Smoke Signals

Taking notes

DSCN4417What my notes look like.


At the behest of my agent, who apparently believes there are a few tricks of the nonfiction trade I could apply to my own wayward transcriptive musings (stuff like not needing to include every single adjective in the English language in every single sentence (as well as avoiding excessive parenthetical asides) (perish the thought!)), I have been re-reading John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley,” which I first pretended to read many years ago in college for some class I’m sure I flunked. (I must admit to being relieved at having my agent recommend to me this particular volume; I would have been bummed had he recommended something like “Dick & Jane” or “What Color Is Your Parachute?”) Though assuredly dated, I have been amused by Mr. Steinbeck’s erudite observations as he jaunts around the curvy back roads of America with a faithful cur at his side, a subject about which I know a thing or two.

The passage that has thus far most captivated me most though has nothing to do with his travels with Charley per se, but, rather, one component of his pre-trip preparations:

“I thought I might do some writing along the way, perhaps essays, surely notes, certainly letters. I took paper, carbon, typewriter, pencils, notebooks, and not only those but dictionaries, a compact encyclopedia, and a dozen other reference books, heavy ones. I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless. I knew very well that I rarely make notes, and if I do I either lose them or can’t read them. I also knew from thirty years of my profession that I cannot write hot on an event. It has to ferment. I must do what a friend calls ‘muling it over’ for a time before it goes down. And in spite of this self-knowledge I equipped Rocinante with enough writing material to take care of ten volumes.”

I have long thought I might be the only writer who eschews, or at least is not much attracted to, note-taking, and that has long concerned me, like there’s something lacking in my wordsmith DNA. At a recent literary event, I watched slack-jawed as my friend Philip Connors, author of the highly acclaimed “Fire Season,” displayed literally 20 or so huge file boxes of notes he had taken prior to penning his latest work, “All the Wrong Places,” which is actually a rather slender volume. I mean, Phil’s notes-to-book-length ratio reminded me of one of those house-sized antique espresso machines you see in rural Italy, the ones that are adorned with all mystifying manner of levers and gauges and knobs and buttons. For seeming hours, those machines clang and clunk and hiss and spit until finally out comes this astounding cup of captivating magic.

I have seen Facebook posts by Craig Childs, author of “House of Rain,” among many others, making reference to, and showing photographs of, fastidious note-taking binges. And there I sit, with maybe a sentence or two drunkenly scratched with a borrowed felt-tip pen upon a cocktail napkin or a coaster, illegible because some inebriated idiot (read: me) sloshed a frothy cerveza upon it, simultaneously wasting beer, ink and future enlightenment (or at least future remembrance).

Understand: When I’m interviewing someone who will likely be pissed and/or litigious if I misquote him or her, then, sure, I take notes, mostly of the inaccurate variety. Other than that, “taking notes” — a concept and a process that covers much conceptual and practical ground (journals, diaries, logbooks, musings in the margins of day-timers, jots on the sides of maps, palimpsests, scribbles upon the backs of hands, social media posts et al) — to me writs a thought, a notion, an observation in stone. It’s like attaching a sea anchor to my later freewheeling rumination. Once something is on paper, I have trouble subsequently allowing my imagination to wander unfettered to the often-inappropriate, often-unsalable, often-libelous place it is meant to go. Of course, there are often issues with accuracy, or a lack thereof, as a consequence of my desultory attitude toward note-taking. Many times I have cursed myself for not jotting down a salient fact or two, like, as but one random example, whether the young intern who got mauled by a tiger at the feline sanctuary I am currently writing about, ever sued her employer. (Shit!) That’s the creative trade-off, I guess, though I understand, for many writers, these issues are not mutually exclusive.

Though I get it that not all notes are fact based, my generally note-free system makes it much easier to subscribe to the philosophy that facts ought not hobble a good yarn. Either way, I now have a very utilitarian quote from a card-carrying famous person to justify what amounts to vocational laziness on my part.

I’m sure my agent is tickled pink regarding the positive influence his recommendation has had upon his client.


Smoke Signals

Lay Me Down

1The Georgia Street house, 35 years after the fact

“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Angels watch me through the night,
And wake me with the morning light.”

— “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” a much-revised prayer, the earliest form of which was penned by Joseph Addison in 1711


Phase One: Myclonic Jerk

A lingering lower-back problem has mandated in no uncertain terms that I embark upon the tedious process of procuring a new mattress. My initial investigation into the associated commerce has revealed a stunning spin on economic theory as it relates directly to a personal lifestyle equation that has pretty much been writ in stone for many decades: In order to significantly upgrade my bedding situation, I will have to shell out approximately the same amount of money it would cost me to purchase a round-trip ticket to, well, pretty much anywhere that boasts an international airport.

It’s not as though I now lay me down upon a bed of nails. My current mattress was bought from a store named something like House of Snooze. Maybe not top shelf as far as sleep system retailers go, but neither was it a yard sale taking place behind a crack house. I think the price surpassed triple digits, but not by much. Still, for the past several years, it has been a decided step up from the beds of my sordid past.

Just the other day, I drove by a hovel over on Georgia Street that I occupied in the early 1980s. That it is still standing shocked me, as it was in a state of near decomposition when it was passed down to me by a young lady — an acquaintance of an acquaintance — who was leaving town in order to broaden her vocational horizons. (She was an aspiring prostitute who found the pecuniary potential of dirt-poor Silver City somewhat discouraging.) The hovel consisted of three small, drafty rooms: a sparse kitchen that did not sport so much as a square millimeter of counter space, a bathroom so small that you almost had to sit crossed-legged on the toilet and a combination living room/bedroom.

The budding hooker, who was trying desperately to find a gullible person to relieve her of a lease that was not due to expire for some months, told me the place was furnished. Turns out, the furnishings consisted solely of a three-legged chair and a disintegrating screen door that was mounted on four cinder blocks. The woman considered the latter to be a very versatile — to say nothing of decorative (in an extremely minimalist sort of way) — piece that doubled as both couch and bed.

Since the hovel rented for only $80 a month, I took it. I placed a dissolving three-quarters-length Ensolite sleeping pad I had been given by a Good Samaritan halfway into my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail atop that screen door and called it good. Basically, after having spent the previous several years sleeping on the ground as much as I slept on a bed, I really didn’t give a shit. I had electricity, heat, indoor plumbing, running water and a roof over my head. That was living large for yours truly in those free-floating days.

My hovel quickly became a gathering place for wayward ne’er-do-wells of all stripes.

One of the regular visitors was a young man I shall herein call Willie. Willie was a half-Native American who hailed from a small town adjacent the Mescalero Apache Reservation. He spoke fluent Tex-Mex and enjoyed making intoxicated merry perhaps a bit too much, as we all did. He was ostensibly a college student who, like many of my cohorts, received a fair amount of financial aid with the idea that, eventually, a graduation would ensue, but who, in actuality, usually finished each semester with three incompletes, a D-minus and a dropped class that never was officially dropped because he had forgotten he ever signed up for it in the first place.

As testament to how low our standards were, I learned one day over bong hits that I was something of a hero to Willie. He told me I was the only person he associated with who actually occasionally went to class and actually finished each academic year with verifiable evidence that I was making progress toward a degree. Given that I was anyone’s definition of a desultory student, I was simultaneously flattered and fearful for my future.

Willie lived a quasi-nomadic life. He couch-surfed. He often slept illegally in the basement of one of the dormitories. He camped. Occasionally — mostly at the beginning of each semester, when he was flush with cash — he would rent a room in a local flophouse.

One day, Willie, who had been squatting in an abandoned shack up near Pinos Altos, delivered to me good news. With cold weather coming, he was moving back into town. And the shack had within it an old mattress that, Willie said, was a step up from my Ensolite-adorned screen door. He scratched some rudimentary directions onto the back of a brown grocery bag that had most recently been used to deliver five-pounds of skanky ditch weed to an unscrupulous local dealer who had a well-earned notorious reputation for repackaging inferior smokeables, applying to them inappropriate over-the-top appellation — bullshit stuff like “Gila Red” and “Mimbres Dynamite” — and selling them at grossly inflated prices.

That very evening, I drove my battered putty-colored ex-UPS Ford van — which came my way in an off-the-books transaction that included a 10-speed bicycle, a 12-string guitar, eight grams of sticky black opium and $200 cash — up the rutted road scratched onto Willie’s hand-drawn map. A few miles up the hill and, sure enough, there was a diminutive cinderblock building matching Willie’s verbal description. It was obviously associated with a long-abandoned mining operation. Probably, it was used to store explosives. It was maybe 12 feet by 12 feet and had only a couple very small windows near the roofline. In place of a door was a brightly colored fake Navajo blanket hanging from two nails.

The inside was surprisingly well tended. While hardly spotless, it was clean in a Thoreau/Walden Pond sort of way. There was a broom leaning against a wall. There was a small table and two chairs. There were several candle holders and an oil lamp. The walls were decorated with badly outdated calendars sporting incongruous pictures of snow-covered mountains.

And, in one corner could be found the goal of my quest: a twin-sized mattress. According to Willie, the shack in which the mattress was located was, much like the dump I called home, bequeathed from resident to resident and had been for many years. Remote and hidden as it was, the only way anyone would learn of its existence was to be told by someone who likely planned to move on. This marked the third time Willie had lived in the shack. Thus, he knew the mattress was an integral part of the residence. This knowledge led to a multi-tiered mental wrestling match on my part.

First, I felt a bit bad about horking a resident fixture from the domicile.

Second, I recoiled a bit when I considered the biological back-story of the mattress. A visual reconnoiter did nothing to assuage my concerns regarding the mosaic of stains that covered both sides. There were unidentifiable discolorations mixed with mysterious blotches interspersed with inexplicable smudges commingling with bewildering blemishes. Basically it looked like a biker-gang-related crime scene that had transpired in a Third World meatpacking plant. It’s fair to say the DNA was highly contaminated.

Yet I was not dissuaded by my uncharacteristic revulsion. Though, given its soiled condition, the mattress was much heavier than I expected, I wrestled it singlehandedly into my van and proceeded directly to my slum, happy as a pig in slop.


Phase Two: Slow Wave

Willie’s relationship with that mattress did not end with my run to the old mining shack he had lately called home.

Willie was what I would have to call a combination of background music and wallpaper. He was often there … at a party, at a cookout, when students gathered in the arroyo next to the Eckles Hall dormitory to get high. He rarely contributed anything besides his presence, which was pleasant in an unoffending sort of way. If he had drugs, which was not often, he would share them enthusiastically. Mostly though he was one of those people you didn’t notice was gone till he came back. He would add comments to a conversation but rarely commence discourse. He was physically unobtrusive, maybe five-five, 120 tops. He had deep brown eyes and high cheekbones rising above a badly pockmarked face. He wore a faded serape that looked like it was inherited from Clovis-era ancestors, and he wore it with dignity. His straight, shoulder-length jet-black hair was parted in the middle. He wore a bright-red bandanna around his head. He would have been a perfect subject for an Edwin Curtis photogravure.

Willie seemed like an orphan who made you want to foster him but not adopt him.

Just before Christmas break, three pretty, and pretty wild, women dropped by my Georgia Street hovel for a few days. I had met one of the ladies the previous summer. She had been working as a volunteer ranger at Badlands National Park up in South Dakota when I passed through on my way from Georgia to British Columbia. We hit it off. She and her two traveling companions, all from New York City, were navigating a behemoth drive-away stationwagon to Southern California and, since Silver City was less than an hour off Interstate 10, they detoured so the ranger lady and I might reconnect.

With two unattached vixens in town, friends came out of the woodwork, giving the women a choice of local male material as we planned various daytrips into the Gila National Forest, one of which was a hike to Turkey Creek Hot Springs, one of the most magically beauteous destinations in the entire Mountain Time Zone.

Vixen number-two invited a sorta buddy of mine, who I later learned practiced grand larceny as a sideline. He had lent me a brand-new IBM Selectric typewriter, which was the same kind of machine used by none other than Hunter S. Thompson! The grand larcenist said, since he had graduated, it was gathering dust in a closet and he knew I would put it to good use. At the time, I was working off an old manual Underwood I scored at a local pawnshop for $40, so the thought of upgrading to what was then the apex of typing technology was very appealing. Months later, while cleaning the electric typewriter, I turned it over and there on the bottom was a metal label describing it as property of Western New Mexico University. It had been heisted and I was therefore indirectly complicit in a felony perpetrated upon my alma mater.

I suppose the typewriter thief was using me — and who knows how many other people? — to store his ill-gotten goods until such time as he deemed it safe to fence them. Under cover of darkness, I carried the typewriter, along with an anonymous note explaining the situation, to the campus security office, where I left it on the front step.

When next I ran into my felonious friend, I told him I had some bad news: Someone had entered my abode, which was left perpetually unlocked, and made off with the Selectric he had so graciously lent me.

“Well, I think you should pay me for my loss,” he replied lamely.

“First, I need to file a police report,” I said. “As the actual owner, you’ll probably have to fill out some forms.”

The subject was never again broached.

But I did not know about my chum’s dark side as we were planning our foray to Turkey Creek.

The third woman invited Willie, who might have been taking advantage of the fact that she was breathlessly enamored of all things indigenous by embellishing his noble-savage bonafides. (Hell, for all I knew, maybe he was — as he intimated to the impressionable damsel — a direct descendent of both Geronimo and Cochise.) Willie was so stunned, he could scarcely stammer out an enthusiastic affirmative.

So, six of us piled into the behemoth stationwagon, which, according to the drive-away contract, was not to be used for any sort of extracurricular activities and furthermore was really most sincerely not to be taken on unpaved roads, and proceeded to navigate it for a solid hour down a track that was numerous operational levels beneath the description of “unpaved.”

We crossed the Gila River twice with that stationwagon, a decision that caused a certain amount of consternation on the part of the three women whose names were etched upon the drive-away contract. I assured them all would be well. This promise I made despite an applicable experience to the contrary. A scant year prior, with me serving as obstacle spotter while sitting on the hood of an old Datsun sedan, my associates and I got stuck up past the wheel wells while crossing this exact same stretch of the Gila and had to wait till the next morning for help while the car sat in the middle of a flow that rose with each passing hour. A four-wheel-drive pickup truck eventually came by and got itself stuck helping us, which necessitated waiting several more hours for another four-wheel-drive pickup to happen by and, with all three vehicles spinning tires, grinding gears and maxing out their tachometers, we managed by the skin of our teeth to get safely to high ground.

But these three ladies from New York City did not need to hear that. So, with yours truly at the wheel of a vehicle I had no vested interest in preserving, I recklessly gunned it across the Gila without issue, or at least without issue that concerned me.

It’s a solid 90-minute hike to Turkey Creek Hot Springs, two hours if you are ingesting handfuls of drugs, which the typewriter thief, Willie and I were doing with reckless abandon. The women not only did not partake, but they were all haughtily repulsed by what pretty much everyone I associated with in those days took as a behavioral given.

Oh, well.

The typewriter thief was standoffish during the entire experience. He was a refugee from the suburbs whose only interest in this outing took the form of the lady who had invited him. He was intimidated by the New Mexico wild.

Willie, on the other hand, was having the time of his life. Not only was he in a stunning locale he had never before visited with people whose company he was enjoying immensely, but he had for once in his life been purposefully included on the guest list. And by a buxom beauty who, as she effused on numerous occasions, found him to be one of the sweetest men she had ever met. She seemingly wanted to begin the process of bearing Willie’s children as soon as it was convenient for him to whip his noodle out.

Few things in the world trump contributing to someone else’s well-deserved happiness.

We enjoyed some skinny-dipping in the hot springs, followed by a nice picnic lunch the ladies had prepared. I wandered upstream a few hundred yards to doze in the late-autumn sun. Though the creek was noisy enough that it served as an acoustic buffer, some verbal commotion interrupted my reverie. At first, I thought it was just my compadres messing around. As my attention focused, however, I could hear my name being called in a tone and at a volume that clearly indicated all was not well, that the cosmos had just taken a big nasty ol’ shit right in the middle of a here-and-now that, scant seconds prior, had been downright agreeable on all levels. My friends were flat the fuck freaking out. Hands were raised above heads like a combination of a Southern Baptist revival and a chainsaw-based horror movie. People were running willy-nilly and bumping into each other. Sandwiches were flying every which way. I dashed back and there lying on the ground was Willie in the midst of the worst grand mal seizure I have to this day ever seen. The dude looked like he had been plugged into a 240-volt electric socket at the same time he had been possessed by a particularly malevolent demon. He was jerking so badly that, even with my full body weight attempting to restrain him, he continued to flail wildly.

Foam spewed forth from his mouth like an unattended high-pressure firehouse running amok and his eyes were rolled back so far we could not see his irises, much less his pupils. Various important body parts, like, as but one random example, his head, kept banging into proximate boulders. Blood mixed with sand.

This situation was the denotation of “buzzkill.”

The three women were far too busy screaming and running into each other and dropping sandwiches to be of much assistance. And the typewriter thief just stood there, hands limply at his sides, looking lost and forlorn.

My spontaneous plan was to minimize the thrashing-based physiological damage and to try to talk Willie back to our particular skewed version of reality. Eventually he returned. He was dazed and disoriented in the extreme. He wanted to know why I was lying on his chest and why I was telling him everything would be OK in a voice unambiguously suggesting I had to earthly belief anything would ever again be even remotely OK.

This situation was exacerbated by the sobering realization that we had before us a hike across rugged terrain, punctuated with many sketchy creek crossings. Willie was wobbly. He needed two of us at his side to make any forward progress. He stumbled often and this sweet kid was fast turning seriously belligerent to the point of combativeness. He simply could not understand what was going on. He had no recollection of his seizure and argued that we were making it up just to embarrass him. One by one, the women fell away exhausted and distraught, and the typewriter thief walked ahead as fast as his pitiful excuse for legs would carry him. I believe I even saw him flapping his arms trying to fly away.

So, for much of the hike out, it was just Willie and I.

It took us four hours to reach the waist-deep Gila River, which we had to cross on foot to reach the stationwagon. The whole way, Willie fought me. I had to resort to every variation on the cajoling theme I could mentally muster. I encouraged him. I related stories of our various partying escapades. I lied through my teeth by telling him how much fun we would have with those three women once we got back to town. I called him a fucking pussy and disparaged every bad-ass Native American stereotype I could think of. None of it worked individually. All of it worked in the aggregate.

When we finally and thank-godfully made it back to the behemoth stationwagon, we put the seatback down and laid out Willie — who was then, like all of us, soaked from the river crossing. The three women gathered around and took turns talking encouragingly, while the typewriter thief stared glumly out the window. There was little else to do on the first-aid front during those pre-cell phone days

With the last tendrils of dusk hovering above canyon walls almost 4,000 feet deep, I inched that old stationwagon across the Gila, knowing full well that the last thing we needed was to get stuck in the middle of the river. I then drove a bit faster than prudence normally would have dictated down the rutted and serpentine dirt road that would eventually connect us with pavement outside the village of Gila, from where I redlined the car, which, by then, was sporting a few more unidentifiable rattles than it had before our trip commenced 10 hours prior.

Topping out at 100, we made it back to Silver City in less than half an hour. My goal was the emergency room of our local hospital, a long-since-demolished haunted-house-looking facility that had as much a reputation for inexplicable death as it did for restoration of health and well being. First, though, the indignant typewriter thief demanded I take him home. He had been muttering for several hours about how he could not believe what a fucked-up outing he had signed on for and how he would never under any circumstances even consider joining us for another foray, no matter how many unattached lasses we could offer as company. I told him I would drop him off at a street corner that would necessitate him walking maybe 15 blocks. He harrumphed and egressed the stationwagon without saying good-bye or even closing the door.

We were greeted promptly at the emergency entrance by two attendants, one of whom placed Willie, who was by this point bouncing between quiet detachment, overt discombobulation and profanity-laced belligerence, in a wheelchair, and one of whom transcribed my recollection of events. There were numerous questions to both Willie and I regarding types and amounts of illegal intoxicants recently ingested. I was slightly embarrassed that I could not recollect exact pharmacology and specific dosages.

“Many and much” was the best I could do.

When he was asked if had ever experienced a seizure before, Willie mumbled, “I fell down once when I was young.”

The three women returned to my Georgia Street residence. They sped away at first light.

I sat exhausted in the waiting room. Several hours later, a young male doctor came out and reported to me that they had performed several tests, which showed, yes, Willie had indeed suffered a grand mal seizure. The doctor could tell I was spent. He put a hand on my shoulder and said, in all likelihood, Willie would fully recover, but they wanted to keep him for a couple days just to be on the safe side

The doctor then whispered: “You did all the right things under the circumstances. There’s not much else you could have done. He’s lucky to have a friend like you.”

I went to Willie’s room to see how he was doing. He was heavily sedated. He looked comfortable lying, maybe for the first time in his life, on a plush mattress on clean sheets in a sterile roomful of beeping and blinking monitors with an IV bag hanging next to him and a clear hose running to his exposed forearm.

I went back to the hospital two days later. Though there was little more they could do, the doctor was reluctant to release Willie, since he apparently had no home address and no one to look after him.

“He can stay at my place till he gets better,” I heard myself saying.

Willie rested on that same disgusting mattress for the better part of a week. His nocturnal agitation was so intense, I slept out in the backyard. One morning, when I went inside, he was gone. No note. No Nothing. Just gone.

I did not see Willie for several months. As buds began appearing on the elms lining the streets of Silver City’s historic district, he stopped by out of the blue, not quite acting as though nothing had transpired that day along Turkey Creek, but almost. We smoked a joint he brought with him, talked about upcoming final examinations — which I would be halfheartedly taking and he, once again, would be missing. A few other friends came and went, but Willie extended his visit, apparently purposefully.

“Do you ever hear from those women?” he asked, casually, once we were alone.

“Nah. Seemed like that ship sailed.”

“Sorry I fell down that day,” he said, staring stoically straight ahead.

“You feeling better?”

“I don’t know.”

There was an awkward silence.

“When I woke up and you were holding me down and calling my name, I thought you were an angel,” Willie said. “Your head was glowing and you had wings.”

I couldn’t for the life of me figure how he made me out to be a member in good stead of the heavenly host. Maybe the sun was at my back, illuminating my unkempt locks. And maybe two of our cohorts were standing behind me in such a way that their bodies appeared to a man lying on his back emerging incrementally from a seizure as feathery appendages.

Either way, it marked the first time in my devilish existence I had ever been mistaken for a divine being.

After another long silence, Willie asked: “That mattress still working out?”

“Yes it is,” I said. “I appreciate you pointing me toward it.”

And, with those few allusive sentences, we both understood my mattress-based debt to Willie had been paid in full, with interest duly accrued.

I spent the summer working as a night watchman on a paddle-wheeler on the Mississippi River. Midway through the next fall semester, I realized I had not seen Willie since I returned from the humid hell of the Big Muddy. No one seemed to know what had become of him. To this day, I have heard nary a syllable about his whereabouts or his condition.


Phase Three: Paradoxical

That nasty mattress stayed with me for several years. It alternated between the floor of the various slums I called home and the back of my battered van. It was while taking refuge in that van that it absorbed additional stains.

There was a post-midterm Bacchanal scheduled for the Middle Box of the Gila River, just downriver from where I extricated Willie from his seizure nightmare. I drove to the correct coordinates and spent an appropriate number of hours engaging in academic discourse with people whose tongues were lolling out of their mouths. Somewhere between dusk and dawn, I decided it was time to part ways with my fellow revelers, most of whom, like me, were too hammered to articulate proper valedictions.

One person who was face-planted into the sand bordering the river was an amigo I’ll call Hawk, who was, even by New Mexico’s forgiving cultural barometer, a strange hombre. He was, first of all, 20 years the senior of most every student at our local college. He had opted to return to the classroom with a grey beard and arthritic hands bent into perpetual claws partially because he was tired of living a bottom-feeder hippie lifestyle and partially because he, a Vietnam veteran, qualified for generous financial aid. And, because he had a young son, he was also given a subsidized on-campus apartment, which he shared with an extended tribe of fellow Rainbow Family members, most of whom were named Moonbeam, Cinnamon and Dancing Bear.

Hawk was a talented and passionate writer who I employed to work for me at the student newspaper, which I edited for three years. We became friends, though I have to admit his omnipresent philosophical eccentricity often negatively impacted my attempts to seduce some of the coeds who then traveled on the periphery of my social trapezoid.

Hawk maintained a working still in the back of his apartment. The still was actually owned and operated by a crusty old hard-rock miner I’ll call Cactus Jack. Cactus Jack, who passed away several weeks after being thrown from a highway overpass by someone who was never identified, much less brought to justice, was an in-your-face barroom evangelist who downed boilermakers at the Drifter Lounge in between rambling tabletop invocations. He also taught me how to pan for gold, a skill I managed over the years to parlay into numerous paid writing assignments, including the first piece I ever sold to Backpacker magazine, where I ended up working as a contributing editor for more than a decade.

Hawk drank Cactus Jack’s homemade moonshine like he was trying to drown something dark. This often resulted in a loss of not only coherency but also consciousness. Which was clearly the case as the post-midterm gathering at the Middle Box was embering its way toward dissipation. Though I suspected I would later grow to regret it, I dragged Hawk back to my van by one leg and leveraged his dazed carcass onto the mattress. I tried to impart some salient information — stuff like who I was and where I was taking him — but all he could do was snore, drool and yak, adding extra layers of DNA to my already-repulsive rack.

Halfway home, I had to stop to take a leak. I pulled over near Saddle Rock, exited the van and relieved myself. As I was doing so, I shouted back, asking Hawk if he was OK. I heard a groan that sounded more or less affirmative in nature, which, in my mind, meant he was still alive, if not exactly kicking.

Twenty miles later, I parked in front of his apartment and walked around to help my sloshed chum inside, only to observe that, where I expected Hawk to be, he was not. This was more of a concern than it might have been in ordinary circumstances, since my van did not have any doors. There was no driver-side door. There was no passenger-side door. Where there were normally two side doors, there were no doors. Where there once had been two back doors, there were no doors. I had removed all six doors because they, being rusted through and ready to fall off anyhow, rattled loudly and that noise bothered me. While a lack of doors did not exactly improve the overall safety coefficient of the vehicle, it sufficiently addressed the noise issue while simultaneously providing a 360-degree vista.

Admittedly, I was not thinking all that clearly, but, still, I was able to mentally muster a plausible explanation regarding my missing muchacho: He had obviously fallen out of my van somewhere between Saddle Rock and where I now stood bumfuzzled. There was of course only one option: I had to drive back to initiate a salvage run for whatever might be left of Hawk.

I pointed my van west on U.S. Highway 180, entertaining while I did so the myriad potential negative possibilities I was facing.

First, there was a good chance I would not locate Hawk, at least until daybreak. If he had indeed rolled out the back of the van, he likely had careened off the road into the brush.

Still, it was possible he had thudded down in the middle of the blacktop, upon which case he would likely have been run over, maybe several times. While the thought of Hawk with tire tracks across his chest made me wince, those thoughts eventually wandered to potential interfaces with the judicial system. What was my culpability? Was I to blame for whatever harm might have befallen my buddy, inadvertent as my actions might have been?

What if I rounded a bend and there was an ambulance and a gaggle of sheriff’s cars, lights a-blazing, while a team of paramedics attempted to revive a moonshine-breathed man whose last words were “John Fayhee.” I myself was inebriated. My driver’s license was both long lost and long expired. I had no insurance. Because I had acquired my van under extra-legal circumstances, I had no vehicle registration.

I could be in deep mierda.

This indeed presented an ethical conundrum.

I mean, I liked Hawk just fine, but not enough to go to prison for him, especially if he was already expired.

By the time all these thoughts were bouncing around in my head like pinballs on speed, I rounded a bend and there on the shoulder was Hawk, upright, but staggering badly, headed in exactly the wrong direction. I pulled over and asked if he wanted a ride.

“Why did you leave me?” he slurred pitifully.

“I figured you needed the exercise,” I responded with faux nonchalance camouflaging a degree of relief that almost had me in tears. It was all I could do to refrain from hugging Hawk there on the side of the highway.

Ended up that, when I yelled after his well being while I was urinating, he attained something approximating functional coherency, and, as I was returning to my position as pilot of my pitiful excuse for transportation, he simultaneously got out to relieve himself. He said he was quite startled to see me drive off.

“I was pissing as fast as I could!” he exclaimed. “You should be more patient!”

True, that.

I helped him back on the mattress and took him home without further mishap.

That mattress and I parted ways when I abandoned a primitive camp way out in the desert. The mattress had been placed on the ground next to a big juniper, where I slept night after night under the stars with a dog and a cat — who added to the stain milieu by bearing four kittens upon it. When monsoon season hit full force, I was backpacking in the Gila Wilderness and the mattress got soaked beyond salvation. I left it beneath the tree, where its remnants might still lie.

As for the van, which by then hardly ran: When I moved to Colorado in 1982, I handed the keys to a man I hardly knew. I took a bus north, to begin life anew in a place where climatic reality required doors.


Phase Four: Rapid Eye Movement

Last week, with mattress-based thoughts swirling in my head, I decided to try to hunt that old shack down, the homey little place from which, with Willie’s directions, I had liberated that funky mattress. The dirt road now has a formal, though prosaic, name: Radio Tower Road — which, not surprisingly, accesses the summit of two peaks that are thick with various species of antennae, dishes, discs and, in all likelihood, electronic surveillance apparatus owned and operated by Homeland Security, which maintains a noticeable, some would say obtrusive, un-Constitutional presence in the borderland area.

When I sought that well-used mattress all those years ago, few people traveled up this road. The mining operations, the remnants of which are visible from the highway connecting Silver City with Pinos Altos, had long been abandoned and, in those delightfully primitive days, the peaks were clear of electronics. Thus, there was no reason to maintain the road. Few people drove up there. Now, with the texting needs of thousands of people depending upon the upkeep of those antennae, dishes and discs, Radio Tower Road is frequently graded and therefore is smooth enough to accommodate passenger vehicles.

I parked at the bottom and, with my dog, set out on foot, opting to combine a stroll down memory lane with some exercise.

With rain clouds forming thickly overhead, we took off toward the summit of the mountain with the most antennae. The road contoured along the face of the ridge, passing into and out of numerous side drainages.


Ahead, in the middle of some of the various mine-tailing piles, I visually acquired my target. Because of the serpentine nature of the road, it took a half-hour to get there, and, when I did, the shack was nowhere to be seen. It was either hidden by trees, or perhaps I had seen something that, from a distance, was a mirage. I continued on toward the summit, but was stopped cold with a no-nonsense no trespassing sign and a locked gate.

On the way back down, I walked more slowly, examining the lay of the land, which was dominated by trash — the bane of rural New Mexico. There was plenty of simple litter: fast-food packaging, beer and soda cans and broken glass. There were uncountable of shell casings, as this, like many areas in the sunny Southwest, is utilized with enthusiasm by people opting to bear arms without opting to clean up after themselves.

There was also a stunning amount of household refuse dumped off the side of the road. Entire truckloads of discarded appliances and furniture filled otherwise scenic side canyons. Intertwined in that refuse were several mattresses. I stood there, raindrops pattering off my hat, wondering about the stories those mattresses might tell. Few household items can trump mattresses for narrative resonance. Dreams. Lovemaking. Going to bed mad. Illness. Scared toddlers looking for parental comfort. Abandonment. Disconsolation. Fretfulness. Prayer. Death.

All reduced to garbage.


I exited the road and entered into one of the dead zones defined by deserted mining operations. While there is much to admire about the place such enterprises hold in the mythology of the Wild West — ingenuity, toughness, vision — the truth of the matter is that most long disused mine sites are ecological disasters with half-lives measured in centuries. I always tiptoe across their toxic soil with trepidation, as though the host of poisons contained therein might seep through the soles of my boots like radioactive Ebola. I breathe less deeply. I wince when viewing the unnatural coloration that defines the polluted pallet of abandoned mines.

Right in the middle of a sea of crumbled cinder was the shack. It had seen some hard times since my last visit. One side was riddled with pockmarks left by point-blank weapons discharge. It looked like the wall of a firing squad facility. There was no colorful Navajo blanket. No candles. No table and chair. No calendars. The inside was a disgusting muddy mess, with what I guessed to be uninspired occult designs on the walls. Dark sullen dankness defined the ambiance. The thought that this place was once used as a domicile, even by people with nowhere else to hang their hat, was impossible to fathom. The thought that I once pilfered a mattress from these dreary confines made my skin crawl at the same time it made me smile.

Like many people knocking with gnarled fists upon the door of their sixth decade, I find myself wistfully mentally wandering back to days when I did not have more parts that hurt than parts that do not hurt. When my back was straight and fully able to solo wrestle a mattress from a shack into the back of a doorless van. When I crashed on whatever came between me and the cold, hard ground.



Phase Five: Awakening

Concurrent with the decision to buy a new mattress is the question of what we will do with the mattress that now serves as the setting for my slumber. I have spent more time directly connected to that mattress than I have any other piece of furniture I own. Certainly, it does not have the historic cachet of my desk, which was once owned by a famous personality. It does not have the coolness of our oak dining room table or our Victorian couch.

Still — upon that mattress, I have pulled the covers around my chin on many a rainy morning. I have taken multitudinous afternoon naps. I have played hand-under-the-blanket with our purring cat for hours on end. Upon its folds, I have dreamed of crossing mountain ridges that defied the laws of gravity. I have dreamed of sailing to Greenland through cold seas with waves as high as the moon. Upon its folds, I have lied awake at 3 a.m. attempting to fabricate a suitable denouement for a nearly finished essay. I have tossed and turned over missed deadlines. I have passed out drunk upon its glorious ridges and folds more times than I care to count. Upon it I writhed for almost three weeks when infected with the H1N1 flu virus. It is upon that mattress that my wife and I consoled each other the night we had to put our old dog down. And it was upon that mattress that I lay prostrate for a week, knocked woozy by painkillers, when I hurt my back three days before we were scheduled to leave on a trip to Cuba.

With all mattresses, there is yin and there is yang. Most of us come in on a mattress and most of us will go out on one, too.

I suspect we will take that mattress to the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store on the other side of town. We recycle the detritus of our almost embarrassingly middle-class life there fairly frequently. Last time, it was two badly outdated light fixtures placed in our house by the people who built it during the Summer of Love. Before I even passed onto the Re-Store property, a woman probably 70 years old who pulled up behind me effused about how lovely those butt-ugly fixtures were. She offered me $5 on the spot. I told her she was welcome to them and she acted the same way I did when I scored that mattress from the shack that now pockmarked with bullet holes.

One person’s trash is indeed another person’s treasure.

The mattress we will soon discard will make a good bed for someone. I hope it will see long-remembered bedtime stories and giggly slumber parties and passionate lovemaking. I hope it will provide comfort when the flu visits and on the day when the old dog is sent over the rainbow bridge. I hope it becomes a snug bastion in an unpredictable world, a world where sometimes you get a surprise invite to join three buxom lasses on a trip to a beautiful hot spring and sometimes you get left on the side of a lonesome highway while taking a piss under the deep dark New Mexico sky.


Smoke Signals

Guest appearance on The Trail Show podcast

Two weeks ago, I was a guest on The Trail Show podcast, recorded in beautiful Boulder, Colorado. I was just informed that the show is now live and, should you find yourself with gobs of free time, I would humbly advise a listen. The discussion of Mexico’s Copper Canyon — overwhelmed as usual with my babbling — starts at the 45-minute mark. The discussion of Edward Abbey and the movie “Wrenched” (ditto) starts about 1:18.

Smoke Signals

Sinking Fast: Or: The one time I almost came to believe there just might actually be an almighty celestial entity


Part One


“Oh god forgive my mind when I come home.”

— Brandi Carlile, “Wherever Is Your Heart I Call Home”


It was dead smack in the temporal epicenter of yet another of my many not-exactly-making-any-positive-headway periods. I was once again simultaneously treading water and spinning wheels — a resident in good stead of inertia-based cliché city — when I found myself working as slave labor for under-the-table peanuts at a fading-glory marina located upon the muddy and misty shores of one of the many lazy estuaries lining the Chesapeake Bay. I was an unskilled odd-jobs specialist whose duties consisted primarily of painting long-neglected exterior walls that suffered continual impact from the sultry saltwater air. I removed more mold and rot than I applied new paint, though, occasionally, when no one was looking, I’d slather big gobs of bright liquid color onto the ongoing, ever-present decomposition. Occasionally, when things got busy dockside — mainly on weekends — I would be asked to lend a hand with procedures relating to the orderly ingress and egress of watercraft often being steered by people boasting a comical combination of insouciance, ineptitude and intoxication.

Though some slips were occasionally occupied by folks who were living enviable variations on the lean sailor-bum theme, by and large, the marina’s customers predictably consisted of well-nourished folks of more-than-adequate means. The oft-ostentatious manifestations of that affluence — which bore telling names like “Profit Motive,” “Just Desserts” and “Golden Parachute”— were plus-or-minus equally divided between vessels powered by wind and by internal combustion. Either way, the boat owners were generally a convivial lot, insofar as they were not opposed to inviting unkempt members of the working class aboard for a happy hour cocktail or two. Certainly, that hospitality would not have extended to having an unwashed soul such as myself marrying into their clan, but sharing a casual evening beverage with the hoi polloi seemed culturally acceptable. Which, in my limited experience dealing with the upper fiscal crust, amounted to a downright enlightened attitude. For the most part, these were people who may have been spared the guillotine had violent civic upheaval rained down upon their floating plutocratic parade.

There were certainly exceptions. Sometimes, these exceptions were macro in nature, in that they could cover entire finger-snapping crews — from captains on down to deckhands — of boats appropriately christened “Gauche Nouveau Riche Douchebag,” or some such, which had fetched our humble port.

Sometimes, those exceptions were more micro, in that only a single member of a ship’s complement would make the notion of fomenting immediate class-based revolution seem appealing, despite the undeniable negative fiscal ramifications such action would consequently trickle down upon those of us who drove battered vans with dangling fenders and who dwelled in rundown trailers way out in the mosquito-infested fringes of this squishy-moist land and whose watercraft options consisted of semi-rotted wooden canoes liberated from the local Boy Scout troop, of which I was once a member in good stead.

One especially stifling mid-July Friday late afternoon, I was summoned to lend a hand dockside. I sealed my half-empty gallon can, placed my brush upon its top and, with crimson trim paint dripping from my fingers and splattered upon my locks and my ragged attire — making me look like a cross between an ax murderer and roadkill — I walked down into the unpredictable, though sometimes amusing, realm of upscale maritime sociology.

An undeniable advantage of working at a marina — and the main reason I agreed to help out, though it was close to quitting time — was, while most customers were dwelling happily in their golden years, it was not unusual for passenger manifests to include nubile, comely and scantily clad lasses of prime breeding age. Daughters and granddaughters usually, but sometimes friends of the family and sometimes with no discernible blood relation to anyone onboard. (Questions regarding verifiable taxonomy in those instances were rarely posed, at least in the bright light of day.) Whenever a new boat pulled in, there was a veritable elbow-swinging, “Road Warrior”-like death race among the male marina workers to get first flirtation dibs should an unattached babe disembark.

Such was the case this go-round. She was maybe 18, going on 25, petite, buxom, shapely, tanned, minimally attired and a doe-eyed dirty blonde. It did not take long for all the raging testosterone in attendance to come to the sobering and disconcerting conclusion she was toxicity incarnate. Every pore upon her smooth skin oozed arrogant entitlement. She bitched about the heat and humidity. She griped about the lack of shade. She moaned because not a single one of the proximate workers had thought to release the mooring lines in their hands to bring her an unbidden cold beverage. She sneered. She rolled her eyes. She growled. She raised her nose skyward. She was a one-woman malevolent low-pressure system who brought with her the undeniable potential for thunderstorms and maybe even a deadly hurricane.

Her clearly mortified parents sported facial expressions bespeaking a barely suppressed desire to toss their hideous spawn overboard at the next deep-sea opportunity. Yet they did not attempt to intercede in any way. They seemed exasperated, powerless and relieved their offspring was spewing her venomous insolence outward rather than toward them.

As we were still going about basic docking procedures, the boat that unfortunately carried the horrid young lady across roiling waters to our midst — about a 40-foot impeccably clean and tidy bright white fiberglass motor yacht — was drawing the attention of the sizeable resident seagull population, which was always ready to pounce upon a neglected food item. The gulls circled and squawked and a few brazen individuals even lighted upon the stern. The attention of one particular gull, however, seemed focused upon the horrid young lady whose dissatisfaction with everything and everybody within earshot was fast reaching stentorian fever pitch.

The gull flew back and forth several times, losing a bit of altitude with each passing swoop. Then, with a degree of targeting exactitude that would be the envy of every Top Gun pilot ever to don Navy blue, this seagull loosed a full load of shit directly atop the young lady’s head.

In those days, almost every Caucasian female on the planet under the age of 30 wore shoulder-length hair parted front-to-back exactly down the middle. This young lady subscribed wholeheartedly to that unimaginative fashion template. A professional cake decorator wielding a precision frosting nib could not have lined the seagull shit out anymore perfectly along the exact center of this lady’s razor-straight hair part.

And I am not talking about a light load of shit. It was as though the seagull had breakfasted upon a double order of green-chile-infused huevos con chorizo. This was one huge pile of seagull shit. And it landed with an audible splat impactful enough that the young lady winced a bit when it hit. She, of course, had no earthly idea what manner of foulness had soiled her crown.

She instinctively lifted her hand to investigate. Unfortunately for her, the hand came down open palmed with a bit more force than the situation merited. Had this seagull excrement taken a more traditional solid, or even semi-solid, turd form, perhaps her instinctive action would have resulted in fewer negative consequences. As it was, the pile had little in the way of molecular integrity. Think a consistency of dysentery-infused guacamole. Nasty shit. She reacted like she was swatting a horsefly that had bitten a big chunk out of her scalp. The resultant multi-vectored trajectory of the seagull shit was reminiscent of a child jumping into a mud puddle. The entire top of her head became adorned with fecal mousse. She was essentially sporting a defecation yarmulke.

Yet she still did not know what had transpired. It was not until her mitt came down to face level that the grim situational truth hit home via a combination of intense visual and olfactory input. Her pretty face instantaneously contorted into a grim, horror-movie caricature of itself. It was reminiscent of those over-the-top Photo Booth selfies that distort one’s mug till it looks like it’s melting on the computer screen. She momentarily froze, her visage bespeaking an attitude that said, “This kind of thing does not happen to me, especially in front of a slew of plebian strangers.”

Lamentably for this now-literally-odious female, the incident unfolded in front of a rather large audience, whose attention had been focused for some minutes on the girl because of her obnoxiously boisterous attitude (well, that and her undeniable attributes). The reaction was not even slightly sympathetic. No one stepped forth to volunteer to de-shit her locks. There were barely stifled guffaws from people occupying nearby boats. Close-at-hand fishermen and crabbers chortled and pointed and howled things like, “In all my years, I’ve never seen a seagull shit right on someone’s head!!!!” Even the girl’s parents had snot streamers spurting great distances from their nostrils. The marina employees were lying prostrate on the dock choking with sidesplitting laughter.

The young lady, already dealing with tresses overflowing with the foulest form of excreta imaginable, found herself the subject of overt ridicule as the words “seagull,” “shit” and “head” spread like wildfire from the core of the marina to the restaurant/bar, to the swimming pool, clear out to the facility’s chain-linked periphery, where people took their pets to relieve themselves. Folks who had not witnessed the event ran from distant realms in hopes of catching a glimpse of the shit-headed teenager, who was currently in the throes of apoplectic convulsions.

The crowd was increasing by the minute. That someone did not think to quickly erect an admission kiosk to sell tickets to view the amazing shit-headed teenager was surprising.

Throughout what was quickly becoming a chaotic circus-like atmosphere, I was the lone person who stood frozen and expressionless, a limp bowline still in my possession. My gobsmacked amazement overwhelmed my motor reflexes.

My gaze kept moving from the girl’s shit-covered head to the seagull, back to the girl’s head, back to the seagull, which was cackling victoriously as it continued to circle above, just out of reach. Others saw the shit hit the vixen’s head, but no one else had seen the buildup, how the gull had flown back and forth, sizing up its target not once, not twice, but three times, before opening its anal bomb bay doors and discharging its sizeable payload.

There could only have been three possible explanations for this unlikely occurrence, all of which shared a common degree of overt, undeniable implausibility.

1) It might have been a case of pure happenstance, one requiring an uninterrupted line of highly unlikely compounding component coincidences stretching clear back to when some sub-sentient Pleistocene slime creature farted, effecting a butterfly’s wing flap, which itself caused a pinball cascade through time immemorial clear up to the point where that big load of shit hit the girl’s head. This possibility I did not consider likely.

2) Maybe there was actual premeditation on the part of the seagull, an animal with a brain the size of a pea. Yes, perhaps this winged creature hatched and executed a deliciously devious plan of attack upon the young lady’s cranium because, like the humans standing on the dock, the seagull was irritated by her unpleasant demeanor. I also considered this scenario highly unlikely, though there is no denying a seagull’s penchant for participating in behavior easily classified as seemingly intentionally irritating.

3) Or perhaps there were greater forces at play. Cosmological-level forces. In order for the offending gull to accurately lay a massive load of mucilaginous caca upon the noggin of the young lady, there, somewhere in the great unknown beyond, had to exist a supernatural drone pilot joyously manipulating a joystick wired to the seagull’s onboard navigation systems.

I was stunned to realize the most logical conclusion was the least logical, the most supernatural. I mean, six billion years of planetary cohesion is not near long enough to account for the fortuity necessary for the load of seagull shit to have serendipitously hit the girl on the head at the exact crescendo of her opera of obnoxiousness. And anyone who has spent any time around the coast knows seagulls are far too stupid to concoct any plan more sophisticated than “nab unattended piece of rancid fish bait from the boat railing.”

Ergo: For the first and only time in my life, I felt there might actually be an almighty celestial entity, one with the kind of sense of humor that would look down upon a creaky wooden dock in a rural Virginia hamlet and notice a young lady who karmically deserved to have a shockingly voluminous load of seagull shit deposited atop her head. Then to do it, to steer a seagull with sufficiently laden bowels to the right point in time and space, with an itchy though patient finger on the eject button, thinking “not yet … not yet … not yet … NOW!!!” That’s the kind of sky daddy I could grow to appreciate and maybe even worship. Way more so than the kind inclined to smote cities and turn people into salt pillars simply because they were curious.

I found myself in the disorienting position of being on the verge of metaphysical metamorphosis.

Before I could cogitate further upon the potential quantum implications associated with this shit-based event, my stream of consciousness was rudely interrupted by a terrifying screech. The young lady was rapidly descending into full freak-out mode. Her orbs bulged. Her entire body started to quiver. It was like she had been possessed and was in sudden need of an emergency exorcism. Had her head spun completely around while spewing vile bile, I would not have been surprised in the least. Suddenly, without warning, or at least action-specific warning, the damsel-in-distress took off at a dead sprint. Her goal appeared to be the safety and privacy of her family’s large boat. In her temporary, shit-stained rage, her aim was understandably askew. Rather than finding refuge in familiar environs, she almost immediately lost her balance and tumbled off the dock. This was not a graceful entrance into the aquatic environment. It was an ass-over-teakettle, limbs flailing, face-first flop, which only served to exacerbate the guffaws, chortles and side-splitting laughter.

The tide being low, the water was only about five feet deep, which meant the girl — who I’m certain is to this day stricken with a paralyzing combination of ornithophobia and scatophobia — could, once she achieved physical equilibrium, stand upright with her face high and dry, but not by much. She was, however, a psychic mess. Though her less-than-graceful interface with the briny drink had dissolved much of the seagull shit, she was still weeping and pulling at her hair as though her now-sodden locks were on fire. Her pitiable circumstance raised the spectators’ amusement factor even more. Tears were rolling down people’s faces. There was life-threatening hyperventilation. Even her parents were bent over, almost puking with hysterics.

The situation was no longer funny.

I climbed down a barnacle-covered ladder and slowly moved toward the disconsolate teenager, who seemed more helpless little girl than potential sexual quarry. I spoke calmly and tried to soothe her. She stopped blubbering long enough to look my way. I thought she was starting to chill, to maybe even realize her situation, however embarrassing, was really no big deal. However, as I approached, her eyes saucer-sized and she screamed so loudly there were acoustic ripples on the surface of the otherwise glassy water.

“What the fucking fuck?” I growled exasperatedly.

“SHARK!!!” she shrieked, while pointing at me. She began backstroking with extreme avidity.

Only then did I look down and realize the water immediately surrounding me was bloody. Intensely so. I heard “Oh shit!” spring from my mouth as I began reflexively thrashing.

All laughter stopped and all jaws dropped, for it was instantly assumed by those there gathered that, given the undeniable bright-red aspect of water, what was going on was no longer a kind-hearted, albeit disheveled, marina employee helping to soothe a young lady who was humiliated on several levels, but, rather, some sort of noteworthy subsurface carnivore action. When you live in a coastal area, you hear stories — apocryphal on a good day — about how, when people are attacked by a shark, the bite can be so clean the victim — forevermore known as “Stumpy” — does not realize he or she has been attacked until he or she reaches down to grope for an appendage no longer there. I had never heard of any shark sightings hereabouts, but it’s not like there was a fence between the marina and the open ocean to keep them out. With great trepidation, I began to explore my lower extremities.

It was me who was now hyperventilating. For, you see, one of the reasons I never became a true ocean person, despite spending my formative years close to the Atlantic, was, somewhere along the line, I developed a not-entirely-irrational fear of sharks. I don’t know for certain the movie “Jaws” was responsible, but it certainly aided and abetted the discomfort I felt — and continue to feel — toward every member of the superorder Selachimorpha. To this day, I rarely enter salt water without keeping a steel eye peeled for dorsal fins.

And here I was, standing in a murky estuary listening to a mad woman who lately had her head shit upon by a passing seagull yelling “SHARK!!!” at the top of her lungs.

At that exact moment, the owner of the marina — a greasy little tyrant detested by everyone who knew him — walked around the corner and, oblivious to recent events, froze dead in his tracks. A ream of papers tucked under one of his flaccid, stubby little arms fell onto the dock, subsequently to be borne by the wind into the river. What he saw was two people flailing about in blood-red water — one of whom was still yelling “SHARK!!!” and one of whom — me — was flapping his arms so violently, it looked like he was trying to achieve flight at the same time he was exclaiming “oh shit oh shit oh shit ” while a captive audience surveyed the scene with a combination of stunned dismay and scarcely disguised amusement. He raised a nubby digit, pointed to my general quadrant, lips moving though no discernible words forthcoming, spun half a turn and fainted, hitting dock like a sack of spuds. For all anyone knew, he had just died of a heart attack. Under normal circumstances, that would have been cause for folks to respond in some manner, since he owned the marina where all this was going on. Given the choice of watching a long-haired weirdo getting devoured by a shark, while a bikini-clad, shit-headed vixen backstroked in the opposite direction at 30 knots or administering CPR to a greasy little tyrant, well, that was no contest.

By the time I completed my underwater assessment of my body parts, all of which seemed present and accounted for, the young lady was about halfway to Spain. At last, I came to a happy realization: The redness of the water was not caused by any sort of shark attack, but, rather, by the paint coating my entire vocational life seeping off my clothing, hands and hair into the water.

“It’s OK,” I shouted with considerable relief, “it’s only paint!”

Everyone groaned in obvious disappointment and began to disperse. The young lady’s parents, who were still having trouble reengaging their respiratory systems, like their reaction to their daughter’s adversity had been building up since the nanosecond she popped out of the womb, finally regained their authoritative equilibrium and demanded in no uncertain terms that she knock off this theatrical nonsense and return post haste to terra firma. She was last seen receiving a ration of finger-wagging grief for “making such a scene and embarrassing us all,” while being led firmly by the shoulder to the confines of her family’s boat, still pulling nervously at her hair. From inside the cabin, I could hear yelling, though I could not make out what was being said.

I ascended the barnacle-covered stairs and parked on a nearby bench to gather what few wits I yet retained, while my fellow marina employees desultorily helped the marina owner, who, though badly bumfuzzled, was, sadly, not dead, to his feet. Once he was more-or-less oriented, he realized all his important papers were heading out to sea. “A week’s work lost,” he lamented. “Maybe they could be saved,” he halfheartedly hinted to one of the dock boys, who, once he realized the man who signed his paychecks was on the road to recovery, snickered and walked away. The sleazy marina owner stumbled back to his own boat, a 70-foot ornate schooner that boasted a life-sized, hand-carved, naked, voluptuous mermaid on the bowsprit.

Cocktail hour had kicked in and all around the sounds of affable, alcohol-infused chitchat could be heard above the squawks of the seagull flocks.


Part Two


“I want all the women

all the money

and all the fun


I want every rainbow

all the marbles

and a personalized introduction to God


I want a death list

transparent skin

and a cat with no fur


I want everything

I have nothing

I will negotiate”

— klipschutz, “america”


Since it was well past the end of the workday, I could have driven my battered van with dangling fenders to my rundown trailer way out in the mosquito-infested fringes of this squishy-moist land. Instead, I opted to fetch my semi-rotted wooden canoe — 14 feet long with enough remaining flecks I could tell it was once long ago a lustrous shade of blue — and paddle out into the muggy dusk as hydrous haze rose from the surface of the tepid water. I often enjoyed silently slaloming my lonesome way between the grandiose watercraft moored in the river.

There is no doubt I did so with pangs of envy, which is an embarrassing thing to admit.

As previously indicated, this period was not the highlight of my life. I had moved back to my home county after two years living in New Mexico because of a woman, who, shortly after my ill-advised return to the land of ticks and chiggers, summarily dumped my ass — for good cause, I might add, which did not exactly make the unceremonious and mortifyingly public parting any easier to absorb. As well, those few of my amigos who still dwelled in that sweltering place had recently been en masse busted as part of an undercover DEA sting that netted an impressive array of heroin, LSD and pot. With court dates looming, they were rationally laying very low on the fun-and-frolic front, which meant I did not even have anyone to party with. I was adrift — emotionally and spiritually — in the metaphoric doldrums. Going nowhere slow. And, by a long shot, I did not have the fiscal wherewithal to temper, much less rectify, my woeful circumstances.

It would have been one thing had there been any lofty philosophical overlay guiding, or at least rationalizing, my insolvent circumstances, which operated like a feedback loop on top of a perpetual motion machine on top of a flushing toilet. There were not. I had taken no vows of poverty. I had not become a recent convert to Thoreauvian simplicity. I was nothing more than a disorganized, unmotivated, uninspired fuck-up, and it was starting to piss me off clear down to my DNA.

I paddled close enough to those well-appointed boats I could reach out and touch them. Touch them I always did, the same way I came to regularly do with trees later in life, like I was hoping perhaps I would be on the receiving end of some osmosis-based wisdom or enlightenment or some energy or maybe a stock market tip I could take advantage of with zero in the way of upfront investment. I knew full well there was likely much to abhor about the back stories of the people whose names were printed upon the titles of these vessels, each of which was costly beyond my ability to calculate. Though, as I said, most of these people were hospitable enough, at least superficially, there was little doubt many of them had filled their personal coffers by means that would make even a laxly oriented moral compass spin crazily. Some were retired military contractors who laughed about war. Some were fatted refugees from the world of arbitrage, where entire industries were bought, sold and bartered for the appraised value of their sum components, consequences to employees and towns be damned. Some, like the greasy little owner of the marina at which I toiled, simply represented the rectum of capitalism by way of squeezing the life energy out of every individual and entity that crossed their greedy path. There was also no doubt many of these people were, beneath the outward social waterline, bigots, classists, elitists, racists and sexists. However, they undeniably were bigots, classists, elitists, racists and sexists who, on some level, probably many levels, had their shit together.

I wanted to have my shit together. I wanted some perceivable and comprehensible bright flash of insight to shoot out of one of those boats into my fingers and up through my arm and into my heart and into my brain — even if it took the form of the sizzly sparks that fried the fingers of the Wicked Witch of the West when she tried to remove the ruby slippers from the feet of her dead sister as she laid smooshed under Dorothy’s crash-landed abode.

Nothing like that ever happened.

I pointed the bow toward open water illuminated by a waxing gibbous moon.

My entire life, I have had an unquiet brain. My thought processes run amuck. I have always had trouble corralling the disjointed whirlpool within my head and, thus, I have always had trouble ordering my near-constant introspection. This has long been an issue that, while sometimes fun at drug-infused parties, does not lend itself to beneficial problem solving. For me, the means by which I attempt to formulate goal-oriented battle plans generally takes the form of confetti being launched into the sky rather than anything approximating the Dewey Decimal System. In those dire times, I often attempted to overcome this clear mental malady by taking my canoe out into the darkness.

My goal, once I cleared the ruminative maze presented by the moored boats, was less geographic than conceptual: As I paddled, I let my mind drain completely down to the marrow of empty-cup nothingness. “Thought not,” I called this half-meditative state. Sometimes, it was achieved solely by via the calming quietude of the river. Other times, it was achieved by the sheer exertion required to propel a heavy, half-waterlogged, half-dry-rotted canoe through wind-whipped swells. Usually, it was a gratifying combination of the two.

This go-round, though, there was no “thought not” to be had, no matter my cadence, no matter my forcefulness, no matter the quiet. The harder I tried, the more pronounced my frustration became. I was unable to ignore that I was at the end of my tether vis-à-vis my wretched lifestyle situation. At the same time, I could not stop thinking about the circumstances surrounding the young lady who got shit upon. On the surface, it would seem like these two topics would be mutually exclusive, except, of course, they each contained the same central character: me. Pitiful, fucked-up me.

This was not the best of contemplative circumstances in which to be paddling out into water that had the ability to transform into a maelstrom without notice. I could not tell if I was paddling away from something I could not define or paddling toward something indefinable. I feared this was the mindset that causes people to convert to the lunatic theological fringe, to join up with Scientology or the Peoples Temple. Had a Hare Krishna acolyte cruised by on a Jetski or risen from the deep like a saffron-robed Neptune, bearing propaganda pamphlets instead of a trident, I might have spent the last three decades sporting a shaved pate and pestering passersby in airport concourses.

Though I am hardly an expert on the subject, I suspect the underpinnings of religious epiphanies take many forms. Perhaps a person inclined toward, or at least open to, spiritual transformation viewed a particularly stunning sunset over the Grand Canyon and came to the teary-eyed conclusion that a natural splendor of that ass-puckering magnitude could not exist without divine design. Maybe it was witnessing the birth of a child. Or maybe surviving a near-death experience, such as — as but one random example — getting attacked by a phantom shark.

It’s my guess witnessing a seagull shit on a girl’s head is one of the more rare impetuses of conversion.

That aside, my confused desperation landed me within an inch of partaking in what for me would have once been inconceivable: I started to pray. To what, I can’t specifically say. To whatever was out there trolling the airwaves for disorientation, disillusionment and despair, I guess. For what, I also can’t say. Salvation, maybe. Failing that, enlightenment. Failing that, a new canoe.

As the first tentative syllables of incohesive, ambiguous supplication started to pass my lips, I looked down and spied a response to my prayer before it was even fully uttered: In my pensive frame of mind, I had neglected the most foundational mantra of even the most modest maritime travel: be here now. Given its leaky condition, my canoe required frequent bailing, which I had let slide. Thus, I found myself mid-calf-deep in warm H2O.

Muchas gracias, celestial puppeteer!

The sodden boat was so heavy, turning it around was near-bouts impossible, so I simply turned me around, kneeled in the brine and, with purposeful exertion, pointed the stern — now the bow — back toward the marina, which was stunningly distant. Fortunately, the tide was with me and, a sweat-drenched hour later — during which time I had to mix my strokes with enthusiastic water removal — I was back among the boats. As I made my way around the dock, I almost paddled into the ass end of a 40-foot impeccably clean and tidy bright white fiberglass motor yacht. Yes, the very same vessel that bore the young lady upon whose head the seagull had shit. Between the moonlight and the faux ship lanterns scattered around the marina, I could easily make out the name of the boat:


Annapolis, Maryland.

Though, in actuality, all I could read was HEREAFT because the last two letters, large though they were, were obstructed by the flitting bare feet of none other than the world-famous shit-headed girl. Her hair was now up in a bun, and she was dressed in captivatingly short shorts and an equally captivating tight tube top.


cristo 6

Part Three


“I’d rather not know a lot of things.”

— Overheard in a New Mexico bar, sans discernible context


She smiled coyly at my approach.

“Strange name for a boat,” I said by way of a feigned disinterested greeting.

“She was already named when we bought her, and it’s supposed to be bad luck to change a boat’s name,” the shit-headed girl responded with the slightest hint of a distinctive Tidewater lilt. “At least that’s what my parents said. Truthfully, they’re not very original.”

“Aha. You feeling better?” I asked.

“Sorry for all the drama,” she said in a tone clearly indicating she was not the slightest bit sorry for all the drama, a tone indicating, without drama, her life force would likely dissipate.

“Well, everyone has a bad day,” I responded with a degree of false forgiveness bordering on conversational larceny.

“I’ve never been in a canoe,” she observed, deftly and casually changing the subject.

I asked, “Where are your parents?” (First things first.)

“At the marina bar. They won’t be back for a while.” Her tongue flicked and she provocatively licked, and gently bit, her lower lip. My nether regions stirred.

Awkward silences often distort the very fabric of the space/time continuum. It seemed like an eternity for a very unforeseen mental wrestling match to transpire and resolve itself within the bowels of my cranial mainframe, which had only recently been the venue of a less-lecherous train of thought. Earlier in the day, I had recoiled from this delectable morsel, despite her undeniable outward attractiveness. Hormones being hormones, though, and scruples not being scruples, I found myself weighing the potential pros and cons of continuing this discussion.

I have been blessed with superlative balance, and the canoe was designed for flatwater, so it was relatively stable, although it was still leaking like a loose cotton diaper. With confidence, I stood up, with the intention of extending a hand to the young lady, to welcome her onboard and, should she find herself able to overlook the obvious fact that, within minutes, we might sink outright, of paddling her sensual self around the harbor.

During my mom’s last years, I assume as part of an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to make amends, she told me, ever since I was old enough to don proper trousers, whenever I was agitated or nervous or confused, I would instinctively put my hands in my pockets. The one time I took a drama class in college, the professor said the same thing. Instead of reaching toward the young lady, my hands unconsciously roto-rooted their way into my pockets.

I wasn’t agitated or nervous, but I might have been a bit confused. I was perfectly confident in my ability to verbally engage members of the opposite sex, a behavioral inclination that had much to do with my long-time girlfriend, the very one for whom I had returned East, having justifiably dumped me. Still, if I possessed one trait that was able to mitigate, if not negate entirely, my perpetual desire to chase tail it took the form of my aversion to crazy women, an especial concern when one is trolling for females in the heart of Dixie, a territory thick with estrogen-enhanced madness. So, I stood there, contemplating the potential ramifications that might visit me should I proceed with my mounting carnal desires.

As my hands began to tentatively leave their cave-like resting places, the bottom fell out.


The canoe gave up the structural ghost and, like a drive-up bank deposit canister being sucked into oblivion by a pneumatic tube, my feet broke through and I whooshed straight down. In the blink of a very flummoxed eye, the only part of my body remaining in the canoe was my head, my chin having arrested my downward plunge in such a way my jaw ached for weeks. The rest of me was beneath the canoe. My now-submerged hands were still in my now-submerged pockets. Had even one arm been outstretched, my descent would have been partially arrested and I would have merely suffered the indignity of looking like an explorer mired in waist-deep quicksand in a grainy black-and-white Tarzan movie. As it was, my feet were, improbably, thrashing underwater for the second time in less than three-hours. There was pain along my shins, ribs and shoulders, as the protruding slats of the canoe’s compromised deck had cut into those parts of my skin that contacted them on the way down. Now, there was blood in the water. And it was mine. And it was dark. And, with the incoming tide, the river was so deep I could not stand.

The young lady was surely perplexed in the extreme. One moment, there she was, sitting provocatively on the Hereafter, almost eye-to-eye with yours truly. The next instant, yours truly disappeared through a rabbit hole, as though I was the unwitting audience participant in a magician’s disappearing act. Eventually, she peered over the Hereafter’s railing. She was greeted by the sight of an apparently disembodied noodle lying disconsolately in the bottom of a boat fast filling with water.

I had removed my hands from my pockets and I was trying mightily to lift the canoe, which I was wearing more or less like a giant Tudor-era neck ruff, from my head. As I was struggling, the girl darted away, only to return with a gaff, which she courteously extended down toward my frantic face.

“Well, what the fuck am I supposed to do, grab it with my mouth?” I bellowed.

“Oh, yeah, right,” she said, tossing the ineffectual implement aside.

Her eyes narrowed and she without hesitation undertook a very poorly conceived plan-B: She nimbly lowered herself into the canoe and planted one foot on each side of my head! Why she did not too fall through the bottom I cannot say. Perhaps it was because of her slight build. Perhaps it was because I had had the misfortune of standing on the most-rotted part of the deck. Either way, her sudden presence did not aid and abet my increasingly frenetic effort to extricate myself from a situation that, given the added weight of another human being to my imminent survival equation, had become physically unachievable. The young lady opted to grab hold of my ears and begin pulling upward, as through she might raise my entire body back up from the Stygian depths through the gaping aperture in the bottom of the canoe, an absurd strategy made even more absurd by the reality that the jagged edges of the hole through which I had fallen were all oriented downward in the direction of my unceremonious submersion.

All attempts to persuade the young lady to cease and desist her fruitless, though much appreciated, effort failed, since my mouth was bobbing beneath the ever-rising waterline with disheartening frequency. Only every other syllable was comprehensible and my ill-timed vocal cadence resulted in the lady hearing only “PULL” and “HEAD” from a garbled sentence that, fully stated, was “Don’t pull my head!” Basically, I found myself engaged in an unleveraged tug of war over my own dome with a surprisingly motivated, to say nothing of impressively strong, woman.

With the water now reaching nose level, my adrenaline-based survival mechanism kicked into high gear and, with a mighty heave, I pushed upward on the bottom of the canoe, which was still bearing the weight of someone who was still tugging upward on my head. My superhuman effort bore fruit. My ears, though stretched out by several inches, slipped through the shit-headed girl’s fingers. I was free to swim from beneath the canoe.

When I surfaced nearby, my ineffectual rescuer was on her knees in what was left of my canoe, her arms reaching desperately through the hole, while sobbing, “Oh no! Please come back! PLEASE.” When she heard me gurgling my way toward the same barnacle-covered ladder I had used earlier in the day, her mandible hyper-distended, as though she was witnessing resurrection in the flesh.

I did not emerge unscathed. The sharp points of wood had cut my neck, forehead and cheeks, making it look like I had nosedived into a meat grinder. We sat on the dock as the young lady dabbed my wounds with paper towels she had retrieved from the Hereafter’s galley.

We began to chat.

Her name was June.

Her parents called her June-bug.

Her friends called her Junie.

Her enemies called her Loony Junie.

She had two older sisters, now married and moved far away, named April and May.

“Like I said, my parents aren’t very imaginative,” June said.

June’s father, was a workaholic high-and-mighty Department of Justice attorney in D.C. She rarely saw him during the workweek and, even when he was home, he paid her little heed, which she thought weird.

“The babies of the family are supposed to be doted upon,” June said. “But I was his last hope for a son. I was born a disappointment.”

Her mom, according to June, was a perpetually disoriented alcoholic accessory piece. Her dog had recently run away. She was a half-assed student who two weeks prior had graduated by the skin of her teeth from a distinguished private high school. Her only extracurricular joy came by way of ballet. Though a devoted, life-long student, she had never landed a big part.

“I am well below the cut-off point for the next level,” she sighed. “Much more talented than the average person, but much less talented than the average ballerina. I have strength and I have rhythm. According to my instructor, I just don’t have the required grace and poise. She has suggested I maybe try something less structured and less demanding, like modern dance.”

A private all-women’s college, her mother’s alma mater, loomed. She would probably end up majoring in education, just like her mom and her sisters. It was doubtful she would ever teach. “I’ll probably meet my future husband by my junior year, like my mom and my sisters. It’s all mapped out. I’ll become a perpetually disoriented alcoholic accessory piece, just like my mom and my sisters. I figure I’ve got two or three years before the downward spiral begins. I guess I should have some fun while I can.”

Our faces moved close and her hand nicked mine. “What about you? You look like someone who writes his own life story.”

It was an interesting interrogative, followed by an equally interesting declaration, since she had not yet bothered to ask my name.

As I was about to embark upon a very fictitious verbal autobiography, replete with a detailed recounting of my recent conversion to the writings of Thoreau, we heard an argument approaching. Her parents had returned. “Junebug, we’re home!” her mom slurred thunderously. After a quick hug, the kind that lingers like a low-dose jolt of electricity, I slipped into the night, abandoning my pitiful canoe to its fate.


Part Four


“There is no God, and we are his prophets.”

— Cormac McCarthy, “The Road”


When I awoke at dawn in my rundown trailer way out in the mosquito-infested fringes of this squishy-moist land, my sleeping bag was streaked red. I treated my cuts and abrasions as best I could with the last long-expired remnants of a backpacking first-aid kit that had not been replenished since I moved back East almost a year prior.

Later, there was a knock on my front door. It was my landlord who held in his hand an officious-looking document peppered with the words “whereas” and “wherefore,” which stated in no uncertain terms that my roommates and I were being evicted for a series of extra-legal transgressions we could not in good conscience deny.

On my way to work Monday morning, my battered van with dangling fenders spat a noisy billow of black smoke and died right there on the side of the highway. I had to hitchhike the rest of the way. By the time I arrived, two hours tardy, it was already stifling hot. My canoe was nowhere to be seen. I looked in every nook and cranny, under docks and behind boats, angry I had not pulled it ashore. The canoe, its structural faults notwithstanding, was one of the few things that had kept me semi-sane during the previous few months, and I had not even thanked it or said good-bye or made arrangements for a proper new life as a decorative planter. Par for my performance course.

The Hereafter was also gone, and so, I realized, was whatever slim inclination I had to give another single second’s worth of thought to the admittedly inexplicable circumstances that might cause a pile of seagull shit to land upon a girl’s head on an especially stifling mid-July Friday late afternoon. The driving force behind my de-conversion, which had made me toss and turn throughout the weekend, was the realization that, my previous perspective to the contrary, of all the people I had recently met who deserved to get their head shit upon by a seagull, June was last on the list. She seemed like she already had enough shit in her life. There were many far-more-deserving targets. Thing is, we’ve all been shit on, one way or another, to one degree or another. In the end, it doesn’t really mean a goddamned thing. As June clearly showed, a little dip in the river is all it takes to wash even the biggest, funkiest pile of shit away. At least temporarily.

“You look like you lost whatever fight you were in,” one of my co-workers said, snickering, upon viewing my lamentable state, which included much in the way of oozing scabs and yellow/blue bruises that were long to fully heal.

“You’ve got no idea,” I responded in a neutral tone.

I limped up to the topmost reaches of the marina’s highest level and looked out upon the estuary that, in a perpetual zero-sum game, brought boats here and then away. I reopened the cans I had sealed three days prior when my services were required down below. I dipped my stiff brush into the viscous crimson vat and took up my station once again, haphazardly slopping paint on surfaces so decayed, they were structurally disinclined to accept a new coat of beauty.

All around, seagulls jabbered, frolicked and lighted upon unattended shiny boat railings, only to be shooed away by well-fed owners, none of whom apparently wanted to deal with expensive brass work sullied by avian caca.

Way out on the farthest reaches of the hazy skyline, headed toward the Chesapeake Bay, I thought I made out a lone object bobbing on the waves. Though I suspect there was hopeful projection at play, I like to think it was my canoe, which, despite its terminal wounds, had found the strength and the resolve to maintain its buoyancy.

We are all vassals of the vexations and vicissitudes born by the great elemental forces that control every aspect of existence. Solar forces. Gravitational forces. Tectonic forces. Glacial. Social. Chronological. Dimensional. And, yes, maybe even spiritual. These forces are so powerful and irresistible that, most times, the best we can do is keep our heads above water and hope they conspire in their dispassionate way to take us somewhere nice. Or at least acceptable. Or tolerable. When we find ourselves dodging shit falling from the sky, making the best of our circumstances is of course an option — and maybe even an admirable option.

It all makes me want to shake my fist and spit with disgust. Then I remember that, within the very fabric of those great elemental forces, lie eddies and interstices and counter-currents as much part and parcel of the natural order as the fission burning at the heart of the Sun and causing, in a series of highly unlikely compounding component coincidences, the Earth to rotate with an axial tilt while the Moon moves above in an orbit both elliptical and inclined, consequently pushing and pulling the ocean’s waters in such an inexplicable way that we have the very tides lapping below my paint-stained perch.

It takes impeccable timing to access those eddies and interstices and counter-currents. It takes perceptiveness and intensity, maybe a bit of contrariness, and maybe even a little bit of luck to be able to pull away from the irresistible momentum born by the great elemental forces. But it can be done. It has to be done.

Inside the front door of the marina store, there was a big stack of tidal charts, necessary accouterments for coastal living. Even seasoned mariners need to refer to these charts, so they know when it’s time to stay put and when it’s time to go. Soon, the tide would be at its lowest. Then, it would predictably rise and, when it crested six some-odd hours later, there would be a tenuous balance — only for the briefest of moments — when the Earth and the Moon were perfectly aligned. The tide would then recede. Within its embrace, it bears the capacity to carry anyone willing to take a leap of faith to, well, you never really know till you get there.


Smoke Signals


Note: This first appeared on the Mountain Gazette website a couple years ago. I have resurrected it because the subject of cairn-building has recently been discussed in the venerable pages of the High Country News.


Off to the north of a trail I have hiked, biked, skied and snowshoed more times than I can remember lies the approach to a side/tributary gulch (I’ll call it Pilgrim Gulch), which is, if not exactly hidden, is at least not blatantly obvious. From below, the mouth of Pilgrim Gulch looks to be nothing more than a depression in a ridge finger descending from a massive headwall and lying perhaps 500 vertical feet above the main valley. Pilgrim Gulch is accessible from the trail — actually a rugged four-wheel-drive road that is one of the most popular backcountry destinations in the very busy Colorado mountain county I called home for almost two decades — only by crossing a willow-choked creek bottom, followed by an aerobically captivating bushwhack to the ridge finger.

For many years, I had looked up toward that ridge and its tempting depression, but had never gone through the tedious process of actually visiting it. Then, one day, I found myself interviewing for a news story a local Forest Service employee who was talking about a recently filed application for a mining permit clear on the other side of the lofty mountain range in which this part of the story takes place.

Knowing that the proposed mine site was essentially inaccessible except via self-propelled means along a sketchy section of single-track, I asked the Forest Service employee, “How would the applicants access their claim?” He then made mention of a gulch I had never heard of. I pulled out my maps and — lo and behold! — as far as I could tell, the Forest Service employee was talking about that depression in the ridge finger I had been eyeballing for all those years. He was talking about Pilgrim Gulch.

I did not dally. Very next day, I hiked up the popular, rugged four-wheel-drive road to a point where it looked like the willow traverse would be easiest, or at least less skin-ripping. Then, while making certain no prying eyes witnessed my impending bushwhack, I began the trudge toward what ended up being one of the most astounding places I had ever visited in a county that boasts beaucoup astounding places. Though the mouth of the gulch, like I wrote earlier, was modest, it soon opened up to a broad expanse that included glacial tarns galore, expansive vistas, astounding rock formations, nearby mountain summits and thick wildflowers. It was like I had stumbled upon a mini-Shangri La that, stunningly no one seemed to know about.

Pilgrim Gulch became one of my regular hiking destinations, and never once did I ever tell anyone about it. Never once did I ever consider the notion of telling anyone about it. Let the huddled masses continue on their merry way up the rugged four-wheel-drive road in the main valley below. Let them be blissful in their ignorance. Let them eat cake.

Then, one day, I slogged up the steep incline to what I until that point considered my personal kingdom of alpine bliss. And what did I then see? I saw a series of diminutive rock cairns erected through a place where Pilgrim Gulch tightened up a bit as it followed a crystal-clear rivulet. My heart sank, for I knew what was next coming. It seemed like a form of corruption, not solely because other boot prints now existed in soil where I had seen literally none before, but because whoever it was who had traversed these parts since my last visit had felt compelled, even entitled, to leave behind near-permanent evidence of their passing.


But I did nothing, save sulk. During subsequent visits, the cairns became more numerous, larger and more elaborate. And the tundra through which those cairns were constructed started showing signs of wear and tear. Though I never saw another person in Pilgrim Gulch, it was obvious more and more people now knew about it.

Then, one day, I saw some orange peels, eggshells and a candy bar wrapper next to one of the glacial tarns. And I lashed out: I destroyed every single one of those goddamned cairns. I mean to say, I obliterated the motherfuckers. This was no subtle carnage. I made no effort to aesthetically replace the rocks used to construct those cairns to their natural environment. As I kicked those cairns, I cursed the people who had built them.

With regards to Pilgrim Gulch, I was likely too late. I ought to have disassembled the very first cairns I saw. I vowed then and there to never again make such a mistake.

And thus began what to this day remains a love/hate relationship with cairns and all they represent, both literally and figuratively.

Admittedly, what they literally represent is likely nothing more than some well-meaning person or persons who simply have a different opinion than do I regarding the placement of route markers upon heretofore-virginal landscapes. That person, or those people, likely feel it is better on all levels for folks out and about in the boonies to be both well oriented and following the same line of travel.

But what they figuratively represent is the concept of order and management and linear thought — all concepts that, while perhaps valuable down in civilized realms, have little if any value in the heart of wild country — and, worst of all, the concept of encouraging and directing people to backcountry locales that, whatever period of time ago, were relatively unpeopled and untrammeled. The building of cairns in places lacking system trails is akin to guidebooks and magazine destination stories that reveal “secret places.” (One of these days, I swear I’m going to write a guidebook and/or a series of magazine destination articles specifically designed to get people lost. It would be the best favor I could ever lay on those people, though it might take them a few years to realize the good turn I have done them.)

Before proceeding any further, let me be upfront and clear: Many have been the times in my long and extensive hiking/backpacking career when I have been mighty thankful for the existence of cairns. For instance, I was once on the Continental Divide Trail between Kite Lake and Stony Pass experiencing weather as bad as weather can be at 12,000 feet elevation in mid-August. It was blizzarding and blowing a gale, and there was not enough visibility to even measure. The only thing that kept my disoriented, teeth-chattering self on target was a series of six-foot-tall cairns delineating the venerable San Juan Stockway, which was contiguous with the CDT at that point. I likely would have been in trouble had those cairns not been there, as there was no shelter from the storm that I could see, or, in this case, not see.

This is far from the only example of cairns saving my personal bacon. But — and this is a noteworthy “but” in this context — those cairns (I’ll call then the “good cairns”) have all been official, U.S. Grade-A trail markers, markers placed alongside existing system trails, trails that actually appear on maps, trails designed, as much as anything (in my mind at least) to keep the huddled masses on track and off whatever untrammeled (and, thus, more interesting) terrain that might lie nearby. The “good cairns,” in my considerable backcountry experience, are constructed by Forest Service and Park Service trail crews, who, presumably, know what they’re doing vis-à-vis trail location and construction. They were not constructed by Joe Blow the Ragman hiker who took it upon himself to expose a particular primitive route by building a series of “bad cairns” just because he felt like so doing. In this regard, the “bad cairns” are nothing more than litter and ought to be treated as such.

I have long been perplexed, as well as red-faced angered, by the numbers of times I have ventured forth into the great outback untrailed unknown, only to find that someone has erected series of bad cairns to either direct those who follow (like, who’s to say that the cairn-builder actually knows where he or she is going?) or as a sign that Kilroy was here. These bad cairns were not constructed by Forest Service or Park Service employees; they were, rather constructed by people like me (but not like me), people who obviously were originally attracted to places sans official routes, people inclined to explore the hinterlands rather than simply following established systems of trails. What would possess people inclined to visit the untrailed unknown to then mark the way, to mark their passing, like dogs pissing on fence posts? What is this goddamned inexplicable attraction to orientation?

Understand, please, that I am not herein castigating those who build bad cairns simply because they have visited a place I have also visited. Sure, I wish I were the only person to have ever interfaced with the myriad off-the-map destinations that over the years I have been blessed enough to interface with. But there is obviously more to it than that. Given my bushwhacking nature, I am happy that most backcountry enthusiasts most of the time access the forests, mountains and deserts via established, official, marked trails, many of which are delineated by cairns. I, too, generally access the backcountry via official trails, though, often, for reasons that have to do with both inclination and the influence of some sort of inexplicable metaphysical/gravitational/inertial force, it is not unusual to look down and notice that my boots have detoured their way into unmarked, un-delineated, sign-free, trail-free, cairn-free realms.

One of the least-publicized and least-appreciated negative environmental impacts associated with the outdoor-recreation industry is the impact that simple, seemingly benign trails have upon the natural world. I once proposed a story on this subject to Backpacker magazine back when I was a contributing editor at that publication. The editor reacted in such a way that he obviously thought I had lost my goddamned mind. “Yeah, right, let’s make our readers start feeling guilty about the very trails upon which they hike into the woods. Our advertisers will love that.”

I guess his response was understandable, if not somewhat lacking in the kind vein-opening honesty that I feel makes for good journalism, even if that honesty sometimes amounts to shooting oneself in the foot, or, worse, if it amounts to taking a long and hard look in the mirror.

Still, based upon several peer-reviewed research projects I am familiar with, there is no denying that the existence of trails and trail construction results in many of the same kinds of negative impacts associated with roads and road construction. The clearing of trees to accommodate a trail causes more sunlight to hit the ground, resulting in the establishment of microclimates. New trails instantly up the erosion ante, especially if they are open to mountain bikes. Trails, not surprisingly, cause more people and, worse (from the perspective of the environment) dogs to venture forth into the backcountry. Species that do not take well to the presence of man (and dog(s)) start moving away from the trail, replaced by species that tolerate human activity. The habitat fragmentation that defines human kind continues unabated.

There are certainly those who argue, and argue well, that, if you are going to have human visitation in the backcountry, it is better to concentrate that visitation on established trails, rather than having a whole bunch of stoned reprobates like me traveling in willy-nilly fashion hither and yon.

There are also those who argue, and argue well, that the most significant impact a backcountry locale feels is when the first human passes through, and that every subsequent human visitation is incrementally relatively less impactful. (Taken out of context, this would be a salient argument against bushwhacking.) And, thus, if there is going to be human visitation in a given area, it is best for all concerned if those humans pass along the exact same route. (Taken out of context, this would be a salient argument in favor of cairn building.) That’s a great point and all, except that it does not entertain the impacts of aggregate visitation, which is often exacerbated by the existence of a trail, and which often in turn causes the existence of a trail.

This is where we get back to the bad cairns. There are of course many ways that backcountry trails are born and raised. Many have historic roots — they were old pack train or livestock routes. Many were constructed specifically for recreational use. And many sprang into being via “unofficial” means. This latter category, often referred to as “social trails,” begin, for example, when someone — a hunter, maybe, or a bushwhacker, or a rancher on horseback looking for strays — comes across, as a random example, the biggest juniper tree anyone has ever seen. He takes a few of his friends out to see it. Those friends take a few of their friends, some of whom might be inclined to place a few humble rock cairns to help those who follow, and, before you know it, there’s what looks for all the world like a real trail to that tree, a trail that some people who have no idea it leads to a giant juniper tree start following just to see where it goes. Those people might start adding a few stones to the cairns lining the route. The Forest Service will sometimes institutionalize such trails, granting them “official status” — meaning they get marked on maps, get trail signs, get regular maintenance and maybe even get a whole slew of “good” cairns.

Other social trails are established or even built in extra-legal fashion by mountain bikers or hikers. I recently heard of a lady who has been working tirelessly for years to build a new trail to the summit on one of our local mountains. (I would love to meet this lady, to give her a piece of my mind.) The national forest trail system I visit most often (because it is closest to my house) was started by a man who thought it was OK to go out onto public land, ax, adze and chainsaw in hand, and start blazing away, like Daniel Boone heading toward Cumberland Gap. Sometimes the Forest Service will come in and obliterate such ex officio trails. Sometimes — as is the case with the trail system I visit most often — the Forest Service throws in the land-management towel and institutionalizes those trails, and, in so doing, brings them up to construction standards.

And, once those trails are institutionalized, they are publicized and, as a result, more and more people start using them, and more and more negative environmental impact results. Trees alongside the trails start to die. Birds move into less desirable areas to nest. Water hole accessibility is compromised.

There is more to it than that, though. There is a certain difficult-to-quantify concern with the psychological repercussions of having more and more marked trails running through our mountains, forests and deserts, even if those markings take the form of modest sets of bad cairns along little-visited social trails. I believe it’s important for those of us inclined to tromp through the backcountry to get disoriented as often as possible, to have no idea where the fuck we’re going, to run the risk of getting lost and by so doing maybe finding something valuable that likely does not exist along a marked route. Most times, we find nothing, save experience and time alone with the trees and cactuses and birds and bears. And that’s fine. But sometimes we stumble upon something wonderful — a small natural bridge made out of Gila conglomerate, a new way to descend into a slot canyon, a cliff dwelling, a giant juniper. And whatever those wonderful somethings may be, they are made even more wonderful by the fact that we found them on our own. We did not follow a trail, and we did not torpedo the sense of wonder the next person who finds them experiences because we decided to build a line of cairns in our wake.

The words “explore” and “adventure” are so over-used and misused in these days of ziplines, eco-tours and travel insurance that most folks, even those inclined to venture forth into the backcountry, have forgotten their true meaning. Whatever tattered remnants of their true meaning might still exist do not include guidebooks and destination stories and existing trails and even seemingly innocuous little systems of cairns constructed by people, even well-meaning people. This much I truly know and understand.

These days, when I pass “good cairns,” I will often add a rock to them, if for no other reason than we have arrived at a time when cairns are being treated by passersby as art forms as much as directional devices. Whenever I pass “bad cairns,” I obliterate the motherfuckers, and I encourage you to do the same. I figure it’s my civic duty to help keep the backcountry as wild as possible. One of the best ways to do that is to play a small role in making sure that my fellow backcountry travelers have every opportunity to get disoriented, befuddled, discombobulated, bumfuzzled, bruised, battered and as scared as I have many times myself been while trekking through realms that lack trails and signs and cairns. And, in so doing, I hope those people, like I have, will find bear cubs frolicking in fields of wildflowers and pottery shards left by the Ancient Ones and entire fields of undisturbed quartz glimmering in the dappled sunlight.



Smoke Signals

Cover Letters


Maybe a decade ago, when my tenure at the magazine I had long edited was clearly headed down the shitter, I started, out of quiet desperation, regularly eyeballing a help-wanted website called I am a creature of habit; once I start doing something, I usually continue until there is an overt reason to stop. (See: Amphetamines.) To this day, I still visit at least once a week.

Part of me argues (to myself) that it behooves me to stay abreast of the personnel happenings in my ill-chosen field.

Part of me interfaces with the same way some folks scrutinize obituaries. Or fatal car crashes. It’s interesting — in a horrific sort of way — to watch from afar the “digital-first” death twitches of my chosen profession.

Still, part of me thinks that, if the right gig appeared, I might actually apply, especially if 1) it pays at least one notch above starvation wages and 2) is located in an attractive place, like, as but a few recent random examples, the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Kitts, Kenai, Alaska, and Big Sky, Montana. (There is, not surprisingly, a high degree of mutual exclusivity at play between numbers 1 and 2.)

And part of me derives amusement from the names of some of the newspapers that advertise on the site. The Searchlight. The Headlight. The Spectator. The Exponent. The Diplomat. The Champion. The Appeal. The Defensor. The Manifest.

There is of course more to my habit.

But first: Whether placed by a newspaper, magazine, TV or radio station, advertising agency or university — the ads listed on generally include:

• Often-hyperbolic pitches for the publication’s hometown, many of which are located hell and gone and are represented by the smallest municipal icons available to the cartographers at Rand-McNally. Stuff like: “Amenities include miles and miles of converted railroad trails passing by lush cornfields.” And: “Home to the Pittsburg State Gorillas.” And: “Only 95 miles SW of Indianapolis.” And “Winters made more tolerable by our heated bowling alley.” And: “Residents enjoy our annual Gravy Festival.”

• A basic description of the position. Such as: “No story is too small for us!” (Read: There are lots of small stories to choose from here in Nutrash, Texas. Matter of fact, the last time we had a story that wasn’t small was when Lyndon Johnson holed up in a local motel while passing through town with his mistress in 1961, but we didn’t dare touch that one because it was too big.”) And: “Some evening and weekend work hours required.” (Meaning: You will rarely have time to visit the heated bowling alley because you’ll be chained to your desk all the time.) And: “Drug-free workplace.” (Meaning: Pull your shriveled little pecker out and get ready to toss whatever last shred of vocational dignity you might still possess before you sign on to cover church bake sales for the Phelgm City Weekly Drivel.) And: “Potential for assignments with other newspapers in the operation.” (Meaning: In addition to your regular duties, we’ll pile on a bunch of extra work so we can squeeze a few more pennies out of your desiccated carcass to add to management’s bonus pool.)

• A list of necessary qualifications. Like: “Ability to generate stories without supervision.” (Read: Our editor is too lazy to help you out, but wait until you screw up, then the editor will rise from the dead and rip you a new asshole, probably in public.) And: “Looking for an all-around sports hound who can write and take pictures.” (Read: We downsized our photographer position seven years ago. Hope you like taking Little League team photos six times a week.) And: “This is an opportunity for an innovative and forward thinking person to make his or her mark in the newspaper world.” (Read: We know your ass will be innovating and forward thinking its way out of here at the first opportunity, so we plan to work your fingers to the bone in the interim, knowing that, as soon as you leave, we’ll be able to lasso am equally forlorn replacement in short order.) And: “Must have a reliable vehicle and a clean driving record.” (Yeah, right.)

• Sometimes a salary is listed (often $20-25,000), though in almost all the ads, the word “negotiable” appears under the salary line. Right. Basically this means the powers that be at the publication will negotiate you toward the lowest end of the pay scale while promising to arbitrarily review your performance and, by extension, your remuneration after a purely subjective probationary period while you sit there wondering if Asswad, Kansas, has a food bank. As well, the words “this is an exempt position” often appear, meaning that, despite unambiguous federal laws to the contrary, you will be ineligible for overtime pay, no matter how many hours you work.

• Then there’s the actual application process, which almost always includes a call for several professional references and either hard-copy clips or links to previously published stories.

Most interestingly for our purposes here, and the real reason we have gathered, the application process requires inclusion of a cover letter. This is where the aspiring reporter or editor lies through his or her teeth, trying to disguise their desperation at the thought of actually having to live in Cornhole, Indiana, by writing things like, “It has long been my professional desire — nay, fantasy — to live only 95 miles SW of Indianapolis in a town that has a heated bowling alley and hosts the annual Gravy Festival. I can’t wait to cover every church bake sale between Cornhole and whatever the next miserable hamlet up the road might be.”

Years ago, I read an essay by someone who amused himself by applying for jobs he never in a million years would accept under any circumstances. Jobs like country club bathroom attendant and dry-cleaning technician. I assume that essay provided the inspiration for what has become something of a puerile hobby: Sending less-than-sincere application cover letters to outfits that advertise on

Here is a smattering. Sometimes, I actually get a personalized reply. Most times, the recipients of my communiqués choose to remain perplexingly silent.

Entity Placing Ad: University of Oregon

Position: Endowed Chair of Journalism

To whom it may concern: Though I am somewhat taken aback, to say nothing of amused, by the overt (and literal) sexism displayed in your ad, I have to admit that, when push comes to shove, I believe I am as endowed as the next person, especially if the next person is some pasty-faced academician whose notion of procreative prowess is likely found in the flaccid middle-third of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” But I digress. My main point of curiosity at this early point of the application process is perfectly justified: I wonder who will actually be conducting the interview process? Are an interviewee’s sexual preferences taken into account? And what specifically will the criteria be to verify that an applicant is sufficiently “endowed”? Are we talking erect or limp? What about length-to-girth ratios? Is pre-interview Viagra ingestion allowed? Do you apply the imperial or metric system? How do you reconcile the respective qualifications of male and female applicants? Is this information kept private? Will photos be taken and distributed to your resident sorority houses? Either way, if hired, you can count on me to maintain the straight-faced decorum such an august position mandates. Furthermore, fret not that I might be inclined to upper-case and bold-face the word “ENDOWED” on the nameplate that will be prominently displayed on my office door in 200-point type.

Entity Placing Ad: Tampa Bay Times

Position: High Energy Newshound

Dudes: Finally, people after my own true heart! Like you, I have wondered for years why print media coverage of the energy industry is so damned lame. I mean, we are after all talking about the most important industry on the face of the planet. And, like you, I’ve long thought that, if the reporters covering the oil, gas, nuclear and solar industries would just loosen up a bit by smoking a bowl or two before sitting down at the keyboard, the resultant coverage of crazy shit like fracking would surely capture a significantly larger and more diverse readership — Occupy movement protestors, graffiti artists, hip-hop performers, Comparative Lit majors et al. I mean, just think of how much more creative and expansive the coverage of the Fukushima meltdown or the Gulf oil spill or the indigenous protests against Chevron down in Peru would be if the reporter was high as a kite.

A high energy newshound would cut through the industry-sourced bullshit and get to the heartless heart of energy-related darkness. The under-reported pipeline spills. The true evil of the Koch Brothers. The environmental impacts of large, centralized solar generation plants. So, I want you to know right now that I will strive to be high every minute I’m on the clock for the Tribune, uh, the Times, yeah, the Times, except on those rare circumstances when I’m too drunk. Bad idea to mix and match intoxicants when you’re my age. Don’t want to mar any potential Pulitzer Prize material with a bad case of disorienting head spins.

Response: Mr. Fayhee: Thank-you for bringing to our attention the fact that we should have placed a hyphen between “high” and “energy” in our ad. We are actually looking for someone to cover the local school system. And we are actually a drug-free workplace. Now more so than ever.

Entity Placing Ad: Demand Media

Position: Freelance Style, Fashion & Beauty Writer

Hey: Seems like you are in the market for someone who is willing and able to speak truth to the stupid-looking shit that dominates the pages of magazines like Elle and Style and sites like TMZ and the entertainment section of Yahoo News! Just yesterday, as but one of a million random examples of suspect taste, there was a big piece titled “This Year’s Best Shoes.” Being interested in the latest footwear trends, I opened the link, expecting to view an array of ergonomic hiking books and minimalist running shoes. Maybe some captivating FMPs. Boy, was I surprised to see a stunningly large selection of multi-colored high heels with toes so pointy — to steal a line from the late fashion maven Edward Abbey — they could kick a lizard clean up its ass. On that same site, there were photos of a type of footwear called a “printed espadrille,” which looked for all the world like the mutated spawn of a sandal and a pair of Keds. Priced at $365! I doubt these abominations would last more than 30 seconds out on the trail. I, like you, think that footwear ought to be more functional than stupid, ugly, uncomfortable and overpriced. (Well, OK, ugly is fine.) I also believe that there are few things sexier than a woman wearing tight jeans and soiled Sorels while sipping a Fat Tire after making mincemeat out of a half-cord of piñon with a six-pound splitting maul.

Then there were several photos of a very strange woman named, apparently by an infant just starting to test drive its on-board vocalization systems, “Lady Gaga.” In an article headlined, “Lady Gaga Wore Nipple Pasties to Meet Prince Harry,” this woman was photographed adorned in an ensemble described by the writer as “classy-meets-kooky in a chainmail-like gown that showed ample cleavage. Her hair was pulled back into a chic chignon, with delicate earrings on her lobes. Her attempt to look semi-normal failed as soon as she added crystal eyebrows.” I don’t know about you, but, first, after viewing the photos accompanying the article, I was taken aback by the fact that Ms. Gaga looked as though she ought to have been cast as one of the more over-the-top extras in the Capital City social scenes in “The Hunger Games” movies. Or maybe the bar scene in “Blade Runner.” And, second, I was disappointed that there were no references — visual or transcriptive — whatsoever to the headlined “Nipple Pasties.”

You can rest assured that, among many other things associated with the editorial position you have advertised on, if we mention “nipple pasties” in a headline on my watch (and I think we ought to at every opportunity), then by god, there will be a photo of nipple pasties, even if we have to head down the closest titty bar with a smart phone to take a few shots of a stripper named Candee thusly attired.

Lest you think at this point that my fashion sense is too far on the walkway fringe, I note with no false modesty that I am a veritable poster child for current haute couture consciousness, in that I have forever been a prescient member in good stead of the lumbersexual revolution. I proudly sport scruffy, comfortable and contextual facial hair, wear a tattered flannel shirt and frequently don a sweat-stained baseball cap.

By now, I think you understand how valuable I would be as your go-to freelance Style, Fashion & Beauty Writer. You could count on me to lend an objective journalistic viewpoint to what clearly has become a genre defined by misleading nipple pasty teases and vapid homages to overpriced printed espadrilles that would disintegrate the very first time some drunk yakked on them in an unsavory imbibery. Together, we can raise the bar.

Entity Placing Ad: CapitalStructure

Position: Distressed Debt Reporter

Dear Sir(s) and/or Madam(s): Rare has been the time in my professional career that I have been more impressed with the sensitivity of people in publications management. Yes, debt is indeed distressing, even if that debt accrued as a result of what can best be described as “indiscretions” that can best be described as “fun.” I know, I know. No one forced me to go to The Laissez-Faire Gentlemen’s Club on all-you-can-drink Kamikaze Night when the closest thing to actual pecuniary resources then in my possession was a piece of magical plastic stored in my wallet behind two smooshed medical marijuana joints purchased from a street person clearly suffering from a bad case of the DTs. Yes, yes, yes, that piece of plastic was supposed to be pulled out only in case of the most-dire emergency circumstances. But, if crippling thirst combined with all-you-can-drink Kamikaze Night at The Laissez-Faire Gentlemen’s Club does not constitute an emergency, then I’d like to know what does! Which of course, is neither here nor there, except that the aforementioned piece of plastic has now reached the dubious distinction of being maxxed out. Bright red lights flashed and sirens blares the last time I tried to use it. Suffice it to say, I have considerable experience as a reporter. I have considerable experience with debt. And I have considerable experience being distressed by both of those things. If you help by giving me this job, I know we run the risk of my debt being reduced by responsible application of my salary to my accounts-in-arrears (hardy har-har), which would in turn lower my level of distress. So, we’d have to look at this as a temporary arrangement. Unless, of course, I decide to use my wages to buy a really fast car well beyond my means. Or maybe buy an ownership stake in The Laissez-Faire Gentlemen’s Club. Upon which case, I could stay both distressed and in debt forever. A win-win situation. What say you?

Entity Placing Ad: Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune

Position: Food Editor

Dear Editor: Under the “Responsibilities” section of your ad, I see you are looking for someone able to “find, write and edit stories related to food, food culture and culinary arts.” I also see that your paper is located in the cholesterol-laden heart of Middle America. Not only could I live up to your lofty culinary-arts expectations, but I would surely win food-writing awards by the bucketful for the Daily Tribune. I mean, how complicated would it be to write about food in a place where almost everyone is either morbidly obese or dead because they used to be morbidly obese? This already puffball gig would be made even easier by the fact that, apparently, the residents of the Show Me State don’t give a shit about the fact that their girths are often whale like. It’s not as though they’re even thinking about doing anything about their Pillsbury Doughboy-esque physiques, so I could just jump headlong into the journalism of deep-fried lard. Hell, I could pen an entire series on Jell-O salad alone, and probably increase readership by so doing. I am giddy with the creative promise of raising meatloaf and corndogs to the level of “culinary art.” And the abject poverty in the hillbilly backwoods of Missouri opens up even more food-culture possibilities that I’d love to explore. Maybe we could even organize a contest wherein readers could contribute via social media their favorite ways to stretch Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits throughout an entire month. Taken even further, we could run a weekly road-kill-based recipe. And cornpone! We can’t forget about cornpone. I’m not even sure what cornpone is, but I’ll bet it’s a culinary favorite in your parts and, thus, I would cover the hell out of cornpone. Maybe I would even name my weekly food column “Cornpone Cravings.” Or maybe “Cornpone Droolings.” Or maybe “More Cornpone, Please!” I think from this little note you can grasp how I would turn what in lesser hands would be a cupcake department into something meaningful, something with hyper-caloric substance, something that would capture the attention of bacon-laden readers while they devour plate after greasy plate of barbecued ribs while watching “Roseanne” and “Duck Dynasty” re-runs. I await what I know will be a positive response. In the meantime, bon appétit!

Response: Mr. Fayhee: I hope you will one day visit Columbia, where you will quickly come to understand we are a haven for foodies and that, if we had a road-kill restaurant, it would be world class. We even have numerous sushi restaurants.

Entity Placing Ad: New York City Department of Correction [sic]

Position: Press Officer

Hello: Ha! You can’t fool me. I see what you did and I caught it. By including a blatant typo, by singularizing what clearly should have been the pluralized “corrections” in the headline of your help-wanted ad, you were testing the focus of potential applicants, many of whom likely breezed right by the top and delved immediately into the meat of the story. These are not the kinds of people you want to hire. I want you to know right off the bat that there is no mistake so small that my eye does not catch it. Doesn’t matter if I am reading or writing, my edit tool is perpetually engaged. Just ask my wife. Whenever we go out to eat, the first thing I do is scrutinize the menu. Not for food items. For typos! I consider it my raison d’être. Rare is the time when I do not feel compelled to bring some sort of needed correction to the attention of the waitperson. Just the other day, my favorite brewing company was listed as “New Belguim.” The young lady told me I was the first person to notice that particular boo-boo, or at least the first person to care enough to mention it. Does that make me a perfect fit for your organization or what? Of course it does! (Even though I think I heard the waitress call me an OCD asshole under her breath as she was walking away.)

By the way: What exactly does the New York Department of Correction (ha ha!) do? I assume you take responsibility for making certain that informational signage and communications throughout the Big Apple are accurate and, when they are not, you correct the situation and issue stern notices in the form of press releases and/or reprimands to the appropriate malefactors regarding proper spelling and proper grammatical construction. I imagine there’s plenty of need to talk about punctuation as well. If you let one wayward semicolon slip through the cracks, you never know what might follow; people will end up misusing that most perplexing form of punctuation time and time again. (Damned semicolon misuse recidivism!) There’s no stopping some miscreants, so it’s important to step in as early as possible. After all, incorrect placement of semi-colons is considered by many to be a gateway grammatical mistake, which can lead to more felonious syntactic transgressions. A stitch in time saves nine. Anyhow, I appreciate your time and, whenever you’re ready for someone of my skill level and dedication to step in and make a correction (or even more!), let me know. The world will assuredly be a safer place.

Entity Placing Ad: Progressive Publishing

Position: Writer to Cover U.S. Beef Cattle and Forage Production Industries

To Whom It May Concern: I read with interest your ad on the website. The timing was impeccable. Just the other day, while hiking through the national forest that dominates this part of the country, I found myself having to literally slalom my way through endless piles of cow pies. It was like walking through a minefield of fly-covered stink. Sad to report, this is not a rare occurrence where I live. For many years, I have wondered what I could do to help eradicate, or at least mitigate, the effects of the out-of-control beef cattle and forage production industries, which wield disproportionate political power in these parts. As I was yet again wiping cow caca off my boots, I entertained the notion of starting a bovine-based blog. Maybe I should start writing letters to the editor, I thought. Or stand on street corners, decrying the despoiling of my beloved West by those who, through their pro-cattle platforms, oppose perfectly reasonable laws like the Endangered Species Act. Then I saw your ad and I thought: This is a sign from On High! This is the means by which I can shout from the figurative mountaintop about how impactful the U.S. beef cattle and forage production industries are to our native ecosystems. My attached resume shows my experience. Let me show you and your readers my passion. Together, we can eradicate this four-legged plague from the face of the Earth. First, you need to hire me.

Reply: Mr. Fayhee: We are proud proponents of the U.S. beef cattle and forage production industries. Maybe you should learn to read.

Entity Placing Ad: Washington Publishers

Position: Defense Reporter

Hello: Consider this my application for your open position of defense reporter. Admittedly, my high school football experience was on the offensive end. I was an undersized and not particularly successful quarterback on a mediocre team whose only real claim to fame was that we almost assuredly smoked more pot than any of our opponents, as evidenced by the fact that, through the course of an entire season, every time we snapped the ball, it had to be on one, because, whenever we tried to go on two or — god forbid — three, some stoner tackle jumped offsides, or some tailback committed yet another illegal procedure penalty, unable apparently to count past, well, one.

I think my experience of getting repeatedly pummeled into the turf by crazed blitzing linebackers gives me a creative perspective not shared by more defensive-minded reporters. Because of the obvious deficiencies associated with my size and my inability to throw the ball more than 15 feet, combined with the buzz-based numeric illiteracy of my teammates, I had to be real creative on the play-calling front. That meant I had to be something of a student of defense. This, of course, was not exactly rocket science, since most of the teams we played had all of two different defensive configurations. Still, trying to determine how to get one of our stoned players through an 11-person fluid maze required a working knowledge of strategy, execution and real-time decision-making that will serve me well in the position you have advertised. You could play it safe by hiring a reporter who used to play safety or nose tackle. Or you can be bold and go for the interception by hiring someone with a very offensive attitude. That would be me.

Entity Placing Ad: American Bar Association

Position: Assistant Managing Editor

Skol, brothers and sisters! Look no further! You have found your man! Let me start by saying how impressed I am that the bars of America have finally overcome their geographic, cultural and operational differences to form themselves into a bonafide association. Only by organizing on a national level can retail purveyors of spirits confront the insanity now dominating the industry. How else can we fight the madness of MADD? How can we reverse legal trends that result in asinine laws that dictate how many beverages a customer is allowed to carry from the bar to the table? How can we address liability issues that rain down upon servers who rationally decide it’s a good business decision to share a shot or two with cash-bearing patrons?

I defy you to find an editor who has spent more time in bars than I have. I defy you find an editor who has given more thought to bar-related issues. I am a master of barroom storytelling. I have helped break up beaucoup bar fights, suffering several painful contusions and head lumps in the process. I have celebrated in bars and I have lamented in bars. I’ve seen a man in a wheelchair throw a cue ball at a guy who had just beaten him in a game of 8-ball. I’ve seen the hat get passed to raise money for a regular patron’s medical bills. If it has happened in a bar, I have likely rubbed intimate elbows with it.

Plus, look, I know what this position really is — it’s functionally the managing editor, because, if I can read between the lines, the current managing editor is likely often too falling-down drunk or too hung over to sit upright, much less perform his or her assigned duties. I completely understand, as I have been there. And, if you hire me, I’ll probably be there again, once your current managing editor is shipped off to rehab or is found guilty of some alcohol-related offense or passes away after a three-week bender.

Entity Placing Ad: Buffalo News

Position: Digital Engagement Editor

Hello there: I have long thought that the policy many newspapers have of printing engagement notices is, at the very least, strange. For one thing, engagement notices are almost always submitted by one of the vested parties, such as the mother of the soon-to-be bride, a source that can hardly be considered objective. Where is the other side of the story? Additionally, few if any papers edit these notices. Thus, they often come across as though they were penned by people — albeit of the often-effusive variety (I mean, who wouldn’t be effusive about the face that Billy Bob finally found someone desperate enough to marry him!) —  who ought not be allowed access to a keyboard without first going through a remedial grammar course.

Moreover, where is the editorial scrutiny? Where is the dispassionate eye that sits back and says, “Look, it’s obvious as hell that the only reason this Darlene lady has agreed to marry Dwayne is she got drunk one night and went and got herself knocked up yet again?”

Where’s the investigatory aspect of this vapid excuse for journalism? Where is the fact checking? Where is the mention of Merle’s meth-related arrest record? Where’s the follow-up? Where’s the story about the engagement getting called off because Clem got caught on camera face-planting a ten-dollar bill to a seamier reaches of a transvestite stripper’s G-string?

Where is the reporter picking up a phone to ask Madison what attracted her to a known schlub like Grayson in the first place?

Where’s the story about the annulment or the divorce, which an astute engagement editor could have seen coming a mile away?

Given the many, many oversights that would not pass journalistic muster at a high school paper in Hogsnout, Arkansas, I am heartened to see a publication in a major metropolitan area saying “enough is enough.” I would like to be a part of your groundbreaking digital engagement coverage. I am willing and able to investigate the seamier aspects of the engagement business. The unsavory sales practices of the jewelers peddling overpriced rings with poorly cut diamonds to young people who can barely afford pizza. The social pressure heaped upon young ladies during the bridesmaid selection process. The pre-nuptial counseling required by many churches before they will allow a wedding ceremony to take place upon their hypocritically hallowed grounds. Questions regarding the suitability of showing hard-core porn at bachelorette parties. And, for that matter, which should come first: The bachelorette party or the baby shower?

This is an untapped reportorial goldmine that requires a steady hand and cynical perspective. As someone who himself was once engaged, I can say without compunction that I am your man.

Entity Placing Ad: Juneau County Star Times

Position: Community Reporter

Dear Editor: I can only guess how many applications come across your desk from people claiming they have the intestinal fortitude to endure life in the Last Frontier. The darkness. The cold. The snow. Well, let me tell you, I have called home many a frosty locale. And, not only can I survive challenging climatic circumstances, but I can do so while retaining my journalistic wits. I can take accurate notes in a blizzard. I can formulate a catchy lead even as my nose hairs turn to icicles. I can interview Eskimos at 30 below. Add my experience — as outlined in the attached resume — to my desire to dwell in the land of the northern lights, and I believe you will come to the conclusion that I am the right man for the job.

P.S.: I am comfortable on a dogsled. And I have read much of Robert Service’s work. I mean, what literate person doesn’t consider “The Cremation of Sam McGee” to be a classic?

Response: Mr. Fayhee: Juneau County is actually in Wisconsin. While we have plenty of blizzards and plenty of opportunity for frozen nose hairs, we have no Eskimos. Cheeseheads, yes; Eskimos, no. And Robert Service wrote primarily about Canada, not Alaska. I believe you’re thinking of Jack London. Good luck in your quest to find a position in the Last Frontier.


Smoke Signals


Part One: Cosmic eddy

It is a small window when time meets action in New Mexico’s Gila Country. During monsoon season, the diminutive creek next to which I am walking — a regular tromping haunt — flows high, muddy and loud. Upstream campgrounds are often closed due to flash flood concerns. Soon enough, though, as the inevitable slide toward the dry that defines America’s empty quarter manifests itself, this creek, like all of the watercourses that pass through this generally parched land, will begin to diminish and will become mucky and stagnant till finally it might wither entirely until next year’s rains come … if they come. But now, in the middling days of autumn, there is water enough to maintain a flow, but not so much that it is defined by tumult and resultant opaqueness.

I stop next to a little pool, which is so clear, I can easily see the little pebbles lining the bottom. The pool is about 20 feet by 20 feet and perhaps a yard deep. On the far side lies a rock wall, 15 feet tall. Above the pool is a trickle of a chute. And my feet are planted upon a boulder that stands above the pool like a ship’s prow.

Save the gurgling of the creek, it is quiet, almost absolutely so. There is no wind ruffling the tops of the surrounding oaks and Ponderosa pines.

Even the birds are inexplicably mute.

Even my normally restive dog is sitting in rare contemplation.

And even more rare: The ever-present chainsaw-wielding Tasmanian devil that spends all but a few seconds of every year frenetically bouncing between my tympanic membranes apparently has run out of gas.

It is still.

I auditorily perceive the tinkling of water over rock but I do not let my attention flow in that direction.

I am normally unsettled by stillness. My native habitat is movement, and, when I remember, which is not always, I make myself stop for five measured minutes during my wanderings and look and smell and maybe even see.

Rarely is this successful. Here and now, it is so.


In the middle of the pool below me is a lone grasshopper fighting for its life. This mortal battle between insect and water is not occurring out in the peripheral provinces, where it can be ignored or subconsciously relegated to the realm of afterthought. It is front and center, aligned perfectly with two pupils that mere seconds prior had been impressionistically unfocused. I try to push the cognitive reset button, to ignore the plight of the grasshopper, which only gets me thinking about the plight of the grasshopper even more.

The wind picks up.

Jays and ravens start squawking.

My dog expresses her boredom with a long, theatrical sigh and begins rooting through the thick riparian underbrush.

The Tasmanian devil stirs.


I throw in the towel and intently gaze upon the flailing grasshopper, at first as though its undeniable troubles are not about it and its place in the drink, but, rather, about me and my place in the cosmos. Then I gaze upon the grasshopper as though its imminent interface with eternal rest is an abstract concept rather than a palpable life-and-death struggle occurring right before eyes that had recently been comfortably glazed over. But this was no abstraction. This was a creature in some seriously deep caca.

The Tasmanian devil gives the starter cord of the chainsaw a good, strong yank.

As far as I can tell, the grasshopper is in no way exceptional. I have seen some seriously psychedelic examples of the order caelifera during my tropical forays. Shit that looks like a hallucination, or a nightmare, shit with long multi-colored antennae and neon stripes and bright red legs and big eyes that glow in the dark. This was not like that. Seemed pretty much like a generic grasshopper. Faded green fading fast. No phantasmagoric characteristics I could make out.

And it was not even rare in its ordinariness. It wasn’t some otherwise blasé type of grasshopper that supposedly lives only in eastern Bhutan but, this one had inexplicably defied all odds by landing in a small pool of water in southwest New Mexico. Far as I could tell, it was but one of the 500 million exactly-the-same grasshoppers that populate my home turf. It is a member in good stead of whatever the exact opposite of an endangered species is.

There was no reason whatsoever for me to pay it the slightest heed. Mother Nature was clearly taking her often-cruel course. What business would it be of mine to intercede in any manner save staring, pondering life’s transience, then walking on to the same place I always walk to when I follow this particular path, a point with a long view toward distant summits?

After two or three more pulls, the Tasmanian devil successfully got the chainsaw started.

Truth of the matter is: I find myself inexplicably transfixed.

By the time I pull up a figurative chair to watch this foregone conclusion unfold, the grasshopper is listing badly to starboard. But it (since I have no idea how one identifies gender in a grasshopper, I’ll stick with the impersonal pronoun) had not given up the ship. Its relatively massive rear legs, legs that, were they attached to human bodies, would have us leaping tall buildings in a single bound, were still working hard. Perhaps by this time, it was autonomic reflex, but those legs kicked alternatingly, propelling the poor insect in the worst direction possible: right toward that 15-foot-tall wall. But a navigational miscue was functionally irrelevant, as the pool in which the grasshopper found itself was essentially a slow-moving eddy. Even had the hapless creature been pointed toward a shore that was receding farther and further with each kick in the wrong direction, it would have simply been pulled back into the heart of the pool. And it would have had added to its already wretched circumstances false hope, which some may argue is better than no hope. But not much.

Perhaps this grasshopper had already arrived at a point where it was comfortable with what little remained of its corporeal journey.

Perhaps its kicks did not amount to an effort to reach safety.

Perhaps it was in a middle-ground dream state — halfway between this life and whatever is next — with its merciful mind taking it back to its halcyon days, back when, with the most mere flick of its rear limbs, it could sail through the sky, seemingly forever.

Perhaps it was thinking of the first time it found love, and how it and its beloved hopped together through the tall New Mexico grama.

Perhaps the faces of its children, long since hopped off to greener pastures, were flashing by like a slow-mo slideshow.

I have heard it said that people who are drowning enter into a state of bliss and, that, if they are rescued at the last second, they often fight the efforts of those trying to save them. Who says such bliss is the exclusive domain of humans?

Though it is almost impossible to view a creature with one foot in the grave in any way save thinking that overt distress is part of the experience, for all I know, this grasshopper understood fully that its fleeting time on Earth was up and took the plunge intentionally, not necessarily as suicide, though it might well have been that, but the same way native legends that make their way to non-native listeners tell how the old Indians, when they decide to no longer burden their tribe, walk off alone into the deep forest to become one with the hungry wolves.

I have no idea if grasshoppers are able to survive winters at 7,000 feet. I have no idea what the natural lifespan of a grasshopper is. I have no idea how grasshoppers normally die. Maybe this one opted to sidestep the inevitable withering away, or freezing to death or getting eaten by a bird. Maybe it said to hell with it, I’m going out on my own terms!

Of course, maybe it simply fucked up big time. Maybe it lost its train of thought while hopping along and, next thing it knew, it was up shit’s creek sans paddle.

Or maybe it was an extreme-athlete grasshopper that thought the world would somehow benefit if it did something ridiculously stupid and insignificant, like trying to jump across the pool that lays beneath my feet. If so, there were clearly gene-pool implications, which ought to play out of their own evolutionary volition.

The grasshopper by now had stopped kicking. It was completely at the mercy of the elements, either to be pulled downstream by the current or recycled back through the eddy. It was clearly time to resume my hike and return to my usual vapid ponderings. But, well, truth of the matter is, I hate watching shit die. Even shit with six legs, exoskeletons and brains the size of pinpoints.

Had it been a puppy or a kitten or a bird, there would have been little hesitation to not only save it but probably bring it home.

But this was just a lowly bug.

Bereft of self-awareness.

Bereft of heart and soul.

I decided that, if the current took it downstream, I would remain dispassionate. If, however, it was moved toward the shore by the eddy, I would intervene. There was a delicate moment of balance, when the grasshopper’s fate hung by a thread it had no idea was dangling. It teetered. It wobbled. It could not affect its own destiny. Then, with no discernible physical impetus, it slowly started drifting toward the shore. It was back in the eddy. I stepped down off the rock and picked up a stick. When the grasshopper came within reach, I placed the tip of the stick next to it. It was now up to the grasshopper to either save its own life or go with the flow.

I held the stick there for a few seconds, then, just before coming to the conclusion that my half-assed effort was for naught, the middle of the three appendages on its right side reached out and made tentative contact with the stick, like it could not believe it was actually feeling something solid. Then the front leg followed suit. Then, with what must have been the insect’s very last energy reserves, it showed that, faced with a choice of life or death, most organisms will rally back toward the land of the living. It pulled itself bedraggledly onto the stick, which I then picked up and placed on the shore. The grasshopper just sat there, clearly spent. And if I can read body language that, when push comes to shove, is not species specific, but, clearly universal, that grasshopper was right then about as nonplussed as an animal could possibly be. It had been snatched from the jaws of death by … what? Were it to relate this unlikely story of survival to its grasshopper compadres later, what would it say? “There I was, 60 seconds from the bright white light, when, suddenly, a big stick descended from the sky and pulled me from the raging waters and set me gently upon the dry ground.” Would the other grasshoppers snicker and roll their eyes? Or would they all hop down to the shoreline next to that little pool and stare in wonderment as the grasshopper pointed to the stick and said, “See! There it is! I’m telling you, it just came down out of the sky! It was as though it was wielded by some omnipotent being that held the power over life and death! And it choose me!”

Would the rapt grasshoppers then be tempted to test the waters themselves, to personally experience being saved by the power and magnanimity of the Big Stick?

As I walked away, I wondered if the grasshopper I saved was now a born-again prophet for a new grasshopper cosmology: Big Stickism, which, once codified and institutionalized, will espouse as part of its fundamental rubric allegories about Big Stick benevolence, which would of theocratic necessity be counterbalanced by frightful tales of Big Stick wrath wrought against unrighteous and unholy grasshoppers.

I wondered which direction the grasshopper would next hop.


Part Two: Poker face


A couple days later, I was hiking along a completely different, and different kind of, trail, several miles away from the grasshopper pool.

My dog and I had not gone far when we heard a whirring sound emanating from the desiccated thigh-high grass though which this rocky trail passes. Perplexed, I stopped. And right then, finger-snap-like, a cloud of grasshoppers rose from the field. It was like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,“ except it was “The Grasshoppers.” Visions of the more poignant plague-and-pestilence parts of the  Old Testament, which pretty much covers the entirety of the Old Testament, played in my head as the insects swarmed. I would not have been the least bit surprised right then had frogs started falling from the sky.

Scads of the little buggers bounced off my head, pinged off my thorax and ricocheted off my abdomen. Several got temporarily tangled in my locks. One flew into my agape buccal cavity, where it T-boned my uvula, before it executed a perfect bat turn and launched off the tip of my tongue like an Army paratrooper jumping from the back of a plane.

Then they, in seemingly choreographed unison, flew off as one to the northeast, in the very direction of the grasshopper pool.

It suddenly became very still.

The plague lasted a short enough time that, as I was getting ready to re-commence my forward momentum, I wondered if it had really happened. I looked down at my dog, whose noggin was tilted in abject bewilderment, and only then did I notice that, on the front of my T-shirt, was parked a cadre of residual grasshoppers.

The laws of coincidental thermodynamics would argue that, given the large-scale grasshopper chaos that had just transpired, these stragglers, which ended up numbering 12, would have at least been facing in different directions. This was not the case. They were all aligned in parallel fashion, as though they constituted the fascist wing of the grasshopper nation. Thing is, they were not uniformly facing down or off to one side. No, they were, rather, all pointed directly upward, directly toward my tilted-forward face. They formed a modified arc — meaning that all 12 of the grasshoppers had unimpeded views of what I’m certain at that point was a denotatively perplexed visage.

It’s not as though I had anything to fear from the assembled grasshoppers. It’s not like a gang of Japanese hornets had landed on the front of my shirt. Grasshoppers do not bite or sting. All they do is dribble out of their mouths what we in our youth used to call tobacco juice, and, in the pantheon of truly funky biological material I’ve interfaced with in the backcountry over the years, they could spew that shit like “Exorcist”-level projectile vomit and it wouldn’t even register on my Richter scale of recoil.

Nonetheless, there I am with a dozen grasshoppers on the front of my shirt ogling in unison, as though they were expecting me to utter words of wisdom. Or maybe give a motivational speech. Or a sermon.

Which is weird.

I figured, if I started walking, they would likely light.

I did, and they didn’t.

Then I figured, if I grabbed hold of the untucked bottom of my T-shirt and shook it vigorously, again, they would take the hint and depart en masse.

They only dug in deeper.

I scrutinized their expressions and determined in short order that these are not entities you would want staring at you from across a poker table. You could exhaustively research the etymological origins of the word “inexpressive” — root, prefix, derivatives, fraternal and coincidental synonyms and antonyms, the whole linguistic shootin’ match — and not begin to approach the level of inscrutability displayed by those grasshopper mugs. There were no twitches. There were no pupils to dilate. No eyelids to squint. No eyebrows to scrunch. No lips to grimace or smile. You’d have to be a pretty damned dedicated entomologist to suss out the mental machinations of a grasshopper and consequently predict its imminent behavior based solely upon facial cues, or lack thereof.

Thing is, now that I think about it, you could round up a representative cross-section of the drunkest people at the lowliest imbibery and you could get a 99-percent rate of accuracy predicting imminent grasshopper behavior: They’re probably going to hop, and probably through grass.

These, however, appeared to be members in good stead of the remaining one-percent; they seemed moored for the long haul.

I started entertaining the unpleasant possibility that I might have to smote the entire congregation in one fell swoop.

Before doing so, though, I instinctively channeled my favorite smoter: Gandalf.

“Fly, you fools, fly!” I exclaimed to the assembled fellowship.

And fly they did.

Now, given the orderliness of their shirt-front docking pattern, I would have assumed they would vamoose in a similar methodical manner, like a tactical fighter formation. I would have assumed incorrectly. A professor of trigonometry could not have designed a more haphazard dispersal pattern had he or she worked his or her entire career on a unified theory of random tangential egress.

They literally flew off into an indiscriminate combination of fate, the four winds and the cardinal compass points — the holy trinity of overlapping tidal forces — supernatural power, serendipity and physical orientation — that guide and sometimes misguide all journeys worth taking.

Now, where was I?



Addendum: Many years ago, I was hiking with a group of six or eight friends not far from here. One of these friends was part mad scientist, part nerd and part psychopath. At one point, he reached down and picked from the ground a grasshopper. He held it by the tip end of its ass, as though he actually knew the proper scientific way to hold a grasshopper. He raised it up in front of the group for all to see. We awaited some taxonomic terminology intertwined with some arcane biological minutiae. Instead, he said, “I wonder what would happen if I did this.” He then proceeded to reach around with his other hand and pull the grasshopper’s head from its thorax. All jaws, save the one owned and operated by the man now holding and examining a disembodied grasshopper head and the headless grasshopper body, simultaneously dropped. I guess here would be a good time to add that any time that particular group of friends went together into the hinterlands — which was often — there was always some combination of pot, mushrooms, acid, speed, opium, hash and alcohol involved. Most likely, all of those things. Which added a psychedelic veneer to what had suddenly become a surreal scene. “Put it back,” one of the stoned women in our group, a sensitive artist type, wailed abjectly. Verily, the grasshopper’s lobbed noggin had attached to it what well could have been its spine, except that I don’t believe insects have spines. Whatever it was, it looked like a pointed peg. It looked like my lunatic compadre could have easily reinserted it and all would have been well and forgiven. The mad scientist looked closely at both segments before dropping them unceremoniously into the dirt. He walked off while the rest of us remained frozen, gobsmacked, mandibles still fully distended in utter astonished disoriented disbelief. I have heard that, after being guillotined, the human head can retain something approximating consciousness for five to 10 seconds, a fleeting period of time that I’m certain is defined by a remarkable degree of disorientation.  I shook my head and lowered my boot onto the separated head and body. Something about putting it out of its misery. The last thing that grasshopper saw, if, indeed it was still able to see, was a size-11 Vibram sole descending from the heavens. Then its world went still.


Smoke Signals


“What I must do is to take life on its lowest level, gather my soul together, and stand what fate sends.”

— John Cowper Powys, “Maiden Castle”


Part I: Head-bangers’ ball at Applebee’s


It is a question I almost always pose to motel clerks after a long day on the road, when, because of expediency rather than preference, I find myself moored for the night in the midst of yet another chain-store, big-box, franchised purgatory of the type that now defines the retail landscape of so many faceless places in the U.S., especially those located adjacent exits off the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. “Is there anywhere nearby where I can get a beer?” This young lady, with a south Georgia accent so thick you could spread it on toast, answered, “There’s a Walmart across the highway. They sell beer.” “No, no,” I responded, while making the sign of the cross and smearing garlic behind my ears. “I mean, like a pub. Someplace downtown maybe.” “We don’t really have a downtown anymore,” she said, matter-of-factly. Then her face brightened and she said effusively enough that I actually made the mistake of becoming hopeful: “Oh, yes! We have an Applebee’s.”

For the millionth time, I lamented living in a world where blasé cultural black holes like Applebee’s (ditto Chili’s, Bennigan’s, TGIF and K-Bob’s et al) have displaced colorful local taverns. It’s gotten so bad I even miss the shitty, mean, dirty, redneck local bars once found in almost every town in the country, places where one wrong word or one wrong glance could result in physical contretemps and one right word or right glance could result in making friends for life. But, with apparent little choice on the thirst-slaking front, I blurred by the ubiquitous heart of 21st century American commerce: past the aforementioned Walmart, past the McDonalds, past the Wendy’s the Taco Bell the Burger King the Comfort Inn the Dunkin’ Donuts the Holiday Inn Express the Jiffy Lube the Lowe’s the Home Depot the Church’sFriedChickenKentuckyFriedChickenDenny’sIHOPWaffleHousePopeye’s etc. etc. ad nauseum and crash-landed dejectedly, but parched past the point of any reasonable discretion, in the Applebee’s parking lot, which was right next to a Pizza Hut, which was right next to a Long John Silver’s, which was right next to an Olive Garden. The smell of burned grease permeated the atmosphere so intensely, I could taste the repugnant smell and feel it oozing into my skin pores like mustard gas.

A bubbly barely post-pubescent brunette greeted me at the host station with cheerfulness that seemed sincere enough. I told her I’d sit in the bar and she winced a bit, like she felt there were two types of people in the world, and I clearly was a member of the bad half.

A handful of folks were sitting scattered around the horseshoe-shaped bar. The bartender was an affable 20-something gent wearing the kinds of earrings that turn your lobes into holes large enough to slip a gaff through. I ordered a pint of Sam Adams Oktoberfest (much as I detest the entire Applebee’s chain, I concede that it almost always offers a decent selection of beer) and, while I waited for my frothy brew to arrive, I surveyed a scene that really does not need surveying. I am embarrassed by how many Applebee’s I have visited over my many years of road tripping through and into places not civilized enough to have nearby swaths of public land where I can camp and sit on the tailgate of my 4Runner sipping a cold one as the sun sets.

They are not all exactly the same, but they are all pretty much the same: aggressively uninspired and sterile, as though the entire chain was designed by a focus group consisting only of Rotary Club members from small-town Ohio. No Applebee’s that I have ever visited felt like a place where long-and-winding stories have been told, where sozzled women have lifted their shirts and exposed their breasts after losing an ill-advised bet, where long-parted amigos get together every couple years to relive old times they sometimes miss and sometimes don’t. There are never any boot scuffs or carved initials on the bar, and there’s never any graffiti — witty or otherwise — on the men’s room wall. There is no wonderful stale smell. There is never any blood.

Though every component of the generic interior-decorating scheme that defines every Applebee’s that has ever cursed the planet with its very presence was immediately evident, one thing was definitely different: Generally, the music played at Applebee’s is as bland as its food. Heart, Blondie and the Stray Cats. Unfunky faux hipness, at least 20 years behind ordinary faux hipness. But this particular Applebee’s was blaring, of all incongruous things, head-banger/heavy-metal music. Though not my personal cup of tea, the tunes did lend an amusingly surreal aspect to an otherwise depressingly insipid environment.

It did not take long to ascertain the root cause of this perplexing auditory discordance: On the other side of the bar sat a well-worn, though pretty enough, lady, sporting a bleached-blonde bouffant that stood 12 feet tall, who was, to put it mildly, impressively intoxicated. She had somehow managed to hack into the sound system with her iPhone. This she was apparently doing with the full complicity of the bartender, who, apparently being interested in this particular lady in ways that transcended attentive customer service, seemed to care not one whit if she was a devotee of Wagnerian opera or Don Ho’s greatest ukulele hits. It just happened to be head-banger/heavy-metal.

I started scrutinizing the other patrons. To my left sat a boisterous and jovial, heavily tattooed, skinhead-looking man of about 30 who was dressed stem to stern in black and who, in the short time I had been on the scene, had quaffed four snifters of brandy, chased gulp-style by four double Jack-and-cokes. This was a man clearly headed somewhere hazy very fast. To my right sat a Joaquin Phoenix lookalike who, while drinking at a more measured pace, emanated an unambiguous don’t-fuck-with-me vibe. He stared straight ahead and scowled at something obviously located between his ears. At the head of the horseshoe bar sat a good-natured, 60-ish, turquoise-jewelry-adorned country/western-looking couple, likewise in their cups, both members of which seemed perfectly willing to go downriver with whatever current may come their way.

Populating the periphery of the restaurant, out in the proper-dining provinces, were more typical Applebee’s customers, most of whom looked as though there must be a Ward and June Cleaver cloning facility nearby and tonight, of all nights, was when the new clones were let out for the very first time to interact with the world-at-large. The genetic engineers who brought these clones into existence — whose sole goal is likely to populate the planet with the kinds of folks who willingly eat at chain restaurants — must have been operating on the not-unreasonable assumption that, if there is one place fit for unthreatening initial social congress between recently grown clones and the rest of humanity, it would be the local Applebee’s.


The heavily tattooed man to my left and the inebriated vixen who was gleefully in control of the sound system had been engaged in a spirited, though good-natured, verbal tête-à-tête regarding who had seen which head-banger/heavy-metal band in concert the most times. No matter which band the woman mentioned, the heavily tattooed man either rolled up a sleeve or pulled up the front of his shirt, or, in one case, actually took his shirt all the way off, to reveal a tattoo not only dedicated to the band-in-question, but of a specific member of that band. It was only then that I realized all the man’s tattoos were of people’s visages. If the lady shouted above the din she herself was creating that she had seen The Deviants in Denver, the man to my left would proudly unveil an ink-based homage to the late-Mick Farrell on his biceps. If she boasted about seeing the original lineup of AC/DC in Austin, he would display Axl Rose immortalized on his breast. The fact that all of the images this man sported looked pretty much the same aided and abetted his attempts at argumentative one-upmanship. I suspect that, had the discussion improbably turned to presidential history, the man could have contended in the dim light that he sported tattoos of Warren Harding and Jimmy Carter.

After this who-saw-which-band-where intellectual discourse finally and thankfully dissipated, the drunk woman, apparently unable to sit contemplatively for more than point-two seconds, focused her attention on the only un-tattooed and heretofore silent person within earshot: yours truly. She slurred across the bar at 600 decibels whether I would prefer to hear something by Slayer or Poison. Given the fact that we were in Applebee’s, I suggested Poison, despite the fact that I am, to say the least, absolutely unfamiliar with the group’s discography. I am delighted she did not ask me to request a specific song.

By that time, the man to my left was calling all his amigos to come down to Applebee’s as fast as their stolen cars could carry them because the evening was fast degenerating to recreational levels acceptable to those inclined have headshots of heavy-metal band members tattooed onto their stomachs. I had just spent 10-plus hours on the road and I was winding down fast. Besides, this was not my music, and these were not my people. Much as I was curious to see how things further devolved, I determined it was time to move along, though there was no place to move along to.

That I knew of.

On the way out, I made eye contact with several of the Cleaver clones, as they sat dutifully masticating their blasé chicken-fried steaks and meatloaf while casting uneasy glances toward the increasingly raucous bar area where, at that moment, Anthrax was regaling the crowd with a particularly jolting number. The cute hostess thanked me for coming in. She sounded nervous.

Just as I was getting into my vehicle, a rusted-out junker of a van blaring death metal pulled in and disgorged like a clown car of certain doom a cadre of young men with shaved pates who all looked like they could have been college linebackers had they not been sent off to prison at age 11. As I pulled out of the parking lot, a grand total of 13 motorcycles pulled in, six from the direction of the Pizza Hut and seven from the direction of the Long John Silver’s.

The smell of burned grease seemed to have grown even more pungent and even more ominous.


Part II: Forte fortissimo

I retired wearily to a motel room that could best be described as singularly unmemorable. I cannot recall a single detail regarding its layout or décor. I talked with my wife on the phone for a few minutes and prepared to spend the next hour or so desultorily surfing through the 128 channels advertised on the card conveniently placed beneath the remote control. My attention was however diverted by a noise emanating from outside. It sounded like some asshole was playing a car radio. I pried open the hermetically sealed window and oriented my auditory senses to the cacophony of a universe I comprehend less and less each day. The noise was clearly musical in nature, but it was more distant than I had at first suspected. It seemed to be coming from the woods behind the motel, and, though its lyrics were far from clear, I thought I heard snippets of the lingua franca of my home turf: Español.

This demanded further investigation, so I put my shoes back on and ventured forth into the muggy darkness. I followed what appeared to be a driveway, rounded a bend and, before my startled eyes appeared a poorly lit Mexican restaurant/cantina. This time of night, the emphasis seemed to be decidedly on the “cantina” side of the operation.

I cracked the front door open in hopes of surreptitiously sizing up the scene before committing to a full-fledged entrance. But the hinges squeaked so loudly that the attention of 30 or so patrons immediately focused intently upon the hirsute, Bigfoot-looking noggin appearing mysteriously from the depths of the night. “Buenas noches,” I said tentatively. “Esta abierta?”

Sixty orbs widened noticeably, simultaneously bespeaking befuddlement that such a taxonomically suspect creature knew their language!

All it generally takes with Spanish speakers is a couple of tenuous syllables in their native tongue to open up the floodgates of uninhibited hospitality. I was greeted with a chorus of cordial “de pues” (of course) and “pasale” (pass).

“Y tomar?” queried the bartender, by way of an obvious simple linguistic test.

“Hay Bohemia?”


Praise be!

I was offered a barstool, upon which I planted myself, while wondering why the motel clerk had not told me about this place. Perhaps she was unfamiliar with it, which seems highly unlikely, given its proximity to the very business where she worked. Perhaps she thought I would feel uncomfortable imbibing in a roomful of Hispanics. Little could she possibly have guessed …

No matter … here I sat, eyeballing my surroundings the exact same way I had recently done at Applebee’s. First off, mine were the only blue eyes in the room. The ages of my fellow patrons covered a wide gamut, from toddler to probably 70. I was clearly in the midst of an extended family gathering that had at its core the ownership and employees of the restaurant/cantina in which I was sitting. The tables and the bar were littered with far more beer cans and bottles than there were people in the room. Numerous folks had before them what looked to be margaritas served in vessels the size of aquariums. Bottles of tequila were being passed around.

“This just a regular night?” I asked the bartender as I felt my second wind rising.“ Or is there something special going on?”

“Monday Night Football,” he responded.

Above the back bar was a big-screen TV displaying what turned out to be a tape-delayed soccer match from Mexico.

“Didn’t say what kind of football,” the bartender grinned when he saw my face scrunch up.

There were also numerous musical instruments — mostly guitars, with a couple of accordions and concertinas, as well as a fiddle and a guitarron — being manhandled by well-lubricated, arrhythmic, tone-deaf hombres whose only familiarity with musical notation consisted solely of forte fortissimo and whose playlist apparently consisted of two songs and two songs only: “Paloma” and “Chihuahua,” which I have heard 500,000 times in my many forays south of the border.

To the inebriated gringo ear, the lyrics to the former consist entirely of: “BlahblahblahblahblahslurslurslurslurPALOMA!!!!

And the lyrics to the latter have always seemed to me to consist entirely of: “BlahblahblahblahblahslurslurslurslurCHIHUAHUA!!!!

It is impossible for me to accurately transcribe the ferocity with which those last words are, well, “sung” is not the correct term. “Bellowed” might be more accurate. My old buddy Rafael Morquecho (RIP), a professional musician with an extremely dubious past, used to dislodge boulders from the rim of Mexico’s Copper Canyon and send them crashing into the Urique River thousands of feet below whenever he sang “Paloma” or “Chihuahua,” which was often. Too often, actually. Each song has a distinct melody, of course, but it has been my considerable experience that, the more tequila that is consumed, the less distinct those melodies become.

Nonetheless, in short order, I found myself becoming an active member of the rowdy tumult. I have a voice that sounds like a fat cat getting run over by a tractor on a gravel road. But, there I was, howling “BlahblahblahblahblahslurslurslurslurPALOMA!!!!” and“BlahblahblahblahblahslurslurslurslurCHIHUAHUA!!!!” with the best of them. Or the worst. By that time, almost everyone — the teenagers, the old people, the dishwashers, and the wait staff — was dancing unabashedly. It was a great scene. Definitely trumped heavy-metal night at Appleby’s. But over in one corner sat a young man by himself. He had only a glass of water on the table in front of him. And he had tears running down the side of his face.

I went over and sat with him.

His name was Luis.

He knew nary a syllable of English.

Over the ruckus, clear up until the time that the cocktail waitresses started dancing on a bar that assuredly sported beaucoup boot scuffs, I learned that he was a documents-challenged newcomer to the Land of the Free. It is well known, if not openly acknowledged, that Mexican restaurants often serve as underground railroad stations for those who have braved the crossing into El Norte. But, with anti-illegal-immigration mania dominating the landscape these days, restaurant owners have to be more careful than ever, lest they get accused of committing what amounts to a political crime. They usually will put a paperless passerby up for a night and give him or her a meal or two. After that, though, it’s usually hasta luego and buena suerte.

Turns out Luis hailed from Tabasco, one of Mexico’s poorest states. He had employed the services of a coyote to cross the Rio Grande between Laredo and Zapata, just upriver from the infamous Falcon Reservoir. His route took him through one of the most dangerous parts of Mexico, a risk he was willing to take because it also provided the most direct route from the squalor of his home to a country where the streets are purportedly paved with gold. He had made his way to this restaurant/cantina via a pre-arranged ride in the sleeping area of an 18-wheeler. He was supposed to be transferred to another pre-arranged big rig at a truck stop outside town. The second ride did not materialize. He waited for eight hours behind a dumpster. A dishwasher, a Honduran national, emptying trash, saw Luis and drove him to the cantina in which we now sat. He had already been on the road for 17 days, the last four of which were on this side of the border. After all that, he was stranded in big-box, chain-store retail hell.

“Where are you headed?”

My heart sunk when he told me. His destination — the reason he left his family and ventured forth at great personal risk into the great unknown — was some map-dot shithole in rural North Carolina, where he expected to find work in the fields. I had driven through several hundred miles of the most-backwoods parts of the Tarheel State the previous year and, while do doing, had stopped to check out some of the squalid encampments that serve as home-sweet-home for off-the-books seasonal employees, the kinds of below-minimum-wage workers without whom America’s massive agricultural industry would grind to a screeching halt. And I recoiled at the thought of this nice kid coming all the way to America and living in the exact kind of circumstances he left behind: a shack without electricity, running water or basic sanitation facilities. He would be charged exorbitant fees for inadequate food. He would work from sunup to sundown. And, at the end of the harvest, there’s a good chance he would not be paid in full, and, if he complained, he would be probably be turned over to la migra and deported, but not until he had been incarcerated in an INS gulag — the most-fiscally-profitable private-sector kind of prison in our prison-crazy nation — for an indeterminate period of time. I have one friend who was held for eight months before he was sent back to Mexico. Eight fucking months … for doing work few Americans would do for less money than high school students are paid to flip burgers at McDonald’s.

But, then again, I have also visited the most-backwoods parts of Tabasco, where children with bloated bellies walk barefoot through streets through which raw sewage flows unimpeded.

Sigh …

“How will you get to North Carolina?”

“No se,” he whispered, his voice trembling. “I don’t know.”

I pointed to my motel, which was barely visible through the front window. I told him that, at about 8, I would be taking full advantage of the free breakfast buffet. I told him he was welcome to join me for a feed before he began the next leg of his journey.

The cantina owner made last call, so I drank up and wobbled my way toward my warm and dry bed. Luis disappeared into the shadows behind me. I assume he slept on a table or on the floor. I assume he slept fitfully, if at all.

As I drifted off, I heard police sirens, headed in the general direction of Appleby’s.

Part III: The American Dreamscape

I wish I could report that, when the birds started chirping — seemingly 15 seconds after I lay me down to sleep — I arose feeling chipper. This I cannot do. I had a long way to drive that day, so, despite the fact that it was a perfect morning for sleeping in — rainy, windy, chilly and gray — arose I did. By the time I made my bleary-eyed way to the diminutive breakfast room, it was 8:30. I had totally forgotten about Luis. As tepid coffee was flowing slowly into my Styrofoam cup, I looked outside and, standing there in the rain, wearing only a thin red windbreaker adorned with a San Francisco 49ers logo, was my new amigo. He peered forlornly back at me.

I went out and we stood for a moment under the front-door awning. Though he looked half-Mayan, half-Tarahumara, and I look like spawn of the North Sea country, I suggested that we pretend he was my son. I said he should alternate between nodding and shaking his head whenever I spoke. I also taught him a quick line that might make our ruse seem less absurdly unrealistic: “You’re very smart, daddy.”

It took him a couple tries to get it down, but, get it down he did, which impressed me, because it’s really really difficult for native Spanish speakers to pronounce words that begin with an “s” followed by a consonant. I teach an English class that focuses on pronunciation in a Chihuahua border town twice a month and this is one of my biggest challenges. Native Spanish speakers want to place a long “e” in front of such words (e.g.: “special” comes out as “es-pecial”). I’ve had students who have had to throw in the towel on this, as their lips will simply not cooperate, the same way my tongue is unable to trill double-“r”s, no matter how hard I try. But Luis was able to feign accurate elocution almost immediately.

When we entered the sparsely populated breakfast room, no one paid the slightest heed to our presence. I could have arrived with a van full of death-metal linebackers and not one pupil would have pointed our way. Luis was almost salivating in anticipation. Having skipped dinner in favor of drinking the previous night, I, too, was looking forward to solid sustenance. While it’s not like I often hold out high culinary hopes for motel breakfast offerings, this was one lean spread. Since there were only a few cars in the lot the previous night, it’s not as though the starving masses had descended before our arrival upon what, on its best day, looked like it would be slim pickin’s. There were a few slices of white bread, some bruised bananas and some mostly empty plastic vats of brightly colored cereal that was more pulverized powder than solid nuggets of sugar mixed liberally with artificial color and flavor. The waffle-batter dispenser, which looked like it could use a thorough cleaning, was empty. The orange juice pitcher offered nothing more than an inch of pulp sludge. The countertops and tables were filthy. The napkin dispenser lacked napkins.

There were a half-dozen bagel-ish-looking items, which contained raisin bits that looked like house flies had got mixed into the batter, and in a cooler were what looked to be microwaveable mini-omelets wrapped in cellophane.

This likely marked Luis’ first direct interaction with his image of the Land of Plenty. Thus far, with the exception of a couple bologna sandwiches eaten in the back of a semi cab, his only meals in America had been in the Mexican restaurant/cantina where we met, and that must have seemed more or less like home. The motel itself, which was, upon closer inspection, fairly rundown, likely appeared to a native of Bumfuck, Tabasco, to be a fairly high-class operation. Yet, here we had something that looked like what you would expect from a lodging facility in Moscow, pre-glasnost.

Luis, who at this juncture sported a look of profound disappointment, sheepishly took two slices of white bread.

“Son, a young man needs a hearty breakfast,” I said. Luis shook his head as I added a couple limp bananas to his plate.

I pulled out 10 of the mini-omelets, placing two in the microwave and the other eight in the right pocket of his windbreaker. “You don’t want to be hungry later, do you?” He nodded.

I likewise cleaned out the stack of the bagel-ish-looking items, putting two in the toaster and four in his left pocket.

“You’re very smart, daddy,” he said.

As we sat at the table sporting the least number of visible pathogens, it occurred to me that, right then, I was guilty — yet again — of being on the wrong wide of federal law. As everyone who dwells in the deep Southwest knows, it is a High Crime — tantamount to treason in the minds of many — to render direct material aid to an illegal immigrant. Well: Fuck the feds. This does not even rise to the level of an ethical conundrum. Across the table from me sat a man, alone and in need, a stranger in a strange land. I am certainly not religious, but I believe every manifestation of theology and mythology speaks unambiguously about such situations. And Luis seemed like a good and sincere person to boot. I’ll take kindness and  generosity over legality and xenophobia any day of the week.

I told Luis, in Spanish, in a hushed tone, that it was time for me to head out. I told him that, were I headed to North Carolina, I’d be only too happy to deliver him to his place of imminent indenture. But I was headed in the one direction he damned sure did not want to go: West, to New Mexico, down near the border he just risked life and limb crossing.

“You’re very smart, daddy,” he replied sullenly.

I pulled out $20 and handed it to him. Mexicans are a proud people who are generally loathe to take charity. He pushed my hand away, but I insisted. We hugged, abrazo style, and he walked dejectedly out into the chilly rain.

As I was checking out, the man behind the counter, a cheery middle-aged African-American, queried robotically if everything had been to my liking.

“Well, actually,” I replied, “I had about two squares of toilet paper in my room and, though there was coffee, there were no condiments. And the breakfast spread was laughable.”

He shook his head solemnly and said: “Sir, I am so sorry, but we’ve had four employees not show up the last two days. They didn’t call. They just didn’t show up. We are having a terrible time getting reliable employees. We’ve even converted two of our rooms to employee apartments in hopes that we can attract workers. I am the only employee on duty. I have to handle the front desk, maintain the breakfast room and probably clean rooms later on. We can’t figure out what to do about the situation.”

What I wanted to say was: “If your company paid a living wage and offered full benefits and health insurance and went in with the other businesses in the shithole strip of chain stores and franchises clinging like pilot fish to this section of highway to build some real employee housing, then maybe you could lure dependable workers. But I did not say that. What I did say was, “Well, I may know someone …” I proceeded to tell him about Luis.

As I drove away, I could see Luis standing out on the sidewalk, shifting from foot to foot, hands in his pockets, which were filled with microwaveable egg products and fake bagels, as he stared across the blacktop toward the Walmart, the Wendy’s, the Jiffy Lube and, farther down the hill, the Applebee’s, which, with any luck, was burned to the ground last night by a cadre of rowdy head-bangers.

In my rearview mirror, I maybe saw a man walking out of the motel toward him. It was probably nothing more than the diffused light of a rainy day playing tricks with my visual trajectory. Such confusing images are common these days on the tattered edges and darkest recesses of what used to be the American Dream.














Smoke Signals

Linguistic contractions

It was the kind of country store that used to dot America’s rural landscape back in the days before automobile mania became so epidemic that people started driving all the way to town just for a quart of milk or a pack of smokes. These dusty, musty and creaky-floored emporiums of the sometimes absurd purveyed a stunningly vast array of products: hyper-practical footwear — mainly the type of heavy work boots now favored by skinheads — the type of clothing — flannel shirts, stiff khaki pants, wool socks — that had been successfully and simultaneously in and out of fashion since back before your grandparents’ days, and enough in the way of miscellaneous and sometimes inexplicable hardware that a resourceful person could build a time machine or an interstellar spacecraft if he or she could be convinced that such contraptions could be used to harvest corn or herd cattle.

They often sold gas. Two types: regular and premium. The pumps sported decidedly analog spinning gauges that were almost impossible to get stopped right exactly on the amount you were fastidiously aiming for because that’s all the money you had in the world.

They often served as the local post office, where “General Delivery” was the norm rather than the exception. So, you could receive hand-written letters triple-folded in envelopes likewise hand addressed with only two lines, such as:

John Fayhee

Bellamy, Virginia 23017

And not only would that letter get to you, the store owner/postmaster (or his wife, parent, child) would call you let you know you had mail, and, when you came to get it, you’d be asked in great detail about its origin and contents and, as that nosy interrogative was being unabashedly posed, everyone within earshot would shamelessly listen in.

These rural stores often boasted butcher shops that, in these tort-filled times, would likely not pass regulatory muster, given the circling flies and the cigarette dangling from the lower lip of the man maniacally wielding the well-used implements of slaughter.

They peddled basic groceries, mainly of the canned variety, because, since most everyone in the communities serviced by these types of stores had their own kitchen garden, fresh produce would likely have spoiled before it was ever sold.

The best thing these stores offered was not for sale: They provided a venue for gossip and company. They served as the slow-beating heart of hamlets that had for centuries been separated by distance and disposition from a cultural mainstream that was still decades away from devolving into one mammoth, pervasive common denominator.

This particular store, which was way way back on a windy road in lush central Georgia, fell well into this fast-dying retail sub-species: a breed going moldy because of its own conceptual obsolescence and the plague-like spread of shiny-new convenience stores into once-pristine (some would say inbred) social ecosystems. There were a couple well-worn benches on its front porch, but they were suffering from structural rot. It looked like no one had parked upon those benches to shoot the breeze since well before satellite dishes began lighting like vultures on isolated rooftops and well before oxycontin became a household word in places accessed only via meandering blacktop too narrow to accommodate center stripes.

I happened across this country store because I was looking for a certain state park at the same time that I had let my car-camping larder run perilously low. I did not need to provision myself for the upcoming winter; I only needed enough chow for supper, as I planned to continue my circuitous journey to points far far West early the next morning.

Judging from the expression on the face of the lone employee — a corpulent lady of about 50 who looked as though she once may have been the local homecoming queen — it was not often that a non-forever local passed through her front door. She actually looked borderline panicky. As she asked nervously if she could help me, her eyes darted down below the ancient cash register, where I’m sure could be found a loaded weapon. Probably several.

I asked some basic directions — always a good conversational entrée — and told her I needed some basic sustenance to see me through the night. After sizing me up for a couple seconds, she relaxed and said, “Y’all look like someone who wants health food.” I cannot for the life of me get used to hearing the linguistically bruised contraction “y’all” being used to address a singular entity such as, as but one random example, yours truly. It’s like Southerners all suffer from an ocular malady that causes double vision. That, or they always see a ghost or an alter ego standing at my side that I am unable to perceive.

(Look, I fully understand that the plural of “y’all” is “all y’all,” which, translated to English, is: “all you all.” Which makes about as much sense as “y’all” — which means “you all” (emphasis added) — being considered a singular “word.” This is especially perplexing from an etymological perspective, since, in English, we have one handy-dandy little pronoun, “you,” which is perfectly capable of covering both singular and plural grammatical turf. But I digress …)

I tried to surreptitiously eyeball the proximate shelves. I did not see anything within the narrow scope of my peripheral vision even remotely approximating “health food.” I did observe cans of Vienna sausages (three different varieties!), cans of SPAM and its lower-tiered cousin, TREET, cans of sardines, cans of Campbell’s soup and boxes of desiccated macaroni. I saw packages of Twinkies, which I thought went extinct. I saw Little Debbie snack cakes and Moon Pies. I saw pouches of Redman chewing tobacco. I saw boxes of 12-gauge shotgun shells.

The lady led me to the next aisle, where she proudly pointed down toward the bottom shelf, which appeared forlorn and little visited. “Look, that one has a picture of some carrots on the label,” the woman proclaimed while drawing my attention to a lonely can of Dinty Moore beef stew. “And that one has a picture of some beans,” she added, aiming her pudgy digit directly at an equally lonely looking can of Wolf Brand chili. She stood by, apparently awaiting my holistic decision with bated breath. The contemporary me resisted the temptation to recoil and flee and, while so doing, deciding to begin a juice-based cleanse diet right then and there. But the part of me that remembers shopping at old country stores on a regular basis stood transfixed.

Gloucester County, Virginia, was chock-full of old country stores that have long since been shuttered. During my early 20s, when I worked as a land surveyor’s sub-minimum-wage gofer, we often took our lunch breaks at whichever country store was closest, where we would sit out on the porch in the summer or inside around a smoky woodstove in the winter, eating Vienna sausages smeared on stale off-brand saltines, while the old-timers talked with a degree of embellishment that might well be classified as overt fiction about events that may or may not have transpired back in days of yore. Though they recoiled somewhat at our hippie-ish appearance, they always seemed glad to have an audience that had not heard those same stories 200 times before. It mattered not what those stories were about. I always took note of the inflection and flourishes and the vocal cadence and the creative use of tangents that eventually reconnected to the narrative thread and how some people utilized a lean vocabulary, while others brought the full power of Roget to bear upon their tales. And I always appreciated the value of an oral tradition that has all but perished in a contemporary communications wasteland defined by text messages.

(You don’t see many worn benches placed in front of 7-Eleven or Kum & Go or In & Out or Loaf’n’Jug or Snappy Mart stores to encourage social intercourse.)

Way back when, I regularly consumed both Dinty Moore beef stew and Wolf Brand chili. Not because I had no choice, though, given some of the boondocks locales I called home in those halcyon days, I likely had little choice, since I was, out of necessity as much as habit, a frequent customer of old country stores. But mainly because I liked both products and did not know, or care, that I was essentially contaminating my digestive system by eating them. Both then looked more or less like what your mom would make were she preparing beef stew or chili from scratch in the family kitchen. They at least took on the appearance of real food.

I did not stop buying Dinty Moore beef stew or Wolf Brand chili because of any nutritional epiphany. Rather, I stopped because I moved to a town in New Mexico that had a food co-op at the same time that the quality of the products began to diminish. Whereas Dinty Moore beef stew once provided a substantial enough meal that it fueled me on many a week-long canoe trip, it devolved to the point that it began to resemble slop that would have been served to Soviet gulag residents under Stalin.

Likewise, I enthusiastically devoured many a can of Wolf Brand chili on the winter camping trips of my long-ago youth, back when I would willingly carry heavy canned victuals with me into the backcountry. These days, sadly, Wolf Brand chili looks like unidentifiable road kill that had gorged upon effluent shortly before vehicular impact.

I was having trouble picking my poison, going back and forth between Stalin stew and road-kill chili, and between staying and running like the wind toward the front door, which was warped and had loose chunks of screen flapping in the warm breeze. The clerk’s foot began impatiently tapping. I extricated myself by impulsively buying both cans. “Good choice,” she said. “Y’all’ll be eatin’ good tonight.” I could not tell if, deep down, she was grinning. Maybe she would tell the story of the gullible visitor from god-knows-where for years to come. What few old-timers who yet remain would guffaw at my expense till the cows come home. And that’s just fine by me. May they use many colorful adjectives and many meandering tangents in the telling.

Shortly after egressing the dusty, musty, creaky-floored store, with my stomach already preemptively gurgling with apprehension regarding the foul anti-nutrition that would soon be coming its way, I rounded a bend and came across an organic roadside stand selling honey, home-baked bread, apple butter, eggs, jerky and freshly harvested veggies and fruit. I locked my brakes and did a tire-screeching bat turn. After loading up on more food than I could possibly consume in a week, I jokingly asked if I could trade one can of Wolf Brand chili and one can of Dinty Moore beef stew to offset what turned out to be a surprisingly hefty bill. This clerk was a pretty, svelte young lady, attired in a captivatingly clingy cotton dress. She looked so cherubic and wholesome that she could have been a cover model for the Mother Earth News. She shook her head. “I’d eat dirt before I’d eat that stuff,” she grimaced while feigning what I’m certain would be the most pure spit this side of the Vatican. “I’m surprised y’all would even have stuff like that in y’all’s possession,” she drawled. “Y’all musta been desperate!”

I turned quickly, to see if there was a ghost or an alter ego anywhere near the bruised linguistic contraction I apparently have become in the twilight of my life. And there was! But he was hightailing it so fast in the other direction, I could not make out his features before he disappeared into the thick hardwood forests that have blanketed the South since the beginning of time.


Smoke Signals


Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated.”

Arnold Palmer

Among my greatest accomplishments is the fact that I never had the slightest interest in taking up golf. And it’s not as though opportunity has not knocked. I worked for a couple summers running the very modest tennis program in Grand Lake, Colorado, a mountain town that is home to one of the most highly regarded public courses in the Rockies. The tennis courts were close enough to the links that, occasionally, a frantic “fore” would echo through the pine woods just as a rock-hard golf ball landed seemingly from outer space in the midst of a match. Thankfully, to the best of my knowledge, no one ever got doinked on the noggin by errant Titleists, though the threat of proximate golf was ever present, on several levels.

Because I was employed by the same quasi-governmental entity that owned and operated the golf course, I could, like all employees, play for free. Not once did I even ponder the notion of taking advantage of that opportunity. When duffers learned of my aggressive indifference toward golf in general and the Grand Lake Golf Course in particular, they would scratch their pates, jaws agape, and wonder aloud what sort of fool my mother had raised.

I would then relate a story that might border on allegory. I was sitting on the deck of the Grand Lake Golf Course clubhouse enjoying a beer. It was early evening, an idyllic hour during mid-summer in the Colorado High Country. The deck boasted an unimpeded view of the lower half of the doglegged ninth hole, which ended on a central-casting green pretty much right below where I sat sipping my beverage.

Making their way down that hole was a middle-aged couple whose marriage I guarantee did not last much past the point where, after 200 years, they finally putted their way to freedom. The husband’s effort was comedy of errors punctuated by invectives that had much farther reach than any of his shots. It literally took him 20 or 30 strokes to make his way down the hole to the clubhouse. And, like I already said, I could not see the upper half of the hole, so I assume it took him 20 or 30 shots to arrive at the point where I could spectate his acute case of abject inability.

Some of his shots sputtered only a few inches. Some were lost in the clouds of clumped dirt and grass that accompanied them as they flew completely in the wrong direction. The few that actually were hit forcefully ended up way back in the forest, in the general direction of the tennis courts. A couple even managed to defy the foundational laws of physics by traveling backwards. And every vector-challenged shot was followed by some sort of assault being waged upon the guilty club, which was either tossed, thrown, slammed, snapped, spat upon, cursed or wrapped around innocent trees.

The entire time, the wife made her dutiful and silent way by hitting shots that zigzagged at 89-degree angles to the orientation of a green that, to this couple, must have seemed at that point to be as mythical as the Emerald City was to Dorothy as she was being assailed by the Wicked Witch of the West along the Yellow Brick Road. The wife’s shots always seemed to land a few inches, but only a few inches, in the rough. Her next shot would cross the fairway, making one-degree’s worth of positive progress in the general direction of the green, but, once again, it would land a few inches off the fairway. It finally dawned on me that this stoic woman, who uttered nary a syllable this whole time — verily, her facial expression never even hinted at her emotional state (as opposed to her spouse, who looked like his entire head was about to explode) — was intentionally doing her best to not show up her red-faced, sputtering spouse. She — apparently a very competent golfer in a very weird sort of way — was calmly trying to take as many shots as possible to complete the hole. It was a marital horror show on public display for all to attest.

And, at the root of this display of abject misery, which was painful in the extreme to even watch, was golf.

This spectacle etched in stone my desire to avoid direct interfaces with golf courses at all costs. Life is frustrating enough without trying to navigate a dimpled little white ball into a faraway little cup. I have otherwise not-too-insane amigos who contend that one of the main attractions of golf is that it helps one overcome frustration, which would be a perfectly valid argument except for the fact that the frustration you’re trying to overcome is spawned by the very activity you’re using to try to overcome that frustration. I do not believe this strategy for overcoming frustration would withstand serious logical scrutiny unless, perhaps, one were inclined to overlay some sort of ambiguous Zen koan mentality onto a game played by people wearing bright-red checkered pants. And it would damn sure work in reverse were it ever applied to me personally. I would have to begin each round with three sets of clubs, for I, like the man I had watched on the ninth hole of the Grand Lake Golf Course, would, nanoseconds after sending a ball into a sand trap or water feature, become a serial golf club abuser. My blood pressure would skyrocket. My orbs would shoot out of their sockets like zits squeezed by pliers. Steam would spew forth from my ears.

“Well, then,” one of my linkster chums told me, “at least golf’s a game where you can drink while you’re playing.”

OK, that’s a plus, except that I have also learned how to drink while not playing golf. And it has long been my experience that applying alcohol to an athletic undertaking rarely achieves a positive outcome, unless you consider increasing one’s ineptitude factor to be positive. Think: bowling after the third pitcher.

A few years back, a magazine assignment took me to Roslyn, Washington, the town where the critically acclaimed TV show “Northern Exposure” was filmed. The timing of my visit was not coincidental. Right then, a hideous monstrosity called Suncadia, the biggest amenities-based development in Washington State history, was being built right on the outskirts of rough-and-tumble Roslyn, and, naturally, there was contention, as there always is when hideous monstrosities come to town. Many locals lauded the development for providing jobs in an area that had suffered economic hard times since the last coal mine closed in the early 1960s. Other locals predictably lamented the passing of Roslyn’s humble and hardscrabble existence. There were well-justified concerns about the deleterious long-term effects of suddenly having strangely attired urban-dwelling rich people descending upon an erstwhile pleasant dirt-poor hamlet.

The main selling point for Suncadia was and continues to be the three golf courses that anchor its adjacent real estate components to recreation-based unreality. The marketing people I had been interviewing for my story knew that I — then living in the biggest ski county in the country — was not easily swayed by the usual promotional bullshit arguments in favor of developments designed specifically for patrician wallets, but, to their credit, they tried to make the best of my skeptical presence. One of the ways they did so was by inviting me to attend the dedication ceremony for the development’s first golf course. And that ceremony would include a presentation by the course’s chief design consultant: none other than the legendary Arnold Palmer, one of the few professional golfers I had actually heard of. I gladly accepted the invite.

A few months ago, Palmer was much in the news, which is what got me mentally re-visiting my experience at Suncadia, way up in the Evergreen State.

First, I saw a Yahoo News link on the world’s 50 richest athletes. At the top of the list, with a net worth of $1.5 billion, was a creature who looked to have been used as a test subject for a plastic surgeon on acid named Vince McMahon, known for promoting various Wrestle-mania-type events. Number-two, with a net worth of $800 million, was Michael Schumacher, a German racecar driver whose name, not surprisingly, rings no bells with me. Third on that list, with a net worth of $675 million, was Arnold Palmer, which I found surprising. I would have guessed that Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Magic Johnson, A-rod or David Beckham would have been well ahead of Palmer, if for no other reason than the quantities of dinero athletes made back when Palmer was in his prime pale by comparison to the stunning sums they make today. Still, Palmer won 62 PGA events, including 10 championships, and was considered the first star athlete of the TV era. And I guess he invested his prize money wisely.

Second, a three-part series on Palmer was set to run on the Golf Channel, which I would normally not have known about, since, to the best of my knowledge, I do not receive the Golf Channel, and, even if I did, I would rather whack myself in the nuts with a putter than watch golf on TV. I only learned about it because the series was being advertised ad nauseum on ESPN and CNN, two channels I do watch.

When I showed up at Suncadia, I was immediately intercepted by numerous security personnel before I had even fully egressed my beat-up VW van, which sort of stuck out against the backdrop of late-model BMWs, Mercedeses and Lexi that otherwise dominated the parking lot landscape. Given that Suncadia had just opened, these security personnel had not yet become jaded by the demeaning nature of their gigs. They were, at this early juncture, enthusiastic and thorough. The realization that these are pretty much the only types of jobs at Suncadia that will be available to the citizens of Roslyn —minimum-wage, dead-end, part-time, bad-benefits, non-union, ungratifying — had apparently not yet taken hold. They looked totally shocked when I presented my official invitation, as though they had based the entirety of their vocational expectations upon the photos of the well-coiffed target demographics presented in Suncadia’s glossy promotional literature.

I followed a throng numbering perhaps 200 through a polished bar that looked like it was designed by the same aesthetically challenged bean-counters who had conceived the Bennigan’s and TGIF chains. It, being brand new, sported nary a scuff mark on the tables, nary a drink stain in the plush carpet and nary a vibe of amusing debauchery. It was my guess that, should I return in 15 years, the scuff/stain/debauchery factor would not be much improved, unless, of course, the resort went tits up, something we can only hope for.

The throng and I followed a golf cart track to a tee box set at the top of a terraced hill. The expectant crowd formed a horseshoe around the tee, next to which was a pyramid-shaped stack of golf balls that numbered, I was told, 144.

Despite the fact that where we now stood until recently was home to a nice stretch of Pacific Northwest evergreen forest that had been obliterated to make way for fake ponds, groomed greens and cart paths, the scene was quite pretty. Since it was high summer, verdancy, albeit of the artificial variety, dominated the viewscape. Distant rolling hills provided backdrop for perfectly manicured, heavily fertilized fairways that had been discovered by gaggles of giant geese. Numerous Suncadia employees, who, it’s my guess, were right then coming to understand the true nature of their employment situation, had been tasked with shooing the geese away, which was almost as funny to watch as the husband-and-wife golfers I had watched in Grand Lake all those years ago.

Palmer was running a bit late, so I took the opportunity to scrutinize my fellow invitees. The ages ranged from teens to those putting their way through their golden years. Most were part of mixed-gender couples. There was a lot of blue hair. Definitely not the most physically fit people I have ever seen. Totally Caucasian. Not a scraggly beard among them. Definitely no bongs. Dressed in the height of tacky golf fashion. And clearly pants-pissing excited to be standing where they were standing.

I had no idea until that moment where Arnold Palmer ranks in the pantheon of golf gods. Come to learn, he is Zeus. Even if Tiger Woods had strolled up, I doubt he would have drawn an iota of worshipful attention away from the spot where the man whose nickname is “The King” would soon enough stand.

One of the main reasons for Palmer’s wild popularity (and for this, I had to refer to several biographical websites) is that he was one of the first world-class golfers to grow from non-aristocratic roots. Born in working-class Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in 1929, Palmer went to Wake Forest University, which, while hardly a community college, is not Ivy League. He even served in the Coast Guard for three years, not a common career trajectory for one of the best golfers ever to swing wood. Palmer is considered a blue-collar golfer, an “every man” in a sport perceived— accurately or not — as decidedly upper crust.

Why these people, with their flawless grooming and attention to fashion detail, gauche though it might be, would revere a man from the other side of the tracks, I could not guess. Seemed counter-intuitive to me, but I had no desire to spend any mental effort whatsoever trying to dissect the group psychology, or the group psychosis, of this particular socio-economic subset.

When Palmer finally arrived — along with a retinue of handlers, assistants, hangers-on and groupies — it was, of course, via a golf cart. It had the same vibe as the papal entourage, except with miniature electric vehicles adorned with the Suncadia logo. Though it seemed to me that it would be hard to make a dignified entrance via golf cart, Palmer’s fans broke into raucous, worshipful applause when he pulled up, even though his cart, which he was driving, almost clipped an elderly woman before coming to a less-than-graceful stop inches from a gent whose head, as a result of the near miss, snapped back so violently that his tacky toupee fell off and landed on top of a plastic beverage cup held by a man who was standing directly behind him.

Faces lit up as The King, then 77 years old, walked from cart to tee, greeting people, shaking hands and slapping backs the whole way.

There are few things I know enough about to make absolute comment, but one of those things is this: I know from intimate experience when someone is near-terminally hung over. Palmer, to his eternal credit, did not commit the sin of trying to pretend like he was not suffering mightily from bottle flu. He fessed up right away. “Last night, I was introduced to a beverage called Ketel One,” Palmer grimaced, referring to a brand of mid-shelf vodka for which he now serves as a promotional spokesman.

As wrecked as he looked, and apparently was, his spirit was high. He was in his element and on his game. He walked over to the bag of clubs that had been placed for his use next to the pyramid of golf balls. I honestly do not remember whether he started out with the wedges or the woods, but, whichever it was, Palmer proceeded to embark in orderly fashion upon the most astounding athletic display I have ever witnessed.

Actually, my jaw dropped before he ever took his first swing. Let’s revisit the afore-referenced pyramid of golf balls. I wanted to buy shots for whoever it was who managed to erect this impressive feat of engineering. Me? I could spend the rest of my life trying to stack 144 golf balls thusly and would never manage to progress past the foundational layer. And, if by some miracle I were able to construct a golf ball pyramid, I would have to avoid contact with my creation forevermore lest one molecule of my finger make contact with one molecule of a stacked golf ball, which would without a doubt cause all the rest of the balls to scatter far and wide, like atoms do during a nuclear explosion.

Yet Palmer, while scarcely even glancing at the pyramid, reached with the business end of his club and, without so much as nicking its neighbors, flicked a ball off the stack and onto the ground. He would do this same thing time and time again over the course of an hour. I would have paid good money just to witness that part of his presentation, which ended up consisting of three distinct, but intertwined, elements.

First, he would relate a few war stories about such-and-such a tournament, opponent or golf course. Then he would fire off a few shots down range. Then he would answer questions posed by audience members, who were very well versed in Palmer legend and lore. (This is when I learned that he apparently had risen to the top of the world of golf utilizing a swing that was repeatedly referred to as “idiosyncratic.”) Then he would replace the club he had been using, get the next highest (or next lowest … again, I can’t remember), nick another ball off the pyramid and start over.

Palmer was a great storyteller, a personality trait I respect as much as any other. His delivery was well honed, his timing impeccable, his anecdotes amusing, even to a non-golfer. The rapt crowd hung onto his every syllable. This dude could have shit his polyester pants right on the spot and that final act of digestion would have been greeted with a raucous clapping of hands. What was most weird was that I, the most golf-illiterate person for miles, seemed to be one of the few there gathered who was actually watching his golf shots.

It has been my pleasure to have witnessed some top-tier athletes in action. I saw, from a behind-the-basket, court-level seat, Magic Johnson leading a “Showtime”-era Lakers fast break, with Michael Cooper and James Worthy manning the wings, against the Alex English-led Denver Nuggets in McNichols Arena during the 1985 NBA playoffs. I was a line judge during a men’s final match between Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors when they were the top-two-ranked players in the world. I’ve watched pro skiers and snowboarders rocketing down the mountain. I’ve seen a martial artist fire off four devastating kicks with one jump. I’ve watched the Tarahumara Indians run on their home turf in Copper Canyon. I watched Steve Carlton mow down the Cubs in Wrigley Field the year he went 24-9 and won the Cy Young Award. Perhaps most impressively, when I was in my early 20s, I watched a 65-year-old tennis player, who sometimes coached me and sometimes was my doubles partner, fire off 10 consecutive impressively accurate serves — five in the deuce court, five in the ad court — with his eyes closed!

But I had never seen anything like a hung-over 77-year-old golfer launch shot after shot, while telling stories and answering questions, and not even come close to a mis-hit. Every swing Palmer took resulted in a ball flying straight as an arrow way the fuck down the fairway. There was not the slightest hook, slice, shank or dribble. His divots consisted of maybe one or two blades of well-coiffed grass being slightly disturbed.

I’ve seen Magic miss passes. I’ve seen Connors double fault. And of course it can be and should be argued that Palmer was not right then dealing with the pressure of competition. There were no vagaries caused by challenging course design. The weather was perfect. But he also did not have the focus that competition mandates. He did not have the pin-drop silence that defines golf tournaments. He had a loud crowd scant feet from the tee. And he had the kind of killer hangover that would have laid me and my most reprobate drinking buddies up on the couch for a solid 14 hours.

Yet … every … single… shot sailed distant and true. I moved around to eyeball those flawless trajectories from several angles, to see if my uneducated eye was missing anything. Ixnay. Every goddamned shot was perfect. The people who were peppering him with questions about his amazing comeback at the 1960 U.S. Open — played at Denver’s Cherry Hills Country Club — would have given a kidney to occasionally hit a single shot that took the form of every shot Palmer hit as he stood there casually mixing jocularity with astounding athletic proficiency. I’m sure a learned linkster could have pointed out flaws. Perhaps some of Palmer’s shots would not have set up the next shot very well, a concern for sure when you’re playing an entire hole. Perhaps those shots did not travel as far as they should have.

Still …

I didn’t know what I was witnessing, because I had never seen anything like it. Meditative consciousness being physically manifested by an elderly man who had been drinking vodka till the wee hours? A textbook example of muscle memory in action? The end product of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour hypothesis, times a million? An ability to move seamlessly, imperceptibly, into and out of focus? A life that never, under any circumstances, loses its focus? Luck? Sleight of hand? Smoke and mirrors?

Whatever it was, Palmer did not miss a single shot, and he took perhaps 100 swings. It remains the best example of athletic prowess I have ever witnessed. That I will ever witness.

When Palmer had finally made his way to the last of his clubs, with the pyramid of balls down to its foundational building blocks, he, to a thunderous ovation, thanked everyone for coming, then stood patiently as every single audience member walked by and shook his hand and tried to, I’m certain, say something not too stupid, something that had not already been said to The King many times before, something that would maybe register. Me included. When confronted by my unkempt, way-out-of-context self, he recoiled ever so slightly, but still took my hand firmly and asked, of all out-of-the-blue things, about my handicap, which, I learned later, is a measure of how bad a golfer is, rather than an observation about my obvious physical and/or mental shortcomings. He seemed both bemused and perplexed when I responded by saying, “For years, I tried to overcome it. But now I just live with it.”

I had anticipated before the fact that my visit to Suncadia would amount to no more than a pleasant diversion, one that I could share with my soon-to-be-jealous golf-playing amigos. (All four of them, including my brother.) “Hey, guess who I hung out with the other day?” I would ask those amigos matter-of-factly. I assumed that, 12 seconds after leaving, I would give my superficial interaction with Arnold Palmer little in the way of subsequent thought. Yet, as I drove my beat-up van toward Marko’s, a bar in Roslyn that allows dogs inside and that boasts a ping pong table, I could not help but feel there was some sort of salient and applicable lesson that was dangling right before me, ripe for the picking, if only I could move myself past the stereotypes I had possessed about golf and golfers and golf courses and golf-course-based developments forever and ever.

Maybe something about the power of focus and dedication to one’s craft. Maybe something about the harnessing and honing of motivation, whether that motivation is based upon coming from the wrong side of the socio-economic tracks or from a myopic desire to stand atop the podium.

Try though I might, though, I did not succeed in coming to any conclusions regarding Arnold Palmer and his ability to hit balls straight down a fairway while dealing with a bad hangover. At least no conclusions that applied even slightly to mere mortals like yours truly. I sipped a few pondiferous pints while my dog cavorted with a crew of local curs. Then, a lightbulb lit up over my dimwitted noggin. Of course, thought I! To gain enlightenment, one must occasionally turn directly to Scripture.

Joel Fleischman, the main character in “Northern Exposure” (played by Rob Morrow), was himself an avid golfer. As such, he delivered many links-based lines during the show’s six-season run in the early 1990s. Among his many golf-ish bons mots were:

• “Golf isn’t a game; it’s a choice that one makes with one’s life.”

• “There’s something intrinsically therapeutic about choosing to spend your time in a wide-open, park-like setting that non-golfers can never truly understand.”

• “It’s the union of mind and body, the interconnectedness. You know what I mean?”

• “Don’t rush your swing. Just let the power radiate from you core to the club head.”

• “Keep your senses open. Let your instincts calibrate with each new factor.”

• “It’s the focus, the attention to detail, the head, and the heart.”

These lines were not delivered by a character traveling in the same lofty linkster realms as an Arnold Palmer, of course. They were not even delivered by a character with fantasy-based aspirations of traveling up where the golf-club-bearing snow leopards dwell. Which is good, because those lines are thus able to resonate with a member in good stead of the hoi polloi at he sits in a dark bar nursing an even darker beer.

Taken individually, it is easy to categorize Fleischman’s lines as the worst kind of vapidity: That which is cloaked in faux profundity. But, viewed in the aggregate, they rise above the sum of their superficially trite parts. (At least they do after a few pints.)

It is tempting to deduce from Joel Fleischman’s witticisms that one must love an activity in order to excel at that activity, whether it be golf, tennis, rock climbing, playing the piano or knitting. And that, even if you do not excel, then you still love that activity and strive to be better. And, with enough love, you will get better, whatever that means. And, even if you do not, you love the context of the activity — the splendor of the rock face, the banter of your knitting partners, the contrast of a yellow tennis ball against the deep blue sky, the lush green of the fairway — enough to keep coming back for more. And, most importantly: If you’re really focused, and maybe a bit lucky, your love of an activity can bleed over to other aspects of your life. Maybe the patience one must master in golf helps one become a better boss or father.

After a while, a few ping pong players showed up, and I took particular pride in schooling them on the ways of spin reversals and strategic misdirection.

One of my vanquished opponents — who was required by bar protocol to buy me a beer — asked: “So, how did you get so good at ping pong?”

“Don’t really know,” I replied, not quite honestly. “I just enjoy it enough that I look forward to practicing as much as I do playing games. I get into the psychological drama that’s part and parcel of every match. I like the balancing act between passivity and aggression, between offense and defense. And I am confident enough in my abilities that I am able to relax and just go with the flow when I’m playing. I don’t have to try too hard.”

Many months later, as I was organizing my notes, I realized that what I had described was less about myself as a ping-pong player and more about myself as a yarn spinner.

“One day, I’ll figure out how to do that,” my opponent said, as we clinked glasses and toasted the beauty of movement and the beauty of the day.

A few miles outside town, over toward the Suncadia resort, I might have faintly heard someone yell “fore,” followed by what sounded for all the world like a guilty golf club being wrapped around an innocent tree.


What other people may find in poetry or art museums, I find in the flight of a good drive.”

— Arnold Palmer