Lamentations

Montgomery Pass Tiger

The author, with Bengal Tiger, Montgomery Pass, Nevada

I was not comfortable around the tiger.  To say otherwise would be a lie, and it is evident in the photo.  I’m sitting a respectable distance back, with a strange, indecisive grin on my face.  Much like a Great White shark, a full grown Bengal tiger does not have eyes that are inviting of trust and appreciation.  Plus, it’s a cat, a hungry one no doubt, and hungry cats are a known quantity of deception.  But I couldn’t resist getting in on a photo.

The tiger had been residing in a two horse open trailer in the parking lot of Soper’s Casino, walled off from a terrified colt by sheets of plywood.  When we pulled into the lot, a slush and mud concoction that citizens of Deadwood would have recognized, I walked over innocently to look at the horse.  Then I saw the tiger, jumped two feet in the air, felt the grab of unadulterated terror, and premium outback shock.  And what is the outback?  That good country where all things are not just possible, they often happen, sometimes with legendary flair.

Thirty minutes before discovering the tiger I was feeding out cows from an old flatbed Studebaker I managed by virtue of starting fluid, a stream of cussing, and baling twine knotted around the steering wheel–because I was on the back, flying by wire and kicking off bales to cows covered in ice at 10 mph–and when that chore was finished my grandfather and I drove to the top of Montgomery Pass to have breakfast at Soper’s Casino.

Soper’s no longer exists, except in my memory, as a wind-raked (elevation 7,167) truck stop and casino where I played 21 on day-work pay, and watched, one summer afternoon, on a barstool, OJ Simpson’s famous pursuit on the LA freeway system.  It is now, like much of Nevada, fired, crumbling, ransacked, and returning to the earth.

But it reminds me of a country I hope we never lose.  There is a lot happening in the Modern West, there always is, and some of it–where we allow it–still resembles that land of limitless opportunity for the strange and unruly that once existed in our beloved Old West.  There’s the Bundy thing, for certain–which has the stigma of unfortunate and enduring seriousness–there is Burning Man, which exists on the opposite end of the spectrum, and there are still cowboys and rangers and bandits and shopkeepers.  But I have a growing fear that that the brackets are closing in precipitously, that we are in danger of losing forever that openness and even recklessness which once defined us.

I think we might lament one day, privately or in print, losing our sense of utter outback, of the pure, or intentionally, crazy, our ability to enjoy the eccentrics and the far-outs who live on the dead frontier.  Each passing year we grow closer to completely assimilating and mainstreaming a wild country that hosted any number of opportunities for the bizarre, the original, and the unimpeded.

We have seen it changing, as we ourselves have changed, pinched perhaps by the pressures of modern life to conform into a largely homogenous–and subsequently uninteresting–brand of the species.  We make gatherings to celebrate those things that define us even as we are losing them.  Particularly because we are losing them.  I’m reminded of the ghost dance, born not far from where I was raised, and those desperate attempts to simply dance back into existence a dying life we once enjoyed.  And we know how that ended.

Still, I sing lamentations for what we might lose, and I am angry that the best I can do is concoct a kind of modern day ghost dance, in pathetic paragraphs, against the tide of rigid and boring comfort that is becoming our shared experience.

Down the road from my grandfather’s place was a perfectly legal Nevada brothel–Janey’s Ranch.  The hookers from Janey’s used to meet us at the top of Montgomery Pass in the fall, when we herded cattle home from the Basalt Range.  They would gather with platters of food and drink on the highway outside of Soper’s Casino, hoisting trays of margaritas and limes, brilliant in whatever revealing outfit best kept them warm in the wind, smothering the cowboys with smiles and best wishes, laughs, and bad jokes.  They were having a lot of fun, and so were we, while the cows bawled and mothered up with their calves in bad skies and spitting snow.  And that was the sum total of the contract.  I’m not sure anything of its kind exists anywhere else, or ever will again, but it was modern then and it was real and it was precisely the unbridled outback I love the most.

Today, Janey’s is also gone.  The old sign on the highway–made from a gigantic boiler tipped on its side and painted silver–reads, in black paint: “Janey’s Ranch…closed.  Beat it.”  Still a message worthy of the plain-spoken west.

And what about the tiger?  Three months after my grandfather and I ran into this tiger, it mauled to death the man who knelt beside me in the photograph.  I know that because my grandfather sent me, by US Mail–the way we used to do–a newspaper clipping reporting the event.  In the margins my grandfather had scribbled, “Told you so.”

  1. What a colourful past, you’ve had.
    Once at NBC, my father came home from work and told of a commercial shoot that went terribly wrong…beautiful young model in front seat, tiger in the back…caption of ” I’ve got a tiger in my tank” and then the tiger attacked her face, leaving her scarred for life.

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    1. That is just about the worst possible thing imaginable. I would imagine that there were, over the years, any number of animal related incidents at the studios.

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  2. “…But now the pace we’re livin’
    Takes the wind from my sail…”

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    1. It starts to feel like diminishing returns, that hamster wheel, much too fast. Remember Babbitt? I live in mortal fear of becoming him, ever, even for a minute.

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  3. Interesting story. Yep, all these modern conveniences are supposedly to make our life easier, but it makes it more hectic. People can’t go anywhere without checking their emails or texts on their phones. I have a phone for emergencies and I don’t know how to text. It’s like gambling. I’m afraid that I could get addicted and I don’t have the money and there are other things that I should be doing like going to Columbus, NM where Pancho Villa crossed the border.

    Like old Don Edwards sang, “I’m glad I weren’t no later than I was.”

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    1. I do a lot of field work in parking lots…an old narco habit I suppose, but the number of people I see, even in Sisters, meandering off course or running into things because they are absorbed in that thing in their hands is astonishing. I used to think I should warn them, now I just add another cell-phone to the nose-art on my pickup.

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    2. Columbus for the centennial of the Raid?

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  4. This one hit me hard on a number of fronts. Ghost Dance. You articulate in two words what I’ve spent my whole life doing. The music, the woods-running, the study, the writing, Frontier Partisans — all of it. It’s a kind of Ghost Dance. And, in those dark nights of the soul, I wonder if it’s just as delusionally futile as a bullet-proof buckskin shirt.

    You speak specifically of your beloved Outback, but the lamentation you sing is bigger even than that seemingly endless physical space. What you have seen happening, the brackets closing in, is a symptom and a metaphor for what is happening to men’s souls.

    When I was young, people kept telling me I had to “live in the real world.” Guess we had different ideas of what constitutes “real.” As far as I’m concerned, there’s NOTHING real about car-cubicle-car-couch. Babbitt, indeed.

    “It was modern then and it was real.”

    Yes! People think I “live in the past” because of my passion for history. No! No! Hell, no! I strive to make the past present. I strive to live NOW in a way that resonates with the lifeway of the men I admire. In a way that is modern and real. There’s a difference. And you can’t explain that to somebody who doesn’t already understand.

    I have always been acutely aware that I am creating a mere simulacrum of the world of my heart’s desire. Sometimes I, too, have felt anger at my inability to do more and better than that. But I tend to turn such anger inward on myself and that ain’t healthy. So I turn to my only true spiritual practice — gratitude.

    I’ve done OK for a suburban kid from Southern California with strange obsessions and ways that did NOT fit the dominant culture. I’m in the woods more days than I’m not. I make my living telling stories. I get to sing my song to people who want to hear it. I’ve had the chance to break bread with heroes — Dave Alvin, Tom Russell, Guy Clark (nearly killed me), Ian Tyson, Dave Stamey… Ghost Dancers themselves.

    You’ve held some wondrous living in your hands. And you have the gift to evoke it for others. It’s enough.

    No it’s not. It can’t be.

    It has to be…

    I get it.

    Told you you were in for a long ’un.

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    1. I would say you have done far better than OK. I think you are absolutely killing it, and I think the sentiment is dead on: “I strive to make the past present…in a way that resonates with the life way of the men I admire.” I think that is absolutely modern and real and right. And the turn toward gratitude is, I think–even though it is damn hard at times–is what frees us to chop wood however the hell we want too. Great commentary Jim, thanks.

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    1. You have single-handedly blown up my carefully crafted lifetime reading and listening plans. Destroyed. Utter mulch and smoking rafters. I’m building a different structure on the same site. Love it.

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