It’s dark down here. Even with every light on, even when the sun’s up, the temporary home Ace and I have landed in — a cellar apartment in an old southern mansion — is, given its subterranean location, something less than bright and cheery.
I have window wells, but little light shines through. I look out and assume it’s a rainy day — only to step outside and see that it’s as sunshiny as it can be. Down here, it’s as if it’s always 3 a.m. Ace wakes up, looks around, and — like me — assumes it’s not morning yet.
I haven’t been cursing the darkness. That’s best reserved for internet connections. But I think it has been keeping me from being awake as I might be, and I haven’t gotten a lot of writing done. Instead I’ve mostly been oversleeping, setting up housekeeping and visiting my mother. She lives about a mile down the road, so Ace and I have visited almost nightly — conveniently around dinner time. I mentioned to her how dim things were in my apartment, and she, being a former newswoman, felt the need to share that — at least with my sister.
I’ve introduced you to my sister before, when Ace and I passed through Madison, Wisconsin. She’s prone to random outbursts of karaoke singing, sermonizing, deep thoughts and good deeds, and I was about to be a recipient of one of them — luckily the latter.
She called to tell me she had found four lamps on Craigslist, and that she was giving them to me as a Christmas present. All I had to do was drive to some town called Midway, and find the home of a man named Ken. She sent me an email with the directions. Like all her emails, it ended with the same quote from Edith Wharton: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” (Buying lamps via Craigslist wasn’t an option in Edith’s day.)
I popped open the back window of the jeep. He greeted Ace, noticed there was no air in the tires of my bicycle, still attached to the rack, and offered to pump some in. He helped me load the four lamps into the car, and told me to help myself to the kitchen items packed in boxes in his barn. They, like the lamps, had belonged to his mother, who died last fall at age of 98.
I tried to pay Ken $60 — $48 for the lamps, the rest for everything else I grabbed – but he insisted on giving me change. I stuffed as much as I could into the car — or at least as much as Ace would permit. Ace doesn’t like things rattling around back there, or any of the contents to shift while we’re driving, and given the back seat has been his home for most of the past nine months, I try to oblige.
After loading up, we stopped for lunch in Midway, which is next to a town called Welcome, at a place called The Dawg House, then headed down the road to the Midway General Store, where it was hard to find things because it was dark inside. But I got three copies made of the key to my new place, bought two plug adaptors, three packages of cuphooks and a big greasy hambone for Ace — all for a mere $11.
Ace nibbled his bone as I took the back roads home, passing church after church — all with marquee signs out front:
‘Hands joined in prayer are never empty,” one said.
“The church is a pit stop in the race of life,” read another.
“God’s plans for us are better than our own,” another advised.
Space being limited on church signs, attribution for the words of wisdom on them is seldom provided — so you never really know whether they come from God, the local preacher, Edith Wharton or some book, like “1001 Catchphrases for Your Church Marquee.”
Whether they are original words, or a reflection of somebody else’s, doesn’t really matter — as long as they are getting shared, because church marquees, even those that don’t light up, are all about spreading the light, giving life some meaning, tossing a little hope, inspiration and joy our way.
On top of that, never having lived in darkness before, I’ve learned that, much like a chili cheese dog, light – the non-symbolic, simple wattage kind — makes me happy.
For Ace, a hambone works just fine.
Posted by John Woestendiek March 5th, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, america, basement, cellar, church, darkness, dawg house, dog's country, dogscountry, god, hambone, hardware, inspiration, light, mansion, marquees, midway, north carolina, phrases, religion, road trip, signs, spread, sunshine, travels with ace, welcome, wisdom
Sweeping back through the south, we’ve crossed Tennessee and made it to North Carolina, this time without the benefit of what, back in the summer, was our favorite form of highway entertainment — looking for dogs in the kudzu.
The Vine That Ate the South is naked now, having lost its leaves for winter, leaving behind only long strands of clumped-together, spindly, bare vines. I can no longer see big green animals in the leaves, only stick figures, spider webs, spaghetti and road maps.
The kudzu will be back, though, in spring — and ready to spread as quickly as “adult superstores” have through Tennessee. There are a lot of “adult superstores” in the Volunteer State. Going down I-40, it seems like every other billboard is either touting an “adult superstore” or the fact that Jesus Saves.
After crossing the Mississippi River, we stopped outside of Memphis for a quick visit with my son, checking into a Best Western, where I had reserved a room online, after seeing it touted itself as dog-friendly.
Not until I arrived did I see that there were pet fees, according to a posting at the front desk – $15 for a dog between 5 and 20 pounds, $25 for dogs 20 to 40 pounds, and $35 for dogs 40 pounds and up.
I immediately squawked — I’ve become a bit more of a squawker in recent months – pointing out that I’d be paying almost as much for the dog as for me.
“How much does your dog weigh?” asked the desk clerk.
I thought about lying, but, having seen too many God billboards, couldn’t. Over 100 pounds, I said, adding that he’s much better behaved than a lot of 10 pound dogs, and pointing out that the whole charging by weight concept was ludicrous.
The desk clerk made a face like he’d swallowed something yukky and excused himself. Ten minutes later he was back, with a room assignment and news that they’d only charge me $25 for the dog.
Too tired to have any principles, and wanting to get off the road on New Year’s Eve, I accepted the discount and took the room. Then I seethed about the whole thing — especially the weight part — for a couple more hours.
Charging fees for dogs is not dog-friendly; its dog-greedy. I wonder how much damage dogs do to motel rooms across America, compared to that done by people.
Rather than pet fees, maybe motels should be looking at rock star fees — for they, if we’re going to stereotype, are famous for trashing rooms. Why not a fraternity boy fee? A student on spring break fee? A crying baby fee? A loud sex fee?
Only twice in our travels have we experienced loud sex — both times from the room next door. Ace and I did the only thing we could. We tilted our heads and looked at the wall the sounds were coming from, then turned up the TV.
Is that constitutional? Even prisons allow visitors.
Depite all the control being exercised in motels, or at least the one we stayed at, Tennessee, as a state, seems less successful at reigning in kudzu, or adult superstores. (Not that I have anything against adult superstores; it’s a free country, except at the particular Best Western we stayed in.)
As we passed through Tennessee, I stopped at several huge thickets of kudzu (and at no adult superstores, though I was wondering what exactly made them “super”).
I searched the bare vines for dog shapes, which some some of you may recall became a bit of an obsession for me over the summer, but I could find none.
Instead, all I could see in the withered and weepy vines were hunched over old witches, overworked peasants and evil motel desk clerks who charged exorbitant pet fees.
Posted by John Woestendiek January 3rd, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: adult superstore, america, animals, best western, dog, dog friendly, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, forms, god, i-40, Interstate 40, jesus, kudzu, kudzu dogs, lodging, motel, pet friendly, pets, road trip, shapes, south, tennessee, tourism, travel, traveling with dogs, travels with ace, weed
Names: Buddy Holly (named after the performer) and Peggy Sue (the fawn-colored one, named after Holly’s hit song)
Ages: Buddy is 3; pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty Peggy Sue is 4
Encountered: At what’s billed as the largest free-standing cross in America, located near Interstate 40 in Groom, Texas.
Backstory: The two pugs, and the couple who owns them, were headed home to Hobart, Oklahoma after a Christmas visit to Arizona.
The owners of the pampered pugs planned a stop at the cross, which is 19 stories tall and, in the flatlands of the Texas panhandle, visible from 20 miles away.
They were big fans of God, Buddy Holly, pugs and, judging from their racing jackets, NASCAR.
Buddy Holly and Peggy Sue enjoyed a long potty stop on the periphery of the property, then jumped back in the car while their owners went to see the church and gift shop.
To see all our Roadside Encounters, click here.
Posted by John Woestendiek January 1st, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, animals, black, breed, breeds, buddy holly, church, cross, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, encounters, fawn, god, groom, largest, nascar, panhandle, peggy sue, pets, pug, pugs, road trip, roadside, roadside encounter, texas, traveling, traveling with dogs, travels with ace
With God on my side and Jesus in my cupholder, Ace and I passed through the Texas panhandle Wednesday, revisiting the site where, 18 years ago, almost to the day, I nearly got myself killed.
This time around, the roads weren’t icy, there was no snow; only vicious winds that tried to blow me off the road.
Just to be extra safe — well before my dreaded approach to the tiny town of Groom — I stopped to fill my thermos with coffee at the Jesus Christ is Lord Travel Center, on the east side of Amarillo.
It was opened less than two years ago by Sam Kohli, who also runs a Jesus Christ is Lord trucking line, whose 100-plus trucks are all emblazoned with that phrase.
“He just felt there were a lot of people who didn’t know Jesus Christ is Lord,” the woman at the cash register explained to me, charging me a mere $1.18 to fill my thermos and wishing me safe travels.
In 1993, returning to Philadelphia after a three-year assignment in California, my Isuzu Trooper slid off icy I-40, turning over twice before coming to rest, right side up, at the bottom of an embankment.
Anyway, back 18 years ago, I managed to restart the crumpled vehicle and drive half a mile to the nearest motel, where I checked in, along with my dog at the time, a mutt named Hobo.
As I stood in the lobby, trying to contact my insurance company on the pay phone, the desk clerk kept pointing me out to new arrivals, and each time he told the story he added one more roll: “That’s him over there, rolled over four times, he’s lucky to be alive.”
For the next three days, the dog and I licked our wounds and waited for the motel owners to come through with a ride they promised to the Amarillo airport, where I could rent a car for the rest of the trip. The Isuzu was totaled, and I’d been ticketed for reckless driving, though I was driving slower than anyone else on the road.
I kept waiting for our ride to the airport, and I started fearing there was a conspiracy to make me a permanent resident of the town of 500. Groom, coincidentally, is where much of the filming was done for the 1992 movie “Leap of Faith,” about a faith healer who bilks believers out of their money.
Finally, on day four — my room bill rising, my faith waning – I left the dog in the room, walked to a truck stop (it’s gone now, burned down, they say) and hitched a ride on a chicken truck to the Amarillo airport to get a rental car. Then I went back to the motel, picked Hobo up and drove on.
Back to the present: My original plan was to avoid Groom, on this trip and for eternity, but Wednesday, on a route that was sending me right past it, I decided to confront my fears.
The first Groom exit is the site of what bills itself as the largest cross in America.
It’s made of steel, 19 stories tall, with a cross arm that spans 110 feet. It took 250 welders eight months to complete, and weighs 1,250 tons. The man behind it is Steve Thomas, who was disgusted with billboards advertising “pornographic” services and decided to send travelers a different message.
It wasn’t there on my earlier trip — not being finished until two years later — so it took me by surprise. At first I thought that America’s largest cross (Effingham, Illinois, claims it has one eight feet taller) had been built at the precise spot of my accident.
I realized later, though, that the spot where I almost met my maker was a mile ahead, at the next exit.
Rather than get back on I-40, I took the back route, turning left on Route 66, driving through town, and approaching the scene of the accident from a side road.
I parked on the side of the road and left Ace in the car — not wanting him anywhere near the Interstate, or the accursed spot. I did grab my camera and pulled Bobblehead Jesus (B. Jesus, for short) from the cupholder so that he could accompany me.
I felt chills as I gazed at the spot, though maybe that was from the 60 mile per hour winds.
Feeling I had successfully confronted my fears — that I had found closure (not that I’m a big fan of closure; it’s so … final) — I went off in search of the motel that held me hostage.
Next door, I stopped in at a restaurant called The Grill, asking what happened to the motel. The owner told me that what used to be called the Golden Spread Motel stopped being a motel about 15 years ago, changed hands a few times and ended up as a storage facility.
I told her Golden Spread sounded like something you’d put on a sandwich — or maybe a pornographic term describing some act with which I’m not familiar.
I stepped back outside, into the wind, and thought about the gigantic, non-pornographic cross, which, without any guy wires, can withstand gusts of up to 140 miles per hour. In the car, I gave B. Jesus a pat, sending his head to bobbing. Then I gave Ace one.
I was still a little sour on Groom, but I felt a vague sense of gratitude, and gave God that conditional nod I’m prone to giving him or her: I’m not sure I believe in you, but if you’re the reason Hobo and I survived that accident, thanks so much for the ensuing 18 years (in Hobo’s case, about four).
By then I was back on I-40, traveling eastbound, buffeted by winds, bolstered by Jesus Christ is Lord coffee, strengthened by having confronted my demons, and inspired by a giant cross.
Ace looked around, as if confused: What were all those stops about? I’m not sure I know. I get overwhelmed when I start thinking about God and the hereafter. I have enough trouble handling the here and now.
But this much I know I do have: A deep and abiding faith in dog.
Posted by John Woestendiek December 31st, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: accident, amarillo, america, animals, bobblehead jesus, car, church, crash, cross, dog, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, faith, god, god's country, golden spread, groom, hobo, ice, jesus, jesus christ, jesus christ is lord, largest, leap of faith, lord, pets, religion, road trip, route 66, texas, texasm panhandle, travel center, traveling with dogs, travels with ace, truck stop, trucks
Between the Salton Sea and the Chocolate Mountains — in what may sound, and look, like a space you’d land on in the old board game Candyland — there was a man, and a mountain, I needed to check in on.
About 12 years had passed since I first visited Salvation Mountain — Leonard Knight’s massive, hand-painted monument to God. I was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, fond of seeking out stories in the middle of nowhere. He was 67 by then, and had spent almost 15 years constructing his mountain out of hay, tires, adobe and more than 100,000 gallons of paint.
What struck me then was his incredible commitment to the task. What struck me this time is how, even after finding a modicum of fame, what with his own book and DVD and his appearance in the movie, “Into the Wild,” his determination and focus remain — not on himself, not on getting rich, but on the mountain, its maintenance and its continued survival.
Leonard, at 79, is still at it.
He can’t hear too well. His eyes are going bad. He walks with a pronounced limp, and he can no longer lift the hay bales he uses as bricks, or to mix up adobe, to fashion his ever-expanding monument.
While volunteers still drop by to make donations and help with the labor from time to time, on this particular day — Thanksgiving — he was alone.
“Have a seat,” he said, shifting over to the next chair. A blanket was stretched across posts to block out a relentless wind. For the desert, in November, temperatures were chilly. Leonard, wearing paint-spattered khakis, kept his hands stuffed in his jacket as Ace sniffed at the conglomeration of items in the back of his pick up truck.
Salvation Mountain looked much like it did 12 years ago — bright, bold and scripture-laden. But it’s far more famous now, with everyone from National Geographic to Ripley’s Believe it or Not finding it worthy of note. And after Leonard and the mountain were featured in ”Into the Wild,” the 2007 movie based on the travels and eventual death in the Alaskan wilderness of Chris McCandless, interest in his monument rose again.
Even so, he said, maintaining the mountain, much less working on more recent additions — including a “museum” area that wasn’t there the last time I dropped by — has become a strain. The volunteers seemed fewer this year. Leonard blamed the weather. “The summer was too hot, the winter’s too cold, or it’s just too windy, like it is today. You can’t paint on a day like today.”
Crazy as the weather has been, it’s still better than his native Vermont, he said.
Knight was one of four children, born in Burlington, Vermont. He never liked school, got teased a lot, and dropped out in the 10th grade. In 1951, he joined the Army, was trained as a mechanic and got sent to Korea.
Upon his return, he worked as a mechanic in Vermont, supplementing his income by picking apples, which helped him raise enough money to make trips to Caliornia to visit his sister. He treasured the trips, except for the fact that she would make him go to church.
During one visit, after an argument with his sister, he stomped out and sat in his truck. There in the driver’s seat — for reasons he can’t explain — he found himself saying, “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come into my heart” over and over again. Jesus, he says, did.
For the first time in his life, Leonard had a sense of direction — and it would be, as it turned out, a very strange direction.
In 1971, still in Vermont, he noticed a hot air balloon one day, advertising a brand of beer.
What if, he thought, he could market God similarly? He began researching and seeking materials to build a hot air balloon, and praying to God to help provide them, but for nine years it remained a distant and unreachable dream.
On a cross-country trip in 1980, he had engine trouble in Nebraska, and had to spend several days there. The mechanic working on his truck offered to help with the balloon project. They got a bargain on some material, and, for three years, Leonard stayed in Nebraska and sewed.
The balloon never got off the ground, though. When he came to the desert in Niland, California to make a final attempt to launch it, he discovered the material was rotted.
It was then, in 1985, his 14-year quest to launch a God is Love balloon over — that he decided to build a small replica of the balloon, in the middle of the desert, out of adobe. He planned to stay for a week in Slab City — a makeshift community of desert-dwelling loners, snowbirds, RV’ers and on-the-verge of homelessness types.
But what started as an 8-foot sculpture would become Salvation Mountain, rising about three stories high, an accumulation of tires and other junk salvaged and donated, coated with adobe and brightly painted with flowing rivers, budding flowers, a yellow brick road and Bible scripture –all topped by a big white cross.
It’s a constantly evolving work, and, as you might expect, it has fallen victim to both structural collapses and government bureaucracy, at both the county and state levels.
Leonard had his own tests done that proved otherwise.
County supervisors backed off their threats to shut him down, but by then all the free publicity from the controversy had added to the mountain’s legendariness.
Today, the mountain is more likely to be referred to as a work of folk art than an environmental hazard, and even though the mountain is a squatter — an unauthorized work on public land — Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2002 afforded it some protection when she entered it into the Congressional Record as a national treasure.
Leonard lives on the grounds of his masterpiece. He beds down for the night in a small cabin mounted on his 1930s-era fire truck, which like every other vehicle in his compound, be it tractor or bus, is covered with painted-on Bible scripture.
He works on it everyday, weather permitting. A newer ”museum” wing, still under construction, features a tree whose base was created from tires and adobe, and whose branches he cut from dead and fallen trees nearby. He hauled them to the mountain, and bolted them on, painted them and added flowers, which he says are easily made by punching your fist in a mound of adobe not yet dried.
Leonard urged me to go take a look at the addition, and apologized for not making it a guided tour. His leg was bothering him. Ace wasn’t sure what to make of it. He explored its nooks and crannies, and, back at the main mountain, climbed up the yellowbrick road path to near the top.
When I returned and took a seat next to Leonard, he gave me a DVD of a documentary about the mountain, “A Lifetime of Childlike Faith,” and a Salvation Mountain magnet. I asked him what his plans were for Thanksgiving dinner and he said some friends were bringing him some turkey.
Leonard gave Ace a final pat on the head, and we said goodbye to the old man who lives in the desert, having learned, or relearned, at least two things.
One is that there’s a thin and sometimes not immediately discernable line between visionary and nut job, so be careful who you call a nut.
The other is that — however eccentric Leonard Knight may be, and no matter what your feelings are on God — faith can indeed move mountains.
Or even build them.
Posted by John Woestendiek November 29th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, adobe, america, balloon, bible, bureaucracy, california, chocolate mountains, commitment, desert, determination, dog, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, faith, flowers, god, god is love, government, hay, hot air, imperial county, into the wild, leonard knight, mission, monument, niland, obsession, paint, rivers, road trip, salton sea, salvation mountain, scripture, slab city, state, tenacity, thanksgiving, tires, traveling with dogs, travels with ace, visionary, visit
I wrote down this song for my own self, and sing it now to my own soul
But if you’ll sing songs of your dreamings, then you will reap treasures untold
– From the Song “Heaven,” by Woody Guthrie, 1947
Here’s something we’ve all but confirmed on our road trip: The bigger the void, or gap, between towns, the more rural one gets, the tinier the towns, the more likely one is to pick up religious music — sometimes only religious music — on the radio.
Such has been the case in the most recent leg of my road trip – through New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Texas again: God, it’s said, is everywhere, and that’s definitely the case when it comes to the radio in rural America.
This isn’t a groundbreaking observation. Religion and right wing views have long been more firmly embedded in rural areas — more likely to be voiced, worn on one’s sleeve, or posted on signage.
After a few days in Dallas, where God still has a lot of work to do — it seems at least half the billboards are for strip clubs — I rolled into more rural surroundings, and saw this collection of home-made signs outside Palmer, Texas, on I-45.
The Chapel at what’s called “The Church of Texas” is located on a wide swath of land abutting the interstate’s service road, much of which has been devoted to signage, the rest to a small church, gazebos, outdoor seating areas and a pond with (and this somehow doesn’t seem right) a “No Fishing” sign. According to its website, the church has “gone underground,” but it’s not real clear exactly what that means.
I chatted briefly with a man who lives on the grounds in a trailer — not the pastor, but a member of the non-denominational church — who was a bit standoffish until he got going about all the corruption of organized religion.
His dog, a dachshund, peed on my tire (a baptism?) and after chatting a bit, I pulled out, turning on the radio again — for it and Ace and radio God and my bobblehead Jesus (more on him later) are my only company these days.
Sure enough, searching for a signal, I found more God music. I’ve nothing against God music, and love good gospel, but I found myself getting slightly bugged by all the God rock – music that you don’t really know is God music until the chorus comes up and mentions “salvation” or “the Saviour.”
You’ll be tapping your fingers along with the beat, and then suddenly realize you’ve been something close to duped. I find it somewhat deceptive. If you insist on giving me a message, be upfront about it.
God comedy seems to be catching on as well, though I haven’t heard too much of it that is actually funny, or for that matter Godly. It’s generally family-based comedy, funny stories about what the kids did.
Rural Oklahoma was particularly heavy on God music. Not having many musical alternatives on the radio, and noticing I was driving on the Woody Guthrie Memorial Highway — he was born down the road in Okemah – I grabbed a Woody Guthrie CD and slipped it in. Woody is an integral part of my road music collection.
I sang along to songs about dust and migrants and labor unrest and the search for a better life. Woody’s music, it seems – not that it ever wasn’t relevant — is relevant again in 2010, when once again economic conditions and natural and unnatural disasters are shattering dreams and testing the amazing resilience of Americans. Though I probably worship Woody more than any religion, I’d have to admit that faith in God is where a lot of that resilience probably comes from.
Given that, I can handle the God music, the God comedy and God as a roadside attraction — taking his or her place among concrete dinosaurs, Indian trading posts, half-buried cars, reptile museums and the like. Each fills a need, even if that need isn’t always immediately clear.
This concludes today’s sermon.
(“Dog’s Country” is the continuing account of one man and one dog spending six months criss-crossing America)
Posted by John Woestendiek July 25th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace does america, america, animals, church, comedy, dog's country, dogscountry, economy, god, music, pets, radio, religion, road trip, roadside attractions, rock, rural, woody guthrie
When the Rev. Tom Eggebeen took over as interim pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church three years ago, attendance was dwindling.
So Eggebeen decided to make dogs welcome at God’s house — by way of a 30-minute service complete with individual doggie beds, canine prayers and an offering of dog treats.
According to an Associated Press report, he hopes it will reinvigorate the church’s connection with the community, provide solace to elderly members and attract new worshippers who are as crazy about dogs as they are about God.
Eggebeen said many Christians love their pets as much as human family members and grieve just as deeply when they suffer — but churches have been slow to recognize that love as the work of God.
“When we love a dog and a dog loves us, that’s a part of God and God is a part of that. So we honor that,” he explained.
Allowing dogs at services is a practice gaining a foothold nationwide — one that serves to boost attendance and address the spirituality of pets and the deeply felt bonds that owners form with their animals.
Laura Hobgood-Oster, a religion professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, says she’s found a growing number of congregations holding regular pet blessings, and more holding pet-friendly services as well.
“It’s the changing family structure, where pets are really central and religious communities are starting to recognize that people need various kinds of rituals that include their pets,” she said. “More and more people in mainline Christianity are considering them to have some kind of soul.”
Posted by John Woestendiek November 5th, 2009 under Muttsblog, videos.
Tags: animals, attendance, church, connection, covenant presbyterian church, dogs, dogs in church, god, pets, religion, reverend, services, tom eggebeen, worship