Some People Are Lost
Published by Dexadog! Books / Paperback Available at Blurb.com
PART TWO: Sleeping with Dogs
Published by Dexadog! Books / Paperback Available at Blurb.com
My truck and trailer are parked on the outskirts of Yuma, Arizona, where downtown lights illuminate but a small patch of the black sky. A variety of mobile abodes are camped along the road that leads to the race track. There will be a swap meet in the parking lot tomorrow, but tonight, Yumans are driving out to watch the dogs run.
A dog that someone has left in a motor home yips and howls because it’s lonely. Just the same, I wish it would stop. My old dog dozes in the cool sand alongside the truck. The black dog is poised alertly on the familiar tailgate. The light from television sets glows in the windows of several of the fancy rigs around me, and I can smell someone’s supper cooking. I can only imagine indoor johns and hot showers. There is barely room to sit at my table, where a spare tire, two chairs, and a suitcase are my dinner companions. The oven and fridge don’t function so I stuffed them with dishes, tools, hardware, and candles. Lighting the latter would save the batteries in the fluorescent lantern by which I write, so I search for matches behind the truck seat, in the glove box, and in my bag of fishing gear, but find none. I do find my sunglasses and a book on Roman religion that belongs to the university.
Modern travelers have made a wind-devoured sand flat east of Yuma into a camping ground, not unlike roving Americans of the 19th Century who stopped their wagons next to water holes or pulled into scarce groves. A wind-up dog, favored by trailerites because they’re portable like folding chairs, yaps outside an enormous trailer; beyond it an aging brown van with a camper conversion roof is tucked in for the night. Its windows are closed by blinds and no light shows through the cracks. Damn. I forgot to buy matches.
Traffic rumbles along Interstate 8 a mile away. A circlet of pink sodium lights hovers above an interchange like the running lights of a UFO. The interior of my tiny home is barely visible in the deep blue light; the curtains move in and out with gusts of night air. The dogs are utterly quiet. I switch on the lantern in order to stay awake for awhile. I dread waking in the middle of the night unable to sleep.
Nothing is familiar at Yuma Cemetery save the long cedar needles that lie scattered across the sand and the queer excitement of coming upon special graves. Two recent burials have been paved over with concrete; their freshly painted crosses are too bright among the older, dust-laden, wind-stripped monuments. A year has gone by since I first walked here, but unlike last spring, the loose soil is bound by tufts of short grass stimulated by this winter’s exceptional rains. The old comfort returns, and a kind of happiness. I feel close to these places, as if each is filled with friends. Not the people buried here, whom I could never know, but the monuments themselves.
Buttermilk biscuits the size of softballs, hot coffee, a plate of ham and eggs, and a plate glass window between me and the weather just about make up for the rain that is pounding cars and trucks in the cafe parking lot. Twenty or so senior citizens, who likely had hot showers this morning, occupy the better part of the one-room restaurant. The seniors join hands as one of the men recites a blessing. A flash bulb flashes and I have been included in a commemorative photo of the group before they set out for their respective towns for the summer.
The screw jack on the trailer tongue hung up on something when we drove through a flooded intersection this morning and the impact thrust the shaft so far forward that the tailgate on the truck couldn’t be lowered.
“About thirty-five to seventy bucks,” said a man at the repair shop: his face was scarred so that his left eye appeared to droop as he looked to me for an answer.
“Just straighten it,” I said. “I can’t afford to spend any more than that.”
He and a helper removed the screw jack, banged the base of it flat, flattened the trailer tongue with a ten pound sledge hammer, and then put it all back together.
“What you need is a step-down utility bar that’s flipped over like you have yours, but ten inches tall. See here?” He pointed to the part of the hitch that holds the ball. The jack, fixed for now, would soon hang up on something else, so I agreed to the change.
The new utility bar elevated the trailer tongue to a dizzy height, but the rear of the truck still teased the ground. What’s more, the electrical line barely stretched from the trailer to the truck.
I hadn’t driven one block before I heard the electrical plug dragging on the road.
“The electrical line’s too short,” I said, surprising the man in his office. He grabbed a packet of small screwdrivers and hurried to where I’d stopped the truck and trailer in the dirt. He began to tear the plug apart.
“Don’t,” I pleaded.
“I’m gonna lengthen the line,” he said.
“Just put it back the way it was,” I insisted. He yelled for his helper: the two men buzzed around like a tape of their earlier actions run in reverse, except that they inserted the old utility bar upside-down.
“You’ve got it in upside-down,” I said.
The man ‘Oh helled,’ undid what he’d done, then redid it. The lights on the truck and trailer shined briefly then went out. He stuck his head under the truck dash and yelled to his helper for a 20 amp fuse.
I left with a partial refund plus hunger amplified by aggravation, so I stopped at a diner that friends in Phoenix had recommended.
A six-top of ample Cocopah Indians were starting on generous bowls of stew when the waitress brought my salad. One of the Indians asked for more corn bread.
“It’s gonna be all gone,” the waitress said as she banged a plate of cornbread on their table.
“Ain’t that what it’s for, ta eat?” one of the Indians shot back at her.
My serving of stew slopped over the rim of a big bowl and I dropped chunks of corn bread into the tomato-sweet juice. It was the kind of restaurant where you could drop your spoon on the floor and pick it up and use it and no one would notice, so I asked the waitress for a second helping. She looked like she was about to say something smart, but instead brought another bowl of stew and purred, “I’ll fill that thermos of coffee for you too, Hon.”
It was that wonderful time between dusk and dark when I greeted the dogs, got into the truck and flipped on the lights. A fuse blew and the overhead and courtesy lights came on. I sped out to my camping spot before night could drop, staked out the dogs, and yanked the trailer door shut behind me. Four thick candles helped to take the chill off the damp air.
I woke up at 11 PM: looked at my watch upside-down and thought it read 5 AM. I pushed the window curtain back and watched for dawn’s light for two hours, thinking that today, there would be no dawn. I drank some lukewarm coffee by candlelight then slept through to a beautiful crisp morning. An old silver Dodge, which was parked here when I pulled in the night before last, is back this morning. A man lives in it. I’ve seen his shadow behind the tinted windows.
All the garages I checked in Yuma were busy or didn’t do electrical repairs, so I shot a few more rolls of film at the cemetery and then drove east toward Gila Bend, where I noticed that the truck’s radio antenna was missing. After a shower begged from a truck stop manager in Fortuna, I found that the zipper on my best pair of jeans was busted. But here we are, camped on the hard, black-skinned gravel of an alluvial fan that sheds its debris into the valley of the Gila River. Mountain ridges to the north are velvety blue under shady clouds, but it’s sunny where I sit.
A few minutes ago I found a box of fuses that I’d forgotten about in a catchall behind the truck seat. I replaced the blown fuse, turned on the ignition, headlights and turn signals. Nothing happened. But when I connected the electrical line from the trailer to the truck, the fuse blew. Had to be the electrical plug: several strands of the central wire were in contact with the housing, so I carefully re-attached all the leads. Voila-fixed. This minor success reminded me of my physics professor, who paced the lecture hall like it was the deck of a heaving ship, from which vantage point of relative motion he had surveyed the problems of mechanics for twenty years.
He was struck dumb when I raised my hand during class and asked, “Excuse me, before you go any further, what is a flywheel?” He evidently hadn’t had many female students.
“Itsa – itsa goddam flywheel, for Chris’ sakes,” he said.
Smudgy pink hills lose their form as the sun slips away. The sound of my own breathing seems an unwarranted interruption of the profound silence. Even the clouds are motionless, anchored for the night at the edges of the valley. The old dog lies below the trailer doorstep on a rug spread on the desert pavement, but the black dog is tied to the tailgate by habit. For him, the truck is a den built by Chevy. The trailer is ablaze with wavering candlelight that sharply abuts the cold blue sky, which fades suddenly to black.
A pearl-white morning fog hugs the valley floor like a luminous pancake; the bitter scent of creosote hangs in the fresh, wonderfully fresh, air. The sound of a far-off vehicle takes minutes to become a school bus, which hurtles along the road, its yellow top just visible above the mesquite trees. Noise temporarily obliterates what is soft and beautiful in the desert. A garbage truck from Gila Bend, fifteen miles away, grinds up the hill. I may as well succumb to hot coffee, ham and eggs.
I dreamed last night that I was driving north to the university to quit the MFA program I’d begun three years before. A massive storm that waited ahead quickly resolved into four terrible twisters that blew my truck into a ditch. I got out and walked to a nearby concrete storage building where I sat in a corner and waited. The building seemed very solid and there was nothing to do but wait. Two girls who had sought shelter inside yelled that the doors were about to blow off. I told them to let them go.
I looked at the labels on the boxes around me to see if coincidentally, any belonged to me.
A Roman family planted a cedar tree near the house when someone died, in order to warn away the Pontifex Maximus, who must avoid the contamination of death. In Ajo’s tiny cemetery, familiar cedars nod benignly over the rows of graves. A few plots are surfaced with artificial turf, with tiles or colored stones, but most are covered with concrete that has been thickly coated with white paint. Traditional iron and wood crosses have been supplanted by commercial headstones. Prosperity brings formality. It’s a lovely graveyard, but lacks the mystery of Tubac, or the potent intimacy of Casa Grande.
Two young men pace their work to the heavy metal music playing on their truck stereo. They rake the family plot, return dirt to the mound above a simple grave, clear away holiday decorations and prop up fallen saints. One wears a T-shirt emblazoned Shit Happens. Both wear baseball caps pulled tightly over their foreheads.
“Let’s do half today and quit,” one urges.
“OK by me,” the other answers.
“Ready then?” They throw their tools into the bed of the truck.
“How ‘bout a six-pack at Ray’s?”
“Let’s do it.”
Estruscan mourners staged blood combat over new graves, the munera, or funeral honors that the Romans continued as gladiatorial games. Blood, and its symbolic equal, wine, and in these graveyards, beer, is spilled on sand or earth to settle the restless hungers of the dead. Comanche women slashed their bodies with shards of metal or glass, with knives or fingernails, to keep the wounds flowing for months, to the same end.
This morning I breakfasted under a flying saucer sign at a cafe in Gila Bend; I asked the waitress if she could direct me to the town cemetery.
“Oh sure. My dad’s out there,” she said.
“Some people might think it’s an odd thing to ask about,” I commented for the first time, even though I’d been searching out cemeteries in Arizona for more than a year.
On her next pass she said: “I’ll tell you what’s weird. There’s a woman comes in reglar – talks to herself, that kinda thing. She tells me about some guy she’s got buried ‘bout forty miles from here. Can you believe it? She goes and dances on his grave at night, nekked. I know yer not plannin’ on doin’ anything like that. She was in injured in World War II. That’s why she’s crazy.”
The desire to be near human hub-bub makes me select an RV park that features pull-through sites, for those of us who can’t back up, and equally important, accepts dogs over twenty pounds. After plugging in the electric teapot I step outside to my very own picnic table. Across the way, a group of senior citizens sit on lawn chairs between two very big, fifth-wheel trailers. The hostess is defined by a pink sweatshirt and blue stretch pants; she sports white furry earmuffs against the evening chill. Guests ask if she brought her organ.
“C’mon, play it for us,” they harmonize. Without protest or hesitation, she retrieves a keyboard from the trailer and plays “Always,” followed by ethereal melodies just like one hears at wedding and funeral chapels. Three of the men excuse themselves to wander off into a gulley to play horseshoes.
Tucson’s country station comes in like it’s next door and Vince Gill hits the right sweet notes tonight. It’s the time of evening when even the giant carnivores of the past must have paused in their furor to appreciate the fading light. My beasts doze until a white poodle passes our perimeter in the company of a leather-tan gentleman comfortably clad in bright red sweats and blue slippers. The black dog instantly lunges at the startled pair.
“Sorry,” I say, and reel him in like a tubby fish.
“No harm. After three months we guys do feel like this is our own back yard. We’ll be leaving Monday, though.”
“Seattle, then Chicago. We’ll summer in Connecticut this year.”
“Lucky dogs,” I comment.
“Lucky? Hah. I stuck it out in the Navy for twenty years. That’s who’s taking care of me. My friends couldn’t understand why I stayed in. Then I retired at forty.”
“I’d like to be retired,” I say quite honestly.
“Well, I didn’t stay retired. I bought a bar, sold it, bought a ranch in Utah.”
“Utah is home?”
“Home? Hah. I don’t set foot in Utah. I married a Mormon.”
“Really?” I say, as if this is a bizarre confession.
“Did you know that in a divorce, a spouse can’t get her hands on a military pension? Man, was she mad when she found that out!”
“What happened to the ranch?”
“‘You’re outnumbered, son,’ my lawyer told me, so I give it to her and bought myself a motor home. I’m fixed fine; clear $2500.00 a month on my pension, plus full benefits.
“I’d be happy to have a john in my trailer.”
“That’s mine,” he says, pointing to a sleek gray land yacht. “It’s got everything.” He scoops up the little dog and adds, “And no woman is gonna get it, either.”
The soft, lovely desert between Sells and Kitt Peak just about makes up for the tedium that stretches east from Ajo, where the undulating surface is tangled with monotonous creosote and mesquite. After twenty miles the highway department either ran out of DIP signs or just gave up. The trailer lagged and shoved through dozens of washes.
The country around Kitt Peak is magical, in particular along the north side of the mountain where intense marigold-orange poppies that have overtaken road ruts and other low spots provide a vernal remark in the dormant landscape. I stop to eat a sandwich and stare at the dirt, which is crisscrossed by the shadows of rough empty trees. A warm wind sweeps the dark patches back and forth; the dogs slip through a taught, barbed wire fence and I’m stuck with one of those longings that could last forever.
The mood is broken by dozens of white memorial crosses that line the highway. At seventy, I stop counting. What makes this sixty-mile stretch into Tucson so deadly?
Before heading south toward Nogales, I grab a newspaper and browse. An article reveals that the Papago Reservation, which we’ve just crossed, is the domain of drug smugglers, who come in from Mexico on foot, by truck, and by air. The astronomers at Kitt Peak requested a peephole through the blimp-born radar net that stretches from California to Texas, and drug-ferrying pilots use it like a screen door in summer.
An elderly couple works the desk in the sprawling concrete building that serves as the trailer park office.
“How much for a pull-thru for the night?”
“That’ll be $15.40,” the man says.
“I don’t need a hookup,” I hint.
“Don’t matter. And there’s no other overnight parks in Nogales.”
“That’s twice what I’ve been paying,” I protest.
“What about the space behind the laundry?” a disembodied voice asks. “Can you back that thing up?” is aimed at me.
A man in a white straw cowboy hat, who reminds me of Gilbert Roland, appears in the doorway of a dimly lit room to my left. “Sure, if I get a good straight shot at it.”
“Give her a space. Make it $10.00 and a nice space too.”
Thus, I am parked directly across from the rest rooms under two leafless trees, wedged between two ancient motor homes; one has South Dakota plates and the other is a creaky white and red Dodge model. Across the lane, really old trailers are backed up to the loading docks of two industrial buildings. These vintage trailers are permanent homes rented out to Nogalans. Several canine inhabitants, set off by a flood of homebound cars and trucks, bark from behind doors and fences. A man who might be forty, or sixty, sings to himself while a motor he engages clanks and knocks; his dishrag dog yaps. It’s a depressing place, especially as my trailer fits right in.
This morning, not far to the north in the settlement of Tubac, an L.L. Bean couple dressed in matching plaid jackets and khaki slacks walked past the cemetery as I was coming out of the gate. Spotting my camera, the man claimed to also be a photographer, and then quickly conveyed his irritation at a recent event: an Anglo who had lived in Tubac less than three years had been buried in the cemetery.
His wife pointed to a fresh mound that was deep in drooping bouquets.
“It must be tough digging a grave in this field,” I said.
Many of the graves are piled high with dark red lava bombs. In fact, the older part of the cemetery is littered with pocky rocks the size of cantaloupes and honeydews.
“Digging a grave is an excuse for an all night party around here,” the man huffed: he jabbed his walking stick into the gravel.
“I’m sure it helps the hard work go faster,” I said, but his mate was intent on continuing the complaint.
“We went over the border to Mexico, to the town of Sasabe, where they buy cut flowers at outrageous expense to put on the graves.”
“Yes,” he added with finality. “The laundry hangs outside and the children have no food.”
While I contemplated the sin of drying laundry outdoors, which I’d never heard of before, I said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to know that you mean that much to your family, even after you’re dead?”
In a strange inversion of roles, as if it was Persephone who searched for Demeter, I returned to the graveyard to pursue an ancient act of sympathetic magic. If my mother is to be found anywhere, it is among the bleeding hands and pierced hearts of the little statues, after-living in perpetual agony with the saints.
Trucks idle in the loading docks behind the fence. A vacuum cleaner hums, and the ice cream man comes around the bend for the third time.
Nogales is higher in elevation than the desert towns so the cemetery is thick with iris, roses, vinca and flowering trees as well as Palo Verde and cedar. Leaves, branches, beer bottles and cartons; faded flowers and weathered wreaths have been gathered in neat piles along the lanes. A welder works on a wrought iron fence that tops a brick wall. A young man finishes whitewashing a pair of grave markers and begins painting vases on each marine blue. His girlfriend lies with her arm behind her head on the next grave up the hill and the two chatter freely. Three old men sit under a tree on kitchen stools, their aged vehicles circled up by the road. Most of the graves lie on a slope; families have built walls around their plots and backfilled them. The result is an informal garden of uneven terraces which I climb like a big, irregular staircase. The scheme that has worked itself out in this way is so right and charming that cities of the living are crass and inelegant in comparison.
We have left spring behind. The trailer rocks in the wind at the Lordsburg, New Mexico rest area. It buffets us, howls complaint, and makes us cold. The dogs sleep silently, unaware of our exile into cold grasslands, the press of trucks on the road, and our good-bye to soft nights and silence.
A string of freight cars rolls by, visible through the windows of a motel restaurant, one of the few businesses still open in sad sorry Lordsburg. It rained overnight, and the ruins of service stations and motels disintegrate by atoms as I eat. I can barely remember how such towns looked in the fifties when they were brand new and pointing to a boundless future.
All of southwestern New Mexico seems to be for sale and the number of notices in this far corner supports the impression. Whether it’s a real estate company’s sign or a faded painted board, I wonder how many years it has waited under summer sun and winter moon for the right stranger to come along. The West is full of towns that live off a thin past, peripatetic retirees, and if they have it, mild weather.
The air in Las Cruces stinks this morning; my view of the Rio Grande valley is through a chain link fence. The trailer park where I’m staying is attached to a two-story concrete motel on the light industry side of town. I make the bed and sweep, then stuff my shower bag with a change of clothes, a towel, and all the paraphernalia necessary to good hygiene. The ladies’ shower room, which is a motel room at the south end of the building, is empty except for dirt brown carpet, an orange Formica sink counter and a wire stool. A sedan is stranded on four flat tires outside the door, which is locked. I trudge back to the trailer, make a cup of too strong coffee and listen to a country station out of El Paso.
An old woman appears in my doorway. “Do you pull this trailer by yourself?” she asks, adjusting a towel wrapped around her head.
“Good Lord,” she chuckles. “After my husband died I tried pulling the trailer we had, but after one trip I traded it for a VW bus. I lived in that for eleven years.”
“Are you kidding?” Is this to be my fate?
The wind blows and she pulls her robe tighter. “And no toilet.” She laughs and walks toward a pretty new motor home two spaces away. “I’ve moved up,” she shouts.
El Paso 23, San Antonio 592. Arriving at the edge of Texas is like crossing the Isthmus of Panama to find the Pacific Ocean before you. Interstate 10 runs through the center of El Paso like the city’s alimentary canal. The cemetery occupies a forlorn, trash-blown flat beneath a multilevel interchange. The gates are locked and litter and dry weeds are piled against the surrounding wall. No trees survive. A carefully lettered sign at one corner advertises the services of a man who will tend graves, but he can’t be called on to do so often.
Once out of the suburbs Highway 54 becomes the classic lonesome road described in UFO abduction tales and a demonstration of the limit in Calculus; no matter how fast you drive, you never get there. When I finally hit Alamogordo after fits and starts of trailer parks, sparse subdivisions and the debris of urbanization, it’s rush hour. Men in camouflage drive 4x4s urgently along the main highway and disperse up side streets into neat neighborhoods. I’m irritated by traffic, by franchises, by the overkill of advertisements.
In keeping with Alamogordo’s military theme a KOA pamphlet refers to dog excrement as ‘fallout.’ Although it’s early March, the park is full for the night. I’m exiled to the overflow area, actually the driveway along the empty swimming pool. The manager ran a 100-foot extension cord out of the office so that I could hook up. Yesterday, when I tried to pull the trailer through a McDonald’s drive-thru, the exhaust fan cover was torn off leaving a hole, which I now cover with a pillow and a heavy box.
The array of hardware parked in front of the International Space Hall of Fame looks like it was knocked out in someone’s basement. A rocket sled, which tested g-forces on a volunteer in 1948, is positively crude and accelerating. Once inside Nerdvana I press my nose to cases in which actual rocket engines and guidance systems are housed, along with photographs of the men who changed the world for the rest of us. Even the simplest rocket engines are unbelievably complex and the only way my mind can encompass them is as works of art.
The Mercury flight suit, made from a neoprene rubber inner layer and an aluminized nylon outer layer and richly textured with straps and laces and eyelets, with matching booties, is cool. The blocky space shuttle suit is not. Coolest of all is Sputnik: one of three copies made by the original Soviet group hangs just beyond reach, a perfect, stainless, gleaming, twenty-two-inch sphere, its four, swept-back antennae mounted with fixtures that would be at home on a ‘57 Chevy. It’s odd to think that an object which was used to frighten a generation of school children, was utterly beautiful.
I watch the sun go down over a fifteen-hundred-year-old basalt flow known as the Malpais, or Badland. The dogs have been running loose for awhile so I step into the frigid wind and whistle. I half expect them to be lost out there in the valley filled from edge to edge with choppy black basalt, but no, they’ve used their freedom to nose around the trash cans farther up the hill. Other guests have a bonfire going and sparks jump high into the air. Seven miles to the east, the town of Carrizozo is a dark patch on the pale valley floor. Snow-kissed mountains hunker down as if they too, are cold.
I awaken to the call of Nature, the fussing of the dogs, and frail light cast ninety-three million miles my way. Last night was my last on the road. Ahead is the possibility of a temporary job at a company in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where my best friend works; of badly needed money and the accompanying painful intersections with people.
First though, is breakfast at a cafe in Walsenburg, Colorado, where I order a burrito stuffed with eggs, bacon, and crispy hash browns buried under a heap of lettuce, tomatoes and cheese and drowned in pork chile. The woman who owns the place serves the food with a side of complaints.
“This was the worst winter in eighteen years,” she says when I ask her how life in her town is going. “If we don’t get gambling the town will fold. If it does come, I’ll sell out and leave.”
A man seated down the counter, who has been munching bites of toast while reading the paper, speaks: “They bring gambling in and they’ll have to bring workers in. Nobody in this town wants a job.”
My true self waits in the truck with the dogs, in a parking lot in fog-locked Wyoming. My soul stays with them to brood as my body vanishes into a gray building. Hours pass. I emerge from a door kept by an electronic gatekeeper and return to the truck to become whole again.
The window in my temporary office provides a floor to ceiling panorama of the company parking lot. Gray clouds move slowly, as if ready with snow, and the whine of the wind preceeds them. Arizona was warm and bustling with green life, wildflowers, and mystery three weeks ago. As I lazily crept northwards the land became brown, bald, obvious and normal. It’s normal to be cold, to work hard, to accept a Protestant life.
How long will it be before something out there turns green? When did I first wonder, When will spring come? On the calendar spring is located precisely, but spring is a spatial reckoning and the results, though inevitable, can be slow to arrive.
“On these widespread plains blown clean by the wind and rains large herds of buffalo roamed and gained in number. Then the warriors of Indian tribes hunted them for food and skins. Later white men came to trap beaver in the prairie channels and the mountain glens. Then thousands of adventurers were lured to the peaks and canyons by the discovery of gold. They plowed fields, built cities and founded a commonwealth. This highway travels straight south to Denver and beyond, past ranches and then irrigated farms rich in grain and sugar beets. Eastward lie hundreds of miles of prairie now dotted with prosperous towns, westward rises the rampart of the Rocky Mountains crested with summits like Longs Peak, James Peak, Mount Evans and Pikes Peak, old in story.”
So goes the legend carved into a brown and white sign erected by the Colorado Highway Department a few miles below the state line. Like a bunch of other Wyomingites, I’ve ventured south to purchase lottery tickets. We wait inside a low-roofed building made of river rock. There is a cage at one end of the counter as if the place had been a post office, but it’s a bar and all-purpose rest stop now. Two men, to whom the impeccably restored Harley Davidson motorcycles outside must belong, sip beers. My aleatory future in hand, I continue down the Greeley Highway.
The town of Eaton makes the summative declaration, Beef, Beets, Beans on its welcome sign. I stop along a side street at a junk shop and step into a rat’s nest of household debris. The addition of each new object must cause a shockwave that lifts the dirt and redistributes it so that the new item is indistinguishable from those which have accumulated through the ages. The result is plastic ice cube trays that look millennia old. Nothing interests me, but an old man sitting in front of a black and white TV that periodically looses its vertical hold, gets up and greets me with a shaky ‘Hello’ and I would feel badly if I just walked out.
“You don’t dust often,” I tease him.
“Too busy,” he shakes his head good humouredly. “C’mere. C’mere.” He cups his hand and waves me toward the back room.
I have worked my way to the front of the store: I can feel the warm wind pulling the dampness out of the dark building. Cottonwoods bounce about along the street and fling shadows every which way.
“C’mere,” he says. I follow.
“They’re for my wife. For her birthday.” He opens a jewelry box lined in red velvet. “I made ‘em myself. Think she’ll like ‘em?”
I stare, trying to make out what they are. Two sawed-off antler tips and two metal sea shells stare back.
“They’re earrings, see?” He raises one and it dangles, all six inches of it, like a perverse fishing lure.
“Is she a large woman?” is all I can think to say.
In the early evening, when the spring sunlight can barely be felt, the bald size of the land dazzles. I walk a furrow that sprouts miraculous green wheat and I realize that I could follow it along the undulating surface for miles. Far behind me the road is reduced to another brown element in the giant striped graphic of fallow and new-growth fields that dwarfs the immense metal towers that carry high power lines. I feel like a giant myself, my senses deceived by the scale. Only the dogs look correct as they run across the field, their feet kicking up threads of dust that show as white puffs above the dirt.
The maintenance man, who is barely taller than the vacuum cleaner, is vacuuming my office. He must clean during the day because the owner of the company doesn’t trust anyone in the building after hours. I’m strangling a mouse, trying to learn a graphics program. Mr. Maintenance doesn’t usually talk to me, but today he shuts off the vacuum cleaner and asks what it is I do here.
“I design this stuff.” I wave a brochure at him that pushes the company’s products.
“Oh.” He sounds disappointed.
While waiting for a program to download from the mainframe (what a dumb system) I peruse the list of towns on a Wyoming road map. “Did you know that 115 of the 264 towns listed here have fewer than 50 people in them?”
This is of enough interest for the maintenance man to say, “No shit?”
“Look at all these towns with no people at all.” I spread out the map and he looks at it over my shoulder.
“I’ll be,” he says.
“Do you think they’re ghost towns?” I ask him.
“Must be.” He unplugs the vacuum cleaner and takes it to the next office. I return to the map and count the towns with fewer than 500 residents.
I move into a working class motel with the dogs and a bag of food. The dogs are nervous at first because it’s been six weeks since we’ve lived indoors, but they soon stretch to their utmost lengths on the sculptured carpet and snooze.
The bathroom window looks out on a quiet neighborhood of frame houses, except that a white panel truck, with a rack of ladders on the roof, is taking up most of the view. Beyond it, to the right, a man retrieves a barking dog from his front yard.
Even though it’s Good Friday I found a garage open, so I left the new truck, a red Dodge Dakota with a bigger engine than the Chevy, to be joined in holy electricity with the trailer.
At 3 p.m. I rang up the garage. “I’m just getting started,” the voice said so I read the Atlantic Monthly and the weekly Washington Post, just for the novelty, and wrote two letters. The dogs danced around on empty stomachs and I had to tell them that their food was in the back of the truck over at the gas station. I gave them each a slice of bread, which they understood better.
At 5 p.m. the man said, “Gimme ‘nother half-hour.”
“I have to walk,” I said, “so I’ll start now.”
“What?” he said, as if to say, What do I care how you get here, lady?
The man’s head is underneath the truck when I walk up. The hood is propped open, so I peer inside. It occurs to me that I didn’t look at the motor before I bought the truck. And if I had?
The usual type of guys hang around. “Why’d you buy a small truck to pull that trailer?” a two-hundred-pounder asks me.
“It isn’t small; it’s just the right size.”
“Is this one of them new-size Dodges?” asks another man as he walks its shiny red length.
“Yes, a Dakota.”
“Well, you know, Dodge does make a good truck. Still, it’s small.”
A man labeled Bob joins me to stare at the motor. “Is this the coil?” I ask, pointing to the pump for the windshield washers.
“No, it’s the pump for the windshield washers.” He walks away, disgusted.
Greasy Bob’s unlabeled son works here, too. He seems unsure of himself around the other men, but becomes talkative when I go into the office to pay up and we’re alone. His small green eyes are points of exposure within his hard frame and I suffer the fleeting impression that he’s a nice kid with no place to put his heart in this pile of tools and used parts.
Elevation 8640 STRONG WINDS POSSIBLE: information courtesy of the Wyoming Highway Department. I’m driving to Laramie because it’s Saturday morning and I own a new truck. The brief and bouncy storm that bestowed rain on Cheyenne last night dropped snow in the hills twenty miles to the west. The wind picks up the crystals and makes a new squall from them. Fresh rain bangs the windshield.
We (musn’t forget the dogs) cross the looping trace of the Laramie River south of Bosler, a concretion of trailers and outbuildings through which we come and go in the time it takes me to pull the cap off my pen. The wind screams along the truck’s surface and roadside reflectors send back dizzying bits of the sun. Ahead, the storm is smoke black, as if hell’s fires burn beyond the horizon. Clouds run down the sky like water color gone mad. At Rock River, population 415, swirling tails of snow drag along the ground like curtains, and I wonder where everyone is hiding. Big snowflakes look like locusts against the darkness.
We’ve turned south to Colorado, with hope for better weather. The road climbs high to view the blue-black forests which cover the front range of the Rockies. The country here has some large, restless beasts beneath it; rumps and elbows of rosy granite pop out of turf jump-started by irrigation. Brown and black cattle eat their way to death on the lush flanks of the =7, Willow Creek and Pitchfork ranches.
The highway passes into metamorphic section southeast of Virginia Dale, then enters a valley cut along the contact of the red sediments to the east with the core of the Rockies to the west. If I could pick a place to live…. Outside Fort Collins the world gets crowded. Two small cars collide in an intersection and bile green rescue trucks swarm around a pile of broken glass. I detour to the village of Bellevue, knowing that it will break my heart. I backed out of buying a pretty piece of property here some years back. I glance at the white red-trimmed house and barn, at sheep grazing across the road, at greening trees and a red-banded cuesta that cuts the clear blue sky. Oh hell. You can’t carry an acre of dirt around with you. I had the chance to be the person who lives here and I chose not to be.
Easter, and the wind has been pounding Cheyenne since way early. My truck sits in the parking lot all alone beneath a sea of swollen clouds that chug easterly. The sun breaks through somewhere beyond the roof’s edge and the sharp shadow of the protruding rafters appears and disappears like a signal. At noon I’m still in my pajamas, drinking coffee and watching vintage Bible movies on the motel television.
“Blood gets more blood as dog begets dog.” Ben-Hur’s dizzy girlfriend chastises him when he develops a lust for revenge rather than for her. She’s the type of Hollywood female that made me understand, as a kid, that men prefer women equipped with the looks, but hardly the brains, of a poodle.
Last night I sat on a barstool and watched the “flux and flow of humanity” as my friend here in Cheyenne says too frequently. The club itself was unfancy, just a big room with an elbow-shaped bar, a few pool tables, and a dance floor. A bowling alley and a laundromat, which can be accessed without going outdoors, are thoughtful additions in Cheyenne’s climate. About midnight I picked up my jacket and purse and set out for the door. A short man, his round face hidden beneath a bushy mustache and a black hat, tugged at my arm as I passed. He had pleasant eyes.
“Where’re you goin’?” he asked.
“I’m goin’ home,” I said.
“Why so early?” he asked.
“I’ll tell you why – I sat at this bar for two hours and not one person talked to me,” I tried to sound a bit huffy, but friendly.
The man pulled on my arm again and said, “Well… hey, I’m Friendly, and hey, you, So-and-So, get over here. She thinks we’re unfriendly.” And to me, “What’s yer name? See that guy over there, he’s a wild horse racer.” The wild horse racer stepped over to us and sort of introduced himself. He half-smiled then stepped away.
“See that bunch over there at that table?” Friendly shouted. “They all rodeo, except the big guy.” The big guy was a black man whose long, wild hair erupted from beneath a cowboy hat. “He’s a lawyer,” Friendly continued. “The bald guy, he’s a pick up man. Come here,” he said as he tugged me toward the table like I was a five- year-old.
The man who plucks cowboys off their rides and the arena floor, stood up and stuck out his hand to request that I dance with him. He pulled me against his hard, protruding belly before he spoke, but he slurred the words and I couldn’t understand him. I thought he might be drunk, but he didn’t wobble as he pushed me backwards taking tiny, rocking steps that I tried to match.
I guessed at his question: “I’m from Arizona, I’ve been here a month, and I don’t know how long I’ll stay.” He seemed happy with that. His only other voiced communication was to say, when he squeezed my arm, “Oh. I’m sorry,” as if he’d taken a liberty. Friendly told me later that the man had been kicked into a coma by a horse and was left with brain damage.
I never did dance with Friendly, but I danced with one of his friends, a thin man with big, dark eyes like a Greek portrait on a late Egyptian mummy case. He laughed softly and contemptuously as we circled the dance floor.
“Lookit’ that guy.” With a slight nod of his hat he indicated a man who leaned on a post at the edge of the dance floor. “Air Force. They buy Wranglers and a hat and walk in here. Stinkin’ wannabes.” I learned later that this ‘cowboy’ works as a beautician.
“Roman soldiers, like a scourge of locusts, laid waste the East,” the narrator intones. Christ. Rome bashing again. I turn off the TV.
Big spring rain clouds churned all day along the western horizon and then moved east to give Cheyenne a quick shower. The air smelled wet and warm as I stuffed the badge that secures my release for the night into my purse and walked across the damp asphalt to the truck. I let the dogs run a bit and watched the trucks and cars moving on the interstate, reduced to dark shadows by the intervening mile of rain.
My dad called at the usual time, but a day early. Our talk drifted from the weather (rainy on both ends), to the state of the nation, to business mismanagement, via my description of the dick fights going on where I work. We never disagree that the world can be a stupid place, but he thinks it got that way because not enough people are Republicans, but think you can’t have a dick fight without dicks.
Four of us new or temporary employees attend Chemical Hazards Training. We hear advice such as, “Keep your eyes open when washing them out,” and statements of pride such as, “We keep material safety data on totally harmless products.”
The road to Chalk Bluffs goes nowhere near anything that could be taken for a bluff, for many miles. I follow a gravel township road east until it turns north. When it turns east again I stop the truck to let the dogs run while I view the blond rustling grassland, which with the sky, is all there is. Empty Winchester and Colt shells have been run over where they lie in the road. A sign nailed to a gatepost has been the recipient of, if not these, a hundred other bullets. Why not? There’s nothing else to shoot at.
Miles later, just before the town of Carpenter, the road drops over what I presume to be Chalk Bluffs and though the vertical displacement can’t be more than one hundred feet, it’s a major feature considering the planar topography it interrupts. There are no commercial enterprises in town other than a cubbyhole store and a workshop with several above-ground storage tanks in the yard. The ground is oil-soaked and a row of old, gut-exposed gas pumps is lined up along the street. Across the way is a graveyard of sorts: a Texaco tanker and a tow truck are interred there, and around them, their names still visible on the dark, wind-scoured metal, lie the patriarchs of prairie agriculture: Case, McCormick, Deere.
It’s fourteen miles up and back to a truck stop on the interstate to get gas, then we pass through Carpenter again on the way south to cross the unmarked border with Colorado. I turn east through the village of Hereford and kick up a dust cloud while crossing what must be a Pleistocene river valley, carved when glaciers melted; the tiny creek at the bottom can’t be its creator. Atop the far side, cascading into two gullies that cut the bluff, is an unofficial dump. Whole cars, miles of wire, dirty heaps of busted appliances, bottles, and oil cans induce me to stop and take a look. I pull a misshapen green bottle out of the ground by its base and knock the dirt off; dig out a homemade cupboard door, some lead roof trim, a galvanized box and a rusted bread sign. As I ferry loot to the truck I spot a 1938 Wyoming license plate in good shape, but when I reach for it, a rattlesnake startles me. Its coils are just visible behind a piece of gray wood: should the snake strike at me, it could not miss, I think. Using a scrap of corrugated metal as a shield, I grab the license plate then step to where I can see the snake better. Its rattles buzz like a big cicada and its heart-shaped head moves sideways to give me a tongue lashing. The sound stops when I walk away.
I discover a new unit of time: the Moron. The second hand on my watch is stuck in an interesting cycle. It moves clockwise through one discrete arc, then back again. I observe the phenomenon, fascinated. My slice of sky today is a flawless sheet of bird’s egg blue air that ascends above the parking lot, then ends abruptly at the bottom of the Venetian blind. My soul stares back at me through the window and asks how we came to be here. I answer with another question. Where did the boxy-butt road-toad sedans that fill the parking lot come from?
My dad called, he said, to save me a toll charge, but I think he was afraid I’d forget his seventy-fifth birthday. The old dog has been described as a mastodon or a deer with short legs by my friend in Cheyenne, but in truth, he’s a dead ringer for my father, a phenomenon noted by more than one person who has witnessed their portraits cheek to jowl. I’ve traveled with both, and although my dad is more fun to talk to, the dog doesn’t smoke cigars.
It might be hard for some people to believe, but I like living at the motel. Many trucks are packed into my end of the annex tonight, parked cheek to cheek and butt to butt, and this is another thing some people will not believe; they’re sexy. Mine is out there with the rest of them, parked real close to a big red GMC with matching toolboxes that run the length of the bed. It’s new, as are two pale blue company trucks that glow under the moon. The rest of the trucks are big old beat up things and just being near them makes me happy.
Vehicles move at the rate of conversation along Torrington’s main street, due to citizens who visit from their trucks and cars. Like the cowboy of old who rarely got off his horse, I avoid leaving my truck except to take photographs. The woman who drives a blue and white Bronco idling behind me at a fast food drive-thru wears white lipstick and silver cowboy boot earrings, details courtesy of my rearview mirror. An American flag decal is stuck to her back window and a blue plastic bug screen is attached to the hood. A farmer in a faded station wagon takes his order from the girl at the window. His license plate reads 7 LAMB. Cowboys, Lamb-boys, Hogboys, Soyboys. A Holly Sugar logo overlooks town from a metal building. Where can those Sugarboys be?
Route 85 returns to Cheyenne, but I turn west at Hawk Springs, then pull onto the shoulder at the top of a long grade to view the valley, which from here is the color of dried yellow peas. Oz-green fields embedded in the expanse look like throw rugs, like flags waving to airplanes. A dark vehicle winds up the hill just as the dogs decide that the road is a good place to run. An armored vehicle, two red tanks strapped to the front like oversize fire extinguishers, stops.
“You need help?” a man in fatigues calls from where he reclines inside the door, the barrel of his weapon pointed at the roof.
“No,” I say irritably and the silly-looking thing pulls away. Cowboys. They buy fatigues and an armored car, automatic rifles and a couple of rockets, and think they’re gunboys.
The sandy soil of the hill, formed as the bluffs erode into chimneys and buttes, is the same color as my putty boots. Sage and grasses live on the slopes below and trees follow the gulley bottoms. Cliffs miles to the east are composed of the same rock, but shimmer pink in the afternoon light. Cows that look like they have been inflated with an air pump, share the abundance.
Three miles to the west we pass a metal structure surmounted by high tech gadgets on poles. The man from the armored car paces inside the gate and I remember the MX missile like a character out of book I once read, but had forgotten. A mile beyond the compound stands an abandoned homestead and I imagine that the site we just passed is a decoy – that the ranch house has the real weapon hidden beneath it: the missile blows out of its silo, the buildings incinerated in its wake.
In this two-part universe of earth and sky, manmade structures seem to be stuck to the land by a force greater than gravity. I admire people who sink all they have into a place, but I’m too much in awe of the land to stay on it. By the time the road drops into the valley of the Chugwater I’m crying because I don’t know who I am. The feeling passes like a rain shower, and the hamlet of Chugwater enters my memory as a grain elevator, a bounding colt, a shut-down hotel and a windmill made from giant tongue depressors.
The road crosses the interstate to ascend quiet meadows where willow trees, with too many little branches for my taste, grow in the abandoned channels of a wide creek bottom. A sturdy cow turns to face the truck and her thick-kneed calf scoots behind her big, safe hips. Invisible someones own a very large piece of paradise. Their presence is attested to by the blue, red, and yellow tags stapled to the animals’ ears and the feeling I get that I’m being watched.
Three, five and twelve: the number of days each of us who have resigned must endure. My number is twelve, working days that is, so I can’t get excited, yet. I re-packed the truck and trailer two nights ago, so there’s nothing to do but wait. When I was a kid I never doubted the importance of ‘going somewhere. I looked forward to our family vacations, not because we were out of school, which came with summer, but because I learned from traveling that in the west there was a physical match to my yearnings, that the being no one noticed at home was somehow noticed by nature itself. Whether this was by coincidence or design, I didn’t know.
Clouds to the west took two hours to get here but saved a slashing curtain of rain for us. A yellow and white Chevy pickup in the parking lot, equipped with dual antennas that whip around like feelers, appears to run like it’s made of sugar icing. The wind drives rain drops into the asphalt that explode into fragments of silver spray. Ten minutes, and the rain relaxes. A few, final drops make rings on the surface of the black water stranded in the parking lot.
“It was a good rain,” I hear someone say.
The sky lightens as the storm blows easterly, its thick white clouds piled high like plowed snow, the tops blown into peaked scallops that lean steeply to the north. If I were traveling I’d settle in for the night, let the dogs run, eat a sandwich and read.
One of the men at work, a goofy sort to start with, found a stray Siberian Husky. He didn’t want to bring it into his house for the night, so he locked it in the cab of his truck. There’s a field trip organizing to see the results: we cross the parking lot to the far row, where he parked it to avoid just such a public viewing. It’s a good thing that it’s an old truck; the roof liner is nothing more than a few shreds of backing that stuck to the glue, the door panels are missing, a piece of the dash is gone, the headrests are chewed to pieces, and the bench seat is shredded into foam rubber bits. It’s hopelessly funny and he gets sympathy from no one.
It’s tough to write down thoughts that run like an underground river, especially on a prairie road that bucks the truck like this one does. The climb into grazing land from irrigated fields is subtle, but accomplished by the time the road wraps around a water-rich crease that shelters abandoned ranch buildings of the type that watercolor artists like to romanticize. The privy is only a few strides from the two-story clapboard house, but it would be a damn uncomfortable journey in winter. An ancient lone oil pamper is so rusted that its presence is barely noticeable on the big stretch of hillside above and behind the ranch.
The truck hits the top of a rise and floats over into land so beautiful that nothing that has happened before this moment matters. Little yellow wildflowers, if viewed at forty miles per hour, suffer from a likeness to dandelions. When bobbing in the wind at my feet, in the company of blue hyacinths, they are charming. The dogs take a stretch: four pronghorn does jump a fence to slip across the road.
The critters to be found in the alkali expanse northwest of Laramie are few and mostly extinct. When I stop to examine a well-known roadside cabin constructed from dinosaur bones, a dozen jackrabbits approach me like house dogs. The Medicine Bow River, running full with snow water from its origin in mountains to the south, produces cool meanders in the grasslands east of Medicine Bow. In town, a mustard colored building accommodates the town hall and police station, which is closed. Scattered businesses, many boarded up, trailer houses, and the four-story Virginian Hotel, a reminder that many cowboys were young Southerners displaced by Reconstruction, constitute the hometown of 953 persons.
The former train station holds the town museum. I’d visit, but it’s closed on Sundays. As we cross the tracks going south, five boys walk the other way, toward town. They split up at the intersection and head for home, presumably. It seems like a lonely place in which to grow up.
A metal Champlin/Union Pacific Railroad lease sign sprawls on the ground, dead from gunshot wounds. I may have posted this well when it was my job to update the master map of Wyomimg oil and gas activity when I was in college and worked as a technician at an oil company in Denver. The legend is barely readable and I wouldn’t remember anyway. Still, it’s a bit like stumbling onto the tombstone of someone you once met. Most of the pumpers in the vicinity are active and fair-sized oil storage tanks stand on a rise above the stream. Indigo blue wild iris unfold in low spots where water stands from the spring runoff. A buried pipeline is mapped by yellow and orange posts which leap the road and continue up and over the hill.
As we descend miles later into the upper Medicine Bow Valley I feel like a kid whose roller coaster ride is over too soon, but a brown calf obliges me with a bit of fun: he places his feet as if to run away, but twirls and bounds into the road instead. I hit the brakes, but his brown rump gets bigger and bigger. In fact, I never knew calves were this big. Gravel rolls, and the truck skids to a stop just as the scared baby kicks at the right headlight.
“Not my new truck,” I beg out loud and he misses, still kicking as he heads for the brush.
Two creeks that source the Medicine Bow River are marked by old splintered cottonwoods and the gift of green fields. Rock River oil field, in places a swamp noisy with bullfrogs, is pincushioned by antique oil pumpers and a jumble of deserted white buildings from which fly clouds of black birds through broken windows. A fire truck and other vintage oil field vehicles are gathered alongside a derrick that currently supports a cluster of antennas. Pieces of junked equipment stand like statues in a park. Through the gloom of dusk a silver pickup approaches, and as we pass each other the driver gives me the Wyoming Wave. Likewise.
Last night workmates helped a couple departing for new jobs in Lander load life’s detritus into a rented truck. As we dragged to the curb the last wretched stuff that one should part with, but cannot, I felt lucky to have crammed my domestic existence into storage before leaving Arizona.
This morning, the mountains to the west, toward Laramie, are as thin as ghosts, their cubic miles of rock turned weightless and transparent by the power of light. The wind, as ever, bounces the branches of small trees, which jerk and rebound as if dancing with clumsy partners.
Seven days and counting: I withdraw behind a polite persona and wait for the bell to ring. The dogs dream a dream of waiting, a timeless habit that will be interrupted when they hear my step. Their true master is the flow of time, an ancient poem that can be distracted into prose temporarily. I join them in dream state, not wishing time away, but riding it like gravity down a hill of temporary obligation.
My friend’s belongings are packed in cardboard boxes and the furniture is pushed against the walls of his apartment. Last night I brought in two blankets from the trailer, threw one over him where he slumbered on the couch and took mine to the bedroom. After spreading my raincoat on a bare mattress, I rolled up in the blanket and laid down. I woke up later, cold.
The movers show up before I can get out of the shower. There are four of them and they complain that there are too many people in the apartment. I take my bags and coat out to the truck so they won’t get packed. Back inside, I discover that I locked my purse in the truck. I conclude that my keys must be in it after a search in the usual places fails to turn them up.
“Call a locksmith,” my friend says, and we sit in the midst of the movers and drink coffee.
The locksmith takes my twenty bucks and runs to her truck. I stand under the dripping sky, and search my purse for the keys: not there. I return to the apartment, swearing. One of the movers blocks the kitchen door with a dolly, but beyond him, on the counter next to the sink, my keys have appeared out of nowhere.
“How did Cheyenne get its start?” I overhear the new woman at work ask one of the guys.
“At first all it was, was seventeen saloons and bordellos across from the train station. You know, the one that’s closed downtown,” and he recommends that she visit the museum for proof.
“Railroads and bordellos,” she repeats as if it’s an equation.
“One-fifth the country’s nukes are here too,” he adds.
“Can I go see them?” she asks.
“You can tour the Air Force base. They don’t show you much, though.”
Back at the motel, water drips from the eaves. An all night drizzle has Cheyenne closed in like a big, cold, shower stall. Cars and trucks, aiming cones of light through the mist, stop at Taco Bell. My friend leaves in the morning for Kansas City and his new job. He stops to say good-bye and eternity opens between us in the dark parking lot.
Tomorrow is the last day I’ll work and the business of the place goes on around me very quietly. Sleep threatens, so I rest my head against the computer monitor, which has been disconnected. I dream that I’m in my motel room, asleep. The stuck second hand on my watch is functioning again: it ticks comfortably, inches from my left ear. Music would help keep me alert, but the company forbids it in any form, even with the use of headphones.
The offices of the oil company I worked for in Denver lined the outside of the building; each office had a window, which was a nice thing, but all the desks faced the hall. One day I turned my desk around so that I could view a gravel roof three floors below and the sky above it. The next morning I found the desk reoriented to the hall.
I escape my sinecure at 3:40 p.m. The eccentric couple whom I intend to visit in Denver isn’t home when I arrive, and I’m half glad. I slip over to my favorite restaurant and order falling-apart roasted pork shoulder drenched in green chile gravy with a side of guacamole and a slurry of beans, for five bucks. Oops, the price has gone up to five seventy-five and, also new, there’s no smoking at the four corner tables.
Murky portraits of dead Europeans add the only sour notes to a charming chorus of necessaries and accessories that invite the buyer to imagine his or her living space reborn in another century. An Empire chaise appointed with the caress of silk; an English desk fortified with dark bronze; a French armoire lavished with the sheen of gold leaf. Any would do the job. Price tags are strung on green ribbons as if they too, are merely decorative.
I disappear behind a Spanish table with iron stretchers, ca. 1700, into a linen-covered Louis XIII armchair. I hide here when I come to town, an interloper in time and class, my blue-jeaned butt cradled by saffron silk, my boots at rest on silver gilt or timeworn walnut.
My friend, who is the custodian of all this, is a busy man. I have been to his house a few times, but not for many years. There is no point to it because it looks just like the store. Some men collect guns or mistresses, but for him it’s a Dutch marquetry cabinet swarming with modest, flat-chested maidens and voluptuous flowers, ca. 1730. I wait for him so that we can go to dinner. I have waited two hours so I stroll the alcoves for the umpteenth time and pledge that I will someday own a chair covered in black moire satin and a pair of lampshades to match. Sequestered with other folky things is a gingerbread mansion designed to confine a squirrel, whose terror was converted to bourgeois amusement as it raced to spin a windmill on the roof. That’s it.
“Dammit. Let’s eat,” I yell to Mr. Stuck-in-Time. He picks up his coat and keys and I catch the dark and shimmering image of my face in a Baroque Italian mirror. Twin cheeky-faced putti on the frame mock my reflection.
Days spent with the eccentric couple float by like episodes on a culinary Masterpiece Theatre: we savor smoked turkey fettuccine, Italian sausage and polenta, tender calamari rings, fresh strawberry shortcake, grilled steaks, cream cheese eggs and chocolate pecan pie.
“If I had plenty of money I’d collect pickup trucks,” I tell my hostess while we snack on hot cornmeal muffins, jalapeno jelly and coffee.
“Oh no,” she protests as if I’m kidding.
“I’d line them up along the road in front of my place like farmers do their machinery.” I can see it all in my head and the trucks mostly look like the ones parked around the motel in Cheyenne. “I’d have to buy a place first,” I realize out loud. “And I’d keep a special truck just to commute from the house to the road, so I could pick out the one I wanted to drive that day.” I’m filled with happiness just imagining it.
“I can’t even stand it when one of those things parks in front of my house,” she says.
I know. It’s a measure of her affection for me that she tolerates my truck and trailer down the street in front of a neighbor’s place. She’s so out of touch, but I keep mum and fantasize about my collection of character-ridden transport. Besides, you can’t talk seriously about these things with a person who won’t modernize the bathroom because she thinks showers are ugly.
Earlier I stopped at my old house and had a laugh. After three years the new owner has given up fighting the weeds. The ailanthus suckers are still being fertilized by drunks and the vine that consumes all is still at it. I don’t feel anything for a life that I remember imperfectly with my mind and with my heart, not at all.
Even the wheelchair folks are mostly white at this annual Denver event billed as a people’s fair. I avoided attending when I lived here, but today I feel compelled to sail the aisles like Odysseus strapped to the mast. “The past was better,” whisper stained glass windows. “Your life is empty – buy a kid,” scold the creative adoption people. “Save your guilty white ass,” admonish pseudo-Indian coyote, elk, and cougar T-shirts, your choice, twelve bucks each.
An irate man hands out Bibles in front of Your Friendly Heretics, Neighborhood Atheists, Freethinkers, Agnostics and Skeptics as an antidote to such silly slogans as, “The only difference between Witchcraft and Christianity is who you blame your fun on.” I scribble behind a man and woman who sit quietly on folding chairs and monitor the atheists. The woman turns to frown at me several times then stands up, retrieves a pamphlet from the heretics and thrusts it at me.
“Here,” she snaps. “You don’t have to write it all down.”
Three Adult Survivors of Extreme Abuse look lost and humiliated, sandwiched between furry animal puppets and pencils and pens made from sticks. I feel equally sorry for Rocky Mountain Skeptics for a Rational Alternative to Pseudoscience, two lonely guys who stand beneath a yellow canopy. Maybe they should say “high” to the tie-dyed humans at The Hemp Initiative, or visit Mensa, where one can take a humiliating brain test in public. A guy walking by trips over the first hurdle when he asks his wife, “What the hell is Mensa?”
Shining Light Peace Ankle Bells jingle in the hand of an elderly man who cools himself with a Congresswoman Pat Schroeder fan. Uh-oh. A Hare Krishna devotee fingers leaflets next to a very, very strange diorama; little clay figures of a hideously unhappy human being are born, grow up and die in a fish tank.
I wonder… What has prompted so many people give up the practice of rational thinking, as if sentiment is a substitute for moral definition, as if the incorrect inferences of superstition will ever help us understand anything? The universe is ever-silent, so I answer myself: You cannot run from where you have never been.
Next: Prairie Dog Rescue.
Rescue me. I escape to the music venue where a Rockabilly band plays to the people, most of whom stand or sit on the concrete steps of a classically-styled amphitheater. Assorted youths, a mom cum baby, a biker in a fool’s hat, a semi-naked male in a flaming orange/camouflage hunting vest and a woman on roller skates give their bodies over to various rythyms, none of which is being played by the musicians. A stoic minority of black and Chicano teenagers uniformly dressed in Charlie Brown shorts, Rocky Marciano dancing shoes, team T-shirts and caps looks on.
My destination is a there-but-for-one-paycheck-go-I cafe where any soul with seventy-five cents can sip coffee for as long as he or she likes. I go to be reminded that the poverty line is just behind my butt and because a friend who volunteered to water my hosts’ plants while they were away broke the spare key in their front door lock, and they’re not home now. The notion of procuring a replacement key has drifted into their married minds, but so far action eludes them.
The café owners have added twenty-five cent pay TVs at a few of the tables, otherwise, the place is about the same as when I started eating here in 1974. A woman, fiftyish and motherly, is having a glass of rose for breakfast in a booth along the front wall. She props her head up with a fist and dozes. She wakes and looks straight at me, or is it at something imaginary that has her attention?
“We stopped given’ out free papers,” the waiter yells at an old man in chinos and a zippered jacket who digs through a stack of leftovers.
“If I don’t find the right one I’m cooked,” he says, ignoring the waiter.
Three black men enter through the big front door and greet the cook and cashier. They sit down to have breakfast with a white man with whom they apparently work. It’s good to hear people laugh together. Even if within their hearts is buried malice that might be inflamed to fury, perhaps the start is simply in being civil, maybe it is, after all, not something natural for humans to get along, but something we learn. Well, it might be true. I scoop beans and chili into a tortilla and ask for more coffee.
I sit in the backseat of my hosts’ crumbling Toyota as we drive up one of the canyons west of Denver into a storm. The driver is prone to sudden, illegal left turns and I’m hoping we don’t have an accident. The woman holds their wind-up Schnauzer in her lap. It whines, pants and screeches until she feeds it from our lunch basket. To think, from the wolf, man made this.
“It’s not arguing, it’s how we communicate,” they tell me when I decline to join the bickering about where to stop for a picnic. I watch the milkshake creek slide by and the hard metamorphic rocks that ring when struck with a hammer. Taffy pulls of sand and mud are nearly intact in some places but have been twisted into intricate webs of light and dark minerals elsewhere. They appear dull today under the clouds, but the schists shine like fish skin on sunny days.
“We should have gone to that other canyon,” she starts in again. “The one we went to last time. This isn’t the same one darling, is it? Darling?” Her husband fidgets like an irritated pigeon and I withdraw much as I did when my parents practiced the same loving intimacies on each other’s nerves. While they survey sections of the creek bank (each spot so far has been rejected on the grounds, chiefly, that the other suggested it), I distract myself with looking at rocks. Marriage: a subtopic of the immense question, Why can’t people live sanely?
I hang my legs out of the car door to feel the tender warmth of the frail afternoon sun; they lunch on the wet, willow-choked bank of the creek. The result of their marital head-butting is that she picked an undesirable spot out of spite. White clouds lurk behind a peak that retains sizable snow patches in the dips that lead to its scree covered summit. The aspen and stream willows are newly leafed; the leaves are small and bitter green and supple beneath the wind. My toes are purple, but the air feels like a gentle river and I’m content, for now, to be cold. The sun loses to the clouds and thunder threatens.
The truck is on cruise control as we sail through crotch-high wheat and ankle-high corn west of Laramie. I’m waiting for the rubber band to snap, to send me peacefully into this fat, beautiful world. A hawk that is as perfect as an Egyptian sculpture waits on a fence post.
Higher up in the Snowies, the wind has made dog-tail trees of the pines, iris cluster in the green grass and there’s a healthy spring rock crop. Below the west side of the peaks I have a campground all to myself, through which a stream cold enough to freeze anybody’s anything flows through the long grass. A fallen log blocks the stream’s path and causes it to cascade into the meadow; willows, which will later stand on dry ground, shake from the rush of water. Aspen, their new leaves the size of dimes, live with the big pines.
I collect deadfall that is wet from a just-passed storm and get a good fire started by using peanut butter. I have nothing to cook, so I eat PBJ on a bagel. Still hungry, I search the trailer and turn up a can of soup. The fire has burned to billowing fragments and I put the pan in the coals. It rains. I run to clear the table; while my back is turned the fire flames then subsides, leaving the soup fortified with ashes and the pan sticky with resin just like the tin cans we used for tramp cookouts as kids.
At 9 p.m. the sky is quite light even with a heavy cloud cover. I have four candles, two dogs, and a stack of blankets to keep me warm. The old dog is posted about ten feet from the trailer where he listens carefully and raises his nose to catch what’s in the air. Occasionally he gets up and does a little perimeter walk or lopes down to the stream for a drink. I wear sweat pants, a T-shirt and a jacket and I’m tucked into bed. Still, whatever sticks out gets cold. The black dog raises his head when I pet him, but his eyes roll shut and he quickly buries his nose in the crook of my knee.
Eye blue iris erupts from the meadows and lightning cracks the sky. Three black crows crouch on every other fence post. It looks as if the Snowy Range Ambassadors sign by the side of the road refers to them. I wasted the sunny morning sleeping and now the cloud cover has reduced the land to a flat, indifferent scene. I suffer from cramps: a quick visit to the museum in Saratoga will let me fill the dogs’ water bottle and use the restroom.
A little lady in a red vest and trousers corners me. “It’s my job to guide visitors,” she says as she steers me into the archaeology room, a mini version of museums all over the west: atlatls, speer points, pot shards, beads. Any other afternoon I’d love to chat but I’m almost sick to my stomach from the pain. The museum is small and we make it back to the entryway in minutes, but she stops near a stairway that leads to the basement.
“Come on,” she says, “there’s more.”
Oh God, no. My interior parts hurt without respite. The basement is damp, fortunately, because the old woman is anxious to end our visit there. “My arthritis doesn’t like it here,” she says as she massages her knuckles.
I scoot up the stairs, but can’t escape. “You must sign our guestbook,” says another volunteer. She points to the damn thing then asks, “Where’re you from?”
“Just make it Phoenix.” She sticks my stand-in, a red pin, into a map on which the state of Arizona is curiously empty except for me.
My plan was to cross Interstate 80 north of Saratoga and go on to Medicine Bow, but I feel so awful that I turn west to Rawlins instead. A hot shower and a cooked meal may not make a cure, but I’ll feel better, and I can visit the town of Sinclair tomorrow.
At the RV park I have a section to myself, reserved for little trailers like mine. Big rigs, like flights arriving at an airport, taxi over the gravel to numbered spaces to the east. After a long prelude of thunder, lightning, and scattered showers, a full storm commences. I realize that I have never cranked open the front awning on the trailer, but do so now. Dirt, decayed leaves, tree seeds and spider webs that accumulated over the seventeen years the trailer sat unused in my father’s yard, are revealed to the western skies. Inside, I open the curtains and a nice light fills the trailer, but nothing is visible through the filthy windows. I clean the glass: ultrasuede hills south of the interstate make a lovely backdrop for a mini golf course and laundry barn.
The post-storm sun seems brighter than it has all day. Silvery light falls across my table and the curtains are sucked in and out by the wind. I cook two pork chops for dinner, not because I need two, but because that’s the smallest number that comes in a package. I’m left with an iron skillet, a plate, a cup, a knife and fork and last night’s soup pan to wash. This is why I dined on peanut butter and jelly down south. But here, where it’s cold and hot and wet by turns, the carnivore has returned.
The RV park is empty except for two motor homes that are staying over and three stragglers like myself. The sun is hot and high, the horizon treeless.
“Say, you’ve got Wyoming plates. What’s the road like to Casper?” It’s a little man in a powder blue shirt, double knit pants and a yellow golf hat.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m going up that way, but east first, through Medicine Bow and the Shirley Basin.”
“Why?” he asks.
“Don’t like the interstates. Too many trucks.”
“There’s more room to get out of the way on the interstate,” he says.
“The backroads are prettier,” I answer.
“Oh, I got a brother-in-law like you,” he says and writes me off with a wave of his hand.
“Say, what if you break down?” Who is this guy, a spy for my Dad?
“That’s fine for you. All you have to do is do this,” and he mimes a girl pulling up her skirt to flash her leg. He pats the hood of my truck. “Just thought you might know.” He walks to a motor home so big that if he did break down he could start his own town.
“Where are the refinery tours?” I ask a round man in greasy coveralls who wears a silver hard hat ribbed like an acorn squash. He and his partner are the only people I can find at the Sinclair refinery complex.
“Tours?” He looks up at a man who stands by a red tank.
“Aren’t any. Not for years,” the man above says.
A young woman is removing loose paint from the steps of the town hall with a wire brush when I walk up. She offers to show me to the town museum. “This is it,” she says and lets me into a room across the hall from the dark and empty police department.
“Boys to Logan, Utah, to train as mechanics.” Sixteen men dressed in ill-fitting suits, ankle boots, crumpled neckties and a variety of hats sat in rows on a bank of steps to have their photo taken. One held a dog in his lap and another a lamb. On another day, nine more “boys” presented smiles to eternity. They were hatless, had ribbons pinned to their suits and were bound for Camp Lee, Virginia. The faces of the last twelve men to leave the area for the trenches in Europe betrayed strain and their eyes were alight with sadness. One man’s hair was pressed flat along the sides. His face, from the bridge of his nose down was burnt by the sun, his forehead white: a cowboy.
Photos of the Parco Hotel, showplace of downtown Sinclair, show it as it was in the twenties, with a lobby that invited the traveler with cool shelter, broad Mexican tiles and Mission Style leather couches beside a big fireplace. Posters on the walls advertised Saturday night dances. Balconies outside the convent-like rooms must have dripped with flowers and icicles. A glance out the museum windows reveals a For Sale sign on the locked door today.
A drugstore-type display case contains an array of objects presented in the American way, that is, without distinction as to category or hierarchy: spurs, dentures, a cowbell, ration books, a 1944 letter home from a soldier, clamp-on ice skates, a copy of the Constitution and By-Laws of the International Association of Oil Field, Gas Well and Refinery Workers of America 1934, a straight razor, a slide rule, cigarette cases, a razor blade sharpener, a croup lamp for people and animals, a roller skate with wooden wheels, a sheep-branding iron, a .30-30 bullet mold, several pipe cutters and wrenches, a set of pocket billiard balls, a Sinclair Pennant brand glass from a gas pump, a Colt .45 Peacemaker replica, a .22 Winchester, and a Parco Motor Trails highway map, the cover of which illustrates Columbus claiming the sands of Salvador for the queen, who couldn’t be there.
Coincidental to this morning’s conversation at the RV park, I overhear a man whose car is stranded thirty miles away as he talks on the pay phone at The Virginian Hotel in Medicine Bow. A rock poked a hole in the oil filter and the oil leaked out.
“I’m lucky,” he tells a person on the other end who expects him in Denver tonight. “The mechanic here was going to Rawlins today, anyway. He’ll bring an oil filter back with him. Yeah, all I have to do is hitchhike back out there with it and five quarts of oil. Sure, and fix it.”
I smile at the man: “Too bad about your car.”
“It’s fine, it’s gonna be fine. The mechanic will bring the filter and I’ll be on my way,” he insists.
Across the street in the railroad station, the town museum houses the weapons that won the West; enamel pans, wood stoves, egg beaters, butter churns, typewriters, telegraph keys. And one that didn’t. Photographs of a 400-foot-tall wind turbine south of town, which cost four million dollars to build, won’t tell you that the beast broke down and that an engineer who worked on the project bought it for twenty thousand dollars. But the volunteer at the museum will. “That’s four million tax dollars,” she says, pointing at my notebook. “Write that down.”
In the back room I find a jewel in the junk, a galvanized tin object that looks like a mail box with a drawer in the bottom. “It’s a lamb heater invented by Judson Gibbs over in Rock River about 1915,” the volunteer says. She opens a drawer where charcoal was burned then points out the box’s double-walled construction “so the charcoal gas don’t kill the little thing.” A “scare-away” for coyotes that the same man designed looks like a three-foot tall rocket packed solid with sulphur. Firecrackers were inserted wick end first through holes in the cylinder, which ignited in rounds as the sulphur burned. The devices were used locally until the 1940s.
“The noise didn’t bother the sheep. And probably not the coyotes either. But it must have been entertaining all the same,” the volunteer comments.
I point to a log gnawed to a point by a beaver, which hangs by a twisted willow handle. “Oh. That’s a beaver basket,” she says. “People made them and sold them along the highway during the depression.”
“Basket? There’s no hole in it. It’s just a log with a handle,” I say. She examines the object like she’s never seen it before. “You’re right. I don’t see a hole. But they called them baskets and sold them, just the same.”
A framed 1926 Cheyenne Frontier Days program cover features photographs of the top cowboys from 1897 to 1925. In addition, the owner of the program penciled in: 1926 Mike Stewart, Casa Grande, Arizona; 1927 Earl Thode, South Dakota; 1928 Sharky Irwin, Cheyenne.
Contrary to the tradition that real cowboys didn’t dress like movie cowboys, many were dressed like movie cowboys. Exceptions were Elton Perry, of LaGrange, Wyoming, who in 1902 wore a thick-braided, conical sombrero and Hugh Clark, with a blunt nose and a straight-across mouth, could be one of today’s young cowboys. The 1901 champ, Otto Plaga from Sybille, Wyoming, and the horse he rode in on, faced away from the camera.
Great blown-out thunderheads rise over the badlands to the north of Medicine Bow. Floods of grape purple spikes and yellow flowers line the road. Thirty-three miles out and an hour to sundown, about a quarter of a mile down the dirt road which heads to the North Platte river, is the car that waits for an oil filter.
Performance horses need high heels, the ferrier tells me. “The ones that need to break n’ go n’ get in the ground. That’s barrel racers, calf ropers, you know.” My Lander acquaintances keep their horses on a ranch outside town. Her paint threw a shoe, so we’re up here in the cool sunshine watching the man make a good job of it.
“This angle should match the shoulder angle,” he says as he uses a brass tool to measure the slant of the hoof as it meets the ground, then draws a line with his hand down and forward across the shoulder of the horse. He trims and files the hoof then removes translucent, squeezable material from the underside. “That’s the frog,” he says. “Damage that and the horse is in trouble.”
“Why?” I ask.
“When the horse steps, it pushes the frog up and the pressure pumps blood out of the leg. If a horse stands in a stall too long it can get thrush. The frog shrivels up and it loses circulation.”
“Then what?” I ask.
“Well, you soak the foot in Chlorox, caulk the shriveled area with silicone to make an artificial frog and put a pad on the bottom to protect it. It’ll come back fine.”
“Ho son,” the ferrier says as he starts on the other horse, which balks at having it’s hind leg pulled up at what looks to be an undignified, if not uncomfortable angle.
I decide, for some reason, to get a mule someday. “Mules, the pickup trucks of critters.”
“Say what?” he says.
A crowd of people mill around long rows of picnic tables under the cottonwood trees at a park in Lander. A silent auction for twenty-five pounds of buffalo meat has been announced. Other than that, there are hot dogs, Cokes, root beer, cold cans of Bud and ice cream to eat. Costumes worn by some of the mountain men participants are pretty half-baked, too.
The silent auction is followed by an out-loud auction which commences with an offering of stones painted to look like owls. I wander away. One of the mountain men, whose teepee is in camp set aside across the stream, works for the town newspaper. He’s amiable, talkative about anything of interest to him and bald as an eagle under his fox pelt cap. He made his deerskin shirt and leggings himself and his feet are tucked into beaded moccasins. He smokes an “all natural mix” in his antler pipe, which smells nice. Tobacco is considered unnatural, he tells me.
A section of cottonwood tree has been set up so that the face, which has been painted with target circles, is about three feet off the ground. Men, boys and a couple of women throw hatchets at a three by five card held in place by thumb tacks. As the game of tomahawks or just ‘hawks’ proceeds, it’s easy to forget the lawn chairs, the aluminum table covered by a cheap blanket, the mix of costumes and street wear and the lack of skilled contestants, because everyone is having great fun. Three members of a fractional Indian family hurl insults in English, Spanish and Shoshoni at the throwers, hitting their marks because they know them well. One man, who has a harelip, wears a Tom Mix hat, a beaded vest and pretty, blue-beaded moccasins, finds the concentration to ignore their jibes. He throws insults back at the trio in a high, whining voice then splits the card in three places, three times. He looks pleased that he’s won.
Two men dressed as cowboys display the clean angular features that belonged to men of the Old West, at least in illustrations. The younger is blessed with smooth, perpetually blushed cheeks, the elder with leather worn skin deeply creased at the corners of his eyes; his mustache is like a palomino’s mane. They stand with arms crossed and look along their straight noses at the fractional Indians who, since the hawk game has ceased, act out, step by cult joke, the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“The only part of my white heritage I acknowledge is the Scotch and Irish,” the young man says. His face is wide and flat with a pointed nose and chin, like a badger’s, with amber eyes like the black dog’s. Two Japanese swords stuck through his belt, a tobacco bag,powder horn, and ball bag hang from it, make it difficult for him to sit in a chair.
“The Celts? Why not the Welsh?” I ask.
“Oh, they’re farther away,” he says vaguely.
“OK,” I say. “Why the Scots?”
“It’s the kilt then,” he says with a burr.
“So, who was the Indian in the family?” I ask.
“Me mother’s one-eighth you know,” he claims, now speaking as an Irishman. “That makes me one-sixteenth.” When he sees the look on my face he insists, “Indianin’ is a way of life – and I live it.” He chomps on his cheeseburger, dips it in the ketchup and mustard that cover his french fries, and chomps again.
“And your father?
“The bastard’s in South Dakota,” he says sounding now like any kid. “A short guy, you know the kind. He pushed me to go out for sports in high school when I didn’t want to. Wrestling, track, football,” he pauses, “basketball.” He’s short like his father, but his chest is wide and his shoulders slope like a wrestler’s. His thick arms end in thick hands. I’d say he’s eighteen or twenty, but at first I thought he was older because he has a gut and tries hard to please people.
“Is it just swords?” I ask. “Or do you like other weapons?”
“I love airplanes and guns and knives and tanks, WW II stuff, but swords the best.”
“I see. Indian stuff.”
He frowns. “Stop it.”
Monumental blocks of sandstone that rest in the bed of the Wind River are seemingly supported by the fragile water. On the opposite bank, embedded in the shale debris which lies at the bottom of a steep skirt of grass, far below the thick beds from where it has fallen, is a single boulder as big as the proverbial motorhome.
The dogs and I descend to a section where a sandbar divides the river’s flow into two glassy sheets. The banks are tangled with bushes and grasses which have gone to seed and with tiny bluebells that grow between rocks. The black dog wades into the slowly moving green water then paddles upstream as he is drawn out into faster, deeper currents. He climbs out, returns downstream and repeats the exercise three times before looking for another alcove to test. I’m supposed to meet my Lander acquaintances at a horse sale above Cody, so I call the dogs and we reluctantly climb to the truck.
The highway, courtesy of the canyon, cuts through successive rock sections named Amsden, Tensleep, Phosphoria and Dinwoody by geologists. Like famous people one has only read about, I meet the Who’s Who of Wyoming stratigraphy. Then the Wind River itself, for no good reason, becomes the Bighorn where it emerges from the canyon into the beautiful red rock of the Chugwater formation.
A highway worker drags a device along the shoulder which rips up sagebrush by the roots to expose the tan earth and its scents. A string of anvil-headed clouds forms on the northeast horizon and massive, violet mountains with a dressing of snow peek over the hills ahead. A hawk glides to the Gipsy music that plays on my tape deck. The spicy-sweet perfume of pervasive yellow flowers sweeps through the truck cab, replaced briefly by the smell of gas wells. The town of Metseetse comes and goes and the highway follows a fertile valley between Tensleep mesas. A solitary grave hugs a fence along a field where horses wade yellow-blush fields of grass and sage.
The horse sale is most likely over by the time I reach Cody at 4 p.m. so I turn west toward Yellowstone instead. On both sides of the valley where I camp, and on to the west, the mountains have flat tops. Snow, which clings to ledges and less-steep slopes, reveals the layered structure of the Absaroka volcanics that form them. A storm rumbles to the north and black clouds expand toward us over the feedlot-brown cliffs, the sky becoming so dark that the mountain face disappears. Thunder echos down the valley. The black dog raises his ears, stares at the sky and is distracted by a fly.
For two hours I disappear to the other world, to the place where the heart sleeps. I return to the sounds of the trailer breathing and laughter, which I attribute at first to the old dog who wanders somewhere nearby. I wake, roll over and doze. The black dog presses my shoulders with his back and we breathe as one.
Outside, the blustery blue world I left is quiet and the sun is golden hot. Two girls wash their hair at a water pump near the concrete outhouses then rinse their arms and legs in the gush of cold water. One stands straight as a statue, her arm raised and curved behind her head, and shaves an armpit. I put on make-up in the rearview mirror and go to town.
It’s Father’s Day and my dad is far away. I’m in downtown Cody and as hungry as a hog, so I enter the Irma, formerly Buffalo Bill’s hotel. The sign outside is Art Deco but the dining room is wide and warm and Edwardian. On a richly carved, cherry wood back bar doing service as a food counter, a serene buffalo head stares from the apex of a double scroll. Big, gilt-framed paintings hang high above creaky booths, eclipsing chicory blue wallpaper dizzy with pink flowers.
I’m so hungry that even if there was someone with me I couldn’t talk to them. As it is, the dark room and tiny nightlight in my booth tempt me to doze. Through the front windows I can see a sliver of the buildings across the street, one of which is constructed from the beautiful Chugwater sandstone.
A German tourist translates the menu for two companions.
“Are you folks ready?” the waitress asks. A bit of discussion in German ensues and the man with English skills orders, “The corn beef and sauerkraut sandwiches.”
“No, no, turkey,” the other man says and madam waves that she is undecided. She’ll have to decide without me. I’m gone.
“When did you start running?” He was handsome with his black hat pulled low on his forehead, his Spanish nose bent a little and curls that edged his face. Startled, I answered that I’d been traveling since March. I noticed that his blue shirt was gathered into jeans that fit like a younger man’s and that his black vest stretched over well-set shoulders.
“Hah!” he mocked as he slid an arm around my shoulders. “You gonna stand there and look good, or help us?” I watched his gunslinging partner loaded saddles, bits, bridles, spurs and cowboy miscellany into a thoroughly creased, white pickup carrying New Mexico plates.
“Stand here,” I said.
He removed his hat and rubbed his hair, which was not dense black, but dusty, and perhaps thinning. He handed me a silver spider. “Keep this,” he said. I pinned it on a pocket flap.
“He’s a con man,” someone said. A man with a round woeful face, patchy pink cheeks, and pretty gray eyes, responsible for the show and sale of Western relics that had just ended, seemed to think I’d never met the type before. He was being nice, so I said something benign and smiled. He too wore a black hat but was shorter and bowlegged. I decided that he was more interesting from the back than the front as I watched him walk away.
The insistent beauty of Wyoming waits as my mind looks at other things, at questions that cannot be answered by the rush of the river, by Venus high in the western sky, or the midsummer twilight. I think about all the country between me and Arizona tonight, about my friends who are mostly secure, well-fed and preoccupied. And about myself, safely, if temporarily, outside it all. My memories are constellations of light, tastes in the dark, smells of dog and plant both wet and dry, clouds of experience in no order, discontinuous. Tears stick to my face. I wipe one away and another comes. I let go of what I can’t sustain, let memory empty itself to make room for the new. The black dog barks sharply. I try to follow his senses with my own, but see nothing. High above us, the Big Dipper floats with handle high, ready to pour starlight on us as we sleep.
Crows breakfast on last night’s road kill. I stop at a simple cafe where a mix of tourists and working people read newspapers, feed kids and begin the week.
“How many minutes in an hour?” a dad asks his boy, who kicks his leg back and forth, rubs under his chin with his hand and shifts his eyes to look at a wall clock.
“Fifteen,” he concludes. “Can I have a watch?”
“Maybe for Christmas,” his mom says.
“I want to tell time now,” he insists.
“You’ll get it soon enough,” his dad says softly. “C’mon now, your waffles are here.”
“Can I do the syrup myself?” the boy asks.
“I’ll do it.”
“Are you writing a song or the Gettysburg Address?” a man who wears a champagne color toupe, hush puppies and a shirt with his name on it, asks me.
“It’s a secret,” I tell him. He goes back to reading a Montana newspaper.
A boy who dines with his mom and three other kids finishes his plate and excuses himself to go outside. He comes back and says, “There’s a dog out there.”
“My dog,” I announce. Six kids follow me out and watch as I open the tailgate and shoo the black dog in. Why can’t I remember to close the topper windows?
North of Cody, through an oil field and beyond a refinery, is a trailer home. Four rough pine guest cabins, with green shingle roofs that overhang to form porches, line a ridge behind it. A sheep wagon, a rusty horse trailer, a jeep and a pickup truck have strayed across the hillside and stuck there. There’s a horse and a mule in the corral and a fat brown and white dog on the front porch, where a cowboy singer plays requests for guests who sit in white plastic porch chairs that are screwed down to the deck.
“Too many people was fallin’ off,” someone says as I try to pull up a chair.
“You could build a rail,” I say.
“This here song is about an artist with no canvas who used a cow’s back,” the giant-hatted singer, who also wrote the song, says.
Being ignorant of ranch work I have to say, “I don’t get it.”
“A thief used a runnun’ ‘arn to draw a brand on a cow,” someone says.
“What’s a runnun’ arn?” I want to know.
“Mostly they used a hot cinch ring,” (a circular piece of metal from a saddle that allows one to set the correct snugness around the horse’s chest) a gray-blond man in a tall hat who sits next to me says. “Thieves liked it because they could slip it in a boot.”
“Yip-e-ti-yi-yay, ti-yi-yippy-yippy-yay,” busts from the singer. His wife, who sits in a turquoise naugahyde chair under the trailer’s porchlight, exhibits a rigid posture and a vacant stare like she’s had one too many – songs that is.
“What’s a dogie, anyway?” I ask when he finishes. A cascade of information pours from the men, which I’m inclined to chew on, but not swallow.
“Well, it’s a motherless calf that got a pot belly and the Spanish called it something that sounded like dogie,” the singer says.
“And ya know the ten gallon hat?” another volunteers. “A ‘gallone’ was a band of gold braid on a Mexican’s hat so ten ‘gallones’ was a fancy hat. Someone just told me that here the other day.”
Their talk removes to a gang of new acquaintances who invited themselves to stay for the weekend, one of whom had the personality of a “soil sample,” and whose wife had a face “like a bouquet of elbows.”
“Hey, didja hear how Custer sold his Crow scouts on goin’ with him?” The grey-blond man waves his hand toward the horizon and answers himself, “When we wipe out this village all these horses will be yers.” Everybody thinks this is pretty funny and the group, enlarged by arrivees from town, starts on Montana jokes such as, the three R’s: Readin’, Writin’ and the Road to Wyoming. When sheep, icon of the lonesome (Montana) cowboy appear, I slip off for a much-appreciated shower and return to the deck a grateful traveler.
The lights of Cody look like they emanate from a toy town. Enormous clouds, like those in romantic paintings from an earlier time, pile pink and dreamy above us. In the dim light the people take on the personality of their voices, their shapes are like quiet figures in paintings.
“It’s kinda fun,” he says, when all but three of us have gone to bed, “being an unwed father at forty-seven.” The voices have changed, the laughter has stopped. The darkness in hearts is revealed under the hats, the boots, the talk of trades and money, the jokes.
“My boy committed suicide. He was only seventeen. Now this baby boy comes along. She doesn’t want me to have anything to do with him. ‘My biological clock was ticking and I wanted a kid’ she said. I went over there anyway after she brought him home from the hospital and when I saw him I decided that I’m gonna be his dad no matter what she says. I didn’t do so good the first time.”
A million stars blaze over our heads, scattered to distances we cannot imagine. We journey even greater distances in our minds only to awaken, as if suspended from time, to see that we have each others’ faults to comfort us.