It’s a Fun, Fun, Fun, Fun Country
Give us deep pleasure or give us death! A summer road trip with purpose.
We’re sitting there, Collins and I, in Rip Griffin’s truck stop in Moriarty, New Mexico, the so-called Pinto Bean Capital of the World, taking a break from looking for people having fun. It’s the height of American vacation time, mid-August. I came down from Newfoundland to Albuquerque, cutting the long angle across the continent, through the White and Green Mountains, along lake shores and into the oak forests of the Ozarks, up the Pecos River on the route of the Spanish conquistadors, into the Sangre de Cristo Range, and in all these places the parks and campgrounds were strangely empty. Where the hell is everybody, I ask Collins.
We tried for directions to the rattlesnake man’s house but it seems he’s long gone. The woman at the Moriarty Museum said, “Once everybody kept rattlesnakes as a tourist attraction–you’d have a pit with snakes in it and the tourists would lean over and look. Now the SPCA would get on you. Those days are over.”We admired the collection of 1,440 ballpoint pens and a 53-year-old coconut and said, well, what about the Love House built out of motor-oil cans?
“There it is.” She pointed at an old stucco bungalow across the street. “Belonged to a man named Love. You never could see any cans.”
There weren’t any pinto beans, either. The town quit growing them a generation ago, and one irritable farmer, perhaps harassed by journalists’ jokes about flatulence, shouted at us, “I don’t ‘preciate you askin’ ’bout pinto beans. I grow corn! Why should a farmer be any different than a doctor?”
Now, elbows on the table among a clutter of cameras, notebooks, and newspapers, we’re drinking coffee and looking out the window at the road where it hooks out of the western mountains in a long, sweeping bend. It’s hot, southwestern August hot, and the big stainless semis peeling into the parking lot catch on fire from the sunset. There are 40-odd trucks parked on the oily dirt, and another pulls in every few minutes, air brakes hissing. The drivers stiff-arm the back door, walk past the TRUCKERS CHRISTIAN CHAPEL HELD IN TV LOUNGE sign, past the packets of bee pollen, the rack of Truckers News, swing into booths, and pick up phones–50, 60 truckers and every one of them pouring it into the gab line. A guy in cutoff jeans with a bleached mustache and a Texas accent saws at a problem.
“Gotta get my goddamn daughter out of jail. Stole John’s car…tried but she got busted up and drug down the road. Slammed her head on the side of the…yeah.” He seems to be talking to a lawyer he knows well. “She don’t have no respect for herself. Nah, I talk to her but she won’t listen… Could buy a bicycle on layaway down at Wal-Mart but she’d rather steal a car… Whaddaya think we oughta do?”
Here comes another, hard-bitten face, wet hair furrowed by comb marks, clumping in on cowboy boots, lips already moving. There are tattoos on his arms, his shirt is open to the navel, and he’s wearing a silver and turquoise belt buckle the size of an omelet. Sits next to us, ring flashing, calls for coffee and food, looks our way.
“Let me tell you something.” He shakes his finger at Collins. “I hate a big truck stop. Reason why is I was in Mississippi one time, ordered catfish, smelled funny. I took a bite down near the tail, I smelled that smell again, poked it with the knife, the guts all came out. Let me tell you something. They never took the guts out. I eat the vegetables, calls the waitress over and show her the guts. She sees I eat the vegetables, she says, ‘I notice it didn’t slow you down any.’ They didn’t charge me for the goddamn catfish, but I got to thinking about it as I walked out to the truck and then BRAGGH! Right in the parking lot. Let me tell you something, the parking lot’s the only reason you stop at a truck stop. Think about it. Where the hell you gonna park the truck if you want to eat at a good place?”
He is Bill Holland from the Texas Panhandle, an independent trucker, one, he says, of only a hundred heavy haulers in the country. He tells us stories about run-ins with mean-spirited cops, the sufferings of truckers, his design modifications to his rig, a 1984 four-axle (eight axles with trailer) limited-edition Autocar with 879,000 miles on the motor and a decal that says YES, AS A MATTER OF FACT, I DO OWN THE WHOLE DAMN ROAD.
He complains to the waitress: “Let me tell you something. This iced tea is sour.” She shrugs and we ask him what he does for fun.
“I don’t have any fun at all.” His voice is virtuous. “I drive 12 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year so other people can have fun.” He says he is paying alimony to five ex-wives and the IRS has a piece of the action. “Champagne tastes,” he says, implicating both the tax men and his exes. “Let me tell you something. I took a vacation in 1969. Went to the beach and almost died after three days, I was so bored.” His only pleasure now, he says, is an occasional alligator hunt and the feast that follows it. “I love gator tail.” He aims an imaginary .22. “If I had my druthers I would be down in east Texas in the swamp right now. That’s my fun.” Then he’s on the phone, says he has to get out of town before it’s too late. He’s in the truck and away into the night, grinding up through the gears, 15, 22, 30 miles an hour.
Collins and I have a plan now, which is not to have a plan. We drift east, still in New Mexico and still on a piece of old Route 66 chopped up by bigger highways like a dismembered rattlesnake. The towns are white-hot and empty; heat waves shudder up from the blistering tarmac. The landscape is the color and texture of dried orange peel. No one is outside. A few cars lurch down the potholed main street of Santa Rosa. It is the kind of place where shade is worth money.
“Not much fun in Santa Rosa today,” I say. Collins, half asleep with his wreck of a straw hat tipped over his eyes, sits up and points his finger at me. “Let me tell you something,” he says. “I don’t ‘preciate you saying they don’t know how to have fun in Santa Rosa.” He rolls down the window and calls to a man coming out of the laundromat.
“…Qué se hace aqui en Santa Rosa para divertirse, señor?“
“El charco azul, señor.” He points.
“The Blue Hole,” says Collins. “That way.”
The Blue Hole is a cold artesian well, 200 feet across, bubbling up from limestone caverns. Willows bend over the water. The eye is drawn into the relentless blue, an ethereal and exquisite cerulean. Maybe 30 feet down, a tiny passageway leads to a deeper underwater room. There is a grate over the entrance. The Blue Hole attracts divers from all over the West, and before the grate was put in, some ran out of air in the lower cavern and drowned. Today there are no scuba divers, but a dozen Santa Rosa kids with clacking teeth mumble from blue lips that they come here every day and swim. The girls melt away. One of the boys, Chris Foust, tells us he has a famous ancestor who sold his soul to the devil for magical powers; another says the skeletons of the drowned divers are still down there.
Jesse Akina and Cherise Kukua from Hawaii show up, and Cherise, who has lightning bolt designs painted on her fingernails, dazzles everyone with her perfect dives. Her aunt Charlene and uncle Mark Shear hold their fat, good-natured baby up to see the swimmers. Charlene dips the baby’s toes in the water, and he shrieks at the horrible coldness. It is 62 degrees, tepid to a Maine coast swimmer.
“Life goes on!”one of the kids cries, and leaps into the chill blue.
We’re in the Texas Panhandle now, as flat as it gets, as far as it gets. The llano estacado rolls on and on–pale buffalo grass, distant windmills, a few cattle, the nodding heads of oil pumps against a white sky. Out of Amarillo we turn south and the landscape roughens, yawns into startling chasms and brushy canyons. This is Palo Duro Canyon, once a Comanche stronghold, later part of legendary cowman Charles Goodnight’s ranch, the first in the Panhandle. There is good shade, shelter, and water in the canyon’s wrinkled hide. The strange red landscape is like a crumbly layer cake cut by a blindfolded cook. The black New Deal workers who built the road into Palo Duro Canyon Park called the bizarre minarets and stacks that are the cake’s crooked slices “hoodoos,” a word that has entered the language of rocks and climbing.
We are in the park by dawn’s early light, looking for evidence of people at play in the Great Outdoors. The place is deserted. We see a roadrunner, two deer, sage grouse, rabbits, but no human life until we head for a cloud of dust and find the riding stables. Two cowboys with brooms are sweeping the corral to keep the dust and flies down. Foreman Mike Wesley says this is work, not fun, and when he wants the latter he goes “to the show or the bars, but not like I used to–the previous owner broke me of that. I come in with a hangover and he put me out breaking a colt. I said, ‘Nevermore.'” The second broom, Bo “Stud Man” Peters, says his idea of fun is “to git drunk and git laid,” and that both of these activities can be practiced outside.
Customers who come to ride the horses hope for fun, although “90 percent don’t know the front end from the back end,” says Wesley. He’s saddling horses now, getting ready for “about 40 air force brats” who’ve arrived for a ride. An early-bird party, including a tense, rein-clutching kid about nine years old in a red shirt, starts down the trail. A man and a woman are walking away from the corral toward a yellow van.
“Quit your damn worrying, Sherry.”
“The horses are so big.”
“He’s just gonna trail, that’s all. Looks like a little cowboy up there!” The van backs, turns, and drives away. Five minutes later here’s Red Shirt again, lying low on his horse’s neck and holding on. His steed spooked and broke into a gallop, and he held tight, terrified, until somebody whoaed the horse and sent him back home. There’s nothing the kid can do now but sit on the porch, waving at flies and waiting for his parents. “I had a life experience,” he tells us
The air force kids are anxious, waiting for their horses. All of them pat their horses. They say the name of the horse again and again. Knowing the name, saying the name, is important.
Kid: My stomach’s starting to hurt.
Kid: You ever rid a horse?
Kid: What if you got to go? What do you do then?
Kid: Just get off.
Kid: Not me. I’m gonna pee on the horse. I don’t care.
Cowboy: You look mean enough to take this one.
Kid: I hate this horse. He’s gonna bite me. I want Sundance.
Kid: Can you wind up this horse?
Kid: I don’t like it.
Kid (sobbing): Excuse me, mister, I don’t want to ride this horse.
But they are all loaded on, and the horses start down the dusty trail in the torrid heat. Before they are out of sight, there is a rumpus and a kid yells. Mike Wesley goes running. He’s back a few minutes later with a horse and a kid lagging on foot.
“Shirley started to roll,” is all he says.
An hour later the parents of Red Shirt, who’s still sitting on the porch swatting at flies, come back. The kid stalks over to his mother.
“Terrific, Mom, terrific!” he says in a sarcastic voice.
“I’m so proud of you.”
“Mom, I didn’t ride the horse.”
The father stops smiling. “You didn’t ride the horse?” The kid explains that the horse started galloping, that he couldn’t hold it, that he was scared.
“Look,” confesses the father. “I cried the first time I got on one. I apologize, it was not a good idea.” They all get in the yellow van and drive away. Nobody is smiling. The kid looks back at the horses.
It’s a funny thing. The Panhandle Plains Historical Museum in Canyon has an exhibit of photographs and objects showing how Panhandle Texans had fun earlier in the century. There are sepia pictures of church and family picnics at the Devil’s Kitchen, cowboy reunions, rock climbers, croquet fiends, women seesawing on double planks set on a fence rail, iceboaters sailing on frozen playas, grown-ups spinning tops at the LX Ranch, swimmers splashing in Tub Springs. Here are people fishing, squirting themselves with garden hoses, riding in sleighs and buggies and on horses and burros, playing baseball, smiling at each other at garden parties, swinging in cottonwood shade, hiking, racing homemade scooters, riding in rowboats pulled through shallow water by horses, ice skating, riding bicycles, going off on a hunt, and stoking the fire for a barbecue. Pretty soon we’re running north through the Oklahoma Panhandle, and it makes Texas look steep. The state is crisscrossed by the old cattle trails–the Chisholm, the Santa Fe, the Western. Now it’s wheat, natural gas, and oil: the livestock stays on the ranch. From the dead, flat fields, flocks of small birds fly up like pepper specks.
Texas County proclaims itself the Saddle Bronc World Center, but in two hours of driving over the prairie we see no beast, equine or human. It is incredibly, incendiarily hot. Every little café and restaurant brings you a clinking pitcher of ice water. Chilled water is deep pleasure in Oklahoma. We seem to be heading for Boise City, for no good reason except that on the far side of the old Santa Fe Trail the map shows a green state-park splotch labeled “Black Mesa , 4973 feet,” the high end of the state getting into the mood of the Rockies.
Then we’re in Cimarron County, a place where more Indian arrowheads have turned up than in any other Oklahoma county and where there are still no traffic lights. We register at a motel that resembles a storage depot for used electric chairs. There is a feeling of time rushing forward, of imminent catastrophe. We’ve got to stay out of these rooms until it’s time to sleep. Collins squints, says there is still enough light to take pictures. We might as well drive out to Black Mesa now. Maybe we’ll catch ranchers in rowboats being pulled through the shallows by saddle broncs.
The road to Black Mesa bisects a circle of flat earth surrounded by indigo thunderheads. The landscape darkens; we are alone on the dipping and rising road except for stray cattle. We pass a set of signs:
I RAISE COWS THEY EAT HAY DON’T THROW TRASH ON THE RIGHT-OF-WAY
The bruise-colored clouds, riven by incessant lightning, close the horizon with no exit. The wind claws the fields. At Black Mesa we see no one but a man walking a dog. He turns away when we slow down, probably doesn’t want to be asked what people here do for fun. We loop the park, go out to the primitive camping sites: empty, nobody, nothing but signs of prohibition–no fires, no fishing. Then the clouds open, and as the Boise City paper succinctly put it, “Hard rain fell quickly.”
Next morning we are in the local eatery: a few booths, Formica tables with ashtrays, chairs with chrome legs. The waitress brings us ice water and weak coffee. Collins is having one of his spells; he has blended the personalities of Red Shirt’s mother who worried too much and Shirley, the horse that rolled. He points and says, “Let me tell you something.” The restaurant fills up with Oklahoma farmers. They all look the right age to have inhaled pounds of prairie soil in the Dust Bowl days. They all smoke and cough. The air is blue. A farmer, tanned as black as charred toast except for the dead white forehead of the tractor-cap wearer, walks in; he is wearing a short-sleeved pink shirt, purple shorts, and purple suspenders. Three tractor drivers in kidney belts follow him and order pie, and then comes a knot of older farmers, one in bright green pants and a striped shirt, another in age-yellowed white patent-leather loafers. They limp in on canes and with walkers, greet everyone in hoarse voices, light cigarettes, and begin to cough, deep, terrible coughs that rack them and set off a round of sympathetic coughing through the whole restaurant. Hack, hack, hack, hack. Collins, a nonsmoking vegetarian (though I have seen him declare a lobster to be a vegetable), wants simultaneously to get out of the place and to stay and take photographs of Decayed Rural Civilization. Instead he drinks his water and calls for more. Later he says, “Farmers are the unhealthiest people in the country.”
Don’t know why, but the Cimarron National Grasslands up beyond Elkhart, Kansas, looks good to us. The Cimarron River flows through, and they say it’s a good place to camp or have a picnic.
The river runs under willow shade, and the picnic ground is a cool, grassy refuge in the blasting heat. We drive past empty picnic tables and the new SSTs (Sweet Smelling Toilets), which resemble giant trout-smokers with big stacks, and come to a bend in the river that flattens into a small pool. There are no willows here. The water is sluggish. On the muddy bank upstream, a man is baiting a hook.
He is V-8 Stevens, born near Abilene, Texas, but now of Hugoton, Kansas, spending his day fishing for channel cat. He has a thermos of coffee and a sandwich, two poles, two tackle boxes. “In 1923 I was working for the pipeline, welding, but I hurt my eyes,” he says, “and I became a painter. Painted big engines.” The horseflies loop around like electrons, attracted by the pieces of raw liver that V-8 has arranged on top of one tackle box. So far V-8’s luck is out, but any hour now a big channel cat might seize the underwater liver. He offers us coffee and the loan of one of his poles, but we have to move on.
Later, Collins says, “If you’d taken V-8 up on his offer of a pole, I bet you would have had a life experience.” No doubt about it.
We are beginning to shape a theory: People in the United States do not have fun except on weekends; they have fun only in authorized big recreation places that have high “fun” profiles or are heavily advertised or have natural-disaster news value: Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, Mount St. Helens, Mount Rushmore. And it is necessary, in America, to leave home to have fun, to drive a long way to a different part of the country before the sense of pleasure kicks in. The familiar is never fun. Why go to the picnic grove on the Cimarron when you can drive to Oregon and have a picnic on the Clackamas?
We stop in Rolla beside the railroad tracks. It’s one of those places where you do stop. There are a few disintegrating grain elevators that look as though they’ve been through a tornado, say around 1957. I stand in the hot weeds, looking at the elevators, while Collins wanders the streets. The town is half boarded-up. Collins drifts back in half an hour, shirt soaked with sweat, says he met a kid and had this conversation:
“No, but wish I was.”
We drive on. We are getting into big fields here, corn, sunflowers, wheat. Collins is developing an obsessive interest in fields of sunflowers and we search for hillocks with photographic vantage points. There are none. Someone is burning stubbled fields, and we drive toward them, looking for flames but finding dense smoke. We cough like Oklahoma farmers.
Hugoton, Kansas, bills itself as the Gas Capital, but the gas museum is closed. No telling when it is open. The sight of tents and plastic flags marking the Stevens County Fair has the same effect on Collins as a rattling feed bucket has on a pig. He presses his face against the window and struggles to get at it and, once out of the car, rushes at its heart. I study rocket models, the insects on pins, a board with gauges of wire glued on, and move on to the prize-winning vegetables. All the wheat seed entries, bagged in plastic, look identical. Earl and Darrell Teeter grew Eagle for first place, but the Scout, Lamar, Ike, and Karl 92 cultivars also got blue ribbons. It looks like you can’t lose growing wheat in Stevens County, Kansas. The big raffle prize is a potato basket. Outside, people walk slowly, eating funnel cakes, a German pastry resembling albino snakes sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Collins is where the action is, in the pig tent. Here are kids and pigs–spotted, pink, brown pigs of all ages, temperaments, and sizes. The pig owners steer their animals into the ring with slender sticks, and in the audience proud mothers with video cameras catch the moment. A dog trots past wearing a hat that proclaims, I DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ LEASH. We’ve seen it all in an hour.
We’re ripping up the Wyoming Interstate and talking about Basque shepherds–there are 870,000 sheep in Wyoming, most of them raised by Basques–when Collins spies one with a flock of sheep and two dogs at the edge of the four-lane. Fifteen miles later I begin to understand why writers and photographers rarely work together. We turn back. For a long while Collins wanders among sheep. Through the binoculars I watch him wandering. The sheep scatter in a panic. The shepherd approaches Collins. Collins approaches the shepherd. I wait for the dogs to tear Collins’s throat out, but instead an amiable friendship springs up between the photographer and the shepherd, and the latter casts his dogs out after the sheep. While the dogs herd the woollies, the shepherd poses, lights a cigarette, walks about, peers at the horizon. This all happens several times for Collins’s benefit. As a finale the shepherd throws the small dog into a water hole. This happens several times as well. At last Collins pulls away and returns.
“I was afraid he was going to drown the little dog,” he says. “But the big dog rescues the little one.” The shepherd, it seems, was extraordinarily cooperative, for only last year a photographer from People magazine, hurtling down this same highway, also saw him and turned back.
“He may be the only professional Basque shepherd model in the world,” says Collins.
An hour later we’re almost out of gas on a long, empty, lonesome road. We offer fluttering prayers from dry lips.
“If we hadn’t gone back for that shepherd…”
“Let me tell you something,” says Collins. “We’ll make it.”
We make Kaycee, favorite hangout of Butch Cassidy and You-Know-Who, catch the gas station about three minutes before it closes, get some supper at the café. There are posters of coming entertainment plastered all over the front entry, and we’re going to miss a good one. It is too damn bad.
6TH ANNUAL HOLE-IN-THE-WALL PIG WRESTLING & TESTICLE FESTIVAL
This lurid festival (it is not clear whether the testicles being celebrated are those of the contestants or the pigs) will be followed the very next weekend by the Big Horn Mountain Polka Day, an accordion extravaganza I’ve longed to attend for years. It’s been like this all the way–either something has just happened or it’s going to happen after we’re gone–the Oklahoma Cow Chip Throw, the horseback hypnotist show, a gathering of crush freaks who watch women step on grapes. But up the road in Buffalo, it turns out, tomorrow is Basque Day.
It is hotter than hot, a crushing, blaring, sunstroke heat that comes with flies, sun blindness, and depression. Buffalo has a fine shady park, but the Basque Day festivities are set up on a shadeless, vacant, midtown lot. The dancers, in red costumes and long stockings, look sweated out, and a Great Pyrenees dog pants against a wall. Basques smile and greet us as though the world were not about to explode in flames.
Michael Camino, a sheep rancher, stops to say hello. He gives us a thumbnail sketch of the economic vice that is squeezing western sheepmen. “Running sheep is a hard, hard job these days,” he says. When pressed to describe the Basque character, he laughs. “Hardheaded, stubborn, short, stocky, big-nosed, with large families–and good Catholics. We like handball, jai alai, singing, cards, wood chopping, weight lifting, rowing–on the coast–and fishing. Our play, what we do for fun, comes out of work. You can see that.”
The music begins, and the dancers leap and twirl under the fierce sun. A man turning lamb burgers at the grill lets out a shrill, ululating cry–the irrintzi, or Basque yell, a quavering, prolonged yodel with a shriek at the end that grew from the shepherd’s long-distance calls to his dog. We learn that there is more to sheep than wool and leg of lamb; add crayons, bone china, marshmallows, chewing gum, antifreeze, photographic film.
I meet Joseba Etxarri, a Basque journalist, visiting from Spain, who specializes in Basque history and culture. I ask him about Basque music, especially the accordion, and about the irrintzi. Suddenly he throws back his head and lets out a sustained, warbling cry. When he catches his breath, he says, “If you want to hear Basque music, you must hear Kepa Junkera, a young man, maybe 28, who is the best accordion player in the world. He is unbelievable. It is worth it to buy an airplane ticket and fly to Europe to hear him, for he does not come to North America.”
That night we hit the 14th Annual Sheridan County Rodeo for a few hours. The crowd is not as jovial and good-natured as the Basques, and there’s an atmosphere of intense competition. The T-shirts have tough slogans: Roadkill Bar & Grill; All Mustang; If You Can’t Run with the Big Dogs Stay on the Porch; No Fear, Dangerous Sports Gear; Sturgis Black Hills Motorcycle Rally. Three or four security guards walk up and down and back and forth, talking to one another on their holster phones, and a crew of professional video people get the action and rodeo royalty. Queen Cedar Moore is quoted as saying, “It’s an experience of a lifetime.”
The announcer, a key figure at any rodeo, has a blaring voice, and his jokes and patter are professional cornpone, his routine with the clown a combination of ancient insults, bathroom and animal jokes. But he keeps things rolling, gets the contestants in and out of the box. “He broke the pattern, what a shame, he’ll have to take a no score, and NOW…”
The kids care passionately, and winning or placing well means everything. They ride broncs bareback and saddled, ride bulls and rope calves and steers solo and in teams. They tie goats’ tails, barrel race, bend poles, race mules, and milk wild cows with everything they’ve got, and when they are thrown or fall dazed with bone-jarring thuds they do not cry, but get up and limp out with their heads high. Unaccountably, I think of those guys you see out west hitchhiking along the highways with saddles on their shoulders, thin, lamed-up, dead-eyed. They probably had their bull-riding days when all that mattered was doing it the best. Deep play.
The idea of deep play comes from economist-philosopher Jeremy Bentham and has to do with betting absurd amounts at odds that translate into either a negligible win or a devastating loss–an irrational pursuit in the utilitarian view, and philosophically immoral. Cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz applied the concept to Balinese cockfighting. In deep games, he found, “Where the amounts of money are great, much more is at stake than material gain: namely, esteem, honor, dignity, respect–in a word…status.” Geertz saw that the combination of risk, danger, humor, skill, and double entendres translated into the “fun” of deep play. Folklore scholar Beverly Stoeltje held this outline up against the Texas rodeo and saw, in the risks and rewards, the elements of deep play. Threads of deep play seem knotted through many kinds of outdoor “fun”–risky, dangerous, crowd-attracting performance enmeshed with rough joking–and the big payoff is admiration and status.
Cloud Peak Wilderness in Wyoming is the high central ridge of the Big Horns. At 8,000 feet, it’s chilly, and the weather is a defiant mix of storm and sunshine. Even though it’s a weekend, we don’t see many vehicles on the road. Campsites are deserted, and there are no hikers at the trailheads. We’re alone in the mountains until we find the Marathon Pipeline Company of Findlay, Ohio, gnawing on roast pig bones. They’ve come all this way for the Marathon company picnic. The atmosphere is one of comfortable pleasure, a kind of volleyball-and-horseshoes lite fun, nothing deep. It is deliciously cool under the pines. A man wearing a cap emblazoned OLD FART. NOTHING FINER THAN A PIPELINER comes over to see what I’m writing in my notebook.
“We just took two hogs off the rotisserie,” he remarks. “They are all et up now. You missed it.” Over by the volleyball court I see Collins. He has a yearning look on his face, as if he wants to put his camera down, rush up to the net, and spike the ball.
Hard rain falls quickly somewhere, and by the time we get to Clear Creek we’re driving through deep puddles. Cruising downgrade, we glance up a muddy track where mountain bikes and riders sprawl in a tangle under the lodgepole pines. Another rider bumps down the wet trail, spattered with mud. They are Jehovah’s Witnesses, says Larry Connolly, making their annual bike ride “from Powder River Pass over 40 miles of hellish, grueling logging roads, rained on and hailed on, to Trigger Lake Road.”
“We do a lot of riding,” says Connolly, “and some of us did this one last year. This afternoon we picked up a water bottle we dropped last year. It’s rough across streams, then there’s a corduroy road at the top of the pass. The deceiving thing about the pass is there seems to be more uphill coming down than going up.” They are tired, grubby, scratched, hungry, and say they’re having fun.
The Lakota name for this massive tower, the porphyry throat of an extinct volcano, was Bear Lodge. It was renamed Devil’s Tower in 1875 by the infamous gold-scouting expedition escorted by Colonel Richard Dodge in flagrant violation of Lakota treaty rights. The group declared the formidable rock columns to be “inaccessible to anything without wings.” But in 1893 two local ranchers made the ascent with a homemade ladder on the Fourth of July.
Five thousand climbers a year tackle Devil’s Tower, and climbing parties stand in line every morning for a chance at the muscular rock. There are more than a hundred routes up, and their names tend to be twee: La Vaca Solitaria, Digital Extraction, Adrenalin Surfer, Lack of Enthusiasm, Pee Pee’s Plunge, B.O. Plenty.
There is a mob of people here, the biggest recreational crowd we’ve seen on this journey. The parking lot is jammed, and tourists speaking many languages and dressed in everything from spike heels to turbans jostle and climb and pant in the baking heat. There is a sign at the bottom: PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB PRAYER BUNDLES AND PRAYER CLOTHS. A neurosurgeon from Punjab and his party pose for photographs on a tumbled stone column. Hundreds of tourists trudge around the base, cricking their necks as they stare up at the climbers. Six- to- eight-year-old boys walking with their parents hate this place. Nowhere else do they feel so little and kidlike. They behave badly and run through the extensive poison ivy that grows under the lodgepole pines.
The sun bores out of the cloudless sky like a drill. Rock is too hot to touch. We look up. There are climbers on every side of the tower, some on the sizzling stone in full sun. It must be like climbing an upended fajita pan. Above, turkey vultures circle and soar; below, people jabber and click cameras. Collins is clicking, too, at the base of the Durrance Approach, access point for a dozen routes. A woman comes down, streaked with sweat and chalk and grime, her flame-colored legs abraded and scraped. She looks cooked. She is Sparky Colby, from Jackson Hole, and says it is about as hot as it can get up on the rock. She’s climbed in the Tetons and the Black Hills, and climbed ice in Conway, New Hampshire. She clerks and works in restaurants to support her climbing habit. Her friend, Brian Moore, slides down the hot dirt, shaking blood from his knuckles.
“Hey, you ever bite warts?” he asks. “I bit the top off a wart and it’s bleeding.” He washes dishes, works as a carpenter, and climbs every chance he gets. “I eat beans and rice and try to work as little as possible. Climbing–it’s a kind of…it’s different than anything else.”
One after another, sweat-drenched, dirt-streaked, abraded humans come off Bear Lodge, their muscled legs like anatomy illustrations. We ask Daniel Doolittle, president of Wave Rave Snowboard of Colorado, what it’s like on top. “It’s high desert,” he says, “prickly pear, sagebrush. It looks like a mesa. And the screeching raptors. The best and the worst of the climb is that the whole time you’ve got the river watching you.”
Down in the parking lot, where it’s about 200 degrees in the shade, a man and a woman and their grown-up son are having a little car trouble. The car is a 1980 Mercury Zephyr, and it won’t start. The front of the Zephyr is jacked up, and the father is underneath. His voice comes out.
“Have to tighten the starter. Do it all the time.”
The son is anxious and says, “If it slips, it’ll crush your laigs.” The jack handle projects into the thronged walkway that leads to the Tower. The son turns to his mother. “Don’t you let no kids bump that handle. Kick ’em in the face if you have to, but don’t let ’em bump it.”
There is a cry of pain from under the car. “Take my glasses! A rag!” A heavy torso wriggles out and father gets up, red suspenders swinging free.
“It doesn’t look like much fun,” I remark.
“Well, it is fun. I rebuilt my own car when I was 15. Yes, fooling with cars is fun, but I got to give it up. I got an incurable disease–something wrong with my laigs and they can’t find out what. I got two Seventh Day Adventist doctors taking care of me, and they’re all that’s keeping me alive. I was a contractor. I can’t work now. But as long as the Lord’s on my side, I’m happy. It could come any day, my time, could be 30 or 40 years.”
The son lowers the jack. The father gets in, turns the key, and the car starts.
We’re standing on Crow Flies High Butte in New Town, North Dakota, just north of the Fort Berthold Reservation, looking down far below at a houseboat on the Missouri River. We can see a dog on the houseboat, an American flag, and four people. A man’s arm lifts as he casts a fishing pole, and his watch face flashes.
On the other side of Four Bears Bridge is the new Four Bears Casino, owned by three affiliated tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arickara. The casino is part gambling hall, part hotel, part restaurant, part museum, part gift shop, and, down by the river, part campground. On the other side of the highway is a flat field that resembles a fairground the day after it’s all over. There’s paper and plastic in every direction, bits of rope and empty cans. A few tents still stand. We wander through the trash toward Grace “Charging” Henry, who is taking down her canvas tent. She tells us the Little Shell Pow Wow ended last night. There were drum groups, grass dancers, eagle-feather dancers, fancy-feather dancers, shawl and jingle-dress dancers. There was singing and fried bread. It was a lot of fun, but we missed it. There’ll be another one next weekend, the Crow Pow Wow, a really big one, and in September the United Tribes Pow Wow in Bismarck. We’ll miss them, too. The light is fading, and the bent paper plates in the grass look like birds from a distance.
We drive down along the river in the dusk, through the empty campground on the high banks of the Missouri, and come to a point where a few cars are parked, some people sitting or standing near the water. The sky over the river holds a silvery light tinged with raspberry juice. Vietnam veteran Bobby Finley and his son-in-law Frank Lockwood and Frank’s children are fishing. Bobby’s cigarette end glows red. He points at the water. “This used to be our powwow ground,” he says. “It’s under water now. And there were gardens all along there. In 1944 they flooded part of the area, and in 1990 it was all underwater. So now we have the powwows across from the casino. But this is where they should be. Food, feather powwow, traditional dancing–that’s what we call freedom, what we call fun.” As a veteran, he can dance the warrior’s eagle-feather dance, always moving forward, never back.
Frank is a fast talker and has plenty to say about having fun, which was in greater supply in earlier generations. “Our ancestors used to wrestle bears for the fun of it–down in the bars. My great-grandfather, James Conklin, ‘Big Wolf,’ used to wrestle the boxing bear.” The bear was trained to swing.
But Bobby looks moodily over the water and says, “Our old powwow ground. And we got sections in here where we used to farm. If I could walk on water, I’d walk right over to it and stand there.” The kids run back and forth on the damp sand, climb on Bobby. In the half-dark it looks like they are wrestling with a bear.
Life on the road is disappearing into the rearview mirror as we roll through sunflower country and into prairie wetlands, potholes full of ducks and herons. It’s getting on toward Wednesday, the hump of the week when everybody works and nobody thinks of the outdoors and fun. We pass a sign advertising a Polish shake and try to guess what it is. A kielbasa milk shake? Wild polka action on the dance floor? How about a handclasp that makes your knuckles pop?
Everything has changed. It is freezing cold, and we’re shivering at the marina on Barker’s Island in Superior, Wisconsin, on the shore of the great, fierce lake. The wind is terrific, and spume blows off the ragged tops of the whitecaps. The lines and rigging of hundreds of moored yachts clatter and rattle and clink against the aluminum masts with an extraordinary sound not unlike the chirping, twittering music of the slot machines in the Four Bears Casino. We wander through the S. S. Meteor, last of the whalebacks to ply the Great Lakes, now a floating museum exhibiting bits and pieces of the wrecks of other ships, a catchall of marine disaster mementos. Later, eating Chinese noodles in the Choo-Choo Diner and listening to the radio, we notice that all the songs sound like Gordon Lightfoot singing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The people here are good glarers, or maybe they’ve set their faces against the bitter wind.
For nearly two weeks we’ve been looking at empty campgrounds, driving down lonely roads, walking up silent trails. Every motel has a vacancy sign glowing in the night. But we don’t need to wonder where everybody is anymore. They are in Bayfield, Wisconsin, one of the country’s hot vacation spots, fishing and windsurfing, kayaking and canoeing, hiking and taking the excursion steamer, planning day trips to the Apostle Islands, sailing, eating whitefish and whitefish livers at Grunky’s. There is not a damn place to stay within a hundred miles. We have to move on, but not before we go down to the edge of the lake, working itself up again into large, thrashing waves.
It is cold and violently windy, yet two kayaks turn and maneuver in the rough waves. Frank Koshere, a water-quality biologist for the state, says this is the maiden voyage of his kayak, the first he has built. His partner is Jan Pearlman. They stand in the water, blue with cold but laughing and pleased.
A few hundred feet offshore, a big solo kayak is pivoting and slipping through the graybeards. Whoever is paddling it, wetsuit gleaming in the watery light, is in the fast lane of kayaking. He is Doug Liphart, who has moved up here from south of Minneapolis, works in a local paddle shop, and teaches problem kids winter survival, dogsledding, outdoor skills. He is a passionate kayaker who looks for difficult water. He paddled the coast of Wales last summer and finds the stormy waters of Lake Superior excellent fun. “You’ve got to respect the water, but I really get a kick out of this,” he says.
Hours of driving before we find a place to sleep. Is there time to come back the next day? We want to go to the Apostle Islands, to watch the divers sinking into the chill depths of Superior. But I’ve got to be in Quebec in a few days, and then on to Maine. We’ve been thwarted by bad timing and long distances. Never found the whitewater bodysurfer somewhere in Colorado, didn’t reach the BASE jumper planning a parachute leap from a transmission tower; the wheelchair mountain racers were in an impossible future. Instead we got powwow dreamers and little kids on stick horses.
We’ll split up. Collins will go back to Bayfield in the morning to find the divers and I will go on to la belle province and the carrefour mondial de l’accordéon. The last I see of Collins, he is being followed by a car with a license plate that reads, THE FLY.
The accordion festival in Montmagny features virtuoso players from a dozen countries. The first night, at the opening dinner, over la grande valse des fromages, an accordionist walks onto the stage and begins to play notes and runs and rhythms it is not possible to play. The audience shrieks and stamps its feet. I look at my program: “Kepa Junkera, Pays Basques Español.” Whaddaya know.
Labor Day weekend, the end of the summer, and I am in Greenville, Maine, for the 21st Floatplane Fly-In. A sawed-off guy named John “Snaps” Knapp, in a pair of black rubber boots, is sloshing around in the water. His little Avid, drawn up near the shore, collects a crowd. “Why do I fly?” he says. “Same reason Harley people have bugs on their teeth–for fun. This plane is ten years old, and I’ve had a thousand and ten hours of fun in it.”
Snaps built the plane himself from a kit, and for the sake of more power installed a snowmobile engine. He gives us a demonstration by standing on the pontoon, reaching in, and yanking the starter cord. The plane sounds exactly like a snowmobile. His signature landing is to hit the water on one pontoon. It’s fitting, he says, because he’s only got one foot.
“I used to be a motorcycle racer. Then I had an accident–not at a race, no, somebody got me out on the highway. My foot was hanging by a thread. I pulled it off myself. They fixed me up with a prosthesis. This happened in September. I told the doc, ‘I’ll be skiing by Christmas.’ He said it couldn’t be done. But I did it.
“Had to figure out what to do for fun,” he continues. “First I looked at boats. Boats are not fun. Boats are one-dimensional. Then I got interested in flying. I took up floatplanes for the food. Ever go to an airport restaurant? They’re terrible. Yeah, I got into seaplanes because marinas have great restaurants.”
He takes somebody up for a ride, telling him it’s not if the engine conks out, it’s when. “Sheer terror, that first time! It was! And I love it.” Long after they’re out of sight, you can hear the snowmobile engine in the sky.
Yeah, I think, all the deep players love it. Too bad Collins isn’t here. Then I get a flash recollection of a license plate I saw somewhere on the road: U NEVER NO.
E. Annie Proulx is the author of Heart Songs and Other Stories, Postcards, and The Shipping News, which won the 1993 National Book Award and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.