An American Story (Part 5)

That seemed serious and Vann had stated it with authority.

“Really? Interesting start, go on.”

He winked at me, then punched his right arm forward and said “Ze-bam!”  He had done this a few times previously and I had eventually worked out that it was his statement of excitement and accomplishment.  Then he continued.

“Like I was saying, Tom Sexton owned a bunch of the land up in Two Harbors, including down by the lake.  There was an iron company in the area at the time, Northwoods Iron, and they wanted all of that land Tom had, both for mining and for allowing their railroad to run in and out of the bay area.  It was real important to them if you know what I mean?”

“I’m guessing that means they didn’t take no for an answer?”

“That’s what I’m saying.  Tom sold them those first few plats, just figuring I guess that it was some extra money.  Plus, there weren’t a whole lot of people up there at the very beginning.  He just didn’t see the harm in it.”  Vann paused for a moment.  “You want any more of this?”  He stretched his hand up toward me, fingers wrapped around that emerald green bottle.  I waved it off but had a question.

“I’m liking this story, but how do you know so much about Tom Sexton anyway?”

“I read things, read them while I was there, asked around, did research man, real research.  And…well forget that.  So, he sold them some land and it was no big deal.  But they kept coming back around his shack wanting to buy more.  Always the same two guys, big as lumberjacks but dressed nicer, politely dressed I guess is what they used to call it. They would just be there when Tom walked back in from the woods or from fishing.  For awhile it was all nice conversation ya know, good day Mr. Sexton, what’s the trapping like this year Mr. Sexton.  It didn’t last long that way, not once Tom kept saying that he would just as soon keep his land.  He had two dogs, brothers, black and tan setters which were pretty rare in the states at the time.  He woke up one morning to the howl of one of them, sounding like it was hurt bad.  He found it about ninety feet outside his door caught up in a bear trap.  There wasn’t much to do except put it down.”  Vann looked up at me.

“So, the bear trap…”

“That’s what I’m saying, the trap wasn’t his, he didn’t have any worries about bears himself and he sure wouldn’t have put one where his dogs could come across it so near to his shack.”

“And that’s what made him sell his land to the pretty lumberjacks?”

“No, no, hardly that, not yet anyway.  It’s just how it started.  They did things to him, took away things, spread rumors, all that stuff.  They wanted to intimidate him because they wanted that land.”

Two Harbors - showing construction of the ore docks  photo courtesy of collections.mnhs.org/

Two Harbors – showing construction of the ore docks
photo courtesy of collections.mnhs.org

“Yeah, I get that. So how long did it take for them to get him to sell all of his land?”

“Twenty years.”

I had to laugh at that and I did.  “Well, they weren’t very good at it I guess.”

“That’s not it.  They didn’t really start to put the pressure on until the last three years or so.  That was when the work on the railroad was really heating up.  Tom took some pretty thorough beatings before he gave in but in the end he did.  By 1883 they had all of his land expect four lousy acres that he ended up renting out to merchants who wanted to sell things to the workers putting in the railroad.  It turned into a real bad place, Whiskey Town it was called.”

“And then they somehow took that from him too?”

“You bet.  Ze-bam!”

…to be continued

An American Story (Part 4)

It turned out that Castle Danger was neither a castle nor in any immediate peril.  As Vann took a deep breath and a short tug of the little remaining Thunderbird he also told me that I probably was not going to believe what he was about to tell me.  Not much of a storyteller I guess…never lead with that.  Anyway, I wrote his tale down the next day as soon as I got back to my truck and I think I have it right, although maybe some of the spellings in regard to names are wrong.

Vann began with, “these candles survived a fire, a shipwreck and a murder, all in the space of about one year.”

“Hmmm, well you may be right about my disbelief, they don’t look that old or experienced.”  I laughed a little with myself at that clever line.

“Just listen.  There’s a place up in Minnesota, way up, by the pointy part of it.  It’s called Two Harbors.  Not a big place now but it had its moments back in the late 1800’s when the railroad was expanding and they had just struck iron ore in the area.  First of all, I gotta tell you that the beauty of this place is breathtaking.  It’s right by the shore of Lake Superior and has this amazing shoreline. Cold brown and grey cliffs, stacks of boulders towering up right from the water.  You can sit back at a distance, up by one of the grassy tops or hills that surround those cliffs and watch the water crashing up against those stone walls, tongues of heavy white water and misty spray falling back just out of your sight, back to the lake.  Ya ever seen a postcard man, one of a lighthouse on a cliff?”

Split Rock Lighthouse - courtesy of http://www.fhwa.dot.gov

Split Rock Lighthouse – courtesy of http://www.fhwa.dot.gov

It took me a few seconds to answer as I had been absorbed both by the intensity with which Vann was telling his story and by this lingering image I had of him as a disheveled university professor, lecturing on American geography and talking just as much with his hands as with his mouth. He had pulled them back after asking me the question, taking a moment to rip a hangnail off his thumb with his teeth.

“Yeah sure, I’ve seen some.”

“I’m telling ya, it’s probably of this one in, well near, Castle Danger.  Split Rock it’s called.  It just sits up there, teetering on the point of a cliff.”

“Sounds pretty…”

But he had cut me off. “Irrelevant here though, it wasn’t built at the time I’m trying to tell you about.” I made the ‘go-on’ motion with my hand but it was hardly needed. “There was a man, Tom Sexton, who owned pretty much all of the land in that area as he had lived there since about 1850.  It was called Agate Bay back then, but it’s the same place as now. He had started out in a simple house, one of those frontier shacks, and pretty much just lived a simple life until the railroad started busting through up there.  You know about the railroads?”

I looked behind Vann to where the modern dual-track ran alongside the water tower.  Did I know about railroads? “Yes, I think I know about the railroads.”

Now it was his turn to look askance at me. “I’m not talking about the tracks, I mean the people who owned them, the companies that built them.” “Well, I guess not much.  You know, the regular history stuff you learn, maybe a documentary, why?”

“They were ruthless man, really bad.  Didn’t care about much except building their tracks and depots where it suited them best.  They did dirty deals, lied, bullied, killed people.”

“They killed people?”

“They killed Tom Sexton.”

…to be continued

An American Story (Part 3)

I offered him back my name and thanked him for the offer to sit in his little hide-away, although he did not seem especially impressed by either one of these actions.  Some time passed, awkward to me at first as I continued to resist itching at my eyes, although Vann seemed perfectly at ease.  I guess it was his world I was inhabiting after all so I probably deserved to feel out of place. The wind whistled and blew for about another ninety minutes and then the gentle desert calm returned although the air still had a grainy texture. I figured it was a good time to get moving on however a hand on my elbow stopped me as I was about to stand up.

“Ya want something to drink?”

I considered that offer for a few seconds, envisioning the proffering of a bottle of Thunderbird if I said yes, however my throat was scratchy and my tongue felt like sandpaper.

“Sure…please.”  And I was rewarded with the Thunderbird, as warm and as edgy as I remembered it to always have been. I coughed down a couple of swallows and handed it back. “Thanks.  You must come this way often, I mean, you had that whole eye of the storm thing figured out.”

Vann waved one of his bony, tanned fingers back and forth above his head. “This stretch, I’ve been walking up and down it for about a year now.  Chandler to Oro Valley and back again.  Ya can’t get too far into those big cities or they really start to hassle ya.”

I had no frame of reference for that.  “How did you….I mean, do you like this…thing you do?  Drifting around?”

He drummed his fingers against his chest which was covered by a ratted out t-shirt, although I think it was one of those deliberately distressed items, new but looking old.  It had some faded lettering that seemed to reference car parts.

“I did when I started, then I hated it, loved it, hated it…ha!  Who knows, I guess I’m used to it.  I actually spent a year once in Alaska.”

“As a… I mean, homeless?”

Vann seemed amused by my hesitation, his green eyes sparkling again.  “As a hobo, bum, no good vagrant?  Yes I did.”

Alaska interested me so I sat back down again and somewhere over the next three hours and a second bottle of T-bird I discovered that Vann may have been one of the most interesting people I had ever met.  His thoughts were not always logical, he had a poor view of things in society he did not know much about and his opinion of himself raged between pride and despair.  He had stories though, and true ones as far as I could tell.  It was late though, very late considering I had only stopped for a quick stretch and to shake the weariness of the road.  I stood to go however Vann reached into his pack and pulled out two candlesticks.  Unexpected to be sure.

“Here man, come and check these out.”  He placed them carefully on the cement and then, even more to my amazement, produced two candles from within his jacket.

“Ahh, what are you doing with candles?  Seems a bit weird for a traveling hobo to keep those around.”

He lit the candles with a classic Zippo, nicely polished from what I could tell. “I keep them because of the story.”

“These things have a story?”  They looked like thrift store pick-ups to me.

“They do, come on, just listen to it, it’s the last one.” Somehow I felt an obligation to hear him out.  That and the Thunderbird had rendered me mostly useless for driving anyway.  Where did I think I was going to go? So, as the flames flickered and cast a muted glow against the worn out supports of that water tower Vann told me the story of Castle Danger.

The candlesticks that Vann fished from his backpack

The candlesticks that Vann fished from his backpack

to be continued…

An American Story (Part 2)

I stood there for a few minutes looking back at him and he held my gaze which , quite frankly, was more than I expected.  Neither of us talked and that seemed somehow appropriate.  The wind kicked up a little bit from the west, stirring up some of that fine top layer of sand that sits around in the desert just waiting to be lifted up into a dust cyclone.  The guy in the Army jacket sniffed and rubbed his nose, then gave me a last look and turned, walking over toward the water tower.   I felt incredibly awkward, like I owed something more to the moment.  As the dust stirred around my feet I glanced over at my truck and thought what I guess would be the ‘usual thing’…namely that I did not want anything to do with homeless people.  Not that I knew for certain that this stranger met that criteria, but it was what I assumed based on my own preconceptions.  Going with my initial thought I took about twenty steps back in the direction of my truck, thoughts nagging at me the entire time.  Enough was finally enough, and I realized I had to do something different, so I veered my course back toward the water tower.  As I did I looked over and realized he was looking right at me again.  Now I really had no choice.

It only took me a few minutes to reach the tower however by then the wind was really blowing and the sand, caught up in the air, was cutting unpleasantly against my skin. I looked past the tower and saw a tidy little dust cyclone that was dancing around, caught for the moment in the same place.

small dust cyclone near Red Rock, AZ

small dust cyclone near Red Rock, AZ

So, I arrived at the tower, stepping onto the concrete pad and extending an enthusiastic “Hello!” in the man’s direction.  I sounded more pleasant than I felt, a fact not helped much by the lack of reply I received.  So now I was stuck occupying a weathered concrete pad underneath a defunct water tower with someone I did not know and who apparently was not going to be much of a conversationalist.  I considered that a challenge.

“How ya doing?”

More silence, although he did shift around a bit from where he was sitting.

“Lots of dust coming this way.”  Sometimes I love to state the obvious.  I let that gem hang in the air and returned to looking out toward the west.  I promptly received two eyes full of sand and ducked my head down, turning away from the wind and rubbing to get it out.

“Here…sit down here.”  He had spoken, apparently out of pity for me, and was indicating a spot near where he had his back propped up against one of the tower’s support legs. I eyeballed my truck again but decided that the wind and dust were blowing hard enough to make that journey seem like much less than a lot of fun.  As I sat down, the wind ceased completely and the dust disappeared.  This was apparently the perfect place to sit.  After blinking my eyes repeatedly, and just as often resisting the urge to gouge at them with my dusty fingers, I managed to clear up my vision.  I looked over at the man who spoke his name while holding out his hand.

“Vann…with two n’s,” and his eyes twinkled when he said it, as though it were some incredibly funny joke that I should understand.  Which, as you know, I did not.  The man had a name with two n’s when he only needed one.

to be continued…

An American Story (Part 1)

The Water Tower at Red Rock

The Water Tower at Red Rock

The Old (or new?) Dads Root Beer bottle

The Old (or new?) Dads Root Beer bottle

I had pulled my truck over on the side of a road that runs along I-10 in Arizona.  Not sure of the name of that road but it would not be hard to find again.  So, this all started in Red Rock, which is a place I would have picked anyway given the chance.  In fact, if this had started in some place with a ‘plain-Jane’ name I might have just written that it started in Red Rock anyway.  You would never know anyway as you were not there.  By luck or fortune it really did start in Red Rock, so from there I guess the next thing to explain is how I ever went from a pit stop to a rather cold night huddled up under the water tower with a worn-down hobo with two ‘n’s’ on a name that only needs one.

It certainly was not my intention. I had been driving for seven hours and just needed a break to stretch.  That part of Arizona, just a little bit north of Tucson, has some really great scenery.  Picacho Peak looms in the sky and the scrappy foothills around it abound with cacti, the cool kind that you think about when you imagine a cactus.  Tall and prickly with cool arms and an occasionally disfigured top.  You would think I would have taken a picture of that, but well, I did not.  I was fascinated by this damn water tower which seems to scream “old western town”, and carries just enough rustic decay to appeal to me.  I seem to enjoy these broken parts of America.  They talk about the dream and the demise while still seeming noble and proud.  So, I always have to take pictures.  Lots and lots of pictures.  After taking my fill of these around the tower itself I wandered off down the train tracks that run alongside and started poking around the fringes of the railway grade.

The usual detritus was found, although that is a minor misuse of that word as I am referring more to the scraps and refuse of our modern lives instead of decayed organic matter.  Somehow and someway a Dad’s root beer bottle that seemed to be from a long time ago had managed to find its way to rest beside a scrubby desert bush.  It looked old anyway, but these days who knows…maybe it was just one of those vintage re-creations that allow the rest of us to feel like we are experiencing the ‘olden-days’.  While I was looking at it I heard a noise off in the scrub to the east and looked up, mostly expecting nothing or a road-runner.  Instead I saw a man, taller than me and very tan with washed-out brown hair, several days growth of a dark beard and a glint in his green eyes that seemed to register me as a prize.  I thought the day was warm, but this man had on an old regulation Army issue coat, a pair of woolen gloves with the fingertips cut off and a very blue pair of blue jeans.  Your typical homeless guy I guess, but incredibly interesting close-up.

to be continued…