I was sitting on the front steps reading, within ear but not eyeshot of the driveway, when I heard my mother talking to a woman with a slightly-crude voice. I thought it might be the woman who lives next door. I’ve never met her, but I know her husband, Al. He regularly drinks Natural Light beer with his shirt off in the middle of the day, so it’s fair to assume he’s married to a woman with a slightly-crude voice.

The woman asked if she was at 85 Joalco Road.My mother confirmed this, and then the woman explained she was here to administer an interview on behalf of the United States Public Health Service, that my brother, whom she referred to as “the 21 year old male,” had been randomly selected for the study and stood to earn $30 should he participate. She wanted to know when the 21-year old male would be home, because she had quotas to meet with regard to particular demographics.

“Too bad you couldn’t pick my other son. He’s a 28 year old male and he’s home right now,” said my mother.

When she said this, I decided not to stand up and have a look at the woman with the slightly crude voice, even though I very much wanted to. It occurred to me that the interviewer and I could help each other out, seeing as she has quotas to meet and I’m broke, unemployed and living with my parents.

But being broke and unemployed at your parents’ house isn’t all that bad. You get to do things like walkaround in a bathrobe outside at 10 a.m. bird watching and drinking coffee.

That is what I’m doing when a navy blue Jeep Cherokee pulls into the driveway. A woman gets out, smiles, and says, “You must be the 21 year old male.I spoke with your mom the other day.”

She doesn’t look the way I imagined her to, which was short, older and graying. Rather, she is tallish, oldish, dyed too-auburn.

“Yeah, she told me about you. You’re in luck. You caught me on my day off,” I say, opening the gate to let her in. “What a morning.”

It’s about 70 degrees. The birds are giving their morning recital. Early daylight spills over the top of early-spring-green leaves. Bands of clouds drift lazily overhead on the slightest of breezes.

We decide to work outside at the picnic table. I quickly go inside and pour myself a fresh cup of coffee then take a seat across from the stranger.

“Where do you live?” I ask her.

“Middleton,” she answers.

“I’m not sure where that is exactly. Near Concord?”

“Not really. It’s next to Farmington.”

Farmington is a very sleazy town, so Middleton is probably at least a little bit sleazy by association. I wouldn’t say this woman is sleazy, but there is a hint of sleaze. The voice…the dye job…the pack of Virginia Slims menthol extra long 120s…

“Do you work for the census department?” I ask.

“No, I work for a company subcontracted by the government,” she says and hands me a brochure.

The cover says: National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Answering your important questions. I open it up and read the first page:

What is the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)?

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) is the Federal Government’s primary source of national data on the use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit substances. The survey also contains questions on health, illegal behaviors, and other topics associated with substance use. The study was initiated in 1971 and currently is conducted on an annual basis. This year approximately 70,000 individuals, 12 years and older, will be randomly selected and asked to voluntarily participate.

The woman finishes setting up a computer and some papers and explains that the interview will take about an hour, the bulk of which will be completed anonymously on a laptop and afterwards, she’ll ask me a few questions.

She then asks me my date of birth.I take a long sip of coffee, hurrying to calculate the year my brother was born.

“You stated your birthday as October 3, 1987, making you a 22 year old male.Is this correct?”

She has to say this according to protocol, but obviously it’s not correct because I am a 21 year old male.I fix my mistake, hastily adding the excuse that I suffer from dyslexia.

“I’m just awful with numbers.” I say.

She gives a half-laugh, half-sympathetic sigh and at this point I highly suspect she knows that I don’t have dyslexia…that I am not, in fact, a 21 year old male, but rather, the 28 year old male my mother mentioned.

“OK,” she says. “Ready to begin?”

And so, on a perfect Wednesday morning, outside at the picnic table, in the presence of a complete stranger, using a slate grey laptop, I anonymously reveal my entire history of personal drug use.

I thought I’d tried most things.I was wrong.There’s a book I have to look through and answer things like list all of the drugs from Box A you have tried in:

A.the last 3 months

B.the last 6 months

C.The last year

D.At any point

The boxes are divided by drug category, such as opiates, hallucinogens, amphetamines, sedatives, etc, all with an accompanying photo and ID number.Every drug imaginable is listed.There are a lot that I’ve done.But also many I’ve not done…or even heard of.

I take mental notes of the drugs I’d like to try.It’s like the feature on iTunes when you’re searching for a band and they show you what Other Listeners Bought.Well, I love amphetamines, so I’ll probably like lisdexamfetamine as well…and all the other drugs in Box C for that matter.

It all reminds me of the D.A.R.E . (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, which most Americans over the age of 27 probably were forced to take part in.Like D.A.R.E., this survey is opening my eyes to all sorts of wonderful substances.

I recall the first day of D.A.R.E. distinctly.The entire 5th grade gathered in the library and a police officer came in with a display board containing illustrations of all these different drugs and explained how they had horrible side-effects and we should never even consider trying them.The cop told the story of a man who, in a PCP rage, took 18 rounds from police officers before going down.

As a 5th grade boy, I figured if I could get my hands on this PCP stuff…well, I could rule the neighborhood.Nobody would fuck with me.

The D.A.R.E. curriculum consisted largely of role-playing where, in a typical scenario, one student played the drug dealer and another an abstaining youth who employed the proper version of “Just Say No” to reject the dealer’s advances.

Not once in my adult life has a drug dealer materialized out of thin air and tried to push their goods on me like in D.A.R.E.There were plenty of times I wish they would have, but to no avail.The closest I’ve gotten is in tourist hot spots where drug dealers whisper, “marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy” as you pass by.As an 18 year old in London, I tried to buy weed from one of these guys and ended up with oregano.Since then, I’ve learned you don’t buy shit from drug dealers on the street in an unfamiliar area.You go to a university area and ask around at bars.

Back in the 5th grade, I even starred in the D.A.R.E. play, which was the culmination of the ten week program. I can’t recall much about the production, except that I had a lead role.The character I played, due to some unholy cocktail of substances, collapsed.My line was “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” (That’s right-Steve Urkel style.)

Between then and now I’ve done a lot of drugs and never once have I fallen and been unable to get up. Quite the opposite: When I get up, I don’t want to fall down.

Drug Abuse Resistance Education was started by members of the Los Angeles Police in 1983.Today, 36 million children around the world and 26 million in the U.S. participate.

Over the years, a number of studies have been conducted to ascertain the efficacy of D.A.R.E.Some particularly interesting findings include a 1992 Indiana University study that found students who completed D.A.R.E. used hallucinogenic drugs at a higher rate than students who didn’t enroll in the program.In 1998, Dr. Dennis Rosenbaum reported D.A.R.E. graduates were more likely than non-graduates to use alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs.Also in 1998, Psychologist Dr. William Colson claimed that exposing young students to drugs encouraged and nurtured drug use.He wrote: “…as they get a little older, students become very curious about these drugs they’ve learned about from police officers.”

In 2001, the Surgeon General of the United States placed D.A.R.E. in the category: “Does Not Work.”The Association for Psychological Sciences (APS) put D.A.R.E. on a list of treatments that can potentially harm clients in 2007.

D.A.R.E. reflects the U.S. drug control policy of zero-tolerance.It was adopted as part of the control strategy of the U.S. government’s War on Drugs.Last year, Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, stated the Obama administration would not use the term “War on Drugs,” claiming it to be counter-productive.

After 40 years, $1 trillion dollars spent and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, it seems the War on Drugs is counter-productive not only in name.Comments by Mr. Kerlikowske suggest as much.

“In the grand scheme, it has not been successful” he told the Associated Press recently.“Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

This month, President Obama made a pledge to “reduce drug use and the great damage it causes” through a revamped policy that treats drug use as a public health issue, focusing on prevention and treatment.Despite his promise, the president has increased spending on drug prohibition through law enforcement, which accounts for $10 billion of his $15.5 billion drug-control budget, a record in total dollars and as a percentage of the drug-control budget.Obama’s drug-fighting budget is 31 times what Richard Nixon’s was (including inflation adjustment) after he signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1971, which effectively began the War on Drugs.

The Associated Press has tracked how taxpayer money has been spent to combat drug use over the past 40 years.Here’s what we’ve been billed for:

  • $20 billion to combat drug gangs in countries like Columbia and Mexico.Annually, 330 tons of cocaine, 20 tons of heroin and 110 tons of methamphetamine are sold in the U.S.Almost all of it is imported from Mexico.
  • $33 billion to promote prohibition-style “Just Say No” messages and prevention programs (like D.A.R.E.)to young Americans.Reports indicate that high school students today use drugs at the same rates they did in 1970.
  • $49 billion for enforcement measures along America’s borders to halt the flow of illegal drugs.This year alone, 25 million Americans will use illicit drugs, around 10 million more than in 1970.Almost all of it comes in across the borders.
  • $121 billion to arrest over 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, roughly 10 million of them for possession of marijuana.Studies reveal being locked up has a positive correlation with drug abuse.
  • $ 450 billion to lock up these nonviolent drug offenders in federal prisons alone.Half of all federal prisoners last year in the U.S. were incarcerated for drug offenses.
  • $215 billion per year, estimated by the Justice Department, for “an overburdened justice system, a strained health care system, lost productivity and environmental destruction.”

And I thought I’d spent a lot of money on drugs and had nothing to show for it.

When I’m done with the computer the interviewer asks me a few questions about my employment, insurance, household income, etc., and then we’re done.I sign an interview payment receipt and the woman counts out 3 crisp 10s and lays them in my hand.My time as a 21 year old male is officially over.

I walk the interviewer to the gate and wish her well.

“What an interesting job you have…traveling to people’s homes, setting your own hours.” I say.

“Yes, I enjoy it.” she says.“I get to meet many interesting people.The only thing is that if I ever run into somebody in town or at the grocery store or something, I don’t know their name.”

“Well, if I ever see you, just call me 21 year old male.” I say

It’s now around 11 o’clock, giving me five hours before my mother comes home.I should probably go fill out some job applications.But it’s an awfully nice day.And I’ve got a lot on my mind.

Had I taken D.A.R.E. more seriously and never used drugs, would I be a broke, unemployed 28 year old male living at home?

If the War on Drugs has failed, then who is the victor?Drugs?Drug dealers? Drug users?

What, precisely, is implicit in the reality that America has 5% of the world’s population but uses 50% of its illegal drugs…and has 25% of its prisoners?

Is Middleton a sleazy town?

Such matters deserve a deeper consideration.

But I’m all out of weed.I have no car.And unlike in D.A.R.E., drug dealers don’t just materialize while you’re walking down the street.Especially not on Joalco Road in Strafford, New Hampshire.

Besides, while drug use rates haven’t changed much after 40 years and $1 trillion spent, the prices have.I’ll be lucky to get a few joints from $30 of today’s hydroponic shit.As a generation of D.A.R.E. – mockers know: Drugs Are Really Expensive.

But there are other options.

I hear Al whistling from his porch.His shirt is off.There’s a koozy on the railing.

“Yo Al, I’m comin’ over buddy.You owe me from last time.”

Whiskey Thieves, Geary Street, 10 p.m.

My head swims from free drinks after reading passages of my novel at bar. Then I’m invited to another bar, the free drinks decided to go snorkeling in my head. One Jamison, two Jamison, three Jamison, more. I walk over to Whiskey Thieves to introduce one last drink to the party in my brain.

She sits next to me at the bar. She is semi-gothed out. She wears fishnet stockings. Teasing. Exposing the dark skin of her legs. I say hi. She tells me her name and I immediately forget. She is from Chile.

Do you know Hocico? she asks.

Not personally, but I’m familiar with their music.

I’m not the type of guy you would think would have his pulse on an EBM project from Mexico, but I’m full of surprises.

Come to Death Guild with me, she says. It’s a long running dance club in San Francisco that caters to a goth crowd and actually plays music I like, but for some reason I can’t stand the place.

No, I say and sip more whiskey to snorkel through my head.

Yes, you come, we’ll go back to my place first.

Her place?

Let’s go, I say and the snorkeling alcoholics in my brain come up for air and applaud and they call my libido friends in my brain and we watch as the Chilean wiggles her skinny body down the street in those excellent fishnets.

At her place she turns on the radio and brings more Jamison friends for my brain. I grab her close and she turns around and rubs her sweet butt against my pelvic area. Blood reinforcements are called in and my penis starts to expand.

There’s an Italian film called Stanno tutti bene. It has nothing to do with sex, but the title means, Everybody’s Fine. She rubs on me and everybody’s fine. Really fine.

Do you know this song, she asks and puts on a Hocico CD. I nod and go in for the kiss. The kiss is good. I never understand how a kiss can’t be good, but there’s a phenomena in San Francisco of women who can’t kiss. It’s quite shocking to a newly single man.

When I’m with a woman, I listen. Those subtle shifts of moans. Those sporadic shutters of their insides. I listen without a stethoscope.

We kiss and I pull her hair. She moans and pushes her pelvis into mine and we dry hump, me in my slacks and her in her mini-skirt and fishnets. I listen and grab her hair twisting her head to the side and plant one on her neck. She squeals and her dark eyes ask for what’s next.

I tease. I’m soft. Soft kisses on her Chilean ears. Then I pick her up and throw her onto the bed and rip her shirt off. I dive into her erect nipples and nibble and bite and finally teeth with a light stroking of the tips with my tongue. She pushes her chest as far into my mouth as those sweet little a-cups could go. I want her in ecstasy. I grab the back of her head so she can’t move and went in for more mouth kisses.

The little libidos and alcohol molecules in my brain brought out the sombreros and did some type of Ukrainian wedding dance with each other.

She gives half moans and half screams as her neighbors in that Tenderloin apartment either want to kill us, join us or be us.

She jumps out of bed to switch Hocico CDs. I’m out of breath and my body has a subtle shake, waiting for more teasing and sexual wrestling. That Mexican pig fucking industrial act, cock blocking me.

 

We’re going to be late for Death Guild, she says as she fixes her shirt and the Ukrainian wedding dance stops in my head to put their elbows on the bar. They go in wait-and-see mode.

Death Guild. Posers aching to reclaim an era long gone by. Death Guild, we’ll keep this going after Death Guild. My penis actually retracts knowing it will be released into action later.

As we walk to the club we mouth raped each other at every stop light. Every doorway was our chance to fondle each other for a few seconds and move on. I forget we’re going to Death Guild. I forget we bought another bottle of scotch that we drain as we suck face and walk.

Then the blackout.

Fade in:

Int. – Night – Death Guild

Tony and girl from Chile dance and fall. Tony falls on top of her. She’s lucky it was Tony and not some corseted Krispy Kreme.

Fade out.

Fade in:

Int. – Night – Death Guild

Tony looses the Chilean and looks around the club for her, oh snap, they play a Nick Cave song. Tony can’t resist the pull of his favorite singer so he dances alone.

Fade out.

Fade in:

Ext. – Night – SoMa

Tony still can’t find her so he hails a cab home. Whiskey Thieves calls him for one last drink.

Int. – Night – Whiskey Thieves

The bartender asks with a smirk, how did it go?

I can’t believe she talked me into going to Death Guild.

He laughs.

The party in my head is no longer interested in sex play and brings me home to pass out and eventually leave my bloodstream.

I still can’t remember her name.

I’ve been thinking about place recently.

How setting can affect pieces in fiction and non-fiction, short pieces and longer works.

I sat and waited for someone one night, a long time ago, and I was taken by the way the streetlights and the storm that was moving over the streets reflected off the wall of bottles behind the bar. I figured it was probably important to remember the way it looked, in case I wanted to write it into something someday.

And lately, I’ve been thinking about the places that I grew up in, and how they might affect future narratives – or even how future narratives might be entirely about them.

Place, you know? How does place figure into things? What makes for a good description of place? Who are the authors who are good at doing this?

Aside from Brin Friesen, that is?

What’s the best way to evoke the spirit of a place? To call it forth? Should place become a character? Is it that important? Does it depend on the place?


Discuss.

A friend and I, sitting and discussing the latest girl I’d fallen for. The waiter, walking through the glass doors and seeing us in conversation, set our coffee in front of us apologetically, hers a sculpted cappuccino in a white porcelain cup, perfectly dusted with cinnamon and chocolate, mine a latte with a napkin wrapped protectively around the heat of the glass.

Postcards I sent home when we were last on vacation together so that you would have something to look forward to on our return.

1.

Dearest,

I booked this trip with the Endless Travel Agency because you said getting there was half the fun. How much more fun, I thought, when getting there takes so much longer than necessary?

The three hour layover in Zembla alone added two weeks and seven pages to our itinerary, but think of all the culture we’ve absorbed in the airports these last months. Who knew they had Sbarro in Shangri-la?

I’m watching you sleep as I write this. You look beautiful, even though you haven’t bathed since Xanadu.

Tomorrow, you will awaken with a chloroform headache. I’m sorry, My Love, but what’s one more flight delayed?

Another thirty-eight miles northeast, and I come to the town of Big Sandy, which is as genuinely western as it sounds. A covered wagon sits in front of the high school – HOME OF THE PIONEERS. There is a cemetery on a hill on the edge of the settlement, and there are dirt roads through town. A columned Wells Fargo Bank stands on a corner, looking like the kind of place Butch Cassidy might have scouted out. There is a shop called the Tumbleweed Gallery and a restaurant called the Bear Paw Lodge and a bar called The Club and a hotel called, best I can determine, Hotel. Big Sandy is off the beaten tourist path, so the whole place oozes authenticity. After eating a quick lunch at a city park in the shadow of a gray grain elevator, I stop to fill up my other tank at a gas station at the corner of Route 87 and Judith Landing Road, which extends south into a swath of Montana wilderness. My atlas seems to regard it as an iffy proposition. A well-traveled white Mazda pickup with a canopy over the cab pulls into the station alongside me, and a man climbs out with a grunt and a wheeze. He looks to be in his late fifties, with a red face, a bulbous nose, bushy eyebrows, and an uncombed thicket of brown hair, fringed with white. He wears frayed jeans and a stained gray long underwear shirt, unbuttoned to reveal a thatch of white hairs poking from his chest. The man looks like he hasn’t seen a shower in weeks.

“Are you familiar with this road?” I ask, pointing southward. “Doesn’t look like too many folks use it.”

“Tell me about it. I just spent four hours hitchhiking. I saw four cars,” he grumbles. “I was canoeing on the river the past few days, and I had to go get my truck.” He climbs into the pickup, which is missing four hubcaps. “Now I’m heading down to the landing to get my canoe. You going that way?”

I hesitate and then nod. “I guess I’ll see you there.”

According to my map, it is forty-four miles to Judith Landing, where the Missouri River joins waters with the Judith River, named by William Clark for his future wife. The Corps of Discovery camped there on May 29, 1805, which is enough to convince me to follow the white pickup.

Fifteen miles later, I have passed exactly three vehicles going the other way – all of them with horse trailers – and the pavement has ended abruptly, turning to a dirt and gravel mixture that makes me thankful for the dry weather. Come to think of it, Zeus has been kind to me when I have needed him most – while weaving around Mount Rainier, during my zigzag descent into Troy, and now on this dubious trek toward the Big Muddy. Forced to slow down by the road conditions, I can no longer spot the white pickup ahead of me. It has disappeared, as if the cloud of filth it had been kicking up were some sort of magic dust.

I feel very much alone at the moment, my world consisting only of rambling ranchland and big sky. Civilization seems a hazy concept. At a public library back in Fort Benton, I had located a collection of reminiscences, written by the hardy men and women who had tried to homestead these barren lands. Now that I see the landscape for myself, I am awed by their resilience.

Big Sandy had been a cow town of long standing, but in the early twentieth century it became a homesteaders’ boomtown. Hopeful immigrants, many of them from Czechoslovakia by way of Chicago, would ride the Great Northern Railroad into Montana, unload their cargo and livestock at the depot in Big Sandy, and then fan out into the countryside. They had names like Jirsa, Tordik, Driga, Pribyl, Sevcik… and they were as short on options as they were on vowels.

Often, the men would arrive first. If the fellow was lucky, his neighbors would help him construct a sod house. If he had to wait, he might live in a hole in the ground – quite literally – until it was his turn to get a house built. Provided the family could endure long enough, they would graduate into less humble living conditions. But most didn’t last more than a few years before moving to more hospitable locales.

Driving through this treeless expanse, all dry grass and dust, I find myself trying to envision what it must have been like to have been Frank Baldik, hauling water three-fourths of a mile in barrels after discovering that the water in the well he had dug near his homestead was alkali. Or John Cikrit, mining his own coal for his furnace and making the full-day trip into town only two or three times a year, returning with hundreds of pounds of flour and sugar and coffee beans. Or Julia Fisher, carrying water from a reservoir for a bath night every Saturday, straining out the bugs, heating it on a wood stove, pouring it into a tub, and then using it again the next morning to scrub floors.

In the midst of the tales of desolation, I found a poem, written in 1929, by a local named Nellie McLean. It read, in part:

We built our humble cabin.
A place wherein to dwell.
But of the loads of suffering
Only ourselves can tell.

Twenty-three miles into my route, I come upon a leaning cabin atop a gentle knoll, long abandoned by the looks of it. The white pickup is parked in front of it. I stop the Aspect in the middle of the road and walk toward the cabin, camera in hand, figuring my fellow traveler had much the same idea. Instead, I find him sitting behind his steering wheel, smoking pot out of an old Busch beer can.

“I thought I’d just stop and pack a bowl,” he grins, looking like a red jack-o’-lantern.

“Want any?”

I wave him off and offer a handshake instead. “I’m Brad.”

He sets down the homemade bong. “Name’s Dan,” he replies, and he decides to join me in poking around the old homestead.

“Be careful of rattlesnakes,” he warns, as we make our way through the tall grass. “There’s a lot of ’em in Montana.” Not ten seconds later, a tiny white rabbit pops out from hiding. Dan jumps three feet in the air; I jump even higher.

On tiptoes, we peer into the spaces where the windows should be – they look like empty eye sockets. In what used to be the kitchen, the walls are discolored and peeling. An ancient-looking stove sits in the center of the room, as if it were left behind in the midst of a move. A decrepit ironing board leans against a wall. In the bedroom, half of a flaking wooden chair sits next to a rusted bed frame beneath a mattress that looks as if it has exploded.

Dan is saying something, surmising what kind of animals have been at the mattress, but I am lost in thought, wondering if any homesteader would have endured daily sufferings if he had been told it would all lead to this.

Three miles later, Dan and his pickup having once again sped ahead of me, I am surprised to encounter an actual intersection – an east-west dirt path oddly named Five Corner Road. One mile more, and a YIELD sign rises from the roadside, which is a bit like finding a crossing guard at the Bonneville Salt Flats. It is so full of bullet holes that only the L and D remain. Next to it, a small green street sign: ILIAD LOOP.

This stretch of nothing in the middle of nowhere is Iliad, Montana. There is an explanation for the name. Apparently, a woman named Virginia Donnell and her husband Ade homesteaded in the area in around 1915. Virginia also ran the post office, such as it was, and, according to the history book, “she was a religious lady and named the post office after the book called Iliad.”

It seems a banal recollection, but I find it to be an intriguing statement, surely unintentionally so. The account categorizes Homer’s epics as religious texts when really religion itself might be described as a subset of mythology. As mythologist Hans Bellamy once put it, “Religion is fossil mythology; mythology is fossil history.”

Another mythologist, Carlos Parada, has compared ancient mythology to an egg that once contained “about all that was needed for life.” History, philosophy, religion, creativity, cultural biases… all were contained in mythological tales. Then, sometime around Homer’s era, the egg broke. Its contents oozed into separate fields, and it was impossible to recombine the elements into a single entity ever again.

Just as I am thinking how glad I am to have nothing but unobstructed space around me, if only so that I may ponder these abstractions free of distraction, I notice fencing along both sides of the road. The wide open landscape and the furious winds have turned it into a barbed-wire metaphor: The place where tumbleweeds go to die. There are hundreds of them stacked in piles against the fence like convicts gripping the bars of their prison cells. A mile later comes evidence that this may also be a place where dreams die. A collection of abandoned structures sits among the windblown grass – an old house, a corral, a barn, the unmistakable outline of an outhouse leaning at a precarious angle. It is a haunting site and a rather beautiful one.

But there is life here deep inside Choteau County. Just down the road, I come upon four magnificent horses, two chestnut and two black, hanging their heads over the fence, staring at me, their manes dancing in the breeze. A couple of miles later, I find the other end of the Iliad Loop and several large, rusted mailboxes bearing the names of families possibly descended from the Czech originals – Drga, Handel, Silvan. An abandoned car – an AMC Eagle with a “Veterans of Foreign Wars” bumper sticker – decorates the roadside, a tumbleweed wedged against one of its wheels. Prairie dogs have carved out a home four feet behind its rear bumper.

I push on, and soon the ranchland begins to roughen into badlands. The land rises into modest hills, which soon become angular ridges. The road gouges a trail. I spot a lone tree, about one hundred yards to my left, its barren branches reaching at all angles, and I realize it may be the first I have seen in about forty miles. I suspect it could tell its own stories. And then a herd of cows, their ears tagged, roaming through the sagebrush, one of them inexplicably and obliviously on the wrong side of the fence.

Finally, Judith Landing and another glimpse of the fabled Missouri, only this time it is burbling between majestic limestone formations.

It was here, at the confluence of the rivers, that myth and history intersected as well. In 1855, fifty years after the Corps of Discovery’s arrival, twenty-five-year-old American geologist Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden uncovered the first dinosaur remains in the Western Hemisphere. When the last continental ice sheet retreated nearly twenty thousand years ago, it exposed broad expanses of fossil-bearing rock in eastern Montana, and Hayden’s party came across what was later determined to be a small collection of fossilized dinosaur teeth. In recent years, an outfit called the Judith River Dinosaur Institute has made equally dramatic discoveries in the area, including one brachylophosaurus considered by many to be the world’s best-preserved dinosaur.

Hayden’s big find occurred barely a dozen years after the term “Dinosauria” was even invented – by a fellow named Richard Owen, who combined a couple of Greek words that roughly translated to “terrible lizard,” although most dinosaurs were neither. But this was not the first misinterpretation of the prehistoric beasts. Today’s dinosaurs, in a manner of speaking, are yesterday’s dragons.

Nearly every culture has dragons as part of its mythology. Apollo, Hercules, Perseus… all were said to have slain dragons. In Norse mythology, there are tales of the dragons Nidhogg and Farnir. The Egyptians told stories of Apep; the Aztecs spoke of Quetzalcoatl; the Huron Indians feared Angont. As late as the early seventeenth century, the uncharted regions in various maps of the world would include drawings of dragonlike creatures – representations of the unknown, yet a concept based in reality. Like the basis of all mythology, dragons were merely history misconstrued and made vivid. In fact, dinosaur bones may be the most obvious example of how mythology is fossilized history. After all, humans are pattern-seekers and storytellers. So when the ancients happened upon buried bones suggesting creatures of uncommon stature, they sought explanation for such fossil evidence and found it in fantastical stories.

But it could be that mythology allows us a glimpse into prehistory, preserving a lost past – much like this protected stretch of the Missouri River. There is a recent and remarkable illustration of this notion. It concerns a legend of long standing in the South Seas. Myths regarding the Indonesian island of Flores, about 350 miles west of Bali, told of a shy and diminutive race of people who would accept gourds of food from the Floresians and then return to their limestone caves. “South Seas leprechauns” is how they have been described, and folktales suggested that they survived on the island as recently as five hundred years ago.

In an evolutionary sense, there is some logic to the tales. On islands without big predators, undersized individuals don’t have to fight off attackers and are more likely to survive on limited resources, so large mammals tend to evolve toward smaller sizes. Still, most scientists dismissed the myths as fanciful legends – until 2004, when a team of paleoanthropologists discovered seven tiny adult skeletons in a cave on Flores. The oldest dated back 95,000 years; the most recent was from 13,000 years ago. One adult female skeleton was nearly intact – and no more than three feet tall. The scientists nicknamed her the Hobbit.

So in some cases myths may be defined as misinterpretations of phenomena, a naïve effort to replace the fear of the unknown with a satisfactory explanation, but they cannot be dismissed as mere fantasy. There is likely a kernel of truth in there, but this truth is hidden beneath layers of sentiment, transformed over the millenia in the telling and retelling and by the psycho-social biases of the tellers themselves. In this way, mythological tales are much like the traditional telephone game in which every time a word or phrase is passed on, it moves farther from its original construct. As much as mythology is a manifestation of the human psyche, if you strip away the emotional stratum of myths, you often can find historical reality – causes, origins, seminal events.

So it is with The Iliad and Troy. In the early 1870s, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann used Homer’s epic as his guide and found the ancient city called Hisarlik in western Turkey, which has been widely accepted as the probable location of the legendary fortified city. Interestingly, he found layers there, too – about nine levels of ruins, indicating nine different versions of Troy over the years – nine historical truths discovered through one largely fictional piece of mythology.

I suppose the point is this: Mythology is history obscured. But we can’t escape our history, even subconsciously, no matter how hard we try.


***


One of the heroic elements of the Corps of Discovery is the fact that the expedition pointed itself toward a cartographic void. The region west of the Mississippi River was essentially a blank space on a brand new map. Naturally, many in the early nineteenth century filled it with myth – rumors, for instance, about a race of red-headed Indians who stalked prehistoric beasts roaming the countryside.

One suspects the explorers may not have been much disappointed. Meriwether Lewis arrived in the vicinity of Judith Landing to find “scenes of visionary enchantment.” One hundred ninety-nine years and 354 days later, I find instead my fellow traveler Dan.

“I got nothing to hide,” says Dan, as we settle on each side of a picnic table a few dozen yards from the river. At one time, Judith Landing was a bustling community. There was a hotel here, a saloon, a blacksmith shop. But now it is merely a three-acre mini-campground, and it is just the two of us here, although a couple of park rangers make sporadic appearances. They seem to regard Dan with suspicion.

I point to his license plate. “Do you live in North Dakota?”

He rubs his bloodshot eyes and looks skyward, as if he were Oedipus being asked to solve the riddle of the Sphinx. “That’s a tough one. I don’t really live anyplace. The two toughest questions to answer are ‘Where do you live?’ and ‘What do you do?’ For the past year, I’ve been in North Dakota. Before that, Seattle… It’s pretty interesting, because you’re talkin’ to someone who’s been doing this all my life. All my life! People ask me what I do, and I say, ‘I don’t know. It just comes to me.’”

A few miles back, as I was snapping photos of the horses, I experienced the highlight of my day when I was nearly knocked senseless by a bouncing tumbleweed. As Dan’s tale unfolds, I realize that might perfectly describe my random encounter with him. Here I am, traveling alone cross-country, yet between the two of us I am very much the fixed object. Dan is a beer-drinking, pot-smoking tumbleweed. He was born in Bottineau, North Dakota, about a dozen miles south of the Canadian border. Nearly six decades later, he is sitting in a self-inflicted fog along the Big Muddy. Everything in between begins to sound equally cloudy.
“I think our mothers are the ones we gotta watch out for. They’re the ones who steer us in a direction,” he begins. “My mother was a very controlling, dominating person. She used to say, ‘Your father fought in World War II so that you could be free. Get out there and see what’s going on in the world.’ Then I became a hitchhiking hippie and Mom would say, ‘Your ribs are showing! Stay home for a while!’ She just died a couple of months ago and… boy it’s tough to think of anything good to say about her.”

Since the heroic archetype is someone who undergoes a dramatic transformation and returns with a lesson learned, Joseph Campbell claimed that motherhood could even be construed as a heroic act. I would very much agree, but I base this conclusion primarily on the efforts of my own mom, about whom it’s tough to think of anything bad to say. Yes, she can be as subtle as a flashing neon sign. But really, Oedipus aside, what hero doesn’t adore his mom?

Meanwhile, Dan is still trying to dredge up some compliments about his. “She cooked good. She never beat me or anything like that. But boy oh boy… You think of a mother as a person who’s supposed to nurture you and help you along, but she was a troublemaking, conniving person.” He stops himself, sits up, belches.

“Still, I loved her right to the very end, goddammit.”

After an uncomfortable pause, I steer him back to the road. “So you were a hitchhiker…”

“Yeah, I spent seven years hitchhiking in my twenties. I would sleep anywhere. If I didn’t have a tent, I would sleep under a bridge. And then one day, I walked out of a bathroom, and I was going across the parking lot, and I totally freaked out because I didn’t know where I was. I had no clue. I didn’t know what city. I didn’t know what state. I didn’t know what highway… Then I decided to stop.”

Stop, as in not really. There was a chimney sweep business in Seattle, dirtbike trips to Baja, a few months in Hawaii…

“The soil there was so fertile. It was like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ kind of shit. So I thought, godammit I sure would like to grow somethin’. So I went to Seattle, hopped a freight train to North Dakota and bought an eighty-acre farm. I cleaned up my act. I didn’t smoke pot…” He pauses and shakes his head vigorously. “No, wait… I must be stoned to say that. I stopped drinking. That’s what it was. But I was horny. And I couldn’t get a date because I wasn’t hanging out in the bars. So I started a dating service. They would write me, and I would give them a code number, and they would enclose money. Did it for about six years, and then I met this woman who was a bitch from hell…”

Somehow, his face grew even redder. “She was a pathological liar – I mean, literally. She and I had gotten into an argument over her kids because I thought she was neglecting them. And anyway, she turned me in to the police for growing pot on my farm. I lost my farm and went to prison for a year – North Dakota State Penitentiary.”

He reaches into a bag and removes a small black case, keeping his hand on top of it.  “When I had my farm, one day I’m sitting on my porch, sampling my product,” he says, making a toking motion with his free hand, “and I’m looking around at some goddamn gophers. They’re tearing up my garden, and I figured I oughta start farming the fucking gophers. I went out and blasted away about twenty of ’em, and I started experimenting with them – you know, tanning the hides, doin’ stuff with the tails, shit like that. I couldn’t really come up with anything. So when I got out of prison, I ended up in Seattle again, and I started experimenting with one of the hides again, and I ruined it. The only thing left was the damn feet. So I made a pair of earrings out of the feet.”

There are times throughout this conversation when I wonder where reality stops and Dan’s THC-fueled imagination begins. But he opens the black case to reveal some two dozen earrings, each consisting of a tiny gopher’s paw. I would have been no more surprised if he had revealed to me a belt made of Minotaur hide.

“Pretty clever,” I mutter, but I can’t help myself, “and creepy at the same time.”

He grins. “I sold nine thousand pairs of ’em. I was a traveling gopher-foot salesman for a few years.”

“Who buys them?”

“Oh, just about anybody. Grandma and Grandpa would look at ’em and say, ‘By golly, I used to hunt gophers as a kid.’ And other people will say, ‘My God, that’s disgusting! How much are they?’ One guy on an Amtrak train said to me, ‘Oh, fishing lures, huh?’ I said, ‘Yep.’ He said, ‘You catch trout with them?’ I said, ‘Bass, too.’ He was drunker’n I was. Anyway, I had a distributor who would buy about two thousand pairs a year, and that would give me a trip to Mexico ever year.”

“What’d you do in Mexico?”

He slaps his forehead. “Oh fuck, we haven’t even touched on Mexico! I spent every winter there for ten years. What did I do there? Well, I didn’t go to jail. That’s important – for a life like mine. And I didn’t shed any blood. That’s important, too. It really is.” He shrugs. “I did different things. A couple of years, I got a boat and did the tourism thing – go to a bar, get drunk, and hustle people out of the bar… ‘Hey , wanna go fishing tomorrow?’ And for a couple of years, I was a treasure hunter. I invested in about five thousand bucks worth of treasure hunting equipment, diggin’ big holes…”

“Find anything?” And as soon as I ask it, I wish I hadn’t.

Dan laughs so hard he nearly falls off his bench. “Does it look like I found anything?” He looks around him, mockingly. “Where is that damn treasure anyway?”

I suppose I deserve it. “What else did you do?” His face reddens again. “For a couple years, I fell in love with this Texas oil heiress, a very, very wealthy woman who was living in Mexico. It was a fuckin’ nightmare.” Dan says “fuckin’” with a drunken slur, so that it sounds almost Yiddish. “She was an awful person, and I would have gotten away from her if she had been just a normal person. But she was very wealthy, and the greed made me want to stick around. I liked the Jeep. I liked the lifestyle. I was her boy toy. I liked the sex, too. She was a total alcoholic.” He smirks, suddenly realizing he has stepped in a steaming pile of hypocrisy. “I mean, I’m a drunk. But she was a fuckin’ alcoholic, man. That lady passed out every fuckin’ night by nine o’clock. A total goddamn drunk, a mean fuckin’ Texas loud-mouth fuckin’ rich bitch.” He literally spits this last part out.“My whole life has been full of stories, Brad,” Dan continues. “But I’ve never been shot, and I’ve never shot at anybody. Of course, I’ve been shot at a lot of times…” He straightens his shoulders. “I don’t rob. I don’t cheat. I don’t steal. I might tell a few tales, but I don’t lie…”

Those tales continue for a better part of an hour, stories about how he brought a rock to a knife fight with a biker, how he hitched a ride with a fellow who happened to be driving a stolen car, how he sat in jail for a week after a case of mistaken identity, how he has been arrested “more times than I can remember,” usually for public intoxication and disturbing the peace.

“Another time was for statutory rape,” he says. “I didn’t know she was that age! She was fifteen or sixteen, but I was like nineteen!”

This sparks another synaptic segue, and Dan whispers conspiratorially, “I’ll tell you another side of me that you probably didn’t realize.” He pauses for dramatic effect. “I’ve become a sex addict. When I hitchhiked and traveled, there was always a woman at the end of the fuckin’ line somewhere. It seemed like I had a string of women all along the United States – Seattle, North Dakota, Omaha, Texas. And then when I got too old and stopped hitchhiking and all that kind of shit, then the Internet came along…”

He raises his voice. “Aw, fuck! I’m an internet predator! I am… an internet… fuckin’… predator!” He looks at me, and perhaps he notices that that the color has suddenly drained from my face. Where are those park rangers anyway?

“I’m fifty cyber years old. That means I don’t get any older on the Internet. But I’m not a pedophile. Christ, if I fucked a twenty-five-year-old, I’d feel like a pedophile. Forty is probably the bottom limit for me. When I’m on the road, I go to libraries, Internet cafés, that sort of thing. Hell, it was a problem for me to take three days off to canoe the river. Really!”

When Odysseus returned to Ithaca, he told his swineherd, “There is no worse life for a man than to tramp it.”

But could Homer have possibly imagined this version of the modern-day tramp, on the road and online?

Then again, Odysseus had his libido issues, too.

Dan points a finger at me. “I have more sex than you do. I’ll guarantee you that.”

“I’m sure you do,” I reply, deciding that humor is the best means of deflection. “I’m married.”


***


Dan nods his head toward the Missouri, a faraway look in his scarlet-streaked eyes. “It moves nice.” And then, “Would you like to go for a little paddle?”

“I don’t know,” A thousand thoughts scull through my skull. “Upstream?”

“Well, I don’t think we should go downstream. It’s too easy,” he says. “Yeah, let’s go upstream for a ways.”

And here is the proverbial head-versus-heart dilemma. The cautious thinker in me is saying: Don’t you dare. You don’t know this guy. He’s stoned. He has a temper. He’s been behind bars more often than most bartenders. He knows you’re alone. And you are so deep in the middle of nowhere that even the vultures won’t hear your cries for help.

But the devil on my other shoulder is whispering: Lewis and Clark. Will I ever again have another opportunity to paddle the Missouri? Is it not fate to receive such an offer almost precisely two centuries after the Corps of Discovery did the very same thing at the very same spot?

“Is it safe?” I ask, basically thinking out loud.

He tilts his head at me. “Can you swim?”

Moments later, he hands me a paddle and tosses me a lifejacket. Then, as I’m climbing into the bow of his canoe, pushing aside some filthy clothes and a couple of beer cans, he cautions me, “No matter what you do, don’t turn around and look at me because we’ll tip over. That’s what happened to me and my friend, Ned.”

He says it again. “Don’t turn around and look at me.”

He says it a third time. “Really, don’t look at me.”

And as he does so, my mind is talking to me, too, saying, “You are about to die.”

I pride myself on my judgment of character. I can usually tell within moments of meeting someone where the relationship is going. Maybe it is because I observe for a living. Perhaps it is a talent developed through years of extrapolating insight from brief peeks into peoples’ lives. Whatever the reason, I am usually right. And in Hobo Dan, as I came to think of him, I perceive a harmlessness, even a glimmer of goodness.

But for a split-second, I think perhaps I am wrong. Dead wrong. I picture myself turning around in the canoe just in time to gasp at my last earthly sight – Dan swinging his paddle like a baseball bat, aiming for the back of my head. I envision a headline a few weeks hence: Man’s Body Washes Up in Bismarck: Reported Missing in Montana. I imagine Dan trading in his beat-up pickup for a shiny new Winnebago Aspect.

“All right,” I hear myself croak, “let’s do it.”

The plan was to paddle a few hundred yards upstream and then float back down to the landing, after which I would climb out of the canoe and revel in my pitiable approximation of Meriwether Lewis.

Instead, I come away feeling more like Jerry Lewis.

I am certainly an adequate canoeist. I have paddled through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota. I have canoed the Russian River in California and the Brule River in Wisconsin. Hell, I used to teach canoeing at summer camp. But – and this is a statement with many implications – I have never paddled upstream. The Missouri River moves a lot faster than it looks.

Almost immediately, we find ourselves a couple hundred feet downriver. We try paddling hard for several strokes, but we have only drifted further downstream. Dan doesn’t seem much bothered by it. Then again, he is in a state of mind where he isn’t much bothered by anything. Meanwhile, I nearly panic. My paranoia no longer focuses on thoughts of dying; instead, I have visions of drifting helplessly to the next landing some ten miles downstream, arriving just in time for the sun to go down, leaving me to share a sleeping bag with Hobo Dan, his head resting against my shoulder, his beer-fueled snores echoing in my ear. Then my imagination has me spending the following day hitchhiking in vain, wandering under a searing sun like the ill-fated astronauts in Capricorn One, stumbling toward mirages, grabbing at hallucinations.

So now I paddle twice as hard, and I implore Dan to do the same. We dig at the water like a couple of prospectors who sniff a strike. We maneuver toward the riverbank where the currents are slower, and, inch by inch, we move forward, finally making it back to the landing. I place my paddle on my lap, bow my head, and chuckle.

“Well, that was fun…”

But I swallow the sentence. Because I look up to discover that Dan has steered us back to the middle of the river. So we do it all over again.

“I have traveled all over the world,” Odysseus reports toward the end of The Odyssey, “and this is what I have come to.”

When we finally return to the picnic bench, I hear shades of this in a monologue from Dan, as he seems to be in a reflective mood. “I could have been a responsible human being. I could have been a breadwinner. But I’m still doing the same thing I was doing when I was twenty-one years old. …” he says, letting his voice trail off. And then he starts again, aiming a finger at me. “When you get old, you’ll have grandkids and security and family and insurance and all that sort of thing. Now that I’m old… I have a better tent.”

Campbell figured the hero as a sort of progressive force – “the champion not of things become but of things becoming; the dragon to be slain by him is precisely the monster of the status quo.” Transformation is at the heart of the heroic journey, but the adventure is incomplete until the hero’s return, which Campbell suggested may be the most difficult task of all: “The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world.”

Meriwether Lewis returned as the quintessential American hero, and two centuries later he is all but canonized. But he couldn’t cope with the impact of the world, the transition from adventure to ordinariness and, as newly appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory, numbing bureaucracy. He became an alcoholic and an opium addict. Only three years after his triumphant return, at the age of thirty-five, he killed himself.

“Regrets,” Campbell wrote, “are illuminations come too late.”

On the other hand, Hobo Dan – addicted to his lifestyle, as he puts it – has simply refused to heed the call to return at all. Dan is convinced that his autonomy represents a grand heroic adventure, and as I chat with him I can’t help but think of the classic children’s story Fish Is Fish by Leo Lionni, which I have read to my boys. It is the story of a pond, where a minnow and a tadpole get along swimmingly until they realize the differences between them – specifically when the tadpole sprouts legs. Having achieved froghood, he heads off to explore the world and returns with gleeful stories of land-based wonders. Naturally, the fish is envious and curious. So one day he flops himself onto land, realizing too late that he wasn’t meant for the air up there. Fortunately, his old friend happens upon him and nudges him back into the pond.

The story is about friendship and self-awareness, but to me it is also a tale about aspirations. Some people are fueled by ambition. They long to be princes. Others crave freedom. They just want to be frogs.

“I’m not homeless.” Dan says with a wink. “I’m an outdoorsman.”

He is also a product of his past, as we all are. Everything is prologue – as history was to mythology, as dinosaur bones were to dragon tales, as the Corps of Discovery was to Manifest Destiny, as the homesteaders of Iliad were to the sprawling ranches, as The Iliad is to The Odyssey. Even The Odyssey itself is primarily prologue. Homer enters the story at the tail end of Odysseus’ wanderings, revealing some of the most famous encounters in literature – from the one-eyed Cyclops to six-headed Scylla – merely in a few lines of flashback revealed through the protagonist’s storytelling. Odysseus has been gone for nearly two decades; The Odyssey takes place over the course of only about forty days. But the book is really about a new chapter in its protagonist’s life.

The lesson may be that while a man is a product of the myriad forces that formed him – his ancestry, his achievements, his fears, his regrets, his battles, his buried skeletons, his mother – the measure of him is where he paddles from there. Are we anchored to our past? Do we turn our personal histories into self-styled mythologies? Do we start to believe them?

It is time for me to move on. Dan accompanies me to the Aspect. We shake hands, and I climb behind the wheel. As I begin to drive away, Dan motions for me to roll down my window.

“You know what?” he says, holding a canoe paddle like a banner. “I like to think of myself as the last free man.”

I rumble over the Missouri and onto another uncertain stretch of highway, musing that we all make our own legends.