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.