Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sinking Down Under

In 1985, I decided I'd had enough--I'd experienced college/grad school and/or working steady since 1959, a marriage ended badly, two kids living with me in the family house who were pretty much grown, and a job that had been loads of fun and hard work (mostly Rainier Beer ads) for 12 years but seemed to be heading south...

A military brat, I'd grown up without one particular place to call home, and after more than 25 years stuck in one place, I was ready to hit the road again. I announced to my kids and the ex- and other family members and the bossman that I'd be leaving the country early in '86, probably for a couple of years, and everyone needed to start getting used to the idea.

Various unforeseen factors arose, of course (like meeting and falling in love with the woman who eventually became my second wife), but I still did succeed in escaping at the end of January 1986, flying southwest through Hawaii to Fiji and Tonga, crossing the dateline and so losing my birthday en route, then a few weeks later heading on to New Zealand and Australia, all of them the initial stops on what became my around-the-world adventure. (I had decided earlier that I would carry no camera, but would instead see and hear and write. And so for the next 19 months I kept a journal and wrote poems and did my best to document the adventure in words only.)

Midway in the adventure, I optimistically imagined that my prose was so wonderful the world would want to read a book combining my travel writing and related poetry. (As a certain rooster used to say, "That's a joke, son.") But looking back later on going-on-two-years out in the world, always backpacking it, living mostly on the cheap, staying in hovels and hostels and pensiones, meeting native inhabitants and other travellers, discovering the history and culture and arts, the money and language and local transport in each new place... all of it did prove to be an amazing, truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I believe a few sights and events might be worth reviving for this eclectic, keep-'em-guessing blog. And first on my short list is the day I happened to be travelling by bus across the south end of New Zealand's south island (almost two decades before the Lord of the Rings movie makers)--and discovered I had entered an eerie place of abandoned farms and buildings harking back to construction of the great Grand Coulee Dam or power plays of the Tennessee Valley Authority. I tried to capture it in a poem...

The Death of Cromwell

The bus slows sinking, rolling
down the grade, road dropping
lower and lower as the walls
of the chopped gorge rise over us.
Simply called “The Junction”
back in its glory years,
Cromwell’s spent hoard of days
now can be plainly numbered…
just six remain, in fact.

Platted by miners who long
panned here for placer gold
where two major rivers meet,
now the town must die
before its time, while its descendents
still pluck golden-nugget
apricots from four banks of orchards
drowning in cold anticipation.
A new-risen dam some miles below

now blocks that joined flow;
and the deepening reservoir's
glacial blue won’t exempt any
who linger here testing tides of chance.
The "Roundhead"’s nominal statue
is headed elsewhere by truck,
with some few structures dismantled
for hauling to the new Cromwell
a-building just up the way.

Only crumbling foundations await
the late stay of execution
that now can't come. Frame houses
abandoned to the currents
gather the different dust
falling from bleached canyon walls.
Broken windows overlook
one last brilliant crop of roses
crimson red; lank sweetpeas dozing;

and prickly fluff from some
unknown weed gone to seed,
drifting among us like pieces
of Cromwell’s quickly disappearing
past. History claims the town,
its destiny to join ancient strata
we can almost read up there
where the rivers once wound...
But for now the future is fluid,

brightly foretold in blue acrylic
painted on those few buildings
left, perched precariously
half-way down the main incline,
too late taking their stand:
“Here and no higher, by God!”
By accident we have taken
one of the last buses to be
routed through Cromwell-That-Was.

We pause just long enough
to take on troubled expressions
and three of the local gentry
looking lost, but leaving
before the flood keeps its promise.
Then our diesel ark departs,
low-gearing the old road
up to Cromwell Redivivus,
carrying the rest of us too

to a questionable future.
A last neck-craning look back
lets us read the weathered message
stenciled along a cracked wall
of the town’s long-vacant hotel:
“Cromwell Lodge—your ‘home’
away from home…” More homeless
now, we ride bemused. But ahead,
a double rainbow arches

over the new California-styled mall,
belying the doom we feel
and dazzling us all.

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