a night alone in an english ruin

journalism

A version of this story first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 30, 2011

The stone cottage stood alone on the hillside, dark and sinister in the gloom of twilight. Pushing open the heavy old door I shone my torch in to the empty silence of the room. A jet black wood burner stood in the hearth, and beside it a fresh woodpile. On a shelf, stacks of papers withered in the dampness alongside the baroque remains of a melted candle in a bottleneck.

The bothy at Warnscale Head in the English Lakes

I laid down my rucksack and collected some kindling. As the cold night drew in I piled the fire high, eating sausage and beans washed down with tea and, a little later, a few nips of whiskey from a hip flask.

I was miles from the nearest habitation, in the wilds of Northumberland, near England’s border with Scotland. In the musty interior of the old farm cottage it felt like I was further away, like I had slipped between the pages of a 19th century novel.

I wondered about the ghosts of the past: whose home this had been and when and why they had left. Outside in the deep of Keilder forest an owl hooted.

In the jam-packed Britain of today finding a place to enjoy the country’s heritage in true isolation is no mean feat. The land is scattered with ancient monuments – castles and churches, runes and ruins – but it’s also littered with fences, admission fees, “keep out” signs and lots of other visitors.

As a solution to this problem I heard about bothies. Dotted across northern Britain, they are ruined cottages abandoned to the elements. Often the former homes of shepherds and crofters, in Scotland many of
them are relics of the Highland Clearances, the forced displacement of the rural population carried out by the British government during the 18th and 19th centuries. One Highland bothy dating from the 18th century is the birthplace of the man whose life story formed the basis of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “Kidnapped”.

Another ruined farmstead at Kearvaig Bay on the northern tip of Britain contains a scrawled message on the plaster recording three generations of the same family dating back nearly 200 years.

They cost nothing to stay in, are left open all year round, and provide only the most basic shelter: a wooden platform to lay a sleeping bag on and a fireplace.

As well as the sense of history evoked by these buildings, there are good practical reasons for staying in them.

The countryside of northern England offers some of the best walking in Britain. The bucolic charms of the Lake District attract visitors from around the world, while to the east the windswept austerity of the Yorkshire moors and the wild, empty beaches of Northumberland are less known. However this being Britain, the great landscapes are not always
matched by great weather. Campouts under the stars transform to washouts in record time.

Since many of them are located close to walking trials, bothies are a good solution for trekkers who wanted to stay out on the hills without becoming a victim of our famously fickle climate.

With my appetite whetted by the online research I slung some supplies into a backpack and went ‘bothying’.

The first trip I made was to the cottage in Keilder. It was a bleak day, threatening rain overhead and below a carpet of snow still coated the wide forestry path that led through the woods.

Situated a few miles to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, the bothy makes an ideal stop-off for anyone attempting to walk the route of the 1,900 year-old ruins of the defence barrier the Roman leader constructed to define the northern limits of his empire.

Like many of the bothies, the cottage is maintained by volunteers from the Mountain Bothy Association (MBA). On its website the MBA asks that visitors help contribute to the upkeep of its buildings by observing a few basic rules – the “Bothy Code”.

At the Keilder forest site I found a guest book. One visitor, who signed himself “Smeagol” after the Lord of the Rings character, ranted about finding the place in a mess. Poor “Smeagol” complained he had walked eight miles in July heat only to find the place in a state of calamity. In a note peppered with expletives, he blamed a troupe of ne’er-do-wells he called the “air rifle muppet brigade” for flouting the code, and signed off promising never to return.

Most of the comments were more affirming: “’Spent the night by the fire with a cracking Chinese stir fry, good wine and beer. Tidied up and left some logs. Till next time.’ Signed Kev and Peter, March 21.”

After a fitful night’s sleep and fried breakfast, I collected some wood and left. On my way out I noticed a withered picture of a windswept Lakeland mountaintop hanging near the fireplace. Just such a place was to provide the backdrop for my next bothy experience.

The walk up to Warnscale Head starts in Buttermere in the southwest of the English Lake District. It skirts the edge of the pretty little lake, along the route of the Coast-to-Coast walk, until at the eastern shore it splits off and heads up the valley on to a scree-covered peak.

One of the best things about walking in England is the rich tapestry of language it reveals to you. Dialects that have long since dissolved into memory live on in the words for the land. In the Lakes for example, a hilltop can be variously a fell, pike or crag; a lake; a tarn or a mere. Reeling off the place names on a Lakeland map is an act of pure poetry. On my way up to the Bothy I passed (in order): Pike Rigg, Buttermere, Muddock Crags, Lambing Knott, Peggy’s Bridge and Warnscale Bottom.

The bothy is two-thirds up the mountain with incredible views back down the valley to Buttermere. The sun was shining the day I went and a waterfall, heavy with snowmelt, roared away to my left. In front of me the bothy — a ruined shelter for the workers who quarried shale here — was almost indistinguishable from the hillside. The same shale that it was made from scattered the ground around it.

I boiled a pan of water for tea and gazed from the bare interior to the extravagant view from the window. The valley sides looked lime green and burnt orange in the sunlight and the rocky heads of peaks like the chiselled faces of leviathans.

As I was leaving the house to drive over here my dad handed me a book to take. It was by Alfred Wainwright. If you’ve never heard of him, you should know that he is probably the best-known rambler of the English Lakes since William Wordsworth “wandered lonely as a cloud” here two centuries ago. A fugitive from a grim northern mill town,
Wainwright spent most his adult life here, producing a series of popular walking guides to the area. The guides are beautifully illustrated with the author’s own pen and ink drawings. It was Wainwright who came up with the Coast-to-Coast walk.

By chance the route to the bothy led on to Wainwright’s favourite peak: Haystacks. After a while I tore myself away from my shelter and continued the rest of the way up. The view from the top is breathtaking. Wainwright compared Haystacks to “a shaggy terrier in the company of foxhounds,” and sitting at the summit you feel the raw power of the black-faced, snow-flecked peaks that overlook you on all sides. Straight ahead the land falls away and sweeps, in one motion, to the lakeside. I sat for a while, buffeted by the wind, thinking how lucky I was that aside from the odd stray sheep grazing the uplands, I had the mountain to myself.

Two months after his death in 1991, Wainwright’s widow, Betty, following his wishes, carried the writer’s ashes up here and scattered them by Innominate Tarn, the lonely mountain lake that sits near the summit. It was an unusually cold winter in England this year and the tarn was still frozen over. But the thaw was setting in and when I stood by the water’s edge I heard the fizz and crack of melting ice.

“For a man trying to get a persistent worry out of his mind,” Wainwright wrote. “The top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.” I watched a black bird dart over the tarn then disappear into clouds that were smoky through sunlight, seeing just what he meant.

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a halloween in krakow

journalism

The following was written after a visit to Krakow and to the site of the nearby Nazi death camp of Auschwitz

I was in Krakow as the city was celebrating its independence. It was a fresh autumn morning and its sumptuous main square was bathed in sunlight. An ageing soldier with a walrus moustache and a great coat decorated in brass marched at the head of a brigade of veterans. Crossing a small portion of the vast Rynek Glowny (it is the largest medieval square in Europe), the veterans narrowly avoided a florid stain on the flagstones that threatened to put an end to the dignity of the moment.

Krakow

When the Poles kicked out their communist overlords, it was never going to be long before the rest of the world beat a path to Krakow. With its medieval ramparts that date back 700 years, it’s a fairytale city of grandiose castles, baroque churches and moderately-priced beer.

This last factor is less of a draw than in Prague, in the next-door Czech Republic. Nonetheless, a fair volume of Western men tip out of the budget airlines each weekend to drink themselves hoarse. Krakow’s status as a party city owes as much to its student population as anything else though. Its historic Jagiellonian University is the most prestigious in Poland counting among its alumni the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and the late pope John Paul II.

In the evening its present intake mill about in the streets that feed off Rynek Glowny and down vodka shots in the proliferation of bars there or in the cafes of Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter.

I suppose if you were being precious you might consider it a slur on the impeccable beauty of the place, all this hedonism. But that would be to forget the world the decadence replaced. When Krakow emerged from the tatters of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in October 1918 (the event I saw memorialized in the town square) it became part of an independent Poland for the first time in over a century. This independence lasted just two decades until the Nazis arrived. After a reign of terror that included the wholesale murder of the city’s Jews, they gave way to the Russians, whose rule was just as unyielding though markedly less deranged. These days a degree of nostalgia for the more kitsch elements of the communist-era is reflected in hostel names like “Goodbye Lenin” and tours of the suburbs and old steel works in a restored Trabant.

No such playfulness can be brought to bear on the German occupation, however. An hour’s drive west of Krakow is the town of Oswiecim. Better known by the Germanic version of its name, it was scene of the biggest act of mass murder ever known. Walking around the death camp of Auschwitz, the most striking thing is the ordinariness of the place. The redbrick prison blocks look like warehouses, the chimneystack above the gas chamber is neat and unassuming.

A second, much larger camp was built a few miles away. Known as Auschwitz-Birkenau it accommodated 200,000 inmates in wooden blocks that resembled stables. More than a million Jews, Gypsies and Poles were tortured and killed at Birkenau. New arrivals were herded from the wagons and made to form a queue before an SS doctor who looked them over before ushering them to the left or straight on. Left took them into the camp but majority – around three quarters, our guide said – were directed ahead to the four purpose-built gas chambers.

Krakow

Standing by these same rail lines facing the ruins of the gas chambers I asked our guide Beata if she found it hard to retrace such disturbing material each day. “Most of the people who work here have some connection with the place,” she said. The first director of the museum was an inmate. So was Beata’s uncle, who was imprisoned here after he was caught by Gestapo officers on the streets of Krakow beyond a 10pm curfew.

A meek-voiced woman with dark patches below her eyes, Beata pointed out the block where he slept on straw mattresses two to a bed, and where he contracted Typhoid and nearly died. “Afterwards, he was one of those who preferred not to talk about his experience,” she said.

At the outbreak of war there were 65,000 Jews in Krakow. Today there are less than 200. This horrendous statistic is tempered a little by the stories of those who tried to help. A third of those recognised as “the Righteous Among Nations” by the Jewish faith were Poles. They include Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who ran a pharmacy in the Krakow ghetto from where he doled out medicine (often for free) to the severely malnourished residents.

krakow

Pankiewicz, who published a harrowing memoir of his experiences, is an easier character to admire than Oskar Schindler, whose status as a saviour is complicated by his collaboration with the Third Reich. A war profiteer who came to Poland to spy for the Nazis, Schindler took over an enamelware factory on the edge of the ghetto in the working class neighbourhood of Podgorze where he employed Jews because it was free labour. His workers lived in a camp connected to the factory in conditions of squalor, but it was paradise relative to what was going on outside.

The site of the factory has been turned into a museum that opened this summer. It tells the broader story of Krakow during the Nazi occupation as well as the history of Schindler’s Jews. I went there a Friday afternoon. When I came out it was dark and I walked through Kazimierz, passing a smattering of Jewish restaurants playing klezmer. The anniversary of Krakow’s independence happened to coincide with Halloween and outside some of the bars rosy-cheeked Polish girls wore plastic witches hats and handed out vouchers for cheap vodka.

At a restaurant back in the old town I ate a goulash that sat within a bowl of bread. I chugged back a few vodkas and moved on to a bar where the house band was stomping on some American rock standards. On the dance floor vampish blonds vogued beside bleary-eyed blokes wobbling unsteadily like bowling skittles. I joined in for a few tracks but I couldn’t get into it. Back on the streets the ghosts of the past crowded in on me as I passed a party of students, their faces painted zombie green.

Krakow is not a memorial ground and focusing too much on its tragic past can seem a disservice to its vibrant present. But the past intrudes on you here in that way that it must in places where true horror has existed. As I walked along I thought about Beata’s uncle, back in Krakow after the war. How often had he repassed the spot where they arrested him in the years that followed?

Crossing the square under the town hall tower I passed the site of the morning parade. A drunk young Brit, his hair jelled flat like a set of railings, approached me. “’Ere mate. You know any strip clubs?”

There was a restaurant called “Roasters”, I said, where they showed boxing on plasma TVs and the girls wore hot pants. This information didn’t seem to satisfy him and he squinted at me suspiciously. “Nice place Krakow innit?” He said eventually.

“Lovely,” I said.

“Been to Auschwitz?”

“Yes.”

He squinted some more and shaking his head he said angrily: “Nazi bastards!” With that the young man staggered off up the square, narrowly missing the atomic stain that still decorated the otherwise pristine flagstones.

hitchhiking on route 66

journalism

This story was first published in the travel section of the Sydney Morning Herald on Sept 11, 2010.

hitchhiking through arizona

As the warm afternoon draws to a close, I begin to wonder whether I will ever escape this desert town. Barstow, with its dusty line of strip shops along the route of the old Union Pacific railroad in south-east California, has a corroded kind of charm that you can bear when you know you’re leaving.

The locals aren’t too complimentary, either.

”In Barstow you get all the women together, you still won’t have a full set of teeth,” a guy tells me the night before at the Super J Truck Stop, a few kilometres out of town.

I had been at the truckstop in the early hours, shivering under neon, drinking burnt coffee as I waited for a ride south-east towards Mexico.

The truckers file past in silence, doing their best to ignore me as they head inside to fill up on apple pie and bad TV. For the most part big-bellied midwesterners, they are a sombre bunch. I give up in the early hours. After coaxing a lift into Barstow from a truck stop attendant, I drown my sorrows in an all-night bar.

Next morning I emerge from the bathroom of Denny’s diner feeling dazed and with a numb face after a quick wash with the hand sanitiser. At the city limits, I wait by the freeway, on the old Route 66. The Mother Road, as it is also known, Route 66 passes here on its 4000-kilometre journey from Chicago to Los Angeles. This fabled artery of 20th-century America became synonymous with the spirit of travel and adolescent adventure captured in books such as On the Road.

When I was young, I heard stories from my parents about how they had hitched around England in the ’60s. I wanted to share their enthusiasm but like so many others raised on road movies and the Beats, it was the American landscape that I associated with the romance of hitching.

With his canvas bag and pack of smokes the hero of On the Road, Sal Paradise, seemed the ultimate road warrior, a renegade dreamer who lived by the adage that the journey is more important than the destination.

Well past the age when you’re supposed to have abandoned such romantic notions, I make my first attempt at hitching in the US. I have flown into Las Vegas and some friends have dropped me at Barstow. From here I plan to travel via Arizona to the Mexican border.

At the end of the day, I’ve gone nowhere. Hours pass by the roadside. I begin to wonder whether I’ve made a stupid mistake. A couple of online forums I had found suggested travellers are still hitching. The best of them was Digihitch, which contained nuggets of advice including state bylaws as well as testimony from hitchers and rail-hoppers.

The drivers who whiz by are obviously not subscribers and as they speed into the distance, my resolve goes with them. I call to double-check the schedule for the Greyhound bus and I’m about to call it a day when I hear a voice behind me. I turn to see a young man in wraparound shades standing by a truck. He is going to Flagstaff, Arizona, he says. Do I need a ride?

His name is Brook and he is a biologist on his way home to his girlfriend and little boy. And as I watch the desert sweep to the mountains and the sun drop out of the sky, the conversation shifts to the dramatic changes fatherhood has brought to his life.

There are few relationships like that between driver and hitcher, thrown together by chance for a few hours and probably never to meet again. The car becomes their confessional.

A veteran hitcher of five decades who publishes stories on Digihitch, Rex Ingram, believes the chance to positively affect someone’s life, either with your words or by simply lending an impartial ear, is one of the best reasons to hitch.

Ingram, who has hitchhiked through all the US states, writes that the intimacy provided by the automobile is conducive to conducting behavioural therapy on a level only attainable by a psychiatrist.

”I’ve been told of murders and robberies, loves and hates, emotional disturbances of every type,” he says.

Flagstaff is a pleasant college town near the rim of the Grand Canyon. We arrive in a blizzard and Brook drops me at a hostel. After a few days, I look online for a ride further south – it’s now possible to thumb a lift from the comfort of your dorm bed. Social-networking sites such as Craigslist contain sections where you can post notices offering rides or asking for them.

My ad gets a response within a day from a man in a beanie touring the south-west in his VW camper. As we drive to Tucson in the early morning, the hills and canyons of central Arizona are green after the winter thaw. Here and there the tumescent branches of the saguaro cactus rise like alien TV aerials, a cinematic shorthand for the American desert.

My driver, Joel, tells me about riding the rails. In the first half of last century, especially during the Depression, catching free train rides was a common way to travel in the US. Hoboes looking for work climbed aboard freight wagons in the dead of night hoping to avoid a beating from a ”bull”, the name given to the men hired to protect the freight.

A former inmate’s memoir published in the ’20s, You Can’t Win offers some first-hand accounts of this world. Its author, Jack Black, rode the rails in all seasons. In one scene, he describes seeing a young man crushed to death when a pile of timber collapses in his wagon.

No one rides the rails out of necessity any more, Joel says. It is mostly college graduates in search of adventure. ”It’s gutter punk,” he says. ”What a trust-fund kid might do to get his kicks.”

I stay a couple of nights in Tucson. The days are getting hot and in the historic Hotel Congress I sip whiskey sours and read ’30s newspaper articles about John Dillinger, the bank robber and public enemy No. 1 who was arrested here with his gang. As in nearby Phoenix, large areas of Tucson are sprawling suburbs devoid of character. Unlike its neighbour, Tucson makes up for this with a well-preserved downtown, which mixes Spanish-style adobe mansions with art deco Americana.

On my last day here, I wait at a petrol station for a ride along the final stretch – 110 kilometres south to Mexico. A minivan turns up, on the way to the border. The driver wants cash, then crams me in the back beside an old Mexican man with no teeth, sucking on dried apricots. Half an hour later the sky darkens. Streaks of rain bounce violently off the bitumen as I try to recall the Spanish for ”please eat with your mouth shut”.

Many commentators blame the media for the decline in popularity of hitchhiking. The depiction of the psychotic loner, either at the box office or in the news, has struck a chord in the public imagination. Add these fears to an increasingly atomised society, where people feel estranged from one another, and you are left with the impression that hitchhiking is a thing of the past.

These armchair obituaries annoy Ingram, who still hitches from his home in Chino Valley, Arizona. He says his golden age for hitching rides was the ’60s, when his US Marines uniform was an ”open ticket for the road”. But he disputes the idea it has become so much harder, or defunct, as a mode of travel.

”It’s always been hard to get a ride and it’s always been easy,” says Ingram, who once got stuck in Barstow for four days waiting for a lift. ”It’s not the time of year or the decade, it’s the getting out there.”

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 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.

“THEY WANNA KILL YA,” he screamed. “WHY?…BECAUSE YOU’RE WHITE!”

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.”