John Wayne — the acting name of Marion Morrison. Name and character designed to emulate ‘Mad Anthony Wayne — commander of a massacre outside of Bowling Green, Ohio, 1794.
An excerpt draft from my forthcoming book Turtle Road about a 12,000 mile bike trip. Talks of Bowling Green (Ohio ) and a history of massacres — among other things…
… We had begun to feel every new town, field and wood belonged to us; our memories our deed of ownership. Now we owned the dewy morning on the Michigan/Ohio border. Despite my internationalist heart, I found myself humming, Oh beautiful for spacious skies. For amber waves of grain. “Amber, yes,” I thought, as we passed endless fields of wheat and hay. “And gold, orange, rust, even purple.”
The rural peace ended at the Ohio border as we hit the edge of the Toledo metropolitan region. We almost ate breakfast at a cafe in Sylvania, but the giant poster — a grinning cartoon Indian repelled us. It was still a beautiful morning, not yet hot, so we sat under a tree and ate granola bars, clucking to each other, “how can Ohio be so racist?”
At a busy Sylvania intersection, a hardy woman in a bike jersey pulled up beside us. Before the light turned green, she had offered to be our escort, around the outskirts of Toledo.
Though I struggled to keep up, riding with Cheryl was a great relief. We just followed. No arguments. No getting lost. No decisions. She was fast, efficient, eager to show off her bicycle skills, which she came by the hard way. “At age 41, I had back surgery. Biking was my therapy. When I started I could only make it around the block. Now, 14 years later, I do sixty mile rides around Toledo.” She had set herself a biking goal to last a lifetime, making herself a quilt with fifty panels. “Each time I have a vacation, I bike another state and fill in another panel — 27 so far.”
Cheryl wanted us to appreciate her homeland. She pointed to a field. “Underneath every thing you see, is the wealth that make this region unique. Black dirt. Back in the 1880s, European settlers drained the wetlands of this black swamp, creating some of the richest soil in the world.”
Cheryl left us at the Mall in Waterville. As we got ready to say our good byes she noted, “This may look like any other mall, but it’s historic — named after the Battle of Fallen Timbers that happened here in 1794.”
I was exhausted from keeping up with Cheryl. We found plush seats in the Barnes and Nobles and looked up “Fallen Timbers.”
The United States army, led by a “Mad” General Anthony Wayne, defeated a regional alliance of Indian nations. One of the indigenous leaders in the battle was Tecumseh, who continued building his pan-Indian force until he died fighting on the British side in the war of 1812. The year before the Confederation had proposed a generous compromise to the land-hungry United States: keep the money you are using to bribe us and kills us and give it your poor settlers. Just leave us a piece of OUR land to live in peace.
But the United States was making a bigger calculation. After their triumph in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, U.S. authorities force-marched Ohio tribes to Oklahoma, opening a settlement path from Ohio to Wisconsin for Europeans immigrants.
I wondered as we passed a rack of Cleveland Indian T-shirts on our way out of the mall, if there was a connection between this removal and fact that Ohioan’s embraced this racist cartoon caricature. Today there is no large organized population of Native Americans in the state to fight back. Perhaps another factor is the way the history of U.S./ Indian relations are told here. The U.S. General Mad Anthony Wayne is celebrated in Toledo with a bridge, statue, and even an annual “family-friendly” bike ride. Leaving the mall, we crossed the Maumee River where Mad Anthony Wayne burned Shawnee and Miami villages.
We didn’t get far before we were desperate to get out of the sun. The road following the river was pretty, but lacking in public spaces. The Riverby Hills Golf Club had a Public Welcome sign. In the icy dark of the clubhouse, drinking over-priced tomato juice, we watched men in white shorts flirt with the woman bartender.
I thought about how this trip brought us into contact with people outside our circles. The day before we shared a park shelter with Cecil, a small white man who worked construction for 40 years. He was sixty, living on disability, already old. He told us about his divorce; after 32 years still a fresh wound. “We had ten kids” he said. He lowered his head. “One was murdered last year.” Cecil was fascinated by us. “This is a first for me, meeting people like you.” It was a first for us, sharing intimacies with Cecil.
And now another first. I had never been inside a golf clubhouse, though in high school in Wisconsin, I lived down the hill from the Blackhawk Golf Course. Chief Black Hawk’s war in 1832, like Ohio’s Battle of Fallen Timbers, involved a massacre committed by U.S. forces. Both misnamed “battles,” were crimes of racial violence and land theft that opened the way for statehood and white settlement. Ohio, 1803. Wisconsin, 1836.
A man with hair like John Kerry’s interrupted my thoughts, loudly ordering another round. We left the blessed cool, hoping to be far gone before the men got back in their cars.
A flat tire slowed our get-away. Changing it the shade of the chalet, we were glad to see some leave before us, not wanting to meet them on these narrow hilly roads to Haskins.
Ten more miles and the landscape pancaked.
I first discovered this fertile Ohio plain in the fall of 1975 when I rented a bicycle to escape freshman loneliness at Oberlin College. A few pedals and the bike rode itself, away from the college I would soon leave for good. On this particular Friday guys in pick-ups gathered at the Sonoco in Haskins, eating pizza, buying 12-packs. I watched one young man place a can between his legs under the steering wheel, eleven more on the passenger seat. We joined them on the pizza. I regretted it as the last bite went down. I was painfully constipated. We had been on the road for over two weeks and my body was letting me know it did not work well on gas station food.
When we arrived in Bowling Green I insisted on splurging at an upscale vegetarian place where waiters describe each ingredient and water glasses were constantly refilled. It was dark by the time we left the restaurant. With the image of man, car and beer still lodged in my head, I ruled out biking to the campground five miles down the road. Bowling Green State University was hosting a marching band contest at their football stadium and hotels had jacked up their prices for the occasion. Dave was ready to pay $130 for a foul-smelling Best Western. I was not. We headed through town to the soundtrack of drums, horns, and cheering crowds, searching for a place to put up our tent.
Dave was looking for a place to hide. I thought we should stake a claim, act as though we belonged. I spied a 32-foot RV parked in a campus lot. “Let’s do an Arlo Guthrie.”
“In Alice’s Restaurant, he saw a pile of trash and decided to add his garbage to the heap. We’ll put up our tent here and call it a campground. Settler’s rights.”
Of course Arlo got arrested for littering, but like him, I wasn’t thinking this through and Dave didn’t remember the movie. So we set up next to the RV, in the spotlight of a parking lamppost. By 2am I had to pee. Imagining getting arrested for indecent exposure, I grabbed a plastic bag and squatted by the door. The squatting encouraged the vegetarian spinach and eggplant dish to dislodge the pizza.
I crawled into the spotlight to look for a place to empty the bag. Back in the tent, fully awake and more unclean than ever, I resented the man sleeping sweetly beside me, for being anatomically equipped, for being right about finding a dark place, for being right about taking the hotel, for being able to sleep without a shower, for focusing on the best outcome while I imagined every possible wrong turn.
At 4:53am we broke camp. As I strapped the tent to my bicycle, a campus cop rode up.
“Are you the ones who were in the tent last night?”
Underneath me was a square imprint of smashed grass. I nodded.
He looked at me: disheveled, pungent, old enough to be his mother. “How far you come on those bicycles?”
I looked at my odometer. “762 miles.”
“That’s something…. You need anything?”
“Huh… a bathroom?”
He raised his eyebrow and arm in a gesture I translated as, “That’s obvious.” He paused a moment longer, making a decision. “Follow me.”
He rode slowly. We followed, snaking through campus to the stadium where thousands cheered their young musicians the night before. He got out of his squad car beckoning to us, then hesitated. “Are you two married?”
We nodded. He unlocked a stadium door, led us into the women’s locker room. “Roll your bikes in here so no one will mess with them. When you leave make sure the door is closed. It’ll lock after you.”
As a middle-aged white woman of short stature, I was used to being considered unthreatening. With Dave, the added aura of heterosexual respectability surrounded me. Now, wandering across lines of legality, we leaned unthinkingly on various forms of privilege, never knowing the extent to which our demographics protected us. But we were becoming aware that without showers and laundromats we could lose unwarranted assumptions of innocence. Officer Friendly trusted us enough to leave us with keys to the store. His gift of showers erased our growing scent of indigence.
Bowling Green co-ed athletes had posted collages with inspiring quotes and pictures of people they admired on the hallway wall. The bicycle lady in her fifties, cleaned, dressed and feeling new, posed in front of the wall of fame.
Lunching at the New China Town in Huron, I read the headline: The Tribe is not doing well. On an inner page a smaller article caught my eye. New program for Sandusky homeowners: mow foreclosed lots and the land is yours.
Homestead Act 1862 — sow to own stolen land.
Homestead Act 2011 — mow to own the dispossessed.