(This column was first published in the March 15, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
After midnight, early June 1944. I sit on my duffelbag by Route 20 at the east edge of Cody, Wyoming. I'm in uniform hitchhiking to my home in Rochester. I know that Route 20 goes all the way east through Avon and I have only to follow it to Route 15 there and on up 15 to Rochester. Straightforward. Well, almost.
Earlier today I toured Yellowstone Park with a friendly family and then hitched another ride down the Shoshone Canyon, a harrowing trip between steep cliffs with an inattentive driver constantly turning to talk to me in the back seat.
But now I have been here in this little town for hours. Not a single car passes until finally at about one a.m. an old Model A Ford pulls up in response to my frantic wave. The back is cut off to make an opening for two big milk cans. A young woman opens the door to me. "I'm just going a mile down the road to deliver this milk," she tells me and she continues, "You can ride there, but then you'd better come back and stay with us overnight. It's 86 miles to the next house."
The next morning at her family's advice I hitch down diagonally across Wyoming to Route 30 and follow the Lincoln Highway to Chicago. Even so I'll remember that state as having twenty times as many cows as people.
I had almost forgotten that experience until it was brought back to me vividly by Mark Spragg's wonderful book, Where Rivers Change Direction (University of Utah Press, 1999). Here is how he begins his family history:
"When I was a boy my father had horses, over a hundred of them, some of them rank, and I sat them well. He believed that horses were to use and that boys were nothing if not used. He believed that by putting me with horses he was tending to some obvious plan of economy. It was his hope that we would redeem one another. More practically, that we would prove compensative, the horses and I, of our demands for feed and housing. I went to work for him when I was eleven. I was paid thirty dollars a month, had my own bed in the bunkhouse, and three large, plain meals each day.
"I was raised in a family business. I was raised at Holm Lodge. Some of our guests called it the Crossed Sabers Ranch, because that is its brand. It is the oldest dude ranch in Wyoming; it opened for business in 1898. When my parents owned the lodge in the 1960s more buildings had been added, there were electric lights, propane heaters in the cabins, but the land remained the same -- the high Yellowstone Plateau, straddling the Continental Divide, its water falling away to the east and west.
"It is easiest for me to remember the land. I close my eyes, and the heat of midsummer swells through me. I see tar-black butterflies at work in the meadows along the Shoshone River, the grasses come thick in seedheads. I smell white-cupped blossoms, bursts of lavender, the weedy scent of the bloodred Indian paintbrush, the overpowering tang of the banks of low-growing sage. I can step my memory onto the backs of the big boulders and hear my boots scuff against the black and rust and corn-yellow lichens that covered them.
"When I was a boy I knew the lodge was six miles from the east gate to Yellowstone Park. I knew it was on the Shoshone National Forest, but I did not know I lived on the largest block of unfenced wilderness in the lower forty-eight states. That is what I know as a man. As a boy I knew only that I was free on the land. If asked where I lived, I replied, 'Wyoming.' I meant the northwestern corner of the state; parts of Idaho and Montana. I meant the country itself -- a wild, unspoiled part of the earth."
That's exactly the country that I had the great good fortune to visit in 1944.
I was quite literally overwhelmed reading this book. It evoked memories not only of that remarkable land but also of my own family. My mother and mother-in-law are in this story as is the step-sister I never knew:
"I had a sister. She would be a year older, but she lived for only a few months. An early birth. My mother has told me about her. Her small hands. Blue eyes. Red hair. Her name was Cindy. My mother has had trouble having kids. She had four miscarriages even after my brother and I were on the ground, and we were born too early, too small. My mother has given up trying to have more children; she satisfies herself with us the ones who stayed alive. My sister was my mother's only real chance for companionship. Another female in the family. Our dogs and cats are male. Our horses are all gelded studs. I think about my sister when my mind is quiet; almost always when I am watching water. I see a sister as an encyclopedia of feminine advice. I see my sister as a doorway to the second half of the world. I wish I could call her name and have her turn her face to me and smile."
And one of his adventures is so close to two of my own experiences with knives that it made me shudder.
"John stands up and away from our work. He does not seem in a hurry. I think at first he is standing to straighten the tension from his back. I expect him to take a step away, shake a cramp loose. We have been working bent, on a sidehill, our footing careless in the mat of fallen pine needles and decaying downfall. He has been bringing the knife's blade from near the dead elk's anus to its breastbone, and because he is unbalanced he has rested his left hand ahead of the incision, on the animal's abdomen. I am standing above him. I grip the animal's leg at its hock and hang my weight uphill; levering the bull open to its butchering. Exposing it to be emptied. The smell of blood and gut and wildness is in the air. It is late fall. We are working for ourselves. This is our winter's meat. I have not been paying attention.
"John holds his left hand high and away from his face, as a far-sighted man does the front page of a newspaper. He stares at the hand as though he does not recognize the thing. As though the text of it is written in some unlearned language. I follow the length of his arm. I think he is pointing to something and look into the deeper forest and then back to him. His right hand has fallen to his side. It still holds the knife's handle, loosely. His sleeves are rolled past his elbows for the job of butchering. He means to keep his clothing free from blood. His forearms shine moon-white in the near darkness. I am confused.
"I look again to the raised hand. He turns it. The hand's shortest finger falls away at an unnatural angle. I still hold on to the animal's leg. I hang back against the hillside. John revolves the hand slowly at arm's length, studying it, and then his forearm darkens bright and slick, his blood dropping down like crimson shadow. Just that fast. Just colored shadow fallen before a sudden light. We watch, both of us, as the blood drips from his elbow. We watch it describe a splattered pattern at his feet.
"'That gets your goddamn attention,' he says. I hear no panic in his voice. I believe, for a moment, that nothing has happened. That everything has remained the same. That we are safe. And then he flexes the hand, and I watch as the flesh lips back, grinning, the bone at its heel shining through like some beaten fighter's smile. The bone shining white as his right forearm. 'You want to let loose of that animal's hindfoot?' he asks. 'I'd like to get this covered before I puke.'
"He holds the knife out to me, and I take it. Its steel feels alive and treacherous. Its blade glows faintly in the waning light.
"'It's not going to piss me off if you hurry,' he says. His voice remains calm. He's brought the hand closer to his face. He sniffs it and turns to me. His legs are splayed, his feet turned out to grip the hillside. 'Everybody's blood just smells like blood,' he says. That is all.
"I pull my shirt out and slice at its tail. All the way around. Circling my waist. The material falls away as though a separate piece of clothing all along. The knife is that sharp. I press the back of the blade against my thigh and fold it away into its handle. I slide the knife into my jeans pocket. It feels hot, aware. My hands are shaking.
"'It's a lot worse than it looks,' he says. He holds the damaged hand toward me. He's smiling. He's hoping for laughter, but I am too frightened to give him any. 'Don't worry, boy. It's just a man's hand. Try to forget mine.'
"I nod, but my hands still shake.
"'This has to be done now,' he says. He has spoken each word separately.
"I nod again. I bind the slabs of his flesh together. I watch as they close over the bone. The blood runs dark. It hangs from his fingers like the drool of an old, sick bull. I work fast. My hands become slippery and then tacky My fingers stick together. The air is cooling. I spit when I feel the waves of nausea rise.
"'Bear down,' he says. 'And take a wrap or two on that finger. I'd like to keep the little son of a bitch.' His face still holds a smile but it is beginning to loosen at the edges. 'If this isn't going to kill me I might need to pick my nose in my old age.' He refuses to approve my fear, refuses to stoke its contagion. I begin to calm. I think of my mother. My mother is a nurse, but she is not here. I look up into the trees grown over our heads. The gray jays, the Clark's nutcrackers, the magpies have gathered. They shoulder from limb to limb, anxious for a hot meal.
I stand back. The shirtcloth is already gone soggy seeping, but the blood on his arm is drying in patches, starting to crack in the dying light. 'How does it feel?'
"'You got a good scald on your bandage.' He holds the wrapped hand down and grips its wrist with his good hand. I think he means to choke off the flow. The veins stand out in his neck, and like small, magenta-colored garden snakes on his forearms. He grimaces. 'Fetch the flashlight out of my saddlebags.' His voice comes from a place higher in his chest. There is a crackle when he speaks.
"'We can be in camp in half an hour,' I tell him. The fear is returning.
"He clears his throat. 'We could probably be in Chicago in twenty-four.' He looks up at me. The flesh seems shrunken at his cheeks, around his eyes, but he's freshened his smile. 'In half an hour I'll feel this thing throb clear to my nutsack. The hatchet's in with the light. Cheer up, you're about to learn to butcher an elk.' I still haven't moved. 'It's all right. I'm not killed. This animal needs to cool tonight, or all we've got is ruined meat. We'll quarter him in the morning.'"
But sadly, our personal histories do not always run parallel. I have been on horses only twice in my life and fell off both times.
There is another difference too and it is one that makes this book a perfect read for today's indoors-addicted youngsters -- and us oldsters as well. My experience suggests that the strong work ethic so clearly portrayed in these stories is rarely to be found other than in rural families. We urban or suburban types will never live up to them but at least we can honor their extraordinary industry. It is for this reason that I can think of no better book for a teenager. And for the rest of us, it is simply a superb evocation of a most unusual life.-- Gerry Rising