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.


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