Dream Local

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Back from a hike one afternoon in the foothills of the Champlain Basin, where from a perch I’d seen the vast valley with is massive lake and its myriad rivers emptying into it, I came upon a message, written in the yellow pollen dust on my volvo: it read “Dream Local.”

That evening I lay down to rest on the windy lake shore, by the wide mouth of the Winooski River. The river delivered the snow-melt, creeks, and streams from the Green Mountains to the east. Consider then the old Abenaki people, for whom the seasonal dance between lake and river, valley and mountain, was a sort of cyclical, climatic tide– down to shores for a fishing summer, up mountain hollows for a hunting autumn, down valley floor for a long-house winter, up the slopes for a maple syrup spring– all backed by the nourishment the three-sisters gardens would bring.

I drifted to dream. A great being, Odzihozo to Abenaki, appeared– makes himself from nothing, but fails to give himself legs. Wanders a flat ash forest, drags himself along with tremendous hands that carve up the land. I stand on a small hill– he narrowly misses me as he rips off the side, leaves behind a u-shaped valley and a new stream– it immediately roars to life with waterfalls and fish and fowl.

A creative geographer, he crawls, gouges and scrapes, sculpts valleys and ridges, cliff- lined drainages, – I watch my homeland taking shape. Tired, he sits in the center, sinks down, the rivers rise around him…becomes a stone island in an azure lake, ringed by mountains. Eons of stillness bear witness.

He calls me. On his rocky lap I sit: watch the waves of my ancestors come carve– mountains cleared of trees, rivers dammed and wetlands drained– fracking planned and pipe-lines laid.

He turns to me, and in stone-speak says: “I am with you in the backhoe, in the shovel, in the plow– but you’ve wielded these tools too carelessly. Your destruction lacks life’s creativity. I beg of you: do better, or leave. I’ll carve again after you’re gone.”

And I awoke, at dawn, beside a set of turtle tracks in the sand. “Dream Local,” they read. I looked at my hands.

 

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Published: Homestead Plums

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In an era usually ruled by the dangerous doom and the lugubrious gloom, ConserveMontana.org is a fine place to read about some positive stories of conservation work throughout Montana.

I have just had a piece published there, and you can access it here.

Perhaps you’ll enjoy it, and find some other inspiring stories while you’re at it.

Keep at it-

-Trevien

Hitchhiking North on 101

101 North

a day in the life of an American hitchhiker

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Like a well-worn game trail or a particularly pleasant patch of ground, there are certain corridors in this country through which the hitchiker may move gracefully from one place to another.  Highway 101, running south to north through California, is one such road, in particular the stretch that connects San Francisco to the cities and counties to the north that all sit as rugged hunks of land between there and the Oregon border.   And on this golden morning, I find myself with 200 miles of 101 strecthed out in front of me, and I stand here, car-less, curious to see who the world will send me for rides.

Told that it was still going to be at least another week before the harvests would begin at my friend’s little ranch up in the hills above the Ukiah valley of Mendocino county, I decided to keep thrumming myself north to visit an old mate in southern Oregon (the one who picked me up hitching five years ago and peeled back the emerald curtain for me, as well as many veils of culture I’d had in my bag at the time).  I know that he’s just moved onto an 82-acre permaculture-inspired, off-the-grid-wired homestead, called the Shire, that has been delicately carved into the raw hillsides of the Siskyou mountains, surrounded by National Forest and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness…and I aim to see it, join in, see what I might offer in way of skill or story.  Another objective is finally making a visit to a grad program in Eugene at the University of Oregon, to meet some teachers to feel out if any might be a Teacher for me.  The old-growth forests that pulse lushness from the Cascades right outside of town also creates quite a pull.  In short: Oregon has me the palm of it’s massive hand.

Or some such notion.  But here I am now, climbing out of my buddy Bing’s truck beside an on-ramp of the 101 North, with a long way to go by evening.  Let’s see what happens.

Nothing.  After all of these years hitching, the first time in a while is always a bit of surprise.  Because here’s a car, and here’s a car, and here’s another: why aren’t you picking me up?  I look back in memory and often think it always happens right away.  But now, nope, just me and this little corner, with a still-rising and still-warming morning sun, a mess of blackberries and old oaks lining the road, and cars seen down on the highway, cruising by.  I begin to doubt my spot: where you hitch is as important as where you fish, and I’m not getting any bites here at all.

But ha here we go!  The first ride of the day, as a banged-up Ford Explorer comes to quick halt in front of me.  With their window down, I look in to see to a man and a woman in their fifties, smoking cigarettes and looking friendly: “Where you headin?” the fella asks.

“Oregon,” I reply, “but I’ll take any short ride.”

“Yeah hop in, we’re just going about 45 mintues north to Willits.”

And it begins.  I grab my pack and cram it into the back gate, resting it on about ten bags of cans and recycling.  I catch the guy’s eyes in the rear-view, “Yeah we’re gonna stop and git money for those first, hope that’s alright with you.”

I walk around and open the door to get in, and am taken aback by another unexpected sight: a four-year-old little boy in a car seat on the other end.  He smiles a huge, toothless smile, and I trust him immediately.  “That’s Max,” his mom tells me.

There’s a little bit of idle banter between the adults and I, but I can’t hear much with the windows down and music going.  We soon stop to drop off recyclabes at a rusted and busted old tin-metal shop a few exits north.  All the cans and bottles get weighed, and my driver then produces a few twists of copper piping and some copper fittings, has those weighed too.  There is a sad desperation in his eyes as he awaits the dollar amount that copper will fetch… twelve bucks. Getting back in the car, I hear him say that the money from the cans and copper should pay for her medication today.

I’d speed up the story as the car speeds up, but I’m suddenly transfixed by this little kid.  His dad has put on some super loud Rob Zombie, and Max is now watching his dad with an uncertain smile as his pops lights up a joint and proceeds to cough tremendously, all the while head-banging and pounding the beat into the trash-cluttered dash.  My heart stirred, I get his attention and start on some serious air-guitar, to which he laughs and then looks super serious, concentrating on getting his hands into the same configuration as mine.  I watch him and give nodding encouragement, noticing his dinosaur toys beside him, his candy-sticky face, his spider-man shoes placed on the wrong feet.  He feels his hands are finally in the right position and he turns and just beams at me.  We rock like that for a minute, then I absent-mindedly start looking out the window and switch to air-drums.  I look over and he’s serious again, studying my hands and trying to lash out his arms to a beat like I’m doing.  I slow the beat down for him and before long we’re sharing a drum kit in the back of the car, banging out the beats as the car beats it’s on down the line.  This goes on for the whole ride, with him studying my hands and me taking the time to impart as much silent, unconditional love towards him as my time allows.  I teach him a few mudras and the peace sign too, and wish upon him a life that will include great joy and health.

And before I know it, I’m climbing out on the far end of Willits, getting offers from his dad to help me help him move 100 pounds of pot.  I politely refuse, thank him for the ride, and shut the door, catching one last sweet and kind flash of gummy smile from Max.  He throws the peace sign at me, I laugh and give it back, and walk on.

 

You often don’t get dropped off at the best spot to resume the journey.  In this case I find I need to walk about a half mile further up 101, which is at this point a slow stretch, only two lanes, and in a school zone, I notice.  I walk well past the high school and find the area where the buildings of town are more sparsely placed and where the speed limit begins to climb from 35 to 55.  I place my bag down against a sweet-tar smelling telephone pole and begin again, thumb out, asking the world for a ride.   The day is warming up and I pack my Pendelton away, studying this large compost operation that sits in a series of large piles in the farm-yard on the other side of this chain-link fence.  I look to the opening and read that this is the place of the famous compost called the “Marley Mix,” and I smile, realizing just how much marijuana and its presence in these counties affects everything.  And while that includes the occasional flare up of police crack-downs and crime and paranoia and nonsense for many, it’s also fun to see just what another economic model can look like that doesn’t include nearly every person having to commute to jobs elsewhere that they really don’t like.  This hills around me are filled with folks who are rarely leaving their land, tending their gardens and tuning into many of the old forces of air, water, soil, and sun that many of us no longer have the time or capacity to observe.

But oh, stay on task.  I get my thumb out for each passing car, trying to guess well ahead of time which ones will stop.  I’d like the think you can type-cast folks by car: surely this VW bus will stop!  No.  Oh here’s my ride, that old Winnebago! Nope.  This guy will stop, his truck has a snorkel and big tires.  Drives past.  I can do that over and over.  But then suddenly the little toyota prius is coming to stop just past me, and I hoist my bag up over my shoulder to see a very tall, very handsome young man unfold himself out of the driver’s side door, hearing the trunk pop, and in one smooth graceful motion he’s already standing at the trunk, holding it open, crisp blue jeans and tucked in shirt, styled blond hair, aviators and a boyish smile– “C’mon in.  Where you heading?”

And here we go.  I’m in a clean, quite, brisk moving car beside a new friend.  Erik is his name, and he has this deep, authoritative, hollywood voice.  And sure enough, he’s an actor, he’s telling me, on his way up to act in a short film with some friends from Humboldt county.  Grew up on a small dairy farm in the Sierra foothills, first one to go to college, first one to take up an art, first one to move away.  Coming fresh from there yesterday though, already been driving four hours today.  We talk about the life of living on land and growing grass and milking cows, and about the challenges the modern food system places on small farmers, as his mom and others in their community have to “barter” their milk and produce with one another to avoid many of the laws and regulations that greatly privilege the large corporate farms over small family farms.  Then we’re on actors and authors, then we’re on the future of environmentalism (as we drive now through a great grand-stand of redwood forests lining the road– heart-bashingly beauiful, everytime…) and the conversations flow in and out, dark and light, like old childhood mates passing the days and nights…

A stop at a little cheese creamery for fresh curds.  A slow crawl through some traffic in Eureka, noting the banged-up look it shares with so many of these northern cali/southern oregon former fishing and lumber towns.  The sheer amount of land out here is so vast, and I don’t know if folks consider it: there was once, just 150 years ago, a stretch of old-growth redwood forest that extended the equivalent of Boston to DC.  San Francisco is built out of redwood.  Gold and fishing made a few rich, but few signs of that remain.  Were it not for the 60’s counterculture and psychedelia, and the subsequent back-to-the-landers and their knack for growing the country’s growing pleasure for that ancient ganja plant, so much of these counties would now be completely poor and de-populated.  Instead, many are thriving, albeit in the fogs of medical marijuana laws, and so many success stories of the time can be found all around if you have the time to meet the folks and hear the tales.  I need to write a book about such things, I muse to myself.

And now Arcata, and Humboldt University, and my ride is ending.  Erik and I exchange genuine and hearfelt appreciation for having crossed paths in this life, and I exit the vehicle, feeling as though I may see this young man if films some day.

 

I walk down to the next on-ramp, a busier one right by the Uni, and expect a quick ride, but instead find one of the trickier circumstances one may face out hitching: another hitchhiker.  And this will be particularly challenging, I realize as I draw closer to this woman and her dog.  (tip: very few people like picking folks up who have dogs).  I see that she is in her late forties or fifties, ripped red crew sweatshirt with stains, ragged jeans and barefeet, dust-kicked keds nearby, one small dinged duffel and plastic bag of cans.  She sees me and gives me a desperate and crazed, yet kind and sad, toothless smile. “Hey honey, c’mon over…ain’t no body picking us up, and we haven’t anything to eat since yesterday.  But c’mon, we’ll get one.”  I keep walking toward her, hesitate, put my bag down here on the opposite side of the onramp from her,  and walk over to her to hear her better….

Immediately, she lazy-shimmers before me: another broke-down banged-up human, kicked-out of society at some point in the past and groping her way along ever since.  Her eyes hold ten-thousand sad nights, her hands dirty with too many fights with men and police and social workers and folks just trying to help.  The feeling is similar to walking up to a street-crazed stray dog, backed into a corner and snarling in fear at the world, but hoping someone can come help anyway.  And oddly enough, it is the dog next to her that is looking up at me kind, calm, wiser eyes.  A mutt, his world-worn brown coat is mottled with tawny streaks upon sleeks of black, and a faded red bandana collars his neck and highlight his smile.  He is too skinny and completely in love with this woman, and now me.  A car passes behind me and she raises a thumb half-heartedly, and now looks up into my eyes.

“Hey sugar.  I been here for two days, nobody ‘round here gives a shit about people like us.  This is my dog Brandon, he’s my best friend.  We haven’t eaten since yesterday though, do you have any food?”

“Yes.  Yeah, I guess I do.  How long have you been waiting today?”  Cars are just passing us now, one after another– potential rides passing by, the whirring of tires and the Pacific breeze of the sky.  We fall into each others eyes, wondering who’s who, and why.

“I don’t know man, geeze, I don’t know.  Man.”  She breaks our eye contact, looks down to her dog and small bag and tattered shoes, look down inside.  “Do you have any food or not?  Man I gotta get outta here,” putting up her thumb again, almost brushing me aside.

“Ok, yeah, I’ll  be right back.”  I look both ways, let a car pass between us, notice the driver eyeing me and this lady and this dog with curious inquiry.  I shrug without meaning to.

Back at my backpack, wondering how to play this one.  I still have hours to go if I’m to make it to Oregon by nightfall, and there’s just no way any one is going to pick this woman up in this state of being that she’s in.  And while I don’t know if there is truly an ettiqueete or not, it seems to me that this is her spot since she got here first, and I have no right to stand separate from her and try to get my own ride.  But I see no other option, as a deep gaze to the north reveals no other on-ramps within sight.  I grab my nylon food bag out of my rucksack and wonder what to give her, what to tell her.   Look both ways, see Maxwell the dog stand up and wag his tail at me, cross.

“Ok, well, here, have some granola and trail mix.”

“Oh geeze man, thanks but I can’t eat that.  I got no teeth,” this second part muttered.  “My ex-husband took ‘em.  You got anything else?”

Glad I went to the cheese creamery earlier.  “Ok, here’s a block of cheddar.”  And Brandon is delighted, and so is this woman, and they both unwrap the cheese with the speed teneacity of the truly hungry.  I don’t think I even know that feeling.

“So listen, I’m going to just wait a little and see if you get a ride.  I do know that a lot of drivers don’t like picking up folks with dogs, but hopefully you do get a ride.  But if you don’t soon, I think you should let me do the thumbing, and when someone stops, I’ll ask if you can come to.  I just really need to keep moving north…”

“Ok, well, you know my dog needs some shade.  Yeah, my dog needs shade.  We’re gonna go over there across the street in the shade and wait. You promise you’ll ask?  I gotta get outta here, you promise you’ll ask?”

“I promise yeah.  I’ll be here.”

“Ok don’t go fucking me over here,” weird aggression, suddenly not even looking at me any more.  With a hunger and desperation sated, a darker color plushes out around her that she didn’t have just a minute ago.  This is a woman living on dark shadow of ground, and I’m thankful that she’s going to side-step my path for now.  I have to surrender to the fact that I’m not about to have a profound impact on this woman, and I have to just believe that she deserves just as much respect and kindness as any other brother or sister one meets out in this world.

“Ok, yeah, I’ll call you back over if I find you a ride.”

And she grabs her things, mouths off another hunk of cheese and gives one to Brandon, and barefooted, shoes in hand, walks away, passing within a few feet of my backpack on her way by.  I sense her mind’s approach; with nothing to lose, she’d have grabbed something off my bag if it looked of use to her.  I watch her go, and then start hitching again immediately, and a minute later I see her and the dog in the shade far from me, too far to hear me shout.

 

Not five minutes later now, and this shiny red Honda civic is pulling to a stop.  I walk up to see two young folks, dressed in some sort of restaurant uniform, telling me that they’re only heading up another few exits, and I’m welcome to hop in.  I note the small backseat, the clutter of cds and sweatshirts and poker chips, look back toward the woman and her dog far off, not even looking my way.  There’s only so much I can do: so I take the ride, and leave her and Brandon behind.  Never see her again.  And yet, her path, and the tens of thousands of others like her who are on it right now, are always amongst us, and I don’t want to pretend otherwise, and no fullfilled life of mine could ever include a philosophy that does not extend love and compassion towards these downtrodden, these luck-broke, these rut-stuck, these beat-up folk.   I have moved through and amongst them many times in my wanderings, under bridges and along road-sides like this one, and despite all of their obvious short-comings, their eccentric and often pathetic excuses, I still walk away from such encounters with a heart that feels it’s been flooded with I know not what, only that it’s Good.  In the eyes of the dispossessed, swimming there in the eyes of nameless broken, is a perspective few of us have or may even want.  But that perspective, that knife-edge walk between meeting the day’s basic needs always weighed against the steep drops of loneliness and desire; such humans stare out at an austere, entirely undependable universe, of which you, standing before them, are woven of the stuff of angels, or comprised of the threads of demons.  Of which you, standing before them, are a harbinger of hope, or an inflicter of pain.  Or, sometimes, just a target for a cigarrette or a quarter.  But either way and in any way, we share this world and this life with a great many paths and stories, and, I’m beginning to think, we err in taking lightly any encounter we have with another on this short walk of ours.  Goodbye, sad lady.  May your days ahead grow brighter.

 

And by its very nature, the experience of hitching is fluid; for here I am now, in the car for a quick ride with these two young cigarette-smoking, cologne-wearing, overweight, fast-talking casino dealers.  The fellow deals black-jack, the young lady craps.  They seem entirely under-enthused about the job, and subsequently, in this moment anyway, about life here in this town.  But the money’s good, and you get to drink for free a lot, and what else would they do?  No good jobs anyway.  What malaise!  But the dude’s voice does raise in interest and curiousity upon hearing about my travels.  Suddenly there are questions flying through and past; “you’re just out here from Vermont with no car?” “where’s your all of your stuff?” “you don’t know anybody out here who could drive around?” “how much money do you save before you go travel?  would ten grand be enough if I wanted to go travel, like, to Europe or something?”  “do you get scared hitching?”  “if you come back this way, maybe you can call me and we can hitch somewhere together?”

Getting out of the car now, thanking them, I try my best to encourage the young man and assuage the look of concern growing on the young woman’s face.  “Listen, it’s not that hard.  If you really want to go travel somewhere else, you gotta just save up some money and go for it.  This town and your life will still be here when you get back.  Seriously, don’t worry about missing out.  I can in listening to you that you’d love the chance to live simply somewhere else for a while.”  Out of the car, looking in through the window: “Go for it man, in the big scheme of things, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

Or some such thing; I’d think I’d be getting better at those little encouragements by now.  But it’s awkward, because everyone’s circumstance is so different, and I know that there is no prescription of how get a young person out of a home-town rut, and I know that many people peacefully and truly do stay right where they are for all of their days.   Anywho, what’s next?

D’oh!  Again, another hitchhiker, already waiting on the ramp.  See him: a tall, leather-colored man of middle-age, dressed in army green cargo pants and a rough tweed coat, standing strong in good leather hiking boots, with a large, canvas external-frame pack leaning against the 101 North highway sign.  As I approach, before he sees me, a huge and ridiculously cute face suddenly emerges from behind his pack, and out jumps this few-month old black lab puppy, pulling on his little flat-web leash.  Ha!

I walk up the fella and immediately it is recognized that all is well and understood between us.  His puppy, named Katie, adores us and covers my hands with wet, whimpering licks and kisses.  This man, named Jed, has a southern drawl, a well-weathered face, and he projects an air of supreme confidence in these traveling arts.  I offer to go wait in the shade of that old Monterey pine over there, and he offers to ask whoever stops for him if they can give me a lift too.  So I do, and wait here in the shade an eat an apple, watching occasional whirling wisps of coastal fog floating up through the eucalyptus trees that line the highway.  Few cars getting on the ramp here though, I notice.

After about twenty minutes, Jed’s hoisting his gear onto his back and his calling me over.  “Well,” he starts, “I been here about an hour, and I reckon that’s the way of things: one bum takes an hour, and if nothing happens, you let another bum take an hour.”  The wisdom of this has me smiling uncontrolably, especially as I can sense just the decades and the hours this man has spent living this simple ruck-sack life, and unlike some who get real tired of it all and grow bitter when they have a hard time slowing down or finding work, this guy is just thriving.

“Alright man, that sounds great.  So it’s about 3 now, so I’ll wait here ‘till 4, and same thing, if someone stops, I’ll see if they can fit you and Katie too.”

“Sounds good buddy.  Reckon I’m gonna head a little toward town, maybe play some music for some coin, maybe earn myself a beer for tonight.” He winks.  “Say, do you need any weed?  I’ve got some great stuff.”

Smiling again, this guy is cracking me up: “Nah, I’m alright Jed thanks man.  I’m kinda gonna be swimming in the stuff in the coming weeks.”

He laughs, we laugh, “Yeah me too!  Ah well man.  Well if I don’t see you, good luck, and be safe.  You have enough food and water?”

“I do man thanks.  Do you?”

“No, I need a beer!” he shouts over his shoulder, starting to walk away, with Katie excitedly at his heel.  “Good to meetchya!”

“You too mate!”

 

And I wait.  And then I wait some more.  A fog comes in thicker, and I put on another layer.  Few cars, no one seems interested.  I have a view of this small corner gas station that’s been shoved into the side of the hill beside me, and I watch a lot folks who seem to know each other interacting.  I’m definitely in more of a small community here rather than bustling hub, and a quick look at my watch reveals that it almost 4 already, and Jed may be back soon.  Blast!  Shouldn’t have taken such a short ride out of Arcata, I wonder, but shoot I had to get away from that woman if I stood a chance of making it to Oregon by nightfall.  I’m starting to wonder if I’ll be camping tonight.

But nope: here we go.  A huge, jet-black Chevy Tahoe sees my thumb and comes to an abrupt stop just past me.  I walk up to the window (as I always do first, as every once in a while, I decide I just don’t get a good feeling from the driver and I decide to pass on the ride), and I see this smaller man in a suit and tie, younger and kind of punked out in his hair-style and earrings, arm tatoos and little soul patch.  He’s heading north only about twenty minutes, but I decide to go for it, as this spot slowwww.

And I’m in the car now, it’s huge, and immediately I can tell I just landed in a party.  The guy’s energy is wild and infectious, there’s some loud ska music blaring and “Here man, want a shot of rum?”  Well, when in Rome.  He hands me a Pepsi.  “Here, a chaser.”  I hand it both back to him and watch him take one, then grab a pipe off the dash.  Lights that up, passes it.  Again, when in Rome.

So we’re barreling down the highway now and the whirlwind of it all just has me pleased as punch.  We start talking a little about his job (construction contractor), his wife (most gorgeous woman you ever saw), his kids (great kids, great kids), and that he and his wife live in separate houses on the same property.  I’ve seen this idea a few times out here with older couples, it seems to have really caught on.  And I tell him a little about Vermont and why I love coming out to the West and how I aim to have a family some day, and such and such.

But just like that the ride is over.  We pull of the highway and go down a steep and short off-ramp.  Right across the street, beside the tall bridge of 101, is also the onramp to get back on 101.  Looks like a decent spot.  But sure enough, wouldn’t ya know, there’s already two kids hitchhiking there.  And as I’m getting out, feeling a little loose and being sure to grab all of my things, saying thanks to this good dude, I can already hear the voice of the young woman over there.  “Oh heyyyyyy!  Greetings brother!”

I walk over to find this pretty and ragged young couple, standing there with signs saying “Oregon or Bust” and “We love you!”, and they’re just laughing and dancing and yucking it up to every car going by.  The young woman, blond, 19 maybe 20, adorned in long flowing scarves and bangles, is just all swaying hip and kissy lips.  The dude, also blond, maybe 22, is equally expressive, being all flamboyantly fabulous.

I walk up and we all just beam at each other.  “You’re going north too?  No wayyyyyy!  Ah you’re our new best friend ever ever ever! You want some candy? We’ve got skittles and twizzlers and starburst, and wait what else – Oh hey pick us up we’ll love you up!!– and yeah brother help yourself you know?! If you need something in this world just go grab it, you know?!!”

I’m just laughing and just so amused, but I manage to get out my little talk that I’ll wait over there and if they can ask for me to be able to hop in too if someone stops, that would be great.  So I go over and sit on the opposite side of the on-ramp, cool in the shade of the loud bridge overhead, and just watch and witness this trip.

“I’m 90% pot and 10% twizzlers!” she yells, twirling in a little dance.  “You us a ride, we give you something tasty!” she shouts like a festival hippie hawking her wares.  And this just goes on like for a about ten minutes, when suddenly this huge and rusted old Winnebago with Washington plates is coming to a stop in between us, obscuring us from view.  A few moments after that, the young lady pokes her head around the corner to holler: “Ok best friend!  C’mon in!”

And suddenly I’m in the back of this brown carpeted, dark mahagony upholstered, completely cluttered Winnebago.  The young couple is up in the cock-pit with the driver, an amish-bearded man in his forties who looks up at me with friendly eyes in the rear-view, and I’m back here with another young man who sits comfortably in slippers and a robe.  Turns out they’ve been living in this rig for months, just going back and forth between different rest-areas along this stretch of the 101.  I’m bummed to learn they’re only going up a few miles to the next rest area, but they assure us that it’s a fine place to spend the night camping if we don’t get any more rides for the day.

So we come a stop deep into a long, narrow rest area that slides along amongst redwoods and doug firs.  We all clamber out and us hitchers gather our things, stand around the back of the camper and shoot the shit.  The fellow, the driver, has these little, darting, cunning eyes, full of mystery and mirth.  He’s in a burned and ripped red wool flannel shirt, and he’s rolling himself a cigarette without looking down at it.  Instead, he’s pointing out to me this motorcycle he’s carrying on a little trailer on the back, and the gas-powered generator sitting next to that.  And then pointing out the sign “For Sale” and in smaller print, “good generator.”  “I’m thinking,” he begins in slow, crisp speech, “that someone walk up and says ‘oh? a motorcycle for sale?’ but then they’ll see that the sign is really for this generator for sale , and they’ll say ‘oh, well actually, that is a nice generator.’  And shoot, if it sells, that’s just more time on the road for us.”  He’s pleased with this approach, very pleased.  He turns to me, “It’s what we call Trip Perpetuation.”  And that seals it: there are masters of living the traveling dharmma bum life, and this guy is one of them.

But I can’t stay: I extend my thanks to them and to the young couple (who are still just flying, talking miles a moment, just in love with their new friend and this whole world: I would later see them two other times in the coming weeks, once hitching in Oregon and another time along this same stretch) and then I’m out.  I walk down the long exit to rejoing the highway, stand in the later afternoon sun and hope for another ride or two.  I’m at least fairly close now, and I just heard from my buddy that he can pick me up wherever I end up.

Before long at all, an old Chevy Blazer comes to a stop and I’m in the car with two young blokes back East, and they too are in great spirits.  I learn that they live seasonly as well, with much of their money being earned around Christmas in Maine, because these dudes make wreaths.  Beautiful, intricate, famous wreaths.  We have about an hour together in the car, have a stop and walk along a gorgeous marshy bay that leads to the ocean, the Ocean!, and we swap visions of what we’re trying to do in the world.  They too are students of Permaculture and seek out projects that cultivate the renewal of soil and fertility of our land.  They too are ever attentive to their food, where it comes from, how to avoid the nasty chemicals and how to support and encourage local food production.  They too envision a future that includes a society that values land-based skills and passions over white-collar math-war-games, and they too are eyeing these growing Occupy Wall Street gatherings with considerable interest.  We take turns speaking and feel ourselves confirming pure and true things within one another, and it’s a damn joy to share these moments driving along one of them most beautiful stretches of road in the world.

Awesome dudes, they’re willing to take the turn inland up the 199 that leads into Oregon on a north-east tack.  They drop me off right in the middle of an old-growth grove of redwoods, (upon my request), and after heart-felt goodbyes, I’m here alone amongst these massive, towering, humming trees.  Five years ago, on my first trip through the northwest, a dude picked me up on the Oregon coast and brought me to this very grove, and these were the first redwoods I ever walked amongst.  And now all these years later, I’m waiting here, neck-up-turned in awe, waiting for that same friend to meet me here to pick me up.  Five years, 20 seasons, the bulk of my 20’s living a wild and free and hard-working existence, all my choices and jobs and paths seen as an extension of that first time I made the leap and left: left with just a backpack and money saved and an open heart, and I had a look around, I went on a vision quest.   I know it’s not for everybody, and I know that I’m a young white male and the cards are more in my favor that many, and I know that life ahead will get more complex as I coast into my thirties in the coming year, but damn…and ahhhh…and I wish such wanderings upon all who wish for it, but haven’t made it happen yet…and I know that many can’t, and that I try to enjoy this even more for those who can’t do these things…and I love my friends and family back home in Vermont and New Hampshire, and I think of them and the friends at the gear shop and the friends at the tree nursery and the friends in the hills and the friends in the town…I give thanks to all of my parents and teachers, to all of these folks who have taken me in over the years, all of these people who have taken the time to impart some wisdom and inspiration unto this young man…I breathe deeply of redwood mist, look down at this miraculous and mysterious body that is the ultimate ride upon which my soul is hitched…and I await my friend, coming around the redwood bend.  What a day.

Published: Awaken the Basin

Buddy Jeremy, relaxing on a ship-wreck, contemplating the health of Lake Champlain.
Good friend Jeremy, relaxing on a ship-wreck, contemplating the health of Lake Champlain, amongst other things.

The following appeared in the Burlington Free Press in November:

 

“My Turn: Awaken to Our Basin”

 

 Dear Fellow Denizens of the Lake Champlain Basin,

Lake Champlain is still severely impaired.

The seasons can have a comforting effect on us.  When the world news portrays turmoil and turbidity in the streams of humanity, we take comfort in the peace we enjoy in this land of changing leaves and harvest moons.  It seems we’re immune to the worries of the world.  We don’t have oil rigs, and hence no oil spills.  We don’t have mining, so we don’t have toxic tailing ponds.  We don’t have a dominating timber industry, so we don’t have clear-cuts.  We don’t have political instability, so we don’t have riots and food-shortages.  And autumn is just gorgeous.  We seem to be sitting pretty.

 

And yet, Lake Champlain is still severely degraded.

 

One reason we’re able to live this well on this land is because we’ve outsourced all the nasty processes.  Our cars, phones, computers, clothes, and most of our food is produced elsewhere.  After three centuries of heavy use, much of this basin is being allowed to rest, and to recover.  Other places aren’t so lucky– they’re ramping up production to meet the desires of modernity’s decadence.  We’re fortunate to not be dealing with any of these big-time problems affecting us locally.

 

And yet, Lake Champlain is still severely polluted.

 

Here’s the harsh news: we’re still participating in a cultural life-style that is destroying our water.  Let’s not get used to this.  It’s a tragedy that the lake is often closed to swimming. It’s a tragedy that we shouldn’t eat more than two fish a month.  It’s a tragedy that our drinking water needs to be shocked with chlorine to make it safe to drink.  Consider this from the arc of human history, and how unfortunate it is–  we can’t eat and drink from the natural bounty we live upon.  Let’s not be lulled into thinking this is normal, or okay.

 

Because Lake Champlain is still severely impaired.

 

But here’s the positive news: we’re capable of restoring this entire basin, one watershed at a time, and we can restore our relationship to this place in the process.  The future will likely require us to meet more of our needs on this land base again, and we’re going to need clean water to do it.  To get there, it’s going to take a lot of work, but I reckon we’ve never been afraid of that.  It’s going to take a lot of time, but it will be time spent together. We’ll have to realize that this modern life will never be satisfying if we aren’t all feeling healthy, vibrant, and inter-connected with one another and the water and land.

Here’s a few questions we must ask ourselves.  1) What watershed do we live in?  When water flows off our yard, toward what stream does it flow?  Where does that stream go?  2) What’s the water do when it runs off of our farm, land, or street?  Is it gathering chemicals and fertilizers? Could we slow it, spread it, sink it?  3) What long-term affects will gas pipelines have on our water? 4) What projects are going on in our watershed?  Lake Champlain is fed by rivers, and many rivers are damaged.  Seek out watershed groups or businesses dedicated to helping organize projects– Friends of the Winooski River and Intervale Conservation Nursery, for example.

Try volunteering a Saturday to restore a riparian corridor, or attend a city-council meeting.  Advocate for better storm-water management.  Encourage youth to become ecological restorationists!

We know future generations will swim in this lake, drink this water, eat these fish, watch these sunsets, and marvel at these seasons.   Will they look back on us and our efforts with thankfulness or despair?  The answer’s up to us, flowing by us and through us everyday, in the water and air.

VT-MT: A Travelogue

 

IMG_0013

the story of one man’s drive 

from Vermont to Montana, 

by Volvo

PART ONE:

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.”

“Holy shit.”

“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 what?”

“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?

“Excuse me?”

“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:

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/10106321/Meditation/Meditation.mp3

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

wave-backed shore,

watching ten thousand stars

Two nights in a row

with the light-show ceiling

steady old chandelier

torn apart by shooting,

white-gold stars

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

pleasant groan

that grows from the wavering

awareness

that these cosmos

are my womb

and

my tomb

Two nights in a row

the bear quiet cup of the dark

torn asunder

by my brother

the shooting star

August 13, 2013

Ojibwa Red-Cliff Indian Reservation

Wisconsin

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….

But, instead:

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.

∞∞

Wild, Whit, the West, and I

Wild, Whit, The West, and I

a Travelogue excerpt for the fall of ‘09

with Trevien Stanger

 

When one does most of his living outdoors, the beauty and the utility of having access to doors and walls and a ceiling on occasion is most pleasant indeed.  The Cabin, both as an idea and a place, is a most excellent example of this, though I’m sure the Tippi, the Shack, the Cave, the Hut, and the Lodge hold similar, desirable weight upon the outdoorsman’s mind.

And it is in this lovely situation that Whitney and I find our selves in now, comfortable and warm in this honest log cabin, nestled against the rugged mountains of the North Absaroka Wilderness, just outside Yellowstone, in Silver Gate, Montana.  We just keep saying “Montana,” letting the word take slow shape in our mouths, hearing its wild breadth echo off the cabin roof, out the windows, through the gruff forest of lodge-pole pine, up against the canyon walls, and ringing out and up from there.  We sit with beers by the fire, our various items of camping and hiking gear spread out and around, miles of stream and field crossings slowly evaporating out of our socks and boots, our stiff bodies unfurling and warming beside the woodstove, lounging like cats.

This cabin, called the “Cosmic Cutthroat Soda Butte Trout Commune,” is owned by a dear old friend and former politics professor of mine, who remains famous in my mind for a statement he made to our class one cold February morning in Vermont: “If I can get you guys talking about politics when you’re out partying on the weekend, I’m doing my job.” I met him outside the Radio Bean in Burlington a few weeks back, and we drank tea and shot the shit, he and I catching up, me telling him a few of my tales from my last visit to the cabin two years ago, when I’d hitched in from southern Wyoming, and he telling me of his most recent trip that featured gorgeous trout, a moose and her calf, and a blonde grizzly bear, ambling past the porch.  Whitney met us after some time, and together we got out my crisp new atlas and looked at the vast swath of land between Vermont and Montana, upon which Whit and I were planning to drive my aging rock star of a 1993 Volvo 940 wagon.  He regaled us with a few old tales of pumping gas in Yellowstone thirty five years ago, and you could just imagine him a younger man, holding a nozzle and gazing wistfully up toward the mountains, likely dreaming up how to one day have a cabin of his own in those daunting, golden hills.  Before leaving he handed us a little print-out about how to turn the water on and be mindful of a few other quirks in the cabin, and as he walked away that evening into the crisping, amber light of late August, we received the first few rushes of excitement, and somber humbleness, that one gets when about to strike out on a Journey.

So as I lay a few more logs into the fire, perhaps I should also continue with a little more back-story to illuminate a few other areas of my life as it looks right now in this cabin.  The years have rumbled along, haven’t they?  I’ve been out of school now since 2005, and I feel I am entering my fourth year of self-imposed, largely self-designed graduate studies, that while these studies will not directly result in course credit in any university, I’ve got to think that some Dean of All Creation is enjoying following my progress, even helping me out on occasion.

As a testament to the power and the depth of my college education, I finished school knowing full well that I still knew very, very little.  I’d been guided toward and cautiously shown so many strange, sad, joyous, wild, and dangerous territories of thought and experience in school, and it has felt like a nearly divine imperative that I not turn my back on some of those large Truths I glimpsed in those years of study.  For me, this has meant that I carry a heavy, light-hearted weight of responsibility, both for myself, and for my role in this massive, on-going experiment that is Life and Mind on Earth.  And this ever-present, on-going source of both daunting despair and soul wrenching inspiration, has been forcefully, incessantly leading me towards one, maniacally pursued purpose: Explore, and when possible, Write About It.

I met Whitney about two years after I’d left school.  I’d just returned from a long, harrowing ten months of travel overseas, and I had moved back to the little shining city of Burlington to make some money and reconnect with some fellow artists and soul seekers.  And while there was no shortage of musical happenings and explosions and spontaneously created jam sessions on roofs and in alleys and upon raging steep stoops, I felt that a of lot the ways I wanted to express Art didn’t quite fit into the louder, more raucous scenes.  I needed to speak, and to summon, and to tell stories and to hear stories, to continue feeling connected to the larger Spirit that I’d felt a part of in all those other lands.  I needed to make sure America wasn’t as greedy, wasn’t as blind, wasn’t as dead as so many folks were beginning to think.  I needed to see if individuals on the ground and in place could really have an impact.  I needed to see if there was any magic still lingering upon this continent onto which I’d been born.  I needed love, real love, love of place and speech and company, love of strength and humility and self-sufficiency, love of language and story…So I started a poetry jam.  And on my first day out walking around with some flyers, I met Whitney, and my story has been intertwined with hers since.

But alas, gentle reader, I feel your impatience, or rather your insistence that this e-mail / blog demonstrates some focus, some tangible threads of pertinence to your day and to your own unfolding story, and I don’t intend to lead you along for nothing.  That being said, my intent on bringing you into the cabin with us this evening is also quite simple; I’m trying to check in with you, let you know we’re doing ok, and to share a few stories with you about this trip we’re on now.  And while I of course always have a few grand notions that my stories may be nudging some of you toward taking loftier, more confident strides down the path of your own life, toward seizing your passions and stoking them vehemently and letting them guide you into your Greatest, Most Compassionate Self, and toward letting those feelings instill in you a great feeling of shared destiny with all of the cultures and ecosystems of this Our One Planet, (breath), I even more so just like to tell stories.  Would you like to hear about how Whit and I have arrived in Montana?

Well, I’ll tell you.  But please allow just a few more short paragraphs for back story, for some context, for I also don’t won’t you to think that we live in some trust-fund backed life that allows us to just up and travel and drive around whenever we please.  This is a trip of duration, of intention, and direction, and this gives it all an enjoyable shape, though perhaps not a singular focus.  Too often my travels and the travels of other younger searchers are brushed off as aimless wandering, of putting off the real world, of shirking responsibility.  Perhaps I can show that this is not the case.

Whitney is a nurse, specifically, a baby-catching nurse, on her way to becoming a mid-wife.  She began her career at age four, secretly having her dolls give birth to one another, even before she understood exactly what that meant.  Three years younger than I, she’s so far spent her two years out of school as a practicing nurse in the labor and delivery wards of the Fletcher Allen hospital in Burlington (during which time we met and fell recklessly in love), and she has spent the last year living and working in Berkeley, California (during which time we’ve been mostly apart, which certainly, eventually, inspired us to take this trip.)  She lives in a gorgeous house with nine other brilliant people, a very Left-Coast, open-minded, beatific home that in the last year that I know of has featured within it’s redwood walls the following: pole-dancing classes, ayauasca ceremonies, Holistic Sexuality workshops, Reiki sessions, courses in permaculture, and likely dozens of other wildly interesting and soul-progressing and earth-saving events.  I visited her once earlier this summer, taking time off from my job as an adventure camp counselor, and in one great burst of loving communication while looking out upon the golds and blues of the East Bay, we decided we should drive West together this fall.  Whitney worked her ass off the rest of the summer, arranged for her room to be sub-letted, and flew back home toward the East in the middle of August.

My end of things is a little harder to describe, as most of what I do is heavily imbued with my at-times elaborate and nuanced philosophies regarding work, money, and the uncertainty of the future of tomorrow, let alone months from now.  But since I’ve already let a lot of these notions pour out like beer foam on my blue sweater, perhaps I’ll just rattle off a quick list of what I’ve been up to in Vermont since the New Year, all of which led me toward being able to save the money and time I needed for this trip.  It reads: teaching snowboarding to children and adults; running poetry jams in two different venues; proctoring standardized tests for the Department of Education; leading a crew of tree-planters in stream restoration projects, through which five of us planted over six thousand trees in five weeks; assisting in the acquisition of solar panels for the house I was living in the mountains; planting a massive garden inside a circle with a thirty foot diameter; demolishing, reconstructing, and painting the wooden edifice of a restaurant; painting a house in Maine; and finally, working at a sweet little adventure camp in Stowe, bringing kids hiking and swimming and exploring all over central Vermont.  And on one the last days before I left, while out with a handful of wild-minded children (the future adults), I swear to you through all of eternity that in a green golden meadow, I saw a red wolf, bounding away into the forest.  Do you see it?

So, at summer’s end I packed up my stuff into thirds:  one third remains with my Dudes in Vermont, one third went to my mother’s basement in New Hampshire, and the final third, of my most prized and important possessions (camping gear, snowboard gear, surfboard, thirty or so books, and all of my journals) was packed in my Volvo with great care, and off I went, kissing my mom and brother and sister-in-law and step-father good-bye good-bye!  I drove down to Connecticut to meet Whit’s folks, pay a visit to my two dearest friends in the City, and around mid-day on Sunday, September 6th, the car packed, I let the Volvo rumble to life, slid him gently into gear, and we’ve been traveling since.

Though upon looking at a calendar, I’m amazed to see we’ve only been on the go for about ten days.  But alas, much as happened, and much more will.  So perhaps we should state right here and now that while I am indeed writing from Montana, I will likely not finish this story here.  Instead, I will let the next two weeks of travel create for us and you more stories, so that all of this time and effort on all of our parts can speak toward some broader, more varied vistas.  Agree?

The first day of driving passes with little incident, getting accustomed to our new traveling living room of the front two seats.  Not until we reach western Pennsylvania, with the light draining the sky so that the arc of atmosphere above the road ahead began to resemble a great, Amish peach, did we begin to grow weary, and look for a place to stop for the night.  This is a fine, artful dance I enjoy playing, either when traveling by myself or with company, especially when it is agreed upon that the pursuit of free accommodations is most desirable, maybe even necessary.  On this occasion, and this whole trip actually, I am certainly putting aside some of my reluctance to pay for a decent, safe place, as I am also looking after my little lady (though she and my mom are likely both counting on her having to look after me, I’m sure.)  For these reasons I am ruling out bridge underpasses, beneath piers, and condo rooftops, and we instead seek more traditional places, like rest areas, boat launches, church parking lots, and when really hard up, camp grounds.

Pulling off the highway, we follow signs for a KOA campground, which we will later realize is a nation-wide chain of very generic, crowded, RV dominated campgrounds, where despite the suggestion that camping is the activity encouraged, every accommodation and nearly every modern convenience is readily available, and nearly every person there sleeps beneath a roof, with the outdoors sealed out like a quarantine ward, thank you very much.   After some gentle ambling along quiet country roads and past aging stone-walls and wide, marble-eyed horses the color of Hershey’s chocolate, we pull into one of the most visually extravagant and frenetic scenes one may ever lay eyes upon in the forests of western Pennsylvania.  Instantly our eyes and the eyes of our Volvo are filled with too many slow moving, gut-bulging adult men in short bathing suits, holding either a can of beer or a horse-shoe or both; larger women congregate between the lines where one camp site ends and another begins, stirring great vats of potato salad beneath maroon canvas awnings, with just-planted plastic pink flamingos peering over with hungry, avian, Chinese eyes; and kids, kids, and more kids!  Twice I swerve to miss them, as they rush at us with ice-cream cones and wiffle ball bats and squirt guns like so many pesky ships in an old arcade version of Space Invaders, only I’m not in a bar drinking and playing video games to the progressive sounds of Van Halen, I’m in a campground, tense and befuddled.  We park by the check-in / ice-cream parlor / fried food dispenser, get out of the car, feeling ourselves stared at, and with nary a word between us, we get back in the car and get the hell out of there.  While leaving, I do admit that despite how tacky and strange so much of this is, it’s better than all of these folks flocking to some island in the Caribbean with the burning of much fuel and the consumption of much illegal shrimp and slave-labored rum.  But this theme of how people spend their time on vacation, particularly when trying to connect with the natural world, is one that come up for us daily, so I needn’t play the tape recorder of our first of many impassioned discussions about this.  For now, all I can say is we declined to stay in the KOA, no hard feelings, no harmed done.

We turned the ship around and I went looking for a yard I’d seen on the way in that read “Firewood.  Campers Welcome.”  We pulled into the driveway to find a stout man in red flannel shirt in his thirties unloading some welding gear from the back of his black F-150.  I told him of our predicament, pointing toward Whitney and the Volvo, and mentioned it might be nice if we could camp in his yard, as the sign seemed to permit. He heard me out with a fixed, concretrated, unchanging expression, his brow a little furrowed, as though he were listening to a truck engine, trying to figure out what was wrong with it.  Finally, “Well, I’d guess I’d let ya tent here, but the missus would have a fit,” he said, jerking his thumb up toward the house, wherein I spied a small, round, brunette woman leaning over a sink with determined frustration, glancing up at me and her husband on occasion with little amusement.  The reality that I was not in perfectly friendly territory, not in some organic farmer’s yard in New Zealand or some salty surfer’s patch of grass in California, was becoming apparent.  I shift my questions instead now toward the area around us: “Is there a place you know around here we could pull in for the night, just pitch the tent and keep moving in the morning?”  And so, after a few ideas, and finally even his father driving by in another F-150, a few calls where made and places were proposed, and we decided to go seek a little boat launch he knew a few miles away on a large lake in a state park.  He drew me a shaky little map on a napkin and sent us on our way with unenthusiastic but genuine friendliness, our first full encounter with a stranger and fellow American on our trip.

We followed the map with little incident and arrived at the boat launch at dusk.  Tucking the car in the back corner of the dusty little lot, we got out to have a look around and admire the moon rising over the dark opal water.  Clearly a man-made, dammed lake, I observed the strange patterns that occasional rising waters can leave in the forest undergrowth that lined the path, much like how the sun-baked earth can appear in those deserts of the world that were once ancient seas.  Back at the car, we begin what will become a beautiful, enjoyable routine that is specific to us and our car but universal to all who travel and camp from a vehicle, and it invariably looks something like this:  first, we access our individual bags to grab a sweater or remove a hat, then while Whitney starts rummaging through our food stores and cooking gear, I grab the tent bag and begin setting that up.  Tonight we pitch the tent together, for Whit would like to learn, but we have trouble getting the stakes in this hard, dead-pan dirt.  Next I slide out the sleeping pads and lay them in the tent, followed by our sleeping bags and little pillows (hers a camping pillow, mine an old couch cushion I’ve been napping on since I was ten).  The tent pitched, we lay out our cooking gear, which consists of a two burner, brief-case Hillary propane stove on loan from a dear friend, a light weight, titanium cook-set of two pots and a frying pan / lid, a gorgeous old cast-iron skillet we found in a little antique shop in Vermont a few weeks back, a wooden stirring spoon, two little bowls for eating, two plastic sporks, and that’s it.  Fired up, our can of organic bean chili, with fresh mushrooms and sharp cheddar mixed in, simmers through the silence.  Dark now, my little candle lantern flickers on the ground, Whit’s calm face glows softly, the crickets add their gentle din, the moon winks patterns of light across the dirt and forest edge, and in a miniscule moment of awareness, I take a deep breath, and realize that yes, I am still alive, and that yes, I am traveling again.  I gaze upon Whit gazing upon the little flame.  My heart aches now for her, for this, for the road and lands that lie ahead.  I eat my chili with an internal smile that cannot be overstated.

Just then bright bounding headlights splash through the undergrowth, and a large white truck rounds the corner into the little dusty lot, illuminating first the long wall of trees that surround our little camp, before finally swinging in upon Whit and I, blinding us.  I put up a hand to shield the lights and give an intentional look of annoyance.  The driver kills the lights, bringing our little camp of car, stove, and tent back into the glow of my lantern.  A sturdy, uniformed man of about forty steps out, letting us know that this is no camp site.  We patiently explain that we mean no harm, and that we plan to move on first thing in the morning.  Looking at his car door, I see he is with the State Fish and Game Water Patrol division, and looking at his person, I see he is armed.  I’m wondering, “really? our first night and we’ve got a cop on our hands way out in the woods?” I’m not worried about getting into any legal trouble really, as we have no drugs or booze or weapons or exotic animals in the car with us, but I am worried he’s going to make us leave, and we’re tired and ready for bed.   He checks and runs our ID’s with his radio, asks us a few questions, all aimed at “What are you doing?”  He hasn’t seen folks living and traveling out of a small vehicle in a while.  Whit saying that she’s a nurse on her way back to work in California and that I am heading there to check out grad schools, (both true), certainly scores us some points.  Finally, after giving us our licenses back, his face relaxes, and he says “You both look really tired.  And you don’t seem to be making a mess.  I’ll tell you what…In a minute I’m going to drive back up where I come from, and I probably won’t be back tonight.”  We read through the lines and thank him kindly, relaxing now that we can rest right here and enjoy our humble camp a little longer.

But this night doesn’t end here.  About an hour later, just as we’re starting to drift into sleep, another truck explodes down the bumpy gravel lane and throws his lights into our tent.  I dress to go talk to whoever this may be, relieved to see it is another government vehicle and not a angry local, but the truck takes off.  We shrug it off and lie down again.  Two minutes later, and it’s back, and as I climb out to go talk to the driver still sitting inside the idling truck, I feel rushes of teenage anger and frustration with authority.  As a fellow who likes to go enjoy the world, especially all the recreational lands that are state and federally owned, and therefore also owned by me, I have had more run-ins with rangers and park managers and wardens that I can count, and they always end the same:  I have to stand there and answer a litany of inane questions, until finally the puff-chested man in front of me decides there’s nothing he can do besides make himself feel important for having cornered and questioned the young man and his friends.  You’d think they’d be happy that the youth goes out exploring the lands that our tax dollars maintain and that has been set aside by our ancestors as beautiful or important or both, but sadly that is rarely the sentiment shared by authority figures in this country.  Decades of police trainings of how to identify a hippy or a stoner or an anarchist or a pacifist have left most men in uniform so distrustful and embittered by any young folks having free-wheeling fun in any place other than a mall or sporting event.  If you’re playing outside, I’ve found, they just can’t believe that’s all your doing.  And if you’re a Long Hair, still this is to be true, you’re going to get hassled.  I walk up to this window, aware of all of this.

“How we doing gentlemen?” I ask, noticing there are two men in the idling truck, reading the emblem on their door “Federal Waters Protection Unit,” or some such little power poem.  “What are you doing here?  This isn’t a camp site, you have to leave right now.”  I feel my back tense up.  Looking in, I notice that these two men are both younger than I, both probably around 22 or 23. This relaxes me for a moment, as I think I’ve got a chance for them to see the truth of the matter before them.  I calmly explain our plight, from the all-day drive, the intent of the trip, the directions to here, and the other fellow who came earlier and gave us the green light to stay.  I’m imagining them imagining themselves wanting to do this type of trip some day, perhaps with a beautiful woman as well, and I’m imagining them imagining themselves wanting to never have any trouble with petty laws and regulations at other natural areas around the country.  I finish my rap and look in on them, but rather than finding sympathetic or even human eyes, I see only badges and hours of training looking back at me.  The older looking one, with his thin, incomplete beard and his khaki shirt buttoned up too tight around his stringy neck, leans over the wheel to get a better stare on me, and proclaims flatly, “Sir, rules are rules.  You have to vacate these premises immediately.”

I fire back, “And I agree, but surely you two have some power to interpret the rules, and as you can see we are causing no harm, and we’ll be gone first light.  Why, I’ve even worked in state parks as well, and we both know the difference between what I’m doing and some red-neck partiers or RV campers.”  Nothing. They remain cowardly stoic.  The one closest to me may even be a red-neck partier in his spare time, I muse, burning tires and loving his flag but not his land or its people.  I’m souring on these little government punks real quick.

“Sir, you have to leave.  There’s a camp ground ‘bout two miles up the road, if you hurry you can get a site before they close.  That is your only option.”

“Ok gentlemen.  We’ll do that.  When you come back in the morning you won’t see a trace of us,” I say now, giving a look, a last attempt, to imply “let us stay, look the other way, you did your job well but I’m going to disobey you, and if you leave now with us pretending to pack up, you can save face and we can get some sleep.”

“Sir, we can come back here later with our supervisors if we don’t see you leaving in the next ten minutes.  You will arrested.”  And here’s the part that killed me, though not in my aforementioned, teenage frustrations, but instead now in a more mature, nuanced view that is also trying to understand these young men and even to try to love them.  “We care about our jobs sir, and our government, we can’t risk our jobs on you.”  Oh my heart!  Of course this makes sense, and I obviously don’t want them to lose their jobs, but this approach, this cowering rationality in the face of spontaneity and brotherhood, this by-the-book failure to have compassion for another young man just trying to get some sleep during one of the great adventures of his life.

The saddest of all:  for here I saw these two young men, who I believe should still be vital and hopeful and loving toward this often harsh and cruel world, and here I see that the great parasite of conformity and business-as-usual has already sucked from them the great life-force that our Creator gave us from birth.  The world of rules by the book, time by the clock, and love for the law over Truth, has already gotten to these men, sapping them of their individuality, and turning them into yet another generation that can enforce the laws that prevent campers but allow destructive timber practices, enforce speed limits but look the other way at hunting limits, and generally carry out the foot soldering of an increasingly large and ugly machine that worships the monetary value of land and resources above all else.  For me to be able to sleep on twenty square feet of earth, in a park that I also own, for free, does not and cannot compute in this mentality.

“Gentlemen, I can see you’re not going to help a brother out.  Weak style.  We’re leaving right now and I’d like you to go to, so we can pack up in peace.”   I see brief flashes of understanding, a little glimpse of what we all used to know; that the adults and that brought us up aren’t always in the right, and the world they’re insisting we continue on creating is often poison to the spirit– but alas, the spark fades just as quickly, and I turn my back on them to tell Whit the great news.  The truck lumbers off and I send them frustrated love and a little prayer.

We pack up quickly, me trying to tell Whit it’s no big deal, that this shit will never happen once we’re out West, and we take off for the campground.  We get a site just before midnight (18 dollars), pitch the tent again, and fall fast asleep.  We’re only in Pennsylvania afterall, with most of the continent still waiting ahead of us, so we remain hopeful and excited.  Tomorrow we plan to make it to Chicago to see my grandma, and then the Tetons two days after that, where the real excitement and adventure is sure to begin.  I drift in and out of sleep a few times, wondering about those kids, about the other youth around this country right now, curious how many others are out here now beneath the stars, taking the time to go see other states and other folks, to swim in other lakes and stroll upon other coasts.  I’m wondering a lot about America, and this generation of which Whit and I are an integral part.  I’m wondering about tomorrow, about the Volvo, and about the mountains.  I’m wondering, and wandering, again.  Time for sleep, my friend.

 

…..

 

Part two.

 

 

We wake the next morning to find that the campground is really quite pretty.  Everywhere the little lots are sectioned off from one another with towering oak and maple trees, and one can see a great meadow of sparkling dew glittering through the forest that hugs our campsite. We make a pot of maté tea and a breakfast of hot cereal with some sliced apples and a few sprinkles of raisins.  “They taste better if you sprinkle them in,” Whit says, which will remain a comforting and enjoyable axiom throughout the trip.  For there is a great wisdom in this, one I will also return to later, and I phrase it as such: “It’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it.”

 

We hit the road and resume our quest, re-tracing the napkin map to highway 80 and pointing the nose of our great ship West.  Perhaps a word about our automobile is in order, as he is integral part and an interesting character on our trip.  This aging beauty of 1994 came to me a couple of years ago now, and I never really thought I’d ever try to take it to northern Maine let alone Oregon.  But it comes from a time-honored and well-loved institution; that of the Volvo guy that has always lived in my hometown of New Boston, New Hampshire.  Our town of about 4,000 folks has of course many beautiful components that give it its sense of community, but one of the most outwardly apparent commonalities between many of us is, indeed, old Volvos from Trimbur’s.  Mike Trimbur, a tall, sandy grey haired fellow with a booming voice and a dead-pan sense of humor, would always (and still does, I believe) go to auctions all over New England, buying up old Volvos and bringing them to his place up in the hills.  There, with time and patience and plenty of Volvos surrounding him, he’d be able to have a newly renovated and fixed Volvo ready every few weeks, while being available to work on any others that a mom or farmer or high school student might bring in to him.  Since I can remember, my folks and all of my friends’ folks have driven Volvos, and the distinct sounds of their doors as they shut, their trunks and wagon doors as they open, and their robust engines as they rumble to life all stir within me the enjoyable nostalgia of a time when cars were magical and the parents who drove them giants of wisdom and personality.  My older brother would later inherit my mom’s creamy, rusting white Volvo wagon when he turned 16, and as I idolized him and his friends, the image of them driving off in that thing toward town and girls and older-brother-fun has cemented within me a deep love and admiration for the modern creation that is a Volvo. “Whoa, this dude loves Volvos,” I hear you thinking, and I do.

This Volvo is a ’94 maroon 940 wagon, four cylinder, rear wheel drive champion of comfort, utility, and dependability.  The paint is fading and flaking off the roof and hood in aesthetically pleasing ways that resemble the patterns formed when tie-dying t-shirts, which are of course patterns found throughout the world of fractals.  The Volvo is a fractal.  I don’t know if cars are adequately appreciated in this day and age any more, or if they ever were, but my car beckons you to try.  Once inside, the front cabin is spacious and comfortable, with every possible control switch and operating apparatus within easy reach, and, it all looks orderly without being rigid, organized without being dull.  One imagines those delightful Swedish engineers of the early 90’s, sitting in a model of this very front seat, and slowly designing this little environment with an inspiring mix of feng-shui and Nordic sensibility.  The flow of qi (energy) in this four-wheeled temple would make all the gods of Asgard most proud.  These lovable Swedes even added heated seats, which are heating our supple bottoms this cool morning crossing into Ohio, which Whit and I are enjoying thoroughly, listening to NPR on some really fine sounding stock speakers.

The inside of this Volvo has been packed with an intense and intentional attention to detail.  For the first time, I feel connected to the long line of Dads who have been packing cars for family vacations as long as cars have been around.  Everything we may need on a day to day basis is accessible, everything needed only at night for camping a little less so, and all the things I don’t plan on needing until winter are boxed and bounded, giving a solid base around which the other items can be snuggly placed.  Nothing loose, nothing that can get thrown around on hard turns, and there is no extraneous matter what-so-ever.

“How’s the Panda running?” Whitney coos sweetly, running her slender hand across the dash.  Lucky dash.  “Just fine,” I say, “Just fine,” pushing the needle up to a daring, rumbling 68 mph.

What’s the Panda?  The Volvo, of course. See, before leaving, it was agreed that the car needed a name, a personality, a spirit of sorts upon which we could add daily encouragements and prayers on the long drive ahead, much like the way all sailors name their ship.  I already knew the car to be male, as evidenced by both its personality and the insignia on the grill, showing the male symbol in a grey arc behind the word “Volvo.”  Next we realized that he had a certain lumbering, bear-like quality to him, and as we both loved pandas, especially after watching the “Sneezing Panda” youtube video (have you seen that ten second clip?!), we decided on the Red Panda.  So, the Red Panda is our ship, our wagon, our home, and our friend, and we love him with all we’ve got.  Don’t think giving a car personality does anything?  Well, wouldn’t that be a nice discussion to be had during a car ride.  Keep coming along?

We hum across Ohio with little incident.  We settle further into our seats and our set-up, talking about the plans this evening.  We are heading to my grandmother’s house outside Chicago, so the plan is to drive all day, about six or seven hours it looks like. We slice through Indiana like a dull maroon bullet fired across the prairie.  The trees and hills recede in our rear-views.  The flatness, the lack of contour, commences. At a rest area, Amish people are piling back into a van, (they do drive sometimes, as they make their decisions about modern technology on a case-by-case, and a community- by-community basis, asking “Will this technology help us and makes our lives better?  Will have milking machines or a van for travel free up more time to take better care of children or animals?”) and as Whit and I sit on the rear bumper, the wagon door flung open to the world, eating our peanut butter sandwiches, we feel their children’s stares from behind the van windshield.  These kids likely rarely see other models of living, and I wonder what they think when they venture out and see rest areas full of cheap crap, roadside streams choked with strange looking litter, long stretches of fields hidden behind incessant processions of billboards advertising things they know nothing of.  Of all the confusing and strange things they see when venturing out of their pastoral communities, I hope they may look upon Whit, the Panda, and I with a sense that all is not wrong and ugly in the modern world.

After many hours we arrive on the outskirts of Chicago, on our way to my grandma’s house on the far western edge of what is called “Chicago Land.” I had been out here a few times before as a child, but as the teen years jabbed their way toward my college years, and with those still-well-ordered years fading behind me now like a far off field going fallow, I realize I have seen my grandmother, my father’s mother, very few times in my life, perhaps no more than twenty five separate occasions.  With Whit reading aloud the directions, I grow excited to see this woman who used to fascinate me so with her mid-west accent and her exuberant love for me, a love that often manifested itself by way of ice cream and non-stop fun days whenever she was around.

We found her house with relative ease, cradled as it was amongst hundreds of other similar condo units in the middle of the wide, flat fields that surround Chicago Land.  Every year Chicago Land grows, and every year another area of assisted-living townhouse villages is constructed on what was once farmland.  But why shouldn’t it? Here we could begin a long and worthwhile talk regarding what would be the best situation for our aging populace, what types of living we should promote and encourage, but for now, I just want to hug my grandma…

We have a fine time with Grandma, eat a great meal at a local country club-type place to which she belongs, and we talk the kind of talks you get to have with someone who has been alive for over eight decades.  She is particularly enthused with telling us about the times she’s driven across and against and around this knuckling continent, even opening up my atlas and looking at place names on our route and launching into stories about my father and my uncle as children climbing the Tetons and camping in Yellowstone.  Here Whit and I also find what will be a recurring theme for all of our trip: that upon finding out that we are cross-country travelers, people either wistfully tell us “I always wanted to do that…” or instead excitedly proclaim “Oh!  I’ve done that trip dozens of times! Which route are you taking?!  I’ll send you to the best place in the whole God-damned land!”

The evening with Grandma progresses with an enjoyable, comfortable pace, albeit one with little literary merit of consistency.  I’m not sure I can spin the evening into an exciting story, but I can reflect upon a few ideas that kept coming to me while hearing my Grandmother’s stories and those from her friends.  The easiest notion to bring up is one that is becoming more apparent in many camps of thought that seek to heal our families and our communities, and that is the realization that American culture has little use for our elders.  Studies of indigenous people and their family life, and even studies of previous generations in this country and in Europe all reveal that there was once much more emphasis put upon the importance and the wisdom of an Elder, particularly an Elder of the Land.  From where the good food is found, when certain birds are migrating through, how to best care for a sheep with pneumonia, how to press and can wild raspberry jam, and on through to how this land was settled, who were the principal characters, and what sorts of stories tied you and your family into the landscape– all of these territories and more were we tended by the Elders.  Obviously our relationship to land has been altered dramatically, and many of the Elder’s roles regarding day-to-day living may be less prescient than in the past, but I’m wondering if there may be more we can be doing as a culture to learn from and care for our Elders.

For on this night, I find myself wading into areas of life that I do not normally venture. We see my Grandma gaze off into pensive reveries, describing her self as a young, confident woman, smooth skinned and eager to travel. (Impermanence).  We hear about her loneliness at times, watching tv in her little condo and wondering about her grown and gone children and their children, and about how she finds solace in coming to the club to play rummy with other older folks and sharing family stories with them.  (Sadness, Community). We even hear several stories of my Grandmother’s open-heart surgeries, where her chest was sawed open like a fillet and her heart was bared to the light of day, and that now, her days are numbered. (Death).

And there perhaps lie the great lessons, similar to those taught to us by children: the close proximity Elders seem to hold to the experience of the Great Mysteries of Birth and Death.  To look upon someone right in front of you, shimmering in the living moment, and fully realize that they are getting close to disappearing from this world, is to confront all of Life.  To imagine her vanish from her chair, and feel her move into that other ghostly realm of Memory, and to already miss her, even though she sits before me now.  For a moment the whole thing, this whole old world darkening and dying, just strikes me as so unbearably bleak and sad.  But in the very next moment, my sip of beer is delicious, Whit’s hand in mine is soft as birth, and overlaid upon my grandmother’s slate blue eyes, reflecting in her eye-glasses, an image of Whit and I’s young, smooth-lit faces: and simultaneously, the world, the universe, just glimmers, seeing itself from one burning set of eyes to the next.  A fire that was never set, and a flame that may never go out.

So indeed, such close-up, heart-wrenching inspection of large truths is to further fuse our consciousness to our own life, and in doing so, asks us to determine whether or not we are living our life in a way that honors the magnitude of it all.  And to have the teacher, the guide, for these lessons be an Elder that you know and love, this can drive these lessons into an emotionally vulnerable, intuitively-driven part of the mind that is capable of learning them. Here death can become Death, letting the life breathing within and in front of you become Life.  I drink a beer with my young lady and my grandma, and toast one to Life, sensing no answers or grand profundities in such a toast, and recognizing that as just fine.

 

The next morning the momentum continues.  After helping out around the house a little bit with gutter inspections and the moving of some furniture, Whitney has Grandma and I pose in front of her house for a picture.  And brilliantly, weeks prior, Whitney decided to buy an old Polaroid camera she’d found for a dollar, ordered not-yet-expired film for another twenty dollars, and here she stands, camera in hand.  She takes the photo, and we wait for it to blur its way into clarity on the little square film, and the photo is excellent.  We leave it with Grandma, an instant picture for her fridge of her grown and bearded grandson.  Digitals shmitigals.

Together, Autumnal

 

IMG_6953

Autumn carved into the land

like a grinned

snaggle-toothed pumpkin,

fleshy and crooked.

Leaves set themselves aflame

with a frost-bent ferocity,

starting in the secret mountain

hollows amongst crackling

streams and splintering

crows of rock,

then the tree-beings screaming

scraping off their pumpkin-orange skins

to darken valley dance-floors

spitting birds-of-leaves

whole flocks of darting leaves

to bury the fields

attack the rain gutters

and eclipse the ground from light

The creeping line of darkness advancing,

the warmth withdraws

south towards

days lengthening

and other leaves just now greening

swollen buds in a warmer night

But here the light

is running,

each day bleeding light

the hour-glass pouring

out leaves and light

A hasty retreat–

sucking south swirls

of currents and streams,

cold-fronts kicked up

like an icy dust,

while thick galaxies of wind

batter their way south,

throwing burnt chips of leaves

into blinding zephyrs of wet

glinting golds

as night reveals gales

of broke-knuckled stars

and the cold, old gore

of rotting pumpkins, icing

creek shallows,

and bare, bare trees.

While high above

the hard, gray

rock of the sky

chips, flakes off crystals

of white, ancient white

spinning off to slits of snow

that ghost before our eyes.

Yet amongst all this tumult,

all this leaf-brackish air grinding

down overhead

and all these threaded screws

of cold, turning

into these wooden bones

of (h)ours

You and I

still found ourselves

on that violently lit

blaze orange leaf-

strewn street corner

with our clacking knees

and watering eyes,

ready,

grinning,

for winter.

Trevien Stanger

November 17th, 2010

Burlington, VT

note:  This poem also appeared in Thread Magazine 

Sensual Place, Sacred Space, and a Mid-Life Crisis

Sensual Place, Sacred Space, and a Mid-Life Crisis

an adventure into Australia, and into this question

“It’s just too bloody easy to muck up places when we don’t value them for anything other than money, ‘ey?  But brother, if we could come to think of places, like real places around us, not just parks and shit, but real places, man if we could again remember that some places are sacred…”

What do you think would happen?”  I ask him.

“The New Evolution.  Our evolution, the next phase of it, will happen.”  He pauses, then points up to the sacred site awaiting us in that shadowy crevasse of rock, beckoning us in.  “To us down here, it’s just a question ‘when?.’  And honestly mate, you’ve got a lot to answer for, as an American.” 

And we file in.

We’re an hour hike up into the rock-strewn, forested jowls of a rugged, coastal headland.  The high tide’s waves are heard on the hot easterlies blowing bright.  Tucked back into this strange curvature in the rock, with my back against the wall, I sigh to myself in my solemn silence, taking all of this in.  This place we’re in is Sacred.  I’m not kidding. 

I’m with five other young men, each of them native to this place.  I do not mean that they are Aborigines– they are not.  But they were each born within fifty miles of here, and they seem to be of the mind that here is where they want to stay.  This emerges neither from laziness nor some perception of nationalism, that this place is better than anywhere else, but seems to instead spring from a deeply-felt sense that here, these lands and waters and skies, is what they are as people. 

Of course, much of modern Australia does resemble modern America, as can be said for so many places being shaped by the forces of “Generica.”  But here, following the bread-crumbs I’m training myself to see, I seemed to have discovered a different way of people being.  I’ve hitchhiked my way into a few rural, isolated valleys, and then I’ve followed surfers and parties into places yet more removed.  Deep within peripheries the tourist would have no way see, I’m meeting people who are existing within this territory in ways that seem to ensnare me.  I’m amongst folks living intimately with land and work, who are comfortable in their sexuality and boundaries, and are practicing invigorating hybrids of globally-inspired, place-specific spirituality.  I thought I was coming to a wild and rugged continent of the biosphere– it seems I’m also confronting an equally lively eco-cultural sphere.

These five guys I’m with grew up the children of “60’s revolutionaries,” or “back-to-the-landers,” as I’ve heard them described by some of the more conservative patrons of pubs nearby, and I’m honored to have been brought into their fold.  Just out of high school and enjoying what is called a “gap year,” they are all in a program known as Green Corps, which is designed for the youth’s pursuit of place-specific, ecologically-informed service work.  Meeting a few times a week to work on restoration projects in the denuded cattle-country of the river-bottoms, they are actively confronting the mistakes of their ancestors and seeking to right them.  They talk of leaving their homes and home-steads, communities and valleys, in better shape for their kids.  As a far-flung, intentionally up-rooted American, I certainly feel self-consciousness in being around them.  What might they teach me about me about me and my friends?  About our own inevitable journeys to becoming men?

So it was easy enough to take them up on this invitation.  We’d spend the weekend at an aunt’s coastal camp to fish and surf some, which sounded swell.  But the real draw was the chance to visit a place that Yosif, the emotional leader of the crew, told me was very special to him.  With the stone-serious eyes of a man thrice his age, he said “It’s sacred ‘ey, this place we’ll visit,” before letting his sober face slacken into a leaf-shadowed grin.  “But don’t worry, they let us in.”

There was no “they” to let us in, nor keep us out.  But apparently, the word is out, and has been for some time– that the place where the half-moon bay meets the goana-lizard-shaped headland is a space to be respected, and it is expected that you will not go there uninvited.  Registered as a “sacred site” by the local band of Aborigines, whom also have a reservation-type land-holding nearby, it is one of the few coastal sites that survived the conquest and supposed “progress” of an earlier time. 

But the sacred site is not the whole head-land, I’m now discovering.  Instead, Yosif has led us up into the lushly forested hill-side, along cliff-bands and knife-edge curvatures, and into a rocky, rugged interior hidden within the rumbled topography.  And then within this interior, we went in further, and then further again.  What seemed to be one definitive edge yielded again to a crawl or a climb– what seemed a dead-end was really a trick of the eye.  Further in, further in.

Yosif, Jay, Chris, Brent, Keenan, and I have all filed in, crimping and crawling and climbing and scrambling through the rock and forest din.  And now Yosif, with his Amish-looking beard and wise dark eyes, announces that we are here, we are in.

Sacredness, to many of us, is an abstraction– something that cannot be held, something that slips as tenuous.  But here, we’re asked to experience just the opposite– it’s total, tangible, and altogether sensuous.  With a rounded, amphitheater shape to the rubbled floor and rock-bony walls, sound tricks amongst us in echos of rumored stone.  I wince, flinch, rub my eyes.  No artifacts, no petroglyphs, no form created by human hand or head.  And yet, if it is sacred, with what instrument am I detect it? 

My heart pounds from the walk in.  Physical heart beating.  My other, metaphorical heart?  It is, I hope, wide open, trying to allow it to subsume my mind’s skepticism– trying to go further in.

Without a word, we each find seats upon one of the various stones that lie about like shards of broken…dreams?

Nearly all of the Aborigines describe some version of the “Dreamtime:” an on-going, fluid, primordial state from which this world arose and is rising.  In the Dreamtime, the spirits of gods, animals, plants, and humans together roam across the same landscape before us now.  The shapes of mountains and the placement of rivers; the sounds of creatures and features of a headlands; all are under the influence and spell of the Dreamtime.  And as Yosif explained to me earlier, there are then certain places in the land where the wall between this world and the Dreamtime are thin.  Not portals exactly, but porous.  Such places, easily identified to those who know what to look for, are thought to be “sacred,” and deserve certain reverence in one respect, and protection from destruction in another.

Some tribes in the US, and some bands here in Aus, have indeed had some luck protecting their sacred places.  But most have not.  It is a precarious position they are in, to be arguing for a place’s sacredness to a culture and legislature that does not share your criteria of sanctity.  Yet such is the story in all of the places where a colonizing people have come in and spread their own beliefs across the land like a suffocating blanket. Throughout the America’s, Australia, New Zealand, Africa (that’s so much land!), the progeny of European Judeao-Christian settlers have become an occupying force and dominant shapers of these places, often to the point of erasing nearly all marks of the previous people.  Also lost, by extension, is their exquisite, indigenous knowledge of the very places that once supported them.  If we are to now continue to live within these places as the new natives, as these fellows and I aspire to do, it seems that we feel a forceful, near-frighteningly furious fire to learn just what these sacred places provided. 

Out of compassion, we also try to acknowledge that most of these folks, our ancestors, were but nodes in the evolving organism of that time.  Whatever that force was that emerged through those first sailboats and flags, and then through the plow, the axe, the chain-saw, the tractor, the gun– whatever that was, whatever it is, it’s been bio-accumulating in the hearts of every new nations’ kids.   So as the young men of our time who are taking up this work of trying to understand our place in this legacy, and trying to perhaps honor sacredness better than our forebears were willing or able, I am not surprised by our presence in this place. I’m also not surprised that we don’t really know what to do with it, not sure how to face it.

For now, we’ve all taken seats in various nooks and niches within the space.  I see Chris and Jay have started making small rock cairns beside them.  Yosif has lit some sage, and Keenan is lying down on his broad-shouldered back, bare-feet splayed.  Brent arranges himself into half-lotus, with a full-furrowed brow.  Thousand of years, thousands of other men.  How to re-begin?

One question keeps nagging to mind– is this for real? As in, could one make an objective argument for the level of sacredness present here?  And here the Western mind strikes up against one of its first impediments: our measuring stick.  We don’t know how measure that which does not exist in our paradigmatic thrift. 

In the major religions that arose from the agricultural people Eurasia, and in particular Europe and the Middle East, the theologies rise on the shoulders of gods in the sky.  Gods up on high.  To access and perhaps honor them one needs a place to worship, and that place then is where sacredness lives.  Hence the sacred place is one that a people can physically construct, like a church or a temple.  Within such structure, the approaches to the divine lead one outward, upward, into worlds beyond these.

But the Aborigines, like so many indigenous, non-Western peoples, did not build their sacred places– they discovered them.   Hence their sacred places are not portable, not able to picked up and moved elsewhere the way one can go build a new church.  A sacred site does not just provide the shelter that houses a holy channel: it is the holy channel.

But such a distinction, and an indigenous people’s claim to ownership and agency over the fate of such a place, holds little water in the bucket of the dominating paradigm. For in this very place we sit, which we are attempting to perceive through our spiritual capacities, another man of another culture could walk in and perceive a very different reality.

Such men have walked and surveyed nearly every inch of this and my own home continent, and they wear a certain set of glasses. These glasses allow them to walk into an area and begin seeing the values they are seeking: the land as potential profit.  Whether it was musing long ago toward which valleys could become vibrant new settlements, or whether it’s the lumbermen or the speculators of today, seeing forests as standing lumber and mountains as treasure chests of coal or gold, these men represent a world-view in which sacred places have no value.  None.  In fact, such sacred places present impediments to extracting the riches their myths have promised.  Impediments created by inferior people practicing an inferior religion. These fossil-fueled minds are as crafty with their excuses and rationale as they are with their laws and machines.  What room have they for the time of Dreams?

“Well, I guess I’ll say a few things I know about this place,” Yosif begins after we all appear settled on our respective perches.  “First, you need to know that this place is sacred for males only, because they traditionally came here to perform rites of passage for boys to become men. What that looked like, I really don’t know. By I know it was thought that this place was conducive for that, maybe because it was hard to get to, and they’ve spoken to me about the difficulty of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood.  To becoming a man, and a man of merit.”

We think about this for a minute. “Does any one here consider themselves a man yet?” I ask, genuinely curious.  For in many ways, I do find these guys to be of great character and resolve, and they seem extremely confident in themselves, in their interactions with women, and work, and place.  Such traits, and the maturity and playfulness with which they embody them, strikes me as the makings of a man.

“I don’t know, I guess not ‘ey?” Chris begins, leaning back and grasping his knees.  He sweeps red hair off his brow, starts fondling his bracelet’s gem-stone, “I feel really blessed to be from here, and to have a good family and good friends, but I guess I feel really untested still.  Like I haven’t had to face many challenges yet in my life, and I think becoming a man probably has a lot to do with how you meet those challenges, face ‘em down you know?”  We think that over.  Some heads nod.  A pipe is getting prepared.

“For me, I’ve been trying to be a good man for a while now, living with just my mom ‘ey?” Keenan now.  “But am I like, a full adult man, ready to have kids and take care of some land and defend my home? I mean, I don’t know.” 

“How about you mate?” Yosif asks, looking very directly at me. “You’re a little older than all of us.  Are you a man yet?”

“No, ha, no,” I reply, laughing, both because it strikes me as funny and probably also because I feel a pang of regret or shame that I’m not. “Honestly guys, I’m having a hard time figuring out what it will look like for me. The idea of being a man in America is really complex I guess, and a lot of it seems to be about stuff that I have no interest in right now.”  I’m not sure if they know what I mean.  I’m not sure if I know what I mean.  “We put of weight behind what we do as a career. Almost doesn’t matter what it is, but you’re just supposed to choose one and do it, and do it for a long time. And with that, you know, it’s like you a buy a house and get a pretty wife and have kids–”

“Don’t you want a pretty wife and kids?” Brent asks with seriousness. “Shoot I want a pretty wife today!”

“Well yeah man, I do, I think. But I’ve grown up and watched a lot of men, my friends’ dads and teachers and coaches, they do all those steps, do everything they’re supposed to do, and it doesn’t always work out, and it definitely doesn’t make them happy.  I mean, we’ve even got a phrase for it now, it’s like this new phase in life men are almost expected to go through called a ‘mid-life crisis.’”

“That doesn’t sound too nice.”

“No, exactly!” I continue, trying not to make a speech but also trying to speak my mind. “I think we, as a culture, might have it wrong because we seem to only talk about the outward manifestations of becoming a man– you know the physical house and the lawnmower and the wife, I can only imagine how much harder it is as a gay man– but I don’t think we have any good language or culture around what has to go on within each of us to become a man….” Thinking, the time respected. “I don’t think time itself just transforms us into men. Physically it might, but there’s gotta be more to it than that…”

“Is that why you’re doing a ‘Walk-About?’” Yosif asks, wisely. 

“Yeah dude, I think it is. I mean, to be honest, I’m also probably slowing down the process sometimes, partying heaps and stuff, but yeah.  Well and it’s part of it.  I’m getting my kicks now while I do have this freedom. And you know, I guess I’m trying to take care of my future self in a way. Living backwards or something. Trying to prevent a mid-life crisis.”

Brent suddenly bursts with enthusiasm: “Nice, that’s awesome mate. That’s your job! Write some how-to manual called like ‘How to Avoid a Mid-Life Crisis,’ but have it also sneakily be real spiritual and shit!”

“How do you know he’s not already?” Jay slides in, slyly.

“Well what do you guys think?” I ask, shifting it.  “You seem to be pretty tuned to some of the ideas the Aborigines had about it. What role do you think ‘place’ may play in it?” A breeze is kicking up, hurling alternating wafts of warm and cool air through the space, against my face. For the first time I notice that the boulder that encloses this space, with a height over forty feet at least, is itself topped by a marvelously large fig tree, with its roots drooling down, grasping the rock.  Like the photos I’ve seen of Ankor Wat.

“For me man, it’s all about place. I think that we’re nothing without place. The whole earth is home and I get that, but I think we’ve all gotta find a place to dig in.”  This is Jay. “No offense Trev-man, but I don’t know if you can become a man while traveling.  I think you’ll get a lot of ideas, and you’ll meet good men who are of their place, but I don’t know, I don’t see it.  It has to be how you relate to a place, how you care for a plot of land, a community, a watershed. What’s that saying?  ‘Find what you love, and then defend it?’  I think I need that to be a man. I need to put my manhood against what I love, and how bravely I care for what I love.”

“That’s beautiful Jay,” his brother says, looking down at his hands.  “And I agree, but I’d add that I think I’ll always want some sacred places around you know? Not just my own land, but like, some places where I can go and check in with myself, and even check in with God.  I don’t really think I’m ever going to be the type of guy who goes to church, but I know that I still like that feeling of going someplace and making offerings and counting blessings.”

“So that’s part of it too,” Keenan continues, “knowing where the sacred places are around you.  Or maybe even deciding that some places are sacred to you, and then caring for them that way. I know that where I grew up, kind of just north of Sydney, that there aren’t any places sacred places recognized by the Aborigines.  Well, they’re probably were, but there aren’t any that are protected like this place is.  But I had a few special places I’d go to, especially when I was like twelve, thirteen, that were super important to me then.  And I’d build forts and make fires and sleep out there, and that place man, that was sacred to me.  It was part of my ecology.  Sucks though, because it’s gone now.”

“What do you mean?”  Brent asks.

“It’s gone. It’s an IGA supermarket.”  We sigh with some sadness at that.

“Man that pisses me off ‘ey?! I think what our generation has to do, I mean shit we’ve got a

lot to do, but one thing I think we need to do if figure out how to do is start treating land as sacred again. Not even just some places, I mean, it’s all sacred isn’t it? It’s all holy! Right? Right?!” Brent’s getting fired up. “I’ve met some cats who are heading to Tasmania soon, young men and women, might be down there now. And they’re tired of these lumber companies clear-cutting those last ancient forests down there just to send them to Japan for bullshit paper office memos and napkins and shit, and man they’re going to go sit in the tops of those trees and not come down!  I think that’s amazing ‘ey!  We’ve got be ready to do stuff like that man, because the machine takes everything man. The machine doesn’t give a shit about us or about what’s sacred.”

“But we are the machine Brent. We’re it.” Yosif says.

“No I’m not hey, I want nothing to do with it!”

“Well how did we get here man? We drove a car. And we had coffee with breakfast,

and we wiped our asses with toilet paper. We’re consumers too man, and the stuff has to come from somewhere.  The question is how to get the stuff, how it distributed, and how much to use.  What’s the fair share.”

“And we’ve gotta thinking as one Big Mind too ‘ey,” Keenan starts slowly, “We are also the guy cutting down the trees, because he’s human too, and he’s trying to feed himself and his kids. I’m not trying to have hate for the people who put in that IGA, I just hate that it happened.”

“Well someone has to be responsible. Maybe that’s part of our problem guys.  No one is responsible any more. It’s like, if there is one mind that’s sort controlling a lot of how things go, it’s a really weak, greedy mind.” Brent replies.  “I know I sound tough right now, takin’ the piss out of everybody, but it’s just that I’m really scared of what’s coming ‘ey.  I’m scared of this ‘Big Mind.’”

“It’s a teenage mind.” Yosif says.

“What do you mean?” I ask him.

“It’s this whole thing we’re talking about, you know, rites of passage, shifting ourselves to become men. It’s like our whole culture needs to shift that way too. This global culture acts like a teenager, just doing everything right away ‘cause it feels good, with no thought about the future.”

“We need Elders.” I say, feeling it personally; I need Elders.

“Yeah. And honestly guys, I think that’s why I’m trying to reach out more to the Aborigines who are still left around here, because they’re Elders. Not just that these dudes are old, but their whole culture is an Elder. They’ve been living in Australia for forty-thousand years, and we’ve barely been here three hundred and we’re already mucking it up,” says Yosif.

And at that we all nod. We share this feeling that Yosif is expressing, and we know it to be true.  But what will it look like, if we can hold on long enough? And when we’re Elders, by age and hopefully by experience, what will we have to say?

“You know, I just thought of this,” I begin, finding my words. “But I think when we get together like this, smoke the peace pipe and try to think big thoughts, I think we’re accessing the bigger mind that we’re talking about. And I think that what we are realizing, and maybe we are the manifestation of, is really something that’s happening to the whole human expression, to the whole planetary culture.”

“What’s that?” Chris asks. “What’s happening to human culture?”

“We’re having a mid-life crisis.”

And so we smoke that peace-pipe, not sure of what words to call forth or what ritual is appropriate.  But we seem to know that our culture has overshot the mark, is looking back on itself through us, and is aware that something was missed.

As we hear, wavering up through this sacred headland’s forest, the turning, the turning, of the tide.

“I wonder if we can find it in time.”