The day after the hootenanny the crowd that had assembled in Jackson to celebrate John Carney's birthday moved en masse to his family's ranch an hour and a half south of Jackson.  More visitors would arrive later.  We came from places on the map of America about as far flung as possible — from Montana on the Canadian border to Texas on the Mexican border, from Brooklyn on the Atlantic coast to Santa Monica on the Pacific coast, from the mountains of Colorado to the Mojave Desert in Nevada.

It was a bunch of eccentrics, to be sure — which is what made the gathering so much fun.  Hilmar Blumberg, above, sitting on the terrace of one of the homes on the ranch, falls into a very special category of American eccentric — the Texan.

Himar owns a big cattle ranch in central Texas, not far from San Antonio, where he runs about 500 head of the Black Angus breed.  (The Carneys run about the same number of the same breed on their Wyoming spread.)  He's also expanded his business, and made it significantly more profitable, by establishing a hunting camp on his ranch.  But such things do not exhaust Hilmar's energies.

One day he came to the conclusion that the biggest town near his ranch had an illogical street-traffic pattern, so he conducted his own private survey of the ways it might be improved and presented his conclusions to the town council, who forthwith adopted his plan.  Hilmar also studies science, including advanced physics, on his own and in college graduate courses, and spends a lot of time thinking about the cosmic implications of what he's learned.  He is, to top it all off, a connoisseur of fine wines and tequilas and makes a mean margarita, just to keep things in perspective.

I didn't know Hilmar very well at Stanford, where we first met, but we made up for it with some rollicking discussions about “stuff” under the big skies and the stars of Wyoming.

                                                                                              [Photo by Eli Dokson]

He's a gentleman and a scholar, a good horsebacker and a fair demonstration of the proposition that Texas is a world unto itself.


Dornan's is a funky old recreational complex located inside the Grand Teton National Park not far from Jackson.  It's been going since about 1948 and has become a local institution.  It has cabins and a couple of restaurants and a grocery store and every Monday night it hosts a hootenanny in a roofed-over dining area next to its “chuck wagon” — an open-sided kitchen with grills and barbecue pits where you can buy dinner and beverages.  Around it are picnic tables, including one inside a teepee.

Local musicians sign up to play a couple of songs each at the hoot, and most of them are quite good.  On our second night in Wyoming the musicians in the John Carney birthday crowd — J. B., Hugh, Eli and John himself — signed up to play a few sets.

The “backstage” area, a lawn behind the dining/performing structure, where I mostly hung out because you could smoke there, was quite a scene, with musicians tuning up, showing each other new licks, or going over the songs they were about to play.

Corinne Chubb filmed the Carney Cowboy Band numbers on her tiny HD camera.  Here are a couple of the songs they played, up on YouTube:


This is a new song by J. B., and one of the best he ever wrote — a country waltz which, like many country love songs, is about older folks, married folks, keeping the flame alive.  To me, it's an instant classic — as good as any country waltz ever, and that's saying something.

“Everyone's At Sea”

This is an old song, written by Hugh in 1970.  Hard to explain how important it is to those of us who met and first heard it back then — a kind of anthem which has carried us along together through the years . . . so many years now that it doesn't just take us back but forward as well, to the next time we'll hear it, and the last time we'll hear it.  Everyone's still at sea, and it's still all right — always will be.

There was one other lovely moment that night, not recorded, when a young girl with a guitar and a sweet voice sang “How Great Thou Art”.  There are a lot of young (as well as aging) hipsters in the Jackson area these days, but an older West and an older America are still present.  Many folks in the audience were singing along quietly to themselves with”How Great Thou Art”.  They looked as moved by it as I was.

The Tetons loom up majestically behind Dornan's, and only a religious song makes sense of them — you find yourself thinking, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills . . . whence cometh my help”.  An old line that still resonates with a hard-won wisdom, at least out in God's country.


On our first full day in Jackson Hole several of us made an expedition out to the Lawrence S. Rockefeller Preserve, part of the Grand Teton National Park, to see a new building that John had designed there, the Preserve's visitors' center.

John is an unusual architect and an important one — for several reasons.  Although he does world-class work, he has chosen to maintain a primarily regional practice.  He grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois and in Hollywood, where his dad worked as a screenwriter, but his roots in Wyoming go back to his teenage years, when his parents bought a large ranch on the Green River south of Jackson.  He started his professional practice in Denver but after a few years he moved it to Jackson, where he prospered building homes for the rich and famous attracted to that part of the world, as well as executing commercial and civic commissions in the area.  He's carried out commissions elsewhere — including two skyscrapers in Denver — but he's concentrated his creativity mostly on local projects.

He decided early on to go his own way, designing buildings that pleased him and pleased his clients, rather than ones that followed the tiresome architectural fashions of the day, which for much of the 20th Century favored severe, multi-useless spaces.

His buildings echoed a frontier style, rustic and simple, often borrowing elements from the grand park lodges of the Teddy Roosevelt era, with a dash of Frank Lloyd Wright's Japonisme, but he never indulged in pastiche.  He created complex and inviting spaces that were in a kind of dialogue with the big skies and grand vistas of northwest Wyoming.  Like the simplest log cabins from pioneer days, his buildings have the quality of refuges, but they also have the wit and daring of a more contemporary style.  I don't know any other buildings quite like them.

Now, of course, the architectural establishment that he mostly ignored has discovered him, and recognized his work with various awards.  The visitors' center at the Rockefeller Preserve was a very prestigious commission, which John's firm won not because he was “local” but because John's design was stunning.  Stunning but simple, revealing its magic subtly.

Look at the picture of the structure at the beginning of this post, which records the view of it you get approaching it on foot from the parking lot.  It may, at a first, casual glance, seem like a utilitarian farm building, until you notice the elegant curved and slatted front, which projects the building forward into space . . . quietly.

Coming closer, you discover thin metal struts distributing the weight of the roof in surprising ways and also adding an “abstract” (though eminently practical) design element.  The building also appears at first to be more or less rectangular and self-contained, but on approaching closer a wing behind it is revealed, attached at a right angle, creating a court-like space in the V between the wings, with a porch (pictured above) that further defines the implied court.

The building's design is distinctly modern in many ways, but it looks as though it's always been there — instantly part of the history of the park.  It fits in to the continuum of frontier building, but carries it forward.  It's neither highbrow nor lowbrow, neither modern nor post-modern, neither ironic nor nostalgic — it's just great.  Like all great art it establishes its own category.

We walked away from our visit to the building enlightened.

The ability to create with space is one of the weirdest of all artistic gifts — weird because there's no language quite precise enough to describe its processes or its results.  This is true of dance and sculpture and cinema as well as of architecture.  We can talk clearly about the five positions of classical ballet, about the techniques of carving wood or marble, or casting in bronze, about the strategic choices involved in positioning or moving a motion picture camera in space, about the ways and means by which a building is constructed, but the link between these things and the way they can make us feel is elusive, mysterious.

And this is finally very odd, because the mystery is connected to things about space that we know very intimately, if unconsciously, from everyday life — from dancing, from playing sports, from the rituals of courtship and lovemaking, even from driving on crowded highways.  Artists who create with space are telling us things we know without knowing.

Nothing I could write about John Carney's Western buildings could possibly convey what it actually feels like to move around and through them.  Their spaces can't be “quoted”, like the words of a text or a phrase of music — they can't be “reproduced”, even crudely, on a page like a painting or a work of graphic art.  In the end, you just have to go up to Wyoming and walk around and through them yourself.


As you drive north of Salt Lake City on I-15 the country gets very beautiful and increasingly spectacular.  At Idaho Falls you leave the Interstate and cut across the Teton Pass on a smaller road towards Jackson, Wyoming.  This road follows the course of the Snake River for much of the way, then climbs into the Tetons and finally reveals the awesome sight of Jackson Hole, a huge sunken arena surrounded by Rockies on most sides.

J, B. and I encountered this sight in the late afternoon of our second day on the road, as Bob Dylan was singing The Girl From the Red River Shore on the iPod playing through my vehicle's sound system.  Bob's voice seemed to emanate from the mountains themselves, as old as time, as old as the heartache the song records.

We found John Carney's house — new since we'd visited him last in 2002 — in the little village of Wilson, which is a few miles from Jackson itself.  It's a lovely, small house that John designed, cozy and gracious with a rustic elegance that suits the landscape well, as his buildings always do.

A few folks had already arrived from other distant places — Hilmar Blumberg from Texas, Eli Dokson from Colorado, and Hugh McCarten (above) from Brooklyn.  Like J. B. and myself, these are all guys who first met John at Stanford in the 60s.  Another Stanford veteran, Cotty Chubb (below), arrived soon after us, from Los Angeles, with his daughter Corinne in tow — though perhaps it would be more correct to say that Corinne had Cotty in tow.  She tried so hard to get him to behave during our time in Wyoming — with results that can only be described as “mixed”.

I've known Corinne since she was a few days old but hadn't seen her in several years and almost didn't recognize her, because somehow she's become a lovely young woman of 19, which still doesn't seem quite possible — but when she smiled, everything was clear again.

Who could forget that smile?

John, Hugh, Eli and J. B. are all musicians, among other things, and played together in various groups while in college and afterwards.  At gatherings of this crowd, music is the center of attention, and the lads were soon rehearsing some songs they'd be playing at a local hootenanny the next night.

J. B., a screenwriter who hadn't been writing much music in recent years, arrived with two new songs, which he started teaching his mates.  One of them, a country waltz called “Dance”, is astonishing.  He was, I'm told, a stern bandmaster, but it paid off when the songs were performed tightly and crisply at the hootenanny, where they went over big with the local crowd.

We new arrivals checked in to the hotel we were staying at in Jackson, then headed back to John's place.  John made us a dinner of marinated flank steak cooked on the grill, with an Insalata Caprese prepared by his daughter Ella (in the picture below, with the author) and a broccoli dish whipped up by Cotty.  A great deal of alcohol was consumed in the course of the meal.  Afterwards the guys picked up their instruments again and jammed away on the old songs they've always played together, originals and covers . . . songs that for all of us, I think, knit the years together in a magical way.

Corinne had brought her tiny Flip HD camcorder and filmed many of the numbers that night — you can see a couple of them on YouTube:

“Rolly Polly (Daddy's Little Fatty)” (a Bob Wills number)


“Bring It With You When You Come (Girl Of Mine)” (an old blues)

The Wyoming rendezvous was off to a rousing start.

[All photos except the first one and the last one are by Eli Dokson, which is why you can see Eli in the first one, wailing away on his axe between Corinne and Hugh.  Nobody wails away on an axe like Eli.  The last photo is by Hugh McCarten.]


J. B. and I got off late on our drive to Wyoming, a week ago last Saturday, but we made good time and found ourselves just south of Salt Lake City at sundown, when we decided to stop for the night.  J. B. had his heart set on hideous fast food for dinner, and had already exacted a promise from me to dine at a Denny's or a Panda Express, if we could find one.  The problem turned out to be finding a motel that would accommodate a smoker.  I had forgotten that Las Vegas is one of the last remaining American cities, surrounded by a new country that is becoming more and more like Saudi Arabia in its intolerance for deviants from the state-approved social norms.  (To me, Big Nanny is just Mohammed in a Walt Disney Halloween mask.)

A clerk at a Holiday Inn Express who turned us away also helpfully suggested that we look for an old, cheap motel, and at the next exit we spotted a Super 8 which looked old and cheap.  In fact it turned out to be . . . The Perfect Motel.

It was clean, had refrigerators in the rooms, and cost $54 for a night's stay.  It felt like a motel from the Fifties but it had wireless Internet access and a gym with a treadmill, where J. B. could indulge his mad habit of walking for an hour each morning.  It had smoking rooms and it was a short walk away from a Denny's.  Yes, a Denny's — J. B. was beside himself with joy and anticipation.

We toasted our good fortune with spirituous beverages before strolling over to the Denny's for dinner.  The place was filled with people who looked as though they had been assembled by a Hollywood casting agent to represent Middle America Today:

A big family gathering of a dozen or so people — they seemed to be celebrating the birthday of an older woman at the table, who wore a plastic tiara.

A young woman in an evening gown with three men dressed casually.  When asked (by J. B.) why she was wearing the gown she said she was celebrating “a very special graduation” but wouldn't elaborate further.  I speculated (privately) that it involved a traffic class connected to a DUI arrest or an AA milestone of some sort.  If it was something glorious, like graduation from a beautician's school, surely she would have bragged about it.

Three teenage girls having dinner with two teenage boys in tow — the girls looked self-possessed and ironic, the boys looked totally clueless and bewildered.

Four teenage boys having dinner by themselves — they looked like vaporous lost souls from a region of Hell unknown to Dante.

Back at the Super 8 we slept soundly and were on the road again bright and early.

Simple hospitality at a fair price is a beautiful thing, and I have to confess that the food at Denny's wasn't bad at all — except for the grits.  What was I thinking?


My friend J. B. White kindly agreed to drive north with me to Jackson, Wyoming for John Carney's sixtieth birthday bash.  J. B. motored over from Ojai, California and stayed with me for a couple of days before we headed up to Jackson.  It was his first visit to Las Vegas.

I took him to dinner at Mon Ami Gabi, then over to the card room at the Venetian, where we signed up for seats in a $1-2 no-limit Hold-'em game.  (You can just make out our names on the electronic waiting list in the picture above, taken by J. B. with his iPhone.)  J. B. is a veteran poker player but he'd never encountered anything like a big Las Vegas card room, and he was smitten by the sheer fun and magic of it.

We played for four hours that night and four hours the next afternoon, at which point J. B. took me to dinner at Bouchon, the great bistro at the Venetian.  We had some astonishingly good seafood there — salmon and trout — then hit the felt again for another four hours.

At the end of the night I passed the table J. B. was playing at, on my way out to the casino floor for a smoke, and saw that he had no chips in front of him — he'd pushed them all in on one final hand, hoping to recover his losses for the two days of play.  On my way back from the smoke I saw him cashing in his chips — he'd won that last hand, with a monster pot, and was up 11 dollars for the trip.  Not bad for a Las Vegas newbie.  I was up 21 dollars for the twelve hours we played together — not bad for me, either, considering.

We pocketed our winnings, went home and headed off in the Ghost the next day for Wyoming.  Between us, we had dinner at Denny's that night more than covered, with enough left over for a couple of Subway sandwiches further on up the road.  To say that we were well satisfied with ourselves is putting it mildly.  I mean, there we were — a couple of rounders tooling through Utah, living the high life on somebody else's dime.

It just doesn't get much better than that.


My friend John Carney has been a friend for a long time — 41 years and counting.  John is an architect in Jackson, Wyoming, where he lives with his wife Elaine, who's a fund-raising consultant, teaching people how to get other people to donate money to worthy causes.  (That's John and Elaine above, on the porch of a house John designed on his family's ranch near Cora, Wyoming.)

John had his sixtieth birthday this month, and a bunch of his friends planned to descend on him in Wyoming to celebrate the event.  I don't fly on airplanes any more, so there was nothing for it but to hop in the Ghost and drive 800 miles north for the gathering.

I'll be posting reports on the adventure in the days ahead, and pictures of the wondrous things I saw in the course of it.


I'm hitting the trail this week, heading north to Wyoming, whose official nickname is “The Equality State”, which commemorates the fact that Wyoming gave the vote to women in 1869.

I plan to see the painting by Frederick Remington above, which is in a museum up there, and to emulate its subject, without the chaps.

Let's ride.


In the old days, Southern ladies had a tradition of churning out hand-made clothes for babies and toddlers, their own and other people's — special garments that were smocked and embroidered with infinite care.  It was an entrenched domestic ritual, and often these clothes were passed down from generation to generation.

My mom (above) still makes such clothes for her own grandchildren, and a soon-to-be great-grandchild, and for the children of friends.  Recently she's been cranking out extras and selling them at a shop my aunt opened in Wilmington, North Carolina.  She's done pretty well for herself so far — the parents of today remember such clothes from their own childhood days, even if they don't have time to make them themselves, and they're thrilled to find them available at what can only be called a most reasonable price.

Below, a picture of three generations in front of the store . . . my mom, my sister and my niece — who's gotten a trunk-full of my mom's smocked and embroidered dresses over the years:

Like other merchants, of course, in these tough economic times, my mom is hoping for even better things over the Christmas holidays — she's already hard at work on little dresses and play-suits with embroidered seasonal designs.  I'm personally hoping that she'll get filthy rich on them and be able to support me in my old age.

Merry Christmas!

[Photos courtesy of Harry Rossi]


My friend Jae Song, a director and cinematographer, recently designed and shot an amazing music video for a friend's band.  A combination of stop-motion and puppetry, it reminds me of a Victorian toy theatre operating in overdrive.

It's incredibly cool and incredibly beautiful, and he did it in a weekend.  Check it out here.


If you have any doubt that we live in a plutocracy, check out this very interesting article in the Huffington Post by my friend Cotty Chubb.  In it, he reproduces a graph showing the recent spike in the price of stock shares for health insurance companies when Max Baucus (above) and a few other cronies on the Finance Committee he chairs announced their plan to scuttle the public option in the “health care reform” bill they intend to report out to the full Senate.  The market apparently felt that Baucus's action added between four and five billion dollars to the worth of those companies.

Wikipedia reports that from “2003 to 2008, Baucus received $3,973,485 from the health sector,
including $852,813 from pharmaceutical companies, $851,141 from health
professionals, $784,185 from the insurance industry and $465,750 from
HMOs/health services, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.”

Now he's paying his masters back.  Aware of how bad this looks, Baucus, on 1 July of this year, announced that he would take no more money from the health industry, but of course he hasn't offered to return the earlier bribes — and we can be quite sure that when he retires from the Senate he will be well taken care of by the folks who own him, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in “consulting fees”, with the money this time going directly into his own pockets.

He has essentially sold his public trust, and the welfare of all Americans, for cold hard cash.

Why is this man not in jail?  Because we live in a plutocracy.