Sunset bison

Sunset bison
Sundogs

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Never the same road twice

I never thought much about roads until a few weeks ago. What was there to think about? By definition, a road is nothing more than a strip of land artificially smoothened to facilitate the moving of people and goods from point A to point B. So ubiquitous are they that we routinely take them for granted until something happens to them, which isn’t often. And even then the road itself is usually only ancillary to the problem, as when a bridge washes out or an elevated section of highway collapses.

When I did think about roads it was more about traffic than the road itself. Walking from our house to the corner, birding along the way, is enough to maintain my enthusiasm for rural living, with the added benefit of providing a rejoinder for the fools who thought we were nuts to move here. The dearth of traffic is exhilarating and liberating. Having a virtually unlimited amount of time standing in the middle of the road to study birds without having to step aside for vehicles is in stark contrast to where we came from, where a similar feat (called a crazy stunt there) would be short-lived. As would you be.

Had I actually taken the time to think about roads I would have known that the subject is freighted with meaning, laced as much with philosophy as it is with mysticism. Frost’s depiction of two roads diverging in the woods comes immediately to mind, as does the adage about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. Dorothy’s Yellow Brick Road certainly parallels the hero’s journey as illustrated in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, his opus magnum showing the comparative themes of all religions. “The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer” reminds us that a road can appear to be one thing and actually be another when it says “And see ye not yon braid, braid road, that lies across the lily leven? That is the Path of Wickedness, though some call it the Road to Heaven.” And then there’s the high road, the low road, the lonesome road, the road to misfortune, the road to wealth—the list is as endless as the road itself.

Though Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, waxed poetic when he said, “You can’t step twice into the same river,” he adopted a more pedestrian tone in his discourse on roads. “The road up and the road down are one and the same,” he said, a statement that could have come from any highway engineer. Too bad that upon inspection it’s as riddled with holes as a rural speed limit sign.

He should have known better. His major tenet was grounded in the belief that permanence was an illusion, that transition was the only reality. But the road, no matter its direction, is anything but changeless, especially when the Kansas Department of Transportation throws up barricades, strips names of towns from road markers and directs traffic onto another route, as happened recently just north of Blue Rapids. The road then becomes something else.
It becomes empty.

Years ago I would have felt this to be a positive act. The less the outside world knew of us, the longer we sustained our small-town atmosphere—so my rationale went. What I failed to consider was the impact such a closure could have on our businesses.

Already, four weeks into a fourteen-month project, they’re taking a hit. Revenue is down, customers are fewer, and the road is silent and abandoned where once it was busy, a main arterial from north to south and back again. Belatedly I understood that the road is the lifeblood of a small town, and businesses the very heart, and when that flow is constricted, the heart grows weaker.

As one of those business owners, I watched out the windows as the flow of traffic trickled to an inconstant drip. And each morning I passed through those barricades on my way to a second job, and crossing them again several hours later was like entering a quarantined zone where only lepers and castoffs dwelled. “Local traffic only,” one sign read, unmindful that the selfsame road carried on to the edge of the continent.

Heraclitus was half right, as my tires sing to me each morning—it’s the same road on either side of those orange-striped barricades, the same oil-sand-gravel-dirt mixture that warps in the summer and heaves in the winter. But even as rivers are constantly flowing, constantly changing (even as I am constantly changing, for neither the river, the road, nor I am ever the same), it is never the same road twice. This week it’s closed, in weeks to come it will reopen. The town, and its businesses, will have changed, too.

And like Heraclitus disregarding millennia of myths, legends and tales, I thought that was it, the final word on roads.

Today while gassing my truck a shadow drifted across the empty road and passed soundlessly over me. I looked up and saw a flock of pelicans white against the blue sky, its members strung out in a ragged formation that suddenly broke apart into a lazy spiral that slowly reformed into a new configuration as it drifted over the town square. No other customers vied for my spot so I felt no hurry. I watched them until they folded into the blue and vanished like some mirage or illusion. Their road is one we cannot follow but it is ageless and eternal. Some things, at least, never change.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Never enough real estate

Our Baptist preacher was famous for waxing poetic on John’s visions of the New Jerusalem as found in the Book of Revelation, focusing specifically, and in lurid detail, on the streets of gold. Lesser details of splendor included perpetual radiance, foundations of precious gems and gates of pearl, surely a dazzling spectacle in divine contrast to the mud-walled villages common to the times. Had John seen what I’m seeing now—the lights of Denver sparkling like some galaxy fallen to earth—I’m sure he would have thought the new heaven and the new earth prematurely arrived. Me, I tend to think of it as the new hell.

Thankfully, the vision is retreating in our rear view mirror. Before us stretches a whole lot of empty space as evidenced by vast swathes of darkness, and more darkness is yet to come. I won’t breathe easy until I’m on Highway 36 past Byers, trading the fast-paced interstate for a narrow two-lane blacktop tracking straight to Kansas. Byers tends to be the tipping point for sustainable urbanization and commutability, and even then it’s pushing the limit. To the blessed east is only real estate, 99% of which is wide open.

Even as a boy I was skeptical of stories alluding to fabulous cities. Growing up in New Mexico provided an education rife with tales of conquistadors wandering broken and destitute across the Llano Estacado in search of the Seven Cities of Gold, disastrous outings whose endings were bad for the believers and worse for the unbelievers. That the pastor wanted us to stake our eternal lives on such claims made me uneasy. Haven’t we been down that road before? was the question I longed to ask, but as questioning was not something a wise Baptist child did, I kept my yap shut and dreamed of what might lie outside the walls of the glittering city.

It’s always been so. I could blame my parents for indoctrinating us in the hedonism and solace of the great outdoors, but mostly I ascribe the fault to the nature of cities themselves. Early experience taught me that being outdoors was life-affirming (fishing, camping, hiking, exploring), whereas cities were life-threatening (school, bullies, church, yard work, washing dishes, etc.). It was, in fact, an easy connection to make.

Looking at it through older and presumably wiser eyes, I still find fault with Brother Goldman’s fixation on streets of gold. Gravel roads are really much more pleasurable, and anyway I can’t imagine eternal bliss without a chile stand on each corner and the ethereal aroma of roasting chiles on a late summer day.

The latter explains in part our hurried trip to Denver. With only a paltry few sacks of roasted chiles in the freezer, we deemed it time to make our annual pilgrimage. In Denver we could also see our sons, eat some glorious Mexican food, and, possibly the most important reason, visit the Apple store and feast our eyes (or my eyes, anyway) on my next computer.

We stayed with our son Joel and his wife, Michelle, in Arvada. I wasn’t prepared for the sense of claustrophobia that assailed me, whether at their house, packed cheek to jowl with the neighbors, or the traffic, which was a constant jam. But at no time did I experience such a sense of panic as I did when we drove out to the Flatirons Mall.

So vast is the mall and its extended environs that a detailed map was needed to find the store and the correct parking lot. Joel punched up Google on his laptop and printed us out an overview of the area, complete with arrows pointing out the correct lanes to navigate the maze of streets leading into, and out of, the mall. I quailed when considering its size, roughly that of Blue Rapids but with ten times the population. That quailing continued there and back, when I wanted nothing more than to lock myself into their house and never come out.

Ah, but if John was dazzled by a city of gold so pure it was clear as glass, I saw revelation in the new iMac. Specifically, the new iMac with 24” monitor, 2.4 GHZ Intel Core 2 Duo chipset, 4 GB RAM, 320 GB hard drive and ATI Radeon HD 2600 PRO graphics card with 256 MB memory. Its seamless fusion of aluminum and glass, its stylish exterior, its renowned functionality—goodbye Bill Gates!—had me stupefied. Where before I had been bedeviled over whether I wanted a 20” or 24” monitor, one glance put it to rest. “All that extra real estate,” I said in awe to the clerk. Lori just shook her head.

After that we found a chile stand and inhaled deeply as three bushels of Hatch green chiles roasted to charred perfection. Storing the boxes in the back seat infused the car with a heavenly aroma so ineffable that even the horrific traffic could not dampen my mood. I sailed along happy as a lark, with visions of chile rellenos and smothered burritos and crystalline monitors stretching to the horizons of my desk.

The next morning we rose early and slipped away under the cover of darkness. Traffic was light as we broke free of the gravitational pull of the city and fled into the night. Lights faded as dawn paled the horizon. The curve of the earth swept Denver away.

Real estate indeed. John’s vision of the New Jerusalem was one of effulgent glory. After witnessing the new iMac, I completely understand. But it’s here that we go our separate ways, for he was looking for civilization and I’m looking for the opposite. Give me a few acres, a small chile patch, a shade tree and a gravel road and I’ll be content. Oh, and a new Apple computer. After all, in land and flat-panel monitors, one can never have too much real estate.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Still haunted after all these years

Sun comes up in a cloudless sky and already it’s blazing hot. I stare out the window with too much time on my hands and the house empty of my second soul. Dreams linger like reverberations that never fully fade, threatening to drag me back. And why should I fight them? I’m there every night, regular as clockwork, so why not return during the day. When I’m awake I can control what happens. I can direct the action, cut the scene, call new actors from the sidelines, maybe a starlet or two for extra spice. Someone from my past. Maybe Norma, who carried a sadness greater than my own, or Marissa, or even Pascal. Yes, Pascal would be the ticket, French, shapely, comically innocent and blindingly beautiful.

But it never works that way. It’s a fiction I try to lose myself in. Our complex minds are ridiculously incomprehensible and unruly. Why return to a past we long to forget? I’m standing in a small pool of light outside a convenience store on 29th and York in Denver when fear hits me like a hammer. Little houses line the street and lights shining through the curtains and the streets are deserted and me on the sidewalk paralyzed. I’m having a meltdown as I stare through the store’s windows and see nothing out of the ordinary, the front counter with its displays of cigarettes, candies, newspapers and lottery tickets, racks of shelves filled with cookies and potato chips and outdated cans of vegetables, and in the darkness beyond is something I’m afraid to confront. The key to the front door is in my left hand and my right is staying close to my holstered pistol and the only sounds in the universe are that of my radio softly squawking and the thudding of my heart.

There were other times I was terrified to enter businesses after a burglar alarm sounded but I forced myself to follow through. It was my job, my duty, but more than that it was a measure of me as a man. It defined me. I once had a trainee who bragged how he wasn’t afraid of anything. One night we responded to a carpet store on South Santa Fe just past Mississippi, a scary place with dual time clocks synched to kerchunk one second apart, the sound identical to a shotgun slide racking forward to seat a shell, and this besides the endemic hauntedness of the place, the silent footsteps, the creaking floors, the rustle of fabric and faint voices. After thirty seconds inside he was ashen-faced and begging to leave. He grew up in that instant, confronted by a man he did not know or knew and was afraid to admit knowing, and that man was himself. Less certain, more fragile, more like the rest of us. He didn’t last long.

And sometimes I wonder if decades later he wakes to find himself standing in that hallway where it opened out into the dimly-lit warehouse, and though the time clocks have just shattered his nerves the real terror inhabits the shadows of the room, something he couldn’t name then and can’t name now, or ever. Maybe something that doesn’t even have a name.

Every night I return there, or to a place remarkably similar. I roam dark alleys or brightly-illuminated houses, the homes of rich people who cannot help but look down on me, the low-rent housing projects, industrial warehouses and traffic-choked streets, and nothing I do is ever finished or complete but left dangling with a sense of dread or expectancy. I’m back at my old job in a twisted, surreal fantasy only faintly bordering on the real. If my bladder wakes me the interruption is brief, for as soon as my heads hits the pillow again a new chapter begins. Same situation, different place.

I want to dream something else. When I force them aside I’m back to the Sandia Crest high above Albuquerque in another one of my familiar dreamscapes. I wonder what new devilry is afoot. This goes way back to when I was young enough to have little experience and fewer dreams, but dreams enough to gaze across the rolling terrain between the forested slopes of the Sandias to the high peaks of the Pecos Mountains sixty miles away and wonder what it would be like to cover the distance on foot. I can still smell the thin air of high elevation and see myself ant-like far, far below.

So much for control. Another unfulfilled wish, another deception by a trickster mind.

How I wish I would have done it. Was it failure to plan or failure of nerve? The world has changed, and me with it. Sometimes I take my revolver out and hold it, my fingers curled around the rubber grip, and it’s almost like being in my dreams again. But there I can never fire it, not even when threatened, something always blocks my finger. Looking back on it from a sunny place is like seeing the distant Pecos Mountains and for one moment knowing they’re only a step away. Can I squeeze the trigger when I need to? Can I take that first step? Somehow I missed my opportunity. I’ve grown up and moved on, and yet decades later I find myself on the crest looking to the northeast, mentally choosing a route.

I never did enter the store but drove away in shame. But I’m back there again, every damn night. I like to think that someday I’ll insert the key in the lock and turn it until the bolt snaps too loudly and in one swift move I’ll draw my pistol and swing the door open and step in and shut the door and lock it behind me, and it’ll be just me and whatever it is I’m afraid of. That we’ll finally end it.

And sometimes I think I could reach those mountains if I would just start walking.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Musings of a capricious god

Given the fact that on some days I allow spiders to roam unchecked where I work and on others I squash them on sight, or that one species of spider is granted immunity and another is not (and the next day the reverse is true), it must seem that I am a capricious god, doling out death or allotting life on little more than a whim. Arachnids searching for an intelligent design would be hard-pressed to prove there was a reasoning, calculating mind behind my actions.

Nor does compassion have any bearing. My decision is entirely arbitrary, a human foible to be sure, though glancing at headline news makes one wonder about the capriciousness of God himself. A bridge collapses in Minneapolis and some go into the river, others don’t; an F-5 tornado obliterates one town and leaves another unscathed; an undeserving hack hits the bestseller list while a better writer languishes unknown; and so forth.

But if I have one consistency, however contradictory, it is this: I bring no harm to a member of the crab spider family.

And yet, even in that there is an inconsistency. An unfortunate incident recently proved such claim a lie, though in all fairness I like to believe that it wasn’t entirely my fault. True, a jury of spiders would condemn me for what took place in the predawn hours of last Friday, but if the crab spider had been in its proper habitat, or if it had bothered to put on its reading glasses, both of us would still be walking this earth. Or so I like to think.

Most people have never heard of crab spiders. This isn’t surprising because most people classify all spiders in the same family of things-to-be-killed-on-sight. Plus, crab spiders are small and secretive, usually hiding under a leaf or flower, awaiting suitable prey to wander by. When it does, they pounce and inject a toxic venom that paralyzes the hapless insect, and then proceed to suck its juices dry. Such propensity for vampirism will undoubtedly leave readers squeamish, but nature is often brutish and anyway a spider does only what it must.

More telling than their hunting method is their shape. For many crab spiders, and particularly the family Thomisidae, the resemblance to a crab scuttling along the seashore is uncanny. Their two front pairs of legs are much longer than those behind and are often held away from the body. And like the crustaceans for which they’re named, they can move forward, backward and sideways with equal dexterity. But for all that, they have one slight handicap: their eyesight really sucks.

My introduction to crab spiders was abrupt and violent. After discovering a new butterfly in a neighbor’s flower bed, I belly-crawled to within an inch of the specimen with hopes of getting a photograph. At the moment the shutter snapped a pale spider snatched the butterfly and sank its fangs into the butterfly’s throat. It happened so fast the butterfly barely even twitched.
It wasn’t until later that I realized what I’d witnessed, and then only because of a diminutive brown spider that one morning meandered across the floor like it owned the place.

I’m used to finding spiders in the office. The most common is the brown recluse, followed by wolf spiders, grass spiders, jumping spiders, and others I cannot name. This spider was dinky, smaller than my little fingernail, and shaped just like a crab. It acted as if it either couldn’t see me or didn’t care. A twisted desire to name it “Crabby” whipped like lightning through my thoughts, followed by an echoing peal of how-juvenile-can-you-get. I fought the urge but unfortunately in that degenerate way one’s brain refuses to listen to reason, the idea took root and sprouted. Afterwards it was always Crabby, much to my disgust.

Sometimes Crabby could be found in the lobby, wandering aimlessly across the tiles, and at others he would be downstairs, or in the bathroom or hallway. I had no way of telling if it was the same spider, nor did it really matter. I’d step over or around him, avoiding him with the dust broom or wet mop. And though I went out of my way to work around the spider, the act was never reciprocated. Crabby acted as though I were invisible.

Most spiders hightail it when I draw near. Crabby’s nonchalance was either arrogance or sightlessness, a thought that sent me to the Internet for some research. I found that crab spiders indeed have very small eyes—they appear as freckles across the front of their cephalothorax—and in that irrational way we humans empathize with other creatures whose disabilities match our own, I felt an instant bond with Crabby. Without my glasses, the world is a blur.

I also discovered that Crabby is related to the butterfly killer, though in a different genus. Crab spiders like Crabby are usually found in leaf litter or wood bark and belong to the genera Basaniana or Ozyptila. Crabby must have slipped under the door and either found a home or was trying to escape.

For weeks I worked around him—him being a convenient fiction rather than a known gender—and then he disappeared. My carelessness increased even as my awareness decreased, so that one morning as I was finishing up mopping I jabbed the mop into the bucket and shoved it forward, and at the last moment saw Crabby in the path of the wheels. He never saw it coming.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to get worked up over the demise of a spider. But the fact that we sometimes do, that we occasionally rise above our self-centered natures to respect and esteem our lesser neighbors—even if only in a maddeningly whimsical way—surely borders on the divine.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

What the birds cannot know

We’re never single-minded, unperplexed, like migratory birds. – Rilke

What he said. It returns to me even now, days later, as rain drums the roof and draws a misty veil across the trees shading Juganine Creek. We had just broken from the woods into a narrow clearing bordered by two tree-choked runnels, grass to our knees and purple-blooming ironweed to our chests. The sun muted by humidity and falling into the west. I hurled the branch that had been used to clear our path of webs, watched it arc high and disappear into the trees without a sound. Sweat glistened on our skin, soaked our shirts, cloyed the air. Not a breath nodded the flowers. Steve said, “Hard to believe but soon it’ll be cold and snowy.” The lower leaves of sumac blazed in fiery crimson. Already, and summer barely a month old.

Something about August stirs such sentiments. No sooner were the words unleashed than I saw the flowers shrivel to fuzzy seed heads, the switchgrass, side-oats grama and bluestem shade from green to rust, and trees shed their leaves in masses swirling on a bitter wind. What he said was the future of this prairie place. What he said tugged at something within me, something half-buried, something restless and edgy, something that cast its gaze longingly toward the southern latitudes. For already the watchers had reported swallows and martins flocking, mudflats shimmering under swarms of sandpipers, plovers, godwits and turnstones, playas freckled with mallards, pintails and teal, and nighthawks massing over the Kaw River. Birds on the move or preparing, migration begun already and August still a week away.

Their wanderings are my own. As every birder knows, the beginnings of migration trigger deep-seated emotions barely understood, our very own heaven, our very own hell. The excitement, the quickening, as the first migrants alight on our vernal shores, bleeds away to autumn’s bittersweet yearning. They are going, they are passing away to places we can only imagine, and we flightless bipeds remain grounded. As much as possible our eyes do not leave them. We watch them depart, our skies emptying slowly, painfully, and something within us goes with them. It depletes us, so that when we finally turn away we are less than before. The price exacted for bearing witness.

Steve and I pushed on, crossing the wildflower meadow and drawing up to a barbed wire fence. I had been this way before but not when it was this lush, but it really didn’t matter when all that was needed was to keep an uphill course. We skirted the fence to a gate and slipped it open and closed it behind us. The crest loomed above, treeless, crowned in a wreath of exposed limestone and sumac heavy with scarlet seed clusters. Grasses bent under a cool breeze. It felt heavenly after the suffocating air of the forest.

I made for a rounded knoll and thought of other summits, and how though thousands of feet in elevation separated them they shared a commonality of heights to be attained. A red-tailed hawk lifted with a shriek from a wind-twisted cedar and disappeared over the hill. In my mind’s eye I saw the view unfolding before it, the Flint Hills rolling away in smooth undulations of a thousand shades of green, the sun westering, shadows pooling in the draws and gullies, the horizons indistinct from humidity, the skies to the south storm-wracked and laced with lightning. How must it be to circle ever higher, to escape the bonds of gravity, to see all that land before you and know there are no limits or boundaries?

It is not our lot to know. But likewise it is not their lot to know the breathless expectancy that comes with the first shoots of grass, the first wildflowers, the first cascading leaf, the first raking snowflakes, all within the same minor realm. Though each year a part of me longs to accompany them on their southbound journey, this is where I must stay, for ours is not a transitory life. If we are grounded, so also are we rooted.

We reached the top and turned around to see the valley and the little town nestled among the trees. The sun canted sharply now, leading Steve to remark on the shortening days. Again it seemed an unseasonable comment, but it was true; each day now shed its minutes at the approaching solstice. The birds knew it, even as we did. Behind us a nighthawk boomed, whether for the sheer joy of it, a last farewell, or a love song to the sky. Rilke’s comment about migratory birds being single-minded and unperplexed had no basis in the freefall of a nightjar. Surely there is abiding joy there, a joy we can only guess at.

The hemispheres are theirs, and mine this narrow field of view. When autumn strips the leaves from these trees the birds will be far away in a summer place, and I remaining will walk these silent paths. Winter will come with ice and frost and winds that gel the sap in the trees, and I will still be here. I will be here and in that is a quiet but lasting contentment.

We stood there, the two of us, gazing out over the broad riverine valley, anchored on one end by the Blue Rapids grain elevator and the other end with the distant towers of Greenleaf ghostly on the far side of the horizon, the highway a slender golden thread stitching them together. Around us unseen birds stirred, feeling that implacable, irresistible tug that would launch them in the gathering dusk. It was theirs to feel, not ours. Our eyes were below, on this place where we live, this place where we remain.