About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Back Road
to Bird Cloud
The cow-speckled landscape is an ashy grey color. I am driving through flat pastureland on a rough county road that is mostly dirt, the protective gravel long ago squirted into ditches by speeding ranch trucks. Stiffened tire tracks veer off the road, through mud and into the sagebrush, the marks of someone with back pasture business. It is too early for grass and the ranchers are still putting out hay, the occasional line of tumbled green alfalfa the only color in a drab world. The cows are strung out in a line determined by the rancher’s course across the field; their heads are down and they pull at the bright hay.
The blue-white road twists like an overturned snake showing its belly. The ditches alongside are the same grey noncolor as the dust that coats the sage and rabbitbrush, the banks sloping crumbles of powdery soil that say “not far away from here were once volcanoes.” It is impossible not to think about those old ash-spewing volcanoes when moving through Wyoming. The sagebrush seems nearly black and beaten low by the ceaseless wind. Why would anybody live here, I think. I live here.
But it is a different world down by the river at Bird Cloud. On the north bank rears a four-hundred-foot cliff, the creamy cap-rock a crust of ancient coral. This monolith has been tempered by thousands of years of polishing wind, blowtorch sun, flood and rattling hail, sluice of rain. After rain the cliff looks bruised, dark splotches and vertical channels like old scars. Two miles west the cliff shrinks into ziggurat stairs of dark, iron-colored stone. At the east end of the property the cliff shows a fault, a diagonal scar that a geologist friend says is likely related to the Rio Grande Rift which is slowly tearing the North American continent apart. In no place that I’ve ever lived have I thought so often about the subterranean movements of continents. The fault in the cliff is a reminder that the earth is in slow, constant flux, inexorably shoving continental plates together, pulling them apart, making new oceans and enormous supercontinents, a vast new Pangaea Proxima predicted hundreds of millions of years from now, long after our species has exited the scene. The Rio Grande Rift deformation, which started 30 million years ago in the Cenozoic, is a stretching and thinning of the earth’s crust by upward-bulging forces in the churning heat of the mantle deep below. The rift extends from West Texas and New Mexico to about twenty miles north of Bird Cloud, and has made not only the Rio Grande River gorge near Taos but some of the west’s most beautiful valleys.1 In fact the rift seems to be related to western basin and range topography. The diagonal fault in Bird Cloud’s cliff as well as the cliff’s entire sloping shape and the existence of Jack Creek, a feeder stream, are all likely influenced by this irresistible stretching force.
Another way I think about Bird Cloud’s golden cliff is to remember Uluru in Australia’s red center. Thomas Keneally wrote rhapsodically of the rock’s “sublime sandstone conglomerate” which evenly spalls its outer layers so that its profile never changes although it becomes incrementally smaller as the centuries pass.2 This massive megalith, not far from Alice Springs, I saw in 1996 with artist Claire Van Vliet who was sketching nearby Kata Tjuta—rock formations that resemble huge stone turbans.
The resemblances of the Bird Cloud property to Uluru are several, though perhaps a little far-fetched. The two sites are roughly the same size and bulk and go through color shifts according to time of day. Both seem to be fitted with interior lights that create a glow after dark. Uluru has its pools and twisting watercourses down the huge body of the rock; the cliff has the river at its foot. Both Uluru and Kata Tjuta are extremely important in matters spiritual and ceremonial to Aboriginal tribes, especially the Pitjantjatjara and Yankuntjatjara western desert tribes, but the story of how the Traditional Owners lost these places to the federal government is familiar, sad and ugly. In the 1985 “agreement” between the Anangu, the Aboriginal people of the area, and the government, the Anangu were forced to lease Uluru and Kata Tjuta to the National Park Service and to allow tourists to climb Uluru. Despite the unenforceable rule on a Park Service sign stating that the Traditional Owners regard climbing the rock as a desecration, thousands insultingly climb it every year. In my part of Wyoming, Bird Cloud’s cliffs were once a much-used camping place for western Indian tribes, the Ute, Arapaho, Shoshone, maybe Sioux and Cheyenne. Nearby Elk Mountain was a place marker indicating a mutually agreed on battleground area.
The geography around Uluru is laced with ancient hero trails that have existed since the Dreamtime. It is a place of ritual caves where certain important ceremonies of the world’s most ancient culture still take place, where there are sacred fertility stones known to few living mortals and pools where legendary events occurred. Following the infrequent rains, twisting streams of water flow down the red flanks and into various pools. At Uluru the general slope of the great rock is reversed by a fold called Kandju, according to Keneally, “a benevolent lizard who came to Ayers Rock to find his boomerang.”3 And Bird Cloud’s yellow cliff tapers away at its east end and is balanced by the distant rise of Pennock, a reverse image of slope.
Along Jack Creek the leafless willow stems burn red as embers. Willow is cautious, one of the last shrubs to put out its leaves—there is frost danger until mid-June. The cliff is reflected in the onyx river, and swimming across it is the stout beaver with a bank den on the far side. The beaver disappears into the brilliant Salix stems.
This place is, perhaps, where I will end my days. Or so I think.
Well do I know my own character negatives—bossy, impatient, reclusively shy, short-tempered, single-minded. The good parts are harder to see, but I suppose a fair dose of sympathy and even compassion is there, a by-product of the writer’s imagination. I can and do put myself in others’ shoes constantly. Observational skills, quick decisions (not a few bad ones), and a tendency to overreach, to stretch comprehension and try difficult things are part of who I am. History seized me a long time ago. I am like Luigi Pirandello’s character Dr. Fileno,
who thought he had found an efficacious remedy for all human ills, an infallible recipe capable of bringing solace to himself and all mankind in case of any calamity whatever, public or private.
Actually it was more than a remedy or a recipe that Doctor Fileno had discovered; it was a method consisting in reading history books from morning till night and practicing looking at the present as though it were an event already buried in the archives of the past. By this method he had cured himself of all suffering and of all worry, and without having to die had found a stern, serene peace, imbued with that particular sadness which cemeteries would still preserve even if all men on earth were dead. 4
That attitude may have something to do with building a house suited to one’s interests, needs and character. Basically I live alone, although summers are a constant stream of visitors and friends. I need room for thousands of books and big worktables where I can heap manuscripts, research material, where I can spread out maps. Books are very important to me. I wish I could think of them as some publishers do—as “product”—but I can’t. I have lived in many houses, most inadequate and chopped into awkward spaces, none with enough book space. When I was a child we moved often, sometimes every year. My father worked in New England’s textile mills, trying hard to overcome his French Canadian background by switching jobs, always moving up the various ladders of his ambition: “bigger and better jobs and more money,” he said.
The first house I can remember vividly was a tiny place in northeastern Connecticut, not far from Willimantic, a house which my parents rented during the late 1930s from a Polish family named Wozniak. I liked that name, Wozniak. I can draw that house from memory although I was two to three years old when we lived there.
I have a keen memory of dizziness as I tried to climb the stairs, of being held fast when my sweater snagged on a nail. I was coming down with some illness, the dizzy sensation and the relentless nail still vivid after seventy years. When I was sick I was moved from my bed upstairs to a cot by the kitchen window. My mother gave me a box of Chiclets chewing gum, the first I had ever seen. One by one I licked the smooth candy coating off each square and lined the grey lumps up on the windowsill. How ugly and completely inedible they looked.
Another time I took the eye of a halibut my mother was preparing for dinner (in those days one bought whole fish) and brought it upstairs to the training potty, dropping it into the puddle of urine and calling my mother to see what I had wrought. She was horrified, not seeing a halibut eye but thinking I had lost some bizarre interior part. I recognized her vulnerability as a warning to be more secretive about what I did, an impression that carried into adult life.
My mother, who loved the outdoors, and whose favorite book was Gene Stratton-Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost, took me for a walk in a swamp. It was necessary to jump from one hummock of swamp grass to another. I was terrified of the dark water distance between these hummocks and finally stood marooned and bawling on a quivering clump, unable to make it to the next one.
We had a green roadster with a rumble seat where I usually rode in solitary splendor, then with my little fox terrier, Rinty, later run over by a motorc...