Catskill, NY II

The world's largest kaleidoscope is located inside of a sprawling general store attached to a small resort in the Catskills. The store is a maze of interconnected rooms filled with bland pastel paintings, strings of glass beads, and obligatory sticks of incense. The kaleidoscope is in a dark room with servo-controlled doors at the back of the building. Inside, a soothing prerecorded voice drones something about lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling. A triangular video screen glows with psychedelic patterns that reflect off of the three enormous mirrors overhead. Copyright-free music plays, poorly mimicking the sitar grooves of George Harrison. Minutes pass and it becomes clear that the kaleidoscopic animator's stockpile of ideas is running low. A grab bag of historical photographs scrolls past, Teddy Roosevelt's grinning face refracting into a constellation of white teeth overhead.

"If I told you about the hard decisions I have had to make in my country, you would cry," the Tibetan says. He is sitting inside of a surprisingly authentic Tibetan import store in Woodstock, New York—a shop that contrasts strangely with the commercialized hippie nostalgia pervading the rest of the town. The Tibetan was drawn to the area over a decade before by a brother studying in a nearby monastery. This is not his first store but, like his previous commercial efforts, it seems to be struggling. Perhaps it is too authentic for its client base. The Tibetan is a master weaver and he designs patterns that Tibetan exiles in Nepal assemble for export. He goes back to meet with them and instruct new weavers regularly. "I couldn't make any money if I did this by myself in the US, these just take too long to weave." The store brims over with his ideas manifested in the warp of coarse rugs. He does no go into details about his hardest decision, but he mentions that he is trying to decide what to do about his landlady, who dropped by earlier in the afternoon to increase his rent. He swears and shakes his head.


Catskill, NY I

Lines of climbers move up and down the ivory-colored Mohunk cliffs like termites on a rafter. It is the best climbing in the east, they swear. Somebody met somebody who knows an Arizonan currently visiting New York... just to climb these cliffs. Their vehicles fills the lots of the privatized nature preserve, light trucks and Subaru wagons held together with outdoorsy bumper stickers. Mountain bikes crackle along nearby trails, scraping and skittering around banked corners. The late afternoon is cool and dry, a fall day lost in the middle of summer, the beginning of a weekend for a small horde of refugees from New York City. Most of them have driven over a hundred miles to get this brief dose of nature. Gotham will reabsorb them on Sunday night and their service industry slog will resume on Monday but, on this perfect afternoon, work is far away and the New Yorkers smile.

Sinnemahoning, PA

In the rolling green hills outside Punxsutawney, little yellow signs sprout from the lawns of every third or fourth house: "U Can't Afford to Pay For School."

The Amish grocery is dark and ill-ventilated. There are no locally grown produce. In fact, there are no produce at all. Perhaps this indicates that there is an abundance of local produce in gardens or, maybe, it is a peculiarity of the store. The dusty shelves are lined with expired or damaged goods, paper towels and soaps whose color schemes and font choices resurrect advertising campaigns from an earlier decade. A black wire bin overflows with a random assortment of deformed energy bars, each one in the terminal moments of a long and happy shelf life. They sell for ten cents each, a fraction of their former value, twisted forms of hydrogenation that will, undoubtedly, gather dust for years to come. Bearded men in overalls alternate between English and Dutch at the register. Their transaction done, they head out to the dirt parking lot where an extended cab F-350 waits for them. A woman with a long dress and a bonnet pops out of the store at the last moment and jumps in the truck, followed by a sullen teenager with a flat-brimmed straw hat. The truck backs up and turns onto the highway, revealing a non-Amish driver. As the Ford's diesel engine rumbles into the hills, the teen's impassive face is glued to the rear window. Head static, eyes wide, the focus of his vision is dictated by the movements of the machine.

The temperature plummets as the atmosphere clears. The sun loses power, its filament glowing for a moment before fading into darkness. The chill becomes damp cold. The wind picks up, blowing the last few clouds from the sky. North-central Pennsylvania is a patchwork of state forests and parks surrounding a large elk reserve. Elk idle at the roadsides, methodically working over patches of grass before fleeing into dense trees at the distant sound of a solitary engine. This is one of the darkest areas of the eastern United States, a fact Pennsylvania prides itself on. Looking up through a frame of silhouetted leaves, colorful points of light cover a navy-blue sky like glitter smeared across construction paper by an artistic kindergardener. The trees rustle under pressure from the breeze and small footsteps crunch across dried leaves under their wavering canopy.


Washington, PA II

Uniontown, Pennsylvania. A city that had money. A city that does not have money now. Home of John Marshall and desperately in need of its own Marshall Plan. Like so many other middle-sized industrial cities, the later twentieth century has treated it brutally and the early twenty-first promises to be no different. Its stacks of old brick buildings are largely empty, a renovated theater standing out with incongruously bright colors amidst dingy browns and grays. It is the middle of Saturday and the streets are empty of cars and people. Which makes the one pedestrian all the more noticeable

The Pedestrian appears middle-aged, with sandy hair, a pushbroom mustache, and a dark tan. His tan is only marred by a thin white line that traces an angular, symmetrical shape around his neck and lower jaw. It looks vaguely like the outline of an automotive gasket. He glances over his shoulder compulsively. When he speaks, his voice sounds like it is clawing its way out of a glowing, hissing fissure in the Earth. It is deep, monotonous, inhuman. It is a voice bellying no hint of empathy. It is a voice that croaks "the drugs" and turns your spine into an icicle. There is nothing affected or glamorous about it. The Pedestrian is a wreck, closer to being dead than alive. His stiff body language, at once unresponsive and twitchy, makes the anti-drug fable Requiem for a Dream look like a bit of dolled-up artistic wankery. "Getting off the drugs. Hardest decision." Each word comes out painfully, as if he is coughing up shards of glass. "They tried to kill me. Almost did. But he wouldn't let them." The man points to the sky. "I'm done." He scrunches up his mouth and nose, looks over his shoulder, and shuffles away.


Washington, PA I

"You smell plastic burning?"


"Must be Pampers season. Soon all those pretty white flowers will be floating down the river with their little brown buds..."

The dental salesman and the false-tooth fabricator sit in camp chairs eating a greasy breakfast of sausages from plastic plates. They are old friends, from West Virginia and southeast Ohio, respectively. This small, remote corner of the world has been their fishing getaway for the past two decades.

"Usually there's nobody here."

Sometimes they come alone, sometimes they are joined by their wives and daughters. This time they gaze in resigned disgust at their campground neighbors, a group containing two cars, three laundry lines, five tents, a litter of young children, and an indeterminate number of families. The children squeal and run around in a way that could be marketed as endearing if they didn't outnumber the mosquitoes and carry more diseases.

"Rugrats. That's the same group as was here last week... and they're burning diapers again."

"Better than throwing them in the river."

The Fabricator nods and makes banjo noises in a Deliverance reference.

"Hill people."


Glade Creek, WV II

It is a slightly chilly gold and green Friday morning in the Appalachians. Long shadows mottle the landscape and dew simmers off gently blowing leaves. Denese, West Virginia is larger than most of its neighboring towns, offering a small convenience store, a Dollar General, and a small white post office. Inside the post office, the Subcontractor talks about how he accepted the Lord Jesus into his heart when he was twelve. This, he says, was his greatest decision, if not his hardest. Like many of the self-proclaimed saved, the Subcontractor frames his decision as one between heaven and hell, acceptance or rejection of God. When the choice is so obvious, why would one choose eternal damnation? "It's a no-brainer," the Subcontractor insists. He has never made a hard decision.

Was there a hard decision preceding the choice between heaven and hell? The Subcontractor's seemingly obvious choice assumes that the Bible is true, but surely, accepting the Bible's truth was a decision? A decision between evangelical Protestantism and a multitude of other faiths... or an outright rejection of faith? The Subcontractor answers another question that allows him to reiterate the strength of his conviction. His faith is everything to him, total to an extent that is impossible to understand without sharing his sentiment. He has no intention, perhaps no ability, to step outside of his belief and examine it as one of many possible options or as an idea that can be historically contextualized; to do so would be more insane than to rip out his own heart for self-examination.

His goodwill is total. He is sharing the truth, saving souls, a mere tool in the Lord's omnipotent hand. He never wanted a job In Denese, but he considers it his charge from God: "you must know of Jonah? I'm like him." After eight years of working in the small, white post office, he has finally saved his coworker. That alone may have been his purpose, he says, but he takes every opportunity to share the Word with all of the people he encounters to "get them thinkin" about their salvation. He especially likes the young because they are more receptive. "As you get older you just get stupider. You get harder. Accepting Christ ain't so easy." Later, he says that older people are more attuned to their mortality and are, thus, more likely to accept Christ. These statements coexist easily for him—maybe they have to. On the way out of town, a large red-on-white plank is taped to a speed limit sign. The plank reads: God Loves You.


Glade Creek, WV I

The first rain after a long dry spell releases oil trapped in asphalt. It pools and oozes, running across the road like a liquid rainbow. It is a psychedelic reminder of poverty. Poor people tend to drive older cars and older cars tend to have leaky gaskets. Replacing gaskets is expensive, too—less than a new car, but massively more than adding a quart of extra oil now and again. This quart of extra oil drips, gradually, from the hot interior of the engine onto the center of the road. It is particularly concentrated in front of stoplights and, more particularly, in front of West Virginia and Louisiana stoplights. Watch for this phenomenon the next time it rains; perhaps you can use the colorful perspiration as a barometer of your own state's affluence.

But this is a sparsely-traveled dirt road and the oil trick fails. Instead of refractive runoff, this road is covered with chocolate-milk colored puddles, their surfaces flat and reflective. It is no longer raining, but your ears would swear otherwise. Millions of trees, boughs sagging with water, simultaneously drip dry, acoustically mimicking a downpour. Two layers of clouds drift overhead, one low, the other lower. Their fluffy hulls scrape and tear apart on the dark hills of the New River Gorge. The sun is setting elsewhere, but this is only indicated by the hue of the clouds which appear dark amber, like an overripe peach. Everything under the forested canopy is peachgreenbrowngray and the soggy air smells like wet leaves. A 40-something mom with a small bikini top and a large muffin-top walks down a dirt road after her wet cocker spaniel and before her two sulking, smoking, teenage daughters. Without provocation, the spaniel explodes into a staccato series of yaps, causing the mom to explode into a breathless tirade of profanity that concludes with: "I'm gettin' the switch!" She used the same threat against her teenage son less than an hour earlier after he refused to help her gather firewood. The parade fades noisily into the dark forest and, eventually, the sound of fake-rain returns. Fireflies appear, glowstick-green pulses on the periphery of vision. They are ephemeral, hallucinatory, oddly similar to the visual distortion caused by quickly standing after hours of sitting still.


Grayson Highlands State Park, VA

"You heard of New York?" the round man growls. "You heard of Bellevue Hospital, where the poor people go?" Heads wobble noncommittally in his audience, a small group of young adults sitting on the grass in front of the Boone Community Center. The round man continues to address his conscripted listeners: "I was in a dorm with people smoking marijuana, hash, and crack cocaine so, you know what? I called the cops on 'em." His fat face is beet red under a forest green baseball cap and the whites of his bulging eyes form a moat around gray irises. He does not smile, but he pauses for dramatic effect before resuming with a scowl. "You know what they called me for that? The Carolina Squealer!" His face darkens to the maroon of his t-shirt as he begins recounting how one of his fellow patients retaliated by attacking him. His double-chin quivers as his temper rises. "I used to play football and hockey when I was young. I loved blood when I was young. Don't mess with people like that unless you know you can crush the life out of them. I can, I played football. Nothing I'd like more than to have crushed his skull." He stops, eyes wide, mouth slightly parted to reveal teeth that look purple and eroded at their roots. "I love blood."

The Appalachians are subtle, a sine wave of lush hills that gradually increases in severity as one approaches North Carolina's border with Tennessee. Westerners can seldom restrain snarky comments about the Appalachians, comparing their height to the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, or the Cascades. The Appalachians are overdeveloped, over-hiked, and thus, the argument goes, overrated. But these forms of quantification are as shallow as measuring a person's character by the size of their tax return... or their anatomy. The Appalachians are different from western ranges but they are no less beautiful. Five minutes of winding along a crumbling North Carolina backroad could silence even the most obnoxious skeptic: low gray skies hang over the charged greenness of shimmering deciduous trees as hot pavement steams under the gentle patter of cool rain. Decomposing barns appear and vanish around rolling hills. Rivers flow next to the road, then under the road, then off into canyons, their foamy white water polishing black rocks. The air smells perfect—damp, heavy with vegetation, but strangely clean, a far cry from the dry crispness of the west or the sickly rankness of the southern lowlands. Lichen encrusted chunks of granite protrude from hillsides, their pale complexions stained brown in by seeping water. From the top of a rocky plug in western Virginia, the Appalachians ripple outward in every direction. Gray skies develop an orange backlight as the sun fizzles. Nothing about the view is jaw-droppingly sublime, but the scene is profoundly calming in a way that showier landscapes will never rival.


Charlotte, NC II

The Charlotte Symphony is playing pops tunes on a warm, purple southern evening. Their halogen-lit-white bandstand glows like a small sun, its radiance duplicated by the still water of the moat bordering it. Throngs of people sit on the surrounding grass: high school couples, parents with kids, retirees. Some are there to overindulge in picnic foods, or catch up with family, or get hammered. The mood is infectiously good and a symphony of loud and cheerful conversations overwhelms the music piped through loudspeakers from the stage. A piece concludes with an unnoticed finale and The Conductor begins speaking in a thick, almost charicaturish accent. Is he Italian? Nebulously Eastern European? A New Yorker who survived a stroke? The crowd is indifferent. The Conductor may find this liberating or intimidating, but it seems more likely that he reciprocates the crowd's indifference. As sixteen year-olds prove that it is possible to simultaneously neck and text, the conductor tries to be a Wild and Crazy Guy, though he abjectly fails to channel a particle of Steve Martin's charisma. The Conductor talks about how he loved the scene in Rocky where Sly Stalone chugged raw eggs. Then he makes a few lame sports references. Then he resorts to double entendres. Then to single entendres. "He didn't just say that, did he?" A head turns toward the stage from a glowing iPhone screen. "I... don't... think... so. But that sure sounded like 'cunt' to me." The symphony resumes as the sky darkens and the crowd drifts back to their conversations.

The angry looking man in the restaurant says that Ohio is in the Midwest. There is disagreement at his table and an adjoining table is brought in to adjudicate. They say that Ohio is in the Midwest. The angry looking man looks angrier and his mouth works as his brows furrow. He cares about this deeply. The conversation drops.

The gracelessly aging strip mall has two large thrift stores and a discount supermarket with palettes instead of shelves, cheap carbohydrates instead of produce. The sidewalks are covered in the black bacterial polkadots of old chewing gum. The stores are empty. The parking lot is empty, too, except for a small demolition derby of vehicles in the far corner. They are outside of the plasma donation center where the waiting room overflows with people in sweatpants. The entrance and exit doors swing open and closed, swishing and thudding quietly in the still air. Inside, donors slouch in contemplative silence, waiting to re eve their checks.


Charlotte, NC I

"Life, man! Life is the hardest decision! How you gonna live!" Toby stands on the side of the highway and yells at the top of his lungs, not because there is traffic, but because he is Toby. He pirouettes with his arms spread out: "everything just comes back around, you know? You gotta make the right kinda decisions, man!" Toby is built like a tank, his sweaty gray wifebeater looking ready to explode from the pressure of his spastic muscles. He has a round, coffee-colored face and an incredibly friendly smile underneath his broad straw hat. "If you start on the right foot, whoever you are and wherever you go, you'll be alright. You can be a millionaire, but if you start on the wrong foot and I start on the right foot, I will sure catch up to you. You know what I'm sayin'? Yeah!" He hunches over and throws a vicious right hook at an imaginary foe, shifting weight spryly from foot to foot before abruptly standing upright and cracking another huge smile. "I'm an entrepreneur," he yells, "and I'm gonna make it!" Toby used to work construction—he is in his mid-forties though his appearance hardly betrays it—but several years ago a brick fell on his head and he had to take time off. Since then, he has been living on workman's comp and planning his next career move. "Living is the hardest decision! That's why you gotta make it right!"


Savannah, GA II


To put a dog, a traveling companion of sixteen years, and a best friend to sleep.

To abandon a regular job after a family meltdown and take to the road on a scooter while working as a magician and balloon artist.

To send a teenage daughter to a mental health facility.


Savannah, GA I

The flatboat drags itself back and forth across the muddy channel south of St. Augustine, FL. Gray skies frown in the distance as an eerie robotic voice on the weather radio chants about hail in Georgia. Between the weather, the late hour, and the obscurity of Fort Matanzas National Monument, relatively few tourists are on the boat. And this is probably as it should be. The old Spanish fortress in St. Augustine is breathtaking, its hulking masonry and exotic turrets looking like a piece of medieval Europe that was accidentally carried to Florida by a freak hurricane. There is nothing else in the United States like it—the Spanish presidios in the Southwest were ephemeral piles of kindling in comparison, while English and American fortifications have a distinctly New World quality and lack the romance of Spanish architecture. The fort at St. Augustine is a place worth visiting.

Matanzas is another story. Indeed, it is the sort of historical ruin that forces one to reconsider the act of preservation at all. Where St. Augustine is both architecturally and historically significant, Matanzas is a small, graceless, two-room box erected to stop boats from reaching St. Augustine along a an interior waterway, a purpose it fulfilled without ever firing a shot. For most of its 90 year tenure, it housed eight underfed Spanish conscripts who slept in one, large common bed and spent the bulk of their time fighting disease rather then enemies. Not surprisingly, it was abandoned in the 18th century. It crumbled over the ensuing years, only to be reconstructed by the federal government and connected to a parking lot by the dumpy flatboat.

The ranger who recites this information does it in a cracking, prepubescent voice. Though the fort's sole purpose today may be to keep him employed, he seems disgusted with it, as if telling the story of its irrelevance is a referendum on the value of his own life. His disgust is not visible to the family of six sitting on the right side of the boat, where a father is thrilling his children and exasperating his wife by making his voice sound like he has suffered a tracheotomy. "Can I borrow a dollar for a donation?" he buzzes to the giggles of his children. "Only if you stop speaking in that stupid voice," his wife responds. "Okay," he buzzes back at her. She frowns. The ranger squeaks on, the wife ponders divorce, and the robot on the shortwave crackles with rumors of distant hail.

On the freeway to Savannah, the last drops of pink have bled from the atmosphere, leaving the sky ash gray. The freeway is lined with the black silhouettes of pine trees, its median cluttered with vegetation. Black and gray. The lone semi is black and gray, too, its small red tail-lights the only points of color for miles. It is fast moving, rolling squarely down the center of a three-lane road. The truck is completely unmarked, its white and blue license plate stating "Permanent" instead of listing a state of origin. On the rear bumper there are two arrows pointing off to each side of the truck. The left side reads "LIFE" and the right "AFTERLIFE."

Palm Coast, FL

The Florida interior makes Kansas look mountainous. A mosaic of green agricultural tiles extends in every direction until meeting with the hazy horizon. Lake Okechobee, source of the Everglades, is the dominant geographical feature of the region, but it is quarantined behind earthen levees. Impoverished farming communities punctuate the highways, their few pseudo-historic buildings covered in rotten plywood and graffiti while their railroad links to the outside world have been long-severed. Unlike destitute towns in the midwest, these Florida communities can sill muster a few residents, many of whom sit on porches or loiter in gas station parking lots under the cringe-inducing midday sun. Cars are infrequent along the highways and their rare appearance is followed by craning necks and inquisitive eyes. Watermelon vendors sit under rainbow umbrellas in front of abandoned strip-malls, their decrepit pickup trucks sagging under the weight of towering pyramids of striped fruit. Invariably, they appear lonely, unvisited. The trucks carry far more fruit than they could hope to sell to a bustling crowd, much less an empty parking lot—sugary waste in a land of poverty.


Everglades, FL

The New Seven Mile Bridge is in the middle of the Keys, a long, drab causeway connecting the thick mangrove scrub of Bahia Honda State Park with the town of Marathon. On the Marathon side, the asphalt of a parking lot shimmers under the blistering midday sun. The lot allows fishermen access to a severed span of the Old Seven Mile Bridge, a mess of rusting I-beams and coarse 1920s concrete that nobody bothered to take down when the New Seven Mile Bridge was finished. At a few minutes after noon, the lot is empty except for a white convertible gleaming like a bar of wet soap. An older woman walks around the bulbous machine, pausing, staring, taking a few steps to the side and repeating the process. She wears a broad-brimmed hat the color of mint ice cream over her closely cropped silver hair and large, dark glasses obscure her eyes. She looks athletic and well composed—one of those people who makes aging look infuriatingly easy and graceful. If she was smiling, her smile would make a perfect illustration for a billboard selling an "active adult living community." But she is not smiling as she looks furtively over her shoulder and removes her dark glasses. Then bends over the passenger side of the car and adjusts something leaning on the door. She steps backward, looking around again before raising a camera and meticulously framing a picture. Lowering the camera, she sidesteps abruptly as if unsatisfied with her angle, in the process revealing a small, brown teddy bear with a blue hat and clumpy old fur sitting on the door. The camera's synthetic click sounds again as the motorcyclist approaches, startling her. Turning around, she smiles at the biker, a smile that is both sad and apologetic, one the reveals no teeth, one that says: "I know this looks crazy... and you'll never understand why it's not."

Freeman looks like the kind of guy you would cast as the taciturn hero of a medieval movie, thin and towering with a long blonde pony tail and a face akin to Lee Marvin's. He is in the Everglades today and will be in the Keys tomorrow unless the hot Danish girls call him from Cancun, in which case he will fly there. Yesterday he was in Cuba, his plan to raft from the island to Florida foiled by local authorities who caught him 30 miles offshore. Before that he was wandering the Caribbean for two months, walking through knee-deep mud between Haiti and the Dominican Republic and staying with powerful criminals in Jamaica. And before that... his story stretches back over twelve years of incessant traveling. He hasn't lived in the same place for more than three months since he was eighteen, when a short backpacking trip to Europe inadvertently turned into a lifestyle.

Freeman works part time as a freelance guide for major tour companies, leading groups of "adventurous" travelers through most of the US and Canada. The rest of his time is spent traveling. He just turned 30 and he has already been to 63 countries. He is drawn to coups, danger zones, places that give him a buzz. Having grown sick of leading tourists through synthetic adventures, he travels ever further afield in search of the unscripted and the genuine. He will go to airports and book a flight to a random destination, asking his first cabbie to take him to the worst part of town because, he says, "that's where you meet the most interesting characters." He also believes that it is better to preemptively befriend the people most likely to mug you. He lives low, carrying only a small backpack with a change of clothes, flip-flops, a toothbrush, and deodorant; coupled with his iPhone, those are most of his worldly possessions.

Freeman has never made a difficult choice. He does what he wants, lives completely independently. He has no sense of place, no home, and he doesn't want one. He is transient, as are his relationships. The countries, the experiences, the people, they mostly run together, he admits. Is he running from something? Is he tired? Lonely? No, he swears: "houses are graves of the living."

Key West, FL II

The Programmer says: "there are two things to do in Key West: you can drink on a boat or you can drink on land." If you ignore the local population, he is largely right. Key West is a splotch of semi-historic buildings full of bars, candy stores, and curio shops selling t-shirts depicting pairs of legs topped by breasts with captions like "the perfect woman." By 11 o'clock in the morning overweight, pink tourists totter along the sidewalks on stumpy legs, plastic beer cups clutched in soft fingers. Fat-faced children squeal, parents burp, and a few retirees get their names scratched into seashells.

Outside of the historic district, the island is a strip mall complete with the usual suburban assortment of decaying auto dealerships and nail salons, all of which seem surreally out of place floating on a tropical sand bar in the Atlantic. There is one hill with a large rainbow painted on the side of it: Mt. Trashmore.

Key West also has housing projects. A large black community lives on the island, older women in fine Sunday clothing and gold jewelry walking to church under the intermittent shadows of palms. This world is immediately next to the tourist district, but remains invisible next to the neon lights and pirate costumes of Duvall Street.

The Instructor is a freelance satellite operator hired out by television networks during the day, but he also trains people in his community to become electricians and plumbers. "How many black people do you see on Duvall?" he asks rhetorically. "How many of those businesses do you think are black-owned? Yeah. None of them." The Instructor is disgusted by the local education system—"how are people supposed to get jobs if they can't get an education? How are the supposed to get loans to start businesses? We're fighting a system of lies." His father was the head of the local NAACP decades before and he is no stranger to activism, though he eschews the label. The Instructor has been trying to arrange ride-alongs with the local power company for his electrical students, but they have repeatedly denied his requests. He suspects their motivation is racial. There are only so many decent jobs on the island: "why would they want to help our kids take jobs from their kids?" As for the future of the island? "Oh, the tourist area will probably drive all the real people out..."


Key West, FL I

The ambulance is pulled over on the shoulder of Alligator Alley, the corridor of Interstate 75 that cuts horizontally across southern Florida, bisecting the Everglades. There is no accident, no stretcher, no mangled car overturned on the roadside. The ambulance creeps backward, then forward, then ceases to move at all. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the ambulance has a blown tire. Upon even closer inspection, it comes clear that the ambulance is no longer an ambulance but, instead, a private vehicle sold at a government auction. White paint covers its flashing lights and its former decals have been scalpeled off, leaving only ghostly impressions of its past function. Its engine turns off. Its engine turns on. The fake ambulance limps forward and backward idiotically, its blown rear tire reduced to a few strips of steel-belted jerky flapping against the pavement. After fifteen minutes of random movement and steady axle damage, the degraded machine backs up an onramp and groans to a stop in the parking lot of a rest area. Its sad reverse-beeper croaks as its engine turns off. After a few minutes, the back door opens and a middle-aged man with a dark complexion, shaved head, and black mustache emerges. His navy blue shirt is black with sweat as he gazes blankly at the wheel he has, knowingly or not, broken far beyond repair. He stands. And stares. And sweats. Two button-down shirts are visible through the cab of the fake ambulance, their threadbare fabric hanging limply against faux-wood paneling.

Highway 1 runs over one hundred miles from Key Largo to Key West, a series of causeways between islands, like a gigantic concrete and steel game of connect the dots. The swimming pool-blue waters of the Atlantic pulse calmly on both the left and right at Key Largo but, as traffic proceeds west, the blue water loses its color under the clouds of an impending thunderstorm.

The Squid, like all squids, rides an overpowered, underweight inline four-cylinder sport bike. His is cherry red, covered in aerodynamic plastic—so svelte that even the turn signals are embedded in the frame. He wears a tank top, board shorts, flip flops and, as if to spite the gray weather, sunglasses. Being a good squid, he has no helmet. His racing pedigree ensures that he will never crash, no matter how fast he rides through paradise. This self-assurance may also account for why he is sitting upright and texting with both hands as he rides down the narrow causeway at 55 miles per hour.

The thunderstorm turns out to be a lightning storm, its few drops of rain forgotten next to the blinding white-purple explosions overhead. Networks of electricity fill the sky, wiping from left to right, then right to left, coming from behind and filling one's entire field of view, pouring over windshields and helmets like a waterfall of energy. Broadsides of thunder roll continuously as shadows come from first one direction and then another, stretching across shining violet pavement. The water remains calm, perfectly reflecting the drama overhead. Electricity on all sides.


Tampa, FL II

Black water shimmers under a dark green canopy of trees as the three brightly colored kayaks plop softly off the pier. With quiet splashes, the small fiberglass wedges push their way up a narrow creek. Masses of undergrowth and stringy, exposed roots block access to the banks, sealing the boats within a long, winding tunnel. Hot pink blobs cling to branches at regular intervals, the egg casings of tropical snails dissembling as blazes. Cicadas buzz. The kayaks round a bend, bumping and scraping over shallow logs before moving into a wide area of opaque green water. An oar dips into algae, emerging from the water like a spoon from a bowl of tapenade. Three kayaks, three narrow black trails. A small pair of eyes surface out of the greenness, watching the boats drift past. With an explosion of movement, a net swipes at the eyes, emerging from the water filled only with plant scum. The lead kayak rocks slightly as the net disappears. The eyes resurface warily under the defensive cover of a thick mat of foliage hanging over the stream's edge. A few rays of diffuse green light glow on a patch of purple flowers. The kayaks paddle further upstream and the eyes vanish.

Ybor City is a small enclave of good architecture within the bland suburban strip mall known as Tampa. Wrought iron porches and balconies hang in front of weathered brick buildings, Florida's spin on New Orleans architecture. The doors of coffee roasters and cigar shops hang open, their strong, heavy aromas billowing down the main street. Thursday night is unusually quiet and bouncers idle around in front of clubs where music thumps for nobody. A group of drunk frat boys careens down the sidewalk bellowing about their collective level of drunkenness. A lone security guard sits on a bench outside an incongruously sterile corporate building, his back hunched forward as he greedily shovels food into his mouth from a tupperware container. A small black and white TV glows on the sidewalk in front of him, its tinny chatter mixing with the distant bass of the clubs.


Tampa, FL I

The campground is in the lot adjacent to the antiques shop, separated from a noisy highway by a few logs. There are no picnic tables. The dumpster is overflowing. In the pre-dawn gloom profanity explodes from a cheap tent that has collapsed with all the finality of a punctured lung. The tent wriggles. A man and a woman are screaming at each other. The man emerges, a musclebound thug in his twenties with no shirt and a bacon-crispy tan. His face is covered with tattoos, lines of small blue dots descending from eyelids to cheeks. He fumbles with the tent poles, trying to resuscitate the deflated structure while the woman inside writhes and curses.

Oil has not struck the Saint Marks National Wildlife Reserve, but it's arrival is inevitable. The facilities crew are attempting to figure out how to put scum filters out in the Gulf to slow the petroleum's invasion of the marshes. The men do not seem optimistic. It is dawn, but the next week could be the marsh's twilight; birds, amphibians, and gators will all bathe in a chemical they can sense but not understand. The men stare into the distance while they speak, then they stare at their shoes. Dragonflies fill the air: bronze, cobalt, and copper streaks hovering and diving, metallic thunderbolts striking down mosquitoes, perfected DNA guiding their surgically precise movements.

The fruit stand is like any number of roadside fruit stands across the south, an ugly service station that folded during the gas crisis, its two weatherbeaten analog pumps sticking up in the parking lot like bad teeth. The interior is spartan. Undecorated beige walls enclose an uncomfortably small number of white metallic shelves, an awkwardness accentuated by their own lack of products. On the checkout counter, religious comics are piled up for the taking. Behind the counter, the woman with the round face and the straw-colored hair shares a difficult decision: to honestly report her taxes.

She feels that she is taxed enough through property taxes, sales taxes, and business taxes... paying income tax at the end of the year is like getting "taxed twice." She repeats this phrase like a mantra. We have been taxed twice. And there are virtually no repercussions for misreporting—people evade the IRS all the time. Her friends do. Her husband wanted her to when she started the fruit stand. She did. Maybe once, maybe several times, but it gnawed at her. Not because she felt the government deserved the money, not because the tax was just, and not because of the risk of an audit. It was troubling because God knew she was lying. A relationship with God is her endgame, and God cannot be fooled. So she began reporting her income correctly. Her husband rolled his eyes, but she feels good—it has allowed her to progress spiritually, to become closer to God. Her marriage has improved. She feels that she has grown considerably as a person since making the decision, a result she never anticipated when making the choice. She smiles and opens her lips to say something else, hesitating barely long enough for a glint of silver to sparkle from the center of her tongue.


Panacea, FL

A yellow diamond catches the final glints of sunshine in the middle of the Apalachicola forest. It looks like most other yellow warning signs you might find next to a road, but instead of cautioning "Lane Ends Merge Left" or "No Center Stripe" it shrieks: "AUTISTIC PERSON IN AREA."

The Florida forest lacks majesty. Spindly pines bristle into infinity, their branches clumped awkwardly at their crowns, red-gray bark singed by controlled burns. Small palmettos fan out close to the ground, the first settlers to return after the conflagration. Logging trucks speed down narrow backroads, hauling bundles of frail wood that hardly seem suitable for paper mulch. Elsewhere, the underbrush is thick with leaves and vines. Thin tire tracks snake into the forest like parallel white rails, partially obscured by grass. Distant slices of trailers are barely visible through columns of twigs. A few of them are surrounded by moats of garbage. Far from any settlement, a red-on-white signs is nailed to a tree: "Got Land? Let's Develop!"

The Beer Tick sits under a dangerously leaning wooden ramada that is more of a splintered, weather-bleached heap of kindling than a shelter. He sits on a dirty white cooler topped with a dirtier white towel—his terrifying rotundity making a conventional chair impossible. Outside the ramada, a sloppily-painted wooden sign advertises "Green Boiled P-nuts" and "P-cans." Inside the ramada, an old Anneheiser Busch keg takes center stage like a potbellied stove in a log cabin, knuckle-shaped peanuts bobbing up and down in its oily black water. A halo of filth surrounds the Beer Tick: used paper towels, scraps of partially-eaten fried chicken, oozing trash bags. Thick roaches hang from the rafters, moving slowly in the tropical heat.

"Osama bin Laden shaved and now that nigger is our president!", the Beer Tick howls without warning, swearing that America can only be safe once it drops atomic bombs across the Middle East. His brown, laundry basket-sized belly quivers with rage as he says this. If his shirt was buttoned—but such a possibility is unthinkable. His tirade continues. "Alabama is the worst state in the country... it's run by niggers! They're all over the government! When Europe gave Africa back they threw away technology and reverted to cannibalism, like Idi Amin!" His small mouth opens in an angry yowl revealing chunks of black chewing tobacco adhering to his teeth and sticky tongue. Some fly out of his mouth and join their desiccated siblings on his stomach. His gray hair droops down to his neck in long greasy tentacles. His beard is full of chaw flecks and Cheez-It crumbs.

"I don't trust anyone... maybe my stepson, but nobody else... this is an evil world. You're gonna die in a nuclear holocaust. It'll be awful." He cracks open a Keystone Light and meticulously rips its pop-top off with the satisfied vigor of a sadistic child tearing the wings off a butterfly. He has a sagging card table laden with cans of Keystone. Most are empty, two are in progress, and one has been conscripted into spittoon service. He puts the pop-top carefully into a ziploc bag full of identical pop-tops and raises another beer to his black and red lips with one of his fat arms. Nearby, the bed of an old Chevy S10 is full to the brim with reeking Keystone cans. "The only thing that gets me up in the morning is working here," he muses, "I like giving the kids peanuts—been boiling them fifty years. Sometimes the tourists'll stop. I let 'em take pictures of me. Some of 'em are real purdy and I like to give 'em a little slap on the tush..."

Another roadside sign: "Newborn? Children? Young adults? We've got cammo for everyone!"


Montgomery, AL II

If you had a grandparent alive in the ninties you know the car. The road-whale: huge, rounded, and powerful. Buicks, Oldsmobiles, a smattering of bloated Chryslers and the ubiquitous Cadillac—these great machines drifted slowly from lane to lane, piloted by tiny, blinking, q-tip-headed drivers on the way to the golf course, hospital, or buffet. The cars were styleless and unreliable, but your grandparents didn't care. And then your grandparents died, or got too blind to drive, and the road whale vanished, apparently to Montgomery, as automakers introduced new styles of geezer transport.

In all fairness, the Donk (or Box or Scraper, depending of your linguistic preference) isn't entirely unique to Alabama's capitol, but Montgomery residents are connoisseurs of them in the same way the French are of wine. The Donk is what happened to your grandmother's car after seven years of shuffling between used car lots. Its formerly demure beige or blue paint job has been traded for bright, glittery reds and greens, shades normally reserved for bumpercars. Its wheels, once plush and modestly-sized, are now thin strips of rubber wrapped around chrome rims larger than truck tires. Colorful xenon headlights gleaming, the Donk stands well off the ground, sneering at the paltry clearance of SUVs. It is uncool rebranded. The hulking, lozenge-shaped machines will be the 2000s answer to the low-rider.

The southern night is cool as the yellow, brick-shaped 82 Volvo grumbles past two Donks waiting at a stoplight. The Mechanic drives. Montgomery is roughly half black and half white, just as it is roughly half affluent and half poor, he says. His house—his father's before him—is now in a black neighborhood and he is one of the few whites still living in the area. Ten years ago, it was appraised at $25,000, though its value has been steadily rising. These values reflect psychology more than structure. The house is fine. Most of the Mechanic's neighbors' houses are fine. But people with money do not want his house because they do not want to be near his neighbors. There is a simple reason for this.

"Segregation is still fuckin strong here," he says, "it's different, but the same." His yellow Swede-machine toils past gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and the few other businesses that remain open after ten. Sometimes the crowds outside are white, other times they are black, a simple binary. "There's a fuckin load of tension..." Little misunderstandings, different ways of speaking, the wrong type of eye contact can erupt into ugliness. Resentment simmers on the front burner. The Mechanic is from the south, but Montgomery is something else, he says. "I'm still not sure I like it here..."

The two people on the hill feel the same way. They are from elsewhere in Alabama, too, both in town on separate visits. The midday sun makes the grass glow radioactive-green as they sit on a park bench overlooking the Alabama River and Montgomery's sleepy business district. They converse with disarming ease given that they have only known each other for an hour. The man tells the woman about marching with Martin Luther King in Birmingham and, though she is in her forties, she reacts with surprise to his descriptions of segregation. "You mean black people and white people couldn't use the same bathrooms?" He nods. She is disgusted by how many more bathrooms and drinking fountains would have been needed. "That just doesn't make sense..." she trails off. He nods. Then: "nobody in this town is friendly," he grumbles to the air. He has seven dollars. The shelter will not accept men without substance problems. He only needs $35 for a room, but hasn't been able to scrape up any money. Suffocating air lies over the park, like a thick quilt in summertime. "I don't like it here," he says, and his dark eyelids descend over gray irises. Behind him, a Donk glides, shark-like, through an empty parking lot and suddenly guns its engine into the street.


Montgomery, AL

At 4:00 PM they converge in the parking lot of the Jeff Davis Fishing Pier in Gulfport, Mississippi. The parking lot, which had been mostly empty a few minutes earlier, abruptly fills with an assortment of white people who obviously have no intention of fishing. They line up on the concrete divider that separates the lot from the slow traffic of Highway 90 and begin swaying, closing their eyes, and raising their hands to the sky in a gesture that is half fascist salute and half cheering teen at a hardcore show. A man paces in front of the group and starts speaking in the nauseatingly pious, self-adoring voice perfected by televangelests decades ago. They are staging a pray-in for victims of the oil spill, sweating and swaying so that fishermen don't starve, so that British Petroleum does not earn glory for stopping the leak. With much gesticulation and an earnestness that is as wonderful as it is contrived, the pastor whines at God to throw a little Old Testament wrath at the oil magnates.

Papa D sits off to the side of the main group of prayertestors. He is a large man in an immaculate white v-neck made of rough cotton that complements his immaculately slicked back white hair. He seems relatively disinterested in the prayer gathering, but thoroughly supportive of its goals. He points to a long-haired man adorned with a Hawaiian shirt and a gold whale-fin necklace: "we didn't know if this would turn into a protest, so we figured to bring the hippie along just in case."


New Orleans, LA IV


New Orleans, LA III

Louisiana Route 23 begins in a depressing suburb of New Orleans known as the West Bank or, more colloquially, as The Wank. The Wank is a collection of large surface streets and boxy, dirty cream-colored buildings from the sixties and seventies. Auto parts stores and nail salons appear at regular intervals, punctuated by vacant strip malls. Scraggly, uneven weeds sprout up from every hairline fracture in concrete sidewalks. The traffic is thick, the sky light gray, the landscape dull and level. There is no indication that the Big Muddy snakes nearby, no evidence of what this landscape might have looked like when the French arrived in the early 18th century. In The Wank, as in all of post-World War II American suburbia, the built landscape is total and opaque.

Route 23 leaves suburbia and follows the Mississippi southeast. From maps and satellite images, the landscape appears to be a treacherous patchwork of earth and water extending into the Gulf, the only continuity provided by a narrow umbilical cord of land tracing the river into the bayou. None of this is visible from the road. A tall grass-covered levee blocks out the gigantic river to the left and thick reeds combine with intense flatness, leaving the right side of the road mysterious. Trailer communities cling next to the asphalt lifeline at fifteen-mile intervals, each with its own tiny gas station and convenience store. On this Friday evening, they are either closed or clogged with customers. A storm damaged fire station sulks next to the road. Part of the roof is gone and holes yawn in its brick walls revealing shiny red engines.

Clouds disburse, revealing the platinum light of early evening as the road sinks into the glittering blue and white salt water. The levee is gone, the reeds have diminished, and the pavement skims along at water level—sometimes a few inches above, sometimes below. The bayou extends in all directions, lone trees sprouting out of aqueous mirrors. An overturned boat is visible in the distance, its red hull at a rakish angle as it eases into the soft mud. Contractors' trucks speed down the road, plunging almost desperately into the shallow water, guided by two stubby lines of vegetation that mark the border between asphalt and disaster—a biological equivalent to runway lights. In the distance, somewhere past Halliburton Road, a skeletal oil refinery rises out of the swamp.

Venice, LA is aptly named because it is drowning, less aptly named because it is ugly and graceless. Route 23 resurfaces and makes a sharp turn into the dirt parking lot of the Venice Marina. The parking lot is full of old trucks with lift kits and fishing stickers, the bland fleet vehicles of refinery workers, and a squad of news vans covering British Petrolium's devastating incompetence. The marina is crammed with boats. Nobody is out on the water. The bar, however, is doing brisk business. An intermittent breeze fans the elevated porch where locals with craggy, orange faces talk over bottles of Bud Light as they stare out over their boats or leer at the teenage girls waiting tables. In the dining room, incongruously clean-cut news teams slurp wormy heaps of pasta alfredo from paper plates, their laminated station ID badges dangling from lanyards around their necks.


New Orleans, LA II

New Orleans, sometimes beautiful, usually decaying, always close to getting flushed into the Gulf. Light poles lean at precarious angles, irregular street signs hang upside-down by single screws, streets and sidewalks are cracked and cratered. Beneath the wet gray sky, insulated by heavy air, civic pride is alive and well. "Who Dat?" signs and stickers are plastered on houses and cars, football-fanaticism blending with urban patriotism. Storm damage is everywhere, but many old buildings in Uptown and the Garden District look well kept and freshly painted. Small businesses flourish and a couple of signs brag about future high-rise condos near downtown. Money flows back into the city—in a nation composed of depressingly bland suburbs, many investors prefer character in a disaster zone to blandness in safety. When San Francisco is finally ground to powder by an earthquake, the reaction will be the same.

There are a lot of places, but not many of them offer a sense of place. Not many give you a feeling that you are walking through a world that does not exist anywhere else, an environment that has no siblings scattered across the country. New Orleans has this sense—it is the urban equivalent of an only child. The economy is in shambles and waddling tourists may have long ago transformed the French Quarter into an alcoholic's Disneyland, but it remains unmistakably, thankfully, New Orleanian.


New Orleans, LA I

The web refracts the sunrise into a bullseye-shaped rainbow that ripples in a low breeze. Scurrying methodically from one silken vertex to another, the spider dismantles its web like with the comfortable ease of an old outdoorsman striking a tent. The web quivers as tension is redistributed across the steadily decreasing threads. Then, abruptly, the web is gone, reeled into the spider's abdomen—an organic fishing line.

The marshes recede into the blue level of the horizon. They are choked with straw-colored cane grasses and the brown sausages of cattails, populated by cranes and herons. One alligator lies overturned at the roadside, giant mouth open, flies hovering, while the other swims lazily in chocolate water at the marsh's edge. A narrow strip of land runs parallel to the road, pinned between the marsh and the boggy lowlands of the interior. This thin strip is covered with a few abused oaks and weathered trailers, a frail hurricane-break clinging to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the trailers are elevated on stilts, some made from welded i-beams and others cobbled together from cinderblocks. The trailers that are not elevated are abandoned, front doors hanging open, thick vines inexorably pulling them into workable pieces as if preparing a meal for digestion. The oaks lean at precarious angles, deformed by endless years of tropical storms. Their scaly gray trunks have deep channels carved into them, garrote scars from power lines wielded by murderous hurricanes. Miles away an oil rig sits on the horizon like a mechanized tick with an insatiable appetite.

Butch is one of the ones who will never leave. He makes this abundantly clear. His trailer was destroyed by hurricane Rita. His trailer was destroyed by hurricane Ike. The storms came within four years of one another after nearly a half-century of relative calm, a fact he attributes to divine judgement. He hopes that people will change their ways and avert another catastrophe, but he would rebuild anyway—home is home. He has never lived anywhere other than this narrow beachhead of civilization at the marsh's edge. His wife is local, too, and she feels the same way. He lists the animals he has seen walking through his twenty acres of waterlogged land: bobcats, foxes, flamingoes. His neighbor recently saw a black panther. After Rita, Butch was evacuated to a city inland and hated every minute of it. The Federal Government didn't want him—or anyone else—to return, it wasn't worth the tax money. From elsewhere in the country, returning appeared to be a suicide mission. If you saw Butch interviewed on the news, you would label him crazy, but if you stood next to him on this waterlogged, windswept patch of nowhere, you would empathize. You might even see the Feds through his eyes: a heartless deus ex machina swooping down to uproot him against his will, the bureaucratic equivalent of a hurricane.

Some of Butch's neighbors didn't return. Others, thinking they would never be allowed back, died from stress, he says. Butch himself jumped through every Federal hoop, filled out every sheet of paperwork, but it was mostly out of politeness. He was moving back, Feds or no Feds. When he says this, the tone of his voice reveals his emotional attachment to the land in a way that words never could. It would take the National Guard to uproot him—the sheriff would never do it because, after all, Butch is the sheriff.