Saturday, December 10, 2011

Maine: something done

Waking up on the deck of a dry-docked yacht in Ellsworth, Maine, thinking it's a good thing I'm doing this now. In five years I won't want to sleep boatyards on the edge of thoroughfares anymore. Hell, I don't even want to sleep in boatyards now. Any future rambles should include either nothing but earth under my bedroll and quiet all around, or else a bed.

The light was just enough to let me drop off port-side of the stern and slink away to get breakfast. A man on a bicycle was doing laps on the pavement till his car got out of the shop. He asked me where I was going, but the answer was no longer unusual. Half an hour later, drinking tea on a rock, he cycled back and asked where I started. I said where.

- You ought to stop in at the newspaper in Bar Harbor. They like to keep tabs on things like that.

A few times on this walk I met doubters who said that if I had actually walked as far as I said, then they would have heard about me. I protested this judgement since the staff writer for the news in Little Rock, Iowa (pop. 447) had come out personally for an interview. So, I said I'd keep it in mind to stop by.

I crossed the bridge and onto Mount Desert Island. The water was now salt, but the air was not. The tide was very well out, and I went down to tideline to see what may have gotten trapped in pools or else washed up as wrack. Gulls were hovering, kicking legs like on bicycle, and dropping mussels onto rocks, often having to drop the same one again and again. Letting go from a greater height would do it one go, but then some interloper might steal their work before they could descend. It worked as a technique. I was not able to beat any of the gulls. But I was more interested in what lay at my feet anyway. Mostly broken and dull stone, and a few pieces of well-weathered beach glass. Having gone glass hunting on the other coast, I pocketed a bit of may have been bottle neck. Then, for a packrat's exchange, withdrew the rough telegraph glass I'd carried for some miles and threw it. It will need time to ripen.

It was then about time for lunch. Seeing Hull's Cove not far away, and the country grocer's that sold food plastic-wrapped or out of steel crocks, I bought a cup of macaroni with my last twenty. The clerk placed the change in my hand and I looked at the mint on the singles. B & L. B - New York - was fairly common in this part of the country. L I hadn't seen an L for months. San Francisco. All these miles away and both of us started from the same place to meet here. The shopkeeper gave a concerned look.

- It's nothing about you, I said. It's something else.

- Glad to hear that, he nodded. You take care.

Right about there was the moment where my mind reversed thru records till it came back to the beginning. Not the very beginning, I don't think. Not where the longing started. But the beginning that came up baptized in strawberry-rhubarb jam over pancakes in May of the previous year, then unrolled over every kind of earth - shore, mountain, desert, prairie, forest - to here, to me holding a one dollar bill with an 'L' stamped on it. Trying to think of every place I slept along the way - every tree, coulee, culvert, truck, couch, bed, barn, bridge - to make a sense of it. And then I was in Bar Harbor, walking into the newsroom, and still not making any sense but thinking someone might stop my rambling legs and mind.

A middle-aged man looked away from his computer as I came thru the door.

- Can I help you?

- A fella in Ellsworth told me you like to keep tabs on folks traveling thru.

- Sometimes, yes.

- Well, I walked here.

- Alright, what's your story?

Anything I could say, everything I had come upon, were the elements, maybe, of story. But they emerged separately without narrative. Sleeping inside a redwood. Watching fumaroles rise from St. Helens. Wild horses on the prairie. Memories like bricks in a walk, or like the photographs I had taken, black and white and hazed, all image and feeling, but in themselves... the shapes of clouds and crows' wings.

- I don't think I have one.

The newsman adjusted his glasses.

- We did have a man come thru on a bicycle last year. He had just retired and was cycling around the world. Is your story like that?

- No, it's not. I don't think my story would sell any papers.

- Well, then best of luck on the rest of your trip.

The rest of my trip took several minutes and a few blocks over to a grassy park overlooking the harbor. Lobsterboats came in from the Atlantic. There was no joy, nor pride, just the great sadness of a long journey come to its end. It was no longer something wished, but something done. Not even the ending I had imagined: a sandy beach with the wind, and me walking into the surf, a continent at my back. Instead, I was sitting on a bench, with the sunset hidden - this being the East - listening to traffic and alone. A block away, a car alarm went off.

Behind me now were nothing but moments. Moments which were never stories in themselves, yet collectively were the story:

The Yang Ming freighter gliding under the Golden Gate.

Sidestepping elk in Olympic

Breaking trail down the Bighorn Mountains

Watching goats with Wade

Chasing a calf thru the corn while lightning crept the sky

Moonrise over the prairie

A raindrop dragging itself out over my lower lip

Fires of sagebrush and buffalo dung

Crater Lake blue-goodgod-blue

And somewhere in there the name of God and me listening the whole way thru but only ever hearing the same thing over and over again: I am. I am. I am. I can't regret any one thing without regretting the succession. And so I could condense it all to this. I went many places, met many beautiful people, they changed my life.

Night rose up from the sea and swept westward. A loon called out from the harbor. A hollow and mournful sound. It was winter.

I opened the front of my journal to these words:

This being the second journal of my walk across North America, begun April 1st, 2011 from Seattle, Washington.

Below them, I wrote:

Ended December 5th, 2011, Bar Harbor, Maine.

And with those words, the trip was over. Done at the end of a pen.

The loon went on crying and howling and I rose to make a phone call and find a bed.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Maine: starting up from stars

Seems everyone's is putting out a cookbook these days. Might as well try to make one myself.

Boiled Venison with Squash and Cabbage

- venison
- squash
- cabbage
- water
- fire

Materials needed:
- knife
- burned out can
- kindling

1. Walk secondary roads for several miles till a road killed deer is found. Early mornings during the autumn rut are best.

2. Check for freshness of deer. Check eyes for clarity, feel stomach for distention, look for parasites. Ticks will leave a cold deer.

3. Drag the deer off the road to a secluded spot. If this is not possible - there is a steep drop, perhaps, or a swamp, or the deer is too large to move - then proceed to 4. directly, but beware the eye of passing motorists. Work with skill and caution.

4. Peel the skin off the back of the deer and remove the meat from either side of the spine. This will likely be the least damaged from impact. Look for deposits of fat. Cut these out and take them as well.

5. Glean vegetables from a harvested field. In this case, squash and cabbage. Late-summer and autumn are best.

6. Break sticks, build a fire, boil water.

7. Put meat and fat into boiling water.

8. Cut squash lengthwise and roast on coals. Remove seeds if preferable, otherwise leave.

9. Chop cabbage, add to pot.

10. Scrape off blackened skin of squash, add to pot.

11. Let reduce. Eat when ready.

Note: Recipe equally applicable to animals and vegetables besides those stated.

I boiled the flesh of many animals I found in the can I carried: elk, mule deer, black-tailed deer, turkey, grouse, mussels, snails. Vegetables too: corn, squash, beans, potatoes, cabbage, and puffball and oyster mushrooms. No salt. No spice. An animal simmered in its own grease is flavor enough.

Save in one case I could name. Outside Belfast, Maine a ruffed grouse broke its neck against an oncoming car. Plucked and gutted, I boiled it that night with nothing more than the greens from its crop - a parcel of evergreen seeds and wood sorrel leaves, their tri-folds lapped into hearts. Even after an hour, the result was a bitter black broth and a tough-breasted bird that, but for a slight give in texture, may have been confounded with oak wood. It was a meal fitting with the piercingly cold night night and tasted of winter hunger and ache of a dark season. Nowhere near so good eating as deer or turkey, or even porcupine.

My hands smelled of shucked grouse for the next day, even after washing. Strong offal and gut juice early on, fading out to vinegar and earth, and finally in the afternoon, old leather. A good smell, one that could be held without minding.

This was not commonly the way I ate each day, but I never passed up an opportunity to do it. To pass by an intact, human-killed animal without any eye towards making use of its body did not seem to fit with the code I had set. To participate in each place I came to, eating with the custom of the territory, or on occasion, eating the locals themselves. The word for this is 'communion.'

Just as sound does not stop but spreads outwards without end to vibration, so too do what might rightly be called the vibrations of life. Some vibrating atoms in the sun made grow the browse that fed the doe that fed me. For the others fed by the same deer - the scavengers who came after - they now hold echoes of those same quaking atoms, and too will pass them on. Namely thru scat, or being themselves eaten. And so photosynthesis and consumption are the processes by which light is made flesh. It is a sequence not only observable, but in keeping with the progress of creation. Before beasts walked the land and birds flew the sky and the waters teemed with living creatures, before seed-bearing plants and trees that bore fruit with the seed inside, was not there first light?

No animal gives itself over to be eaten. Rabbits run, fish mass and evade, even flies caught in spiders' webs will fight the captor. In the final stages of exhaustion, it is not to the predator, but to its own willed death that the prey surrenders. Man may be separate from this view in so far as alone of all creatures, he may have some directive over his body, and so may indeed give of himself. But it is a choice rarely made, a decision passed over so as to take from the earth, even to the last, by denying his remains entry back into cycle.

After a life made on the eating of the once-living, it is a hypocritical and separatist view to insist the dead of one's own kind be filled with poisons, or placed in vaults, or burned to ash. The greater reverence would seem to be in allowing their inclusion in the flow that brought them starting up from stars.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Maine: a magpie's eye

There were no marks of red-backed lichen on the ties, nor young pines from where seeds had blown into cracks, as there had been on the abandoned rails running east from the White Mountains. Here the line was yet fragrant with creosote, the rails well-laid, seamless, and rusted, suggesting both placement and abandonment were of recent event.

A grey pile of fox scat lay on the ties, a few days old. Within a half-mile, I found the author trotting the stretch. The path cleared by the railway had given a clean thoroughfare that he used to assert claim. Not looking about in any caution towards rivals nor stealth towards prey, his motions assured, he moved on, till the wind brought him a scent, or else the rattle of a metal cup, and he paused, caught fear of me, and ran for the pines. I wonder if he considered me pretender or conqueror come to rob earth from the meek and leave marks of my own, or just passive intruder, the clear ruin of a morning’s stroll. Then wonder too what he will think when the rail company finally makes good on the pledge of service up from Portland and the diesel and boxcars crowd out his leisure, the engine ignorant of his mark.

I was intent in my trespass on following the old telegraph lines, many of which yet held their insulators. The light caught in a few on a pole from which a slack cable trailed. I had a mind to fetch one up, thinking it a pretty thing to sit inside a window whereon it might be looked at of a morning, and shinnied up the cable. Sitting astride the cross spar, having reached the top, I looked at the three three remaining caps, each a different shade of blue, like they were the clutch of a crystalline crow whose nest I’d come to rob. All were broken.

I reached out to one of the caps and twisted it from the peg, drawing the ball of a finger against the cut of it. The wound was small but relentless, and spit blood for the rest of that day. I dropped the cap to the ground, then myself after and found some scattered shards where the glass had split from the wire and hatched out lightning. Having a magpie’s eye, I picked up one.

In Iowa I had seen long ranks of telegraph poles file thru a marsh. While the tax of sodden feet and knee-deep mud might not have been too great to prevent me, the trouble of climbing a pole without any knobs and then down again without dropping the prize was. Those insulators still stand, waiting the thief with a ladder and a boat.

By afternoon I had come across three other poles I could climb with the aid of tree or cable, and each time gotten sore joints, shortness of breath, and scratches tarred with the sap of firs. And then, gotten too the satisfaction of holding in raw palms an artifact earned thru search and labor in the grip of aching hands. Three whole ones of differing shades and era, each an aqueous, marine hue, of a tint more common to anemones and inlets, or else to eyes. I lifted all to light and gazed uninterrupted. Where I have otherwise met these colors, such might be a manner to distress the beholden and make blush.

There were other ends in mind than to tote glass weight, but the jewels were too precious to leave. I wrapped the three inside some clothing and hefted them out, admiring that there had been a time when even what was made for utility and obsoletion was crafted with beauty.

still life with mushrooms

My cup and three puffball mushrooms I found in Indiana and ate in Ohio.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Steel Cup

I didn't think you can love an object. One could be fond of a dish, or a car, or a particular brand of journal, but it is ridiculous to love these things since love can only exist between reciprocating individuals. A dog, a child, a spouse, say, but not a geranium or a gun.

This is wrong, I now know. Because I love my steel cup.

I've drunk out of it, cooked with it, shaved with it, bathed with it, collected berries, hot coals, money. Gallons of tea and quarts of rice have slid from it. In grizzly country I slackened the tie that holds it to my pack so that it would clang as it rocked back and forth and so let me walk in safety. On cold New England mornings, my hands have ached to hold it, as it were the calf of a lover.

I think of the many adventures we've had together in mountains, deserts, and cities with equal fondness of the quiet mornings over breakfast, or in a park, or in front of a mirror scouring my brush and razor. And of course, I remember exactly where and how we met. Ours is a long and conjoined history.

I realize, being an object, and not even an object capable of expression - a ukulele can sing, even a gun says BANG - it will not and cannot reciprocate. But my love is sincere and lasting. I know this for a very simple reason:

When my first love - a sweet, freckle-faced, Vietnamese-American - went out of my life and back home across the continent, I was sad. Many years later, when this time I was the mover, we found out that we were now living within 30 miles of each other. I thought back in a wistful, sweet way on our time together, the way one might think of a childhood Christmas. We exchanged a few chatty messages, but made no effort to meet up. Neither of us even suggested it. We had outgrown each other.

Now, whenever I have misplaced my steel cup, I have been frantic. I have torn apart rooms, questioned passersby, retraced every step of a hike till it has been found, had sweet words spoken to it, and been securely fastened back in its former place.

In more lucid times, I remember to temper my enthusiasm with reality. It's just a cup. A similar one can be found at gear stores and KOA campsites for around $5. Made of aluminum, or titanium, or lacquered steel, this other cup would perform just as well many of the services for which I have become affectionate of my own cup.

But similar is not same. I have never seen another stainless steel cup with the same high sides, which comfortably holds a pint without spilling, that does not interfere with the taste of food and improves the taste of water. It is both ordinary and exceptional, like the best of loved things.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

New York - Violators will be prosecuted

Winter in the northeast. Dawn again, tho the usual progression of colors has not come with the light. Midnight blue to velvet to cream to orange are not there today. The sky is a dirty grey, the sun slowly crawling the far side. And me in a break of old apple trees, pack on my back, frog-marched ahead of three deer hunters. It is not yet gun season.

- Did you take a shit in them spruces?

- Sure, I say.

I let him be right. I camped, built a fire, and slept within them spruces (which, anyway, are firs) but they have not been shat in. Not by me, anyway.

- Didn't you see that?

He points to a sign. A very familiar looking one. One that says 'Posted: Trespassing Prohibited.' I notice that there is no name written underneath to tell who issued this. I dislike that intensely. Anyone prepared to give his word ought to give his name as well, particularly when that word is followed by a threat like 'violators will be prosecuted.' Whenever I've had a marker and come across one of these unsigned postings, I have supplied the missing name. Carlos Salazar. Domingo Sousa. Constantine Zuchanos. Or, my personal favorite, Barnabas Hipplethwaite.

- Yes, I saw that.

- So why'd you go back there?

- All the land here is posted. Wasn't any other kind around.

The man lifts up his hands.

- Not my problem.

He is right, of course. This is not his problem. I did not mean this as an excuse, but only to state a fact. As I might have said 'these fence posts are made of juniper, and those of cedar.' I was not bothered by my trespassing

The US is not a single nation. It is not even a collection of 50 states. It is, rather, a quilted bed of several hundred-thousand petty monarchies. As a resident, it is not possible to walk wherever without crossing the boundary of one of these fiefdoms. In this way, the US is not like the old nations - the Seneca, for example - where citizenship meant the right to go where one wanted over a commonwealth of land. Instead, it is the narrow negotiation borders.

Once, I met a German traveling around the US with his English friend. He had been living here for seven years. I asked him what he thought about his time in the country, what he liked and disliked.

- For a country that calls itself 'the land of the free,' you have an awful lot of regulations.

- Oh? said his companion, And Germany doesn't?

- Ya, we do. But Germany never claimed to be 'the land of the free.'

It is a good point. Land ownership - never an easy concept for one who considers his own only what he can carry away - has reduced the free country. There is so little to move about as the ancestors did. No loitering. No standing. No pack stock. No bicycles. No hunting. No fishing. No trespassing of any kind. Violators will be prosecuted. The road is the only free country left.

- Didn't you see that four pointer? one hunter demands

- No.

But I now know exactly who is going to be blamed if no one among these three gets a deer this year.

- Where you from, boy?

- Washington, I say, tho I am not sure what variant of 'from' this answers. Anyway, I feel like saying it since he feels like calling me 'boy.'

- Jesus, he says, his eyes rolling up to the deity. By the disdain he shows, he probably thinks DC.

I dislike being asked where I am from. I have never liked being asked that. It is a question meant to identify another into one of two groups: one-of-us and not-one-of-us. But there are too many variants in the understanding of 'from.'

A person could be from where he was born, or where he was a child, or where he finished his growing, or where he feels his home to be. In central and western New York, those places are expected to more or less conform to the same brief stretch of geography. This confinement carries the idea of a local factionalism, a centralized patriotism, and an expected loyalty that confuses me.

For a person to be from a place, he should be able to do a few things:

- Know how deep the soil is, and what grows best in it, and how it smells before it is ready to receive rain

- Describe the shapes of clouds that drift over

- Spell the most repeated name on the town graves

- Navigate the streets in the dark.

- Tell of a stream, and into which river it runs, and what are the fish therein, and are they introduced or indigenous

- Trace with a finger where the rail lines go, and whether or not the trains still run, and what they carry if they do, what they carried if they don't

- Name who or where serves the best bread and drink

- Give the length of a summer day

- Have the knowledge of what the place looked like fifty, a hundred, a thousand years ago

In short, he should be able to say what there is to love in this place. To claim a place is to love a place, and to acknowledge that you are as you are because of it. If he cannot do this, then he did not love it, and he is from somewhere else.

And of all those I have met on this trip, I can name with certainty two who were from where I found them - a postmaster in Idaho and a farmer in Iowa. I suspect a third as well - a professor in western New York.

For myself I can name all the many places I could be 'from,' but no one place could stand alone as an answer. So I expand the borders of all till they connect and form a whole. Peculiarly, this one most accurate answer - America - is never sufficient.

Somewhere around the sunrise, to the east and the south, was where I had been a boy. According to some, this is where I am from. My driver's license indicates as much. But that is only because that is where I had been a boy. Entering this world and growing accustomed to it - and likely exiting it too - were all affairs of an elsewhere. Like a spiderling, like the character of a bildungsroman - Beowulf or Siddhartha - I wound up born one place, grew up in another, and then finished it all up somewhere else. Now it is many years since I was a boy and hardly anyone around the sunrise would think of me as anything but. Doesn't seem much reason to go back. And still, somewhere around there is the old home, and inside it my folks, growing old.

- This can't be the first time you ticked someone off coming this far, says one hunter.

- Actually, yes.

My voice is flat, showing neither anger, nor fear, nor shame, nor righteousness, as tho I had been caught in the act of nothing more sinister than answering a ringing telephone.

One hunter glares and re-enters the woods. The second pulls out his mobile and curses furiously. The third - the interrogator - points down the road.

- Get the fuck out of here.

Welcome home, boy.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

noun, verb, & adjective

What is the word? 'Vagrant'? 'Vagabond'? 'Traveler' would do it didn't bring to mind Phileas Fogg with his steamer trunk, or those new 'travelers' and their trademarks of dogs, dreds, and drugs.

'Transient' perhaps? That's a good one since it seems a near cousin to 'transcendant,' but the connection makes it seem like I have aspirations of Emerson, or rather, like those who emulate him.

I've always liked 'hobo.' I wander, I camp, I forage for food, I work when I find it. Tho I suspect there has to be some sort of locomotive component to that title. Altho I followed rail lines for much of the West Coast and the Midwest, I have never hopped freights and have no intention to. And, having visited the Hobo Museum in Britt, Iowa, I think there might be some sort of national brotherhood or creed to which one must subscribe in order to be a hobo. I've already got memberships to co-ops, coffee shops, and libraries all over the place. I'm not sure I can adopt any additional manifestos.

'Swagman' is good. As in 'once camped a swagman down beside a billabong..." I only just thought of that one when I realized that I do boil water in a billy, and I only think of a billy as one because that was how it was introduced to me. However, usually I just call it what it is - a rusted coffee can. I do like the word. It puts me in league with all those other -men. Snowman. Sandman. Batman. But it does place me in the uncomfortable position of having to articulate what my 'swag' is, and how I use it, and whether or not I waltz it around. I'm not even sure I know these things.

How about 'tramp?' It is a versatile word, being noun, verb, and adjective; as in "The tramp tramped aboard the tramp steamer." (let's see, translation: "The wanderer walked aboard the steam ship that allows wanderers.") And it seems to be a word that, oddly, has different associations depending on the sex to which it is applied. Charlie Chaplin's "The Tramp" compared to Tony Bennet's "The Lady is a Tramp." Also known as 'Gentlemen of the road' in England. A homeless Romantic?

Yep, that seems about right. I have been tramping about the countryside and I do have some oddly polished manners: I shave at least once a week, drink tea from a porcelaine cup, read Alan Watts. Tramp it shall be.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Photographs: Folks and Lakes

Some previously unpublished photographs of people by lakes. In this case, Lake Michigan from Chicago, Illinois and Lake McDonald from Glacier National Park, Montana.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Steelcup travel, looking for beds, breaking and entering

Just as I had been told, I found the house with the blue VW bus in the backyard where I could sleep for the night. No one had bothered to lock the bus, or even roll up the windows, so I threw my pack in the back and then tried the backdoor of the house. Nobody home, which had been mentioned to me, but always best to check. Then I went for the front door, but on the way noticed the screen on a first story window was loose. It came off without any damage, so I opened up my knife and slid the blade under the sill and lifted. Unlocked. Soon my feet were kicking aside blinds and stuffed animals in the evening's early glow and I was on the bed of a little girl, to judge by the furnishings. Standing up, I shut the window, then went out thru the backdoor to replace the screen.

Sure, I could sleep in the bus, like I had slept in the culvert, or the abandoned truck, or under the bridge, or any number of other places that had come up just as the day had gotten too dark to keep walking. But on the other side of the wall there would be a bed, or a couch, or at least some carpeted space and blankets, and - preciously - hot water. I would rather have a cup of hot water each day than to have a bed each night. I value my steel cup more than my down bag and use it far more frequently and for many more things. Drinking, eating, cooking, shaving, bathing, collecting - both food and money. Clanging as it hangs from the outside of my pack it has been my bear-bell in the Rockies and proclaimed me as a vagabond in the towns. Tonight, I would drink wine out of it.

I am forgetting to mention something.

Yes, I was breaking into this man's house. But this was breaking and entering of a legally permissible kind. He had messaged me from Louisville with the OK and I had kept his phone number in case anyone should show up. But the neighbors didn't know that. And in such situations, I've generally found it best to proceed without hesitation, to look as tho I belong in the place - a renter who has forgotten his keys, or been locked out. Looking for the ends of yard work to do, I pulled a few weeds out from around the firepit and sorted recyclables, not out of any sense of wrong done to property but to complete the illusion. It seemed the sort of nonchalant, suburban banality that no observer would report. Perhaps, to lay on the sauce, I could act even more residential. Pull out the shopvac. Where some white-white shoes. Mount a ride-on mower. But no one was watching.

Back inside, I made myself dinner, drank the man's wine, watched his Buster Keaton collection from the couch that I would sleep on. Someday, I thought, I'm going to travel with my own bed.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


The rails, tho busy, were easier to deal with than roads. The paths go straight, are kept quite clear, and I prefer to dodge trains than automobiles. They are much more predictable. Even after dark, so long as they headed east, towards the moonrise, it was a far better to take the railroad than the highway. This is Illinois. They can’t go but one way.

Getting into Chicago – and then, getting out – was much harder than being there. Like any major city, the length of suburbs were the more difficult part. Once I got into the heart itself, I was just another vagrant. I have tried, whenever I have relocated, to blend with the locals, to do as they do, go where they go, eat what they eat. In a grey hoodie, off-color grey pants, grey hat, I fit in with the grey city. Wherever I am is where I’m from.

A well-meaning girl had warned me in Iowa to watch out for police officers in Chicago, since they might think I was homeless.

- I am homeless.

- -Well, I meant like those that sleep on park benches.

If that is the sole distinction, then I did not sleep on any benches, and so don’t qualify by her measure. But there are few traits to otherwise distinguish me, at least from those I met on the Loop and the South Side. They are these:

1. I am younger than 40.

2. I carry a tent

3. I am reasonably clean-shaven

4. I am not black.

They were all good folks, the ones I met, and like folks anywhere like you better when you act and talk like them. I never withheld money - if that is what was asked of me - and never took a photograph without offering something.

By the third day, the anonymity and neural stress of the city were more than I wanted, but I stuck around while some prints got developed. It was like being in a bus station or an airport when everything necessary has been done and all that remains is for something, some one thing – some great thing? – to happen. Two more days and they were done, and I headed out, towards Indiana, thru the South Side.

I had long known that the city I had seen was not for me, but the notion was fixed when I went into a gas station to ask directions from the clerk and found him completely surrounded by glass, a knot of cracks, a bird’s eye, in front of his neck where a bullet had stopped.

Fifteen blocks further south was a forest preserve. Dan Ryan Woods. I had chosen it since a satellite map showed a park within city limits where the crowns of the trees touched. Figuring I would have better cover there, I headed for it.

Inside the woods there was very little undergrowth, suggesting either wood gathering or the tramping of feet. There were bottles, cans, cigarette butts, the usual urban detritus, and a few worn footpaths casually growing over in creeper . I wandered to find both a place to spread my bedroll and to find those who camped here and gain their permission. But tho I found food wrappers, clothing, and marks of a toilet, there was no sign of fire or even of a cleared area for sleeping. Even the shirts and socks I found were half-rotted and had likely sat sinking into the earth since before the last winter. Whatever indigenes there were had gone elsewhere.

Under a broken locust, I set out my bedding. Dogs and traffic whined thru the night, but I slept well, having come back to a place where I could respect the rules of conduct. In the hour before dawn, from the north side of the woods, an owl cried.

Some folks wanted to interview me for a podcast. You can listen to it by clicking here.

photo trade: David Lee

I met David Lee in DeKalb, Illinois as a guest of his roommate. He also enjoys taking film photographs and the following were some prints that I traded for.

You can see more of his photos here

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Clutter: Illinois

Iowa: Butter-fed Beauties

A last hot breath blew across the prairie, coloring garden tomatoes and heating the towns in a lustful haze.

The midwest seems always to be producing things. Corn, soybeans, hogs, steers, industrial pistons, hydraulic arms, scholars, literature. Everything springs up and travels out.

The young women were beautiful. Almost without exception. In pairs and alone catwalking the pavements of university towns. Gliding with the grace of items sliding down the checkout conveyor belt: a blushing mango, a glossy tube of tooth paste, a long-necked bottle of drain cleaner. (Label: Concentrated youth & beauty)

Some lose their allure when at rest and look tired as they sit to sip on cold drinks or smoke. Others carry a light wherever they go so that they seem to always be on stage, unable to shake the spotlight. The greatest among them move as tho on wheels of silk, pretending to a humility that heightens their glamor. It's as tho by giving away their good looks in the smallest of rations they're making it last, knowing the greater part is still in the bottle.

Jeans and t-shirts, ponytails, tennis shoes, perhaps foundation but never lipstick. Their speech is free of any place-holding 'ums.' Their tongues never once passing their teeth. They look you in the eye when they talk to you. And then you feel that you've had some glimpse thru the glass at the untapped reserve beneath - a shale formation of crude beauty under the already covetable sheen that overspreads the surface.

Who are these butter-fed beauties? How did the lumpen, potato-shaped generations preceding lead to this? Yet if the parents are any indication, the future is easy to see. Thirty and married, moderately happy careers, now with children, living in bright boxes set in squares of corn. Mid-life-midwest-midnight checkouts and Goodnight Moon. Aging like lollipops in reverse, thickening even as their candy-bright shells wear away.

The men, too, are beautiful. Muscular and vain, and in the last panting of summer, eager to show both. To show, perhaps, an unfortunate truth. That beauty is not trivial. Not at their age. Probably not in any.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Iowa: Corn and Soybeans National Park

Looking over my finances, it's become clear that I won't be going to Venice this year. Likewise Caracas is out. And I better give up any dreams of a Vespa, or even a Schwinn. Probably no dinners out, and it's a good thing I don't buy cigarettes so I won't have to consider whether I'd like the filtered or unfiltered. Also, I won't be worrying about the mortgage or my stock portfolio. Regular or premium? Not a problem. Not my problem.

I've come to understand an unusual freedom that I had never entirely thought out until recently. It's not just that I don't have many possessions. I like that I can move what I own by the power of my legs. I don't have any house to fill up with worry. My concerns are these:

- weather
- water
- food
- cleanliness
- writing
- photography
- shoes

Every choice I have is related to these concerns. The first four general shift my path in small bends of a few miles, the last three can move me several hundred. But none of them are so pressing as to stop me completely from an inability of decision. I don't think at any other time in my life have I been able to consciously name and count my determining needs. So it is not only a freedom of choice, but a freedom from choice.

Personally, I don't want a lot of stuff. Some people do. I don't think that's a bad thing. Some people like marble statuary and land enough to run the hounds. I like that I can walk away from anything and any place and that I live wherever my bag goes. (Current residence: Coffee shop. Address all mail accordingly) But it's beyond a limiting of possessions. Not having is not using, not using is not considering. In not having to consider - and choosing not to want - I'm free instead to enjoy what is at hand.

So, no, I won't be going to Venice, but I am in Iowa. And in some strange ways the state does make me think of Europe. The towns are tidy clumps of houses and businesses and everything is within an easy stroll. Folks are very hospitable and almost every inch of land is owned by someone. Just try to find a songbird.

From some miles out, the grain silos look like the turrets of a Moorish fortress in the Alhambra. Each time I approach, I hope the curtain of corn will draw back by the tassels and I will walk barefoot beneath orange trees, crushing thyme and listening for the stir of the Jewish market. I climbed up one of the silos to see the land stretch flat all around, and a flock of pigeons spilled out from a vent as I went up the steel stairs. It looked like a faucet someone left on that continuously dripped birds. They kept coming out and circling around, giving the silos the glow of a Renaissance cathedral that both spouted birds and drained them away.

There were many things which I saw - wind turbines, cornfields, young men and women - who did not in themselves have grace but were lent it by motion. Like gulls in flight, or falling water, or plastic bags, ordinary things that became transcendent as they moved.

I won't be sitting by the Grand Canal, or the Bosporus, or the Ganges for the sunset. Not this year anyway. But to watching the sun dip into Clear Lake while the sail boats came in and people jumped from the docks didn't feel like any kind of regret.

I won't call it a delusion. I'm not sure what I would call it. Maybe its just because there aren't any soaring mountains or canyons in the Midwest that I have to make do with what there was. Maybe I only realized the small instances of beauty because I had to look harder for them.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Crazy Horse Revisited

There were two small boys.

- Are you a scientist?

- No.

- You look like a mountain climber.

- I am a hiker.

- Wanna see something cool?

-Sure. What you got?

The taller one pulls a rock the size of his head from a bag.

- This is from the mountain. They're blasting it today.

Ten minutes before the blast...

I went to Crazy Horse and not Mount Rushmore. Not out of any indignation at the choice of figures on that mountain. Personally, I don't think the face of any man - George Washington or Crazy Horse or anyone else - makes an improvement on the face of a mountain. I would much rather have just the Black Hills themselves.

During the blast...
I was attracted to seeing the Crazy Horse monument since it is still a work-in-progress and - being entirely privately funded - is likely to remain so for at least another 50 years. Mount Rushmore is finished. There is nothing more that can be added to it. For that reason, I felt no inclination to go. I've seen photographs of it. And unlike a photograph of a completely natural location, I did not get the sense that to be there and to see it in person would be any greater than to see it in print. Only one statue can I ever remember being truly impressed by, and even then I thought how much greater it would have been to have seen Michelangelo himself carving out the features of David than to have just the finished product. It is the process of something, and not the ending, that fascinates me.

Ten minutes after the blast.
There is an odd fatalism to human works. A bridge is built, a dam is finished, an office tower opened and behind the spectator's gaze is a concealed guilt, wondering when it all fails how astoundingly loud the crash will be and how great the smoke. Here, tho, it must be the reverse. The explosions are all in the present tense. When the noise stops, it is because the builders have gone. Then, it is a different vision - a great silence as the last motor burns out and the final electrical coil snaps.

And then thought is removed again, beyond the event and onward to the new spectators, and who will they be, and what will they think? Later versions of ourselves, perhaps, who might feel in their looking as we do at cave paintings. Or else others, with other ways and other thoughts from some other star? Will they too yearn with a misplaced nostalgia and think, 'there were giants in those days' ? Or will it just be a pair of ravens, looking out from their nests in the hollows of the eyes of Crazy Horse, the old Indian still pointing?

Thursday, August 18, 2011


The cowboys I met weren't as much fun, and these guys helped me out with coffee, sandwich, and conversation.

For Sale: Scenic South Dakota

There is something you should know about the neighbors, quiet tho they are.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dakota, Oaks, Indians, and the Hundredth Meridian

Quercus alba

Salix babylonica

Tsuga canadensis

I had been saying the names of trees of the east aloud as I walked. Slowly, the words shaped, intoning the latin with reverence, as tho by this tongue reserved for temple and laboratory I might call them up from the earth.




A monk at vespers, a Darwinist considering a list of beetles, wondering what any god could have meant in making so many.



Then I would break, look around at escarpments of eroded bluff and dun colored grass with not a tree to break the sun and say a single bewildered word, - 'Dakota.' How did I get here?

To run out of water in the Badlands is to understand why the place is named so. Not stone, but rather thickets of vertical mud define the horizon. A labyrinth of crumbled clay that still pushes out the bones of creatures that millennia ago strayed in and died. A few divining cottonwoods show where there is moisture still, but it is more muck than water, and with the occasional steer wandering thru, unsafe to drink. I slip a bottle from my pack, head for the road, and hold it to oncoming traffic, turning it upside down as a car approaches, hoping by the gesture to communicate thirst.

Surprisingly, the car pulls over.

- You need water?

- Yes. You got any?

- No. You need a ride?

- I do need water.

- I can take you town.

It is 7 miles to town. It's 11 now and past 90 and all my bottles are empty. This is the first car to pass in a hour. I can be smug and parched, or give up some pride in my humility and get in the car.

- Town sounds fine.

- Get in the back. We're Indians, she says, pointing to her passenger, then puts her hand in front of her mouth and gives a mock ululation.

The passenger is quiet of expression, eyes like sunken wood knots above a dribbly beard. He has that look of poverty that has given up feeding off anything that need be chewed, a withered stick in overalls.

- You smoke? He lifts a nub of something.

- Tobacco?

He turns without considering my answer and puts his eyes on the road, then brings the nub to his mouth but doesn't light, then again lowers his hand. The driver puts the radio on. Wood-knot drops the nub and reaches over the gear shift to put his hand under her shirt, then runs his fingers lower and snaps her panties. The driver glances at me thru her mirror. She turns up the radio, as tho sound could cover or account for action. I turn my head to the window, the Badlands slipping away. Wood-knot tries for lower.

Liriodendron tulipifera, I mouth.

For 15 minutes the front seat is the theater of attempted - and thwarted - digital cunnilingus. Far different from the last time I was on a reservation. That had been in June, on the Blackfoot in Montana, and then I had it in my head not to expect any charity since it was the anniversary of Little Bighorn. But I was wrong. A man out walking for his diabetes started talking to me, then went back to his house for a box of tea, a sack of apples, and a roll of toilet paper - probably the most thoughtful thing anyone has given me in a long while. Even the next day he took a good guess at where I went and tracked me down in his buick to bring me water.

We pull into the college of Lakota. Driver gets out so I can get what I flagged them down for.

- What are you doing? asks Wood-knot.

- I got to let him out.

- Him who?

He turns.

- Oh, hey. How's it going?

- Just thirsty, I say.

I'm thinking back to the Crazy Horse memorial, and the artist's model charging out of marble, hair streaming and muscles swelling, pointing towards the lands where ancestors turned to dust. Not like any Indian I ever saw. It's hard for me to imagine a man who lived free tho fugitive to have pectorals and biceps like that. It starts me thinking on another Indian who wouldn't live on a reservation or take white man's food, and to see what that life does to a person just consider a photograph of Mohandas Gandhi.

Some say that the carving is meant to be more a measure of the spirit of Crazy Horse than an accurate representation. There are no photographs, after all. And the story of Crazy Horse the man and the story of the carving of Crazy Horse the monument are both the sorts of tales to inspire an awful stillness in the heart. But I have trouble connecting the two. I do not think the countenance of any man improves a mountain.




but I can't remember any more. I could say a few west coast trees, but I want to save those. To name them now would bring me contrary to my destination. I'm nearing the hundredth meridian, the true line between east and west. To one side of it, more than 20 inches of precipitation. To the other, less. The difference between dust and corn. The land has been getting greener. There are more trees - and more of them deciduous - on the reservation than there had been in the last few acres of Wyoming. The air is still dry but lets out small sighs of humidity in the low draws. Russian olive and crack willow are starting to show.

I sit outside the grocery store to drink water and tea. A dog hobbles over on three legs and lays down against my ankles. I'll feel bad about it trailing after me as I walk out of town, but feelings of regret will be tempered with ones of suspicion as I sit in a doctor's office one week later for treatment of a rash that has spread upwards from my ankles.

The heat of the day well passed, I walk another seventeen miles, then turn my watch one hour forward as I come to Central Time. St. Louis Time. New Orleans time. Chicago time. A line of trees shows a creek in the light of a softly-fallen afternoon. I come near what seemed a cottonwood but proved more compact the nearer I come. No arching trunk or quaking leaves that flip silver-side up in the wind, but a neat dome of twisting limbs on a stout trunk. Something in the genus quercus. I drop my pack, walk over and place my hand on the bark.

- This is an oak tree.

Quietly. Almost without grasping. Prayer has brought me this, and now I must make of prayer a thing of earth.

- This is an oak tree.

I say it louder, as tho English could abase what Latin has set up and so bring down the divine.

- An oak tree.

There are no hills for an echo, so the words just spread out and fade as I run the tips of fingers over bark, then climb hand over hand within the branches, upward to the limit an animal of 65 kilos can perch. The sun is dropping down, down, and I am in an oak tree.

Close by is a yucca, the last of the wild yucca that I will see. Totems of the west are giving out. Sagebrush has become wheat. Dust, corn. Buffalo, combines. Indians, Farmers. For some there is no clear exchange. Where are the pronghorns? And are they each worth a Holstein? Two days later, in the town of Winner, South Dakota, I check my coordinates. Ninety-nine degrees, fifty-one minutes, thirty-two seconds west.

This one tree marks the beginning of the east. A burr oak, I think. Yucca for oak.

Sunday, July 31, 2011


The boy is at the piano. Twenty-three and free of care and beautiful no matter what he wears. Blue jeans and a tee-shirt faded grey. A mop of black hair he is careful not to comb.

- Play some Debussey, I say.

- I wish, he says, turning to face me, eyes the blue of telegraph insulators. Can you?

- No. I might be able to bang out Waltzing Matilda, given a few hours practice.

He goes back to playing, letting his hands ramble without favoring any particular chord or register that one gets the feeling he is practicing not so much music as indifference.

- Play some Bach.

He stops, takes his hands away and turns.

- No. Bach is nothing but repetition. People who play Bach are in love with 8th notes.

There is nearly a look of contempt to him as he returns to his music, bending his head lower, straying further from melody and touching upon the harsh and discordant. Somewhere in his velveteen stubble there's a smirk. Goddamn Adonis.

- Play some Sinatra.

That had been on one side of the divide, and now I had crossed it at Glacier and come to where the water flows the other way and what stretched out before was a spare parchment of land, given no marks of language or number but punctuation alone, and those but few. A land of a limited account of simple strokes then repeated - grass, sage, hill, grass again - to the flat horizon. Land that would answer well to the offerings of Bach.

There was no water besides that in a flowing cattle trough. Since I intended to boil it, the streaks of green waving within were not a bother. I washed my face in my hands then looked for fuel. There were no cottonwood or willow branches around, there not being water enough for such an abundance of plant life, that whatever fire there was would have to be of sage and cattle chip. Frequently this would be my experience on the prairie. There would be just enough dry sage or mullein stalk to start a blaze in a stack of dung of buffalo, or wild horses, or steers, depending. I tore up the last of Don Quixote and set it alight under a stack of twigs and manure, then let the load burn till it glowed like charcoal and sat down beside it.

A hot wind licked over the soles of my feet, blowing away the stink of rot. The smell suggested I had crossed the Rockies in a pair or sun-ripened beavers, or else bathed with the juice of a boiled owl.

A range of mountains rose up to the east - the Crazies - and another to the south - the Absarokas. The last light of the sun struck the ridge of the Crazies all over with alpenglow, while towards the Absarokas, a storm cloud dragged itself like a gorged tick, grown too hideously full for its own legs to move, before tearing open on the peaks and bleeding a gutload of rain and electricity. Unseamed from beneath, the topside of the storm rose up and swelled with the convection till the cloud hit air too cold to rise further and spread instead in an arching anvil of color. Inverted buttresses of salmon and coral bent back into the body of vapor, no longer larval, matured. The velvet underbelly of a conch. The bristled back of a magnificent nudibranch.

As the storm raged in silence, too far to the south to hear the spill of lightning, a troupe of antelope came over a low draw, curious maybe at the smell of burning sage. They were nearly as quick to notice this newcomer as I they, and one gave a snort somewhere in sound between the surprise of a white-tail and an elephant's trumpet. That was enough to spook us all, and the pronghorns ran off - dancing almost. Balletic creatures making a few last impressive turns before the curtain call.

The fire ready, I dipped water from the trough, slipping the can around wavering fingers of algae. Storm, mountain, metamorphosis, alpenglow and antelope. The Magnficat was in my mind. I went back to the fire to set the water to boil.

- And some think art is dead.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Vagabonds, like and unlike myself

There is within every settled nation, another vagabond one. Tho it is a nation of transients, it would not be right to call it a transient nation, for its tradition is much older than any Constitution and its body more unassailable than any union. It exists within the fabric of the larger, as many individual needles pulling their own threads across the weave.

It appears to be composed of young, single men, mostly. Only occasionally is there a girl, and almost never alone. Backpack, guitar, and dog. Wellworn book and military surplus gear. A few dollars, a pouch of tobacco, and some rolling papers (they never seem to smoke filters) is nearly enough for them. Rarely do they ask me for money. Frequently, however, for marijuana. I suspect this may have to do with my own appearance. (I have neither guitar nor dog, but the backpack clearly marks me as no local) They are, universally, curious, well-travelled, and under thirty.

Certain cities become hubs for them. Usually it is a university town where they are more likely to see others of their own age and so receive sympathy. Rails and interstates are beneficial, but not necessary. Eugene. Arcata. Bellingham. Missoula. Strangely, I encountered the same vagrant fiddler twice on two occasions in these last cities. First in Bellingham, WA when I had taken a photograph of him:

And then again in Missoula, where I learned that in the month and a half that had passed, he had hitch-hiked to Texas, then to BC, and now was on his way to Butte where he had a ride arranged for Alaska.

Nor was I the only to find his story, as a google search of his name revealed an NPR correspondent in Texas had given him a ride and an interview.

Who are these young men? What made them? And what happens to them after their twenties? Do they assume responsibilities and fade back into the status quo? Do they leap borders and go abroad? Or are they like some ephemeral insect, seen in a brief and terminal season?

Perhaps, now that the Indians are gone and circuses are out of fashion, they must find some other clandestine group of which to become member, and in the searching join the mobile, shifting nation.

Missoula has no small number of them. I was sitting outside a coffeeshop with my own pack and when I started talking to one of the tramps in length. I had just picked up a stunned bird from the roadside and had found a place for it to either recover or finish up its dying. The act aroused his curiosity and we began a conversation.

We spoke about books we had read, tho really it was more of a comparative reading list than any discussion. Each was sizing the other, measuring him to our own standard.

- What book are you carrying? I ask
- Leaves of Grass.
- That is probably the best book ever written in the English language.
- I read it most days. You've read Kerouac, yes?
- Yes. But only Big Sur.
- So not the Dharma Bums?
- I read portions of it at a friend's house. Have you read anything by Markham?
- No. Should I?
- Her writings about being a pilot in British East Africa are spectacular. A friend introduced me to her. She knew Hemingway.
- Then I'm sure someone like you has read For Whom the Bell Tolls.
- No, I haven't.
- Oh?

I sense my position slip.

- But you've read the Sun Also Rises?
- No.
- Why not?
- I don't much like Hemingway.
- Why not? he says again.
- He has no loyalty. To anything.
- Well, no.

The reason is good enough. We speak for another twenty minutes, during which we both throw names back and forth. Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, F. Scott, Ginsberg, Pynchon, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Chatwin, Maugham, looking for the weak spot. Have you read this? No. Have you read that? Yes. We meet each other's approval, tho our favorites are at odds.

Considering our clothing and behavior, it seems we were both under the sickness of emulation. He was covered in canvas and dark clothes, the better to hide the soot of freights, with a bandanna around his forehead to keep his shoulder-length hair from his eyes. I was dressed in a tidy buttowndown and apple cap, a pair of khakis reaching my boot-tops, my bandanna around my neck, as tho ready to start my shift at the Union Pacific, or else cross the Pyrenees and renew the fight against Franco.

I had just started reading Don Quixote at the time, and found rather more in common with the ill-made knight than I would have liked. Both the Manchegan and I believed the tales we had read as histories, not fictions. Each of us willing to abandon our homes and ourselves in pursuit of an elegant and obsolete ideal. Each desirous enough to see what is not there.

This young man across from me was little different. Aside from manner of dressing and choice of transportation, there was not much to distinguish us. Like trying to shade the differences between sparrows. He had just chosen to follow idols of a more recent make.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Good Man in Idaho

Avery, Idaho is the sort of town where a dog can fall asleep on the Main Drag. Stuck some 40 miles up the St. Joe River from the nearest town of any size, with national forest all around. The railroad liked it and kept it going, even after the town was nearly destroyed in the great burn of 1909. Then the population boomed in the resurgence of the timber industry during the 1920s, growing to over a thousand. Then steadily getting whittled down to the present population: 57.

Still, there is a post office. But the postal service had a hard time finding anybody who would want to move up the St. Joe River rd, so they had to find someone there who would do the job. And they found Wade.

Originally from Kansas, he had now spent most of his life in the Idaho panhandle, having first come there to work with the Forest Service. But he gave that up when he realized every time he told them where the old growth was they cut it down.

I had been boiling my dinner on a fire ring on the banks of the St. Joe when Wade walked by, looking for western tanagers - a songbird lately come back from migration to Central America. We got to talking about birds, then about nature, then about ourselves, and realized we were living similar lives separated by several decades. Dark was coming on quick, so we made plans to meet for coffee in the morning.

It was a good thing I came to Avery. My impressions of Idaho had been mixed since the first coffee shop I came to in Post Falls asked me to leave as soon as I went up to the counter. Then in Coeur d'Alene a young woman tried for an hour and a half to save my soul after I gave some unsatisfactory answers to a few of her pressing questions. And finally in St. Marys, the last town of any size I would come to on my way to Montana, a nice older man had seen me sitting on a bench and started talking to me about his grandson who was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. He gave me five dollars to buy myself a drink. While I went to give him his change, the owner of the cafe called the cops on me to report me for panhandling. It felt I was living a fugitive life.

Wade gave me coffee for free the next day, since he is friends with the owner of the one coffee shop in town. Tho the town being small as it is, it would be hard to not be on good terms with someone.

Talking about places we had been and hoped to go, we ended the morning looking for morels - which after scouring the sides of the mountain for, I would find growing in his front yard. Then, since it was a Saturday and he had the mail to sort, I went thru the town library - of which he is librarian - and found a few books I thought he might like. Travels with Charlie. The Woman Warrior. Cold Mountain. The last one in particular I thought he might like since there is an entire chapter about a goatwoman.

Wade had told me about the goats that come out to sun themselves in the late afternoon on the northwest-facing slopes of the peaks. There is a place that he knows that faces opposite. He has been up there every time of day and in all kinds of weather. Summer, winter, snow, lightning, whether there are goats or no. He suggested that we grab supper at the bar and then go the six miles out of town to the place.

We were still talking about nothing much when the owner of the bar came in.

- He used to lead sheep up into the Bitterroots, said Wade.

- I'd like to hear about that.

The owner did start talking about it when questioned, but said, more-or-less, that 'it was a job.'

- We took them up into the hills and it would be about two weeks just to get them up to the pasture. Longer if the feeding was good along the way.

- They don't do it anymore?

- Forest Service says it's too damaging to have them up there. But they had some fellas do a study and they found them sheep didn't do a darn thing to hurt anything.

Sheepherding was something that paid money while allowing him to be outside. There was no great joy to it, it seemed. But Idaho is the wrong place to mention anything about ranching and land without talk of wolves coming up, which are pronounced without the 'L.' Making the singular rhyme with 'roof' and the plural with 'hooves.'

- The old timers worked damn hard to get rid of them wooves, and they did it for a reason. Then somebody had to go and bring in new ones. Ones not even from here. Foreign kind.

- I understand a similar thing happened with the first people.

My comment goes unheard. Probably for the best.

- From Canada, he spits. Bigger and meaner. And they don't eat what they kill.

Neither Wade nor I say much during this. I mention this to him later.

- I know when to be quiet about something, he replies.

More pragmatically, he has to live in the same town as this man, and 57 people does not allow for enemies.

We got on bicycles and went the 6 miles out of town. Every other mile on this trip from Seattle I have walked. But I cannot now say that I have walked the entire way across the country, since for 6 miles in Idaho I pedaled.

The hike up to the peak where Wade watches goats was unhurried but quick, and soon we could look across at the side of the valley opposite.

- That's Billy face, he says, indicating which slope with his arm. And on the other side of the arrete is Nanny Face. And that is Bordeaux Peak.

- Those the official names?

- I named them all.

He grins.

- You come up here a few times a week?

- Sometimes a few times a day, he says, then tells of a storm that roused him up here.

- One night lightning stuck down and I shot awake in bed, thinking, ' I never been up there in a thunderstorm.' So I drove out, hiking in the rain, and came up here. Suddenly I hear this great roaring rockslide and now think, 'Shoot. My truck is blocked in now. I'm going to have to walk the six miles back to town in the rain.' It was that slide over there in Skookum Creek.

He points to another, smaller valley, one not on the road.

- That slide dammed the creek and made a little pond. Trout the length of my finger grew there. But the pond only lasted a summer.

We sat up there for a bit less than an hour, looking for goats, tho only one ever came out, and it too far away to tell whether it was a nanny or a billy. When it got awful close to dark, he showed me a good place to camp, where the cedars would keep me dry if it rained, but I might run afoul of a woodrat if I were careless. Before we say goodnight, I shake his hand. He might be the last person I meet in Idaho. I thank him for sharing the peak with me.

- I figured you'd get it. I show it to people who I think will understand.

- If ever you had a place like it yourself, you understand when someone else does, I say.

We say our goodnights, and he goes his way thru the cedars. I stay awake for awhile with my back to a tree, just thinking.

The next day, I continued up the St. Joe River Rd. Twenty four miles past the cedar campground, I was on top of eight feet of pack snow, looking down at the tracks of two wolves. Each track was the length from my wrist to the second digits of my fingers. I had spread my hands over each set, as tho to measure warmth from a bed of ember and so judge how long I had been in trailing. The melting showed they had passed the day before, so I was no likely to see them. But as their path was not at variance with my own, I followed the prints over the snow, and so came into Montana.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

One Year On: A Recommitment

Outside the town of Pescadero, California is St. Anthony's Cemetery. Though by the sound of it Catholic, and with plenty of Spanish names carved into granite, there appears no current affiliation besides the one great one: living may visit, dead may stay.

I enjoy old cemeteries for the reason that I may wander without having to inquire of the inhabitants. This particular plot - rising on a hill with open fields to all sides - was very nice at sunset, when the air would almost visibly change temperature and the roar of the ocean would come in from miles away. Or when the wind blew off the Pacific and stirred the grass like the steps of a young girl. And off to one slope, where the view is not as spacious, an old blue gum eucalyptus sheds bark and broken branches over a strangle of myrtle.

Something about old trees. Something reverent for having survived thru the quiet of centuries on light and leaves. Even when the diet of ages changed, and the years did not eat with the seasons but fed on fossils and built of themselves a century muscled of iron, the eucalyptus lay down each summer a layer of wood. This is a patience I will never learn.

A buzzing comes from the tree. From a crack where a fire scored the side that faces east, honeybees have settled into a hive. It is twilight now, and tho it will soon be too dark for any strays to return, many come into and leave and trace little arcs over the spreading dew. Cross-legged, back to the tree, I settle myself and face east with the bees.

A current of wings and little golden bodies catch the light. Some curious scouts descend, landing on my shirt, my glasses, my face. I have no allergy and - not being a flower - need not fear being overmuch attended. The few inspecting workers fly off, toting home the packs of nectar and pollen - I'm no threat - and the stream of bees goes on.

Who was it who sat beneath a tree? Siddhartha? St. Francis? They knew what they were doing even when they did not know why they chose the seat. Then the earth was parchment whereupon the divine scrawled messages in a hand more legible. Sometimes missives writ large across skies with punctuations of comets and footnotes lightning. But far greater by signs small and significant. It may still be so. The rain still falls. The wind still blows. The grass stalk still bends.

The nebula of bees pulsates around hill, tree, stones, and me. So busy and so necessary, tiles in a shifting mosaic, shaped and shaping the earth as it grinds out life at the mill wheel of the sun. Not looking at hills and bees and tree - not looking only - I marvel. I behold what I have set myself before. Here I seek the communiques that others saw plainly in centuries previous, seated on a raw nerve of earth.

However things must have been different then, the print larger perhaps. I do not see what they saw, but I can see as they saw. Even without sense enough to know what I sought, I knew to come to this place to think it, and the answer - which I had already suspected - became plain. I would take my own adventure - on foot - across the continent. No motors. Just my feet.

Many admirable people had done the same, and for many great causes. And sometimes, they have changed history, rejecting the stories written for them with chapters they have authored, for themselves and nations. For myself, I had no such desire. There was nothing I could preach, much less I could even profess. I would speak but moreso listen. I would step over every beetle in my path and sweep away the ashes of every fire lit. I would raise no awareness other than my own, as I wandered from hillside to mountain to lake to shore, connecting those wells of buzzing, electric nature. Mine was Diogenes' errand, roaming the hills with my lantern. I make no honey. I have no sting.

Two weeks later, I had breakfast with friends in town, shouldered my pack, and started out down Stage Road, past St. Anthony's Cemetery. North to the Olympic Peninsula, then east to the Atlantic. Goodbye bees.

Then I could draw a path, but could not walk it. Now, a year on, I have reversed, and can walk but no longer tell. Still, eastward I go.

~Missoula, Montana

Monday, June 13, 2011

Photographs: the Wheatlands; Eastern WA

The land - tho with space aplenty for desperation - still produces a few good men.