Wildness, and the fact that we had entered its lair, struck me somewhere between the fast train out of Paris and the local bus ride through purple fields full of growing, buzzing life. Surrounding us was a beautiful, ancient nowhere, fit to my imagination exactly—right down to the circles of cypresses waving their pointy treetops. One dirt road trickled past tiny white towns. The air smelled like a soap shop. Crows cawed and soared between rolling hills. Orange sun. Blue sky. Grapes.

I could hardly believe our good fortune, and yet, this one-way bus ticket to the farmhouse, officially called ‘Les Moutons’, felt like the second chance I knew we’d get. The three of us dreamed of a bucolic adventure in the South of France, and though we had gotten a little sidetracked, we were here. Ready. Determined to live off the land.

I bothered Mae again for the arrangements she had made with Denis, the proprietor of Les Moutons whom she sweet-talked into giving us a chance:

  1. We were to wait at this unremarkable, one-bench-on-the-side-of-the-road station.
  2. “Someone” would meet us.
  3. In exchange for room and board, we were to mix cement, lay brick, hammer old plaster and stone, garden, pitch hay into the stables, share amenities and meals with the other travelers and ideally speak French since most of them weren’t native English speakers.

All of this had sounded enticing and rustic from the noisy youth hostel pay phone in Paris. Just perfect, in fact. But the bus had roared off thirty minutes ago and besides the old men and tidy, country grandmothers who lowered their eyes or suspiciously glanced our way, we were alone. I thought about the manual labor.

“How hard could it be?” Mae said easily, handing me her last cigarette.

“What does ‘Les Moutons” mean?”

“It means ‘the sheep’,” she answered.

I opened a bag of peanut M & M’s and worriedly munched.

Kay, inspired by the remote station, pulled out her sketchpad and boldly drew one lingering fellow in a dirty trench coat with charcoal, not handsome, slightly creepy.

Young. American. Girls the old people said with their eyes.

I counted my 75 francs, reminding myself we were on the border of the French and Italian countryside, one of Europe’s lands of plenty. For a while we could live for free and keep our eyes open for a grape-picking job, a goal I felt oddly determined to fulfill. I had told everyone I knew—friends, neighbors, even my parents’ colleagues—that I’d be picking grapes for three months, and the wonder in their eyes allowed me to see myself, finally, as a girl who lived on the edge. My mother’s coworkers in particular marveled, what an adventurous departure and what kind of city girl would take such a risk. If I failed to pick a single grape, I’d have to handle their disappointment in addition to my own. I needed to at least try to find my edge. Truthfully, I was terrified I didn’t have one.

I reminded Mae and Kay of the lucrative grape scenario awaiting us in the next four weeks. The leaves hadn’t even started to turn down south, but I knew harvest finished by late October.

“We don’t have to pick grapes,” Kay said, still sketching. “There are figs to pick in Nice. There are oranges to pick in Italy.”

“But we came to Provence to pick grapes,” I insisted.

“And to drink wine,” Mae laughed.

I might have joined in if it were three weeks ago in the 107th bistro, if I were still operating on the hope of making Eve’s Starry Night portrait of our French adventure come to life. But things were not exactly going to plan. On one hand we were running on a dream, but the cosmic order wouldn’t carry us for long.

“I believe life will help us out,” Kay countered. “We just have to recognize the signs.”

She looked up to show her drawing to the creepy bystander, who squinted and shuffled away. Un-offended, she tucked the page into her notebook and started another.

I agreed about signs. The statue of Pan practically led me here. But when would the next one come?

A pickup truck full of grapes rambled past and spilled purple bunches at our feet. The three of us scrambled to collect the fruit and, while hungrily eating even the brown ones, an angular female driver with a wino’s smile waved us over to her tiny, filthy car; our chariot to Les Moutons.

“I’m Fabian,” she said. “No English.”

It was a long, upward drive. She wheeled around hairpin turns, chatting nonstop and too fast for me to translate. Road signs for every new mountain town showed up 20 kilometers apart. We entered Forcalquier, once the capital of Haute-Provence with its bell tower and cathedral, but now a small city of 12th century doorways and aerial views of the whole region. On an empty cobblestone street thick with late afternoon shadows, Fabian pulled up on the curb and turned to us with serious eyes.

“Do you need something to smoke?”

“Cigarettes?” Mae said, politely declining the offer of drugs.

“Cigarettes.” Fabian laughed. “Okay, mes Americaines.”

She disappeared into a dark apartment and left us in the car.

Certain people look like they belong anywhere, and Mae, once out of the car and surveying the busy town square, was one of those people. She was small-framed like a southern belle but dark, with giant, wide set eyes and a braid down her back, gypsy-like. I envied how Mae invited casual hellos from cool-looking French people: a thoughtful, cap-wearing fellow with a guitar case, an exquisitely plain teenaged girl in a hand-woven sweater. Minutes had passed, and already Mae had been offered a bouquet of fresh wildflowers by a grocer like any other beloved local.

I had tried acting like a local in New York, but never came into my own. After work at the jazz club, I walked down Riverside Drive dreaming of living in one of the grand, pre-war apartments, writing art films by day and socializing by night. On weekends I braved gang-ridden neighborhoods in order to stay at my trumpet player boyfriend’s apartment on Avenue D, where late night parties meant sitting on the floor listening to music, getting high.  But none of it, not the walks of wishful thinking or the daring downtown love life, brought out my inner Manhattanite. Perhaps the wine and the valleys in Provence, the distance from city pressures, was a better fit for the inner me, who was now free to emerge like a ghost unchained. And Forcalquier was ghostly. Shards of sun light played tricks with the shadows, and the rugged, thin townies striding in suede jackets weren’t just distant and cool, but wary and even cautious of the eerie mountain echoes, of the low, bright moon that shone simultaneously with the setting sun.

It struck me then; we were in the land of Pan.

Fabian emerged from the apartment, dreamy eyed and ready for the moonlight drive.

An hour later, the car strained its way up a different, west-facing hill. At the top I saw the silhouette of a crumbling chateau, beautiful 500 years ago, and the dusty, candlelit faces of a half dozen smiling strangers. Denis was not among them. These were the workers, people like us, who helped haul our backpacks out of the car and into our chambers. Mine was a monastic room flanking the barn. I set my bag down next to the mattress—sheet, wool blanket and pillow on the floor—and regarded the tiny desk and chair, a candle and a box of matches. That was it, besides a glassless window overlooking a frighteningly dark pasture.

We dined in the dark on the outdoor terrace. I couldn’t see the food, but it tasted delectably herby. Eleven of us all talked at once including Denis who, at the head of the table and unlit by anything more than stars, was just the presence of a medium-sized man with a loud, emphatic voice. He talked about the charm of the estate; the large stone terrace; the dilapidated house itself, and the fairytale views of white hilltop towns. Someone used the word ‘magical.’ As he promised, all became visible the next morning during our communal breakfast of breads, preserves and coffee–a meal that would at once make me feel nostalgic for and superior to New York Sunday brunches. But that first night alone in my bed, tipsy from the wine, all I saw was shape-shifting darkness– out the window, behind my own eyes, and in the empty, unremarkable room I had wanted so badly to find.

I wrote to my parents, just one long letter over the course of our stay. I maintained a portrait of good, European living and downplayed the blur of construction. Long, happy outdoor dinners into the night, local wines, and peculiar sights like the ruins of a citadel, and horses in medieval dress parading through town on market days. I didn’t mention that sledge hammering stone and mixing cement started at sunrise. Or how I had sliced my finger while wrapping a wire mesh.  The truth was, I overlooked my own white, dusty underwear. I smelled, but so did everyone unless they took a cold shower on a dirt floor bathroom. Though my body ached with each step to the swimming hole, a blue crevasse in a stone quarry, I maintained my idealism; I was happy—happier—to be living a hard adventure than going through the motions of lectures and libraries.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Writing to you from the dining table on the terrace of this soon to be ‘maison extraordinaire’. This is where we (down to the six of us) eat all our meals (including afternoon tea) together, as well as practice French and English skills, sometimes late into the evening. Today is Monday, and only Mae, Kay and I are doing work on the house, while Denis (the owner) and Patrick (the native Marseillan construction professional) are in a nearby town purchasing some more cement. As you might have gathered from my vague descriptions, everything here at Les Moutons is outdoors, made of stone, and electricity-free–our living quarters included. The work is going well, that, is, what there is of it for us to do. According to a few young people also on leave from University, things will slow down a bit as a good percentage of the workers have left and returned to their other lives. What remains to be done is the electricity, for which we need an electrician. Hopefully Denis will still have things for us to do. Hopefully the idea that we are three young women and not three young men will not settle in until we are ready to leave.

He is kind of a strange character, Denis. Harmless, but strange. He is going about building this bed and breakfast maison all by himself and as frugally as possible. He has had ads in at least 20 newspapers through Europe for workers—amateur or professional, male or female, to come live in Forcalquier, a beautiful medieval enclave, and work to help rebuild this house. Indeed it is a good idea and a clever way to go about doing it, but seems like it will take a long time (it’s already been two years) and it might begin to get frustrating. It seems like we arrived during a transitional phase for him; like he might be totally reworking his original plans of action in buildings this place. I am finding his behavior a little disconcerting…

 

On the night we were to cement the second floor, Denis actually spoke to me. By starlight, I shoveled stones and dry clay into the cement mixer while Denis turned the crank. He had balanced a Buddha lamp on an overturned wheelbarrow, plugging it into a portable generator. He handed me a cup of tea when I stopped to wipe my brow.

“It’s hard work, eh?”

It was an obvious question, and yet after days of not saying so I almost started to cry. The construction site was a mess; boards laid as walkways over deep pits, buckets of brick, piles of white plaster.

“This house. I’m at the end of my money. We should have been done by now,” he said.

I said something plain and accommodating. What I had thought would be a conversation about my formidable attitude, about Mae, Kay and my exceptional efforts, was just a forum for Denis’s bitterness, which he tried to hide.

“It’s beautiful, though eh?” he picked up a shovel and threw the cement mixture into the machine twice as fast as me. “We are lucky to be in Haute-Provence. To work by the light of the Buddha together, in the mountains, for just a short time.”

I didn’t really know who the Buddha was. The statue’s green belly glowed, and its smile mocked me in a way that made me think for the first time about returning to college.

Denis’s bullish movements and distracted small talk pulled us toward an uncomfortable bottom line.

“So, what else do you girls have planned?”

“We’re waiting for a sign,” I said mysteriously.

“Me too,” he said into the dark.

That night, after pouring the cement perfectly over 1800 square feet, I went to bed feeling like Denis and I had bonded. Even if the construction work tapered off in coming days, I believed he wouldn’t mind our staying on for a while. Not because he was particularly good natured, or sensitive, but because he understood about waiting for signs.

* * *

“You know, there’s not much for you to do. Besides the electrician, I’m not taking anyone else until next year. One of you can stay with me, but otherwise you girls need to go.”

It was three days later and everyone had left Les Moutons; back to Universities, warmer parts of the Mediterranean, or regular lives from which they had vacationed. Mae, Kay and I had tried busying ourselves with light gardening work and organizing in the garage, but our mock activities failed to convince even Patrick, who was fond of our crappy language skills and bourgeois expectations of things like laundry.

I tried not to show Denis I was hurt. “But we haven’t gotten our sign.”

His temper started to turn. “I’ve got my own problems, Suzanne. Torrential floods are predicted to hit the area. All of this work will be ruined unless we shut things down. All of you can’t stay here.”

Again, this second mention of just one of us staying on, presumably as Denis’s “friend,” fell heavily. Frankly, I didn’t want to share Denis’s bed. He had a temper and a mustache. But besides packing our bags and walking down the road, he wasn’t offering another option. Panic rose in my chest.

“We’ll figure something out,” Mae added quickly, preparing to negotiate. “How long do we have? When does the electrician come? When do the floods come?”

Denis quickly checked with Patrick en Francais. “The floods are coming next week, Wednesday or Thursday. Richard Simmons will be here after the weekend,” he murmured to himself, now. “He’ll have a couple of days to get the lights and heat going, to set up the pump so I don’t drown.”

“Richard Simmons?” Kay asked.

Denis looked up. “The electrician. He’s driving down from England.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. What’s so funny?”

We could barely speak, picturing the tiny shorts, the wild hair, and the homosexually charged enthusiasm. How could this not be our sign?

We were still laughing as Denis stormed away, mounted his neglected stallion, and rode off until he disappeared into a tiny, inconsequential dot.

…this past weekend, which just ended today, we spent in the city of Marseille. Denis suggested we go see more of France, and Patrick, the carpenter, drives there each weekend to see his son Julian, so we drove with him there and back. We ended up staying in the shady part of town, near the Old Port where all the fishing commerce takes place between France, Spain, and North Africa. We walked around and took the bus to visit the beaches, which was nice, but there’s an ominous undercurrent of corruption here, even at night in the center square where all the young people hang out on motorbikes. There was a lawless feeling that anything could happen at anytime (Marseille is also the heroin capital of the world). I’m not interested in going back anytime soon.

Denis sort of insisted that we take the weekend to travel, but I’m looking forward to getting back to the farm. I’m thinking about renting a bicycle for easier transportation. It is starting to get cold, though, and it’s supposed to flood. If you could please find my blue Levis (in the bottom drawer of my dresser) and send them, I’d be a lot warmer. I’ll confirm an address for you in the next letter, since I’m not quite sure where I’ll be (don’t worry—everything will work out!).

In Marseille we found no welcoming bars, no new leads into our next occupation, and not even a friendly face at the youth hostel. Fed up one night, we splurged on an Indian dinner in the city center only to ‘dine and ditch,’ rationalizing right along with Mae the meal was overpriced.

“You don’t pay for rice when you order Indian food,” she said once we had safely run three blocks. The soft glint in her eye had sharpened, ignited. “I don’t care where you are in the world.”

We hadn’t talked about Denis’s dismissal of us, but Mae’s acting out and Kay’s recess into her thoughts couldn’t have occurred for any other reason. On some level I didn’t believe he would insist on our evacuation—how could he—with such a shining work ethic as ours, so much personality, and honestly no other option yet. I had expected to find a grape-picking job by now, three and a half weeks in, but with the long days and isolation at Les Moutons, there simply hadn’t been time. Surely, I said over coffee the morning we were to meet Patrick, Denis would give us more time.

We sped out of the fishy city into golden mountains, dying wildflowers and looming storm clouds. No one said much on the peaceful ride. At once, I felt the contentment of going home and the dull panic of displacement, but instead admired the scenery, the scraggly plant-life against robust hills.

Pan, after all, was the God of Panic.

The goat skull was sitting in the tall grass, bleached and picked clean as if it had fallen out of the haunting O’Keefe painting Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills. Kay found it when Patrick pulled over for lunch about half way to Les Moutons.

“This is our sign,” she said, roping it to her backpack. Patrick and Mae were inside a small restaurant having a quick glass of wine.

“But I thought Richard Simmons was our sign.” I said.

“I’m thinking we’re going to need more than Richard Simmons,” Kay said,

as if she could see the future.

Patrick stopped her from getting in the car once he saw the dead long horn.

“Why that goat?” he said in horrified, broken English.

“It’s a talisman,” Kay said sweetly. “You know, magic.”

“No.” He blocked her way to the car.

“Why? It’s beautiful. C’est belle.”

“Ca n’est pas belle,” he said pointing to the trunk. He turned on his heel as if offended, but I detected some fear in his eyes.

Being American, we had no understanding that centuries of superstition threaded Provencal folklore and trickled down into common, everyday thought. Later we would learn that the goat skull, also viewed as an inverted pentagram, was the medieval symbol of the witch; that Denis had joked as much about the three of us arriving on his farm, single, American girls, seemingly out of nowhere, without reason or real ability. Our bewitchedness would not come to matter for another twenty-four hours, so Patrick’s total silence on the drive home, his shake of the head and tossing of Kay’s backpack in the dirt even after our profuse thanks, only confused us.

Dusk at Les Moutons was a gray, stagnant haze. The woodpile, the tool shed and the dying garden all took on a haunted animation that felt related to the stalled momentum. We were home, but no part of the farm felt serene; nowhere did I feel particularly safe. And then, further up the driveway I spotted another car, trunk open, with a lanky fellow in army pants and a buzz cut leaning over bags of spilling cords and tools. We all saw him. Patrick approached hastily. The two men shook his hands like they were old drinking buddies in another lifetime. Within moments, we heard the loud hearty laugh of our non-aerobic hero, Richard Simmons.

“We’ve been looking forward to your arrival,” Mae sang after introductions.

Richard Simmons looked slightly confused. He had a sweet smile and honest eyes in which I saw myself four weeks ago, excited, up for adventure, like I was the luckiest person alive.

“Glad I made it, then.“ His English accent charmed us instantly, another indication he was our sign. He seemed pleased to chat us up; someone not yet paralyzed by the bad luck of Les Moutons. It was more noticeable to me since our return, the crumbling amenities, the neglect.  But Richard Simmons commented on none of this, only the ridge of the mountains, a steaming hot vegetarian meal in front of him, and copious amounts of wine.

During dinner, when Denis returned from his trip on horseback, he strode onto the terrace in his riding boots, a king assessing his subjects. He greeted Richard with a cordial handshake; his eyes flitted over Mae, Kay and I.

‘Girls,” he said. “How was Marseille?”

Though it was only half true, I planned to gush about returning to the hominess of the farm. Before I had a chance, Kay chimed in, “Look what I found,” and pointed to the goat skull on her backpack.

I had not seen blood drain from a face before. I thought Denis might disintegrate on the spot. He glared at Patrick and began sputtering in a combination of angry English and French, much of which I didn’t understand per se, except for a few clear phrases.

What is wrong with you three? You are possessed. I saw this coming.

Patrick interrupted with what sounded like mollifications. Clearly, he had argued with Denis before. He made reasonable gestures with one open hand to each of the three of us, as if it were all a misunderstanding; as if we were just a few culturally ignorant fools.

 Get off of my farm, Denis roared.

The sun had dissolved some time ago, so we hadn’t noticed the arrival of black clouds or any other signs—the sharp, moist wind, the onset of ambient chill—that foretold imminent rain.  Richard Simmons’ smile dimmed. He shivered as he excused himself, claiming fatigue. Almost immediately after Mae, Kay and I took shelter in our respective rooms, the rain fell severely.

* * *

In the morning, I awoke to banging on my door. I don’t know why I smiled when I saw Denis standing solemnly in a windbreaker; gray clouds and light rain behind him, keys in hand, as if somehow this indicated he had come around.

“Come to breakfast, and then put your things in the van. You’re leaving.”

On the terrace Kay and Mae were already stirring sugar into their coffee, their hair in ponytails, their clothes disheveled. They had been awakened and evicted moments earlier, and I had the feeling Mae had tried to fight but lost.

“Let’s just say he’s not in a good mood,” she said under her breath.

“Wrong side of the bed,” Kay added, with a smirk.

Patrick explained: After everyone turned in, Denis had seen a ghost. A woman in a black dress loitered by the woodpile. He ranted and raved to Patrick, convinced we had brought her back from Marseille, and threatened to drive us off the farm in the middle of the night. Patrick, after several hours of argument, convinced him to wait until morning.

Mae looked irritated, like lawyer who lost a case, and Kay contained her disappointment behind down cast, angry eyes.

“Where’s Richard Simmons?”  He was all I could think of, our one, cosmic sign of hope. The alternative conversation–commenting on Denis’s ghostly vision and its plausibility– was beyond me.

Richard Simmons, however, had encountered an even stranger fate in the night. Violent thunder had awakened him, and as he crept down his chamber steps to find matches in the kitchen, he fell—about 12 feet—breaking and dislocating his shoulder. Denis rushed him to the hospital thirty miles away, where Richard Simmons had checked in and would remain for, the doctor predicted, ten days.

“There goes our sign,” Kay said. The rain, gaining momentum again, whacked the plastic tarps pulled over the open pits, the exposed reconstruction, and the now abandoned car of the English electrician.

By the time we finished our coffee, Denis had already put our backpacks in his van, a window less white Dodge splattered with mud and loaded with lumber. Kay and I sat pressed against each other in the two-person backseat, while Mae took the front and grilled Denis about our destination.

“I have to bring you to a friend’s– he owns a horse ranch-about twenty kilometers from here. I talked to him. He can help you out.” His tone was friendly, as if freeloading or witchcraft had never been associated with our presence.  But I had seen his red, miserable eyes. He talked manically all the way to the long white cattle fence that marked the property of his friend’s riding camp. Like a porter at a hotel, he slid our door open, offering his hand as we stepped out into the mud. We stood in the light rain. He pulled out our bags and, seeing no person or horses in view, hurriedly handed me all the reading materials he had crumpled on the passenger’s seat floor—a tourist magazine for all of Haute-Provence, a small phone book for the municipality of Manosque, the closest village, and something else stuck to a napkin. I thought for a second it was pastry, a thin crepe being secretly served just to me from an otherwise irrational Denis. I wanted the impossible, to see him not as someone about to abandon us, but as a reluctant caretaker, stuck in a crisis.

It was a postcard, the only piece of mail I received in almost two months. The front had a picture of a purple spiral artfully drawn in crayon, as if by a child, with a quote at the bottom about infinity, or the vastness of the world. I turned it over. It was signed by my mother and every single one of her coworkers: the seven development officers, the mail carrier, the receptionist, the publications editor, each of whom had written a small, pithy quote about squishing grapes or dining on caviar. The thoughtfulness, the little bits of care sparkling in their script written with fancy, Rollerball pens overwhelmed me. But one message, from the woman who raised money for the School of Dentistry, said nothing about missing me or raising a glass. She wrote:

DO BAD THINGS. YOU WON’T GET CAUGHT.

It wasn’t a good luck wish, but a command, and the instructional tone was especially jarring as Denis ran around to the driver’s side of the van, gunned the engine, and spun in the dust to face the drive’s exit.

“I’m sorry to have to leave you like this, girls.” He shouted over the idling motor. His elbow already pointed out the window comfortably. “I have to get back. My friend should be here soon. I’ll call you in a few days to see how things are going.”

The white Dodge was the last car we saw that day.

He never called. He didn’t even wave goodbye.

 

 

 

End of Part 2

Our quarters

Our bedroom doors and the hazardous stairs

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.

I stand at the top of a waterfall, all trussed and tightened up in a rope harness, the most crude of corsets, ensuring that I do not plummet to an untidy death on the jagged rocks and in the choppy water far, far below, 120 feet below, to be precise. You are one tough bitch, I tell myself. You are so freaking badass. Hardcore as Murphy’s Law. I stare up at the people above me, some of whom look over the side dubiously, clearly terrified out of their minds. But I am fearless. Yes. I am fearless and I’m gonna rappel down this goddamned waterfall like I have been doing it since I could walk.

Yeah.

OhmygodohmygodwhatthefuckamIdoinghere, I ask myself, an internal agonizing scream, my mantra that day, after jumping off various cliffs, slipping on many a rock and hiking down impossible paths filled with fauna and horror on an empty stomach and perhaps two hours of sleep after being wakened this morning at 5 by wailing monkeys in the rain forest. There is not a bathroom in sight, of course there isn’t, so I don’t dare take a sip of water. I realize hours ago that I am better suited to jaywalking across 6th Avenue than I am to peeing in the woods. And here I am, about to go through with this charade all in the name of fun. And adventure. And proving…something.

How did I get into this mess? Well, this is a year and a half ago and I am in Costa Rica on vacation with my friend, Vanessa.

Even before getting there, I had these grandiose ideas of doing a zip line, so upon arrival, we immediately signed up for that, and lo and behold, there was a package where you could do the zip line and go canyoning on two separate days. You need to know, the photos in the tourist office did not do justice to what these two activities entailed. I saw children, for God’s sake, with peaceful looks on their faces, joyous even, as they were hooked up to a pulley, hard hats cockily placed on heads. “Beginners welcome!” the sign proclaimed. We were beginners! We were welcome! How could we pass that up?

The zip line, oh the zip line. Now, that I immediately chickened out of, due to the apparent lack of control I’d have over my own fate. All the zip line involved was being hooked up at the waist on this endless steel cable attaching two cliffs, with oh, I don’t know, hundreds of feet between them. So, no skill involved, hence the beginner being welcomed. Apparently, I’d be zip zip zipping along, a haphazard little psychotic zipper with a death wish, full speed ahead to the platform which seemed to be a mile away. As I hesitated on the platform looking death in the maw, I was told, “just don’t look down if you’re afraid of heights!” Right. No, thank you, y’all go on ahead. I’ll pass.

I waited an hour on that bloody platform for the group of zippers (most of them optimistic med students) to return. I was the only one who chickened out, but I think I was also the only one who knew there were twenty-odd more platforms to zip between (I asked). This is fun? Hell, there was no apparent skill, strength or sportsmanship involved. I figured I couldn’t let my fate be decided by a clip at my waist and a steel rope. I could only think of how people about to attend their own hanging must feel. I just wish I would have done my research before gleefully plunking down 60 bucks. Or Googled zip line deaths.

Feeling like a travel brochure failure, I decided I would be brave and try the canyoning. I wasn’t any closer to a computer so that I could Google canyoning deaths, but then, I don’t think I would have thought to do that anyway. The waterfall part sounded tropical and practically serene, and there was mention of swimming in pools under the waterfalls. It sounded like a Club Med commercial. The only thing you needed was the ability to swim (I can!) and have an open mind (suuuure). Plus, I reasoned, I’d be in full control of what I was doing and my feet would always be planted on something, even if that something was the side of a mountain.

Here is a photo of Vanessa and I unawares. See how excited we look to be doing this? We were open-minded at the start of this adventure.



In a strange twist of fate, Vanessa and I turned out to be on a tour with five other folks from New York City. Queens, in fact. Well, awright, we were gonna kick some canyoning ass, I was sure. Not really. What we were going to do was bounce our neuroses back and forth between us, whilst alternately playing a game of one-upmanship in our heads. None of us were the outdoors type.

I, personally, was glad there were no Europeans, or heaven forbid, Australians, on the trip because it seems like every single one I’ve ever met has been accomplishing major feats of prowess in the great outdoors since toddlerhood. Nothing to make you feel even more inept in the jungle than a plucky Australian wearing hiking sandals.

I don’t do nature very well. There was this time that I was walking through Central Park, from the west side to the east side, only it was on a winding path. Within 15 minutes, I was panicking, lost and wondering when they had transplanted an actual forest into Central Park. I lost sense of space and time and any sort of cell phone signal. I started to look for berries to hunt, just in case. I kept walking, babbling in tongues, when suddenly I saw them, the precious buildings, in my sight line. “Oh, thank God, the city!” I recall thinking. THEN I realized that I had, in fact, wandered right back to where I had started, virtually one block away, but still on the west side of the park. This is kind of funny, right? Kind of.

“Joi’s afraid of heights,” Vanessa had said to our guide earlier, before we even got out of the jeep. He positively hooted with laughter in response. “I mean, she couldn’t do the zip line,” she continued worriedly, meanwhile I felt like pinching her. The guide was a tanned Lothario. The last thing I wanted to appear as was a wimp with a debilitating fear of heights. He winked at her and told her not to worry.

So, getting back to the adventure through the stream full of rocks more slippery and deceptive than black ice. My body was so banged and bruised by that point, and my head was half filled with water because we had to jump off of all of these ledges. Hours of this. Swimming in the choppy stream was fun, but the trekking was endless, not to mention treacherous (the next day I’d resemble Hedda Nussbaum). Also, it was especially fun to do this when dodging fucking bees, trying not to step on poisonous frogs, and god knows what other pernicious insects that surrounded us. For all I knew, there were schools of piranhas in that body of water where we were hiking and swimming.

The first 12-foot waterfall, you can see I handled pretty easily, but that was just the practice before hitting the massive waterfall.



See? Isn’t that inspiring?

And then, a mere few feet away, we heard it. The Niagara Falls of the rain forest.

As it turned out, we didn’t have to rappel down the waterfall. Apparently there was a path down the side of the mountain. Vanessa wisely chose that option, but stayed to provide her moral support. I was determined, though, to kick ass and so I moved bravely ahead.

And this brings us back to the beginning. Me, the intrepid rappeller, at the cusp of breaking boundaries and blowing minds.

Not believing that I am actually going through with this insanity, I take a deep breath and begin to rappel down, graceful and flowing, like the water, rappelling like Rapunzel’s hair, envisioning myself to look like an extreme sports rock star ala this. Meanwhile, I can’t stop thinking of this. I push aside all thoughts of a cave dwelling, brain sucking troll waiting for me at the bottom of the canyon.

I am determined to do this. Of course I can do this! I am a New Yorker, born and raised to handle just about anything (ah, what a myth about to be destroyed for now and for ever more). I’ve got street smarts! Wait. What good are street smarts going to do me in the rain forest, pray tell, when they couldn’t get me through Central Park? Pushing aside my panic attack, I descend. I descend a bit more. Baby steps. Wait, I’m better than this! Giant step. I’m making progress! I’m almost past the first shelf, but then I look down. Bad idea. I am 12 stories about the earth. Why, if this were the Empire State Building, I’d be…on the twelfth floor! This is no time for epiphanies, Joi. There I go, already referring to myself in the third person as if I were dead.

I want to jump from here, maybe. They say fear of heights comes from an impulse to jump. I have in fact experienced this when riding, ok, you better not laugh, Splash Mountain at Disney World, the one and only time I rode it. I hadn’t known that when I got to the top of what seemed to be a complete vertical drop 8 stories down, I would stand up in the log next to my mother right as we went down the flume. It was an insuppressible urge. I would have rather jumped than be helpless, gone for the ride to an undignified death below. A Disney Disaster. After the ride was over, my mother had angrily informed me that I wasn’t supposed to stand up, that it was dangerous, what was I thinking? What was I thinking?

What am I ever thinking? I sure wasn’t thinking when I plopped down 100 bucks to engage in these shenanigans.

Now I realize I am a full 4 stories higher than Splash Mountain at Disney World and really start to panic.

Have I mentioned that I am barefoot? “It’s the only way,” the guide had said, “you must go barefoot if you don’t have the right footwear.” He always rappels barefoot, in fact. This way, you feel the elements under your feet. It’s true. I am rappelling down this thing barefoot thanks to thinking steel toe Doc Martins are suitable hiking shoes. They are not, I assure you. Especially when you have to jump off increasingly higher cliffs into the streams below. They, in fact, pull you down right into the mud. It’s all part of the canyoning experience, my darlings. And now, now I’m stuck. I have nowhere to go but down. But.

There are no more shelves in the rocks! It’s all straight down from here! I can’t feel my feet! Help!

“Just try and feel the next indentation in the rock,” our handsome, virile guide tells me in broken English. He is smoking a cigarette and swigging from a beer. This is no big deal to him, of course. In that instant, I despise him.

“I can’t!” I insist. “I can’t feel anything.”

I am reduced to a complete mess. It feels like hours, but I remain in place, losing all feeling my feet, grabbing on to the rope for dear life, my wrists aching and burning. I need to be rescued. The guide sighs and effortlessly lowers himself down next to me. I have to be hooked onto his harness like a baby bird with a broken wing and ride on his coattails the rest of the way down the waterfall. It is also unavoidable: I have to-gasp-embrace him! Let it be know that I have serious touch issues when it comes to strangers.

I keep apologizing to him, not that he speaks much English at all, but he sure understands the language of hysteria and I feel like a teenage soldier holding on to his guts as they explode out of his body, begging for Momma. More than slightly humiliated, I make it to the bottom and like a coyote, chew my arm free from Lothario’s harness. He quickly disappears up the aforementioned mountain path back up to the top so he can help the others down. Didn’t he want to take a moment to appreciate what we had shared together?

One guy who comes down the waterfall after me, lets go of his rope and ends up knocking his face into rocks before the guide comes and rescues him. I am not the only one rescued! A small triumph. He is really banged up and then gets stung by a bee later. I’m not the only failure on this expedition!

I am told by the others we have to all “hike” back up the mountain, I think, to get back in the jeep home. Where is that damn jeep, anyway? I thought it was down here? (I refer you back to the mention above where I got lost in Central Park). The jeep is not, of course, up at the top of the waterfall.

I put “hike” in quotes because I’ve been hiking before on a variety of trails, but I have no idea that this trail consists of a 12-inch wide muddy, rocky path where if you slip the wrong way, off the side of the cliff you go. I am faced with an extremely precarious climb where there is NO LEDGE and my fear of heights is just crippling and despite being motionless with terror for a good five minutes, I make it back up and then I hear the news.

It’s lunchtime, boys and girls! Like I could eat?! The 70-year-old Jewish woman who is always lurking deep inside of me suddenly makes a cameo today just when I need her.

AND, brace yourselves for this one, the even bigger news is, after lunch we’ll be rappelling down the other half of the waterfall!!!!! And…there is no choice because that is where the blessed jeep is parked, in fact! Yes, down below, where I had just come from. Are you laughing and crying, perhaps slitting your wrists, with me at this point? I start to fume. I’ve been tricked! I don’t like being tricked, it’s been a sore spot since my father promised me a pet elephant in my backyard and placed a stuffed Dumbo on the patio furniture.

So, as everyone else ate lunch, I obsess over the two evils: 1. rappelling down the waterfall again or 2. hiking back down that hazardous mountain path which was potentially even more dangerous because of the lack of any kind of ledge or anything to hold on to, with the exception of plant roots. I am NOT KIDDING. I held on to plant roots to brace myself on the way up and hiking down a steep path is always harder.

Suddenly I notice that the group has turned to me as I pace back and forth past the flimsy rope protecting us from accidentally getting too close to the edge (there are no accidents where I’m concerned, I’ll have you know). They are. Laughing at me. And leading the pack is my savior, that horrible Lothario, the smoking, beer swigging tanned god, I mean, guide. And here I thought he loved me for making him feel the big guy, the hero, but he is making fun of me in Spanish to a few of the people in the group who are fluent and they in turn translate his wicked words to the others. You bastard. Did you not get the memo that I am hardcore?

I toss my head the way I do and brood on a rock, trying to ignore the puddle (are those fire ants?) at my feet.

“What’s wrong?” asks Vanessa.

“I want drugs,” I all but wail. Fuck this nature shit. I am done.

“Um, you don’t do drugs,” she points out, laughing.

“Yeah, well, at this point I’m yearning for a crack pipe or hell, even a dirty needle would suffice. Either would be preferable to this suicidal sure shot.” I get this way when I’m faced with certain, tragic death. One has to have one’s vices, even if they are only in one’s head. At this rate, I might as well be engaging in an indiscriminate sex act with that dork who had to be rescued, too. Oh Christ, what the fuck is the point of life, after all?

Why am I pondering the meaning of life on vacation in Costa Rica?

Hello, brain, this is a life or death situation, of course you should be pondering the meaning of life on vacation in Costa Rica. If you’re about to die, what else should you be thinking about? I might be thinking instead about how my last meal could have been a nasty ham and cheese sandwich on white bread. Regardless, it’s much more dignified to die on an empty stomach.

Considering the rope corset again, I think about how I can whittle my 28-inch waist down to a wasp-like 23 in mere seconds without any help. And I think about the first time I saw the Pixies in 1988, the night before Thanksgiving and when the concert was over, I had walked through a foot of snow on the quiet Greenwich Village streets. And when I was 7, I saw the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs and going back further than that, I see my Aunt Jay holding me up as my mother waved out of a hospital window after she gave birth to my brother. I was 2. And now, gee this blankie is so so fuzzy and soft…goo goo ga ga…and I let out a scream as I enter the harsh bright light.

In the end, only two of the group of 7 decide to rappel back down the waterfall while the rest of us choose the hiking down the death strip option.

And guess who has to be rescued on that path too?

Yours, truly, first summons up some atavistic trait, going back to Cro-Magnon Man that is, and crawls on all fours. Then I slide down on my ass, only it gets to be so narrow that I can’t even do that (my ass won’t cooperate), and our benevolent guide has to make yet another divine intervention. Yes, I cry. Again. This is a petite mort of the worst possible kind.

We make it back to the jeep, water logged, bruised in body and spirit, and one of the folks from Queens points out, “That was worse than getting mugged at gunpoint.”

Moral of the story: New Yorkers are badass only when in their comfort zone. Sure we can crack wise with the best of them, throw around f-bombs like they are rose petals, make our way through a 6-lane traffic jam on foot, push you tourist bitches out of our way as we desperately rush somewhere, anywhere more important than you’ll ever have to go, mace a mugger without blinking an eye, but bring us to the bosom of Mother Nature, and we are a helpless, pathetic lot.

Or, maybe that is just me.