Charlotte Lewis on the Open Road (circa 1937)

We have all read Kerouac’s “On the Road”. There is a wonderful passage in Part 1 when Kerouac explains:

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes -Awww!”

But, this isn’t about Kerouac. It predates his “On the Road” by about a decade, but it every bit as much about trying to be mad, about trying to live like mad and hitting the road. This is about the life of Charlotte Lewis from Fargo, North Dakota. This is her story of brief escape, in 1937, from her hometown. These were five women in their early twenties trying to break free of their known lives to something new, unknown, and more expansive. Her writing isn’t refined, but it is infectious, fun, and full of euphoria for something beyond the ordinary. 

This photo was included with her road trip journal entries from July 18 - 21 1937.

This photo of Charlotte Lewis was included with her road trip journal entries, July 18 – 21 1937.

As she described it:

In memory of a trip taken July 18th to 21st. Starting on Monday by car [in Fargo, North Dakota] and ending on Thursday by rail and which got as far as Bismarck, North Dakota. Although it was meant to be a coast to coast journey.

Picture of Charlotte Lewis' journal (circa 1937)

Picture of Charlotte Lewis’ journal (circa 1937)

HALFWAY ACROSS THE STATE …

I could not stay so fixed, so rooted. I had to venture, had to roam towards the setting sun I traveled when at last I left my home. In each town we chanced to visit, I was gay, what ere belied … For it was to give space for wandering that the world was made

So [dashes and scribblings]  — — — —- < —— -> —– Wide.

And so we went west! Went west to see the grandeur, to seek adventure -perhaps- and to leave our footprints on the sands of time. Went west the five of us, in a “bug,” sans money, sans equipment, sans anything. It was a half cocked idea all told, and I shall tell you what happened to us.

Left Fargo at 2-o’cock after quite an argument with Mother who forbade my going. Stopped first at Osgood to pick up a few things and next at Chafee to pick up a more.

And then we were out on the prairie speeding past drowsy one horse towns -swaying, chuck full of bushy catkins, tall golden fields of grain, clumps of bushes, lazy winding rivers, sluggish streams and azure lakes. Past pastures and farms and herds of horses, sheep and cattle. And the oder of a new mown hay; the fragrance of fields of alfalfa and sweet clover  -ummmm,

Cruising along I-94 North Dakota heading west.

Cruising along I-94 North Dakota heading west. Aside, see: “Ghost Towns and Abandoned Places of North Dakota: http://www.ghostsofnorthdakota.com/about/

It was great! But was made twice as thrilling because we thought we were being pursued. Thus we drove all afternoon and at dusk struck hills -rolling hills- from which one could gaze deep down into the valley below. On the crest of one of these we had our first view of Valley City -snuggled there in the hollow. Valley City with its myriad of gleaming lights flickering through the gathering twilight. We had supper here and afterwards explored the city.

Valley City -Highway 10 and Highline Railroad Bridge, circa 1930's.

Valley City -Highway 10 and Highline Railroad Bridge, circa 1930’s.

We dozed that night beneath the stars just outside of town on the edge of a wheat field. A solitary blanket we had for a coverlet. Silence lay over the land broken only by the throb of a motor passing on the highway and the low hum of mosquitoes. And such a rest -ah- like fugitives from the dawn, the cloud banks of night were scattering in the east and a pale morning star forecast another sun as we awoke with the dawning. Numb with cold, damp, and hungry as hell we jogged up and down the lane to warm up. Then we piled in the roadster and headed north, due north to Minot through the crisp chill of an early morning. Dew glistening white on the grass. Winding roads stretching back through the fog. Wheat fields laden with moisture.Then the first rosy hues, seemingly painted by an artist’s hand were heralding the approach of the monarch-sun. Mile after mile skimming by. Not a car on the highway.

Suddenly the clouds parted, the sun burst through -gold, pure gold throwing splendor and warmth into a frigid world. Birds voices rose in a melody of song, trilling a greeting. A dog brayed somewhere. A rooster sent a garrulous challenge to the world. A punctured tire forced us to turn back and soon we were in Valley again, searching for a place to wash and eat. Everything was closed, hardly a soul stirring. Here we loitered half the day while waiting to fix the car. Then we started out again. Hardly had we reached the city limits before Marie got sore and jumping out of the car declared her intention of wiring her father for money enough to pay return fare to Fargo. Down the street she tore; her sidekick running after her, while I persuaded the rest to continue the trip then went after them and brought them back into the fold.

We reached Jamestown late that afternoon, but did not stay for fear the cops were posted. Out on the prairie again through clouds of dust and heat that was oppressive. Night was a relief, a night though, filled with the many whisperings of those both known and those unseen things. Cricket chirps near and far; frogs chanting in a nearby marsh. A full moon was slow, rounding into sight to bath the prairie in a silver light. The stars, candles of the night, appeared one at a time. Then, the Bismarck lights showed, just discernible through the distance. There was a prison high on a hill with an armed sentry pacing the walls. Then we arrived on main street which was all a bustle.

At the train depot we were informed that boys were not allowed in the lady’s waiting room which proved that our disguises were convincing since we fooled the ladies. But, again we set out, to the outskirts of town at the edge of the Missouri river to sleep beneath a hay stack. Mosquitoes pestered us throughout the night. Up with dawn, we drove back into town to wash, eat, and look the city over. Suddenly Marie and I became oppressed with the idea that the coppers had us spotted. And we were right.

We sold the car and all took different routes to the railroad track where we decided to catch a westbound freight and get out of Bismarck pronto! Then we dressed once more as boys and sat in the shade waiting for our private train car. Along the track came a man in hiking clothes. I was instantly suspicious of his clothes. They were too immaculate to have traveled far; and he claimed to have come from the coast. Everything is tough he claimed and we had better turn back before it was too late.

Everybody’s feet were cold but mine. I was too anxious to reach Seattle to worry about hard luck. But, then he informed us that the police actually were on our trail. After he had gone, we decided to split again. Marie and I with a few dollars in our pockets were to take the trail and the rest were to follow directly and meet us at Medina that evening. Out on the trail once more we were met by the same wolf in cheap clothing who advised us to kick up some dust clouds because the police wagon just went by. Half a mile farther on, a big car passed us and stopped. Two men got out. They proved to be plain clothed men and they forced us into the car and took us to the police station. Here the head of the department gave us the third degree. I didn’t say any more than was necessary, but Marie babbled incessantly.

We were taken charge of by Anton Beer, justice of the peace, who sent us out to eat, but we could not do more than nibble a few bites. In the meantime, Mr. Beer, who proved to be a real friend, sent a telegram to our parents:

“Mrs. Cora Simonson -wire seven dollars at once by Western Union. Am at police station. Reply yes, or no.” -Laura Lewis

The answer we received in two hours was fourteen dollars and “Come home.” After that, we felt better. We spent most of the afternoon walking about the city and had a good time even though we were trailed by a police officer everywhere we went.

In the evening, Anton gave us enough money to go to a moving picture theatre. We didn’t see much of the picture because my eyelids refused to stay open and Marie was falling into a doze continually. Every once in a while her head would drop with a thump to the back of the seat and she would rouse and say, “God, this is the worst picture I ever saw in my life.” This amused me immensely and I started to laugh and laugh and laugh without being able to stop.

Notable Movies, 1937: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1937_in_film.

Finally, we left the show and went up to Mr. Beer’s office where we spent the night on a row of chairs. Early next morning we went out ate our breakfast; and when Anton arrived, he walked over to the depot and brought our tickets. Tickets that would take us home. Then the train pulled in and we were off … “Going back, going back” moaned the wheels. “Back to Fargo, the black hole of despair. Your adventure over.”

With every mile our hearts sank lower. When at last we arrived, there was Charlotte and Marie’s father waiting for us. Nothing was changed. Fargo was and still is the same. And so, here we are with only the memory of three glorious days spent traveling westward in a bug, sans money, sans equipment, sans anything.

But, I say -“Beware here to-day and gone tomorrow; and the next time I leave, I am gone forever.”

THE END

The Economies of Palimpsest

DATE: May 15th, 2011
RESEARCH/WRITTEN BY:     Damian C. Koshnick                                              koshnick@umail.ucsb.edu

I am in love, and have been for years, with palimpsests because -metaphorically and literally,  they are all around us …

Archimedes' Palimpsest

Occasionally, you learn things that resonate for years. In 2000, during my first experience in graduate school, a mentor and professor of mine –Tom Gage, used the word palimpsest in a conversation. I nodded my head politely the first time he mentioned it, thinking, “Should I know this word?” But I knew that intelligent graduate students (the ones that survive anyway) learn to look things up. I came to know that through Latin and then Greek it means, “again, to scrape”; that it is the act of reusing a material (parchment, vellum, papyrus, etc.), by (often) imperfectly scraping away and writing over a previously extant text. Once I understood the term, as so often happens, I saw palimpsests and echoes of the concept in many places –in gang related graffiti (tagging walls as palimpsests of ownership), on wind ripped billboard signs, and even in the news.

A Famous Palimpsest: If you pay attention to the news for palimpsest, “Archimedes’ Palimpsest” makes the headlines every two or three years as scientists discover more effective ways –most recently (2006) pulsing X-rays– to pull forth Archimedes’ iron tainted ink, which rests in various decomposed conditions, obscured beneath an overlayed book of prayers.

In a new book “Is God a Mathematician” (which is fascinating for many reasons) the mathematician Mario Livio (2009) describes the original process by which -sometime before 1229- a scribe, Johannes Myrones, “unbound and washed” Archimedes’ original text, “so the parchment leaves could be reused for a Christian prayer book”. Fortunately, however, that “washing of the original text did not obliterate the writing completely”. What was left represents to us now what is Archimedes’ text, and is now one of the oldest (2,000 years) known texts.

Livio attributes the scribe’s actions to a broad cultural shift in the diminishing appreciation of mathematics after the Fourth Crusade, or as he noted, “in the years that followed, the passion for mathematics faded” (p. 54). Presumably then, Myrones attempted destruction and appropriation of Archimedes’ text was essentially an act of changing cultural values and of material necessity. Parchment, of course, was not as plentiful, nor cheap as paper has become for us; the text was valuable to the scribe for the parchment, upon which he could accomplish his prayer writing duties.

Since my first graduate school days, more than a decade ago, palimpsests have fascinated me. As I see it now, this concept represents my scholarly “gateway” into the socio-cultural perspective; it led to deep reflections on ways in which context (social, historical, technological, etc.) impacts writing practice and language use. As I searched my way through some of the details of “Archimedes’ Palimpsest,” there was, for example, a distinct moment when I came to more earnestly appreciate what economy meant –how the limits of our material and social world constantly impress circumstance upon us. Palimpsests, in many circumstances, represented a pragmatic response to the labor-intensive and limited distribution of parchment. It is a simple concept, but one that strikes deep. From this experience, I began to recognize contemporary incarnations, the ways in which our current practices are impacted by the strong undercurrents of our material, social, and cognitive realities. In turn, I started to study the literature. I began to recognize real world examples, in my own and others’ practices. 

It does not take long to realize that although our ability to produce and distribute writing has dramatically improved since the scribe picked up and decided to “recycle” Archimedes’ text around 1229, we are yet ever-adapting and reinventing our communicative and writing practices based upon both natural limitations, and local circumstance. History is full of these evolutions of inscription and re-inscription (through various technologies) as pragmatic and incidental, or even aggressive and explicit acts of power. And even though we have greatly improved our ability to communicate efficiently and across great distances instantaneously, the struggle between our desire and our ability to first capture and then assert our ideas in meaningful and lasting ways remains.

Clearly a great deal has changed regarding the valuation of Archimedes’ text since 1229, because in 1998 an anonymous philanthropist paid $2 million dollars for it and deposited at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore for study and conservation (see: http://www.archimedespalimpsest.org/palimpsest_making1.html). 

I am in love, and have been for years, with palimpsests because -metaphorically and literally,  they are all around us. And, if you pay attention, examples show up every so often in the news:

A Recent Palimpsest: New York Times -2008 “Consider Nepal’s new currency. Shortly after the king gave up power in 2006, the government ordered the printing of money, starting with the 500-rupee note, free of the king’s portrait. In the new design, developed by the central bank, King Gyanendra’s image was replaced by that of the noncontroversial Mount Everest. But the paper on which the new bills are printed, having been ordered long ago, still bears a watermark of the king’s face. Unable to afford new currency paper, bank officials took creative license. They slapped a dark-pink rhododendron on top of the watermark. The king and his bird-of-paradise plumed crown can be seen only if the bill is held up to the light” (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/03/world/asia/03nepal.html).

And, again and again, there is the “scraping” and “rewriting” all about in the world around us:

Point Made, Point Sal Sign -Photo: Damian C. Koshnick

 “I am like one of those old books that ends up moldering for lack of having been read. There’s nothing to do but spin out the thread of memory and from time to time, wipe away the dust building up there.” –Seneca 

Signs (and Symbols) of Santa Barbara, California

These are the signs and symbols of Santa Barbara; a city that is utterly unique. So often, we walk by these parts of our city, directed, or already moving into the future, on the way to other things.

I am continually fascinated by the ways in which “signs” and “symbols” mediate our lives in literal, physical and imaginative, metaphorical ways. Click on any of the images below for a better, closer view. This is part of a larger photo-documentary project that I have been meaning to do for some time. Check back for ongoing updates … (ps. got a sign in mind? I’ll happily take requests from current, or former *Barbareños).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.