chickory blossoms and other things found while walking

steel, wood, ceramic

46cm x 20cm

chickory blossoms and other things found while walking detail - click to enlarge

|object in private collection|

This is about a novel that never got written. A short tale, about a long adventure that began one November on the porch of my girlfriend’s house. She had just kicked me out. And I arrived home to Tucson after another river season to find all of my stuff sitting on her front porch. At the time, that totaled about seven banana boxes of books, and a framed photo of her and me. So I walked down to the payphone in front of the Empire Market, called my good buddy Jon, and drove to San Francisco. That would be San Francisco St. on the northy side of town where Jon rented one of those houses we’re all familiar with. One of those old adobe homes that have held on to their desert vibe as the city splashed out all around it. I parked my VW bus under a couple of mesquite trees and contemplated life at 25. I had no money. No job. No degree. No place to live. No girlfriend. And after a serious bout of hard reckoning — no apparent direction, either. So, to make things worse, I got a soul-crushing job wandering around grocery stores in the middle of the night. Counting cans of dog food and boxes of macaroni. During the winter days that followed, all I did was listen to Seal’s song, “Crazy” over & over, and do push-ups. It’s all I could do to keep the depression away. And I must have listened to that song 10,000 times… “In a world full of people there’s only some who want to fly. Isn’t that crazy?” It’s amazing how music can inspire, so I decided to do the crazy thing… A year earlier, while smoking weed on a couch, I watched this PBS documentary, “Solo” about an African Wild Dog. It was shot in the Serengeti by the world famous wildlife photographer, Hugo van Lawick. And I had never seen anything like it. Maybe that was because I was stoned — but I don’t think so. It was beautiful. And sad. And it made me want to write a book. A kind of, Watership Down meets the Serengeti. So, on Jon’s front porch between push-ups and hitting repeat, I decided that I’d write that book. And the undertaking of it seemed impossible. First, I had to get my high school drop-out, trailer-park ass to Africa. So I wrote a letter. It was long and heartfelt. I explained my mission. And laid out my credentials. Which amounted to, not much. This was pre-interwebs, so I went to the UA library and looked up in various books the addresses of every NGO doing work in East Africa. I made 18 copies of my letter. And with a little bit of sage, and a lot of prayers, I put them in the mailbox there on San Francisco St. And less than 48 hours later, I get this phone call from my friend and fellow river guide, Robyn. She sounded far away. She had scored this job managing a river company on this island called Bali somewhere in maybe the Pacific Ocean and she wanted to know if I’d like to help her train a bunch of rice farmers to be raft guides. Counting cans of dog food, or have someone buy me a plane ticket to paradise? I stepped off the plane in Denpasar with exactly 36 dollars to my name. And if I was to write about my time there, that would be another story. It was one of the most magical times in my life. I lived in this tiny village at the base of an enormous volcano that rose up into the clouds from the sea. I had a Balinese girlfriend. And nearly every day, my students and I would climb into a re-purposed dump truck full of river gear and drive up the volcano and then ride down this steep, fierce-ass little river called the Talaga Waja. There were waterfalls involved. And a hundred thousand perfect moments… I remember piloting a scooter through the streets of Denpasar. My girlfriend and I were on our way back from visiting the temple of Uluwatu. One little two-stroke fish, swimming & weaving along in a multitude of puttering, colorful fishes. We were dressed for temple. Sarongs. Flower petals tucked behind our ears. I remember glancing over at a mirrored store front as we raced by, and for the briefest moment, I caught our reflection in this river of flowing people and scooters. She was sitting behind me, side-saddle, legs crossed, an arm around my waist, and one of those high-heeled flip-flops casually dangling from her foot. Her head rested against my back. A serene expression on her lovely face… From time to time, Jon would send me my mail. Letters on paper, written with typewriters from a few of those NGOs in far-off Africa. Of the letters I sent out, the replies started to trickle in. And each and every one said essentially, the same thing — we got nothing for you. And then one day, Jon sends me this beat-up letter written in a fluid hand on a single, coffee stained piece of homemade stationary. It had a little rubber stamp at the top of a chimpanzee and the words, “Gombe Research Station. Tanzania.” The letter began, “Hi Keith, I found your unopened letter in the desk of Simon Mapunda, the previous director of my Roots & Shoots program here in Dar es Salamm…” It went on to say that that dude got fired and that finding work in East Africa was nearly impossible, and it depended, almost entirely, on who you know… It was signed, “Good luck with your quest, Jane Goodall” I looked at the signature for a full ten minutes, and thought to myself, “Hmmm, now that’s something.” That scruffy little letter was the beginning of a correspondence between her and I. I would write these long and earnest letters. And surprisingly, she would always reply — briefly, and vaguely. In the last letter I received in Bali, she wrote, “I’m planning to be in Tucson in November for a conference at the Biosphere, perhaps we could meet?” My entire life pivoted in that moment, on that single, question mark. I told Robyn it was time to go. And I realize now, I left a whole life behind me. When I got to the conference, I didn’t know a soul. There were a hundred people there. Educators, and young students. The conference started a day or so before Jane was due to arrive. And nobody could figure out who this guy was sleeping in his van in the parking lot. I had no role, and nothing to do. So I did the only thing I knew how to do — be a river guide. I started taking out the trash. Setting up chairs. And taking down tables. I washed all the dishes. The day that Jane arrived was like waiting for the queen of England to show up. Everyone, including me, was pretty excited. And when she did roll up, she was greeted like a cross between Mother Teresa & David Bowie. It was a little weird. But sorta cool, too. And she had an entourage — a blind guy carrying a monkey puppet and a small number of unknown, and slightly smitten followers. I was pretty impressed. I set up a table and chair out in the back where Jane sat while every one of those hundred people lined up for their chance to stand in front of Dr. Goodall. I was the very last guy in line, and it took a long time for me to get in front of that table. For the last hour or more, I had watched her greet each and every person, warmly, and generously. And when it was my turn, I reached out a hand babbling something like, “… I’m that guy whose been writing you letters! You know — the book guy!” She dismissed my out stretched hand like I was a leper. Looked at me like I was at the wrong conference, or perhaps dangerous, and uttered a barely civil greeting to me. And then got up and left. While everyone wandered off to the next event, I stood there under that clear November sky surrounded in a cloud of WTF? Did she forget? Is the old lady a little senile? Between emptying trash cans and taking down tables, I spent the rest of that day and the next day too, trying to get close enough to Jane to reintroduce myself. She was having none of it. The few times I was able to get close, she would glare at me like I was some sorta psycho stalker and slip away. The next day was the last of the conference. And I sat in the drivers seat of my bus that night with my hand on the ignition key for hours. I had just traveled 10,000 miles to be here. Given up a life. To follow this dream. I was crushed. What had I done? What should I do, now? What is that crazy b%&$#&% problem? As I sat there, I almost turned over the ignition a hundred times. Finally, I said to myself, “Hey. Who gives a shit? You’ve made a few friends, here. And everyone expects you to take out the trash tomorrow, anyway. Stay the course, and let’s get this fucked-up trip to the take-out.” The next morning, we all split into groups and took a short field trip into the desert, and through the Biosphere. There were supposed to be guides for every group, but I ended up tagging along with a small handful of folks who didn’t have one. I had seen these people around the grounds but I had no idea who they were. When we got out into the desert, it was obvious these pale people knew nothing about this place. So, without giving it a second thought, I fell into doing the only thing I really knew how to do. I started guiding these folks around. And we had a grand time. And afterwards, they thanked me. That evening, all of us sat around a huge mesquite fire, and a Tohono O’odham man told us the story of Bitokoi, the stink bug, and why he bows his head to the earth at nearly every encounter — a reminder to all of us, to remain humble as we do god’s work. Near the end of the conference, there was a long awards ceremony. Best teacher; Best student; Best dish washer; Best table taker downer; Best trash taker outer… And I got nothing. Not one best, nothing. And then Dr. Goodall gave a speech while making eye contact with everyone there but me. And then it was over. Everyone got up. And went to their rooms. It was quiet and beautiful sitting around that fire by myself. It felt good to be alone, and under the stars. And with each passing minute, I became more & more at peace with all of the choices that led me to that spot. And I knew in my heart, I would somehow make it to Africa. And I felt calm. I knew from experience, that not every line through a rapid, is the right one. An hour went by. The fire was warm. And the starry sky held my imagination. I heard some footsteps. Jane walks out of the shadows and sits down across the fire from me. She says, “I’ve been watching you. You took my friends for a walk today. Would you like to have breakfast with us tomorrow? I got this job in Tanzania I’d like to talk with you about.”

post script. About 6 weeks or so after that breakfast meeting, I found myself at Jane’s house in Tanzania; I was standing around in the driveway talking with Jane’s son, Grub. We were talking about great white sharks & tanzanite when a land rover drives up and Grub’s dad gets out — Jane’s first husband, the cinematographer, Hugo van Lawick…

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