At 10:00am on Sunday, May 17, we crossed over the Mississippi River, heading back east, ten weeks after our westerly crossing back at Natchez. Here on Highway 82, magnolias line the highway, the Mississippi Delta Blues trail site markers appear, and levees preceded and followed our crossing of the broad and very muddy river.
We are in the area referred to as “the Delta”, the rich bottomland that lies between the Mississippi River to the west and the Yazoo River to the east where cotton once ruled this part of the world. An elderly man rides a crumpled bicycle along the highway, dressed in a straw hat, suit jacket and tie, perhaps on his way to church. The convenience stores are plump with fried chicken and biscuits. We are back in the South.
Since our last post from New Mexico we have discovered more remarkable parts of this country. From Albuquerque we headed east into the panhandle of Texas where land east of Amarillo is so flat that when we passed a freight train, we could still see the horizon below the boxcars as the wheels rolled by. A wind farm stretched for nearly 30 miles along the highway, with fan blades reaching into the vast sky, as if on tiptoes. Crossing into Oklahoma, the history of land is told in the road markers and place names commemorating military battles and massacres associated with the dark days of the Indian wars of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the weight of these actions on our collective American conscience is being held in this flat and open land, shining a light on one of the darker chapters of our history.
We rolled into Tulsa, in the northeast corner of Oklahoma, and collapsed into the warm hospitality of dear friends. Tulsa, tucked along the Arkansas River, is softly rolling, forested and (thanks to this spring’s rains) lush with wildflowers, earning it the tagline of “Green Country”. Tulsa has turned out to be a place of stories for me.
First, there is the story of the city itself where in 1905, the large Glenn Pool oil deposit was discovered leading to the moniker of “oil capital of the world” and rewriting the city’s history. The muddy streets of the sleepy cattle town of the closing days of the nineteenth century changed into the bustling, prosperous, and beautiful Art Deco expansion of the 1920s (and next two decades) based on the prosperity of the oil boom. The story of the personal lives of just two of these oil-fortune man are colorful and challenging and the net result is that both of them (Waite Phillips and Thomas Gilcrease) left fortunes behind and in place to fund the great world-class museums in Tulsa, (the Philbrook and the Gilcrease). They left endowments and funding sources that continue to fund arts, culture, and education to this day.
Then there is the story that can be told of the formation of a troubadour, a truth-teller, and agent for change. This is the story of Woody Guthrie. Tulsa is the home of the Woody Guthrie Center. The Center is here because of the philanthropic largess of another (initially) oil-based foundation, the George Kaiser Foundation, which bought the Guthrie archives and made it possible for the Center to be established in Oklahoma, where Guthrie was born. This Center does a great job of telling the story of Guthrie’s life in a compelling way. There was another “Ken Burns” moment here as one display played about 5 minutes from his powerful film, “The Dust Bowl”, which visually tells the story of what is often called the greatest of human-created natural disasters. This event of the 1930s created the underpinning of much of Guthrie’s writing.
Then there is the story of the next generations of artists who have been shaped by Guthrie. There is a collection of videos of others performing his music, the most moving the Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger performance of ALL the verses to “This Land is Your Land”, from the 2009 Presidential Inaugural celebration. This is a Center that goes beyond just this one man into the full color illustration of the transformational power of the human creative spirit.
There is an exhibit at the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa Hardesty Arts Center (AHHA), which tells the story of clashing cultures. Two artists, Sarah Sense and Shan Goshorn, whose exhibit, INTERTWINED: stories of splintered pasts, creates powerful statements about the complex political and social history of Native Americans through weaving. The metaphor alone of weaving – intertwining materials, stories of each of the images selected, the artist’s individual perspectives – yields a surprising and unexpected emotional impact and their storytelling informs and educates and disturbs the status quo, like much great art.
And finally, my personal story of my trip to the Gilcrease Museum. In our harried last days in Keene, we were making decisions as we set out shedding the weight of our possessions. We had been blessed over the years to have been in a position to collect artwork and its presence in our daily lives nurtured us in unexpressed ways. But we knew much of it would now need to go as we prepared for this pilgrimage and the sale of our home. Part of the spiritual preparation for pilgrimage is this paring down, this weeding out, this peeling away in order to be open to the newness of what will present.
Our most unusual piece of artwork, and also the largest, was the most problematic and with the help of our friend in Tulsa, we were able to arrange to donate it to the Gilcrease Museum. On a cold and dreary December afternoon, the art gallery in Massachusetts came to our emptying home, removed it from the walls, carefully taking the painting. It was to be crated, and shipped to the Gilcrease Museum to be added to their collection of contemporary Western art. Though I tracked her journey in emails over these past months, I had not seen “Big Cowgirl” until this past week when we made our first visit to the Gilcrease.
Our friend has arranged for us to have a peak into the remarkable storage area of the museum where pieces awaiting cataloging, or curatorial consideration, are held. We were ushered down to the racks in the pristine and climate controlled room. We stood up against the wall as the attendant rolled out the metal screen on which were mounted several smaller pieces. At the end of the row, on the bottom, she came into view, her face so familiar to me. It was so comforting to see her in her new home, safe and in very good company. I could feel the tears welling up in my throat as I imagined the possibility that she will be seen by so many, and I felt as if the fledgling had left the nest.
This road trip, now clocking in at a remarkable 135 days and 15,000 miles has been one of stories, some known and told here, others still waiting in the wings of imagination and mystery to be revealed. As we head into these closing weeks, we realize that we have only just started the journey. Peace to you all.