Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Road to Joe

Not that long ago America celebrated the Super Bowl, and one cannot think of these annual gridiron pageants without recalling its many heros. Among these is Joe Montana, the almost legendary quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, who took his team to four Super Bowl victories and who was thrice selected as its MVP. But I am not here to talk football. Not today. Instead, I want to reflect on a trip to find the other Joe, Montana. Not the football player, but a small town . . . no, a whistle-stop hamlet and later a virtual ghost town . . . on the edge of the Montana badlands.

Last week I wrote about the importance of the road trip in general terms. This time I want to focus on one of those special revelations which occur when you arrive at a junction or a fork in the road and decide to travel down that road less taken. The reasons for taking one road over another can be many or few . . . specific or resulting from pure serendipity. Traveling down the road to Joe was a little of both.

Before I start down that road, however, a brief note bene: I have created a companion blog featuring poetry from my book-in-progress, Epiphanies in the rue Sansregret: Poems, 1971-2009. If you are interested, you can check them out at

And finally, I want to thank my wife Sally Ann for permission to use her wonderful photographs from our trip to Joe, Montana. She has a keen eye for content and composition . . . and my own eyes were on the lookout for cows in the road. You will know what I mean if you read on . . . .

A few years ago I read Jonathan Raban’s fascinating book, Bad Land: An American Romance (1996), his thoughtful meditation on the settlement of southeastern Montana following the arrival of the Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound Railway during the opening decade of the 20th century. The construction crews often followed existing creek beds and coulees as they moved westward from the Dakotas into Montana and beyond. Eventually they arrived at O’Fallon Creek with cottonwoods standing sentinel along its banks. From there they followed the creek to its confluence with the Yellowstone River near Terry, Montana where it linked up to the Northern Pacific Railroad which had already been in existence for two decades.

I first came to these precincts back in the summer of 1970, on that first big road trip across Canada and the northern Great Plains. My friend and I were on a tight schedule on our return to Milwaukee, and the trip coffers, much like the landscapes we were traveling through, were a bit on the dry side, so we could not linger as long as we wanted. We had miles to go before we slept and so we quickly passed through eastern Montana on our way to the badlands of North Dakota where we would overnight. But there was something about this compelling topography of rocks, sagebrush, and overwhelming distances, and I pledged that one day I would return. Reading Raban’s book convinced me that I could wait no longer.

Joe, Montana is a recent phenomenon although the town itself had existed for almost a century when I finally arrived in the spring of 2007. If you look for it on the official highway map of Montana, you will not find it. In fact, were it not for Raban’s book, I would not have known of its existence. It was strange serendipity for my visit to Joe offered an interesting glimpse into an almost forgotten chapter of the settlement of the western United States.

The railroad’s route through the badlands of North Dakota and eastern Montana, and the establishment of towns at regular intervals along its route, were made on a map back in Chicago by men who had likely never ventured west of Minneapolis. “Nothing in the geography prepares one for the arbitrary suddenness of those railroad towns,” writes Raban. “For mile after mile, the sagebrush rolls and breaks.” Originally platted as a small grid in 1908, the town was first christened Ismay in honor of two young girls, Isabel and May, the daughters of the president of the Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound Railroad. With the eventual arrival of settlers and homesteaders by rail, the town grew to include modest homes, a mercantile, a post office, a bank, a hotel, as well as the ubiquitous grain elevator and stockyard found in every railroad town. It even had its own newspaper. Farms were established near town and along O’Fallon Creek. As the railroad expanded westward, and as more settlers followed its path in search of land and a better life, Ismay grew and became prosperous. Nearby farms with fields of wheat and pastured cattle added to this prosperity.

The town’s name first became an issue in 1912 following the sinking of the Titantic almost a half a world away. J. Bruce Ismay, a managing director of the White Star Line, became synonymous with cowardliness when he pushed past women and children to take a seat in one of the lifeboats. The town’s name survived along with the town . . . for a few years, at least. A large cyclone struck in the summer of 1915 causing heavy damage in the town and the surrounding area, but once again Ismay persevered and by 1925 its population had grown to 420 souls.

People continued to flood into the area and more and more farms and ranches made greater demands on the water supplied by O’Fallon Creek and the subterranean aquifer. Crops began to wither and die as did the cattle, and many homesteaders abandoned their dreams to return home or to move farther westward, up to Terry or over to Miles City on the Yellowstone River. Native grasses and sagebrush returned but the land was much diminished from what it had been before the railroad came to the area. There was no reason to stay in or come to Ismay and the town began to die. Over the next six decades the population dwindled away and Ismay fell into disrepair. All that remained was the railroad, the grain elevator, some weather-beaten buildings, and a few hearty souls. There appeared to be no hope for Ismay.

All of this changed in 1993. Once again an event hundreds of miles away impacted on Ismay’s chance of survival. Joe Montana, the star quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, who had missed most of the two previous seasons due to an injury, was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in April of that year and local Kansas City radio station KYSS began looking for a gimmick to commemorate this event. It contacted towns across Montana to see if any of them might be willing to change their name to Joe, Montana, at least for the duration of the football season. Many towns either ignored or refused the come-on, yet tiny Ismay, with a population hovering around 25 and the smallest town in Montana, grabbed at straws. Publicity stunt or not, the locals hoped this might bring new life to a town with more ghosts than people. Plans were put in motion to re-christen the town as Joe, Montana on July 3, 1993 while the radio station offered to fly the town’s people to Kansas City to watch Joe play. There was televison and newspaper coverage about Joe, Montana across the United States and there was even talk of bringing the townspeople to New York City to appear on David Letterman’s late night television show. There was so much attention that the town considered keeping the name after the football season was over. On July 3, a couple thousand people, for whatever reason, descended on Joe, Montana for the festivities. The local post office (yes, there was still a PO in Ismay) issued specially franked envelopes with the postmark “Joe, Montana.” There were T-shirts and coffee mugs emblazoned with the town’s new name. From all reports it was quite a day.

His own curiosity raised by these events, Jonathan Raban came to Ismay the following year while doing research for his new book on the coming of the railroad to the upper Great Plains. Despite all the ballyhoo from the previous year, the town was much in decay when he arrived, evidence that the earlier hopes of a renaissance for the town and its inhabitants never came to pass. Raban crossed the old wooden bridge over O’Fallon Creek and the single track of the Milwaukee Road, as it is now known. “I was in Ismay - or what had been Ismay but was Ismay no longer. The name on the sign had been painted out and replaced with Joe. Population 28. The only buildings of any substance were the old grain elevator and a new “cinderblock hangar . . . a white elephant” which was the recently constructed fire hall and community center for Joe, Montana. The inside of the unfinished hall was large enough to hold everyone living within a 30+ mile radius of town with plenty of room left over. The town’s people . . . the few who were still there . . . had hoped to repeat the “Joe Montana Day” festivities the following year, but no longer news, media interest in the town had evaporated. Also, David Letterman’s people allegedly reneged on the offer to bring the local folks to New York, a very sensitive subject Raban quickly discovered when he arrived in town. There was a parade, and fireworks that year, but only a few hundred people showed up, and they came mainly for the local rodeo.

So on a bright, sunny morning in mid-April 2007, my wife and I set off from Miles City and drove east on US Highway 12 into the Montana badlands. After driving some 60 miles through deep valleys, past colorfully striated mesas and hoodoos, and across vast expanses of clay gumbo terrain and sagebrush, we came to the junction with State Route 230, the Old Ismay Road. Here we found a small black on white sign listing the distance to various ranches, and to the towns of Ismay and Mildred. Looking at the mileages listed, it appeared that most of the inhabitants along this road resided between Ismay (6 miles) and Mildred some 16 miles beyond. Behind this sign was a much larger and substantial one with an arrow and bold red lettering: JOE MT.
We turned north and I was reminded of lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s song “Cautious Man”:

He got dressed in the moonlight and
down to the highway he strode
When he got there he didn’t find
nothing but road.

The six miles between the main highway and Ismay/Joe is flat and almost featureless, save the rocks and the sagebrush, and when we arrived we found the town much as Raban did several years before us . . . “melting rapidly back into the earth.” There was no sign welcoming us, but there next to the railroad crossing at the edge of town, tied to a fencepost, was an old tire on which someone had painted an appropriate caveat COWS ON ROAD. Since leaving the highway, we saw not a single man, woman or child; just rocks and sagebrush and an occasional cow along the road to Joe.

If Ismay/Joe is not a ghost town, by all appearances it qualifies as one. There were no stores or other commercial ventures in town save the old grain elevator next to the railroad track and siding. A couple empty freight cars sat off to one side and there was a pick-up parked next to the elevator and occasionally I caught a glimpse of a man walking past an open door. Otherwise, we felt like we were the only ones around. There was no bank, and the post office had a sign on the door announcing it was closed. It looked like it had been that way for quite some time. The streets were still unpaved and some were deeply rutted. There had been traffic here at one time, but not that day. The only evidence attesting to the anticipated rebirth of the town back in the early 1990s was the large “community” center and fire hall. No longer the “cinderblock hangar” of Raban’s day, it was now cloaked in red siding with large lettering over the door: JOE MONTANA CENTER. The place was closed and locked. I peered though the window and it looked like it was used mostly
for storage. I saw no fire engines anywhere. I had a lot of questions about Joe, Montana, and so while Sally Ann took photographs - “it’s a sepia kind of town” she later told me - I wandered around town in search of a Joeite who might be able to answer them. There was no one to be found and that fact alone answered my most pressing question. “Whatever happened to Joe, Montana since 1993?” In simple terms, not much of anything at all.

The original Joe Montana, on the other hand, had a pretty good year after being traded to Kansas City in 1993. Despite some injuries he led the Chiefs to the play-offs and the AFC championship which it lost to the Buffalo Bills. He had one more season in Kansas City, and another trip to the play-offs before he retired in early 1995. Ismay/Joe had only one brief moment in the spotlight and that was it. There is not much to show for its century of hardscrabble life along O’Fallon Creek, and I suspect that when I return, if I ever return, there will be even less to look at. Probably more rocks and sagebrush . . . and a few more ghosts of the past. But I am glad we decided to drive down that road to Joe. Perhaps a cautious reminder of what can happen to the best of dreams.

NEXT WEEK: A Brutal Political Murder

Monday, February 16, 2009

Reflections on an Approach: The Importance of a Road Trip

Thomas McGuane writes about the "loss of cabin pressure" resulting from trying to get everything down on paper before you change your mind and don’t write at all. I guess this is the main motivation behind these weekly random thoughts which are turning out to be not that random at all. There is a definite pattern emerging here.

This week I consider the importance road trips have had on my life, on what I think and believe. What I have written in the earlier essays has often been the result of such a trip. Here I am not talking about a particular time or place, but the undertaking that led to those times and places . . . the trip itself and not the destination.

"Approach is more than just the last phase before arrival," writes William Least Heat-Moon in his most recent book, The Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey (2008). "[I]t’s at the heart of a true journey and one aspect separating real travelers from mere arrivalists whose highest wish is for destination." I have been on countless road trips over the past four decades; some touch a deeper meaning for me while others are seldom remembered except when some unexpected occurrence or encounter causes a momentary reflection on a place or an event. But all of these road trips, whether they are vivid in my memory or on the threshold of the forgotten, have contributed to who I am today, why I believe and what I do, and they help me to better understand those life experiences to which I constantly return for knowledge and self-reflection.

Growing up I can remember my folks taking my sister and me on occasional car trips into the country on Sunday afternoons. And there were the summer and holiday trips to my grandparents’ farm in southwestern Michigan. But these were "rides," a means of getting from one place to another as quickly as possible and with little if any consideration for the country we were passing through. I shared the back seat with my younger sister and I recall that both of us were often more intent on delineating and defending which half of the back seat was ours than giving any regard to scenery or our parents’ admonishments to sit still and behave. No, these were not what I would later come to cherish as road trips of discovery and renewal.

My first road trip of note came in the summer of 1970, between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I had returned home to Wisconsin after a rather tumultuous year in the academic trenches and spent the summer hard at work and salting way money for my return to Florida in the fall. Nevertheless, I left my job early so that a good buddy and I could take off on a car trip we had been planning all summer. Our dream was to travel all the way to Alaska and back, and in late July we packed up my red 1966 Ford Mustang, duct-taped a handmade "Alaska or Bust" sign to the rear bumper, and set off from Milwaukee on the long trip up through Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, to Winnipeg and the Trans-Canada Highway. From there we launched our westward journey across the Canadian prairie – Manitoba, Saskatchewan, to Alberta and the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. We were treated to 360-degrees vistas of wheat fields to the horizon interrupted only occasionally by farmsteads and grain elevators, and towns with magical names like Moosomin, Sintaluta, Qu’Apelle, Moose Jaw, Swift Current, Medicine Hat. Who could not pay attention and take it all in? This, was a road trip and we were not yet anywhere close to Alaska, our destination.

After numerous detours of discovery on our way across Canada, our time and our money ran out when we reached far western Alberta. We were obliged to turn eastward and to retreat across Montana and through North Dakota on our way home. But it was no retreat in failure. Perhaps we never really meant to go as far as Alaska, but we were gratified by the notion that we were headed toward Alaska and soaked in every bit of the experience along our westward journey. We were content to have left Milwaukee behind us and to be on the road to somewhere else. The "Alaska or Bust" sign affixed to our bumper was a cry of freedom, a symbol of fetters broken. We enjoyed every moment we were on the road, even when we encountered some unanticipated car troubles in the middle of nowhere in Montana. I am reminded of John Steinbeck’s encomium to his Model T. "The American restlessness took on new force. No one was satisfied with where he was; he was on his way someplace else; just as soon as he got that timer adjusted." For us it was a shot water pump. But I know what Steinbeck meant.

I can’t go into detail about every road trip I have been on since then. There have been many over the years and I have now been to all 48 of the contiguous United States and eight of ten Canadian provinces (road trips have omitted the two that are islands). I have been up and down the Eastern Seaboard more times than I can count on both hands and feet, ribs, vertebrae, and the times Elizabeth Taylor has been married. I have driven more than once from home in America’s heartland to both coasts and back, and I have traveled the Left Coast of America from Canada to Mexico. There have been umpteen ambles among the back roads and dirt two-tracks of northern New England. And there was the almost ill-fated trip across the southern tier of states, Florida to Arizona, back in the infant days of 1975, and I shudder almost every time I think about it. Pulling a rental trailer across wind-swept Texas was like driving with an open parachute behind me and I consumed an entire tank of gas traveling from east of Dallas to just west of Fort Worth. Fortunately that was when gas cost cents a gallon rather than dollars. There was the blizzard in west Texas when car and trailer came close to being demolished by a tractor-trailer in whiteout conditions followed by my new wife’s rather traumatic introduction to what can be the monotony of the southwestern desert and her new home in a foreign environment [shudder!]. This is the only one I might want to forget on purpose, but it was part of the learning process so it takes its rightful place in the pantheon of road trips [shudder!].

So what is it about a road trip that keeps me heading down the highways and byways? Part of it is just being underway, finding a path, taking an occasional left or a right at the fork in the road. Robert Frost, in "The Road Not Taken" writes:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverge in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The Spanish poet Antonio Machado cautions the traveler that there is no road; one makes the road as one wanders. The German poet Rainier Maria Rilke suggests something similar but in a different way in his Duino Elegies; the traveler should beware for the road is also wandering. Regardless, they all point to the trip itself - the route chosen to make one’s approach - taking priority over the eventual destination, if any. William Least Heat-Moon sums it up pretty well; "to go out not quite knowing why is the very reason for going out at all, out to discover the why is the most promising and potentially fulfilling of outcomes."

I do not want to simply travel through various landscape and sceneries. I seek out that road trip that will take me into the landscape in order to better understand it, and the people who call it home, those who praise or curse it for what it offers or takes away. Jim Harrison, in his 1987 essay "Going Places," writes about his affinity for special places "where I sensed a particular magic in the past" certain culverts in western Minnesota, nondescript gullies in Kansas . . . Everyone must find their own place." I have been writing about some of these places in past weeks, and I will be introducing more in the coming months. Steinbeck, writing in Travels With Charley, offers the axiom that a trip may continue "long after movement in time and space have ceased." I believe this to be true; road trips will always offer greater insight into the American land as I travel it from one edge to the other.

NEXT WEEK: The Road to Joe

Monday, February 9, 2009

Beyond Snow Hill - A Few More Parting Words

You will notice a few new additions to Looking Toward Portugal. First, I have included an appropriate photograph taken by my wife, Sally Ann. I am staring out a window of the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, located in Bristol, Maine. What am I staring at, you ask? Portugal, of course. Actually my eyes are focused on Monhegan Island which is situated some fifteen miles off the coast. I am probably wishing I were out there and looking back toward shore. Other photographs will also appear from time to time. I have also added "What’s Happening on the Edge of America," a list of upcoming publications, readings, and other events I will be attending in some capacity. Finally, a list of links to other websites you might find of some interest.

Last week I paid brief tribute to Andrew Wyeth who passed away on January 16 at age 91. This week I want to share a few more parting words for this great American artist.

The day after Andrew Wyeth’s death I found myself on the road in northern New England, planning to travel through western Maine on my way to some snow-trekking above the notches in northern New Hampshire. It was a frigid early morning as I flew from Baltimore to Manchester, New Hampshire, and it was a cold and clear day as I motored to the coast near Portsmouth where I crossed the Piscataqua River into Maine. I stopped in Portland for lunch and while I was eating I read the Portland Press Herald’s front-page tribute to Wyeth. Then and there I decided to change my plans and detour my route. Instead of driving immediately north to the headwaters of the Connecticut River, I headed up the coast of Maine to Cushing and Port Clyde, two locales long and intimately associated with the Wyeth family, particularly Andrew Wyeth who continued to live there during much of the year.

Leaving Portland I drove up US Route 1, winding through pleasant riparian coastal towns. Approaching Wiscasset I spied two signs along the highway that have been there since I first visited this area. One of them advertises "Maine Art" and "Wyeth Prints" for sale, while the other announced "New Wyeth Prints Here oday" [sic] just as it has every day for the past 20+ years. These signs have served as a constant reminder to all who travel up the coast of Maine of the long connection the Wyeth family has had with this area.

When I arrived at South Warren, I drove south along the western banks of the frozen St. George River, past the old saltwater farms of Cushing. Traveling these back roads it felt like I had directly entered into an Andrew Wyeth painting. I eventually arrived at the end of Hathorne Point Road as dusk began to settle on this quiet winter landscape. "I thrive on nothingness," Wyeth once said. "And Cushing is one of those things that almost isn’t." I have been coming here for awhile and I know what he means. For Wyeth, Cushing represented a transition from the bucolic rural farmlands of the Pennsylvania of his youth to the raw, wild and unknown coast of Maine. And there stands the ancient Olson House where Andrew Wyeth came to paint as a young man, and where he found inspiration for "Christina’s World" (1948), unquestionably his most famous painting.

Andrew Wyeth often rowed his boat down the river from his home at Bradford Point, on Broad Cove, and he would wander the rooms of the old house, always seeking new subjects to paint. It was from an upstairs room that he observed the badly crippled Christina Olson as she crawled across a wide field from the family cemetery back to her house. Wyeth would paint here on and off for the next two decades. "There’s a haunting feeling there of people coming back to a place," Wyeth admitted. "The whole history of New England was in that house - spidery, like crackling skeletons rotting in the attic - dry bones. It’s like a tombstone to sailors lost at sea . . . It’s a doorway of the sea to me." From there he could look down river to the Georges Islands and the Gulf of Maine beyond. He was looking directly into his future.

And so there it was. Its graying clapboard and shingles appear much as they did when Wyeth began painting here 60 years ago. I could almost imagine a revenant Wyeth having now returned to the darkened and lonely upstairs rooms shuttered against the cold winds blowing off Muscongus Bay. Down at the end of the point, across the field where Christina once crawled toward her home, is the small family cemetery where Christina now lies buried. I have gone down there on previous visits, but in the winter it is encased in a deep mantle of snow; very much like it was 41 years ago when Wyeth returned to this point to bury Christina. I would not go there this time; the sun was dipping below clouds on the southern horizon, a harbinger of a snow storm expected along the coast that evening. The skies were turning dark and the temperature was beginning to plunge.

I left the Olson House and eventually crossed the St. George River at Thomaston, and from there I drove south again along the eastern bank of the river, down through the villages of St. George and Tenants Harbor, where Andrew’s son, James Wyeth, now lives and paints, and finally, as dusk arrived, to Port Clyde and land’s end guarded by Marshall Point Light. It was here, at nearby Horses Point, in the 1920s, that N.C. Wyeth established a summer home and studio for his family - a converted sea captain’s home he christened "Eight Bells" after a painting by Winslow Homer. And family members, especially Andrew, having been coming back every summer since.

Andrew Wyeth loved this area as much as he did his native Chadds Ford, but for different reasons. Here in Maine he experienced new qualities of light. Rural Pennsylvania was static - ancient farms and fields which he came to paint at Kuerner’s Farm. His Pennsylvania paintings are often dark and ominous, painted in the autumn and winter when he was in residence there. In Maine there was the restless sea with constantly changing weather and tides. Wyeth wandered these shorelines and offshore islands for years, always looking to paint the harsh realities of life in these landscapes and seascapes. This was different even from the saltwater farms he found in nearby Cushing. There was always something new in Maine and Wyeth would continue to search for that moment of revelation.

At Port Clyde I found myself once again on the edge of America looking toward Portugal but seeing only the Georges Islands, including Brenner Island that has been Andrew Wyeth’s summer home for many years, and adjacent Allen Island, also owned by the Wyeth family. And farther out to sea, on the horizon, the headlands of Monhegan Island, it’s familiar lighthouse a solitary tick of quicksilver as the storm clouds gathered and moved closer to shore. The day was ending and it was time for me to turn inland where I hoped to find a good meal and a warm bed.

Before I went to sleep that evening I reflected on Andrew Wyeth’s long life and how he continued to paint at his father’s studio at "Eight Bells." There was a rather taciturn warning posted on the door. "Notice: If it is the second coming of Christ, call me out. Otherwise let me alone." And the folks around Port Clyde honored his wishes. After all, Wyeth was one of them. They will miss him like the rest of us, maybe more. But I guess we should not grieve too long or too loudly, for Andrew Wyeth is in a better place." When I die, don’t ever worry about me. I don’t believe in being there for the funeral. Remember that. I’ll be flying far away, off on a new tack. Something new that’s twice as good."

NEXT WEEK: Reflections on an Approach: The Importance of a Road Trip

Monday, February 2, 2009

Remembering Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth, perhaps the most iconic American artist of the 20th Century, passed away in his sleep on the morning of Friday, January 16, surrounded by his family at Chadds Ford, in southeastern Pennsylvania, where he was born 91 years ago. I was saddened to learn of his death followed by the sudden realization that we will have to be satisfied with the many fine watercolor, drybrush, and egg tempera paintings executed over a long and distinguished career spanning seven decades. There will be no more.

Whether it is the paintings of his native Chadds Ford, often stark depictions of farms and fields painted during the autumn and winter, when he was in residence, or those capturing the quiet solitude of the Maine coast during the summer and early autumn, his art has always struck a deep chord in me that will continue to resonate for years to come. Wyeth will always be with us through his art and his passion for the land, the sea, and the common people tied to them. I am reminded of what Johann Winkelmann once wrote about classic Greek art . . . the important precept of "edle Einfalt und stille Grosse" (noble simplicity and quiet grandeur). There is really something very beautiful and striking about the simplicity evoked in Wyeth's paintings. "I feel that the simpler the thing, the more complex it is bound to be."

Upon learning of Andrew Wyeth’s death I immediately thought of his painting "Snow Hill" which he painted in the late 1980s, in part to commemorate his eightieth birthday. Here we find representations of a number of Wyeth’s favorite models whom he painted in Chadds Ford: Karl and Anna Kuerner to whose nearby farm Wyeth often retreated to paint; neighbors William Loper and Allan Lynch; and Helga Testorf, the subject of a secret series of paintings first revealed to his family and the public at large some twenty years ago. This assemblage has gathered at the top of the Kuerner Hill, itself frequently depicted in Wyeth’s paintings, to dance in the snow around a festively garlanded maypole topped by an evergreen. There are stories that Wyeth wanted to show his models celebrating at the news that the artist had died and would no longer infringe on their lives. There is also another person partially visible who is not readily identifiable, and there is the suggestion that there may be another person present . . . perhaps this is Wyeth himself joining his models to celebrate his own mortality. And why not? The artist felt strongly that it was best to be invisible whenever he was painting. What immediately strikes the viewer most is the stark whiteness of the painting. I know of no other artist who has made white such a vibrant and evocative hue. There is, after all, a lot of snow in Andrew Wyeth paintings. "I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape - the loneliness of it - the dead feeling of winter," Wyeth once confessed. "Something waits beneath it - the whole story doesn’t show."

Yesterday I found myself drawn to the Brandywine River Museum to surround myself once more by many of the paintings that have meant so much to me for so long. And there among them was "Snow Hill." It was a bright sunny day and the warming temperatures were quickly thawing the snow that had fallen the previous week. We drove down Ring Road, past the Kuerner Farm that looks very much like it has for the past decades when Wyeth painted there. There were still patches of snow lurking in the shadows on Kuerner Hill. Looking all around I saw nothing but Andrew Wyeth paintings in this magical landscape.

Andrew Wyeth always came home to Chadds Ford. He loved this area because he was born here. "I don’t think a country makes an artist. I think an artist makes the country," states Wyeth. "It’s what you bring to it - what’s inside you that’s really important." Chadds Ford was in Wyeth through and through. Just look at the paintings arising from his years there. It felt right to be there in Chadds Ford on a pleasant winter’s day. I kept going back to stand in front of "Snow Hill." It is a beautiful and haunting painting. But I can find no reason to dance or celebrate. Andrew Wyeth is gone and the likes of him will not pass this way again. Snow Hill has become a very sad place indeed.

NEXT WEEK: Beyond Snow Hill - A Few More Parting Words