On the history of (scarily frequent) powder mill explosions

Explosion 2

This post was originally published on ysnews.com and discusses a powder mill that sits a few miles south of Yellow Springs, Ohio, along the bike path on which I frequently travel. I came across these particulars while doing research for another project and was stunned by just how often these factories exploded.

March 1 marked a sad day in the history of the area, as it was the 131st anniversary of an enormous explosion just south of town in Goes Station. On March 1, 1886, the buildings that used to belong to the Miami Powder Company exploded and killed three people, just a fact of life in an industry “marked by explosions.” While perhaps a self-evident risk when working at a place that produces “villainous saltpeter,” knowing the danger doesn’t dampen tragedy when it happens. The explosion occurred with such force, heat and clamor that everyone nearby probably thought the very gates of Hell opened up in their backyard.

Previously a scythe factory, the Miami Powder Company was refitted as a powder company in the early 1840s by some “Eastern capitalists” in the 1840s. The mill was built alongside the railroad leading from Springfield to Xenia and near the Little Miami because of the abundance of willow trees. When burned, the willow tree, “lining the banks of the stream for miles,” produced a high-grade charcoal perfect for the manufacture of explosives. This charcoal was stored on the property in one of a number of structures housing the different compounds combined to create industrial explosives. Machinery mixed and ground the compounds together, producing a caustic admixture that was kept in a building at the end of the line. In other words, the building was basically a giant bomb.

On that terrible March day, 50,000 pounds of explosive in the dry house ignited for due to a faulty steam boiler. The building was completely wiped off the face of the earth, leaving a crater 10 feet deep. The resulting explosion was heard 100 miles away, felt in Columbus and Cincinnati, smashed buildings and windows from Yellow Springs to Xenia, and “completely demolished” a house three miles away. A covered bridge was knocked down and a “number of people in the vicinity were so prostrated by the shock that they were confined to their beds for several days after.” A 60 pound piece of rock from the foundation was found almost a mile away.

Employees of the mill “felt the earth give beneath their feet and then, seemingly, to rise as though in the throes of a violent earthquake. Some were thrown against nearby obstacles; others were swept from their feet and hurled to the ground.” And these were the lucky ones. Of the three men killed in the explosion, the “largest part found was a piece of backbone,” while other parts were gathered in baskets and bags. An arm was found two miles away. Families wept with joy when their loved ones emerged from the wreckage unscathed, but as Henry Lowe poignantly notes in his 1904 Historical Collections of Ohio, “to three women and their children, the fathers and husbands came not.” The three men – Christy McCann, 50, Henry Franklin, 40, and Michael Haney – left eight children behind.

Remarkably, the March 1886 explosion wasn’t the first or second huge explosion to occur at the powder mill, nor was it necessarily going to be the only explosion that year. One newspaper cheerily reported that only one of the “two or three” annual explosions were deadly. The frames of a few nearby houses, tottering at perilous angles, were all that was left of a nearby neighborhood after being exposed to repeated blasts. (But some “old settlers” that lived just far enough away “didn’t dread [the explosions] as much as other people.”)

Explosion 1The same powder works exploded at 10 a.m. on February 5, 1872. This explosion eclipsed even the wholesale destruction and violence that would come with the 1886 blast. Attributed to an errant spark caused by the machinery that mixed compounds, one building exploded and was followed by four others. At least five workers were instantly and totally vaporized – the only recognizably human remain was a “portion of [a] head and trunk” – while many more later died from injuries sustained in the blast.

As explosions were wont to do, the blast destroyed nearby buildings, blew off chimneys, caused someone to fall down a flight of stairs and blew out all the glass at Antioch College. A train narrowly missed being destruction because it was running a few minutes behind. (Can you imagine being passengers on the train and slowly rolling through that nightmarish accident site?)

A few years later, the trains themselves were the site of a blast. On July 15, 1890, brakes failed as one string of train cars was being attached to another, ramming cars loaded with gunpowder. An explosion occurred that “burst the eardrums of everyone in the immediate vicinity” and burning down 13 buildings. Yet “fate was kind” and the flames did not reach a warehouse containing 25,000 kegs of powder. Nevertheless, 12 people died in the accident.

Not all explosions were quite as catastrophic, sometimes only taking one or two people with them. According to Howard Burba’s 1933 article “Remember When the Powder Mills Exploded?”, the inaugural explosion at the Goes Station mill resulted in an employee “blown to bits for his negligence. A nail in his shoe heel, coming in contact with a nail in the floor of a powder magazine, flashed a spark that touched off the powder around which he was working.” But the curse of explosions extended further than the grounds of the powder mills. An employee of the Miami mill was said to live at the “ill-fated house” on Limestone Street that had already claimed the lives of or driven insane its previous tenants. The employee was asked to try out a new explosive, which ended up exploding in his face and killing him as soon as he set it down. It is unknown how many people died in accidents at local powder plants, but sometimes “powder mill explosion” or a similar explanation can be found in old cemetery records.

The one consolation is that being “reduced to atoms” is probably as instantaneous a way to go as you can get. (The mills reportedly paid well, which probably helped a lot of people overcome their fears of fiery death.) For everyone else, however, such explosions probably felt like the universe was being ripped apart. A cursed finger of the Gods was pressed briefly but resolutely down onto a small patch of Ohio, sowing unspeakable terror and leaving grim silence as it withdrew. “For a full half-hour the cloud held its position, gradually growing whiter and whiter and changing in shape until it became merged with the clouds of the sky,” Burba wrote.

Another explosion at the Miami Powder Company in 1920 took two lives, and the company finally closed its dangerous doors in 1925 following yet another blast.

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A stand-up guy doing stand-up comedy: an interview with an amateur comic

I met Rew Johnson in passing a few years ago when he lived with a friend of mine. My friend told me that Rew was moving to Dayton to pursue stand up comedy more seriously. Seeing someone go for it wholeheartedly is always inspiring, and I thought it was incredible and really cool that he was so invested in his craft. Stand up comedy is an art form I’m not terribly familiar with, so I was curious to know more about how it works and about the ins-and-outs of the life of a burgeoning comic. I re-met Rew when I moved to Yellow Springs, and he was nice enough to submit to an interrogation that I had been waiting years to do.

I’ve done hundreds of stand up sets. I did it for eight years. I was probably on stage between one hundred and two hundred times per year. I was just living for it. You do comedy and there’s nothing else. I’d drive and do a show in Louisville on a Wednesday night, then I’d drive home and get in at three or four in the morning and have to work at ten. Then I’d go to Indianapolis the next night. I’d work so I could pay to do comedy.

I did theater growing up and loved the stage and the attention and the rush that you get. I also loved writing growing up. I always thought I was going to be a writer. But in stand up, you’re the writer, you’re the performer, you’re the whole deal – you don’t share the stage with anyone else. It’s a selfish medium. You have to have a bit of an ego to even think about doing it.

The first stand up I started watching in high school were specials on Comedy Central, and this guy Mitch Hedberg really made me laugh. He piqued my interest in stand up, so then I started listening to other guys, like Steve Martin. I ended up doing stand up my junior and senior years of high school at my high school’s talent show.

My material in high school was terrible. (Laughs) It was bathroom humor. I had a joke about skydiving for the first time. [Evidently this is a corny topic. – DTL] I have it recorded on a VHS tape, and I watched it about two years ago. I couldn’t even sit through it.

I didn’t win the talent shows but a week after my senior show somebody sent me a $50 check and told me to keep going. I graduated high school in May of 2006 and got on stage at an open mic for the first time in June, at Wiley’s in downtown Dayton.

I’ve heard other comics use this analogy, but it’s like, starting a career in stand up is like going back to kindergarten, and it really takes ten or twelve years to become a decent stand up. I really do mean decent; I don’t mean skilled, I mean passably good. And after that, you’re going to college. So when you’re watching guys like Louis CK or Bernie Mac or Bill Burr and everyone’s like, I love this new guy, no, that guy’s been out on the road for twenty years.

When you start doing open mics, you need five minutes of material. In the early years, you try to build on those five minutes until they become fifteen. If you can write well enough and fast enough, you get into situations where you are billed as ‘featuring’ that night, where you do twenty- or thirty-minute sets. Then you build a long enough set from there and you’re headlining, doing forty-five minutes or an hour-long set.

The general rule amongst comics is that you open strong and end strong. Almost every set, my first joke was the same joke. I’d change it up in the middle. I’d change it up if I felt like doing something different, or if there was something I wanted to work on, I’d put it in the middle. But you always end those last five or ten minutes with something that you know will make people go, ‘that dude was hilarious’ when you get off the stage.

I’d say I kept about 60% of the jokes I wrote. But when you’re doing stand up so much, you start to get tired of your jokes pretty quickly. That’s a good motivation to write more and keep being creative. But I’d also have a joke that I’d been doing for two years and then for whatever reason find three more minutes to add to it. That’s what’s really cool about stand up – your act is constantly evolving. A joke is never really finished. There’s no final brushstroke you can put on it.

I gauged what jokes were funny or not by just doing it as much as possible, and watching jokes die. (Laughs) There is a lot of in the moment trial-and-error. I don’t think you ever get used to it. Cause you can have a joke that works 99.9% of the time and for whatever reason do a show and watch it fall on its face.

When you’re trying to do something you’ve worked so hard on, something that you really love, having a roomful of people look at you like you’re an idiot – that’s pretty hard. The thing about stand up is that you can have a set where you totally dominate and you’ll be on that high for two or three hours, enjoying it until you go to sleep. But you have a bad set and you’ll be thinking about it for three weeks. That’s another part of the reason I think so many comics are messed up mentally – it’s self-abuse. You put yourself through that – it’s necessary for the art form but it’s incredibly self-abusive.

It’s like Jerry Seinfeld said – people’s number one fear is public speaking; number two is death. He says, given the choice, at a funeral you’d rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.

I could usually tell within the first thirty seconds how the whole show was going to go. I had many shows where I thought it was going to be great, and as soon as I walked on stage I knew it was not. Or vice versa. I was chain-smoking and pacing and not wanting to go up, but for some reason you go up there and you kill it.

I think the real beauty in stand up is that you rehearse the material and you rework it and rework it, but there’s always those nights where it’s magic; everything flows together and it’s a moment, like jazz, and then it’s gone. Those moments are special. That doesn’t happen very often. You can’t anticipate it.

The longest I was on stage was an hour and forty-five minutes. It was just a show at a bar in Columbus and I was just…on fire. I was just killing it. For whatever reason the circumstances were right. I wound up riffing on stuff going on in the room. At one point I looked at my watch, like ‘how long have I been up here.’ I thought it maybe had been an hour but it had been an hour and a half.

It comes down to the audience. I think comedy audiences are maturing, but they view comedians not as artists but as trained monkeys. That translates to what they expect to you, like ‘make me laugh.’ Some people go to a comedy show and they don’t want to hear your opinion. They just want to hear you talk about, you know, the differences between men and women or whatever.

Those subjects can definitely be hackneyed material, but at the same time, they are universal truths. “Men and women are different” – someone’s got a new take on it and can make it funny. But there are hackneyed jokes, like when am comic says “I hate having to listen to my girlfriend,” and does an impression of her voice for a long time. Thousands and thousands of comedians have done that joke, but there’s always somebody who’s going to put a fresh spin on it. Drug jokes are another topic like that – it’s easy to make people laugh if you are talking about getting drunk or smoking pot. “Oh, I was so drunk I acted like an idiot hahaha.” But Louis CK has a bit about getting high that he did on a comedy special a few years ago, and it’s hilarious.

I was unique in that my family was incredibly supportive. My parents came to quite a few of my shows. I did meet a lot of guys unfortunately whose parents are like, why are you wasting your time? Go get a job-job. I can’t even imagine [how difficult that is] – it’s already hard enough being a comic.

Stand up is definitely therapy on some level. I definitely treated it as therapy sometimes, which can be good and bad. People who have the greatest sense of humor also have the greatest insight into the darkest and most painful areas of life. That’s why you can sit in a room full of military vets and hear them joke about the most morbid stuff. What they’re doing is coping. It’s the same thing with amputees – I’m an amputee – and I’ve made jokes with other amputees that people might grimace at but to me, it’s…a joke.

When I was writing well, I was writing about stuff that I cared about and usually stuff that I cared about was stuff that really irritated me. Like, I had a roommate that ended up being completely racist, and living with him for a while ended up becoming a ten-minute bit that I had. And I wrote it in about three minutes; I was just that impassioned. It just came out of me.

By the end, I stopped writing – I would have an idea in my head and just walk around my kitchen and basically talk through it and find the tag, or the punchline, and build on it. That process, instead of sitting down with a piece of paper, caused me to write material that sounded more natural and not just packaged and ready to go out.

It was also a lot easier to remember. Rather than writing something down and treating it like it was a monologue from a play, if you talk it out, you’re talking the way you talk to your friend on the street. Because it came more naturally, it stuck to your brain a little better.

One of my favorite shows was at a thrift store in Cincinnati that was owned by this couple. We had shows there for about six months. We didn’t get paid but they would make us dinner. We had a blast – it was a room full of forty college kids in what was basically a Salvation Army, watching stand up.

Another one of my favorite memories is the time I got booed off stage. (Laughs) I have it on video somewhere. It was really early on when I started doing stand up, and I was doing this Andy Kaufman kind of character. I was basically playing a fifteen year-old boy who was trying to tell jokes. The audience didn’t understand the character; they really thought I was a fifteen year-old boy. And they booed me off stage. (Laughs) The best part was that I came to the club dressed as this character and stayed in character this whole time. I get booed off stage and the owner of the club comes up and gets on stage and yells at the audience, this one table in particular was doing it, and he yells at them like, ‘you guys should be ashamed! This kid was trying his best!’ etc. He ended up kicking out like seven people. (Laughs) I watched that happen and kind of felt bad because he probably lost money. I came up to the owner after the show was over and was in my normal clothes at that point and apologized to him. I said, ‘I’m really sorry about that.’ He said, ‘no, it’s alright, you had nothing to do with it.’ And I said, no, I did, that was me. He said, don’t worry about it. And I said, no, that kid in the hat – that was me. And he looked at me for like five seconds and was like ‘dude, get out of here, I don’t want to talk to you.’

Success in stand up is fifty percent merit and fifty percent networking, taking chances and making opportunities and booking gigs. I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to work with people I really look up to. Some of my heroes. Two guys that have since made a name for themselves – Kyle Kinane and Hannibal Burress – I had a chance to open for them. In terms of a comic’s career, they were both pretty damn successful when I met them. And both of them introduced themselves by their first names to me. I shook their hands and didn’t say it, but I was thinking to myself, I know who the hell you are. They treated me like a human being.

I’ve also worked with guys who’d been doing stand up for twenty or twenty-five years and never caught their break. They were just bitter, and had an arrogance to compensate for their own insecurity about not being successful. But that’s the nature of the game. I mean, comics are just people – some of them are nice, some of them are jerks.

In all the shows I’ve done, I can probably count the hecklers I’ve encountered on two hands. For the most part, they’re really easy to handle. It becomes hard when they’re just an idiot and completely wasted and they just refuse to shut up. But in a club setting, if the club is run well, the staff usually handles it. Sometimes people would just say things in the middle of a show because they’re enjoying it so much, and it wasn’t really a heckle. I never had a problem with that, as long as it wasn’t through my entire set. And sometimes it led to really great opportunities for riffing on stuff.

I think stand up has definitely made me more assertive overall. When you’re talking, you think about what you want to say, even if it’s only for half a second. At some point during my years of doing stand up, the connection between my mouth and brain streamlined itself. I mean, I would say something on stage in response to somebody and I’d think, where the hell did that come from? I’d have to play it off but I’d be thinking, that was awesome! (Laughs)

Long term, I didn’t think stand up was what I wanted. I’d like to have a family and all that stuff some day. You can make a living being what they call a ‘road comic.’ You’ll have a home base but be on the road forty, forty-five weeks out of the year, driving or flying to different clubs. Some comics can do it, but I didn’t want to have kids and be on the road ten months out of the year. You either have to do that or move to a large city, and I didn’t really want to do that either. And I didn’t want to spend all my time in bars.

As a comic, you’re self-employed, you’re your own business. You’re always doing open mics, trying to get on stage as often as possible, trying to work on your set. Starting out, I definitely did a lot of show for free drinks. There were definitely nights where you’re like, I drove three hours last night to do a show to three people for no money and I had a horrible set and now I’m tired at work – why am I doing this?

But I don’t regret doing it. I basically had an eight-year-long adventure. Traveling as much as I did when I did was neat. And so was getting exposed to different people in our country. And those last two years, I was definitely getting paid more often than not. For every bad memory, there are a thousand good ones. I did one set in January this year. I was surprised at how easy it was to jump back into it.

A Motley Collection of Locals and Mercenary Vacationers: the 7th Annual Women’s Armwrestling Contest of Ocracoke Island

Championship match - Fat Jesus vs. the BakerCoauthor credit and special thanks to P. Williams

The crowd and campers

The crowd and campers

It was perhaps the most raucous if not the raunchiest public radio benefit one could imagine. Picture this – a campground behind a Texaco, hidden from the road, aluminum bleachers and a makeshift bar encircling a makeshift fighting ring. Golf carts and cars are parked in equal measure in the dirt parking lot and alongside the road. Spectators are gathered under the evening sun, drinking everything from Coors Light to Bud Light from a makeshift bar made of discarded 6×6 beams. Everything is surrounded by huge camper trailers with accouterments indicating varying degrees of permanence – string lights, laundry lines, lawn furniture. The nexus of excitement is the pod of costumed combatants bouncing giddily next to a golf cart next to the ring. The warriors are bedecked in everything from Dali moustaches to bloodied wedding dresses. A comingled sense of exuberant fun and the tension of impending competition colored the air. The 7th Annual Women’s Armwrestling Contest was held June 18th, 2015 on Ocracoke Island, a semi-sanctioned armwrestling event sponsored by Combat Armsports and benefitting WOVV 90.1, the local public radio station. Combatant sign-ups were still taking place as spectators took their seats – anyone who felt lucky enough could try to best a motley collection of locals and mercenary vacationers.

Ocracoke Island is a small, thin stretch of land in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The island is sixteen miles long and less than a mile at its widest and is accessible only by ferry. It is an old, small sea town whose relative quaintness is maintained by a National Seashore designation and strict building codes. (One builder tried to flaunt these regulations and was required to dismantle the entire top floor of the enormous home he built.) But despite its clapboard homes and the infinite amount of basketed, slowly-pedaled bikes, Ocracoke is also known for its legacy of piracy. It’s the place where Blackbeard the Pirate was not only beheaded but whose headless body swam around his ship seven times before it sank. Ocracokers are hardy just by dint of living there – hurricanes blow through with dispiriting regularity, causing evacuation and a proliferation of stinking muck when floodwaters recede, and the mosquitos are stuff of legend. Armwrestling, then, is not a cultivated hobby but a demonstration of inborn strength.

The island has approximately 970 permanent residents, but given the ever-changing stream of weeklong vacationers, it’s rare that a strong local presence is detected. (The average summer week ratchets the population to seven thousand.) Local flavor wasn’t missing at this event, however. The armwrestling tournament is one of the premier events on the island. At least half of the 2015 competitors were residents of Ocracoke, and this was a lower percentage than most years. Most everyone else in attendance was strongly encouraged to attend, if not sign up, by the waitress or clerk or local working at whatever facility the vacationer was patronizing. The camaraderie of contestants who work and swim and party together and the fun of an event clearly anticipated by the people that live there gave spectators the sense that they were sitting in on the proceedings of a different world.

(Though it’s not just vacationers that get a glimpse of the surreal. Locals are no doubt aware of guests endowed with oversized personalities. One guy in the audience recognized someone making a recent splash – “Hey! The Thong Girl is here!” noting a young woman wearing nigh-invisible bottoms all day every day throughout town. A sight hearkening of the evening’s event was a guy jogging up and down the main road wearing a sweatsuit and weights tied to his hands – a serious boxer doing serious training.)

Clearly it was a different world no matter where you came from. The stage was made of four rickety fold-out stage rectangles with nylon rope running through holes drilled in PVC pipe turnbuckles. Special thanks were given by the announcer to the “guy who spent all day in the sun setting up this fine venue.” A whiteboard sat in the grass, leaning against the announcers booth, the brackets penned with numerous cross-outs and revisions. In the first of many such instances, the PA kicked on with a startling burst of noise. The transitions between music and announcing always featured one of the two being significantly louder than the other, as if to shock you into attention, and a balance was never quite reached during the entirety of the event.

Completed Bracket

Completed Bracket

No matter – attention was grabbed and the contestants were summoned to the ring to learn the rules. Locals came from the ringside party and the brave vacationer-competitors left groups of friends in the bleachers. Incredibly, a professional arm wrestler had been brought into referee the event. He was the Man, the Myth, the 220lb armwrestling champ from Sunbury, North Carolina, a beefy toned and tanned guy with the incongruous name Giles Russell. Everyone gathered in the ring around a professional armwrestling table furnished by Combat Armsports. He imparted how it would all go down.

The ceremony was brief, and Julie, alias So Fresh So Clean Clean in reference to the hotel-white towels wrapped around her torso and her hair, summarized how you play for her friends.

“You have to break the plane of a small cushion,” she said.

A tournament-ready armwrestling table has two cushions on the outside of an open battlefield, where combatants’ elbows rest. There is an open area in the middle, with two strikepads on either side. These are the cushions a wrestler has to touch with her opponent’s hand. Vertical poles with grips are next to the elbow pads. These are held by the non-wrestling hand for leverage. As soon as a hand touches the strikepad (or wrist in the case of combatants with forearm-size disparity), the bout is over.

“Apparently somebody in Vegas broke their hand,” So Fresh said. “Last time I arm wrestled was when I was ten. Maybe I’ll discover a hidden talent!”

So Fresh took a swig from her beer. Approximately 85% of the audience was drinking. So Fresh was with a group of friends from Nashville, New York, and Maryland. They were staying on Cape Hatteras and had planned on a day trip to Ocracoke but when their server at Howard’s Pub was so effusive in her recommendation of the tournament that they decided to stay and throw one of themselves into the fray.

So Fresh was calm, jovial, a little tipsy perhaps. There was the faintest glimmer of intimidation.

“Dalí looks tough. How should I trash talk?”

“Call her ‘Noodle Arms!’”

“Maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all.”

Her friends also offered coaching tips.

“Let them get ahead a bit then take them out.”

“Swing a folding chair!”

Another squall of feedback made everyone jump. The announcer rattled off a list of the sponsors, which was practically half the businesses on the island. He gave props to WOVV and said that the event would be starting momentarily. In years past, the tournament was a benefit for both the radio station and the fire department. In 2012, $3,200 was raised for the radio station and $1200 for the fire department, but the event now benefits the radio station exclusively. The tournament is held every year on the anniversary of the station’s first broadcast.

Ultimately fifteen contestants had signed up. A few were recurring combatants. This was the third tournament for Fat Jesus, for example. Those who were new were encouraged to make up a nom de guerre and an exciting back story. All contestants could rest a little easier knowing that Karm “the Arm” Laton retired after winning the last four tournaments straight.

The roster for the evening included the following:

Armed and Dangerous Archer – who had machine guns made out of electrical tape on her biceps and a white cape with a machine gun on it and the phrase “come and take it” held around her shoulders with handcuffs. Her “favorite athlete is herself,” according to the announcer.

Salvador Dalía – she had a Dalí moustache on her face made out of electrical tape, blue hair, and stars tattooed on one temple. Two giant melting clocks hung from her chest. “She’s here to melt your clock!” the announcer noted.

The Baker – walked up to the ring throwing bread crumbs into the audience. The puffs of powder were backlit majestically by the spotlights. She was wearing an apron and is a Pisces.

Dorothy the Dominator – wore a St. Paul’s Girl-style dress and drank a lot of Corona. She had an ankle brace but no shoes. She was announced as being from Oz.

So Fresh So Clean Clean – wore towels around her hair and torso. From New York by way of Ohio. She was skeptical of another combatant’s claim of Ohio roots and took this as some kind of obscure taunt. At least six friends were there to cheer her on. “Fresh outta the shower!” yelled one.

Wildcard – had mom jeans, hair bun, and a sleeveless button-up with what seemed to be a hipstery print. She was “raised by wolves in Nepal” and brought a Red Stripe up to the table with her when she wrestled. She is the one who So Fresh thought was lying about her Ohio origins.

Fat Jesus – She had a swimsuit top under one of those shirts whose sides are cut out so profoundly that the bottom of the shirt could tear at any second. The Zach Galifianakis design on her shirt would lead one to believe that her name is a reference to the movie the Hangover. She was wearing high-heeled sandals and “still lives at home.”

Shark Attack – she danced her way up to the stage to tropical pop songs and gnashed her teeth and made intimidating shark fin gestures at her opponents. She was wearing a bloodied dress and was revealed to have two prosthetics legs from the knees down. She occasionally took one off and menaced the crowd with it.

Demolition Dolly – wore pocketless blue jorts and a baseball comprised what someone in the crowd deemed early-2000s fashion. She belatedly donned an appropriately huge and blonde Dolly Parton wig. “She had breast reduction surgery last week!”

Soo Well – was sent up with a bunch of high-fives from her friends. She had billowy hippie pants. “Her father was a pig farmer.”

Hair of the Dog – wore her salt and pepper hair long and windblown. She was bedecked in all white and didn’t talk to anyone.

Crystal the Bone Crusher – looked like a tough older biker, if bikers wore Teva sandals, with an arm tattoo that may or may not have been real. She “idolizes Winnie the Pooh.”

Danger Ranger – is a Sagittarius from the Pennsylvania section of Appalachia. Her hair was a battle-ready ponytail and she wore a Yellowstone Park tee.

Banana Slug – she laughed a lot and fought with a phone in her back pocket. She “used to be a pacifist before the armwrestling tournament and is the captain of both an alien and pirate ship.”

Green Terror – seemingly the youngest of the bunch and a late addition. As such, she had to fight two people back to back in the second round. She is a vegan – “vegetables killed her parents so now she kills vegetables!”

Everyone was thus introduced, and with a classic ‘LET’S GET IT ON!’ the armwrestling was underway.

Round 1

Wildcard's Round 1 victory over Banana Slug

Wildcard’s Round 1 victory over Banana Slug

Salvador Dalía trounced Dorothy the Dominator in under a second. Soo Well was so evenly matched with So Fresh that there was a stalemate for minutes until Soo Well finally won. The bout between Shark Attack and Demolition Dolly was restarted after a false start, then Shark Attack won in less than a second. “I’m all arms!” she yelled. Fat Jesus sidled up to the table against Hair of the Dog, whose super, super-serious expression was no help. The losers of the last two rounds looked like they were actually mad. The Baker threw out crumbs as she walked to the ring. She fought Crystal the Bone Crusher and won. The announcer made a brief announcement. “Look into your pockets! Aside from the money should be donating to WOVV, somebody lost an iPod!” Armed and Dangerous Archer beat Danger Ranger fairly quickly and then went back and hugged her sons. After a serious positioning of the arms by Russell, Wilcard beat Banana Slug.

Post-round, Russell was encircled by wrestlers and fans. He was imparting his wisdom to anyone who had questions. The atmosphere was one of revelry and intense concentration, depending on the role for the night. Demolition Dolly and Hair of the Dog listened attentively, having lost their first bouts rather quickly. (Though to be fair they did lose to competitors who made it to the last rounds.) They both had the look of someone really trying to internalize something, as if stalwart concentration insures the ability to put it into practice. They were the most serious competitors; the pained expressions and their stony silence indicated that they were taking this really seriously.

“You can slide your elbow all over the table. You just can’t pick it up,” Russell said. “So when you’re pullin’ and she’s pullin’ and you realize you have all this space behind you, start pullin’ her back. The next move should be a drag. Open her arm up. A subtle drag. Do it subtly or you may open your own arm up. Good arm wrestlin’ is keepin’ ‘em locked nice and tight then start draggin.’ You wanna take everything down together, like this. [Here he showed her a fluid takedown motion, their hands interlocked like they were wrasslin.’] Not doing that is not good armwrestling technique – it’s ‘hurt yourself bad technique.’ I want everyone to have fun and an injury would be a huge buzzkill.

“A lot of people who haven’t seen it professionally think, ‘you’re using your body – that’s cheatin’!’ but no – as long as your elbow doesn’t come up and as long as your shoulder doesn’t go below the tabletop, it’s legal. You don’t want to twist your humerus – ”

A spectator in a flowered button-up shirt interjected, eager to show off his anatomical knowledge: “It’s shoulder blades, right? It’s all shoulder blades and latissimus dorsi, right? And the anterior deltoid?”

Russell sidestepped the question by acknowledging it then answering a slightly different question as to not embarrass the guy’s error and eagerness to name drop some muscles. Russell continued coaching Demolition Dolly, twisting her arm one way then another and pointing out different points of flexion. Any future arm wrestlers should note that reliance on brute strength is a novice’s mistake. It’s just as much about the leverage you can get. Ambitious students should study physics. An image Russell posted on his Facebook page reads: ‘Armwrestling – where gym junky ego is destroyed.’

Admirers with cameras ready

Admirers with cameras ready

Much is thought of Russell’s expertise. It is his fourth time reffing the Ocracoke tournament. Arrangements were made for his family to accompany him. His wife, daughter, and a thinner version of Russell who the announcer kept referring to as Young Giles were there with him.

His wife Tabitha was photographing the event and sat near him as a cadre of women with wine glasses filmed his impromptu lessons, giggling as they asked him to flex again and again. Young Giles looked on in awe. He was a little shy still but was no doubt eagerly awaiting the time he’ll be able to reap the benefits of the family sport. (The women slyly asked Russell the Elder about his leg placement during matches.) Young Giles was there as an assistant, and between rounds he had to take on a seemingly unending line of kid competitors taking up the offer to get on stage and arm wrestle him, including a battle with one of two kids in the audience that night that for some reason looked disturbingly like adults. Papa Giles gave his son a little nudge here and there to tell him he should let a kid win. Even as a teenager Young Giles was gracious in defeat. In one particularly endearing scene, Russell called on his daughter to come on stage and arm wrestle her brother. She leaped with excitement and ran up to the table and after a long struggle beat her brother. She strutted around in victory and then Young Giles held her over the ropes as she flexed for the crowd. The crowd went wild. She was in on the family sport too. She told a nearby spectator “I wrestled him all day in the hotel and I beat him. Don’t mess with me!” The last line was delivered with surprisingly sincere menace.

Round 2

The championship belt

The championship belt, worn for approximately 27 minutes

Green Terror fell like a chomped vegetable to Wildcard. Dorothy took off her flip-flops as she took on So Fresh. Dorothy won and So Fresh pretended to cry. Soo Well lost to Dalía in what was a “live art performance.” “I get really pumped up,” Dalía said. “That’s not to say I train – I’m just naturally this awesome. I’m totally competitive – haven’t you seen me?” The announcer mentioned that the winner would get to wear the belt for “twenty-seven minutes” before giving it back. Despite the advice from Giles, Demolition Dolly was taken down by Hair of the Dog, who apparently did benefit from his lesson. Fat Jesus fought the Baker – it was a match between two of the strongest contestants and the hefty savior won. Crystal the Bone Crusher fought Danger Ranger in a match that featured unchanging expressions and eye-contact broken only after what seemed like minutes of the most extreme strain. Danger Ranger won. The PA played a funny “Fwee!” sound at every loss from now until the end. “We got someone from morning radio here!” said the announcer, even though he was the one in control of sound effects. Armed and Dangerous Archer, whose “guns are banned in twenty-six states,” fought Shark Attack. From this point on Shark Attack made a point of wiggling her behind at the crowd and tucking her dress into her lacy blue underwear. Despite her taunts and fierce expression as her opponent walked up to the stage, Archer won. Banana Slug slimed Green Terror.

After the round, the announcer bid people try their luck against Giles when the tournament was over. “Anyone want to take him? He’s out of shape.” Russell affected a slouch and pulled down on his bicep like it was drooping.

Round 3

Wildcard vs. Salvador Dalia, Round 3

Wildcard vs. Salvador Dalia, Round 3

Soo Well lost to Dorothy the Dominator and was eliminated. Wildcard flirted with the ref but still lost to Salvador Dalía. Spectator A: “She does that every time.” B: “What?” A: “Win.” All of the contestants ran up to the ring for the match between Danger Ranger and Hair of the Dog. Hair lost and the FWEE! effect played. She was eliminated. Shark Attack, who “loves foot rubs,” shook her booty, tucked her dress, eliminated Banana Slug, and then grabbed her chest and stuck her chin out at the crowd. A new explosion sound effect played. After noting that she “lost her pet monkey but collects monkeys and giraffes,” Fat Jesus beat Armed and Dangerous Archer. The Baker, an Ocracoke native, eliminated Dorothy. A guy yelled out a taunt that made the crowd laugh. He thought he could do better, apparently, as he said “No, no that wasn’t good” about his own comment.

After the match Shark Attack was seen reclining on a golf cart, throwing back drinks and just sucking down a cigarette. She and Armed and Dangerous then got up and danced with their kids. Giles arm wrestled Young Giles and was coaching him with fatherly affection. A guy from the audience ran up and challenged the older Giles and was quickly – and expectedly – dispatched to hell. A new admirer came up to Giles and was dancing as close as she could to him. He went along with it for a second and then excused himself, saying “I’m an arm wrestler, not a dancer!”

Round 4

Danger Ranger was up against Shark Attack, who did her now-standard dance-and-tuck (the sixth time her dress was tucked into her underwear, according to one observer). Shark Attack won and DQ’d Danger. Then the battle of high hair buns – Wildcard vs. the Baker. The Baker’s bun was stronger. Tacky rock music played the whole time, including “Happy Happy Birthday.” Fat Jesus fought Dalía; both were up to this point undefeated. But it was a quick fight – Fat Jesus won. Shark Attack fought again, this time against Armed and Dangerous Archer. Despite her physical taunts and chest-grabbing, Armed and Dangerous further bloodied her dress and kicked her out of the tournament.

Round 5

“Ocracoke is a community of costume lovers and connoisseurs. We have lots of reasons dress up as much as possible. We take the costume contest more seriously than the actual armwrestling,” explained Salvador Dalía. Easy to say when you are crushing the contest physically and sartorially, perhaps, but it was true that Ocracoke is a lover of costumes. Past costumes included a full-body rabbit costume with huge mask/helmet and a muscle suit with hand-sewn muscles. Before Round 5 started, the winners of the costume contest were announced.

3rd) a now regularly dressed So Fresh So Clean Clean
2nd) Shark Attack, who accepted the honor with trademark shark grimaces and sneers at the audience.
and
1st) Salvador Dalía!

Winners received a gift bag of indeterminate contents.

The costume winners were shuffled off and the next round started. The Baker roasted Archer, rendering her stale for good. The Baker fought another round right away, flinging flour as she walked up to the stage, and knocked Dalía out for good but granting Dalía a third place finish. Fat Jesus didn’t have to fight this round because she was undefeated. Round 5 determined who would fight her for the title, and the lucky contestant was The Baker.

Title Match

At this point the mosquitos were doing their customary duty and annoying the fat bejeesus out of everyone. Supposedly their role in the ecosystem is critical – food for bats and other creatures and all that – but the constant biting typically leads one to completely ignore this alleged benefit and wish them all an equally annoying death by a thousand bites.

The rented lights illuminated the ring with patterns straight out of a middle school dance. The Baker stayed on stage, her swimmer’s back and toned arms even more menacing under the interplay of shadow and light. Fat Jesus strode up to the stage in her high-heeled sandals, face ruddy with combat fatigue and drink. The crowd was on its feet and increasingly festive if not drunk. Even a kid with a big arm cast tripped over a pole, and another kid somehow tripped and got his body and shirt tangled around the base of a light. The crowd was laughing and buzzing with a mosquito-like thirst for blood. “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” they yelled. “We love you Jesus!” “C’mon Jesus!” “WWJD? WWJD?!” The last comment was yelled by the guy with reliably funny shouts but who wasn’t too sure of his own sense of humor. A friend said, “That was a good one,” indicating a friend group with a surprisingly honest appraisal of their own quips and heckles. The Baker was hailed too: “Bake me a dozen!” “She’s got strong forearms from stirring flour!”

Your 2015 Champion FAT JESUS

Your 2015 Champion FAT JESUS!

The Baker had to win twice for the title since she had already lost once and Fat Jesus hadn’t lost at all. The Baker stood valiantly, hoping that the Gods of Armwrestling would shine down on her. Would it be one of those classic underdog stories? Would her pure desire be enough to turn the tide? Alas! No! The Baker was dispatched with the power one could expect from the unbeaten maniac known as Fat Jesus!

The belt was presented to the victorious Fat Jesus for photo-ops and to bestow its power to the champion that earned it, at least for twenty-seven minutes. Giles presented her the belt but it fell apart as he handed it to her, clanking loudly onto the ring. Fat Jesus threw her hands up in the classic pose of the victorious, and Giles held the busted belt around her waist. Locals and vacationers celebrated her success. Do we have a new Karm “the Arm” Laton in the making? Perhaps! Only next year will tell, at the 8th Annual Womens Armwrestling extravaganza on the one and only Ocracoke Island!

Trip update 4

Report from a surprisingly really nice motel in Jetmore, Kansas (Pictures forthcoming; not a good enough internet connection it seems?):

San Diego was a great stop. When I arrived downtown the first person I noticed was dressed head to toe like Spiderman. I laughed knowingly, happy to be back in the big city with all its eccentricities – of course there’d be a guy in costume in broad daylight. But then I realized there were more and more people walking around in costume, more than could be assumed to exist naturally, even in the downtown of a major city. But then I saw the numerous banners welcoming Comic Con to San Diego and saw that most shops and restaurants had comic-themed specials and sales. Even the high-end art gallery and an imported rug store had discounts for attendees. I liked the idea of a Ninja Turtle going in and seeing a hand-woven, $2000 8×10 rug he just couldn’t pass up.

Anyway, I was in town to visit Kathi Diamant, a professor at San Diego State University and Kafka scholar/treasure hunter. She is the author of Kafka’s Last Love, a biography of Kafka’s last love Dora Diamant, who up until DIamant’s book, was known only in the context of Kafka’s life. He basically died in her arms, but her story continued long after she shared the best year of Kafka’s life. It is filled with intrigue and escapes and sorrow and is extremely interesting in its own right. Kathi Diamant is also the founder and head of the Kafka Project, a confederation of Kafka scholars and other researchers searching for a cache of Kafka’s letters and diaries confiscated by the Gestapo in the early thirties. If it still exists, the cache is full of letters and diaries that have never been seen before. Every scrap of paper Kafka ever scribbled or doodled on has been published and studied billions of times – new letters and diaries (and the possibility of new fiction) makes this cache essentially priceless. Diamant is currently working with other scholars and institutions in Germany to gain access to a few recently-discovered bunkers filled floor to ceiling with material confiscated by the Gestapo, as painstakingly slow as it might be to sort out. Kathi Diamant was gracious enough to have me over to talk to her about her work. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing her archives of photos and letters and diaries and transcripts, but it was unbelievably fun to talk to somebody about something you both know a lot about but not a lot of other people do. I realized that I heard names from Kafka’s life spoken aloud that I’d never said or heard aloud myself – I’d been reading about them for years but wasn’t ever able to nerd-out to the degree I wanted. I finally got to do so and could have continued to do so all day, but I do have enough tact to recognize I was a guest and so I made sure I didn’t overstay my welcome.

I left San Diego to go to LA and promptly hit the worst traffic I’ve ever experienced. LA traffic is legendary for good reason. It took me no less than four hours to drive 121 miles. It was almost worth the aggravation just to see such horrible traffic firsthand, but this (very minor) appreciation would end as soon as I was abruptly stopped again after driving unhindered for forty-five seconds and thinking that traffic had abated. But I made it to LA without incident and was overjoyed at seeing two friends I hadn’t seen in what we realized was seven years. The reunion was a long time coming, and we picked up right where we left off. A couple days later, I saw another friend I had seen in equally as long. A reunion with a third friend who I hadn’t seen in five years didn’t come together, but I’m happy to come back. (Plus my secret desire to see a celebrity was fulfilled – what up William H. Macy!)

After a few days of catching up and hiking and eating, I visited the LA84 Foundation. Despite the usual economic disaster that seems to afflict every city that hosts the Olympics, LA made off with huge profits and used them to start the LA84 Foundation, a group that provides sports equipment and opportunities to kids and coaching seminars, etc. to adults. They also have the biggest library of sports books in the country, ranging from Mankind’s autobiography to tens of thousands of volumes on golf to books that were in turn written using the resources in LA84’s library. One of these latter books is a compendium of California high school track meet statistics from the beginning of the twentieth century through 2006. One of the authors/researchers is Bill Peck, and he happened to be in the library when I was there. We sat and talked for what turned into a couple of hours. He was at work gathering stats for another volume. He had a legal pad filled with tiny but incredibly neat sets of numbers, and said that he and his friends wrote these books as a labor of love for themselves and other fans of track and field. I told him I was from Ohio, and he told me about a runner from Baldwin Wallace that was a personal hero of his. So personal was the runner’s dedication to the sport that Mr. Peck started crying as he told me how the runner trained in a city that didn’t even have any paved roads. This particular story aside, it was very touching to see why this book task was undertaken – track was an immensely important part of Mr. Peck’s life, spiritually and physically, and he wanted to transmit this transcendental love not just for future historians but in honor of the work and dedication shown by thousands of unsung high school students.

Las Vegas was next. I drove through the desert and saw the city on the horizon. Bizarre oasis! But I realized as I got closer that merely two buildings does not a Las Vegas make – it was a town called Primm with its own casinos and the sudden appearance of tall buildings made me think I’d arrived. It did seem remarkably less flashy than I expected (can’t you see it from space?) and a second city tricked me a second time for the same reason. Finally I saw the actual, inimitable, real Las Vegas and I raced to my hotel eager to see what all the fuss was about. As soon as I walked outside I was in the thick of it, staying as I was at the Riviera (huge hotel rooms are only like $20 a night!), on the north end of the strip. It was much less sleazy than I had been imagining (at least at first glance) but it was hard to wrap my mind around a place in which almost everything is open 24/7/365 and is full-speed ahead for most of it to boot. The atmosphere of the strip is that of an exaggerated mall – people go to Vegas to get wealthy, and what is the best thing anyone with money can do with it? Spend it on expensive shit to prove how much money you have. (The 24/7 party atmosphere is less obnoxious to me than the overwhelming, gale-force message that you are better if you are richer.) Accordingly, hotels house casinos and high-end shops, which is in fact why I was there. Bauman Rare Books is a bookseller specializing in rare and first edition books. Bauman’s is in the mall in the Palazzo casino, and almost nothing in the store is less than a couple thousand dollars. I actually saw the single most expensive object I’ve ever seen in my life (barring a house or the errant sports care) – a first edition of the Federalist priced at a modest $260,000.

On the other end of the spectrum, I went to old Las Vegas. The contrast is like Disneyworld vs. a state fair – you go for the same reason but with much different results. Old Vegas seems a little less focused on manifestations of wealth and more the fun of just being there and being able to gamble and drink on the street. Once I conquered a buffet (not quite as classy as the buffets on the Strip – 11 different food stations vs. 8) I really wanted to see that pyramid building (the Luxor), so I went back to the Strip. It turned out that it was on the opposite end from where I was staying, so I got the full Vegas experience, walking from one end of the strip to the other and back at midnight. So many people, the brightest lights you’ll ever see, every building an immense spectacle, every place and everyone immune to the hours and routines kept by the rest of the world – there is nowhere else in the world that looks and feels like this, and certainly not all day of every day. So strange. I also went to a gambler’s superstore – a bookstore carrying nothing but books on gambling and gaming bought a store selling cards and tables and chips and combined the two. One end of the store is all books – books about the mafia and “myths that CONTINUE to destroy a player’s bankroll” and books on the psychology of tells, BINGO strategies, and my personal favorite, ancient numerology and how it can be applied for success at the horse track.)

And finally, I was most recently in Durango, Colorado after Las Vegas. I stopped by the Strater Hotel to check out room 222, aka the Louis L’Amour room. The famous western author used to hole up there because the music coming from the saloon downstairs kept him inspired. The Strater touts its history as a speakeasy and a brothel and it struck me how much we seem to romanticize old school Madams and brothels, especially during Prohibition. It’s like we collectively join the fight to outwit the Man – everyone loves a good circumvention of irrational laws and Madams/brothels symbolize when this was a national pastime. I can’t tell how I feel about this – it’s a strange sort of respect, but that doesn’t change how everybody treats prostitutes today like they are garbage. In any case, the Louis L’Amour room was booked (and cost $217/night anyway) so I wasn’t able to even peek my head in. I did see some amorous housekeepers, though, and I tiptoed away and let them gaze into each other’s eyes and kiss in peace.

Durango is one of those nice vacation towns catering to tourists who like to buy nylon hiking pants and expensive local art and patronize restaurants serving ‘libations.’ As such, it can be expected that in a town with surfeit antique shops and coffee shops there will be a used book store as well. I found at least two, and Southwest Booktrader had the most amount of books I’ve ever seen in a single room, bookstore or not. I’ve seen some pretty packed bookstores – it’s almost a point of pride to clutter the aisles with dusty books – but I’d never seen any where with floor-to-ceiling stacks going at least three rows deep. A sign asked visitors to ‘please leave the stacks in the condition you found them’ and I couldn’t tell if it was because there was some obscure system of organization I hadn’t noticed or if it was for a patron’s own safety. There was obviously something for everyone if you could find it – one guy yelled “Hey! They got books on crystals!” outside to his waiting girlfriend and I found a signed, first-edition copy of the Happy Isles of Oceana by Paul Theroux. The books were irritatingly a little expensive for used books so I didn’t grab that copy, though I’ll probably regret it later if only because it would be kind of cool to have that personal connection to one of my favorite authors.

My host in Durango took me to hang out with her friends, one of whom was a fire-dancer and the other a musician with whom she played flute and accordion and guitar. I was privy to one of their practices, and the eerie, beautiful folk they played made a lot of sense as the sonic counterpart of their many occult tattoos. My first night, I found myself in the deep woods at night with strangers. It was late and pitch black and nobody knew I was there, but I could sense that nothing malevolent was afoot. My new friends disavowed the ignorant perception that they were “hippies” just because they talked about the vibrating harmony of the earth and stars and life – I was not to be a sacrifice in the forest but another person, another lifeforce with whom this harmony and these celestial connections could be celebrated.

Trip update part 3

This update has been a while coming, but going from two weeks of solitude to more than a week of straight hanging out with people threw off my work game. So this is a little out of date, but here is what has been going on since I left off arriving in Roswell:

Roswell Mural

Mural in UFO Center library

My last couple of hours in Roswell were spent interviewing Mark Briscoe, the director of the International UFO Museum and Research Center. He used to be a college professor but took the executive director position a few years ago. He told me that he loves the job and the people who visit the museum are always a pleasure to talk to, but one thing he doesn’t like is reality TV. As can be imagined, there have been a number of “America is weird”-type shows filmed at the Research Center, and more recently the Center was the focus of an episode of Shipping Wars. According to Mr. Briscoe, he will never do reality TV again after dealing with the contract-breaking, disrespectful, unprofessional idiots that are the Shipping Wars crew. And moreover the whole show is a sham – the object being shipped to the Center in the show wasn’t actually for the Center; the thing the Center actually needed to have shipped was deemed too unexciting for TV and so a monument was commissioned by the show’s producers that they pretended to ship to the museum. ‘They made us look like idiots,’ Mr. Briscoe complained. ‘Don’t believe anything you see on that show! They recut dialogue! They didn’t portray the museum correctly! Some little punk called me up, yelling at me, and I said ‘Wait – who do you think you are? I don’t fucking work for you!’ Shipping Wars is trash, and we’ll never do reality TV again!’

Acrimonious relationship with reality TV aside, the museum is a great resource on the 1947 Roswell incident. In fact, it is so document-heavy that a woman at the Roswell visitor’s center said that the museum might not be what I was expecting, hesitating for a moment before telling me that it might not be that much fun at all. It is a lot of text, she said, with not many interactive exhibits or models. There are some animatronic aliens but not enough to sustain the interest of kids. But I liked this aspect because walking through the museum was like reading a top secret file instead of being walked through a ride at an amusement park.

Just outside of Roswell is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, a state park called Bottomless Lakes. The picture below barely does it justice. I went swimming and then ran to the top of one of these rims in only shorts and shoes – the sun, the solitude, the expansive view, the incredible cliffs right below made me literally gasp in appreciation. Being up there in the quiet felt like the sensation that I understand is conveyed by poetry; this sudden insight made me realize my lifelong scoff at poetry might have to be reevaluated, if only for poetry about nature.

Bottomless Lakes

Inside one of the many lakes at Bottomless Lakes

Heat Can

Heat-induced swelling. The bottom done blowed out too!

After the longest drive so far (nine hours), I was in Phoenix and staying with an old friend. The heat exploded a can of seltzer water in my car, but at least it dried quickly. We did a bit of sight-seeing but were also free to lounge around for a couple days. My appointment in Phoenix was a tour of the PHX6 Amazon Distribution Center, one of five in the city. A handful of Amazon warehouses across the country have opened their doors to bimonthly public tours, and m y tour consisted of a group of paunchy middle-management types and a coterie of state representatives. We were walked around and shown the various stations – the picking station, the packing station, the return-to-vendor station, etc. There are conveyor belts running all through the warehouse, which is 1.5 million square feet. For people like me who don’t understand what figures like that mean in real life, it is equivalent to 28 football fields, all of it under one roof. The tour guide said Amazon’s goal is to have one of everything on earth. The PHX6 facility ships only small and medium-size objects. They have over a million individual items in the warehouse, on three stories of shelves that take up what looked like a few city blocks. We were able to reap the benefits of this incredible stockpile of stuff, as we had the choice of a pair of binoculars or a car phone charger as a parting gift at the end of the tour.

Amazon

Parking lot of the Amazon PHX6 facility. No photos were allowed to be taken inside.

Driving from Phoenix to San Diego took me through some landscapes that I imagine are similar to those on Venus. Some of the mountains looked like enormous piles of boulders while others angled out of the ground and showed their many layers, making me appreciate anew the earth’s geological history. The temperature rose to 119, and signs advised that your car AC be turned off lest it overheat in the middle of these strange mountains. Feeling heat like that is unusual and even good – I drove through the desert with my windows down and my shirt off and felt hugged by it. I saw one person changing a tire and gripped my wheel in hopes that it wouldn’t be me next, but I cruised safely through the desert to San Diego (and then through the infinitely more unpleasant and aggravating traffic to LA).

Boulder Mtn

Desert mountains on the way to California from Arizona

 

 

 

 

Report from Roswell, NM

I wasn’t sure how Roswell would feel about it’s UFO legacy – is it an annoying rumor that just won’t die? Does it distract from the other cool things Roswell has to offer? A sign in front of a Valero as you enter the city answered my question: “Official UFO stop!” Roswell is totally UFO’d out, from the more than a dozen kitschy alien-themed shops to the furniture store that has aliens in bridal gear in the window to the offices of the visitor’s center, which have UFOs on them. (That the courthouse has a big stone Ten Commandments out front indicates a different presence as well.) It’s not like I’m opposed to the UFO worship, as I’m here in Roswell in a crusty motel waiting to visit the International UFO Museum and Research Center, possibly the world’s foremost ufology library. I got there too late yesterday to warrant a visit but I was able to check out its impressive library. After that I wandered around and looked in a handful of the aforementioned alien shops, since the only places that are open past five or six are alien places. Later I found myself at a cemetery on the edge of town, where I got covered in flies. Covered in cemetery flies – yikes.

Chaircrushers

May or may not have eaten at this buffet, somewhere on 40W in Oklahoma

The drive out of Oklahoma a few days ago took me past the birthplaces of Troy Aikman, Carrie Underwood, and Woodie Guthrie. My next destination was in the northern part of Texas. And for hundreds and hundreds of miles it was one of the most desolate areas I’ve ever encountered. You truly do have an unbroken view all the way to the horizon. There are small towns here and there, but most of the evidence of habitation is in the form of oil refineries or large-scale cattle operations, or at the very least, a field full of oil derricks that look like horse skeletons bobbing in the breeze. The miles of piping and tanks and outbuildings of the oil refineries coupled with the general desolation makes these outposts seem like the first attempts at colonization on a new planet. Indeed, a historical marker on the side of the road (of which there are many) explained that a town used to be settled there but after a while the entire town picked up and left, including loading the buildings and houses wholesale onto trains.

 

Skellytown

Skellytown, TX

I visited Skellytown and Borger in Texas. I had an address for something in Skellytown, but I don’t really know what it was for – it led me to one of the many possibly abandoned houses that make up the town. The Christian bookstore in Borger was kind of a bust (depending on how you look at it), since the bookstore was in fact some shelves in the corner of a beauty salon. I was hoping to at least talk to somebody, but I was totally ignored. There were books for sale like The Bait of Satan, Nuclear Prayers for the Secret Place, and a book by the “ordained prophetess” who wrote Breaking the Threefold Demonic Code. (They also had the “autobiography” of one of those clowns from Duck Dynasty.) There was nowhere to stay in Borger, so I decided to take my chances in nearby Amarillo. As it happened, there was a death metal show going on that night, and I made my way to the far outskirts of town to check it out. I stopped at a restaurant to get something to eat first – when I peeked my head in the door, I saw upturned tables covered in dust and two women sitting on the ground talking, totally surprised when I looked in. The show was nearby, so I went there instead. A little while in, I suddenly get punched in the stomach. I look down and see a little mohawk running away from me – an eight year old was trying to start a mosh pit.

Texas Horizon

Unending north Texas isolation!

The next morning I stopped for breakfast in Texico, NM at a diner in a building that looked like it used to be a municipal building from the 70s. A few groups of people came in for breakfast wearing sweat-stained hats, deeply tanned, and covered in mud/dirt/shit. You could tell they could work. One group had a little kid with them who himself was wearing muddy clothes and boots. He was sitting between two older guys in a miniature imitation of their posture, devouring his meal like the adults were theirs. He answered the waitress with his version of the older guys’ “Yu-up,” though a similar kid behind me was still a kid, ordering as he did a corndog and baked beans.

Speaking of food, that is where I’m headed now. Every day has been totally different from the one that preceded it, and that variety is amazing. I don’t know what I’ll find myself doing, but I like that a lot. Another update in a few days!

Blackwater Draw

Blackwater Draw archaeological site – found this site by chance in NM. It is of inestimable importance for the study of early humans in North America. You are free to walk around the site, though there weren’t any active excavations when I was there. This is a preserved (and covered) site so visitors can see the different layers of soil and their respective artifacts and bones.

Trip Update, part 1

Report from hotel room, Sallisaw, OK:

Despite being glared at really hard by some elderly couples at the continental breakfast, the trip so far has been a resounding success. Every day has brought so many new opportunities to learn and observe. Today will be my visit to Sequoyah’s Cabin, the home of the man responsible for developing the written Cherokee language despite being functionally illiterate. Sallisaw is kind of a bleak environment (already saw one guy being arrested and heard the N word repeatedly yelled by a gang of teens) but it could be the weather that colors my perception, as it has been grey and rainy the whole time I’ve been here. But my host did take me out to the middle of the woods to look at this dam at night; the weather made the sky a little lighter (and scarier), and I was glad to be somewhere so quiet and eerie.

On my way from Bowling Green, KY to Little Rock, AR, I encountered more rain than I’ve ever driven through or have possibly ever seen. A lightning blast stuck no more than two hundred feet away, hitting the middle of a muddy field and illuminating a pack of running cows. The scene was primal and quite terrifying, for it’s not often you see cows prompted to run. Later on, a half a mile of powerlines were downed alongside the highway. (And not just downed; pulled in half.) Traffic was brought to a standstill and I saw an accident happen as drivers couldn’t help but look at the surreal, disaster-caliber damage.

Threatening Skies

THREAT-NING SKIES! I always hear that Obituary song when I see intense stormclouds

Little Rock was action-packed. Mount Holly Cemetery is apparently the “Westminster Abbey of Arkansas” because a lot of statesmen and writers and Arkansans generally of note are buried there. It was a remarkably beautiful and calm place, even more so than the normal cemetery whose peace and quiet I didn’t fully appreciate/respect until recently. The visit was prompted by the guy I was researching, Charles Fenton Mercer Noland, who is buried there. The caretaker told me that the fence around Noland’s grave is as old as the grave itself, designed to keep out cows and wild pigs since the cemetery was fairly rural when Noland was buried in 1858. Noland was a Southern humorist, politician, and duelist who was also tasked with riding the Arkansas Constitution to Washington (though upon arrival he found out it had already arrived via other means.) He wrote a series of humorous letters for a magazine in New York detailing the exploits of his alter-ego Pete Whetstone, and some say he probably would have been canonized in Southern literature had he not died so early.

Mount Holly Cemetery

Mount Holly Cemetery, Little Rock, AR

I visited two bookstores in Little Rock, one very neat and the other boasting bags and bags of books on the ground between rows. In the latter, a place simply called The Book Store, the owner told me that she takes but immediately recycles any books about “witchcraft.” But I was able to get a trashy book about the Unabomber there, so that’s good. I ambled around downtown for a while and later went to the Bill Clinton Presidential Center (and giftshop). It is a fascinating place, and not only for its replica of the Oval Office. My hosts were all involved in the sustainable agriculture community; their house smelled earthy and full of vegetables and slow cooking, a smell I appreciate because it’s one of the smells of the left-wing. A few of them went to a town hall meeting, where one guy called for nothing less than the mayor’s resignation because the city wasn’t doing anything to stop the creosote factory the guy’s neighbor had going in his backyard.

The Book Store

The Book Store, on JFK Blvd. in Little Rock. Don’t worry, no books on witchcraft.

Clinton Demin

Denim jacket for sale in the Clinton Center giftshop – the letters and image are raised.

Anyway, off to the cabin now!