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I’ve never calculated the amount of money I spend on marijuana before because I’m afraid of what I’ll discover, but here are the facts: I go through roughly an eighth-an-ounce of marijuana per week. Good weed is typically around $50 per eighth, which works out to $200 per month, $2,400 per year, and $12,000 over the past five years, or the price of a slightly used Hyundai.

I answered the door in my pajamas.  The taller of the two girls standing there asked for my roommate, Sheldon.

“He didn’t come home last night,” I said.

“We know you,” the shorter one said.

“I think I served you once.”

“That’s right,” she said. “In Montana. Like a year ago.”

The three of us nodded, pleased to have cleared up that mystery.

“Would you like to come inside?” I asked.

I was living in a group home in Pacific Palisades.  He was a friend of my brother’s and had accidentally fallen in love with me. I remember a night when we lay side by side in the dark, he talking about his mother’s death and me, the loss of my wild crazy mother.  Both of us talking, tears secretly rolling down our cheeks.   At midnight I said, “It’s my birthday.  This is my first birthday without my mom.”  Then, in the pouring rain, he drove me to go buy tampons.  I sat in his 1976 Volare.  He ran up to the 7-11 window, tapped on the glass, and held up two different tampon boxes.  He was big and Puerto Rican and overly pierced and his laugh was awkward but something told me that with all of his giant features and doofiness he really did love me.

Two weeks ago, the local press went into a frenzy when a man named Don Kerr was arrested for possession of marijuana. His alleged offense was to sign for a package, delivered by the crack agents at the United States Postal Service to his New Paltz office, that contained a reported eight pounds of weed.

Kerr is my neighbor. The corner of his property touches mine, in the manner of Utah and New Mexico. (As I type this, in fact, I can see the back of his house). He’s a nice guy, a family man, a self-styled aging hippie, soft-spoken and personable, who played Bob Dylan covers on a beat-up acoustic guitar at the neighborhood block party this summer. He also happens to be—or happened to be, until his arrest—the president of the New Paltz school board. Which explains the media frenzy. And the local TV news van camped out in front of his house the day after the arrest.

In my circle, which is not especially laden with potheads, the news was something of a buzzkill. We felt bad for him, for his wife and kids, for the school district (no one wants to be the board president; Kerr had to be begged to take the job). The neighbors, far from turning on him, told that TV news truck to get the fuck out of New Paltz.

Even if the allegations are true—and Kerr pled not guilty, so even that is in doubt; far as I know, there’s no law against signing for a package—it’s almost certain that his plans for the product did not include distribution. Some people like to relax by fixing a stiff drink; he likes to smoke a bowl. Who cares?

* * *

I mention the Kerr controversy because the “supercommittee” charged with solving our nation’s debt crisis—has the super- prefix ever been a less worthy modifier?—is now two days away from an epic fail that will make the Kardashian divorce seem like an unqualified PR success.

Just as any disinterested observer with half a brain could, after five minutes, tell you exactly what deal will ultimately end the NBA lockout, that same half-brained disinterested observer could predict what deal will ultimately end this federal standoff: tax increases in the form of cuts to entitlements, combined with drastic reductions in services. As with the NBA, only the people in charge seem unaware of this. We keep hearing the same old party-plank talking points, with nary a new idea in sight.

Well, I have one, a proposal that will drastically reduce the nation’s prison population, eliminate billions of dollars in law enforcement spending, and add a huge source of revenue to the federal coffers:

Legalize pot.

Think about Kerr, about the resources used to arrest him, to try him, and, if it gets that far, incarcerate him. That’s a lot of dough, and for what? How is my neighbor and erstwhile school board president a menace to society? Why—seriously, why—is what he (allegedly) did a crime?

* * *

I’m reading a terrific book now: Last Call, Daniel Okrent’s expansive, exhaustive, and entertaining look at the Prohibition era, a work that puts all of the disparate forces at work at that time into historical context. (If you’re even remotely interested in that time period, run-don’t-walk and acquire that book.)

In 1913, Congress passed an amendment to allow the federal government to tax income. I’d assumed that they did that because we were in a situation like we are now, mired in debt. Not so. The income tax amendment was a necessary precursor to Prohibition. The Anti-Saloon League, far and away the most effective lobbyist group the United States has ever known—Wayne B. Wheeler, its mastermind, was the antecedent to Grover Norquist and Karl Rove—engineered passage of the Sixteenth Amendment in order to achieve its ultimate goal: the Eighteenth, Prohibition.

The ASL needed the income tax revenue to keep the lights on once Prohibition went down: prior to the Sixteenth Amendment’s tax on income, a staggering 30 percent of the federal budget was financed by an excise tax on alcohol. When the country went dry—which it did only on paper—that alcohol tax money evaporated, too.

The nation never stopped drinking, and alcohol was easily procured throughout Prohibition. But instead of collecting money from booze, the government began to spend money on its removal—a fool’s errand at best.

This is true now of marijuana.

* * *

We are, and always have been, a nation of drinkers. Another fun fact from Okrent’s book: the Puritans, the dour bunch who founded the country, came over from Europe with more beer than water in the hold of the Mayflower. They were not puritanical about their booze.

There are not as many potheads as imbibers in the U.S., and the process of growing marijuana, when you remove the part about having to conceal it from DEA agents, is far simpler than, say, distilling whiskey. There’s a reason it’s called weed. So it’s unlikely that the government would collect enough in taxes to underwrite a third of the budget. But would a marijuana tax be sufficient to pay for a health care overhaul? To keep teachers from being laid off? To keep more police on the streets? Isn’t it worth finding out?

(I should interject here that I am not a fan of the wacky weedus. I’ve smoked pot three times, the result being a coughing fit that made me sound like a late-stage consumptive, followed by a not-unpleasant sleepiness. I’d rather smoke a cigar.)

Is marijuana perfectly safe? Of course not. But neither is alcohol. Neither is tobacco. Neither is NutraSweet. Neither is high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, I’d argue that all four of those legal substances pose a greater threat to the public health and well-being than readily-available pot would.

Another Last Call fun fact: one of the legal ways to acquire alcohol during Prohibition was to have a doctor write you a prescription. This is, of course, already happening in California and other states with legalized medical marijuana. The (patchouli-scented) winds of change have already started to shift.

It’s only a matter of time before pot is legal. We should make that time now. I’d rather experiment with a little weed than see the entire economy go up in smoke.

Marijuana. Mary Jane. Reefer. No matter what you choose to call it, I have never been able to smoke pot. What for some people seems to be a relaxed good time has always been for me a paranoid journey to the center of my mind, where I sit shivering in a cerebral corner, wondering if I’ll ever be able to think normally again.

In college, I reluctantly got stoned with the happy party people around me. Most of these attempts ended with me feeling lost, floating in the universe, indefinitely wondering whether or not I had to pee. Time crawled by thick as resin as I tried to decide if I looked as crazy on the outside as I felt on the inside. If I was lucky, I found a bed to pass out in, mercifully ending my hyper-analytical mental anguish.

It seems like a wonderful ride for most, so for years I tried to stay on the bucking bronco of marijuana before permanently passing the reins to the other space cowboys. Abstaining from pot, combined with my love of exercising and rising early, eventually conspired to make me the least rock and roll chick to ever play guitar in a band. I am decidedly not cool; I’ve made my peace with this fact.

Throughout high school, however, I was still trying to smoke the stuff. My older sister and I would sometimes hide behind one of the many outbuildings on our farm to do it. We’d sit in the grass, leaning against the hay barn; two teenage girls smiling into the summery blue Missouri sky, giggling about nothing and everything. When my parents took the family to Disneyland, she and I got stoned in the It’s a Small World ride. It was there I learned that hundreds of creepy animatronic children singing a repetitive song about the world closing in on me do nothing to ease my pot smoking paranoia. Noted.

On family vacation in Las Vegas that summer, my sister and I quickly tired of the little kid games inside of Circus Circus where we were staying. There were only so many stuffed animals a teenager wanted to win. Bored and seeking fresh entertainment, we left the pink ponies and casino to walk the streets of Sin City. Ducking into an alley, we decided to make our stroll more interesting by smoking a joint she had brought along. Standing next to a ten-foot-high concrete block fence for privacy, by the dirt road that ran between buildings on either side of us, we proceeded to smoke marijuana.

We’d taken a few tokes and I was just starting to feel blurry when a car turned quickly into the alley, about fifty feet away. I brought the joint down from my mouth and held it at my side. I was hoping that the person turning into the alley would think I was only smoking a cigarette, stupidly forgetting that as a non-smoker I looked awkward smoking anything I tried. As the dark blue car drove by and I clumsily passed the joint, we realized in our dulled awareness that it was an unmarked police vehicle. So of course we did the worst thing possible. We panicked.

“That was a cop!” she squeaked as he drove past.

Get rid of it. Get rid of it. Get rid of it,” I whisper-screamed at her.

She frantically tried to toss the joint over the wall next to us. It backed up to a neighborhood, so there was no convenient way around to retrieve the contraband. If we could just get it over the wall, it would be out of sight and virtually unreachable.

My sister has always been petite, and she was unable to throw it over the high fence. The joint bounced off of the wall, rolling futilely back toward us on the dusty ground. We jumped away in fear, as if it was a spider. I grabbed it out of the sand where it sat mocking me like a turd in a litter box and tried to clear the concrete wall again. I’m taller at 5’9″ with greater reach, and it went over this time.

This all happened in the span of a few seconds, so before we could feel relief to have ditched the incriminating evidence, we saw brake lights. No doubt tipped off by our frantic chicken-like scrabbling and obviously guilty behavior, the officer turned around and drove back in our direction while we watched in mute terror. There was nowhere to run, as we were trapped in an alley and didn’t know the area. We both turned our nothing-to-see-here knobs up to eleven, and then he was getting out of the car. Meanwhile, the pot we’d smoked was the kind that creeps up on you, and I was feeling exponentially freaked out by the second. I quickly realized an intimidating police officer was even more paranoia-inducing than soulless puppet children singing at me en masse. My world of hope was quickly becoming a world of fear.

“Did I just see you two girls smoking a joint?” the officer demanded.

It was do or die time. Time to sell it like I’d never sold it before. If we got busted by this cop for pot, there would be no end to the trouble we’d get in. We’d be grounded until I started college for this one, and rightly so. We’d fucked up, big time. I summoned every bit of acting ability I had in my dumb fifteen-year-old body, and tried to push the part of me growing fuzzy from the drugs to the back, working hard for a moment of ass-saving clarity. I put on my best shocked and appalled face at the mention of pot, because pot was awful, and oh my gosh, how could anyone think I’d been smoking pot?

“No officer! I would never smoke pot. But I was trying to smoke a cigarette,” I replied, shame dripping from my voice, eyes cast downward in good girl humiliation. “It was the first time I’ve ever tried it and I didn’t even like it. It was so gross!”

“It looked like a joint to me, whatever you threw over that wall, young lady. If I drive both of you around to the other side, are we gonna find marijuana? Do you think your parents are gonna enjoy having to come pick you up from jail today?”

Shit. If I didn’t pull this off, we were going to end up in a cell, the weak teenage bitches of hardened Las Vegas prostitutes. I silently hoped my prison mistress would at least have a heart of gold. In full self-preservation mode, I quickly realized that my best psychological tactic would be to act so distraught about being caught smoking a cigarette that the pot thing would be downplayed. If I seemed truly disgusted about the cigarette, he might believe me innocent of the worse crime.

“Oh no, please, don’t tell my parents I was smoking a cigarette! They’ll be so mad at me because they hate smoking! This was the first time I’ve ever tried it and I thought it was so nasty. I’m never gonna smoke a cigarette again, I swear it,” I pleaded.

He asked again that if he went to the dreaded other side of the wall, would there be marijuana waiting? I repeated the Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Tried a Cigarette monologue, as if he hadn’t mentioned pot at all. I was working it. Totally owning it. I had the big, tear-filled eyes and the quivering lip; I epitomized the scared young girl gone astray. I was a living, breathing After School Special, begging for a second chance. Before I knew it, even I believed my lies. I was the innocent babe trying those yucky gosh darned cigarettes for the first time. And please don’t tell my parents I was smoking a cigarette, yes cigarette, can I say cigarette one more time? Because it was a cigarette and totally not marijuana, you know. Cough-cigarette-cough.

It finally worked. I couldn’t believe it, but it worked. The officer admonished us one last time with some sort of you kids stay out of trouble speech, got in his car, and drove away. Chastened and shaking like rabbits unexpectedly released from a snare trap, we headed back to the hotel, officially ending our stint as teenage streetwalkers. We walked dazed and confused into the pink nightmare of Circus Circus. Sad clowns and desperate elderly gamblers were definitely preferable to horrified flop sweat and handcuffs.

I never really gave myself much credit for my actions that day, always assuming the cop took pity on me, or had bigger fish to fry. But recently my mom mentioned to me that my sister had told her about the incident. I’m old enough now that my mom has heard most of my naughty stories, and I can only be grounded by myself, so this didn’t bother me. What shocked me was that my sister said my performance for the officer was amazing. She was blown away by my acting ability, and gave me full props for getting us out of what might have been the only arrest of our lives.

She also told my mother, “After I saw Tawni lie so convincingly that day, I knew I could never trust her again!”

Oops.


I think marijuana should be legalized.It is not a gateway drug and it offers a variety of important medicinal benefits. It’s a total no-brainer as far as I’m concerned.People should have the right to choose. But there is another very important reason that pot should be legal, one that I’ve not seen addressed much in the media.

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.

Sometime in the 1970s before my father became a voluntary mute, before my mother started going to the nude beach and growing marijuana, before my sister, Becca, was anorexic and before my brother, Josh, created a second home for himself on a platform three-stories high up a eucalyptus tree, we were a contained, orderly little family. I was six, quiet, and afraid of chaos and loud noises when Becca became friends with Alice Richter who lived in what was then the wildest house in the neighborhood.

Alice Richter, one of five kids, was Becca’s age, nine, but about a foot taller with white hair, eyebrows and lashes. She had hipbones that jutted out like boomerangs from below her flat belly. Her mother reminded me of Lucille Ball with her curly “done” hair and a voice that sounded like it had been born off the tip of a cigarette, which it had in fact. However, unlike my mother who suckled her cigarettes with a cup of coffee, Mrs. Richter puffed her two packs while sipping from a plaid, wool-lined canteen that hung on a shoulder strap, and which she carried with her continuously. Like the other women in the neighborhood, Mrs. Richter stayed home, cleaned her house and did laundry. So the “mess” in the Richter house was psychological—like a perfectly polished labyrinth set up for an anxious mouse.

When it was time for my sister to come home for dinner, it was up to me to summon her. The Richter phone was always busy when I called. I would hang up the yellow wall receiver, pick it up once more and redial over and over again while sitting on a stool at the counter in the family room looking into the kitchen at my mother cooking dinner. Eventually my mother would tire of my efforts and insist that I run down to their house, saying something like, “For crissakes! They’re not going to kill you! You’ll survive, go get her!”

I’d hop off the stool and often pick up Josh, if he was playing nearby on the family room floor. He liked to grasp onto me face-forward as I carried him toward the front door with all intentions of bringing him with me—a turtle shell against my vulnerable belly. But more often than not, Josh squirmed out of my arms and ran off before I could get him outside.

There were Five Stages of Terror at the Richter house. Stage One was the garage where the oldest son, Roger, hung out with his friends. Roger worked at an auto body shop painting mod designs on hot rod cars: sunsets, unicorns, blond ladies in red bathing suits. The garage door was always open, a car or two parked inside. Roger and his friends, who were the height of my father, or larger, huddled near the coffin-sized freezer in the back of the garage, drinking beer and smoking what I, at six-years old, could identify as marijuana (my mother’s pot habit, which at the time was only occasional, had been clearly explained to me so I that I would know to keep it a secret).

“Who you looking for little girl?” someone would invariably shout, and whatever I answered (“my sister” or “Becca”) they pretended not to hear for someone would walk out of the garage to interrogate me, asking questions like, “You looking for beer? You want a smoke?”

Once I’d made it past the garage, I’d knock on the front door that no one opened. (Honestly, there never was a day when I knocked and the door was opened.) I could hear top-forty radio playing inside, I could hear Mrs. Richter whistling so perfectly and purely that she could have done the opening tune for The Andy Griffith Show. I could hear the fluffy, dust ball-looking dog, Frank, yipping. And there, on the porch, I was faced with the Second Stage of Terror: the decision of how to proceed. Should I just open the door and go in, or go back to the garage and ask Roger if I could go in through the garage door? On the odd occasion that the front door was locked, I had to face the boys in the garage again. But usually the front door was unlocked, so I would eventually open it, stick my head in, and then step inside.

The yapping dog’s noise would build to a frantic crescendo. I was not afraid of dogs, but this one made enough racket that I didn’t bend down to pet it or do anything else that might calm his hysteria. I just waited for someone to come see what all the ruckus was about and find me.

If it was the youngest of the three brothers, Thad, who found me, he would look at me, say nothing, then walk away. If it was the middle of the three brothers, Marcus, or if it was Marcus and Thad together, the Third Stage of Terror, The Taunt, would begin.

The Taunt was something I had never encountered before and it was something that was, during my childhood in California, unique to the Richter household. Marcus Richter was, I believe, the composer of the taunt and the one who seemed to take the most joy in doing it. With a clear, high-pitched voice, a blond shaved head that looked like velvet, and sharp blue eyes, Marcus would lean in toward me, his shoulders weaving like a boxer’s, as he screeched, “Hee hee Jessica. Heeeee Heeee Jessica. Heeeeeee Heeeee. . . .” The Hee part of the taunt would grow louder and more maniacal the longer Marcus went on. He’d circle me, his lean, snaky body bending and twisting as he chanted, “Heeeeeee heeee Jessica . . . .” Eventually the taunt would grow to a rhythmical “Hee hee, ho ho, hi hi, hee hee, ho ho hi hi . . . .” And if that went on long enough it merged into a song that was shouted in my face and went like this, “Viva la viva la viva la WAH, viva la viva la WO, viva la viva la viva la WAH, viva la viva la WO . . . .” The coda was the most musical part of The Taunt. Marcus often got down on his knees and looked up at me as if he were pleading while he sang, “Cry for you, I’m going to cry cry cry for you, I’m going to cry for you . . . . ” When Thad joined in he was just another voice, as he never became fully immersed in the choreography the way Marcus did. According to Becca, this chanting taunt went on all day long, indiscriminately, to anyone who entered the house and it didn’t bother her in the least. (I must point out here that Marcus Richter grew up to be a Hari Krishna. Yes, a chanting Hari Krishna.)

If Marcus or Thad were not the ones to find me on the entrance hall landing, then it was usually Mrs. Richter. She spoke so rapidly, I never quite understood what she said and was always unsure if she was even speaking to me. She’d touch my elbow at some point and direct me to sit on the blue wing chair besides Mr. Richter in his blue wing chair while someone fetched Becca. Mr. Richter read the newspaper without speaking or looking at me, thus creating Terror Number Four as I uncomfortably tried to figure out where to look, or how to sit, while I waited for my sister to appear. And since Mrs. Richter usually sent Marcus or Thad Richter upstairs to get Becca and they never seemed to follow her orders, if often seemed as if I had to endure the Fourth Stage of Terror for as long as twenty minutes until Mrs. Richter entered the room again to refill Mr. Richter’s glass and was reminded that I was there waiting. Of course it always occurred to me during this waiting period that terrors two through four could be avoided if Mr. Richter, whose chair faced the front door, simply got up, opened the door when I knocked, then walked upstairs and retrieved my sister, or bellowed from the bottom of the stairs (the way my own father would) for her to come down immediately.

The Fifth Stage of Terror occurred when I had had enough of either waiting in the blue wing chair, or when I had gathered up the courage to walk away from Marcus in the middle of The Taunt (in which case the Fifth Stage of Terror would be the Fourth as we’d skip the other Fourth Stage of Terror: sitting in the living room with Mr. Richter) and took the unnerving walk upstairs to find Becca on my own.

Alice Richter’s bedroom was the last room down a long a hallway of Richter children bedrooms. Just before her room was her sister Mary Jane’s room. Mary Jane was a year younger than I and had the energy and spastic movements of the Richter boys. She was as skinny as a rope, as blond as the sun, with big gaping teeth that were too big for her face. If she spotted me, she would run and leap on top of me like a crazed tree frog, her stringy arms and legs all over my body. Once, she even bit me on the shoulder to try and convince me to stay and play with her. She was feral in a way that Josh wasn’t as there didn’t seem to be even a glint of prudence behind her wild blue eyes. (By the time we were teenagers Mary Jane was freakishly beautiful with her sun-browned skin and silky white hair. But people found her disturbing as she seemed to have an old person’s aphasia and could never find the words for what she wanted to say, often grunting and using hand signals for a simple sentence like, “I burned my arm on the iron.” By this time I had a great affection for her and would often speak for her at parties and dances at school.)

Once I had fended Mary Jane off my back I would run to Alice Richter’s room where the suspender-wearing James Taylor poster covered the door. I’d knock and then open the door it if it wasn’t opened for me within seconds.

“Becca,” I’d say, my voice in line with my pumping heart, “Mom said you have to come home for dinner NOW.” I’d turn and rush down the hall, past Mary Jane leapfrogging off the end of her bed, down the stairs, past Mr. Richter in his chair, past the sounds of Mrs. Richter in the kitchen and the rumbling sounds of Thad and Marcus riding a bare mattress down the rumpus room steps, out the door, and past the men-sized boys drinking beer and smoking pot in the garage and up the street to our cul de sac where everything seemed peaceful, calm, orderly.

When I entered our house with my mother quietly cooking dinner, a camel cigarette bobbing around her mouth, the sunlight streaming in and highlighting the mown-grass pattern in the green shag family room carpet, the sliding glass door looking out to the perfectly patterned, precisely geometric lemon orchard, I felt so happy that this was my family, this was my life. I was not a Richter child.

Of course I had no idea how quickly things would soon change in my own house.

Ghosts

By Robin Antalek

Essay

My childhood was a combination of magic and terror.

I come from a loud, sprawling clan of first generation Italian Americans who, for the most part, resided within walking distance of each other in the hamlet of Pelham, New York, a suburb of Manhattan.

They loved food, God, their newly adopted country, baseball, and their family with fervent yet equal abandon. My earliest memories are of the wrap around porch of my grandparents’ home overflowing with cousins and aunts and uncles eating, drinking and talking all at once; of my older cousins wearing teased bouffant hairstyles, and white lipstick, their hemlines inching way above the knee; of my grandfather and his brothers drinking homemade wine and smoking hand-rolled cigars beneath the grape arbors in the backyard; of going into Manhattan, my hand held firmly in my grandfather’s, to watch the circus elephants arrive in town linked trunk to tail; of Jones Beach, of Coney Island; of rambling village parades where nearly half of those marching were related to me. Of holidays: of Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, Halloween and the Fourth of July, where the house was always full of people who had known me since I was born.

When I was eight my mother did the unthinkable: she moved us to a speck of a town in southwest Florida at the lip of the Everglades. It was 1968. The world she had grown up in had changed enormously. A President had been murdered. A classmate who had gone to Mississippi to register voters had disappeared. People no longer married for life. Sex was no longer something you waited for. The town she chose was so small you had to squint to find it on a map. My relatives, whose sole relationship with the Sunshine State was firmly rooted in the beach cabana culture of Fort Lauderdale and Miami, shook their heads in disbelief as we left behind all that we had ever known.

We arrived with very little from our old life with the understanding that it just wouldn’t fit. The house in my new town was single-story without a basement, and everything inside, without shadow, was a violent bright white. Our new neighbors, parents to a roll call of children who seemed to arrive in two-year intervals, insisted we call them Miss Ivey Dell and Mr. David, and after they spanked their kids they read them Bible scriptures and told them Jesus loved them. A long black snake slithered out of our laundry basket. Bright green lizards clung to the screens on the windows. The yard didn’t grow grass; instead it was filled with mounds of crushed shells and fossilized rocks. Slowly it began to dawn on us that our furniture was far from the only thing in our new life that just didn’t fit. Still, we stayed and slowly, the new life started to take over the old.

As childhoods went back in the late sixties and early seventies, mine was fairly autonomous. On weekends and summer vacations, I remember leaving the house on my bike in the morning and not coming home until dinner. The landscape was so raw and clean that it was easy to be a pioneer. The beaches were pure back then, hardly a condo or house in sight, just long unending strips of white sand bordered on one side by the aqua water of the Gulf of Mexico and on the other straggly pine forests surrounded by clumps of sea grape and sea oats that were not yet considered endangered. As a child as I stood on the shore and contemplated the horizon, it seemed as if I had discovered the tipping point at the end of the world and Cuba, a place even more wild and unpredictable, was just beyond my reach on the other side as a dare.

I learned to shuffle my feet as I entered the water to ward off the prehistoric-looking stingrays and horseshoe crabs with the barbed venomous tail that burrowed in the shallow shoreline. I watched the waters turn blood red from a surge of bacteria known as the Red Tide, and I helped my mother cut the jaws out of sharks that had died and washed ashore, and dried them in the sun to sell to tourists who had just begun to trickle into town. I swam to the sandbar and beyond. I swung off the ropes of a sailboat. I felt the blunt bump of a shark nose as it brushed against my legs. I was young and invincible just like the lyrics to a bad pop anthem.

As a teenager, the deserted beaches held marvelous pockets of privacy. I had a bikini that made me braver and more sure of myself than my old ragged one piece. There were bonfires and boys with long hair, sun-bleached white on the tips, whose wiry bodies were bronze and toned from endless hours surfing the waves. Boys who gave me rides on the handlebars of their bikes to the beach. Boys I curved around on a sandy blanket, boys who broke my heart, boys whose hearts I broke. Altering our moods seemed innocent; a joint passed around the bonfire mouth to mouth until it was gone, a bottle of limb warming amber liquid, origins unknown.

One of those nights I wandered away from the bonfire with a friend. Walking along the beach at night, the sounds of the waves rushing the shore, the moonlight turning the sand silver. Even in the dark the air was still so warm. I was buzzed enough that my limbs felt fluid, but not so buzzed that what I saw emerge from the woods in front of me wasn’t real. Three men in white hoods, their bodies shrouded in volumes of white cloth that was folded and gathered crudely, like a child’s elementary attempt at a Halloween costume. I grabbed a hold of my friend and because we were sixteen we stood for a moment longer than we should have, longer than common sense, before we turned and took off back down the beach towards the bonfire.

I didn’t look over my shoulder until we were in the light of the fire, back among the clumps of people who greeted us with a long-neck beer and the wave of a joint. Puffed with bravado, we told our story accompanied by the roaring of the Gulf and the hiss and pop of the fire. A ragged group was formed to investigate. Someone talked about the remains of a burning cross, a lost dog, the forlorn cry of a child in the night, a stolen bike, a piece of torn white fabric caught on a branch, as if all these fragments, real or imagined, were connected. Around the fire, our faces appeared haunted and distorted by the flickering flames. We huddled under blankets loosely tented around our shoulders till dawn, until the gulls cawed and the sky streaked pink behind the slowly dilating charcoal smudge of night sky.

We had no idea what we were waiting for or what we would do once it arrived. We had no idea what was to come.

 

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23 Comments »

Comment by Irene Zion
2009-10-20 08:58:28

Robin,
What started out as a lovely family tale morphed into a story of disassociation to a new life and then into the story of a child’s introduction to hatred and terror.
Phew. I’m exhausted riding through it.
Good job.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:45:57

Irene, I had the same experience reading your last lovely piece. Thanks so much!

Comment by Matt
2009-10-20 09:32:18

Wow.

’scuse me. I kind of feel the need to go surfing now. Back later.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:47:03

hmmmm…… you can’t ever separate the boy from the board!

Comment by Richard Cox
2009-10-20 10:33:01

This is a dense and vivid journey. Nicely done.

As a child I always feared the moment I would forget to shuffle my feet and plant my foot squarely on top of a stingray hidden under the murky surface of the water. Luckily it never happened. Well, not yet, anyway.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:47:54

Keep shuffling…. that’s my motto anyway. Works for most everything. Thanks so much for the compliments, Richard

Comment by Zara Potts
2009-10-20 10:36:34

God, how creepy.
But what lovely writing Robin! I could almost smell the salt from the ocean and the smoke from the bonfire.
What happened next??

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:48:52

What happened next? I fell in love with another sensitive soul who stayed up with me all that night…..

Comment by jmblaine
2009-10-20 10:54:28

A professor once told me that good writers
describe well
and the touch you put on things
is magic here,
where have you been?

ps. the Klan winds through my childhood as well
but I cant find the words to write about it
yet

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:51:22

My God…thanks. I am humbled by the compliments. When I began this piece I thought I wanted my “Klan” experience to start it off – only to find the entire thing flipped around in the telling. You might find a way to tell your story yet. A wise teacher once said to me when I was stuck that I should think about…”going in the back door.” Have you?

Comment by Simon Smithson
2009-10-20 13:36:09

Wow, good piece!

Like Irene, this one caught me by surprise. It started in one place, then ended up in another.

Sort of like childhood, I guess.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:52:32

Simon – you are so right I hadn’t thought of childhood that way until I read your comment!!! I love TNB people!

Comment by Col. Hector Bravado
2009-10-21 04:48:08

You have a great way of letting what was then a new landscape help tell this story of strangeness and change. Beautiful, restrained portraiture. The cutting of a shark’s jaw sticks in my head. And the emergence of hillbilly hatred from the woods…it reminds me of a story my dad told me.

When I was very young, my parents — hippies fresh from Rhode Island in their red VW microbus — moved us to southwest Missouri in service of my dad’s quest to wash his hands of society to what degree he could. The Ozarks were beautiful. Some things about the Ozarks were not. He described to me an early meeting with a realtor/land guy who, upon their first appointment, met them not at a prospective piece of land, but a black graveyard.

“See that?” the man said to my mystified parents, pointing at the headstones. “That’s why we don’t have a nigger problem in this county.”

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:51:33

Your anecdote leaves me speechless. Have you ever told that story?

Comment by Col. Hector Bravado
2009-10-24 06:17:56

Only here, on this comment thread. And to a few friends.

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Autumn
2009-10-21 06:57:16

Your writing about Florida really knocked me back to my childhood: slopping through low-tide mud to hunt for urchins and horseshoe crabs, swimming past the sand bar, bonfire and boys with long hair. I was a teen in the 90s, but I guess the experience never changes.

I, luckily, never had any experience with the Klan, but racism was definitely alive and well in Florida back then too. And, I fear, sadly still is.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:56:02

When writing this, I was never quite sure if a place that held such a strong and lasting impact on my memory would translate on paper… I’m glad it resonated with you. Writing about childhood can be unsettling when you layer in adult perceptions….

Comment by LitPark
2009-10-21 10:23:41

Haunting, and beautifully told.

Comment by Greg Olear
2009-10-21 14:18:18

I agree with Susan. Haunting (they look like ghosts, after all) and beautifully told.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:52:39

Greg and Susan… thanks so much….

Comment by Marni Grossman
2009-10-21 19:57:49

Florida’s such an anomaly. It’s a southern state, but it’s easy to forget that amidst the flea markets of Boca and the parties of Miami. You shine a lense on a very different Florida. And you do it so damn well.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 10:01:59

You’re so right about that! Florida is indeed an anomaly…. one forgets that it is much more than the birthplace of Mickey Mouse! Going back to that town, which I did this summer for the first time in nearly fifteen years, was still unsettling. Although not sure if it was just me trying to reconcile past and present, or there was something else at work. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece – thanks!

Comment by D.R. Haney
2009-10-25 18:56:42

Very well described, Robin, as others have said, and I love the conclusion, which to me is reminiscent of the final fadeout of a European art film from the 1960s, though it’s hard to explain why. I think, for example, of the girl vainly waving to Mastroianni on the beach at the end of La Dolce Vita. Or maybe it’s simply sufficient to use the word “haunting” and leave it at that.







There are certain hobbies that, while possessed of an inherent appeal, I would never take up because the subculture attached to them so repels me.

Take golf.I enjoy whacking the little white ball—I’m pretty good on the driving range, truth be told—but I would never go so far as to play the game for the simple reason that I don’t want to spend a whole afternoon with golfers.

Warning: this post is not for anyone under 18, faint of heart, or my mother.

When you think of Amsterdam, certain things immediately come to mind:

So imagine my surprise when I, for all intents and purposes, a “good girl”, was asked to be the keynote speaker at an event celebrating pubic hair (or lack thereof) at an erotic novelty shop.

You see, I made this little film that has caused quite a ruckus, tarnishing the shiny patina on my ‘good’ name.

It’s a silly film. A cute film. Despite the title and subject matter, it’s extremely innocent…

… if you also discount the pink shots and porn stars.

My very first bikini wax (at the age of 34) was a toxic disaster. No seriously. Toxic. Some people just shouldn’t do some things.

A lesson learned too late.


Image © 2007 She Shoots to Conquer, LLC.
All Rights Reserved

When infection set in, I immediately called the friend who had recommended that I try it in a full-on rage.

Words like “follicular” and “rape”, “misogyny”, and “death of feminism” spewed forth from my frothy lips. “Why do we do this to ourselves?” “How is this considered beautiful?” “What perv wants to fuck a twelve-year-old!”

After she talked me down, she explained to me that what happened to me didn’t happen to everyone. Clearly, I had a bad reaction.

This made me even madder.

“Really??? So this isn’t just one of the perks???”

She jokingly told me that I ought to make a documentary about the experience; and having just finished watching Why We Fight, she suggested I call it Why We Wax and make it a spoof; noting that these particular WMDs were obviously Weapons of Mass Distraction.

Fast forward five months.

Finding ourselves with nothing better to do that summer, we decided to turn a bad joke into a better reality. We’d make the film together. A short one. Funny. Without any man-bashing or über-feminine agenda. We’d make a fair and balanced assessment gathered from all perspectives: Gay & Straight, Male & Female. We’d tackle fashion, function, fetish, fad, feminism and fun. We’d research the origins of the Brazilian (not Brazil, btw) and dig through the annals of time to get to the root of where it all began.

And so now, just one short year after completion, our little film is in competition at the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) in the company of some of the most acclaimed documentaries of 2008 from around the world.  Cool, huh?

But not really the point of this little tale, is it?

You want to know how this ‘good’ girl ended up in the company of Candida RoyalleXaviera Hollander and Willem van Batenburg, don’t you?

You naughty thing, you.

Well, it’s simple enough. Bod-mod trends (as with most everything else) seem to start with porn, become embraced by the gay community and eventually get watered down and become acceptable for mainstream consumption.

So who better to start with than porn stars?

Candida Royalle quickly became our little porn mommy. We loved her! Candida is not only a leader in female-centric adult films, but she herself is an enlightened, empowering woman and successful entrepreneur. Hers was an incredibly intense interview and it was she who connected us with the brilliant ladies who own and operate Mail&Female – Amsterdam’s version of Babeland – when she heard the film was going abroad.

And these Mail&Female broads whipped up an event too spectacular for words: An entire evening devoted to the celebration of SCHAAMHAAR (pubic hair).

Could a little film like ours ask for better press???

There was to be a coloring contest!

Fun Betty’ give-a-ways!

Hair-based performance art!

Vintage early-80s porn with hirsute girl-on-girl action.

Just like any other cocktail party, really…

… where the cocks have tails.

And at the center of it all was… me.

The ‘good’ girl.

What would my mother say???

To kick off the evening, I gave a speech about the film and a clip was shown. After which, a lengthy Q&A ensued.

Now, I’ve done a fair amount of these sessions over the past year and American audiences have had some interesting questions that have led to evocative discussions. But Americans have been well-trained, or are too prudish, to ever ask anything too personal.

Or maybe I’ve just been lucky.

The Nederlanders were different. These people were interested in every sordid detail, from the exact (and I mean exact) description of my malady to my own pelt preferences (both personal and partner-based) and everything in between, like: “Describe how your cunt* felt without hair for the first time. Surely you enjoyed the licking much more than before.”

*“Cunt” (or “Kut” in Dutch) is considered quite harmless, but is nonetheless shocking when you’re jetlagged all to hell.

Now normally, I would have come up with some quippy retort to deflect such intimate and what some may consider rude questions, but it was as if, suddenly, in these surroundings, I was in Bizarro-world, where it was good to be bad and bad to be good.

I mean, I was surrounded by crotchless panties and impossibly long strands of anal beads.

What happens in Amsterdam stays in Amsterdam, right?

Fueled by less than four hours’ sleep in 36 hours’ time, three glasses of prosecco, the residual effects of the Klonopin/Whiskey chaser I had on the flight over ‘The Pond’ and a slight contact high from the oh-so-fragrant streets, I decided to let loose and answer each question in minute detail. These people genuinely wanted to know, and in Bizarro-world, I wanted to tell them.

In what rapidly became a lively and animated group discussion, Xaviera Hollander and I debated the best way to ‘prune a hedge’. Willem van Batenburg and I talked shop about the infamous bed scene and when someone challenged me, calling me a hypocrite based on my personal aesthetic desires vs. the conclusion we arrived at in the film, I threw my hand on my hip and saucily retorted in a manner that delighted the audience:

“Listen, sister. I judge not. I’ll take what I can get, however I can get it. If it comes the way I like it, so much the better for me… and for him!”

I made bad girls around the world proud that night.

And no one would be the wiser.

Because what happens in Amsterdam stays in Amsterdam.

Of course, I forgot that the entire evening was being filmed, to be shown on Holland-wide television as part of the IDFA Opening Night festivities.

Bad girl.

Very bad girl.