Epic, majestic, magisterial — it’s hard to find words equal to Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, now just one volume away from completion.


Five massive volumes on any historical figure might seem like overkill, but not in this case, because Caro is just as interested in the social and political context of Johnson’s life as he is in biographical details.


As a congressman in the 1930s, Johnson was instrumental in bringing electricity to his district, the hard-luck Hill Country of Texas, where Johnson was born.  Caro details the dazzlingly complex political maneuvers Johnson employed to do this, but he also wants you to know what the accomplishment meant — so he devotes a long chapter to describing the day-to-day life of Hill Country ranchers and farmers, and particularly Hill Country ranchers’ and farmers’ wives, in the days before electrification.  The result is the best, most powerful and most harrowing evocation of daily frontier life and labor ever written.


And this is just one example of Caro’s ability to illuminate the world Johnson moved in, the world that made him and the world he changed, for better and for worse.


Johnson was a fabulous, mythic creature, not least because he understood the way American political life was changing in the 20th Century — understood how a ruthless and tireless man could ride those changes to a position of unprecedented power.


The story of Johnson’s life is wildly entertaining, wildly inspiring, wildly depressing — because it exposes the deep corruption of the American political process along with its unaccountable ability to accomplish great things.


You simply can’t understand America in our own time without understanding the dark genius and eccentric idealism of Lyndon Johnson.  He was a man who, like America itself, can never be explained or fully known — a man at the very heart of the paradox that is America.

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My sister stuck around Las Vegas for a while to help me get my apartment into liveable shape.  We hung out a couple of nights at McMullen’s (above), losing money at video poker, and watched a couple of movies, including Angel and the Bad Man, shot around Sedona, which we’d just visited, and Rio Grande, which for my money gets better and better the more times I revisit it.

I was sorry to see her fly back to her home in New York, but we had some great times and great talks while she was out West.

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There has long been a theory that his first wife Polly Platt was the creative genius behind Peter Bogdanovich.  It’s based on the fact that after he stopped working with her, a few years after they separated, Bogdanovich’s career went into a precipitous decline from which it never quite recovered

Platt encouraged Bogdanovich to film Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show.  There have been rumors that she worked closely with McMurtry and Bogdanovich, uncredited, on the screenplay and played a decisive creative role on the set.  The actor Ben Johnson said she virtually co-directed the film.  She certainly designed the film, her credited role, with impeccable authenticity and taste.


Bogdanovich was a fine filmmaker, but It was Platt’s critical evaluation of material, and the ways to approach it, that seemed to keep Bogdanovich on course in the years of his success, and whose absence left him a bit adrift after Platt moved on.

Platt (pictured above with Bogdanovich) described their creative partnership this way — “He’s the locomotive, I’m the tracks.”  Bogdanovich’s career after Paper Moon, the last film he worked on with Platt, can be fairly described as a locomotive that’s gone off the tracks.


In any case, The Last Picture Show is a genuine masterpiece, wonderfully cast and brilliantly shot.  Though Timothy Bottoms (above) carries the film as its principal character, our window onto the tale, the heart of it is Ben Johnson’s powerful performance as Sam the Lion, for which he won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor.

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The film is about the passing of time, the dying out of a small Texas town, and Sam the Lion (above) personifies what’s being lost in the process, the old breed of Texan whose world is vanishing.  Without Johnson’s character, we wouldn’t have quite the same sense of what’s at stake in the film’s mournful, bittersweet parade of longing and disappointment and heartache.  Johnson gives the film an epic dimension, elevates it into the highest ranks of American cinema.



Although my sister Libba had no need to photograph The Grand Canyon for her documentary, and I had no reason to go there for my own research, I felt it imperative that she see the place, especially since we were so near to it.


So we drove north again from Flagstaff and checked it out.  Looking into the canyon is like looking up at the night stars — awesome but impossible to process rationally.  In Kant’s formulation, it is sublime, beyond comprehension, rather than beautiful, a phenomenon with a quality of aesthetic unity.


The sublime is always somewhat forbidding, somewhat terrifying.  It reminds us that the mind of God passeth all human understanding.

[Photographs © 2014 Libba Marrian]

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After our visit to Fort Verde we drove north to the head of Oak Creek Canyon so Libba could take some video footage there.  The light was a little flat for her purposes but she got some good stuff anyway.  The first Hollywood film shot in the Sedona area, in 1923, featured Oak Creek Canyon as its main location.  The film, The Call Of the Canyon, based on a Zane Grey novel, was directed by Victor Fleming.  Long thought lost, a print of it was discovered in Russian archives in 2010.


We continued north from there to the Hopi Reservation.  Hopi art was an inspiration to the artist Libba is making her documentary about.  The main settlement on the reservation is set amidst a vast empty landscape, hours away from any other town, and is a depressing place, like many Indian reservations.  We were not inclined to linger long there.

We drove west looking for a place to stay the night but had a hard time finding one.  At Tuba City, in the Navajo Indian Reservation that surrounds the Hopi lands, the most likely spot, all the motels were filled.


We had to drive to the outskirts of Flagstaff to find a Travelodge with a couple of free rooms.  It made for a long day but at the end of it we were treated to the sunset above by way of compensation.

[Photographs © 2014 Libba Marrian]

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The high point of our Arizona trip for me was a visit to Fort Verde, the best preserved of all the frontier cavalry posts in the state.  Only a few post buildings remain, along with the parade ground, but it’s enough to give you a strong sense of what the place must have been like in its period of service from the 1870s to the 1890s.  There’s not a lot of modern building around it that you have to overlook, as there is at Fort Hayes in Kansas, for example.  Hayes was a bigger and more important post but its few 19th-Century structures are surrounded by a modern working army base.


Fort Verde, pictured above in 1879, was never a stockaded fort, like the ones you invariably see in Hollywood Westerns, and hardly any cavalry posts were — Indians almost never attacked large concentrations of soldiers, so there was no need for defensive walls.

General Charles King, whose novels give the best picture of everyday life in frontier army posts, was once stationed at Fort Verde, which served as the model for the fort in his most famous book, The Colonel’s Daughter.  It was a place renowned for its civilized amenities, courtesy of the officers’ wives stationed there over the years.  The commanding officer’s home, for example, below, had a mansard roof because the first commanding officer’s wife had seen them once on a trip to France and developed a fondness for them.


The post administration building survives, along with the commanding officer’s home, one building that housed unmarried officers and the post doctor’s house, all ranged on the edge of the parade ground, which feels haunted by the ghosts of many parades and formations of mounted men doing a tough job in a forbidding place.

So here they are: the dog-faced soldiers, the regulars, the fifty-cents-a-day professionals   . . . riding the outposts of a nation.  From Fort Reno to Fort Apache — from Sheridan to Startle — they were all the same: men in dirty-shirt blue and only a cold page in the history books to mark their passing.  But wherever they rode — and whatever they fought for — that place became the United States.


My sister posed in one of the uniforms the park visitors’ center provides for such purposes.


I was thinking about John Ford the whole time.

[Contemporary photos © Libba Marrian]

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On our second day in Sedona we drove south of the town so Libba could photograph the scenery for her documentary.  Then we drove down to the old cavalry fort in Camp Verde, but it was closed so we settled for lunch in the town of Camp Verde at the picturesque restaurant below.


It had a spiffy old Bel Air parked beside it and pretty good Mexican food.  Then we drove out to see Montezuma’s Castle.


Early visitors to the Verde Valley figured the cliff dwellings had some connection to the Aztecs, hence the name, but they were actually built by the Sinagua Indians, a local tribe.  No one is quite sure why they built their houses so high up — protection from enemies, perhaps, or refuge from floods.  In any case, the complex is quite impressive.

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Our second stop in Arizona, and the place we’d set out to investigate, was Sedona.  It’s about 30 miles southeast of Flagstaff and is situated at the end of the spectacular Oak Creek Canyon, seen above.

The forested canyon gives way to an equally spectacular landscape of sculpted red rock formations, in the midst of which Sedona is located.  The area was a frequent location for Hollywood films, mostly Westerns, from the 1920s to the 1970s, which is partly why I was there, to do research for a book of short stories about the experiences of people involved in movie productions around Sedona.


My sister Libba was there to take video footage for a documentary she’s making about a sculptor from Flagstaff who as a kid worked as an extra on movies shot in Sedona.  Behind Libba in the photograph above are the Cathedral Rocks just outside of Sedona.  John Wayne rode a horse over Oak Creek near this spot, with the Cathedral Rocks in the background, in the movie Angel and the Badman, from 1947.

The town of Sedona is now a little boutique-y and twee, but it’s a pleasant place to stay for a couple of days.  The landscape around it redeems its touristy vibe.


We ate dinner our first night there at the Cowboy Club, dining on buffalo meatloaf wrapped in bacon.  It was served with buttery mashed potatoes, fresh asparagus and grilled mushrooms and was superb.

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[Correction -- just watched Angel and the Badman . . . Wayne rode his horse over Oak Creek in some other movie.]



My sister and I spent our first night on the road in Kingman, Arizona, a small but interesting town in the Western part of the state.  Andy Devine grew up there and it was a waypoint on Route 66, mentioned in the song about that lost highway.  The part of 66 that runs through Kingman has been renamed Andy Devine Avenue.

We stayed at the Quality Inn, apparently a place favored by rodeo participants, whose stays are memorialized on the doors to the motel rooms they once occupied.  I stayed in 164, above, though sadly Shayne was long gone.


My sister stayed in Cody Custer’s old room — he was nowhere to be found, either.


We ate at the joint above — the shrimp tacos were excellent, and they had Pacifico on tap.

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. . . with my sister Libba.  Our mission — top secret.  All I can say is that it involves capturing and training large rattlesnakes for entertainment purposes.  Reports to follow when I return.

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