Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The first time I hear the voice is in the fall, when the larch trees have just begun to change color. I’m driving out of Washington’s Blue Mountains along Cloverland Road just above the Snake River. Cloverland is a series of hairpin turns and S curves bordered by a sheer drop into a canyon full of snakes, sage, and yellow star thistle. My fifteen-year-old, oil-leaking Subaru leans toward the drop-off, and, like a whisper, I hear this command:
My arms stiffen, and I turn the wheel too slowly going into the sharp turns. My brake foot is sluggish. I’m having trouble coordinating the clutch and the gas pedal. Far below, at the bottom of the canyon, the cattle look like dots. I wouldn’t be found for a week.
My fingers are purple and sticky from picking huckleberries. It’s the second bad growing season in a row, and all I have to show for an afternoon’s work is one sorry baggie full of berries, barely enough for my wife, Jan, to eke out a batch of muffins. Jan’s cousin David sits quietly in the passenger seat, oblivious to how close he is to death. Sensitivity to other people’s moods is not one of David’s strong points. But then, such sensitivity can be a burden and can lead you down paths you’ve never dreamed of taking. Trust me on that.
When it comes to money, David is tight as a drum: he lives on three hundred dollars a month, doesn’t own a television, a phone, or a car (a bicycle is his only mode of transportation), and shops exclusively at Goodwill. When he invited us over for Thanksgiving dinner once, we had to bring our own dishes and chairs. Jan recalls that, when David was a child, he was always in his room stacking pennies. When he visits his sister in New Orleans, he takes the Greyhound: fifty-nine dollars round trip. Reading on the bus makes him nauseous, so he stares out the window for four days. What he thinks about, I have no idea.
Go ahead. See what it’s like to fly.
I finally recognize the voice; it’s my own, only an octave lower.
I manage to keep the car on the road, mostly because I like David and don’t want to kill him by driving this hunk of junk off a basalt cliff and onto a pregnant heifer three hundred feet below. Finally, we make it to the bottom of the grade, and the voices cease. David yawns and asks where we are. “On level ground,” I tell him.
Every four or five years, David moves to a new location. Each new place of residence must meet his strict requirements: It must be a college town west of the Great Divide, and the university must have an Olympic-sized pool where David can swim laps for free. (Also, David can shower and shave at the pool, and thus turn off the hot-water heater at home.) The libraries must be well stocked. The student union must provide phones where he can make free local calls and televisions where he can watch his favorite football team, the Broncos. In the last ten years, David has lived in Pocatello, Idaho; Flagstaff, Arizona; and Fort Collins, Colorado. He is fifty-two years old, as thin as a Q-Tip, and as stubborn as the NRA.
To me, the most incredible thing of all about David’s lifestyle is that he neither has nor wants a girlfriend. I try not to ask him too many questions, but eventually I have to ask him about this. The following summer, around a campfire in the Bitterroot Mountains, I say: “How do you do it, David? How have you managed to escape women?”
He looks across the flames and without pausing says, “They’re too damn expensive! If I get involved with a woman, she’ll want us to have a car, and then I’ll have to get my own car. Then suddenly we’ve got two cars and a phone that won’t quit ringing, and she’ll probably already have children, and . . .” His voice trails off. “I was interested in a woman in Boulder, but the first time I invited her over for dinner, she saw I didn’t have any wine and ran out to the nearest liquor store and bought three bottles. I knew then it wasn’t going to work out.”
Based on my relationship track record, I probably would have insisted on paying for the wine. My mantra is “Please don’t be mad at me. I’ll change; I promise. More wine?” Women scare the daylights out of me, even when they’re five feet tall and weigh a hundred pounds. Once, a woman tried to bill me for her counseling after we broke up.
So I look at David and think, You’re my hero, man. I hold him in the same esteem as I do the lone sockeye salmon that made it to Idaho’s Redfish Lake this year, bobbing and weaving through the dozen dams along the Snake and Columbia Rivers, finally arriving in the Sawtooths in a horrible state, only to spawn and die. David would make it through; I’d get chewed up in the turbines at the first dam.
David places another stick on the fire. “Does Jan still want to move back to Illinois to be near her folks?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. “She’s going no matter what. She says I’m welcome to join her.”
Her father has skin cancer and is undergoing a year-long experimental treatment. It makes no sense for her not to be there with him. But she’s also sick to death of the West. To be precise, she’s sick of the paranoid, antigovernment types (both the Nazis and Earth First!); the smug native Westerners who think they live in Xanadu; the romanticizing of Native Americans; the pompous literary category called “new Western writing”; the anti-Jane Fonda bumper stickers; and on and on.
I share Jan’s disgruntlement, to a degree. After two and a half decades out west, I find that long hair no longer means what it did, and with each passing year it’s harder to tell the liberals from the rednecks. Gated communities separate the rich from the rest of us. Casinos have replaced meadows. Clear-cutting has chased the wild animals back into the high rock of so-called wilderness areas. Unceasing mountains of logs obscure the horizon in Idaho towns like Cascade and Pierce. The lack of employment opportunities is stifling.
So why don’t I want to leave? Maybe because there are still parts of the West where you can’t pick up a single radio station and, when you’re flying over them at night, not a single light shines below. I need the rush of loneliness I get when I look down from Galena Summit, along the foot-wide trickle of water that is the beginning of the Salmon River, and there is no sign of the modern world in any direction. Such grandeur can make you humble — or narcissistic. The latter can lead you down the path of memoir writing.
My time here wasn’t supposed to end. I had goals: to walk the Pacific Crest Trail; to live in an old adobe town in New Mexico; to see a cougar or a wolverine in the wild before I die. When I wrote my first bestseller, I was going to buy a little cabin and gather my grandchildren there each Christmas in front of a roaring fire of tamarack. But none of this happened. I was too busy looking at the scenery and imagining living everywhere my eye landed. The truth is, you can’t live in those isolated settings, unless you were born there or happen to be a relative of Ted Turner. “You have to arrive here with momentum,” a buddy once told me about the West. He now owns a used-book store in Nashville. Still, I think, no one moves back east. No one ever returns to Illinois. Do they?
I’ve garnered all of my adult knowledge from living out west. I can tell how slick a snowy road is just by looking at it. I know which hawthorns the long-eared owls hide in each December and the difference in temperature between the hot springs at Lowman and the ones at Pine Flats. I know the Nez Percé visitors’ center near Lapwai has the best bathrooms on Highway 95. (Drum music and native chanting are piped into the stalls.) I know the worst coffee is at the truck stop in Biggs, Oregon, and the best huckleberry pie used to be at Mom’s Cafe at Syringa, Idaho, until it closed.
So many things have changed in the last quarter century. But what did I expect would happen? That I wouldn’t get old? That my daughter wouldn’t grow up and leave home quicker than wet soap out of your hand? That I could keep hiding from my relatives forever?
To add to my shame over admitting to David that I may end up back in my birth state, the Land of Lincoln, I woke up this morning — which happens to be Father’s Day — with a case of Bell’s palsy. My face is twisted on one side like a Picasso painting. Anything I drink slides down my chin, and my winning smile is now a permanent sneer. One eye blinks like a broken motel miniblind that won’t close. People look away as if I were a madman. (A search on the Internet reveals more bad news: some cases last for several years, and there are no special literary fellowships for writers with Bell’s palsy.)
I blame vanity as the cause. OK, God, I think, I won’t suck in my cheeks anymore. No more flexing in the mirror. And I will never shave my back hairs again (but I’m going to stay on those ear and nose hairs). Please, just give me back my face. Not quite the Lord’s Prayer, but heartfelt.
We eventually get rained out of the Bitterroots, but not before David talks me into taking the wrong fork of the trail, which leads us to a dead end in a marsh called Big Stew, around fourteen miles from the trail head. A June sprinkle soon becomes a torrential downpour, soaking every inch of our belongings. We make camp next to a large group of bear hunters, who are all out looking for game at the moment. Their lone female cook, fearing rape and startled by my upside-down face, will not invite us inside her dry tent for a friendly cup of coffee. Yet another myth about the West — that folks here are neighborly — dies a painful death.
I finally do recite the Lord’s Prayer (and mean it) in the gloom of my dripping tent, where I sit up all night in an inch of cold mountain water. David, hunkered down in his own sodden tent and shoveling back bee pollen and hard-boiled eggs, asks how I’m doing. “You don’t want to know!” I yell back through the storm, stuffing my last pair of dry socks inside my shirt next to my skin. My air mattress is an island. No sleep tonight.
Midwesterners always look at the West as a mythical getaway, a promised land where they can escape those humid July and August days. They look west and imagine cowboys, Indians, and 5 percent humidity. To say to someone in Illinois that you live in Missoula or Santa Fe still gives you a special aura. But I am the only one I know of from my old neighborhood who actually came west and stayed.
When I attended my twenty-fifth high-school reunion in Chicago, my classmates — most of them well-heeled lawyers and doctors — looked at me as if I were a ghost. They gathered around, and some even touched my beat-up thrift-shop sport coat.
“We thought you had died.”
“No,” I said, “I just moved out west.”
I have this nightmare in which I’m returning to the Midwest, and as I pull into town, everyone is hastily packing to move to Livingston or Telluride. The temperature is ninety-eight degrees, and the humidity is 100 percent. They all look at me with disbelief, sweat dripping from the tips of their noses, and say, “You actually moved back to Illinois from the West? Why?”
Why indeed? I wonder each night as my wife rummages in the basement, sorting, discarding, and packing. Stacks of dusty books rise from the floor. “Do you want to keep this?” she asks, holding up a Hardy Boys mystery. Rugs are rolled up like giant burritos and tied with twine. Furniture disappears. She visits with a realtor in Illinois.
“I’m sick of the West,” she says with tears in her eyes. “I want to hold my father’s hand. I want to be in Illinois by the fall.”
As a giant hint, she hangs a poster titled “Spring Woodland Wildflowers of Illinois”: blue cohosh, doll’s eyes, redbud, Virginia waterleaf, bloodroot.
“What if I don’t go with you?” I ask.
“I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to do.”
In the summer, she replaces the poster with “Summer Prairie Wildflowers and Grasses of Illinois”: compass plant, cordgrass, big bluestem, prairie dock, Illinois tick trefoil.
Realtors appraise the house while I’m out. I wake up each morning at three, terrified. Damn, I forgot to see Glacier! And the Olympics! So much landscape, so little time.
On our last trip to Illinois, we went bird-watching down the Great River Road, along the steamy Mississippi. Fireflies danced in the meadows, and all the birds were bright red and orange. I saw my first indigo bunting, its feathers an electric, Peter Max shade of blue never seen in the West. From up on the bluffs, amid hardwoods I couldn’t identify, we watched a boom of twenty barges coming up the river, hauling corn, cotton, cars, and oil drums. I thought of one reason for moving there: we would be in the middle of the country, in the center of activity instead of at the end of a cultural and economic cul-de-sac.
Afterward, in the old French river town of Chester, I ate heaping platefuls of catfish, mashed potatoes, and fried chicken at a buffet where no one in the room weighed less than three hundred pounds. In a few years, I thought, that could be me.
Late at night in the Big Stew, the bear hunters return on horseback. The sounds of hooves tripping over rocks and the scary voices of men echo through the empty valley. “How did they get in here?” they shout to each other through the rain. They turn their animals loose, and for the rest of the evening, the horses take turns galloping by our tents, snorting and farting and generally disregarding our need for sleep.
In the morning, David, brave soul that he is, pays the men a visit to inquire as to just where the hell we are. I tell him to come and get me if they offer coffee, but otherwise he’s on his own. I despise bear hunters, with their homicidal attitudes and their peanut-brained hounds. David returns — without coffee, of course — and reports that the men are stunned we actually walked all this distance in one day. The scent of bacon soon fills the little valley, replacing the stench of horse crap. I almost lose a filling on an oatmeal power bar. David eats more bee pollen and offers me some raisin-colored creek water spiked with iodine. I tell him I’d rather die of thirst.
We shuffle off in poor spirits and wet, squeaky socks, cutting short our backpacking trip by a night. Rain continues to pelt us. All the way back down the mountain, we follow a trail of fresh bear tracks and discarded candy wrappers. (Snickers seems to be popular with hunters.) Soon, the path becomes a treacherous trough of mud and horse shit a foot and a half deep. Every now and then, I come across a confused snake or frog wondering how to cross the trail. David is having a horrible time in his K-Mart tennis shoes with the Velcro straps. I debate whether or not to carry him out if he snaps his ankle. In my foul mood, I could go either way.
Finally, after eight hours, we arrive back at the trail head just as the sun breaks through the gloom and the clouds retreat back to Canada. We stop in the small town of Lowell, at a cafe whose walls are lined with a musty collection of animal heads. We are ravenous and each order a “wilderness burger,” which makes use of a quarter pound of cow, and is topped off with two slices of bacon, cheddar cheese, and a slab of ham — curly fries included, with extra grease. (All that’s missing is a coupon for a thousand dollars off your first heart bypass.)
In the next booth sit four long-distance bicyclists, erect young studs in skin-tight, rainbow-colored stretch gear. They stare at my lopsided face as I try unsuccessfully to cram the burger into my crooked mouth. I stare back until they look away, and then I cut my burger into tiny, geriatric bites. For the first time in my life, I envy another person’s youth and health. David doesn’t notice any of this. He is too busy with his curly fries, his hands drenched in grease. I’m exhausted — physically, for a change. I face four hours of driving (and five more weeks of Bell’s palsy). David’s got a big empty house waiting for him, where he’ll stretch out on the floor, tune his Goodwill clock radio to the preseason Broncos game, and sleep straight through for twelve hours. Maybe it is time to go home, I think.
It’s mid-May, and Jan and I are leaving Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon after three days of camping and bird-watching. I am driving a rental car across a spit of asphalt called the Narrows, between Harney and Malheur Lakes. High water laps at the road: no room to pull off; no margin for error. Egrets calmly stalk the shallows, their sharp bills ready to strike at unsuspecting frogs. Grebes float by with their necks twisted back in a yoga-like pose.
A full year has passed since the camping fiasco. David still doesn’t have a female in his life, although he is being pursued by a woman who was recently released from an Idaho state mental hospital. “She’s nice-looking enough,” he says. “She just happens to be very crazy.” That never stopped me, I think.
Jan has resigned her job and is completely packed. Almost immediately after the experimental treatment was over, a second melanoma was found on her father’s back. Time is running out.
This trip has had all the feel of a farewell tour: one last blast through our familiar Western stomping grounds. We’ve just been to our primary destination, a dead end deep in the willows and cattails of Lake Malheur. We went there looking for avocets and burrowing owls, but saw none. Instead, the specter of the Move loomed over the entire trip like a flock of migrating turkey vultures.
I mention to Jan in passing that this skinny, no-shoulder road is reminiscent of the elevated highway on the way from Chicago to Indiana. I remember riding that highway in the back seat of my mother’s friend’s Mustang convertible with the top down, Lake Michigan winds attacking me from all sides. I hid my head between my legs, terrified of being blown out of the car. That’s how I learned to pray.
Almost immediately after I tell this story, the panic attack begins. No voices this time, but I can’t get enough air. I feel faint and weak in the knees. High-desert wind, fresh water, shorebirds, and swift-moving clouds call to me like sirens. I know if I give in, I’ll wake up in a hospital.
“Jan, I feel funny.” I slap my face and roll down the window. “Talk to me. Just keep talking.”
“Do you want to pull over?” she asks, but there is no shoulder, only sky, water, and way too many coots. Her voice sounds as if it’s coming to me through a tunnel. To keep from passing out, I tell Jan how the same feeling came over me in Boise last fall while I was driving in four lanes of rush-hour traffic. I describe the absurdity of an Idaho rush hour: cowboys on cell phones; methamphetamine dealers heading back to their labs; flavored coffee at every exit. Now I’m about to spin out into the briny waves of Lake Malheur. I’m going crazy.
Jan gently talks me through it. “Look, we’re almost there. It’s OK.” Her calm, kind words and her hand on my leg to steady me are so overwhelmingly compassionate that at that moment I decide we belong together, forever, no matter where we end up.
Somehow I make it to the other side of the water, but I am rattled. What is happening to me?
As we continue our trip, I think, Please, Jan, let’s not bring up Illinois. Let’s just soak up this one perfect spring week traveling through the West with the flocks of geese and cranes on the wing.
In the sweet, lost towns of Lostine, Fox, and Wallowa, we make it our job to look for old-growth farmstead lilacs. Among the windy cottonwoods that grow along the rushing creeks of mountain runoff, we marvel (again) at how beautiful this country is. Maybe, I think, just maybe, if I show her one more mountain range or one more sandstone canyon, I can convince her that we belong out here.
Everything goes pretty well until Ukiah, a town the size of a placemat. The most attractive structure around is one of those oversize, modern Forest Service office-mansions. The rest of the town looks like a bad haircut. Gas is available only at extortion prices and comes with a long, poorly thought out antigovernment lecture from a man in dirty overalls and his exhausted wife, whose T-shirt features the cast from the long-ago Western sitcom F Troop. The station owner, who talks as if he has suffered more than a Kosovar Albanian, doesn’t appreciate the government’s insistence that he install a new, nonleaking underground gas tank at his own expense — forty thousand dollars. Looking off in the direction of the palatial Forest Service building, he proudly declares, “If I could chop the heads off all those bureaucrats, I would do it right here and now! I would love to see their heads rolling down Main Street.”
My fragile brain does not care to imagine bouncing decapitations in this unfamiliar place, nor do I want Jan exposed to any more of this paranoid, individualist Western philosophy that comes from too much isolation and a lack of fresh produce. I especially do not want to remember F Troop. But I do; I remember every character, including the white actors who played the Indians.
For the remainder of the trip, we are spared any diatribes but my own. Illinois never comes up. In the intoxicating, soft days of spring, we hike, watch birds, and fall asleep to the cooing of cranes. We wear the sun on our faces and wonder in our expressions. I have a grandiose fantasy that I’ve just discovered the landscapes we’re exploring. No one has ever seen Oregon’s high desert the way I do.
Each day, we move through towns in which I once thought I might live, but I now know that was just another fantasy. If you’re a boomer from the Midwest, you don’t just arrive with your U-Haul in a blue-collar hamlet of four hundred and blend right in. Yet, all over the West, my generation continues to attempt exactly that. Armed with our impending inheritances and our preventative-healthcare plans, our mission furniture and our modems, we drop from the skies like NATO paratroopers in search of authentic small-town life and bargain-basement mortgages. And before you know it, we’re complaining about the development, the logging, the hunting, the poor irrigation, the lack of a good Internet connection, and the bad coffee and nondairy creamer served at the local cafe. We whine, worry, and fret. The sixties aside, we are not a happy-go-lucky generation. No wonder no one likes us. Hell, I don’t even like us.
On our last night out, Jan and I stay at Ukiah-Dale State Park along Camas Creek, with its immense yellow pines, abundant fawn lilies, and wild parsley. We are the only campers here. In the dim twilight, we hurriedly set up our tent. Jan climbs in her bag and zips it up against the chill.
The campground host comes around to take down our license-plate number. A trim, shy cowboy of about sixty-five, he remembers us from when we passed through three days ago. He tells us we missed an afternoon snowstorm with a temperature of twenty-two degrees on May 8. “Pipes froze for a while,” he says, shaking his head. After a few more minutes of weather talk, he relaxes enough to reveal that he’s actually a fiddle player working at this campground until the Weiser, Idaho, fiddle festival begins in June: “For my first two numbers I’ll play the ‘Chinese Breakdown’ and the ‘Oklahoma Waltz.’ Don’t know yet about the third.” For years, he tells us, he ran cattle, and his father was on the very last cattle drive out of Peter French’s P Ranch, in 1903. “They started in Burns and Harney City, picked up the P Ranch stock on their way south, and followed water all the way to Winnemucca. Took thirty-three days.” He says Peter French’s grandson still has a cabin just up the road toward Pendleton, “but he just died.” The cowboy looks down at his boots, the brim of his Oregon State Parks ball cap hiding his emotions. “Well, hope you don’t get too cold,” he says, and he walks back toward his heated mobile home and his fiddle.
My earlier panic has subsided to a manageable level. I turn down the lantern, wiggle into my bag next to Jan, and kiss her good night.
“It helps keep me warm if you’re touching me,” she murmurs.
David, old man, I think as Jan hugs me, you’re missing out. And I finally hear my own voice in my head, coming through clear and strong, and in the right octave. For an intoxicating second, I imagine I feel the vibrations in the ground of thousands of dusty cattle following water from Burns to Winnemucca. I listen for the cowboy’s lone fiddle, but instead hear a lost goose honking down the creek.
I fell in love with the West when I first saw the Rockies at the wet-ear age of seventeen, and here I go falling for her all over again. This time, though, it’s a mature love born of twenty-six years of living, loving, and fighting. Even with my crow’s-feet, battle scars, and bad attitude, she always takes me back.
Tomorrow seems far away, next year an eternity. I try to imagine another place and another life, but I can’t get beyond this moment, this perfect spring night. I feel victorious, the grateful recipient of a precious gift. I’ve been given one more night outside in the West, under stars, next to swift-moving waters. This is all I’ve ever asked of her.
Stephen J. Lyons
No, I’m not bitter. My essay represents a heart full of love and gratitude for the almost three decades I’ve lived in and written about the West. But, as with any committed relationship , one must be able to point out unhealthy traits. The isolation many Westerners seek, for instance, is hardly healthy. As Jedediah Purdy writes in For Common Things, “When we retreat from public life, we retreat into exaggerated visions of our own powers and dreams.” It’s no wonder, then, that militias and hate groups are coming to the West in droves.
Karla Miller’s letter unfortunately reflects an all-too-common sentiment in the West: an irrational fear of outsiders and those who offer even a shred of criticism. This “love-it-or-leave-it” defensiveness among Westerners is increasing as we come to the end of an era of damming rivers, clear-cutting old growth trees, grazing cattle on public lands, and other economically inefficient forms of natural resource plundering. These are changing times we live in , but returning to the old West is not an option. (Ask Native Americans if they miss those golden years.) Besides, the West as a land of imagined freedom has always been more myth than reality.
By the way, the bear hunters and their twenty-five horses were camped on federal lands preserved for the good of all Americans, whether they are from Boise, Idaho, or Miami, Florida. And I can’t have much sympathy for hunters who use hounds to tree bears (and cougars) and then saunter up and blast them into trophy-land. If that’s the West Miller loves, well, then, it’s all hers.
I just finished reading “Leaving the West,” by Stephen J. Lyons [February 2000], and I am disgusted by the author’s bitterness and hypocrisy. He says he despises bear hunters, yet, out of fourteen miles of wilderness, he chooses to invade their privacy and camp right next to them. He and his wife’s cousin wander out without preparation and then get offended because the people he despises won’t play mama to a couple of babes in the woods. He asserts that Westerners are not friendly because a woman alone in the wilderness did not invite two strange men into her tent. (Surely, even people from Chicago teach their daughters this much.)
Lastly, Lyons puts down our individualist philosophy, which, he says, “comes from too much isolation and a lack of fresh produce,” yet it is this same isolation that he craves and goes crazy without. It is exactly this kind of “save Rome, but damn the Romans” attitude that makes his kind so unwelcome here.