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.

 

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Coyote

Coyote

 

The logging has been over a long time and

The forest is coming back.

Still, the logging road is well-used, especially by

locals looking for a place to dump an old refrigerator and

teenagers sneaking out to the woods to party.

 

Saplings brush the sides of the truck and

I pull in the side-view mirrors

So they won’t get knocked off.

Branches lash the open window.

Sunlight filters through the canopy overhead and

reflects off the windshield and the junk lining the road:

White enameled appliances riddled with bullet holes,

rusted steel drums and five gallon herbicide cans,

a sofa with foam leaking from a few dozen holes in the fabric,

tin cans and rotting plastic garbage bags,

soiled disposable diapers,

faded cardboard beer cartons,

empty bottles and cans,

cigarette butts,

empty packs of Zig-Zag rolling papers,

scorched fire rings—

all covered with a thin layer of leaf and pine needle mulch, garnished with poison ivy and pine cones and lacy ferns.

 

The road ends beside an eroded

red clay gulch fifty feet deep.  A couple of

wrecked cars have been pushed over the

edge and lay at the bottom beside a pool of

water surrounded by more junk.

 

I untied the rope from the bumper and

drag the coyote to the edge,

roll him over with the toe of my boot.

It slides down the bank and splashes into the pool,

floats for a moment,

and sinks.

 

The coyotes had been singing up and

down the valley for the last week, a wild chorus setting all the

neighborhood dogs on edge with lust and jealousy,

and I had listened to them myself,

enjoying the wilderness encroaching

into our safe subdivision.

But someone must have minded.

 

This was not how I had planned to spend my morning.

 

 

Day Three–Countdown to the Colorado River/Grand Canyon Raft Trip

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Kayak, Part II

 In 1993 I made my third kayaking trip west, where Mark had a surprise for me. He had gotten us on a trip with four other people, two kayakers and a raft, down the Colorado River through Westwater Canyon in southern Utah. The Colorado is the epitome of big water, of any white water in North America. What it may lack in technical difficulty and sheer power, when compared to any other river, it makes up in beauty, wildness, and history. Not to mention the harsh desert climate and the inaccessibility. The Grand Canyon sparks the imagination, and In high school, Mark and I dreamed about the day we would kayak the Colorado River together.

Westwater Canyon funnels the river from a quarter mile wide, about eighteen-hundred feet, down to thirty five feet, for six miles. The walls are vertical and shiny black, leaving only a patch of sky overhead. (Again, this is the definition of “Big Water,” where the river can’t spread out to dissipate its energy, so it stacks the water up, with the narrow opening playing the same role as the nozzle at the end of a water hose: water pressure increases under compression, and shoots out the end of the nozzle. We called the Forest Service and learned that the river was flowing at nine thousand cubic feet per second that week, about seven times as much water as I cared to be on. At that flow the waves average ten feet high and something called “funny water” occurs. Random whirlpools are generated, sometimes in front of your boat, sometimes underneath it. The whirlpools seem to have minds of their own, laying ambushes for innocent kayakers.

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At Skull Rapid the current slams into a wall. Half the current splits off and runs down canyon. The other half has hollowed out a cylindrical hole in the canyon wall fifty feet in diameter, called the Room of Doom. If you are washed into the room when the river is high, it is impossible to get out. River runners once reported a herd of fifty or so drowned sheep, spinning around the Room of Doom like a washing machine. That’s where I saw myself, circulating with god knows what, waiting for late summer when the water level would fall.

Mark and I warmed up on Salt River Canyon in Arizona, a river I had run half a dozen times without any problem, and my Eskimo roll went to hell. For three days before the trip I read about Westwater and practiced my roll in the swimming pool, but it still wouldn’t come.  I tried to unlearn everything I knew about rolling and start over. It got worse. I talked myself out of kayaking, found a spot in the raft that would be making the trip. I knew that Westwater was no place to swim.

The night before we left for the river, Mark and I went to buy hip braces for his kayak from Bill Carter, an Arizona kayaker famous for his first descents of isolated mountain rivers and who made extra money selling equipment and giving lessons. Mark told Bill I had driven two thousand miles and planned to raft Westwater rather than kayak. He meant well, but it sounded mean to me.

Bill asked what rivers I had run, how I had made out. I told him about my Eskimo roll.  Bill said people lose their rolls all the time, and that it wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be. He told me there was a trail around Skull, and how to recognize it. I decided to try Westwater and walk Skull, but I didn’t sleep well that night, or the following night.

 

 

room of doom

Westwater was everything I thought it would be, and worse. The water was squirrelly, frantic–for me–strictly survival paddling. I was determined to stay upright. Even thinking about a roll, or a swim, was out of the question. The first big wave was a wall in the middle of the river. I watched the two kayaks in front of me climb up and up the face of the wave, and then vanish over the edge as if they had been swallowed. The rest was roller coaster, until Skull, where I paddled so hard for the bank that I completely beached my kayak on the rocks. Whole trees were being thrashed around the Room of Doom.

I carried my boat around the rapid and waited below to help Mark or the others if they got into trouble. I set my Dancer down in an eddy, normally the smoothest part of the river, but this one had three foot waves. Everyone made it. Mark flipped in Skull and rolled up so quick, he made it look effortless, like it should look.

The rest of Westwater went by too fast, because I didn’t start having fun until Skull was over. I began to enjoy the boat, the way the water moved, those imposing whirlpools, and when the canyon walls opened up and the river became placid, I paddled to the raft and hung an arm over the tube and floated along, enjoying the companionship that follows a river descent.

 

Twenty-three years later and much nearer to 60 than 30, as I prepare to be the person in that raft rather than the kayaker beside it, I think about my life’s journey on water. I’m reminded of the poem by the English Romantic poet William Wordworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” Like the speaker in that poem, it is easy for me to reflect, through the pain of arthritic knees and diminished energy, of how my interaction with the wildness of nature has changed as I’ve grown older. Wordsworth, looking back over the country of his youth, writes:

. . . . And so I dare to hope,

Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first

I came among these hills; when like a roe

I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides

Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,

Wherever nature led: . . . .

. . . For Nature then

(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days

And their glad animal movements all gone by)

To me was all in all.—I cannot paint

What then I was. The sounding cataract

Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,

The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,

Their colours and their forms, were then to me

An appetite; a feeling and a love . . .

Like Wordsworth, as a young many I consumed Nature with a physical, athletic, passionate  relationship. But now, like the poet, I realize that my body can’t do some of the things I did in my twenties, thirties, and even forties. He observes:

.                           . . . That time is past,

And all its aching joys are now no more,

And all its dizzy raptures. . . .

What the poet realizes, though, and what I am coming to appreciate, is that though we lose something physical as we age, we gain something much more valuable, something we can’t always appreciate when young. Wordsworth goes on to talk about what is gained as we age:

. . . Not for this

Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts

Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,

Abundant recompense. For I have learned

To look on nature, not as in the hour

Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes

The still sad music of humanity,

Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power

To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods

And mountains; and of all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,

And what perceive; well pleased to recognise

In nature and the language of the sense

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being.

For me, what I have gained at I’ve grown older is the reward of sharing my love of Nature and wild places with my daughters. Last year, I was able to climb the mountains of Colorado with my daughter, and this summer I will enjoy with her the sunlight playing off the water of the Colorado River and walls of the Grand Canyon; we will share the pleasure of difficult white water and see the desert under a full moon; and we will hike the South Rim trail and watch the expanse of the sky open above us. “Abundant recompense” for growing older, as Wordsworth would say.

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.

 

 

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.

coyote

 

Fourth Summer

 

hose

She is learning that water can be drank from a hose,

that dirt is for digging,

that girls don’t have smokestacks,

and that some people don’t like frogs but I do.

 

We have been watching the videos of her first summer,

most of it spent in the hospital, when she was so small

that she took her first bath in a pink plastic wash basin a little bigger than a shoebox

and the green hospital pacifier swallowed her face.

“Is that me?” she asks.

 

Tonight as we walk she carries the doll Natchez because he’s “too tired to walk,”

and cradles his head with her arm as she’s seen us do with her sister Stella.

“Natchez has a boo-boo. He fell out of bed and scraped his leg.

I put a band-aid on it, a Cookie Monster band-aid.”

 

Later, Stories read, her teeth brushed, prayer finished, and she’s tucked in bed.

“Girls don’t have smokestacks?” she asks as we talk over the day,

touching the cleft between her nose and lip.

She strokes my beard and says “it’s soft,”

then touches my mustache and asks “what’s that.”

“My mustache,” I say, and realize for the first time that’s what she means by smokestack.

“No, girls don’t have smokestacks,” I tell her, and she looks disappointed,

“but girls can do some things that boys can’t.” She thinks about that and seems satisfied.

 

Beards are soft, and sometimes the water coming out of the nozzle stings her lips,

good things to know, but she also knows that the water jetting from the nozzle makes the

grass and flowers grow, and sometimes it can become rain filtering down out of a cloudless

sky, bringing coolness and a reason to dance.