standing before. Just then the house’s occupant came out.
Chris grew up in the house and still lives here with his father, who was out. He didn’t know who had been there before them, and felt a bit sheepish about the shape of it now. Work is hard to come by in this part of the world, so money to fix a house’s back wall or put on a new roof isn’t available. Still, he was interested in the story so offered to tidy up inside a little and let me take a few pictures.
Robert lives up the street next door to his parents, having moved back after his daughter was born. He’s a senior engineer at a local energy company and commutes an hour to work – but would rather live where kids can run around and play and “going an hour actually gets you somewhere,” unlike his experience with city living.
We chatted for quite a while on topics of family, community, and the Obama administration’s energy policy, which is not popular here. Coal mining is still the main job source, and there are no alternatives for many of the people as the country moves away from this fuel.
Robert’s father Robbie came over after a while, but his recollections of old neighbors didn’t reach back to my great grandfather’s time. At the end of the long day, I got motel suggestions from Robbie and left them all hanging out on the porch in the fading light.
At the bottom I found my Dad’s fishing hat tucked into the mirror on the car. I’d left it in the museum during my visit.
(yet to come: notes on the journey from Kentucky to Kansas, July 2-6, through Boone, Kentucky, Carbondale, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Hutchinson.
July 7, 2013
Iowa City is a city. I mention this because the first thing I noticed driving down Dubuque from I-80 was the blinding light tree of an ambulance parked ahead of my turn onto Brown Street. Sirens were in the background off and on as I unpacked, and they felt out of place. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard sirens near a place I was about to go to sleep, which is funny, coming from such a place as NYC only a month ago. Dubuque was a park on one side and houses on the other, empty at 11pm, save for the ambulance. It felt slightly foreboding.
I spent two nights at the Smith’s, sleeping and writing, before heading 4 hours north to Minneapolis and a possible meeting with some long lost Lanning cousins…if I could reach them.
Minneapolis by bike
July 10, 2013
Minneapolis charms – I’m staying on an island in the Mississippi, in an old 1890’s hotel, looking over bridges, paris-like boulevards with cafes, and bicyclists everywhere on plentiful bike paths and greenways. I rented a bike and rode down to Anodyne coffeehouse, which had a tasty gluten-free croque monsieur. My visit was too short to get to the many distractions I ‘ve been interested in here, such as the Walker art museum, the Shambhala Center, friends. I started getting a cold the day I drove into town, so have been taking it easy here. If you can call a 15-mile bike ride easy.
I did reach Jim Lanning, one of my cousins descended from our great grandparents Edna Bolles and James W Lanning, and he invited me over to his house in the Medicine Lake area. Jim is the 4th of these James Lannings, but the numbering skipped a generation so he’s got a 3rd in the records. I shared the old photos of the original James Lanning and Jim’s father and uncle and my grandmother Dorothy, who he met as a baby. We have more to figure out about the family history, such as what happened to the 2nd James Lanning, who apparently died fairly young, since Edna remarried Edgar Bensel and my mother knew Edgar as her grandfather, not James. It gets confusing keeping all the James’s sorted!
I’m now on the 7-day trip back east, through the Upper Peninsula tonight, then into Canada. Back to camping, and cooler temps.
August 2, 2013
I’m in Nova Scotia, staying for a few days with friends in Halifax doing a Shambhala retreat with Rinpoche, then off to New Germany for a solitary retreat at Windhorse Farm. The city and weather have been very kind and I’m enjoying all the new food establishments since my last visit in 2009 (Ace Burger, Smiling Goat, Saege, Gingerhaus, Ireland 32, etc…) Halifax also boasts the most pubs per capita of any Canadian city so there’s been some of that too. The last two weeks of July I was in a closed group retreat at Karme Choling in Barnet Vermont, my favorite place and where I expect to land later this year to be on staff. Hence the lack of updates…no devices during retreat is a great gift. After the driving schedule of June and July this was a much needed stillness and I was soaking in some very inspiring teaching with 84 fellow retreatants, many old friends.
Soon I’ll be heading up the coast to Ingonish and Gampo Abbey, and touring Cape Breton, a place I’ve longed to see since a cab driver I met in 1989 at my local Denny’s enticed me with descriptions of his homeland. The camera will be out with me so I’ll share when I have internet access.
I drove to Halifax from Vermont over 2 days, going through the White Mountains of New Hampshire and cutting across Maine. I stopped for a quick bite at the Eagle’s Nest in Brewer, across the river from Bangor, which has an amazing, huge lobster roll. Stayed overnight in the New Brunswick town of St John – one of a string of “Saint” towns along the Bay of Fundy coastline of this province. Established during the American revolutionary war, it became the home for American refugees loyal to the British – “Loyalists” – and had an enormous shipping and shipbuilding economy in the the 19th century. A fire in the 1870’s burned down much of the original wood architecture but several blocks remain – the new buildings are brick and various styles. The Bay of Fundy is known for its world-record tides, a variance daily of some 55 feet. I wasn’t around very long so the city is on the list of places to return to.
Today’s schedule starts in about an hour and I haven’t had breakfast so just a short update for now.
August 20, 2013
Today would have been Mom’s 81st birthday. I dreamt about her just before waking. I had a large jigsaw puzzle of a collage of photographs I made of the Tashkent ballet and the Uzbek President while I was there in 2002 – a huge red and gold-toned thing I was putting together and she was sitting to my right in her wheelchair helping me find the pieces. We were in the living room at 10 Beth Lane, which coincidentally had (during my life there) a red carpet with gold and white furniture. The puzzle was almost done. There were a few pieces with images of pine trees that didn’t seem to fit – they were on the floor next to the card table. I bent down to pick them up. When I came up she was gone.
She always liked jigsaw puzzles. I was reminded of her a few days ago for another reason. While dining at The Biscuit-eater in Mahone Bay, both a cafe and book shop. On top of a bookcase next to the table was a set of six thick Diana Gabaldon novels. Mom loved these and other history-fantasy-series like them. I think she preferred them because they offered complete escape from her life. She often had three books going at once when I was growing up – one at the kitchen table for reading during dinner, one on the bedtable, and one in her purse for reading during her workweek lunch hours. There was never any gap in her time that she didn’t have a book to her face. These last couple of years, reading and her other favorites–puzzles and needlecraft–faded as her eyesight began to succumb. She still liked having books, puzzles and crafts around her, but did not take them off the shelf anymore. A week before she died she asked one of the nurses to take them as a donation…she was letting go.
She would have insisted on seeing the photographs from my travels this summer and hearing about the places I’ve visited, and the visits with my sisters and what it’s like where they live. And she would have also said, “well it’s too bad you had to do all that by yourself!” I would have rolled my eyes.
It’s true. A lot of the time – especially of late, coming out of solitary retreat at radiant Windhorse Farm and traveling up the jeweled coast of Nova Scotia, the absence of a traveling companion has been there, sometimes sharply. A lot has gone in and through my mind the last three months with the amazing places and people I’ve encountered, but it’s been too soon to process a lot of it to post here; so the sense of you all traveling with me has flickered in and out of focus. Having a partner would have changed the whole trip in innumerable ways – it would simply have been a different trip. The result, perhaps, is a bit too much of a window into Susan’s solitary life, which she sometimes wonders how it might change.
The eastern coast of Cape Breton from Cape Smokey (375 meters on the ocean) up to Neil’s Harbour is beyond everything I could have imagined in 1988 when I first thought I would come here and hike the highlands. Back then, I was attending Drexel’s Hotel Restaurant Management program in Philadelphia and working as a night auditor at a downtown hotel. I lived on Baltimore Pike just outside of West Philly and would eat at a Denny’s there before driving in for my shift. Another regular there was a cab driver, I think John, who was from Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia. John was probably in his 40’s, had black bushy hair and black square glasses and a round shape. Funny accent. I’m sure we struck up a conversation one night over sourdough turkey melts and another time he began to tell me about this magical place he was from. So in August of 1988 I had a North American Road Atlas and my high school backpacking equipment in my car and two weeks off from the hotel and figured to wing it from there…but it wasn’t in the cards then. As was often the occurrence in Philadelphia at that time, my car was broken into and a number of things went missing…I was spooked and did not go.
So as I was driving across the causeway to Cape Breton Island and began my Cabot Trail journey around the island, I felt rather odd. I tried to remember the 20-year-old that I once was and what it would have been like for her if she’d come then. And how different my life would have been since if she had.
What might have happened is I would have not made it back to Philadelphia – for it would take more than two weeks to drive up, hike around, and then drive back…along the way encountering a lot of fiddlers, fishermen, and the powerful mountain and valley spirits that are clearly present. I very likely would have encountered Shambhala buddhism, although I may not have yet had the mind open enough to explore it. Two significant Shambhala pilgrimage sites are on the Cabot Trail – Gampo Abbey, near Pleasant Bay on the western coast, and Kalapa Valley, a sacred landscape, on the east coast. My inquiries into buddhist philosophy emerged a few years later instead – and my first encounters with Shambhala were in New York, in the late 1990’s. Shambhala’s founder, the Tibetan meditation master and yogi Chogyam Trungpa, had traveled from Boulder to Nova Scotia in 1979 with several of his students and toured extensively, noting several aspects of the land and culture here that would provide a stable and nurturing environment for Shambhala’s 10-year-old organization to grow further. Kalapa Valley was discovered at that time and eventually was bought by several practitioners and donated to the organization. Gampo Abbey was formed in 1984 to provide a monastic option for Shambhala practitioners.
Both places have been in my mind to visit since 2004, when I became a more serious meditation student and was looking for inspiration and retreat locations in the Shambhala community. Although the main Shambhala administration, it’s “Vatican” if you like, is in Halifax, the heart of Shambhala is in Cape Breton.
One of the places Chogyam Trungpa stopped on his travels around the island was the Keltic Lodge, a few miles north of Kalapa Valley. There he dined and wrote poems. After I settled into my campsite in the valley I drove up there for dinner. The Keltic sits on the end of a sliver of peninsula flanked on the south by Ingonish Bay and the bluff of Cape Smokey and on the north by Ingonish Island and The Point at Ingonish town. Driving along the single road I was surrounded by thick birch forest and did not realize the vista that would open up at the top. I parked at sunset and observed newer buildings on either side of me – a spa, a restaurant, paths to the golf links, and a path leading further up the peninsula. A wedding was about to unfold in the Ceilidh hall – a fiddler was marrying a step dancer. A bagpiper played at the entrance enjoining those milling about to go into the hall. A sign pointed me to the main lodge; I could see now that orange light illuminating Cape Smokey off to my right and Ingonish to the left. Ahead was a hill through more forest, then the lodge came into view – white with red tudor trim, stately, and home to so much history. The Highland room has light supper and free live music, so as was recommended to me I went in. The room has doric columns and beamed ceiling; a large white fireplace, many upholstered seats; a small bar. Cozy yet dignified. I could see Trungpa and his students here. After a while the room filled with vacationing golfers from North Carolina and Toronto, in t-shirts and shorts, drinking light beers and chatting about where they are from and how many years they’ve been coming here. I wondered at the way you can sometimes be somewhere without a clue how much history is in the room with you.
On my way along the path to the lodge I had stopped to look off the cliff at Smokey. It was beautiful, and eerily familiar. I once many years ago had had a dream about such a place in which Trungpa had appeared, I walking along the cliff edge behind him. He had peered over his glasses at me and said, “If you have no doubt, you can fly…” It was somewhere I’d never been – until now.
As I continue my practice and pilgrimage here I recognize I’m not alone at all.
A Month Goes Quickly
August 25, 2013
I’m sitting in the kitchen of a motel room with two queen beds, a deck with a gas grill, a view of the Bay of Fundy, that smells of cigarette smoke. The New Brunswick-Maine border at 30 minutes drive west. The last two days I was in the perfect cottage in Margaree Harbour, hosted by friends Kristine & Don, Shambhala friends and owners of the fabulous Larch Wood cutting board business. (They are a work of art that only improve with regular use – wood craftmanship of the highest order). The Margaree river valley and beaches reminded me so much of Cape Cod and the work I used to do with Joel Meyerowitz. It has a certain kind of light through all times of day that render the land/sea-scape so vividly, and a pastoral peacefulness that could nurture a year of writing. The view and interior were as if I’d designed my perfect environment – the pine walls, white floor, window seats, old wood furniture; the view of windblown grasses and tiny houses and churches dotting the green hills, the mountains in the distance, the church and general store, the turquoise and blue water at the beach, the grassy path to the beach cutting through the view, leading to sand dunes. The lovely inviting shrine room, the light penetrating in the chilly morning, and glazing everything with a soft glow in the afternoon.
Before that, I visited Gampo Abbey in Pleasant Bay, also on the western coast of Cape Breton. A short stop on the way to Margaree from Kalapa Valley, it was a grounded place within a dramatic landscape of windblown cliffs dropping into the ocean. Before that, I was in Kalapa Valley, Great Space of green and strong thriving poplars and birches echoing winds from the deeper valley crests. A solitude of people but not of spirit. The presence of my teachers and the wild sacredness of mouse scat. Before that an Inn in Baddeck. Before that, far east near Canso in a tent enduring unceasing wind by a steep shore on Chedabouctou Bay. Before that, a cozy campground in Murphy’s Cove with a maritime village feel and free mussels at the nightly campfire. Before that, a B&B between two churches in Mahone Bay on the South Shore with a clawfoot tub and a chatty, cynical, despairing european owner and his efficient wife, cheerful gray dog with white moustache and eyebrows. A sailing harbour, as was Baddeck. Margaree is a fishing harbour. Mahone Bay was a ship-building harbour, but not deep enough once the ships were cargoed. Lunenberg down the next cove took on that port business instead. Before that, Windhorse Farm in New Germany for 10 days on solitary retreat in a cabin with solar lights, looking out on a beaver pond and the Wentzell Lake beyond. Gardens with blueberries lining the grassy paths among the perennial beds, plenty of places to wander aimlessly. Before that, Halifax at friends near the Common who were walking companions as we went back and forth downtown to our Shambhala program for 3 days. Before that, St. John New Brunswick, at a B&B for a very late (dark) arrival and quick transition from Eastern to Atlantic time, mist along ancient townhouse Loyalist streets and coffee in hand, a peaceful cemetary park, an industrial harbour.
Last night I passed St. John in daylight, the only disruption to the endless trees and rolling hills of three hours of NB-1 Trans-Canada Highway. The motel a recommendation from the Margaree friends, it is a good place, but the contrast is great. Shortly I head over the border towards “home,” stopping in Maine with friends, or camping, I haven’t decided. Friends haven’t written back. Its been just under a month in the Maritimes, the 29th of July to now. And just about 3 months since I gave up my job and apartment – doesn’t feel like a season could go so quickly and yet May 28 seems so long ago as well. I expect to spend September reorganizing for the fall, writing, preparing for the month-long program at KCL I am one of the meditation instructors for. “Reorganizing for the fall” – really more reorganizing for more groundlessness. Things are not clear, although my time in Nova Scotia informed a lot. What is clearer are the true aspirations and the options that I want to be part of the conversation – with myself, my friends, and acquaintances who have a view on my intentions. My ability to stay with the open space is tenuous – it would be much easier to just do the obvious, choose the option based on easing my mind rather than following the deeper intentions. I’m aware that at some point this could transform into trying to keep options open, which never accomplishes anything. Adam Gopnik once wrote about a piece of advice a professor gave him when he was trying to decide his university path – art or neuroscience. It was agonizing…the professor then said something like “if the choices are equally valid and inspiring, it doesn’t matter which you choose; whatever it is will work out.” Good to know…if only I could be entirely convinced.