Saturday, 12 July 2014

A Rose in Every Cheek 2

               “The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose
                  was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.”
                                                                                             Salvador Dali

Julie and I waited for Robyn downstairs next morning. They had been gracious about letting me bunk in with them, since I had arrived with a decent excuse, and my own mattress. I was on my third cup of rich cardamom chai.
“You’d better be quick.” She said.
“Quick?” I asked.
“Quick, mate.” She repeated. “We’re heading off to Quetta on the afternoon train today. You need to decide.” I was about to play dumb, but I could tell that Julie could tell, and there was no avoiding that no bullshit Aussie glare. They were headed to the far western Pashtun capital of Baluchistan. Robyn’s sister and brother-in-law, Debbie and J.B., were heading east across Asia, in the opposite direction, on a cheap Top Deck overland bus tour, and Julie and Robyn were heading for a rendezvous. I had no special commitment, but that was headed for oblivion.
We all arrived at the sliding iron gates of the wild Raj yellow railway station. It seemed like all of us, if you could count that high. I pushed through the mob into the ticket office, and purchased passage on the Bolan Mail to Quetta. I thought the 221-rupee price tag a little steep, until I found out that I had paid for a first class sleeping car. The girls had tickets in third. I pointed out that my Pullman would be air-conditioned. When the train pulled into the station, we ran to peer through the barred window of my compartment, admiring the black velour upholstery. As it jarred to a stop, the flies lifted, revealing the filthy bile green plastic-covered benches underneath. In the West, God had been replaced with respectability and air conditioning, but there was still no such problem in Pakistan. Any carelessness with the exposed wiring of the ceiling fan would get you an immediate audience with Allah. Stark was the nicest way to describe it. I wondered briefly about third class, but suppressed the urge briskly. The first condition of understanding a foreign country was to smell it.
The Bolan Mail had arrived right on time. But it wouldn’t leave that way at all. We waited on the platform, watching the beggars, and the other pajama-garbed locals, watching the girls. There were a thousand young male Moslem eyes staring at Robyn and Julie. I grew agitated at the unwavering intensity of the intrusiveness. It was unacceptable that they should have to undergo the indignity of this leering rabble, but there was nothing I could do that wouldn’t have started an international incident. This was the way it was going to go in Pakistan.
In need of distraction, I began to walk across the platform to buy us some sodas. I will acknowledge that I was wearing shorts. I will concede that they were short shorts. The realization that the thousand eyes had no interest in the girls, and were actually following my short shorts, forced me onto the first class carriage early. Robyn and Julie joined me, without any correction from the conductor.
Two hours late, the Bolan Mail pulled out of Karachi City Station, on its way through the date palm dusk towards Sehwan Sharif, and, playing scrabble with Robyn into the night, towards Shikarpur and Jacobabad, Dera Murad Jamali and Ab-i-Gum, and beyond.
The name Pakistan literally means ‘Land of the Pure’ in Urdu and Persian. Figuratively, it is also an acronym of its five regions- Punjab, Afghan province, Kashmir, Sind, and Baluchistan. There is no ‘i ’ in team, or the acronym, but they threw it in anyway, as in ‘kiss my ease of pronunciation.’ I thought it more accurately represented Poverty, Anarchy, Korruption, Illiteracy, and the suffix –stan, Persian for ‘place of.’
The poverty part came along slow and hard. Because ‘P ’ also stood for pea vetch, used to make kesari dal, poor man’s lentils. It caused poor man’s paralysis of the lower limbs, convulsions, and death, a condition known as lathyrism, or Kalayakhanja in ancient India. The culprit was a motor neuron mitochondrial poison called ODAP, an analogue of the amino acid neurotransmitter, glutamate. And glutamate was waiting for us in spades, in a side junction limbo, in a jar, on the far side of Radhan.
Julie had taken it out of her daypack. It was a big and black, with a red and yellow label, and white letters where the skull and crossbones should have been. Robyn brought out chapatis and a knife. When Julie opened the jar, the compartment filled with the smell of salt, seaweed, and bloody stools.
“Vegemite?” She asked, grouting the cracks in the bread.
“No thanks.” I demurred.
“Its good for you.” Said Robyn.
“No, its not.” I replied. “It contains a ton of glutamate, which, in extracellular excess, causes excitotoxicity as part of the ischemic cascade associated with strokes and epilepsy and lathyrism and autism and ALS and Alzheimer’s. It’s also almost ten per cent salt. So, it’s not good for you.”
“Course it is.” Julie said. And they broke into song:

                                      “We're happy little Vegemites
                                        As bright as bright can be.
                                        We all enjoy our Vegemite
                                        For breakfast, lunch, and tea.
                                        Our mummies say we're growing stronger
                                        Every single week,
                                        Because we love our Vegemite
                                        We all adore our Vegemite
                                        It puts a rose in every cheek.”

“...and mental retardation.” I finished.
Outside the barred window, roving packs of feral canine skin and gristle, cadaveric to the points of their bones coming through their hides, were hunting their next heartbeat. They would have eaten their shadows, if they’d had the energy to catch them. I took a chapati, already prepasted with black adhesive, and tossed it out into the night. He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich... You better run, you better take cover.
A miniature mushroom dust cloud rose off the desert soil. Wild dogs converged on the commotion from every degree of the compass, biting and snapping at each other to get there first. But ‘there’ was surrounded by an invisible force field that stopped them in their tracks, no less than five feet from the source. They all turned in unison, dejected and defeated, and skulked away slow, tails between their legs. An occasional yelp reverberated out into the darkness. The Vegemite twins were as silent.
“A rose in every cheek.” I said.

Friday, 11 July 2014

A Rose in Every Cheek 1

                      “When you reveal those rose-colored cheeks, you make the
                        stones whirl from joy.”
                                                                                       Rumi, Ghazal 171

The oxygen masks dropped into our laps on takeoff. Our steward, Ahmet, took a roll of electrical tape from his pocket, and fastened them back into their housing.
“No problem.” He said.
“What happens if we need them?” I asked.
“I will come back.” He said.
Destiny told me not to hold my breath, but she had already stolen my oxygen. Blonde curls and green eyes had trapped me, inside the transit lounge door. The sunset’s last blood embers had left a smoky night in Cairo.
She was from New Zealand and her traveling friend was an Australian computer operator, named Julie. They were on their way home from the three-year ‘Big OE,’ the essential overseas experience that Antipodeans indulge in, before recolonizing their lives back into the ‘back of beyond’. They were sitting with a Pommie bricklayer named Stefan, a Pakistani seaman, a German couple, and an Israeli. We drank free coffee until two am, when the disorganized ticket counter staff began handing out boarding cards and passports, at random. Stefan and I were last on the battered bus to the dilapidated ancient Egypt Air stretch 707. I followed my Destiny and Julie up the gangway, into the long cylinder. The worn seats made it seem like an old movie theatre. I asked if this one was taken. They looked around at the empty aircraft.
“No.” she said. I sat down in the aisle seat, and asked her name. Brazen.
“Polly.” She said. I would have traded my Duty Free Johnny Walker for crackers, but I knew it was a lie.
“Her name’s Robyn.” Offered Julie, and asked for mine.
“Wink.” I said, and watched their eyes roll around their heads.
Ahmet reappeared at cruising altitude. It was clear that he liked Robyn too. He offered her a complimentary gin and tonic. She offered to include Julie and I in the offer.
Three rounds later, the efforts of my previous sleep-deprived week, recrossing Turkey and Greece, caught up with me. I slept through Ahmet’s insistent attempts to lure Robyn off the plane in Abu Dhabi. She woke me with a well-placed elbow.
“Can you take care of this?” She said. It was a bill for nine gin and tonics, about what I would spend in a week. When Ahmet realized that Robyn had no intention of accompanying him into the Emirates, he presented her with the bartab.
I presented the Chief Purser with a handwritten letter, deploring Ahmet’s lascivious seduction attempt as a poor reflection on more mainstream Moslem manhood manners. They took him away by his ear, and brought us a bottle of champagne for the loss. Such are the complexities of Islam. Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, where there aren't no Ten Commandments, an' a man can raise a thirst. The stones whirled with joy.
Seven hours later, we landed along the Arabian Sea and the Indus delta mangroves, in the Bride of the Cities, the City of Lights, in the madness of the August monsoon. Here was where Alexander the Great had prepared his fleet for Babylonia. Here, the Sindhi inhabitants built a fort in the 18th century, with a ‘Brackish Gate’ facing the sea, and a ‘Sweet Gate’ facing the Lyari River. Here, in 1947, during the partition of India and Pakistan, seven million Hindus left their brackishness, and seven million Moslems returned to their sweet. Over a million, on both sides, were massacred along the way. Moslem gangs boarded trains carrying Hindus east, and murdered all the uncircumcised men. Hindu gangs boarded trains carrying Moslems west, and murdered all the circumcised men. Ghost trains entered waiting stations, packed to the overhead racks with thousands of bodies. The carnage was unfathomable.
We passed the empty shell of a Pan Am clipper jumbo, rolled over on its humped cockpit, and emerged into the sauna that had melted the rest of its wreckage. Robyn and Julie took my Duty Free Johnny Walker, as I diverted to help with the CPR being performed on a portly passenger. His pupils were as fixed and dilated as the customs formalities and, like the officials, he’d been dead for a while. I left them to catch up with my Destiny. Stefan had found Julie and Robyn, and they had already found a van to take us into the city.
We manoeuvred out, through a minefield of monsoon road lakes and open sewers, into an intricate kaleidoscopic color riot of rolling folk art. Every conveyance, every bus and truck and motorized rickshaw, was a mobile free-hand garish gallery of panoramas, portraits, poetry, and patriotism, an enthusiastic motif mixture of East and West, secular and sacred.
The prows above the truck cabs were adorned with depictions of the Faysal Mosque in Islamabad, the Ka’bah in Mecca, or Arabic verses writ large on the image of an open Koran. Side panels sizzled with dream landscapes of waterfalls, wooded lakes, snow-capped mountains, or alpine chalets and hunting lodges, straight out of a Mughal court painting. Scenes of tigers and grouse and deer and other animals were framed by flowers, and diamond-shaped reflective strips. The Prophet’s winged horse, Buraq, all trustworthy speed and devotion, was a favorite emblem. For a while we drove beside an iridescent mural of Hercules subduing a lion, rendered in undiluted hues of red and purple and yellow and green.
The backs of the vehicles were emblazoned with single large hero portraits of Pakistani film stars, military heroes, cricket players, or Greek gods or the Mona Lisa, painted with creative aspect ratios, and surrounded by vines or geometric designs. The faux marble Formica-paneled truck doors in Karachi were decorated with camel bone; out west in Baluchistan, they would be trimmed with wood. But I didn’t know that yet.
The cockpits were dazzling treasure grottos, full of satin and silk marigolds and roses. Tiny faceted mirrors trimmed the windshields, and wall clocks, draped in flashing lights and pompoms, hung from the roofs. Pastel scarves, trailing from colossal heavy-lidded eyes painted on the windows, warded off the evil eye.
The calligraphic themes differed, depending on the type of vehicle. Trucks were all about distance, the journey and spiritual longing. If your mother prays for you, it’s like a breeze from heaven. The messages on buses had to do with unrequited love. I wish I were the book you are reading, so that when you fall asleep and the book falls on your chest, I would be so close to you.  The lowly rickshaw, with limited space, had to make do with a cryptic word or two. I wish... Broken pearl. The Lollywood billboards we passed under made the traffic look monochromatic.
Several accommodation attempts failed the entomology exam. I suspected the ‘Happy Days Hotel’ had been named by the bed bugs themselves. We eventually checked into the ‘Estate,’ Julie and Robyn in one three-bedframe room with two mattresses, and Stefan and I in another. We napped away the afternoon. Stefan was gone when I awoke. Robyn and Julie and I navigated through the downpour, to find sustenance. Under a battalion of ceiling fans, inside the Al-Farouk, we drank rich white lassis, and ate a chicken curry so lavish, that sweet fat spicy cloves floated on the surface. And so we floated too, out into the torrential deluge, around the growing puddles, and back to our respective rain refuge rooms.
When Stefan returned several hours later, he woke me to tell me how pleased he was to be sharing. Humphrey Bogart had said that you’re not a star until they can spell your name in Karachi. I spelled it out for Stefan, grabbed my mattress and Serendipity, and dragged them both down the hallway. At two in the morning in Pakistan, in the madness of the August monsoon, there was only one thing to do.
I knocked at Destiny’s door.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Hind Cartwheel- A Himalayan Romance 2

                                                            Hind Cartwheel

is an inaccurate name for this story, of course. There are simply too many possible interpretations. Hind can refer to the back of, like one of the rear wheels, a female deer, like the ones in the park where Buddha achieved enlightenment at Sarnath, or the entire Indian subcontinent, as in Hindustan. Or it can mean all three.
The problem is that you can’t see a place with a billion people and six thousand years of chaos just by sitting there. Push on through to the other side. Hind Cartwheel, it is.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Hind Cartwheel- A Himalayan Romance

                                        For Lala, Jimmy, Ali Baba, the Company,  
                                        Arumgumam, Tenzing, Little Sarat,
                                        Sumathi, Ramu, ...and Siddhārtha


 A Rose in Every Cheek
 Mound of the Dead
 Best Spring Seats
 Not France
 The Road to Happy Valley
 Castle of the Wild Bees
 Delhi Belly
 A Sigh Made Stone
 Felix the Frog
 Ghatnapping in Benares
 Only Little Cholera
 Ocean of Milk
 Where God Divided by Zero
 Hope Savage
 The Message of Moelm
 Rendezvous with Rama
 The Fountains of Paradise
 Coconut Grove
 Smoking Gorillas
 Allegory of the Caves
 Palace of the Winds
 Void Vast Infinite

“What was on the other side of the door, Uncle Wink.” Asked Millie.
Venus was still burning through the darkening parchment, above the luminescent breakers in the ocean below. The wild boar their cousin David shot, was on the barbeque.
“What door, Mil?”
“The door at the airport.” Sam chimed in.
“Oh, that one.” He said. “Many things were waiting behind that door, Sam. Wild bees and frogs, camels and smoking gorillas, palaces and mountains and caves, and coconut groves and desert kingdoms.”
“I know what else was behind the airport door.” She said.
“What?” Asked Sam. Millie squirmed, like Millie squirms.
“Auntie Robbie.” She said, now with her hands on her hips. They both looked at Uncle Wink for affirmation.
He smiled, and closed an eye.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Would you like to read the rest of Wagon Days?

You can find it here:

Starting tomorrow, I will begin instalments of the third book of the Orion's Cartwheel Quadrilogy,

'Hind Cartwheel.'


Monday, 7 July 2014

Wagon Days 1

                                                   ‘Hitch your wagon to a star.’
                                                          Ralph Waldo Emerson

Carbon. Labor day morning in Ketchum began scorched earth ghost town macabre. The Wagon Days banner was more visible, but the celebration it advertised seemed to be missing.
Robyn and I meandered up Main Street, along the closed storefront façades. We looked at the listings in a real estate agent’s window.
Two charming cottages built in 1950 situated on 0.27 of an acre. Close proximity to the river and Downtown core. $725,000.
“They’re just shacks.” Robyn said.
“Not here.” I said. “This is another pastoralized estate heartland of the very rich. Here, like in Jackson, you pay more for the seamless Rockwellian illusion.” Across the street from the Pioneer Saloon, an older couple was setting out a row of director’s chairs along the curb. We went over to inquire about the festivities.
“You’re just a bit early,” She said. Anne was a well-dressed elegant lady in her early sixties, with a Sun Valley sunbeam smile, short silver hair and a long silver and turquoise and fringed leather Western pedigree. The black pearl necklace was an incidental ornament to her kindness.
“Where are you from?” Asked her husband. Fred was a remote Eastern transplant, but his roots were deep enough that he likely knew everyone who normally lived in Ketchum, if it was possible to live normally in Ketchum. Anne was the local Sotheby’s Real Estate rep, the company that sold Napoleon’s library. On 22 May 2002, Sotheby’s sold Norman Rockwell's painting of Rosie the Riveter for $4.96 million, and Anne’s sale profile wasn’t likely far behind. They invited us to a luncheon Anne was hosting at her office, and their linear sidewalk inner circle for the Big Hitch Parade that would follow.
Robyn and I headed up Fourth Street to the Town Square, where the traditional eight-dollar all-you-can-eat Papoose Club Pancake Breakfast was already in full swing. All proceeds benefit local youth.
Also in full swing was the fiddle band in the background, the jowls of the first crossbow bouncing on his violin under his cowboy hat, through the smoke of the hundred of sausages behind the big wagon wheel doors of the big black barbeques. Toes in the boots of the Stetson pensioners at the front tables tapped in rhythm. Clone cowboy campfire cooks with white cowboy hats, blue and white striped shirts, Levi’s, and red aprons manned the griddles, flipping flapjacks and feeding the frenzy. Firefighters ate free, and got extra big helpings, having achieved redemption for living the authentic life in Nature, and facing death with dignity and courage.
My paper plate was heavy with pancakes and sausages and bacon and eggs, and the orange juice in my other hand was searching for a place to land. All the picnic tables in the square were full, except for the one directly ahead of me. Only one man sat eating breakfast there in the dappled light, but I could see why he had it all to himself.
So old, he was Old West. Under his oversized grey felt Stetson, was a bushy white beard, and a penetrating set of clear blue blue eyes. He wore a leather vest with a marshall’s badge, a blue bandana, and the same striped shirt, blue jeans and boots as the cowboy clones. I approached cautiously.
“Is anyone sitting here?” I asked.
“You see anyone?” He said. You can always tell a cowboy but you can’t tell him much. He motioned me to take a seat.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Older than the mountains with twice as much dust.” He said. “I’ve seen eighty go by.” I told him I thought that was pretty old.
“It’s not about how fast you run, or how high you climb.” He said. “It’s about how you bounce. Out here, you live a long time. Even horse thieves have to hang five minutes longer than anywhere else.” I introduced myself.
“Ivan Swaner.” He said. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.” But his gnarled handshake told me he was less pleased than I was, until Robyn arrived with Anne, and Ivan lit up.
“Ivan, you’ve got your breakfast on your moustache.” Anne said. “Ivan is our local raconteur, historian and man-about-town. Too old to set a bad example, but old enough to give good advice. He went to school in a one-room schoolhouse, and remembers when ‘going south for the winter’ meant Twin Falls, and when skis were ‘snowshoes,’ used by the ladies to get around town. He was the deputy sheriff of Ketchum for fourteen years. They used to call him Ivan the Terrible.”
Ivan wiped his beard.
“Sit down.” He said to Anne, and then he started, his moustache dancing with the food and the telling of it.
“The Alpine had a red light on top of it, and when there was trouble, they would turn it on and we would go break up drunken fights or whatever it was.” He said. “You can’t drink coffee on a running horse. The one I’ve been riding through this life could buck a man’s whiskers plum off. There are only two seasons in the valley, July and winter. I remember how much wood I had to cut, to get through January of 1951. It were minus fifty-four degrees, and the words froze clean out of my mouth.” Ivan had hit his history button.
“In 1880, the town founded here was called Leadville. The Post Office renamed the place after a local trapper, David Ketchum. But it wasn’t about fur trapping, it was about lead and silver. Isaac Lewis, the father of Ketchum, gave his son, Horace, ten thousand dollars to start any business he wanted. In 1884 Horace formed the Ketchum and Challis Toll Road Company, constructed a road over the steep Trail Creek Summit, and built a chain of massive wagons to run them. Each one could carry ten tons of ore on a mountain track no wider than itself, careening around hairpin turns, teetering along sheer ledges on giant six-foot wheels, making fourteen miles a day.”
“There’s more horse asses than horses.” Horace had said. “I prefer mules to men.” His Lewis wagons were daisy chained together and pulled by a team of draft mules, selected for strength and stamina and temper. Their muleskinner used a hundred-foot jerk-line to control and rein in the twenty animals it took to pull the convoy. He drove a majesty of metal and wood and beast.
At the height of mining activity the Ketchum Fast Freight Line employed 700 mules and 30 wagons to haul 700,000 pounds of raw ore to the Philadelphia Smelter on Warm Springs Road, annually. Between 1880 and 1885 approximately $12 million worth of lead and silver left the valley. In 1902, rail service to Mackay and Challis arrived, and the Lewis wagon trains became obsolete. Horace died two years later. Wagon tracks went away across it, so far that you could not see where they went; they ended in nothing at all.
The Chinese had come with the building of the railroad. A Chinatown grew up on River Street in Hailey, with a population of hundreds.
“They had to live underground, or they’d be killed.” Ivan said. On September 8, 1883, Sheriff Gray and his deputies raided the subterranean opium dens, making the first ever drug bust. He arrested 8 Chinese and a white man, and confiscated $350 in opium, pipes and smokers paraphernalia. At the trial, two days later, two Chinese were fined $20 and another $5. Nine months later, Kuck Wah Choi, known locally as Ah Sam, was found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to be hanged by the Sheriff until dead. On September 18, 1885, in accordance with the Judgment, Ah Sam was hanged in Hangman's Gulch. Hailey's Chinatown was wiped out by a fire in 1920, when a still, owned by a bootlegger named Monkey Frank, exploded. The fire uncovered many underground tunnels, containing opium bottles, hats, wire, and the remains of banks that the Chinese used.
In the 1890s, after the mining boom turned bust, sheepmen drove their herds north through Ketchum in the summer, to graze in upper elevations of the Pioneer, Boulder, and Sawtooth mountains. By 1890 there were a reported 614,000 sheep in Idaho, and by 1918, 2.65 million, almost six times the state's human population. Every fall, sheep flowed south into the town’s livestock corrals at the Union Pacific Railroad's railhead, connecting to its main line at Shoshone.  They brought money and giardia and the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, which still graces the Ketchum calendar each October.
The 1930s brought the Great Depression. Public work relief projects proliferated during the Civilian Conservation Corps CCC days of FDR’s New Deal. Bugsy Siegal’s girlfriend, Virginia Hill, Queen of the Mobsters’ Molls, hung out in Ketchum, paying for goods and services with hundred dollar bills, sent to her in shoeboxes, before Bugsy ended up perforated with bullet holes on her couch. In 1936, the Union Pacific opening of their ski resort brought Hollywood culture to Sun Valley.
“Who were some of the celebrities that skied up there, Ivan?” Anne asked.
“Well, there was Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, Bette Davis and Rita Hayward, and Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway.” My head came up.
“Did you ever meet Hemingway, Ivan?” I asked.
“I used to drink with him.” He said.
“How was that.” I asked.
“He was better.” He said.
“Did he talk about much?” I asked
“Liquor talks mighty loud when it gets loose from the jug.” He said. “But you can’t drown your sorrows; they know how to swim.”
“How come you survived and he didn’t?” I asked.
“I stayed on the wagon, and Hem fell off.” He said. I asked Ivan what he thought of the man.
“Some people thought he was a son of a…” He said. I thought he was a regular guy.”
“You know he won a Nobel Prize in literature?” I asked
“That may have happened.” Said Ivan. “But I ain’t got no recollection of it.”
Anne asked if we had visited Hemingway’s house. I told her we were planning on seeing it the following day.
“It’s easy to find.” She said. “You just follow Warm Springs Road to East Canyon Run. Number 400.” Getting to Hemingway’s house would be easy. Getting inside would be impossible. I knew this from my correspondence with the Director of Communications of the Idaho Conservancy, who took two months to communicate her refusal. Thank you again for your interest in the Hemingway House. Unfortunately, we will not be able to accommodate your request. Due to the high number of requests we receive, our staff can only schedule a few during the year that best meet our conservation goals for the property. I asked her if it was possible to provide the criteria that would accommodate a visit. No, we cannot provide the criteria as it is part of an internal document.
“No use diggin’ for water under an outhouse.” Said Ivan. “Anything you might had found inside Hem’s place is likely long gone.” Anne asked if we were planning on travelling up the valley to Stanley. We told her it was also on our list for the next day.
“Make sure you stop at the North Fork Store.” She said. “That’s where Marilyn Monroe was filmed in the movie Bustop.” Ivan’s blue eyes brightened conspicuously.
“Ever been married, Ivan.” Robyn asked.
“Nope. Single, footloose and fancy-free.” He said. “Getting shot and getting married are bad habits.”
“You must have had some bad habits.” I said.
“Every dog has a few fleas.” He said. “But if a man knows anything, he ought to die with it in him.” I asked Ivan for his thoughts about Lewis and Clark
“The Salmon River stopped them cold in their tracks.” He said.
I asked him about Custer.
“General George Armstrong Custer was a pompous, egotistical, self-centered…” He said. “He was a goldilocks presidential wannabe murderer, meaner than a skilletful of rattlesnakes.” I asked him where all the Indians went.
“Well, there were Indians, and I remember the days of their Trail Creek powwows, but they seem to have all disappeared.” I asked him how Ketchum had changed.
“Our minds used to be cleaner than our fingernails, but we’ve been invaded by all those California developers, with their wide open wallets and wide open mouths. And Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood. Horseshit stays on the outside of boots, not Birkenstocks.” Anne told us that Ivan was in the Big Hitch Parade.
“Its the largest non-motorized parade in the USA.” He said. “You can catch me hanging off the second wagon.” I asked why they cancelled the Blackjack shootout this year.
“One year a guy lost his arm when his gun misfired.” He said.
Ivan was finished his breakfast, and his history lesson. He wiped his beard on his sleeve, and got up to leave.
“Where are you going now, Ivan?” Robyn asked.
“I’m going to see a man about a mule.” He said.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Buffalo Bills 4

My new watch was solar-powered, benign in comparison to the other energy endemic to this part of Idaho. Robyn and were heading through a lava field to an active wildfire zone, missing the light, feeling the heat.
Two surrogate napkins came off the paper towel dispenser on our table, as we said goodbye to Kaylyn. We steered southwest along US 20. The repeated taste of the pickles from the four inches of local favourite #20 all meat combo on a white bun remained resistant to an entire roll of mints. The windshield began to resemble a war zone.
“The bugs bleed a lot here.” Robyn said. Several barren miles of flat Snake River plain desert, sprinkled with sage and yellow Antelope Bitterbrush, and dense yellow-white eruptions of Rubber Rabbitbrush, transformed into the broken black basalt and cracked cake-crusts of asphalted lava fields. Volcanic silhouettes floated on the hazy horizon. We had entered a region of utter desolation. The most recent eruptions occurred over two thousand years ago. The Shoshone who lived through them, created a legend that spoke of a serpent on a mountain which, angered by lightning, coiled around and squeezed the mountain until liquid rock flowed, fire shot from cracks, and the summit exploded.
The white settler migration that lived through the Shoshone attacks on their wagon trains, had altered their Oregon Trail route through the northern part of this black wasteland, in a diversion known as Goodale’s Cutoff.
In 1924, Robert Limbert, a sometimes taxidermist, tanner and furrier from Boise, named the cobalt Blue Dragon lava flows Craters of the Moon. It is the play of light at sunset across this lava that charms the spectator. It becomes a twisted, wavy sea. In the moonlight its glazed surface has a silvery sheen. With changing conditions of light and air, it varies also, even while one stands and watches. It is a place of color and silence. Limbert expressed regret at having taken his dog on his expedition ‘for after three days travel his feet were worn and bleeding.’ Our own feet were not far behind, as Robyn and I were wearing only sandals to explore the caves and lava tubes and cinder crags. The sides of our feet would heal slowly from their lacerated encounters with the tiny purple-blue pieces of obsidian volcanic glass, but we would heal.
Three weeks after Robyn and I lost ourselves for a while in the Craters of the Moon, two other hikers would lose themselves forever. Boise physician Dr. Jodean ‘Jo’ Elliott-Blakeslee, age 63, and her 69 year-old hiking partner, Amy Linkert. Any possibility of timely rescue was frustrated by the same Nobel prize-winning Barack Obama government shutdown that blocked the Australian and Japanese tourists from taking photos and ‘recreating’ at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser. All but three of the Craters of the Moon National Monument's nineteen employees were furloughed, and the family of the missing physician was forced to issue a plea for volunteer searchers. The buffalo bills were bigger now than when Apollo astronauts trained here forty years ago. Children can earn a Lunar Ranger embroidered patch in just a few hours. They should get it while it's going. Geologists predict the area will experience its next eruption within the next hundred years. Think of the money they’ll save.
Robyn and I filled up in Carey, where they seemed mighty proud of their ethanol-free premium gas. We knew we would likely hit traffic after our shortcut on Picabo Lane onto Highway 75, going north through Hailey, Ezra Pound’s hometown, towards Sun Valley. We didn’t count on bumper to bumper. But it was coming south, the other way. It was leaving.

There was another complication on the horizon. One of the planned stops, back through the States on the way home, was a hajj to the last home of one of my minor deities, the place where he blew his brains out. Hemingway had lived in Ketchum, and Ketchum was in the news. The Beaver Creek Fire had become a state-wide inferno visible from space, the smoke filled and obscured the sun in Sun Valley, homes were evacuated, wolves were chasing sheep trying to escape, and Salmon, Idaho was becoming Smoked Salmon, Idaho. If the rains came, there would be floods…  We all got pieces of crazy in us, some bigger pieces than others.

Being crazy doesn’t make you wrong. The Great White Shark Hunter S. Thompson had it right. 'Crazy' is a term of art; 'Insane' is a term of law. Remember that, and you will save yourself a lot of trouble.
Robyn and I were arriving in the Wood River Valley on the second last day of the Beaver Creek fire, twenty two days after a lighting strike northwest of Hailey ignited over a hundred thousand acres of the Sawtooth National Forest. Beaver Creek was the largest fire the region had ever seen. The weather had been hot, dry, and windy but the arsonists had been alien life forms and topography. Epidemic infestations of Mountain Pine Beetle had devastated vast tracts of forest, and created large woody fuel falls on the ground. Cheat grass, which grew in sheets, had displaced the patchy growing native grasses, and became a continuous rapid burn conduit for any fire. The wind created an inferno that created its own wind, which created an inferno which created its own wind. It blew the fires faster up the slopes, and gravity compressed and focused the flames to burn faster down them. In a world of perfect storms, the Beaver Creek Fire was converging on immaculate.
Mass evacuations of homes and businesses had occurred, and firefighting teams were flown in from all over the continent. They brought helitankers and helicopters, and specialized firefighters called 'hot shots.' Two weeks before Robyn and I headed up the valley, Butch Otter, the Governor of Idaho, declared a state disaster.
The air was still smoke and haze, the ground a layer of soot and ash, and the smell was of smolder and sap. The setting sun looked like the moon, and the moon had become Mars red.
We drove up Main Street in Ketchum, across River Street, to Kentwood Lodge. Best Western. We got a warm welcome at the front desk, and a rough-hewn open poster bed with an Indian blanket upstairs. I asked if the fire had affected bookings. She looked at me like I should have known better than to have asked.
Robyn and I unloaded our packs, had a swim in the empty pool, and headed down Main Street, under the haze and the Wagon Days banner, to the first of Hemingway's old haunts.
The Casino was the perfect dive, jukebox, pool tables and pinball machines where the slots stood in Hemingway’s day (when gambling was legal), big drinks for cash only, curses, and odours of cigarette butts and tragedy. It was different now, than when he came for his first drink in the evening. We continued to the Sawtooth Club, the swankier place he patronized for dinner, and got the last table upstairs, in the shadow of Bald Mountain.
I hadn't had any alcohol for two weeks now. This evening was a kind of homecoming, literary and liquid.
“Are you sure you're ready?” Robyn asked.
“One way to find out.” I said. And we ordered, a glass of Turley chardonnay to start, and one of pinot noir to go with her duck, and another of cabernet sauvignon for my lamb. For tomorrow would be the last day of the Beaver Creek Fire, and the first of our Wagon Days.  Through the windows of the Sawtooth Club, the underside of all the grey clouds in the Ketchum evening sky blazed crimson. Robyn asked me what I thought.
“We’re smack dab in the middle of something good.” I said. "Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise."