"Out Beyond the Beauty Strip" Archives

Oct 25 2010

Beyond the Beauty Strip for October 2010
Hidden in Plain Sight

When we’re behind the wheel, it’s easy to fall into “Don’t look, don’t see” mode. A car enwombs driver and passenger alike, insulating them from the many of the sights, sounds, and smells of the world around them. Not long ago a driver ran down a cyclist, dragging her several hundred yards. The driver continued on without stopping, thinking, she later said, that she’d just hit a deer or a dog. Only when she got home and discovered a bicycle lodged under her SUV did it dawn on her that she’d struck a human being. (The cyclist died of her injuries, by the way, but the driver wasn’t charged. Apparently, this was a mistake any driver could make.)

Only a deer. Only a dog. Only a cyclist. Life is cheap on America’s highways, and the open road is littered with the bodies of the ones who didn’t get away. Not many cyclists are left where they fall, of course. We still have enough respect for human life to collect their remains, if not enough to prosecute their killers. (A mistake anyone could make.) But our other victims mostly remain on the asphalt where they died, food for crows and other scavengers. Which is, after all, only the natural order of things. Still, it’s hard not to be struck by the evidence of the automobile’s power to kill and main.

Unless, of course, you choose not to see. But this easy option isn’t open to cyclists. We can’t help but see what lies on the road we ride on. And if the dead have lain in the sun for very long, we can smell them, too.

Which means that many cyclists only know our rarer and more elusive species of animals because they’ve seen them lying dead on the highway—or struggling to get across a busy road before a speeding car crushes them beneath its wheels. How many riders have seen a snapping turtle anywhere except on the highway? Or a living shrew, darting in and out of the deep forest duff, in its never-ending quest for enough food to fuel a heart that beats hundreds of times a minute?

Me? I’m one of the lucky ones. I know these animals when they’re “at home.” But I still see far more of them dead on the road before me. Maybe you’ve never made the acquaintance of a shrew. OK. Here’s one that didn’t make it:

Too Small to See

Or maybe you’ve never seen a weasel going about his business, sinuous and sleek, patrolling the rocky shore of a river or hunting under the pines? Well, if you haven’t, it’s not really a surprise. Weasels move fast, and they hunt by stealth and guile. They’re not easy to see. But this one—a least weasel—had no trouble holding still for my camera:

To Hunt No More

Then again, he didn’t have much choice, did he?

And what about birds? Cedar waxwings aren’t rare, and while they prefer wild fruit, they’re sometimes seen at feeders. But they’re shy. It’s hard to get near them. I didn’t have any trouble getting close to this one, though:

To Sing No More

He died in my hands after being struck by a car.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I like riding. I really do. But each ride adds to an already overlong list of absent friends. And each small body that I scoop up and carry off the road to some grassy patch on the verge reminds me just how vulnerable we all are. A fumbled cell phone, a flirtatious tickle in the ribs, the cry of a colicky child in the back seat… Too many drinks, too many hours without sleep, too many pills,… And then it’s Did I hit something back there? Must have. Helluva bang. Still, it was probably just a dog or a deer. Too late to stop now. Couldn’t do anything, anyway. I’ll check out the damage when I get home. Have to keep the wife (or the boyfriend or the boss or the insurance) from finding out, too. Damn!

Meanwhile, a few miles back, something unseen drags itself slowly and painfully toward the refuge offered by nearest roadside ditch.

 

Caught in the center of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were it’s teeth concealed?
You seem to ask. …
        I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws your were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.

      Philip Larkin, “Myxomytosis”

 


 

How many of us take the time to look beyond the beauty strip? And how many of us really want to? After all, it can be downright painful to see what lies just outside the frame of the photos in the tourist board’s brochures. But if you ride a bike along the highway, hike less-traveled trails, paddle on public waterways, or just walk the city streets to do your shopping and pick up the mail, then you really can’t avoid seeing what lies in front of your eyes, can you? And maybe that’s a good thing.

In any event, we think it’s worth the effort. To that end, Tamia Nelson’s Outside will take another look “Beyond the Beauty Strip” every month. And any number can play. So if you have an example that you’d like to share, please send it along.

 
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Sep 20 2010

Beyond the Beauty Strip, September 2010

 
The weather was so pleasant when I was cycling along one of my regular routes last week that I decided to extend the ride, and I took a detour onto a road that I hadn’t traveled down before. I hadn’t gone far before a dirt track led away from the road into a woods. The sign at the intersection said Cemetery Road. It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse.

Chickadees called from the trees, and I heard a turkey clucking softly in a field just visible through the woods to the south. A quarter mile or so further on, the track suddenly came to an end. And sure enough, there was the cemetery. Ranks of neatly tended gravestones reposed on a gentle hillside, shaded by towering spruces. I left my bike at the open gate and entered the cemetery.

Resting Place

I walked the rows of stones and wondered about the lives of those who were buried there. Several graves marked the resting places of soldiers from the American Civil War, and a Marine who’d died in Korea kept them company, sharing a plot with his brother, who had fought in World War II. Most of the graves bore no flags or bronze markers, however. I saw the headstones of parents and their children, of octogenarians and of infants who’d died within days of being born. It was as quiet and well-tended a cemetery as any I’ve explored.

Rest in Peace

That impression stayed with me. But then I turned back to return to my bike, walking along the very boundary of the cemetery. That’s when I found the all-too-familiar informal dump, a heap of trash imperfectly concealed by leaf litter, fallen branches, and pine cones. Broken bits of artificial flowers were strewn across the ground, along with the plastic vases that once held them. All had been tossed haphazardly into the woods. It seems that “perpetual care” doesn’t extend to carting trash off to the landfill. Out of sight, out of mind? Perhaps. At least the dead can’t see the dump on their doorstep.

 
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Aug 23 2010

Beyond the Beauty Strip for August 2010

As the days grow shorter and evenings become more chill, the crowds of fair-weather hikers thin out. So I’ve been walking the local woodland trails more often. A favorite path leads me through a garden rich in the delicate wildflowers known as touch-me-nots, or jewelweed.

The flower stalks grow as high as my shoulders here, attracting countless insects. Songbirds and small mammals find plenty to eat, as well. Before long, I emerged from the woods into a clearing. Beyond that point, the trail widens and continues on toward the town road. This wider track has been badly scarred by ATVs, whose riders have left the usual mementos of their passing: crushed beer cans, broken bottles, food wrappers, and discarded oil cans. The wild creatures who call the woodland home can’t move to a quieter neighborhood, of course. So they cope as best they can. And as I continued along the rutted track, I noticed a barely perceptible stirring in a patch of scraggly grass that the wreckreationists had somehow spared. I looked closer and saw a mole going determinedly about his business, pink nose quivering. He—I’ll call him a “he,” anyway—was a colorful fellow, too, with a white muzzle, forefeet, and tail.

He didn’t stop to talk. He had places to go and things to do, and before I’d had a chance to snap more than a couple of pictures, he’d vanished into the taller grass at the forest’s edge. Luckily, no ATVs were tearing up and down the trail just then. (For the most part, their drivers are nocturnal, scurrying back to their solitary dens with the first rays of the morning sun.) So the chickadees and the pileated woodpecker could chatter and hammer undisturbed. For now. But the brief calm would soon be broken. The hours of daylight are getting shorter, and the creatures of the night were already waking from their fitful slumbers.

Gentlemen, start your engines…

 

How many of us take the time to look beyond the beauty strip? And how many of us really want to? After all, it can be downright painful to see what lies just outside the frame of the photos in the tourist board’s brochures. But if you ride a bike along the highway, hike less-traveled trails, paddle on public waterways, or just walk the city streets to do your shopping and pick up the mail, then you really can’t avoid seeing what lies in front of your eyes, can you? And maybe that’s a good thing.

In any event, we think it’s worth the effort. To that end, Tamia Nelson’s Outside will take another look “Beyond the Beauty Strip” every month. And any number can play. So if you have an example that you’d like to share, please send it along.

 
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Jul 19 2010

Beyond the Beauty Strip for July 2010

It’s often difficult for me to wrench myself away from The River, with its dramatic falls and tranquil pools, but the bordering woodlands have an allure all their own. So I made the most of a cool day not long ago, climbing away from The River on herd paths and side trails in search of subjects for my lens. I wasn’t disappointed.

I kept climbing, following an informal trail that I knew would take me to a seasonally maintained dirt road. As I crested the last rise, the trail opened up into a clearing. Formerly a staging area for logging operations, this opening in the woods boasted a profusion of berry bushes—a favorite spot for berry-pickers of every species, including man. No longer, however. The canes of the berry bushes had been stripped bare of their leaves by the passing and repassing of ATVs and trail bikes, and in the now-barren heart of the clearing was a large fire ring.

Fire Ring

Spent shot shells covered the ground, and…

Spent Shot Shell

Tangles of rusty wire were everywhere.

A Tangled  Tale

So the despoiled berry patch had become a sort of temple to Adirondack North Country ideals of beauty, with the fire ring serving as high altar, an evocative heap of ash, plastic trash, partially burned paper, charred wood, and still more wire—heaps and heaps of wire.

The High Altar

And the high altar of this sylvan temple is a truly impressive structure, nearly 30 feet wide at its widest point and almost three feet high. The congregation of worshippers have every reason to be proud of their handiwork.

On This Foundation...

But the wire continued puzzle me. Not for long, however. I realized that I was looking at a blending of two religio-aesthetic elements: one or more burnt-out innerspring mattresses and a large number of incinerated steel-belted radial tires. I applied my somewhat rusty anthropological skills to deciphering the underlying rituals, but beyond noting that the bedsprings and tire belts were emblematic of two activities sacred to nearly all North Country indigenes, I was left with little except fruitless speculation. The details of this newly-discovered, contemporary pyrolatric cult must await more expert analysis than I can bring to bear.

Abandoning my attempt to reconstruct the cult’s ritual life from their charred artifacts, I continued on my way through the woods. Soon the fire-pit altar was no more than a discordant recollection.

Avid cyclist and kayaker Mark, of Spokane, Washington, was inspired to write about this month’s “Beyond the Beauty Strip.” I couldn’t agree more with his sentiments:

Your question about how many of us want to look “beyond the beauty strip” reminded me of a quote that I once read regarding Ansel Adams’ photography. “It’s not that there aren’t empty beer cans in his photographs, it’s just that he chose not to see them”. His were powerful images and it kind of makes you wonder what kind of impact they would have had if he had chosen to see a few empties.

 

How many of us take the time to look beyond the beauty strip? And how many of us really want to? After all, it can be downright painful to see what lies just outside the frame of the photos in the tourist board’s brochures. But if you ride a bike along the highway, hike less-traveled trails, paddle on public waterways, or just walk the city streets to do your shopping and pick up the mail, then you really can’t avoid seeing what lies in front of your eyes, can you? And maybe that’s a good thing.

In any event, we think it’s worth the effort. To that end, Tamia Nelson’s Outside will take another look “Beyond the Beauty Strip” on the third Monday in every month. And any number can play. So if you have an example that you’d like to share, please send it along.

 
Send a Comment

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