the only roundeyes in the room

We’re a family of cultural chameleons, hopping from ethnic branch to branch and sticking out like an NBA first draft pick at, well, pretty much anywhere. And by the way: if you know me, you realize how painful it was to make a sports analogy just then. I got a little pinprick right behind my left eye. Might be some sort of aneurism; let me go and check it out.

Ok, I’m back. Brain still working? Can I type? Wae feiak lajwoi fdaiw. Just kidding. Where am I? Oh, yes.

A bit o’ the short ‘n’ pithy: We live in a supposed cultural melting pot, but the cultures don’t melt. America is less a cheese fondue than a vinaigrette. Stop shaking the bottle and we all separate.

Case in point: I took Ben on Sunday to a Dim Sum restaurant in South San Francisco. Great big place with “Palace” in the name and terrific Yelp ratings. On the inside, it was opulent, cavernous and lit by incredibly bright and flat fluorescent lights. There were no shadows anywhere, just like Beijing when it’s full of smog (which is, apparently, 100% of the time). Home, crowded home. We had a great meal amid about a thousand other diners, most of whom spoke Chinese, and the rest of whom appeared to be close relatives of people who speak Chinese. We were the only roundeyes in the room. As I said, great meal. You know you’re having good Chinese food when you can’t understand a word anybody says.

Unless you’re at a deaf school. Their Chinese food is lame.

After we left our excellent Dim Sum lunch, we went to the grocery across the street, a good Latin American market full of south of the border awesomeness (that is to say, south of the Canadian border. There’s no shortage of good Mexican food ’round here). There, nearly everyone spoke Spanish. The rest of them appeared to be close relatives of people who speak Spanish. We were the only gringos in the room. This was just across the street, mind you. Plenty of Chinese diners probably needed to pick up some lemons on the way home, but none of them were stopping by the Latin American grocery store. And plenty of Hispanics on Grand Ave, but apparently none of them eat Dim Sum.

To cultural chameleons it happens all the time. Back in Texas B.C. (Before Children) we had yearly season tickets to the TITAS cultural events at SMU. Lots of wonderful concerts, dance events, and the like. Marci and I went to see Tito Puente with my BIL and SIL (Brother-In-Law And Sister-In-Law. Let’s just call them BASIL and be done with it). Anyway, we were at SMU for TITUS in the BC with BASIL. Clear?

Awesome event. I’m so glad I got to see Tito Puente bring down the house while he was still alive. Now that he’s dead, his concerts are nothing to write home about, but back then, man oh man! He had us dancing in the aisles. Couple thousand other people too. But again: we were the only gringos in the room. Hey, what’s up? Tito Puente, Oye Como Va. Who wouldn’t dig that? 

A month later, we went on the same concert series to see Sweet Honey In the Rock. Beautiful a capella harmonies, great and soulful. Very spiritual, uplifting, fun. And us? We were the only crackers in the room. Or should I say crackah? Maybe that’s less offensive to, uh, myself. Where were all the otha crackas?

Same concert series: The Klezmatics. Funky Klezmer music. And we were the only Yids in the house. No, just kidding. It was Hebrew Central, one of few times outside the walls of a synagogue where “Hello, Rabbi!” is something you might find yourself saying more than once in an evening. But no African-Americans in sight. And no Hispanics. And no Chinese. Just like there were no Hispanics in sight at Sweet Honey In The Rock, and no black people at Kodo Drummers, and no Asians hearing Buena Vista Social Club because they were all having lunch with us at Lucky Empress Jade Palace.

But here’s the thing: being a social chameleon doesn’t mean squat. Doesn’t mean I’m enlightened in the least. As you can tell. Doesn’t mean I’m racially balanced. Surely not. If I was, maybe I wouldn’t have noticed who was around me in the first place. Maybe I wouldn’t have written this story. Maybe it wouldn’t strike me as odd that almost everyone around me at the symphony was light skinned, and almost everybody at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles was dark skinned. And as an aside, if you’re in L.A., there are few things better than a warm plate of chicken and waffles. I kid you not.

Walk down the streets of San Francisco and you’ll see a bit of everybody. Sometimes quite literally. Hey, fella, put a towel over it! It’s not just economics: everyone goes to see basketball. Even, occasionally, me. Everyone eats (except anorexics. They get eaten). But look for Asians in a Taqueria, or Hispanics eating Dim Sum. Go have Indian food, then look for those same faces at a sushi restaurant.

Life’s too short. Why do we put ourselves in little ghettos for the parts of life that really bring us to life?

the flea-bitten flatlands of hell

I rose to check the weather for our trip in the dim hours between dawn and Captain Kangaroo. It was Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, 1994, and Ben K was on his way over to pick me up for two calm and restorative days of backwoods hiking in Arkansas. A quick glance at the Whether Channel (to determine whether or not we’d be heading out) stopped my last-minute packing. Excited reporters showed video of intense and angry storms that were sweeping southeast through Oklahoma, straight toward our intended stomping grounds in Ouachita State Park. I had visions of being swept through the mountains by a tidal wave of Arkansas flotsam, beer cans and spent shotgun shells as I fell back into—lawd, forgive me—my uneasy chair.

Upon doctor Ben’s arrival we made a snap (i.e. hasty) decision to drop the plans for driving northeast and instead head west for parts unknown. So I kissed Marci goodbye, and both Ben and I repeated after her in the traditional Oath of Stupidity: “I promise not to do anything stupid like I did last time. We tossed the gear in Ben’s 4Runner, grabbed a Texas Parks map, put pedal to the plastic and headed for the highway. We knew only this: we were headed away from the storms, and we’d figure out the specifics en route.

“Fort Stinkin’ Desert, here we come!” As Ben drove us west by northwest, I surveyed the possible state parks that lay near our route. We settled on Caprock Canyons, a good six-hour drive, and the only park on our map that mentioned primitive camping.

Ben was hopeful. “Should be dry as a bone by mid-day,” he declared, defying the weather gods as we fled the splattering rain and gathering storm clouds of Dallas. Sure enough, as morning gave up the ghost, the beautiful grasses and wildflowers of our tiny highway yielded to scrub trees and the cracked, burnt orange desert soil of west Texas. The sun and the mercury soared in the cloudless sky, and dust devils churned the black plowed fields to our left and right. This part of Texas is apparently big business for dust cultivation and dirt farming.

At one point we pulled the car to the edge of a field to pick some cotton, just to see what it was like. I don’t recommend it. The reason cotton balls are so soft and white is that they remove the thorns, comb through the dirt, and bleach out all of my blood! 

For a long time during the drive there wasn’t much to look at. Highways in north-central Texas are a poor place for sightseeing unless you’ve been suffering from a lack of horizons. After hours of endless Nothing, we were on the lookout for Anything. In Turkey, Texas, a bustling one mile metropolis (if you round up), we settled for…Something.

Bob Wills, the late “King of Western Swing” and leader of the Texas Playboys, is memorialized in Turkey by a statue that from a distance resembles a thin grain silo, or spare parts from pre-NASA attempts at putting spiders in orbit, or one of those Rocket popsicles from our childhood for which we had risked our lives chasing the Ice Cream Man. At the side of the main street in Turkey, the statue’s tall octagonal granite base is surmounted, possibly in an afterthought, by a thin shaft of tin capped with a stunted viola that was probably intended to be a violin. Etched in the polished stone of the base are the immortal accomplishments of Bob Wills, and as they are immortal, I shan’t repeat them here. I will now create a sense of suspense, and leave you to travel to Turkey, Texas and see for yourself.

And while you’re at it, visit the Bob Wills Museum in room 103 of the old high school. If the museum is closed, you can while away an hour looking at class pictures going back to the early 1900’s. Let’s just say that Turkey in the early 20th century was not a net exporter of Hollywood-style paragons of beauty. But if you’re looking for big ears and buck teeth, look no further than the old black and whites on the walls of Turkey High.

Ben and I arrived at the Caprock park station in the early afternoon. The ranger, a dried up coughing hag we subsequently named Beulah, suggested we hike the old train track trail into the canyons. The trail wasn’t in the park, but was on a narrow strip of park land, part of a “rails to trails” conversion. Since hiking the rail trail was the same advice I’d been given over the phone by another park ranger we later named El Diablo, we turned the truck around. We headed away from the ranger station toward the trailhead several miles outside the park, down a dusty dirt road that scraped its way through flat and scrubby ranch land.

We slathered ourselves with sunscreen, filled five canteens from the water jug in the truck, donned hats, boots and bandannas, and hauled our packs onto our backs. Stepping onto the trail, a now tie-less railroad from the 1800’s, we looked down the mounded black strip of crushed volcanic rock. It stretched absolutely straight through the flat desert to a perfect vanishing point on the far horizon, like an illustration from an art primer on How To Draw Perspective.

Smarter hikers would have reconsidered at that point. But Ben and I began walking, crunching across the pumice plain like stomping through piles of Cheerios and bone shards. The map showed that we would have to walk four and a half miles before reaching a long train tunnel, gateway to the promised canyon lands beyond. Within minutes we were soaked in sweat, the surprisingly humid heat murderously intensified by the black rock of the trail. Generous portions of liver-killing insecticide helped keep the hordes of blackflies at bay. Nevertheless, we can both attest the blackflies were indeed of a biting variety, and apparently drawn irresistibly to sweaty young men in much the same way that young women are not.

Hours, miles and canteens later, Ben stopped, looked at me and in a dry croak I’d not heard before, rasped, “Doug, I believe we are in Hell.” By this time, our locale had long been renamed “Craprock Canyons.” But as the sweat-soaked map had promised, we eventually came to a series of heat-blasted low hills that sat like buttocks in the sand, and a bend in the dusty trail that led us toward a cliff face, and the gaping maw of a black tunnel stretching far into darkness. With no sight of Cerberus, three-headed canine guardian of the underworld, we staggered into the tunnel and into deepening shadows. The temperature dropped to subterranean levels and we could smell the pungent guano that indicated we were not alone.

As the rock-walled train tunnel grew darker, the ground became soft beneath our feet and we could hear squeaks and the whisper of tiny wings in the roof high above. Brave fools or lazy adventurers, we had neglected to dig out our flashlights in the delirious glee of being temporarily free of the heat. As the sound of the bats grew louder, the tunnel grew darker. Our lights were buried in our packs, our feet buried in guano, and all buried in a tunnel deep beneath the mountain. The weight of the rock felt as heavy as our packs, and we were keenly aware of being in a deep, old tunnel that was no longer used, and probably ill maintained.

The light behind us faded to nothingness, as if blotting out the past several hours. But just before the tunnel fell into complete darkness and forced us to grope blindly for our flashlights, we rounded a slight curve and could see the glimmerings of daylight ahead. We went toward the light, making the obligatory near-death jokes as we went. Disturbed by our voices, pigeons nesting in the rafters took flight. The beat of their wings ruffled our hair as they made strafing bomber runs past us toward the exit.

Like the travelers in Lost Horizon, Ben and I emerged into a transformed land. The trail led around ledges in the hills, and to the left the ground dropped away into rolling valleys of trees, grasses and grazing land. In the distance below us, a tiny silver ribbon of flowing water wound its way across the valley floor. We rested in the afternoon shade and refilled our canteens from a water tank provided by the park department. Hiking onward, we found the first suitable spot for our tent about a mile down the trail, on an area of flat ground at the edge of a steep valley wall. We set up the tent under a “No Trespassing” sign riddled with buckshot holes. The view down into the canyon was tremendous. With no sign of human habitation in sight, we cooked dinner over a small camp stove.

In the evening twilight, Ben and I ambled down the trail, looking at flowering cacti and watching the buzzards circle lazily overhead. We perched on the edge of a precipice, watched the sunset and harmonized twangy cowboy melodies. In the absence of romantic female accompaniment, we greeted the loveliness of the first evening stars with a belching contest, and pissed off the cliff.

When it was time to return, we got an early morning start. So did the sun and the heat. A fiery furnace blast greeted us as we exited the tunnel to continue the long march back to the truck. After walking an hour or so, the distant profiles of horsemen appeared in the shimmering heat mirage, where the ceaseless black trail vanished into the unending brown horizon. As the travelers approached, we counted four men astride four horses. Not a good sign.

The midday light blazed so bright on their hats that their faces were hard to see as they halted before us. I got right to the point and panted, “You fellas don’t happen to be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?”

“Depends on what you’ve been smoking, I guess,” replied the one we assume was Pestilence.

Death looked down at us from his pale horse and asked where we were from. He cracked a weathered grin when we answered, “Dallas.”

“Y’all didn’t come out all this way just for this,” Death said. “You must of but had other business in these parts.” 

Yeah, that’s right. We had to come visit Quitaque to see the Sidewalk Museum that stretches across crackled and broken pavement down the full 100-foot length of Main Street. We had come for the half-pound charburger and sodden “potatoe” fries at the Restaurant With No Name that we had “surely read about in the Dallas paper.” We had passed through Turkey to see the tall tin and granite erection raised in honor of the town’s favorite son, Bob Wills, who had not been born there, did not die there, and was not buried there.

The four horsemen continued onward and Ben and I finally reached the truck, soaked our heads in the remains of our water, and motored back to the state park to let Beulah and El Diablo know what we thought of their rail trail. Sadly, neither was in attendance at the ranger station, having been replaced by a kindly Angel of Mercy. We settled for writing in the park’s log book, “A fine trail for bikes and horses. Never never never never NEVER BACKPACK this trail in the summer!!!”

Before the long trip back home, and after an exhausted debate as to whether it would be worth the gasoline, Ben and I drove deeper into the park, which we had previously skipped at the advice of the rangers. Oh, supreme twist of the triple-sided knife of fate! Oh ironic gods, bellowing a final dusty laugh at our expense! The park was beautiful beyond compare! The ground cracked open and dramatically dropped away. Majestic walls plunged deep into the earth, yielding a miniature Grand Canyon with all the colors of the desert rainbow.

We were too tired to hike the well-maintained trails to the overlooks, too weary to look over the scalloped edges of the beautiful cliffs. We left Caprock Canyons with salt-crusted skin and black and blue feet. As Ben asked in the air-conditioned Toyota as we u-turned and headed back across the flatlands towards Dallas, “Why do we always have to end up with a good story? Why not just an excellent vacation?” Of course, if I have ever enjoyed a flawless trip, it’s been forgotten long ago, drowned out by better tales of mistakes and misadventures.

And you know, Ben and I went back to Caprock early the next spring, and we ignored the rangers’ repeated advice to see the rail trail, and we hiked all around the park. And the weather was cool and perfect, and the park with its hiking paths through twisting riverbeds, majestic rocky vistas and steep canyon descents was amazing, and it was an incredible camping trip. And there’s not a damn word I can think to write about it.