Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ice: Missoula 1989

As best I recall, the rivers and streams around Missoula didn't ice over. When Fru and I lived in Stevensville, the Bitterroot River would get cold-looking and foggy, but did not freeze. Nor did the Blackfoot. Certainly the Clark Fork--which is a sizable river for the area--didn't turn to ice. Mostly you heard about ice on the roads: Black Ice.
In Montana, Fru and I learned, they didn't salt the roads. Sometimes they didn't even plow them. One winter we had a very heavy snow and the city--Missoula--finally brought out the plows and dumped the snow into mountains in parking lots and on corners. Actually, it's kind of interesting that they didn't get all worked up about winter and snow: either you drove on it or through it or around it or you didn't. It was just snow. They did, however, spread sand on the highways. For traction, I guess. But this was big, heavy-grit sand--pebbles almost--and so all winter it would knock around the undercarriage of your truck, track into your house or the cafes or bars, get strewn along the side of the road and stay there during the melts turning everything brown and ugly, washing into the stream, I guess. Yet salt, salt would have melted the snow but it also damages roads and vehicles and would be worse for the streams and plants. So, I guess sand was the way to go. But, salt would have melted the black ice. Black ice being the build up of snow melt, turned black from carbon and exhaust or whatever, so that you didn't really see it on the highway's surface until it was too late. Still, I never had a bad incident due to it.
But what I'm thinking of--concerning ice--was a time when Steve, Ken, Bill (MA/MN/MT Bill) and I drove up up Lolo Creek one very cold winter day just to goof around in the woods.
It was very cold and had snowed a lot, so we went up Highway 12 for a bit, pulled over and walked through the deep untrammeled snow. It was fun. Eventually we hopped down into the creek bed where the water trickled beneath a fine veneer of ice. We walked that upstream a bit and then came to a place where the water was a small falls--maybe where it had jammed up and cascades over rocks and logs--and here there was a beautiful small display of icicles. A small frozen falls. We marveled at that--the thick stalagmites (or is it stalactites?) of winter-bluewhite ice, bumpy and clear and also smooth and clear, all bunched up along the blockade in the creek, looking like the great mouth of some carnivorous frozen beast. A stunning find. But Steve--Steve who was from Massachusetts, a writer, and who was a Vegan and who considered himself to be the ultimate environmentalist, that Steve--he went up and put his boot to the work of water. Yes, he rammed his feet into the icicles, breaking and splintering them with great joy.
It was no big deal, in the scheme of things. I was displeased but also laughed at him, teased him that here he was, a nature lover, yet couldn't stop himself from finding pleasure by destroying what nature had formed. Of course, nothing was killed or injured--except a sense of purity and beauty, perhaps.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Solo Ventures: New York City 1988

When I was in NYC I lived in Queens--in Flushing--with Jimmy. We had a sublet on 67th or 69th Street (I don't recall exactly) from someone who was a friend of Jimmy's. Jimmy was from Florence, Alabama and we'd met while working in Seaside, Florida, but I had just moved to Champaign, Illinois before I went out to spend some time in New York City, New York . . . Anyway, Jimmy knew the city pretty well but I had never been before. So he showed me around those first few weeks while I got a sense of the place. I also met an old friend from Iowa City, Donna, and she lived in Manhattan--the East Village--which gave us a central meeting point and reason to go into Manhattan most of the time.
And I got to know Manhattan pretty well--at least that mid to lower east side section of it. But as the first month turned into the second, I ventured out a bit further and I ventured out alone.
I'd figured out the subway system, knew it without having to look at a map all the time, and so it was no big deal to walk up to Roosevelt Station in Queens and head into Manhattan and make transfers to where I wanted to go. I don't know where Jimmy was or what he was doing on the days I took my solo trips, but I took a few of them. I know I went up to see the Guggenheim Museum on my own (I had invited Jimmy along, maybe even Donna, but they declined). This was on a Tuesday and it just happened to be a certain Tuesday of the month when the museum was free (ah, Jimmy was upset he didn't go when he heard that). So in I went and wandered the inner nautilus-like spiral, looking at artwork I had only seen in books prior to that. There were a lot of Van Goghs, I recall. Another trip I took was up to Columbia University. I had heard it wasn't a nice neighborhood, but I wanted to see the place for myself (I had considered going there for grad school at one point) and there it was. I went inside and looked up the English/creative writing offices--but that was it. I had a drink in a little below-sidewalk bar before heading back. I also took a solo trip to somewhere on the east side where I looked up an apartment where Jack Kerouac had lived. I think it was when he was writing his On The Road book, where Ginsberg and Cassady and others hung out. I don't know. But I went there and it was cold and there it was--an old nondescript brick building--still apartments--with rusting metal mailboxes and a locked street door. I peered in the door's window, saw no signs of life, just a dirty hallway and closed doors and a smooth-worn wooden staircase leading up into shadows. Hmmm. Very interesting.
The longest trip I took via subway was out to Coney Island.
By this time I'd made the decision to leave NYC, so I wanted to get out to the famous Coney Island while I had the chance. I'm not sure why, exactly, I wanted to go. Out of all of New York, there was plenty more to see than Coney Island (I never did go to the Statue of Liberty [saw it from Battery Park and the ferry to Staten Island] nor did I go up the Empire State Building, or the Boathouse or St. Patrick's or the Whitney Museum, etc etc) (okay, maybe I did go to the top of the Empire, when Fru and Don came out to visit), but it--the name alone--is part of our national consciousness. So, I went. And it was a looong ride. I'd gotten used to things being compact and close while in the city, and though this was all still a dense urban area, I didn't realize how much time it took to get out there. But, I did it. And it was still winter in/on Coney Island--just like in Queens and Manhattan. I wandered around with my hands in my pockets, cold, looked at the gray ocean, the scant people, the boardwalk. I went by the amusement park--all its rides frozen, dull, Ferris wheel clipping in the wind like a forgotten flag pole. Rather depressing, actually. I had a single dog at Nathan's Famous, a drink. I had to take a piss but--like the rest of New York--there were no public restrooms. So, I jumped down into the trashy sand and walked beneath the boardwalk and went. I had a fear, not so much of being mugged, but of some cop getting me for public urination. Coney Island seemed more dangerous to me than Manhattan, than the East Village. And then I got back on the subway and made the looong ride back.
So, the solo ventures were not much. Lonely, full of simple observations, somewhat pointless. Yet, I still recall them. They are part of my consciousness, just another part of the mental mapping I do--I did--in my single brain as a single human during this time span in history. I saw it, I walked it, breathed it, ate it in a way. Nothing big or flashy, but then I'm not big and flashy. There were more things I did alone, and am glad or satisfied I did them, but I had more fun when I was with people I knew (which isn't always the case with me).
Though I'd spent time--intimate lengths of time, lived--in Los Angeles, in Seattle and Chicago, New York City was different. I became a true city-dweller for my brief time there. I understood it to some degree. Those simple solo trips helped solidify that.
And this elongated trip to New York was a solo venture in a larger way, too. Because it was the last time I traveled by myself without the full knowledge that I'd always come back to Fru--who I had moved up to Champaign for. Yes, when I left for NYC, I had no real plans to not come back. But then again, I knew my history of 'moving on', of having weak plans. But Fru came out and visited me. I stayed in touch with her. She didn't give up on me and I didn't give up on her. She was even willing to move to NYC. But I went back to her and to Illinois--got a job--and we moved out to Montana by that fall. So, in some ways, going to New York City itself was a final solo venture.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Farm and Pheasant: Sioux Falls 1960

My mother was born in Arlington, South Dakota. Her mother lived there her whole life, as did her sister (my Aunt Nancy), who married a man who became a farmer. They had a family of five kids, four boys and one girl; we were a family of five kids, four boys and one girl. They lived on a farm, we lived in the city (and in South Dakota, Sioux Falls was the Big City--even in 1960--just like in Iowa, Des Moines is the Big City to most farmers and small towners). Arlington isn't too far from Sioux Falls, so we visited pretty often. I think. I was a little kid, so honestly I don't know how often often was. But we did visit.
The trip to Arlington I best recall was a trip made when I was probably thirteen or so and we lived in Tennessee. I think that was the last time I was in Arlington and on their farm. On that trip, we were all old enough to have adventures and joke around, to ride their horses and play whiffle ball, to chase the chickens in the hen house, to kill a chicken or two for dinner by chopping off their heads (and yes, their headless bodies do run around and I recall a rooster's head, it's beak and eyes still moving after the decapitation), to play with their dog--Sarge (Sarge was a great wooly farm dog)--to take trips into town and swim at the town pool and meet their friends, to have a big picnic . . . We also went to Arlington once when we lived in Vancouver, but I don't recall the specifics of that trip, so it may be mixed in with my earliest memories of the farm. So be it. But I recall getting to ride in a big semi once, I remember the hay loft of the barn, the mud room of the house, the fresh milk with paper caps on the bottles and how the cream would settle on the top, corn fields and walking those fields to get to a pond where ducks often were (and I think they shot those ducks in season), cattle, cows that got into a neighbor's cornfield (or the other way around), railroad tracks and trains and dusty gravel roads, watching TV with my cousins, a 'horror movie' show called Midnight Macabre, in that big farm house . . . I know that they had another house first before the big farm house, so, again, I could be wrong about when and where these small memories come from. But they were all in Arlington, South Dakota. I also remember hunting pheasant.
Now, I didn't hunt pheasant. None of us kids hunted. It was my father and my uncle who did it. And my memories of it are small (except for one defining incident). My father was not a big hunter--I think he went only once or twice and only because he was invited (though, he did grow up in a small town--Red Oak, Iowa, in the 1930's--and probably hunted then, I'm sure, to some degree)--but he did own a shotgun and had a shotgun that was his father's (my grandfather's, which I own now). (Also, my father had been a machine gunner in WWII, had killed men, so it's not as if he was a stranger to guns.) Pheasant hunting is huge in the Dakotas (and in Iowa), so they didn't have to go far to find some birds. My brother, Oldest Brother, loved to joke about pheasants because they ate small rocks, gravel, to help them digest grain. (I don't remember the jokes beyond that.) But my father hunted with Uncle Lawrence and a few other men (I think) when we were there one fall, and they got some birds. We later ate them. I didn't much care for the taste of pheasant, strong dark and greasy as I recall, but maybe part of it was because we kids did the plucking. Yes, I do remember someone wringing their ring-necks and hanging them on hooks or rope outside the farmhouse and we went about the bloody and surprisingly difficult job of plucking the feathers off these formerly living birds . . . But that's not the lone incident that sticks with me.
I don't think I went hunting with them, but somehow I was dropped off with the hunters--my father, uncle and others, my two older brothers--as they were ending the hunt. I remember their guns and jackets, the long empty russet-colored fields, windbreaks of leafless or near leafless trees, the gravel road where cars were parked. I recall all of that. And the pheasants. the pheasants were dead and they drooped upside down, their heads swaying as the men walked with them. I don't know if I wanted to carry one, or my father or another wanted or asked me to carry one, but I was handed a dead pheasant. I was maybe four years old. So, I took it. I carried it by its feet and walked down the gravel road towards the car. But suddenly, the ring-necked pheasant wasn't dead. Serious. It came alive in my hand and began to flap its wings. I was very surprised. The men were distracted by something (and no doubt they'd had a few beers, I believe) and the bird squawked flapped raised its body as I held its feet and--what was I going to do--got away from me.
The pheasant flew up into the air over a stubbled field, towards the line of trees. Holy crap, it was the Jesus of pheasants. The Lazarus. Up it flew--the men started yelling--and up came the shotguns. BAM BAM BAM. But it got away. No one hit it. And, though I felt bad, some shame, that I had let the bird get away, I'm glad that it did . . .
I've done very little hunting in my life. I've fished. I've surreptitiously killed small creatures and insects, but I don't much care for it all. As I get older, I don't like any of it, really. So, I hope that pheasant went on to a long pheasant life in South Dakota, hanging along the roadsides, eating small bits of gravel to help with its digestion.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Special Edition #5: Camping

I started camping as a family thing, when I was perhaps six years old. We--my parents, my three brothers and sister--started camping out west, when we moved to Vancouver, Washington from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. As a young kid in Sioux Falls, I know we went to the Black Hills at least twice--we stayed in rustic cabins in the woods and scattered among the trees were small cages and in the cages were trapped squirrels, rabbits, maybe raccoons and such. I kid you not: poor animals . . . Also in South Dakota we visited our cousins' farm--my aunt and uncle's farm--up in Arlington (my mother's hometown and where my maternal grandmother lived). This was also outdoorsy, a place where we wandered fields and pastures, rode horses and chased chickens--hunted pheasant. Nature--albeit of an agricultural nature--was abundant. But, this was not camping.
Tent camping began in Washington. Out west, as I said. And I think it had more to do with economics than with some great desire to be out-of-doors or for my parents to teach us life lessons about nature. We were a family of five kids--young (I was, am, the middle child)--living on the single salary of my father who was a psychologist for the Veteran's Administration (in those days no mother worked outside the house). It wasn't easy to take five kids everywhere, to stuff them in a single motel or hotel room, to pay for not just five, but seven tickets, to any or every attraction, to buy seven meals three times a day as well as snacks, the inevitable gifts and trinkets and other miscellany of childhood vacations. So, I think my father made a conscious decision to camp: it took a small investment of materials, it allowed plenty of space for a big family, you could pack and cook your own meals, it provided the break from routine that a vacation is supposed to. In other words, it was cheap entertainment. For many years--all of my childhood and a lot of my early adulthood--I thought it was my father's love of nature and scenery that had us camping so much, not economic frugality. As for my mother, I'm sure she would have preferred the Holiday Inn by the freeway--or better yet, a downtown hotel with room service--than sleeping in a tent in the woods and having to cook meals on a gas stove day and night. But I do not recall her complaining (in fact, I know she enjoyed being out there in the woods, enjoyed the scenery--but maybe less cooking could have been on the agenda for her). And it's not as if we camped out of a sense of penance or because we were forced to; there was true pleasure derived from our many trips and it was a cohesive family adventure.
I remember when we first went out to buy the equipment. My father took us to Sears, I believe, where he purchased a big Coleman tent--a seven person tent--and a camp stove (gas) and camping lantern (all Coleman products--as far as I knew back then, there was no other brand or option than Coleman and the name and look remains iconic to me to this day). He and my mother also armed us all with inflatable rafts, the little cheap blow-up kind that came in many colors, all narrow and plasticky. And, of course, a big metal cooler. This was what we took on our inaugural first camping trip. I think we went to the beach, to Tillamook in Oregon, probably for just a weekend. And Tillamook was great fun--we swam in the cold Pacific (maybe this was the first time we saw the ocean) and ran around in the dunes and climbed logs and saw animals, making up our childhood fantasy games. This was the mid-60's and life was different, less crowded for one thing. We ate sandwiches and apples and bananas, chips by the bagful, and my mother did her best cooking a big meal for us that night. But that night, lying on our blow-up 'mattresses' and covered in blankets brought from home, we all froze. I don't know what time of year it was, but we were cold and uncomfortable and no doubt whined about it all night. So immediately after that trip--I also remember--we went out and bought everyone a sleeping bag. I think my father also invested in camping cookware.
And this became a habit. As we continued to camp as a family, after each trip (and each trip became longer, more distant, more often at National Parks) my father and mother would go out and buy more things related to camping. And pretty soon, just packing the gear and all of us into our car became a struggle, a mathematical puzzle of space-filling, until they also bought a carrier top to stow our bags and other gear. By the time I was a teen, we had a screened canopy, axes and hatchets, a number of lanterns and coolers, even a gas space heater for the tent. I remember all of those things. We drove all over the west--The West--with those accoutrements, going to Crater Lake, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Zion, Grand Canyon--to name a few--as well as many many state parks and now-nameless-to-me private campgrounds (we also camped in the midwest and the south [never out east], but it's western camping I recall the most). We were once gone for four weeks, driving and camping while making a big loop from Vancouver to southern Utah to Red Oak, Iowa (where my paternal grandmother lived, Father's hometown) and to Sioux Falls and Arlington, then back home in Vancouver. And I remember those things we carried: the huge red metal cooler, where we placed block ice (never cubed--it melted too fast) and intricately arranged food items and which we drained faithfully from its plastic spout; the main lantern with its incandescent 'bags' that you lit each night, the stove and all the meals my mother cooked on them with the gas cylinder fed flames hissing, the zipping and rolling, unzipping and unrolling of sleeping bags, the big tent and its poles and stakes, and the night fires. Yes, the search for and chopping of wood and the fires, fires, fires . . . I could go on and on (and already have) without touching upon the internal/external feel of camping that is now ingrained within me. And in a way, the camping was as much about driving, about long car trips and scenery (and though we kids were often bored with that, it still stuck with us, with me at least). It was about being a family.
And camping as a kid is more than just about being in nature. It's about learning to make do, about finding comfort in the uncomfortable, it's about putting up with insects, eating food that's a little dirty, drinks that have pine needles or bugs in them, about being resourceful. About birds and birdsong and bird crap, about taking a crap in crappy toilets or even in the woods sans toilet. These were not wilderness trips, not primitive camps, not a hiking into the woods and being alone. These were social ventures, usually showers were available, often there were camp stores. But, they were also primal, in a way, if not primitive. They did reduce our lives and our time to a simpler measure and beat. Despite flashlights and lanterns and stoves, we were very aware of when the sun rose and set, of the daily intake of food. The gathering of fuel and water. Aware of shelter, heat and cold, of animals (bears, for one) and insects. This was all part of it.
It stayed with me, camping has. As a college student, as an adult, I still camped. I camped with friends and lovers. I camped as housing, at times, and as a cheap way to travel between destinations, but usually I camped just to camp, to be back in the tent and have my fire, to not just see some beautiful spot in nature but to be among it, sleep in it.
And even now--though my chances to camp have been reduced and restricted by time, climate and urban landscapes--I still go when I can. The only difference is that now I camp in primitive sites--usually in National Forests--and I go by myself. Yes, I am one of those strange, lone campers you come across now and then. Only, it's not strange if you've ever done it. Camping alone allows me to get back in touch with myself, with basic ideals and thoughts. It let's me disassociate myself from the things that constitute my normal life--and to do it in a rapid way that would not happen if I was at some tony resort with the help scurrying about around the pool or the tiki bar, or if I was holed up in a roadside motel next to a Waffle House, or even if I was camping with a family member or a good friend. If I wasn't alone, I'd be thinking of other things, I'd be making small talk or large talk, joking and interacting. Alone, I talk to myself or, better, I don't talk at all. I just listen. I am reduced to putting up my thin shelter, searching for and burning wood, eating and drinking and watching. Two days of that--even one--can calm and rejuvenate even the most jitterbugged of us.
Camping is my touchstone. Nature--even small, semi-controlled doses of it--are my church.
And as I think of it, as I think of my father, perhaps it was for him as well. He did enjoy camping and marveled at the simplicity (though, with five kids and all that gear, it was not always simple) of it. I know he treasured the peace and quiet, the times when sitting outside or around a fire was soothing. A balm. Yes, it was not just that it was cheap, it was because camping offered him a special and particular respite from the modern human world. As it does for me. As it does for many.