Journey Into The Passed

Scottish writer Daniel Kalder seeks out strange voyages into a disappearing Texas.

“The pursuit of nothing is not a bad thing,” Daniel Kalder says. “I don’t mind if I find nothing.”

“Nothing” more or less describes what the 34-year-old Scottish writer has found on the first stop of his Saturday morning trek: an abandoned post office painted a queasy shade of pink in the middle of Sandy, a desolate place 10 miles north of Johnson City. The only sign of recent human life is two days’ worth of the Austin American-Statesman that sit, encased in plastic, on the porch. In an oil-drum garbage can, Thursday’s plastic wrapper lies frozen in mid-fall, suspended by a spider’s web. Next door, there’s a house with a freshly mowed lawn, an old Buick beneath the carport and a cat by the front door. But nobody answers when Kalder knocks.

As he wanders about the property, Kalder starts telling himself stories: The concrete table in the middle of a thatch of overgrown grass is a sacrificial altar; a waist-high structure with doors on top is the gateway to hell.

“You go to these ghost towns, there’s nothing there, but you find stuff if you work yourself up into a state of psychic excitement,” he says. “You see things which perhaps nobody else can see.”

Kalder is accustomed to going somewhere only to find nowhere at all, but after a few minutes it’s clear that even his fertile imagination can’t make much of this particular plot of land. So it’s back into the car, and a five-minute drive to Grape Creek Road, which, according to Kalder’s map, will lead us to an abandoned church.

But Grape Creek Road ends at the gate to a ranch, and a man in an SUV who’s come up behind us says he’s never heard of a church on the property. But he does kindly offer us directions to the Sandy Cemetery.

“People, generally speaking, in Texas, have a bad reputation—they’ll shoot you if you come on their land,” Kalder says. But, as he travels around the state visiting ghost towns for a project he won’t describe in detail, he’s found the reality somewhat different. “They will ask questions first,” he says. “They’re quite friendly, you know.”

Walking among the graves in the Sandy Cemetery, the stories Kalder is looking for almost tell themselves. There’s Daniel Greenberry Lackey, who was born in 1787 and lived to be 106. There’s a young girl, not even 2 months old, who died in June 1977; six months later, her father, age 25, followed her to the grave. One gravestone is adorned with a statuette of a golfing frog. Another boasts a bobblehead bumblebee.

Mad cows to Moscow

When Daniel Kalder graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English, he quickly realized his options were limited. “It’s not a very useful degree if you want to make money,” he says, sitting in the Little City coffee shop on Congress Avenue; the shop has become his de facto hangout since he moved to Austin three years ago.

Kalder’s first job after college sounds like something out of one of his surreal-but-true books. The year was 1996, mad cow disease was making headlines in the United Kingdom, and Kalder worked for the civil service as an apologist for the gruesome actions the government had to take. “I would get letters from little children saying, ‘Please don’t kill the cows,'” he recalls. “And it was, seriously, it was my job to reply to these letters and explain, ‘No, no, the cows, they must die.’ But in the gentlest possible terms.”

There was a certain twisted fascination to this job, but Kalder was determined to put his talents to other uses.

“Even as a child, my teachers were always like, ‘Oh, he’s good, he is,'” Kalder recalls of his schooldays in Dunfermline, Scotland. “They’d say to my mom, ‘Oh, he could be a writer one day.’ “

Dunfermline, a town of 45,000 people outside Edinburgh, offered little to the adult Kalder. The capital of Scotland centuries ago, it’s best known today as the hometown of the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

“When we were growing up, they actually would bring us to his birthplace,” Kalder says. “They even preserved the train that he left town on. But of course the subtext of all this is that you must leave.”

In 1996, Kalder left for Russia to work as an English tutor. He figured he’d stay a year or so, but he wound up falling in love with Moscow and lived there for a decade.

“You just see this entire society where nothing’s fixed; everything is broken down,” he says. “Something is being born and no one knows what it is.”

The two books Kalder has written about the former Soviet Union, “Lost Cosmonaut” and “Strange Telescopes,” have vaguely science-fictional titles, and he speaks of the fallen empire in distinctly fantastical terms, calling it a “parallel reality” and a “shadow universe.” So when Kalder decided to turn himself into a journalist, he didn’t much resemble the traditional model of the foreign correspondent who spends a few years filing dispatches and then writes a sober-minded tome about his host country.

“I lived there for almost 10 years, and I don’t recognize Russia in that writing,” he says. “It tends to be very, very kind of ponderous, very tragic, very chin-stroking, almost pious.”

By contrast, what Kalder saw in the wreckage of post-Soviet Russia was something at once funny, tragic and perverse: a wild variety of realities auditioning for the 21st century.

“Strange Telescopes,” which was released last month in the U.S., tells the story of four of Russia’s fervent believers: Vadim Mikhailov, the self-declared leader of a supposed army of “Diggers” who live in a subterranean kingdom that lies beneath Moscow’s streets; Edward, a young man who wants to revive the culture of exorcism that was once central to the Russian Orthodox Church; Nikolai Sutyagin, who tried to build the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper; and the book’s most compelling character, Vissarion Christ, a self-proclaimed messiah who has established a base for his religious movement in remote Siberia. Unlike the other three, Vissarion isn’t a failure; he has 4,000 followers.

“For me, he was the greatest dreamer of all, because I entered his dream,” Kalder says of the weeks he spent among Vissarion’s cult.

What Kalder found there boggled his mind: a plethora of former Soviet dissidents who had fled one form of totalitarianism only to subject themselves to another. Since Vissarion’s word is regarded as infallible, his followers are reduced to a sort of moral infantilism, bothering the great man with ridiculous questions about topics like laundry detergent. “Someone had said, ‘Oh, I used my neighbor’s oxen, and it (defecated) on my land. Am I allowed to use this (dung) on my field, or should I give it to my neighbor?'” Kalder recalls. “And Vissarion just goes, ‘Use it.'”

Negative space

From RM 1323, the main road through Sandy, we turn right on Smith West Ranch Road, which the map says will take us to Rattlesnake Mountain, our main destination for the day. In an e-mail earlier in the week, Kalder wrote, “I am almost certain (Rattlesnake Mountain) 1) is not a mountain 2) contains no rattlesnakes and 3) is closed to public access. Therefore we stand a chance of experiencing triple negation, which is quite exciting.”

As we wind around and up the road, Kalder keeps reeling off his strange, unnerving travel koans. “If you choose a random point, like a non-point, like Rattlesnake Mountain, where there’s nothing really there, then you’re not traveling with an expectation of arrival, or of a museum or something, so you’re more alert to what you see,” he says.

A few minutes later, as if on cue, we spot one of these non-places that quicken Kalder’s pulse: an abandoned stone and mortar house partly encased in a fake metal rockface. If there was ever a path to the front door, it has long been overgrown by weeds and cactus. If there was ever a front door, it was torn off and used for firewood.

As Kalder passes through a torn screen stapled to an entryway, he sees something that makes him say “Wow”: an entire living room set—a couch, two comfy chairs and a painting on the mantelpiece. (“A map of Russia!” he exclaims.) Dust and animal scat litter every surface. On the back porch lies a near complete set of vertebrae, part of an animal skeleton that’s scattered about the floor.

“That’s high-grade space junk,” Kalder says.

Foreign America

Reading his books, one could easily imagine Kalder spending the rest of his life writing about Russia. But three years ago he decided it was time to leave. He knew he would never really become “Russian,” and Vladimir Putin’s bullying regime was making it harder for him to do his job.

He tried a couple of other cities—Berlin, New York (which didn’t live up to the images he had imbibed from Lou Reed records as a youth)—and decided on Austin, partly because he wanted someplace that was totally different from Moscow, partly because he has family in Georgetown.

In some ways, America feels as strange to him as Russia did—the big houses and big cars, the political attack books piled high on the display tables at Barnes & Noble, the 11-year-old boy who asked him at a Pflugerville festival if he loved liberty and then followed him around yelling “Booooo” when Kalder said no.

Mostly, Kalder is struck by how homogeneous so much of Austin is, how people happily balkanize themselves into neighborhoods where everyone listens to the same music and votes the same way.

“Theoretically, America and Texas—Texas in particular—is a land of great individualism,” he says. “And it is. But it’s also a land of conformity, and even self-willed conformity.

“I thought, ‘Maybe they tried communism in the wrong country.’ “

But Kalder has come to enjoy Austin well enough and has no plans to leave. The University of Texas’ library is a boon for a nonfiction writer, and Kalder likes movies and Emo’s, where he spends a lot of time listening to “ear-crushing, violent noise.”

Right now, as if in search of a place as desolate as Siberia, he’s working on his Texas ghost town project. “I’m producing a kind of psychic map of Texas,” he says.

Betrayed by the map

After leaving the abandoned house, we continue driving north on Smith West Ranch Road, toward Rattlesnake Mountain, anticipating whatever flavor of disappointment is in store for us there.

“A negative epiphany is as good as any epiphany,” Kalder had said earlier this morning, as if preparing himself for a day full of nothing in particular.

Still, even Kalder isn’t ready for what happens next: Contrary to what our map says, Smith West Ranch Road—at least the public portion of it—doesn’t connect to RM 962, which is supposed to take us to Rattlesnake Mountain. Instead, it dead-ends into a private ranch. By now, it’s too late to make a big circle and approach Rattlesnake Mountain from the east.

“That’s twice the map has betrayed us,” Kalder says.

Two days from now, Kalder will drive out to another Blanco County ghost town and hit the jackpot: an abandoned school, a stretch of wreckage devoured by vegetation, “freaky spiders, a rusting tractor and jam jars. Lots of jam jars.” But on this particular afternoon he’s happy to put a positive spin on a long day’s journey into nothing.

“It’s not uncommon to have the map betray you,” he says. “It’s part of the pleasure.”

Jeff Salamon, Austin American-Statesman, June 06, 2009

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