Wednesday, May 30, 2012

racing to the top

racing to the top
of Snake Alley a biker
pants, tongue hanging out

Over 700 bikers come from all over North America to pit their muscles and endurance against one of the most physically challenging races in the Midwest. The Snake Alley Criterium is held on a 15-block course in downtown Burlington, a historic town on the Mississippi River. 

What makes the races especially challenging is a one-block climb on a nineteenth century brick street named Snake Alley. The 276 foot (84 meter) street has seven switchbacks in 60 feet (18 meter) with an average grade of 12.5 percent in that one block, making it one of the crookedest streets in the world.

Snake Alley was built in 1894 by three of the town's German founders (a landscape engineer, the city engineer and a paving contractor) as an experimental street design and a shortcut between the business district on the river and the neighborhood shopping district on the hill. The locally fired, blue clay bricks and limestone curbs are still in place after more than a century. 

However ingenious and practical, the street proved too challenging for horse-drawn carriages. There is a legend that the fire department used the alley to test horses. If a horse could take the curves at a gallop and still be breathing when it reached the top, it was considered fit to haul the city's fire wagons. Unfortunately, many teams ran out control or stumbled over the limestone curbing, sometimes resulting in a broken leg.

For the past 30 years Snake Alley has been used to test bikers. The Criterium, one of several qualifying races for amateur cyclists to compete against the top professionals at the Nature Valley Grand Prix, includes races for bikers ranging in age from 10 to 60 plus, with a separate race for women. 

The test on the alley involves racing up and around seven steep serpentine turns on a corrugated surface to the top of the hill, not just once but ranging from 4 times for the youngsters up to 20 times for the final men's race. 

It's breathtaking to watch the racers in their colorful gear come barreling up from the river in a pack of up to 150, spread out across the wide city street, then charging up the narrow alley, wheels nearly touching. Amazingly, there are very few collisions.

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the Snake Alley Criterium, and the race is made even more challenging by an unusually hot day for late May, 95 F (35 C). The last race of the day, the hottest part of the day, features the men's class 1, 2 and pro teams, competing for the top prize, $10,000 for ten places. 

Thousands of spectators line the winding curves of Snake Alley. 

Coaches and fans yell their encouragement from the sidelines.

Some even run alongside to give a boost to a racer.

While others spray the bikers with water to cool them down. 

Many of the men are doubled over, grimacing or gasping for breath at the top of the tortuous hill, before the long descent to the river and another loop of the circuit. 

The grueling event was won by Paul Martin, who started out in 84th place in the 118-man field. At age 39, this was Martin's fifteenth try. He and his Panther teammates held hands as they crossed the finish line.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Peonies after Rain

Hundreds of red and white flags border the square.
The bandstand erupts with echoes
of distant battle—
polished brass, steel,
stretched skin.

The cemetery sign says One Way, Do Not Enter.
But I am not driving through
like the faces behind glass on Memorial Day,
leaving red and white flags, plastic placards,
amputated flowers to dress up stones.

I am not bringing dead flowers
to remember the dead.
I do not want to remember
what’s left of you
in the black plastic bag.

The rain waited patiently until
the once-a-year folks drove away.
The peonies I planted have fallen in a circle,
white faces pressed against the grass,
shattered petals like shards of bone.

I found the skull of a deer in our woods,
fallen this side of the No Hunting sign
where the hunter did not track
the trail of blood, a clot of red
mushrooms erupting from the empty eye socket.

Walking the trail you bushwhacked,
I learned to see the world through your eyes.
Once, you stopped, looked up at the moon
and laughed. That’s when I saw the white rabbit
nibbling a moonflower.

A year ago I sprawled across squares of sod,
watching ants crawl all over
white peony globes. The buds refuse to open,
you said, until the ants lick off the sap
binding the petals.

A year has knit the broken ground.
Now a globe of white light rises
from the scattered petals.
I want see the moon
through your luminous eyes.

Friday, May 25, 2012

swans sculpted from towels

swans sculpted from towels
by the young boy who mops floors,
smiling shyly

On the first day of our stay in Hotel Alhambra, we are greeted with an intricate sculpture made of bath towels, hand towels and wash cloths laid out like a white hibiscus at the foot of our bed. As usual, whenever I see anything beautiful, I take a photograph. 
          The next day, when we return from our outing to Isla Mujeres, we find an even more elaborate towel sculpture, in the shape of a swan with a red hibiscus tucked in its breast. We are reluctant to destroy the sculpture in order to use the fresh towels. How on earth did the artist, who must be the person cleaning our room and changing the sheets and towels, manage to get the swan's neck to stay upright with that graceful curve? Curious as to how it was constructed, I carefully take the swan apart and then try to reconstruct it, but to no avail. A little sign by our water pitcher says that our room is being cleaned by Rebeca, so she must be the secret artist. 
          The following day, we leave the coconut I bought on the island along with a note, written with the help of the man at the desk: "Muchas gracias por el cisne, Rebeca. Está muy hermoso. El coco es para usted." After we return from our trip to Tulum, we find not one but two swans, their heads touching, the arch of their necks forming a heart shape. Nestled between their breasts are a yellow gladiola, a white gardenia and a note with a smiley face: "Disculpen pero no soy Rebeca sino Ricardo. Disfruten su estancia. Gracias." We show the note to our Spanish-speaking friends and they translate: "Pardon, I am not Rebeca but Ricardo. Enjoy your stay. Thanks." So our "secret admirer" is a guy, not a gal. How is he going to top two swans? And how can we top the coconut?
          The next day is a rest day. Before we go out to explore the town, we make a clumsy version of sheet and pillow art: three pillows in a pyramid, the sheets as twin sphinxes and an artistic mimosa pod in the middle with another note: "Nos gusta muchismo! Maraviloso! Usted está artista!" When we leave, there's a pile of sheets on the table outside our room and the young boy with the spiked hairdo is mopping the stairs. We've seen him every day, busily mopping and cleaning. "Ricardo?" I say, and he smiles shyly. When we come back, we find a dove with a green branch in its mouth. This young boy with the hidden talent, mopping floors! You just never know.
          Here is another mystery. None of the other members of our group are being graced with Ricardo's towel sculptures. Why us? We are not newlyweds. We are not a pair of pretty young girls. Perhaps it's because, from the first day, we always took the time to greet him with a smile.
          Another day there's a white elephant, its trunk curved up, and finally, on the last day, a "family" of two adults and a child, each holding a red hibiscus and a small seashell. We like to think this represents the two of us with Ricardo, who has become like our son. We leave him an extra big tip, along with my photographs of his towel sculptures and our hopes that he have a long life filled with beauty.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Searching for Entrance

Searching for Entrance

She steps into a postcard
where poetry is a boat with a white bonnet
rocking on a blue lap. Above Lago di Como,
Brunate rims the crescent, an artist's garret

for the jaded elite escaping the heat
or their husbands. Light falls in triangles
of honey-soaked parchment,
a place where no one sleeps yet everyone dreams.

The funiculare hauls her on a silver leash
up the roller coaster hill to the old Hotel Milano.
She tries to hold onto something
but the slant of the walls drags her back.

Restless, she wanders the streets,
cobbled canting capricious.
Every doorway filled with women in black,
furrowed faces hunting sun.

The handsome grocer
fails to rouse her with his amorous
still life: pyramids of polished pomegranates,
brown eggs in burlap bags, leeks cocked on a bed

of crushed ice, artichokes concealing
delicata under soft bristles.
Her life is already severed, burnished,
waiting to be consumed.

The maid drapes a clean white tablecloth
over her door lintel, every day folded
with a different design, a message for women
in frames -- look each day from a new angle.

Climbing above the mansions, she stumbles
upon a bed of bearded blue iris
below three stone steps leading to

Each golden tongue for a day
shriveling to a question mark.
Tuberous toes dancing up the hill
long after the house has fallen.

Monday, May 21, 2012

shroud of white netting

shroud of white netting
wrapped round a plant skeleton
captures a tufted seed

Along the hill going down to the creek, I pass the dried stems of last year's Queen Anne's Lace poking up through this year's green shoots. Some of the skeletal stems are shrouded in white netting, the work of a kind of spider that weaves a tangle web to capture insects. The way the webbing is wrapped around the stems makes the plant skeletons look like a dragon's head and clawed foot. Amusingly, the snout of the dragon's head is decorated with the white tuft of a dandelion seed, poor fare for dragon or spider!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Paz para todos

Paz para todos
Amor para todos
Luz para todos

On our first night in Playa del Carmen, we wander out to experience night life in this seaside resort on the coast of the Yucatán. The message above the door of Hotel Alhambra says, in Spanish and English, "Peace to all, Love to all, Light to all." The trunks of the palm trees, wrapped in cords of light, glow softly. Their reflections in the large windows of the hotel across the street appear to hover inside, doubling the light.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

yellow Bugatti

yellow Bugatti
parked outside the VFW --
road warriors at rest

What is a vintage Bugatti Grand Prix racing car doing parked outside the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in the small town of Fairfield, Iowa? From the looks of the worn leather straps on the hood, it appears to be an original model circa 1920s. If so, it's worth a large fortune. Even if it's a reproduction, it's worth a small fortune. Either way, it's a beautiful machine, and I'm happy that its bright yellow presence graces our little "corn corner" of the world.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

weaving strands of light

weaving strands of light
into golden nets, rainbow 
glyphs, luminous wings

For this session on photographing in low light, we set up our cameras on tripods and adjust our settings. Now the fun begins. Light sticks and light cords create dramatic effects unseen by the eye, which appear like magic in the digital images.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mother's Day Present

Mother’s Day Present

I am wearing a red silk dress when the sky bruises
bile green on the stretch between Bentonsport
and Keosauqua. If we get in a ditch
I’ll muddy my only good dress.
I keep driving.

Why’re you driving so fast, Mom? one of the boys asks.
I glance sideways without turning my head.
A veiled presence sucks black dirt
from bare fields, throws up
a wall of mud.

Our midget lunchbox is pushing ninety.
A mile south of town, only
the mud hits. I can’t see
the road.

The roar rocks the horizon, batters the glass.
Bouncing up and down in their seats,
the teenage twins shout, Cyclone Ride!
The youngest in the back

I am wrenching the wheel as if I am driving
the wind, chanting all the names
of Mother and cursing
my red silk

Sudden silence, wet golden light. We are sitting still
between the splintered remains of a shed
and phone poles shorn like corn stalks,
wet wires coiled around
rubber tires.

Mother’s Day present, whispers
the stillness. I wind among
black serpents,

On Mother's Day, 8 May 1988, a single mother with three sons decides to treat herself to a nice dinner at a restaurant in Bentonsport, an old river village on the Des Moines River. It's a beautiful sunny day and when we head home after a delicious meal there are no signs of a storm. This is a few years before the U.S. National Weather Service installs the Doppler Radar network to give advance warning of severe weather.
          Heading north on Highway 1, about five miles from home a dark wall cloud forms to the west, whirling dirt from the freshly harrowed fields and emitting a loud, continuous roar. Having witnessed many tornadoes in this part of the United States called Tornado Alley, I immediately realize we're in danger. But there's no place to take shelter underground along that stretch of highway. 
          In such circumstances, you're supposed to get out of the car and lie face down in a ditch, but I don't want to ruin my red silk dress and I'm not convinced we'd really be protected from flying debris, the main cause of injuries and fatalities in tornadoes. Also, we're so close to home and the safety of our basement. I'm driving a Dodge Horizon, a little yellow box with a top speed of 80 mph. I put the pedal to the metal and push her as fast as she'll go. Not fast enough to outrun a tornado.
          By the time the wall of muddy rain forces me to stop, it's too late to pull over to the side of the road and I can only hope and pray that no one will drive into us while we're sitting in the traffic lane. The only other safe thing we could do in this vulnerable position would be to put our heads down below the level of the windows, which could easily get broken by the force of the wind, but by now I'm too frightened to think clearly.
          Tornadoes can completely destroy some buildings while leaving others intact. Flimsy buildings and anything else not firmly attached to the ground, such as vehicles, are especially prone to damage. So we are incredibly fortunate to survive sitting out a tornado that felled telephone poles, snapped power lines and blew apart a little shed right next to our flimsy little car and didn't flip us over or even break our windows.
          According to, the tornado that struck southeast Iowa at 12:47 pm that Mother's Day was a magnitude EF2 (strong). It was 60 yards wide and traveled 71 miles, from Bloomfield in the southwest to northeast of Washington, just grazing the west edge of Fairfield. It caused $25 million in property damage around our town, but no injuries or fatalities.

Friday, May 11, 2012

peeking through the rainbow

peeking through the rainbow
of a handwoven hammock,
beautiful dark eyes

When I was 8 our family made a road trip to central Mexico. It was the first time I had been to another country and it made a deep and lasting impression: handmade tortillas, handmade dolls, handmade silver jewelry and handmade hammocks. We brought a wide white hammock back with us and it hung swinging between two trees in our backyard for many happy summers.

In March this year I travel to the Yucatán for the first time. This is the home of Mexican hammocks and they are still handwoven. Hammocks in rainbow colors and pristine white hang in gracefull curves along the pedestrian streets of Playa del Carmen, a seaside resort, in a little shop in Nohoch Nah Chiich, a Maya village way back in the jungle, in a hammock haven in Xel Ha, a popular water park, and in every Maya home throughout the Yucatán.

Hammocks were not part of Classic Maya civilization, but are thought to have arrived in the Yucatán from the Caribbean some two hundred years before the Spanish.

Originally made of bark and sisal, today they are woven from cotton or synthetic thread. Woven by hand on looms, by men, women and children, the quality of the hammock depends on the number of threads used.

Hammocks are used for sitting, sleeping, rocking infants (and adults), as in this hammock haven at Xel Ha.

And sometimes they're great for just fooling around!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

spring, Bonnefield Lake

spring, Bonnefield Lake --
rippling reflections of water
grass stems in water

Illusion of a duck's head on a white mushroom cap.

Clusters of white wild blackberry blossoms on dark red stems, serrated emerald leaves.

On a stunted witch oak by the water's edge, spider webs festoon clusters of oak galls and the baby paws of green-gold leaves.

Explosion of kelly green leaves bursting through the slanted mat of last year's brittle gray stems.