Friday, September 24, 2010

Mountain Man: Urbandale 1977

When I was eighteen and it was the nineteen-seventies I wanted to be a mountain man. Now, I knew I couldn't be a true mountain man (those days were long long past and I wasn't quite that naive and stupid) but I still dreamt of going out west (of which I had personal knowledge from childhood), of living close to the woods or at least living a nomadic existence, town to town, out west.
It's still a bit fuzzy to me, these memories of the seventies, of adolescence and very young adulthood. It's such a strange period in life--at least for me--as in some ways I was very mature and intelligent and understood basic principles for life and in other ways I was confused and exceptionally ignorant and did the dumbest things quite frequently. But by age eighteen in the 70s you could legally drink alcohol as well as vote as well as run off by yourself to see the world. In my case, my world was a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa--which I hated very much yet also felt very secure within--and I wanted out. I never thought much about true world travel: Europe or Asia and such. Sure, I had my tropical isle dreams, but my main idea of getting away was always within the confines of the United States and was almost always limited to the western states with usually Montana, Idaho, Washington/Oregon (where I'd been happy as a child) and Alaska. This idea of going to these states was not a fresh one in the 1970s--this was a time of a big ecology movement among young people after all and there was John Denver on the radio and Jeremiah Johnson on the movie screen, there were serious people--mainly out west--doing serious things to help and preserve the environment, to curb pollution and change corporate and factory ways.
The 70s were not all disco and polyester and leisure suits.
I was a big reader--though a haphazard one (or, eclectic, I should say)--and one of my favorite books was Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher. I read and re-read that book as a teen. I also had books by a man named Angier (I think) that told me how to survive in the woods, how to build a long cabin and such. I had pamphlets on how to obtain free land in Alaska (which i think was real, that there still was free Fed land in AK in those waning 70s years--though it was not a simple process to obtain it). But then again, I wasn't completely stupid. I knew I didn't have the discipline or self-knowledge to actually go out and try to live off the land by myself. So, when I was nineteen and done with high school and uninterested in college, was working full time at Younkers department store in the stock room and living at home and stuffing my money into a savings account, I decided that it was the highway nomad's life for me.
This was before I'd read such things as Kerouac and the Beats, so I'm not sure exactly where I got the concept, other than as a family we'd moved around the country and had always taken long car trips and I'd loved that.
But in 1977 I bought a used van from a friend of Second Oldest Brother. I saw an advertisement for a dog--puppies that were part wolf--and went out and got a puppy and kept it in my parent's basement (where I had a room). I'm not sure why my parents allowed me to do this, that is get a dog at their house, not buying the van and planning to travel. (And as a current dog owner, god, I feel bad about that puppy, who I of course named Wolf. I did not have time or understanding for the poor dog. I mainly kept him leashed beneath the basement stairs and didn't give him the attention and care he both required and deserved.) So, my plan was to quit my job, take my money and my dog and drive out west by myself, town-to-town (as I said), state-to-state, concentrating on Idaho and Oregon and Washington. No doubt I planned to go to Alaska. I was going to camp mainly. Live in the woods. Sleep in my van. Be lonely and mysterious. I'd write. I'd work some job or another if I had to (I didn't bother to think who in the heck would hire me, a man with no address, a van and a dog that was part wolf). I would be my own version of a mountain man.
Of course none of this came to be.
I was at least smart enough to give my dog away to someone who would care for it. (The people who sold me the dog contacted me and were not happy that they had sold it to me, but I can't recall if they were the ones who took the dog.) I kept the van and-instead of the mountains of the west I got three friends together (Bob, Kevin and Mark Lobsinger) and drove down to Florida instead.
I know.
But that was how I discovered the Florida Keys, Key West, which I still love to this day.
And then, after working a few jobs back in Des Moines/Urbandale, I decided that maybe college was not a bad idea and I enrolled at the University of Iowa in Iowa City (another place I came to love).
I kept the van even though I was in school, but it sat and sat back in Urbandale until the neighbors complained and then I sold it for a pittance. I was glad to be rid of it.
But, in the longer run, I did live my highway nomad life in a way. I did live in the west (New Mexico, California, Washington, Montana). I even made it to Alaska in 1983, though did not stay all that long, and though I lived in a tent in the woods (more or less the woods: a free state park north of Anchorage in Eagle River), I came back to Iowa and finished college. Which was for the best.
I don't get out to the woods much these days--and miss it. I get to the mountains even less and haven't been out west for many years now. Don't dream much about being a mountain man, though still sometimes dream of living a lonely and mysterious life.
I drive a Volvo.

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