Friday, December 14, 2007

Eye of the fox

Before me the open road and behind the pavement burning golden under a westering sun. Fields stark and shorn of color, gray skeletoned trees, barns weathered and peeling, each pass in an endless procession impossible to dull the senses of one city-born. Isolate houses sagging under the weight of years. Dirt roads leading nowhere. The unpeopled landscape of the county borderlands unfolding in an early-winter setting and me its solitary witness.

Something nags at me, a thought, a feeling, a memory. It’s been growing for some time now, growing stronger and deeper, closer to the bone, and yet it remains just outside the edges of my consciousness.

As the sun welters into a cloudbank a solitary ray escapes to ignite a red fox perched sphinx-like atop a rounded hay bale, behind whose flame the somber woods melt away into gray obscurity. When the fox swivels its fine-furred head to study my passage light glints off its obsidian eye, and for a brief moment we two sentient beings join in wordless communion. The fox wears a Mona Lisa smile, and me hurtling past in my cocoon of steel and glass recognize within that fathomless expression, that tenebrous orb, the talismanic attributes of all that other place was not.

After that, everything is so much clearer. I enter the small town of Barnes and exit within seconds, its span a half-mile at best, and one more town to go before my own rises from the horizon, huddled around its tall grain elevator.

The irony is not lost on me that what I’m doing is the exact thing I refused to do in my other life. Indeed, it’s what brought us here, though pushed might be a better term. And yet any comparison is dubious at best, more mathematical formula than actual substance, for what the fox saw from its hayrick throne was the vision I craved for myself.

I never did like traffic or populated areas. Shortly after moving to Las Vegas, New Mexico, I picked up two female hitchhikers who needed a lift to Boulder. Having nothing better to do, I drove them there. That night I slept on the floor of what can only be described as a mini-commune, a canvas-sided jungle boot as rough pillow, my conservative mores at odds with the free-love, dope-smoking, long-haired cahoots I was suddenly cast among. Driving home I encountered Denver at its worst rush-hour hell, and I swore I would never live in a place that congested.

So much for oaths. For twenty-six years Lori and I lived there, the last ten on the northwest side with a splendid view of the Front Range, at least when it wasn’t veiled with smog.

It was fourteen miles to my job just east of downtown Denver. It doesn’t sound like much now—the distance, say, between Blue Rapids and Frankfort. But getting there in the morning, and leaving there in late afternoon, required a commute of at least an hour. Some days were much worse, as when it snowed or rained or threatened rain or snow or when stupid drivers decided to crash into other stupid drivers and really jack things up. I was thankful we didn’t live on the south side of the metro area, where traffic was generally much worse.

And then the news came that my company would be moving to the extreme southern edge of town—which meant a one-way commute of thirty-five miles. It didn’t take long to do the math and decide it was time to find something else to do and somewhere else to do it in. So we packed up and moved to Kansas.

And here I am with a morning commute of thirty-five miles. No wonder the fox was smiling.

Sure it’s only two days a week, but still. What I refused to do in Denver I willingly agreed to here in the hinterlands of Kansas, and if that sounds hypocritical then one needs to study the various routes within both commutes and decide which one best suits my persona. That other was endless traffic, often at a complete standstill, and this is wide open where few other vehicles are ever encountered. A splendid swap for one so chary of humanity.

Most of the time I stick to the old White Way from Blue Rapids to the intersection of K-15, passing Fawn Creek and Coon Creek, where a red-tailed hawk or bald eagle is usually sentinel on top of the dead tree near the road, and north across Mill Creek into Washington. Some mornings I take K-148 north and cross the Little Blue River, always slowing down to take a gander—an act that in Denver would likely prove fatal. Once or twice I took the Greenleaf road, a narrow blacktop wending through farmland and wooded thickets. Someday I want to make the trip on dirt roads just to see if it’s possible.

This, then, is my morning commute—an equivalent distance to that which I balked at in Denver. And yet it remains incomparable.

This is not to say we don’t have traffic snarls or collisions. The other morning on the way to work I ran into a sort of rural traffic jam. It was the middle of our local rush-minute and I was forced to wait for four trucks, two cars and a school bus to go by. I tried not to be too impatient. What the fox held in its liquid black eye was mine now.

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