Storm and the Parable of Looking at the Fence
Me: My writing time is my best time, hands down.
Wind-humming-through-the-windbreak: Rrrrrreally? Wwwwwwhy’s that?
Me: Cuz that’s when I’m safe.
Wind-humming-through-the-windbreak: Oooooh? Hooooow so?
Me: It’s complicated.
Me: Look, you ever have something so important you just leave it be cuz messin’ with it might ruin it?
Wind-humming-through-the-Windbreak: Arrrrrrrrrrrre you kidding? Look at me bloooowing through the gaps in this creaking, fence. It goooooooes, my singing days are tooooooooast.
Me: Well then, there you have it.
I have a friend who insists that what life is about is eighty years plus or minus of self-entertainment. I think of that when I tune in to these extempore conversations in the Latigo. No telling where they’ll show up or who the participants will be. You could eaves drop on the exchange between the pumpjack’s motor chugging along like the little engine that could and the well water’s melodic splash surges from the discharge pipe into the trough—that one a model of community engagement. You could whistle a Duetto with a meadowlark secreted in a nearby tuft of buffalo grass, though frequently you can expect a delayed response. I like to think it’s the bird first sizing up if your contribution is up to avian standards. Yelping coyote ruses, rustling grass gossipings, growling thunderhead threats, the invitations to creative dialoguing abound, enabled by the advantage of a discerning ear and a kinship with solitude.
The move and set up in the Latigo had come off without any major hitches. I decided to turn in right after the whiskey nightcap, intent on getting an early jump on things the next day. The perimeter fence needed repairs to make ready for the two hundred yearling steers that would be delivered to the Latigo for the summer grazing season. If I started at first light, I might get all the work done in one day. I zipped into my sleeping bag and drifted off thinking here I am encamped free and clear in an outpost of my own making, a good pony at the ready and a substantial chunk of the natural world as my private preserve. These are the perks of the shelter challenged.
I awoke in the dark, wet, and shivering. Teeth chattering. I grabbed the flashlight and snapped it on. My breath jetted streaming vapor clouds across the beam of light. A mix of rain and sleet/slush driven sideways by the wind speared the trailer interior through gaps in the flapping tarp side curtains. The air had a bite to it like any second you’d expect to hear the exploding pop of a shattering tree branch collapsing under the weight of glaze ice. It was mid- May but on the high plains winter like blasts then are not uncommon.
A quick flashlight scan of the inside of the trailer showed my sleeping bag, cot, crates, and boxes on the windward side all encrusted with a layer of icy slurry. I scrambled up and rifled through the soggy boxes in hope of finding some dry clothes. No luck. Everything soaked. Gusts of wind rocked the trailer and a steady rain snow mix streamed in through the gapping seams in the rapidly deteriorating tarps.
The rounded nose of the trailer was solid sided and offered some shielding from the storm. A second rummage through my gear yielded the railroad lantern and my one burner cook stove. I grabbed both and crawled to the small dry patch in the nose. At the very front was a saddle blanket hanging high and dry on a hook. I yanked the blanket down and wrapped myself in it, sliding to the floor, my back against the sheet metal, knees drawn up. My first thought was to make it to the pickup, fire it up and get the heater going. But the truck was running on fumes. I’d be lucky to make it to a gas pump as it was. Idling the engine through the night was not an option. The luminous hands on my alarm clock glowed half past one. The closest gas station had long since closed and road conditions would probably be iffy anyway.
A firsthand experience with hypothermia came to mind. During my Peace Corp tour some of my students suffered attacks on our trek up 17,000-foot Mount Kenya. The symptoms: confusion, drowsiness. But catch-22. How does one self-diagnose? I might think I’m okay, but could not that be a delusional symptom of a bewildered state? Wait. Get a grip. No time for diagnostic fretting. I opted for hands on actions as the work around. I lit the railroad lantern and the cook stove and set one on each side of me as close as possible. Raising my arms with the blanket draped over them made a cave like space to trap heat from the modest flames. The effect was enough to begin turning my cold wet sweats into clammy lukewarm ones. I said a quick thank you to the gods of small favors while knowing this minor improvement could be short lived. The forecast had been for a cold front but without the storm conditions. How severe and more important how long the surprise norther would stick around was the sixty-four-dollar question. Late blizzards on the high plains with fatal consequences are a matter of record. The fuel reserves in the small lantern and cook stove would not be enough to last the night.
The wind had picked up. Now a steady gale it shredded what was left of the plastic tarps leaving the trailer’s slatted sides exposed to the full force of the weather. The trailer was parked in the lee of the windbreak and, in the sections where battered boards still clung to the fence, it offered some buffering from the worst surges of the storm. The downside was the chance for boards to break loose and turn into wind-driven, spearing, projectiles aimed at the trailer’s semi open sides. Amid the roar of the storm I could hear crackling, metallic rattles of the corrugated iron sheets that made up the roof of Dancer’s lean to—the shelter I’d grafted on to the far end of the windbreak. The mare was likely on high alert in her stall, the flight instincts of a prey animal at-the-ready. I tried not to think about what might happen if the lean to didn’t hold. There was nothing left to do but tough it out. I snugged the horse blanket up making a hood to duck under and tried for sleep. Huddled there in the shadows cast by the railroad lamp’s mesmeric flame, I finally dozed off fitfully to the wall of wind keening, what chance? What chance? IS there no chance?
I came to the Latigo not to find something but to forget about having a need to. Not to seek in this wild place some ancient accord of deliverance but to tune in to the unsought. To lay low the ubiquitous construct of agenda until I am left with only the clarity of my natural instincts. The prairie’s living presence is a testament to the essential. If I could be in my own way like the prairie—knowing all that is in my company, embracing the moment and death with equal ease and taking on with ardent conviction whatever comes my way.
In Nigeria there is a phrase in pidgin English. To go for bush. It means that the person has returned to the forest to live there far from contemporary life. I think I could go for bush. To catch the Latigo by surprise and latch on, cling through the frozen slush and then to the grassy plain, hang on for better times. I could catnap reclined against its arroyo bank, warmed by dappled sunlight filtering through the tall bunches of Little Bluestem that arced over me. I could stalk the Pronghorn drinking unaware at the spring to within a few feet to establish my predator creds in the grassland’s food chain hierarchy. Out there is a good place to be, where the heart is lured to wander. Out there the heart reaches for its unguarded frontiers. I think of the vastness as an easy and genuine abstinence upon which at any moment unsuspected indulgences get conferred.
Still I do wonder if this can be done. Most of us are many generations gone from the Latigos you know. And the road back? Well memory and mystery lay down their challenges. It’s not just about being there but how to be there that is the elephant on the savannah. Then to live on the outback under its anointed skies, and ride its reaches until our calm spirits are made fully in evidence to each other, and as accepted and enduring as prairie winds.
I awoke with a start. Disoriented. The pitch dark. Right, the railroad lantern gone out. What was different? Ah, there it was. The silence save the multiple tinklings of water dripping with surround sound fidelity throughout the trailer, like clocks ticking in Geppetto’s workshop. No wind or snow/rain. I’d have to wait for daylight to survey the full damage but at least the worst looked to be over. I stood up and did some stretches to work off the stiffness from the hours hunched up. Then I bundled back up, slid to the floor, and waited for the dawn.
I didn’t think I would grow tired of the world this soon. Reach the point where you stop imagining a future. Can’t put a finger on a precise day or event, just somewhere along the way your cerebral tranny dropped that gear and then, further on down the road, you notice it’s gone missing. And maybe it’s no big deal. Maybe it gets a shoulder shrug and a, “Huh, well I’ll be damned.” Not like you can find a pressing need to fret about it. I mean should I be wringing hands or, for the biblically inclined, gnashing teeth? Really. And, anyway what about those sages and how they are always instructing us to live in-the-moment, right? Ah but those dreams, those dreams, the tyranny of them. And what now that they are no more?
There is this aphorism known in some parts of the West, “Looking at the fence.” Its root is rodeo cowboy jargon, (as distinguished from ranch cowboy lingo. A different ethos altogether.) Originally it referred to a situation during a rodeo performance when a bucking horse, rider astride, is charging, with all deliberate speed, on a collision course with the arena perimeter fence. Meanwhile, the bronc buster, to keep his arse (Wait is he a Brit?) in the proximity of the saddle for the eternity better known as eight seconds, must sustain a mind-body focus dead center in the middle of the twelve hundred pounds of thrashing mayhem that, at the moment in question, happens to be his mount. To succumb to temptation and risk a look at the rapidly approaching fence, ponder the possibility the prevailing conditions suggest, turns out to be the reddest of herrings; its sole effect to divert vital concentration from the task at hand and, thus, facilitate a most public of failures, vividly validated by an involuntary, pile driving dismount, often in a perilous anatomical orientation, into the plowed dirt of the arena floor. To counter this con, our plucky rider must commit to an existential alternative. Ignoring the mounting body of visual evidence, he must, instead, invest himself in the belief that this pony has no intention of slamming into that wall but rather, at the very last instant that counterfeit snide intends to duck hard to the right or to the left and, in so doing, dispatch that pesky human post-haste. It is the duck our man must make ready for not the crash.
There would be times that summer in the Latigo, when I would rely on the lesson of looking at the fence as my go-to reality check. My aide-mémoire to, every so often, relearn how to stop seeing what’s not there.
The morning came on with a brilliance of a Spring determined to dispel any rumors that Winter would ever have another chance. As if by some covert vernal cue, the whole of the prairie was transformed into a carpet of saturated emerald hues, a photo op that could easily pass for an Irish travel poster.
In the days to come my borderline sheltering would acquire a righteous upgrade. Returning from town one day I would find a tiny six-by-six travel trailer, the pale blue paint on its aluminum sides faded and peeling, parked, front and center, in the middle of my base camp like a surprise visit from the publisher’s clearinghouse entourage. A note stuck on the sliding plastic window in the single door was from Hal and Hugh, the brothers who were sending their steers to summer on the Latigo. It said, “Thought you might be able to use this. We’re going to be too busy for any fishing trips this summer. It ain’t exactly the presidential suite but, having seen your camp, we figured you for the no frills type (meant that as a compliment). We noticed that the one tire seems to be going flat. We’ll bring a spare next time. Until then you may have to jack up that side to keep your coffee mug from skidding off the dinette. Enjoy.”
Note still in hand, I backed up to get a big picture look at my new digs. It was so cute you just wanted to hug it. And the way it fit right in; the cluster of camper, windbreak, pumpjack, Dancer’s shelter, pickup and horse trailer—this quixotic outpost in modest attendance, dwarfed in the unbroken expanse of the llano. It reminded me of a scene in that Peckinpah film, The Ballad of Cable Hogue. For the rest of the summer I would rest nightly on the comfort of the dinette cushions that converted to a sleeping platform, rustle my grub in the only remaining space, the combination sink and two burner propane cook top, shelter from monsoon cloudbursts with their ruthless, strobing, sheet lightning, retreat from the gritty, hot winds of anxious dry spells, the searing ultraviolet glare of the high altitude sun; tucked in and undaunted in my fragile fortress—looked after by this doughty appliance of tender mercy.
Storm and the Parable of Looking at the Fence