Sunday, 1 June 2014
Come Hell or High Water 4
‘We'll drink to good health for them that have it coming.’
Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
I kept trying to tell myself I had it coming. Most of my physical health, up until now, had been of the mental variety. Claude Bernard had called it homeostasis, in an era when it had been solely defined by the acquisition of an adequate caloric intake, and the avoidance of occupational hazards, pestilence, and death. Life had been for living, and not rationed into trendy quanta of aerobic torment. I had been an adherent of Epicurus, with a highly cultivated aesthetic appreciation for visceral indulgence. One of the rewards for my somatic and political incorrectness would now seem to be a fragile weakness of my colonic wall, which would henceforth be prone to blowing bubbles, sometimes skyward.
As we caught up, in the shade of the pavilion on the dock, I knew that Richard felt my pain, but he didn’t have to make quite that much noise, as he opened each new can of Kokanee lager. Carolyn and Robyn were mind-melded on the next bench over, and the two youngest boys, Graham and Trevor, were splashing around the gazebo, with their girlfriends.
They had certainly grown since we last saw them, and in just the directions we imagined. Kyle, left behind in Fort Langley, was the thin quiet cerebral one. Graham, the middle boy, more muscular but still wiry, had a head for business. His girlfriend was gunning for a law degree, and MBA, and ‘a lot of money.’ The youngest was the sleeper. Trevor was a big boy. Like me, he enjoyed his food. I remember a visit many years earlier, when Robyn asked him if he’d like to try some special dip she made.
“I’ll try it.” Said Trev. “And if I like it, I’ll have a lot.” Carolyn and Richard’s sons had the entire waterfront covered. And, for that matter, so did Carolyn and Richard. Both were within counting distance of retirement that, for members of the Force, Luke, meant a very comfortable landing indeed. They planned to eventually sell the house in Fort Langley, and move to Christina Lake. I asked about the neighbour, still sweeping the rocks. She had turned up her radio.
“That’s Crazy Colleen.” Said Carolyn. “She was put on the planet to ensure that we don’t enjoy ourselves too much.” Colleen was a chain-smoker with a vascular dementia, whose only purpose in life was to police the activities of the adjacent law enforcement family. We told them of the illegitimate development that had gone up next to us, and the evil triad that were spoiling the wild tranquility of the neighbourhood. Money flows to beauty and then attracts more money, pushing out everything that does not fit.
“Small minds are driven by greed and envy and contempt.” Said Richard. “And sometimes the karma works too slow.”
Carolyn served up several meters of teriyaki pork tenderloin for dinner. I told Richard he needed a Portuguese Douro to match it, but he didn’t have one, and I wouldn’t have been able to partake, if he had.
“Why are you doing this trip, Wink?” He asked, between bites.
“Its a path of pilgrimage. “ I said.
“To where?” He asked.
“Not so much to where.” I said. “As to what.”
“To what?” He asked.
“Authenticity.” I said. “The American West was The Sacred Land- the gold rush towards truth.”
“What’s the truth?” He asked.
“The achievement of redemption.” I said.
“How do you get that?” He asked.
“By living the authentic life, by living in Nature, and by facing death with dignity and courage.”
“Sounds very existential.” Said Carolyn.
“That’s where the truth lives.” I said.
“So, what does that have to do with the American West?” Asked Richard.
“All the main characters lived there.” I said. “The cowboys and Indians, outlaws and lawmen, miners and loggers, firefighters, railroad workers and wagon drivers, mothers and prostitutes, were all archetypes of authenticity. The cowboys I used to watch on the Paramount theatre screen Westerns were the embodiment of quiet dignity, grace under pressure and courage under fire.”
“What’s so specially authentic about achieving redemption in that place?” Asked Carolyn.
“Nature.” I said. “Earth, wind, fire and water- big sky and sagebrush, mountains and rivers, buffalo and dinosaur bones, grizzly bears and cougars, wolves and coyotes, cattle and horses.”
“I still don’t get it.” Richard said. “What was so special about the American West that made living authentic in Nature, that didn’t exist elsewhere.”
“It may have existed elsewhere.” I said. “But facing death there was transcendent.”
“You might get your chance.” Said Richard. “You sure you’re well enough to go?”
“The best thing you can do for death is ride off from it.” I said, and we had dessert.
The next morning Richard took us around the lake in the ski boat, pointing out who lived where, and what had or would happen to them. There were fishing shacks and a cottage with a tree growing right through its roof, and newer mansions where trees and cottages should have been. There were recurring themes of lottery winners and sports team managers and divorces.
“There’s still gold fever in this part of the West.” I said. In the early afternoon we took a walk through the creek bed, along a row of metal wagon wheels, painted green. Robyn went for a waterski later in the day.
Just after dark, we gathered on the deck, full moon on the lake.
“How does your story end?” Asked Carolyn
“In tragedy.” I said. “Like all authentic lives.”
“Where does the tragedy happen?” Richard asked.
“In Idaho.” I said. “In Ketchum. On the Wood River.”
“Hemingway?” Asked Carolyn. “You’re going to end a book about the American West with Hemingway?”
“That’s where the real West ended, Carolyn.” I said. “Not with an iron spike in a railway bed, but with two shotgun shells in a front entrance foyer. Hemingway was the last true son of The Sacred Land. His themes were wilderness and war, and love and loss. He was all about hunting and fishing, bullfighting and death, water and alcohol, and warriors and patriotism. Nature was his religion. His mountains extended to Spain and Africa and Switzerland, his rivers to streams in Michigan. He had a ‘Hotel Montana’ in both The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
“Wait just a minute. His own parents disavowed his writing as ‘filth.’” Said Carolyn. “He was an alcoholic racist, a homophobe, and an emasculated misogynist.”
“And his books were burned in Berlin in 1933, as ‘a monument of modern decadence.’” I added. “But he was the final hard-boiled egg of the American West. Nature is where men are without women: men fish; men hunt; men find redemption.”
“Do you think leaving your wife to find your brains all over the front entrance of your house is facing death with dignity and courage?” Carolyn asked.
“Hemingway was the end of the West.” I said. “I never claimed that he lived up to its ideal.”
“So why are you so determined to make this trip?” Richard asked. “With your rotten guts, and massive bush fires and possible flooding to come. Hell, you can’t even have a beer for another two weeks, if you even get that lucky.”
“Well.” I said. “There are a couple of things I can still have.”
“Like what?” He asked.
“Buffalo steaks.” I said. “And huckleberry pie.”