a voyage to the moon


This story was first published in the UK’s Catholic Herald newspaper on September 11, 2010.

a voyage to the moon

When I opened my eyes it was still pitch black. Feeling in the darkness I knocked the alarm clock off the table. From somewhere overhead there came a low refrain, the words barely audible:

“Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” The green digits of the clock read 5:36 A.M.

I dressed and went up to the chapel where the monks were finishing the Liturgy of the Hours. Out of the window in the grey light of dawn the silver skyscrapers of the downtown were growing out of the horizon.

Directly below, a telegraph poll had a mustard yellow sign on it that read ‘Slow.’

The Little Brothers of Saint Francis are a community of contemplatives based in Boston. They were set up by James Curran, an opera singer who turned his back on the musical world after experiencing a moment of epiphany during a reception at the White House.

Taking the life of Saint Francis of Assisi as his inspiration, Brother James founded a contemplative order in the late sixties in the working class suburb of Roxbury. I stayed a weekend with them recently.

They live in two plain wood-board houses painted dark brown. On each house a simple cross and a small sign above the doorway are the only indications of the occupants. Even so, their years of service and the distinct blue denim cassocks they wear mean they are well known locally.

According to its charism, the order “bears witness” to the plight of the city’s homeless. They offer no charity beyond their presence but as Brother James explained later at breakfast, that alone was a source of consolation for individuals isolated on the streets.

Round the table he told the story of Bob, a rough sleeper he met in the early seventies. He used to buy him breakfast at a nearby diner, and listen as Bob talked about baseball. Ignorant of the game, the monk bought the daily papers to keep up with the conversation but the scores Bob was quoting did not seem to tally with what he read. He discovered eventually that Bob was quoting scores from two decades before.

“It was then that I began to realise it was more important to listen than to speak,” he said. Later on, he would see him wearing a sandwich board prophesying the end of the world. Bob died alone and — like many of the men they come into contact with — it was left to the brothers to organize both his funeral and a small wake.

After mass we continued our conversation in the Little Brothers’ common room. On the wall behind him were maps of Assisi, including a medieval drawing showing the friary created by St Francis. On another wall hung Brother James’ portrait. (“Probably when I am gone they will throw darts at it.”)

Brother James spoke in a voice as light and grainy as his Celtic skin, gripping one hand in the other to stop them shaking – a result of the Parkinson’s disease he was diagnosed with ten years ago. His fine white beard wrapped his face like a chinstrap.

A good listener, he was also a good storyteller and was fond of name-dropping. He talked about the time Mother Theresa came to stay (she insisted on sending coffee and donuts out to the police car assigned to look after her) and his encounters with Pope John Paul II and John F. Kennedy.

He was raised alone by his mother after his father died in the war. Growing up he revealed a talent for singing and after a short career he became a publicist for an opera company.

It was at Lyndon Johnson’s White House in the late sixties that his life changed. He had gone there to stage a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s “Voyage to the Moon” for the astronauts taking part in the space program. As glasses clinked and the hum of conversation drifted to the Apollo 11 lunar mission just two years away, Brother James heard what his spiritual director later termed “an interior voice” ask him: “What are you doing here?”

“I began to realise that perhaps God was calling me towards a downward mobility rather than an upward one. That’s hard to explain, because most people think you are wasting your life.”

Choosing to heed the call, he turned his back on the rarefied world of opera and became a monk.

In the last four decades he estimates around 300 men have passed through the doors of the Little Brother house, and only a handful have stuck around.

When one of these longer-term residents decided to go, he said, it was like “going through a divorce.”

Of the five other little brothers that share the house now, one is an ex-teacher and another a former construction worker. Brother James acknowledged a monotony to the life, comparing his vocation to the responsibilities of the married man who must get up for work each morning though he might rather lie in bed.

“Living the Gospel means living with the people God has thrown you in with,” he said. “That’s a real challenge. It means nothing to say ‘I’m going to go out and love the forgotten and rejected people’ if you can’t love the brother that’s sitting across your cornflakes.”

That evening, after Brother James had gone to bed, I talked with Brother Anthony, who takes care of the day-to-day running of things since illness has forced the founder to take a back seat. A former barber, he joined the order over 20 years ago.

He said many people came to them with a deluded idea of the lifestyle. “A few years ago we had to turn away this young man,” Brother Anthony said. “He had this vision of himself ambling through the fields in his habit doling out alms to the poor from a wicker basket. I remember thinking, ‘does he not realize we’re in the city.’”

After just one day I had no such illusions that the monastic life might be for me. I have a mortal fear of early mornings, and those dawn liturgies were more than I could take. With that in mind I turned in early, preparing myself for a last bruising encounter with the guest room’s alarm clock.



the fool on the hill (part 6)

* virgil, hermits

In between my trips to see Virgil I had driven the dirt road out to the I-17. Ostensibly to resupply but also to put some distance between myself and the stark, haunted world that he occupied.

the fool on the hill (part 3)

Next to the freeway I found myself in the town of Spring Valley. It was everything Cleator was not: new, neatly ordered and lifeless. Gone was Bloody Basin Lane. Instead, in the front lawns of the plastic-looking condominiums garden gnomes of sombreroed Mexicans rode plaster horses along streets called Meadow Lane and Peach Tree Road. The wild west reduced to kitsch.

I drove the freeway south 40 minutes to a strip mall where I spent the night in the parking lot of a Walmart. The supermarket chain allows camper vans to stay overnight for free on its premises.

I stayed up late reading a book called “You Can’t Win.” It is the memoir of an ex-con, Jack Black, and recalls his life as a hobo riding the rails. It is a rare firsthand account of the underbelly of early 20th century America filled with opium dens and pool parlours, cat burglars and safe houses.

Outside a gale blew hard pushing shopping carts over the tarmac and making the camper sway.

My presence there was an overcorrection, a thirst for the bright lights of the city after the somber vigil of candlelit nights in the desert. Looking out of the camper’s rear window the large neon Walmart sign was oddly comforting, something to zone out to.

In the store itself I was garroted by light. Neat pyramids of fruit sat on islands of freshness and overhead plasma screens showed Walmart TV on a loop.

In one of our conversations Virgil had told me about a winter he had spent trapped on the mountain after the December snows had not cleared. It was mid-February before the thaw came. In the meantime it got cold and as the weeks stretched out, wood for the burner grew scarce.

Outside the snow had lain in slabs across the corrugated roof and the guttering, hanging loose on loops of wire, was clogged with ice so that only a thin drip of water found its way through the cut-up oil can into the tank.

In the Walmart restrooms I found a document on the ledge over the urinal claiming that the world was under the control of the Evil One. It said that all true religion is personal and complained that mankind was a victim of his own “Image-ination.”

In the store an alarm beeped obnoxiously as I leaned on my trolley in front of some sports bras, trying to decide if I needed batteries. Walking around Walmart, looking at the world in boxes, I imagined Virgil shivering in his cabin in the predawn. The narrow scoop of canyon must have felt like an animal trap he had fallen into that winter.

Pushing his barrow he searched for the broken off branches of dwarf Juniper and Pinyon Pine and, on the way, collected the miniature baskets of bird’s nests, dusty and fibrous like the pipe tobacco he shaped into cigarettes using squares cut from his journal.

He made a path through the snow up the bank out on to the ridge to where the billycan, eaten by rust, swung in the dawn wind. And there he waited.

In an introduction William Burroughs’ wrote for “You Can’t Win,” the Beat writer lamented the passing of a world where life was cheap but where a man could clamber aboard a freight train in the dead of night and in the axle grease and coal dust taste what it meant to be in the Land of the Free. Burroughs asked the question: would the hobo author have been better off spending his life at some full-time job? He immediately decided not.

“He has recorded a chapter of specifically American life that is now gone forever. Where are the hobo jungles, the hop joints, the old rod-ridding yeggs?…As another thief, Francois Villon, said, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?””

Virgil too still believed in that romantic vision of the old west. His fear of going back to what had replaced it – the strip malls and condos of a nation consumed on image — was the reason he stayed on the mountain. This, and a concern that he might drink himself to death faced with too much society. “I love life,” he said to me more than once, his face fierce with candour.

As I paid for my AA batteries I thought of him at the billycan, watching the faint gnat of light of a car on the freeway some twenty miles to the east, heading back to “stinking civilisation.” I saw him crouched low, an arm slung round his shins, waiting for the first sunrays to hit his dirty and cracked face and for the ground to grow out of the darkness.

the fool on the hill (part 5)

* virgil, hermits

The last time I saw Virgil we drank beer by the billycan. It was a warm March day full of promise.

the fool on the hill (part 5)

Below the ridge the ground fell steeply away until it reached the dusty track that led to Cleator after a series of switch backs. The track replaced the railroad that was ripped up in the war to make armaments. Further along from us another path barely visible cut a diagonal down the hillside through the scrub and loose rock.

He had cut this path for the cowboys, he said, who still ran their cattle this way to market at the end of summer.

The cowboys — red-faced old timers who alternated between riding horses and quad bikes — paid him five dollars an hour but he would probably have done it for free, he loved the work so much. It had taken him two years of hacking and digging to finish the thing and he had followed the route of the old cart road from Alexandria.

He knew the layout of the old town intimately and on his porch there was an old photo of the Peck Mine from the turn of the century.

Listening to him I saw again the powerful connection he maintained with this disappeared world and I felt I had him figured out wrong. I had viewed him as an exile from life, as someone frozen in time, unable to shake off the painful memories of his absent family and yet equally incapable of moving on.

Yet seeing him this way betrayed how little I really understood about the reality of his life up here. In some sense, his solitude had allowed him to live outside of time. The need to move forward, to progress, to make plans. He did not feel this imperative and to tell him that he should was not just patronising, it ignored the simple beauty of his existence here. It was like the old joke about the rich tourist who goes up to the juice seller on the beach and starts to lecture him on how he can grow his business, and that with some hard work he might be able to pay some staff a few years down the line and, who knows, then he could take some time off for himself. Meanwhile the juice seller lays on his hammock casually scrutinising the mad man.

Aside from the concessions of the gas tank and a small FM radio Virgil had left modern life completely. He went down off the mountain only a few times a year, usually straying no further than Cleator.

Up here he wandered around the canyon finding the detritus of old Alexandria — the mouth organ combs, the vintage soda cans — and it helped to evoke that old world, just as the hysterical outpourings from the radio no doubt made the contemporary one seem more hostile and remote.

Nearby some animal tracks were pressed into the thin dry dirt. They were too large for a pack rat; maybe they belonged to a bobcat he said. I wondered if he ever got scared up here alone.

He knew he was vulnerable but he tried not to think about it too much. “Ya can burn yourself up thinking. It’s the same with that metaphysics junk. I prefer to keep my feet on the ground, live a day at a time. I mean ya don’t see a dog sitting around taking itself serious an’ shit.

“I can’t handle your civilization. All those responsibilities.” (He gave a weary wave of the arm.) “When my wife kicked me out I let her have everything. I walked away with nothing. I didn’t care. I was like that woodpecker nested in the cactus; only I lived in a crack in the sidewalk. You know I saw that lil’ muthafucka fight off a hawk one day. Kept coming back at him till the hawk got sick of it and flew away.”

His children would be in their forties; did he ever think of trying to find them I asked.

“That’s what you’d do I suppose,” he said. “Not me.”

I wanted to press him on it but he cut me off. He returned instead to the subject of the woodpecker. He asked me if I knew how it was that the bird knew where to look for grubs.

“I used to wonder about that,” he went on. “One day I was watching this muthafucka and he’d keep looking off to the side like he was watching out for something. Then I figured it out: He had his head turned to listen for grubs scratching under the bark.

“I guess there’s smart people who know that ‘cos they read it or seen it in a documentary. But how many of ’em learnt it ‘cos they seen it with their eyes?”

The day was ending and the sun had already dipped below the Bradshaw Mountains to the west, the bumps and curves of their dusty grey silhouettes like two lovers laid down to sleep.

the nuns in the tower


This following story was first published in the British newspaper, The Catholic Herald on March 19, 2010.

the nuns in the tower

In the darkness Clare beckons me to the window. Outside, London is ten thousand lights glittering to the horizon. Far to the right the skyscrapers of the docklands cluster like shards of crystals, while ahead the high rises of Hackney are solid rectangles dotted with light.

Returning to the sitting room we pass a small, carpeted room, unfurnished except for low wooden benches skirting two walls. It is a chapel.
Dressed in navy trousers and a dark pullover, Clare’s slight frame moves down the narrow stairs ahead of me. She is light on her feet, and I am genuinely surprised when I find out later she is 83 and has spent most her adult life working as a cleaner.

Back in the sitting room a black and white portrait of a man with a thin, dark beard hangs on the wall. The man has the same high cheekbones and dark eyes as Clare and though she refers to him as Brother Charles, they are not related.

Charles de Foucauld was a soldier who left the French army in North Africa to become a monk. He died in obscurity a century ago having won only a handful of converts among the nomadic tribes of the Sahara desert.

In the years after his death a religious order was formed taking the hermit’s life as its inspiration. Today the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus are all over the world: in refugee camps in Lebanon, Pygmy villages in Cameroon, and here, on the 13th floor of an east London tower block.

If you have never heard of them, it is not surprising. They are a contemplative order characterised by anonymity. The sisters, for
example, wear no religious habit — the only outward sign of their calling is the wooden cross around their necks.

Instead they try to find parity with the communities they live among, doing low paid, unskilled jobs. Offering solidarity to the most marginalized, in place of scripture.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, for example, a community of Little Sisters in the U.S. relocated to an exclusively Arab
neighbourhood of New Jersey.

Clare, who is from an old family from western France, used to clean at the department store C&A.

“Our inspiration is in following the hidden life of Jesus,” says Catharine, who joins us in the sitting room. She means by this the
life that Christ led in obscurity before he began to preach.

Four Little Sisters live in the flat. Their community is a reflection of the diversity of the city that surrounds them — Catharine, a 66
year-old retired care worker, is the only one from the UK.

The flat is small, the sisters’ bedrooms narrow. It can be a trail, says Catharine, to share such a cramped living space.

“The hardest austerity is living in a tight-knit community,” she says. “I have spent 20 years in this tower block. It is the contemplative life that gives meaning to this banal life we lead.”

For her the contemplative life started early. She says she first considered taking vows while a boarder at a Catholic girls’ school in

She discovered the Little Sisters by chance when a monk visited her class. The man was meant to be doing a slideshow about Africa from where he had just returned. As he flicked through images of the continent he came to one that seemed to stand out from the rest.

It was a picture of some young women waiting by a roadside. These were nuns, the monk explained, who had joined a travelling community in France. It had nothing to do with his talk and, in fact, he did not know how the image had got mixed in with the other slides.

Catharine looks thoughtful after she relates this story as if the appearance of the picture in the slideshow carries a meaning for her that goes beyond mere coincidence.

In any case, the revelation that there was an order where contemplation and a life on the road were not mutually exclusive must
have seemed tantalising for a teenage girl.

Her first assignment as a postulant shattered any romantic delusions she might have harboured, however. She worked in a jam factory in Leeds. Her parents were upset when they came to visit. “I was in a tiny back-to-back terrace where we shared an outside toilet with four neighbours.

“They couldn’t see why I would embrace a life of poverty. Their own faith was deep in its way but more practical I suppose.”

Catherine’s journey of downward mobility is a gentle imitation of the more extreme trajectory taken by Foucauld.

Born into the French nobility, Brother Charles was a complex figure. As a young man he was a glutton and a womaniser. Yet in North Africa the overweight bon viveur became a fierce ascetic who took self-negation to frightening extremes: when he fell ill, for example, he wrote of his disappointment on finding out it was not tuberculosis.

After dinner we return to the chapel at the top of the stairs.

The sisters sing hymns and recite psalms and scripture. After a period for silent prayer Catharine offers thoughts for the victims of Haiti’s earthquake. Canh, the Vietnamese sister, prays for the people who are teaching her English. On the floor a candle flickers.

Not much later I say my goodbyes. Outside the January night is cold and unforgiving. On the streets all is quiet. I try to get my
bearings, but London is such an improbable matrix when you get in amongst it.

I imagine Clare in the tower block behind me, looking out on the spaghetti of streets that dissolve into confusion at street level but
is clear and easy to navigate from up there. I try to figure her as I saw her earlier, gazing in rapture to the horizon. Seeing for miles
from the narrow confines of her 13th floor flat.

the fool on the hill (part 4)

* virgil, hermits

Walking down the mountain in the late afternoon the green and brown of the hills seemed subdued as if the brilliance had been extracted along with the silver.

the fool on the hill (part 4)

At the rock shop I stepped up on the decking and in to the room with the rock samples. On the wall a magazine pullout of a young country music star in a Stetson and vest top was tapped to the wood. Around his face and chest the image burst apart, projecting thin shafts of light across the room. I went closer and saw the light emanated from bullet holes.

I had no idea if Virgil was responsible but I could see how the preening cowboy could easily become an object for target practice after a few cans of Budweiser.

The rock shop was where he had lived with his father when the old man found him on the streets. His father had been hard to get along with but he had set him on his feet again when he needed it. They lived together for two years until one day they began a liquor binge that went on four days straight until the old man’s heart packed in and he dropped down dead.

The door hinge creaked in the wind and on a desk warped with age the pages of a wrinkled magazine flapped up.

The whip crack of a gun reverberating around that curve of hillside must have been an exhilarating release from the silence, like a whale surfacing into an Atlantic squall.

It had not always been so quiet here. A century ago when this was still the Copper State, the hills resounded to the thud of dynamite explosions and the peel of church bells. Pioneers rushed here in the thousands, and when the seams thinned and the price of precious metals dropped they were gone.

On the margins of this American paradigm of boom and bust there were hermits. They were called desert rats and their stories illuminated the area like the sparkle of gold dust on a creek bed. A local historian told me about them, their names could have been plucked from the pages of the Wild West stories in Virgil’s cabin. There was Injun’ Joe and Walking Sam, who would hike two hundred miles to Phoenix and back in the clothes he stood up in. There was Kelly Painter, who met each morning pissing naked off his porch, had twenty thousand in silver hidden in the floorboards and one boiling summer day decided to call it a day with a bullet to the head.

That night back in Cleator I lay on top of the camper gazing up as a ceiling of stars pressed down on me. A shooting star, a streak of incandescent orange, cut a line through Orion.

Below me I heard a porch door open and saw a shaft of light empty into the darkness. A figure emerged with a dog. A TV was on inside and the noise of a male voice backed by dramatic music followed the figure out into the night, sounding tiny and inconsequential in the spread of desert and sky.

the fool on the hill (part 3)

* virgil, hermits

I saw Virgil a few more times over the coming weeks. I pieced together what I could of his story but he was a difficult subject, evasive and frequently drunk.

the fool on the hill (part 3)

It was a tale filled with loss and though he occasionally cut a rather wretched figure, he bristled at the thought of being an object of pity.

When he told me how he had watched his father drink himself to death, for example, he paused before adding roughly: “Big fucking deal.

He had known two lives. They were as distinct from each other as day and night though in his childhood they found some convergence. He grew up in a working class neighbourhood of Phoenix, the eldest of six brothers, the son of a truck driver of German descent and a Cherokee woman.

Growing up he cut his forearms to ribbons knife-fighting with Mexican gangs and at fourteen he left school, working as a bus boy and as a dishwasher. At eighteen marriage reformed him and he found a job making parts for America’s burgeoning space programme. Much of it was classified, which meant he found himself working with materials he had never seen before to make parts whose purpose he could only guess at.

While his work was shrouded in secrecy, a healthy glow of respectability illuminated his personal life. He had a son and daughter, cars and dogs and gave up his weekends to teach English to native children on the Apache lands near the New Mexico border. At the Phoenix opera he watched Carmen three times during a summer run in the seventies. He joined a Buddhist sect, voted for Jimmy Carter, attended PTA meetings — “the whole bullshit.”

At the height of the Reagan years this first life ended. His wife kicked him out and his children disowned him and he returned once more to the burning asphalt of the desert city.

He would not say what had caused this rupture though he denied it was his drinking. Nevertheless on the streets he stayed drunk for two years. He was pissed on, kicked, cut and robbed and, in and out of jail, his earlier life took on the qualities of a dream.

It was his father who found him, broken and destitute, and throwing his bag in the back of his pickup brought him to live with him at the Swastika, where the old man was caretaker. Up here he was comforted by the hard, cold truths of the desert, and the uniform indifference of nature.

It was 27 years since he had seen his children. Like the rotten teeth he had yanked out with a set of pliers, the passing of the years had dulled the pain but bequeathed him an absence.


Sometimes I had concerns about my presence in his life and the emotional outbursts I provoked in him. The simple fact of someone shining a light on a private world that had been so complete for so long made for some strange encounters.

Once I asked him about a set of straw hats arranged in the shape of a diamond on the wall in the next room. Why did I want to know, he demanded, his eyelids heavy and his voice breaking. He said the hats belonged to the owner of the mine, an old lady in her nineties confined to a retirement home in Texas and as the tears dripped to the floor I wondered if he was crying over the old lady or because I was the first person to ever ask him about them.

Another time I arrived and found the place empty. I crossed the yard past a broken chicken coop that had a sign on it that read “guesthouse”. On a slanted table blackened pots and pans were half full with snowmelt to supplement the rainfall that collected in the water tank on the side of the cabin. The cabin itself looked dark and ominous silhouetted by the sun, while behind it on the canyon lip a stack of boulders suggested a clawed hand.

I stepped up on to the verandah. Along its length a fine wire mesh kept out flies and lower down a tabletop was covered with detritus. On the wall three deer skulls, the antlers still in tact, were nailed to the wood. Laying by the door a six-foot gas canister fed a fridge on the porch and a rusted cooker just inside.

On the stretch of table I noticed the piles of rubbish were actually comprised of an incredible array of curios and specimens. Vintage soda cans, a collection of mouth organ combs, a petrified cork ball, rocks, minerals, bird’s nests, a bat in a jar, and in a bigger jar beside it preserved in alcohol, the bleached head of a Mojave rattlesnake.

I heard a thud come from inside the house. The awareness I was not alone caught me off guard and I waited a moment before calling his name. Virgil emerged through the door, his head drooped and his shoulders hunched.

He saw me looking at the snake’s head. It was a Green Mojave, he said, one of the most dangerous of the rattlers because the toxins in its venom attacked the brain and body at the same time.

“I killed the muthafucka with a spade,” he said.

On the table in his room a jar of peanut butter had a knife jammed into it and on the floor by the bed laid an empty liquor bottle. He looked at me fiercely.

“Ya wanna hear summit I figured out…philosophically? Whose the richest man in the world?”

I said that it was a Mexican property tycoon, according to a list I had seen recently in Forbes’ Magazine.

“I got three bucks, I’m a peasant king. But here’s what I figured out. Take that wetback (his term for Mexicans); he couldn’t buy what I have. You know why? ‘Cos I spent twenty years of my life to get it. I spent it.” He spat the word out and he cracked the table with his fist emphatically.

I thought about the Cynic philosopher Diogenes, whose only possessions were a cloak, a wallet and a staff. Plato was said to have referred to Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad” and the earlier philosopher’s indifference to popular opinion was transformed in Diogenes to total shamelessness. He spat in rich men’s faces, masturbated in public and rallied against the distorted values of a world where works of art sold for exorbitant prices and flour for pennies.

Virgil shared this iconoclasm although his distrust of modernity was as much about fear as any kind of righteous indignation. He had read a lot and he felt this set him apart — “Mesopotamia! Now you use that word in Cleator and they’ll brand ya,” he said once. But he only trusted history books written before the Second World War and for his imaginative life he relied on pulp histories of the Wild West with names like “The Rustlers of Pecos County” and “The Wham Paymaster Robbery of 1889” that lay scattered about the cabin.

His politics, meanwhile, had grown bullet hard and weighted with paranoia in the thin mountain air. In a discussion about American foreign policy he suddenly erupted, upsetting beer cans and thrusting a finger in my face. He became grotesque, a cartoon hillbilly stamping his feet and hurling gobfuls of spit into the grate.


I shouted at him to calm down and he did — so quickly that it was unnerving. He leaned forward and raised his hand and my body tensed instinctively, expecting a fist.

I made a quick summation of the situation. I was twice his size and half his age so if he went for me I could wrap my arms around his shoulders and pull him to the floor. But I had never been in a fight my whole adult life and I was not confident.

In the event he only shook his head and said: “You’re naive. I used to think like you too but at a certain point you gotta face reality.”

the fool on the hill (part 2)

* virgil, hermits

He squinted trying to make out who it was. The beard was shorter than in the photo and he wore a grey pullover that hung limp over his sleight frame. A few seconds passed and I walked up to him and introduced myself. His winced as if expecting a shock.

the fool on the hill (part 2)

He wanted to know if I had brought beer, his voice mellow but with a rip at the back from smoking. When I said I had, he said “Well Goddam it!” And that he knew he liked me from the moment he saw me.

His cabin was a mile further on at the old Peck Mine, he said. We walked along a ridge with views east across mesas to the mountains. He talked excitedly, pulling me to a stop from time to time and gripping my forearms emphatically. He drank Bud and tossed the empty cans into the undergrowth.

He usually stayed away from the turnoff, he said. He had gone there with a squirrel he caught, and he tapped the side of the packing crate meaningfully. It was disturbing the birds and he had taken it to the other side of the mountain to release it. To be sure he would recognise it he had daubed it with paint, and if it came back he was going to kill the bastard.

The path curved left below the ridge till we reached the cabin. It was one of only two buildings left over from the old mining town of Alexandria that had existed here a century ago, back when a silver dollar was more than a collector’s item. The other was the rock shop I had been at which was part of the old Swastika mine. He used to live there till he got sick of the hikers.

His cabin sat within a canyon the shape of a cupped hand. In his room dusty light streamed in through a window milky with dirt. At its centre a wood burner was flanked by a narrow iron bed and a small table that stood by the window. Virgil crouched down, feeding chopped wood into the burner.

He had no explanation for why he was here, he said. Or how he had managed to survive the last two decades drinking rainwater, eating the meagre accumulation of what he could scavenge and borrow.

This was home so far as he had one. When the weather was good he was hardly here. In a few weeks he would head up the mountain and set up camp among blazing yellow handfuls of Mexican lilies and the swelled paws of prickly pears that rose side by side as if the inferno of the summer to come were no more than a fable.

Up there was the real solitude he said. The cabin was just a base.

I told him about a woman I met in Cleator, who had said to me she thought he was more free than anyone she knew. He shrugged. He said he could care less what others thought.

His life sounded romantic but it was edged with hardship and it showed in his features, in his sunken cheeks and in his skin coloured burnt ochre and lined like a satellite image of the canyons.

“I didn’t come here to prove a point,” he said. “I don’t do this to be unique. Besides unique’s just a polite word for weirdo. Most those folks’ve never seen me sober. No joke. I’m the village idiot.”

It was true. When people came to visit or bring him supplies he would run them off the place if they forgot beer. Alcohol was his prerequisite for dealing with the outside world. His drunken antics were the stuff of legend in Cleator where he seemed to delight in offending the sensibilities of what he called “stinking civilization”. Dave told me he had kicked him out of the Bar more than once. Virgil was unapologetic. “I like pinching girl’s butts; I’m kind of primitive.”

He was silent a while gazing out at the canyon. The room was warm and particles of dust glittered in the late afternoon sunlight obscuring an ink drawing of a Native American on horseback slaying a buffalo.

“Ya know I was hearing’ ’bout that Condeleeza Rice for years on the radio before I found out she was black,” he said at last, a look of puzzlement  on his face.