Walking Train Tracks on Superbowl Sunday

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February 4, 2017

It was a warm day for February, mid fifties with a mild wind and overcast skies but no rain. Mid-afternoon, I had an afternoon to kill, waiting for the Superbowl to come on tv, waiting on my daughter, who was dancing at the ballet studio all afternoon and into the evening, (halftime to be exact, before she finished and we could make the hour drive home; she wanted to watch Lady Gaga, so we sat in the lobby of the studio for another fifteen minutes and watched the spectacle).

A couple of miles from the studio Two Rivers Park sits at the junction of the Little Maumelle River and the Arkansas River. There’s a big parking area, a boat ramp, and a bicycle/pedestrian bridge that crosses the mouth of the Little Maumelle and connects the Two Rivers trail to the Arkansas River Trail, which runs all the way downtown on the south side of the river and splits to cross the Big Dam Bridge and run into North Little Rock on the north side of the Arkansas. It being Sunday afternoon the parking lot was full and the Two Rivers trail, paved for bicycles, was busy. Railroad tracks ran west, toward cone-shaped Pinnacle Mountain in the distance, the tracks squeezed between a steep bluff and the Little Maumelle River. Opting for time away from crowds, I followed the tracks and soon found myself alone, following the curve of the rails as it paralleled the curves of the river.

I’ve got a history with railroad tracks dating back to my early teenage years, when a friend and I used the tracks near his house to get out of the neighborhood he lived in and into what passed for near-country despite being in the middle of a mid-sized Mississippi town. We’d lay our ears on the rails and try to detect approaching trains, like American Indians or train robbers in the movies, but never really heard anything even when we could see the big diesel engines a quarter mile down the track. We’d lay coins on the rails and wait for the train to flatten them into silver and copper pancakes. We’d collect rusted railroad spikes and look for blue-glass insulators at the base of utility poles that often ran beside the tracks. The benefit of railroad tracks is that they usually go cross-country, where highways and streets seldom seem to go. Unlike cars, trains don’t need to stop, or turn off or lead to houses or businesses, so in just a few minutes of walking, it can feel like you’re miles from nowhere. Traffic noises dissipate, trees crowd up close to the right of way, and the gentle curves provide an incentive to find out what’s around the next bend. Walking the rails, I’m reminded of Hemingway’s young hero Nick Adams, walking the rails and riding the trains to get away from something, or to get somewhere new and promising.

In college I rented a room in a house that sat on the edge of town. Behind the house railroad tracks led off into the country, and beside the tracks for a long way was a nice creek with steep banks and wonderful hardwoods. Across the creek stretched the experimental farmland of Mississippi State University’s College of Agriculture, several hundred acres. Afternoons I would gather my books and head off down the tracks and walk as far as I wanted until I found a nice place to study in the woods that sheltered the creek.

Despite the peaceful setting, passing trains never failed to excite the little boy inside of me. The deep throb of the diesel engines, the wave of the engineer, the screeching metal-on-metal of the wheels, remind me of the excitement Walt Whitman felt in his poem, “To a Locomotive in Winter”:

. . . .
Fierce-throated beauty!	 
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all,	  
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,	 
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)	 
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,	
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide,across the lakes,	 
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.

Although there were no trains running today, it was pleasant to be outdoors. The Little Maumelle, about 40 yards wide at the mouth, narrowing to twenty by the time I had hiked two miles, barely registered a flow as it was backed up behind Big Dam Bridge. But the tracks were covered in fallen leaves, oak and hickory, and fat acorns had dropped between the ties. I tossed a few tie spikes and some rusted bolts into the river to hear the deep splash. The bluff towered above me on the left, a couple of hundred feet in places, and at the end of my walk I came upon a small marina on the far bank, with a tiny houseboat built on a small barge, and I watched a fat dog waddle down the gangplank onto the boat. In the marina a pontoon boat sported a confederate flag. I turned back toward the park where my car was, and as I walked back a few squirrels scampered across the tracks and up on the ridge a deer walked through the trees, silhouetted against the sky behind him.

 

Washita Battlefield and a Memorial for White Police Officers Slain in Dallas–Day 1 of my Grand Canyon Adventure

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It’s a two day drive to go from Arkansas to Flagstaff, AZ, along the big empty of Interstate 40 through Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, and Arizona, but having endured long vacation drives as a child through the wonder of reading and landscape gazing and daydreaming, and having matured into adulthood on road trips with music and frequent stops for anything that might prove interesting, I was game, and so I led my family west before daylight and watched the day build into 100 plus degree weather and clear cloudless skies.

In western Oklahoma we turned off the interstate to visit the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site near Cheyenne. This is the site of George Armstrong Custer’s first significant battle against the nomadic American Indians, a pre-dawn attack on Chief Black Kettle’s peaceful  winter camp in an area where he had promised his people would be safe. It was November of 1868 on the tail of a bitter cold blizzard. General Sheridan and the U.S. army planned the campaign in the winter because the Cheyenne were so difficult to locate and pin down in the summers. The purpose of the attack was to drive the Cheyenne onto their reservations through force, and by intentionally shooting the horse herd that the Indians depended upon to follow the buffalo (bison).

Black Kettle had survived the Sand Creek Massacre in Eastern Colorado in 1864, another winter attack on an unsuspecting camp where 675 militamen massacred and mutilated the bodies of mostly women and children. Estimates vary widely, but the number of Indians killed range from 100 – 200.

I had visited the site many years ago, on a 1987 drive from Mississippi to Arizona, where I camped out along the way and looked for historical markers on my Rand-McNally road atlas to break up the trip. Back then, the site was pretty much a mark on the map, difficult to find, and really only one of thse metal historical markers beside the highway. Now, the National Park Service (America’s “Best Idea,” in my opinion) has created a very nice visitor center and provides historical interpretaion to over 10,000 visitors a year on not only the “battle” but early settler life and the effects of the Dust Bowl.

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Mural of the atttack in the Visitor’s Center

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Site of the village along the tree line in the background, marking the river course. Custer surrounded the camp and attacked from several sides.

According to the NPS website, “Black Kettle’s village had a population of 250 to 300 people. Lt. Col. Custer commanded 689 soldiers during the fight along the Washita. Custer claimed to have killed 103 and later 140, but according to the Cheyenne & Arapaho Nation, only 60 people were killed. Fifty-three women and children were captured by Custer and sent to Fort Hayes, Kansas. It is estimated somewhere between 192 to 262 people survived the fight.” This did not include Black Kettle or his wife. The Cheyenne who survived were able to escape down the river, where they fled toward a much larger village of Cheyenne. The web site adds that “875 horses were captured, and of those, 650 were killed. The soldiers, scouts, and women captives put to use 225 horses for their journey back to Camp Supply. As for why they were killed; it was part of the total war policy. Killing the ponies kept the warriors from raiding into Kansas, it also kept them from hunting buffalo. The death of these horses forced many Cheyenne onto the reservation.”

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Among the casualties for the army was Major Joel Elliott and 20 of his men, who chased after fleeing Cheyenne–apparently without Custer’s permission–and were then cut off and killed by warriors from the larger camp downstream.

For a fictional treatment of the battle, I recommend the novel Little Big Man, a 1960s postmodern tale narrated by Jack Crabb, a character adopted by the Cheyenne as a boy and who spends his adult life jumping back and forth between living with the Indians and whites, never fitting into either camp. He happens to be with the Cheyenne at the battle of the Washita, and on the early morning following the birth of his son, finds himself belonging, if only for a moment. Jack Crabb’s character tells us:

“There could be no doubt that I had once and for all turned 100 percent Cheyenne insofar as that was possible by the actions of the body. I might have planted a new human being or two by that night’s work, [he had slept with his wife and several of her sisters, whose men had been killed by whites] and I never thougth about how they would be little breeds, growing up into a world fast turning uncongenial even to the fullbloods. No, all seemed right to me at that moment. It was one of the few times I felt: this is the way things are and should be. I had medicine then, that’s the only word for it. I knew where the center of the world was. A remarkable feeling, in which time turns in a circle, and he who stands at the core has power over everything that takes the form of line and angle and square.”

Of course, the point of the novel is that it is extremely difficult for people to accept other people who are vastly different from them. It seemed surreal then, to me, as we left the battle field and angled back to the interstate over two lane west Oklahoma highway, that we were listening to the memorial service for five Dallas police officers murdered by a black man while they were helping to provide a peaceful setting for a rally protesting the recent deaths of several black men at the hands of police officers, in Baton Rouge and elsewhere. President Obama outlined the problem this way. He said:

Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs can ever understand each other’s experience.

He went on to hit at the difficulty of the problem: “We ask police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves,” and “We wonder if an African American community that feels unfairly targeted by police and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience.”

Text of Obama’s speech

As I drove toward the promise of a peaceful river experience, where I wouldn’t have access to the outside world or be able to hear about terrorist attacks in France or genocide in Syria or racial discord in the United States, I thought about the profound paradox of my morning and afternoon, a near 150 year old battlefield and a fresh raw wound that suggests little has really changed in the intervening years, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of deep sadness and hopelessness, as well as the knowlege that that isn’t enough.

 

In Honor of Guy Clark, Singer, Songwriter, Storyteller: 1941 – 2016

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Texas Singer/Songwriter Guy Clark died yesterday, leaving an unfinished chapter–make that chapters, considering all the songs he didn’t get to write–in the anthology of story songs he has written so long and so well, from Texas to LA to Nashville. When I first heard “Desperados Waiting on a Train” back in the late ‘70s, I was pulled into the story of this relationship between a young boy and his friendship with a wildcat oil-well driller, what we called “oil-field trash” back then. The narrator grew up learning about life from this old man, everything from driving a car to playing dominoes, as well as how to talk to girls. I knew those same old guys and lived out this same story time and again, working with my father when I was a boy, and then when I went out to work in factories and on the powerlines, and even when I went to university to learn how to write and tell my own stories. I’ve always sat and listened to my own “Desperados.” Hopefully, one day I’ll be the desperado and pass something along to a younger generation as well:

“Desperados Waiting for the Train”

And I played the Red River Valley
And he’d sit in the kitchen and cry
Run his fingers through seventy years of livin’
And wonder, “Lord, has every well I’ve drilled gone dry?”
We was friends, me and this old man
Was like desperados waitin’ for a train
Like desperados waitin’ for a train

Well, he’s a drifter and a driller of oil wells
And an old school man of the world
He taught me how to drive his car when he was too drunk to
And he’d wink and give me money for the girls
And our lives was like some old western movie
Like desperados waitin’ for a train
Like desperados waitin’ for a train

From the time that I could walk, he’d take me with him
To a bar called the Green Frog Cafe
And there was old men with beer guts and dominoes
Lying ’bout their lives while they played
And I was just a kid, but they all called me “sidekick”
Was like desperados waitin’ for a train
Like desperados waitin’ for a train

And one day I looked up and he’s pushin’ eighty
And has brown tobacco stains all down his chin
Well, to me, he’s one of the heroes of this country
So why’s he all dressed up like them old men
Drinkin’ beer and playin’ Moon and Forty-two
Just like a desperado waitin’ for a train
Like a desperado waitin’ for a train

And then the day before he died I went to see him
I was grown and he was almost gone
So we just closed our eyes and dreamed us up a kitchen
And sang another verse to that old song
Come on, Jack, that son-of-a-bitch is comin’
We’re desperados waitin’ for a train
Was like desperados waitin’ for a train
Like desperados waitin’ for a train
Like desperados waitin’ for a train

 

Listening to the NPR story on Guy Clark’s death yesterday, they played a bit of an interview from a few years ago, where he talked about moving from Los Angeles to Nashville to write songs. He was a part of that tradition that included Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker. In Nashville, he described the scene as similar to Paris in the 1920s, when the Lost Generation gathered on the Left Bank to exploded the barriers of art, music, and literature. His songs were recorded by Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Ricky Scaggs, and Brad Paisley. There he influenced, among others, songwriters like Lyle Lovett and Rodney Crowell, who adopted his bent for character driven stories told with strong voices.

“Dublin Blues”

I wish I was in Austin
In the Chili Parlour Bar
Drinkin’ Mad Dog Margaritas
And not carin’ where you are

But here I sit in Dublin
Just rollin’ cigarettes
Holdin’ back and chokin’ back
The shakes with every breath

[Chorus]
Forgive me all my anger
Forgive me all my faults
There’s no need to forgive me
For thinkin’ what I thought
I loved you from the git go
I’ll love you till I die
I loved you on the Spanish steps
The day you said goodbye

I am just a poor boy
Work’s my middle name
If money was a reason
I would not be the same

I’ll stand up and be counted
I’ll face up to the truth
I’ll walk away from trouble
But I can’t walk away from you

I have been to Fort Worth
I have been to Spain
I have been to proud
To come in out of the rain

I have seen the David
I’ve seen the Mona Lisa too
I have heard Doc Watson
Play Columbus Stockade Blues

 

I’ve always loved the way Clark could capture voices so well. It’s something I strive for in my own writing. It’s the quality of the voices I hear in Kris Kristofferson and John Prine, in Raymond Carver and Tim O’Brien.

“LA Freeway”

Pack up all your dishes.
Make note of all good wishes.
Say goodbye to the landlord for me.
That son of a bitch has always bored me.
Throw out them LA papers
And that moldy box of vanilla wafers.
Adios to all this concrete.
Gonna get me some dirt road back street

If I can just get off of this LA freeway
Without getting killed or caught
I’d be down that road in a cloud of smoke
For some land that I ain’t bought bought bought

Here’s to you old skinny Dennis
Only one I think I will miss
I can hear that old bass singing
Sweet and low like a gift you’re bringing
Play it for me just one more time now
Got to give it all we can now
I believe everything your saying
Just keep on, keep on playing

If I can just get off of this LA freeway
Without getting killed or caught
I’d be down that road in a cloud of smoke
For some land that I ain’t bought bought bought

And you put the pink card in the mailbox
Leave the key in the old front door lock
They will find it likely as not
I’m sure there’s something we have forgot
Oh Susanna, don’t you cry, babe
Love’s a gift that’s surely handmade
We’ve got something to believe in
Don’t you think it’s time we’re leaving

If I can just get off of this LA freeway
Without getting killed or caught
I’d be down that road in a cloud of smoke
For some land that I ain’t bought bought bought.

Pack up all your dishes.
Make note of all good wishes.
Say goodbye to the landlord for me.
That son of a bitch has always bored me.

 

 

Remembering Larry Brown, Mississippi Writer and the Dirty South

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When I think about Larry Brown’s work, I’m reminded of a night I spent with my wife in the emergency room in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  The examination rooms in the ER were clustered together and tiny, just big enough for a bed and a chair.  A curtain provided the only privacy.  In the next room a staff psychiatrist interviewed a man, and I couldn’t not listen to his story.  The man, who I never saw, had been in the woods earlier that evening, sitting beside a fire and drinking a case of beer, until he saw what turned out to be a recurring hallucination—the woman in the red pickup.  Running through the woods from her, he cut himself on saw-briars and tree branches.  The doctor taking the man’s history ran down a checklist of drugs he might have taken, everything from Tylenol 3 to OxyContin, huffed gasoline to heroin.  Despite a long list that included ways of getting high—creative, cheap, and potentially lethal—that I had never even heard of, the man had tried it all.  His story ended with the sobbing revelation that when he was still a boy, he had shot and killed his father, although he pointed out that “they decided it was self-defense.”

The man in the ER could have walked off the pages of a Larry Brown novel.

Larry Brown, of Oxford, Mississippi, died in 2004. Only 53 years old, the former marine, factory worker, and firefighter erupted onto the literary world in the 1980s, though he never went to college beyond a creative writing class or two at Ole Miss. In part his writing, often compared to Southern Gothic realists Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, and Harry Crews, with a dash of Raymond Carver and his mentor Barry Hannah thrown in, began writing while on duty with the Oxford fire department. His works, which include the short story collections Big Bad Love and Facing the Music, and his novels Dirty Work, Father and Son, Joe, and Fay capture the gritty realism of the contemporary South.

Brown writes about a contemporary South that many of us know little about.  The “New South” has electricity and running water, cell phones are ubiquitous, and small towns support a McDonald’s and a WalMart, but pickups still fly streaming rebel flags and methamphetamine flows from Mexico, up I-30 and across Interstates 10, 20, and 40. Goodwill and church thrift stores recycle third and fourth hand clothes  It’s not the South as portrayed in recent movies like Cookie’s Fortune and Steel Magnolias—a home for the quirky and eccentric, though mainly harmless Southerners. We love the food and the music, but we stay on the highways when we drive through the country, rather than on the gravel roads identified by green and white signs with odd-sounding personal names.  There you find the not-well-hidden South, the South of Slingblade, Mud, and Winter’s Bone. Brown shows us this new South, going into the country where a different class of people still live, more or less unchanged, modern day Snopes.

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Brown opens his novel Joe with a picture of a family walking along the blacktop in the early summer heat, heading toward “the dark green hills” where “maybe some hope of deep shade and cool water beckoned.” The two girls and the woman carry their possessions in paper sacks.  The boy’s arms are “laden with shapeless clothes, rusted cooking utensils, mildewed quilts and blankets.” The father carries nothing but a red bandana as he shuffles down the road, his shoe sole flapping, until he trips and drunkenly collapses on the road.  Not even sure where they are, other than Mississippi, the family make their way into the hills and camp out, sharing a supper of a can of beans and a tin of sardines.  Eventually they settle in an abandoned, rotting shack, deep in the woods.

Brown knows these people as few writers know their characters.  As a former Oxford, Mississippi firefighter, he spent countless nights listening to the stories of people who just watched their house burn, or who just walked away from a near fatal car crash. His characters frequent the faded gray wood plank bars in the fork between two gravel roads, miles from the nearest highway.  They are always coming out of the hills, or heading into the hills, living on the fringes of the world most of us occupy.

Brown is a natural storyteller.  He doesn’t ask us to feel sorry for his characters or their lot in life.  He presents them without judgment or sentiment.  He seems to be most interested in how they’re going to survive their circumstances.  It’s almost as if he’s saying, I wonder what would happen if . . . ?  Another novel, Fay, is an example of this.  Using a throw-away character who got less than a paragraph in Joe, Brown presents the character Fay: “She came down out of the hills that were growing black with night, and in the dusty road her feet found small broken stones that made her wince. Alone for the first time in the world and full dark coming quickly . . . .”  Seventeen years old and so lacking in education that when she finally sees a television show on African animals, she can honestly say she has never been able to envision what an elephant looks like. She comes down out of the hills one night, fleeing her father’s persistent advances, and heads south, for Biloxi, a place she’s only heard of.  She wants to go there because she “heard it was nice down there.  They supposed to have a beach and all.”   Despite her lack of knowledge about the world though, Fay has an innate goodness about her, as well as the ability to make friends.  Like Forrest Gump, she has a kind of luck that sees her through every situation, everything from being threatened with a pistol by the jealous ex-lover of a highway patrol officer who befriends her, to becoming the girlfriend of a strip club bouncer in Biloxi.  By the end of the novel there is a wake of dead people who haven’t been as lucky as Fay, and she has moved on from Biloxi to New Orleans, surviving.

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The South Brown presents is not necessarily an ugly world, or a hopeless world—just an honest world.  He balances the world he writes about with good people as well.  Brown’s characters work hard.  They poison trees to prepare the land for tree farms, they fix hair in the beauty shop, they’re migrant workers and sheriffs and shade-tree mechanics.  They grieve the death of children and look for something better for themselves.  Good and bad happen to them.  It’s obvious Brown cares for the people he writes about, lost and luckless though they may seem, and he gives them a sense of hope.

 

Night Walking along Black Creek: A prose poem for Jim Harrison

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Black Creek, Mississippi

Night Walking along Black Creek

For Jim Harrison

 

The year the coyotes were so bad the boy would sneak out of the house after bedtime and stand at the edge of the pasture, watching his father’s truck make long slow circuits of his cattle, counting the match-flares as he smoked his Camels and cradled his shotgun.

In the national forest, he walked the bluffs above Black Creek, navigating by feel and sense more than by sight. He shinnied tall thin saplings all the way to the top, until the tree trembled beneath his weight and the slightest lean would lower him to the ground, where he would release the tree and hear it spring back into the sky. Robert Frost called it “swinging.”

He practiced walking silently; surprised animals bedded down for the night–deer and bobcat, exploded at his feet and bounded away into the deeper shadows.

Along Black Creek, water flowed over a gravel shoal, punctuated by the slap of beaver tails and the bass drone of bullfrogs; snakes and muskrat rippled the water, swimming upstream.

Eddies of white foam sheltered behind sedimentary rocks and logs and cypress roots, while the clear smooth surface of the water became a deeper part of the night.

Everywhere the rich smell of rotting logs and leaves, dirt, swamp gas, animal musk, pine trees, and water. The soft whisper of hunting owls gliding overhead, tree-frogs ratcheting, the call of whip-or-wills and night hawk screams, the groan of trucks out on the highway, which couldn’t be heard during the day but whose sound carried better at night, and finally, as if in response to the whine of the truckers’ tires, the song of the coyotes gathering for the night.

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On Wilderness: An Introduction to Edward Abbey’s Black Sun and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, Part IV — Edward Abbey’s Black Sun

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Part IV Black Sun by Edward Abbey

Black Sun, published in 1980, offers a more nuanced look into Abbey’s themes. Like The Good Cowboy, it is set in a contemporary time period and presents a society bent on self-destruction. As Thomas J. Lyon has noted, the setting is “the sundown century: jets overhead, zoo-like obsessions with sex, manic pseudo-philosophy all around.” The book opens with an Edenic scene, Adam, alone in the Garden, before God created Eve. Will Gatlin, awakens in his cabin on the north rim of the Grand Canyon and feels the dawn wind and the morning bird song. Nude, he washes with snowmelt, then dresses and climbs the fire tower to keep watch on the forest, where, “There is nothing out there which is new to him, nothing which is wholly unknown.” He is at peace in the wilderness. And, he has learned to adapt to the rhythms of the land, rather than depend on electricity or modern technology to sustain his life. The water cistern is filled by the winter’s snow, and “when the snow is gone the rains will come to replenish the cistern by way of cabin roof and drainpipe. [T]here on the summit of a great plateau, miles from the nearest well, spring or stream, there is no other source.” Yet Gatlin’s world is constantly intruded upon by his friend Art Ballantine, a university professor, a former colleague, who tries to tempt Gatlin back to Civilization. “Outside there’s a world, Will,” Ballantine tells Gatlin, perched on the deck of Gatlin’s fire observation tower. “The great world. All yours. Full of fruit, wine, beautiful ideas, lovely and lascivious ladies, enchanted cities, gardens of electricity and light.” Gatlin is alone, but satisfied. He stands watch over his forest and “is not in the least oppressed by the slow advance of the minutes, the hours, the day. There seems to be no difference of any importance between his time and that of the living and decaying trees below his platform, between his time and the transformations of the rock on the canyon’s rim.”

What distinguishes this story from The Brave Cowboy is the introduction of an Eve, a young woman named Sandy, a 19 year old Goucher College student working a summer job. Over a few weeks she and Gatlin fall in love with one another. The beauty and simplicity of their relationship is reflected in nature, as in one evening when “they lay on the sand under the willow tree and watched their supper cook on the clear slow passion of burning juniper. They scooped up the fine river sand in their hands and let it flow through their fingers. Talking quietly.” Sunlight is reflected off the cloud face and the water, doves call, herons take flight. It is the Garden of Eden before the fall, and the two are in harmony with nature.

Toroweap Overlook

Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park, Toroweap Overlook a vertical panorama of the Canyon from Rim to River. (Photo by: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Earlier Abbey novels end in tragedy, with no middle ground between the good of nature and the evil of modern life. But while this book does end with Sandy’s disappearance, the tone is one of, as William T. Pilkington has written, “irrevocable and inconsolable loss.”  Sandy, caught between the extremes of a natural life with Will and the calls of her east coast family and her boyfriend, a U.S. Air Force cadet who calls nightly and, as Sandy says, “really needs me and really wants me. He always has, or almost always.” Although he thinks the words in his heart, and really means them, Gatlin can’t bring himself to utter the words she really needs to hear, that he will do anything for her, return to the university, “go back to the world again, back to the cities, emerge at last from this miserable pack rat’s nest [he’s] made in the forest.” Sandy goes into the desert, into the canyon, for a few days to sort her feeling out, and disappears without a trace. Gatlin mounts an almost superhuman, week-long search for her, nearly dying himself of thirst and exposure in the heart of the canyon’s 120 degree heat. In the canyon, Sandy comes to represent the loss of wilderness. Gatlin wakes from fevered dreams about Sandy to feel “the pang of loss, the bewildering pain of something precious, beautiful, irreplaceable swept away forever.” He opens one of the solar stills he has built and finds a nest of scorpions. As he opens a second, he begins to hallucinate, first about his mother, father, and brothers, long gone but happy to see him, but the old farmhouse then becomes “a crescent blaze of shore and sea, a deserted coast where no ships came, where no man lived, where no wings wove invisible patterns through the air.” As he accepts the death of Sandy, he realizes that he is “alone in one of the loneliest places on earth. . . . From river to forest an ascent of over five thousand feet; from rim to rim ten miles by airline at the most narrow point; from canyon head to canyon mouth two hundred and eighty-five miles by the course of the river. In all this region was nothing human that he could see, no sign of a man or of man’s work.” It is in this recognition of Gatlin’s, this growth, this maturity, though tragic, that we sense what is truly lost.

On Wilderness: An Introduction to Edward Abbey’s Black Sun and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, Part III — Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy

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Edward Abbey’s attitude toward wilderness and its preservation is much more controversial than Stegner’s, but he has had no less an impact on contemporary attitudes. With a well-established reputation as an iconoclast, Abbey has presented ideas ranging from the thoughtfully considered limitation of national park access to those on foot, bicycle, or public transportation, to the preservation of wilderness through acts of eco-sabotage, illustrated through the actions of the characters in the Monkey Wrench Gang. But at the heart of Abbey’s writing, despite the extremes, run the same threads as in Stegner’s fiction: The importance of understanding our history, and the need to adapt to our environment rather than engineer it to fit our needs. Central to developing these themes is Abbey’s disgust with industrialization and mainstream culture and its effect on society.

lonely brave

While Stegner, the historian, uses a dual time frame to examine attitudes and how they have changed, Abbey places the reader squarely in a contemporary time frame. Often, a single character upholds the wilderness idea, while mainstream culture tries to batter the main character into submission. The Brave Cowboy, his second novel set in the mid 1950s, establishes this contrast. Jack Burns is the cowboy who is attempting to live the life of man and horse outside the rules and expectations of society. Early in the novel he rides out of the desert, where the signs of civilization encroach upon the wilderness.  “. . . five volcanoes to the south, lined up like old ruined tombs” are juxtaposed against “a barbed-wire fence, gleaming new wire stretch[ing] with vibrant tautness between steel stakes driven into the sand and rock. . . . the fence itself extended north and south to a pair of vanishing points, an unbroken thin stiff line of geometric exactitude scored with a bizarre, mechanical precision over the face of the rolling earth” (Abbey, Brave, 11). The “petroglyph of a wild turkey chiseled in the stone” is negated by “a pair of tincans riddled with bullet holes of various caliber, brass cartridge shells, an empty sardine can dissolving in rust” (14). Riding along the dirt streets of a Hispanic village, women smile at him and recognize him as “not a stranger, or something more than a stranger, a figure out of a grandfather’s tale heard in childhood, a man thought to be utterly forgotten now returning.” These earthy women “touch the medallions between their breasts and watch him go” (18). His horse balks at the first touch of hoof to asphalt in the suburbs on the outskirts of town, and the Anglo “women remained indoors and stared out with pale bleak faces at the strange creature going by on horseback . . . disembodied faces transpiring in the casement windows like potted plants, forlorn, unwatered and unfertilized” (19). His horse whirls in terror at the crossing of a four-lane highway that Burns realizes he could never outflank, noting that the “track of asphalt and concrete was as continuous and endless as a circle or the walls of a cell” (20). Burns allows himself to be arrested in order to break out with his friend, a draft dodger. In jail, dreaming of freedom, Burns tells his friend, “I can smell them mountains already,” and in response to the question, “which mountains,” he replies, “The mountains. Any mountains” (128). Afterwards, Burns is pursued by the full technological might of modern law enforcement: jeeps, radio, machine guns, helicopters. Ironically, it is his inability to adapt to modern technology which leads to his death. With the only possibility of escape to the wilderness freedom of Mexico meaning he must abandon his horse and climb the mountain and cross the highway on foot, Burns refuses, and is struck down crossing the highway by a cargo truck bearing the logo “ANOTHER LOAD OF ACME BATHROOM FIXTURES! AMERICA BUILDS FOR TOMORROW!” (41). A good part of the novel’s appeal is that it builds on the romantic conventions of the American Western, where a solitary, idealistic hero fights the forces of evil, but it has also been criticized for its oversimplified depiction of the rift between civilization and wilderness, where there is no middle ground, and one side is completely good, the other evil. To be honest, the book offers no practical advice for how to reconcile our paradoxical attitude toward Nature.