On the front wall of my trailer hang five ears of Indian corn. The colors range from deep purple to brick-red and wash down to straw-yellow. It was October when I bought the rig. Harvest time, my grandma's favorite time of year. I thought of her while shopping at the Buy Low, knowing she was smiling at my piney woods home to be. I bought an ear and hung it up in the empty trailer. My wife and I were up from the city on time-off and it was coming up to be Halloween night.
When we got in with a leg of lamb that Nisa had planned to cook we discovered that the toilet water had frozen and formed into a great stalagmite as had a drip in the tub. We were fortunate that no pipes had burst. I installed a new set of kitchen taps with a pipe wrench, a hammer and a screwdriver. We dined on the floor of the kitchen eating with oregano hands as we watched the shadows climb the snow-dusted canyon walls.
The heater soon had us cozy and then the door-bell range. We had forgotten about Halloween! A little St'at'imc girl and her dad waited by the porch. I smiled when I realized I had purchased a jumbo box of Raspberry Wagonwheels and a case of Blue Sky Root Beer earlier to last me the weekend. I put two Wagon Wheels in the little darling's bag and she smiled.
Within an hour the Wagon Wheels were spent and I started to hand out the Blue Sky. Most of the kids thought it was beer and looked askance at me and then to their father's for the go-ahead. When their dad's told them what it was, they grinned like little possums. We learned to keep the heat turned on even when we were in the city paying our work dues. The next October, I hung up another corn.
By the third year, I got the idea to count down the years to my retirement by the ears of corn. When seven ears were hanging, I would hang up my mail pouches and move in with my wife. As it happened, I made it to Lillooet after only five corns. That story is told in “Tip-Toeing Into The Extraordinary.” It became common for new friends here to ask me how many more corns till I moved in permanently.
Nisa is an accomplished cook. She has cooked for a Filipino air-force General married to a high-footing Italian woman and for a demanding, key-club swinging Singaporean rich bitch. I define a cook as a person who can walk into a situation, eyeball the equipment and ingredients at hand and concoct something healthy and delicious without having to send a boy to the store for a long list of stuff that some book said you need. Once I killed a grouse with a sling-shot. Nisa had spotted it on a mountain road. She had it plucked, gutted, spice-rubbed and in the oven before I had washed up after we got back home.
When I was young I was a cook. I did prep-cooking for a steak and lobster chain and I also did time as a sous-chef at a gourmet seafood restaurant and as a short-order man at a truck stop in the Fraser Canyon. I did all the cooking in my first marriage. My second wife could cook from any cook-book and make the dish come out just like the picture. We were going broke buying ingredients and cookbooks all the time. Since I married Nisa, I haven't cooked except for the occasional special gumbo, Ecuadorian stew, truck driver's breakfast and such.
This past month, Nisa has been away in the Philippines and Dusty Bones and I have had to reconnect with our cooking skills. First we took in all the produce of our trailer garden. After a half-hour we had a big pile of Roma tomatoes, some bunches of celery, a dozen big red carrots, a basket of yellow squash, a bowl of green beans, a pile of jalapenos, and a stack of stout green onions. I rolled a smoke and looked over the harvest while Dusty chased grasshoppers.
The answer was easy. I had before me a big gumbo and a big beef stew. I lacked only bell peppers and potatoes. After a quick trip to the Buy Low, I was loading the bags and water jugs into the Suzuki and gazed up at the mountain to the West. There about four hundred yards away was a big black bear snuffling around a gravel pile where a road on the next bench had cut away a piece of hill.
Local first nation boys here say if you see three bears in one day, you'll get laid that night for sure. I wondered if one big six hundred-pounder counted. Then I figured, it's just as well if it didn't. The irony of hefting my food into my truck within sight of something that could easily eat me wasn't lost on me and I would add that the experience is humbling and puts a man's feet on proper ground for pondering his existence.
I always brought music to any kitchen, I ever worked in. I couldn't imagine building a dish without soaking its soul in a little Brown Sugar, basting it in Paco de Lucia, peppering it with bagpipes, sprinkling it with Irish lady sopranos, roasting it in Beethoven, chopping it up with Motown and slow cooking it to Lata Mangeshkar. This night was no different.
As Dusty Bones did that skank-walk that his kind do to make themselves look bigger, I chopped, peeled, sliced, whisked, sauteed and played some air guitar when Ten Years After came on the Sansui. Some people still wonder why I don't drink alcohol and I can reiterate right here, it's because I just don't need to. I had more fun than a year-old raccoon with a beach-ball under a full moon after eating a pile of fermented blackberries. Freedom comes from inside and there ain't anyone or anything that can bestow it on you.
That gumbo had scallops, shrimps and fake crab. What made it great was the celery. The celery in my garden grew thin as whiskers due to the heat and the darkest shade of green I had ever seen due to the mineral content of the soil here. There was a gold rush here not many years past and all this land is ancient river bed. The white men took the big nuggets, the Chinese took the dust and the molecular gold is sucked up the xylems of the plants in my patch. That celery rendered down into a 24 carat roux that would tan a hide.
The stew was made great by the carrots. Nisa and I hadn't tilled the soil very deep when we planted and thus the poor roots had to push like tent-pegs into the black sand. The resulting vegetables were as thick as a radiator hose and a deep brilliant orange-red like a brand new boxcar. When I chopped them, the ends sprang several feet away and smelled like medicine that you want to take. If it had been a million years earlier, I would have certainly rolled in their greens. After I let Dusty smell one of the pieces, he shook his head till his ears flapped, did a flip, ran across the floor sixty feet and then back again. Then he plonked down on the linoleum and began to lick his package. It was the first time he'd ever done that.
We slow-cooked those two pottages and the trailer filled up with a soul satisfying incense of meat, vegetables and fish as the whisper-quiet exhaust fan sent the lion's share of the scent off to the hills North to entertain the imaginations of the bears and bachelors downwind. In the morning, I gave the first bowl, as is the East Texas gumbo tradition I carry on, to a neighbor in the trailer park. Turned out his Mum was an Arkansas gal and used to make gumbo. The chances of that happening along the banks of Cayoosh Creek were better during the gold rush than they would be today.
Over the next few days, we dined like kings, Dusty and me. It was his first gumbo and now he walks a little bow-legged like a man does when he's showing off his new truck. I thought about trains while I ate the stew. Where I stand would still be a hostile hinterland if not for the iron horse. The golden spike that links the trans-Canada track lies not many miles away, such was the slow progress building the iron road from the West. I sit on the hill above my park and watch the long snakes crawl the canyon. They carry away the mountains and the timber and bring in tourists.
A brief study of a handful of railroad tycoons would lead one fairly quickly to an understanding of how the world really works. That's how I started to unravel it when I was a boy. A Dutchman from America, for example, had the idea to advertise in China for workers to build the railroad here in North America. It was a ready source of cheap labor and the already established opium habits of many of them would be a boon to those men oceans away who controlled such commerce from club rooms over cups of Earl Grey all of whom were happy to expand the drug trade that they had already established in Asia.
It is also not widely known that the paltry wages that the coolies received in Canada, although roughly ten times less than a white man's wages, were several hundred times more than they enjoyed in their mother country. They were not the shy little men often caricatured, nay a proper look at the situation would have shown the Irishman gandydancer that his Asian work-mates came from a harsh land of no opportunity not unlike the burned out, starved out crofters of Scotland and Ireland after the British conquest.
We are told who the important men are. In newspapers, books, magazines, on TV, radio and in school. Those aren't the big men. The big men don't sell their pictures or their names. The big men don't get their hands dirty and always build at least three facets into each endeavor they direct their underlings to undertake. Thus, one can forgo the city newspapers and CNN. The news that filters up-river about the speed of the returning salmon will get one through the day. The “breaking” news of a coalition air bombing campaign in Syria for example, was well known by big men, important men and all those little politicians fourteen years ago when PNAC published Rebuilding America's Defenses.
So, why is it on the news? Because people need to be told who to hate and who to support and why their bills and taxes have to go up. Same way I tell Dusty that cars are dangerous, birds are food, people are OK (if I touch them), dogs are dangerous and Guinea pigs are not food. Difference is, being a cat, Dusty doesn't buy into the part about Guinea pigs. He takes in my tuition and rejects all that is not logical to his own instinctive understanding. He is able to do this because he skipped Bible School, Kindergarten, Grade School, Boy Scouts, High School, College and Church. Most of us cannot make this claim and thus have a harder time discerning the truth of what confronts us.
We walked the railroad tracks last week and discussed these things while expanding Dusty's vocabulary. At present he knows some Swedish, some Tagalog, some English and a variety of hand and audio signals. The poor young creature wore sores into his back pads and so we took a few days off. They regrew in 48 hours, pink and pretty as bubble-gum. I decided to resume with a short uphill walk to T'it'q'et. First we put a big pot-roast in the clay baker studded with garlic, rolled in black pepper and marinated in red wine my nephew had left here. It would be ready next day just about when the gumbo petered out.
I carried the kitten in my small back pack and he poked out his little head. We drew a few smiles from working people and we smiled back. It reminded me of my favorite poem by Han Shan of Cold Mountain in which he is laughed at by a rich neighbor lady after giving up his job with the government and becoming poor by choice and in which he in turn bursts with laughter at the folly of her life of being a slave to her money and thinking herself to be superior. These two howled with laughter at each other til Han Shan climbed up a mountain and took up residence in a cave. Some people on my walk saw a silly old man and a cat. Some saw a lonely old man with a cat. Others saw a lazy old man with a cat. Yet others saw a poor old man with a cat.
I am neither poor, silly, lazy nor lonely. I am fifty-seven and can still climb a mountain. I am living off money I put away for my pension and it will be years before I dip into the employers portion of contributions. It's all gauged so that I am supposed to expire before that day comes. I am content to eat, sleep, walk, read and live with my wife in our little house. I see people pouring their life, sweat, blood and tears into other people's coffers trying to obtain other people's dreams. Worrying other people's worries and fighting other people's fights. Dusty kept his head up and I decided to let him practice catching real birds in a real field of real tall grass. After a few miles, I found a moose carcass of which only a few dusty bones remained. It was so sun-bleached and wind- scoured that it had no scent. We walked on another hundred yards or so.
We settled into a patch of ground between two roads that was full of tall brown grass and Ponderosa pines. I settled down on a pine log and let Dusty off the leash. He circulated within a few feet and kept returning to mark where his daddy was. After an hour or so he widened out his patrol to a few yards and returned for grooming a little less often. I threw a few little pine cones around for him to practice stalking and pouncing. It was a delicious temperature and the fresh East wind carried the scent of an alpine lake down to our sandy retreat. With a belly full of gumbo, it wasn't long before my eyelids grew heavier than girl's suitcase. I felt Dusty come up and lick my hand from time to time and I heard him return to a little nest he'd made in among some fire-downed pines boughs.
It was a truck motor that woke me. I watched a blue pick-up make a dust trail on my left toward the creek. It went up about a hundred yards and then turned around. It came back our way about thirty yards and stopped. Several St'at'imc men in the front cab started to bark and growl like animals. Some laughed like schoolboys and clapped their hands. They kept the motor running and didn't budge.
I wondered if they thought I might be sleeping off a drunk and were trying to shoo me awake and out of the territory. Then I realized that they couldn't have seen me laid out under that tall grass behind a fallen log. I rose slowly and circled about looking for Dusty Bones. I found the little one snuggled up in the tangle of pine logs and deep in cover. He was out of the chilling wind and shaded from the sun. He had both eyes open and his ears were cocked back at the truck sounds. As I gathered him up out of his lair, I saw the big mother black bear. She was dead ahead to the West about seventy yards, halfway up a medium size pine.
Her muzzle was light brown and her mug was pointed straight at me and Dusty. Her jet fur covered up about four hundred pounds of maternal instinct. She ignored the shouting, growling men a few feet to her right. About ten feet above her, sprawled like a coke dealer in a lounge chair poolside at a five star hotel was her chunky mocha colored cub, evidently tuckered out and having a little rest. As I moved back to my pack and put my baby inside, lady bear started down the tree a few notches when I donned my hat. Two more hand holds and she could cross the seventy yards to my position in the time it would take to wring out a mop. I wished the men would hush up but I was glad that they had made their noise in the first place.
Like they had read my mind, the driver sped off and I walked backwards slowly a hundred yards to watch. Mum went back up to her cub and baby kept on looking at ants on the branch he straddled. Dusty had already learned the words car, ibon, wind, train, people, dog, cat, bug, ali bong-bong, jump, and hara-kiri and to these he now added bear. His expression for the first mile on the way home was that of a woman on her way home from a new hairdresser. Nope fellas, we never did see a third bear on the way home.
When I was eighteen, I was sitting in the backyard of a rental basement suite and looking at the garden I had planted. It was summer and I was wearing jeans, suspenders and a white tee-shirt. I weighed in at about 165 lbs. I hadn't yet known a woman in the biblical sense, that is. I was pondering this existence and I remember being surprised that simply growing a few squash and tomatoes could give such a feeling of satisfaction. I had a room-mate and thus didn't suffer for company. I worked full-time and had no desire or designs to get rich. I wanted to find a woman and make a family. My stereo was constantly on. I saw in my minds eye, a little cabin in amongst some pine trees and hills. I smoked Drum tobacco and read many, many books. My social interactions consisted of either telling stories or philosophizing with anyone who passed by to visit. I wouldn't have traded places with anyone I knew.
Thirty-nine years later, which is about last week, I was sitting on the porch of my trailer in Lillooet, looking toward my garden. It was late summer and the hills were already starting to rust and the wind smelled of change. My ground was full of tomatoes and yellow crooked-neck squash. I was wearing canvas construction pants, a white tee-shirt and suspenders. I still weighed in at about 165 lbs. I had known six women in the biblical sense, that is and had married three of them. I was pondering this existence and was surprised to experience a deja vu from 1975. I was retired and thus did not work at all and still I had no desire to become rich. I had eventually found a good woman and we have enjoyed twenty-three years to date. I have two fine sons who are bigger than I am. I still smoke Drum tobacco and read many books. My stereo is constantly on and my trailer is nestled in some pine-clad mountains. My social interactions still consist of telling stories or philosophizing, sometimes with a fishing pole in my hand. I wouldn't trade places with anyone I know.
I love females with a universality and totality that has perplexed me since I was climbing trees and catching frogs. Casanova and Van Gogh were two sides of the same ego in my book. I have fallen in love more times than I can count though I have never been unfaithful not even to a girlfriend. I admire men as if each was a father, a brother, a grandfather or a son to me. I have always treated them as such in my dealings. I revere animals and have felt easier in their company than amongst people but have never placed them above my own species. I spent much time alone with several dogs when growing up and they taught me many valuable lessons and some honorable codes of behavior. I am Wolf clan or Aniwaya, in Cherokee and there was a natural harmony between me and the canines. I felt like I really understood Mowgli when Jungle Book came to the theaters in Louisiana. Unlike him, I would have dropped everything for the little gal with the water jug and never looked back.
I have wandered the streets of my birthplace, Houston, Texas and wondered if I would live to see the sunrise. I have walked the highways of Japan and felt not a pang of danger nor culture shock. I have walked the diesel-choked streets of Athens and wondered that if this was the cradle of civilization, why somebody didn't wash the baby's damn dirty blankets and empty the overflowing ashtrays. I have traipsed through the volcanoes and jungles of Guatemala and seen how genocide is justified by bananas, coffee and pineapples. I have been to the Philippine Archipelago and seen how three growing seasons per year, minerals, fish, oil and timber are no guarantee of well being in this world. I have a soft spot for cowboys and for sailors. Cowboys are the same from Tierra del Fuego to the Chilcotin. One drinks mate from a gourd and one drinks coffee from a enamel mug but both live by the same code and it is a good one. Any working sailor knows more about world politics and sociology than a dozen politicians plus he can fix 80% of his problems with a ten-foot length of rope.
I married outside my race twice and if the theory of the land bridge migration from Asia giving rise to the indigenous populations of North America be true, then I have reunited my Cherokee genes with their Eastern origins and spiced them up with some German schnapps, Swedish mead, Irish whiskey and Welsh ale along the way. I taught my boys that assholes come in all colors and pray to many different gods. One son is Cheropino and the other is Chinokee so the poor buggers can't be bigots or racists without being hypocrites first, which they are not. I remember when I was a child that the dogs we had that were mixed-breed were always the smartest and the healthiest. Go figure.
Now I have a young cat. It is the first time since I was in my twenties that I have had one. He's from the reserve in T'it'qet and we call him Dusty, Dusty Bones. He has taught me a lot. Foremost is this: If you are trying to do something and someone stops you, try again. Do this three times. After that don't be stupid and persist. It obviously won't work. Wait, nay, abide awhile and when the antagonist is distracted try again. If you are thwarted yet again, register your discontent with a little snarl and stomp off with your dignity and free spirit intact. Act as if you can care less about whatever it was for the remainder of the day and first thing in the morning, have at it again.
As I learn from the cat, what cats do and how they do it, life is becoming easier for both of us, especially now that our woman is fifteen thousand miles away for a month. I tried to take him for a walk with some little suspenders and a leash and we did not get far. It was like trying to train a wheel-chock to heel. The problem was that it was daytime. I smartened up and rigged up the harness one midnight with a half moon dancing in the dry wind. Dusty freely walked usually within three feet of me either in front or behind. He showed me over the course of an hour how to take a few paces and pause to listen and sniff.. Exactly what one does when road hunting mule deer.
He snugged between my ankles when I stopped to smoke and although every fiber of his feline being was as taught as an anchor chain in a stiff wind, he acknowledged in cat ways the bond we have developed over the past two months. He doesn't have his adult fangs yet and still finds comfort in my proximity. Unlike the submission/domination rituals of canines, I have found that feline society is based on mutual grooming. They do not follow nor lead in their world which is divided into five classifications. That which I eat, that which amuses me, that which I shall shag, that which annoys me and that which bores me. I have found that they share without being trained to do so. Physiologically they combine the front limb dexterity of a raccoon and the strong back legs for leaping of a hare. Claws, fangs, a tail for unparalleled balance, hyper-hearing and night vision complete the package of this hunter who has much to teach.
So, here I can confirm that come what may and regardless of which roads we take, we remain exactly ourselves. Cats are cats and dogs will be dogs. Each will have their afternoon by the garden when it hits home. There will always be something new to learn and it behooves one not to be prejudiced of four-legged teachers. Regardless of the times and many traditions of man, the way we humans were put together in reality changes slower than the course of the Fraser River. I saw a cartoon in a city paper at the Subway yesterday. A woman was reading from a little book of two pages entitled, “Understanding Men.” She wore a big grin that conveyed more confirmation that it did surprise. Next to her was a man reading from a huge tome entitled, “Understanding Women – Volume 32.” His expression was similar to Dusty Bones' when I remind him that he is not free to eat Billy, our Guinea pig. Same look I carry every time I snap off the barbs on my fish-hooks.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.