Sunday, February 08, 2015

CSI: Shakespeare

I've been embarked on a reading project of Shakespeare since about September, when I decided to read back through all the plays, and catch what I had never read. The history plays have been fascinating. Right now, I'm through Part 1 and still reading Part 2 of  King Henry VI. In Part 1, Joan of Arc gets totally trashed. In Part 2, all the gears are in motion for the War of the Roses.

Henry VI's uncle, the Duke of Gloucester has just been dispatched by the Duke of Suffolk. Rumors are he has been murdered in his bed, but squeamish Henry can't bear to view the body of his uncle and Protector, who has been accused of treason by his enemies. So Henry asks the Earl of Warwick to have a look and report back. Oh, how I wish it was this awesome on CSI:
Warwick:
See how the blood is settled in his face.
Oft have I seen a timely-parted ghost,
Of ashy semblance, meagre, pale and bloodless,
Being all descended to the labouring heart;
Who, in the conflict that it holds with death,
Attracts the same for aidance 'gainst the enemy;
Which with the heart there cools and ne'er returneth
To blush and beautify the cheek again.
But see, his face is black and full of blood,
His eye-balls further out than when he lived,
Staring full ghastly like a strangled man;
His hair uprear'd, his nostrils stretched with struggling;
His hands abroad display'd, as one that grasp'd
And tugg'd for life and was by strength subdued:
Look, on the sheets his hair you see, is sticking;
His well-proportion'd beard made rough and rugged,
Like to the summer's corn by tempest lodged.
It cannot be but he was murder'd here;
The least of all these signs were probable.
Warwick don't need no stinking coroners! It's a slam-dunk:
Who finds the heifer dead and bleeding fresh
And sees fast by a butcher with an axe,
But will suspect 'twas he that made the slaughter?
When Suffolk dares refute this evidence, Warwick shoots back with the timeless "yo mama" insult:
But that the guilt of murder bucklers thee
And I should rob the deathsman of his fee,
Quitting thee thereby of ten thousand shames,
And that my sovereign's presence makes me mild,
I would, false murderous coward, on thy knee
Make thee beg pardon for thy passed speech,
And say it was thy mother that thou meant'st
That thou thyself was born in bastardy;
And after all this fearful homage done,
Give thee thy hire and send thy soul to hell,
Pernicious blood-sucker of sleeping men!
- King Henry VI, Part Two, Act 3, Scene 2 
It really is rather delicious.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Fourth of July Creek

I started off the new year right with my first book pick. I had read some pretty glowing reviews of Smith Henderson's debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, when it came out, but had kind of forgotten about it until it finally became available as an eBook from my library. It may be a first novel, but it reads like an instant classic -- a gripping story, great characters, and beautifully descriptive language that is lyrical and immediate.
Medallions from the quaking aspen lay about in a golden hoard, blowing up in parade confetti as he drove through them. A few Indian paintbrushes still glowed red like small tissue-paper fires at a grade-school play. Pete felt a homesick sorrow at the little differences, at time itself....The place looked shorn, fussed over like a toy dog.
The protagonist is Pete Snow, a social worker in northwest Montana, whose family life is almost as screwed up as any of the people he serves. The year is 1980 and the Reagan era is dawning. Pete becomes involved with an anti-government fugitive whose young son he is trying to help while also searching for his own runaway teenage daughter. He is an alcoholic and pretty terrible at dealing with his personal relationships, but at bottom, he is a good guy. Henderson brings Pete to life in all his failures, his noble attempts, his personal disasters, and his doggedness in pursuing a job that is mostly grim and thankless.

Henderson has an uncanny knack for capturing a character's inner voice, both adults and children, and his dialogue rips right along, natural and succinct. There are moments of humor and quiet beauty among the many dark corners of this novel as it subtly reveals a great truth -- even the most broken people can sometimes do good.

Finely observed and anchored in a very particular time and place, the novel also has some lovely descriptions of the rugged landscape near the Flathead River and Kalispell. I would place Henderson in the same literary space as Larry Brown and Philip Meyer. It is definitely one of the best first novels I've ever read.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The year of the book backlog

I realized as I looked back over this year's reading that I hadn't read a single book that actually came out in 2014. I'm so far behind that I haven't yet got to Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which I had intended to read as soon as it came out. Ditto for the incomparable Marilynne Robinson's Lila.

Here is just how dawdling I am: I finally read A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, which I've had on my shelf since it was published in 2009. What a beautiful, haunting story it was, set during the gloaming of Victorian England through the end of WWI. Epic in scope, it traces a history of the arts in those years -- painters and potters, writers and dramatists -- through a sprawling Bohemian family and their circle of friends. Some of the characters reminded me of the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, which brought another long-neglected book out of the dust -- Jean Moorcroft Wilson's momentous biography of Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet (volume one is a hefty 600+ pages). I believe Wilson could tell you what Sassoon had for lunch on any given day -- it's that thorough. I bought it hot off the press in ...1999! Ye Gods, I actually gave Wilson enough time to complete and publish the second volume, which came out last May. I hope it won't take me another decade and a half to get to it.

In retrospect, I pretty much disappeared down the rabbit hole of the WWI era this year. I returned to Graves' stunning The Great War and Modern Memory, which is the book that inspired my master's thesis and introduced me to Sassoon, Graves, and Wilfrid Owen in the first place. I began the year with Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, and finally read Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, and Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover -- a much better book than I was expecting it to be. I think it's reputation has been distorted by all the sensation it stirred up with it's frank sexuality, but there's so much more to it. The Great War looms large, of course -- with its shattered men, the fractured relationships between the sexes, and the increasing assault on nature of a rampant mechanization and industrialization that was ushered in by the cataclysm on the Western Front.

 In no particular order, here are some of the other books I read this year and enjoyed:

Lewis Lockwood's life of Beethoven, which taught me a thing or two amongst all the stuff about his music that went right over my head...

Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark, a lovely novel which chronicles the growth of an artist through the life of its heroine, Thea Kronborg.

Indiana by George Sand -- someone I'd like to read more from... (recommendations?)

Incarnadine, beautiful poems by Mary Szybist.

My Own Country by Abraham Verghese about treating AIDS patients in the 80s in the small cities and towns of Appalachia.





Sunday, December 28, 2014

What makes a classical music fan?

Austin's Mother Falcon at Zanzabar
Now that I'm writing about music on a fairly regular basis as a freelancer, I spend a lot of time thinking about music. One question I've been noodling is what makes me a fan of the opera and orchestra at a time when dwindling audiences and revenues for both seem to be the norm in many places?

One reason this question has bubbled to the surface for me is the recent arrival of our new music director for the Louisville Orchestra, Teddy Abrams. He's obviously on a mission  to revitalize the orchestra - putting the musicians out into the community, trying to win new fans, and coming up with creative programs that will draw a more diverse audience. Kentucky Opera, under the direction of David Roth is also experimenting with programs that feature new works and more rarely performed operas. Will it work? How do people become classical music fans? Why am I one?

I'm not exactly the poster child for classical music fandom. First of all, unlike my husband, who was in band and his college orchestra, I totally lack any hands-on musical education. I regret now that I never tried to make music myself. I formed my passion for reading and writing so early that it pushed other pursuits to the margins. When you've already decided by age 8 or 9 what you want to be when you grow up, you tend to be laser-focused on that one thing. I never thought about being in the band or taking up an instrument, even though I had close friends and family who did. I'm sure I was so much in my own little world of books and scribbling that it didn't occur to anyone to distract me from it with encouraging words about music lessons. Well, at least I had a thing!

Part of Mom's collection
 Second, I grew up in a tiny town in Southwest Virginia in the very heart of country and bluegrass music where the nearest orchestra halls are hundreds of miles away. Family get-togethers often included (and still do) some kind of "picking." I love that kind of music, but I also learned to love a lot of other styles, and when I started to think about it, I realized that I had been listening to classical music since I was a child.

I played the vinyl we had at home from the time I could operate the turntable, so I credit my mother's record collection for my complete disregard of genre.  It was everything from Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis to Sarah Vaughn and the Four Seasons. Chubby Checker and Connie Francis were early favorites, along with classical music compilations and Herb Alpert. My ten-year-old self was just as likely to be listening to "Twist" as Bizet's "Habanera." Willie and Waylon lay cheek by jowl with Pavarotti and the "Evita" soundtrack I had checked out from the local library.

The other big influence on my musical tastes was Great Performances. We usually could tune in about two-and-a-half TV stations where I grew up and one of those was PBS, thank God. I watched ballet, orchestra, and Met operas. I vividly remember "Rigoletto" with Pavarotti playing the Duke. I don't know why it made such an impression on me except it was very dark, and I was a little girl with a decided affinity for the macabre. There was also a production of "Lucia di Lammermoor" that I loved. Who can resist a madwoman in a bloody, white gown screeching down the staircase after dispatching her husband with a dagger on her wedding night? Now that's entertainment! At least to those of us raised on Appalachian murder ballads. (Belated kudos to Marilyn Mims who played Lucia when I finally saw it live at Kentucky Opera in the 90s.)

In college, I was very involved in drama, and of course, there was a lot of cross-over between the fine arts departments. I went to all my friends' concerts and recitals, so I never really lost interest in classical music, particularly opera, which combined music with theater. In graduate school, working two or three jobs and going to class, I was all about the free music opportunities. One of  the more memorable was Sam Ramey performing a solo show one night on campus. Whoa! Mephistopheles ... totally dreamy. You can keep your Barihunks.

One thing I'll extrapolate from all of this, is that it's important to capture the imagination of kids if you want to grow the next generation of classical music fans. You don't have to explain the plot of an opera to them, and for God's sake, don't imply that classical music is good for them. Is anything more deadly than an adult telling a child what they should like? No one ever did that to me. Just let 'er rip and see what they latch on to. It doesn't have to make any sense. Arts programs in schools have fallen on hard times, but all it takes is that one magical musical experience for a child to be hooked. I don't think anything is more important than having the orchestra, ballet, opera, etc., get into schools and libraries as often as possible with their outreach programs.  Clearly, this is a long-range plan.

And is it possible to turn the 20- and 30-somethings into classical music fans if they've never been exposed before? Well, it's at least as possible as convincing them that a handlebar mustache is a good look or that Pappy Van Winkle should be served as a jello shot. Social media is the key. If you can project yourself positively into the craft beer and cronut crowd, then you might lure them to a concert. If you make it cool, they will come.

Open it up, invite more people, make new friends. I think all these things help shake off the stuffiness that still clings to orchestras and opera companies. I know that I've heard more people talking about the orchestra in the last year than I ever have before. And as someone totally invested in having a healthy arts community in my city for years to come (because it's all about me!), I'm for anything that puts butts in the seats.






Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Shakespeare Project

Shakespeare's bust in the ceiling
 of the Louisville Palace Theater.
One of the shows I attended this fall was a very inventive production of Love's Labor's Lost at Actor's Theatre in Louisville. Many years ago, this was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw performed at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, VA, near my hometown. Full of nostalgia, I reacquainted myself with it before going to Actor's, which reminded me why this new version chose to jettison entire scenes, conflate characters, and insert a mashup of famous Shakespeare lines from other plays. Much of the original is completely impenetrable to a modern audience! There are whole scenes of wordplay and jokes based on what was probably very topical at the time, but the references are so obscure now that the scholars can only guess at what precipitated the jokes in the first place.

The experience got me to thinking about plays I wanted to read again, and the handful of plays that I've still never read. So, I thought, why not work my way through all the plays, reading one a week from now through next spring? I might even finish by Shakespeare's birthday!

Branagh as Macbeth 
I actually started in September with LLL. Macbeth was next because I've been mourning the fact that I didn't see Kenneth Branagh's production at the Armory this summer. Then, Richard III, who has been on my mind, since his poor bones are still being jostled about and fought over by Leicester (where they were dug up) and York (where many think he should be buried). There has been an ongoing effort to revive his reputation, but Shakespeare is a pretty formidable spin doctor.

R3 is a treasure trove of over-the top insults, most of them flung about by the female characters in the play. "Never hung poison on a fouler toad. Out of my sight! thou dost infect my eyes." So says Lady Anne on being wooed by toady Richard who has just killed her husband. "He that bereft thee, lady, of thy husband, Did it to help thee to a better husband." He's so wicked and witty. I love this scene, and I can't wait to see Benedict Cumberbatch's take on it in the excellent Hollow Crown series.

I finished up September with one I had never read, The Two Noble Kinsmen. It's actually co-written by Shakespeare and his contemporary John Fletcher. It's a weird little play, adapted from Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" in the Canterbury Tales. It's weird mainly because the action seems so improbable and then most of the really interesting stuff happens off-stage. The two kinsmen are friends and cousins, Arcite and Palamon, captured prisoners from Thebes being held in the court of Theseus, Duke of Athens. Though one is banished and one manages to escape, they are both in love with the Athenian Princess Emilia, which sets them at odds. There is no actual interplay between Emilia and either of her lovers, and then the contest that decides the winner is not dramatized. There aren't any particularly beautiful quotable quotes, which makes this play rather dull.

In October I read, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, and King John (I'm running behind -- I should already have read The Comedy of Errors, which is next on my list). Maybe the most surprising of the three was the one with which I'm most familiar. I've read it, wrote about it, and seen it performed a couple of times. Reading Lear again, I found it more moving than ever. I think there are aspects of this play that you only appreciate as you get older -- when the potential reality of helplessness, dependency, and weakness is enough to scare the bejesus out of you. It's a play that is truly timeless in the way it depicts the humiliations of old age, the revelation of family loyalties, and the wolfishness of those eager to fill the gaps left by the superannuated.

I encountered Troilus and Cressida in graduate school, but it hadn't really stuck with me. It is most interesting for it's absolute bleakness and it's lack of any hero. It is set during the Trojan War, and provides a scathing perspective on wars based on empty and pointless causes. Hector is the most level-headed and he is often the most blunt  in his criticism of the stupidity of the war, but even he is blinded by the idea of "glory and honor" won in battle. His brutal end is one of the most searing commentaries on those twin ideals in literature -- at least until the Great War poets, Sassoon and Owen come along. I would like to see a production of this one day. It is considered to be distinctly modern in the way that it deconstructs any kind of sentimental or romantic ideas about war, love, attachment, or heroism. It was written around the same time as Hamlet (1602). Shakespeare must have been in a pretty grim frame of mind for awhile.

The last that I've finished is King John, which I'd never read and had no familiarity with even the basic plot. I was kind of expecting it to be a dud (as Shakespeare goes). Oh, but no! I loved it. It has some of the most entertaining dialogue in Shakespeare, and a great character in Falconbridge (aka Philip the Bastard, aka Richard Plantagenet), the illegitimate son of Richard Coeur de Lion. In Shakespeare's world, bastard sons aren't usually the good guys (i.e., the horrible Edmund of Lear), but in King John, he's one of the few truly noble characters in his actions, an irreverent silver-tongued devil in his speech. When his brother has him declared illegitimate and leaves him without land or fortune, Falconbridge declares his loyalty to King John (also his uncle). He gracefully excuses his mother's faithlessness, thus:
Some sins do bear their privilege on earth,
And so doth yours; your fault was not your folly:
Needs must you lay your heart at his dispose,
Subjected tribute to commanding love,
Against whose fury and unmatched force
The aweless lion could not wage the fight,
Nor keep his princely heart from Richard's hand.
He that perforce robs lions of their hearts
May easily win a woman's.
Another thing I like about King John are the female characters. There is the intimidating Queen Elinor, John's mother, and the rather crazy Constance, mother of Arthur, a claimant to John's throne. Here is her speech, when she finds out Arthur is dead:
No, I defy all counsel, all redress,
But that which ends all counsel, true redress,
Death, death; O amiable lovely death!
Thou odouriferous stench! sound rottenness!
Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,
Thou hate and terror to prosperity,
And I will kiss thy detestable bones
And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows
And ring these fingers with thy household worms
And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust
And be a carrion monster like thyself:
Come, grin on me, and I will think thou smilest
And buss thee as thy wife. Misery's love,
O, come to me!
I would thank that any actress would relish the chance to speak these wildly over-the-top speeches!

I'll try to catch up in November, but the fall arts season has been a busy one. Now that the time has changed and I'm facing what I expect to be a long and dreary winter, I expect I'll have more time to cuddle up next to Will. Here's hoping he makes the journey to springtime a little more bearable.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Summer reading: Road trips and Americana

It's hard to believe that we are this deep into summer already. The kiddos will be back to school next month, football season will start, and this vague thing we call "summer reading" will be over. I'm not sure that I've found my quintessential book of the season. I read Jack Kerouac's On the Road right before my own road trip, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected. Toward the end, I found it a bit tiresome. It began to seem repetitive and aimless. I've never really identified with the Beat generation that much and I don't find Kerouac's style of writing to be that engaging over a long haul. I am, however, interested in the Beats as a response to World War II, and I think I might enjoy reading something that gives a little more context to the movement.

Much more to my taste was Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch, in which Mead explores her relationship to George Eliot's novel over the years since she first read it. Eliot is my favorite author, and I understand how a book can seem to speak to you on a level that feels very personal and direct. I had a similar feeling about Daniel Deronda when I read it. There were things going on in my life that mirrored the struggles of some of the characters in the book, and Eliot's wise and sympathetic voice was comforting. She penetrated the complicated psychology of  people who are searching for identity and meaning and offered a large-hearted understanding of the misguided things we do in the attempt. Mead's book made me want to re-visit all of Eliot. I have saved Felix Holt as the only one of her works I haven't yet read. With what nerdly relish I contemplate reading an Eliot novel for the first time!

I read Karen Russell's Swamplandia! next. It received swooning reviews and was on everyone's "best" lists. About an alligator-wrestling family in the Ten Thousand Islands off Florida's Gulf Coast, it has an engaging young heroine, 13-year-old Ava Bigtree, and quirks aplenty. It's one of those books that in the end seemed less than the sum of its parts. The writing was great, the characters were likable, the setting was exotic, and yet I didn't love it. The tone of the ending didn't seem to match up with the rest of it somehow. It was actually pretty depressing. I do enjoy Russell's gift for dialogue. The sections about the oldest brother of the Bigtree clan and his struggle to fit in (or just survive) on the mainland were very funny to me.

I just finished Ian Frazier's Great Plains, which was published in 1994. Rambling around the Plains states, Frazier describes the landscape and the people he encountered while visiting historic sites, museums, ghost towns, and abandoned dwellings, offering a thoughtful exploration about what the Plains mean to the story of America. Along with more familiar episodes and characters like Crazy Horse, Bonnie and Clyde, the Clutter murders, and the Dust Bowl, Frazier tells some of the lesser known stories: about the last man lynched in Kansas, the African-American settlement of Nicodemus, and finding Sitting Bull's cabin. He is funny, conversational, and passionate.

I'm not sure what's next. I have a house full of books and library ebooks that are just a click away. What are you reading?

Friday, June 13, 2014

Montana and Yellowstone (A tour of the West)

Montana


My father first hitchhiked out to Big Timber from Virginia when he was 16-years old to work on a ranch owned by extended family, but eventually he wound up in Jordan, Montana on his later trips for hunting. He would stay a month at a time, so I was never able to go. I enjoyed the stories of the people he met -- the ranchers and assorted small-town colorful characters, as well as descriptions of the landscape itself. I've lived with these stories a good long time, and I suppose as one gets older and you start to think of your parents as actual people, you get to wondering what it is that makes them tick. So I wanted to see my father's Montana, and this is where we depart from any travel route you're likely to take.

Jordan is the seat of Garfield County, described as the most remote county seat in the lower 48 states. It will probably not be on your Western itinerary. Just north is the Fort Peck Reservoir, so if you're a fisherman or a hunter, then you might find yourself in the neighborhood. Otherwise, it's only renown is for the Freemen uprising in 1996 and for its rich dinosaur fossil fields in the Hell Creek Formation nearby. From Miles City, you drive northwest about 84 miles through undulating low hills and pasture land, dotted by sagebrush, dressed momentarily in spring green for us. To my father, it was always brown and sere in September, empty and practically treeless, a straight road to a place only a few can love. I thought it was peaceful and beautiful in its spareness. Farms and a couple of tiny crossroad communities lie in between. I might have seen my first antelope along this road, just one or two wanderers, picking through the sage. They are very graceful, gentle looking creatures, golden brown with big patches of white on their rumps and stubby little tails. They would not look out of place on an African savanna.

Pulling into town, it looks dusty and quiet. At the crossroads is the Garfield Motel where we stayed. The desk is empty, but if you pick up the phone, someone will answer and scoot on over to check you in. I'm not sure if anyone else was staying there. The good news is, you can walk to just about anywhere you want to go in Jordan, as all the businesses are clustered around very handily. There's a museum where you can view area fossil finds (closed by the time we arrived), pharmacy, coffee shop, grocery, garage -- all your basics. Of the several bars, we went to Hell Creek Bar, where my father would stop in on his trips. This was Memorial Day, so probably not the most hopping time to be in town. There were only a few patrons and one long table that looked like a family having dinner. I ordered Wild Turkey (unusual for me, but good) and we had bar food for dinner. Don't come to Jordan for the cuisine. 

But the point is, I was finally there, perhaps sitting on the same bar stool where my father sat, and I would have called him had I had any cell service. We asked after a friend of my father's who owns a ranch nearby, but he wasn't in that night and we didn't know how to get in touch with him. So there we were in Jordan, Montana for no earthly reason other than it's the place my father liked to go. I wonder what the locals thought of us greenhorns showing up for an overnight stay and then disappearing without a trace. No one asked us any questions, but they were perfectly friendly. I expect that they do not tend to pry. I even wandered around the streets as dusk came down, swung on the swing set at the elementary school, smelled the fragrant shrubs blooming (lilacs?) here and there, snapped a picture of their war memorial where I expect they had some sort of remembrance earlier in the day. A good number of WWI names as well as WWII and other conflicts. I'm sure a few people saw us meandering. I hope they made up some good stories about us.

Little Big Horn

Little Bighorn Battlefield looking uphill where Custer made his last stand.
Not wanting to retrace the same ground on our circuitous southern path to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, we headed due west out of Jordan along Route 200, and traveled about 100 miles through sagey grassland, buttes, and coulees populated by mostly cows and browsing antelope. Cross the Musselshell River and eventually in the distance are the Judith Mountains to the north and the Snowy Mountains to the south. You hang a left at Grass Range and go another 90-odd miles on 87 to Billings. By this time, we are listening to Francis Parkman's decidedly dated but still engaging memoir, The Oregon Trail, a misnomer, as he didn't actually go all the way to Oregon, but went part ways, following his own interests (among them was living for awhile with a Sioux tribe, who apparently found him interesting or amusing enough to keep around).

All the Indians this Bostonian meets in 1846 are "savages" and the immigrants, trappers, hunters, Mormons and soldiers rarely fare much better in his opinion, but it is an interesting window on the prevailing attitudes of the time. His descriptions of life on the trail are meticulously detailed, full of adventure, and appropriately florid. Herman Melville reviewed it and liked it well enough but thought Parkman was too contemptuous of the Indians. "When we affect to contemn savages, we should remember that by so doing we asperse our own progenitors; for they were savages also." Melville needn't have gone so far back to find savages among the whites, but at least he's on the right track.

Well, now we're back on what might be any normal person's itinerary of the West. Traveling partly along I-90 southeast another 60 miles, we came to Little Bighorn in the Crow Agency. History buffs, we couldn't pass up a chance to view the storied battlefield. We didn't take any of the guided tours, but they do offer them and at least one is led by Crow Indians for the Native American perspective. There is also a  memorial dedicated in 2003 to the Native American tribes who took part in the battle -- Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapahoe -- just down the hill from the monument to the fallen 7th Cavalry.
It's a lovely wheel-like monument with openings meant to represent gates to the spirit world where both soldiers and Indians meet again in the infinite. A bronze silhouette of Indians on horseback is traced against the sky and prairie.

We walked along the trail that ran down the hill where Custer made his stand to the deep ravine where many of his men were trapped and cut down easily by the Indians, who had the high ground on the edges of the coulee. It presents a stark realization of just how desperate the fighting must have been, and how completely wrongheaded it was to pitch a battle that set about 260 U.S. troops against the thousands encamped around the Little Bighorn in the valley.

White marble markers of the dead are erected where soldiers fell (marked by the Army when the bulk of it arrived a few days later). Newer markers of red granite have joined them as Native American historians have documented their own dead from the scarce records. Driving the length of the battlefield, the scattered remnants are lit by the sun in the waving grass. It's sad and eerie and oddly jarring as all preserved battlefields are -- all that terror and violence distilled down into a tranquil landscape that looks as peaceful as a dream, as if we were trying to blot out the pain of what once happened there.

Our third and final book for the journey was Larry McMurtry's short life of Custer. McMurtry is very good at fleshing out Custer and his wife and the rather long list of people who despised him. Custer was pretty easy to dislike, if for no other reason than his total disregard for getting his own men killed. I think he was a sociopath. One might argue that he put his own life in danger as well... except when he didn't. He was court-martialed for deserting his command in 1867. (I have saved Nathaniel Philbrick's The Last Stand for future reading and additional perspective.)

Wapiti

Indian Paintbrush
The end of our long day on the road was Wapiti, Wyoming, about 20 miles west of Cody, along the North Fork Highway. This is a lovely scenic drive along the Shoshone River with red, rocky cliffs and the snow-peaked Absaroka Mountain Range in the distance, forming the eastern boundary of Yellowstone. We stayed overnight at a pristine little inn with a place to do laundry and only about a half-hour from the park entrance. The hillside behind the hotel was dotted with sage and wildflowers. Just about dusk, as I was poking around out back and looking at the hills, a lone mule deer came down the slope, looked right at me (from a convenient distance) and ambled on out of sight. When I went out after dark to look at the stars, I spooked a huge owl (Great Horned?) sitting atop a telephone pole. One of my favorite things is watching wildlife, and there's no better place to do it than out here where you never know what you're going run into (hence, bear spray).

Yellowstone


Absaroka Mountains near Sylvan Pass in YNP

Our first national park is a wonder. So vast, so beautiful at every turn, and full of life. All those responsible for setting it aside deserve our eternal gratitude. I think the crowds of summer would make it kind of challenging to fully enjoy, but we were there early enough to avoid all the madness. While we're not heavy-duty back-country hikers where one might expect to be alone most of the time, even our shorter hikes on accessible trails were quiet and empty. I think we passed one couple as we turned around to hike back down the South Rim of Yellowstone's Grand Canyon and no one at all on a trail by Undine Falls, the next day. There was snow in the higher elevations and in the shady shallows of some trails, but the weather was perfect -- 70s and sunny.
Snowy bit of trail on the South Rim of the canyon.

For someone like me who is endlessly fascinated by roadside weeds, all the flora and fauna of Yellowstone could keep me in thrall for far longer than the two days we were there. But light crowds meant we could get around the park pretty easily, so we tried to make it around the entire loop (142 miles!), which is roughly a figure eight. The first day we came in the east entrance, over the Sylvan Pass and skirted the shore of Yellowstone Lake, still partially iced over. We drove up to Canyon Village where we stopped at Artist's Point and hiked part of the South Rim of the Canyon. We headed to Madison and made camp at our small tent site, and then in the evening we traveled down by the geysers to Old Faithful where we were planning to see the iconic eruption and have dinner at the Inn. This was one of the few times we had a sprinkle of rain. We were a bit underwhelmed by OF, but you know, if you're there, you gotta see it.


Cleopatra's Steps at Mammoth
On our second full day in the park, we drove up to Mammoth Hot Springs where you can walk a boardwalked path through the steamy, sulfurous, pools and springs. 
Fossilized bacteria in the hot springs beds


After lunch at Mammoth Village, we drove the northeast part of the loop toward Tower Falls, across the beautiful Lamar Valley. Lots of buffalo herds and elk in the distance, but a few fellows very close to the road. We stopped to hike along Lava Creek to Undine Falls -- another empty trail -- and I saw a marmot! No bear sightings, which is probably for the best.
I kept hoping to see one through binoculars though. The Yellowstone River winds through the area and drops down to Tower Falls. We came back down toward Canyon over the Dunraven Pass (8859 elevation), where the sheer drops at the side of the road made me rather nervous. A few sections have guard rails, but not all. I was too scared to take pictures!

After a full day of driving the scenic loop, we went back to our campground for brats roasted over the fire and cold beer. My husband built a huge fire to warm us until bedtime -- the temperature was dropping steadily on a clear, starry night. It would get down to 32F, but we stayed pretty toasty in the tent. The next morning was getaway-day, but our trip was far from over.

Going home


Grand Tetons
The return itinerary took us out through the South Entrance, into the Grand Tetons National Park, and then we were going to take one more dogleg west to Salt Lake City for an overnight stay, just for kicks. It's amazing what seems "in the neighborhood" once you've adjusted to the Western scale of things.
Utah


The drive through northeastern Utah was pretty spectacular. We stayed in Denver for two nights and took in a history museum and had a great meal at Osteria Marco. Then the long ride through Kansas back to KC for a night, before the final leg home. 

We will probably never make such an epic car trip again, but we felt extraordinarily lucky to make it through this one with few mishaps along the way.