Friday, August 6, 2010

Fellow Travelers

Melvin is generous. He is a giver of gifts. I could go on--his generosity takes other forms--but let it suffice that I make these statements right here at the top.

After our April trip to the Gulf Coast, Melvin gave me a copy of Ilf and Petrov's American Road Trip; The 1935 Travelogue of Two Soviet Writers.

The 2007 English language edition by Cabinet, edited by art historian Erika Wolf, tells the story of Ilya Ilf's and Evgeny Petrov's drive across America and back.

It's not long, 176 pages, and Ilf's 150 black-and-white photographs makes it shorter still.

Unafraid of the pun, I think of Ilf and Petrov as fellow travelers. Like Melvin and me, the Russian satirists drove through a foreign country, made critical observations and took pictures. There are differences, for sure. Instead of blogging the trip, their thoughts were serialized in Ogonek, a Soviet Life magazine if you will. In general our photographs are in color and more sharply focused, at least optically. And, of course, Melvin and I live in this foreign country we are exploring, which doesn't make most of it any less foreign.

There are all sorts of fellow travelers out there. There are travel blogs, baseball blogs, baseball travel blogs, websites about road food and folk art and any number of the things that interest Melvin and me. Whether or not the sites themselves are interesting or not is largely a personal matter, although some times the banality is unquestionable. I recently skimmed a baseball road trip blog consisting of low-res' cellphone photos and no or brief unenlightening commentary. On occasion, we find a website that transfixes us. Melvin has expressed a fascination for Josh Wilker's blog and book, both called Cardboard Gods. (I'm not surprised; Melvin and Josh share a sardonic--never to be confused with sarcastic--perspective and way with words.)

In his recent post, "Novelty and Its Perils," Melvin mentions our visits to the Petrified Creatures Museum, Ave Maria Grotto and Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens. It would be false modesty not to admit having been to all three makes us fairly unique. So imagine my delight to discover Debra Jane Seltzer, who has visited all three and more--and that's just the sites she calls "Obsessive Places." Her photo-archive is voluminous. Our interests don't fully overlap. She doesn't seem to have made the trek to Spiral Jetty or the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas (above), for example. Shared interests some times have taken us different places. Melvin and I have not visited any of the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings that Debra Jane has photographed and she apparently has not been to the Price Tower (below). [Update: dj got there on April 25, 2011.]  But the breadth and the depth of her research and documentation is impressive.

I first discovered Debra Jane while researching the Bottle Hollow Resort, which Melvin and I chanced upon on last year's cross-country trip. I found a couple of 2008 photographs of the Ute resort on Debra Jane's website. Hours, really days later--consider that fair warning--I had explored a fraction of her roadside architecture website, flickr photostream and discontinued and current blogs. (Her 2003 picture of the Miss Uniroyal figure at Werbany Tire Town in Blackwood, New Jersey, serves as her flickr icon. More on the statue's history here.) Eventually I realized Debra Jane lived in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn. Gobsmacked as I was, it took me a while to introduce myself but I did so just before we all hit the road at the end of July. Following Melvin's example I gave Debra Jane a copy of Ilf and Petrov, meeting her at the dog beach in Prospect Park. (Debra Jane's other great love is her dogs, who are trained to compete in dog agility races.)

Then the really amazing thing happened, on Day 3 of the recent Ohio trip. Melvin and I stopped by Blue Jean Farms to see if the concrete nursery rhyme figures, which we knew about from Debra Jane's website, still existed. Debra Jane thought in 2006 the statues were at risk of being sold or destroyed. The plant nursery was closed but we let ourselves in, only to be caught by the owner and a friend, portable phone in hand, ready to call the cops. However, when "Blue Jean" learned why we were there, he became our host, explained the current restoration efforts, showed us figures tucked behind greenhouses, lamented having to discontinue his annual Halloween display. Jerry, his real name, had just invited us to have a beer and stay for dinner when that really amazing thing happened: Debra Jane arrived. (Although not 18 feet in height like Miss Uniroyal, Debra Jane is taller than the three feet she appears here. I am, however, as out of shape as shown.)

We were all losing the light, so there was no time to chat with a woman on a mission. Melvin and I let her take pictures and we doubled-back down the road for a shot of a memorial to astronaut Neil Armstrong's first flight in an airplane. (That's one small step for a man, 1350 calories for a large size Big Mac® meal.) Later we had excellent thick-crust pizza at the Sunrise Inn in Warren, Ohio, home to a sizable collection of baseball and other sports memorabilia. As I post this, Debra Jane is in Iowa. "dj," godspeed and good weather.

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