Archive for October, 2016

States I’ve visited

October 21, 2016

Just for grins, I thought I’d post this map:


It comes from Visited States Map


He Can’t Help It If He’s Lucky

October 18, 2016

By Philip Martin

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at

Editorial on 10/18/2016

“Who are you?”

“That’s a good question.”

–Bob Dylan’s Alias answering James Coburn’s

Pat Garrett in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

I don’t know why anyone should begrudge anyone else getting a prize; prizes are nice to get but they really don’t mean much to anyone other than the honoree. Prizes get awarded for all kinds of reasons, most of which can be dismissed by those who didn’t win the prize as trivial or “political.” Not getting a certain prize doesn’t say anything about you other than it wasn’t your turn.

Most of us never get a turn. There’s no dishonor in that. Most of us simply aren’t that lucky.

Bob Dylan can’t help it if he’s lucky. He can’t help if his life’s work–which is really more than the sum of all the words and music he has produced; it’s his persona and his myth–has had such a profound effect on so many people around the world. That’s not what he was trying to do. He was trying, like every artist, to do something essentially selfish, to somehow make the maelstrom within a thing in the world. And the genius of Bob Dylan is that he didn’t end up telling us about himself. He ended up telling us about ourselves.

He made explicit a shadow America, a place out of time and history where the Abrahams might congregate. A place of dime stores and bus stations and concrete and cascades. A floating, chimeratic America that waits just beyond the headlights of our shiny cars groping through the everlasting night.

Dylan has a magpie eye and the nervelessness of a thief. He is Coyote, and grinning reformed journalist Alias, balancing his blade and printing the legend. He made it possible for me to write a column like this one, confident that at least some faction of the presumptive audience could catch on, could project their own truth into the false tropes and dusty mannequins he trots out.

Because Dylan is a magician in the sense that none of his shtick works unless you choose to collaborate with him, to invest in his honks and wheezes and windy words that can so help me seem like second-rate college literary magazine slush-pile fodder. Some people say it’s poetry and some people say it isn’t, and while I can teach it either way I’d rather take it for itself than reduce it to typography. For Dylan, like all poets, needs the sound and rhythm to thrive.

You can’t divorce “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” from its chord structure without doing it life-threatening harm–maybe the words still work as sub-Blakesian doggerel, maybe they’re all right–at least until the third verse when the singer brings up grudging pawns and “ceremonies of the horsemen” which feels to me like a lapse of discipline (except now, because in Dylan’s time-warpy way they seem to loop in Stanley Kubrick and secret rituals businessmen get up to in their underwear).

But the song needs its melody, the tripping of descending chords, the drop from (the way I play it) D to Em (or Em7) as well as the baggy timbre of the singer’s voice to completely succeed. Yes, there are lovely covers–Ricky Nelson did it best, the Walker Brothers were OK, and if you care for Joan Baez’s schoolmarm-ish precision her pure-toned version is out there as well–but none of these really come close to Dylan’s bright, fuzzy authority.

Sure, there are plenty of people shaking their heads because they never got Dylan as a singer or a maker of music (though that’s all he ever really wanted to be; most likely he’d have probably settled for a dark chocolate tenor and a gold lame jacket and a bunch of hits with “love” in the title had some stranger unfurled a contract at some crossroads) but let’s stipulate that (a) most people don’t get most things; (b) popularity isn’t any guarantee of quality and (c) it matters a whole lot less whether someone can sing than whether they can connect.

As unlikely as it might seem to those of us who realize that show business is mostly hustle and flow (and, that like David Geffen said, there’s probably never been anyone more interested in money than Bob Dylan) every once in a while you have to acknowledge the power of a song to break your heart. What Dylan did was to make rock ‘n’ roll–American popular music–a fit pursuit for grown-ups, a legitimate way of expressing and exploring the complications of our real and dream lives. He curated our national subconscious and dragged out into the spotlight the forgotten bones of old traditions and set them aclatter. Dylan rescued and re-animated what Greil Marcus has called “the old weird America,” and set it loose in our heartless modern wilderness.

I don’t know that Dylan is a poet, but I know there is poetry in Dylan, and that we are in a season sorely lacking in that quality, an age too full of literal and vulgar minds seeking only immediate advantages and the cheapest of sensations.

I don’t know that there aren’t hundreds more “deserving,” and I’m sure that there are many who are disappointed. And I don’t know that if they’d asked me that I’d have nominated Dylan–in part because Dylan needs no nomination and his bank book is plenty big enough–but I’m just fine with him getting any roses anybody wants to throw his way.

Because I owe him a debt that I can’t pay.


October 4, 2016


Fall foliage colors blaze along picturesque Blue Ridge Parkway

Here’s how not to start a road trip.

First, at the Alamo rental car counter at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport just over the line from Washington, discover that your driver’s license is missing. Search and swear for two hours. Then find it in your left shoe.

Second, when the Holiday Inn clerk asks what brings you to town, tell him you’re kicking off a big fall foliage road trip: all 105 miles of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, then all 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina.

“You and 70,000 other cars,” the clerk will say. “It’s bad.”

Third, get lost in Dismal Hollow.

That’s how my Blue Ridge adventure began in October last year. Without giving away too much, I can tell you I did escape Dismal Hollow (outside Front Royal, Va.), and I didn’t have traffic troubles.

For five days I zoomed under leafy canopies of red, orange and gold; hiked along creeks, lakes and ridge lines; listened to plenty of bluegrass and blues; and gave thanks to the National Park Service for bringing together so much beauty and so much blacktop.

We don’t consider road building a prime task of the park service these days. But the Park Service, born just eight years after the Model T, spent its first decades building some of the most gorgeous drives in North America.

Other Park Service parkways that carry the “national” designation: George Washington Memorial Parkway (District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia); Natchez Trace (Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee); and John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway (Wyoming).

The Blue Ridge Parkway, authorized in 1936, has been all about the automobile from Day One.

The parkway and Shenandoah National Park were Depression projects intended to create jobs in a desperately poor region. For the parkway, the idea was to sculpt an epic country road, a black ribbon that would unfurl seamlessly amid the knobs, hollows, notches and gaps of Virginia and North Carolina.

The work took decades, but now the road’s shoulders are graced with overlooks, its straightaways unsullied by billboards, commercial trucks or service stations. (There are also plenty of hiking trails along the route, including the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail.)

To get gas or find most hotels, you exit the parkway and re-enter the real world. The parkway speed limit is 45 mph, which means when red leaves drift in the breeze or a deer pauses in a meadow, you’re moving slowly enough to notice.

For most of the last 50 years, including 2015, the parkway has been the most-visited unit in the park system. Last year its rangers counted 15 million visitors, who spent an estimated $950 million.

The tourist tides seem to include more bicyclists every year, which is tricky on its narrow roads. October is as busy as the summer months, in some places busier.

Skyline Drive was my prelude. Light traffic. A bounding stag at Hog Wallow Flats. A treed bear at Bootens Gap. At Lewis Mountain, I checked out cabins that until about 1950 were set aside for “colored” visitors.

By 5 p.m., I reached Rockfish Gap, Va., where Skyline Drive ends and the Blue Ridge Parkway begins.


The parkway rises, falls, bends and straightens, following the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains with no commercial buildings or truck traffic, cushioned by a buffer zone of landscaping that alternates between narrow and wide, semi-wild and manicured.

Stanley W. Abbott, the Blue Ridge Parkway’s first landscape architect and first superintendent, was in his 20s when he laid down the route details and guiding principles. He was looking for variety, he said, and “evidences of a simple homestead culture and a people whose way of life grew out of the land around them.”

The scenes I glided through were not quite natural; they were more orderly than that. But they were unfailingly pretty. And the weekday traffic was light. (The Virginia part of the parkway has about half the traffic of the North Carolina part.)

At Milepost 86, I pulled off the parkway and checked in at the Peaks of Otter Lodge, at the edge of Abbott Lake.

This 1964 hotel, full of modernist touches, is where you might film the very special Waltons episode in which the Mad Men guys show up. (It’s also the only lodging on the parkway that’s owned by the Park Service and managed by concessionaire Delaware North.)

Instead of Don Draper and company, I encountered guitarist David “Alabama” Frank and fiddler Nancy Reid, who filled the Lake View Dining Room with ballads and blues.

The next morning was even better. In the chilly early hours, I prowled the edge of Abbott Lake with my camera, hunting vivid leaves and reflections in the still water.

There are more than 100 species of trees along the parkway. Beech, birch, chestnut, dogwood, elm, fir, hickory, maple, oak, sassafras, walnut, and on and on.


At Tuggle Gap, about Milepost 165, I made a little detour — six miles west — because I had a hunch about the town of Floyd, Va. (population 425). Or, as one local sign would have it, the Republic of Floyd.

This was a good move.

Floyd is tiny but artsy and lively, with coffeehouses, art galleries, a farmers market and especially the Floyd Country Store (wood floor, tin ceiling), which offers home goods, sandwiches, books, music lessons, a pulse-quickening inventory of Appalachian CDs ( Flatt & Scruggs at Carnegie Hall) and live acts on weekends. The store’s Friday Night Jamboree, a fourhour acoustic music session, costs just $5.

Traditional music “is probably what saved the town and kept it alive through the hard times,” Avis McCutchan, owner of Notebooks, just downstairs from the Black Water Loft coffeehouse, told me.

And that’s just one measure of the music’s power. After a stop at Mabry Mill, whose working waterwheel at Milepost 176 might be the most photographed spot on the parkway, I reached the Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax, Va. There, at Milepost 213, I was in time to catch Bill and Maggie Anderson singing and picking “Wildwood Flower” on Dobro and guitar.

In the building next door, a Park Service interpretive team had laid out a series of exhibits to tell the story of Appalachia’s musical heritage, including the long-ago arrival of English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh and African influences (the banjo, for example, was an African contribution) and Bill Monroe’s creation of the bluegrass genre in the 1940s.

Ranger Janet Bachmann told me how a music lover named Joe Wilson (who died in 2015) crusaded for creation of the Music Center and promoted the Crooked Road, a trail of traditional music venues in Virginia that includes Floyd and Galax.

You can find a jam session “every night of the week” within 20 miles, Bachmann told me.

From Galax it’s about two hours to Blowing Rock, N.C., a sophisticated tourist town at Milepost 292 that’s built around a jutting rock atop a cliff where the wind blows hard and often. Just so you know, people who live in Blowing Rock are known as Blowing Rockers.


At Milepost 294, I browsed the Moses Cone Manor House, aka Parkway Craft Center, a 1901 textile baron’s 13,000-square-foot mansion now run as a regional art and craft gallery. It’s surrounded by 3,600 acres of parkland, but the parking lot is gridlocked on some October days.

Now I was heading into the busiest stretch of the parkway, the area around Asheville, N.C., where rangers counted 42,520 vehicles passing through in October, the month of my visit — almost three times the traffic tallied at the Peaks of Otter.

It was easy to see why. I happened to hit this stretch within a few days of peak color. In the hour before sunset, about Milepost 360, the scene turned surreal as the road carried me through tree tunnels of flowing orange and flaming red, then luminous yellow-green.

At Milepost 382 (about five miles outside Asheville) is the Southern Highland Folk Art Center, with more quality and less quantity than the craft center at Milepost 294, I thought.

In Asheville itself, you may be overwhelmed with urban options, beginning with its prosperous downtown and burgeoning restaurant scene.

The city’s biggest tourist ticket is the Biltmore Estate, which you can tour for $55-$75 per adult, depending on how far ahead you book and the day of the week.

I spent the night at the Asheville Holiday Inn and was at the Biltmore Estate when it opened at 8:30 the next morning. (It was 43 degrees, but who’s counting?) Even before you get to the chateau-style mansion’s 250 rooms, the 8,000 acres of grounds may amaze you.


Once you’re done with the Biltmore Estate, you’re just 87 miles from the end of the road.

Now, here’s how not to end a road trip: On the last day, after covering 87 miles of parkway, push yourself to cover 170 more miles to the Atlanta airport. With a final sprint into the teeth of that city’s rush hour, you might make your 6:35 p.m. flight. Or not. For hours, the resolution was in doubt.

I made the airport with 15 minutes to spare.

During that white-knuckle day I realized several things: If you want time to relax and improvise, a Blue Ridge drive needs at least seven days, not the four I gave it.

The greatest roadside peril may be in the parkway’s overlooks and turnouts, where drivers do a lot of improvising in close quarters. Navigate those ins and outs with great care.

I’d have had fewer headaches if I had reversed my itinerary and done most of the driving in the morning. Driving from northeast to southwest in late afternoon, I found myself squinting through over-matched sunglasses into the low, bright sun.

Mid- to late October is prime time for Appalachian foliage. But there’s no point obsessing over when leaf-peeping will peak. The weather will vary. Different species of trees will turn at different times. And trees will turn first at highest elevation (such as Mount Pisgah, N.C., 6,047 feet above sea level).

After a few billion leaves, they do begin to look alike. But don’t worry. Other things will stay with you. My stop at Milepost 323, for instance.

That’s Bear Den Overlook, where I ran into Dan Vance, 83, wearing a white hat and a big grin. He stood by a low wall, looking out over the valley. He lived a few miles away, he said, and was on the way home with a tub of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the car.

“Don’t get no prettier than this,” he said. “See the white building right-cheer. They dance on weekends. And clog.”

I told him I liked the sound of that, but it was time for me to go.

“Take your time,” he told me. “Don’t be in no hurry.”

If you go

How to get there: Airports in Richmond, Charlottesville and Roanoke, all in Virginia, are within 100 miles of the parkway’s northeastern part. If you’d rather aim for the southwestern portion of the parkway, North Carolina’s Greensboro, Charlotte and Asheville airports are similarly close. To make your road trip longer and more scenic, fly into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., 70 miles east of Front Royal, Va. Once at Front Royal, drive the 105-mile Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park, then drive the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway. Driving the parkway is free no matter where you start.

Sleep: Peaks of Otter Lodge, 85554 Blue Ridge Parkway, Bedford, Va.; (866) 387-9905, Rooms for two as low as $119 a night in summer, $159 in October. Weekends book quickly.

Eat: Smoky Park Supper Club, 350 Riverside Drive, Asheville, N.C.; (828) 350-0315, A hip restaurant made out of shipping containers. Main dishes $15-$28.

Tour: Biltmore Estate, Asheville, N.C.; (800) 411-3812, Adult admission $55-$75, depending on day and season, advance purchase.

More info: Blue Ridge Parkway,

Seasonal Blue Ridge Parkway foliage and flower report: (828) 298-0398, option 3.

Blue Ridge Parkway Association,

Trump’s not Hitler, but…

October 4, 2016

This article is from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette dated October 2, 2016 – The author is Philip Martin.

In his book The Coming Victory of Democracy published in 1938, Thomas Mann wrote that “in a democracy which does not respect the intellectual life and is not guided by it, demagoguery has free play and the level of national life is depressed to that of the ignorant and uncultivated … [i]f the conception of culture and its level are determined from below, according to the ideas and understanding of the mob—this, precisely, is nothing but demagogy; and we have its perfect example in the so-called Kultur speeches of … Hitler.”

I’m not saying Donald Trump is Hitler, though lots of people are, or at least rolling the idea around in their minds. For instance, in the New York Times last week the venerable critic Michiko Kakutani wrote a review of Volker Ulrich’s Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 that—though she never mentions the Republican presidential candidate—is interpreted by many as a veiled comparison between Trump and Hitler.

(I’ve just started Ulrich’s book; so far it’s a measured deconstruction of the accreted monster mythology that obscured the historical Hitler. This is important; we should keep in mind that even the worst people may possess a full complement of emotions. Understanding a Hitler capable of love and kindness is necessary if we are to fathom the potential for evil-doing in ourselves.)

It’s not unusual that people see Hitler in Trump. Hitler has become an all-purpose symbol for anything we wish to dismiss. Yet when talking about a notorious celebrity rising to political power through mendacious attacks and scapegoating, the analogy might be irresistible, even if it’s not especially helpful. While only in the fevered imagination of Trump and his most-blighted followers is America a hellish place in anything close to the truly terrible shape that Germany was in in the aftermath of the Great War, it’s undeniable that a lot of Americans are disappointed and disillusioned. Economic numbers may say one thing, but there is still a pervasive feeling of discontent among many people in this country.

A lot of us feel economically insecure. A lot of us worry about whether our jobs will last and whether our children will be able to enjoy the lifestyle our parents took for granted. All this talk about black lives mattering irks the kind of people who think of themselves as no beneficiary of any privilege. People who have trouble making their mortgage and car payments are bound to bristle when they feel their pain dismissed while others are put forward as a victimized class. They are bound to respond when someone tells them that their struggles are compounded by institutional favoritism and government appeasement.

Even if there’s no empirical basis for these suspicions, people will respond to someone who confirms their biases, who tells them what they want to hear. And if you’re hurting in America, maybe you respond to the guy who tells you it’s not your fault and he can fix it.

Because it might not be your fault.

It’s quite possible to do what you’re supposed to do, to work hard and study, and still end up living from paycheck to paycheck in this country. Or living without a paycheck. Just because you’re not living in the Weimar Republic where you’d better spend a 50-million mark note today because tomorrow a gallon of milk might cost a billion marks doesn’t mean you’re not experiencing real trouble.

The only thing that inoculates us from the promises of would-be demagogues is an understanding of the inherent complexity of the world. Nothing is as simple as a reductionist soundbite; there are unforeseen consequences and hidden costs implicit in every policy decision. Bright-line rules might be necessary in some cases, but if your goal is justice or even fairness you have to at least consider why other people behave the way they do and believe the things they believe.

While there are a minority of Trump supporters who openly subscribe to the tenets of National Socialism, the overwhelming majority of his backers would want to punch you in the face if you called them Nazis. By their lights, they’re seeking to secure the blamed blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity. They want an America for Americans—just like the Germans wanted a Germany for Germans.

What’s dangerous is the idea that some Americans are more real than other Americans, and that—like pornography—Americanism is easily identified if difficult to define. What’s dangerous is the idea that there ought to be religious, racial or ethnic tests for Americanism. We are not a white nation, we are not a Christian nationwe are a mongrel nation comprised of people of various cultural traditions pledged to tolerance. There’s nothing American in suggesting that we’d be better off if we were less diverse.

And while people are easily frightened, there’s nothing American in suggesting that we ought to exchange long-held principles for the illusion of safety. You can’t enjoy your freedom without being a little brave; to live in the world requires that we accept and assume certain risks. It’s obvious there is a chance that you can die violently in America, but there are limits to what government can do; there’s no way to assure anyone of absolute safety.

Just as there’s no way to assure everyone of a fair break. There will be winners and losers, and some people will have advantages that others don’t. Some will be born into wealth, some into desperate situations. Luck and connections factor into an individual’s chance for success—usually more than talent or diligence.

Some people see Trump’s wealth as evidence of his fitness for high office. That’s always been part of the American equation—we tend to envy, worship and suck up to rich folks while nursing the notion that someday we might find ourselves miraculously transformed. (It’s more often expressed in the negative, as in, “If you’re so smart how come you ain’t rich?”)

Most of us know why we’re not rich—or at least why we’re not richer. But in this country most of us are relatively comfortable, most of us have the luxury of indulging in a little laziness. Common sense does not trump critical thinking. What you know in your gut is likely superstition or prejudice.

Donald Trump isn’t Hitler, and supporting him doesn’t make you a Nazi.

But maybe it wouldn’t hurt you to read a little history.