Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Inner Coconino County, the One with the Cat, Mouse, and Dog

The path from Santa Barbara to Santa Fe is straightforward enough in basic navigational terms, but those terms do little to define the potentials for digression in more existential terms.

The trip from any Point A to any Point B, if long enough, is fraught with potentials for digression, say the search for decent coffee on the road that is neither urn coffee nor Starbuck's.

The trip from Santa Barbara to Santa Fe involves spending several hours in Coconino County in north central Arizona.  For convenient reference, Coconino, in actuality the second largest county in the entire U.S., contains as a notable landmark the city of Flagstaff, a place you could consider living if it were not for its distance from either the Pacific Ocean or the Sea of Cortez, or, to make matters untenable, its high density of political extremists.

Congratulations; you have just digressed from your venture into digressions.  Your intent was to tell why Coconino County is a digression from your intended goal of reaching Santa Fe in sound mind and sound body, perhaps a bit road weary, perhaps awed into a reverential silence for the dramatic changes of Nature all about you.

But there you are:  The world about you was beckoning you into memories, impressions, and the time travel we associate with nostalgia.

All because of standard issue Interstate Highway sign conventions.  Entering, the sign said, Coconino County.  Straightforward in its innocence and directness.

But such are the whiles of associations and nostalgia that the Coconino County you entered was no more the Coconino County of actuality than the Albuquerque you will enter tomorrow is the Albuquerque of Walter White and Jessee Pinkman.

The Coconino County of your venture is populated by a cat who by degrees reminds you of Felicite, the protagonist of Flaubert's longish story, "A Simple Heart," and the tojours gai heroine, Mehitabel,  of Don Marquis' comic strip, Archy and Mehitabel; a mouse named Ignatz, and a dog, Offisa Bull Pup, often called Offisa Pup.

These are the principals of Krazy Kat, a comic strip that ran from well before your arrival on this planet until the death of its creator, George Hermann, in 1944.

The cat nurses an unrequited love for the mouse of an operatic intensity.  Ignatz Mouse will have none of Krazy Kat's affections; he is often seen throwing a brick at Krazy, conking her and in the process convincing her of Ignatz's overwhelming passion.  Offisa Pup, the embodiment of law and order, is ever on duty, ready to drag Ignatz mouse off to the "Hoosegow" or Juezgado, where he is given time to consider his deeds.

George Hermann's Coconino was a delight of surreal beauty and wacky whimsicality, a place you have in a sense always sought, a landscape of your own personal Avalon.

You and your dear friend, Barnaby Conrad, often debated the respective merits of Hermann, Harold Foster of Prince Valiant fame, and Milton Caniff, first of Terry and the Pirates, then of the Steve Canyon strip.  You were surely fans of the latter two, but held your ground for Krazy Kat until Conrad proposed we put the matter to Charles M. Schulz, a man we admired as much for himself as for his own comic strip, Peanuts.

Schulz came down with such finality on the side of Krazy Kat that Conrad conceded defeat.  That year, we each, unknown to the other, gave the other a collection of the early strips.

Later, we both fell on Bob Kane, creator of Batman, each of us nursing the belief Kane would rate George Hermann number two to, of course, Bob Kane.  But Kane also had a soft spot in his heart for Krazy, Ignatz, and Offisa Pup.  "George Herman influenced me,"  he said.  "I'd have to rank him as the Numero Uno."

It is not that you are lacking in respect for the real Coconino County, its sweeping vistas, forests, mountains, its eternal scent of Life as Life ought to be.  But the colors, shadows, architecture, and extraordinary landscape of dramatic possibility have drawn you into the Coconino County of George Hermann long before you gave conscious thought to such things.  For a time, you pretended as you wrote that your stories were set in Coconino County--that Coconino County, the Coconino County of a vision you place next to Yoknapatapah County of William Faulkner and the Main Street of Sinclair Lewis, and the Monterey of John Steinbeck.

The poet Lawrence Ferlenghetti has written of The Coney Island of the Mind.  Krazy Kat is the Coconino County of the heart.  There is no wonder being in the real Coconino County takes you to this journey to the interior, every time you pass through it or think of it.

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