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Creek Running North

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March 01, 2004

From the archives

Busy this week, gone to the Mojave starting Thursday, have correspondence to catch up on and two articles to write for actual paying publications (i.e. not my blog) before then. Thus, new contributions to Creek Running North may be sparse until next week. By way of mitigation, here's something I wrote in 1996 in a weak moment.

A Note from Ed

Looking around, I find Iíve left the rest of the tourists behind. It was probably the word "primitive" on the sign I passed back there, the one that said "South Window Alternate Trail ó Primitive," that has chased them away. Me, I was attracted by the thing.

Iíve been looking out at the landscape this past month with some degree of hope that it would reach out, grab me by the throat and shake some purpose into my soul. It hasnít happened. Places on this trip have held my attention ó the Rubies in Nevada, the Black River watershed in the Adirondacks, the incompetent red rock along the Belle Fourche River in Wyoming ó but so far, family and job politics and that general, growing sense that what Iím doing with my life is not just unpleasant and difficult but far more importantly pointless, have been a grimy mental windshield blurring the details of the passing scenery. Iíve tried to catch whatís important, write it down in an increasingly useless spiralbound book in an increasingly cramped hand, but the earth has engendered in me only vapid profundities so far, and even those have fallen out of my brain with each subsequent road jolt.

I am frustrated. This is the West. This is the slickrock country. The heat should have baked away my East Coast reticence by now. The routine of alternating hikes with Becky ó in a national park, you have to take turns watching the dog at the trailhead ó should have lessened the 75 mph frustration by now. This is a writing trip, and I have done no writing. I wonder if Iíve picked the wrong avocation. Maybe I should consider long haul trucking.

Juniper trees grow out of the red, red rock here below the arches. The sun bakes them now, late in the afternoon. From the ends of their contorted gray branches, out of the sparse tufts of incongruously green foliage, sun-warmed berries fall and roll futilely to parched rock bowls, there to drown and rot with the first good rain. A fine synecdoche for... something; you know. Um, pointless stuff.

Inchoate rage, er, raging, (aaargh!) within my chest, I realize I'm no longer hiking but sitting, weighing down the red rock. I decide that I just can't handle this alone, despite my self-reliant, stoic upbringing. I need help. A career counselor. A mentor. A guardian angel. And suddenly I know who I need to talk to. Heís pissed me off regularly, but thereís no better writer. I look up, scan the Entrada sandstone. "Hey Ed," I say, "I need your help."

Ed doesn't answer, though this land certainly holds part of him if any does. Right around here somewhere, he once killed a jackrabbit with a flung rock, as ó in his words more or less ó an experiment that once performed, needed never be repeated. Besides answering his question ó "can I do it?" ó the act earned him the enmity of animal rights activists thirty years later, which no doubt pleased him greatly. Of course he'd be here somehow. I call again. "Hey Ed! I gotta ask you something."

Still no answer. Could be because he's dead, which is occasionally a hindrance to conversation. Could be because he's never met me. I consider that one. "Hey Ed, I'm a friend of Karen Pickett's, and I'm here at Arches, and I need to ask you a question."

There's a muffled word from behind me, sounding like a cross of human speech and buzzard. That's what Ed always said he wanted to come back as, so I guess it might be him. I turn around. I've guessed wrong. It's one of the flock of archetypal German Tourists, standing in the North Window arch, taking a break from the usual German Tourist activity of trampling sensitive desert plants to indulge in the other usual German Tourist activity of desecrating ancient rock formations. He's trying to climb the stone, pulling off great chunks in the process. I watch, hoping the noise is his cry of shock at realizing heís about to fall to his death. No such luck: he stays distressingly in place. I turn away.

"Look Ed, whether you're listening or not. Here's the question."

I ask about writing for one's self, writing for others. About writing as a useless social tool. About framing the landscape in words when the average American reads one book a year. About death, about the desert. About the futility of building the second half of my life on the smoking ruins of the first half. About the relative merits of guns, pills, or just walking out into the desert with no food.

The question isnít transcribable; I donít use words to ask it. Doesn't matter. Ed doesn't answer. I get up, walk dully over ducked slickrock back to the wife, the dog, the truck.

It gets bleaker from there, as I realize over the next two weeks that my passion is unrequited; finding one piece of terrain after another that doesn't love me back. Back in Oakland I rage, teeth clenched, taking my frustrations out on my belongings. Books, tapes, empty bottles fly across the room. The noise embarrasses me into sudden sobriety. I gather the bottles and am carrying them to the glass bin when I slip, having stepped on a thrown book.

Itís a biography of Ed. I've crumpled a page. Suddenly curious, I smooth the page and read words Ed told another writer shortly before his death.

"Iíve suffered my share of personal disasters. The loss of love, the death of a wife, the failure to realize in my writing the aspiration of my intentions. But those misfortunes can be borne. There is a certain animal vitality in most of us which carries us through any trouble but the absolutely overwhelming. Only a fool and an idiot will let grief and sorrow ride him down to the grave."

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