One Hundred and Forty Miles from the Interstate

One Hundred and Forty Miles from the Interstate
a regular guy

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Chapter One

I drove to the Northwest to say hello to an old flame and join a commune of sorts. A volcano exploded and I came back south.

I'd been laid off from my job at the tea factory. Thirty of us were. We were an intelligent, creative, frustrated bunch of people who worked hard and fast occasionally, but never as fast as the expensive Italian machines that replaced us. On our last working night we put on a talent show for each other.Some danced, some performed comedy skits, some sang their songs, some read poetry, some showed movies. Then there was an emotional goodbye. We left knowing that each of us was more than an obsolete teabagger.

I wasn't very sorry to go. But, looking back, the previous year or two had been among the most tranquil and idyllic I'd ever had or would have. I shared a ranch house with another teabagger in Hygiene, Colorado. Hygiene had been founded in the late 1800s by the German Brethren, a sect fond of founding settlements with names like Charity, Nebraska and Honesty, Wyoming. Here the Brethren found a medicinal spring at the foot of Rabbit Mountain and established a sanitarium. Hygiene was now one tree-lined street that was canopied over by cottonwoods in summer. I had a quick motorcyle, and a camera to photograph the sunrise in reedy ponds on the way to work at the tea factory. I had a few good friends, sometimes a lover. Once in while I played my guitar in an Italian restaurant in town, or slept on weekends in the grass above timberline.

Being a chronic malcontent, I don't remember being very happy or satisfied with my life, but I suppose I mostly was. I thought that society was near collapse... foolish in retrospect, or at least premature. Screams, bangs and grunts ruled the radio. All kinds of anonymous violence were rampant. Headlines wallowed in war, famine, a poisoned world. Does this sound familiar, young'uns?

I wanted out. Under the circumstances, fleeing into wilderness seemed a reasonable gambit. I felt some mild regret that western civilization would be ending in my lifetime, and wished I'd been around to see it in its heyday. But the sentiment was more nostalgia than pain, like for a parent you never knew. I thought I was relatively well-educated, not realizing that my education actually had been pretty poor. I decided that my best chances were with some band of like-minded folks living in the woods somewhere, trying to be self-sufficient, whatever this was going to mean.

Communes and the fate of communards was already a notorious joke, but a handful persisted in the Northwest, mostly calling themselves by some other term. I'd been getting mail about an outfit that called itself a medicine society, founded by a Cree who'd received a vision about 'living in balance'. They had a Hollywood Indian sermon about the earth mother and animal spirits, but Sun Bear's basic take on the problem (greed, ignorance, disrespect) still sounded right. I thought I'd try it out with his people for six months, regardless, and see how things would look then. I wasn't expecting any utopia. I didn't get one either.

I left my mother's house at ten o'clock at night in early March, heading for Laramie Wyoming and then west. The old VW was crammed full, on the roof rack and the back seat, with most of my possessions, what remained after giving away my ratty furniture and most of the books, keeping only a few to read again.

I hit snow somewhere on the stretch between the eyeblink settlements of Virginia Dale and Tie Siding. At a truck stop on I-80 I stopped for a cup of coffee and a pep pill, then drove on west while the snow fell heavier and grew deeper on the roadway and the edges of the pavement disappeared along with all trace of the world beyond the headlights.

The car had no working radio. I listened to the engine and the worn wipers. At some point I overtook a cargo truck going ten miles an hour, me following silent and watchful in its wake, all night long, grateful to be escorted through the awful blackness of blizzard.

A coyote crossed the highway near Rock Springs at dawn. I had a small tape recorder on the seat beside me; I fed it with a string of unmemorable thoughts as the brown miles passed.

There was a small doll's head impaled on the VW's antenna-- outside Kemmerer I stopped and took its portrait in front of some grey-orange badland slopes. The sun came out, windy and cold.

At Lava Hot Springs in southeast Idaho I spent a few hours in the community pool. An old Indian man asked "what time" and pointed at a clock on a wall. He had to hear the time from me, knowing the numbers in English, but not on a clock face.

I spent the night at Winchester Lake on the Nez Perce Reservation, a few miles past White Bird. A fight at White Bird a hundred years ago started Chief Joseph's people on their tragic dash for Canada.

I had other reasons for going to Washington. I was going to visit Leena, now wife to a Frenchman from Aquitaine who had wooed and married her. I'd met Leena in the garden of an ex-seminary, now a museum of sorts, at the edge of San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, south Mexico.

(The museum was founded by Franz Blom, an archaeologist who drank himself to death about fifteen years previously, leaving behind the likely cause of his habit-- his wife Gertrudis Duby. She was a volatile Swiss photojournalist forced to leave Europe in 1936 after being arrested in Germany as a leftist agitator, then sprung from a Nazi prison by the Swiss on the condition that she leave Europe. She took up with this archaeologist and followed him into the rainforest to shoot Mayan ruins and the native forest people-- a remnant never conquered, controlled, or converted by the Spanish, but living at the edge of starvation, hemmed in and sometimes hunted as subhuman vermin. The two of them bought the old seminary and converted it into a guest house and museum. In time an arrangement developed where foreign students could work for room and board, leading tours of the grounds, fixing up the haphazard exhibits, doing ethnography. I was one of these. Sometimes I recorded drunken church music in the outlying villages during local fiestas, but most afternoons I led tours for tourists who came to see the museum.)

I was in the walled-in flower garden at the rear of the house when Leena came through a gate in the wall. I was vaguely annoyed with her late arrival. We didn't approve of stragglers. We followed a strict schedule, thanks to the Swiss influence, and visitors were expected to move along as a group.

I noticed she was carrying something in her hand. Whatever I had been saying, I stopped and looked at this thing she carried. It was a figure of a farmer, made of the crudest clay, really only mud from the street. He was slumped in weary posture on an invisible seat, shovel in hand, relief in a hard task done until next dawn, and inner delight in simply being a man on earth, smelling the earth and carrying it in the folds of his skin and his ragged clothes-- all this in a rapidly-made figure about four inches high. She had fashioned this figure with hardly a thought.

The garden and the tour group faded away. I stared into her face and she smiled at me. In a moment we had arranged a meeting. Somehow I finished the tour.


Friday, February 5, 2010


Once upon a time some friends and I decided to climb Long's Peak, a fourteener at the southern end of Rocky Mountain National Park. I can't remember whose idea this was. There were four of us: my old friend Steve who was always up for some strenuous adventure, his kid brother from Chicago who was unknown to me, and a woman I had recently developed ideas about who worked with me at the tea factory bagging tea.

She had given herself the name Pine Wolf, recently changed from something less memorable. She was a quiet woman with a lanky frame and kind eyes who believed in country living. I didn't mind the name too much because she seemed about as fit as anyone to try it out, and wasn't pushy about it. (More about her later.*)

Since it was an eight-hour hike, and late in the summer when thunderstorms come up quickly and hard most afternoons, we planned to begin at midnight and climb by the light of the full moon. Steve had procured some large black capsules of biphetamine (Black Beauties) which I knew from experience were full of giddy, bottomless energy.

We pulled in to a dark driveway near the trailhead about nine, and followed it to a large empty house with red aluminum siding. We laid our sleeping bags at the end of the track. No one spoke much; we were determined to nap if we could for a few hours. And strangely, we did sleep for a time.

The moon was overhead when someone's alarm woke us. We picked up as quietly as we came and drove a mile or so down the highway to the trail. We had small packs with raincoat, a sandwich and a beer (maybe two for Steve). The beginning miles led through a spruce forest which was aromatic and dark; as the moon began to slip away from the zenith, the trail was hidden and we stumbled across roots and small gullies.

Soon enough we came to the open country at the tree line, where bunch grasses and the occasional outcrop spread between isolated stands of krummholz, wind-matted juniper.

"It's fine, isn't it?" I asked Steve as we relaxed on a rock during on a sandwich and beer break. He grinned broadly. We were warm and sweaty from the uphill pull and bathed in blue moonlight. Pine seemed pleased with the scene and brother John from Chicago was placid. The biphetamine had begun to work so noone was actually hungry; but eating and drinking were a necessary part of celebrating the crystalline moment.

We made the long flat walk across a bouldery field of tundra on the shoulder of the montain. By four we had reached the beginning of the steep granite slopes and cliffs at twelve thousand feet, and the choice of routes to the summit.

We knew two routes to the summit. One led on around the mountain and followed up a grueling (but safe) staircase in a broad glacial trough. The other way went directly up from where we rested, skirting the Diamond Face, two thousand feet of vertical stone. It was still called the "cable route" although the cables had been removed from the steepest part years ago. No doubt that had been wise move taken to discourage fools like us--no rope and no map and little to no experience, snorting and prancing with chemical courage. I was a good freehand climber and had confidence in Steve. The others, for all I knew, had never set foot to sloped rock before. And this turned out to be the case.

We began to climb, over small outcrops and along ledges. There was ice. At times we could see out and down, past pieces of the Diamond that leaned away from the main face like gothic pulpits. I was blissfully in my element, and the rest were all too slow. I butterfly-bounced up the route with skill and concentration, in a state of absorption which is the headiest, highest sense of freedom I yet had had the privilege to taste.... that there were moments still more exquisite I didn't know yet, states which linger in memory as well and as long as the hand cups water. Some moments exist for themselves alone.

I went up on ahead. I had tennis shoes and suede gloves which clung to granite. I crept like a tarantula up the polished pitch ahead of me. There was light breeze. I could the hear the others talking in low voices back down behind my feet.

After some minutes the smooth slope was steeper; its gradual advance had been barely perceptible. Gloves and shoes began to slip a bit. Where the rising curve came to match the friction between my body and the rock, I stopped.

There was no chance of return. A step downward would have taken on some slight momentum, overcoming friction; to lift hand or foot to advance forward was to reduce my hold by a quarter, and the fall would begin. The fall meant a slide along a steep flank for thirty feet or so-- an easy ride, nothing to scrape the knuckles or bang the knees-- then on into the air, accelerating to terminal velocity while drifting down like a fleshy bag into rubble at the bottom of the Diamond Face many seconds later.

Of course, I refused to believe it. I shook my head, trying to dispel the illusion, as if stumbling on a momentary error of arithmetic in the course of reconciling a checkbook. But the overdraft would not fade away. The world calmly reported itself to be as it was, without overt drama or fanfare. The plain truth, if I cared to face it, was that I was about to die there.

In a movie there would have been portentious music with drums, clashing cymbals. ethereal strings, but here there was only silence. I was not weeping or howling in pain, not dramatically dangling over the abyss. The scene lacked drama. Rather than a tableau suggesting imminent danger, there was only the serene silhouette of a man leaning against sloped rock under a full moon.

Inwardly I began to beg. Oh, no, no, no. This cannot be. This is nothing like I imagined. It doesn't fit. This is nowhere near the right time. There is no reason for this to happen. Really, how silly, only a stupid situation, grown from trivial roots. There is no justice in this, no elegance. I am not ready. I am not ready.

I watched myself, petulant, childlike, insisting over and over on what was and was not permissible by my standards, arguing without hope or reason while some other me understood with perfect clarity how things were. I was adrift in a sea of terror, yet still able to observe with detachment the trembling animal alone in the night, whose death will not affect the stones and grass.

Time was suspended. I refused to surrender the present because the future was literally unthinkable; I had no future. I realized that I would go on living indefinitely at this one point in time, though it would pass like the rest for the world beyond -- exactly the same warpage physicists predict along the edge of a black hole's accretion disc. I knew I had finally seen a truth behind universal myths of immortality, the truth that everyone lives forever in the last moment of life.

I did not have the slightest desire to scream aloud or call out to the others. I could still hear them sitting and talking in the middle distance. My silence had nothing to do with stoic courage-- there was nothing they could do for me; climbing to my aid would have been futile, and probably fatal, for any one of them.

I had gradually exhausted my begging, bargaining and whining. Into the vacuum crept quiet resignation. I said it to myself several times, I am going to die. The fact was losing its sting, while my arms and legs had begun to spasm a bit. Not long now.

I did not have a religion per se. Granted, there might be some afterlife where a jealous god rewards the faithful and banishes skeptics to eternal torture-- but still believing that was a barbaric cosmology, shameful cowardice to embrace it at the end. If the universe really works that way, I vote for Lucifer.

I realized then that my decisions until now had all been expressions of a survival instinct, human decisions usually were, even last-ditch attempts to bargain for an afterlife. Giving up hope allowed another kind of choice. Beyond life, there was still something other to crave. Maybe call it art; whether or not art is the same as religion is an argument for people at leisure; the dying have no taste for it.

So how will you do it? I asked myself. In useless panic and horror? Damning your stupidity, cursing fate? Is that necessary or avoidable? One way or the other you will fly for a while, once and never again. The mountain will be silent and the moon brilliant, your heart will beat, you will breathe crisp air while you slip through it. Don't waste a single instant. Remain calm and alert. If there really is something after, or if not, cheer up.

Only tell the poor animal inside you to lie down, because the chase is over.

I raised up my gloved hand in a casual reach overhead. No harm in trying. As the slip began, my fingers found a hidden ledge and locked on. The animal pulled me up, with unexpected strength. It pulled all of me onto that ledge, which was more than broad enough to stretch out on. But I lay curled and rocking, arms around belly, breathing deep, noticing the white disc of moon as it swept across my vision, a pendulum keeping time to the marvelous chant:

I'm alive. I'm alive.

* p.s.

Pine and the brothers eventually reached the same terminal ledge by a less challenging route
a few minutes after sunrise. By now Ms. Wolf had reached the end of her psychological rope (the only kind she used) and began to wail something irrational about a helicopter, let's call one, now, screw the price, just get me out of here.... as she struggled and bucked in our precarious shared niche, with only enough horizontal space for the four of us to sit quietly.

This constituted, under the circumstances, an emergency. Brute that I am, I briefly pondered a slapping her face, like in the American movies, though we
eventually calmed her down with a sharp but reassuring pep talk. This miserable event, however, had clearly scarred the tender bud of our relationship, and it failed to thrive.

And the rest: Real climbers with proper gear passed by after a while. They helped us off of that awkward ledge without snickering. The summit was a nice view, but nothing special.


In the summer of 1971 I lived for about a month at Wreck Bay, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Getting there by land involved 80 miles of gravel road after the pavement ended outside Port Alberni. Wreck Bay was on the coast between Uclulet and Tofino, now national park but back then it was crown land, open land, so travelers camped and squatted along the bay with no control and no trouble.

The beach was scattered over with driftwood logs washed ashore from runaway logging booms during winter storms. An earth cliff rose a hundred yards back from the surf, and the forest began at the top edge. It was a thick, dark forest of man-sized ferns beneath tall trees such as a Colorado boy had never seen. It rained most of the time; the foliage intercepted most of the rain, so the dripping from the canopy never ended. Whether it was raining or not, the forest was a world of gentle endless dripping out of a grey and leafy sky.

I had made a shelter out of medium-sized logs, stacked without notching, covered over with sheets of clear plastic. The view was horizontal stripes of sand and rainy ocean. The plank ceiling was not quite high enough for standing. The place leaked a bit so I remember being damp and cold most of the time. I packed damp sand for a floor and lashed my backpack to the wall for a sort of closet. I also attached small metal mirror to one of the logs and rested a candle on a shelf the logs made. My sleeping bag was settled in the sand.

And there I had five dreams....

  • Up on the cliff in the forest was a fine large house I had never noticed before. I was at a cocktail party there among many warm, dry and well-dressed people. A man came to the party, soaked hrough, to warn us that a storm had blown in and the sea was rising. Most ignored him, even me, until I looked outside at the roaring black squall. I scrambled down the slope and across the beach through the tangle of drift-logs. The water already was above the open sand and was washing through the piled wood. It was very dark. When I reached my shack and entered, I was chest deep among waves. I had a knife in my hand and I cut loose my pack from the wall. I salvaged it, and myself, while the ocean pulled my house apart.
  • I woke in the night, and smelled something burning. There was a smoldering patch on my sleeping bag, as if I had fallen asleep with a cigarette and it had ignited the bag. I beat out the burning spot, and noticed another wisp of smoke on the wall. I smothered that one, too. Then I saw another, and another. The walls were alive with little tongues of smoke and flame. It looked like a Pentecost illustration from a catholic catechism. My house was collapsing in a slow spontaneous combustion.
  • I was walking across a featureless plain of white grit. It could have been desert sand or arctic wasteland; there was no sensation of cold or heat. I seemed to be naked. In the bright distance I could barely make out something protruding from the surface. As I approached I slowly began to realize I was seeing the peak of a house. My house.
  • I was walking across the beach, approaching my house from a great distance. A strong wind came up from off the ocean, loud and almost visible. It approached with the certainty of a shock wave, and flattened the little shack like a house of cards.

The fifth dream was of a different quality. It was luminous and calm. There was a grassy hill in view of the ocean. I was high on a ladder with a hammer in my hand, leaning against the frame of a wall. I was building a large house. It was the house I had always wanted, in a place I was destined to be. I had a lot of help. Every friend I had ever known was there; all of them were helping to build the house. There was no actual event in this dream apart from the slow progress of the house-raising. I was filled with great peace and a silent joy.


The artist knows what to do. The craftsman knows how to do it.

I am the son of the son of the son of William Williams, who arrived from somewhere in Wales shortly after 1880, a blacksmith by trade, and settled a homestead at Clear Lake, Minnesota, near to Hibbing in the Iron Range and northwest of Duluth.

Or he may have been a coal miner, or a coal miner's son with a minor in smithing. He soon brought his wife (& sons?) to Minnesota. He left them there and went west, maybe to find work and send back money, or to locate a better place to raise a family, or maybe just because he wanted to see what was out there and had the wanderlust to go.

How long he was gone, My piece of the story does not tell, only that he worked for a time with Buffalo Bill's Traveling Wild West Show. I saw somewhere his American citizenship papers, made up in Telluride, Colorado, him formally renouncing allegiance to the Queen, Victoria. I have a studio photo of him, well-dressed in western boots and hat, looking about 30 years old.

He had seven sons, all but one killed in the trenches during the First World War. The survivor became my grandfather, another William Williams.

I have a vague childhood memory of Grandpa pulling me aside at a family reunion and telling me I should never go to war, to run and hide when they came to make a soldier of me; me not understanding the gravity of the advice and thinking it was a strange thing for him to say.

In my earliest recollections Grandpa was a long-haul trucker, and drove a milk tanker for an outfit named Dairy Lee. Once he took me to the freight yard and helped me climb into the cab—it seemed as far down to the pavement as an airplane in flight (a sensation I felt another time when my father in his days as an Air Force grease monkey put his baby into the cockpit of a B-52 parked on a airstrip in Fukuoka). Grandpa let me pull on the horn chain with its squeeze grip. He did the squeezing. It detonated a blast from the truck's air horn, a pure and powerful sound which has never faded away.

Once, on the night of an ice storm, when Grandpa was scheduled to drive his many tons of milk and metal to a destination in Ohio. He phoned in sick, claiming a stomach ailment. I was five, and proud to have figured out what was going on: I loudly announced that Grandpa wasn't really sick at all, just scared to drive the truck in that weather. There was little response from the family. I think that, despite my age, I really embarrassed Grandpa that time. Grandpa, wherever you are, I'm sorry-- I've called in sick to work a time or two, and I have learned to fear icy pavement in the night.

Grandpa was very musical. He knew scores of songs, some of them passed down through the generations and the rest from God-knows-where. Some had cheerfully racist themes, shocking in an era when our family aspired to nobler principles, No doubt he had a good repertoire of ribald ones, too, which were not to be shared with family, least of all his grandchild. He played the harmonica with zest and relish.

Grandpa had a blue parakeet called Dicky Bird. Dicky Bird rode around the house on Grandpa's bald head, claws anchored in the shiny flesh. Dicky left his gray and white droppings on Grandpa's dome. Grandpa used to say it was good for growing hair. I believed this, and looked forward to the day hair would sprout there.