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Cruising along at 70 mph, down the highway and between craggy outcropping, scruffy brush, tortured trees, and deep canyons, sheltered in a white sedan, I’m tolerating an earworm from pop music long past. We are sojourning west from the green Willamette Valley of Oregon, up over the cool Cascade Mountain range, back down to dry Eastern Oregon, and over desert to the area surrounding the John Day Fossil Beds, where all manner of prehistory—flora, fauna, rock, earth and ash—dwell in plain view, for all to see. A place where time itself is on display. The song in my head concerns time travel, apropos of the journey. But it’s little more than chintzy commentary from the subconscious. And it’s kind of ruining the scenery.
Find the rest in issue 10 >>>
The booth was chockablock with locals. Men and women in equal number, interlarded, shoulder-to-shoulder. The men wore loose fitting wash-n-wear shirts, blue jeans, and cowboy hats. The women donned white blouses, yellowed, brocade sewn round the sleeves, and slacks in pastel colors, permanent-press creases running thigh to ankle. Everyone’s hair tolerated feral strands of grey, fraying. They spoke loudly, unconcerned with being overheard. Their talk was punctuated with the practiced pauses of pulpit preaching, those intoned corrections, shepherd to the lamb. Yet, unlike the preacher, they spoke stiffly. The words numb on their lips, this was not ranch talk but something transplanted.
Find the rest in issue 11 >>>
Crayon earth and Kandinsky hills and Mohawk rims and blue basins and stone cats and galactic rocks and golden plants. Rock collectors dreaming. Hotel owners horse talking. Waitress geologists chatting up the murder. Unkempt fellows drifting in and out. It's the last leg of our Eastern Oregon sojourn, as Anna and I wander through time, amidst people and the things of the earth. And a last shooting star.
The door swung open from the shop directly into a living room. Wood paneling faded. Vinyl floors slanted. Rag rug dusty and oval, edges frayed. Depressed couch. Random objects everywhere put to the skids. Television silently displaying color cartoons. And on the wall the head of a buck, stuffed and mounted. The place had all the charm and atmosphere of a doublewide. Kops, on the verge of igniting into a long story, teased the conversation with anecdotes regarding the buck’s size, the caliber of the rifle, and his distance from the target. The bait, he figured, would be taken, and the story could go on and on. The loneliness of the storyteller was on display. But the brightly dancing images from the television, directly below the taxidermy, appeared more… animate than the buck, easier to undertake, the cartoons competing aggressively for a viewer’s interest. Across the room, eastern light, late morning orange, crept in from a sliding glass window, limning a narrow rectangle, setting the dusty dining table aglow. Leaving the kitchen in shadow.
On the half-acre lot outside, stood two other buildings. One was a white trailer home with a dime store arbor, its metal filigree bent into fairy tale ocean waves. The other, a building of brown siding that rose and fell with the land beneath and a caving roof, was a workshop, its cynosure a greenish room containing stone cutting and polishing tools, where Cindy spends long hours transforming soiled rocks into colorful gems. Rocks were stacked ankle deep at the workshop’s entrance, either side of the door. Against the west side wall were two huge rock piles, hundreds and hundreds of stones, dirt encrusted and ranging from the size of a fist to the size of skull, the piles running parallel to the wall and then elbowing away at right angle. All awaiting Cindy’s attention.
Cindy stood smoking, eyeballing the piles, squinting. White tennis shoes, red ultrasuede shirt, short cropped hair, navy sweatshirt, blue jeans. She was no nonsense. Cackling, she took another drag on the cigarette and wiped the smoke from her face with a single swipe of her open palm. Every rock was a chore and a mystery. And she laughed. A solitary black dog lay on the rise above her, watching. Beyond that, slightly further up, a yellow tractor lazily sat in the sun, as if in imitation of the dog. A little beyond that the land rose steeply, the runty green grass on the half acre lawn disappearing against a hill of blemished boulders and reedy cowlicks of dun grass stalks, the hill itself watching, squat and lazy.
This was the Rock N Gem Museum and Shoppe of Mitchell, Oregon.
TRIGGER HAPPY TALK
Amongst their stones, Kops and Cindy were like kids amongst too many toys. Never mind that Kops was over ninety. These were the Kopcinski’s and they had set up shop in their home. The gem shop was an outcropping of the first building, the one housing the buck and TV, its entrance a white clapboard façade sporting a wheel chair access ramp and a flimsy hollow core door, secured by a solitary padlock. Inside were sloping vinyl floors, low ceilings of acoustic tile, buzzing florescent lights, naked bulbs. And the most astounding rock collection imaginable outside an official museum. The three cramped connecting rooms lack any obvious adherence to logic, winding visitors from glass case to glass case and floor to floor in an abbreviated and scattershot journey, debauched, interlarded, and cluttered with phantasmagoric, dazzling, and just plain wild and weird rock and gem stones and who-knows-whats of all shapes and sizes. From the tiny, fit in your palm Thunder Eggs, to large, forty pound heavy-weights of obscure variety, large as a dog yet tendriled and splayed out like the throes of a beached starfish. There were specimens in black frames, as would be a butterfly collection. There were stones resting along the floor and underneath the glass cases, halved as would be a fruit on a grocery’s display, revealing red, blue, pink, yellow, and white cloudy and swirling interiors of galaxies, renderings of nebulae, and suns aglow. There were crystal studded innards of otherwise homely rocks invoking clusters of stars.
tendriled and splayed out like the throes of a beached starfish
The scene was already too much, when along came the stone lamps. Light bulbs shone through orange and yellow luminous gem veins that wound through plates of charcoal colored rock, the plates cut flat held and bound by copper wire and attached to a base and plugged into a wall socket. Visitors best beware that it was game on. This was a visual confectionary. And Cindy knew every rock and stone and where on earth they could be found. And she talked with her finger clenched against the trigger. Take notes. Bring a recorder. Study before entering. Or good luck.
In the end, seeing is believing.
STEPPING ON BONES
Standing on the stoop of the rock n gem museum, hands folded one over the other and atop a walking stick, Kops surveyed his roost proudly, and talked in fits and starts about their rock mine, the origin of this bounty, and all he lorded over. The Lucky Strike mine. Kops is tall, dressed in Pendleton flannel shirt, black jeans smeared willy-nilly with spots of mud, and Velcro clasping walking shoes, a concession no doubt to reaching an age eclipsing cowboy boots. Around his neck dangles a homemade bolo tie, a sliced and polished stone the size of tea saucer that has been threaded upon heavy string patterned in rattlesnake diamonds. Arched brows, blue eyes, and pink skin, this ancient and deeply lined face displays the archetypal features of an old boy who likes to spins a yarn. Crowning his head and framing that face is a floppy Stetson, its felt brim rising up and down like the rolling swells of ocean waves at the shoreline.
The undersong of this gentleman’s welcoming demeanor is a bristling sense of ownership. Ownership of his experiences, his stories, and his places. “I found a wooly mammoth, once,” he proclaimed baldly. Stepped on the bones while in the woods, scoping out an old Indian campsite, on the lookout for mining thieves, pistol packing. So he tells it. As though the voice of a docent on a guided tour of the life of Kops.
IN ONE END…
Base camp for the trip was the Oregon Hotel in Mitchell.
On arrival, I met the proprietor, a plainspoken woman by the name of Scooter. Scooter squeezed into the tight fitting jeans of a horse jockey, her blonde hair parted to one side and falling long on the other. She imparted the sense of a transplanted creature, a native of the out-of-doors who had come in from the cold. Broad across the shoulders and fond of snug pull-over sweatshirts in plain colors, the hotel mistress gazed at me from matter of fact blue eyes, whose round and cool expression withheld some private thought. Private thought belied in her pregnant pauses, during which she looked at you and appeared on the verge of surrendering commentary, when, each time a nearby voice heard only by her, the whisper of a dead relative, perhaps, a contrarian kibitzing for prudence, stopped her short. In place of confessions, hotel guests got clipped declarations, personable and demonstrably non-fiction.
Regarding local geology, the reason for my trip, Scooter delivered facts with worn-in ease. I was informed about nearby fossil sites and painted hills and rock formation and their approximate travel distances, topics that became a regular part of my interactions with locals. The citizenry regularly displayed the wits, to varying degrees, of an amateur geologist. Their knowledge was hard to miss. It popped from their speech as palpably terse and technical alongside a local tongue that was typically loose and freewheeling.
Other than Kops and Cindy, less obvious was a separation between a personal excitement for geology and an excitement for the business. Rock tourism kept this tiny town fed. The random lottery of the marketplace had dropped into this hardscrabble no man’s land, a subsistence profoundly bizarre by what traditionally would have been Bible Country driving beef cattle. The history of the earth was now their business and they had little say in the matter. While it was the local bread and butter, their payday, geology was also a history outstripping biblical reference to the beginning of time, rudely obliterating canonical telling, smashing it with references to a deep time that makes an elephant seated on an ant seem a friendly gesture.
“Guest come from all over the world,” Scooter informed me, pushing forward tourist brochures. “Israel. France. England. To see the geology.”
Feed goes in one end and out the other
First built in the late 1800s, the Oregon Hotel’s namesake is old by American standards. The hotel, however, is on its third incarnation, having burnt down twice before, the extant structure erected in 1938. For Scooter, it turns out to be a second incarnation, as well, her second business, a retirement plan of sorts.
“Before the hotel, I had a horse ranch.”
She still has horses, she informed me. But finds it difficult to find time to ride, given the demands of the hotel.
“It must really be something, owning horses.” I said, making conversation.
“Well,” she shot back, “you feed ‘em and you love ‘em.”
She then paused, tilted her head to one side and looked over my shoulder, as if watching a thing manifesting on the horizon. Possibly, a pastureland of gently grazing horses. She then looked foursquare at me as if to speak, her confession arising once again. But again it was rejected. Instead, she tartly packaged up her thoughts on horses.
“Feed goes in one end and out the other,” she said. “I should really trade ‘em in for cows. At least there’s money in it.”
As I climbed into bed on my first night at the hotel and turned out the light, I noticed a profound silence blanketed the air. Most of other hotel rooms stood empty, their doors flung open. Scooter retires the same time each night, at nine. No one passed on the highway. The café and grocery, the sole businesses beyond the hotel, were closed and dark. No other town existed for nearly fifty miles. Between this modest hotel in this bony town and its nearest neighbors in every direction stretched dusty hill after dusty hill under the moonlight, hills rolling and tumbling, one after the other like hurricane waves at sea, caught mid-motion and held in place by forces unseen and unimaginable, a still life of immense scale, in the midst of which resided the speck of Mitchell, its lights out and streets empty. And me in pitch black room.
I closed my eyes to the dark and when I opened them a moment later, the wan sunrise shone pink through the white crochet curtain. The air was silent as before. Unlike silence in the city, a temporary thing, an absence of noise, the silence here seemed to be a thing felt, a thing seen. The light at the window. The cool air suspended, warming. I lay in bed, startled by the sensation. I’d traveled far for a journey of time. Yet, the most profound moment thus far was time’s absence.
The night had passed from midnight to dawn—quite without the ticking of days. In its place lingered an image. An image of silence.
Twelve minutes from Mitchell, Anna and I coasted into the Painted Hills. As we neared, the landscape gave increasing hints of the unusual, a preamble to the big show. We were the only car on the road. Anna excitedly pointed to this and that. I drove cautiously on the winding blacktop, so as to at least catch their flavor without running into a ditch. The sights conjured the imagination from its slumber and we were inspired. Striking rock structures jutted toward the sky, more statuary than landform. Basalt laminations angled out the tops of barren mounds, layer cakes sliding off their plates, as if shoved recklessly aside by some behemoth stomping through the landscape in a tantrum, once upon a time in this visual fantasy. But this was slim introduction to the featured attraction. Slowly passing a bulbous, gold colored knoll, Carroll Rim, with its volcanic Mohawk skirting across its head, we trundled along a narrow road, squeezed between two hills, and popped into the valley floor of the Painted Hills.
Winding up along the valley’s west rim, stopping at the parking loop, we got out and strolled a footpath to the head of the valley, and stood looking down into the expanse. Rising up and extending away to either side were hills of ochre and blood red and charcoal. Layered stripes like jets of spray paint, growing wide and thin, edges dissolving into freckles, these great streaks of nearly 30 million year old color ran layer upon layer along a series of rolling slopes, elephantine folds of rotund earth that swung in and out of its pleats like a curvaceous zaftig, her skirts a billowing fabric of apocryphal Kandinsky tie-dye, in full sashay. Cowlicks of mustard and swaths of burnt sienna provided accents, blending together in terrific imitation of a variegated sparrow. Bending down to inspect the ground, Anna touched the red crayon earth. She ran her fingertips over the surface. From a distance its smooth and colorful appearance belied a honeycombed texture, interlocking puzzle pieces, an ancient dried mud. Anna stood up and we stared at each other.
In the valley, nothing grew on the brightly colored hillsides, the soil inhospitable. While upon this perch, the landscape immediately surrounding us was flecked with wispy flora and we walked among juniper trees, ponderosa pine, sagebrush. I stepped back to have a look at the scene in its entirety. Behind the phantasmagoria of the Painted Hills was a taller ridgeline of mountains, a curtain framing the scene. The mountains swept across the horizon in every direction. Trees and grasses gathered in increasing numbers along the way from the barren painted hills to the sharp mountain ridgelines, beyond which the sky vaulted into blue.
This was a masterwork.
Anna and I stood together admiring the view. The air rose up gently from the hollow below, grazing our faces. It seemed to carry a message, a note regarding the movement of time, slow and cool, raising the hairs on my skin, the air passing over the two of us and continuing into the open landscape that lay behind. Though we stood, arms crossed, looking down over hill and valley as might conquerors reigning over captured territory, to the contrary, we had been captured. The landscape was proprietor, proudly owning. In some pleasing manner, we had been made small.
We first arrived in Mitchell in late afternoon and got our initial glimpse of the place when veered off the highway and straight into the business district, a kind of paved eddy capturing negligible volumes of highway traffic, a single street hooking in the shape of a “J”. The street was empty. We drove slowly, turning our heads this way and that. Other than the post office, the string of businesses at this end of town were not only closed but abandoned. We slowed to a stop before smattering of mule deer, long legged animals grazing beside a pair of forsaken gas pumps rusting in a patch of grass. A cardboard sign attached one of the pumps read: “Closed.” The sign could easily be mistaken for a reference to the entire town. Next door was the Whole In The Wall Curiosities. The paint had fallen completely off the siding, the windowsills sprouted moss clumps the size of fists. A deer seated in tall grass stared. Leaning over the passenger seat, I took its picture.
A doe crossed in front of the car. Followed timidly by its fawn. Both deer crossed the sidewalk to the closed grocery store, where they put their noses to the flowers residing atop a wooden tub. They sniffed several times and made off to the building’s other side. The flowers were plastic.
On our second evening in Mitchell, we stepped off the porch of the Oregon Hotel, an uncomely albeit cozy structure—white walls, white latticed fence, white arbor, white roof—and strolled next door to the Little Pine Café, which, it has to be said, though laying claim to an original downtown architecture, had the cedar façade and log fence posts of a frontier café as seen at Disneyland. We were curious as to what we’d find inside.
Immediately upon nabbing a cafe booth, our curiosity was rewarded. Pinned to the walls and ceilings everywhere were dollar bills, as well as Euros and other foreign currency, all written upon, each one by a different hand using different pens, pencils, Sharpies, and even nail polish. Jerry Warslana from Poland. Stewart and Angelia says Hello from London. Celeste Di Febo and Randall Paul. Above us, the ceiling sponsored a swath of bills collectively shaped into a Latin cross, its meaning unclear.
The waitress approached.
“People come here from all over the world,” she said, explaining the dollars, her voice betraying a girlish fluster. International visitors who patronized the café can “write their names on the bills and they get stuck on the wall.” A local tradition, reminiscent of one seen on the Oregon coast, wherein wait staff provide a quarter and a push pin and guests provide a dollar, which the wait staff duly bundles together and uses to stick the bill to the twenty foot ceiling by virtue of a single underhand toss.
The waitress told us of a few memorable guests from the world at large. And we smiled, enjoying ourselves. What it must be like, I wondered, to fly across the planet, having spent a year planning a tour of this world-class natural farrago, drive hours and hours from the airport through a wild and unkempt desert, eventually to pull into a dot on the map three Open signs short of a ghost town, and to be confronted with a café where they pin your money to wall and mule deer wander the streets sniffing plastic flowers?
It must be wonderful.
JUST SAY NOTHING
A gaggle of young ranchers poured into the bar and climbed onto the red and chrome barstools. The waitress, who was also the cocktail waitress, cook, and bartender, sat with the ranchers whenever the chance afforded. Even while tending bar, taking orders, and preparing sandwiches, she often interjected herself into the conversation from each of her stations, laughing, at times shouting to be heard, a crow cawing to the murder from a nearby solitary wire. Alongside the ranchers, at the end of the bar, sat this fellow. A sour expression on his face. Unshaven, disheveled blue jeans and plaid shirt one size too big, the man was unkempt in the manner of vagrant. Yet he moved though and any and all of the café doors, into the backroom and kitchen, like he owned the place. All without lifting a finger to work or give orders, or to take an interest in anything. Like he had never own anything in his life.
He looked Anna and I over, once or twice, his expression no different than if he were about to pop a gasket and shoot up the place with a handgun. Nothing personal. I made a point of not meeting his eye. Little did we know that he would be there every time we came in. And each time we saw him, it would be the same deal. Adding to the mystery, the waitress kept him in drinks or coffee, quite without his placing an order or asking for anything. Wherever he shuffled off to, which he did only every so often under no apparent motive, she brought a new drink to his locale.
Some of the ranchers spoke to him that night, plain and matter of fact, using his first name, engaging a companion. But the man just looked at them and said nothing. Whereupon, his interlocutors would smile, turn, and find someone more engaging. No one appeared any more concerned than one might be when regarding a leak in the tool shed that never makes the list. The man continued to sit and stare sourly at the wall. Sipping a drink. Periodically he would shuffle outside, stand on the sidewalk, and keep an eye on the road and sky.
GLASS BOTTLE GREEN
Our destination was a place called the Blue Basin. Nearly fifty miles beyond Mitchell, over brown, rocky hills and through deep and shapely twisting valleys. Again, we were almost the only traffic. Arriving, we found the parking lot empty. Climbing out of the car, Anna and I stood in a silent landscape, alone. The sun was diving for the horizon and the shadows were long. Our stay would be quick. Already, we risked getting caught in the dark. And it would be very dark.
We entered a narrow and winding shallow canyon, a savagely eroded badlands, grey with shadow, and wandered on the footpath between its cliff sides. While it’s called the Blue Basin, the overarching sense was of green. Jade green. Rising steeply, the cliff walls bore an uncanny resemblance to a jade palace, tower alongside tower alongside tower, like rows of unsmiling teeth, redented, a green Angkor Wat. These were in reality tuff beds of compressed volcanic ash that formed 28 million years ago. Along the path, scraggly juniper shot out tortured branches, topped by scaly grey-green leaves, gold grasses encircling their base. A streambed wound along the basin’s nadir, which we crossed several times, the water glistening between ledges of mint green rock that lined its shore. Cascading rocks had fallen in places from the cliffs to path below, split sienna stones, narrow bands at the top that fanned wider and wider as they progressed down the hill, sculpted and motionless spillways that halted at our feet, where we stepped carefully along the streambed.
In the Blue Basin, color is time. Green is the basin’s silicon-rich ash, ancient glass, a soil layer some 100,00 to 50,000 years in the making. While brown averaged 2,000 to 10,000 years in becoming. Layer building upon layer. Just as in the Painted Hills, where red birthed in wet climate and yellow in dry, different eras, each one spanning 10,000 to 200,000 years, claimed a unique layer of soil. All of these colors evolved at different times. There’s red from the Eocene epoch and yellow from Oligocene epoch. A different color, a different time. Time has been an ambitious painter in this part of the world.
Hats off to the artist. This was one far-out landscape.
Anna and I stopped before a plastic dome, foggy with condensation, situated next to the footpath, etched out of the hillside. There are several more up ahead. Fossils. They are the world’s first snapshot, captured images from another time, the negatives developing flora and fauna from the ages into stone and mineral prints. Along the Blue Basin floor, there they were, stuck in the earth, just where they had been found and unearthed and covered by archeologists. An outdoor museum of the Oligocene epoch, 33 to 23 million years in the past. Clear plastic domes acted as frame and carapace, protecting against erosion and vandalism. This fossil was a cat’s head, a nimravid, slightly larger than a house cat, but with a menacing skull. The fossil’s long spine and skull rose from the earth as if to peer out from the soil. The fading sunlight cast a strange glow on the scene, imparting to the nimravid a suggestion of life, a silvery silhouette. Mouth agape, a pair of long incisors jutting forward, wicked scimitars displaying themselves among rows of utilitarian teeth, the calculated smile, full disclosure, that cats are known for, this fossil appeared to stare back at us from millions of years, while likewise staring at us in the here and now. All the sunrises and sunsets that shone upon this once living creature, a creature that once tread the same ground as other defunct creatures from another time on earth. The pig-rhino and the sheep like a hog, the oversized turtles and the tiny horses. All the suns that have scaled the sky since that cat fell, shining down day after day after day as cat became rock, up until this day when Anna and I arrived to stand and stare, this day when the same sun languished over the same horizon: now this was time travel.
Thrilled, we continued on, our heels grinding over rock and dirt. Pigeons drifted out from the ridgeline, circled, and swept back. Their wings tapped the air. We walked around a corner in the basin where the cliff walls abruptly opened out and we had arrived. The interior basin. We stood in the middle and spun slowly in a circle. Green streaked palisades rose up all around, like turrets overlooking parade grounds, a circular jade palace, freaky and green. Anna tapped me on the shoulder and pointed up. The basin ridgeline framed the sky overhead. Pink and black and white clouds mingled, drifting across the opening, twisting languidly, deliquescent and untroubled. For the second time this trip, I caught a glimpse of silence.
Of the nimravid’s time on earth, the Oligocene, Ellen Morris Bishop, author of In Search Of Ancient Oregon, writes that the “species richness and diversity of this locality far surpass anything that late Pleistocene humans [Homo Erectus] likely witnessed or that we will ever experience in the future.” It was a time in which humans were nowhere to be found. Last year, I visited a small town venue called the Safari Club. The club housed over a hundred taxidermied animals. Kodak bears. Indian lions. Elephants. Zebras. Taxidermy, a man made process, preserves the likeness of deceased creatures. Fossils also preserve a creature’s form, but fossils are generated in nature, randomly, and typically require extensive time and unlikely chance. Most of the animals in the Safari Club were hunted and shot by a single man in less than a decade. A killing feat impossible for any single creature, until recently, and one that is emblematic of contemporary time. A time topsy-turvy of the nimravid’s. Directly contrasting to the absence of humans in this ancient nature, one teaming with an abundance of myriad creatures, today’s nature is one teaming with an abundance of humans, increasingly absent other creatures, humans more and more alone upon the earth.
Small wonder that cat’s head is stuck out to stare.
Kops stood in the doorway of the rock and gem museum. He was sharing past exploits at the mine. His blue eyes glowed from deep sockets shaded beneath the brim of his hat, when he paused and shifted his tack, bending toward me. My daughter was kidnapped, he said in an earnest tone, with a hint of indignation. He’s going find her, he continued, straightening up. Over Kop’s shoulder I spied Cindy in the adjacent room. She spiked me with her eyes, held my gaze, raised her eyebrows tall and made circles with her finger next to her head. There was no kidnapping, apparently. Kops had a reputation for his Altizimer’s. Anna and I had been forewarned. Scooter was not one to gossip, but our determination to visit the rock and gem museum had forced her hand. She gave the situation a long pause, and we got the short form: don’t listen to Kops. I felt for her. They were neighbors. But we were business.
There was no kidnapping, apparently
Kops stood over me, waiting for a response. I smiled awkwardly at him and glanced back to Cindy, but got nothing. Cindy had turned back to her conversation with Anna. It was just another day with Kops. I gave the situation a long beat, and changed the subject. Kops stared at me funny, and then took up the conversation in its new direction. After all, it was his museum, he had the bully pulpit. Sort of.
Cindy and Kops took us outside, where we got a tour of the place. Cindy stood in front of the piles of stones, smoking. The piles aped the surrounding hills and the dime store arbor and the cowboy hat worn by Kops, all reminiscent of ocean waves captured in a still life. Dreams. Piled high, each and every one of the plain-featured stones concealed a surprise, hidden treasure. Hundreds of them. Dreams. Each stone a diminutive rhapsody—or a mirage. These rocks and this house and that workshop and the Lucky Strike Mine, it was a landscape of two people dreaming. Rocks and dreams. All over the world, people are dreaming. In some fashion or another. Even if simply dreaming of a way out. Dreams and dreams and dreams.
Standing on that acre of mangy lawn, Cindy puffing away and Kops seated proudly on a bench at the far side of the yard, I felt quiet. Amidst the vast geology of this region, the ongoing history of the earth recording itself, here on a small plot of land a solitary man was losing his personal history, vanishing right inside his head. All the while the man stood amongst his dreams, stones piled upon stones.
To think on it is a sorry beauty. Unorthodox. And strange.
On our final day, Anna and I journeyed to see palisades. There, at the foot of towering castle turrets the color of clay pots and aging roses, fashioned by ancient mud flows, we stood in the midday sun and stared at the fossils of dozens of tree leaves, large and bent into the shapes of running water that flowed over them and the length of the upended boulder, the fossil leaves fixed by water and sunk into mud, millions of years in arrears. Fossil leaves that were the selfsame bleached white and black stippled surface of stone that carried their visage.
We were still there at the Clarno Unit when the sun dropped below the dusty hills and the air turned the color of a tangerine. We set about to leave. Not long after, in the dusk, the largest shooting star I’d ever seen streaked low on the north horizon, a tiny planet trailing a blazing white tail, setting off fireworks in a part of the sky that remained blue as a miracle. A piece of a world beyond earth. A stone from the heavens. It fell to the earth just then, only to be incinerated and disappeared before any truth of other worlds could impose itself upon the earth’s soil and upset us with its blunt collision.
The blue dome of the earth, a fine thing, thin, layered, silent and arching aloft, timelessly protecting our story.
Men and women sharing a bathroom at the same time. An elderly woman collecting a toll outside. It's Paris on the river. Welcome to another Folks Press tour of the taboo. It's bathroom culture, a long neglected destination spot. Standing or sitting: read on!
Once upon a time in Paris. In this beautiful, ancient, and historic city, I had an ancient and historic need, though hardly beautiful.
I’d drank wine and coffee at the Musée d'Orsay, and after a long walk along the Seine, those liquids had worked their way to the digestive basement. A disregard for practical concerns also played a role, such as seizing the bathroom opportunity while it existed, for which the saturation of impressionist painting assaulting visitors to the d’Orsay may be to blame. One left the building dazed by gold sunflowers, azure skies, and star-studded nights over dreamy cafés. Matters best left to beard pulling existentialists: pee played no part in it.
Fortunately the day was glorious, the river blue and the buildings corniced, nurturing patience. Though somewhere near the Louvre, patience ran out.
Nearby the river, there was a public bathroom. A small and solitary structure with unfamiliar rules. I couldn’t figure out what the rules were, exactly, necessity dictating a swift and speedy education. I hesitantly joined a small line outside the building, a single file mixture of men and women. Curiously, the line led to a solitary open door. Before the door, sat an elderly woman on a stool who took your coin. It was a pay toilet, apparently. Beyond that, what happened inside was anybody’s guess.
When my turn came, approaching the woman on the stool, I dug deep for change, which she took without a word. And I went in.
Inside, I instinctively paused to survey the scene. It was one large room with a tall ceiling, which surprised me. To the right, perched along the wall was one long row of stalls, doors closed. Pairs of high heels could be seen underneath. To the left was one long row of urinals, entirely in the open. A row of men stood, taking care of business. A woman came out of one of the stalls and walked past, head up, staring straight ahead. Another woman brushed by me on her way in, strolling the narrow corridor alongside the urinals, until finding an open stall.
Separating the urinals from the stalls was a small metal screen, about three feet tall, installed on metal posts, and open at the bottom. Its sole function was to mask the men at the urinals, strategically, from the women filing back and forth to the stalls. It’s effectiveness was marginal. Any woman above five foot two was entirely exempt.
Besides that of collecting coin, the elderly woman’s job entailed counting the number of people exiting, in order to know how many to allow passage. People were waiting to get in, so I did not pause long. I funneled left and, after an attempt at nonchalance, selected a urinal. I’ve never chosen so carefully while having the choice mean so little. It was the same wherever you stood. And so I settled in.
Mentally, you figure this is very cosmopolitan, it’s gonna be a cakewalk. But suspicion lingers. Talk about a foreign language. Standing there, tool in hand, I glanced over my shoulder a few times, sizing up the interest of women filing past. They were close enough to read the label on my jeans. Close enough for me to judge their perfume.
Stay tuned for future Toilet Tales in upcoming issues.
Vocation, vocation, a kingdom for my vocation. If you’ve checked the Occupational Outlook Handbook (or the world at-large) and found no career suited to your particular (and sometimes peculiar) talents, do you give up in despair? Or maybe there’s a chance that your gifts dictate the job. Here are vocations for which I, personally, would be eminently qualified. My brilliant career begins.
Don’t be alarmed by length of time it takes to make this singular concoction—it’s the perfect antidote to the inevitable mutiny of the Grande Dame of i-answers, Siri. When she’s given you too many random sites that have nothing to do with your request, another scrambled set of bizarre directions, endless saucy “I’m-sorry-I-did-not-get-thats”, and other similar acts of rebellion, get thee to the kitchen!
Serves: Your sanity
- 1 surly i-phone
- 7 sprigs of rosemary (for remembrance)
- 4 quarts of water gathered from the Oracle at Delphi (easily ordered on-line at DelphiAnswersRus.com)
Combine all the ingredients in a crock-pot and let stew at 101 degrees, for approximately 7 days and 7 nights. On the 7th night, or at the point where Siri can no longer answer/gurgle from the depths “What is Pi?” (whichever comes first), remove mixture and infuse in a glass jar by moonlight, for a complete lunar cycle. At the end, strain, drink, and all Answers shall be revealed within the depths of your soul. You will no longer need to rely on “Miss-Information”!
This “double, double toil and trouble” brew is the happy answer to the feelings of despair, despondency, and inadequacy sometimes felt after logging too many hours on Facebook.
Serves: No one but yourself!
- 1 yearbook (preferably, middle school though high school will do)
- 5 postcards of enviable places you will never visit
- 4 quarts crude oil
- 3 teaspoons of Zuckerberg reduction sauce ** see recipe on p. 24 for Oysters à la Zuckerberg
- 1 book of matches
Combine all ingredients, except matches, into a medium-sized cauldron. You can use another receptacle, as well, but I find there is nothing so therapeutic as a cauldron for banishing demons. Once stirred 13 times (or the average age Facebook makes you feel you are), light concoction with a match. Watch gleefully as it burns! Don’t forget to dance like no one is watching!
***Please note any posting or tagging of yourself and others while dancing madly around the burning cauldron will undo any positive effects of this restorative ritual.
A cheery, homeopathic spread for that vague feeling of melancholic discomfort in one’s own skin. Malaise is actually an ancient affliction, but, let’s face it, we can all feel a little 19th century sometimes!
Serves: Your soul
- 1 teaspoon of sighs (organic)
- ½ cup poet’s tears (fresh is best, but frozen will do)
- 1 bottle of biodynamic absinthe
- 2 packs of Easter peeps (yellow is preferable, but pink is a good second)
Debone the peeps. Then, place all ingredients in a blender while singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo- Dah” (or alternately “Watch the Donut, Not the Hole”), until the mixture is sunny and frothy like the texture of frosting on a cupcake. Spread on toast and banish your blahs!
Witness the Now Lately!
Vaseline Alley. The Stark Hotel. The Roxy. Crazy freaky gay scene on Stark Street. Stinky ol’ Henry Weinhard’s Brewery. Abandoned warehouses. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine peeps on a 4th of July exodus from Los Angeles arrive in Portland, where they find a “place to relax.”
From Mad Man copywriter to unqualified software tester to dishwasher to Gyrlz Performative Arts to Radon collective to the Interactive Language Festival, Noah Mickens was just a “crazy person from the wrong side of the tracks.” Spiderman 2 tee shirts and showing to work in yesterday’s makeup. Who knew one day this fellow would end up a circus ringmaster!
It’s all blues in the night…
Watch it now. Don't be late.
Hear "Some Angels" by Christopher Luna
All great loves will to some extent be stumbled upon. No matter the intention in our search or desire to unearth them, there’s an irrefutable element of chance that you’ll come across the people and passions that change your life. For Christopher Luna, graduate of Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and Poet Laureate of Clark County, poetry is one such passion, and he’s working to make the odds of others happening across this love a little greater.
Poet Laureate of Clark County was not a role that Christopher Luna needed exactly to step up into—presently a teacher; facilitator of a poetry event newsletter, The Work, for Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR; founder of Ghost Town Poetry open mic (running 10 years and counting); and co-editor with Toni Partington of its accompanying publication—Christopher was already doing the work of a poetry ambassador, and has been for twenty years.
“It turns out people need a first-point of contact for poetry,” he says, in order to understand that “it’s not as scary and inaccessible as you think.” Although his responsibilities are greater now that he’s appointed with the official title, because of his previous work, it felt like a natural progression.
As is necessary for any dedicated poet, Christopher sings the praise of writing poems for its own sake. Besides, there aren’t many perks outside of the art itself—“it doesn’t even get you laid—not even as much as just holding a guitar.” Since there’s no money (or blatant bonuses), he says being a poet is about “writing the best poetry you can and getting it out to as many people as you can: what’s important is the work itself.”
Part of Christopher’s life work is de-programming what is taught early in school, where students are presented with “boring and safe poems—we’re told poetry is one thing—poetry is X.” This is dull, academic, or totally irrelevant to the experience of the students. I speak for myself at age 15 when I really didn’t think much at all depended on William Carlos Williams’ fine red wheelbarrow, a lack of appreciation I now refute. “This generation can learn a lot just by messing around on YouTube,” continues Christopher. “It’s a great way to learn about what’s possible [especially] in terms of performance.”
Since society views being a poet as impractical and it “doesn’t make any money, we’re faced with a society that doesn’t support it in any way.” This is why, he explains, poets must gather with likeminded folks; “find your tribe,” he says. There is community and liberty in the open mic events he runs, where the audience can experience how limitless poetry can be. It’s a space that can sometimes turn an audience member into a participant—it’s a space where the love can strike.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH (PAPER)
When Christopher arrived in Vancouver in 2004, he was unemployed, far from New York City, in a town whose landscape for literary arts was bleak, and he started the poetry open mic out of sheer boredom. “I had to find my own reasons for being here,” he says. He intends for Ghost Town Poetry events to allow for exposure, but has no expectations except to at least get across the message that “poetry is something good—[it] can be fun, healing, and meaningful for everyone. It can change us. In some cases, it can even tell us how to live fuller, happier lives.”
When describing his poetic roots, Christopher starts right into his education as graduate of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, CO. This influence was not only pivotal but inextricable, and his respect and affinity for his time at Naropa are infectious when he speaks of how it has colored his life.
The element of chance that eventually steered Christopher to Naropa began while he was studying film at State University of New York at Purchase. During a break from school, he read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and a collected works of Allen Ginsberg. The latter contained a glossary of relevant terms, which included a listing for Naropa University. Looking into the university in 1994, Christopher noted “Beats and Other Rebel Angels”: the title of one week of the Summer Writing Program, a week that also served as a tribute to Allen Ginsberg, who was alive at the time. Upon enrolling in the summer class “just to check it out,” Christopher found himself spending time with Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and many of the poets he had been reading, heroes of his. He enrolled in 1997, although even the deep immersion of the summer school alone “would probably change your life,” he tells me, comparing it to being shot out of a cannon. He received his MFA in 1999.
During our conversation, a friend mentioned that he recently lost a family member. Christopher extends his condolences, and, already a present and astute listener, deepens his attentiveness. One can see his humanitarian outlook toward writing when he shares the notion that writers sometimes believe they can write through things. To his friend, he recommends poems by Gregory Orr, a poet who has written through the grief of losing a brother at a young age in a tragic hunting accident. Due to my familiarity with Orr’s work, Burning the Empty Nests, I am touched at how much sense it makes to suggest this title—I have known a prescription of poems to have rehabilitative potential.
YOU MAKE IT SOUND SO EASY
“Having the right people just say the right thing will sustain you a long time,” Christopher tells me. The catalyst toward poet-life was already in the works, when in 1994, after his week-long visit, poet Antler, hugged Christopher, looked him in the eye and said, “Make poetry your life.”
Not only did this begin a correspondence that lasted several years, but also: “That’s basically what I’ve done,” he tells me, admitting this path “can be quite disastrous for your financial health,” but it will enrich your life as a citizen of the world. Christopher believes you can use poetry to help other people. “It’s a vast, lifelong process to stay steeped in poetry on a gut-level.”
Among the important points of Naropa’s influence is the leveling of the poet-field. The widely recognized poets who visited Naropa “approached students like we were already poets, like we were their peers.” The more accomplished poets had simply spent more time writing poems.
Poet Anne Waldman, affiliated with the second generation New York School, spoke at Naropa of the Outrider Tradition, garnering a taste for anyone who is doing something different with poetics. Christopher believes if you surprise yourself with your writing, this will be the experience of the reader as well. “You show up [to graduate school for poetry] with whatever you have and you come out with homework assignment of 1,000 names, some of whom will resonate with you… Everyone is ignorant about everything until they know about it.”
A PERFORMANCE TO CLOSE
We have to wrap up our coffee because Christopher is reading some of his poems accompanied by a friend and old Naropa schoolmate and musician, Tyler Burba, writer of “existential hymns” grounded in American country and folk music. Friends and acquaintances begin entering the wine café where we’re seated and, greeting Christopher, the air becomes jolly.
When Christopher reads his poems, it becomes obvious the enigmatic reason he is Poet Laureate of Clark County. His charisma is bold and his enthusiasm infectious. He engages his audience by including the context of his poems, for example, “walking around the Couve on mushrooms.” He jokes that maybe someone in the audience will have some now, be a kindred spirit, and later he asks for the audience to assist him in titling a presently untitled poem.
There is a great humanity in his poems. The language is distinctly his own, yet resonant with Ginsberg’s civil-souled approach; here is a present-day advocate, a beacon. Poets need to know their history—and believe in themselves, in poetry, and in people. Christopher has created a space for himself as poet and, Laureate title or no, the poetry is real, the work he does is real, the advocacy and teaching, and the faith is real. He is comfortable caring for people and poetry, and I find this hopeful.
“The reason I’m a poet, which can be kind of mysterious, is because of Allen Ginsberg,” he tells his audience. Christopher Luna closes his reading with a poem by Ginsberg demonstrating that, while Ginsberg was part of the beginning, he’s certainly not an end.
During Christopher’s reading of Allen Ginsberg’s work, I recalled an anecdote he had relayed earlier regarding Ginsberg that made the social work of these two poets appear especially resonant. Ginsberg would enter various publishing offices with the work of poet friends of his, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and the like, and demand, essentially, this: these are the people writing amazing poetry and you should publish them.
“We can’t imagine that generosity!” says Christopher. Although, from where I’m sitting, it doesn’t take too much imagination—I can see Christopher working to bring the socio-poetic tradition, the Ginsbergian, the Whitmanian tradition of being of the people, into a contemporary world—a world where we can nurture a community wherein, perhaps, a few more poetry lovers will find themselves falling into a place of devotion where there’s no turning back.
Watch the water fall >>>
A tsunami falls from the sky, one drop at a time.
Ten billion gallons of hydrogen : hydrogen : oxygen at twenty miles an hour. All year it pounds at the city beneath the grey clouds. The city swallows hard, captures a storm in its gullet, and sends the wet on its way. Pump stations. Scuppers. Swales. Curb and drainpipe. Tiny flows head for the bigger ones. The bigger ones race for the next big one. Arriving at the biggest, only to start again, like thoughts. Sumps. Feeders. Tunnels underground. The city fancies itself to be a mountain, its guts forged from tunnels and oxbows and sumps. Gravity giving birth to its streams and rivers.
The rain, meanwhile, fancies itself to be a god. It makes things happen. Swales and planters and gardens. The drops fall upon them. Drop after drop, the earth ensnares. It calms the action, offers up a glass of wine, beckons to remove your coat: please stay awhile. Every drop passing through like a meal. The earth fancies itself to be a diner. Plainspoken, it makes a home.
The gangly branches of trees grasp at the clouds. The supplication belies their roots, an upside-down grip, supping up the gallons. Gallon after gallon after gallon. Why, just last year, a drunken elm hid five hundred. The trees fancy themselves a debauchery, a cup, a party.
Falling and splashing and racing and running. Washing birds and juicing plants and soaking animals are everywhere. Parks. Runnels. A bee’s wings are wet with dew. Daphnes balancing a drop. They all fancy themselves to be thirsty. Roof fountains purge, the drainage falling down spouts, spurting. Irrigation. Cascades. Basin. Soil. People sip water from chrome taps, thousands of them.
And fancy themselves to be dry.
WHILE WAITING AT A BUS STOP
A man is vigorously yo-yo-ing and then, all at once, pulls out a plastic bag of mismatched string with interest.
Someone has put, yet again, another mournful-looking stuffed bear on a ledge near the bus shelter, poised pathetically gazing at passers-by. Why?
A man tells me, a woman, that he has just seen a guy walk by wearing the same blue sundress that I am wearing! I don’t know whether to be flattered or confused.
MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS
A woman has a stopover in the Istanbul airport. There, she hears the voice of Elvis Presley singing.
A man is at a Shari’s in a suburban strip mall. He heads to the bathroom, and is taking a leak, when, from the overhead speakers, comes the voice of John Lennon. He’s singing: “And we all shine on! Like the moon and the stars and the sun! On and on and on!”
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY
While at home watching the Wood Allen movie “Bullets Over Broadway,” a man hears pop! pop! pop! pop! He rushes to window and sees the two gunmen running around the corner. They climb into and drive off in a purple minivan. A few minutes later, down on the corner, a cop appears, and the man runs out to tell her, “Hey, I saw the gunmen.” The cop just looks at him and goes on searching for shell casings with a flashlight. The next day a law enforcement friend informs him: “It’s not about the witnesses; it’s about the forensics.” Everybody thinks they’re on a TV show.
After getting high in their windowless basement studio, two musicians went outside to smoke a cigarette. They opened the door to find the entire block surrounded in yellow crime scene tape. Someone fired off thirty-plus rounds from an automatic weapon, a nearby cop tells them. Hit a guy in the leg and shot up the coffee shop. The musicians had a look around, smoking. Blue and red lights were flashing. The street was closed. Cops were everywhere.