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Who is this guy? I see him everywhere. He might be in his mid-thirties. He’s wearing baggy sweatpants, destroyed shoes, and a hoody over a baseball cap. He’s pushing a bicycle up the sidewalk and smoking the last raw nub of a cigarette. Sometimes there is a plastic bag with dubious cargo hanging on the handlebars. He’s in no particular hurry to get anywhere and I doubt he’s homeless. He lives somewhere—on a sofa in a garage, maybe. But there he is.
I see him first in Redmond, Oregon, flowing out of the Dutch Brothers coffee shop, and again in Madras, where Fremont once camped with his field howitzer. In the past I had Googled-Earthed the coordinates Fremont recorded in his journal and placed a pin on the map for each camp site. I was plotting his progress until his sextant broke and the recordings became unreliable. It was a wilderness then but now Fremont’s old campsite in Madras is in some guy’s shoddy backyard with a broken swingset and a derelict car–some fellow I imagine who is perpetually late on his water bill and elbow deep in his mother’s dementia. He reports late to work each day in the generally unpleasant crossroads of time and colliding cultures that is the tractor dealership of Madras, Oregon.
The west is a mental illness. It still hears voices. It is two minds colliding in real time. The mass of time immemorial was Monday. Tuesday was Virginia City. Wednesday was Mercury Test Site. Tonight is a parade of Starlink Satellites–like a salvo of North Korean missiles streaking through the big dipper.
I see him again in Shaniko, Oregon, which is a collection of shacks at a bend in the plateau highway. They shipped millions of sheep out of this country once. They don’t anymore. But he’s there, and so too is a giant hole in a storefront where someone has driven their truck through the front door of an antique shop. Shattered timbers and insulation hang like the torn web of a garden spider. I’m pushing the throttle, but I can see all the way into the store and it’s like peering into a wound-channel. The offending truck has been towed from the store and sits out front with the tailgate down and the hood up. There is no one else around but the man with bicycle, who is just standing there, smoking.
The speed limit through town is 35 but nobody is doing less than 70.
I see him again in Wasco, on the Columbia River, where he is shuffling through a McDonald’s parking lot strewn with hashbrowns and Egg McMuffins someone bought and then left on the hood of their car when they drove away to happiness unbound. I see him again in Kennewick, Washington, making a slalom course through the construction cones in the middle of the highway. It’s the same guy every time. And he’s there again in Spokane, pushing his bicycle, and again in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, shuffling down the sidewalk in front of the hospital, his shoelaces untied and one soul of one shoe flapping like a broken bird’s wing.
I’m tempted to fill in the blanks. I recall a 6 am Be On the Lookout for a strong-arm burglary suspect on the east side of Santa Barbara. We were supposed to be looking for a Hispanic male, five and half feet tall, wearing a gray hoodie, last seen going in every direction at once. At 6 am on the east side of the city everyone on the street matches that description. This is when the zombies come up from the manhole covers. When the iceplant comes alive. The hour of the CHUD. Some copper in another car hears the BOL, keys his microphone, and crackles a Halloween laugh into the police radio. I can hear it still.
The drive from Sisters to Coeur d’Alene takes seven hours. Out of the high desert and up onto the Columbia plateau, along the southern edge of the Columbia River where giant tugs are pushing grain barges up a mercury-silver river wider than the Mississippi. The traffic is light. The radio is full of war and hurricanes, bad economic news, and the on-going snake-fights of domestic politics from which there never seems to be a conclusive winner—or a clear direction. The political parties remind me of something and for ten miles I can’t figure it out. Then I know: they are like two bull caribou whose horns get locked in a bruising fight until finally they die together, tangled in exhaustion while the herd moves on across the tundra.
I’m driving eastbound along the river and watching the cars. Driving is a team sport which is largely a lost concept but today the prevailing mood seems to be cooperative. People use their signals. Slow cars stay in the slow lane. These are tiny touches of human kindness, the kind Chekhov believed would be necessary for the continuing abatement of evil. He did not think good would ultimately prevail. He thought the fight goes on forever but that evil can never triumph because of the mystery of small acts of love and kindness that exist even in the worst of conditions. He was probably right. The river cliffs loom up on the right side of the road. They’ve engineered ditches to catch sudden rockfalls and to keep them off the highway. It’s a nice touch and goes largely without notice.
A madman in a tiny boat is pounding down the channel of the choppy and limitless river and I wonder where it is he might be headed. For some reason I think of Snoopy, the World War I Ace, flying his doghouse through the clouds.
There is an undertone in the air lately that I can’t quite parse, can’t quite articulate in my mind. Maybe it’s the news, pouring out of the radio, which is bad on every channel I audition. I try a satellite stand-up comedy channel but the jokes aren’t funny. The people are laughing but the sets are focused on bodily functions and identity issues and sound more like self-help confessional sessions. The laughter is nervous and almost canned. The comics, like Hollywood, seem out of ideas. Mostly, the comics sound desperate and dumb. I turn back to a bit on the BBC about Nigerian women being murdered for no reason.
Maybe the mood is anchored by the slow-moving freight train across the river, sprayprainted by bandits in darkened railyards. Lascaux on rails. Freight trains haul one exclusive cargo: melancholy.
My schoolboy friend Darson Nelson, before he ate a shotgun in some shit-stinking suburb of Sacramento, was the funniest person I’ve ever known. I was in a plywood military call box at Camp Doha, Kuwait, when I got the news that he was gone. I can’t imagine the pain, the permanent disappointment, of seeing the world through a comic’s eyes. He bore it up as long as he could, I suspect. In the end he couldn’t take it anymore, and so fit two barrels into his mouth and wiggled his big toe.
That was thirty years ago and I’m at a loss to explain where the time went.
It could also be the light, this odd undertone. It’s early fall. The sun moves obliquely, the cant of light in the rocks and in the plateau grass feels strained, like something in mourning. The blue of the river has turned gray and cold, the sky is thin, and the clouds are stringy, sickly-looking things. We turn north, over a river-bridge into eastern Washington and a million square miles of dry-land wheat country–and of course there he is again, on a highway through mostly nowhere, pushing his bicycle along the shoulder of the road.
Our man in London reports that a couple of nitwits doused Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in a can of Heinz tomato soup last week. Then they glued themselves to the wall. The two dolts belong to a group called Just Stop Oil, which is funded by an outfit called the Climate Emergency Fund, which is funded by Aileen Getty, of Getty Oil. One presumes the Heinz angle is a kind of backhanded shot at the dour immensity of John Kerry, who married into the soups and ketchup fortune, who tossed his Vietnam medals into a garbage can in a righteous pique, and who flies around the world in a private jet requiring petroleum products while demanding everyone else stop using petroleum products. He’s a ghoul, the Archbishop of Catastrophe, but what possible difference does that make, at this point? It’s also notable that Just Stop Oil, which runs these little vandalism ops for publicity, accepts donations in cryptocurrency which is one of the most notoriously destructive industries on the planet. Crypto is known as an “energy vampire,” and it’s true that the little bitcoin jam-scam requires more energy than the total consumption of some small countries—just to crank out a few imaginary coins for the wildcatters. John Kerry goes to bed angry about something every night–dry shampoo, Taco Bell, melting glaciers, the little people he can’t control.
In Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman wrote: “True believers always want to bring God to man by force…”. One day the climate people will tire of throwing vegetables at art. It’s been a while since they spiked a tree, set fire to a housing development, or burned down a car dealership. They will eventually tire of marching around in sandwich boards and sending up their child doom-prophets to hiss at the world. Lately, they’ve been letting the air out of truck tires in Wal Mart parking lots. They leave little shaming notes under the windshield wipers. Keep a weather-eye out for crusaders polishing their armor, the keepyard sounds of forge bellows and swords being sharpened at the stone.
THIS JUST IN: Kerry will be flying commercial to his next Planet Savers meeting. In Potsdam, the JSO people hammered a Monet with mashed potatoes and then, you guessed it, glued themselves to the wall for the cameras.
BREAKING NEWS: Stay tuned for in depth-coverage of the cheating scandals rocking the redneck underworld. We’ll go wall-to-wall with exclusive interviews of Bass Tournament and Cornhole legends who say congressional oversight is needed to police the slippery world of beanbag stuffing and lip-ripping. Roll audio soundbyte: “This is the tip of an enormous iceburg, Brent, it’s worse than the Black Sox scandal in ’19.”
Past Phillipsburg, Montana, and I am daydreaming about Richard Hugo. I can still recite Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg and when I get to the last line I punch it up the way Hugo did at a reading– a controlled yell–in the cab of my Ram 2500—Her red hair lights the wall! I groan, startling my wife out of a steady sleep over in the passenger’s seat. I love her, and she still loves me after 21 years of trail busting, but she is not amused with my antics just now, rolls her eyes, fluffs her travel pillow, goes back to sleep.
The Montana sky is made of pewter and looks undecided, disorganized, the clouds jockeying for priority. We stop for gas at a Love’s. It costs me almost three hundred dollars to fill up the tank which is more than I once paid for monthly child support. I look around at the people working their pumps. We look like the tail-end of a migrating herd, bedraggled and exhausted, survivors of the Serengeti gauntlet who have arrived at the waterhole only to find it muddy and surrounded by lions.
The guy with the bicycle is here too, of course, his sweats a little grayer, his hoody a deeper tone of black, his cigarette still more butt than tobacco. He lingers in front of the filthy glass doors and I walk past him into the smell of corn dogs and scorched coffee. I look at his hands and then at his eyes which were forged in a prison workshop. He’s no lion. He’s a hyena here, at this watering hole, watching the animals for signs of weakness.
On our last trip in this direction, aiming for Great Falls, I nearly ran over a bighorn sheep that was standing in the road outside of Bonner, Montana, where the Blackfoot River was raging through the canyon. It was a big runoff and the water was the color of tapioca pudding. I braked to a hard stop until the bighorn found its way into the trees and then I saw there was a dozen of them lurking in a roadside forest darkened by hard rain. And then I hammered the throttle, hell-bent for leather and the looming shadow of Red Mountain.
In 1984 I flew with my father from Van Nuys, California, to Cody, Wyoming. We stopped in Provo, Utah, for a hamburger and fuel. Somewhere over the Wind River Range we hit a wall of weather. It was a black mountain of bad ideas, but my father was a great stick and thoroughly non-plussed. The worst airport he ever flew into, he once told me, was in West Virginia. “It’s just severe wind-shear and hellhounds on your heels everytime, pard.” We were chasing the storm and my father flew on, into the worst kind of churning turbulence. I could reach out and touch the tops of the trees. Our wings brushed over rocks the size of small houses. The engine made weird struggling sounds. And then I vomited my hamburger and fries all over the instrument panel and we flew the rest of the way into Cody. That is the one and only time I’ve ever been airsick, though I did once vomit on a Thanksgiving dinner table, in front of the assembled guests, in Half Moon Bay, California.
When we landed in Cody the storm had already steamrolled through. There were airplanes upside down on the tarmac, doors ripped off hangars. The courtesy car wouldn’t start so my dad hired a Rent-A-Wreck from a bonafide Wyoming lunatic who wore a pearl-button shirt with the sleeves torn off at the shoulder, whose teeth were the size of fence pickets. He looked something like Jim Varney who was better known to the world as Ernest P. Worrell. We drove to the store and bought a bucket and cleaning supplies. I spent my first hour on the ground in Wyoming cleaning puke from the instruments, which has become the operating metaphor of my entire life. Then we drove to the Irma, tossed our bags (1 Each) into the Phonograph Jones Suite, and went down to the Cherrywood bar for dinner.
I did not inherit my father’s love for flight. Where he waxed prosaic about flying over the North Atlantic at night with “three hundred assholes in an aluminum tube,” I prefer a long drive, the dust of the trail, and blue highways. I could live for weeks in a camper van just poking around the desert. I know that bothered him, the way such things annoy fathers, but I remain steadfast in my certainty that a reluctant pilot is also a bad one.
Next day, we walked the entire length of the Little Bighorn battlefield, which was the only way you could do it then. In days to come we stalked the firearms museum. We haunted Old Trail Town and took photographs at Liver-Eating Johnson’s grave. We watched the gunfight outside the Irma. We took in the Cody Nite Rodeo. These were halcyon days, of course, and I was young enough to be utterly naïve about time. A summer week could last a year. I did not know then, and can barely understand now, that time is relative. It bends like light. It lengthens. It shortens. It gets fat in the middle. A number of physicists now say, outloud to the masses, that it may not even exist.
Two weeks later we flew to Pago, Pago, American Samoa, where the air is made of steam, the snails are as big as softballs, and every chief on the islands was waiting at the airport for the arrival of the Secretary of the Interior. Hulking men in traditional regalia whose ancestors thought nothing of paddling canoes over a thousand miles of open ocean to sack the Kingdom of Tonga.
At the Intersection of I‑94 and I‑90, just east of Billings, Montana, where the road turns east and then south through Crow Agency and Lodge Grass, I saw him again. He was standing under a green road sign in a driving rain. I could just make out the glow of his cigarette, cupped in his palm. The plastic bag was hanging from his handlebars, weighted with something dark. He looked like a muskrat. The bicycle was leaning against the signpost. Rain was cascading from the brim of his baseball cap. He stood there as though studying the raindrops for clues, one at a time.
We made Sheridan just after dark, checked in for our keys and dropped our bags in a room where the doorlatch was wonky and the ice-machine outside was making a series of noises like four raccoons fighting over a Krispy Kreme donut in the bottom of a dumpster. That would go on every night. We ate dinner at Buttero’s Italian Eatery in the hotel, maybe only because it was still open and also because they were showing our movie directly after a 50th Anniversary playing of The Godfather at the WYO Theater. We were in Sheridan but our visit was drenched in Italian themes. I drank an entire bottle of ho-hum wine to kill the asphalt vibration that runs on a circuit between my kneebones and my lower spine. The head chef came out to ask if we were enjoying our meal. The food was delicious but the décor was Spaghetti western with a dash of the 50’s musical South Pacific. Palm trees in the wallpaper. Tahitian sunsets. I thought: A nod to the paniolos? It couldn’t be and it wasn’t. It was a symptom of something else. The west, still in transition from one thing to the next, an adolescent laboring to define itself, to paper over last week’s bad taste and poor decisions, to hide the bodies, to fan the gunsmoke out of the bedroom window. Good food, bad décor. Great décor, bad food. Mercury Test Site and Yellowstone. The Grand Canyon and lithium mines. Lake Tahoe and the Derby Dam. Disneyland and Pornhub. The modern west in a plate of fine manicotti and a bottle of Two Buck Chuck.
Dr. Jeremy Johnston, who is the head historian at the Buffalo Bill Museum of the West in Cody, told me in an interview that when they rescued some of the original paintings from the Irma Hotel the canvases reeked of tobacco smoke. And some of the frames had bullet holes in them. And then he told me the finger-necklace I had seen on display in 1984 had been debunked. It was displayed then as a necklace of human fingers owned by a Plains Indian, but it was something else. Animal bones, probably, which was deflating even as I struggled to figure out how Bill Cody had ever squeezed into a pair of impossibly small leather trousers that were now safely encased and climate-controlled in a glass viewing box. For no reason at all it made me think about a pair of chinos once worn by an assassinated Beatle. Against a different wall was a pair of bloomers and a whalebone corset that survived the Bozeman Trail.
On Wednesday, August 2, 1865, Sarah Raymond Herndon, crossing the plains in a covered wagon, wrote:
We had a very cold night; there was ice a quarter of an inch thick this morning. Several head of Hardinbrooke’s and Walker’s cattle were missing this morning; the men have been hunting them all day, they were found this evening in a canyon four miles from camp; there were the tracks of two horses, with shoes, that had driven them there. The Indians do not shoe their horses, so there must be thieves besides Indians in this country.
Her wagon train arrived in Virginia City, Montana, on Monday, September 5th. She was on to something. About the thieves, I mean.
We watched ten short films at the WYO theater in the morning and then made the drive to Buffalo, Wyoming. We ate something unremarkable in the Busy Bee Café, where roadhunters in Gucci camouflage made a show of walking the floor and bellying up to the bar. As if they were mountain men. As if they weren’t insurance salesmen from Denver. As if they wrestled grizzly bears for wampum and pitched their lodges among the Cheyenne. The deceit, and it is a practiced one—is dragged out once a year as they hunt from their truck windows in the Big Horns and make huge campfires outside their luxury campers. What they want you to see are trailblazers, rangers, and scouts. What I see sipping my coffee are men upside-down in their mortgages with daughters who text naked selfies to strangers, sons who look like little Van Helsings and sit on the couch playing video games all night, and wives with credit cards taped to their foreheads.
What’s clear is that they want something from the theater of it, some kinship with history they can’t get from the corner office in Colorado Springs. That’s why they are here, to claim or to reclaim something they can feel slipping away on the tide. It’s the one time of year they can scratch their bellies and warm their feet at a fire. I don’t want to take that from them, even if this thing they are doing with the bad hunting and the outfits can never be more than a kind of frontier make-believe, a survivalist cosplay.
We peeked in at the Occidental proper, where Butch and Sundance, Tom Horn, Teddy Roosevelt and others once paid their respects, then crossed the street and gave ten dollars to some Girl Scouts who were raising money for a trooper recently diagnosed with cancer. In return for our donation we got two chocolate cupcakes with yellow sprinkles, and a wagonload of smiles. I was taking a bite of my cupcake when I saw that the Bicycle Man was standing at the corner of Fetterman and Main, his hoody cinched tight, his bike laid over in the grass, smoking his butt and peering long into the late-season waters of Clear Creek.
I woke in the morning to three Italians arguing outside our hotel window. I pulled my gun out from under my pillow because it can still get western for no reason at all and shooting back is sometimes required on the trail. There are thieves and such. Indian attacks. The voices went banging around the brick stairwell and across the parking lot and back again where they struck our window like a cold handslap. Why there were Italians arguing, in Italian, in Sheridan, Wyoming, at seven o’clock in the morning defies me. But there they were. Luggage went tumbling down the stairwell. The ice machine was full of mapaches. A car alarm went off. The argument was like an entourage of rappers that travelled across the parking lot and was swallowed up to silence in the slamming of car doors.
I looked out the curtains at the sky. It was promising rain.
We ate breakfast in the Cowboy Café on Main Street where the college rodeo team was eating through their obvious hangovers, and where the waitress had a sunny disposition, an octopus tattoo on her forearm, and a noticeable gap where her left lateral incisor should have been. Her tongue kept wanting to work its way out of that gap when she spoke to us which caused an endearing sort of lisp. She was kind and quick to keep my coffee mug full. She brought us plates heaped with food and a ticket light on its demands.
I drank a double Jack and Coke at The Mint Bar. We toured King’s Saddlery. Then we walked back up the street and sat down to watch our own film at the WYO. We had a good crowd. I did the Q&A session, the spotlight blinding me. I cuffed my ear and leaned into the questions like some kind of vaudevillian deaf-mute because I wasn’t wearing my hearing aids. A clown act in a cowboy hat. And then the rain came. Torrential rain. Rain like the proverbial floodwaters of Noah that prevented us from seeing even ten feet and created a wild and scenic river out of what had recently been Main Street. A rain that turned my truck into a submarine when we went to order a pizza at the Powder River. I blew the ballast and sailed flank-speed on the surface, making an impressive wake on the sidewalks and suddenly thinking of Das Boot, the German masterpiece. I sang: “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” across the briny Sheridan Sea.
There is a convincing case to be made that we are always walking over old battlefields, even if we don’t always know it.
Next morning, after the floods, we pulled up the little road to the Fetterman Site where a monument to the dead sits in a little square of mortared stone. What makes this site so spiritually delicious is that very little has changed. A ranch here and there. A cell tower on a distant hilltop. The highway several miles to the east. At Fetterman the field of battle unfolds in unique clarity, in 360° of slow-walking revelation. We are the only ones here, save an old man in a janky car with Illinois plates. He is sitting on the driver’s side with the door open, barefoot, scraping mud from the bottom of his shoes. I can’t tell if he’s coming or going. He’s gregarious. He’s just come from the Little Bighorn, he tells us, hoping we are prepared for mud.
There isn’t any. We walk the ridgeline, wind in our faces. The Big Horns to the west are shrouded in fast moving clouds but there is an occasional break and the golds and the greens leap out in the sunshine. The ridge is a tiny spine running north and south. To the south is Lodge Trail Ridge, and on the other side of that sit the remains of Ft. Phil Kearny.
The signposts along the ridge are helpful. They endeavor to tell the story evenly, without choosing a side, without denigrating the dead or the disappeared. Down there the Cheyenne waited in ambush. Over there the cavalry outpaced the infantry and sprung the trap. Over here the Arapahoes swarmed up out of the willows. Right here is an impression that was once the rutted trace of the Bozeman Trail. I walk and imagine these things. I try to hear the zip of arrows, the thunder of rifles, the screaming. This is an art that requires practice and patience. I study the field like the old Marine I am, reading the ground for cover and concealment, for some tactic, some strategy out of the firesack Fetterman tumbled into. There isn’t one. That little pile of rocks just there was lousy cover indeed. There was nothing to do but run. Red Cloud built his ambush carefully, over time, playing on arrogance, and when the jaws clamped shut Fetterman and his men were doomed. There was no delaying action that would save them. Not here, not on this ground.
There are native accounts of the Little Bighorn that claim the last survivors were wandering the battlefield like crazy men. Otherworldly beings. Shooting themselves in a kind of fugue. One wonders if that might have happened here. We know that the bugler, Adolph Metzger, fought to the end. He fought so hard and so long and with such bravery the Indians honored his body by placing a buffalo robe over him where he lay in the snow. His rent bugle, his final weapon, now rests in the museum in Buffalo.
The man from Illinois is on the trail as we come back from the leading edge of the fight. He has carried his own chair from the parking lot and set it firmly under the one tree on the ridge. He is smoking a cigar and drinking a beer. We chat. He too is an old Marine. Vietnam. Guantanamo Bay. His knowledge of the history here is solid. He asks me to take his picture. We talk, too long because too much talking breaks the magic of this place, and I want to slide back into my reverie. We depart with the obligatory exchange of Semper Fi’s and he remains with his cigar and his beer.
On the way back to the lot I pause for a moment looking back at Lodge Trail Ridge. Crazy Horse came around that hill hoping the cavalry would bite. They did. He lured them all the way in. The infantry ran behind, in some cases holding onto the stirrups of the cavalry to keep up in the cold and the snow. They died tired. I look at a pile of stones at my feet. After the battle, I think, with the bodies still steaming in the December air, this would have been a great place to sit for a minute. To nurse a wound. To thank the creator. To ponder the mysteries.
Fort Phil Kearny was torched, probably by Cheyenne, when the Army left. Somehow, it is the absence of the fort that etches its outline so perfectly. In Keeping Things Whole, the poet Mark Strand wrote:
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
Which is what the fort has done, is what history does. It has moved on to keep things whole, thrown up in ash and smoke, the hewn timbers of its storerooms and quarters pitched forward into the earth to smolder in coals, this defiler of the last great hunting grounds. If you stand in the center of the parade grounds and look to the south you can see the signaling post where detachments waved their signals by semaphore—Indian Attack at the Wood Train! Riders Approaching from the south! To the north and west the trail of the wood trains bends into the mountain. To the west the great open ground where the fort grazed its cattle, where the Indians stampeded buffalo to scare off the beeves, where they signaled with mirrors. To the north, Lodge Trail Ridge, a stage curtain obscuring two thousand natives in ambush.
We walk the entire fort. The grounds have been marked with stakes and posts to explain what existed here. The Enlisted Men’s Quarters. The Commander’s House. The Sutler’s Store. The Laundress Quarters. The Guardhouse. The company streets are narrow. The buildings are set tight together. The land has passed from hunting grounds to fort, back to hunting grounds, to the plow, to the Reynolds Mining Corporation, to the State of Wyoming. The air moves in to fill the spaces where the people have been. Where the buildings were. Crazy Horse was here. Looked down on this space with fury and sadness. He had to have known.
Fucking Crazy Horse was right here. He is made enormous by his absence.
The Sheridan Overland Express pulled out at 0600. Bags secured. Wheels up. There was a pinch of cold in the air. The doors of Starbucks were still locked. The high plains sun was dawning with rosy fingers in the wild east. The man with the bicycle was waiting for a light at the corner of walk and don’t walk. He stood there eyeing our wagon, holding his bicycle steady at the handlebars, a cigarette burning between his fingers. Behind him loomed a grain elevator battered by weather. I did not see him again until Crow Agency, where he stood in tall grass on the shoulder of the road watching a school bus raise dustclouds on the frontage road. He did not turn around, but I’m certain he raised his arm to wave.
No one can tell the whole story. We make our rounds, sound the old wells, leave our prayers in the cracks of the temple stones. We watch our coffee steam on a cold porch in the morning. The shorter version is this: we made a blitz on Sheridan, watched some movies, followed the trail where it led. We were haunted by an apparition along the way. We are getting older, our trails are growing shorter, and we seek less meaning. We raid less, study the field more. It is enough to feel the wind at an old battle site, where giants wearing animal skins roamed with their bows and clubs, to observe the country with precision and practice and to note how the rituals change. We are both participants and observers. We feel triumph and tragedy. We tip well. We hold the door open for an elder. We sing the songs of our people even as the reasons they made them have faded. We look askance at pilgrims and their sad rites. We sit under a ponderosa and watch the fall needle drop, not knowing what it means or when it will end. We read the journals of those who went before us. See their marks clawed into a rimrock wall. We point our wagon to the west and yearn for something. We feel the oversway in the suspension at 80 mph on the asphalt covering an old buffalo road, hear the wind, see the sun blow through a hole in the clouds and light up a golden valley dotted with barns. We feel that gnawing hunger for a meal we can’t quite describe. It is relentless and unassuaged by the hundreds of miles, by the valleys and the mountain passes, by the deserts and the river canyons. It is a vacuum in the solar plexus, and it is always with us.
And then, suddenly, as if we had never left, we are home again.
I too dislike flying. In fact, I’m afraid to fly. Not to the point I can’t do it, but during take offs and landings and turbulence I clutch the seat.
I don’t know what these eco-vandals hope to accomplish by their stunts. (I’ve found that asking the question “what will it accomplish” will cut through a lot of bullshit in life.) It won’t Just Stop Oil. Really, though the love of destruction or the need for attention might be the true reason.
Craig Rullman says
It’s likely they don’t really know either. It’s performance art, really, and not much more than that…I will fly, but it is my last choice, not least because I remember when flying on a commercial airliner was something better than riding a bus. It was elegant, even, a treat. Now you are lucky if the seat isn’t made out of angle iron and the hippy behind you doesn’t put his bare feet through the seats.
I can’t remember when flying was elegant, but even in my life time it’s gotten worse. What gets me is the knowledge that there’s nothing under my feat. I can be on top of a mountain or tall building and look down and not be scared, but without anything under my feat I fell a degree fear. Not enough to keep me from flying (or going into panic attacks on planes) but it makes the experience not my favor.
This was good. Very good
Craig Rullman says
Quixotic Mainer says
The reoccurring vagrant nere do well reminds me of the beginning of “Big Trouble in Little China”, where the arch villain appears in various guises on the street as the protagonists draw closer to his underworld. That being said, humans often are forged by environment. With enough people making the same bad guesses on their lifelong OODA’s, you do see the same people repeatedly, their names notwithstanding.
The thoughts on the ghosts of the west struck me pretty hard too. As a yankee with a lifelong romance toward all things western, I remember being hit with the same sad cognitive dissonance in Nebraska, sitting on a hill where Black Elk supposedly used to go and make his medicine. The fact that it was now amidst a mind numbingly dull suburb punctuated by “Runza” fast food joints just seemed wrong somehow.
Runza is horrible food.
But yeah, things don’t always live up to what you expect.
Craig Rullman says
This is true. However El Chorito, a taco truck here in Sisters, has never let me down. Not even oncet–as they say in Missourra.
Craig Rullman says
I had a slight revelation recently involving all of this. I’ve been so busy peeling back the landscape and trying to see things that were no longer there that I’ve been missing some opportunities. As much as it pains us, it’s cognitive dissonance that drives the narrative. The absence of the fort, in this case, actually is the fort, and we have to see them both or we are missing the point. I think that’s what I mean by the west being a kind of mental illness–it’s a kind of constant hallucination exercise punctuated by Runza joints. Runza…even the word sounds bad.
I think sometimes you have to tailor your expectations to what is. Sometimes it is best not to have expectations.
There are good things about consumerism. You have a lot of choices when in the past, but like anything else it comes with a price. We don’t always conserve the good we do have in our pursuit of whatever is new.
Quixotic Mainer says
I like that version of things! It’s Chingachgook’s, “Once, we were here” speech, applied to the post modern malaise.
I never was coerced into actually eating anything at Runza’s, I could see that ambush from too far off. The name is almost like the bright colors on a nasty snake.