The Sweetwater Brewing Company


The Sweetwater Brewing Company

A few years ago, after losing my grandparents, my dad, and our son, in a rapid cascade of debilitating blows, I needed to get away.  Badly.  I was working seventy hour weeks as a narcotics detective, a notorious and occasionally dangerous grind of surveillance and door kicking, and what little time I had left was devoted to sorting out the detritus of the recent dead, comforting the living, and taking on responsibility for my disabled uncle.  It was a tough time, with a tremendous learning curve, and I simply hadn’t been afforded the space I needed to digest the tornado of change that had ripped through our lives, let alone to properly mourn the loss of those who were giants and superheroes in my life.  After one particularly difficult week, I commuted home from a demanding surveillance operation in southern Los Angeles, grinding through the stop and go traffic of LA, the rush hour 405, in a near homicidal pique, intensely over-pressured, exhausted, juggling a police radio and two cell phones, and yearning desperately, angrily, for some other life, some other place, some permanent relief from the relentless and plugging donkeywork that had become my life.  I arrived home, hours later, supercharged with attitude, the aimless distemper that inevitably results when there is simply too much demand and not enough character to meet it.

Enter:  Wendy.  I have made some very bad decisions in this life, and live with those consequences still.  But I will go to my grave knowing that I married exactly once, and exactly right.  When I came home that night, a pure and fuming pile of toxic waste, my bride, who by some undeserved but precise endowment of the cosmos is my perfect match, ordered me to get away.  Now.  With a long and satisfying hug, she insisted that I pack my gear and head for the mountains, ordering up the perfect cure like room service.  There is no expression of gratitude in our language expansive enough to capture my appreciation for this miracle of a woman, and I mourn for those who live without a similar gift in their own lives.

And fortunately, for me, when the order from Miss Wendy came, I knew precisely where I needed to go:  the home country, the eastern high Sierras, where my own dreams of life took shape, where no flora, no fauna, no iteration of human being was entirely strange.  I needed something from those jagged peaks, a private vision, a discreet and personal destination.  I wanted to climb some nameless mountain, to endure designed and deliberate rigor in a type of post-modern vision quest.  I would never have the stamina, or the marrow, or the from-birth cultural guidance of a Lakota Sioux sitting in a Black Hills eagle pit, but I could sweat myself to a ridgeline high above the mendacious world and create a ritual of my own, a ceremony to accommodate hard loss.  What I had in mind required suffering and sacrifice, deliberation and economy, a commitment to accept the damages of loss, to purge the anguish and to emerge stronger than when I started.

I was in luck, for this place was available.  My friend Don Berinati owns a cabin near Bridgeport, California, a place he built with his own gifted hands, considerable foresight, and a conscientious study of the strictly necessary.  Don lived at the Brewing Company for many years, season after season, through violent winter storms, through wildfires, through long and cool summer nights, the sky salted with stars most people never see anymore, alone with his books, a good fire, and a good dog.  By trade a builder, in winter Don would ski into and out of the cabin, braving mountain lions and bears–very real threats in that remote place–dragging a sled with his possibles and groceries.  He would sometimes make this trek at night, through high winds and swirling snows, a long, dark slog and an impressive feat anywhere in the wild world.  I came to know Don in Reno, Nevada, where we both studied writing under Gailmarie Pahmeier, the famed poet and teacher.  Don and I became friends, meeting for “Any Silver Coin” beer nights at the Sands Casino, and eventually I earned a rare and precious invite to the Sweetwater Brewing Company, his little alpine oasis, and in one of those strange and beautiful Faulknerian twists that life affords us, I once had a protracted street fight with Gailmarie’s deranged ex-husband, and Don married her.  It worked out well for everyone.

As luck would have it, Don was headed to the Brewing Company himself (married men almost always move to town) to salvage some firewood, to putter around the cabin and shore it up for winter.  And it is a special kind of puttering, I think, when you can look at a building and draw a memory from every nail, every hinge, knowing those secret things that didn’t turn out exactly right, something out of square, or out of level, those small faults that no one else will ever see, or even suspect.  And isn’t that our lives?  Those small defects we harbor about ourselves, knowing they are wrong, but finding some way to live with them anyway?  Next day, I drove out of Santa Barbara County fast, like a movie fugitive escaping a bank heist.  I barreled through the desert and on through Bishop, ignoring the thought of relatives I might have visited, performed a locked-wheel skid at the store in Bridgeport to buy a fork (I’d forgotten my high-speed titanium spork), then highballed out of town again until I made the Brewery turnoff, where at last I slowed it down to a crawl, turned up the road and into the trees and the freshest air, where there is no power and cell phones are delightfully useless.


The Perverted Forest

Don was already there, down from Reno, precisely puttering, an amusing spectacle when performed by older men comfortable with solitude, perhaps even an art form.  He was wandering around the front porch staring at things, a chair, a length of chain, hands in his pockets.  He would take two steps to the right, kick at the skein of snow on the porch, then stare at something else.  This went on for a while.  I watched.  When he was finished we made our greetings warmly.  Old friends can do that, no matter how many years it has been, and as I stored my pack and sorted through my gear, Don fired up the hydro-generator he’d built over the creek.  The Brewery came to life then, a few dim lights punching a hole in the early mountain dusk.  We made rice and beans, heated tortillas, and sat at the crude window table while a small fire snapped in the stove and the cabin warmed up fast.  We talked, filling in the gaps since we’d last met, hauling out laughs and memories of the old regime.  After a cold beer, the night coming on and the thread of conversation fraying, I went to bed, pulled a book down from the shelf, and fell asleep with my headlamp on, reading Edward Abbey, and exactly this:  “You can’t study the darkness by flooding it with light.”

The Sweetwater Brewing Company, a name that has nothing to do with craft beer, resonating instead on a higher plane, sits at the steep end of a long, narrow, and lush alpine valley, heavy snow country whose melt-off feeds a perennial creek.  The creek carves a circuitous route down through stands of aspen and pine, through broad swaths of lush grass and willow, ideal grazing country, where sheepherders once summered their flocks before the government kicked them out.  A remnant of those days remains in the carvings left by lonely shepherds in the bark of the trees, a gentle reminder that no matter where you may travel upon this planet, no matter how remote or difficult to reach, someone desperately horny was there before you.  The Perverted Forest is a kind of living history museum, names and dates, sexually explicit carvings of varying graphic complexity, an astonishing, funny, and occasionally frightening, journey through the mind of the mountain shepherd.  After breakfast, Don and I walked through the Perverted Forest, and then down through the valley.  He was mad at the bear hunters who had discovered his mountain paradise and taken to running their dogs there, trespassing, scaring off wildlife, a confrontational and arrogant lot of flatlanders and yahoos, aliens in outsized pickups and colossal egos.  I couldn’t help but think, given the right set of circumstances, that it wasn’t impossible to disappear a jackass bear hunter in all that wilderness.  But this day there were no fresh signs of them, so we turned back up the valley with that small victory in hand.  And anyway, it was time to shoulder my pack.  It was time to climb.


View From the Top

It is no small endeavor to race from sea-level to the mountains, throw on a heavy pack, and start climbing without a minute of real preparation or training–it’s probably stupid, in fact– but purpose is a powerful engine.  I had studied the topos, conferred with Don, an accomplished mountaineer, and set my sights on a peak in the 10,000 foot range above the valley.  The map is never the territory, of course, so I wasn’t under any illusions about the challenge.  I expected, and wanted, a brutal climb as the necessary price of admission.  And it was, in all respects, a brutal climb.  Where the road ended beyond the Brewery I fought through a manzanita forest, snagging on everything, cul de sac’ed myself twice on rock ledges, and finally, without a better line up the mountain, was forced to sidehill a sixty degree pitch of endless and dangerously loose scree, one step up, three sliding steps down.

You know how this ends.  I worked, struggled, and fought my way to the top, the way we must when the payoff is so sharply calculated, and made my camp where the trees ended in boulders and deep snow.  It was the top of the mountain, and I could go no further.  It was getting dark too, fast, so I built a small fire, stacking rocks to reflect the heat, gathered what wood there was, and fired up my stove for tea.  The wind, when it came in relentless gusts, was cold and stark, carrying in it the raw and haunting music of history, something of the age of the earth, the way that crashing waves on an abandoned beach can reach inside of you and suddenly, for a moment, the world is peeled back to its beginnings.  I drank my tea, warming my hands on the canteen, and sat by the small and sawing fire as the sun dropped hard into the far peaks and the light withdrew, snaking like fire through the roiling clouds and back through the canyons until it was gone, and I was most certainly, incredibly, alone to study the darkness.

There was no sleep, of course.  At that altitude, and at that time of year, in a raw camp, even the best sleeping bags aren’t enough.  I tended the fire and listened to the wind in the rocks and the bristlecone, and I thought about those giants and superheroes, now lost, who had informed my life and perspectives.  I thought long and hard about our son, what he might have been.  I thought about my wife, and our life together in the foreign country of southern California.  I thought about all of those things even as I knew that conclusions are difficult to draw, the modern fantasy of closure at best illusory, at worst not even desirable.  A hard cold, the kind of cold that defies negotiation, settled in on my camp as I kept feeding the little fire and sparks burned through my jacket, and I shivered against it, mere steps from an actual physical misery, and exactly where I wanted to be.  And the night wore on that way, relentless.

I can’t tell you any more about it, as much as I would like too.  Don’t hold that against me.  It’s a simple story, really:  I went to the woods to live deliberately.  But the essence of any vision, it seems, is what it means to the seer, like a dream, and whatever lessons I took away from that mountain can only be mine.  When I was done I had stayed as long as it took, which is its own kind of satisfaction, and I was better for it.  It was time to move on.  And so, stiff with the cold, I packed my gear and started back down, for home, for my wife, for our dogs, for the warmth and welcome of the Brewery, where Don was waiting for me, still puttering, or stacking firewood, or just staring out the window over a cup of coffee, taking in the long sweep of the valley in fall, making sense of his own hard-earned visions in the wilderness.






Lights and Sirens

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 10.04.37 AM

When Morale Mattered

Post Ferguson, the pundits are working overtime to diagnose the various ills of American policing.  The conclusions are sometimes infuriating, sometimes hilarious, but almost never accurate, which is a bi-product, I suppose, of the simple fact that none of them have ever been cops, or know the first thing about actual police work.  So they deal largely in hypotheticals, academic versions of the police they would like to see, or think would actually be effective, but they are missing some very important, inside-baseball, information.  To be sure, I shouldn’t care about this anymore.  I’m out of the business, a simple civilian trying to raise a few tomatoes, and avoid jury duty.  But I do.  I care a lot, in fact.  It bothers me that hundreds of thousands of police go to work each day and have no ability, in fact are largely prevented, from saying anything at all in their own defense, or face serious retribution for exposing some of the underlying problems with modern police work.  And many of those problems, and the associated stress, are self-induced, products of a failed management model that destroys morale, perpetuates a culture of mediocrity, and ultimately degrades the public confidence.  So here’s another bit in their defense.

What’s wrong with the police isn’t surplus military gear, or boots, or pants with cargo pockets.  It isn’t some inveterate excessive force mentality.  It isn’t criminal profiling, which is the essence of police work.  It isn’t SWAT teams or armored rescue vehicles.  It isn’t racism.  It isn’t Officer Smith using the F-word in front of a drunk grandmother with neck tattoos.  It isn’t virtually anything we are hearing about in the media.  What’s wrong with the police is the utter collapse of civic education–citizens who know everything except that they know nothing– dump truck loads of nanny-state legislation churned out by nitwit lawmakers, a nationwide entitlement mentality, and finally, by a wide margin, it’s Police Managers.

The upper decks of American police stations are now crammed with arrogant, visionless, scheming careerists, a virtual army of Wharton School–Who Moved My Cheese–management types who, having shucked their uniforms and badges for a corporate widget mentality, seek daily to deprive officers of their most valuable tool–discretion–in favor of watch standards–read quotas–self-serving department policy manipulations, and the masturbatory ritual of Compstat meetings.  The more sadistic variety seem to exist for the sole purpose of destroying their best officers, personally and professionally, and appear to derive a kind of sexual gratification–department policy as porn–from their rank alone, arriving to work each day eager to find fault in the ranks, a promotable attribute, after all, and to punish it absolutely.  By and large, they have mastered the political arts of obfuscation, deceit, and camouflage, in a business where deception is a termination offense.  Under the banner of accountability, they remain completely unaccountable themselves, and just arrogant enough to believe that the rank and file–trained observers all–can’t see what they are about.  And still, in a ritual felt painfully by good cops everywhere, these very same management types, a morale crushing breed almost incapable of honest self-evaluation, presume to make honest and accurate yearly evaluations of the officers in their charge.

The use of the Compstat model in small to medium sized police forces, which constitute the vast majority of American police departments, should scare the bejeezus out of every American.  While such a program likely serves a purpose in large American cities, shaping deployment strategies in a meaningful and effective way, its implementation in much smaller police agencies has warped into a productivity evaluation tool.  It is nothing less than a widget calculator.  A police widget looks like a field interview card (quantifiable), a ticket (quantifiable), an arrest (quantifiable).  Particularly desirable would be a felony arrest, a grand widget, so to speak.  Operating under these conditions, which still provide police managers a kind of plausible deniability about the existence of quotas, cops are forced to make stupid stops, write stupid tickets, and make stupid arrests, under pain of falling below the “watch standard” and facing administrative action.  To anyone paying attention, that is a gigantic moral, ethical, and legal problem.  But Police managers, lacking the imagination or leadership skill set to challenge and motivate lower performing cops, love it.  They can use it as a shaming tool, a disciplinary cudgel or, perversely, a model of exemplary performance.  There is, after all, nothing quite so accurate as a pie-chart or bar graph, a spreadsheet average, to evaluate and motivate the performance of a police officer.

Of larger concern is the fact that law enforcement is, and always will be, a reactionary endeavor.  Even so-called Pro Active policing is reactionary–a response to a reasonable suspicion, or the development of probable cause.  Widget policing, widely adopted and internally enforced, by its very nature, erodes an officer’s most fundamental tool:  discretion.  Where police officers lose discretion in the performance of their duties, a decline in public trust, and questionable behavior under color of authority are bound to follow.  The upside?  Managers have lots of numbers to throw up on a powerpoint presentation for city council meetings.

It is interesting to consider the popular administrative insistence on management practices, rather than leadership qualities, bogus “leadership retreats” and quarterly “leadership meetings” notwithstanding.  In the essay “What is Leadership”,  Christopher Kolenda notes that “Leaders without the intellectual courage to make decisions in the realm of uncertainty rapidly become crisis managers, only making decisions in the intellectual comfort of simple necessity.”  This is a precise illustration of the institutionalized administrative paralysis endured by line-level police officers nationwide.  It is true enough to suggest that merely managing almost always leads to an unending cycle of crisis.  Kolenda again: “Once crisis management becomes a habit, the organization becomes rooted in the labyrinth of short-term decisions, moving in many different directions but no closer toward achieving the organizational purpose.”  To my cop readers, this will simply scream of their working environment.

It would be one thing, we can suppose, if even once the best practices discussed in those catered leadership charade parties were ever actually implemented.  But they aren’t, ever, the finer points of the mandatory reading left wadded up on the table with the napkins and cake crumbs.  It seems clear that rather than actually lead, which requires creative thinking and problem solving abilities, modern police administrators simply must fall back on ineffectual management practices, no matter how egregiously byzantine, unnecessary, or even dishonest.  Why lead at all, when hiding behind rank, spreadsheets, completely manufactured “big picture” claims, and policy manuals, is so much easier.  And while they might haul in Gordon Graham for an hour of comedic presentation–the “Predictable is Preventable” group guffaw, they somehow always miss any opportunity to actually implement Graham’s message.  And so the predictable, and preventable, cycle of organizationally immature management continues unabated.

In the Marine Corps, perhaps the finest leadership-based organization on the planet, we were taught that leaders take care of their people first.  Always.  It is the essence of leadership, and one of the principle reasons they are so very good at what they do.  The leaders know they can count on their people, and the people know they can count on their leaders.  They trust each other, which is the first visible sign of a mature organization.  Too often, police officers live with the knowledge that their managers are on another team altogether, deliberately, and in fact some of those managers view harboring disdain for their fellow cops as an absolutely essential part of promoting through the ranks.  They are quite insistent on an Us vs Them mentality, and perform their functions that way.  I am aware of at least one manager who told a prospective lieutenant that he would never promote until he decided “which side you are on.”  This same Rasputin has publicly mentioned the joy he derives from injecting friction and tension into the workplace.  And finally, years ago, after a week of hard SWAT training in which he did not participate, I watched this same manager pull up in his take-home car, leap out of the driver’s side, and sprint to the front of the chow line–before we had even taken off our gear–in order to feed his filthy face.  There are far too many just like him, and looking back, I think that moment, and everything it revealed and represented, was likely the beginning of the end of my own police career.

This should not be construed as a wholesale condemnation, and no one disputes that effective discipline is an essential ingredient in a professional police force.  Neither do I believe that police officers should merely sit in their cars and wave at the people.  I think cops should get out of their cars, and take out the trash.  That’s what I want in a cop, and most honest citizens want that too.  And so, having said all that, know that there remain a few actual leaders in the higher ranks of police departments.  They are critically endangered, but they still exist.  Cherish them.  Start a relief fund and host charity events to preserve them.  They lead by example, every day, and if you can find one, and you are a cop, do whatever it takes to work for him or her.  You will likely destroy your own chances for promotion, because the cabal of self-serving managers, who confuse rank with leadership, and motion with action, will see that you have refused to drink the Kool-Aid, but you’ll have your self-respect, and your discretion, and that is worth more than all the widgets in the world.






Stealing Signs


Gateway to Nevada, A Surprise Valley Sunrise

Last week we turned the ranch chores over to a hungry U of Oregon student, packed up the dogs, extra water, and a chainsaw, and blasted southeast out of the trees onto the basalt and granite outback country.  Through Silver Lake then, home of the Cowboy Dinner Tree, on through the beautiful, lazy curves of Summer Lake and the Paisley Caves where–God bless them–scientists have discovered the oldest fossilized North American human turds, known as coprolites.  We stopped for lunch in Paisley, headquarters of the mighty ZX Ranch–chicken fried steak and eggs, hold the gravy, Merle Haggard singing about his mother, and prison, on the counter radio.  Then back in the truck and south again through Valley Falls where great herds of pronghorn were moving through the buckbrush and alfalfa.  Much of the drive was a highway chess match with slipshod caravans of “Burners” on their way south to the Black Rock desert and Burning Man, who jammed the narrow highway with every conceivable drivable contraption, RVs, Subarus, and technical vehicles, including one old man at the helm of what appeared to be a fully operational steam calliope.  Still, not even a heavy migration of Burners can entirely wreck the view of southeastern Oregon, with baseball playing on the radio, and the sun shining on the far buttes, so we drove on, through Lakeview, and finally over Cedar Pass into the Great Basin and Cedarville, California.

I must confess now, and for all time, my intention to commit a couple of felonies on this trip.  It was not the primary motivation for our sojourn, more a crime of opportunity, but I did, in fact, leave the ranch fully intending, and with malice, to steal a road sign.  The plan was  to break out my trusty Stihl chainsaw on the side of a dark road, saw through the post, stash the loot under a blanket, and transport it back across state lines, thereby becoming a full fledged Enemy of the State.  My wife was to serve as lookout and getaway driver, wrapping her firmly into the conspiracy, and exposing us both to the potential of that particularly embarrassing modern phenomenon:  the internet mugshot.  Still, we felt pretty good about the operation.  It is a great American tradition to decorate barns with road signs, and our barn wall is decidedly naked, in need of upgrade, and we were, after all, in pursuit of a rare and distinctive prize:  a Nevada style OPEN RANGE sign.  To the highway sign connoisseur, the Nevada version of the OPEN RANGE totem is an artistic gem, a rare and distinctive illustration of an actual wild cow, on the fight, afraid of nothing, daring you to strike it.  It is a road sign with panache, a rare moment of government inspiration, and far superior to the California or Oregon versions, which feature a domesticated, melancholy, cud-munching dairy cow.


Blue Ribbon Smile, Cedarville Fair

But first, the Cedarville Fair.  A quick word about the Cedarville Fair:  if you are casting about in our post-modern, save the snowy plover, ban fracking, universe for a cause, try doing something, anything, to save the Cedarville Fair which, like the life it reflects at every turn, is in danger of disappearing under the flood of global nonsense.  Grab a room at Surprise Valley Hot Springs, (avoid #2, or #15) then drive into town.  It’ll cost you three bucks at the gate, and once inside you’ll be surrounded by suntanned ranch kids in cowboy hats, young girls loping their horses simply everywhere, working sheepdog trials, a greased pig contest, and worn-out buckaroos, seemingly carved out of juniper, asleep in the shade of the cottonwoods.  And try the basque barbecue on Thursday night, lambchops and homemade bread, a plop of salad, a plastic cup full of red wine, a picnic table all your own, and The Heartless Band tuning up on stage.  Alas, you could do much worse in a bid to save the planet.

Friday morning was the horse-show, where we watched my dear old mum pick up a blue ribbon–cheers for the old girl–and afterward we headed in for lunch at The Country Hearth, already overflowing with Burners in search of a final decent meal before the Black Rock playa and that alternative universe.  The service was shoddy, but the food was good, and after good-byes Wendy and I drove south, down through Eagleville, across the state line into Nevada, where once upon a time I lived in a shack on the edge of Duck Lake–dry since about the time those Paisley turds were laid down–and wondering often in the pages of my daybook where I might be, and what my life might look like, in twenty years.

Well, old self, it turns out if you ride a circle long enough, say twenty years, you might end up where you started, and one day crest a hill amused to see your old camp still sitting there, still forlorn in that vast Nevada emptiness, a gunmetal shack in the occasional shade of a homesteader’s plot of poplars.  They’ve improved the place some, and gone to haying.  The old horse corrals were still there, but there was an industrial scale to the pole barns and pivot irrigation that simply didn’t exist when I lived there.  We couldn’t get through the gate, now adorned with an outright lie warning copper thieves of monitored video surveillance, but I wouldn’t have pushed through anyway.  All I wanted to do, all I needed to do, was blow a kiss in that direction.  Instead, we turned back onto the Wall Canyon Road, jouncing over rocks, fording dry streambeds, pushing deeper into the desert where I once rode the ridgelines looking for stray cattle, singing out loud to myself, scaring my horse and the wildlife.  Were we still hunting for a road sign, then?  I doubt it.  I was showing off to my wife, resurrecting ghosts of an old life, chasing memories up out of the brush and the rocks and the deep-cut canyons.  Mostly, we filled the truck with powdery dust.


Working Corrals, White Pine Ranch, near Steven’s Camp, Nevada

Back to the highway then, the sun setting, driving north, we dodged the southbound parade of high speed Burners tearing up the road, and made it back to our room before sunset.  We poured out some cowboy coolers (boxed wine, ice, and 7-Up), then took a long and satisfying soak in the mildly sulfurous tub.  We read books.  We took the dogs out for a final piss in the rabbitbrush.  And we slept like royalty, I think, even on a bad mattress, even with the windows open to a cold night breeze and the yip of coyotes in the dark, our minds tired and open to suggestion, desert views playing out in our dreams.  And the desert, when you see it right, can envelop you like that, can’t it, and hold you like a lover, stroking your forehead and telling a good story to help you sleep.


A Toad, High Rock, Nevada

In the morning, out of food, we charged out east, feasting on peanut M&Ms and a handful of jerky, blowing over a cattle guard where the California asphalt gave way to Nevada and dirt roads, following the corduroy trails into the sheer cant of sunrise in August, where the light plays tricks in the rocks and the sage, stretching basin into range, range into basin, and every crested hill reveals another deceptive view to the far horizon.  We drove this way for hours, feeling the first hint of fall in the crisp wind rushing out of the canyons, until we made it to Steven’s Camp, near the north gate of High Rock Canyon and the Applegate Trail, where dreams once perished in starvation, madness, and Indian attacks.  I wondered then, in the middle of that hard nowhere, staring out across the High Rock country, what one of those pioneers would think of the modern Burners, and just how much those Burners know about the Black Rock Desert.  Have they read the stories, or heard the tales, of oxen stampeding for water, only to scald and die in the double-hot pools on the western edge of the playa?  Do they know about the young girl, dying of thirst, who got into her mother’s bottle of laudanum and died there, overdosed on the playa, the wagon train stopped, the oxen drooping in the heat, while her mother wailed against the perfect bluebird sky and the men, now skin and bones, dug into that hardpan with spoons to bury her?  Perhaps they do.  And maybe it simply doesn’t matter.  We let the dogs run and explored Steven’s Camp, where someone had recently killed a deer and skinned it under the hanging pole, leaving only a ribcage and a pair of hooves.  We stood listening to the wind in the rocks, the water running through cattails and deep green grass, until the call of the road, and our own home, couldn’t be ignored.

We never did get our sign, Nevada having adopted yet another tragic California habit.  Instead, we settled for a country fair, for a chance to see my mother enjoying her life, for visiting memories in that unreal desert–ever may it be so–abandoned cow camps in the dry basins, massive mule-deer bucks in the sage, the quick artesian springs at Steven’s Camp, the ghost of a young girl from a thousand years ago.  There were the Burners too, a kind of modern pioneer, I suppose, if I’m being generous, broken down on the side of the road, their possibles scattered in a search for just the right tool, their clothes ruined, their hair in dreads, determined to finish the trail.  But we drove home happier for all of that, against the traffic, still blameless in the eyes of the law, the dogs exhausted, back through a big and beautiful emptiness with the magic of Saturday baseball beamed into us via satellite radio.  We covered those empty miles listening to the Yankees and White Sox three thousand miles away, where it was Joe Torre day in the Bronx, and the batter was busy reading the seams on a circle change-up with two on and one out, the base runners peering in against the glare, watching the catcher, stealing signs of their own.








War All the Time

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 9.05.42 AM

The Murder of James Foley

Take a long, hard, look at this photo, if you can stomach it.  While you are looking at it, try to imagine, if you can, what is going through Mr. Foley’s mind.  I mean really try to imagine it.  Put yourself there, on your knees in the sand, hands bound behind your back, in an orange jumpsuit, the images of Daniel Pearl and Nicholas Berg clear enough in your mind that you know exactly what comes next.  There is nowhere to run.  There is no mercy to beg for.  Imagine being forced to read a script condemning your country, and your family, and knowing that the obscene words you are reading will be the last ones you ever speak.  Imagine it.   Imagine the blade in the corner of your eye, and the tight grip of the executioner on your neck.  Imagine that for a minute, if you can, and when you are done you will have learned all you need to know about Islam as a peaceful religion.

Which Wahhabist, then, is the tolerant one?  Someone please point him out.  Let’s not mince, shall we?  Enough with the milquetoast political dissembling by the Neville Chamberlains of our own time.  Enough with compromise.  Islam, as practiced and proselytized by its most vociferous adherents, is neither peaceful, nor a religion.  At it’s heart, and by its own admission, it is a totalitarian political regime bent on nothing less than the total destruction of constitutional government and cultures.  It is a Sci-Fi Borg machine, practiced by a savage and uncompromising collection of criminals, troglodytes and reprobates, homicidal mental midgets who seek only to control your mind, your body, your purse, and the destiny of your soul on pain of execution.  It is a political construct wholly incompatible with life as we know it.  Free peoples, bound by the rule of law, and governed under the notion of unalienable rights, not least among them the separation of church and state, simply cannot co-exist with militant Islam.  A Muslim, by definition One Who Is Under Submission, will never admit this much, or agree to it, and will sometimes loudly denounce the very notion, but there it is, nonetheless.  And yet, and yet, despite the virtual flood of evidence pouring in daily about the very real intentions of Islamic nut cases to exploit and destroy us, the same western cultures that came together to once and finally destroy the evils of National Socialism in Europe, who made the hard sacrifices necessary to defeat the soul-sucking virus of Stalinism, who cured polio, for godssakes, seem strangely somnambular, spavined, without stomach or backbone, as if, having turned on ourselves in some childish and desperate fit of self-analysis, we might just actually collapse on the couch with a box of tissues.

The campaign fad of declaring war on this or that societal ill, poverty (wrong strategy), drugs (abject failure), privilege (whatever that is), has served only to diminish the importance of the only real war we are actually engaged in:  the war against Islamic fanaticals.  And still, the apologists run amok.  Foley himself was clearly sympathetic to the plight of muslim peoples, and look what good it did him.  This morning we are treated to the heavyweight diplomatic commentary of various Hollywood types such as Mia Farrow, who appears far more concerned about taking down the video than with taking down the insects who created it.  Quickly:  as a reward for enriching these mouthy professional clowns beyond imagination, America deserves ten years of silence from the celebrity intellectual set.  Rather you stay in your trailer, berating menials and demanding star shaped sandwiches than weighing in on the defense of civilization.  For all the good that would do us, given the abysmal presentation of smug sorority tarts like State Department spokesman Marie Harf, or any other of the designer diplomats trotted out to treat the American public with daily disdain.

Worse even than all that, there is a growing and feckless class of American citizen who seems to believe in precisely nothing, except perhaps the immediate need for bicycle lanes and roundabouts, or the outlawing of Big Gulps, while uniformly accepting the odd and distinctly ahistorical notion that “violence solves nothing.”  Pshaw.  Violence solves all kinds of things.  It solved Hitler.  It solved George Armstrong Custer at the Little Big Horn.  From the hill of historical perspective, it seems quite clear that judiciously applied violence by free peoples, in the name of free peoples, in order to preserve free peoples, might actually solve the oppression and bodily mutilation of women, the genocide of Yazidis, the kidnapping of schoolgirls for sexual slavery, the beheading of western journalists, the destruction of world heritage sites, the slaughterhouses of Syria, and the particularly heinous denigration of Mickey Mouse.  What is more, we can quite clearly see that those who forsake the use of violence–even to defend their very way of life–most often end up being the victims of violence perpetrated by very, very, bad people, who harbor no such compunction.  This same class of pseudo-spiritual, cultural relativist seems quite content to have us curl up into a fetal ball in the face of existential threat, to endlessly demand negotiations with animals who cannot be negotiated with, and whose every growl and scratch mark tells us so.  After achieving the strange spiritual plane in which they refuse to acknowledge certain realities of nature, while simultaneously worshiping fluffy and unrealistic notions of what nature is, they would have us attempt to negotiate with puff adders and great white sharks.  No, my friends, we cannot all get along.

I watched this murder.  I watched the murder of Daniel Pearl.  I watched the murder of Nicholas Berg.  I recommend you watch the videos too, if you have the stomach for it, and listen to what the homicidal lunatics in the videos are saying while they cut the heads off of innocent people.  Listen closely.  Believe what they are saying, for the zeal with which they announce their intentions, and reveal their sociopathic reasoning, isn’t manufactured for our amusement.  Used to a shambling, shoddy, prevaricating type of leadership, it is much too easy for us to dismiss the clarity with which the Islamic scumbags address us.  Know this:  they aren’t kidding, and they aren’t in the business of obfuscating their intentions.  If they say they are going to destroy the Bamyan Buddhas, they are in fact going to line up a battery of howitzers and cannonade them into dust.  If they say they are going to execute a journalist, well, then.

The president recently bragged that there was no real need to continue what is, in fact and essence, a cultural war for survival.  His remarks, appalling and flippant at best, are even worse in light of James Foley’s public execution, and the promised execution of journalist James Sotloff in the coming days.  Beheading is not a junior varsity move, nor is genocide, or any number of the lesser included atrocities committed now daily by a war machine of fanatical totalitarians.  It is quite clearly varsity behavior.  Perhaps it’s time that the cowering, mincing collection of career politicians we call Congress, an institution designed as the highest representation of the hopes and ambitions of free peoples, not just here, and not just now, but everywhere and for all time, pulled on their big boy pants, and sent our own professionals back on the field to find them, fix them, and ultimately destroy them.









High and Lonesome

Soldier Meadows Ranch Winter Gather

The author, Soldier Meadows Ranch, Nevada

Today, while running errands in town, I saw a couple of working cowboys in off the desert, young buckaroos who hadn’t changed clothes in a while, were covered with dust and dirt and old sweat, and possessed of that quiet, settled pride and polite confidence I once knew very well.  They were just passing through, stopping in at the Pumphouse Store for a cold soda, their filthy truck and battered goose-neck trailer parked out of the way and filled with saddled horses who peered out at the unfamiliar and busy world with huge, dark eyes.  I am man enough to admit that I was hit with an immediate stab of envy, admiration, and melancholy, that wrenching emotional tide that only comes when you’ve known a life well, loved it with all your heart, lived it fully, and been forced to walk away from it.  I’ve learned, over time, that it’s difficult to live entirely without a few regrets, maybe even impossible, and I don’t trust anyone who says otherwise.  Something is broken in people who believe that.  Our lives are far too complicated to escape the occasional question mark, a sudden and strong pull on the heart and mind, or to avoid imagining the way things might have been, given a different set of circumstances, a different menu of choices.  By itself, nostalgia is a form of regret, and can come at you in almost any shape, at almost any time.  For some it’s a childhood home.  For others, a long lost friend, a school, or an old flame.  For me, when regret bears down, it bears down hard, and it’s always about those precious few years I spent as a working cowboy, a wild-ass buckaroo on the great American outback.

In the spring of 1995, after finishing a perfectly worthless graduate degree at Northern Arizona University, and stacking on considerable debt to prove it, I went to work on the 10X Ranch outside of Twin Arrows, Arizona.  I signed on despite the warnings from my grandfather, a lifelong cowboy, who told me that I would end up “Without a pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out of.”  He was sincere, and undeniably correct, but a young man with an idea can be as obstinate as a badger at the bottom of his hole.  I had ridden bareback broncs in college, and was raised in cowboy country, where earning a living horseback was, and to some extent still is, an actual career option.  So signing on as a cowboy was not, for me, an incredible reach, and may have been driven, like all stories worth telling, by the engine of inevitability.  I had only one real goal:  to get as far out on the country as possible, and more importantly, to have a reason to be there.  I did all that and more.

My boss on the 10X was a man named Lee Morris.  At 5’6, 145 pounds, Lee was built like a bull rider, and wound tighter than a roll of barbed wire.  He was not a man who approved of cheer, or cheeriness, or even the remotest attempt at humor, having been raised on cold water baths in a sod house outside of Newcastle, Wyoming.  The wind of eastern Wyoming, and the eastern slope of the Mogollon Rim, had gotten in through his ears and done something to Lee.  He did not like cowboy hats, which blow away, or slow horses, or cattle of any kind, and visibly bristled against any attempt at what might be, even remotely, considered genial conversation.  In a good mood, which elevated his heavyweight silence into a series of porcine grunts, Lee liked to show off the gunnysack full of rusty and severe bits he had collected, as if one day he might suddenly stick one in your mouth.  Each day, when the cow work was finished, the horses put up and the dinner dishes cleared, Lee drank exactly two cans of Old Milwaukee in abject silence, then stood, violently saluted the picture of his mother in law on the fireplace mantel, and marched off to bed.  Lucky for me, after a mere few weeks of horseback work, and one flamboyant disagreement over a fence stretcher, Lee rode up in a dust cloud and unceremoniously fired me, saying from somewhere beneath his outsized walrus mustache, “Don’t steal anything on your way out.”  The first take of my cowboy movie was, to borrow a phrase, in the can.


Old Cowboys. The author’s grandfather (l) Del Anderson, with Jack Tatum. Queen Valley Ranch, Montgomery Pass, Nevada

I rolled my bed then, packed my gear, drew a final hand-written paycheck (short), and powered a ruined Ford Ranger hard north into the night, the seemingly endless reaches of the Great Basin and Nevada.  Eventually, after an epic stunt riding wild cows at a guest ranch “dudeo”, I landed a job on the 3 Dot Ranch, a sprawling high desert outfit that was merely the second stop on an outback cowboy adventure that ended at the very end of the road, 60 corduroy miles from a telephone, on the Soldier Meadows Ranch in northern Nevada.

From the 3-Dot Ranch, working forward, the characters come hard and fast.  There was Larry Kucera, who had one tooth left in his head, roped with a rawhide reata, drew excellent cartoons in his free time, and was shot in the back by marijuana farmers while fixing fence on a ranch in Mendocino.  When I met Larry, and rode with him, he packed a .44 on his hip, and would suddenly veer away from the cow work, over the horizon, because, as he said, “There is something about this country that just keeps calling you out, making you want to ride out farther, and deeper, until it swallows you whole, or maybe you just fall off the edge of it.”  And he was right.  There exists a siren song that can only be heard from horseback, in a country without cars, or decent roads, or the ambient noise of civilization, a desert country with a million visible stars on a clear night, sage hen at the bunkhouse door, some promise in the sweetness of rising dust in the rain, of cold granite walls, of hot springs steaming in the chill of fall, of birdsong echoing in the canyon bottoms, and the high-line draws where quaking aspens shimmer in the breeze.  There was John Casey, who famously stole cattle, sabotaged windmills, stashed hookers from Reno in cattle haulers at the Dodge Ranch headquarters, and lived like a hermit king in a falling down homesteader’s shack surrounded by ten thousand mother cows, and a desert the size of Rhode Island.  There were the mexican brothers from Guadalajara, Pedro and Francisco, who could rope a tick off a dog’s ass at a dead gallop, and sang sad spanish ballads while we pushed cows over the hard spine of the Calico range in clouds of dust and biting flies.  There was the ghost in the Old Woman House, who stood in the back window and grinned, and then wasn’t even there.  There was Country Joe, who lived on a mining claim and lit range fires to bring the bison back, who sawed the tusk off a fossilized mammoth at ground level,  who walked naked everywhere, and who nailed found license plates to the gate leading up to his claim, like scalps on a warrior’s lodge, right next to the sign reading:  There is nothing up this road that is worth your life.  There was Bruno, down in Gerlach, Nevada, who hung venison in the back room of Bruno’s Bar— Where the Road Ends, and the West Begins–who cashed a working man’s checks without charging interest, and who one night leveled a sawed-off shotgun over the bar while telling a rambunctious buckaroo:  “You wanna be a cowboy in my place?  I’ll make you a real short cowboy.”  There was Bill Bass, who refused to shoe horses, wore a dinner jacket to bed, and had once been a bullpen catcher for the Dodgers.  And finally, there was a legendary buckaroo, rake, horse trader, and your first (and maybe only) friend in a bar fight, named Bert Lambert.

Bert Lambert had been raised in New Mexico, allegedly, and claimed membership in several tribal rolls.  Depending on the time of day, the cant of sunlight, or the number of road sodas consumed between the bar and the bunkhouse, he was either an Apache, a Comanche, or a halfbreed Modoc.  He might have been all of these things at once.  Bert told so many inspiring windies that I actually began to track them in my daybook.  A sampling:  Bert ran away from home at 12 years old, surviving in a coyote den on a jar of mayonnaise, a loaf of bread, and milk stolen from dairy cows.  He claimed to have raised mountain lions (which he rode around), and bears (which he fed watermelon after school), and to have ridden an ostrich, “Not much buck,” he said, “but they sure do run fast.”  Bert also told of having traded a team of horses to Oklahoma State University in exchange for two bonobos, which he trained to feed his quadriplegic nephew, an act they performed loyally until turning mysteriously violent and beating his defenseless (and imaginary) nephew about the head and neck.  Bert, in full pluck, told us many times the story of being bucked off the same horse 17 times in one day, and having roped, among other things, a bobcat out of a tree, a buck deer, a coyote, a pig, and four bison, all of which he managed to load into a trailer by himself.  For all of that, Bert was a hell of a cowboy, and even more fun to work for, given his utter contempt for anything remotely connected to the truth.  And in the real world, where the rest of us lived, he was, in fact, illiterate.  He couldn’t read or write a single word.

Cowboys, then and now, pack a lot of living into each day, and there are simply too many stories, too many faces, too many names and places, to do them any kind of justice.  The Buckhorn Road, where we stole salt blocks in revenge.  Duck Flat, where I lived alone in a camp and listened to scratchy late night radio beamed in from Seattle, learning all there was to know about sasquatch, transsexuals, PETA, alien abductions, and one night shot a packrat off the bread safe while still laying in my bedroll.   There was Massacre Lake.  The Place Where Tom Shot Frank.  The Wheeler Ranch.  Claude Dallas.  Fly Geyser.  High Rock.  Slumgullion Canyon.  There was the runaway mystery kid from Wyoming, who might have been fifteen, who out-roped us all, then came and went like an evening breeze.  There was Crabtree Camp, where a defiant and fired cowboy refused to leave, threatened violence, and one night delivered, pole-axing Bert Lambert with a baseball bat in the sodium light of the Hindu Market in Standish, California.  There were bison the size of RV’s, who wouldn’t stay in one place, rattlesnakes and arrowheads, and there was a particularly homicidal bull up Chukar Gulch.  From my daybook:

15 January 1996, Soldier MeadowsBill and I picked up 19 head north of Mud Meadow and drove them into the trap beside the lake, where they promptly broke out and made a decent wreck.  Three cows and a calf tear-assing through the sage and willows.  We finally got them through and pushed down the road to Willow Creek.  Rode back and ate lunch in the truck in a driving rain.  On the way back we spotted a bull and cow in the south meadow, so I rode down to bring them back.  They sailed off through the brush and all the way back toward Paiute Creek, where they brushed up pretty good.  This bull we’ve been onto before–he’s wild and on the fight.  The black cow vanished in the high brush but I managed to stay with the bull a good distance.  Couldn’t get close enough, or draw him out to put a loop around his neck.  We stared at each other, his eyes are all wrong, and he made to charge a few times, but I couldn’t get him out.  He’s a mean sonofabitch just waiting to lay the hurt on some poor bastard.  Same brindled and broken horned devil that jumped the corral last spring.  Bill rode up about 20 minutes later but the two of us, and a dog, couldn’t get him to budge.  We’ll be lucky if he doesn’t kill us when it gets serious.

And so it went, day after day, on the big country, where we had no power, or telephone, or want of them.  Perhaps it isn’t even what the cowboy life provided that causes me such sudden, sweet sorrow when I see young cowboys these days in a gas station.  Maybe it’s what we didn’t have, and didn’t want, that leaves such a pleasing glow on the memories.  Life intervenes, we roll our beds and move on, and sometimes we leave a better part of us behind, like the names burned into the tack room wall at the Fish Creek Ranch in Eureka, Nevada.  I left the cowboy life because I had bigger bills than punching cows was ever going to pay, just like my grandfather promised.  But I’ve always regretted it, and looked back often in the heat of a hard career that payed better–though never quite as much as the ultimate price tag–thinking I should have gutted it out a few more years.  Maybe, just maybe, I should have followed Larry away from the herd and over the ridge, and just gone all the way.

Gandhi, that bald old guru in homespun, liked to remind us that “There is more to life than increasing it’s speed,” and as I reflect here now, decades later, the tape measure of my own life growing shorter by the minute, eating ibuprofen against a reasonably bad back and arthritis in my shoulders, not to mention a head full of calcified attitudes, it’s worth sitting for a minute, full of pride and admiration for those young buckaroos and their well earned bottles of cream soda, remembering a time when the days were so much longer, the work was so much harder, the meals so much finer, the friendships so much simpler, and at the end of the day, with the lamps snuffed out and the barn door shut for the night, the world still made so much sense.






The People I Didn’t Kill

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 9.20.07 AM

Photo by Todd Robertson

The soul of a cop’s eyes
Is an eternity of Sunday daybreak in the suburbs
Of Juarez, Mexico.

James Wright


Yesterday, after a luxurious week of toiling underground, minding my own business, breaking the code of a hard poem by Rilke, sitting on the porch to watch the hawk who was watching our chickens, shooting twice–and missing–at the coyote who slinks in from the trees to salivate at the henhouse door, I made a tragic mistake:  I came up for air.

The air, it turns out, is bad, full of Ferguson, Missouri, and smoke from that fire.  Two minutes of television news:  shrieking and hand-wringing, nabob commentary, industrial shouting matches.  That’s it, that’s all there was.  Television journalists have done more than kill the ghost of Walter Cronkite, they have become tenured Professors in the Jerry Springer School of Commentary and Analysis, stoking the generational embrace of identity politics and grievance theater.  It made me want a drink.  A hard rye whisky.   Neat.  Instead, I strapped on my Asics and went for a run in the woods, always a better choice, and was rewarded for that rare moment of discipline.  The woods were quiet and warm, the treetops in full sun.  There was only the sound of my feet on the trail, the birds and the small creatures alarming as I ran by, and my own labored breathing on a steep, rocky hill.

Recently I was asked how many people I killed when I was a cop.  It wasn’t the first time.  Like doctors, forced to diagnose illness at every cocktail party, cops (and former cops)  endure a battery of complaints about law enforcement at every turn.  No couples’ dinner is safe.  A roadside chat with a friendly neighbor quickly devolves into a conspiracy rant against their recent speeding ticket, and by extension, naturally, the militarization of law enforcement, blue helmets, and black helicopters.  Cops accept this, like vomit in the back of a squad car, idiot lieutenants, and late night alley fights with psychotic tweakers, because it comes with the territory.  Sadly, the inevitable harangue almost always reveals too much about the person giving it.

In this case the question came from a young person, and they can be forgiven the crudity of their curiosity, even if it is backloaded with tired assumptions force fed by bad television, video games, abysmal schools, and that grandest of American traditions:  the full criminal embrace.  While the characterization of cops has migrated from the Officer Friendly types on Adam 12, to masked bogeymen in “tanks”, no-knocking (always, it seems) the wrong house, outlaws and very bad people enjoy the fruits of selective judgment.  We still love Jesse James.  Charles Manson married his pen pal.  Bernie Madoff’s underwear sold at auction for $200.00.

But the question was wrong.  As I ran through the woods, following the trail where it wound through a dry creek, I thought about the people I didn’t kill.  I didn’t kill Gary T, Jr., a career criminal and dimwit who pointed a loaded and strung crossbow at me and my partners, (after running inside his house and barricading in the upstairs bedroom.)  I could have, but I didn’t.  I also didn’t kill Eddie V.T.,  a disturbed Iraq war veteran, on the La Cumbre overpass, though I held his solar plexus squarely in the crosshairs of my sniper rifle while he brandished a handgun at me and my partners, an incident broadcast live on CNN.  I didn’t kill Manuel B., late one night when he was sawing through the backdoor of his girlfriend’s house, smoked out of his mind on meth, likely to kill her, and settled for attacking my partner and I with a live reciprocating saw.  I didn’t kill Jose R., because he was too fast, I was too slow, and the man he’d just shot four times in the parking lot was bleeding out in my arms.  I might have killed all of these people, but I didn’t.

I have a good friend who reminded me once, while we shared a coffee between calls for service, our backs to the wall in an alcove on the urine-soaked and bum stinking low rent side of the Monopoly board, that it has only been in the last hundred years or so that good people have been forced to tolerate criminals.  Not so very long ago, but in another world altogether, it seems a gentleman might run a bandit through with a sword.  And decent people were decently thankful.  In modern America, see San Francisco, that same gentlemen is not only forced to tolerate the bandit, but must also give him a job.  In other words, the modern American gentleman must, by law, help the bandit rob the other passengers on the coach.  We’ve come a long way, baby.

I don’t know what happened in Ferguson.  Nobody else does either.  One of the actors is dead, the other might as well be, and eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable.  Still, the fires keep burning, a failed and suspect POTUS keeps popping off between rounds of golf, and the race hustlers have flown in on their private jets.  But I know this much, if the young officer who fired his weapon did wrong, he will pay the price.  He is already paying the price.  And here’s the rub for those good people charged with the thankless task of policing this nation:  it is likely that even if he did nothing wrong at all, legally, morally, or otherwise, he will be sacrificed, like the sloe-eyed lamb, on the altar of race relations–if only to stop the looting of spinner rims from Auto Zone.  And tonight, while America sleeps off another heavy meal of sensationalist journalism, hard working police officers will face thousands of dangerous situations without killing anyone—though they might have, and no one will offer so much as a cursory Thank You in the morning.

In the meantime, smoke from our own wildfires is casting an orange pall on the ponderosas.  Harry Dean Stanton, the ranch mascot, is stalking chipmunks down by the greenhouse, the dogs are asleep on the back porch, and the chickens gave us four eggs this morning.  The coyote, perhaps leery of another bullet creasing his forehead, is somewhere else in the forest.  The hawk is still in his tree, because he is hard-eyed royalty.  But he is always there, and I’m going for another run.




In Defense of Wrestling

The Uffizi Wrestlers

The Uffizi Wrestlers

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.  When the man saw he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.  Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”  

Genesis 32:24-28

We have been at this wrestling a long time.  The images and narratives are ubiquitous, man against God, man against man, man against beast, man against his own heart and mind.  The wrestler quite simply IS Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces.”  The victorious wrestler saves his family, his culture, his nation, and not least important, despite the odds, he saves himself.  Every wrestling match wraps the wrestlers in this tradition, whether they know it or not.  The critical thing is to win, of course.  It is not enough to endure the punishment of Cool Hand Luke, or to give a good show with a stiff upper lip.  Unique among sports, one does not play wrestling.  One wrestles, and in wrestling there are no moral victories.

Wrestling entered the Olympics as a sport in 708 BC, an elimination style tournament, and we can take solace that there were, in fact, a democratic set of rules, most comforting among them a strict prohibition against “grasping of the genitals.”  Hitting, kicking, and biting were prohibited, although even a quick review of the later Roman sculpture and mosaics reveals a shocking lack of adherence to these rules, particularly the genitalia construct.  Ah, the Romans.  The classical Greek version survives in our modern Olympics, with surprisingly similar rules, despite a recent attempt by the IOC to banish wrestling to the bin.  Wrestling, it seems, does not sufficiently pump the ticket sales.  No real wrestler is surprised to hear this.  Nor does he–and increasingly she–care.  Some things perhaps, should survive on their own merits, immune to the vagaries of ratings.

My own wrestling career began at the age of six.  I was terrified, of course, trembling on the edge of the mat until the referee brought us together to shake hands in the middle.  Across from me stood another trembling six year old.  His name was Hiawatha Miles, a Maidu Indian from Greenville, California, and over the next decade we would wrestle each other countless times in various tournaments, until he outgrew me and was shuffled off to another weight class.  He won some, I won some.  But in this first instance, lacking any grace, or skill, I simply charged at him when the whistle blew, tackled him crudely, and pinned his shoulders to the mat.  His parents groaned.  He cried.  Watching him, consoled in the arms of his parents, I felt bad.  It was my first taste of the hard realities of a trying sport.  A wrestling tournament is largely a space full of people in the various stages of grief, and it is an axiom that at some point in the season every wrestler will cry.  Wrestling teaches basic truths of self reliance and responsibility:  if you lose, there is no one to blame but yourself.  Get back in the wrestling room.  Work harder.  It is no wonder the wrestling rooms of modern America are largely empty.

American wrestling has provided an alternative pantheon of athletic heroes, unknown champions who never made any money, murdered their estranged wives, or got themselves shot in a nightclub.  They toil in obscurity, mostly, for love of the sport, their fellow wrestlers, and the few die-hard Universities who hire them on as coaches.  There is Dan Gable, of course, who lost only once in four years at Iowa State, and wrestled through the Olympics without surrendering a single point–perhaps an unparalleled achievement in all of sports.  Wrestling has given us the Schultz brothers, John Smith, Joe Robinson, Rulon Gardner’s epic defeat of The Russian Bear, Alexander Karelin, previously undefeated in 13 years of international competition.  Of course there is the legendary Cael Sanderson, undefeated four time national champion, Olympic champion, and the current coach at Penn State.  If there is one thing this small sampling of men has in common, other than supreme accomplishment obscured by the blitzkrieg of high profile, self-promotion athletics, it is their quiet dignity.

A wrestling tournament is one of the few places left to learn the hard lessons of natural selection.  In a coddling world, wrestling refuses.  Practices are long and brutal.  Tournaments are worse because a win means only one thing: the next match will be tougher.  Coaches are famously fanatical in their discipline.  My own high school coach was known for his heat of the match phraseology.  With a voice thundering above the raucous crowd he would toss out such gems as “You’re rolling over like a tired whore,” or “We’re gonna get a knee pad for your forehead.”  In victory he would stand at the edge of the mat, smiling broadly, clap your shoulders with bear paws and say “Well done, Sunshine.”  In defeat he wasn’t even there, and it was a long, lonely, head drooping shuffle back to the bleachers and ignominy.  Once, at a tournament in northern California, he referred to the dilapidated gym as “Worse than a shitter with no doors,” which says something about the conditions wrestlers endure.  Wrestling, like Special Forces, demands extreme sacrifice and severe personal discipline, and as the saying goes:  It’s not for everyone.  But there is a flip side.  If it is for you, it will permanently shape the rest of your life. 

Finally, wrestling is decidedly not MMA, that vulgar television bloodsport, a kind of pseudo-roman sideshow of freaks, fixers, and charlatans, loudly narrated by obnoxious comedians in too small shirts and hair products, complete with “walk-up music”,  pyrotechnics, and soundbyte cheap shots.  For starters, the event involves (requires) a cage, a deliberate nod to the “Texas Cage Match” mentality of the beer swilling, trailer park cult of “professional” wrestling–itself an obvious and inevitable evolution of the deep south tent revival.  Animals go in cages.  One thinks of bear-baiting, cockfights, the crowd-rapture of sanctioned murder in the Coliseum–perhaps not our finest foot forward.  Pre-fight pressers now routinely devolve into Don Kingesque show brawls, tables flipped, women squawking, pandering to the lowest and basest of our emotions, stoking ticket sales and outrageous pay per view fees, a kind of brutal foreplay for the Tap-Out wardrobe set.  Don’t get me wrong, these are tough men (now women too) and would likely pound most of us into quick submission, but somehow the art is lacking, or absent altogether, to say nothing of the sublime understatement of real genius, now replaced by a kind of post-modern brachiation and commercialized battery.

Wrestling, like all art, has rules.  Deny this and find your stabs at painting, or poetry, or storytelling, imperiled.  The Greeks understood that sheer brutality was not an art form, rather a shameful, horrifying spectacle.  The Romans, craven and conceited, forgot this much, and so the beauty of the Uffizi wrestlers, originally Greek, was eventually lost in Roman art.  The Romans could not hold the line, and as they leaned toward spectacle, they leaned also toward ruin.  The well-prepared and supremely controlled imposition of will, the internal fortitude to live as a disciplined, responsible, humble champion, are the glue of civilized life.  Looking around, I fear we risk losing much of that, in the era of Justin Bieber and reality television, and perhaps are in fact losing much of that, so I return to the ancients, wrestling as a physical, spiritual, and metaphorical lift, the physical contest still demanding intellect for interpretation.

If I am lucky, some late nights, I can still dial around the networks and find that quiet dignity broadcast on a spinoff sports show– wedged between Real Housewives of Rochester, and Cops Reloaded.  Close your eyes and picture this, then:  an empty, poorly lit gymnasium somewhere in the dark winter snows of Iowa, an understated announcer with a bad microphone, a part-time referee.  And then, as if by magic, two resolute warriors meeting in the center of the mat, shaking hands quickly, the whistle blown and the match underway, two men forehead to forehead, hand fighting in the pure poetry of strength, and will, of bedrock desire, a struggle on some moonlit sandy shore, unwitnessed and ignored, and still worthy of scripture across the ages.