Archive for April, 2011

Privileged again

There was a Madrona tree in the little wood next to the little cabin on the beach at the south end of the island. The year was sometime in the very late 1970s (Carter was president, and while the Police and the Cars were fresh in the popular mind, no one here had yet heard of the band U2). The island was Bainbridge Island. 

Out-of-towners reading might usefully be reminded that Seattle is not on the West Coast per se. It lies ashore of a large inlet, a network of saltwater channels that we natives call the Puget Sound, which is connected to the open sea by the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north. Bainbridge lies directly across the Sound from the city, a half-hour ride by ferry. At that time, it was still a sleepy, rural island.

Mara, William and Kip, waiting on the Seattle side as our ship comes in.

I was fortunate in my teens to have not one but two friends with ties to the island, one whose family lived there year-round, right on the water at Fletcher Bay, and another — my friend Kip — whose own father had grown up on the island and whose immediate relations still had homes there. I’ll tell you about the first family some other time. I met Kip in what we then called Junior High (yes, we capitalized it), and he and I clicked right away, possibly because we came from different worlds. My dad considered himself lucky to have gone to college, and we lived a pretty frugal life for Bellevue (my dad once said he would never have settled in Bellevue if he’d known what the town would become). Kip’s family was of old Seattle pedigree and full of Ivy League grads, and now that I have the perception of advanced years, I can compare the Bainbridge homes to the Cape Cod summer cottages of the Brahmins of the northeast. Even their in-town domiciles had that well-loved, slightly run-down charm that old wealth tends to adopt as a means of diverting attention from itself. When I went over to Kip’s and we raided the fridge and I looked up and saw curls of old spaghetti noodles hanging from the ceiling I felt extremely privileged. A special guest of the blue-blooded, a friend of kings and queens. 

By our high school years, as soon as one of us got a driver’s license, we were spending weekends at Kip’s Aunt Diggs’ summer house — we called it the cabin — south of Restoration Point. We took lots of root beer and tortilla chips, usually also a big tray of freshly baked fudge brownies (Who made these for us? Thank you!). I think we subsisted on these things alone, because I don’t remember eating anything else. There was no TV, but we played in the woods and made fires on the beach and stayed up all night listening to Styx and Supertramp albums, or crawling up dry creekbeds with flashlights. Once or twice our younger friend Mark came with us. One night we discovered an old Navy signal light in the cabin, and shining it out of the upper back window into the woods away from the beach a game occured to us: while one of us stood at the window and swept the property with this “searchlight” the others had to get from point A (say, the big tree on the right) to some point B over on the left, diving behind trees and rolling in wet salal to avoid being “hit” by the patrolling beam. For teenagers who were not particularly rebellious and yet still craved unsupervised time away from familiar surroundings and the fetters of social custom, the island represented freedom.

Kip snapped this shot of us on the ferry heading over.

We filmed several movies on the island, one of the better-crafted ones at Aunt Diggs’ cabin. I forget its title and I have nothing to view the old Super 8 film with (it’s still in its canister in my garage), but it was about a man (me, at about age 16) who is shipwrecked on a deserted island. We thought it very funny that when the narrator says “I built a crude dwelling out of bits of driftwood and other items I found washed up on the beach” the scene cuts to Aunt Diggs’ finely crafted little house. A mysterious and supposedly menacing character (Mr. Jones, played by Kip) shows up on a dark night, and after as many Peter Weir-like metaphors as we could tease you with (firelight reflecting ominously in Kip’s glasses; a chess game Kip wins; etc.), Kip finally brings the fear home by trying to crush my skull with a big stick. He misses and I run, suddenly recalling, the narration tells us, that years before my shipwreck I had been a contestant on a game show in which Mr. Jones was to track me down and kill me within a certain time frame. He corners me and I am spared only by the fact, which is announced over the radio in my cabin, that time for Mr. Jones has just now run out, and that a consolation prize awaits him back in the States. 

We didn’t always stay at Aunt Diggs’. A few houses down the beach toward the point, Kip’s grandparents still lived in the Big House. The Big House was old and full of nifty turns and built-in bookcases and big old armchairs, and looked out at the Sound across a big lawn. There was a smaller house called the Cottage behind the orchard, back away from the beach against the wooded hillside. We stayed several times in the Cottage, a knotty pine paradise with the main-floor rooms at odd angles and a loft bedroom where the hot sun would wake us up through the window on summer mornings. Kip and I were hiding in separate closets during a game of Hide and Seek that had gone into a protracted state of “all parties hiding and none seeking” when the long-awaited sophomore release by Boston finally hit the airwaves on the stereo playing in the living room. We both heard it and wanted to jump out exclaiming about it, but neither of us was willing to bust our great spot. When I hear Don’t Look Back I am suddenly once again sitting in the dark cubby next to the fireplace in the Cottage, my eye watching the crack of light at the door, my ear listening for the sound of a floorboard being stepped on underneath the multiple-guitar onslaught of Boston’s next smash hit.

Site of the Great Pancake Race, just up the beach from the cabin. The "Big House" was sold out of the family years ago but I snapped a photo from the beach for auld lange syne.

As for the Big House itself, we didn’t sleep there, but I do recall a pancake breakfast there once. Kip’s little sister Margaret had brought her boyfriend Fritz to the island. We all liked Fritz. He was athletic and good-looking and fun. He said no one could eat more pancakes than he, and so we all started stuffing blueberry pancakes down our gullets. As others fell off and pushed away their plates, I pursued him relentlessly and kept him digging, though both of us tried to project an air of calm as though we could do this all day. Kip and his siblings cheered us on. Fritz was less than a half-cake ahead of me when I finally set down my fork, threw up my hands, and gave the You’ve Bested Me Sir belch. At that, Fritz nearly collapsed and said if I’d taken another bite he’d have had to toss it in. Margaret and Fritz eventually parted ways, but as far as I know Fritz retains his title. 

But I started to tell you about the Madrona tree, didn’t I? One year, the whim came into one of our heads (or both simultaneously the way it happens with ants and bees) to climb up the trunk of the Madrona tree in the woods. Its lower bole grew mostly upright but as it rose above the high undergrowth of salal it angled to the side, so that if you could but reach the first branch, you could shimmy up quite a ways. I don’t remember how we did it, but we managed to get ourselves to a spot about twenty feet up into this tree where several large branches formed saddles and crotches, where we could comfortably sit and carve our initials in the soft green wood under the ruddy paper underbark. We did this at least two years, maybe three, in a row. But after Kip went off to college we stopped going, and eventually Aunt Diggs and her husband added on to the cabin grandly (yet tastefully) and made it their permanent abode. It was thereafter not the kind of place college boys were invited to housesit in, leaving, as we were wont to do, marshmallows between the cushions on the furniture.  

A hummingbird feeds at the flowering currant in the front yard of "the cabin". Or maybe it's talking with the ladybug.

It may be getting late in the week to add my song of gratitude for the beautiful weather we had here Saturday, but I insist. The experts called for a sunny day and not terribly cold, the first such forecast in a very long time hereabouts. Kip and his wife Ami had planned a trip to Seattle for Easter weekend with their kids, and after checking with his Aunt, whom I had not seen in about 30 years, Kip invited us to join them for a short visit to Aunt Diggs’ place on Saturday morning. 

Almost as soon as we arrived Aunt Diggs indicated the Madrona tree, still standing even though nearby development had shrunk the woods it stood in considerably. She seemed almost as eager to know if our carvings were still up in that tree as Kip and I were. I didn’t even know she knew about them. She and her husband had always been away when I was there, and I had only met her a handful of times upon other occasions. Kip and I and Mara waded into the salal to approach the tree, but in the intervening years it seems that some wild thorny vines — they actually seemed like wild Rugosa rose canes — had become entrenched throughout the little wood. I managed to get to the base of the tree only to discover there would be no way to climb it without a rope for throwing to the first branch ten feet up, which may in fact be how Kip and I did it back in the Dreamtime.

It was disappointing. I had entertained ideas of showing you the old weathered carvings of our initials that had awaited our return all these years, these decades. And the opportunity won’t come again, I’m sure. But I had to let it go. Still, some things never change: by the time I got out of there I was bleeding from dozens of scratches and nearly exhausted, just like when we used to pump ourselves full of root beer and Doritos and go fling ourselves into the outdoors.  

Collecting hermit crabs at low tide.

It was great to see Aunt Diggs again and to spend time with Kip and Co., although both of our parties had sick and/or irritable kids, so I didn’t get as many photos as I’d have liked, and none of all of us together. Still, we were able to catch up a little and enjoy each other’s company as we lunched with Aunt Diggs on her deck.

After feeding Millie I loaded her into a carrier strapped onto my chest and wandered down to the beach with her to see where Mara and Angela had gotten to. I spied them far down the beach, two figures in the breezy sun bent low, one bigger one smaller, seeking out colored beach glass to collect. Angela doesn’t often these days get to spend uninterrupted time with Mara, especially outside, and seeing them beachcombing together made me feel a special gratitude to Kip and to his Aunt Diggs for once again extending to me (and now to mine) the benefit of his family’s tenure on this little piece of paradise in the Sound.

She gets it about the books

Matt F: “So many books…”
Walkin’ Dave S:”…so few chairs.”

I almost never buy books anymore. So many books have been given to me that I have yet to read, and I have in times past bought so many books that I have yet to read, that to willfully acquire more of them seems sort of obscene. I’m a slow reader, and whereas in my bachelor life I knocked down a John Barth in a delicious week or two of sprawling in various positions across various couches while a variety of cats — mine and others’ — occasionally broke the silence by waking up on the back of the sofa behind my head and beginning to lick their paws, and whereas my helpmeet shares with me a fondness for Reading in Bed, which we indulged as happily as two mice before we had children — I say, whereas all the foregoing, nowadays we can’t read in bed without turning a light on and waking our baby, whose crib is in the same room, and there are none of those expansive days of doing nothing but read, not even in a winter as bleak as this past one was.

So I read on the bus a little (inbound only — on the way home it puts me instantly to sleep) and of an evening after the girls are down I might put off the dishes for awhile and reread a few pages of the book I’m reading in an attempt to find where I quit reading or fell asleep last time. This results in a real page advance of about .72 pages.

Also, my reading adventures are composed of such quixotic investigations into things I just happened to hear about that I am often unsure whether I really want to own a book that I very much want to get my hands on. Case in point: a book I’m fitfully poking at by Albion Tourgée called “Fool’s Errand”, a novel about the Reconstruction period written just a decade or so after the end of the War Between the States. I happened recently to see Tourgée’s name mentioned derisively in the “libretto” of D. W. Griffith’s ridiculous (but historically much praised) silent movie “Birth of a Nation.” Tourgée offers a searingly honest appraisal of “what’s up with the South” after spending years there trying to help in a reconstruction that he eventually decided was a failure. I’ll go to the library for these books, and then if I like them I’ll add them to a list of books I want to buy someday, just to have. 

The Spooky Hares look like they're listening to some whispering of the books.

But none of this is what I wanted to tell you. The fact is, I used to buy lots of books. I bought a lot of books that I had already read and would not read again, in fact. When I got hip to the whole idea of the worth of a first edition first printing with an untorn dust-jacket with a price in the front flap (no price means it’s possibly a worthless book-club edition, which can also be sniffed out by looking for a small sometimes square impression on the back lower right corner of the cloth), I began collecting my favorite books by my favorite authors in out-of-print hardback. I was abetted in this addiction by eBay, which made it possible for me to get some of them very reasonably, and by abebooks.com, which enabled me to find any book instantly, anywhere in the world. It used to be that you went down to Shorey’s Book Store in the Pike Place Market and asked them to do a search on an out-of-print book, and they took your info (on paper, with a pencil), and called you two years later with the jubilant announcement that your book had been found in Upper Volta and that it was waiting for you at the shop. Of course, Shorey’s is now gone and so is Upper Volta. 

Even before this, I loved old hardbacks. I have a few on my shelf that I inherited from my mother, whose family was big on books. These, along with a few of the treasures I collected later, survived the Purges. A few years ago something turned for me and I gave away or sold, in spasms, most of my hardback collection — having to box it all up several times in my adult life while friends helping me move rubbed their aching backs and said things like “what, more boxes of books?” did a lot to help this season arrive. I hardly even notice these old friends anymore (I mean the books), so often has my eye scanned past them looking for something new on my shelf to read, maybe something I forgot to read, or started but found that its time had not yet arrived.

But again, none of this is what I wanted to tell you. I have old books around, I guess is what I’m saying. Mara is not yet able (or willing, perhaps) to read on her own, and we’re not hurrying her. Every day she gets closer. She falls asleep every night amid heaps of both paperback and hardback books that she pulls into her bed and “reads” by nightlight light. She loves stories and loves being read to. She wrote a few simple words on a pad the other day with a pencil, and got them mostly right (“piano” she spelled “PANO” but that is a perfectly rational orthography at her stage, when the distinction between a letter’s spoken name — “pee” — and the sound it makes is still not clear).

Children's, what's left of sci-fi and fantasy, the Barth I couldn't part with (cut me some slack, I got rid of half of it!) and a few other treasures.

A week or two ago she brought me a dusty old hardcover book from a small rampart of old tomes held up by the two Spooky Hares on a sidetable in our living room and asked me to read it. There were some color plates in it that showed children larking about, so she knew it would be her sort of thing, and she was apparently in one of those moods for something new that I can so relate to. The book was “The Little Lame Prince” a book that we had read as a class when I was in First or Second grade at Bellevue Christian School. A decade and a half ago, before you could find everything instantly online, I stumbled on this book in an antique store, and, remembering how magical it seemed to me and how its reading had shaped so strongly the geography of fantasy and fairy stories in my mind, I pounced on it. A few years later I read it and found that it made me kind of gag a little. It was really both saccharine and didactic. I put it on the shelf never bothering to read the other stories compiled in the same volume by the same author, identified mysteriously as “Miss Mulock”.

I didn’t want to read “The Little Lame Prince” to her so I started in on “The Adventures of a Brownie”, which are six tales of the relationship between a passel of farm kids and a strange, tiny brown magical man, sort of an imp. They’re kinda spooky, like old fairy tales tend to be, but Mara has a pretty high threshhold for things that creep other kids out, and also for the kind of Old World language (and subject matter) that one finds in children’s books with color plates in them:

Never were such fine chickens as my last brood!”
“I thought they were ducklings.”
“How you catch me up, you rude old man!…” 

So we read the half dozen adventures and Mara loved them.

Tonight when I was getting her into bed and it was time for books, she asked if we had any more “old books”. If we did, she said, it might be “something that would interest me.” Inside me my heart did a little gleesome flippety flop, and I thought “she gets it”. She’ll grow up in a world of Kindles and Nooks and Direct Hyperverbal Storyness Implantation*, and that’s all perhaps as it should be… but she loves old books. She sees them as special, containing special interest for her. 

An oldie but goodie, and illustrations by Pauline Baynes! Click to see the entire cover larger.

After rubbing my chin theatrically for a moment, I preceded her downstairs to the bookshelf where sit my hardback editions of “The Forgotten Beasts of Eld” and “The Gammage Cup” and LeGuin’s Earthsea books and the Bles editions of the Narnia stories and the 1965 first edition (alas not first impression) hardback box set of Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy (with maps) — all awaiting my daughters’ interest in due time, and pulled down Tolkien’s “Farmer Giles of Ham”, a thin volume copiously adorned with illustrations by that magnificent expositor of the Narnia tales, the inimitable Pauline Baynes. We took it upstairs and I read her several pages, not quite remembering what parts may require some careful explaining, but anyway journeying again, this time with my daughter, into a land of magic. I have waited so long. 

*I just made that up, but you never know…    

Mara’s Restaurant and Cafe: a grand opening

One of the deepest held hopes I have for my daughters is that when it comes time for them to earn their bread they are able to imagine ways of doing so that do not involve punching a clock or collecting a paycheck. If they really want to be software engineers and work for Apple (or better, some company that does not outsource the manufacture of their products to countries whose labor laws lag our own by a century) then fine, I will do all I can to speed them on their journey and try to keep an open mind and an open conversation with them about what it is about that kind of work that floats their boat.

Welcome to Mara's Restaurant and Cafe. Note the name and face on the menu.

A taste of what it might be like.

But my true wish is that my girls become craftsmen or tradesmen or small business owners — landscape designers or fixers of engines or sculptors or creators of fine chocolates or soap or mandolins. Or restaurateurs. I want them to love what they do, that’s all. My belief, and there is research to support the belief, is that in the main people who work with their hands are happier and healthier on more levels than are people who work in abstractions only. (It’s important to note that I’m not talking about my daughters becoming assembly line workers in Detroit. I refer you once again to Matthew Crawford’s book “Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Nature of Work.”) 

Sometime last year Mara expressed interest in opening a restaurant here in our house where she would make food for her friends. We jumped all over that idea, and said that maybe sometime we could have a few friends over, give them a short menu, and we would help her cook. Mara’s sixth birthday was last week and we celebrated today by inviting her fellow étudiantes from her homeschool French class and her two closest non-school friends to a grand opening of Mara’s Restaurant and Cafe.

Jay and Mara make the rounds.

Jay waits to take Amelia's order, which turns out to be Combo #3.

Learning to walk with beverages has to be one of the hardest parts.

We didn’t actually cook, but we put together a menu of snacks and sat the party attendees at kid-sized tables in our large kitchen, each table adorned with real flowers in a vase. We told all of them to bring a purse, which half of them forgot to do, and we gave them each a wad of play money, and we charged exhorbitant prices for the snacks so that they would get to count out and spend plenty of it.

It was a riot. Mara wanted to be the server, and while her original vision had assigned me to the kitchen to help Angela chop vegetables and fruits and slice cheese, one of the other parents beat me to these tasks while I was answering the door, so I photographed the doings and helped serve. It was such an inspiring event that I took a frillion photos.

Not hovering, not neglecting. The ideal server.

By the time it came to paying the bills the veneer of refinement had begun to wear off.

My hope is that as Angela and I take their ideas seriously, even in play versions, our children will grow up confident that their ideas are worth trying and that their interests and passions could precede (and ideally guarantee) making a living. In that regard we thought that simply being able to pull this off today was a huge success. Also, Mara worked her butt off today serving her friends, which we feel is a beautiful way of being. She got to be the center of attention during Present Opening Time, but for a solid half-hour she circulated among the small tables, wearing an apron her aunt in St. Louis had made with her name embroidered on it,  and asked what else her friends would like to order. She had help from Jay, an 11-year-old girl who is also one of the homeschoolers and, being the sweetest child on Earth, is like a big sister to many of them. Jay wrote down the orders and added up the bills afterward. Like waiters in a real restaurant, Mara and Jay sat down to eat only after having worn themselves out bringing food out to the guests.

Something for every palette.

Time for some sugar. The Birthday Girl still has her serving apron on.

The children took it all very seriously. You might be astonished at how easily young children adapt to the idea of being led to fancy tables and making their own choices from a menu. Even when they chirped “This is the nicest restaurant I’ve ever been to”, they did not sound as though they were playing or pretending. They looked like small adults dining. Sure, there were moments when they cut up, and Mara had a blast shouting “Three #1 Combos!” to the kitchen. But by and large, it seemed to me that the girls were all feeling extremely grown up and honored by this unusual birthday theme, which was just a bonus we hadn’t anticipated.

And then they all turned into children again and started chasing balloons.

How I came to be (t)here

[Note: This is one of a series of pieces that I have written about my experience in Ohio. After I posted the first one, "Shooting Emma", one of my old co-wranglers expressed curiosity about "how I ended up at the Ranch". This is that part of the story. Although it was written earlier than most of the other Ohio pieces, I was unhappy with its "narrative arc", so its publication has been several times delayed.]

One gray winter when I was still a young man, but not so young as to still be carefree, the Seattle rain dribbling down the windows of the apartment where I tried with only half my heart to be a freelance writer finally broke my native back, and I had to get away. I had been away — five weeks in the cold Aleutian Islands on a crab-packing barge and six months in Europe during college, and two-weeks on a hair-brained (and failed) attempt to stand in the Sahara Desert in my late twenties — but I had not lived away since my family had returned from a year in North Carolina when I was twelve. I felt if I didn’t break loose I would break apart.

A friend giving me a ride home during another pelting rainstorm heard me muttering that I wished I knew someone with a sailboat that needed crewmen or a horse ranch that needed wranglers. “Really?” said this person. “Are you serious? Because I know someone with a horse ranch.”

A man with a mission. Bill fireside a few years before I arrived. Photo by Troy Lynn Hoobler-Boggs, used with permission.

I was serious.

A phone number found its way to me. I called. The man who wanted me to call him “Uncle Bill” ran a Christian camp in the Appallachian Foothills called F– Ranch. Kids came down from Cleveland and other nearby cities for week-long or several-week-long summer camps, and for weekend camps throughout the winter, to learn how to care for and ride horses and to experience the open-sky’d life. It was also hoped that they might ingest Christian teaching and discipline, but that hardly needed to be said. I could tell by the way that Uncle Bill talked to me that a Christian worldview was generously — or naively — assumed. And as I was indeed to experience, Christian morals were upheld and Christian beliefs and attitudes transmitted, mainly implicitly but also through song-singing, Sunday sermons “on the mount” (Uncle Bill preaching from horseback, if you get the pun) and, at camp’s end, an “altar call” beside a campfire under the stars. Of my beliefs, Bill asked me a few simplistic questions that represented the kind of “statement of faith” requirements for Christian service I had heard and answered all my life, but this time I found answering them with clean yesses and nos difficult and vaguely disquieting.

By this time in my life, almost age 29, my fundamentalist evangelical upbringing was already beginning to wear uncomfortably on me, like a sport coat that no longer fit my frame. I still believed pretty much what I had always believed about Jesus, about God, and about the Hereafter. But two currents were running deep in my life at the time whose swiftness and strength I was unable to properly measure and wasn’t really even fully aware of. First, the notion of eternal damnation by God of people, real people — that person over there, for example — who for a host of reasons other than hatred of the Most High may not manage to arrive at a formulaic acceptance of Jesus as “personal lord and savior” during their lifetime, was no longer a doctrine I could get behind with all my weight.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, I had become contrary in general. An oppositional streak in me starting in my late teens and blossoming in my twenties increasingly caused me to go against the grain of any given culture — musical culture is an obvious example, as I sought out obscure Italian prog rock and then Celtic music while my contemporaries enjoyed first new wave and then Depeche Mode, Bryan Jones and the rest of the ’80s — and even moreso the closer my ties to the culture, such as my faith tradition. Not confrontationally, just quietly, intellectually even. I was becoming what, if I thought about it at all, I liked to think of as a rebel or nonconformist. This is perhaps the tragedy of my life if my life has any tragedy to it. I prided and deluded myself that I was free because I did not let anyone rule my mind or will, or so I thought. It is a wisdom I have received late in life that he who defines himself in opposition to something else, who merely does the opposite of what is expected of him by every group at every turn, is no more free than the drinker of the Kool-Aid. The nonconformist’s actions are still determined by someone else, in fact by everyone else.

The center of the ranch world. Photographer unknown, used without permission.

Bill told me that he had been asking God just that morning to provide him with help for the coming year, and encouraged me to come as soon as I could get there. He did not care that the last time I had ridden a horse I had cried. Bill counted on volunteers to run the place, and was not strenuously screening applicants. And I very much wanted to go, wanted the change of scenery, so I did not care that when I asked him what kind of health insurance he provided for his staff, he dissembled, saying that they liked to exercise faith in God where health was concerned, and — when I pressed him about how hospital bills would be paid if someone got hurt, which could happen, right? — that the ranch owned several hundred of its 4200 acres “free and clear” that could be sold in the unlikely even that God did not provide for their needs in any other way. We each wanted to believe the other was the answer to our prayers and heard in each other’s speech what we wanted to hear.

I packed for a cold season serving God outdoors: a sleeping bag; all my sweaters; my old Dingo boots (the Dingo was not a cowboy boot per se but it had a heel and its squared toe was fairly narrow, essential for easy in and out of the stirrup); a canvas duster a brother-in-law loaned me; my bible, a New American Standard translation — state of the art at that time, though the New International Version (NIV) was giving the NASB a workout; a few Yes, Genesis, Renaissance and Jethro Tull cassette tapes; and my six-string accoustic guitar. I gave Little Nemo’s brakes some love and the two of us headed out on March 11, 1991, a few weeks shy of my 29th birthday.

We hurdled the familiar, jagged, cardboardy barrier of the Cascade Mountains as nimbly as would the Abominable Snowman and scooted across Columbia’s dolesome plains, but the way soon became strange, dark and snow-covered. The world beyond Washington’s borders was a tangle of muddled memories from several childhood trips I’d made across the Western states as the grumpiest passenger in the family car. Those times had always been in the bright and dusty heat of summer. I gripped Nemo’s padded black steering wheel over the wolvish Blue Mountains, which felt lonely and laden with menace. Nemo whistled bravely.

We made Boise the first night and stayed with my old school buddy Kip; more precisely I used his couch while he was doing a graveyard shift at work, and then continued south to pick up Highway 70 southeast of Salt Lake City. I wanted to stay as southerly as I could as we crossed the states because it was still very much winter. The second day, just after we climbed into Wyoming’s High Plains, an unbelievably loud and high-pitched screeching sound suddenly shot out of the dashboard, making my eyes roll up into my head like Captain Kirk’s when some dread ray was being leveled at the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. I was pulled over at a rest stop in bright sun and icy winds peering under the open bonnet, though I had no idea what was making the sound, when the only person in America who knew about this phenomenon, a guy named Duncan, happened to pull into the same rest stop in his VW bus. He told me it was the speedometer cable and helped me get a little dribble of oil down into it. I told him I was fixin’ to travel as far as Laramie that day and if he cared to meet me there supper would be on me, so grateful was I for his help.

Early morning with the mist lifting over Upper Barn. Photo courtesy of Brooke Trigleth, used with permission.

We did sup together in Laramie that night, though I don’t recall our conversation. My nerves were fried after driving across dark plains all evening in a windstorm with dry snow blowing across the road even though the sky was clear and the stars were crisp and blue. We split a motel room. His journey the next day lay southward, while I passed through Cheyenne, out of that crystalline high country, and spent a day doing long division problems in my head to keep myself awake through Nebraska.

A few years before, while riding as a passenger in a tank truck — I was hitchhiking to California — I learned a bit of trucker tradition: when one truck would pull around another to pass it going uphill in the dark, the driver of the slower vehicle would momentarily turn his headlights off when the back end of the passing truck was clear of his snout, because it is difficult for the driver of the passing truck to gauge in the dark, being so far forward and sitting on the other side of the vehicle. A full second’s interruption of the lights in the right-side-view mirror tells him he’s clear to move right again in front of his compatriot of the road. After moving right again into the lead the forward driver would toggle his rear lights quickly two or three times as a thank you. On those dark afternoons on the way to Ohio, I lived for the moments when a truck would pass me going uphill; I’d flash the lights of my ridiculous little VW Bug while imagining the bemused surprise of the teamster that a civvy would know this protocol, then usually the taillights and all the little perimeter lights at the back of the rig would flash out that cheerful electric gratuity. (Civilians cannot perform this valuable service to OTR freight with today’s cars, since the lights on most vehicles stay on even if you turn the switch off, which fact also necessitates that cinematic action dependent on a character “cutting the lights” while motoring through a dark scene must also account for that character driving an older car.) (But I digress).  

I slept in Omaha the third night, and if memory serves, I arrived at the ranch late the next day after sampling the potholes in Illinois (which really are as big as Volkswagens — you can imagine how bizarre this looked as we descended into them, disappeared completely from the view of other motorists, then emerged from them again, at 70 miles per hour).

When Nemo pulled off the rural highway and puttered up a long drive after four days on the road, I was dagged-out and wanted only to sleep, but there would be no early night for me. Campers were arriving in a few hours. Uncle Bill came up to the Ranch House to greet them and me. I remember him walking across the front lawn of the Ranch House in a blue shirt, brown leather vest, jeans and boots — real cowboy boots — and a tall, tan-colored cowboy hat, and greeting me with a huge hug — the only time that he and I ever embraced.

What kind of lens are you viewing life through? Photo by Joanna B., used with permission.

You’ve heard a lot already about life in that strange and beautiful acre in previous posts, and how that rebelliousness in me colored my time there. Writing about it has helped me process and lay by some hard feelings that I’d kept inside me for many years. And really, when I look back even on what I’ve written here, I am able to see Bill’s words and actions through a gentler lens. He wanted to live by faith, and I admire that even if I have reservations about his methods and even his mission. He wanted everyone else to see things and behave the same way he did, which is where the voodoo starts, but it’s easy to be snarky about people who express their faith with a bullhorn, because faith is a kind of madness, and people who give themselves over to it often make fools of themselves, sometimes in good ways but often otherwise. There hasn’t been much in my life I’ve been willing to make a fool out of myself for, and that’s a little bit sad.

I’ve managed to retain a very real kind of faith that I still call Christian faith. It’s a far cry from the faith Bill tried to legislate, but it feels true to me and that’s the best I can do for now. And it has less to do with winning arguments and ensuring post-life trajectories than with nurturing ways of being with people here on earth that feel…well…Christ-ly.   

Pardners, that’s how I came to be there…and it’s partly how I came to be here, where I am. The Ranch is far behind me now and I have my own little tribe for whose edification  — come to find — I frequently make a fool of myself.

History’s fascinating quagmire

Note: The shape of our lives these days is such that I still haven’t had a lot of time or the energy to cook up anything fresh for you. This too shall pass, I’ve been promised, and I promise in turn that there will be more current posts soon. But for now, here’s one of the many posts I have written earlier and for whatever reason — too many ideas going, didn’t like the flow, wasn’t that posts “time”, etc. — never published. I’ve tied up the loose ends but I left words like “yesterday” in place, even though in this case yesterday was months ago. I do this in order to preserve the original post’s raison d’être, if that makes sense. As a sort of epilogue up front, this was as great a read as I thought it would be.

 

The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.”

— Harry S. Truman

About five years ago on a trip back to Angela’s hometown of St. Louis, someone told me about a book he was reading called Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. It was one New Yorker’s telling of the year of nights he spent standing in an alley off of Gold Street and Fulton in Lower Manhattan observing the behavior of rats. It sounded crazy interesting to me, and when we found ourselves killing a little extra time in a small independent bookshop before our flight home, the book found me and I bought it.

It turned out to be one of my favorite books of all time. It was not just about the guy’s experience standing in the alley. That’s just the thread that holds it all together. He weaves into his tale the history of the alley, indeed of the rounded hill that still partially (and almost invisibly) exists beneath the tall buildings there and was called Gold Hill before there were streets. He rides along with pest control professionals and records their anectodes and wisdom about New York’s rat problem. All the while I read it, I kept thinking, this guy surely must have come across Joseph Mitchell’s “Rats on the Waterfront” article, and indeed, in the extensive and entertaining notes section, which I read all of despite my long-standing agreement with myself that notes sections are optional and usually not worth trudging through, he mentions Mitchell’s essay.

The book marked a decisive turn in my reading life. I had for years been reading novels, centered around Helprin and Barth, as I’ve told you before. In the few years before reading the rat book, I had begun to feel restless. I started reading ancient works of history, such as Herodotus and Thucydides and the writings of the Desert Fathers. (I also bought Virgil and even Gibbons, just didn’t get around to them.)

I found I enjoyed reading history, something I did not really know about myself. Then I ran into Mitchell, who as you know has become my literary hero. When I read Rats, I found a living author who had picked up something akin to the ball that had been dropped when Mitchell stopped writing — like John McPhee only with more caffeine in him — and it was my impression that he wasn’t even really a writer-type, that he was a plain-talking New Yorker who had a gift for inquiry and expression, and just happened to write a book. Until today, I had even forgotten his name even though his book still occupies an honored place on my bookshelf.

'Vaguely interesting nonfiction about all kinds of subjects' -- the perfect read. Book image (probably) copyright Anchor/Doubleday.

Rats ratified the alteration in course my reading had been making. From then on I looked for books like that, where a topic — any old topic — became the focus of a journey through time and culture and science and “collective memory” (you’ve heard me use that phrase before, yup). Actually, that’s what was so great about the book. It was supposedly about rats, but it touched on the whole world.

One day a coworker of mine saw the book Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England’s Oldest Continuously Lived-in House by Sarah Messer, lying on my desk. He picked it up, flipped it over, and said, “Is this one of those NPR books?”

“NPR books?”

“Yeah, you know — vaguely interesting non-fiction about all kinds of subjects written by liberals.”

He had described my new reading jag precisely.

Yesterday on BLDGBLOG, I became captivated, as I often do, by Geoff Manaugh’s reflections on some books he’d been reading. One was a book about the Meadowlands, a patch of polluted New Jersey swampland east of Manhattan, a wilderness between the world’s largest skyline and the suburbs beyond, criss-crossed by highways and dotted with the occasional warehouse or motel. The rubble from some of London’s bombed-out buildings from World War II lie here just below the mucky soil, believe it or not, as do a vast heap of other interesting stories. When Manaugh named the author, Robert Sullivan, it tickled my memory, and I had a hunch. To my delight I discovered that sure enough, Robert Sullivan was the same author who had written Rats.
 
The crazy part, or part of the crazy part, is that Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City was written way back in 1999. At the time I read Rats (ca. 2006) I hadn’t realized Sullivan had written anything previously. I don’t now remember where I had gotten that impression. The other part of the crazy part is that between the writing of Meadowlands and Rats, Sullivan came out to my neck of the woods and wrote a book (A Whale Hunt) about the efforts of a local First Nations tribe to embark on a traditional whale hunt, a quest I remember because of the news coverage and controversy the project garnered.

I’m pretty excited to learn that Sullivan is fully in the game as a writer (has been all along), and as you can see, I’ve got some reading to do. As my old friend Walkin’ Dave once said, “so many books, so few chairs.” 


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