On meeting Edward Abbey on the Road to Mythville
I made Navajo land before nightfall, and I was an hour or so past the dingy distress of Tuba City. My last paycheck for my magazine editor's job was still un-cashed in my pocket. I had cut some contributing editor deal with my boss, but had failed to inform him about my plan to conduct business at large from an unknown origin. Ragged, irresponsible, yes, but inefficient I was most certainly not. Chances were good my only funds, about $2,000, wouldn't be wasted at such reservation trading posts as Kayenta or Dinnehotso. It was well past time for any possible bank to be open. My credit cards were a joke and my ATM card was sucked up by the machine because I'd typed in the wrong personal code three times. Which meant I was some kind of imposter. I was flying under the radar of networked commerce, without the membership of any club or any privileges of any kind.
Thoughts about Katsinas also kept me company. Those Hopi deities, religio-mythic gods shaped by genetic memories we now successfully suppress, signal me as power line towers crisscrossing the plateau, part of a strange and sinister networking paradigm. They inspire abstract thoughts about winged super beings. Better known as Kachinas, they are now popularly now rendered as merely commercial dolls for trading posts and Western art galleries, but were once said to conjure thunder, rain and perpetual corn from their Zeus-like overview atop the San Francisco Peaks. The Peaks can be seen overlooking the holy land from hundreds of miles away. I had from childhood thought of these power-line towers as representing the same kind of magic. In some quixotically networked way, they were. With everything else nature provided, even these well-engineered affronts to the red rock esthetic kept the imagination running hot as it melted and coalesced, like lava, into the land.
Even as the headlights in darkness made the road a narrow pipe of light, even as the grand mesas turned my thoughts toward introspection, the Katsina towers' metallic silhouettes against purple shadow lands invited daydreams about twilit spooks and medicine men and shape changers. Creation tales about the "First People," passed by spoken word alone to the local children by elder who learned the same way, were also a part of my database of memes. Certainly, like the Hopi, who believed themselves to have emerged from other worlds, my worldview followed those same power lines, off toward the blank horizon, off into impossible lands of unlimited electrical energy.
We failed romantics are funny that way. When we are most disturbed, most out of control, our muses spin wonderful and sentimental cosmic tales. We are truly ionized. The possibilities for a world filled with magic and true love and finding a hobby in potted plants, properly watered, are endless. Even when, in fact, what we are really up against are big rigs passing at chaotic intervals, with wrong-lane "chicken" games with oncoming Pontiac sedans with dents in the side, with the brake lights of pickups rusted by acid rain.
Maybe you have been there? I hope not. But maybe you can relate. Have you ever looked into the oncoming "brights" with your sense of resistance dangerously passive. Did you hedge against the temptation for a head-on collision? If so, well then, you'd have recognized the blue-black ravens navigating over my head, invisible in the night, hoping for a sign of food. In the grand scheme of things, we are all little sweet warm morsels of hope for dark angels overhead, potential fresh road kill for a predatory power that apparently doesn't give a damn. And may be just as blind as we in the great void of things.
As I tried to wash away, sanitize and underarm-protect myself from the unfortunate fumes of another species' idea of promise, I watched Native American children play by the long-straight roadside while mom and dad and uncle and Bennie push a shiny new sport utility vehicle toward the distant Kayenta gas station and trading post. Transition life approaches the crossroads.
I remember, coming over the hill as I could barely make out the skyscraper silhouettes indicating the gateway to Monument Valley, a ghostly red gas light glow representing the ad-hoc gathering of civilization and it's vested interests at the crossroads of Kayenta. A mythic site, in my mind, even to this day. And it always will be. Kayenta is a place to eat transition time as a kind of fuel for dreams. Unfortunately, the services that such peak moments of insight provide will often leave us, well, a bit tiffed in the head.
After a few hundred miles of staring into produce truck high beams late at night, anyone's visual acuity will go askew. Hallucinations will thrive just past the limits of your imagination. Sayeth William Blake: Man's perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception; he perceives more than sense … can discover. When there's not enough coffee in the world to keep the eyes from dropping off, then for just a split second, anything is possible on a list ranging from accidental death to revelation to the all inclusive opening of some flood gate to the netherworld.
Sure, I saw something, felt something, or at least believed I felt something supernatural. It made the tiny hairs on my arms tingle and my brain flash with excess electrical impulses. Enough to send enough volts up the Katsina windmill towers of my mind. That was real enough. Soul fright? Perhaps.
I can't determine if it was real or imagined. I don't want to think about that just yet. Barely matters, at this point. What's more pertinent to the issues surrounding such synchronistic stuff----when archetypal aboriginal myths leap out at you, when poltergeists kick over household appliances, or your sudden personal Jesus appears in the lumpy folds of a tortilla----is how you react, retreat or impinge upon the formless, but quite material void, during the rest of your available time that follows.
What recollections I can safely trust about that night? Well, certainly there was my camping out plan, which suffered from what even Henry David Thoreau would describe as lacking in reasonable attention to detail: an overabundance of simplicity. I had a sleeping bag, a couple of blankets, and a vague idea that somewhere out on the Reservation there was at least one unlocked fence gate off the highway leading to a solitary patch of ground. Surely, there was some way to get some sleep without having to be too close to the dust-eating back-drafts of freighters passing by. But, on this night, sleeping at some rest area along road wasn't the problem. I could have slept in the middle of the highway almost to dawn out there in Monument Valley. I would have been quite comfortable to roll over, if just once, for a passing semi on the way to Blanding, Utah.
I just kept on driving. Nobody said I couldn't. And that was a nice, springtime fresh kinda' feeling about the whole thing. I was more concerned with how much hell a little late night monsoon could raise on my packing job in the bed of the truck. Yes, it was a fair mockery of my content management skills to see a large part of my tarp blown back, still attached, causing wind resistance and drag like a parachute packed during a fire. A couple of the bungee cords had loosened, too, and all of my worthy possessions, that is, those that I considered worth taking into indefinite space, were exposed for all of the antelope, mule deer and hustling truckers to see. A couple of boxes of books were exposed, and an old John Lennon biography had its cover ripped off by the wind. A tattered image of his granny glass spectacles were out there on Black Mesa, destined to fade in a short eternity of sunlight, wind, rain and microscopic red rock pinpricks of dust.
Meanwhile, back on the road to Mythville, top-volume Neil Young and Crazy Horse jammed on my truck radio with a demolition tune, "Tonight's the night. Tonight's the ni-i-i-ight."
I was taking each strange step in my life with the profound belief that I was walking with at least a little grace on my side. It required what you might call the art of being slow, being silent enough to feel the things around you. I was reading a lot of Eastern mysticism, so my general thought processes were tending toward the airy-fairy, otherworldly and overly mystical way of interpreting things----certainly an explanation for the way Coyote, another word that I had for her, had been canonized into "Changing Woman," or, in Apache tongue, "Eshe Na Glese."
Of the many reasons I was on the road that night toward Telluride, Colorado, my orgiastic seduction into her dysfunctional sphere was the most viscerally apparent. That is to say, I thought I was in love with a goddess. But really, I wouldn't have put so much gas in the tank if it wasn't for all of the things I'd ever learned from Native Americans that I had run across during the first 35 years of my life, or, even more to the point, to having a student-tutor (or better yet, idolizer-to-idol) relationship with Ed Abbey, the aforementioned writer of irascible environmentally-tinged essays and a couple of reasonably entertaining novels, including "Desert Solitaire" and "The Monkeywrench Gang," while I was attending the University of Arizona 15 years before.
The first time I met Ed Abbey, he monkeywrenched a perfectly good draft beer, a Heineken, by taking the light and dark versions and pouring the two bottles into one glass. In my view, one of the more unnecessary acts of eccentricity I'd ever seen him perform----and it's a long list. I had met him in Tucson, Arizona for an interview for the campus newspapers, The Arizona Daily Wildcat, where I was a reporter who preferred to ditch a class than miss a story. Abbey's included. We met at The Big A, an off-campus burger joint that he always used for interviews. A strange fact by itself, in many ways, since it was a sports bar and he thought football was a pox on the earth (but then, what wasn't a pox on the earth, as far as Abbey was concerned?). Yes, he'd done many, many interviews at The Big A, and I can't tell you how many times I cringed whenever the next reporter deigned to describe Abbey's iconoclastic persona with the following observation: Mixing light and dark drafts of Heinekens.
The second time I saw Abbey was on the first night of class at the University of Arizona in 1982. The creative writing department at the UofA had snagged the writer to teach his wannabe writer fans how to write non-fiction. He had been brought onboard by Richard Shelton, a version of the Luddite-in-the-Desert form who wrote poetry when, that is, he wasn't making bad decisions about who to bring on staff to teach creative writing. The fact was, Abbey wasn't a great teacher. An experience, maybe, but he and anybody else in the genre of sages in academia could have stayed home, for all they brought to the table. Save for Tom Miller, who I recall fondly but can't remember why: Every creative writing teacher I ever met was simply dodging the inescapable truth that the gig was just another way to put off their own writing projects. With far better income than most writers can usually expect. On that first night in Abbey's non-fiction class in the Language Arts Building, he taught me one of the only things I can remember about so many of such classes. Well, actually, three.
They are, as he wrote on the bulletin that first night after being about 10 minutes late: "1) Write right; 2) Write wrong; 3) Write on." Short and sweet, it was, and the same could be said for that first night ala Abbey. A few minutes later the grizzled, jeans-laded author was distracted, as we all were, buy something going on at the plaza. He rushed over to the second floor window of the classroom, and, after seeing a bunch of anti-nuke protesters go buy with candles, exclaimed, "Hey, I gotta go see that!" And with that, he rushed out the door and did not return. We wannabe monkeywrenching writers, sitting there in a our desks for just a short, stunned moment, had probably right at that point started to wonder if perhaps the lesson on how to write about cactus and coyotes might be included on a syllabus. However, there was no such mimeograph to follow, from what I recall. Welcome to Abbeyville.
We caught up with him at the candlelight vigil in from the old ROTC building at the center of the University. He was singing with the anti-nuke protesters. That was Abbey, the spontaneous one, holding a candle and I can still see the light flickering on his beard and in his eyes. He was performing, for us, for his students, for those who had not known he was the latest new campus celebrity. Certainly, no foe to publicity of any kind, Abbey well understood the necessity of being an outlandish personality. His greeting card was his frequent call at public gatherings to blow up the Glenn Canyon Dam. But that was just part of the performance.
I believe Abbey wanted to teach for reasons other than to be a teacher, or, to derive a nice, safe income after his upcoming book, "Good News," failed to become the monster hit that "Monkeywrench Gang" and "Desert Solitaire" had proved to be a few years before. Nope, it was other things. Including the desire for connectivity in a social, most certainly the beautiful young co-eds who attended his classes. More than anything else, it was this: At that point in time, perhaps one of the few times, he wanted to be where the action was. In fact, he wanted to be the action. For all intents and purposes in my life, he was the living symbol of boundless action, apologizing to no one, and, accepting it as part of the deal, the heavy price that might mean.
As a teacher, he wasn't so great, but I believed he took an interest in me, even when I tried to write like him. Once we were given an assignment to write something on the "Wild Side." Everybody else assumed that meant practice writing about cactus and coyotes and the call of the lone wolf student writer. Always one to color outside the lines, I decided to write about downtown Phoenix as viewed from a general walk around the Greyhound Bus station. In the course of my study of the terrain, I went by the Phoenix Convention Center, and discovered a couple that had snuck off into some bushes to make love. This, of course, was too good to be true, considering my idea for the article, and I turned it in as a metaphor about Eden and life in the city.
Nobody in the class believed that it happened, though. My classmates, during another one of those awful roundtable critiques (always to be taken with a grain of salt) told me it was non-fiction we were supposed to be writing, not fiction. But Edward Abbey believed me. He came to my defense, saying, "This is all just an exercise. All of this is."
There was, in fact, one item distributed at his second class in mimeographed form that proved to be a great boon. The Edward Abbey reading list: Barry Lopez, John McPhee, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. Two nature loving Luddites, a city slicker, and the patron saint of the New Journalism. But there was one other name, a strange one, that took me years to appreciate: Montaigne. The French writer was one of the first to try to express himself, via highly literary means, and it was he who came up with the term essayer, as in essay. It means, "to try."
The whole point of all of this, this …desire to break out into great wide open and quite dicey period of time and space was because, let's face it, I was intending to write about it. Sometimes, since my thoughts tend to wander, my notebooks were my only mental connection to meatspace. Other times, such as those examples when I'd scribble poems at a coffee house before I went to work, or, at a bar where I was usually playing the role of the eccentric loner in the back, the Watcher of Human Behavior, it appeared that kind of output was, in fact, a desperate sort of performance art. A lonely artist, a cry for help, a pen warmed up in a sad and self-perpetuating hell out of some desperate need to initiate something more interesting. It was the raw data on what had been seemed to be so unsatisfying about life in the suburbs of sunny Scottsdale----with my wife, and a fundamentalist mother-in-law, no less, both making it their regular routine to remind me that I was in every way, shape and form, a "heathen," often to the point of leaving written reminders beneath my pillow that I was a scum, shouldn't be writing about rock music for the local newspaper, or, that new book by Salman Rushdie, and that I would soon be going to hell if I didn't publicly hand myself over the JeeeeeSuuuuus. So yes, I know a few things about life in the microcosm of authoritarian rule.
My poetry was one of the few positive channels for anxiety and their release. That is, until my soon-to-be ex decided to set them alight in the backyard barbecue. I think I still have some charred portions of those hand-written early versions to this day.
I was keeping a notebook on all my journeys, and made a regular point of telling anyone in range of my intention to go from place to place, recording the experience that pretty much began with the breakup, or series of breakups, that ended my marriage. The first book of poems was called, "No Joy in Mythville," which started out with many decently written ditties that used baseball as a metaphor for life (many of which were later published), but then degenerating into terrible tales of screaming fits in the middle of the night and running like hell----my "McGiver" period, based on my rather tactical modes for keeping ahead of my angry ex-wife by keeping track of all available exits at any setting, public or private. Reading back on all that stuff now, I realize that I failed to maintain a proper notice of the fact that they charted increasingly large experiential loops of extreme incidence. Signs of a satellite spinning out of orbit.
And it all started out so innocently. The first page of the first of these poetic diaries, "No Joy in Mythville," still survives with the following opening entry: "Myth embodies the newest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words." It was a quote lifted from a book on the teachings of an Indian guru, which I'd bought for a quarter at a Goodwill store, just one day after I'd shown up at my brother's door in a working-class neighborhood in Phoenix, swearing I'd never return home for any more punishment again.
That last part proved to be untrue. And late night retreats to my brother's house, or, a city park at 3 a.m. if I'd decided that, perhaps, my wife's rages for the evening had cooled. Always a tough call. Like sticking your finger in a volcano to see if the lava was still hot. Usually, a good way to check was to look into her eyes for any signs of a glassy bulge----a technique that I would recommend to police on the lookout for murder suspects in large crowds.
Sure, I survived all that. But then, it's hard to say what kind of unhinging took place immediately thereafter. I'm assuming, at this point, that personal command and control issues will continue to be, for myself, an extreme hotspot.
I remember the excitement, in those days, of being on the verge of something, and it didn't hurt that my psychiatrist right after the split had prescribed a soothing drug to keep me from going too far off "post-traumatic-stress disorder" meter. But I must admit, with that little pill, taken every night just before bed, was enlisted a security, a sense of assurance. I was tapping into some circuits I'd never known before, and it sure helped me to sleep on nights like the one under a starless sky that October in Monument Valley.
So I popped a pill, took a slug out of water out my Boda bag, and stretched out my sleeping quarters just beneath the front fender of my truck, thinking that if cats can draw warmth from the engine, who am I to argue? I looked up at the no-sky, thinking what it must look like out there when the stars were bright and there wasn't a fast food sign for two-hundred square smiles. All that night out there. The blackness. I stared. And blinked. Then stared some more. I don't know: It could have been an hour, maybe two, maybe no time had passed at all. I was there, looking away from the truck, and I noticed a shadow being created by my vehicle.
Had I gone to sleep? Was I seeing things? Maybe it was the drug and my imagination fired by the colorful dreams of so much change? Maybe it was my desire to find something otherworldly, saturnine, so that I could once again believe, that I had as a child, that I was destined for prophecy.
Maybe I wanted to recall the massiveness from within that I'd felt during nightmares when I was six years old: What was the dream? The universe in conflict with the point of a pin? I remember the boyhood contentment in the belief that I was either secretly retarded, or, gifted in ways my parents would never completely understand (later someone would say I suffered from some kind of "attention deficit" at an early age, that it was a miracle I'd learned to read and all, and that I was a lucky boy, since I'd formed what they called a "compensation."
Maybe I was wired differently. Or, I had just watched too much sci-fi television during the 1960s. One of my earliest memories was when my father allowed me to sit up----during one of those desert nights in a tract home in Phoenix----to watch The Man on the Moon. How fascinating, the possibilities that a child could conjure in those years. I could never miss the next week's episode conclusion, a teaser for the next week, for Lost In Space. Danger! Danger! Robot's arms waving...There were others. The Aliens, Star Trek, a show my father would watch until my mother would force him to turn it off, the ridiculous drek! There was the day we landed on the moon, my half-deaf grandfather trying to pick up the Houston Astros game on the radio in South Texas. But mostly, it was the dreams.
How shall I remember them now? They were more sensations than visions. It was as if infinity were creeping through me, and the mind, overwhelmed, were spinning in a kind of motion sickness. The universe. The head of a pin. That's what stays with me now. The precision of a point, a perfection. Then infinity, or, that is, a universe that is slowing from the entropy of the Big Bang. Who knows the layers of fact or fiction that the mind can place on the memories of dreams of early childhood. I know that the universe, the concept of infinity, of limitless distance, fascinated me as I played with my NASA action figures, with my G.I. Joes. I had a solitary mind: I could spend hours with myself in the back yard, dreaming some post-Disney fantasy in a time when anything that could be imagined could be conjured up on a screen? How could I keep still in class? How could I be happy in a marriage that kept me in chains, a dictatorial regime that led to her throwing more than one book of poems to the barbecue pit, and many, many roads to life never taken?
And the road to this particular road?
How far would I go for love?
And what, exactly, was that a light coming from the top of the hill off in the distance?
The road headed off in that direction, but the light was sitting still, a single beacon. I sat up, wondering if that had been there all night and I was just noticing it now. It could have been a motorcycle up there, at three in the morning, some guy having a smoke or taking a piss before speeding off to his leather-clad compatriots in Moab. But I kept looking at it, and, once awake and shivering in the cold of a damp Autumn night, decided it was best to pack up as quickly as possible and keep heading toward the Rockies, where I ultimately wanted to make my new home.
I tried to roll up my sleeping bag the best that I could, folding under the tarp, as opposed to tightening the bungee cords to secure it in the wind. I threw myself into the truck, gunned the engine, turned on the heater to full blast. I put my jacket, lit up a smoke. Checking the light again, I noticed that it was gone, or maybe in moving it had become obscured from my view. Checking the road behind me, I hit on the gas and was off toward Blanding, just about to cross the border into Utah. The sun wouldn't be up for a few more hours, and it was nothing but my headlights on the road, once again.
I grabbed a cassette tape from the floorboards and it turned out to be a spooky old tune from a hippie mountain band, Major Lingo, from Jerome, Arizona, a ghost town on the side of a mountain that overlooks the red-rock cathedrals of Sedona. They played electronic pedal steel guitar with menacing little arabesques. It gave the road a manic mood, and as I think about it now, an odd sense of premonition or synchronicity.
There was something in the way everything shifted around me.
Did I come come into the presence of the Kachina's son right there?
Should I convince myself, swear by the sudden drop in temperature in the flat-bed truck, the shadow passing through the back window, an intuitive kick of fear and the fall, like a cemetery stone chip, of a cassette tape to the floor?
It happened where the plains became flat and the sunrise, hidden in clouds and cold wind, had not yet risen over the curvature of the canyons. I felt a presence as I drove under a coal escalator leading over the road, and I thought I saw a wolf in the rearview mirror.
~ From "23 Roads to Mythville," by Douglas McDaniel