Riding w/ Strangers #3: Another Child Soldier

It was my second cross-country train ride. First a section of the “Blue Water” route from Flint, Michigan to Chicago. From Chicago, it’s the jingoistically named “Empire Builder,” cutting through the lands of the Ojibwa, Lakota, Blackfeet and Salish. The name Empire Builder celebrates an empire built on the bones of these people and countless others.

Despite the name, the route is fantastic: crossing the wide-open desolate beauty of North Dakota and Eastern Montana along the Hi-Line, creeping ever closer to the Rockies and Glacier National Park. There is some deep and hidden part of ourselves that is woken, electrified, by an endless vista of prairie grasses undulating across the landscape like a soft sea. It could be a genetic memory to the African savannah of our hominid ancestors, or even further back to the mother waters from which we emerged. To watch it’s passing, hour after hour, from the window of a train is at once mesmerizing and exhilarating. A tonic for the disease of city life.

Somewhere in North Dakota, maybe Minot or Stanley, the train stopped to pick up a single passenger. From my window, I saw the scene that’s been repeated a million times in this country: Mom and Dad at the side of their pickup truck, their son, pulling his duffle from the truck bed, his uniform carefully ironed, his hair freshly cut. There’s a long hug from Mom, until the son finally breaks free. There’s an awkward attempt at a hug, floundering into a handshake, from Dad. The child soldier climbs on board. Mom and Dad return to their truck – the day’s chores still need to be done, and there will be less help around the farm for some time, perhaps (they know) forever.

The newly minted soldier makes his way down the aisle and slumps into a seat a few rows up from mine. His belief in the justice of his cause fights to mask his fear. When I was young, I felt anger toward people in uniform – for me they represented the corrupt government and corporate powers that created them. But eventually, I realized that they are not representatives of the corruption, but are victims of it. When I see a soldier now I feel pity. Many are victims of a poverty draft, all are victims of the great Lie: that they are fighting for some ideal rather than corporate profits.

This was in 2003 or 2004. A war based on a lie was being played out on the other side of the world. A war for oil, for Halliburton’s bottom line, for George Bush’s need to look tough. The lie was two-fold: that Iraq had a connection to the attacks of 9/11, and that they were harboring weapons of mass destruction. Of course, both claims were overwhelmingly proved untrue (although 80% of Fox News viewers continued to believe one or both of these claims).

Mom and Dad returned to the farm, proud of their son. Believing in the righteousness of this cause. Another family made victim to the propaganda of American media; victim of the lies of The White House; victims of the flag-waving and disingenuous use of words like “freedom,” “patriotism,” “service.” The building of the empire continually needs new bones for its great project.

[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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Dead Elephant


Most of the carcass is off-camera
but the fake billionaire’s half-wit son smiles
holding up the severed tail & brandishing
a clean knife, too small to do the job

Clearly someone stands beyond the frame
bloody, sweat-soaked & bathed in grief
feeding his family with the kind of job
white people have offered black people

for 400 years, give or take
an elephant’s lifetime, the speed of a bullet.
On the back of the photo, he writes,
“Are you proud of me yet, Daddy?”

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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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