the story of one man’s drive
from Vermont to Montana,
Through Canada, and into Minnesota, where I meet a Maker
(author’s note: If you can only stop by for a minute, I suppose I’d recommend scrolling down to Night 4)
(author’s second note: please decide if the first note is at all appropriate for art of this kind)
Night 1: The Ottawa River
Finally left Burlington today, several days later than anticipated. Tried to leave yesterday, made it to the Canadian border, about 20 cars back from the customs booth, and POOF!sizzleSTEAM! my radiator blew up.
Towed back to Burlington by alpine-lake-blue-eyed 28 year old boy out of Swanton– we got to talking on rivers, and then farmers, him complaining eloquently with a farm-boy accent “They give farmers money to stop polluting?! You can be sure if I was dumping oil from my shop into the river, they wouldn’t be giving me no money to build a buffer or fill-pit, they’d fine my ass!”
Got back around 6, lowered the Volvo off the truck and pushed ‘er into a spot at Pearl St Auto, where Sam was just knocking off work with his cooler with its greasy handle and his hand there grasping it like so many workers of so many eras. He came over and whistled at the hole in the radiator and saw all my stuff in the car and he and his partner Chris agreed they can fix me up first thing in the morning. Chris even drove the rig into the garage for the night, so I don’t worry none.
Then JH, old wise friend of the forest and stars, picked me up with my good bags and coolers to take me back to my place. We stopped by City Market to fetch my big green water jug I’d left behind inadvertently in the rainy parking lot some hours before– glad to find it, going to need it. And then he and I headed down Lake Champlain’s summer-lush waterfront, down to the old beat part, the post-industrial earth part. Amongst twisted metal and plant-sprouting brick, we parked by the dilapidated Moran Plant (will that ever re-emerge, or is to stand watch over all of us, reminding us of the ruinous impermanence that awaits all of our material works?) and we then rambled north a bit, the sky growing huge and bright with deep-end blue light. Late August humidity generating peach-cream colors and cool-whip clouds– feeling light.
We clambered up onto a ship-wrecked and marooned 25 ft schooner. Some spring storm must’ve tossed it so, and now it’s stuck on the steep-pitch of the shore-line algae-rocks, with the green-loud flutter of cotton-wood leaves breezing over head. We each enjoy Vermont’s finest beer, Heady Topper, which I’d bought special for the trip, but seemed appropriate to have one here on home turf. Buzz-talked then of harmonics, gyro-copters, alders, Ram Das, plant consciousness, human potential– you know, the small stuff. The sun sagged like the sailboat. Then it set slowly (rapidly) in the northwest, the summer position, the axis is ridden.
And so finally I made it out today (after saying bye again to Birdie, amazing spirit cat that lives with Whit and I), with the car fixed by miracles of knowledge and aluminum mining from some far-off place to make a radiator for a 22 year old car for a 30 year old vehicle of a man – vehicle of what? – and after crossing the border with a pleasant but suspicious French-Canadian customs agent, crossed into Canada. But instead of heading due north to Montreal, where I’d head west to Ottawa and beyond, I turned west sooner onto 202, a road that describes the northern arc of Lake Champlain and the Mississqoui Bay, which was pleasant– epic views back toward my beloved Green Mountains, I’ll miss thee– but here the communities were built up too close and jumbled with much tackiness to my eye- beside a campground and a mini-golf course I spy a bright green antiques shop full of lawn ornaments and imagined the proprietor “Ahhh! Ici est un ‘Pink Flamingo,’ de 1980! Tres chic!”
Then found 15 north, roared into Montreal, over the Richileu river, got f’d up a minute in the Montreal circuitry, crossing over the Saint Lawrence twice to my amusement, knowing it’s the path the western VT rivers take to the sea, then did make it out finally onto the Trans-Canadian Highway, which I planned to stay on all day and the next. Yes!
All still looks the same bio-wise, but every store is French for miles and miles, kilometers and kilometers, and all is unfamiliar on the signs and billboards – amazing, non-free-market forces! preserver of authenticity of place!– leave Quebec, hit Ontario, cruise through Ottawa, a trim, clean-looking, gentle city– but then at the far edge, amongst lateral risings road-side shelves of lime-stone (old Champlain Sea this far north?) a slight rise, and then FLEW! Conifers! Conifers! Conifers! Pine and spruce and dark green hemlock tips interlocking sky-scraping road sky sides of the evening time, the Ontario north country I’ve wanted, just in time….go for a ride…
Listen to Michael Chorney’s “Holler General” album, most recent, featuring buddies RM on bass and GC on drums, me tapping thumbs on the steering wheel as Michael’s weathered raspy voice (as in a rasp, the rough-toothed tool of sanding and smoothing wood) sings and smooths out a life-weary mood. Fine. Vermont lyrics and lullings of winter, winning love against time, a feeling of easing one’s heart into the up-hill climb. The walk, the jog, the drive. Life with no windshield, beauty so brash it throttles the mind, risks leaving one blind to what’s beyond the dotted line. I thank him for this music, on this night, and pray for the courage to drive as deeply into the Way that this man describes.
And finally, now, with intuition feelings at last, trusting them again after some weeks of struggle-stagger lines, I’m feeling fine, and I’ve caught us up to the present time.
We’re driving together, you and I.
We’re heading to Montana, you and I.
A trip of over 2,000 miles, earth and sky.
But one day, one night at a time.
It’s getting late, so I steer the ship off the highway to look for a dock for the night. I turn toward the river, the big river, and get out briefly on a promontory overlooking the Ottawa river valley, turning violets and crimsons over vast northern forests that reach clear to the Arctic, and sigh. I really am on the road again now, missing new-wife Whit and new life tints and old-lives glimpsed in the tangle of corn and milkweed on the roadside.
After a few turns around and along the long spool of that river road, meet some young biologists going to perform eel surveys with electric shocker devices of some kind. Sometimes, especially in the West, one can find boat-launches like this easily spend the night in peace, but here in the still-crowded East, I worry about Mounties. So I head back to go find the old run-down campground I’d seen a ways back. Pull in just as dusk turns to cool dark pine, get a site from the little woman watching a movie at the cottage next door, and go down to lay my head.
Tent up, dinner on, an old man says hi on his way by. I’m the only tenter, only camper it seems, as all the other dwellings are little trailers, campers, and mobile-homes sitting around me in a wide ring in various stages of the patina of winter and pine-needle time. They all face the square like a little New England village, and it seemed only a matter of time until one inhabitant might come calling. His accent is true and nasally in the dark light, but he invites me to go fishing in the morning at 6 and I agree to this rightly. We cheers to this and he heads off to bed in the small trailer just off the bow of the Volvo- it has a nice little porch he’d built and a thin stand of Christmas lights illuminated the white metal sides.
One by one, most lights are extinguished. The night is a rich, dark thing. Coyotes are heard yipping up river. And across the way, in that mass of land north, I hear a solitary, long, and plaintive howl. Wolf.
Night Two: Lake Superior
I do awaken at 5:45 and hear no one stirring anywhere. Dawn is aglow through my screened dome ceiling, and I rouse. Breakfast and coffee on my camp stove. Fifteen minutes, twenty, thirty, and no old man, so I take my coffee down to the river shore anyway. Here the river is so broad it may well be dammed, but it’s a joy to look upon. The sun rises, or rather, we hurl ourselves toward it, and it obliges us once again with its explosive, nutritious light. The cold water, upon its sudden warming surfaces, brings forth low-slung fogs and mists that hang languidly along the further shore. Nearby, the boats docked sway slightly, and a Canadian flag droops with dew, backlit and emblematic. But of what?
On a trip again, I note. Many years, many moons, many times now I’ve set off from my home– and there’s always a ringing in my heart on that first morning when I awaken somewhere new. The inherent vastness and wildness of this world, and our experience within it, is always at hand. And yet, the mind’s comprehension of this tends to wane and wallow in the mundane; it succumbs to an illusion that there’s such a thing as “mundane!” But here, in a new slice of earth never before seen by me, a presence never before felt by me, I am confronted with that age-old feeling that haunts and humors the traveler; I don’t know who I am out here.
Or some such foggy, coffee-stirred reverie. The shallows hold the shape of a solitary blue-gill fish floating lugubriously, and in the clean glass mirror of water just beyond this dock’s furthest precipice, one sees a solitary blue-gill-shaped cloud, floating luridly. What immediacy! What reality!
Drunk and silly on the get-going-giddiness of this trip’s just beginning, I head back to camp to pack up and get going. Ha! Go West young man! The sheer breadth and clear depth of terrain that still needs crossing baffles the young man’s mind– his tightly formed, New England-created mind. What lands, which people, with what style we he find his America? His Canada?
His, Turtle Island?
I do indeed pack up no problem, liking my systems of organization, thinking they’re going to work well. Spent a couple of hot afternoons in my Burlington driveway, playing Tetris with my belongings and imagining the circumstances and scenes in which I’d need to interact with these possessions of mine. And I seem to be doing fine.
Now get the dishes cleaned by the cedar-shaded bathhouse; get the tent dried in the sun by the over-grown apple tree and get packed up semi-tightly; front seat arranged to accommodate a day’s worth of compulsive snacking; wagon rear configured for easy access to the two coolers, the two food bags, and the clothes bag, should it be needed in the cooling evening of…wherever I’ll see evening happen. Man, it’s all just a big happening! Show me any thing, any thought, and let’s witness it not as Platonic or static– shit’s happening!
Happenstance. Happens to be true. Happen upon the planet blue. “Happiness, is a warm…” volvo…
And just as I’m now about ready to roll, with the sun now having crested the eastern tree-line and filling the campground with August (defined as: respected and impressive) (indeed) sunshine, I’m suddenly hailed by the Ottawan old man from last night. Won’t I join him in his home, his trailer, for a cup of coffee, before I go?
I smile with immensity inside. The Smile- or as friend-poet-beguiled-hardest-working-saint-I-know David Tucker would put it, “The Constant Kiss of Unchanging Love,” (his own unique take on the vows and wows of the Bodhissatva)- this Kiss fills and finds me now.
“Sure mate, I’ll join you.”
For this is, to me, what all the fuss is about.
Just before heading over, I get an idea that’s really quite new to me. I decide to turn on the recorder on my phone, and I head into the trailer with the thought that such an experiment may aid me in my ever-blossoming quest to document and enliven the stories that find me. Often this takes the shape of me being unbelievingly overwhelmed by the strength and vitality of an interaction I have while out in the world, and am thinking all the while “Oh man, how can I write about this?! I gotta take this and share it, not in an ego, ‘look at me,’ but rather a ‘look upon this life of ours in all its complexity and beauty!” Hence, for me, the stacks of journals, filled now with hundreds of characters met and canyons explored and mountains climbed– but how to articulate with it with these written characters and sentient-sentence lines?
Perhaps the exercise in recording this talk somehow become the most accurate yet of my methods to frame the wild, un-framable ways of this writing world.
That is for another time…
And then just like that, those three and their little home are fading specks in my rear-view. Amused, I do note that most of my rear-view is obstructed by the situation of my things that a man needs to bring on a journey of this kind. But the view forward is unobstructed, and I lean into the day like a volvo penetrating the morning’s welcoming world. I can only move forward, and today, and the for the next many days, forward means West.
The next few hours see the road width decrease, and with it, buildings and towns. Mostly farm country for a while, then rolling hills of these conifer forests, then back again into farm country. Lush, bright green, with every edge of field and forest entangled with the plants that thrive in those eco-tones. It’s a land in its “fat” time; a summer of stored solar energy and good soil fertility has the place humming. Hard to believe that it’s likely covered in snow five months of the year.
Occasionally I see run-down and abandoned outposts from attempts at the tourist trade. Road-houses boarded up, farm-stands teetering, a mini-golf courses sprouting weeds through the astro-turf. Who were the folks who made these attempts? And where are they now? I stop at one such place, and old diner named “Patsy’s Northern Diner,” and take a pee out back amongst cottonwood saplings that flutter in the cool air. The rear of the building, where a small, single-wide type apartment had been hammered on as an afterthought, now sits with closed, faded white blinds, and a large pine branch resting on the roof. My tracker eyes can detect no sign of anyone using this door, yet I suddenly am not so sure it’s abandoned; a presence is felt. Spooked. I go.
Around the restaurants front, I peer in through the dusty windows. A Coke cooler stands empty against a far wall, with the cord snaking out into the aisle. A calendar still hangs over by the kitchen. 1989. A loud and loaded logging truck thunders by behind me, and I see its wooden reflection fly through the glass in front of my eyes. I re-focus, and am looking at my own eyes in the pollen-filmed glass; where was I in 1989? Where am I in this road-house of time?
I stop for lunch in the town of Mattawa, where the road will soon turn me away from this beautiful blue river. I find a public park on the water, back the car in, and access the wagon to get some food together. I walk the thirty meters to the water, carrying a cooler, my crazy creek chair, and my cotton satchel of books and a journal. On the way, a frenetic and joyous golden retriever nearly knocks me over, and the clean-cut, thoroughly-cologned Quebecois man apologizes bi-lingually “Je suis sorry!”
Before I left the campground this morning, I went to go find the proprietor, Janet, to give her ten loonies for the campsite. No one was around, so I left the bill under her computer and was on my way out when she hailed me in her friendly accented voice. She came up to me, smiley and warm, and said she wanted to give me something, and that I should sign the guestbook. I followed her back to her mud-room, which doubled as the park office, and she handed me a book, “Our Daily Bread.” Now by the river, I open this pocket-sized book and have a look.
It’s a Christian calendar book, with a quote and passage for each day of the year. The first page I open to details some half-baked notion of forgiveness in the eyes of Jesus, written in the sort of illogical, HomeMark rhetoric that makes you feel weird if you haven’t read something like it in a while, like listening to a emotionally unstable man explain the perfect sanity of his craziness. But the quote beside this passage does stand out, as I know it from the song “Rivers of Babylon,” which the ska band Sublime used to play through my teenage car adventures. The quote spoke:
“And the let the words of my mouth
and the meditations of my heart,
be acceptable in thy sight…”
A close reading follows. It’s a notion that out very being, as in the verb “to be,” is itself a holy act, whether we’re speaking, thinking, or breathing. I see the connection to Buddhist thoughts on practicing a clear mind, and to Hindu notions of the God-head within. I finding this to be a humble and pleasant prayer, although I always feel resistance to this Teacher or Father figure, from whom I need my words and mediations to be accepted. “Acceptable?” Who could decide such a criteria? I set to scratching out a few translations of my own. Before I know it, I’ve re-made it to my own liking, and even bring the song’s chorus into it.
“And let the forms of my thoughts,
and the ruminations of my Art,
be a channel of God’s Light.
And let the burns on our hearts,
and the sensations of our Work,
be resplendent in our sight.
….by the river’s of America
where we sit now
and here we create,
bringing forth Heaven…”
Of course, I’m in Canada, but c’mon. Let’s move on.
The road now departs the river and begins to cut across higher terrain, as I circumvent the great Algonguin National Park that Danny mentioned earlier today. The road carves in and out of a few separate Indian Reservations- remnants of the once vast territories of these woodland nations–Anishinaabe, Ojibwe, and Chippewa. I stop at a res gas station and pump gas on an old analog clanker, the digits rotating like winding wheels. Inside I find and buy a gorgeous card made by a local artist; it features Beaver, Moon, and Birch, all spun together in the simple lines of what reminds me of the art of the natives of the Pacific Northwest. Reckon I’ll send this card to my dear Mom upon arriving in Montana.
Another hour, and the semi-familiar beauty of the landscape suddenly subsides. The road has gained elevation again, and I’m up amongst high, nearly-barren hills. Everywhere the bulk of the land surrounding me looks faintly blackened and charred, but there are no standing snags that would indicate a fire. This is instead, I’m slowly realizing, an area of land that was nearly destroyed by pollution some decades ago.
The area is called Sudbury, and it was first established as a frontier rail-way town as the Trans-Canada Railway was being constructed. By 1900, rich deposits of nickel-sulfide were discovered in the surrounding hills. The subsequent mining, and the ongoing timber extraction going on throughout, transformed what was once a rich homeland to Ojibwa people and left it denuded and destroyed. To make matter worse yet, the nickel was not only mined there, but also smelted, and smoke stacks puked out pollutants for more years than I have lived. The material seeded the already rainy weather patterns, and acid rain fell on the towns and hills, resulting in a near total loss of vegetation, and in some places, the soot covered the rocky outcrops with three inches of deadening dark. Five cent nickel coins jingled in change-purses across the continent, and the sound of money was also the sound of ecological collapse. How much has changed?
I remember the look of it faintly from having driven this way once with my father, on our way to Wisconsin. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d be on the same route he and I had taken. I recall as a kid, maybe ten or eleven, being really confused and dismayed at the information I heard: that humans had ruined a place at this scale, and that all of the forests and animals were dead and gone. While my intellect couldn’t quite grasp it, I’m sure it was a formative moment in my life, for it was likely one of the first times I’d begun to contemplate the need for the People to have a better relationship with this world I was so in love with. There was some innocence lost that day I imagine– some splintering in my up-to-that-point intact cosmology that revolved around Earth as playground and still-nurturing mother to my young mind. Here was an earth of a different kind.
Around a bend I come to a rest area and pull off. The sun is silky vanilla through the humid sky, and the landscape around me is still. I stroll up a path and find a promontory, and with it, two signs, and two men. The signs point out that there is in fact a small forest now growing in the hills beyond me, which is the result of extensive and expensive remediation efforts. The men point out the human side of the tale.
“Oh yeah, we all helped out, it was years of work.” He’s sitting with purple sun-glasses on a middle-aged face, wearing a faded Ocean Pacific tank-top, wears a fanny pack, smokes a cigar. “First the government did a lot of flying over everywhere, spreading tons and tons of lime. Turns out that sort of counteracts the pollution and gets the soil going again. Then every year, about a hundred of us from the area, mostly all kids who grew up in mining families, well we’d go out ever day and spread even more lime by hand. We’d cover about a square mile a week, and it’s something like two hundred square miles.”
“Yeah, and then, for another three or four years, we went out and planted all those pine trees you see by hand. There’s over three hundred thousands we planted.”
“Is it done?” I ask, amazed at the scope of this.
“Ha, no, not by a long shot. But we got most of the hills that surround the towns anyway, so it’s prettier to look at. But no, you go walking out a few miles, and just all you see is charred rock forever. Not pretty at all.”
The other fellow stands up. “Well, you ready?” he asks his friend.
“Yeah, let’s do it. Have a good day bub.” And they both beat a hasty retreat. The whole time we talked, maybe that minute or two, I could sense that it was hard to talk about, hard to be sort of proud of the work, but also dismayed that it had to be done. Perhaps. Hard telling. I do know that there’s a lot of places like this in the world, especially out West where I’m heading. The town of Butte, Montana, for example, was once the site of one of the largest mines in the world, and now it sits beside one of the largest superfund sites in the world– the Berkeley Pit, a poisonous tailing pond hundreds of feet deep and half a mile of across. I’ve heard the people there feel in a similar position: they’re proud of the copper that came out of there that helped electrify the nation, but also dismayed and maybe even ashamed by the prevalence of health problems that continue to go along with it.
After looking out upon the charred landscape a little longer, and taking some pleasure in hearing the wind in the still-young pines surrounding me, I head back to the car and resume the journey. I’m aware that I may seem more obsessed with ecological integrity and beauty than some people, but I’m also convinced that we’re all seeking to establish some sort of connection with this earth and its processes, and in turn, ourselves and one another. However, it seems we do ourselves a disservice when we develop a view of the world that is inaccurate, because then the basis of our relationship with it is a conflicting set of illusions of our own making. One the one side, the “nature is perfect” illusion is portrayed in tourist-based wildlife photography and scenic car commercials, and on the other side, the “apocalyptic” illusion that the whole world is a fucked-over wasteland of modern humanity. Traveling with open eyes and an open heart can help to dismantle these strange simulacrums and force us to face the face in the rear-view mirror; sometimes its framed by stunning, pink-peaked mountains, and sometimes it’s framed by depressing, black-tinged surroundings.
But the fact that begins to confront one the most, I find, is this: you don’t need the actual mirror, because the whole blessed place is the mirror. You are the earth, looking at itself again, deciding what’s to be done next.
A few hours and towns later, getting into the groove, the car running well, my systems of snacking and brain-feeding in place (sun-flower seeds and trail mix, books on tape and podcasts), and a car stops suddenly to turn left in a rural village. I pull over to the right, slowly, to go around her. Next thing I know, my mirrors are flashing with blue lights. Pulled over.
I put my hands on the wheel as I’ve always been taught. Just like at customs, I franticly do another inventory of my car, and decide that I’m clean. Pretty sure.
Seen in my small side mirror, the strut and swagger of the armed and empowered. “Do you have any idea why I pulled you over?” asks this young, mustached, baby-faced Canadian cop upon arriving at my window. This is my first experience realizing that I’m older than a cop.
“Honestly officer I do not know.”
“You passed that car on the right. That’s illegal in Ontario, don’t ch’ya know.” The second part is disarmingly folksy, and I suppress a smile. I give my excuse that I didn’t want to have to slam on my brakes; he counters that if that’s true, then I’m following too close. No need to argue. Always say just enough and no more. Respect and good eye contact. Jedi mind-tricks are to be reserved only for the most serious of situations.
He asks for my documents, and while I go about procuring them, he begins to more closely observe my traveling gypsy wagon. I produce my license, passport, registration. “What are all those jars there?”
I look over. The front seat is covered with snacks, a small basket full of utensils, knives, pens, cups, and two big mason jars leaning against the blue fabric. One full of mate, another the dregs of a delicious home-made cider Whit made last fall. I tell him so.
“Uh-huh. And what’s that?”
“What’s that plant there?”
“Oh this?” I ask, pointing toward the little clay pot in my cup-holder, with three little sage starts growing there; starts started during my recent wedding ceremony, and I’m delighted to be brining them with me.
“These are sage starts.”
“What kind of seeds?
“I said what kind of seeds are they sir?”
“Um, sunflower? Oh, no, sage. Like, the herb plant, sage.”
And here’s when I know I’m in rural Canada: he suddenly relaxes and laughs, “Oh, sorry. I thought you said ‘seeds.‘ I’ll be right back.”
I’ll realize later that never before in my life has a cop apologized to me during an encounter. Still makes me smile.
He comes back to the car, and I’m ready to propose some alternate arrangements to me getting a ticket, preparing a little “shucks” kind of story about starting grad school and being broke and loving Canada and what not, but he just gives me my stuff back and reminds me that passing on the right is illegal in Ontario. I thank him sternly but warmly, and sigh with relief. Phew.
The road unfurls like a flower, and I’m the honey bee, humming my way across the evening’s petals of purple light. I reach the border town of Sault St. Marie around sun-down, following signs with arrows that just say “USA –>” Before climbing onto the bridge that will go over the broad channel where Lake Superior drains into Lake Huron, and before heading back into the US (where I know I can expect more thorough and prigish customs agents), I decide to explore the streets along the post-industrial water-front.
The whole landscape is visually loud with the jutting juxtapositions found beside so many of the world’s ports and sea-ways. Water and steel. Sky and smog. Soaring bridges and sinking water-fronts. And from the north sky-line to southern, the alternately illuminating dance of a hundred aviation towers; the blinking red eyes of the modern man’s face of sky. Yet I do not despise this, do you? As a younger man I may have stood in this very spot, my foot upon my bumper stretching, and groaned and condemned this rusting fate. But now, after many more years of travel and contemplation, I’m beginning to find and hone a more coherent vision, one that seeks to never reject or despise that which is in front of my eyes. For every thing I see, and every landscape of place or heart-scape of a person is truly an expression of a great, singular Oneness, from which I too emerge. I can then discern and detail why certain patterns of human-nature relations are imbalanced or pro-biotic, or which economic models are parasitic or pollinating, but I’m still seeking to always have these critical analyses emerge from that state of wonder, that state of infinite grace, which is itself the unifying force between me, the turtle, the tower, the tome…
“The true sage rejects all distinctions, and abides in heaven…that’s in the universe,” stated Alan Watts on my radio an hour ago. I reject my too-easily conjured notions that this scene must be ugly; I open my mouth and breathe deeply, the air thick with humidity and the smoke-sweet smell of industry. All in, all out. I’m within, and of, this whole reality, and I’m tired of this illusion that it’s ever been otherwise.
I get back in the car, but before I start it up, I call upon a recording of friend David Tucker’s poem “Meditation” on my iPod, and let his soft-graveled voice spin the spell that always helps my mind find my heart. It goes:
At customs, I find no line, and the customs agent is a friendly older man that actually reminds me a little of David– a spark in the eyes that goes beyond light lines. He asks me about Montana and my plans, but with no air of authority or roughness, he just seems genuinely interested. And here I do find something wonderful about this trip, and in the many days following; “Montana” holds a deep and old mystique in the American imagination. I can’t quite yet articulate what it is people are seeing when the word is spoken, but nevertheless one sees the speakers eyes glaze over and gaze a little upward, as though they’re seeing some mountain myth of their childhood, or some deeply-held American sensation of that rare and rugged place. Perhaps they’re aware that such a place exists not only “out there,” but within them as well. It’s just hard to find it and until you visit the physical one first.
He and I shoot this shit for a few minutes, him telling me that the sailing around here is incredible– there are hundreds of islands, in the lee-side of which one may drop anchor and feel like they’ve dropped out of time. His eyes glaze up at this too, and I have a window into what it would be like if I, the young poet, every turned into the old customs agent, staring off into great northern memories of lakes and loons.
Before I go, he tips me toward a series of National Forest campgrounds up along the shore of Superior, about 45 minutes away. Perfect, and I’m on my way. Have a good day.
In the deepening dusk, I note the flat straightness of the roads, and the crowding of pines overhanging my headlights’ golden shine. A thick and thorough groove of some EDM plays on my radio- I turn and swerve and glide, cruising ever deeper into my country, my lovely, my reality, my time. Keep replacing the “me” with the “we,” and the “we” with the whole “Being,” and so out-flows a more graceful way of seeing. It’s in these flows that my decisions come naturally, speech is true and without pre-tense or defense, and the meditations of my heart are exquisite and expansive in thy/my/thy sight. Prayers are not dead language, nor inert sign-posts; they are little key-holes through which we might glimpse the larger truths that we often keep at bay. I’m following this prayer right to the bay, to the shore, and I’m sure it’s going to work out fine.
Indeed, I pay and pull thirty minutes later, find the spot to park, pack a little ruck-sack, and head down to the water’s edge. Up and over slight dune, wisping with the waverings of a thousand dune grasses, and come upon this massive body of water that is this Great Lake.
At the edge of where land meets water, and earth meets sky, I lay my wool blanket, climb in my sleeping bag and bivy sack, and lean back to watch the waving heavens, hurling by. Other than the faintest flickers of the red-lights seen earlier off to the east, the sky is completely devoid of humanity’s electric glow, allowing the eternity of the cosmos to flow toward me, and into me, with a clarity I’ve not seen or felt in years.
Another great face of God, with shooting stars hurling across like so many flashes of beings and life. Births and deaths and this mysterious mess of the in-between. All the people that have traced across my life, as in a dream. Some of these meteors are quick and dim, and the eye barely has a chance to note them before they’re gone. Others have more substance, but look timid in their collision with the atmosphere, and self-extinguish even before they get a chance to fly across the sky.
While a few, with some unknowable reckless energy, flash and burn so bright, that their trail is left lingering, lighting up the night.
Night Three: Lake Superior Again
I awaken early, aware that I could be hassled for having slept on the beach instead of my allotted campsite. I pack up some of the stuff, leave my blanket and hoody, and go make coffee and breakfast, and bring it back. Sitting in the dawning dawn, it dawns on me that I can’t see the opposite shore of this lake. Great.
Following a swim and taking the time to re-fill my big green water jug from an old water pump, I’m ready to get back on the road. Just before I go, some folks notice the Vermont plates and the portly gentleman with greasy grey hair asks about camping in Vermont. He’s from Detroit, but he has a cousin in New England he wants to visit this fall, and he’d like a longer break from the city. I happily recommend some places, and he returns this favor by mentioning some other areas of interest here in the Upper Peninsula, specifically the Porcupine mountains. As we’re wrapping up, his wife chimes in now; “And be sure to get some smoked fish while you’re here.”
“Oh?” I’d heard this already from well-traveled artist friend TG some time ago, in fact he was also quite insistent on smoked lake trout. I remember him saying “You get a nice piece man, and you just eat that all week across the Plains,” and that is exactly what I intend to do.
“Yessir. But get smoked whitefish…” and she says this almost conspiratorially, like she shouldn’t even be letting me in on this secret. “It’s just so flaky…” and now it’s her turn to stare off into a tasty vision of delight.
“Ok, I just might,” I say slyly, as though I’m considering her secret to be some sort of risky dare. “I just might…”
I drive straight and strong across M12 west, going through small towns every 20 miles or so, and stop in Marquette to make some lunch by an old brick church. I stop a few times and swim in Superior’s clear clean water on empty beaches of dull-yellow sand, barely able to believe the beauty of this land. By late afternoon, I’m along the lake again, stopping in the town of Ashland (which makes me long for that far-flung Oregon town by the same-name: which in turn has me thinking of my dear friends there, and of all the dear friends I have who are now strewn about this still–awakening continent, following our dreams and hum-drums and loves: which in turn conjures Thoreau’s thoughts on this matter–
“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance. They make the latitudes and longitudes.”
After having seen many fish shops throughout the day, I finally decide to stop and buy me this smoked fish. Inside I find a friendly looking guy that looks like every one of my friends’ fathers rolled into one– he’s my baseball coach and my teacher and my neighbor– friendly face– ball-cap and Timex watch on a hairy wrist– he’s scooping worms and soils from a huge bucket and filling little styrofoam cups with these night-crawlers to be sold as bait. Unfortunately, he informs me that he’s all out of smoked fish, and even more unfortunately, that every one is going to be out on a Sunday evening. And, worse yet, he’s the last place who sells on my route west, unless I cut north from Duluth and head up that western shore of Superior. Oh no!
Back in my car, I mull this over, looking over maps. Looks like it would still be a couple of hours to even make it to the area he’s talking about, which gets me there after dark for the third night in a row. I could just keep going west and forget this fish, but this seems clumsy and impolite to the design of the day. I love a good wander, but sometimes a trip needs these brief canals of plans through which ones travels may flow. I decide I can’t depart from the Great Lakes without smoked fish in my cooler.
Now I’m realizing that this area seems really does seem pleasant, and that up the peninsula to my north an hour or so is the Apostles National Seashore, so I consider staying here. I go back in to inquire: yes, there will be a fresh catch of smoke fish available here by 10 am tomorrow. That seals it.
And so I steer the ship north, which makes my heart sing, to know that I can sleep on the shore of this wonderful body of liquid again. More maps, sniffing out little side roads and camps that don’t pass the intuitive tests I run them through (feel, mana, power; what I seek I’m not exactly shore– it’s more so that I know when I’m in such a place, and the decision is made even before it’s recognized as a choice). Eventually, the road is going to turn west, leaving the lake, so I pull down to an Ojibwa Indian casino, as the sign also says RV park.
Inside the new and impressive building, I speak with a blonde-haired receptionist who answers my inquiry with one of her own: “Okay, would you like the main camp ground or primitive camp-”
“Primitive,” I blurt out, smiling. Decision made.
So now it’s now and it’s me on a long and truly terrible dirt road, inching (back to inches) my way over wash-out and wash-boards, trying to follow the poorly-drawn map she gave me. I have friend Nick Cassarino’s first home-made album on the radio now, the one with him on all the instruments, with him still a young Vermont kid just transitioning from the world-given moniker and identity of “jazz prodigy” to instead uncovering his more authentic, spirit-soaked leanings toward the old gospel and r & b sounds that stream out of him like the songs and psalms of days when holiness was more readily professed. This is before the move to NYC, and the immersions into hip-hop, and the subsequent diversions and excursions that any artist explores and gets pulled toward. And despite the success he continues to enjoy, as in successfully expressing his raison d’etre – making music – I still love this older music of his. And what a joy to not only love a musician, or a band, or an artist, but to also love the ongoing, unfurling flow of the work. To bear witness to the evolution.
And in his case, I rejoice in bearing witness to both the processes implied in evolution. First it’s the current, note-crazed currents of energy that his body and mind seems able to find when the guitar comes alive his hands, and how this is the result of his thousands of hours in the field. But also, like the eons of nature and nurture that created us, he emerges anew through the ever-responsive and adaptive nature of his organism’s interaction with his sonic environment. Forests call forth tree-climbing creatures, deserts usher in lizards, oceans precipitate dolphins, and music creates musicians. Each place pulses through the creatures it creates. The evolution of an artist then is seen not as merely an individual proceeding through time, but that it is a force of life that gathers and absorbs individuals into its rhythmic, percussive, earthly din.
Sometimes when I witness Nick play in person, I realize that part of the magic is not that he’s just playing music: it’s that the Music is playing him.
A half hour and countless ruts later, and with the sun damn near sunk, I plunk my tent and cooking gear down and make haste for the water. I’d seen a sign at the last fork that indicated a “staircase to beach,” and after some bush-whacking and short-cutting through a damp and dark cedar swamp, I find said stair-case and descend. It’s built down the steep drop of a twenty foot cliff, and each rickety stair angles down to the left. I hold onto the 2 x 4 railings but they’re shaky, so I take my time. About half way down, the whole structure trembles, and my whole world of stair, lake, and sky shudders in vertigo for a moment, then slides by. Two steps down, and the right side of two steps is cracked and caved in. I step over this carefully, and even make an escape plan should it all come down; it involves landing on a world of pain and rock.
But then I’m off, and none the worse for the wear. I look back up, studying the carpenters’ attempt to affix something as square and sterile as a staircase to something as wild and feral as a cliff-face, and I reckon I wouldn’t be able to do much better with only wood and nails. You’d need some concrete, and probably some bolting of rock. Then the other thought: gotta love that I’m on and in a different legal and cultural sphere of this land– I’m on an Indian Reservation after all, a sovereign nation, and you can bet there’s no OSHA investigators coming out this way any time soon.
And wow! The moon! I catch sun-set, and moonrise, and catch a few photos of each. I frame a few with the lovely lobes of the mountain ash in the foreground. A few others as impressionistic smears of the contrasting lights of water dark and sky bright.
The beach is not a beach. It is a wonderful jumble of jutting jukes and blocks of rock, flukes of wave-worn channels, and other rock-faces impregnated with a thousand cemented stones of metamorphic stock. The view out features not the vast expanse of my last place, but rather a dark smattering of a floating archipelago of islands, standing still in the watery twilight. The Apostle Islands, no doubt, though I do doubt that is the name given to them by the people of this land. I wonder what they call them? I wonder what mythologies and stories would lend name and nomenclature to this place, especially if the place itself provided the myths and inspirations, rather than the biblical plantation of stories our ancestors would often project. Can I object to this name of the sea-shore? Why yes, yes I can!
And I do… but also, and instead, let’s just go calm.. let the place subdue my road-running mind. So often I’m reeling these projections that we throw across the land through my mind with an at-times exhausting scrutiny. (some readers have cried mutiny). I don’t know why I’m driven so mad by these desires to clear away my cultural fog, to really see what’s going on– maybe it’s because I feel that if I can’t somehow access a more truthful and respectful relationship with my home continent, how can I expect any one else to? So, what else is a young, but aging, poet to do?…
The sun sets, burying itself in black blue.
Back at camp, I make a simple dinner of chili and cheese wraps. Light a candle, and get out this journal, covered in wax. Dinner done, I put on some layers for the cooling night and head back to the x-games bridge and seek the long, flat rock dock I’d found earlier. Here I crack open a Heady Topper, let the mind bathe in the resins and rays of the hop, and let the mind fall out of space and time…by better landing right here, right on time…
The waves. The moon. The sky. Dark. Remember dark? And recall dark punctured and perforated with those bright, shimmering holes in the cloak of the sky? Shooting stars again. And again. Feeling lithe. With the clarity of the stars, and the heaving of their reflections in the water that surrounds me on three sides, I feel as though I’m standing on the very edge of the earth, with nothing but the universe ahead of me, welcoming me into its scary and divine depths of un-fathomable time. How deep goes a man? How bright can he shine?
The mood in the moon sparks toward me language then, and I pick up the pen. This poem follows, and then I’m off to bed.
Two Nights in a Row
Two nights in a row
I’ve laid upon my back
with my back upon a calm
watching ten thousand stars
Two nights in a row
with the light-show ceiling
steady old chandelier
torn apart by shooting,
Two nights in a row
head dizzy with four hundred miles
of driving toward the flower of the western sun
eyes ringing out roads
mouth full of places
and sunflower seeds
while watching in the undulations
of Lake Superior,
a great lake of stars
Two nights in a row
cooling air and alone
on my back with the sad
that grows from the wavering
that these cosmos
are my womb
Two nights in a row
the bear quiet cup of the dark
by my brother
the shooting star
August 13, 2013
Ojibwa Red-Cliff Indian Reservation
Night Four: Mabel Lake
I rise early and make it back to the casino before many are up and about. Inside the cavernous and luxurious bathroom reserved for campers, I take a much appreciated shower and put on some fresh clothes. I get to talking to one guy, a trail-runner freckled friend, who’s stoked on telling me places to camp in Minnesota, and the routes I should take. I mention that it will be my last day amongst forest and water, trees and streams, as the Great Plains await– he assures me that I’ll find hundreds of options to sleep beside water, and I believe him. 10,000 lakes, supposedly.
After stopping at a couple of fruit farms for blue-berries and some strawberry jam, I make it back to the town of Ashland and head right for the fish shop. Success! The freshly caught smoked fish is in! I try some whitefish, which is indeed incredibly light and flaky, and order a pound of that and two pounds of smoked lake trout. The young woman helping me is still waking up and perhaps a little bored with life, and she snuffs out my attempts to get her talking about why this is the best fish from here to either ocean. Ah well. I do take a phone-photo of the lake trout, and send it to TG back home, with no accompanying text. Let the fish do the talking.
Another hour in town at a comfortable cafe where the brand-new owners are struggling to serve the coffee addicts and touring bicyclists. I post up in an old comfy chair in the corner and fire up the computer for the first time. If opening e-mail were a physical act, instead of a two-dimensional digital one, you would have seen my lap suddenly buried in letters, with more spilling out. What a strange time to be alive.
I do my best to respond to the most pressing messages. Several from my school in Montana, some of them of serious, businessy stuff that I’d much rather ignore for just a few more days. I know I’m heading that way of course, that it’s the operus mundi for this whole trip, but to focus too much on that as the final destination is distracting: I’m barely half-way there!
In the early afternoon I’m driving along the lake again, and noting the slow but steady build- up of industrialization. On the outskirts of Duluth, I do a quick internet search for a good food store, as I’d love to stock up on some produce before entering the long, long stretch of the continent that is, from what I recall, something of a food desert. Plenty of food growing, but not much available. So I do indeed find that there’s a Whole Foods in Duluth, which will certainly do, so I figure out how to get there and resume.
Another mile and another bend, and Duluth explodes into view. A sea-side port perched right on the lake, and built against and into the side of a big broad hill, it is first a city of formidably uninhabitable acres of factory smoke-stacks, chain link fence, circuitous expressways, and metal, metal, metal. Whoever is the god of iron and steel, he is well favored here. Perhaps it is because my eyes have been drinking so heartily of the great liquid landscapes these last few days, but it seems I’ve never seen so much metal in one byzantine empire of steel in my life. What is all of this?!
(I’ll later learn that huge amounts of iron ore was mined nearby for over a century, and with a former hay-day of ship-building, US Steel plants cranking out horse-shoes and wrenches and automotive tools, it’s no wonder that the place still sits as a temple to steel. And consequently, as an aging commentary on the hard-edge of industrialization meeting the soft-flux of time: this is now a world of rust, oxidizing slowly but surely beneath the Minnesota sky. This is where the term “Rust-Belt” is said to have been coined, and even that coin is showing signs of rust.)
The roads are elevated now, and with them the traffic levels also increase. I’m searching frantically for road signs, having to exit/enter to the left here, climb and curve up the ramp, get across three lanes to exit again back down, all the while blitzed and barraged by the barges of trucks and the roars of these factories screaming on like blood-thirsty fans- as though they are jealous of all of the steel on our cars- they want it back to built more stacks and racks – suddenly we’re all slamming on our brakes, and I hear clack clack smash! not too far ahead of me.
Sure enough, our raging torrent is now a slow, one-lane trickle, as we all rubber-neck our way past the wreck of a blue Chrysler mini-van, its rear having been devoured by a huge Toyota pick-up. Huh. Some sort of commentary on the American auto industry?
After finding the Whole Foods, which in fact turned out to be a small, local co-op of the same name that’s been around since the 80’s, where I was able to buy heaps of organic Minnesota and Wisconsin produce, I’m back on the road, following the slow crawl of the mini-mall roads that lead me to the city’s sprawling outskirts. Stop-lights, prairies of parking lots, and the towering, colorful, monolithic signs that sing to my eyes the sugar-sweetened songs of Generica.
But then it’s gone and the country roads resume, and with it, some sanity for me. A podcast is on describing theories aimed toward how we’ve managed to change, in just a few hundred thousand years from a pre-literate race of hunter-gatherers on an equal playing field with much of life, and have now turned into this. A young man, sitting in a box of iron, going sixty five, thinking about how he’d like to write a poem comparing rotation of the bow-drill spindle to the spinning of pistons in the engine…of time! Ha!
For a few dozen miles I cross a broad expanse of sun-splayed wet-lands to every direction. Each is edged with a thousand conifers and ringed with a billion cat-tails. The streams running through them, when they exist, are a flowing ribbon of alders, swaying pale green leaves. At one point I wonder if I’d missed my turn, and with a huge 18 wheeler filling my rear-view for perhaps going too slowly, I pull over to figure it out. The truck roars past, and I see that it’s in fact a souped-up chrome and steel RV, pulling a long trailer with the details and decals that suggests it holds a race-car or motorcycle or some such motorized delight. Turns out I am going the right way, so I get back on, glad to not have that huge machine at my back.
After my turn the road climbs a brief bluff and casts me back into forests, and then suddenly, wow, I’m crossing the Mississippi river! I didn’t even think it would happen yet! Here’s it broad and brown and slow, but still not a tenth of the size it will reach by the time it makes to the spreading Mississippi delta and the Gulf. I pull off into a dirt rest area right over the bridge to see it and take a picture of the sign to send to friend LG down in New Orleans. “I’m just upstream from you!”
As I pull in, I realize that the large truck that had been riding me earlier is parked here as well. I park at the far other end to check out some signs posted, hoping for a map that may show the wonderfully dendritic nature of the Mississippi river watershed. Then I make my way over to the river, and look down to find a steep, sloughing bank. Eroding from lack of vegetation to hold it together; I know it all too well. And this “cut-bank” (the outside bend of a river, where the most force is exerted) is clearly getting plenty of flow. On the opposite bank, which is the inside bend of the river or the “point-bar,” is where a river is able to drop sediment and material, and this bar is broad lush. Point-bars grow, and cut-banks cut. And so rivers flow and grow, shift and migrate. However, in an intact ecosystem, this process is part of a “dynamic equilibrium,” where intact riparian zones growing along the rivers are able to absorb and/or soften peak flood events. In places where such natural structure has been altered by the hand of humans, we might instead witness any of three stages: degradation, damage, or destruction. Here I see just some degradation, but the next large event could really cut this bank even more, and most of the parking lot in which we’ve standing might get taken by that big ol’ river, to send it down on toward those humid bayous of delta. And to think: so many of our continents, or our earth’s, ecosystems exist in such states of precariousness. Maybe I should go to Montana, to grad school, to keep learning about this stuff? Ok, I will.
And just as I’m amused and thankful for this fact, and also enjoying the feeling that I’m really making progress now– crossing the mighty Mississippi!– a fellow from the big rig comes over and starts shooting the shit with me. He stands smoking a cigarette with thick, blunt fingers, and has the dark, handsome features of a man of these north woods. Or rather, the romantic notion of such a man. He looks like the guy on Braun paper towels, but perhaps a little more weathered, a little more weary.
He’s from Michigan nowadays, but used to live in these parts, and he misses it. Talks of good fishing and camping spots around here, and I inquire further, as I’d love to be finding a camp-ground sometime in the next hour or two. I offer that I’d love to go grab my map, and get a few recommendations.
We look at each other for a moment longer before I go. Despite the fairly trivial small talk we’ve been having, there’s an odd weight to the moment. I study him in the afternoon light, noting his dark complexion, his ruddy cheeks, his thick and pine-pitch-black beard and eye-brows, and the greying hair on his temples, curling out from underneath a dingy old ball-cap. His eyes are a rare jade green, and they shimmer with a certain force that I don’t know well at all. Neither friend, nor foe, but something else altogether, something I don’t normally interact with in the eyes of the world.
We stare at one another. He takes another drag, and with some violence breaks our eye-contact and says firmly, “yeah go get your map kid,” and proceeds to flick his cigarette into the river. I follow its sparking arc, and watch it land on the mottled sand of the cut-banks’ brown slope. A wisp of smoke rises up, curls around a blade of grass, and disappears in an un-felt breeze. In hind-sight, this act could have readied me more for what was to come this night, but my momentum prodded me onward.
As I’d done earlier in the trip with the Canadian campers, I grab my phone and open the voice memo option and start recording. As a writer and a student of the sounds of words, I’m finding such recordings to be both enjoyable but also very informative. And on another level, like with video, there is this gorgeous and thrilling recognition that by recording some of this precious life, one is also somehow also framing “the holy moment” in a way that our streaming, moment-to-moment consciousness is often unable. I think of the film “Waking Life,” and the scene in which two men are discussing this very fact. This won’t be the last time I think of the film tonight.
Another thought is this: I’ve always felt that I could never “make up” the stories I’ve written down– that life itself is already so magnificently rich with the textures and topographies of experience, and that all I have to do, if I’m to succeed at this humble and strange craft, is to render the reality of experience in a way that honors that fact. My angle of entry (angel of entry?) has generally been through these brief and porous pathways between myself and the other strangers I meet out on the road. Is this work of recording them, either through writing or tape, merely an act of appropriation? Mining their stories for my own gain? And then: what’s it all coming to? What is being revealed, and what are there threads between them? Even if I or anyone succeeds in pulling back the curtain to show, naked and vulnerable, some quivering truth of this life of ours, then what do we do with it? Are we changed for the experience? And if so, does it reveal, or further cloud? And is there a difference?
I meet him over the picnic table by the rig, and there I also meet a little orange puff-ball of a dog. A pomeranian? This guy? “It’s my old lady’s,” he says with some satisfaction, “and she’s a really good dog.”
We greet now and exchange names– his is Steve, and there’s another dude in the truck, also named Steve. They’re on their way to a big drag-race further south, but taking their time and camping along the way. The other Steve is racing a car he’s built, and this Steve is taking a “working vacation” to be on the pit-crew. After going over the map, and Steve One pointing out a small lake that looks to be a perfect, quite place to rest, Steve Two opens up the trailer and shows me his drag-racer.
Steve Two is clean-shaven, bright-eyed, quiet, and seems to posses the classical, exacting intelligence of a man who’s never met a mechanical problem he couldn’t solve and has never burned or wasted a word. I’m drawn to such men for the easily defined, exhaustedly refined reason that I’m not one of them. But sometimes I think I might like to be, maybe my next time around.
(if you wish to hear this recording, please write me)
And so then we agree that I’ll follow them to meet at the next town up to buy some beer, just for fun I guess. Despite the strange weight to my interactions with Steve One, I suppose I’m enjoying the human company for a few minutes. So I drive behind them and carry on with my radio programming, listening now on Mckenna’s thoughts on how frustrating it is that alcohol, nicotine, sugar, and caffeine are the only drugs sanctioned by the current cultural paradigm. And here I am going to buy some beer with this salt-of-the-earth man from the Motor City, almost giddy with the romanticism that, if I probed it deeper, I might realize is a trap of sorts.
It seems I’m drawn to the archetypes, the types, all so that I can come into the harsh realization that every person is so much more terrifying and beautiful and complex than any convenient profile could ever proclaim to profess. But when we view the world, as we so often do, through screens and magazines, it seems we become conditioned to view the other people around us belonging to one or another set of groups, be it Southerners, Northerners, Frat boys, liberals, tea-baggers, etc., all the while hearing ourselves described as Tax Payers, Consumers, the American People, and on and on. How many of us must suffer under the weight of prejudices we’ve been fed, and the prisons that go along with them?
In the tiny, one block town of Remer, we stop for the beer. I follow Steve as he aggressively strides into the liquor store, his work boots clomping, and at the last moment he has the thought to keep the door open for me. Smiles at me now, and I can see that while he does have this dark mystery lingering about him, he’s also carrying the charismatic force of a man who has led many people into battle. For him, I can see life is viewed as a challenge to be pushed-down and held there, while he and his friends get their kicks. To be one of the friends, for the moment anyway, swells something primordial in my brain that seems to say “yes! stick with him! and the bar or the village or the treasure or the river is yours!”
And, inversely, “do not cross this man…”
After a few minutes of finding the specific, blue-collar Minnesota beer he’s seeking, all the while forcefully flirting with the tall and strong young woman behind the counter, we’re paying and we’re out of there. I record this too:
(if you wish to hear this recording, please write me)
At some point during this time it’s revealed that they too are going to stay at Mabel Lake, which is the place he was recommending to me. Though I’m enjoying the company, I was more so hoping to have another quiet and mystical night with the water and stars. But, I can also see there’s no tactful way to say “nah, changed my mind.” And besides, I’m getting pretty beat, the sun is beat red, and I can always camp far from them and visit them on my own terms. I decide to proceed, and follow them the last few miles to the campground.
The lake is part of the National Forests, the campgrounds of which are often un-manned places that feature a prominent board and kiosk upon entering. Here one finds how much it costs, instructions on how to pay, and any local considerations the traveler or urban camper may want to consider; such as “rattlesnakes have been seen in this area,” or “Mountain Lions frequent this park,” or “this is a no-motor lake.” The last one applies to here, and I’m delighted to hear it (not hear it).
They whip out a moped to go cruising the grounds to find a site that will fit the RV and trailer, while I go pee in a towering and impressive alder swamp. This alder plant, the speckled alder, alnus incana, has shown me so much about the world these last few years. As a tree-planter and restoration practitioner, I’ve likely planted a good twenty thousands of these diminutive trees amongst the wetlands and streams of Vermont, and they never fail to amaze me. The list of reasons for this is lengthy and illustrative, but there is one reason in particular that seems worthy of sharing. It is this: for the first twenty four years of my life in the northern forests of New England, I was surely amongst and within alder swamps and thickets countless times, but I never saw them. Because I did not know the plant, did not know its name or its signature song in the music of the land, they were effectively absent from my life, relegated to “bushes in the background.” And now that I do know them, I see them everywhere; they call to me, I sense and feel their presence even before I lay eyes on them. How could something I never knew existed, but was all around me, now comprise such an elegant, eloquent element of the felt presence of my experience? And if this is true about alders, of what else may it be true? For me? For you?
Eventually they choose a spot and head for it, while I do my own lap in the volvo and find my own lake-side spot. It’s perfect. I get a few things set up on the picnic table, brushing off the rust-colored white pine needles and enjoying the feel of that Minnesota sand between my toes. A short path leads from the site to the shore, and here I sit beside a long and leaning alder and watch the sun set with this companion. I watch the cones and catkins dangling from the nearest branch, and watch as they sway in this breeze that sends the leaves to dance. Then I strip down and jump into this warm and wonderful body of water, letting its body envelop my own. It smells like the Wisconsin lakes of my youth visiting my father’s folks in Lac du Flambeux, and the ole-factory hues overwhelm…
After I eat my first of what will surely be many dinners involving smoked trout, I grab a couple of beers and walk the grassy, deer-printed shoreline toward the Steves. The lake is a flat and wide lens of the twilight night, and the two discs of round lake and round sky mirror each other with only the lashes of forests keeping them from coalescing into one irrevocable void. I’m in and out of the high thoughts that seem to visit me when out in the non-human beauty of the world, confronting perhaps what Jeffers dubbed “the wild God of the world,” but I’m also keeping a tie to the humans in my midst. I turn from the brilliant light-show-glow of the lake and enter the darkening forest.
Up the path I wind, and soon I locate the two Steves by a fire that seems to have just been lit. Steve One welcomes me with immediate bravado and pomp, while Steve Two gives me an appreciative nod, almost as if to say “Thanks for helping take him off my hands for a while.” Or I’m projecting that, hard to say. I’m just finding it hard to figure out what their relationship is, what they’re doing together out in these wooded years of theirs.
Steve One and I crack beers and have a good toast, he with a little crazy eye already and lookin’ for trouble I reckon, and I’m hopin’ it’s fun trouble. While there’s still some light I volunteer to go for a wood run and find ample quantities back toward the entrance and alder swamp. I can tell this place is not very frequently used by the availability of wood– at the more popular campgrounds and state parks of the East, you’re liable to find every branch within a thousand feet of a campsite to be picked clean of wood.
I once found a picnic table sawed into thirds for firewood. The enthusiastic campers managed to leave only a teetering middle section of this ubiquitous outdoor furniture, standing on shaky legs like a new born foal. It wondered if it should stay “table,” or become “firewood–” my friend and I resolved the issue by tossing it in the fire and having a picnic on the ground.
Picnic tables may well be one of the most unifying characteristics of this country– it is a welcome relic of a simpler time. If the national parks were all suddenly being created right now, we’d likely be putting in plastic playgrounds right now. But instead, the way folks were to sit, and eat, for the next hundred years was developed because….
I make it back to camp with a sizable load of wood tucked cradled in my arms. Steve Two’s eyes light up, “Where’d you find all of that?”
“C’mon I’ll show you,” and we head back. Steve One comes too, but he just sort of wanders around and doesn’t grab much wood– I’m not sure why. But Steve Two and I make a some large piles, and with a few trips, we have a respectable super pile of wood beside the fire, and we’re piling it high.
For a little while it’s just a real good time. The fire rages, the beer flows, the light dances off the chrome sides of the rig and sends steel-cut kaleidoscope colors into the canopy surrounding our camp. Look over, and see the red-haired pomeranian sits patiently in his steel crate over there by the red-osier dogwood tree. I sit cross-legged on the ground, feeling free. Another night on the road, and I’m in good company. At one point Steve One cracks open a second beer for Steve Two, and after a cheers, says with wild glee “You see man?! Doesn’t that second one go down so much smoother than the first one?!”
Steve Two sits down, and real deadpan, maybe not even joking, replies “No, seem ‘bout the same.” This cracks me up, but Steve One seems a little miffed. I think this is where I start to see a shift.
“Ah shit Steve, what’s it matter? You know I’m getting real sick of Michigan man, them cops are always on our asses man I tell you. The place is going to shit, just shit. We’re all out of work, all the plants are closing, we got a fucking tea-bagger in there busting up all of the unions. I used to make things! We all did! We used actually make things people used! No what’s everybody doin’?! And man there’s no fish left anywhere, and the goddamn department of environmental quality is fucking everything up for everyone, you can’t fish or hunt or so much camp out with getting a ticket….”
He trails off, and I wonder if that was just a quick, uncharacteristic outburst. “But out here! Man! Out here!!!” and now he’s yelling, this sort-of anger-gladness coming into voice, the shadows deepening on his face. “Out here a man can still be a man…..” He’s nodding as he talks. “You know I got a good mind to move back here. Get my stump-grinding business going again. Out here you can just camp for weeks and no one will bother you, but back in Michigan it’s just all just going to shit, it’s getting overrun by…”
…..and here I reach a narrative impasse….I’d like to tell you that what proceeds is fertile discussion about what’s going on in Michigan in the wake of the ongoing collapse of Detroit. I’d like to tell you that I encounter a man whose down on his luck and just looking for someone help him sort it out. I’d and I’d like to tell you that the fates were aligned in our meeting, and that the cool Brawn dude I met at the road turned out to be this rad guy who taught everything about lakes….
With a throat-scratching, jaw-clenched lowering of his voice, this man proceeds to explain why, with lurid detail and frightening semi-logic, that the N*g*ers are taking over. And the Sand N*g*ers. And the fucking government is powerless to stop it. They’re raping, they’re pillaging, they’re destroying all that is good in Michigan.
At first these statements come out as quick lashes of venom into the space, and in a few gaps between them, I try to make eye contact with Steve Two to get a read as to what’s par for this course, but he’s a blank face. What’s going on?
Sensing that I’m getting worked up in reaction, Steve now offers: “Look, I’m not a racist, but these fucking horrible people deserve to be cut down.”
“Wait! Dude, those two statements can’t go together! That’s what being a racist is!”
“No sir, it’s not all of ‘em!” and then then this is followed by more sickening logic, peppered with Fox-news-fed ideas of blame and Obama and Black Panther and just…ahhhh!
Unable to suffer this any longer, but also so damned confused at this turn toward such vitriol, I start chiming to chime in. Genuinely asking things like “Dude, imagine growing up without ever being able to go fishing and come to places like this, wouldn’t you have a different view too?” Or “Can’t you hear yourself man? Do you want me to now say that all white folks in Michigan hate black people?” Or, in an attempt at letting my poetic spirit shine instead for a minute,
“Man, can’t you just feel it though for a second– that we all are just born into the bodies we have, and we all just have this same experience of trying to figure it all out, find love and happiness and have sex and party and just wake up to what it means to be alive– don’t you think we’re all in the same boat man? Everyone’s just working with what they’ve got!”
And he watches this part with quiet bemusement, getting another beer. Steve Two, nary a peep. He does get up to help me put some wood on the fire, which I’d been messing with during my preaching of the good word.
I begin again. “I get it that it might be bad there right now, I really do. And I admit that I could get beat up or killed or whatever in these rougher places if I went there, but man–” and I’m warming up now, and Steve Two let’s loose a quick and subtle wink at me, as if to cheer me on– “man it’s just a phase we’re in as a People. I mean shit, we all just met again after twenty thousand years! And we’ve all got these different stories we came up with under different stars, but really man, they’re the same stars! We’re all in this together– we’re all Earthlings, just trying to figure out what this all means you know? But we’ve gotta lighten up I think, cut each other some slack, let everyone have room for their own trip, you dig? I dig. I ain’t just blowing smoke man. I’ve seen it man– I’ve seen the space behind our eyes, the field from which the forms arise, and I shit you not, we’re all emerging out of the same beautiful cut of cloth my man. We’re of the same cloth, us three, and everyone you could ever see. …” my song ending, my channel closing “…that’s what I’m saying man, not trying to tell you how to think, but that’s how I’m experiencing this trip…”
I sit down, noting that I’m pretty buzzed on this cheap beer, and even more buzzed on the high of testifying. Shoot I love that.
“How old are you?” He’s seated again, slumping deeper in his camp chair. Cracks his beer.
“I’m thirty,” I say. And add “But I been around man, I’ve been around a lot fires, in woods and cities. And I really think–”
And suddenly he’s muttering over me, and I catch the end “…sure as shit don’t need no lectures from a thirty year old…”
I’m halted. I feel blood rush to my face, and then drain. I feel both emboldened to some sort of primitive, let’s-take-it-outside challenge, but also saddened and distraught. Was I lecturing him? I realize that even though I’d only been talking for a few minutes about this, I’ve let myself become very emotionally involved in convincing this man in the error of his ways. Not that I feel I hold a singular answer to this question, but rather it’s that I feel that I come from a place and heart-space that has the strength and clarity to cut through appearances and reveal the true nature of things. Or at least, I can sometimes use words to get closer to the light that truth brings. But for some reason, I guess I thought that a few minutes of my passionate persuasion was going to be enough to knock apart this man’s entire ontology and world view.
I realize now, as he stares at me through the flames with a thick-forked fire of fear and disgust in his eyes, that it’s not even me he’s really looking at. And in turn, it’s not really individual humans he’s describing and condemning. I’m not witnessing an intellectual or even moral argument, but rather I’m witnessing a man succumbing to that most vulnerable and devastating condition that affects so many– he’s convinced that he’s a victim of the world. Not a creator.
And perhaps I do manage to pry open a constrained heart for a moment here, as he moves on suddenly to how unfair it is that he has this “fuckin’ agonizing hernia” that could kill him soon if it split, and how infuriating it is that health care in this country is so damned expensive. He holds his side as he is talking, and I imagine I can see a dark splotch of energy there.
Even though the next tangent is also fiery and hate-filled, the power in his voice begins to tremble. And in one moment, the only one I witnessed in my day with him, I notice his eyes do cool off, and soften, and then sort of wince into the fire the way a boy may wince at his mom when he’s suddenly worried she may reject him, or refuse him. “Shit…I hope they can fix me though….I know I’m pretty ugly sometimes, but I don’t wanna die yet, not like this…”
And in the flames reflected in his eyes, I watch the whole burning story of the world flash, and flash, and flash– innocence, wonder; pain and desire; then the hardening and grimacing; and now, the creeping fear that all the Hell he’s imagined awaits him soon…I’ve seen this look before, from but a few, and one realizes there may be truth to the notion that Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory await us not in some other world, but they are within and upon us right here, in this world, in this life. And this man, this jaded, snarled, contorted man is waging the battles of angels and demons within his own hate-filled, drunken, terrified head. For a while it seems he’s been able to surround himself with folks who affirm his views of our steady decline into Hell– and here I’ve come, professing something that might more resemble a Heaven that he long ago decided is false and untenable.
This dark, seething, sizzling energy pulses and murmurs from a molten heart. For a while we don’t speak, and I’m lulled into my own sad-tinged reverie. My practice is to cultivate empathy the way one cultivates a garden. And as any gardeners knows, cultivation and control are two different forces. I struggle to control my empathy– to see his side, to see through his eyes, surely does not make me feel good. Whether it’s mirror poetics or mirror neurons, I don’t know, but I feel my face and my spirit emulating his for a moment. It is, from this line of sight, a cruel, dismal world…
But it fades in, fades out. I stand up, slug more beer, let some pent-up guitar chords fling out of my heart with a smile-grimace. Maybe even readying myself for another chance to testify, to preach the good word. But then he looks at me with such disgust, and then, such sadness, that I sit back down.
I know, know it with all of my heart, that the world is not as ugly as he professes. And I know that it is a righteous calling to always attempt to make peace with every element of our world, the good and the bad. This is such a challenge; to honestly, and openly, continue trying to love this man in front of me.
I feel frozen in my chair, despite plenty of alarm-bells in my head to get out of here, to break this contact now before it gets any worse. But simultaneously, isn’t that exactly what’s got him in this mess? His refusal to look into the soul of the people he proclaims to hate and his refusal to find the compassion needed to not combat hate with hate?
It’s easy for me to love the people whom I surrounded myself with that affirm and pollinate my world-view– but can I apply that love toward the territory of the human-psyche that needs it most, as one tries to beautify the most degraded and destroyed of landscapes? And if I can’t summon Love when speaking toward the true and venomous tongue of hatred, then what kind of Love have I cultivated?
From shadows he suddenly emerges next me, quickly and forcefully– I stand up, prepared to face my fate. His shoulders rise in the dwindling, spindling fire-light. I feel mine rise, my eyes flinching into this near-tearful state of loving concern for all of us, and I wonder if the forces of Hate are going to win out this time, and if I’m to bear the burden, and bear witness, of such a fall from grace.
“Look man shit I like drinking beer with you–” he blurts out, forcing an open hand into my chest, hard enough to make me take a step back. He grabs me by the shoulder with a sudden burst of tremendous strength, and then he holds me there on my heels, showing me that he’s taken complete control of my body. Our eyes lock hard this time in the smoky light, and images of meeting him just four hours ago on the river bank flash before me. He was a different animal then; this booze has ripped him open, and this more ravenous, depraved creature has been let out, and it just doesn’t know what to make of me. He’s looking at me so quizzically, as though he’s never seen such a man before.
I realize he’s giving me first swing. Challenging me to prove myself. And what he doesn’t realize, and only later do I, is that I do just that: I relax even more into his grip, and surrender fully into his grasp.
“Steve man,” I begin, softly, with total conviction, “I like drinking beer with you too, I think we can learn a lot from each other.”
His grip, and his clenched jaw, and his eyes, all loosen.
“But man I don’t know how much more I can talk about this stuff. I’ve gotta get to bed, get an early start tomorrow.”
Slowly, tentatively, he pulls me up, feels me regain my grounded balance. Let’s me go. His first hand, the one that almost knocked me over, is still extended out. I reach up, and slide my hand into his. We clasp hands here, my hand lost his powerful and coarse grasp, and we, one more time, meet our eyes.
In the wide, cracked-lines of his cheek-bones, the fire glows. In the round windows of his eyes, I see not only the roaring furnace of his confused and disorderly mind, but also the huge and awesome orb of an image:
Me. My grown and bearded face, worried and winced in an ancient fire light. And in the image of my eyes– which are reflecting from his– I see not the recognition one sees in the mirror, but rather this: in my eyes, I see His.