A week later, I headed down to Richmond for the inaugural presentation of Art in Writing: The Mary Lynn Kotz Award, which is cosponsored by the Library of Virginia and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Mary Lynn is a longtime mentor and friend. The winner was Orhan Pamuk, for The Innocence of Objects--and to everyone's delight the Nobel laureate flew in to accept in person.
That Tuesday, I set out for the long drive that would bring me here...by way of a Nashville book club, a reunion with cousins, a beer at Doe's Eat Place in Paducah, Kentucky (which turned out to be run--and bartended--by the grandson of the original Doe's owners in Greenville, Mississippi), an abandoned plan to stay at the unexpectedly sketchy hotels out by the St. Louis airport, a 1 AM drive onwards to Hannibal, Missouri, a morning tour of Mark Twain's hometown, and a Friday afternoon arrival in Mount Vernon, from which I have since journeyed out to explore greater Iowa. Or, at least, Iowa City (Prairie Lights!) and Davenport.
Wonderful. And exhausting. Here are a few snapshots from the long drive, and beyond.
Whenever leaving town on I-81 West, I stop at River City Grill in Radford. Every time, I sit at the bar and order beer, ribs, and green beans. They know me as a traveling poet.
After stopping off in Harriman, TN, for the night, I saw the sign for "Ozone Falls Natural Area." I couldn't resist, and soon found myself traipsing (barefoot, since heels would have been more dangerous) to the top of a waterfall.
I'd show you the view straight down, but it was too scary to hold my phone out over it.
The rocks were laced with water and my feet were very, very chilly. But worth it.
Although I do not endorse smoking, I wholeheartedly endorse puffing out clouds of powdered sugar from a bubblegum cigarette, should you happen to find a pack being sold in a gas station outside of Harriman, TN.
When I got to Nashville my first stop was Parnassus, Ann Patchett's bookstore. It is in bourgeoise strip mall, but so what? Great energy, brimming with amazing books, and the friendly staff helped me pick out a quartet for the children of my hosts.
When I got to my friend's place, there were wild kittens in the driveway. Oh, I know I do not have a pet-friendly life. But in my heart, I wanted to sweep them into the car and name them Salt and Pepper.
Did I mention my friend has an amazingly purple house? Her book club was welcoming and engaged, and the conversation sparked by having scientists and scholars in the mix. Plus, she made Sandra-friendly cupcakes for everyone.
The next morning I bought a hat, from a shop where the owner's mother had made it.
Paducah--a scrappy little railroad town. I wish I could show you the Paducah Bridge, which takes Interstate 24 over the Ohio River to Metropolis, Illinois; the bridge is blue, and beautiful, and it rattles your car in its fist. But I had my hands full driving.
After the St. Louis debacle (in which I bounced fruitlessly from airport hotel to airport hotel), I drove on to Hannibal, Missouri, for a room that advertised a jacuzzi. here it is. Keep in mind, this isn't in the bathroom--it is right next to the bed. That's a Kräftig Lager by the William K Busch Brewing Company, another gas station find.
The American Queen riverboat was loading passengers as I arrived in Hannibal.
Call me sentimental, but Mark Twain was one of the authors I loved most as a young writer, so it meant a lot to see where he grew up--from J.M. Clemens' Justice of the Peace Office, to the house of the girl who inspired Becky Thatcher, to the childhood home of Sam himself. Having walked those wooden floors, I'm pretty sure it's the house that is crooked, not my camera. Note the fence.
In the words of Dar Williams: Iowa, Iowa, I, Iowa
My house! Oh, not just mine: there's four of us from the Cornell College faculty living here, just yards from the President's House on campus. It is incredibly warm inside, which I'd probably be that much more grateful for in another month. For now, I have to carry an oscillating fan with me from room to room.
New neighbor, always grazing by the front door.
...here's a little more of the campus. Takes about 15 minutes to walk end-to-end.
...might be my imagination, but squirrels are a lot bigger & tawnier than in DC.
Mount Vernon's Lincoln Wine Bar is where I had my first restaurant pizza. Ever. For a woman allergic to dairy, eggs, and a zillion other things, this is no small feat. They call it "The Goodness"--red sauce, anchovies, basil--with extra chilies. Chef Matt is a funny, friendly guy who set my allergy fears at ease when his menu declared a traditional dough recipe (right down to flour sourced from "Naples, Italy, Caputo 00"). Aaron, who makes the dough, and I talked about George Saunders during his break.
I'm not eating out much, though--there's nothing like paying $2 a bag for peppers, that goes straight to the farmer while you're standing in her barn, to inspire home cooking.
At Abbe Hills Farm, a cat oversees all important transactions. I sautéed those green beans for dinner last night, and they were amazing.
There's a lot of quirky personalities that coexist in the Main Street community center, which everyone still calls "the old middle school." The farmer's market moves to their gym in the winters. Ruth Ipsan-Brown keeps a shop there year-round with her small sculptures, all hand-crafted from natural and found materials. The whimsy of her work reminds me of the annual Christmas display at the U.S. Botanical Gardens.
Some day, I'll be in the place where declaring "I bought chairs" means a new dining room set. But for now, I prefer these guys, Ruth's work. which have taken up residence on the fireplace mantle at Cornell College.
A little weekend stir-craziness took me to Davenport, one of the Quad cities, for a performance of the horror stage-play Ghost Brothers of Darkland County (Stephen King, John Mellencamp, and T. Bone Burnett). I got to town early to check out the Figge Museum, which cuts quite the silhouette along the waterfront.
The museum has Grant Woods's eyeglasses, and the brooch he bought for his mother that made a cameo in American Gothic. Now that I'm in Iowa, I appreciate his work. (Let it be said, Figge knows how to play to local interests. There was a whole exhibit devoted to the artwork and ad design of the John Deere tractor company.)
There was a temporary "Day of the Dead" exhibit of statues throughout the museum that made for some wonderful, deeply weird juxtapositions.
Before the show, I walked out on the skybridge to look down the Mississippi River.
Sometimes this life moves too fast for me. Photographs are a way of slowing it down. Since I sat down to cobble together this note to you, the passing trains have sounded their long howl five times. Class meets in just a few hours, and I have essays to mark up first. There are other things to tell you, but they can wait.
Traveling can change you--by diluting your sense of self, or by concentrating it. Here's what I know: I love being in front of a crowd, whether for a class or reading, but fixate on errors they probably don't even notice. I'm always on the lookout for small creatures. I eat too many potatoes. I like wearing hats in winter. I have not gotten enough sleep. This life is frazzled right now, but it is deeply & utterly mine. How could I have guessed this is what it might mean, when I declared two decades ago I wanted to be a writer?
Somehow, it all adds up to a life that I have to assume is what I was meant to do, and how I was meant to do it. This week, I got the news that I won a FY2014 Individual Artist Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. $10,000, my lord. The money comes when I needed it most. The universe smiles and says, Carry on.