Notes from Box Canyon

[During the first week of September, I stayed in a remote Forest Service cabin on Montana’s Boulder River. It was an artist-in-residence program through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation. I used the time to do all the final rewrites and edits to the manuscript of poems I’ve been working on for the last two years. When I needed a break, I stepped outside into the stunning beauty and inspiring power of the wilderness. I wandered around and scribbled little notes in my journal, or often, since the journal is too big, onto blank portions of my pocket size copy of Han-shan. Following are some of these little scribblings, as well as a few photos I took.]

Baboon Mountain with its beard of snow.

Moss clinging to fenceposts. The cliffs to the east are tinged with the last vestiges of alpenglow. Each marmot has his favorite boulder, toasting themselves with the sun’s heat stored up in the rock throughout the day. Three women pass. They’ve been hiking in the wilderness for five days and are only 10 minutes away from their car, but they still stop to admire the beauty of the river.

The tiny outhouse shared with wood rats tucked deep in Box Canyon is the perfect place to re-read Han-shan. It’s the appropriate temple deserved by our big big thoughts.

The ruffed grouse, one by one, break cover and dart into the fir trees. Each time I think the last one has gone, another erupts from his hiding place. I could stand here all day. I’ve often envied the catness of a cat or the dogness of a dog. The birdness of birds, every day. But I’ve never envied a human, not even the ones on TV.

The Baboon Mountain that can be climbed is not the true Baboon Mountain. I learned that from Lao Tzu. Buy maybe, like me, he had bad knees and was making excuses.

When I was young, it occurred to me that a life of poetry would most likely mean I would die poor and alone. The alternative seemed worse. Not to be wealthy and loved, but to be wealthy and loved without poetry.

One little mouse just checking if I am awake. Okay, okay. I’ll get up and put the water on for the day’s pot of coffee.

[Click on any photo to view slide show of larger images.]

The sun tops the ridge and suddenly this propane lantern seems so ridiculous.

I’m on a lichen-braided boulder in a field of whispering grasses and the shadows of ravens, looking up at the silence of Baboon Mountain. Where are you?

Clouds come over the western ridge. Sun comes over the eastern ridge. Sometimes they pause in passing and exchange pleasantries. Mostly they just talk about the weather.

Sweeping the porch, I feel like a Buddhist monk. Until a deer fly buzzes me and I swat the little bastard.

The maroon & yellow butterfly
lands on the cabin’s stone step
Flexes its wings

Sorry about the hurricane

Last night under Baboon Mountain with a cigar and river-cold beer on the porch. Three robins run back and forth on the dark trail, over the bridge and back. The stars are clicking on their porchlights one at a time. Tomorrow, I’ll pack up my typewriters and a freshly inked stack of poems, load my gear in the truck and see if the engine will turn over. Then, it’s the long, slow descent back to the busy world, whirling with busy-ness.

[If you enjoyed this, I’d love to send you my free e-book, Notes from the Grizfork: A Year of Watching in Montana’s Paradise Valley. Simply click here.]

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Riding w/ Strangers #2: The Yogi in Work Boots

One of the times I lived in Bay City, Michigan, I took a daily, half-hour bus ride out to the college where I worked. Most of the faces on the trips were anonymous, as was mine. But there was one person who stood out. A long, gray beard of wiry strands and feral, faraway eyes. A stained cloth bag for collecting empty beer and soda cans. And, always, the same road-beaten work boots. His voice was a hoarse whisper, and you had to lean into his rank odor-aura to hear him speak – which was mostly unintelligible gibberish.

I thought he must be a buddha. Some enlightened soul hiding within this decrepit exterior. He even carried a bag like Hotei – he knew the essence and actualization of Zen.

“Hotei” by Kano Takanobu, 1616

The story goes that Hotei was confronted by a monk who asked him, “what is the essence of Zen?” and Hotei dropped his bag on the ground. When the monk asked, “And what is the actualization of Zen?” Hotei picked it back up, threw it over his shoulder and walked away.

The essence: non-attachment, letting go. The actualization: just do your thing – chop wood, carry water.

There were always too many people on the bus for me to try to ask my Hotei for his wisdom, but I thought if I ever had the chance …

He shows up in a poem, cobbled together from journal entries over the course of a bleak winter. This was 30 years ago, at the tail end of living above a liquor store on Saginaw’s Southside, with crumbling walls, broken windows and just a hint of heat.

“Pablo’s Fortress,” our deliriumscape wrinkle on the map of reality

There had been a couple years of wild days and wilder nights with a great group of friends and strangers, but by this point, after a couple break-ins, robberies and slashed tires, everyone had moved on. I was there alone, and the party was over.

I was on a sporadic diet of ramen noodles and quesadillas. No car, no money, no good writing coming to me, no good reason to believe the winter would end.

I needed to get out, get a job, get a haircut (well, at least two of those). I moved to Bay City, to a basement room with Eric the cat and a new job working with the international students out at the community college. Things slowly began to look up. Eventually, spring came.

When I went back through the journal I had kept, I pulled the few sparse lines that I thought might be something. When I put them on a page, in the order they were written, I had a found poem called “Pissing Purgatory.” It ends with this:

Yesterday, I thought that the voiceless,
far-eyed yogi in work boots
would bring some new vibrancy
as we got off the bus together
but he just wandered off in a vacant lot
& took a piss

But then
walking along that choking road
I see a cigarette butt smeared with lipstick
half-buried in the black-white slush
& am saved by its vulgar beauty

Sometime later, some friends and I formed the poetry band, Miscellaneous Jones, and “Pissing Purgatory” became one of our pieces. Here’s a recording we did at Dick Wagner’s Downtown Digital Studios. The band is Marko Musich and Ray York 2 on guitars, Todd Berner on bass and John Weirauch (when you can roll) on drums and backing vocals.

So, I guess the bum on the bus turns out not to be Hotei, but then again, maybe that’s exactly what he wanted me to think. Thirty years later, it occurs to be that peeing in a vacant lot is pretty much the same teaching as dropping a bag and picking it back up.

[If you enjoyed this, I’d love to send you my free e-book, Notes from the Grizfork: A Year of Watching in Montana’s Paradise Valley. Simply click here.]

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Riding w/ Strangers #1: The Real Story of Clyde

“I am grateful for the weight of my pack
& the icy thunder all around

& then the welcome smile of brake lights
& I’m trading stories w/ a farmer turned trucker
& opening my coat against the heat
& the miles peel away like dollar bills”
(from “Only the Dead”)

If in my writing there has ever been a Captain Ahab, a Don Quixote, a Jay Gatsby, it would certainly be Clyde, the farmer turned trucker who shows up in several poems, my novel A Handful of Dust and in various movements of Vagabond Song. He is a comic mentor, a bittersweet guide, a highway-Zen cornfield prophet, a giver of riddles, a surrogate grandfather and the namesake of the best Chevy pickup to ever roll across the land. But who was he, really?

His real name was Cy. At least, that’s what I remember. I’m not sure what that’s short for, if anything. He was a mid-Michigan farmer who turned to driving truck to make ends meet. He was probably younger than I remember him, hell, I could be the age now that he was then. And he really did pick me up two different times on two different highways, I-75 on a run from Grayling to Saginaw, and a few days later on M-46 going from Saginaw to Grand Rapids.

“Clyde’s old diesel
rolls to a stop
& I hop from the cab
onto a protest of gravel
beneath my duct-taped boots”
(from “M-46, October”)

Despite the songs by Red Sovine and Kris Kristofferson, it’s rare to catch a ride with a trucker. I assume this has much more to do with corporate rules, insurance restrictions and forced time schedules than with the personalities of those behind the wheel. So when Cy picked me up, it felt like entering an older version of the hitchhiking world. A world where Big Joe still rolled through the night and Bobby McGee still sang the blues. He played his part masterfully, giving me bits of story and insightful questions that would propel me into a romantic nostalgia of being on the road, inspire me to take a teaching gig in Chiapas, Mexico, and drive my pen across countless pages.

It’s strange, perhaps unfair, and most definitely necessary to build a fictional character out of a small slice of someone’s life. But for what it’s worth, I’m forever grateful for the part he played in bringing me such a character. Of course, the character and the person seldom have much in common. This is true beyond the world of literature. Your perception of me and my perception of you bear little resemblance to our perceptions of ourselves. The truth is most likely somewhere in the middle.

In A Handful of Dust, I relate Clyde’s “Five Rules to Live By,” which were really the rules of life that I wanted someone to challenge me to follow:

“And what are they, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Course not,” said Clyde. “Number One is always talk to strangers. If you don’t, you’d never have any friends. Number Two is always pick up hitchhikers. Lucky for you. Number Three is always give anyone anything they ask for. Everything is a gift, and so is meant to be passed on. I just hope nobody ever asks me for my truck. And Number Four is always allow anyone to do you a favor. If you deny someone the chance to be generous, you’re preventing them from improving their soul, and you’re keeping the world one more step away from Heaven.”

Nagashana waited for a moment and then asked, “What about rule number five?”

Clyde laughed again. “Rule Number Five is always be on the lookout for Rule Number Five.”

In reality, he taught me about the decline of the American family farm, how to tell if a semi was loaded or empty by the way in handled in bad road conditions, that there was a linguistic connection between sailors and truckers, and that life could be full of joyful generosity.

Thanks for the ride, Clyde.

[If you enjoyed this, I’d love to send you my free e-book, Notes from the Grizfork: A Year of Watching in Montana’s Paradise Valley. Simply click here.]

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