When I leave the house, I always say to my wife, “don’t call the authorities unless I’m missing for two days.” She recognizes that “boys will be boys”: that I get tangled up in things and don’t always make it back by dark of night.
This time, a fisherman’s discarded length of PVC pipe punctured my canoe and gouged my calf muscle.
Gorilla tape couldn’t quite patch either problem.
I can easily sleep in the open under my canoe, but sheets of rain made red clay rivulets underfoot. I headed for cottonwoods bordering tormented oaks, a dense woods at the riverbend. I dragged my boat behind me.
In the flashing blackness I found a domed hut with a flap for a door. I called out a couple times. Hearing nothing, I crawled in. It was softly cluttered inside; the light from my phone showed it was old clothes, with nobody in them. I crawled back out again.
Why I dragged my canoe all that way: beer. I like beer.
I got two tallboys and crawled back into my hovel, my hotel. Drinking a tallboy and staring into darkness is how I like to meditate. I meditated on my past, which I have escaped handily.
Beer in my youth: drinking lots of beers made me seem like a regular guy, in the context of all the other regular-guy things I put myself through. I worked to negate that I was an egghead or a ‘legacy’. Foggy with drink, I’d forget myself sometimes, but unerringly in the direction of being a regular guy. For example I was rudely “forthright” with women. We all were, and laughed/bragged/exaggerated about encounters. A regular guy listens only to the other guys he regularly hangs out with. Not a one of us knew the first thing about girls or women. Well, we thought we knew the first thing.
I put these thoughts away. During my second tallboy - did I tell you I always carry a plastic flask of bourbon? - I thought the more mammoth thoughts that make me proud where beer and bourbon takes me. I thought about our great country. I thought about our European origins - settlers fanning out across the land and coming to our sweet Land of Canaan, fanning out along the rivers and cultivating fields after clearing them. Hatted, hardworking men pulling stumps, skunking aboriginals, trading in pelts, lumber, cotton, slaves, sugar, cattle, coal and oil. Wresting away resources, free from oversight, leaving only our leavings. We could then look to our offspring, our legacy.
I was alone in the hut, feeling expansive. I crawled out, urinated, got another tallboy, crawled in, drank it and thought even bigger thoughts of destiny. It continued raining. I clunked off asleep among the rags.
When I awoke there was someone sitting in the portal of my hovel, not quite blocking the light. Luckily, as is my custom, I came to consciousness by thinly cracking my crusted eyes, rather than sitting bolt upright. This way I could assess him.
He was a skinny old nut-brown man in a waist-cloth with long white hair swept back, like a uncouth hippie-troglodyte. He looked right back at me, imperturbable. My just-awakened mind skipped instinctually through the hierarchy: not Yale, not U.T., not A&M, not college-educated, not city or suburban, not country, not this century, not cowboy or sod-buster, not illegal immigrant, not terrorist. Just a wiry weathered strange skinny guy who looked about 300 years old. He nodded.
My English didn’t register on him so I made subtle hand motions to the effect that I had to piss. He extracted himself from the passage and stood up, diminutive. I crawled out. I was good as my word and went to a bush bordering his camp.
I came to recognize more things as my mind cleared. I’m proud of my mind in the morning: “up and at ‘em”. I had slept in his hut and his so-called bed. He was indifferent to weather and could go about in a loincloth. His camp was strewn with stuff pulled from the river he’d put to use. A faded blue cooler stored kindling, tinder a red cooler. Those white plastic molded chairs you see hung in riverbend trees: one faced his fire pit. A-bubble above a small fire was a scorched pot with the aromatic steam of stew. The old guy was not in any way shook up by my presence as a giant visitor. He even chuckled to himself as I walked back from the bush. He gestured at the pot. I took the chair as he puttered with the fire - he stirred the stew with a chipped spoon.
We trotted through the drill again about English. Not. Have you lived here long? Shrug. A couple more questions and no answers. I guess if you live 300 years you’re entitled to keep your own counsel. I took from him a bowl of stew, it tasted like squirrel and acorns, astonishingly good. I stood up immediately and went to my canoe. This didn’t ruffle him. I brought back a couple tallboys.
I guessed he was familiar with whatever comes down the river, and therefore was not unfamiliar with cans of beer. He took an offered tallboy, pulled the tab, took a swig, and said, I’d interpret, “beer. I like beer.” Well, we had that in common. I came to realize I was eating from his only bowl so I wolfed my food and handed it back to him.
How had he escaped everyone’s notice over time? This dense wooded kink was indeed unusable to anyone but hunters, and remote to them also. Perhaps he easily dodged their notice. Lots of hunters are oblivious to the signs and signals around them - blundering along.
Looking at his hut I realized it wasn’t made of sticks but of mammoth ribs, fossilized into stone and tilted together for a sort of igloo. You know – mammoths? Wooly mammoths? A very old kind of elephant? On this stretch of river, I’d seen the occasional mammoth jawbones, teeth and tibia, all turned to stone over thirty thousand years, maybe a hundred. I supposed over long enough time he could pile up enough ribs to make a dwelling. Or else he hit it lucky on one big score. Its dome was brown-gray, close to the earth and undetectable. If not for the river junk, one would never notice his camp. I went and got a couple more tallboys.
Fueled by the tallboys we had a conversation via hand motions, hums, ululations and grunts. Then he set about repairing my boat. He heated up what smelled like pine resin and then glued a chewed patch of Spanish Moss in the crack. The same stuff, cooled to a compote, he applied to my wound. He smashed my phone on a rock. We mutually dragged my boat down to the river, and I set off. I was pleasantly inebriated.
On the water I wondered if he’d been banished long ago for something he did - something he did amiss. A man with a past to get past, maybe. That is, I imagined that he must have been ostracized. Could he have been too greedy? Selfish beyond what was tolerable in his tribe? Did he get in trouble over a woman? It must have been a harsh world, when he was young, that he’d be cast out for an indiscretion. I’m glad I didn’t grow up in a world like that, suffering from tribal bullshit. Imagine a long life of isolation for putting your foot down wrong in a single revealed moment of exhilaration, inebriation.
I was lost to my big thoughts again. And big feelings - a feeling of brotherhood with the little Gandhi in his camp. Men’s achievements are enriched - have always been enriched … one can’t ignore … the cultural grandeur engendered by intoxicants. I pulled under the take-out bridge and felt … what? … Grasping for words. Big.