Two Long-Stemmed English Roses

Penelope Pitt, Viscountess Ligonier, by Thomas Gainsborough

Penelope Pitt, Viscountess Ligonier, by Thomas Gainsborough

Since Valentine’s Day is coming, I thought I would honor the lovely British ladies commemorated in the galleries of San Marino’s Huntington Museum. By and large, they are tall, have velvety pale skin, and look formidable. The first is Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 portrait of Penelope Pitt, Viscountess Ligonier. The Viscountess had a scandalous life, according to the Huntington Museum:

While serving as envoy-extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Turin (1761-68), George Pitt enrolled Penelope and her sister in a convent in Lyons, France, to be educated. While there she became acquainted with Edward Ligonier, lieutenant colonel in the British army. On December 16, 1766 they were married in the chapel of the British Embassy in Paris. They returned to England, where, in April 1770, her husband became Viscount Ligonier on the death of his uncle, the great military war hero, John Ligonier. In November of that year, Lady Ligonier renewed a prior acquaintance with Vittorio Amadeo, Count Alfieri (1749-1803), a young Italian ensign who later gained fame as a tragic poet celebrating the overthrow of tyranny by champions of liberty. Lady Ligonier was a woman “who delighted only in extremes,” according to Alfieri, and their flirtation soon escalated into a passionate “frenzy,” until their “mutual imprudence attracted the attention of her husband.” After confessing to Lord Ligonier as well as Alfieri (who rescinded his offer of marriage on learning of her previous affair with her husband’s groom, John Harding), Lady Ligonier fled to Calais, France, with her sister-in-law, Frances (Ligonier) Balfour (1742-1813), who had abetted the affair. Her husband sued for divorce and the marriage was dissolved. Lady Ligonier afterwards spent much of her time in France, but occasionally returned to England. At Northampton on May 4, 1784 she married Private Smith, a trooper in the Royal Horse Guard Blues.

Lady Frances Courtenay, Painted by Thomas Hudson

Lady Frances Courtenay, Painted by Thomas Hudson

Unlike Lady Ligonier, Lady Frances Courtenay led a much more conventional life. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 40. If she had hung around for another year or two, she, too, would have been a viscountess. The above portrait was painted in 1746.

The Huntingon is full of portraits of stunning English women, usually of the nobility. These two particularly struck my eye and, uh, my own personal appetite.


The News: All Trump All the Time

In Whatever Direction You Turn, There He Is!

In Whatever Direction You Turn, There He Is!

Every time Trump is mentioned on the news, Martine either hits the mute button or turns the channel. The problem is: Donald J. Trump is everywhere. Whether one is watching ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, BBC, RT, or France 24, the news seems always to feature our lunatic president and his stumbling failures.

It’s not my problem, because I never watch the news—except on the Internet. And there I am in complete control of my news feed. I know that could be a problem, but no way am I going to watch Breitbart or Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly without shooting my cookies. I can generally tell right from wrong, and I know that everything our Trumpery president represents is very, very wrong.

So don’t worry. I won’t push Trump at you unless he really gets to me and makes my temperature rise. I really prefer to write about books, films, places, history—anything but the Cheeto Monster with his orange leer.

Where Smokey Bear Is King

Smokey Bear Museum Capitan

Smokey Bear Museum Capitan

Everybody knows the Smokey Bear of advertising, but do you know there was a real living Smokey Bear.According to Wikipedia:

The living symbol of Smokey Bear was an American black bear three-month-old cub who in the spring of 1950 was caught in the Capitan Gap fire, a wildfire that burned 17,000 acres (69 km2) in the Lincoln National Forest, in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. Smokey had climbed a tree to escape the blaze, but his paws and hind legs had been burned. According to some stories, he was rescued by a game warden after the fire, but according to the New Mexico State Forestry Division, it was actually a group of soldiers from Fort Bliss, Texas, who had come to help fight the fire, that discovered the bear cub and brought him back to the camp.

Originally called Hotfoot Teddy, his name was changed to Smokey and he became a living symbol, ensconced at the National Zoo in Washington until his death in 1976. His remains were returned to Capitan, New Mexico, where there was a museum and a funerary monument in his honor.

The museum is still there, as well as a Smokey Bear Motel and a Smokey Bear Restaurant. We visited in 2003, and plan to drop in again to pay our homage to Smokey. Martine has a special devotion to Smokey. She has a special 50th anniversary stuffed Smokey Bear, as well as a zipper pull. Our refrigerator has two Smokey Bear magnets.

This Sign Appears All Over the Southwest

This Warning Sign Appears All Over the Southwest

There is even an Idaho company called Woodland Enterprises, which Martine has visited and which sells Smokey Bear (and Woodsy Owl) memorabilia. We shop there annually for gifts.

So Capitan, New Mexico, you can expect us some time this summer.

Ganging Aft Agley

I Seem to Have Miscalculated...

I Seem to Have Miscalculated…

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled “From Chile Peppers to High Mountain Passes” in which I proposed  flying into El Paso, renting a car, driving in a more or less straight line without having to double back, and delivering the rental car in another city, say Denver or Salt Lake City.

But funny things happen when one doesn’t think things through. Can you imagine all the rental cars from an agency in Peoria disappearing down south and suddenly showing up in Miami or Houston or Chattanooga? How would the agency get the cars back? Would they ship them by rail or UPS or even truck? The cost would be prohibitive.

And the cost was prohibitive. Both Hertz and Enterprise would have charged an additional fee of over $1,500 for delivering the car to another city.

I immediately scrapped the idea and resolved instead to fly in and out of Albuquerque. To avoid doubling back, I would take a series of loops: For instance, I would drive to Chama to take the Cumbres & Tolec Railroad, Durango, Colorado, to take the Durango & Silverton, and return via Gallup and New Mexico Route 53 to see the El Morro National Monument, and on I-40, Acoma Pueblo, or “Sky City” on the way back to home base.

A second loop would take us south of Albuquerque to see Roswell, Capitan, and Alamagordo, with its great space museum.

The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, or something like that.

Maddeningly Fragmentary



One of the greatest poets of the ancient world was Sappho—the only woman, with a voice unmistakably feminine even though so little remains of her work. And everything that remains appears in Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2002).

I have read a number of Anne Carson’s translations from the Greek and love all of them, especially the four Euripidean tragedies collected in Grief Lessons. This is a very different book, four hundred pages of mostly white space. Only a single poem has come down to us in its entirety; as for the rest, we have nothing but fragments.

Yet even in those fragments, we have a soft feminine voice, one with occasionally lesbian nuances:

I would rather see her lovely step
and the motion of light on her face
than chariots of Lydians or ranks
of footsoldiers in arms.

In the following fragment, the lacunae are indicated by square brackets, yet the meaning still comes across:

]of desire
]for when I look at you
]such a Hermione
]and to yellowhaired Helen I liken you
]among mortal women, know this
]from every care
]you could release me
]dewy riverbanks
]to last all night long
]  [


]you will remember
]for we in our youth
did these things

yes many and beautiful things

Sometimes, all that Anne Carson has to work with in a single word or two, yet even then something comes across.

If Not, Winter is a quick read, but it leaves a strong impression.





The First Atomic Bomb Blast at the Trinity Site

The First Atomic Bomb Blast at the Trinity Site

I was born a few months before it all happened: On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was exploded at the north end of the Jornada del Muerto, that desolate extension of the Chihuahan Desert that forms the south central portion of New Mexico. This summer, I will be driving on U.S. 380 just north of the Trinity Site, which is open only two days a year. I’m surprised that it is open even that much given that there is still a lot of radioactivity lingering in the area.

According to Alan Boye in Tales from the Journey of the Dead: Ten Thousand Years on an American Desert (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), some 15,000 people in the vicinity died of cancer from the radioactivity, and some 20,000 people suffered non-fatal forms of cancer.

Trinitite Sample


Much of the area around the blast is covered with a green glass-like mineral called Trinitite, which in many cases still makes Geiger Counters tick, though samples for sale can be found in rock shops around the area.

When J. Robert Oppenheimer was interviewed about the blast, he quoted from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Now that power is in the hands of Donald J. Trump. Doesn’t that make you feel safe?

The OTHER El Camino Real

This Camino Real Was Nowhere Near the Ocean

This Camino Real Was Nowhere Near the Ocean

If you drive north on U.S. 101, you will see scads of quaint mission bell markers identifying it as El Camino Real—and so it was! But it was not the only one. There is another one, every bit as picturesque but far deadlier, through the heart of New Mexico. It is called El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, “The Royal Road to the Interior Lands.” These interior lands consisted primarily of the city of Santa Fe together with its constellation of pueblos.

Picture New Mexico as being divided into six roughly equal size vertical rectangles, three in the north and three in the south. The south central one is the northern reach of the Chihuahuan Desert, usually referred to as the Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of the Dead. The Chihuahuan Desert proper extends for 1,200 miles south to the Mexican State of Zacatecas. The rightmost two-thirds of the rectangle is occupied by the White Sands Missile Range.

The leftmost one-third of that rectangle includes the Rio Grande River, the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, and a lot of desolate, searing nothingness.

The Jornada del Muerto

The Jornada del Muerto

Martine and I will probably intersect the Jornada del Muerto from East to West as we travel along U.S. 380, right past where the first atomic bomb explosion occurred at the now (mostly) closed Trinity Site. We will be leaving Capitan, New Mexico, and heading northwest to Albuquerque, where we will stay for a few days.

I am now reading Alan Boye’s Tales from the Journey of the Dead: Ten Thousand Years of an American Desert (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), which examines the route along the Rio Grande to Mexico throughout history from Clovis and Folsom Man through to the Manhattan Project. In addition, the author describes his own jaunts through the Jornada today in an effort to give a feeling for the fierceness and beauty of the land.