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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Excerpts from the Black Basic Book Journal

I’ve used journals to record thoughts and work out poems, plays and others writings ever since high school. After one is full, I usually revisit it several months later and find little bits that hadn’t made it into a finished piece of writing, but still grab my attention. Not quite hidden gems, but shiny, interesting objects nonetheless. I type them up in the order found, and find myself with a list of writing prompts, images and bits of dialogue which almost always lead to several new writing pieces. Here are the excerpts from a journal of almost two decades ago, several of which have since found their way into poems as well as my travel memoir, Vagabond Song. Several are still waiting to find their poem. Let me know in the comments if any of them inspire a writing idea for you.

The first time I saw the ocean
was the first time the ocean saw me.
We were both surprised.

When I was a child
I pulled a flower from its stem
And after all these years
I’m still trying to put it back on.

They counted the years on crow feathers
Each generation a whole bird
flapping against the sun
calling rainclouds into being

We’re coming to a time
when schoolchildren use brown and grey crayons
instead of green and blue
to draw a picture of the earth

“Hey man, how’s it goin;?”
            “Ugh. Dyin’ a thousand deaths, man.”
“Well, you can’t get born without dyin’ first.”

All patriotism is fascism.

My day begins like a broken toy
or a bottle of rainwater
No one in this town has had a good idea for years

One hundred roosters
and not a single crow
that’s the kind of day it’s been

The mosquito bite on my ankle
is more real that God
but nobody writes psalms to an insect

I sold my soul
for a cut-rate epiphany
and now my hopes are sinking
like Ophelia

When you smile you change the weather.
But not always for the better.

All stories begin with a good pair of socks

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Birthday Poem 2019

The ospreys have returned
to their stick nest
by the ballpark

The light on the
snow/cloud shrouded Crazies
is miraculous

The river wants a canoe
The sleeping morels
sing quietly in their dreams

The crimson buds of the maple
are telling that same
old story once again

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