Each year I write a monsoon haiku to celebrate our first chubasco. Here is 2019:
Saguaro’s spiked arms
Lifted skyward imploring
Clouds withholding water
Each year I write a monsoon haiku to celebrate our first chubasco. Here is 2019:
Saguaro’s spiked arms
Lifted skyward imploring
Clouds withholding water
The tips of the mesquite branches are touching the ground. They are burdened with bean pods: some still green; some bearing the red streaks of oxidized sugar. These last are ripe. The dogs pull the ripe pods off and eat them. This seems odd to us because we forget that they are omnivores. But maybe this is their time. We are, after all, crossing the line toward Lughnasa. The Dog Days are upon us.
This heaviness can be felt in the air as well. Unburdened for months by humidity, the air is now close and thick. Before I run the dogs at dawn the mercury has already crept into the 80’s. Clouds form now, driven by moisture swept from the Gulf by a 500mb ridge that has crept from Sinaloa to Oklahoma. The clouds are low and thick, and are, as one cowboy songwriter put it, “heavier than oil on canvas.” But they promise rain. The dogs run with their tongues out, as if these too are heavier. I plod along behind them, sweat forming behind my ears and running down the nape of my neck like kisses from the promised rain.
Our roof is heavier too. After a few summers catching leaks in jars and bowls, we had it scraped, resealed, and coated. Two men in heavy boots clomped around on it for two days. From up there they must have been able to see the dust devils rising to meet the stratosphere. Maybe they could see the shimmering heat inversions, the mirages that mirror the desert floor. I am not sure. I stayed at ground level.
This weight suits the tortoises. They clomp and plod around their pens now. The heavy season seems to ensure them that food has come, is coming. We, their human overlords, have never failed to drop food to them. But they run on ancient clocks. And while they associate our presence with food, they do not associate it with surety. That’s fine. Their species has seen far more trips around the sun than ours. Maybe there is a wisdom in those eons. Maybe they see human frailty and shortcoming more clearly than we see our own. I get that. As long as the lid remains on the super caldera in Yellowstone, our survival is not guaranteed. Our heavy seasons get heavier. And they get more erratic. Yet we remain fixed the next quarter’s P&L statement.
That is troublesome. But my Husky sets the right tone. She glides along in the thick morning air, tongue out, nose up, sloe-eyed and with a permanent smile on her face. The world is filled with fascinating things: bushes, butterflies, lizards, horses, rabbits. And now snakes. We’ve seen two in the past week: an adult tiger rattler; a juvenile bull snake. And, always, at mile 1.8, there is the smell of bacon cooking at Jerry Bob’s. Soon the Santa Cruz will run with water—the first in months. These are all good things. A morning run, the company of dogs, bacon, snakes, a sealed roof, the promise of rain: these lift weight from a heavy season.
I got a dog recently, everybody. …I went down to the pound. I got one of those free dogs. Free dog. That’s how I say it too. I don’t say, “I rescued a dog.” I hate when people say that stuff. They say, “She’s a rescue. I rescued her.” Really? Did you pull her out of a burning building? Did you jump in a river with your wingtips still on with no concern for your own safety? Or did you just go down to the pound and get a free dog…? — Bill Burr, comedian
I gotta agree with Bill on this one. You’ve probably noticed that when people tell you that their dog “is a rescue” it has nothing to do with the dog’s situation. They are really telling you about themselves. I am a great person. I found this poor pitiable cur cowering in a corner. I, my magnanimous self, ushered it into the light of the civilized world and am giving it the life it deserves in its forever home. Am I not wonderful?
Okay. So I got myself a free Doberman.
I have wanted a Doberman pinscher for 20 years. They are the ultimate dog: sleek, elegant, muscular, not too big or small, typically brave, athletic, hyper-intelligent, minimal shedding, minimal drool, low odor. And they do not bark a lot.
They are all that and, by reputation, the last type of dog you would ever want to get from the pound.
As Bill Burr goes on to (very correctly, very hilariously) point out:
Dude, the shelter is not a pet store. It’s like Shawshank for a Golden retriever. Why don’t we just go down to the prison and rescue an inmate and just roll the dice that maybe the guy was wrongly convicted? Are you out of your mind? F—k that. I want a brand-new 2009 bulldog, all right? I don’t want some 1995 half-a-labrador with part of its ear chewed off, you know? I’ve got to put together its backstory. Every time I go to use the toaster, it starts freaking out because his last owner hung him from the ceiling fan every time the Jets didn’t cover the over, you know? Dude, that’s an animal, man. That thing can kill you.
And he’s right. This is an animal you do not know. That baleful look may be from selective breeding. But it might also be from poor socialization, neglect, mistreatment or abuse. It may have a neurosis you have no ability to detect or correct. That dog could be like the mad barber of Fleet Street, biding time until it can remove a child’s face as you try sneaking it onto a plane in the guise of your “emotional support animal.” (See footnote) To top it off, none of us are a Barbara Woodhouse, or a Sophia Yin, or, heaven forbid, a Cesar Milan. We have no clue what to do with a twisted animal psyche.
The way to avoid all of that is to raise a dog from a puppy. But I haven’t had 15 or 20 extra Benjamins stuffed into the mattress any time in the last 20 years to spend on a newly minted Doberman. Then this year we had a Christmas miracle.
My daughter, who volunteers at the pound, came home one night and opened her phone to show a photo of a pair of Dobermans that had come in together, a black male, and a red female. When she did, I blurted out, “I want the black one!” But with the image lodged in my wife’s mind being a snarling, leaping Doberman taking down a soft-armored perp in protection training that’s as far as I expected it to go. To her Dobermans represented what you least want in a dog: aggression. And pound dogs represent what you least want to deal with: an unknown backstory.
Don’t get me wrong. Of the eleven dogs, seven cats and fourteen turtles we have owned, all were rescues but three. (Have I mentioned that we are wonderful magnanimous people?) So maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me when my wife ended up steering me to the shelter. And in the chaos, in the cacophony of yapping canines—mostly pit bull mixes—the pair of Dobermans were as cool as cucumbers. Neither was skittish or aggressive. Any neuroses they had were wrapped in a demeanor of pure calm. That was enough for my wife to encourage me to put the black male on reserve. That is to say, its owner had five days to claim it. After that a Doberman rescue group could claim it. After that folks on the reserve list would be contacted. I signed the form, handed over the non-refundable $50 reserve fee, and waited to be disappointed.
But we weren’t. The pound called on the winter solstice to ask when we could pick up our new baby.
The mythical Doberman is protective, attached to a single person, quick to warn off strangers. The anecdote is that after the AKC recognized the breed, it won Best of Show three years in a row without the judges even looking at their teeth. But the mythical Doberman is just that: mythical. The aggression shows up mostly as an atavistic trait brought out by bad upbringing. The best kept secret about modern Dobermans is that they are absolute cuddle-muffins. In fact, if the secret were out, people would abandon their boring Golden Retrievers in droves and take up with the Doberman.
And what about ours? To Bill Burr’s point, he really does have part of one ear chewed off. He came to us underweight, dehydrated, dull, dirty. He was very unsure of his new status. There was no sign that he had any memory of spending a night in a house, or a ride in a car. He must not have ever had a toy, or chased or caught a ball. Early on he had an altercation with our rat terrier, Sammy. That got the terrier shaken like, well, a rat. And it almost got Jericho—that’s what we named him, Jericho—sent back to the pound. But he adjusted quickly. You could almost see him absorbing his new situation minute by minute. Inside of two weeks he and Suzie Q were fast friends, and Jericho was giving Sammy a wide berth.
All of that netted him rides in the car and walks in the park to get him exercised and socially adjusted. And that’s when I realized I’d gone old-school. A sleek, black, alert Doberman is a sight to behold. So people would stop to ask about him. And then they would say, “You don’t see many of these any more.” That set me back a step the first time. But my mind clicked through all of the inmates at the pound. Wall-to-wall pit bulls. All of those clunky canis lupus waddling the streets, some still sporting spiked collars? Pit bulls. They have become almost—well—cliche. Yeah, yeah, there are still more black labs than you can shake a stick at. We have golden retrievers up the wazoo. And you practically can’t move without stepping on a Chihuahua or its doo-doo. But the Doberman is almost an artifact.
And now I hear it on almost every circuit of that aging asphalt path. “Nice dog. You don’t see many any more.” “Gorgeous dog. I haven’t seen one in awhile.” Of course, Suzie Q gets compliments; she’s a straight up sweetheart. Strangers are friends she hasn’t met yet. And Sammy gets the occasional, “Oh look at the cute little fat one.” But only the Doberman is passé, yesteryear, old school.
That’s fine by me. The classics never go out of style.
Footnote: It’s true. One mom sued Alaska Airlines and Portland International Airport over facial injuries her daughter suffered after beng bitten by a pit bull traveling as an “emotional support animal.” Click here to read the story.
Edward Abbey died thirty years ago today.
Although I did not know it at the time, I first met Edward Abbey through a book about the Great Smokey Mountains. He was the book’s author. Being a Pennsylvania boy like me, Abbey appreciated the soft round fullness of the Appalachian Mountains. So he spoke well of the place—in his own prickly style. And why not? With Clingmans Dome poking into the clouds at 6600’; with the historic hollow of Cade’s Cove deep in one of its valleys, with hillsides seeped in the eternal mist of untold exhaling trees; with the half-buried secrets of the Cherokee and Scotch-Irish settlers, you won’t find a finer example of the Appalachians than the Great Smokies.
Like me, Abbey also suffered from wanderlust, that itch you scratch with new place names on new maps, the next river bend, the next flank on the next trail. Before I was born he had wandered west. When I couldn’t hike or paddle, I had armchair adventures back in our little house in Grindstone, Pennsylvania. At one point I picked up another book called Cactus Country. There was that cantankerous voice again, ringing this time like a clapper in a bell—the clarion call of twisted spiny plants, broken down porphyritic rocks, gaudy sunsets, and a sere, always thirsty land. If I had slipped the previous book back on its shelf, this time I did not. This was new. And it was fascinating.
I was lured west. Or I should say ‘we‘ since I had a family by then. Admittedly, Cactus Country had an impact on where we pushed our pin into the map. And it was here in Tucson at the Haunted Bookshop—now a ghost itself—that I discovered Desert Solitaire. This time it took only Abbey’s name on the cover to make me read it. By the time I closed the book, it had transformed how I looked at wilderness; how I looked at writing; and how I looked at authors.
Abbey’s simple wilderness ethics and spare writing style followed a single guidon: his fierce independence. Well, maybe two, since he was a hopeless romantic as well. His approach to wilderness was pedestrian, clear-eyed and uncluttered, save the necessary allowances for laziness and economy. His writing, too, was stripped to the essence. He had little tolerance for adjectives, placing them as carefully as an artist fitting tiles to a mosaic. He simply wrote down what he saw. If he described a landscape too fantastic to be true, it was because it was too fantastic to be true. He became the first author who made me want to read everything he wrote.
So I started in on his fiction. By the time I’d read most of it, he’d finished his “fat, American novel,” The Fool’s Progress. It was printed the same year as the 20th anniversary edition of Desert Solitaire. As a concession to being a Tucson resident, Professor Abbey stepped off his dais at the university and wandered into The Haunted Bookshop to sign copies. I handed over my fresh hardback copy of Desert Solitaire and, while he scribbled in it, explained that he had been sort of responsible for my kids, then aged 6, 4 and 2, being dragged all over the state of Arizona. We switched books, and when he handed back A Fool’s Progress he had written, “to Gerald & Kelly and three great kids! from Ol’ Uncle Ed Abbey, Tucson 1988.”
And then just like that he was gone.
I’ve spent a lot of time since then, traveling in ever widening circles, chasing his ghost. Or maybe using it as an excuse to simply wander in ever widening circles. The circles grew, in time, to include rivers and canyons in Utah. Then, just a few years ago, Arches National Park itself. And finally, just this past year, a river journey through Grand Canyon. It’s been an amazing journey. My plan, before the 50th anniversary of his passing, is to romp through it all again, with some well-worn copies of his books along for the ride. I suspect, at the end of it all, his ideas will still be valid. Which brings me to one other thing I want to say.
Abbey needs no apologists. I doubt he cottoned to that sort of thing. But I’d like to clear up one little misunderstanding about where he stands among today’s philosophers. Quite a few believe, maybe because of his unflinching advocacy of wilderness preservation, that he was a bit of a socialist. He might admit to that on an off night. But that’s far from the truth. He was a salt-of-the-earth hillbilly and a rock-ribbed conservative. I’m not calling him a right-winger. I can already imagine him bristling at being lumped with those pustular, rabid dogs, eager to fatten themselves selling our planet off to the highest bidder. Nope, Abbey pointed out often enough how to keep that fat mixed into the stew. I say conservative in that he actually believed in conserving things. The more irreplaceable it was, the more loudly he spoke out for it. And, he is also differentiated from the piss-ants of current conservatism by a sense of humor. In other words, he knew what should be shared; what should be kept; and he faced the psychotic babble of the world outside of those safe mountain valleys with a bit of sardonic wit. In short, he reminds me of home, of the people I grew up around.
Do I have a point? Probably not. I just wanted to say that I miss Cactus Ed, that my life has been a bit better because of him. When I sometimes forget that it’s good to be out there, out in the empty spaces, trudging along—cold, wet, tired, thirsty, hungry, lost—there is that voice again reminding me why it’s all worthwhile. And since there’s no sense in me offering a second-hand reminder, I’ll let Ed finish this:
“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast… a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”
—Edward Abbey, Missoula, Montana, 1976
One afternoon in late December I was standing in a swirling snowfall thinking about the afterlife. I don’t spend a lot of time contemplating the hereafter. It’s a fuzzy concept. That day, though, I was in Madera Canyon. Every year, on whatever Saturday fell closest to his birthday, my friend Dave would go to Madera Canyon to gather mistletoe. This wasn’t for Christmas kisses. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant, actually a hemi-parasite, that sinks its roots into the host’s vascular system, eventually killing it. Dave would go there with family and friends to help relieve the high desert oaks of their parasitic load.
This particular Saturday actually was Dave’s birthday. But Dave wasn’t there. Dave had died in late October from cancer, another evil growth that kills its host.
The mountains rising above Madera Canyon were in rare form that December afternoon. Old Baldy, the craggy main peak in the Santa Rita Mountains, was standing like a referee in a dual between the pale late-December sunshine and an unsettled snowstorm. Driving into Madera Canyon from the north, the duel was a spectacular display of light and weather.
But by the time Dave’s family and friends had gathered at a picnic pavilion near the open mouth of the canyon the snowstorm had cast the world in twilight and sent icy flakes to melt in our eyes. Everyone nodded knowingly. “Dave,” they said, “this is Dave’s doing.” And they may have been right. I’ve spent a lot of days on that mountain. And in some marginal weather. But I’d never seen a spectacular display of sun and snow like it put on that morning. And, being from old-school Iowa, Dave would have been quick to tell you that he had walked to school, uphill both ways, in the snow, with barbed wire wrapped around his bare feet for traction. So, sure, why not depart leaving us a little taste of the same?
So was Dave off in an afterlife somewhere? Was he in good with a cosmic weather wizard? Had he arranged this for some sardonic combination of our discomfort and delight? If so, he was safely beyond the range of human senses. What was in the range of things we could feel and know, though, was a life lived.
You can’t exactly swing a cat and hit a hillbilly philosopher. If you could find one, they might sum up that life this way: Be useful; Be reliable; Be honest; Don’t think too much of yourself. Good advice. The question is how to hang on to those ideals when you leave the enclave of the hills. And this is especially true for me. I get distracted by shiny objects. So when we left Pennsylvania for Tucson I spent time wondering what the people here would be like. Or, more to the point, how I might change.
Happily, one of the first people I ran across was Dave. Dave was practical, sensible, honest—almost to a fault, just a little sardonic, and more than a little bit stoic. You could have dropped him into any holler in the hills and he would never have made a ripple. But he was from Iowa. He was the first of many people from Iowa I would meet.
Waves of refugees have come to Arizona. It was once a spa. You came here for tuberculosis. Or anything else that dry air and sunshine might cure. Then retirees filtered in. They still come. A huge wave came escaping the oppression of housing inflation in California. Dave had come with the Rust Belt wave. Long before the leakage of manufacturing jobs was derailed into the thin air of political platitudes, Bruce Springsteen had penned the words: “These jobs are leaving, boys, and they ain’t coming back.” He was talking about the Rust Belt; about the simple jobs being done by simple people. They were happy to do the work, asking in return only to be able to feed their family, own a basic home, and fund a modest savings account. But Wall Street isn’t run by people who wanted the same for them. So the jobs drained into maquiladoras and drifted into Shenzhen. Until then, had you flipped over a tool or crawled under some farm equipment, you would have seen that it was made in places like DeMoines, Ames, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids or Davenport. The jobs left. And the people, like they had done during the Dust Bowl, followed the Mother Road west.
So Dave was the first Iowan I met, but not the last. He came to represent what I began to think of as Midwest sensibility. And it hewed closely to the ideals of: Be useful; Be reliable; Be honest; Don’t think too much of yourself. Dave—unwittingly—became a bit of a lodestar for me, helping me to see when I was drifting.
Dave introduced me to the song catalogs of John Prine and John Hartford. And for a bit of the cultural touchstones that people bond over, we both enjoyed A Prairie Home Companion.
Life is life. It is rarely constant. And, naturally, through all the changes, Dave and I often wound up on different paths. But at one point I ended up again at a company Dave had never left. So we began chewing on the intervening years. Dave summed it up with a favorite tidbit of ours from the Lake Woebegone stories. He said, “Gerry, what do you do when you were raised to be a stoic and life turns out good?” That was a heartwarming moment. And it is one I will always remember and treasure. But for you folks who didn’t tune in to A Prairie Home Companion, I’d like to quote from a longer version of Garrison Keillor’s words:
They raised him to bear up under hardship and sadness and disappointment and disaster, but what if you’re brought up to be stoic and your life turns out lucky—you’re in love with your wife, you’re lucky in your children, and life is lovely to you—what then? You’re ready to endure trouble and pain, and instead God sends you love—what do you do?
What Dave said was just a shorthand for the above. He had a wife that he loved; a child that he adored. He had steady work, and a roof over his head. He was happy.
So, no, I wasn’t standing in the swirling snow thinking a lot about the afterlife. I was huddled in a picnic pavilion with the woman he loved, the daughter he adored, the son-in-law he thought of as a son, the grandchildren that warmed his Sunday afternoons, and the friends that thought Dave was a pretty okay guy. I was huddled with the core of Dave’s good life. If that doesn’t focus you on the here and now, well, then I don’t know what to say.
I hope that Dave was playing a weather joke on us that day. More than that, though, I hope that I always remember the value of living simply. And I hope I will always value people who do the same.
So long, Dave. Thanks for the snowflakes. And thanks for reminding me that life did turn out good.