A few clicks south along a gravel road and you’re there, a property serendipity or dumb luck or the Fates queued up for a look last Wednesday, just as I was giving up on the ridiculous Montgomery County, Va., housing market. Figured I would be renting indefinitely because who can spend all that time online sifting for leads, then schedule and go for a showing, only to find “pending” by the end of the day. Escalation clauses to 50k over asking. Same day cash offers. Waived inspections. But against the grain of improbabilities, then there’s one, and you only need one.

At 5.8 acres in an unincorporated part of the county, I thought it was a long shot. Right-priced. Low taxes. House plus a small guest cottage in back. Pair of workshop-studios. Went to see it. Another prospective buyer crowding in behind us, arriving early as we walked the perimeter, much of it across angular inclines then declines of as much as 200 feet, what in this region is, if you’re talking about the landform, known as a hollow, and if you’re talking about the auditory call-across-a-distance, then it’s a holler. Hollow or holler, it’s always only pronounced holler. Neither a valley nor a cove, a holler comes with a watercourse and little to no flat land. So I put in a good faith bid and waited. Extenuating circumstances had me waiting an extra day and then part of another. On Friday night, a decision: there was a second matching bid, but if we’d waive inspection, it was ours.

Aerial (drone) photograph with approximate property boundary added for southside Christiansburg house now under contract.

The waived inspection doesn’t worry me too too much.

Offer accepted and heaps of paperwork in motion, we went again this evening, a week later, to walk the perimeter again—having also done so on Saturday when we met the sellers who spend 2.5 hours generously going over the finer features, in addition to some idiosyncrasies I’m going to need reminded about. The water pump especially. For the creek or the pond. The electrical configurations for the two wired garages. The quality of HughesNet versus HollerNet. The spigot buried in the front yard. The location of the septic and drain field. Dwelling sorts it out one way or another.

But bears! This evening while walking the perimeter, there a mossy shelf, maybe 15×30-feet, there a knuckled ledge overlooking the holler, there a place for chickens, there a hoop house and garden, there a series of hooks for ladder storage, and there a dispatch of bear scat. And another. I think? I mean, what else? And it’s not like there is a cell signal available to Google bear isht til you get back to the apartment later on. No apps for identifying it definitively. Seller said they’d had a bear pull a trash barrel better than three-quarters of the way up the embankment. Presence of a bear or two accentuates a holler with special caution ahead of moving and planning. But they’re no more worrying than a waived inspection, and obviously they aren’t especially concerned about the location of the septic or drain field.

Right Foot, Right

Exactly five weeks ago–and I do mean exactly…at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, September 3–in the middle of a pick-up basketball game I leapt many many inches (±3) into the air to intercept a three-quarter court pass. The ball reached my hands, it stopped there, and gravity brought me back to where I’d started. Only, the landing, settling down on Earth again, dear ground control, didn’t go so well. Right landing gear crumpled, an old black shoe sole gripped and wrenched counter-clockwise against the freshly polyeurethaned floors, many thickly tackily coated planks, cork-screwing my shoe+foot and the bones inside until the fifth metatarsal said, “Fuck it. I give up.”

Sometimes bones give up. They break.

Landings are so common in jumping sports that I would guess on any given night, through 90 minutes of pick-up ball, there are 1,000 successful landings by any given player. And years ago, the tip-toe landing would have resulted for me in a sprained ankle. I’ve had tens of sprained ankles, mostly on the right side–so many in fact that I had a knuckle-sized bone spur surgically chiseled off the south-most tip of my right tibia in 1995 because so many bone chips had rustled and rattled in there, nomadic calcifying teasers making the bone think it needed to grown even though it didn’t need to grow. But grow it did until sprain sprain sprain, I couldn’t lift my toes toward my knee without bone-bone pinching. I’m not complaining, only historicizing the ways some ankle area bones try to retrieve their loose chips, advancing gradually as if to bring them home again. The spur was with a couple of knocks taken away and the ankle more or less as good as new. Refurbished, at least.

But the broken fifth metatarsal was new, a first. I’d only broken any bone once before, my left wrist during a 1990 high school basketball game against Leroy-Pine River, a game we lost, a game I continued to play in after halftime despite having fractured the wrist you guessed it intercepting a goddamned three-quarter court pass. A pass I caught. A landing I flubbed. I recall Pine River (the Bucks) had a couple of giants in the post, immovable trees who we kept fouling and fouling but still could not overcome.

Last month’s broken foot popped audibly, a long-faced spiral fracture that left me in a huddled pile on the sticky floor, polyeurewincing with the sensation that something extra was in my shoe–a feeling similar to when, as a kid, my brother and I rode bikes (without helmets!) up Winn Road to the Kountry Korner to buy a Sunday newspaper but didn’t have pockets and so carried home loose change in my shoe. That’s what it reminded me of: shoe as coin purse, jangling. At least two quarters in there.

Back on September 3, an hour and three wins into our weekly run, I told my teammates I was through, that I’d felt a bona fide pop, and then hobbled to gather my gym bag, fish out five dollars for Brandon “The Commissioner”, and without peeking inside the shoe to count the coins (dime and a nickel?), wobbled out to the Element and drove straightaway to Canton’s emergency care outfit. They took three x-rays, but they only showed me this one:

“You might need surgery. This is a very serious break. I’m sorry your basketball career had to end this way.” They said more, but this is most of what I remember.

By the following Monday, after a five day wait, I finally sat down with an orthopedic surgeon who assured me that it wasn’t as bad as I was led to believe, that I would be fitted for an orthotic walking boot, and that I was only to listen to my pain and to return in a month. Before the boot, this:

And after:

And so I’m taking a few minutes here–tapping out a few lines–to commemorate the ordeal because tomorrow is that one-month follow-up. The foot has, as far as I can tell, mended to a point of allowing me to walk (but not jog) without pain. I’ve been on campus for the last two days without the boot, negotiating the craggy asphalt around Pray-Harrold and having an okay time of it. I hope to retire the walking boot officially and to shift next to a physical therapy regimen that will, whatever else comes of it, get me back to a more runnerly routine and, if I’m lucky, eventually give me the choice to take another trip or two up and down the hardwoods.

Day Zero Flaneury

I jetted into Paris earlier today (a skyroad begun in Detroit and continued after a brief layover in NYC) for the Writing Research Across Borders Conference at Paris Ouest La Défense. Time changes meant six hours evaporated as I arrived in Paris at 1 p.m. local time, what felt like 7 a.m. EST. Factoring in that it was a red-eye spent in Air France coach, my body’s “felt like” time was even earlier and later: WTF Standard Time. And now it is both 6:30 p.m. local time and 12:30 p.m. back home. Time for supperlunch (no, I won’t be asking for supperlunch at a restaurant, unless, maybe that’s a Fr. word?)

The conference is fully underway, but I didn’t make it to the hotel until 2 p.m., and by then it was clear I would arrive late to the conference’s afternoon sessions even if I hoofed (or subwayed…still figuring out how that works) directly to Paris Ouest. Instead I followed what I could on Twitter, unpacked, and figured out the few streets I wanted to follow to go looking for bearings. Fitbit doesn’t know we’re in Paris, France, so we attempted to walk off some of the jet lag along the 8.4 km mapped here.

View Larger Map

Here are a few of the things I walked past.

L'église de la Madeleine

Alexandre Dumas Monument

And noticed: so much dog shit on the sidewalks; newsstands selling paper publications; two kids playing on top of plastic garbage bins near the park, one stopping to “pay the water bill” publicly; two different passers-by who politely asked me in French for help or directions or if I was having a good day or, truthfully, I have no idea. I tried to say something like, “Pardon, no francais,” but neither of them waited the ten minutes it would have taken me to figure out such an elaborate response.

Above all, the brief tour on foot reassured me with an orienting sense that I almost always lack when landing in conference city I haven’t been to before. Now that I am clearer about space and direction, I suspect the next several hours will be devoted to re-harmonizing with time.

Deterministic Footfalls

Here’s a fascinating RadioLab podcast on deep patterns in cityscapes, “Cities.”

After listening, follow it with a sip–a chaser–from Calvino’s Invisible Cities:

In vain, great-hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to describe Zaira, city of high bastions. I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. […] The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls. (10-11)

Chamber of Absences

I haven’t been taking great notes while reading Prairyerth, but I did
dog-ear a page for this:

There are several ways not to walk in the prairie, and one of them is
with your eye on a far goal, because then you begin to believe you’re not
closing the distance any more than you would with a mirage. My woodland
sense of scale and time didn’t fit this country, and I started wondering
whether I could reach the summit before dark. On the prairie, distance and
the miles of air turn movement to stasis and openness to a wall, a thing as
difficult to penetrate as dense forest. I was hiking in a chamber of
absences where the near was the same as the far, and it seemed every time I
raised a step the earth rotated under me so that my foot feel just where it
had lifted from. Limits and markers make travel possible for people:
circumscribe our lines of sight and we can really get somewhere. Before me
lay the Kansas of popular conception from Coronado on–that place you have
to get through, that purgatory of mileage. (82)

"That purgatory of mileage"–the horizontal vista of Chase County draws Least
Heat-Moon in. The expanse of long grasses is at times disorienting.
He feels lost, but knows that no line can be walked for five miles without
crossing a road. He is a journalist, a chronicler, a gatherer of stories.
Sometimes he consults a map, such as when he stands in Cottonwood Falls with "an
1878 bird’s-eye-view engraving of the town" (52), but he also–sector by county
sector–sketches his own. This last point is important, I think. It
is the practice where his methods live up to the "deep mapping"–an ethnographic
presence in graceful suspense (not unlike North’s ten years of "walking among"),
part Geertzian "thick description," but also meta-, also interested in the up
and out–the topography. This prairie topography can be experienced on

I’m mulling over the relationship between Least Heat-Moon’s "chamber of
absences"–the "distance" and "openness" of the prairie topography and (yet
) de Certeau’s "wave of verticals," the "scopic drive" he chides after
looking out onto NYC from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. What
is strange–exciting, even–is that Least Heat-Moon cannot figure out how to
organize his book until he appropriates a form from the grid of his hand-drawn
maps. About maps, de Certeau says, "They allow us to grasp only a relic set in
the nowhen of a surface of projection…. These fixations constitute procedures
for forgetting. The trace left behind is substituted for the practice" (97). If
I may put that last sentence through a tumbler, what if, "the trace left behind
is the practice" or "the trace left behind invigorates the
practice (of walking in the city/prairie)"? This windy adventure forks yet
again at the distinction between the general-use map (with common place names,
consensus, etc.) and that other, more self-selective attunement (an
experiential, even egotistical sketch).

About my own chamber of absences: I am warming up to the idea that none of
this belongs in Chapter Five. But I nevertheless find myself happily stuck (not
stranded) on the problem of "What about maps as a (databasic, interested)
writing practice?". I don’t know. Yet there is a promising something
(a fantastic thingamabob) at the theoretical fulcrum between de Certeau’s
high-up perch (fraught with verticality) and Least Heat-Moon’s more moderate,
walking-the-prairie sensibility (fraught with horizontality). I would be
thrumming again on matters of scale, I suppose, to wonder whether that’s all it
amounts to when Least Heat-Moon breaks into his intimate portraits of
people and places, interrupting with his private, deliberative excursions to the
various plateaus or flint shelves for reorientations from time to time.
Don’t we all need (or at least desire) such reorientations?

Certeau’s Sieve-order

Lately I’ve been puzzling over de Certeau’s theorization of maps and what they risk
obfuscating (e.g., stories, minutiae, detritus, etc.) in The Practice of Everyday Life. His pedestrian rhetoric affirms the viewpoint of the "ground level" over the observation
of the whole from the 110th story of the World Trade Center, from which he once
experienced a curious pleasure while looking onto Manhattan–seeing it as a "wave of verticals" hovering
distantly above the city’s "paroxysmal places" (91). De Certeau wonders about the
pleasure he felt and, as well, what this bird’s-eye viewpoint, with its "scopic and gnostic
drive," obscures: "When one goes up there, he leaves behind the the mass that
carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators" (92).

From the observation deck, De Certeau says the mass is left behind, that it
"carries off and mixes up." Reasonably true. Looking down on the ant-like taxis,
the city appears different–further away. But in another sense, the urban
observation deck is not less local than the sidewalk, is it? Also, marveling at
the city does not make its streets more readily navigable (whatever compels you
to go out and about).

Certeau goes on to critique maps, traces, place-names, and flattened
projections, lumping them together as totalizing devices: "The surface of this
["suspended symbolic order"] is everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses,
drifts, and leaks of meaning: it is a sieve-order" (107). The sieve-order favors
stories and localization, and these are thwarted by intervals of distance, from
those viewpoints at which the "world’s debris" disappears.

Later he admits an oscillation between the local stories and "rumors"
(presumably reinforced by a desire for totalizing representations), he is
concerned that the relationship between the two has become stratified: "Stories
diversify, rumors totalize. If there is still a certain oscillation between
them, it seems that today there is a stratification: stories are becoming
private and sink into the secluded places in neighborhoods, families, or
individuals, while the rumors propagated by the media cover everything and,
gathered under the figures of the City, the masterword of an anonymous law, the
substitute for all proper names, they wipe out or combat any superstitions guild
of still resisting the figure" (108). The overwrought substitution of the one
(i.e., totalizing view) for the other (i.e., everyday practices) is troubling:
"The trace left behind [on, say, a map] is substituted for the practice. It
exhibits the (voracious) property that the geographical system has of being able
to transform action into legibility, but in doing so it causes a way of being in
the world to be forgotten" (97).

Might the projection–and even the written account–also rejuvenate the action, renew its circulation, and cause it to be remembered again? Specifically, I am thinking about this in relationship to distant reading methods that translate large volumes of data
(mined from texts or activities) into visual models–projections in which we can
apprehend patterns not identifiable at other scales of contact (such as the
"ground level").

Maybe there is a place for de Certeau in Chapter Five. I haven’t decided
yet. But I am discovering the faint separations between my dissertation and the
walking rhetorics he advocates. Something tells me these can be bridged (or filled),
but I am still reaching for ideas about how to do that (and also still thinking about
whether it is even necessary).