Speak My Name

We stood in the middle of the street in Teasdale, Utah and said, “Gail Larrick, Gail Larrick,” and Betty filmed it and later Gail wrote me in an email, “That corner is where I used to live,” even though there was nothing on that corner.

Betty and I were in the early days of a long journey back east that went through Utah and Colorado and Texas and Arkansas and Memphis and Chattanooga and Washington DC. From there we went to Boston and since Betty had never been to Nova Scotia, we went via Maine to Halifax and north to Cape Breton.

From there we drove to Quebec City. Then on to Thunder Bay over one of the northern-most paved roads in Ontario, and then to Jasper in the Canadian Rockies before hitting the front door of our digs in Boise.

As we traveled south on the first leg of our trek, we posted copious photos on Instagram and Facebook and we shared our travel via texts and e-mails and many of our friends traveled with us, vicariously, of course, and one of them was our good pal, Gail.

We told everyone we would begin our journey by stopping in Torrey, Utah, and spending a few days at Capitol Reef National Park.
When Gail saw where we were headed, she sent an e-mail telling me to go to Teasdale and to please speak her name in that town.

Ken Rodgers Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

On our third day, we’d had enough of the park, so we headed to Teasdale, a small, insular place peopled mostly by Mormon folk, or that’s what Gail had told us. And there we spoke her name. When I said “Gail Larrick, Gail Larrick,” Betty took a video of me and the surrounding location.

It was quiet and no cars or trucks buzzed and pushed and passed; no middle fingers flipped at us even though we weren’t from there.

When we stood in the street and spoke her name, I felt exposed and kind of stupid and it was one of those moments when you think everybody’s looking at you and smirking and giggling with their hands over their mouths.

But when I stopped speaking her name and turned in a three hundred sixty-degree circle, I didn’t see anyone except Betty.

But I still felt dumb, like what I had done was…was…fake? Or false? Or….

The Apaches have, or had, a tradition of “speaking with names” that, as far as I know, relied on the use of a place in the landscape to explain things they wanted their people to understand. By saying the name of a place where something significant had happened, issues of a social nature or some other kind of quandary could be recognized, acknowledged, and possibly understood. In that context, I think saying the name carried a spiritual power.

So maybe the fact that we spoke Gail Larrick’s name standing in the middle of the Street in Teasdale, Utah, toted some kind of spiritual weight.

Speaking names might also help us recognize our place in a family, a community, a connection, and maybe Gail watching a video of me saying her name somehow tied her into her past, her friends in Teasdale.

Some spiritual folks believe that there are things that own power that don’t necessarily jibe with science, and that the speaking of a name, whether a place or a given name like Gail Larrick, or maybe a flower like a Sego Lily, or a mountain like Mt. Shasta, may have power or may convey power.

Me not being particularly spiritual, I might scoff at the notion that a word or two has power. But then again, I write, which is a verbal form of art, of communication that carries a lot of gravitas: speaking and understanding language being perhaps the most powerful and unusual quality we humans possess.

Gail passed away a few years ago and I am glad we spoke her name in Teasdale, Utah. I think she got a big kick out of us standing out there, saying “Gail Larrick” again and again and again.

Gail was an extremely intelligent woman who had a background in editing, photography and writing. She’d lived in the wilds of Utah and in the wilds of San Francisco and when we knew her, as a writer, she lived in Sonoma County, California.

Once she shared a powerful essay with me. It was about her time in Teasdale and how she and her fellow female roommates lived there among the Mormon folk. Evidently Gail and her roommates got along famously with the local women.

I don’t know about the men, she didn’t say too much about them, but she suspected, with all the truth that swelled in her heart, that it was men who burned her and her friends out.

I met Gail sometime around 2006. I was teaching online writing classes and she signed up for several sessions. Later, but not much later, Betty and I traveled to Sonoma County, and one night we had a get-together where I grilled carne asada for friends and acquaintances.
Early in the evening, one of my compadres came into the house where we were meeting and said, “There’s a lady outside who’s looking for you. She said you saved her life.”

I remember feeling mildly shocked by that notion. When I think back on my life, I can’t really identify any specific moment where I saved anyone’s life except for an event at the siege of Khe Sanh where I dashed after a squad of Marines who were mistakenly veering into a barrage of friendly incoming that would soon make those men friendly WIAs and KIAs.

I am not sure what I did to save Gail’s life—she never told me and I never asked, but as the years moved on, we grew close in a friendship unlike any other I’ve had.

When she passed, it shocked me, and it felt like there was too much about life that we still needed to investigate together.

Maybe now, almost eight years gone, the name we spoke there at the intersection, “Gail Larrick, Gail Larrick,” remains floating in the ether, draped over the tops of the trees and along the eaves of the old homes in Teasdale. Haunting, like a spirit, or a ghost, and not a nasty one because Gail was a woman of sublime attitude. And when the wind gets up, or a zephyr sneaks around the corner of a house, they also speak the name we left there.

And what would be even better is if she—wherever and if she still exists as a persona—hears that name on the wind still speaking to Teasdale and maybe to me, here and now. I think she’d like that and maybe that’s why, at the oddest times of day or night, when I am kvetching or griping or just hanging out, I think of her and smile.

Maybe It Still Is

In the beginning, I only craved birds I could shoot and eat. But over the years, I’ve morphed into a watcher.

This last month, Betty and I have been driving around the West and observing a trove of avian critters.

Red-tailed hawks perched on every high point around the marshy fens near Klamath Falls, Oregon.

On the Sonoma coast, we spotted marbled godwits and willets nudging sand as the ebbing tide left prey for them.

In New Mexico, we sought cranes, the sandhill variety, thousands of them to delight all the photographers with the long, long lenses. And then the frantic eruptions of huge flocks of snow geese.

In Arizona where the Sonoran and the Chihuahuan Desert meet, we sought the elegant trogon, which to me is a holy grail of birds. Why? Maybe it’s the word. Elegant. That’s nomenclature not often common in the milieu in which I’ve existed.

In my early years it was mourning dove, Gambel’s quail, chukar, ring-necked pheasant and wild turkey.

My father loved to go fowling and I think it was something that his brothers and he did all the time during the depression. They lived in a house with fourteen or fifteen relatives and siblings. There was never enough to eat.

I’ve chased quail of multiple species across sorghum fields and desert flats, the undulations of sagebrush country. I’ve hidden in the woods as my hunting partner tried to gobble up a big tom, and I’ve scaled frozen hillsides chasing chukar through ten-degree dawns.

When I was young, I loved the chase and the thrill when what you shot plopped in a miniature cloud of dust.

I always considered myself someone who respected nature and especially the things I hunted. There were rules and requirements and there was proper behavior, a respect for the quarry, the law, and your fellow hunter, and for the landowner, too.

But I think the best of us often fall off the wagon as we wend our way through life. I recall northwest Kansas, the early 80s. Blue-knuckle cold and raspy wind and a gaggle of hunting partners with Springer Spaniels.

Back then I was sulled up like an old black bull that’s wandered off into a quicksand bog, and no matter how hard he struggles, can’t get out.

A man from Colorado Springs and I broke off from the hunting group and hiked around a big marsh, cracking sick and dirty jokes, laughing about stuff that the rest of the world wouldn’t see as particularly funny. At that moment, I felt the two of us were kindred and cynical, somehow bonded.

I noticed a flock of small birds fly into a bush growing next to the rough trail where we stalked. As we drew close, the sounds of their chirps and singing reached out and circled me like hymns you’d hear in the Christmas season and the red and blacks, mixed with the varying shades of russet in the surrounding soil and vegetation created a color palette that thrummed.

I stopped. Something boiled my guts like big heartburn. I lifted my twelve-gauge and hulled away, one, two, three times.

Gunpowder stench drilled into my nose as a slow smoke coiled from the end of my weapon’s barrel. I stomped to the bush but the only thing I found were tattered leaves on the ground.

I spewed a string of vulgarisms and something about not being able to hit a bull in the ass with a fiddle when I noticed my companion looking at me askance.

Our camaraderie hightailed like a flock of starlings that just figured out that a northern goshawk is swooping in for the kill.

For decades, the memory of all those pretty, scattering black and red birds has fluttered into my mind, me feeling like a creep who keeps bugging the head cheerleader at the high school prom.

I am not sure why but I perpetually ponder the need for killing. When I was a kid with a BB gun, we shot at doves and sparrows and anything else that moved, including each other.

One day I rode my bike past the J home and the three J brothers were out in the vacant lot next door. I lifted my BB gun and shot F, the oldest brother, in the ass. The report of that BB hitting its target rushes at me across the dusty decades.

Later, I learned to kill doves and quail with a shotgun and mule deer and pronghorns with a rifle, and then I joined the Marines Corps and the tenor of the killing changed. In Vietnam I tried like hell to kill communists, but I’m not sure I was successful.

One evening during the Siege of Khe Sanh, I snuck down the trench as incoming roared, exploded and shook the red ground beneath my feet. On top of the platoon’s command bunker lay one of my Marine buddies. He gripped an M-14 rifle with a starlight scope. I asked him what he was up to.

“Killing gooks.”

Right then I wanted to “kill gooks,” too. They’d surrounded us, pounded us, killed our mates. They had scared us into realms where fear was so powerful, multilayered and pervasive that, if we lived, we would never escape its ability to reduce us to skittering, paranoid animals for the rest of our lives.

I climbed up there and demanded to be part of the action, and he complied. He wasn’t excited about it, but in the spirit, I suppose, of brotherhood and Semper Fi, he handed me the rifle. Its cold stock felt like manna in my hands. As I placed my eye to the scope, I witnessed blurry images of heads and shoulders popping up and down across a long distance and those are what I shot. I don’t know if I hit anyone, but damn it, at the moment, I needed to. And maybe I did kill someone and maybe there’s a picture of him, or her, on a shelf somewhere in Hanoi, a remnant of a person.

And at the time, shooting at those North Vietnamese soldiers didn’t feel any more momentous than shooting at white-winged dove the first day of hunting season.

And now, as I recall the sneer of the man out there in the cold Kansas wind, I suspect that something was wrong with me when I shot at those innocent little birds in Kansas, and my need to go around shooting them was the tip of an iceberg of another order.

Maybe it still is.

But I Won’t

The cock’s crow rattled me and sent my mind marching through memory’s journeys: into an old barnyard where I once stepped on a rotten egg while watching a big black-and-red rooster send out his call, the sickly pop of the decayed shell followed by the stink of the gas that hung in my nose for hours after Mother came and hauled me home; or down the muddy chuckholes of Beech Street where roosters sparred in a chicken coop beneath an ancient mesquite tree that the neighborhood kids said housed a spirit who could speak to rattlesnakes.

Betty and I have been on the road for a little over two weeks and are now snug in a three-hundred-year-old adobe in New Mexico near where the crowing cock lives. We’ve been here several days, admiring the ancient pine vigas holding up the roof and the micaceous clay plaster shimmering on the walls and the ancient floors that once felt the thump and thunder of dancers hundreds of years past when this adobe was part of a larger rancho.

One of the details about this area, called Talpa, is that it is a place of “brujas” and memories keep ghosting into my recall—not just rooster and cock crows, but other things that I suspect have barged into my mind because of all the things we’ve seen on this trip while motoring through rain and snow and peaks and deserts, canyons, ponderosa forests, redwoods sweeping the fog off the tops of ridges; days so clear they sting because of the singular lines between the blue of the sky and the snow-capped peaks beyond; and the cattailed marshes in the foreground are as pure as a spirit who tells no lies. Who knows, maybe the recollections are haunted by the spell of a local bruja living down Archuleta Road.

My memories usually turn to something more visceral, where I am captured in a concrete space where actual time has taken leave and left me mired—but not always, sometimes I’m in a sweet space that candies up the moment—in the details of a particular incident ten, twenty, thirty years gone, or maybe more.

This time it could be all the fog on the trip. As we drove, the clouds hung like shifty gray shrouds on the black macadam winding through the wild country between the Sierra Nevada and the White Mountains. And then we encountered the fog that rises from a warmer, damp ground when smothered beneath cold air hovering overhead.

As I lay on the bed and looked at the log vigas in the old adobe, those recent fog images hurled me back fifty-plus years to a bleak and lonely night on the Laotian border when me and a Sioux Marine we called “Chief” were on a listening post in a curtain of mist so thick I damned near drowned in a pool of it as I crept down a trail I could only sense beneath my muddy jungle boots.

Chief and I tried to sneak about our grim business, like quiet death after a long coma, but we scraped and jingled where our dungarees met our web gear and our steps in the mud sounded like the sucking noise you make when rocking your boots out of wet, red clay.

We set up our listening post on the lip of a huge bomb crater and tried like hell to make out what ghosted within the haze that hurried past our chilled faces as it traversed west to east like a thief leaving Las Vegas heading to Salt Lake.

It’s funny how the imagination dredges up specters full of danger when you can’t see, and we listened for anything other than the sound of the fog, its cold voice like a low sonorous chant from an all-male chorus in an ancient Capuchin monastery.

And, in my memory at least, the fog was gone before we could contemplate it leaving, and we were stunned with a night so bright that the wet mud from the bomb crater reflected light at us that rendered me naked, a frightened waif, waiting to die.

The moon was full and as big as the snout on a five-hundred-pound bomb, and off in the distance, the flicker of stars went on and off like interstellar messages sent via semaphore.

And then, as if the night was meant to be a parade of differing tempers, a thunderstorm roared in from the same direction the fog had come, and we were lit up not by moonlight, but by lightning that crashed and boomed so close, the ground we sat on shook, and the rain came at us like cat’s claws followed by hail as hard as machinegun rounds and then the rain beat upon us again. Sheets and sheets of it shrieked out of the black.

We rolled up in poncho liners and donned ponchos, but soaked to the marrow of my backbone, I began to shiver, and then I began to shake and my teeth chattered so hard, I feared the enemy could hear them.

Chief, a man of few words, grabbed my poncho and pulled it over my head and I began to scrabble, all arms and legs, to make him stop, and then he yanked my poncho liner from around my body and exposed me to the horrible blare of the rain and thunder. Then he rolled up against me and put his arms around me and we were suddenly beneath poncho liners and ponchos and then he whispered, “Blue-eyed boy, you got hypothermia”—something I’d never heard of and something I felt Chief knew nothing about. “Settle down, Blue-eyed boy, hypothermia can kill your dumb ass.”

Those words frightened me and as the rain settled into a steady drizzle, I gradually stopped shaking.

What bothered me as much as fog and thunder and mud and lightning and rain was the fact that we—two warriors exposed to the elements and whomever might be crawling through the soggy night to slice our throats—were trapped in a momentary intimacy that felt taboo in a way that United States Marines back in 1967 would never understand. And I felt that lack of understanding and I envisioned myself as weak, unfit, and violated, although I had not been violated. I feared that my fellow Marines up on the hill would find out what Chief had done to…to…save me, and I would be stamped, forever marked.

But neither of us ever said a word and several months later Chief rotated home and I sometimes, at night, see his thin face smirking from my cold, damp dreams. I am haunted by my inability to contact him out there in South Dakota and thank him for saving me; and I have thought about driving back there on one of Betty’s and my adventures and talking to him, but I never have and probably never will.

He may be dead, he may not want to relive the memories of that war, he may not want to see me and talk to me about that night where he wrapped his arms around me and chased the killing cold from my body. He may, he may, he may…I know, they are excuses and I should analyze them, take them apart like a Marine disassembling an M-16 in the pitch black of night.

But I won’t.

Murmuration and Monet

The whacking at the corner of my home office sent me to my feet and the window. I opened the blinds and shadows of birds darted through the naked branches of the nine bark bushes growing against the northeast wall.

An ornamental pear stands close and the birds— a murmuration of starlings, speckled black birds that first arrived in North America over a hundred years ago–attacked the bare branches and devoured the marble sized fruit still attached to the tree.

The ornamental pears fall on the ground in late autumn and make a mess. So even though the notion of an exotic bird—or exotic species of any kind wreaking havoc on local environments—leads me to cringe, in theory, as the yellow-beaked creatures dove into the pear tree’s branches, landed, and ripped fruit from moorings, for a moment I felt…what was it, relief that one more chore was now rendered moot? Or was it something more…joyful? I wasn’t sure.

Back and forth the murmuration swarmed, banging branches against the house, the combined whoosh of their spread wings barging into the confines of my office.

Once Betty and I spent several nights in the French city of Rouen, in Normandy. We lodged in a small hotel with a balcony that allowed us to sit in comfortable chairs and see the old cathedral that the Impressionist artist Claude Monet painted many times. The cathedral—as either a church or something more grand– had been built, destroyed and rebuilt a number of times since the fifth century AD.

Its stately and angular Gothic architecture make a visual feast and I understood Monet’s fascination with it on an aesthetic level. Yet for me, the history it embodied, the Vikings who became the Normans of the region who went on to invade England and add their culture to the Norse, Anglo –Saxon, Roman, Celtic milieu that stewed in England prior to 1066 AD when the Norman Duke William the Bastard became King William the First of England invaded my senses and for a moment, ignited a buzz in my guts that I recognized as something strangely tied to the history of the human race.

In the cathedral, when Betty and I made our tour, we found a sarcophagus where William the First’s great-great-grandson, Richard the Lion Heart’s heart was entombed. Yes, his heart. Not the rest of him. His entrails are buried at Challus, where he died of gangrene from an arrow wound and the rest of him is buried near Chinon, in Anjou, close to his parents, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

In the evenings, after our trips to the cathedral and discovering a smidgeon of its history, or dining on crepes in a local café, or heading off to the Normandy beaches, we’d come back to our room just before sundown and listen to the starlings jammed in the foliage of the trees that surrounded the square between the cathedral and us. We found it enchanting, the singing, like it was happy talk between good friends. In the US starlings are considered by the ag industry as pests and according to a number of articles I read, they can destroy a vineyard or a cherry orchard or a blueberry field in less than a week.

The locals in Rouen who frequented the cathedral district seemed to hate the birds, too and from the looks of the ash gray tinted sidewalk and street gutters beneath the outer branches street side, I understood. Starling scat is probably hard on Peugeot paint jobs.

And now, as the starlings in my little murmuration zipped back and forth like short shafted arrows stripping my pear tree of fruit, I recognized that they were driven by some motivation that reminded me not only of hunger, but more; need, and maybe even the human desire called “greed.” I felt it standing at my window, the ferocious craving they had to eat and eat and eat as fast as possible, before all the fruit disappeared. And that led me to ponder King William the First and Richard, too, how history has portrayed them as men who needed more and more and more.

Yes, I felt it, like a jolt from the business end of a fletched crossbow bolt it hummed through me and for just a second, it felt primal, like knowledge in my DNA passed to me from humans alive way before I was born. I suspected it was kin to our need to survive, something that William the First and his great-great-grandson Richard surely understood as did Monet, I suspect, and if not consciously then down in the bones and the sinew and the soul.

On the Oil Patch

I have now or never had any intention of having anything to do with mineral exploitation, so I chose other avenues of earning a living, but in 1983 my boss sent me to the Texas Panhandle to learn about the oil business. He owned some shares in several gas and oil drilling partnerships that were formed as tax avoidance schemes for people who made a lot of money. He wanted me to find out if the wells really existed and if I thought the operators were legitimate.

I ended up in Borger, Texas, with a jelly-muscled, slick-talking Panhandle lawyer and a couple of partnership operators who appeared to be kids (they looked younger than me) who offered me evenings with their two secretaries and veiled promises about wild nights of drinking, drugs and after-hour sexual activities. Those secretaries played along by acting sexually attracted to me but I suspected they had no interest in me other than as a diversion to keep me from bothering my oilfield hosts.

When we went to see the wells in my boss’ partnership, we rode around in a big black, fully tricked out Chevy Suburban. Since I was deemed important, I got to sit shot gun next to the operator’s mouthpiece. The way he spilled out gas and oil well data made me nervous about all my boss’s money. All that oil field info arrived rat-a-tat-tat, way too fast.

Old time oil derricks © Ken Rodgers 2014
Old time oil derricks
© Ken Rodgers 2014

As he went on about the “Booger Town” oil field and rock formations, output per barrel and thousand cubic feet, well maintenance, the best bars in town, which of the secretaries he thought I’d like, I couldn’t keep from wondering how he could afford that Suburban and those $700.00 Lucchese ostrich skin riding boots and those heavy gold chains dangling around his neck and his right wrist.

We drove around the northern Panhandle and looked at geological maps and inspected pump jacks and drank Coors pulled from a big green Coleman ice chest. I think they thought if they kept me tightened up on beer and the promise of wild sex with one of those secretaries I’d tell my boss it was all okay.

To tell you the truth, I couldn’t have told you it was okay or not okay. I had no interest in pump jacks and drill strings and moon pools and ginzels and no interest in being where I was. I told my boss I didn’t trust the jelly-muscled lawyer or the partnership operators and that his investments in the partnerships were bad deals. I wanted no part of the oil and gas business.

I still feel the same way about oil. So it was with some surprise to be traveling on California Highway 33 up toward the Salinas Valley from Southern California when Betty and I happened upon the oil patch town of Taft.

The oil field at Taft. © Ken Rodgers 2014
The oil field at Taft.
© Ken Rodgers 2014

What a shock to see all those drill rigs and pump jacks and pipe lines and old derricks etching a fetching skyline in the drab landscape. Something about that drew me. It’s ugly and it’s polluting and it’s poisonous, and I liked the way the detritus of exploitation created a scene that was…dare I say, beautiful?

You need to understand that for the last twenty years or so I have been fascinated by the junction of the ugly and the beautiful. In my mind, so much of what we have on earth exists in the space where the hideous, the repulsive, the horrid meet the gorgeous. I am not interested in oil or the petroleum business, but the visual scene and the irony of the fetching images grabbed me.

black and white image of Taft oil field. © Ken Rodgers 2014
black and white image of Taft oil field.
© Ken Rodgers 2014

So we stopped and took photos of derricks and pump jacks and the gray hills behind. We were so damned fascinated by the place that we went back two weeks later and took more photos.

When we took photos of the remnants of the world’s largest oil spill that occurred back around 1910, we were warned by an oil field worker about inhaling the oil field’s rotten egg gas—the H2S—like we used to create in high school chemistry class. He also told us that if we came in contact with some miniscule number of H2S particles we’d be “done for.” I didn’t believe him when he told us it would kill us. I looked it up and yes, it can kill you and we breathed some of it. While there we found out that the oilfield workers wear H2S warning devices on their caps and hard hats. Obviously, we weren’t exposed to enough gas to damage us. Nevertheless, both days we were in Taft, there was bad stuff floating around that oil patch, not just H2S, but other junk emitted from the wells and the entire oil patch industrial hubbub that gets trapped in the Central Valley’s endemic, low hanging fog.

All my life I’ve lived in a world that is petroleum fueled and not just in the transportation area. Look at plastic. We get plastic, and a lot of other things, from gas and oil. For centuries the world ran on foot power and animal power and water power and wind power. But now we are in love with petroleum.

And I suspect it is not doing the world we live in any good. I’m in favor of hydropower and wind power and solar power and anything else we can use to reduce petroleum use. But then I think, yeah, I am against a petroleum-powered world, but hey, I drive a car. I drive our car thirty thousand miles a year. It gets pretty good mileage, but still, I’m guilty as hell.

I might go for an all-electric car, but every time I plugged it in, I’d be consuming energy that came from where? Petroleum? We humans are now consumers, not savers. Every bit of petroleum not consumed will be replaced by some other kind of energy. When we conserve, we don’t cut back on demand, we just find more things to do with what was saved. Whatever replaces petroleum will not be as clean as we think. There will be unexpected, negative ramifications. Like I said, we are consumers and as time marches on we will consume more and more to fuel our technology and our demand.

Remnants of the 1910 oil spill at Taft © Ken Rodgers
Remnants of the 1910 oil spill at Taft
© Ken Rodgers

Anyway, as Betty and I were taking all those photos, I was thinking about drilling rigs and moon pools and the slick-voiced peddlers from the Panhandle. I was also thinking about how much we drive our Honda CRV and how we keep our house warm and the gas we use to cook our tacos. My environmentalist side was chiding me for being a petroleum hypocrite. Yep, I’m a petroleum hypocrite, that’s what I am.

But, like I say, those black pump jacks against those drab gray hills, and the sand in the ravines, and the white clouds in the blue sky make mighty fine photos in my estimation.

Besides, we need to get somewhere.

Hog Butcher, Stacker of Wheat

Chicago

“The great trains howling from track to track all night. The taut and telegraphic murmur of ten thousand city wires, drawn most cruelly against a city sky. The rush of city waters, beneath the city streets. The passionate passing of the night’s last El.”

Nelson Algren

The El © Ken Rodgers 2014

Chicago is a muscled-up version of Denver or Phoenix. Brassy and confident, the streets alive with jive and new suits and Teslas and glassy buildings that scratch the edge of the sky.

Among other big league teams, Chicago’s Cubs play here and their fans are raucous and wear blue hats and shirts with big red Cs. The El loops around this brawny town and the rumble and crank of wheels on its seasoned tracks, the moan of its superstructures, roll on all night.

Wrigley Field. Home of the Cubs. © Betty Rodgers 2014

From the Art Institute the works of Van Gogh and Monet and El Greco and Chagall shout out for the home folks and the tourists to tread before the museum walls adorned by some of the finest art in the world. A location where museums reside, Chicago plays host to the sublime and other more mordant things, museums that record the art of war and the memory of war.

View From Inside the Pritzker Military Museum & Library © Ken Rodgers 2014

Down the canyons of Jackson and Monroe, the wind rises off Lake Michigan and buffets as you stop and gawk at the line queued up at Dunkin Donuts. Chicago native Lou Rawls sang about the winds of Chicago. He called the wind, “The Hawk,” and at dawn The Hawk swoops down and cools the seething streets.

Lake Michigan © Ken Rodgers 2014

And the food: Italian, German, Asian…the list is long.

Say New York? Chicago yawns. Say LA, Chicago laughs. Say London, Chicago shrugs its industrial shoulders.

We shared meals and sightseeing with new friends and old: the writers and artists, Patricia Ann McNair and Philip Hartigan; our old Cowboy Poetry pal Michael Lawson all the way from the Monterey, California region; tenor Don Hovey, Betty’s four decade friend; my Jarhead mate Michael E. O’Hara.

A Chicago Canyon © Ken Rodgers 2014

Carl Sandburg, 20th Century Pultizer Prize winning author and Illinois native, called Chicago a hog butcher and a toolmaker and a stacker of wheat. And Chicago is still those things and a lot more. He’s a capitol city: Capitol of the Midwest. He’s an educator and an entertainer, he’s a high tech maven, he’s Chicago.

Let me end this paean to the Windy City with more Sandburg.

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Bareheaded,
Shoveling,
Wrecking,
Planning,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse,
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing!

For those of you interested in reading fiction, I have begun posting short-short stories on this website. If you are interested in reading them, you can find them at https://kennethrodgers.com/flash-fiction/.

On Mule Teams and Dutch Oven Biscuits

Mule teams and Dutch oven biscuits, doubletrees and a renegade Apache called the Apache Kid. These are some of the images that fire family history, family myth.

Betty and I spent some time in Arizona and New Mexico this year and as we wandered around between the deserts and the mountains, my mind journeyed to some of my family’s history in that part of the USA: My great-grandfather Riggs herding cattle into the Mogollon country in the 1870s, the Plumbs settling in the eastern part of the state, the decades down around Tombstone and then homesteading in the Sonoran Desert south of the Salt River.

I heard a lot of stories about these folks when I was young, these pioneers who pushed south out of Utah into a wild and desolate land.

One of the tales I heard was about an encounter my grandfather, William Lafayette Plumb, had with the Apache Kid. It came to mind as Betty and I were headed south from San Simon, Arizona, on Interstate 10, driving towards Portal Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains. I’d forgotten the story, but as we looked at the desert flats trapped between the Chiricahuas on our right and the Peloncillo Mountains on our left, the story came back to me.

The Apache Kid, or Haskay-bay-nay-ntayl as he was named in Apache, was a semi-mythical figure who lived in the border country of Arizona and New Mexico in the US, and Sonora and Chihuahua in Mexico. The Kid was pretty much an orphaned child and was raised around Army posts in Arizona, and when he became old enough, the chief of Army scouts, Al Sieber, chose him for a scout.

In 1887 The Kid was involved in a murder of another Apache scout, was tried and convicted–more than once for the same murder–before finally being sent to the Arizona State Prison in Yuma in 1889. On the way, The Kid escaped and from that point on, became a phantom of sorts, accused of rape and rustling and theft and murder all the way into the 1930s.

My grandfather was a freighter around the turn of the 20th Century. He hauled freight in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico as well as northern Mexico.

Lafe Plumb freighting logs

The encounter with The Kid as told to me was that Lafe, as they called my grandfather, and two other freighters were camped out in the high desert south of San Simon. Let me set the scene.

The horses were hobbled in a meadow. Even though it’s a desert now, that country back then–in the 1890s–was lush. The freight wagons, or trucks as they were also known, were drawn up in a laager just in case; even though the Apaches had been on the reservation for ten-plus years, old fears refused to die gracefully. The sun was just cutting in over the Peloncillos and the meadowlarks were singing their liquid-gold tunes. A slight breeze bent the heads of the gramma grass and a mantle of snow shrouded the Chiricahuas.

Dutch ovens smoked on blue-red mesquite coals, a speckled coffee pot, too. Tin plates and cups and other gear spread in the bed of one of the wagons. Side meat sizzled in a Dutch oven and potatoes fried in a cast iron skillet. The scent of pinto beans and fresh tortillas lingered over the fire.

The freighters wore high-topped boots and colorful Mexican serapes, floppy felt hats. Big knives hung off their belts and long-barreled 44s in holsters. Winchester rifles leaned up against the spokes of wagon wheels.

No one heard The Kid arrive…just suddenly there, sitting horseback, sombrero brim pulled down over his forehead, right hand on the grip of one of his pistols.

I imagine alarm and awkwardness. Hemming and hawing. He was an Indian and they were white men.

But I also imagine these freighters having a notion of hospitality, and they would have known that if he was going to kill them, he probably would have already done so, and so they invited him to sit a spell and share their victuals.

They ate their beans and tortillas and side meat and spuds, the freighters talking about the route south, their families. The Kid sat on his haunches and packed all his grub inside tortillas and never said a word. That’s what my grandmother kept saying to me when she first told me this story. “He never said a word.”

When he finished eating, he set his utensils down on the end of one of the wagons, walked over to his horse, jumped into the saddle, turned to ride off, but then stopped. He looked at the freighters and tipped his hat and said, “You men are lucky. You just ate breakfast with the Apache Kid and will live to tell your children.” That’s what she kept saying, my grandmother, “You men are lucky. You just ate breakfast with the Apache Kid and will live to tell your children.”

One of the important aspects of family history is how it creates a rich tapestry that ties us to the past. Some folks reckon that what happened in the past doesn’t matter since it can’t be changed. Yet I can’t help but wonder if where we come from isn’t part of who we are.

Ken Rodgers

I once heard a radio interview with the African American poet Rita Dove. She talked about family and the strengths that family history provides to the living. The past provides context, it presents a panoply of characters to admire, or not admire.

Rita Dove’s not-too-distant ancestors were slaves. Yet family was so important to her that since she couldn’t know who her ancestors were, she made them up. It was important for her to create a lineage, to visualize, to name them, to give herself a framework to understand who and what she had become.

Even though I can name a lot of my ancestors, family history is important to me for the same reasons it is important to Rita Dove. It’s important to me to know about Lafe Plumb’s encounter with the Apache Kid.

I don’t necessarily have to make up a family history. I have stories related to me over the years by my elders. I also have family rumors and myth–some true, some false–that I can draw upon so that the images I see in my mind are the kind I can hear and see and smell, the kind I can rub my hand over and when I look at my fingers, find a festered splinter that came out of one of Lafe’s freight wagons.

Notes on Terlingua and Memory

Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.
William Faulkner

Memory may be the only thing of value that we carry out of this world when we exit. Memory revealed its strength to me the last few weeks as Betty and I peregrinated around the southwest. After screening our documentary film BRAVO! in my old home town of Casa Grande, we took a drive up around the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson towards San Manuel on our way to Benson, Arizona.

A range of mountains to our north came into view and even though it had been over thirty years since I had last seen those mountains, my memories of journeys into and along that range sprang right into the forefront of my attention. Galiuros…that was the name of the mountains, the Galiuros.

Stand of Saguaro on the Reddington-Cascabel Road, Arizona. © Ken Rodgers 2014

I remembered camping trips in the fifties when we hiked up the rough run of Aravaipa Canyon, and hunting trips into the deep cut flanks of the Santa Catalina foothills in the seventies and eighties. These memories were gratifying on some level that I am not sure I understand. Was it memory itself that made me satisfied, or was it the memories of those moments?

Those thoughts simmered inside me as we drove off the main highway between Tucson and Superior and took on the corduroy washboard they call the San Pedro-Reddington-Cascabel Road around the back side of the Santa Catalinas and the Rincon Mountains. This road is carved by arroyos exposing the geology of the country, the aggregate and white rock that glares when the sun beats on it. What surprised me, besides the pilgrims who had moved into the country over the thirty years since my last visit, were the forests of saguaro, the forests of cholla and ocotillo and prickly pear. The country in southern Arizona has become so developed that the large groupings of desert flora have been diminished to one or two examples of each species so that the developers can show their customers they are maintaining the integrity of the land as it was before the rush of folks from back east or California.

But what I was seeing out on that washboard road was straight out of my recollection of what the Sonoran Desert around Tucson used to be, before Del Webb and Pulte and all the other big-name builders showed up to mow down what got in the way of golf courses and club houses and streets and homes.

Chiricahua National Monument, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona. ©Ken Rodgers 2014

We arrived in Benson and spent a day and a half chasing birds around the San Pedro Riparian Wildlife Conservation Area outside Sierra Vista and in Portal Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains on the New Mexico/Arizona border. My previous excursions in the region had only been pass-throughs, but memories of them floated up as we watched redtail hawks, white-breasted nuthatches, pyrrhuloxias and loggerhead shrikes. The southeast area of Arizona was home to some of my ancestors and even though I have little evidence of what happened to them there, the knowledge that their graves are in the old St. David cemetery and neighboring locations conjured up images of draft horses and Apache raids, and I wondered if those were manufactured in my own mind or remnants of a racial memory.

We journeyed on to Fort Davis, Texas, and two days of listening to cowboy poets and musicians ply their tunes and poems. Fort Davis and Alpine (where they had the cowboy poetry event) sit in wild country with cliffs and valleys and peaks that rear up like volcanoes we see in movies, like anvils and great monuments built in some kind of fantasy land where what is constructed is beyond the hand of man, created by a greater race of beings, now long gone with no signature but the rugged country that sings to our remembrance.

Mitre Peak, Alpine, Texas. ©Ken Rodgers 2014

Then on to Big Bend and the wild jumble of Rio Grande country, the mix of Mexican and American heritage a permanent stamp on the culture. A culture still lodged in the memory of my youth.

The mountains at Big Bend look like they were shoved into mounds and blocks and pyramids and the land changes from grassy terrain to conifer heights. Bear, cougar and elk inhabit rugged topography not far from surroundings inhabited by desert denizens like diamondbacks and peccaries.

We spent a night in Terlingua, Texas, or more specifically, Terlingua Ghost Town which sits about five miles west of modern Terlingua. Terlingua Ghost Town is what remains of a once prosperous community whose citizens mostly worked in the mercury mines that were so important to the munitions industry in the first half of the twentieth century. Most of what remains of the ghost town’s glory is kept in the memories written down in books and portrayed in old photography.

Terlingua Ghost Town Cemetery. ©Ken Rodgers 2014

Upon our arrival we were delivered a big surprise. We needed to go to the Terlingua Trading Company to check into our lodgings for the night in the ghost town and instead of goblins, ghosts and zombies, we found one of the most lively places we’d been in since arriving in the southwest part of Texas. The Trading Company is located in an old building with high and wide Texan porches. Gangs of people sat along walls and the edges of the porch, playing guitars, singing, palavering, drinking beer. They were a wild array of folks, old hippies, young hippies, Marines, cowboys, turistas, and then there were the dogs, mostly pit bulls and occasionally a mongrel of indefinable lineage.

Contrary to their reputations, these pit bulls were mellow, and it reminded me of my notion that dogs’ personalities reflect the personas of their masters. There were big signs along the wall of the Trading Company that read, “No Dogs on Porch,” but the dogs didn’t seem to mind the warnings and it was apparent they had yet to learn to read.

Terlingua, Texas. ©Ken Rodgers 2014

Terlingua Ghost Town has a “durn good” restaurant named The Starlight Theater and is housed in the same location as an old movie theater that showed films back in Terlingua’s mercury mining heyday. Now it serves margaritas, beer and some mighty fine green chile.

The next morning we discovered our biggest treat in the ghost town…the cemetery. Most of the folks buried in this cemetery died during the influenza epidemic of 1919-1920, but there are markers for earlier deaths and surprising to us, folks are still being buried there. The graveyard is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the site of an apparently well-attended Day of the Dead celebration held in early November.

The graveyard is a work of art, in its own way, with simple wooden-cross grave markers next to complex adobe monuments. The individual graves are crammed up against each other with lots of ornaments lying around on particular gravesites. Jars for money, beer cans, flowers, and other mementoes make this the most interesting cemetery I’ve been in, and that is quite a few.

The funny thing about my impressions of Terlingua Ghost Town is the memories the experience evokes: When I was a kid, of barbeques down on the washes that ran through the Arizona of my youth; a cow carcass, butchered and marinated in salts and peppers and oils, then buried with searing mesquite coals; and friends of my parents with cans of Coors and plates piled with spicy potato salad and garlic bread. Or later, when I was a young man, frying chicken in Dutch ovens out west of Casa Grande, or if not chickens, then calf fries. Playing softball and volleyball. Drinking wine and whiskey watching the kids play, hoping they didn’t find a rattlesnake. Listening to Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix.

Besides the cemetery, the images around Terlingua are ghostly, the hard white and sun-faded hues of the peaks, the arroyos that have chopped the land in their haste to make a meeting with the Rio Grande. These images as they filter back into my mind are like goblins dressed in long white gossamer gowns that remind me of Halloween or the times when I was a child when my grandmother (who lived with us) used to cry out to her long dead mother. Memories.

Hola!

Hola from sunny Arizona!

We started out from Boise Monday morning in mist and snow, and roamed near Hagerman, Idaho, looking for cottonwood trees chock full of Bald Eagles. We found the tree, or the grove and yes, the limbs were festooned with Bald Eagles, looking to me like those Christmas cards painted with conifers decorated with candles. No, the eagles weren’t red and yellow—they were brown and white-headed—but the way they sat in those trees was ornamental.

The snow spit and the mist and fog shrouded everything south until we hit Jackpot on the Nevada-Idaho border and then the sun peeped out from behind sailing clouds and the farther south we drove under an ever more dazzling sun, the more snow we encountered on the ground. At Ely, the fresh snow was five or six inches deep.

Line Shack, Western Utah © Ken Rodgers 2014

From Ely we turned west over the edge of Great Basin National Park and then southeast through Baker and into Utah, across one valley after another, only three or four cars besides us in over eighty miles of big country. The wide, flat spaces between the mountain ranges reminded us of tundra and we must not have been too far wrong because on one road marker after another, the Rough-legged Hawks sat watching for prey, only to be alarmed by our coming, lifting off just before we arrived. Their escapes afforded glimpses of the black and white bands on their tails. We could see the white under-parts of the wings with the dark spots that reminded me of elbows. In winter, Rough-legged Hawks come south from the tundra of the north country.

The southwestern part of Utah has a lot of these big tundra-like flats and the snow cover made the sage look like it might collapse beneath the wet of the last storm. We passed juniper-dotted hills and line shacks and cattle, Ravens, Prairie Falcons and occasionally a Golden Eagle.

Zion Canyon © Ken Rodgers 2014

Yesterday we went through the southern part of Zion National Park on our way south from St. George to Phoenix. We hit the red cliffs as the sun came up and the colors were like tints pilfered from a painter’s palette.

Fresh snow was captured on the sheer cliffs of the cold sides. Once, we saw the winds sweep snow off a cliff, reminding me of gossamer garlands twisting in a breeze. It took us quite a while to drive the s-curves and tunnels of Utah Route 9 from the southwestern entrance to the eastern entrance of Zion. We snapped a lot of photos.

Up top, a bison herd filed by as we headed east. They rambled west below a pine-crested ridge foregrounded by a meadow full of fresh snow.

Just before Kanab on US Highway 89 we encountered a road closure so we had to turn a one-eighty north through the small communities of the upper Virgin River Valley, and at Glendale learned we could take a detour around that road closure. I had my doubts, but the folks at the local post office assured Betty that we could conquer whatever obstacles the road threw at us. It was rough and unpaved and luckily frozen or we’d have hauled a load of Utah red mud all the way to Arizona.

Vermilion Cliffs © Ken Rodgers 2014

We motored by the Vermilion Cliffs in the Arizona Strip. We have been there many times before but “can’t not” come and stop if we are anywhere close. As Betty says, “They are majestic.” And yes they are vermilion, and red and rust and yellow and purple depending on light and the rocks’ mineral content. We also stopped at nearby Navajo Bridge at Marble Canyon looking for California Condors, but the wind was feisty and nothing moved except the humans, what few passed by pulling livestock trailers. The Navajo ladies at the bridge selling painted gourds and turquoise bracelets braved the lusty lashes of the winds inside the cabs of their pickups, Led Zeppelin pulsing through the floorboards.

Marble Canyon from Navajo Bridge © Ken Rodgers 2014

We then turned south towards Phoenix, and saguaro and ocotillo and jumping cactus. On Interstate 17 just north of Phoenix at New River, a familiar mountain reared up just to the west. I said to Betty, “I can remember looking at that mountain as a kid and thinking we had so far to go.”

That was when my mother and I went south from Flagstaff, where my older sister went to college, towards our home in Casa Grande, south of the Valley of the Sun.

But now the years have sped up and the trips have too, what was long and arduous and never ending passes by us almost before we can enjoy it.

On Casa Grande, Terlingua and Journeys Through the West

Betty and I are getting ready to head south to the old home country to help screen our documentary film in Casa Grande, Arizona at the historic Paramount Theatre on February 13. I was born and went to school and lived in Casa Grande for a while after my return from the USMC. I have family there and we always look forward to the special time and the warm weather.

It’s been cold and foggy in Idaho with the inversion perched below the Boise Front like a wayfarer too weary to journey on. The hoarfrost has been a photographer’s delight, but I’m a desert rat and demand to see the sun every once in a while. To paraphrase the philosopher Francis Bacon, “If the sunshine will not come to Ken, Ken must go to the sunshine.”

Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

And it is not just the sunshine; the journey from here to there is filled with visual delights: craggy peaks that needle up into scudding clouds flying off towards the Midwest and shadows of snow-covered sagebrush tattoo the land. Long vistas unfold from one mountain range to the next with the valleys in between often populated by a single line-shack shaded by the naked branches of a cottonwood tree, a corral sitting close with some bays and sorrels and a wayward Hereford cow that can’t find her crossbreed calf. And further south, like an outdoorsman’s rapture, lays the rugged red land of the great Colorado Basin, with Zion Canyon and Bryce Canyon and the Vermilion Cliffs and Sedona. The majesty of it all dares your camera to cram all the import of each moment onto the computer chip inside that captures memory. Even if that isn’t possible, just having the privilege to see it and store it in your reminiscence will provide many luscious moments when you are trapped behind your desk, or lying there awake hours before the sun shows up to announce another day.

After Arizona, we are motoring down to Alpine, TX, for some cowboy poetry and Big Bend, Marfa, Terlingua. Betty and I lived half a day away from Big Bend in the eighties and always thought that the journey down there was too far, but now we travel all over this country, and what seemed too difficult then is now something we can get done with little sweat.

We are looking forward to those long vistas across high desert that snake between the lofty ranges. We want to gaze down into the gorges cut through the limestone of the Chisos Mountains. We want that hot Terlingua chile, the kind those Terlinguista chile gourmands mention with the following caveat, “Sorry, no beans in this spectacle.” Just chile and carne and homemade tortillas steaming off the comal.

We are meeting our friends Mary and Roger Engle when we arrive in Texas and will tour the land and its treasures, and not just the Marfa Lights and the observatory at Fort Davis, but also those little things that appear in a moment that, if you are not willing to stop and see right then, are gone. Kind of like the lives we choose to live.

If you, dear reader are on your way south, we hope to see you and spend some time over javvy and fresh toast, or chile verde, or just a handshake, or a hug and some shared recall of what made us friends to begin with.

As they say along the border, “Hasta pronto.”