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Berri Crosses Lebanon’s Red Line

A few days ago Lebanon’s Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri floated the idea of opening peace talks with Israel. (Hat tip: Bad Vilbel.)

Now is the time to raise the issue to returning to peace negotiations…It is possible that now is a very appropriate time for peace talks.

He said this in France to a reporter from Al-Arabiya.

Before I say anything else, here’s a caveat. Earlier this year I wrote the following in a dispatch from the Lebanese-Israeli border.

The rhetoric that comes out of Beirut in Arabic rarely has anything to do with reality. The Lebanese government regularly affirms its “brotherhood” with Syria, its former murderous master that still knocks off elected officials and journalists. Undying loyalty to the Palestinian cause is constantly trumpeted, even while Lebanon treats its hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees worse than neglected zoo animals. Arab Nationalism is another regular theme, even though Arab Nationalism is more dead in Lebanon than in any other country around.

Lebanon is a hard country to read from afar. I can’t tell you how many times a government official said some boilerplate nonsense in public that almost everyone knew wasn’t sincere. You had to know the Lebanese “street,” and you had to look at the target audience. Most statements on foreign relations are intended for foreign consumption, especially the bits about Syria.

The same goes for Israel. Lebanon has officially been at war with Israel longer than I’ve been alive. But the Lebanese state never acts like it’s at war. Lebanon never fights Israel. People in Lebanon — the PLO and Iran’s private army — were the ones who fought Israel.

A cynical observer may say the Lebanese government wants to have it both ways. The Lebanese state gets its war and it gets deniability.

I don’t read it that way. When the PLO used Southern Lebanon as a base to fight Israel during the 1970s and early 1980s, Lebanon’s Sunni population applauded. But the Christians and the Shia were apoplectic. Lebanon disintegrated into the worst war in its history over this question.

Most Lebanese hated Hezbollah and wanted Iran’s and Syria’s little plaything disarmed even before they dragged the country into yet another pointless war against the will of the majority.

Even so, advocating peace talks with Israel was a “red line” when I was in Beirut. Some Lebanese did it anyway, but they only did it in private. No newspaper wrote editorials in favor of Israel or of peace. No politician from any party dared say anything of the sort even though everyone knew some would if they could. The stupid parties (Hezbollah, the Syrian Social Nationalists, etc.) still accuse the March 14 Movement (aka the “Cedar Revolution,” aka the government) of being Zionist agents even when the red line isn’t crossed.

So it’s telling that Nabih Berri, the Speaker of Parliament, a Shia from South Lebanon, Hezbollah’s “moderate” ally, one of Bashar Assad’s point men in the country, said what he said even to foreigners. He did say it in Arabic to Al-Arabiya. He did not say it in French to Jacques Chirac.

It doesn’t mean peace talks are imminent. Hezbollah, or anyone else for that matter, could sabotage peace talks in five minutes. (See Hamas.) But if Berri can say it even if he is not sincere, so can anyone else who has the guts.

The Beirut of Europe, Revisited

Just under a year ago I wrote the following while Paris burned:

They say Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East. Does that mean Paris is the Beirut of Europe? Or is that an insult to Beirut?

A week later my mother visited me in Lebanon after I finally convinced her it was safe. “Thank God we didn’t stop in Paris on the way to Beirut,” she said with an absolutely straight face. And I laughed out loud. Beirut, in her mind, was the epitome of urban disaster areas. Paris, as far as she was concerned, was the greatest city on earth. I loved the sudden inversion.

In hindsight I was naïve. I feel chagrined now after arguing long and hard that no one in Lebanon would hurt her, me, or anyone else. To be sure, even if she had visited during this summer’s war she would have been safe from Lebanese. Israeli warplanes were the hazard I hadn’t considered.

Lebanon was not as safe as I thought, and it’s less safe today. Last week someone fired rockets at the Buddha Bar across the street from UN headquarters. I took my mother to that bar. The attackers might be Syrian, but they also could be Lebanese. Nobody knows.

Perhaps I was dumb for suggesting that Beirut is safer than Paris even in jest. But sometimes I wonder.

Before next week’s anniversary of the Clichy riots, the violence and despair on the estates are again to the fore. Despite a promised renaissance, little has changed, and the lid could blow at any moment.

The figures are stark. An average of 112 cars a day have been torched across France so far this year and there have been 15 attacks a day on police and emergency services. Nearly 3,000 police officers have been injured in clashes this year. Officers have been badly injured in four ambushes in the Paris outskirts since September. Some police talk of open war with youths who are bent on more than vandalism.

“The thing that has changed over the past month is that they now want to kill us,” said Bruno Beschizza, the leader of Synergie, a union to which 40 per cent of officers belong. Action Police, a hardline union, said: “We are in a civil war, orchestrated by radical Islamists.”

I doubt this is the work of radical Islamists. Violence in France looks a lot more like race war and class war than jihad. Either way, burning cars — even at the insane rate of 112 every day — certainly beats massacreing commuters on the way to work in the morning or blowing up tourist hotels.

Most of the violence is in the outskirts of Paris rather than in the city center. The Buddha Bar and the UN are in downtown Beirut. Parts of Paris may be safer than anywhere in Beirut if you forget, for the sake of discussion, that no one ever gets mugged in Lebanon. There is no chance at all that any country will drop bombs on Paris from warplanes.

Comparing Beirut and Paris is, I admit, a bit ridiculous.

Even so, 15 attacks every day against French police and emergency services is astounding. 3,000 injured police officers is an incredible number. How many cars can even be left if 115 are burned every day?

We’re not talking about jihad or a war against infidels here. But is it crazy to ask how many Israeli police and soldiers have been injured or killed by Hamas and Hezbollah at the same time?

The point is not that France resembles Israel in any meaningful way, or that the suburbs of Paris are a match for the dahiyeh south of Beirut which was controlled by a private Iranian army. I’m comparing these places because I want to draw attention to the enormous disconnect between perception and reality.

If 80 percent of the foreign correspondents in Israel, Iraq, and Lebanon moved to France and covered that conflict instead, France would look like a frightening place indeed. It would, in all liklihood, look more dangerous than it really is. (No cars are burned in the Latin Quarter as far as I know.) Instead the Middle East — with the probable exception of Baghdad — looks more dangerous than it really is.

I’m not saying the Middle East isn’t dangerous. Some parts of it are. Other parts are safe, though. Even some of the dangerous places are reasonably safe most of the time. My friend Michael Dempsey described Beirut as a “safe dangerous” place, which nails it exactly I think.

My friends and family no longer give me a hard time when I travel to places they wouldn’t go. Every time I come home unharmed and untraumatized they lighten up a little bit more. But people who don’t know me well, who don’t read my blog, and who don’t follow the Middle East closely still have a hard time understanding what it’s really like across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. My wife has decided that she will no longer tell people when I’m out of town.

“So,” one of her clients said the other day. “What hell-hole is your husband in now?”

“Is your husband in Iraq?” our corner grocer asked her in August.

“No,” she said. “He’s in Israel.”

“Oh no!” he said, genuinely alarmed.

She hears this sort of thing constantly. It stresses her out, and it annoys me.

The media make the Middle East look like one never-ending massacre and explosion. France, meanwhile, looks like a storybook land of gourmet cheeses, cafes, and castles. So perhaps I can be forgiven by responding to one cartoon with another, as long as I admit that’s what I’m doing. It’s fun telling people who think I need body armor in the Levant that Paris is the Beirut of Europe.

Boring Partisans

From the Wall Street Journal:

Some producers say they are weary of the bickering between the left and right, each parroting talking points emailed from party headquarters. Most news-talk shows have pundits representing only “the four poles — Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives,” says CNN’s Mr. Bohrman. He has an Internet reporter “scouring the blogs,” partly to look for non-partisans who can articulate the middle ground in an engaging way. He says he’d love to find the great American “centrist pundit.”

Producers aren’t the only ones bored with the format. How about hiring lots of centrist pundits? In Oregon, where I live, registered Independents outnumber both Democrats and Republicans. Some of us who still haven’t bothered to re-register as Independents are also basically centrists.

Scouring the blogs is a good call for producers who have finally figured out that Hannity and Colmes, the now defunct Crossfire, etc., bore the bejeezus out of people who aren’t reactionaries or hacks. Here are a few places to start. Half of them have been on TV already. Put them on more often!

Ann Althouse

Andrew Sullivan

Jeff Jarvis

Matt Welch

Armed Liberal

Megan McArdle

Dean Esmay

Storm Chasing

My camera takes pictures of lightning. So when a storm rolled in at night across the Navajo Nation reservation in Arizona, I hopped in my car and set up some shots.

First thing I did was park in the lot next to a gas station with a wide-open view facing the incoming storm. I placed the camera on the dashboard, turned on the windshield wipers, set the shutter speed to 25 seconds, and hoped for the best.

Lightning Experiment Grainy.jpg

It didn’t work out. No lightning struck while the shutter was open, and the exposure was too grainy. I lowered the ISO and tried again.

Lightning Experiment Smooth.jpg

The second exposure turned out much clearer. The graininess went away. Once again, though, all the lightning bolts struck while I set up the shot. The shutter was open during another 25-second lull.

Too much of the frame included the parking lot and the dashboard. I also didn’t feel like having a McDonald’s in all my shots. So I zoomed out the lens and started again.

Lightning Experiment Zoom 1.jpg

This time lightning did strike in front of the lens, in the distance, while the shutter was open. But there was too much ambient light in the town. The picture was overexposed. Believe it or not, it was midnight and dark. I needed to drive into the desert where the only light was the lightning.

I drove toward the storm and into the night. The rain picked up, so I turned the windshield wipers to fast. Flashes and bolts lit up the sage brush and the mud through gray streaks of rain. Thunder rolled across the desert like a box of apples dumped onto hardwood.

Rain drops flew, not fell, straight at the windshield even though I didn’t drive faster than 30 miles an hour. Eventually I found a turnout and pulled off the road. I shut off the car and the lights and proppped the camera up on the dashboard, again with the shutter held open for 25 seconds. Darkness was absolute. Only lightning and incoming traffic would register on the lens.

Lightning Hill 1.jpg

The first shot didn’t work. I was able to capture some lightning inside a cloud, but it was not very dramatic. The car that whoosed past in the rain looked more interesting, and I didn’t go storm chasing to get pictures like that.

So I tried again.

Lightning Hill 2.jpg

Better! Finally a bolt of lightning showed up. But again I got a picture of traffic. And the lightning was weak.

Once more I opened the shutter.

Lightning Hill 3.jpg

And hey hey, I finally got what I wanted — a clear shot of lightning in absolute darkness. (It looks like whoever lived in that house on the hill was having a pretty rough night.)

I decided to drive deeper into the storm. Why not? Now that I had a decent shot I wanted a dramatic shot.

Lightning Closer Blurry.jpg

It’s hard to focus a camera in absolute darkness. The auto-focus won’t work, and you can’t do it manually if you can’t see. So I zoomed out the focus a bit and hoped it would work.

Lightning Closer Better.jpg

Success! The photo isn’t dramatic, but at least it is clear.

I set up the shot again. Just as I opened the shutter a terrific bolt of lightning zotted the hell out of the landscape right in front of me. The crack of the thunder was instantaneous.

Lightning Closer Great.jpg

Woo hoo, that’s what I wanted.

And that’s when I got stupid. I should have stopped there, content with capturing a brilliant tree of lightning from a safe distance. But no. I just had to drive toward it.

The rain picked up, of course. The maximum safe driving speed dropped to 20 miles an hour. There were no more cars on the road. It was just me, the darkness, the lightning, and the rain.

I found another pullout a mile or so away, stopped the car and set up a shot.

New Spot Lightning 1.jpg

Success. The lightning was closer than ever, but dim. The rain became so heavy and thick the horizon nearly vanished completely. I’m amazed the windshield wipers worked well enough that you can’t see any water on the glass. That didn’t last long, though.

New Spot Lightning 2.jpg

Because then the deluge came. Lightning exploded all around, frightfully close. It was bright enough to illuminate the landscape in total darkness, but through dense enough buckets of rain that the bolts no longer registered. I screwed up and got too close to the storm.

New Spot Lightning 3.jpg

I was right in it. This was the worst rain I have ever seen anywhere. Through the windshield it looked like my car was parked in a car wash or beneath a waterfall. This wasn’t rain. The clouds poured a lake onto the ground.

New Spot Lightning 4.jpg

The car violently shook. It felt like the wheels were about to come off the ground. What the hell? Did I park my car in a low spot!? We were on flash flood warning for the rest of the night. Did water just crash into the side of my car? I couldn’t tell. It was too frakking dark. Maybe the wind reached 100 miles an hour. Whatever it was, it was bad. I fumbled for the camera, foolishly trying to photograph what couldn’t be photographed.

“Put that camera down and get out of here!” I actually yelled this out loud to myself.

I started the car, turned on the headlights, and inched slightly forward. Apparently I wasn’t completely flooded out since the car moved okay, though at least several inches of water rushed down the road in a shallow river.

Visibility was just about zero. Maximum speed to avoid driving off the side of the road: 5 miles an hour. I expected literally at any moment to drive right into a gushing flash flood at any dip in the road, which there was no way I could see until I was already in it. But what could I do other than slowly inch back to town? Wait for the monsoon to blow my car into the flooded out sagebrush?

Actually, I would have been safer if I had just waited it out. The odds of being flooded are obviously higher if you cover two miles of ground instead of only ten feet. And the wind was just as dangerous wherever I was. But fight-or-flight had kicked in. And since there’s no way to fight a storm, I fled.

I fled at five miles an hour. It took ages to get back to town at that speed. And it was white knuckle time all the way. I passed one driver, hazard lights flashing, who drove off the road and into the brush. There was no way to tell if it was because he was driving too fast or if he just panicked. But he was parked, so it looked as though he had panicked.

The rain let up and became a normal deluge by the time I reached town and parked again at the Holiday Inn. Walking thirty feet from my parking space to the door soaked me to the skin, but at least I could see more than ten feet in front of my face. The sky was no longer a waterfall.

I laughed and felt like a fool. The problem with chasing serious storms is that if you succeed, you’re in trouble, like a dog who succeeds in catching a moving car’s bumper in his mouth.

Post-script: I’m going back to the Middle East soon enough, and I’m going to a seriously dodgy part of the region. For now, though, I need a break. So please continue to indulge me for a few more days while I write about something a little more fun and less stressful.

Things Could Be a Lot Worse…

In response to some of the obnoxious kvetching in the comments yesterday beneath what was perhaps my only domestic politics post in all of 2006, Double-Plus-Ungood (a Canadian) wrote in the comments:

To a foreigner, [Democrats and Republicans are] practically identical to begin with. Most nation’s political landscapes are diverse, from fascists to marxists on the ballot.

Heh, no kidding.

If you sincerely believe American politics is extreme or even diverse, just look at Lebanon’s ballot. That thing is all kinds of crazy. You get Baath-aligned Christians, socialist Druze, libertarian Sunni, terrorist Shia, and literally everything under the sun in between ranging from eminently reasonable democratic liberals to totally unhinged political maniacs. The American system is a Borg cube by comparison.

Think we live in a total surveillance police state? Go to Libya! Ask someone in a crowded room what he or she thinks of Colonel Qaddafi. Watch him or her twitch. Then ask the same person in private. Listen to what they say about being hauled off to prison at midnight. Compare and contrast with America.

If you think Birkenstock-clad leftists in the cafés of Berkeley are soft on the terrorists, try listening to what gets said in the cafés of Cairo.

These are some of my points of reference. How could it be otherwise? I’ve spent more time in the Middle East in the past twelve months than I’ve spent in America.

American politics is just so bizarre to me now. The general consensus excluding the far-left and the far-right is almost total. Makes me think of the Leave it to Beaver era. But if you read the comment threads on LGF or Kos it looks like we’re heading toward civil war.

This is the fifth reason (I cited four yesterday) why I prefer to write about other things.

Up next, a far less acrimonious subject — storm chasing in Arizona (with photos, of course).

Obligatory November Election Post – UPDATED

I pretty much agree with Glenn Reynolds: The Republicans deserve to lose, but the Democrats don’t deserve to win. What’s a dead-center guy like me supposed to do when neither of our sorry political parties are worth putting or keeping in office?

In my case I can make it easy on myself and fall back on my default option, the Democrats. I could make it difficult by painstakingly figuring out which party sucks slightly less, but I won’t. The default option it is. I’m voting straight Democrat next month. The Republicans are in charge of all branches of government. And if neither party deserves to be in charge then they can cancel each other out. Enjoy the coming stalemate, boys and girls of the Congress. You’ve earned it.

My liberal friends will be happy to know I’m voting for their party. My conservative friends will be happy to know I’m doing it without enthusiasm.

UPDATE: P.J. O’Rourke flays the GOP alive at the Weekly Standard.

UPDATE: A handful of people in the comments have decided to write me off because I’m not going to vote for their party next month. I fail to see why this makes any difference since this is not a domestic politics blog. But whatever. It isn’t my problem.

I’m a moderate and a centrist. That means I get flak from both sides. The upside is that I can vote for either party whenever I feel like it without any sense of obligation or betrayal. If the Democrats controlled the entire government right now I would probably vote for Republicans. If Nancy Pelosi lived in my district I would almost certainly vote for her opponent. If I were a Democratic Congressman I would absolutely choose Harold Ford (D-Tennessee) over her as the party leader. But I can’t do these things. They are not options. My local Democratic candidates are reasonable and deserve to be re-elected. They’ll win, too, because they get support from local Republicans as well as from Democrats and Independents.

Anyway, there are plenty of partisan right-wing blogs around if that’s what you require. I don’t know of many partisan right-wing bloggers who plan to visit Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Algeria any time soon, though.

UPDATE: Armed Liberal says both the Democrats and the Republicans deserve to lose. Indeed, they both do. And the only way both can lose is if neither controls all three branches of government.

To Mesa Verde

I told Jean I was driving from Washington DC to Santa Barbara, California, to pick up Sean LaFreniere “on my way” home to Portland. She said I absolutely must stop at Mesa Verde in Colorado and see the cliffside towns of the Anasazi. So I cut across Kansas at the right angle to bypass Denver and entered Colorado in the south.

The first third of Colorado looks little different from Kansas.

Driving Colorado Plains.jpg

The plains are so big and so wide it’s hard to believe they’re even real. There’s something almost otherwordly about them.

House on Plains Colorado.jpg

I wanted to pull over the car and walk. Just keep walking until I was so far out that I could see neither road, nor tree, nor house, nor telephone pole. Just slightly rolling ground in every direction. How beautifully eerie a view like that must be. Someday I’ll do it in one of the national grasslands.

Every once in a while I found a lone tree. All just begged to be photographed.

Lone Tree Colorado.jpg

The Western-style ghost towns came before the mountains.

Ghost Houses Colorado.jpg

Right next to the 19th century ghost homes was a 1950s ghost gas station.

Ghost Gas Station Colorado.jpg

In front of the ghost gas station was a ghost car from about the same era. The whole American West (excluding the coast) is full of such things. The history of the place and its people are laid bare for all to see.

Ghost Car Colorado.jpg

The mountains don’t rise all of sudden from the Great Plains. First there are little bits of microtopography.

Microgeography Colorado.jpg

Then the moutains rise above the microtopography.

Colorado Mountains from Plains.jpg

For a brief transitional period the mountains and the plains exist side by side. I can see why Colorado’s major cities are in the eastern flat part of the state. Denver is the “This is Far Enough!” city. It must have taken a special kind of person to cross thousands of miles of plains in a covered wagon and want to continue after looking up at the imposing wall of the front range.

Mountains and Cows Colorado.jpg

I have only spent a few days total, altogether, in Colorado. But after spending some time in the eastern and central part of America, Colorado felt like my home. I was back in the world I grew up in and know.

Driving Colorado Backdrop.jpg

I made it just in time to see the Fall colors. I love how the deciduous trees change while the evergreens don’t.

Colorado Valley Fall.jpg

The contrast is so dramatic.

Road From Above Colorado.jpg

The Roman Empire labeled Lebanon’s Bekka Valley the “Land of Milk and Honey.” I’ve always thought the Willamette Valley in Oregon could be called that as well. That lovely turned phrase could also describe parts of Colorado.

Barn Colorado.jpg

Other parts are much drier. But those explosive Fall colors followed me everywhere.

Brown Mountains Orange Trees Colorado.jpg

In the south-central part of the state is an enormous pile of sand dunes. I took a brief detour to look at them and passed one of the West’s UFO nuts on the side of the road. I get a kick out of these goofballs in the mountains. You just know this guy has tried at least once to be a caller on the Art Bell show.

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From a distance the dunes look half as tall as the mountains.

Dunes from Distance Colorado.jpg

Up close they look like mountains.

Dunes Up Close Colorado.jpg

Towering Dunes Colorado.jpg

The weather turned on me as I approached Mesa Verde in the southwestern corner of Colorado.

Mesa Verde Distance Rain.jpg

This was the home of the Anasazi Indians in their cliffside dwellings up in the sky.

On Mesa Verde.jpg

Here is one of their towns. We have so few ruins in the United States I often forget we have any.

Mesa Verde Cliff Ruins.jpg

But we do.

Mesa Verde Cliff Ruins Rangers.jpg

I wanted to get to Arizona before the sun set. But I made a wrong turn and ended up driving into New Mexico. I only drove maybe fifty feet inside the state. I had never been there before, and I only stayed for two minutes. But I’ve technically been to New Mexico now. This is what I saw. It is all that I saw. Funnily enough, it looked exactly like I thought it should look.

New Mexico Corner.jpg

And it wasn’t until I saw the “Entering New Mexico” sign that I saw any topography that looked anything like this. The border seemed to start in just the right place.

I backtracked for twenty minutes and entered Arizone at the Four Corners monument, the geographic place where Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona converge. So, okay, I lied. I did go back to New Mexico. One half of one of my feet returned to the state.

Four Corners.jpg

“Darfur is Rwanda in Slow Motion”

I discuss genocide in Africa and the possibility of civil war in Lebanon with Austin Bay and Gerard Van der Leun in a podcast show at Pajamas Media.

Across the Great Plains

There is no more boring a drive in the world than cruising for hundreds of miles on an Interstate freeway in the Midwest. These roads are bad enough in the West where there’s at least topography off in the distance. But a Midwestern Interstate is nothing but a chore.

Illinois Cornfield 1.jpg

Midwestern back roads can be pleasant and even charming in a Norman Rockwell sort of way. I did get off the freeway in Illinois for a few minutes just to get a little variety.

Illinois Grassfield.jpg

But I wanted to get from Chicago to the Rockies in a reasonable amount of time. So for the most part I hurtled down Illinois and across Missouri just slightly faster than safety and the law would allow, yearning to drive through small town Middle America, hang out with ma and pa at the diners, and photograph the Fall colors.

Missouri Interstate.jpg

The only time I got out of the car in Illinois was at a random Starbucks with wi-fi in a small town that I can’t remember the name of. The only time I got out of the car in Missouri was just outside Columbia where I slept at a trucker motel at one of the junky corporate asteroid belts around an off ramp.

I have no doubt Missouri has something to offer. Every state does. There has to be a cool blues bar in St. Louis that would have kept me better entertained than the cookie cutter Denny’s where I had breakfast at sunrise.

Missouri Offramp Sunrise.jpg

The St. Louis arch, at least, would be worth looking at for a minute. But I didn’t have time for any of that. Pavement, trees, cornfields, traffic and suburban/Interstate smarm was all I had time for in Missouri.

By the time I reached Kansas I was getting a little bit twitchy.

Kansas City from Interstate.jpg

Kansas is a l-o-n-g state.

Kansas Interstate.jpg

Even once I reached Colorado I would still be out in the flatlands for one-third of the way to Utah. So I took the Parkway to Emporia and got the hell off and onto the back roads.

Emporia isn’t exciting. But at least it’s actually Kansas.

Emporia Kansas.jpg

An Interstate freeway is nowhere in particular. There’s no there there, as the old saying goes.

The thing about Kansas is that it’s actually a little bit interesting once you can see it. It’s tranquil, somewhat endearing in places, and at least seemingly innocent. Dorothy’s lament that “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” has a certain resonance and heft to it when you’re actually in the safe and secure environment the girl longed for when she found herself all of a sudden in Oz.

Kansas Creek.jpg

Kansas Field and Shed.jpg

Barbed Wire Kansas.jpg

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But there’s a dark side to Kansas, as well. The state is (just) barely growing in population. But rural Kansas is hemorrhaging people.

You can see it from the road. I found a ghost house so old it’s a ruin.

Kansas Ruins.jpg

And right next to it, perhaps fifty feet to the right, was a ghost house from a more recent era.

Kansas Ghost House.jpg

Down the road from the ghost homes is an old stone bridge on a ghost road that no longer exists. It ends in somebody’s field.

Stone Bridge Kansas.jpg

Some of the people who live in ghost towns to-be feel the ominous dread of looming collapse and depopulation. So they will give you free land. That’s right. It’s free land homesteading all over again. All you have to do is build a house on the land. If you like living in the middle of nowhere, if you don’t mind harsh weather and a lack of topography, and you’re looking for the cheapest deal in the country, Kansas just might be your place. Go to Kansasfreeland.com and take a look.

I pulled the car off the highway and drove into downtown Peabody when I saw a sign that pointed to a 19th century Main Street. I found it after driving past some lovely Victorian homes, some of which look perfectly homey, others which look like they’re starting the death spiral already. The rot in the house below is further along that it appears in the photo.

Victorian Kansas.jpg

Downtown could have been nice. It did have the Main Street layout, which is infinitely preferable to Taco Bells and Wal-Marts surrounded by parking lagoons.

Peabody Kansas.jpg

But vibrant is not how I would describe it. Even in the middle of October, it was, weirdly, 95 degrees and humid outside. Hot cloying air blew in from the south. Empty old buildings, stripped of their former grandeur, leaned and moaned in the wind.

Boarded Windows Kansas.jpg

The only resident I saw on the streets was an old man well into his seventies. He did a double-take when he saw me pull up alongside him with my sports car and sunglasses. Obviously I was not from around there. But it wasn’t just that. It seemed (and I’m sure I exagerrated this in my mind) that he was shocked to see another living human being in an outdoor museum piece.

Sure enough, Peabody is one of those towns that will give you or anyone else some free land. They desperately need people. Here is the application for a free lot. If you’re 25 and want to have kids you’re most likely a shoo-in.

They say the three most important considerations when purchasing real estate are location, location, and location. The middle of Kansas sucks at all three. There is nothing wrong with the land. It’s quite pretty in many places, and in the eastern half of the state it is perfect for growing crops.

It’s just too far away from everything else.

I didn’t see any part of Kansas that was completely abandoned. It’s not like the Nevada desert where no one lives for swaths of acreage larger than Belgium. There were always some people around pretty much everywhere. It’s just that the density is so painfully low. Distances between places are enormous, and it’s lonely wherever go you.

The roads are so long and lonely I got to thinking some rather strange thoughts. Why not carve up parts of Kansas into cantons? Let the stateless Palestinians have one of them. Let the Kurds from eastern Turkey move into another one if they want. How about letting poor Mexican laborers in on the homesteading action? Let them come and build their own farms in the state if they want to.

None of these things will ever happen, of course, and I’m not actually serious. (Except, perhaps, for the Mexican homesteading. Why the heck not? It’s a lot less crazy than moving Gaza to Middle America. And Mexicans keep coming here anyway.) I just kept thinking: krikey! There’s a lot of good land out in Kansas that is not being used. And there is nothing physically wrong with it. If Kansas can’t give it away for free to other Americans, surely there is someone in the world who would want it.

Geographically speaking, the Midwest ends (or begins) at the Rockies. Culturally, that isn’t the case. Culturally, the West begins (or ends) at the tree line.

The Rocky Mountains cast a rain shadow hundreds of miles into the Great Plains, deep into Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Trees will not grow by themselves. Instead of National Forests, there are National Grasslands. The region is a semi-arid sort-of desert, eerily flat to the horizon like you’re adrift on an ocean of land. Only occasionally will you find the barest suggestion of hills.

This part of the country is not good for farming. You can’t just plant crops. You have to irrigate. Water is scarce and expensive. So it makes more sense to ranch than to farm. The John Deere culture of the rural Midwest gives way to the cowboy culture of cattle.

Ranch Kansas.jpg

Diners give way to saloons. Fall colors in October give way to cacti struggling in the grass.

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There is oil in the transition zone. Not a lot of it, but some, certainly more than you’ll find around the Great Lakes.

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You know what you can “farm” in the great plains, though, without water? You can “farm” wind. The biggest wind farm I’ve ever seen is in Kansas. Kansas, for a brief stetch of road, looked futuristic.

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It’s weird and eerily beautiful when the trees vanish and you can see horizon to horizon in every direction without any obstruction. You can watch the sun go down over land. It doesn’t set behind mountains or hills. It sets behind utterly flat ground miles and miles away.

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My camera works in the dark, so I kept taking pictures after the light went out in the sky.

It’s easy to snap pictures at dusk.

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My headlights are good enough, too.

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Other places in the back-of-beyond are lit up at night.

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Other parts of Kansas are lit only by starlight. Starlight is still, just barely, enough for my camera. Below is what the Great Plains look like at midnight.

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Blogosphere Dispatches Now Available Through Amazon

The three little books Adam Bellow and I just published (details here) now ship from Amazon.

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Come on, you know you want these. Know what they’re perfect for? You can give them to all your friends for Christmas who don’t get the blogosphere and think it’s just a bunch of geeks with Web pages who can’t, or won’t, write anything real.

North to Chicago

I’m not physically capable of driving anywhere near Chicago without driving into it. I just can’t bring myself to depress the accelerator and keep going past, even if the city is 500 miles to the north. Those of you on the coasts who have never been there have no idea. Unless you live in New York, Chicago is better than your city. Sorry, that’s just how it is.

So I was in Louisville, Kentucky. Right across the river from downtown is Indiana — not an exciting state, but some of Chicago’s suburbs (the grim ones that Chicago doesn’t want anyway) spill over into it. By my way of thinking I was already right next to Chicago! So I crossed the river, formally left the South, and entered what is technically and geographically the Midwest.

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Indiana may be physically in the North, but it is kind of, culturally, a Southern state. Internal migration patterns long ago brought Southerners north into the plains. So you’ll hear lots of Southern accents in South Indiana, even though the state is ostensibly Northern and Midwestern. This partly explains, perhaps, why Indiana is a conservative “red state” while other Midwestern states on the Great Lakes are more liberal, “blue,” and Democratic.

I found evidence of Indiana’s unofficial Southernness even at a rest stop on the Interstate. Three flags flew from the pole: the American flag, the state flag, and the Vietnam “Prisoners of War” banner that I otherwise saw only in Southern states (and also in Missouri which, like Indiana, is sort of Northern and also sort of Southern.)

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There isn’t much to see from the Interstate. Just pavement, trees, and traffic, the same as on just about every other Interstate freeway in the eastern part of the country.

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Because Indiana is the Midwest, though, (sort of) there also were wheat and corn fields.

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The freeway took me through Indianapolis. I’ve heard the city is nicer than it used to be. Lots of American cities are nicer than they used to be now. So I was slightly curious about what kind of urban renewal has taken place.

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But I didn’t stop. Indianapolis can’t compete with Chicago for my time and attention. Sorry Indiana! It’s nothing personal.

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They say every state in America has a city names Springfield. (Does that include Hawaii? Somehow I doubt it.) You know what else pretty much every state has? Every state, or so it appears, has a small town somewhere named Lebanon.

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I don’t know what’s up with that. There are more Lebanese in America than there are in Lebanon. There are more Lebanese in Brazil than there are in Lebanon. Lebanese, as the Perpetual Refugee used to put it, are masters of voyage. Like Indians and Chinese, they’re pretty much everywhere. But they’re urban, for the most part. They are traders and businessmen and restauranteurs. They didn’t move to America to get into farming. So I suspect all of America’s Lebanons were named thusly because Lebanon is a Biblical place. (Jesus turned water into wine at Israel’s favorite target village of Qana.) I doubt you’ll find many Lebanese-Americans in America’s little Lebanons.

Below is a picture of Lebanon, Indiana. It isn’t exactly Beirut when it comes to fun, exotic, and charming. But hey, at least no Hezbollah!

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Like I said, Indians are pretty much everywhere. The guy who owns the gas station (complete with a bail bonds office in back) spoke English with an Indian accent. All the other customers in the store spoke English with a Southern rather than the flat Midwestern accent. How weird is it that an Indian moves to small-town America and helps bail out the local yokels who find themselves in the clink?

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You won’t find Lebanese (I don’t think) in Lebanon, Indiana. But you will find at least some in Northern Indiana on the shore of Lake Michigan.

I stopped to pick up Charles Malik (formerly known as Lebanon.Profile at the Lebanese Political Journal) who is temporarily staying at his parents’ house in Chicago’s eastern suburbs. He was more or less driven out of Beirut during Israel’s war against Hezbollah. He’s marooned there for the time being until he figures out what to do next, stuck in one of Indiana’s nicer ‘burbs with no social life and a gigantic phone bill. Poor Charles. You can see the faint skyline of Chicago from the deck of his house.

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But he does not own a car. So the city of fun and light is close enough to see but just far enough away to be unreachable. So I picked his refugee ass up and took him to town.

He, or least his parents, lives in a nice place, though, right on the lake next to the beach and some sand dunes.

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Most of Northern Indiana in the region next to Chicago is industial. But Indiana has some nice beaches, too. If you squint you can pretend you’re on actual coastline.

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Charles made fun of his mother in the kitchen and said “Leave it to an Arab to move to Indiana and buy a house on top of the only sand dunes in the Midwest.” (Nevermind that there aren’t any sand dunes in Lebanon.) He also made fun of his mother (behind her back) for her large signed portraits of Senator Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) and George W. Bush (R-America). “Just like a Middle Easterner, hanging up portraits of the Leader in the living room.”)

His mother may be American. But she also is Lebanese. Old world habits die hard — she kept pushing food on me. She insisted we stay for dinner and gave me a five-pound bag of pastries, apples, and pomegranite juice to take with me in the car as I drove west toward home.

Charles and I did not stay for dinner. We piled into the car and took the Chicago Skyway into the heart of the city, which is great fun to drive on if there isn’t very much traffic. You soar over the lake and the city below in the plains. And when you enter Chicago from Indiana the sign says “Welcome to Chicago.” Not “Welcome to Illinois.” Welcome to Chicago. Greater Chicago, or “Chicagoland” as the locals like to call it, is practically a city-state unto itself, a spectacular cosmopolitan megalopolis that only accidentally happens to exist in the Midwest surrounded by farmers and cornfields.

He took me out to dinner at a restaurant called Avec near the Greek neighborhoods just west of downtown. We ate duck, pork shoulder, and dates stuffed with sausage. (The last may sound bizarre, but it was fanstastic.)

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Avec is one of those restaurants where everyone sits together, which encourages socialization at dinner with strangers.

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Then we drove downtown at night and walked around so I could take night shots of the city. You see that building pictured below, the one with the top that’s shaped like a diamond? Although you can’t make it out in the photo, the words “Think Pink” were lit up inside. The diamond, you see, represents a vagina, supposedly as a counterweight to the hundreds of “phallic” skyscrapers that make up the city.

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Chicago is truly an architectural wonderland, possibly the most aesthetically spectacular skyscraper city on Earth.

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I could spend a week photographing the city and never get bored.

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We later ended up at a bar in the bohemian Wicker Park neighborhood. I like Wicker Park. It reminds me of the fun hipster neighborhoods of Portland and Seattle.

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Later that night a storm blew over the lake. Here’s what it looked like on the south shore along Indiana, lightning on the right and the lights of Chicago on the left.

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Home Again

It’s hard to drive all across the country by yourself (in a reasonable amount of time) and blog while doing so. I didn’t get to write much, or even post many pictures, if I wanted to get home before November. But I’m home again now and I have more than a thousand pictures of America from East to West and North to South. I won’t post that many, of course, but I’ll post some.

In the meantime, while I put together a gallery and some commentary from the Midwest, here’s an email I got from one of my neighbors in Oregon who can relate to some of what I wrote about earlier.

Last April wife and I spent three weeks in Atlanta visiting one of our daughters and her family. We flew from Oregon to Atlanta. While there we rented a car and drove to Williamsburg, Virginia to visit other family members. We drove, thinking we would be able to see some country.

All we saw in the six hundred plus miles from Atlanta to Williamsburg was a tree lined freeway. Pavement and trees. We drove up on Interstate 75 and back on Interstate 85. Nothing but trees and pavement, just like the photograph you included of a freeway in Kentucky.

On another trip to Atlanta we drove to Charleston, S.C., from there to Savannah, and back to Atlanta. On the way back we stopped in Dublin, Georgia for lunch. Ate in a little storefront restaurant that obviously catered to a clientele other than the aristocracy. Ma Hawkins Cafe.

Friendly little old lady waited on us. She recognized that our accent wasn’t local, and asked where we were from. “Oregon”, we said. She got a blank look on her face and I asked her if she knew where Oregon is. She didn’t. I then asked if she knew where California is and she did. I told her that Oregon is just north of California. Her response “I hope you’re not as crazy as those Californians.”

More soon.

Dispatches from the Front Now in Print

The first project Doubleday editor Adam Bellow and I worked on together is finished. (The second will take a lot longer.) I told you the project isn’t a book. And it isn’t. But we are releasing something in print. Three things, actually. Pamphlets!

The first is a collection of essays written by me, here on the blog and elsewhere, filed from Lebanon and Israel before and during the war.

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Included is an article about my personal experience with Hezbollah that first appeared in the LA Weekly. But this is not the same version. It’s the Director’s Cut — longer, more detailed, better written, and more damning of Hezbollah than the shorter version you may have already read. The remaining pieces are published more or less as they originally appeared, but they are all collected in one place for the first time.

The second pamphlet is a collection of essays written by Lebanese and Israeli bloggers during the latest round of hostilities. This is the best of the Lebanese blogosphere and the best of the Israeli blogosphere at a time when each group of writers mattered more than ever before.

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I didn’t write this one. I edited it. And rather than summarize and explain what I hoped to accomplish, I’ll publish the short introduction.

- – -

Introduction

by Michael J. Totten

Israel’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon may be the most-blogged war in history.

Until now the most-blogged war was the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Thousands of self-styled “war bloggers” in the United States covered, if that is the word, the conflict from a distance. A handful of Iraqis started their own blogs in English. But blogosphere coverage of the Iraq war was overwhelmingly American and overwhelmingly written by people who were thousands of miles away from the fighting.

This time it’s different.

Israel and Lebanon are both sophisticated and well-educated countries. Each already had a large pre-existing national blogosphere of its own. Israeli bloggers and Lebanese bloggers were, for the most part, already aware of each other. Many had developed a friendly sort of rapport before hostilities broke out. Then civilians in both countries were swept up in the fighting, were traumatized, were wounded, were killed. This war wasn’t being fought far off in a distant land they could only dream of ever seeing. It was fought in their very own neighborhoods.

Foreign correspondent Michael Yon was once asked why he files combat dispatches from Iraq written in the first-person. He said everything in the Middle East is first-person. He’s right. And that’s especially true when you’re being shot at.

This pamphlet is a selection of short personal essays from the Lebanese and Israeli blogospheres that tell the story of a war one person at a time. Everything is personal. Everyone is biased. Many of these pieces are shot through with fear, depression, and rage. War does that to people. They don’t say it’s hell for no reason.

There are small glimmers of beauty and hope in these pages, too. Lebanese and Israelis still talked to each other throughout the war. Sometimes the talk was even civil and friendly. Not everyone surrenders to hatred during war, even in the Middle East.

Most of all what I wanted to capture here is the human dimension. Most Lebanese and Israelis have never met a single person from the other country. Yet they have more in common with each other than most of them know. I know because I have been to both countries, and I lived for a while in Lebanon. Israel and Lebanon are beautiful and intoxicating places, in my opinion the two best countries by far in the Middle East.

Some of the people on each side of the line who are featured here are my friends. A few of them met each other online, in the blogosphere, before this got started. A smaller number kept lines of communication open even while rockets and bombs exploded in their cities. They meet again in this collection. I sincerely hope — and I know at least some of them feel the same way — that they can one day meet in the real world, in more peaceful and less “interesting” times.

Michael J. Totten

Portland, Oregon

- – -

The third pamphlet is a collection of speeches and writings by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, edited by Stephen Schwartz.

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You can buy one for four dollars or the whole set for ten dollars. Please help support us! No one else is publishing the best of the blogosphere in print, and it’s about time somebody did.

To Louisville, Kentucky

It’s not much fun driving across America on one Interstate freeway after another. So when I got past Knoxville, Tennessee, and turned north toward Chicago I took some of the back roads instead. I had never been to the South, and I wanted to see it.

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Tennessee is a beautiful state, and you can hardly see any of it from the freeway.

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This place must be incomparably beautiful in the Fall. I barely missed the changing colors.

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Some of the leaves were just starting to turn as I drove past.

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Most of Tennessee’s topography is mild compared to that in the West, but it’s still rugged enough to be interesting.

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Once again, the weather shifted as I crossed a state line. First the clouds thickened up.

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Then the clouds became solid.

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I took a smaller road off the main highway to get deeper into the woods.

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Here is the Daniel Boone National Forest in Southern Kentucky.

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You can’t tell, but it was raining when I took this picture.

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There were occasional clusters of trees that all started changing their colors at once.

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I saw more election posters in Kentucky than in any other state so far.

One billboard promoted someone for the county jailer. I loved that strong word and could almost hear the door slam: Jailer. Kentucky does not mess around with its criminals.

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If I wanted to get to Louisville before 2:00 in the morning, I would need to get back on a major highway. So I drove onto the parkway going west across the southern part of the state. I had the whole thing to myself even though it was Saturday. That part of Kentucky is not densely populated.

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I saw occasional oncoming traffic, but for the most part I owned the road.

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The Interstate leading into downtown was closed. So I had to get off and drive on surface roads through the city to reach the center. I didn’t know it at the time, but Louisville (apparently) has the largest intact Victorian neighborhood in America. The entire inner city south of downtown is packed with block after block after block of perfectly preserved 18th century houses.

(It was dark when I arrived, and I went back and took these pictures after I woke up the next morning.)

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Somehow Kentucky garnered a reputation for being a trashy state where cars can be found up on cinder blocks and everything from used tires to refrigerators are strewn across people’s front lawns. The second photo in this Onion spoof article pretty much sums it all up.

If I lived in Kentucky I would be pissed off at how my state is perceived on the outside. I didn’t see anything trashy, anywhere, and instead found Kentucky to be a beautiful, clean, tasteful, and dignified place. (Maybe I didn’t see the “right” parts.)

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I suppose every region of America is unfairly stereotyped by people who live in other parts of the country. I wondered how Oregonians are thought of in Kentucky. Are we all lumberjacks? Hippies? Computer nerds?

I bought some road food (don’t ask) and an atlas of all 50 states at a Kentucky gas station. As I placed my items on the counter the old lady behind the cash register said, in a Southern accent, of course, “Looks like yer gettin’ some travelin’ fooooood.”

“Yep,” I said.

“Where ya goin?” she said.

“Oregon,” I said.

“Don’t know nuthin’ about it,” she said. “Don’t even know where that is.”

At first I thought she was kidding. Then I realized she wasn’t. She didn’t even know enough about Oregon to think we’re all a bunch of vegans or geeks. And so I felt slightly less bad about how her state is thought of by people in mine.

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An antique storefront in old Louisville.

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An old building in downtown Louisville. I took this picture while stopped at a red light, and I couldn’t tell you what it is. (Someone in the comments probably knows.)

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Louisville’s Jewish hospital surprised me for some reason.

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The city is famous for its Kentucky Derby. But the entire state is famous for, uh, southern-style fast food.

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Urban sprawl killed off far too many downtowns in American cities. Portland, Oregon, where I live, has reversed the hollowing out trend perhaps more than anywhere else in America. Louisville has not yet recovered. But it looked to me like the recovery was getting started. Fourth Street was hopping on Saturday night. A whole section of it was closed to automobile traffic so drunken pedestrians could jam up the streets while going bar- and club-hopping.

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Police officers cordoned the area off and checked IDs. You weren’t even allowed to walk on the street if you weren’t 21 years or older.

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A group of young women with an inflatable man insisted I take their photo as they played with the man’s inflatable “penis.” They all laughed when I snapped the picture.

“We’re gonna be in the pa-per,” the black woman said.

Better than that, girl, you’re on the Internet!

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Club-goers wait in line to get inside.

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Milling around in front of the Lucky Strike bowling alley.

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A Fourth Street bar, downtown Louisville.

From Washington to Knoxville

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After the Pajamas Media conference ended in Washington it was time to make my zigzagging way back to the West Coast — by ground. I bought a car out east, a 2002 Acura RSX. I can’t really afford one of these, but I managed to get one anyway because I bought it on eBay. I saved 7,000 or 8,000 dollars by buying on eBay because I got the cheapest one in the entire country. So I could afford one after all. And, hey, I get a road trip out of it too.

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(For those curious, no I did not just blindly buy a random car on the Internet. I hired a local mechanic to take a look at it for me and tell me whether I should do it or not.)

My first stop on the way home was Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to see newspaper editor and former guest-blogger of mine Callimachus. I was late getting to Cal’s house because the hotel in Washington held my laundry hostage for more than 36 hours, but I finally made it around midnight.

Cal and I sipped scotch on the back porch, bemoaned the sorry state of journalism and politics, talked shop, talked travel, and went to sleep around 4:00 am. He just about knocked me out of my chair when he told me you can buy one of these fine old houses in Lancaster for just 75,000 dollars.

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The next morning we had breakfast at a diner out in Amish country. Amish country diners are far indeed from the rarefied air of Manhattan. A sign taped to the door said “We do not have a non-smoking section!” Ha ha, I thought. Just like the Middle East. They smoke in hospitals and schools in the Middle East. Maybe they do out in Bumpkinville, Pennsylvania, as well.

I couldn’t stick around Amish country, though, much as I would have liked to. It was time to drive south and west. First stop: Knoxville, Tennessee, to see Glenn and Helen Reynolds.

Aside from some of the airports, I had never been to the South. Not once for any reason, not even briefly. It’s not because I avoided the South for some reason. I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

While driving in Maryland I felt a slight tingle of anticipation as I approached the Virginia border. There I would cross a line for the first time. Maryland and Virginia don’t have (or at least have not always had) the same kind of relationship with each other that, say, Oregon and California have. Oregon and California were never at war with each other. The southwest never tried to violently break from the northwest.

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In the modern era, though, I suspected Maryland and Virginia wouldn’t look different from each other at all. At least not from the Interstate. You can’t see much from the Interstate anyway. The same Shell stations and McDonalds grease pits clutter the exit ramps from Miami to Seattle.

It was irrational to expect everything, or even anything, to suddenly change once I crossed from the North to the South. I knew it, too. But as I drove toward the state line and toward the old Confederacy I also drove toward a storm.

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And I reached that storm the instant I reached Virginia.

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Rain spattered the windshield. The sky went almost black. Ferocious wind whipped leaves around in cyclonic patterns across the road. Traffic came to a stop. Welcome to Virginia.

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I got an occasional glimpse of what the Virginia countryside looked like. It’s lovely, I’m sure.

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But mostly what I saw in Virginia was the backs of the cars in front of me in bumper-to-bumper stalled traffic.

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At one point I thought I saw a small patch of snow. How could that be? Snow? In September? In the South? I figured it must have been something else.

Sure enough, though, a guy got out of his car in stalled traffic, ran to a snow patch, and made a snowball to throw at his friends.

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The rest of the trip to Knoxville was in the dark. I called Glenn to tell him I would be late, that we would have to meet the next day.

The picture below was my first real view of the South that was not from an airport or a car. It’s from the window of my hotel room in Knoxville at midnight.

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Here is Knoxville again in the cold light of dawn.

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The next day I met Glenn and Helen in their spacious new house. They have a special studio just for podcasting, and they use serious professional equipment. I didn’t go there to be interviewed, but I didn’t mind being interviewed either. So they plunked me down in a chair, stuck a gigantic microphone in my face, and prompted me to blab about the Middle East for half an hour. You can listen to the interview here if you’re so inclined.

Later Glenn took me to one of Knoxville’s microbreweries downtown. He likes to bring his law students here during class on occasion. They seem to be prefer that to the classroom.

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The next morning I toured downtown Knoxville myself on foot.

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I recognized the Downtown Bar and Grill because Glenn has posted photos of this place himself.

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Knoxville isn’t a big city, and it’s mostly pretty quiet. But it’s a pleasant enough place to spend a day.

Outdoor restaurants and cafes line the edges of Market Square.

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A band played live salsa music on the square itself.

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Since Knoxville is in the South I would have expected, oh I don’t know, a statue of a Confederate something-or-other in the middle of the city. Instead of a monument to anything old, dead, slave-holding, and male I found a memorial to women’s suffrage.

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Welcome to the New South.

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