Leap of Faith

Ruby Mountains at Dawn

Betty and I just got back from the 27th Annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada not too long ago. As always, the event was a moving, powerful experience that I learned long ago to not try and describe to people. The only way you will know the power of the event and your reactions to it is to make a leap of faith and go. 

Most years when we travel to Elko, we try to go through the country with the least amount of traffic and the best scenery.  If the road conditions and the weather permit, we travel the truest route, south from Mountain Home, Idaho, which is not in the mountains, to Duck Valley, where a Shoshone and Paiute tribal community resides and then through Mountain City, Nevada, the Owyhee River Canyon, Wild Horse Crossing, Wild Horse Reservoir and then down the long, wide valley bordered on each side by north-south running mountain ranges, that, depending on the weather, might be draped in white, or partially snow-covered with their naked aspen ghosting the cold spots. Finally we drop into the Humboldt River valley and the town of Elko. And even if the weather and the road conditions aren’t optimal we take a different kind of leap of faith and travel the byways regardless of snow pack and ice. 

I could talk about the excellent Basque cuisine we eat, and the wild “Cowboy Halloween” characters we meet, about the music old and new, and the poetry old and new, but I’m not going to. 

I am going to talk about the Honda CRV rides we take. While everyone else is jammed into tight auditorium seats listening to Don Edwards or Wylie and the Wild West sing cowboy songs, or Paul Zarzyski and Vess Quinlan and Henry Real Bird read and recite poems, we often climb into the Honda and venture out on one of the roadways out of town. Hinterland is just as close as the last subdivision in this part of Nevada; very little transition country exists. Up north you can find the Independence Mountains, the old mining town of Tuscarora, and the famous Spanish ranch, which all the locals and the cowpokes-in-the-know call “The Span.” To the southeast lies the Ruby Valley, a long wide expanse of snow when we’ve been down there, with a surprising population of bald eagles sitting in the naked willows and  cottonwood trees along the banks of Franklin Creek—and that’s pronounced, “crik” in this part of the world. At the foot of the valley lies the Ruby Valley National Wlldlife Refuge where we sat one evening several seasons back and watched coyotes hunt trumpeter swans on the channels carved in the swampy, red-willow-infested breaks catching the late light of the gloaming. 

Last year we went down there again with a carload of friends, hitting the trail just before sun-up. The light trapped in the ground fog and on the tips of the frosty sage made for great pictures, and the sun on the peaks when the lower ground was still dark created a stark idea of what the difference between life and death might be—or good and evil—in a metaphorical way. The A M light on the east side of the craggy and majestic Ruby Mountains glared back at us and one would think the glare might be too stark, but instead it was like somebody slugged you in the solar plexus with its immensity. 

This year, Betty and I dared ourselves again and went down the west side of the Rubies for an evening run to see if we could find out if the Rubies really were like rubies. The quality of evening light that time of the year is like the gold they still chase around in the rough hinterlands of Nevada. It comes in low, and streams parallel to the surface of the earth, its shine tinted a bit crimson, a bit silver, a bit bronze as it caroms off the juniper trees, sage and mountains like x-rays from outer space. 


Ruby Mountain Muley

We stopped where the road from Spring Creek to Jiggs intersects the south fork of the Humboldt River and watched water ouzels bicker over prey beneath the flashing surface of the river. They called and crashed, then dove below the water, then emerged to dance along the surface, as an immature bald eagle floated overhead. The willows and the water, the rugged trunks of the cottonwood trees, all caught the last brash bang of sunlight just before Old Sol’s setting. 

There are a lot of deer out along the east side of the Ruby Mountains. Big mule deer that browse alongside the roads in great gangs that warily watch approaching Hondas, then leisurely leap barbed wire right-of-way fences, then stop and curiously spy as we drive by. The bucks still had their horns and were running with the females which indicated to me they were still in the rut. 

West Side of the Ruby Mountains

At the hint of last light we got the Ruby Mountains on camera, and we now know exactly why they are named that. They were ruby. 

Then we climbed back in the Honda and drove back to the G Three Bar for a sarsaparilla and a visit with our cowboy poetry friends. 


Hungarian Drovers
South of Aguila we rode out horseback in the evening sweetness of early fall. The mountains north of the ranch jutted up like busted incisors. The ground was pocked with gopher holes and we let the horses pick and choose our route. A covey of Gambel’s quail erupted and sputtered into a mesquite thicket and overhead a Harris hawk hunted in the late evening light. The horses snorted and the creak of saddle leather hung with the ambient desert dust that helped make the sky a rosy tint. Along a rocky arroyo, palo verde and ironwood crowded against the edge of the wash. We rode the north bank and looked for a cow, absent without leave.
And that was the last time I tried to emulate a cowboy on horseback. Since those days, forty years ago, I’ve herded cattle on foot, been kicked in the groin by a frightened calf while sorting, herded cattle in a pickup, weighed truck loads of fat cattle, sat on the hard, splintery seat at the Roswell auction and bought calves, been choused up a sprinkler stanchion by wild-eyed Angus-Brahma cross; I’ve seen cow droving accomplished on four-wheelers that zipped around like bugs on a dung pile, but I’ve not been a real horseback hand since that time at Aguila.

In my youth, I wanted to be a cowboy, but over the years I drifted towards management first and then on to other industries that have nothing to do with cowboying.

Yet the interest still resides and that’s why Betty and I are here in Elko, Nevada, for the sixth straight year celebrating the 27th annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering at the Western Folklife Center. There is always a lot of genre music and verse and art at The Gathering, and the camaraderie with cowboys, wish-they-were cowboys and curious non-cowboy folk. It is infectious and exhilarating.

The last few years, The Gathering has highlighted some global aspect of the drover milieu. They have honored the cowboy or herder or drover traditions from the Camargue region of southeastern France, the vaqueros of Mexico, the cracker cowpokes of the southeastern United States and this year, the herders of Hungary’s puszta—or plain—fifty-two thousand square miles of livestock land where pigs, sheep and cattle are all herded on foot, and horses are herded horseback.

Drover status in Hungary is apparently governed by a hierarchy related to the species one droves. Swineherds—or kondás—are at the bottom of the status ladder, followed by sheepherders—or pásztor—followed by cow herders—or gulyás. At the apex of this drover hierarchy sits the horseman, the horse herder—or csikós. The hierarchy reminds me of the sheep and cattle wars of the 19th century and the scorn I’ve often heard muttered between cowboys, sheep men, hog producers and the like here in our own country.

It’s easy for me to sit here and see these drovers from Hungary as quaint and interesting and not really relevant, but a fact that got my attention was that as early as the 12th century, Hungarian gulyás and csikós drove cow herds across Europe to Germany and Amsterdam and Spain in journeys that rival the droving exploits of the likes of Texans Charles Goodnight and Jesse Chisholm.

Along with Hungarian horsemen and cowmen, this year’s Gathering also features music from the puszta. It reminds me of Liszt and Bartok in the wild nomadic lyric that drives the tunes. I hear a bit of Classical, too, and for just a moment some Blue Grass strains, and then some fiddle work I recognize in cowboy music—not Country and Western, but American drover folk music. And of course there is the voice of the Magyar peasant. Fifteen-hundred years of elation and agony erupting in the wild violin tunes. The violin is important and it seems to me the craft of the puszta musician sits somewhere between Folk and Classical. Wild and frightening and sometimes sardonically funny.

Betty and I visited for a while with the string ensemble’s leader, Mr. Janos Csik. Janos lives on the puszta and travels to Canada and the US fairly often to share his music. He performs at schools to introduce children to Hungarian music. He speaks some English and he and I shared our likes and dislikes about music. We both like Bach and Beethoven, and B. B. King. One of Janos’ albums has gone double platinum.

Besides the music of the Hungarian puszta, The Gathering has allowed us to meet some of the folk who work in the livestock world there including a csikós and a gulyás robed in traditional garb. The photo that leads off this blog entry will give you an idea of how they dress. The hats and robes remind me of uniforms I might have seen in troop formations at Poltava, Russia when King Karl XII of Sweden faced off against Peter the Great.

Janos’ three-piece ensemble—his violin, and a viola and a bass that bump against each other in contrapuntal eruptions to form the bottom of the beat—played some Hungarian folk tunes as the herders danced traditionally with their female companions. They circled around and around and around, never missing a beat, never slowing or wavering and when they stopped, they seemed not to be a bit dizzy which I knew I would be if I were to dance like that.

As they danced and the music wailed, I closed my eyes and imagined back to 896 AD and wild Magyar warriors swooping out of central Asia, driving their high-horned cattle herds over the Carpathian Mountains and down into the broad, fertile puszta. I heard twelve centuries of agony, love and elation. I heard a little Bach and Beethoven, some Bartok, a little bit of Hank, and a little B. B. King.

High Tech

I read a lot of blogs as a means of keeping in tune with what people I admire have to say about all kinds of issues, incidents and items: falling leaves, clean kitchens, the war in Afghanistan, New York City, global politics, ice fishing in Idaho—a multiplicity of info.

A lot of times I make comments to those blogs if they spur me to think about something related to their subject matter. But before you can add your two-cents, most blogs require you to pass what I call the “humanity”test.

The “humanity” test is a little box at the bottom of a blog entry where you, the reader, have to enter a set of letters that match a set of letters that the blog provides. Those letters often look like crooked ironwood walking sticks, a brisk wind in the limbs of a mesquite tree, water pouring over the edge of a basalt cliff. They never spell a real word, at least one I ever heard of. This is to keep internet spammers, I think, and machines from making comments or stealing info or names or identities or whatever data untrustworthy internet machines, spammers, hackers and hijinx creators are after.

For a long time, when I first started encountering these weblog gatekeepers (as I like to imagine them), it was hard to read the letters and sometimes I couldn’t get them entered right and found myself relegated to the same garbage bin as spammers, hackers and other nefarious characters. But someone must have, besides me, complained, really complained, because some time in the last year or so, these “humanity” tests have gotten simpler.

Simpler, but no less mystifying to me in regards to their place in our written word environment. The crooked-letter words we are required to enter into the weblog gates are usually not real words. They are almost words.

For instance, the other day I ran on one of these gate keys that I was supposed to replicate that read “cherd.” As far as I know, the word, “cherd” is not really a word. I know of a couple of words that are close to “cherd,” both chert and chard.

The vegetable chard is a dark, leafy green akin to bok choi, collard greens and the like. I could wax on about chard and its cousins, and how I learned to love them. But that is a tale of lies, deviousness, exposure, retribution and redemption that is long enough for its own blog.

Chert is another word with which I am familiar. Chert is a classification of rock with a number of varieties known by such familiar names as jasper, flint and agate. In ancient times chert was useful as the raw material for fashioning tools like spear points, arrowheads, awls, and scrapers.

When I was a young kid, my sister went to college at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.  During summer school sessions, my mother and I would make the long trek up from Casa Grande in the heart of the Sonoran Desert to the high Colorado Plateau to visit her. Back then, there were no interstates in Arizona, so it took a long time to travel what is now a relatively short distance. Often we would stop in Black Canyon City, just north of Phoenix, for a head call and a Coke. There was a “trading post” there where the woman who owned the place traded Native American jewelry. My mother possessed a lot of old baskets, turquoise and silver squash blossoms, turquoise and coral beads and she was always on the look-out for a bargain. While the two women stood around and haggled and visited, I would slip out the back into the sandy bed of the New River, which never had any water in it when I was a kid. Just sand, and a lot of palo verde and ironwood trees along the banks. I would dig around the banks and the sandy bottoms and sometimes hit the jackpot with scorpions, centipedes or arrowheads made of the local chert, flint, or maybe red or purple jasper. Back then, arrowheads were common in Arizona. I found them all the time and looked at them for characteristics that might make them unusual and then tossed them back onto the sand if nothing really caught my eye.

Closer to my home, we used to go out along the banks of the old channel of the Santa Cruz river, not the new channel that runs south of Casa Grande, but the old channel that runs north. If you showed up in the evening on the west side of the road to Phoenix, artifacts from a native past glinted into your sight like pieces of shattered glass. But instead of silicon remnants from beer bottles, these remnants were much older, pieces of pottery from the locals, the Pimas and Papagos and Maricopas (that’s what we Euro-Americans call them). Often we found arrowheads there too, but usually tossed them. Big, painted pieces of pottery were much more to our liking. I was around eight or ten years of age when I did most of this archeological work. Later I became more interested in sports and girls. Out there on the banks of the Santa Cruz, twice I found entire black-basalt metates (the implements for grinding grain or grass seeds or acorns) along with their pounding implements, the manos. I took those home along with any unusual pieces of pottery and if I found outstanding examples, chert tools.

The riverbeds and arroyos of the Sonoran Desert are not bedded in rock, but are bedded in sand and are in some ways ephemeral, so that after a big rain and the resultant flood, the course of the waterways will be changed and then you might find a new trove of chert tools and likewise, the places you mined for these artifacts might be buried in thick layers of fine clay. Kind of like life, the rivers and arroyos moving back and forth over the big mesquite tree flats like diamondback rattlers. The Santa Cruz is like a serpent out there between the Gila River Indian Reservation and my home town. Back then the wind, too, like floods, moved the sand much more than we ever did, hiding archeological artifacts. Back then the developers had no use for the desert flood plain. They were still tearing up Phoenix and LA.

Nowadays, all that Native-American stuff is generally protected by acts of Congress as well they should be. If you dig it up, you’ll be fined or jailed or maybe both, if caught. Nowadays it’s thought proper for those kinds of artifacts to be left alone in the spots that have special significance to the native peoples who survived the invasion of their land by Americans and Mexicans and Spaniards.

More than once, I’ve considered going to the mountains and finding some chert and teaching myself how to knap it into an arrowhead or a spear point. But though challenging and maybe fun and intellectually fulfilling, the work would be slow and trying and with one wrong blow, the chert would disintegrate and I’d need to start over. I have too many things to do instead; work on my computer: write, account, portray on my computer, computer, computer.

Three thousand years ago, in the desert, knapping flint and chert was probably considered pretty high tech. Now we have computers that control the tools that make our weapons and tools. We use computers to create art, create machines, fashion wood, help us think and make war. Instead of humans with stone-tipped weapons at the gates of our towns we have guards at the gates of websites and blogs with “humanity” tests, words (or almost words) that look like leafy greens, or like weapons.

Bertie’s Stammer

Betty and I went to see “The King’s Speech” on New Year’s Eve. Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush put on quite a show. Based on the present Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain’s father, the film depicts many of the conflicts and roadblocks King George VI overcame to become monarch over the world’s largest empire. I liked being reminded that rich and famous people have problems that they, too, must surmount. One of the reasons I like to watch this kind of movie is to get the sense that “everybody has problems” as my father used to say to me.

This movie is short on bawdy and bodacious action and adventure, outwardly anyway, but is loaded with Freudian (or is it Jungian, or something else psychological) conflict that kept me on the edge of my seat. Some people may want more of a shoot-‘em-up and I’m not against shoot-‘em-ups, but sometimes portrayals of the battles fought in mind and will are just as engaging as a shoot-out in the hills of Helmand Province, Afghanistan or along the Rio Grande.

And of course, there will be questions surrounding whether parts of the movie really happened in such-and-such a way in real life. But in a movie, holding to the strict facts isn’t as important as the truth of the emotions and in that regard, the movie rings true. Whether George (or Bertie as his family called him—one of his names was Albert) really said such-and-such to his brother Edward (or David as his family called him) is not the salient factor to me. What matters to me, the viewer, is the emotional impact of the conversation, the interplay, what’s not said, what goes undone.

I hear people say things like, “That film had stuff in it that wasn’t real.” When I think about that, then I think that nothing in a film is real except the acting…acting, and the actual costumes and the DVD they put it on. The actors are real as themselves, but they act out the characters, and the words are someone else’s and they use props that are nothing more than props. Nothing in a film is real, nothing of substance when you get down to it. It is make believe. Even a biopic isn’t really real. A lot of stuff gets left out. What the director and screen writer choose to put in is what we see, not all the rest of the stuff that doesn’t fit with the movie makers’ sense of what is important, saleable, relevant to life. What is real—maybe the only important reality—is the emotional truth of the movie and if the film fails there, it will probably fail in the show house.

One of the big issues in the movie character Bertie’s portrayal is a speech impediment that he battles all his life. In the film, it takes on monstrous dimensions and becomes an enemy just like a German sniper might do in “Saving Private Ryan,” or that Ned Pepper might be in “True Grit.” The reasons for Bertie’s impediment appear multifarious, but they are based on fear. Bertie’s fear became his worst enemy and caused all kinds of embarrassment and folly for his movie character.

But back in the Depression and in World War II, fear wasn’t just Bertie’s problem, it was a lot of peoples’ problem. Remember what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when trying to convince the American public that the Depression was not of infinite length:  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” How true that seems. I have many fears that try to keep me locked up in a narrow space that funnels my efforts in predictable and boring channels, unless I take a deep breath, don’t think about the infinity of sad ramifications if I fail and move on to new and dangerous (at least for my pride if I fail) endeavors.

I recall the first time I ever spoke in public. It was 1953 and I was six. I gave a speech on the American flag to the local Rotary Club of Casa Grande, Arizona. I remember fighting to keep from peeing my pants. But I prevailed and in that prevailing, one would think, I had overcome fear, but I didn’t. My whole life I’ve had to battle that monster. All through school, in Vietnam (and man we had some fear there) and later in my life. But if I want to enjoy my time on this spinning blue orb, and experience an exciting life, I must keep overcoming, keep sucking in air and closing my eyes and leaping into the future without knowing the end result.

And often, the fear of what might happen is more dreadful than what does happen when the feared event arrives. The fear of giving that speech in 1953 was worse than standing up in front of those lawyers and insurance salesmen and business owners and actually speaking. Ms. Emily Dickinson wrote a poem to that effect and I quote its entirety here:

1277 [1]

While we were fearing it, it came –
But came with less of fear
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it fair –

There is a Fitting – a Dismay –
A Fitting – a Despair –
‘Tis harder knowing it is Due
Than knowing it is Here.

The Trying on the Utmost
The Morning it is new
Is Terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.

Our private fears do not go away. To us they are often as real as the stew bubbling on the stove, the ice in the corners of the backyard fence. Fears lurk behind the door, in the alley, between the medulla oblongata and the cerebellum. We must continue to overcome them. That’s what is interesting to me, among a number of other things, about “The King’s Speech.” The truth of the movie lies in the fact that Bertie overcomes his fears; we must keep overcoming fear all the days of our lives.

[1] Emily Dickinson, “1277,” from the website : http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2004/12/10, 2011.


It’s been over two weeks since I wrote my last travel blog from the road in Arizona. We are back in Idaho feeling the chill of shin-battering wind and the threat of hard ice on the back patio. The snow piles we fled have been sucked into the throat of cold rain and a northwester Chinook. The soaked birch and aspen leaves of October are stuck to pavement, concrete and remnants of front yard grass. I wonder if the skiffs of ice in the cold spots have invaded my hands. When I try to compose this blog, the words are like thick molasses stuck to the ends of my fingertips. The syllables ooze just behind my eyeballs, gumming up the pathways of my brain.

Most of our trip we ran point for heavy weather that battered the west. In Utah the skies clouded but fortunately the snow pulled into a climatic rest stop and let us visit the stark, flat sadness of Topaz and shoot pictures of the Vermillion Cliffs where the fractured skin of the earth seems a simile for our species’ millennial bleeding. When we arrived in southern Arizona the temperatures hovered in the eighties with T-shirt mornings and red skies at dusk.

We finally encountered rain in Oakland as one of the big blusters blew in and slapped against our windshield. On 12/18/2010 we attended a remembrance for our deceased Sonoma County friend, Trisha Pedroia. The weather spit rain and sulled-up with black clouds all day long and added gloom to an already gloomy moment. Tree frogs croaked in the garden that already misses her tending.

On the trip we spent time with our kids and their kids in Arizona (the first quality time in years), made and ate awesome tamales. We spent time with our kids in San Francisco (but not enough) and with Betty’s family in Placerville. Along the way we met and broke tortillas, biscuits, cookies and Portuguese sweet bread with friends when we could and as I stand here at our kitchen counter and compose this blog, I remember all the laughs, jokes, giggles, hugs, meals and tears we shared with family and other loved ones. It is interesting to me how after all the journeys Betty and I have embarked upon (both real and metaphorically), and all the places we have domiciled, the people who know us still like us . . . they still love us (almost in spite of us, or at least me, anyway).  And it makes one feel the effort spent in trying to keep in touch . . . hell, even if only sporadically . . . means something.

And now, here in Boise, the forecast is for bitter weather, five degrees or colder, and I need to polish my boots, and I need to work on the movie we are making. But pondering those things, my mind refuses to budge from thoughts of Trisha Pedroia, how she could have lost control of the tractor (was it too muddy, did she focus her attention on a bobcat, a coyote as she went down the road towards the riding arena, did she hear the cry of a spotted towhee, or the scree of a red tail hawk and look up and run off the track?) What happened?

I recall the last night we spent with her, at her house in the midst of the syrah and pinot grapes at Cherry Camp. The fog came in and hugged the house. Outside after dark, great horned owls sat in the boughs of redwood trees and hooted back and forth. Just before our retiring for the night, a pack of coyotes showed up outside, just below our bedroom window, and began to yammer to each other as if they were calling our names, “Hey Trisha, hey Betty, hey Rodgers,” to come outside and play. We laughed and Trisha wore a look of amazement in her smiling eyes. And then we left the next morning and now she’s gone, too, but not to Boise.

And some day we will all be gone and that’s the way the world operates and nothing we can do will alter that. So on to polishing my boots and staying in touch with the living. It starts here with a belated Merry Christmas (or Chanukah or Solstice or Kwanza) and a wish for an ebullient New Year.

On Tamales

Chopped green chilies, corn husks soaked, masa mixed with manteca and red chilé. Meat—roasted beef, roasted pork—cleaned and shredded, then mixed with chilé. The masa spread thin on the inside of the husks. The meat mixture spread on the masa. Occasionally a green olive. The husk rolled up. The tamales steamed so the masa is not soggy. If you steam it too much, the masa is soggy. If you steam the tamale too little, the masa is soggy.

Mix in grandmas and grandpas, moms and dads, daughters, sons, granddaughters, sisters, brothers, NFL Football, Coca Cola and coffee, cookies, babies feeding out of bottles, old dogs, new bicycles, sun sprays in the backyard, the grass gone dead, Christmas lights strung on the palm trees, and you have tamale-making time in southern Arizona.

Seventy-nine degrees outside. Whiffle golf balls dot the backyard green, some chipping irons and wedges, the swing set, the tree house, the block wall. Laughter. Talk. About how to spread masa, the Cardinals versus the Broncos. Siblings’ verbal sparring, spitting darts and spears and knives, the metaphors of banter, harassment, but not like knocks on the noggin, but like caresses, sweet finger-tip touches on the forehead. A decorated tree in the living room. George Strait on the iPod singing whiny love songs of broken hearts and lost romance. How to find it, bring it back.

Generations, generations, spreading the husks on the table, spreading the masa with spoon and knife and fingers. Spreading meat mix, chilé and rolling, rolling, rolling tamales. Life rolls along. I ate tamales as a child and then as a young man and now as an aging man. The time rolls along like the season of a Big Jim chilé plant. Bursting emergent from the soil, bolting up in the young sun of late spring, erupting with white blossoms, the smell and the greedy bees, the tangy scent of lust and loving. Then the fruiting, heavy on the stems drooping green, then luscious radiant red. Then plucked and roasted and gone, like life, gone into the gullet of time to steep in the stomach of ages.

Now we are eating tamales, eating them, peeling off the husk, the firm masa marked with the ribs of the husks. The masa a husky red, the taste a fiery bang in the palate, the sweat on the top of the head. The enchiladas on the other side of the plate. Hot, too, the mix of green and red chilies a war in the mouth, no peace here. Just live it out, this war. Let the head buzz its little lovely respite of capsaicin heaven as the sweat drips down the forehead. The sweat of fine eating, of hot tamales. Of life.

Navajo Sandstone

The Vermillion Cliffs reminded me of hard red foreheads, big red chins, broken promises, busted white molars, black slag pits, cracked vermillion nose bridges, ancient sand-colored Spanish castles soaring above rivers. But below the towering Pariah Plateau there are no rivers, just red and rocky washes—arroyos, the Spanish Conquistadores called them.

This is the land of the last American polygamists, cattle ranches, Kaibab deer with trophy sets of horns, elk, scraggly juniper, the Kaibab Paiute tribe, scraggly piñon trees, the memories of the Mormon pioneer s at Pipe Springs, Fredonia, Lee’s Ferry, scraggly Ponderosa trees, chamisa, red tail hawks, the Navajo.

We stopped and shot photos of the dark, ruddy faces we saw etched in the Navajo sandstone looking south from the escarpment. No pronghorns or big horn sheep in sight, but hopes that lodge in the throat every time we descend from Jacob’s Lake down into the arching curve of US Highway 89-A at the base of the cliffs. For years we’ve hoped for a glimpse of the California Condors turned loose here over the last twenty or so years.

California Condors are one of North America’s largest birds but were eradicated from Northern Arizona in the 1920s. Now they are back, or so we have heard. But we have never seen the wide expanse of wing, the red head of this mighty raptor.

Yesterday, December 9, 2010, was a beautiful day to photograph the reds, the blacks, the whites, the yellows of the land, the faded gray clouds caught swirling in the sky, the blue behind, a doors-wide-open blue that beckons like a siren, or a Circe, beckoning you to fly into the wide arms of the universe.

But we didn’t have time to get entrapped, so we forged on for the Colorado River that cuts away a ragged jag of sandstone, limestone, and shale in multi-hued layers. At Navajo Bridge in Marble Canyon, we parked to walk over the old bridge, now closed, an early stab at white-eyed civilization in the cold, hot, windy, sere, dry, red land. Three Navajo women displayed jewelry and horse hair ornaments in the parking lot.

We walked out on the bridge to take photos and Lo and Behold, there stood Betty making wild gestures, pointing, bending, waving at me to hurry up and there on a span on the new bridge just east of us, perched, their black backs turned towards us; California Condors. I pilfered digital pictures with my digital zoom lens, the hard straight walls of the vermillion canyon as backdrop, the partially iced-over Colorado, the red peaks beyond and again, the luscious arms of the wide-lipped blue on high where condors soar. If they like.

Topaz, Utah

Today, virago curtained in the four cardinal directions. A harsh gray pallor coated the bottom of the sky. A wind caught in the bristly bushes and threw sprinkles of rain around. Off to the west, the hinterlands of eastern Nevada, snowy Topaz Mountain. I turned in all directions and assayed the harsh flat land, the barbed wire fences, the desolation that swept all the way to the icy peaks all around. Not even a Northern harrier or a kestrel, a raven, or a magpie.

The Topaz Relocation Center. Or what’s left of it. Some stone footings, some muddy roads coated with slick caliche. White signs that read, “Sentry Box,” “Main Gate,” “Administration,” “Guard Tower.” The signs are new, an Explorer Scout Project to try and keep alive a memory of the US Government’s internment of Japanese-American citizens from 1942 to 1946.

Relocation. In this case a euphemism for imprisoning. How about stealing assets and then imprisoning? If it was just relocation (for their own safety, as FDR said), why did the government pick the most god-awful spots? Hot: Gila River, Manzanar, Poston, Jerome, Rohwer, Topaz. Cold: Minidoka, Heart Mountain, Tule Lake, Manzanar, Granada…Topaz.

I remember Gila River, about sixteen miles from my home town. The barracks, the fences, the towers (I remember imagining guards up there with machine guns), the isolation. The camp was empty by the time my father drove us by Gila River on the way to my grandmother’s house. But still standing, as if waiting for the next tenants. My father called it the “Jap Camp.”

Betty and I went back to Gila River five years ago but it was gone. Zilch, zero, kaput. And today, Topaz, too.

If it was a battle where Americans had defeated (or had been massacred by) a foe, there would be a monument, a pillar, a National Park. But at Gila River and Topaz, nothing to memorialize locking innocent American citizens up in hellholes far from their homes. At Minidoka, Idaho, the locals wanted to build a feedlot next to the old “Relocation” camp and memorialize the location with invasions of flies and the scent of cow dung.

We drove back to Delta, Utah, and on to I-15 South, towards St. George. Tomorrow:  the Vermillion Cliffs, Marble Canyon, Cameron, Camp Verde, Casa Grande.

The Cigarette Tree

This morning I woke to dreams of a cigarette tree in my neighbor’s back yard. One of many strange dreams showing up around here lately where hags with stringy gray hair ramble through dark rooms, ogle my sleeping carcass and croon ugly funeral tunes. My neighbor doesn’t have a cigarette tree. I don’t even know what a cigarette tree is. I imagine it, though, the red-tipped, smoking twigs like Camels or Lucky Strikes, or Pall Malls. Not the fancy, filtered kind we puff on now, if we still puff, but the older, stronger ones where, when one smoked them, left flecks of tobacco on the tongue, and on the teeth of swanky women, along with red lipstick and brown coffee stains. Cigarettes are associated with death. So are gray-haired hags roaming through the house in different dimensions, slipping past eyesight, earshot—seeding distrust and tension in their wake.

The only kinds of trees my neighbor owns are deciduous and lose their leaves this frozen time of year. And this year the freeze and blast of arctic Canada arrived way too early. Some years it refuses to come down here at all, but this year it made its way into our homes before Thanksgiving. My ash, my maples, my willows, and aspen dropped their leaves weeks back. And my neighbor’s trees all lost their leaves, too, all except one. It stayed bright orange, even at nine degrees. That’s better than a smoking-twigged cigarette tree, all those bright leaves burning in the cold—one of those colds where a hint of ice is in the air, you can see it, feel it on your lips and tongue, feel it in your nostrils.

What a sight, that bright orange when everything around is steeped in the deep death of early winter. The bird bath frozen, the peonies long gone, the roses turned a rotten shade of gray. I love looking out there at dawn, seeing that tree stand out. And I wonder how it could do that…stay brilliant like a flame in a dying fire in the face of Alaska’s rip-roaring swoop south. Maples just can’t do that.

But then I wondered if it wasn’t a symbol. I like to write poems and in the craft of poetry we deal with symbols—images generated by thoughts of one thing are turned into something else, metaphor, simile, that kind of thing. And maybe the flame-orange maple is a metaphor for something—for the insistence of existence in the face of daunting assaults from nature.  You know, a symbol of everlasting life, the ongoing resistance to time’s passage, that kind of thing. Or it could be my reminder of how life forges on, even in the face of dying and sorrow.

We have some sorrow around this house, this week. Our friend Trisha Pedroia died unexpectedly just before Thanksgiving. She was too young, but often death comes too soon. You know that old saying, “Death is no respecter of persons.” Trisha was vibrant and electric, energetic with her horses, her Sassy dog, her vineyard, her photography, her cowboy poetry and music, and with her friends, too.

But she is gone and there is no way to reverse that. I think that’s what pains the most, that there is no reversal and it also reminds us that we will be in that same set of cowboy boots someday. Maybe sooner than later. And even though I try like hell, I can’t escape the fear that lurks behind that notion. Yes, we’ve lived good lives. Yes, it’s something that happens to all of us.  Yes, it is all part of the process. Yes, they are all waiting on the other side , maybe….

We are faced with the loss of the only thing we can really, without qualification, say we know. Life on earth. And we have now been reminded that we too, are like sheep and pigs and birds and bugs and corn and seaweed. We will die.

And there is another kind of ache that we deal with. That’s the hole unfilled when a close friend dies. Trisha wasn’t always a friend. I knew her late husband Vince first. When he and I found a common link with poetry, we grew close, and Trisha always seemed to be a bit dubious, a bit cautious. But then Vince died, and through all the anguish we shared, she accepted me, us, and a whole lot more.  And “Whoa,” like she’d tell one of her horses, Andy or Red, “Whoa.” When she accepted you, you couldn’t have a better friend. One of those relationships where you know where you stand, what’s what, who depends on whom, one of those relationships you want to be engaged in.

And now that is gone—memories and keepsakes can’t replace it.  Like I said, the hole is unfilled. No shovelfuls of anything will replace it and I think that’s where so much of the grief is centered.

I remember a friend of mind getting killed in 1976 in a gun accident. He was twenty-one, funny, quirky, irreverent. And he was dead. Bam, gone, kaput. “Who shot him?” I asked. “What does it matter,” someone said. And I stuttered to answer that question….”because it hurts, down here and ….” There was a hole, as if the bullet barged right through me and left something that to this day, stings, thirty-four years gone.

At his Rosary, the air was like ten thousand wet sheep pelts and the room was packed with tough Basco herders. They sobbed. Like a full sack of wool on your back, four or five hundred pounds. Pressing the lungs into the heart into the diaphragm into the stomach down into the guts. I thought I’d suffocate. Outside, in the cool wind of Arizona spring, I coughed in huge draughts of night air, the scent of orange blossoms, and fought that need to ball up and petrify.

Later a fiend talked to me, to a bunch of us. Standing there with a Marlboro in the corner of her mouth, smoke circling up, burning her eye, she said, “It’s not that he’s dead. It’s because you have been reminded of your own mortality. That you too, are going to die. Someday, somehow.”

I wanted to reach out and slap her arrogant face, but I bit my lower lip and shut my mouth. Something I’m not too good at doing. Because, she was right. We grieve because we too are mortal.

But there is something else, a deeper grief when we lose people who mean a lot to us. I won’t say people we love, because that word is not specific enough to describe the wide varieties of emotion we can and do have for particular people. So let it be said that we grieve at loss, at the loss of those we will truly miss, whether they die of old age, accidental gunshot wounds, accidents of other types, IEDs in Afghanistan, cancer before their time—death at the hands of Father Time, or their own lack of caring—something like tobacco or smack or hooch.

Let it be said, Trisha is gone. The hags of discard are loose in my house. The flame-orange leaves have now fallen from the maple tree in my neighbor’s yard.

Back to Babylon

Wayne’s grandfather came and salvaged me in his big white Buick. We rode through the red-leaved hills and by the languid lakes and he railed on about Arkansas, and the Ozarks and the locals…flat-rock slingers, he called them. “Citizens of Babylon “. He owned a second home on Table Rock Lake. A house with a separate guest house. He put me up in the guest house. We had ham and cheese sandwiches and Michelob. I didn’t care for the lake-water taste of Michelob, but he told me he owned stock in Budweiser, so we drank Michelob. We watched—was it the Iowa Hawkeyes?—get their butts thumped. I said I was tired and went to my guest house to nap. I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned. I got out a book I’d been reading, The Naked Ape, and put it down and closed my eyes and pulled the sheet up over my head. She kept looming in my mind. Iowa City girl. I saw her laugh, I saw how she liked to start each walk with one giant step as if she was about to do a hop skip and jump. She’d often laugh, but I mostly recalled her crying that night, and the cold brush of her face on my lips when I left. I decided to change the subject and thought about those punks in the Ford Fairlaine and how I should have kicked their asses. But that didn’t help how I felt.

We had pot roast and vegetables for dinner, and of course, Michelob. I walked down to Table Rock Lake and looked for cottonmouths and water moccasins. Wayne’s grandfather had a boat dock and a big boat. He came out and asked me if I wanted a boat ride. I didn’t. I went back in the house and tried to drink as many Michelobs as I could, but he wasn’t going to let me get drunk. He talked about Wayne’s waist-length hair and hippies and marijuana and LSD and Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix. He wasn’t particularly critical, which surprised me. He just wanted someone to talk to while he watched Lawrence Welk and the Lennon sisters.  His wife stayed too busy to sit and visit; cleaning, knitting, sewing. He said, “You boys be careful out there in California. It’s like living in Babylon.” He grinned, “A city full of sin. “ He grinned bigger.

I went to bed. I slept with vivid dreams. Iowa City girl kept glaring at me. I got mad and swore she was…well, a lot of things. In the morning, ham and eggs and milk and cheese and biscuits. I thought about asking for a MicheIob. Wayne’s grandmother served a fruit plate.  I thought I’d pop. Wayne’s grandfather and I went for a ride into Branson. It’s a famous country music spot now, but then it was sleepy, sleepy. A resort for Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois wealth. We went home and watched the Bears play football against the St. Louis Cardinals. The score was 20-17 in favor of the Cardinals. I rooted for the Bears because he wanted me to. I was hoping he’d give me more Michelob if I rooted for his side. He wouldn’t, though. Cheese, crackers, Red Delicious apples and Michelob, but only four. He said, “You’re leaving this afternoon. My grandson is meeting you in Springfield.”

I didn’t like not having a say in the planning. I packed my gear and we went north. He rattled on about his years in the Navy; WWI and WWII and Korea.  I heard very little he said. I saw the Jews in Buchenwald and her, her, her face looming in the dried moss hanging off the oak trees.

He left me off and said “Be careful back there in Babylon.” He grinned and  drove home. It started to get dark and Wayne finally showed. We stuck out our thumbs and headed on to Babylon.

We were hauled by a University of Kansas student coming down from an acid trip, an auto glass salesman, a family on their annual autumn migration from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to LA. We settled in with them for the long haul. As we rode in the bed of their red Ford Falcon Ranchero with a homemade plywood canopy, Wayne explained to me what I might have done so that Iowa City girl wasn’t so cold. We had to keep the tailgate down on the Falcon bed so the exhaust leak didn’t kill us. I thought about Iowa City girl:  maybe I should have told her I was coming to visit, but if she liked me that shouldn’t have been a problem. He also told me I needed to be more sensitive to social problems of ethnic origins and I knew that I’d always been a little insensitive to those kind of things, but hell, I just wanted to touch parts with the woman, not solve the world’s problems.

We camped out the first night and ate canned pork and beans with the Ft. Waynites and we learned about the strawberry jam in the LA County Jail. How good it was for reattaching the heels to the standard issue jailhouse footwear. Our host told us he’d spent 22 winters in the jail. I looked at his very young wife and their seven-year-old boy. They both shrugged and grinned.

That night the coyotes sang us to sleep and intermittently I awoke thinking they were the voices of the murdered, dispossessed, people (refugees) fleeing from pestilence and war.

Wayne woke and ranted about materialism and America. I wondered if he was talking about Babylon and I wondered if all the disadvantaged weren’t in despair because of things I had done, and did: get loaded, get drunk, drive a car, buy stupid stuff like fancy hats, eat things that caused harm to the world. And then—he felt compelled to bring it up—there was the girl in Iowa City, and my insensitivity.

Luckily for me, the coyotes’ yaps became a lullaby of sorts that lilted and skimmed over the tops of clouds hiding a half moon, and I went back to sleep. The next morning the Red Falcon Ranchero broke down, and after very short rides across Amarillo with college kids trying to score kilos of weed, we fell in with a man driving from Detroit to LA with a trunk full of Strohs. “The only beer I can stand,” he called it. I wondered how it compared to Michelob. Driving ninety-five and stopping very few times, we hit LA early in the morning after hearing from him again and again for hours and hours about how best to cheat on the wife, and if caught, how to act so she didn’t throw your butt out of the house. He dropped us off at 3 AM in Pico Rivera on I-5 and we hop-scotched south to San Diego, talking about coyotes and human rights. And of course, my insensitivity.

We walked from the freeway to Mission Beach Boulevard as the sun came up behind us. I thought about the girl from Iowa City and her obsession with the lives of so many already dead, so many yet to die. I pondered my role, but being hungry, we stepped into a café and had eggs-over-easy and hash browns, hot coffee and white bread toast. Wayne had rat-holed some money. We clinked our water glasses at the success of our venture. Our finding America, although the America we found wasn’t what we set out looking for, if we even knew what we were looking for in the first place. As for the refugees and the dispossessed, I just shook my head and stopped listening when Wayne began to rant about it. Unlike him, I saw no relief for them, or for us, if we get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in Babylon.