Midnight in Amarillo

Long black hair draped over the hippy kid from Philly’s shoulders, like the dripping leather thongs that hung off his split-leather jacket. He wore fancy red-toed cowboy boots, although the first time I scoped in on him I knew he wasn’t any kind of Western hand . . . no calluses or rough spots on his palms, his fingers. And then he talked—no cowpoke I ever knew spoke with an accent like busted-up asphalt. But he had some money and he liked me, so Wayne and I stuck close to him. The pickup ride across the Mojave from Barstow to Williams, Arizona. We could have ridden into Flagstaff but all the road men told us, “Stay out of that town. The cops pick hitchers up and they disappear.” Somebody used the word, “Kilt. They git kilt.”

From Williams to Albuquerque in a Chevy with a broken trunk lock. Highway patrolmen stopped us seven times on Interstate 40 because they thought the car was stolen. We got bored. No pot in the back, no guns in the driver’s trouser pockets. Just careful cops with their heavy flashlights good for battering things, their pieces concealed in black holsters.

At Albuquerque we went in to eat, burning up half our cash. We met a kid going back to the University of Texas, had to make some classes. He seemed too urbane, no long locks, no experience in war, just avoiding the draft by going to college. Said, “I need to be there by 10 o’clock in the morning.” I didn’t have a map in my head, but guessed the distance to college a pretty far piece.

We stood by the on-ramp to I-40 at the last exit out of town; Central Avenue where all the Chicanos cruised up and down, up and down the street. Some sneering, some grinning, some shooting us the peace sign, some shooting us the finger.

A red ’62 Impala stopped.  A guy stuck his head out. “Where you headed?”  “Austin,” and “Springfield, Missouri” and “Iowa City.” The hippy kid from Philly didn’t say anything.

“Git in,” and we did. Texas kid in the front, in the middle. The hippy kid from Philly, Wayne and I in the back. We settled in. The driver and his sidekick, each discharged after six years in the Navy.  “We were career men,” one of them said. “But hell, it’s gotten too chickenshit.”

I nodded off.

A lot of screaming and cussing. One of the Navy men—not the driver—waving a pistol around as I woke up. His tight blond curly-haired head like a ping pong ball bouncing as he jabbed the whiney Texan in the chest with the mouth of that gun. “Get out. Get out,” as the tires screeched on the asphalt.

Fuzzy-muzzled with sleep still in our brains.

That shrill, “Get out, get out.”

Wayne asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Shut up and get out, all of you get out.” A Marlboro stuck out of the corner of the driver’s mouth. Smoke poked him in the eyes and he squinted, then glared into the rear view mirror. “Get out.” A freeway sign that read, “Lubbock, thirty miles.” We were headed in the wrong direction. The knappy-headed Navy dude slapping the Texan on the top of the head. “What are you trying to do to us, Texas boy?”

“Hey, cool it man. Just trying to get to Austin before class tomorrow.”

The driver shouted, “All of you get the hell out.”

The barrel of that pistol glared directly in my eyes. It bared its canines. Wayne mused, “Wait a minute, we didn’t do anything.” Shouts rattling around the head liner, “Get out and shut up. Damned Marines, anyway.”

“We didn’t do anything.”

The driver banged his head on the steering wheel. “We lost an hour coming down here ’cause that loud-mouthed Texan steered us in the wrong direction.”

Wayne mentioned, “I appreciate your dilemma, but that’s not our fault. If you’re heading to Ohio, you need to turn around. You can haul us, too. We didn’t do anything.”

Pistol man bared his canines at Wayne and waved the weapon around. An old .32 revolver, not much of a piece, but deadly enough in close quarters. I didn’t appreciate the way his finger sat on the trigger. His blue eyes reminded me of those squirrely things Australian Shepherds use to see with. He waved the muzzle at the back door, “No way. No way.”

The driver jammed the tranny into neutral and yanked on the emergency brake and jumped out and stomped around in front of the headlights. He looked like a gangster-movie goon the way he disappeared into the night through the grasshopper-gut-pocked windshield. Blondy climbed out too as the Texan struggled up the freeway in front of them with his thumb out at everything that roared, whooshed or jangled past. I looked at Wayne. He said, “I’m scared.” I shrugged and giggled and the hippy kid from Philly grinned. I said, “Time to get scared is when the shooting starts.”

The two ex-swabbies charged back up to the car and each one put a foot on the front bumper. They wrangled. The knappy-headed wild man’s face shaded scarlet. They both nodded and got back in and the driver pointed at each one of us. “I’ll take you, you, you, back to I-40 and then you are out on your asses.”

Wayne whined, “But wait, we didn’t do . . .”

I grabbed his arm and said, “Great, thanks.”

Later, standing in a drizzle, we thumbed but it was too late or too early, the traffic dead, only a blare of air horns from passing diesels.

I quit trying.

The hippy kid from Philly strutted in his fringed leather jacket and his red-toed boots, taking his turn, trying to hitch us a ride.

Red Cadillacs


For the next few weeks I plan to ruminate on a hitchhiking trip I made in the fall of 1969 from San Diego, California, to Iowa City, Iowa, then back to San Diego. Lately, images from that trip slap down inside my recollection.

My buddy Wayne was a Marine like me. I think it was the audacity of his ideas that moved me to like him. The vast scale of his schemes—to buy a teak Chinese junk in L A and sail it to Honolulu; to rent a house in Pacific Beach, California, among the richer folks, even though we didn’t have any money; to purchase and keep a white-throated Capuchin monkey that gnawed the baseboards and door frames inside that house in Pacific Beach. And then to convince the landlord to give us all our damage deposit back.

When he proposed the hitching adventure, I slumped, envisioning psychopath murderers loose in red Cadillacs. He spun visions of adventure and the exotic . . . somehow Branson, Missouri, would be exotic (that was the original destination, long before Branson became famous). The road, the realm of lusty young men, returned warriors, turned loose to discover what America really meant. He talked of women picking us up on the road and asking for sex in payment. I particularly liked that. I dreamt of blonde women loose in red Cadillacs, looking for me. Yahoo! Nothing would be better.

We assessed funds (we were short of those), routes, stops, havens where we could meet if we got split up. Originally, Wayne had assumed I’d be going to Branson to his paternal grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary.  But I harbored other notions. There was a girl I’d met in San Diego, a friend of Wayne’s, who’d visited California but lived in Iowa City. I hankered after her. I announced, “I’m going on to see her.”

He asked me, “Did you call her and ask her, or at least tell her your plans?” I shook my head. “Are you planning to call her?” I shook my head.

We left on a mid-September morning each with a five-buck bill, a pup tent shelter half, a wool blanket, some clothes, a toothbrush, some toothpaste. No razor. We rolled everything and threw it over our shoulders like Civil War knapsacks.

The early part of the trip proved uneventful. We caught rides up 395 to San Bernardino, then to Cajon Pass on Interstate 15. We stood at the on-ramp and hung thumbs out as traffic bored past. Late afternoon came on. We felt cool. Wayne said, “We might get cold. We need to get better visuality. Get out on the side of the freeway .” I said, “The signs say, ‘No hitch hikers.’”

He sneered. I walked out to the freeway and stuck up my thumb. Cars whizzed by. Comets, Mustangs, Falcons, GTOs—no red Cadillacs. People waved, shot me the finger, spit at me, yelled things I could not understand and then suddenly a California Highway Patrol Officer pulled over and wrote me a ticket for hitchhiking on the freeway. The he loaded us up and hauled us down the freeway to a warmer on/off ramp. He said, “I don’t want you to freeze.”

He dropped us off at a Texaco service station. A cool wind blew out of the west as we stood there on the edge of the parking lot. My spirits slid around the tops of my Dingo boots. People glared, ignored us, frowned. Dusk was only an hour away. I was hungry, my throat was dry. I thought, “Let’s catch a bus back to San Diego.” But I didn’t say it.

A dark blue ’62 Chevy Impala cruised by us. The way the engine idled reminded me of Soviet tanks rumbling out of the jungle. The windows wore a dark tint, so it was hard to see inside. The Impala pulled up to a gas pump.

Wayne bantered and crowed like a rooster. How fun this was, how exhilarating, how mind-expanding. I sniggered, “Mind expanding.”

The Impala crept away from the pumps, rumbled around and stopped in front of us. A window rolled down. A Chicano stuck his head out. “Wanna ride?” I saw Wayne hesitate, but I said, “Sure,” and the back door opened and a lanky Chicano climbed out and thumbed at the seat. Another Chicano sat on the other side. Something was stacked on the back seat floorboard. But I wanted to get on with the adventure, to get my mind expanded. I slid in and glanced at Wayne who shrugged. I said, “Come on, let’s go.” He climbed in. When the tall Chicano coiled in behind I noticed the fake pearl-handled butt of a thirty-eight revolver sticking out of his left front trouser pocket. I didn’t tell Wayne. He declaimed any use of guns. Funny for a Marine to say, but he tended towards peace, love, dove.

Whatever was on the floorboard forced our knees beneath our chins. The driver smiled at me in the rear view mirror as he pulled onto a side road and drove slowly north. Gold caps rimmed his canines. The Chicanos talked Spanish too fast. I couldn’t understand. My knees ached and my thighs burned from the awkward position. The late sun lay on the land like sea spray. Joshua trees jumped out of sandy spots between the fields as we rumbled by.

I leaned over after a while and looked at what was on the floor. Wrapped in blue paper and the shapes of bricks. I leaned closer and smelled pot. I sat up and glanced at the Chicanos on my left and my right. My heart hammered. Both the Chicanos in the back and the one riding shotgun stared at the alfalfa fields we passed. I looked in the rear view mirror. The driver kept shooting his eyes at me. I stared into the mirror like nothing was the matter. I glanced at Wayne, who dozed. I sniggered  again. “Talk about mind-expanding.”

They pulled in at a farmhouse and the driver got out and talked to the man who lived there. A nod, some cash. I noticed a bulge in the back of the driver’s tan trousers. Another gun. Two of the blue packages were handed out the window. My knees rested better without those kilos down there. From farm to farm we went. At every farm a short conversation in Spanish, or English. Sometimes what looked like a farmer, or a farmer’s hippy kid. Or a farm hand. Or his wife. At each stop a different Chicano got out of the car and talked, then took cash and stuffed it into his front pockets. They all packed weapons. The late daylight draped into dusk and the sweet peace of autumn on the Mojave Desert.

I kept my eyes on the driver, who seemed to be the boss. I wondered what kind of piece was stuffed in the back of his trousers. Nine millimeter, .357 Magnum. .45? Sometimes the late rays of the sun caught the gold caps on his teeth and the glint lit up the desert air.  Wayne snoozed through it all. The emptying of the floorboard and all the kilos stuffed in the trunk of the dark blue ’62 Impala.

Impalas are known to leap and run up to fifty-five miles an hour. But this Impala rumbled and chugged and stopped a lot, into the wheeze of the cooling evening when the Joshua trees popped out of the dark on the side of the road. Like ghosts.

Commerce in 1969 in South central California. Eventually, in the cool dark, they dropped us off in Barstow. Mind expanding? I don’t know. I started looking again for red Cadillacs.


Betty and I motored through the Rocky Mountains out of Cook City, Montana, where Soda Butte Creek cuts a sharp canyon. At the northeast gate into Yellowstone, I asked the young woman at the entrance kiosk if we might witness any of the Druid Peak tribe of wolves in the Lamar River Valley. She said they hadn’t been seen for a week or so, “but they are around.”

Saddened a bit, we drove down the valley and stopped to look at the snow-white mountain goats on the cliffs overlooking the road, the creek, the dried-out meadows. And all the bushy bison feeding out in the plains.

In the wide Lamar River Valley, I understood why the wolves shied away. Hundreds of fisherman dotted the huge landscape, knee-deep in the river, trudging across the wide grassy meadows. It felt like an invasion of spacemen. I didn’t say that, but that’s how it felt. I wanted wolves and instead got trout fisher-people.

In 2004 Betty and I and our longtime friend, Helen McStravick, visited Yellowstone and watched the Druid Peak gang hunt the Lamar River Valley on a late June evening. Before the wolves even arrived, cow elk smelled the pack and circled around and around like crazed Jewish mothers awaiting a Nazi raid. Black bear chased their own cubs up aspen trees to protect them from the undulating wave of gray, black and white canines that roamed across the wide alluvial plain, their noses down, sniffing, ears up like radar antennae. The normally ever-present pronghorn were nowhere to be seen. Viewing the hunt, electric vibes chimed the tines of my backbone, my mouth dry as the dust beneath the sage. A terrible scene of beauty, my legs shook with a weakness I hoped no one else noticed.

The weakness I felt might be an indicator of why the wolf is so despised in my part of the country. And maybe, too, why it is so revered. The fear it instills. The admiration, too. Sheepmen and cattlemen, elk hunters, deer hunters, generally hate the wolf and rage against the federal government for its reintroduction into the mountain northwest. Nature lovers praise the wolf’s acumen, its savage skills.

Up here you love them or hate them. I’m not sure how I feel. I loved seeing them on the hunt, across the new June grass like a band of raiders intent on rape and plunder. That excited me. But they kill lambs and calves. And I once worked in that world, so I understand the loathing livestock people feel for this most efficient of killers.

Up here they are killed legally, illegally. People fear being killed by them. To these folks, the wolf is evil, cunning, and lies in wait to rip their children in half, in quarters. To the other side wolves are revered as if deities, noble and regal and deserving to be at the top of the food chain with us, ultimate predators of sage ground and mountain.

I think we humans view these beasts as personalities that act and think like us. They are noble. They are evil. But to me the wolf does what it does, kill, because that is what it needs to do to survive. Remember, all of us, even vegetarians, live by consuming some other living being. The wolf is good at what it does, as are we, sometimes.

I believe game hunters of the northwest despise the wolf because they think that our elk, pronghorn and deer herds are somehow theirs, like the bands of domestic sheep that browse on the Camas Prairie, or the cattle herds that graze on the ridges below the Lost River Range. The wild game are their own private meat stock, there for the harvesting, like fat feedlot steers ready for market. I have little sympathy for hunters.  I hunted successfully for years and know the word hunt does not mean guaranteed carcasses hanging in the cooler.

I do understand the rancher’s hatred, though. Ranch folk earn a living off their animals and their life is a steady pound of hot and cold, and wind and death, and livestock birth and somewhere in that birth the hardest of ranchers is softened and becomes a husbandman. One who husbands lambs and calves and even though he or she ships them off to market, there is a tie, an emotion that hangs around like the scent of September sage.

I once met a poet from Wyoming who raised sheep. When asked what she thought of wolves, she said, “I love them in the abstract.” And I think that captures the essence of this complicated quandary we face up here in Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana. We love wildness. But to what extent? Is it only so the elk herds can prosper for our October hunt that we love the wild? Or is it something more, the love of space, and no towns, no four-wheel-drives, no foul buzz of four-wheel ATV motors. The love of wildness for its own sake? And I wonder how all these in-town wolf lovers will react when the wolves begin to descend from the hills behind Boise and kill their dogs and cats, the pet mule deer that eat the plants in the back yard. Will the love of wildness still be there?

Like I said earlier, the thought of wolves hunting wild in Idaho and neighboring environs sets my mind to running on leather-clad legs across the high plains of dreams. My heart beats a little faster. But I know hating wildlife too, or if not hating it, knowing the necessity of its death. Thirty years ago, coyotes were once the object of my destructive wrath. I shot them, trapped them, watched them strangle to death on snares I hung off the bottom strands of barbed-wire fences not low enough to close off an arroyo. I poisoned them. Hell, I murdered white German shepherds that ran across the sheep fields with snouts bloody from massacring lambs. I poisoned registered Poodles and Rottweilers and Dobermans, curs and pure-breds, hunted coyotes constantly with my .243 on the seat next to me.  It was my business.

We forget how brutal the world can get. When a wounded coyote ran out of the sheep in an alfalfa field and in the front door of an old lady’s house south of Chandler, Arizona, a federal trapper and I burst in the front door and watched it pee on the couch as it sat slapping its tail on the damp fabric like any loving dog. We cackled as we toted that sheep eater outside like a pet and shot it between its dull yellow eyes.

Yet at the time, unlike some of my fellow livestock men or some of my liberal friends, I did not see dogs or coyotes as evil or noble, I saw them as animals in competition with me for resources. I understood… I understand now, I think…that if they do not kill and eat, they will weaken and starve to death. Or something else will eat them. Most probably one of their own kind. They have no choice but to kill.

Now, I generally shoo the neighbor’s cats out of the orange gladioli, and I pet dogs. Coyotes amuse me with their pranking. Wolves? I am ambivalent—they are killers extraordinaire—I revere them.


Some of you know that Betty and I are creating a documentary film about my Marine Corps rifle company’s tenure at the Siege of Khe Sanh in 1968. Along with videographer Mark Spear, we have completed a trailer for the movie and invite you to view it on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFUJyUmB9Yw.  Or you can view it on Vimeo at http://vimeo.com/15870694. Take a look and see what we are up to.

Incident at Anderson-Palmisano


Sometimes creative writing is exciting, illuminating, surprising, but it can definitely be a chore, too. One of the things I’ve discovered since I started these regular Friday blogs is how often I have to find something to write about. When we were traveling, the subjects were hollered out at me, rolling behind the hum of our tires as we ran between the soybean fields, the sagebrush pastures. But now it’s, “What am I going to write about?” Often, the writing act locates subject. Get started and the focus looms into view.

My memory retreats to 1964, early August, Casa Grande, Arizona. The year I first went to work for the sheepherders.  A vicious drought in south Texas and sheep were dying. Truck load after truckload arrived in the Casa Grande Valley. Unlike Texas, rain drowned the Sonoran desert and the fescue and filaree sprung up in the wet calíche ground. Alfalfa fields, too, and other types of pasture lay waiting. We unloaded semi-truck after semi-truck, sometimes ten or fifteen a day into the chutes at the little feedlot on Sunland Gin Road.

We rose before sunup, three-thirty AM or four, and unloaded semis, built fence, pounded posts, moved bands of sheep, tore down fence until the 108-degree heat drove us out of the fields and back to Sunland Gin Road and an early lunch. We were a bunch of high school kids, but they usually let us have a cold Coors or a glass of Paisano red that we poured out of a gallon glass jug into tall plastic cups.

One particularly hot day we went in around 10:30 A M and ate bologna and cheese sandwiches, an iceberg lettuce salad with not-quite-ripe tomatoes and gone-by cukes, some chocolate chip cookies, whole milk and Coors and Paisano. Too much Coors and Paisano, can after glass, laughter, cold Coors not swallowed but caught in never-never land and shot back up into the sinuses, the nose and out the nostrils onto a paper plate of half-eaten sandwich, gummy white Wholesome Bread. Giggling, antics, acting like we were dancing with the girls at the Teen Center in the old National Guard Armory, someone singing Paul McCartney’s “If I Fell In Love with You,” with a spent Coors can like a microphone you’d see on “Shindig,” the dancer acting like he was holding a girlfriend close although for us summertime sheepherders, girlfriends were something yet to come.

I got stupid and slobbery but so did three or four of the others. It would probably have been okay, we could have napped it off, but some sheep trucks arrived from south Texas. The temperature at one-hundred ten or so. Triple decks of starving and thirsty, bleating, urinating, defecating, maniac sheep. I crawled in the decks on my hands and knees and ran them out. Piss and shit dripping on my head. I must have puked more than once. I must have stumbled. We got them in the corrals behind the bunkhouse and all the jefes showed up to sort the sheep. We were supposed to help run the sheep into a skinny little corral so we could vaccinate and worm them. But we stampeded the sheep again and again and more than one got balled up in a corner, the dust rising off the wool, the fevered frightened bleats of the ewes, the thump of hooves on bodies down in the dirt and  smothered and I heard the jefes cussing in español about how much each one of them cost and they’d take the money out of our wages and all I cared about was how my tongue felt bulging inside my mouth, the Paisano and Coors running drag races on the inside of my dead brain, the sweat flooding my eyes. My stomach going around and around like a ram chasing a cycling ewe.

And then we slept if off. Just a lot of mumbling in the afternoon, and mouths so dry the deserts there could not be slaked by the rusty water out of the spigots. The jefes kept their mouths shut. I figured we were free from that one. The jefes all drank. To excess. They understood. I knew that. They understood, even though responsibility rode my neck and a little bit of guilt, too, whispering in my ears from both shoulders later that night as we rode to the moving-picture house in the back of the bobtail truck we used for hauling fencing material. On the way to see “A Shot in the Dark,” and then home in the sulled-up and searing black of night and then to bed, a hangover gonging inside my skull, tolling, tolling a tune you wouldn’t hear on “Shindig.” Something more mordant, like the seven or eight dead sheep (sheep I was responsible for killing—should I say, murdered?) we hauled out to the dead pile that evening for the buzzards and the coyotes to eat.

The next morning the regular three-thirty tap on my window and out the door and into the truck but just me and one of the jefes. “Where’s everybody else?” The cool reply, “They’re going over to Eloy to build a fence. You and me got other business.” The steamy morning waiting for the ball of red fervor to come up in the east. Rattlesnakes coiled in the highway, cooling their slithery bones on the macadam. I could hear them strike the rear-end differential as we roared over them. A shudder of truck, at least in my mind, as I stared in the side-view mirror and watched them writhe in pain from fangs banging hard steel.

At Hartman Road we dove off the highway. I banged my head on the top of the cab. We sped out to Anderson-Palmisano farm, a rooster tail of dust boiling up behind the truck. He stopped on the powdery road and nodded at a big, beat-down, sheep-eaten eighty-acre field. “Roll up all that wire.”

“By myself? There’s over thirty of them.” His black eyes drilled my innards. My guts sank and my mouth scratched itself as I begged for a ball of spit. “I need some gloves.” He shrugged. I dug under the seats, in the glove compartment. No gloves. “I need water.” He smirked. “Got none.”

I knew if I quit, something would happen. He’d laugh. My friends would laugh. But something deeper and darker lurked in quitting. I spit into the dust, but nothing landed. I marched into the field. Dead tumbleweeds crunched beneath my boots. I started rolling up the page wire. (Good for keeping sheep in a field, about four feet high, with an iron pipe on each end. One-hundred feet long. Made of strong wire structures in rectangles about four inches by four inches, top to bottom, end to end.) After half a roll, my back burned, sweat boiled my eyeballs in front and behind. I dry-heaved. I looked up. He stood outside his truck watching me. Like a sentry. By the third roll, my tongue felt like a big piece of raw meat. It hurt when it touched my searing teeth, the roughed ridges of my hard palate. The harsh points of tumbleweed pricks stuck in my hands, my fingers, itched and burned. I’d never make it. He sat in the truck reading something, a girlie magazine, maybe, a sex book.  By roll number seven my hands bled and my feet burned, the crick in my back felt like an iron rod crammed into my spine. My head spun. He got out of his truck and took a leak in the canal. By number eighteen I was halfway around and I quit, walked off for the farmhouse and a telephone to whine for my mother. I jumped across the concrete-lined ditch. I looked at the algae-slimed water in the lower end. My tongue throbbed. I whimpered, tears slipped down my cheeks onto my chin. He leaned against the side of his truck, his arms folded as he watched me. He got in and started it up and headed towards me. I was whipped. I wiped my face with my bleeding hands and then for some reason a roar rocketed out of my mouth into the wide universe. I was mad. Mad at him, the wire, the tumbleweeds and the rattlers that snapped at the truck bottom. If I showed up like a whipped border collie, my mother would croon, “That’s alright, son,” and my father would say nothing. I changed my mind and stomped back into the field and for hours more, bleeding hands, I rolled them up, hauled them to the road, my lower back on fire. My spirit soared.

Devils Tower

Remember that scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when Richard Dreyfuss frenetically sculpted his compulsions out of mashed potatoes? Remember the scene where he first sees Devils Tower? If you haven’t seen this movie, maybe you should, as both an anthropological treatise on 1970s American family life and as an artistic rendition of one man’s obsession, as well as a possible metaphor for the spiritual drive by which a person can be obsessed.

Interestingly enough, one of the places Betty and I visited on our whirlwind trip east and back, dealing with my obsession to make a documentary movie, was Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming. As I stood looking up at it, I understood why it was the perfect image of obsession for Close Encounters. There is a power rooted in that stone monolith that sabers you in the innards when you grip that initial view.

We first saw it from Wyoming State Highway 24, just south of Hulett. The monolith shoots up about 1300 feet above the Belle Fourche River and the surrounding meadows and escarpments, and announces the western edge of the Black Hills.

Betty and I arrived at Devils Tower after passing through Belle Fourche, South Dakota. Belle Fourche is French for, according to the lady who worked the counter in the local Conoco service station, Beautiful Fork. The river, upstream from the town of Belle Fourche toward Devils Tower, is beautiful: sometimes a valley with fields of hay, black cows, red cows, pinto horses; sometimes a gorge with red-rimmed cliffs topped with juniper and ponderosa. The river horseshoes, oxbows and arrows northeast towards the Cheyenne River, which joins the Missouri, which joins the Mississippi on its obsessive journey towards the sea.

I had no intention on staying in Belle Fourche long. I just wanted to see where Billy Otis (more about Billy later) is from. They were tearing up the main drag in Belle Fourche, sawing concrete, unloading base material, pounding stakes, surveying, giving the surrounding buildings a pale, concrete-colored cast. There was a well-kept grain elevator on the railroad tracks that ran right through the middle of town. There was a bar, some cafes, an Art Deco movie house that looked like it was still showing films. There was a building downtown that harbored information about Belle Fourche being the geographic center of the United States, that is if you include Alaska and Hawaii in the mix.  All the frenetic roadwork and drive to spend Belle Fourche’s share of the stimulus money reminded me once again of our need—not just our want—for mammon.

As we drove up and down the street dodging traffic used to dealing with the particularities of the road-building, I noticed characteristics of a place that gets cold. Cold and windy. Blistered paint, roughed up paint, no paint at all. I understood why Billy Otis headed south to Arizona where I knew him.

I first met Billy when I was a student obsessed with being a cattleman. I registered in his artificial insemination class at a junior college in Arizona. Billy was a cattleman then, too, and ran a company, if I remember right, that did breeding management plans for ranches, which included artificial insemination. We sat in the classroom all day Saturdays back then in 1972 as he lectured us about semen, and cervix, and the right kind of working pens. Once or twice we got to journey to the state prison at Florence, Arizona, and actually worked on inseminating and pregnancy-testing the old, beat-up Holstein cows in the prison dairy herd.

Years later, I ran into him again while we both worked for J. R. Norton, III’s agricultural empire, in the cattle feeding division. Billy and I helped wind down and phase out the big Spur Feeding operation on the Gila Indian Reservation at Santan. We did a lot of drinking and carousing as we looked at cattle, gave tours to visiting mid-westerners from the National Cattleman’s Association, climbed around in a storage bin hefting double handfuls of burnt beet pulp, assessing it for nutritional value as a component in the feed we milled for our cattle.

I can see him in my memory, a can of Coors in his stubby right hand, a load of snoose crammed in his lower lip, his grey and battered Stetson hat with the work stains just above the sweat band. He always wore long-sleeved shirts and high-priced but well used cowboy boots. His shirts, in my mind anyway, were always plaid, a modest plaid with modest colors. Many mornings we began long before sun-up and ended long after dark as if intent on gathering together everything life could possibly offer, whether good for us or bad. After Spur Feeding shut down, I lost track of Billy.

A couple of years ago, my friend Ray Fred Kelly told me Billy is now an evangelical pastor. What a surprise, but then maybe it shouldn’t be. Everywhere Betty and I traveled this last summer we saw evidence of a strong return to spirituality—or maybe it was always there and I just hadn’t paid attention. Traveling across America we saw Burma Shave-sized signs spouting scripture, and a proliferation of highway billboards singing the praises of Jesus Christ, and evidence of Christian activity on all levels. And Jewish stuff, and Buddhist, and at Devils Tower, Native American activity. All around the base of the mountain, where the scree and scrabble had tumbled down for eons, little shrines supplicated—bird feathers, snippets of red and blue and orange fabric, white animal bones—to the deities of the mountain. The National Park Service had signs posted, alerting visitors to the sacred nature of those places. This was not something to chuckle at; it was serious stuff.

I already had a notion that Devils Tower was sacred to this continent’s original human inhabitants. I saw it in the 1989 Native-American cult classic film titled Powwow Highway. In that movie, so different from Close Encounters, the movie’s protagonists, played by Gary Farmer and A Martinez, scramble atop the tower and conduct spiritual ceremonies that propel them into a more arduous physical and spiritual journey in search of who they are and what their lives mean. I suppose Betty and I were searching for something like that on our journey that led us to Belle Fourche, and Devils Tower, and later that day, Lame Deer, Montana and then the Little Big Horn.

But then again, that’s what the characters in Close Encounters were seeking, too, when I think of it, and the spirituality was represented in the metaphor of aliens from some other galaxy. I’m not sure how I feel about God or Jesus, or Yahweh or Buddha or the other deities that can be worshiped and prayed to at Devils Tower. And do I dare ask if all these spiritual quests are some sort of obsession? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that my journey to get to DC, to Wyoming, back to Idaho, the journey inside myself, this story I am obsessed with telling, way back in the back of my mind, and creeping up my spine, represents more than stimulus money, pocket change, fame, a greasy cheeseburger and a thick chocolate milkshake. I suspect Billy Otis knows that, too, as do the men and women who maintain their shrines at the base of Devils Tower.