Land in the Sky: Mountain Passages

I found my solitary way to the summit of a trail-less Catskill peak. It was hunting season, so the collie stayed home.

Though trail-less, the mountain is not without its occasional caller, each one finding his or her own way. They leave their traces—upturned leaves and duff, footprints in the mud, a scrap of paper. The lines they lay down on these forested slopes are entwined with the fading lines of previous visitors, long gone, whose vestiges themselves are entwined with those of others more timeworn still. And so they ensue, these mountain passages.

On the summit was a metal canister fastened to a tree. Inside the canister was a register of sorts. My hands were cold and the pencil was dull. I didn’t know what to write. What’s new? What’s old? Who you with? Who reads this stuff anyway.

Land in the Sky: Sound of a Summer’s Day

A map came up on my Facebook news feed: “A coast-to-coast picture of America’s cacophony of sounds”. It was drawn up by the National Park Service to chart the summer soundscape of the nation. I gazed upon this map for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Then I re-posted it. With a click of the mouse, body and mind dropped away. And then the collie barked. He barked and he barked and he barked. He did not appreciate the mess left on the floor.

Postcard: Leadville, Colorado

This photo is almost 10 years old. In the spring of 2006, I drove over to Ski Cooper, on Tennessee Pass just north of Leadville, to meet some men with whom my grandfather, Robert “Snuffy” O’Neil, served in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. They hadn’t seen him for 60 years, and because he died right before I was born, I never met him. But something about seeing them with his photo reassured me. Of note, when I showed it to Nelson “Nellie” Bennett, on the left, next to Earl Clark and Dick Over, he told me he’d been climbing with Snuffy at Camp Hale on the day this picture was taken in 1943. Nellie watched Snuffy fall 80 feet and land in a grassy area between boulders. He had neither a broken bone nor a scratch to show for the fall, Nellie recalled. Snuffy got taken to the infirmary then kicked out for making a pass at one of the nurses. Happy Veteran’s Day.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Review: Mary Sojourner, 29

The West’s misfits and outcasts put up a fight in the new novel 29 by Mary Sojourner (Torrey House Press, 2014). By Ana Maria Spagna

29 cover FNLv2.inddIn Mary Sojourner’s shimmering new novel, 29, Nell bails on corporate life and finds herself drawn to the Mojave—to Twentynine Palms specifically—as a place to take stock, to regroup, to start anew.

Always a keen observer of the natural world, as readers of MG well know, Sojourner describes the desert as “vast, hard, and generous.” Same goes for the characters who live there. Small kindnesses define these sun-worn survivors, from the owner of Saigon Sally’s, the local Vietnamese café, to elders of the local Chemehuevi tribe. Even minor characters leave lasting tracks. A young Greyhound ticket agent sets Nell on her journey and a docent at the Long Beach aquarium introduces her to the Leafy Seadragon, a “ripple of green and pale pink, silver and translucence” that soon glides right into her dreams.

Then there are Diamond and Shiloh, the two women who run La Paloma—an unofficial underfunded home for damaged people, victims of domestic violence or hard living or plain bad luck—and welcome all comers, including Nell, with a bed, food, coffee, and conversation. Though Nell’s damage is never precisely defined, readers glean its cause as equal parts David, her ex, and her own ravenous ambition. Nell has been through the wringer, and this is the right place for her. Diamond and Shiloh put her in touch with a used ’84 Buick LaSabre, cherry red, and a “computer nerd” job at Monkey Biz, the local car repair shop.

Turns out the owner, Monkey, is experiencing visions that may or may not be caused by his liberal use of weed. Early in the story he suffers “a dope hangover meaner than a pissed off boar hog” that seems par for the course. To say that Monkey and Nell hit it off would be understatement. Their banter sparkles, their chemistry smokes. Their insular music references (Little Feat, Chris Whitley) and movie references (Spinal Tap, Life of Brian) and book references (Dickens, Silvia Plath) feel exactly like those of people falling in love. Only they can’t. Or oughtn’t.

Monkey’s married to Jackie, a relationship that’s portrayed as tenuous but tender, and Sojourner’s own generosity here—opting for nuance right when her two main characters are falling passionately in love—is one of the highlights of the book. In the end, Jackie doesn’t deserve the betrayal and, moreover, Nell and Monkey can’t withstand the power of what they’ve shared. Which has larger repercussions.

Nell’s visions of Leafy and Monkey’s late night hallucinations turn out to be part of a much larger plot as the shift in the earth’s polarity, the exodus of bees, and the real threat solar and wind farms pose to ancient sites and dying species converge. The Indians resisting development take center stage late in the novel, and anyone who’s been to a grassroots meeting anywhere will recognize them. No one grandstands. No one flinches. Not even Nell, who resists too-easy narratives with whip smart skepticism.

“She clicked on the Mayan Prophecies and considered the nature of wishful mysticism—this world is fucked, an instant transformation will fix it; no sacrifice or effort on anyone’s part required; you can keep on living just as you have, grasping and glutted.”

We can’t, of course, any more than Nell can. If there’s a message in 29, it’s this: So you can’t find your soul-mate and settle in happily ever after?  You can still do what’s right and love what’s there.

With this in mind, the end of the novel is both unexpected and hard-earned. Nell’s mother, Tara, a peripatetic drunk who carted her daughter around Glass Castle-style through childhood, is moldering away in a Long Beach nursing home when Nell decides to go fetch her and bring her to the desert. Tara has little memory left and doesn’t communicate verbally, but she seems to remember the desert, to be happy there, at least Nell believes she does. And so we end with another damaged soul finding healing, at least partial healing, in a hard forgotten place.

Stories of misfits or outcasts, people running from one thing or another, are common enough in the West, and the props are in place in 29—cigarettes, donuts, a backyard goat, that ’84 LaSabre—but Sojourner shows these characters in a different light. They fight for one another, for the place they love, not in shiny sound bites, but one meal at a time, one meeting at a time, one long deep-rutted drive at a time, until it’s just a mother and daughter on the stump of a fallen Joshua Tree awaiting the moonrise over creosote.

Daddy, the War and the Webcam

A solider feels the costs of war. By Chris “Chez” Chesak

In the wasteland desert of Kuwait, I crammed my gear into duffle bags, preparing to fly into Iraq for a year-long deployment. At exactly the same time on the other side of the planet, my wife was giving birth to our first child. I packed ammo pouches, desert uniforms, and gas masks then I talked to my laboring wife on a satellite phone. I hurriedly packed trucks with more gear and made back to the phone center just in time to hear that labor had actually started. Then I hopped onto a bus and headed to the air base.

I was told there would be no phones where I was going. So, I kept taking photos, of formations of soldiers, of the vast Kuwait desert, of a camel, with my watch in the foreground so that I could mark the moment when my daughter might be being born. I wanted to have that photo around so that I could say, “See honey, this is where daddy was when you were born.”

Arriving at the air base, we were told there actually was another phone center available. My heart jumped and I started to sweat, wanting the briefing to be over immediately. The arduous speeches and warnings finally done, I absconded from assisting my Idaho National Guard comrades in their gear palletizing duties, and sprinted to the phones.

When I called, Sally’s contractions in the Boise hospital room were coming faster and stronger. I burned through my third prepaid phone card of the day and had a dinner of a breakfast bar and some Army peanut butter, which was the only food in my pockets. Finally, after many calls and through the cheers of friends who were with her through the delivery, I was able to hear my daughter’s first wails from 7,000 miles away.

Two hours later, we boarded a transport plane and flew into a war zone. As I sat in the near darkness, lit only by one blue light near the front of the aircraft fuselage, I thought flatly, I’m a daddy. The words rang hollow in my head, then they quickly slipped away as I focused instead on the long deployment ahead.

12219537_10153773098411155_1624015156019177905_nOver the next five months, I had to forget about home and focus on the missions at hand. I eased Humvees through rain-soaked palm groves and over slick mud roads, shivered in guard towers through freezing winter dawns, and once spent 22 hours guarding a polling place during Iraq’s elections. Throughout it all, I received plenty of photos of Lillian from Sally. But looking at them, I could only think, Okay, we have a baby. I am a father. I felt little more than apprehension. I couldn’t stop wondering what it meant to now be a father to a baby girl, or at least to a stack of photos of her.

On one hand, I had dreamt about having a child all my life—I ran over the scene in my mind so often that I long ago determined exactly what I would say to that newborn. I often envisioned picking her up and whispering three specific things into her ear.

But on the other hand, I had no idea what it meant to be a father, as I was brand new to babies. I had zero experience handling, caring for, or loving little ones. My only knowledge of babies was hearing them cry in airplanes and seeing them throw food in restaurants.

The few babies I knew—friends’ children and my own niece—were all born while I lived far away. I was training with my National Guard unit during Sally’s entire pregnancy so I missed the nine-month ramp-up that allows most people to attempt to mentally prepare for parenthood.

Sitting in Iraq with scattered photos of a newborn, I could recognize that I had a daughter, but I had no idea what that really meant. At last, I left Iraq, heading home for two weeks of leave.

After 69 hours of processing, paperwork, briefings, repeated customs drudgery, ten time zones, four countries, and travel in Humvees, buses, two cargo planes, and three commercial jets, I walked up the Boise airport jet way, still dressed in desert camouflage, embraced Sally, and saw a baby in a stroller behind her—my five-month old daughter, my first child, Lillian.

“Who’s this?” I shouted, both out of the exuberance of being home and unabashed pride in meeting my daughter. For me, this was the emotional equivalent of the day of her birth.

Through tears, Sally choked, “This is Lillian. Lillian, meet your daddy.”

I picked her up so carefully, gave her a gentle hug, and followed-up with a quick smooch on the cheek. We immediately found seats right in the terminal, passing a woman who, having overheard our exchange, was trying to hide her tears. A United ticket agent took our picture, our first family portrait.

That day was full of firsts: the first family meal, the first smooch on the nose, neck, etc., first daddy/daughter play time, and the first diaper change. We took photos of every bit of it. But laying awake that first night, joyful to be able to reach over and hug my wife, drink clean water from a tap, sit out in my yard to watch the sun set over the Idaho foothills without having to worry about roadside bombs, I still did not know what it meant to have Lillian in my life. The next morning, I began to find out.

Waking up far too early, still jet-lagged, I woke and went into our baby’s room. As I approached her crib, Lillian’s eyes locked onto mine. She smiled, issued a lilting little coo, and then yawned a tiny yawn, complete with a flailing stretch of her plump arms. I melted.

Over the next days, I became enraptured by her staccato laughs, and her very determined attempts to crawl. I slid into bed one night and told Sally bluntly, “I think I’m in love.”

With Sally as my guide, I learned critical modern parenting skills, like how to change diapers while cradling a cell phone between neck and shoulder and how to work on the computer with one arm. I held serious phone conversations about U.S. foreign policy while sticking my tongue out to entertain Lillian. I hummed Raffi songs while in the shower. I became fiercely proud of the “Dora the Explorer” sunscreen in our car, it broadcasts loudly, “Hey, we havefamily in here!”

A few nights later, Sally asked me, “So, what is it like to be a daddy?”

The words tumbled out. “It is absolutely amazing. It is incredible. It is literally awesome.”

2005-11-27 Homecoming 117I told Sally that I almost cheered when a determined Lilli Bean fumbled her way into finally getting her pacifier into her mouth the right way. I said that, every day, I became more and more enraptured just watching her grow and learn. I loved that each time I held her up on her feet I helped her develop equilibrium, and each time I made a funny noise I helped her learn about speech. I knew that I wanted to spend every possible moment of my time with her, teaching her, guiding her, fortifying her to someday unleash her own unique self upon the world.

But you’re never really, completely home while on leave, because you cannot stop thinking about the march of time that drags onward, pulling you closer to going back to war. You are like a condemned man, constantly aware of the passing of days, then hours, yet trying to forget it all and enjoy what moments you have left at home. Just as I was starting to learn what fatherhood was, my time was up.

The night before my return flight, I mechanically packed my bags, and slipped into bed around 4:00 a.m. for a few hours of trying to sleep, my stomach sick, a sodden ball of knots. Two hours later, I put on the uniform, laced up the boots, and, contrary to everything that my soul knew was true, contrary to the voices in my mind screaming to do otherwise, I stepped out of my home, stepped into the airport, stepped onto a plane. After 72 hours of travel on five different flights, reams of paperwork, and incessant waiting in line after line of similarly camouflage-clad soldiers, I was back in the Middle East. Returning to my base, I felt empty.

Seeing my friends and having them welcome me back helped but it still took a few days to get back into the groove of patrols, Quick Reaction Force response teams, knock-and-search raids, and guard duty. But the deeper emotional damage had been done. While it was easy to ignore Lillian before, not knowing who she was, it was impossible now. I heard the laughter and the coos behind the smiling photos pinned next to my bunk. I now knew a little bit of the tiny girl in those pictures and I missed her deeply.

Soon after my return, my squad drew an extra graveyard shift of guard duty at the summer palace of Chemical Ali, the Saddam henchman responsible for gassing thousands of Iraqi Kurds. Around 3:00 a.m. I stood alone atop an abandoned building in the tightly-packed urban compound. By chance, I looked down into the courtyard of one of the homes across the street. In the dim light of the few working streetlights, I saw a mother with her fussy newborn, rocking him on a porch swing.

I felt sick. I was disgusted that I was missing such moments with my baby. My mind raced, trying to calculate the time I had left here. It was still several months. I tried to stop thinking about it. I walked the rooftop’s perimeter, machine gun in hand, trying to calm down.

Finally, I tiptoed toward the edge, just close enough so I could see her over the rooftop wall. I tried looking nonchalant, like I didn’t even notice her, but I just kept staring, watching her rock and sing to her child. I was mesmerized, and aching inside. At last, she noticed me and, probably assuming that I was just another lust-filled, gawking soldier, went briskly inside. That empty night crept by in excruciating slowness like none before.

While simply difficult before leave, the days in Iraq now became interminable. Under the hot sun, I stood sweating in the gunner’s turret of an armored Humvee and worried if Lillian was sleeping well. I stood lonely vigil in concrete guard towers, wondering what she was learning that day. I roamed the empty nighttime streets of Kirkuk, wondering who she would be when I got home. I did what I could to make the days pass—lifting weights, running supply convoys, watching laptop movies, reading books, and always patrolling. But the days dripped past with an agonizing slowness.

Some relief came from a used webcam. Several weeks after leave, we had a wireless Internet network installed and soon we were all surfing the Web and emailing loved ones directly from our bunks (indeed, this was certainly not our fathers’ war).

Each night (Sally’s morning), I watched Lillian nurse, or nap angelically on the pillow in Sally’s lap. She would occasionally lunge, grab the camera and stick the whole thing in her mouth, allowing me a glimpse of her two brand new teeth.

When Lillian was fussing, Sally texted me about how she cheered up our daughter by holding her upside down. I would see (but not hear, since I didn’t have audio) her screaming wails of laugher on my laptop screen. Soon “Upside-Down Baby” became a hit with my whole squad, sometimes with grown men running into our squad bay once they heard that ‘Upside-Down Baby’ was on. Many night,s I had several soldiers, young and old, gathered around my computer for a chance to see my daughter’s bit-mapped, upside-down face, plastered with a huge, screaming smile.

The webcam was also a nightly reminder of my absence, however. Its images were both treasure and torture. Seeing Lilian’s digitized smile made me ache. One night I saw her stand for the first time, another night she drank water from my wife’s cup, yet another night brought my first glimpse of her eating solid food. I started to understand just how many miniature victories and tiny triumphs I was missing every day. I watched her grow and learn and thrive from ten time zones away, while concussions from car bombs rattled our barracks windows.

Lying in my bunk, I stared at the photos tacked to my plywood wall and was heartbroken every night. Not only had I forgotten to tell Lillian those three little sentences that I’d so long dreamed of telling my first child, I was missing so many more milestones as she started to grow into a little girl, all while I ran about in Humvees on the other side of the world, hoping each day that someone wouldn’t blow me up, or simply pop out of a doorway and shoot me dead in the face.

Harder still was hearing about the difficulties my wife faced every day. While even her good days were a chore, the bad days were horrid. For most of the deployment, she was taking care of both house and baby alone. The car needed repairs, the grass had to be cut, the floors needed vacuuming, and the bills needed to be paid, all while Sally, alone, maintained the constant eat/sleep/excrete cycle of an infant.

Since our families both live far away, we leaned heavily on good friends in Boise, one of whom had to come over in the middle of the night when Sally was stricken by a wicked bout of food poisoning. That woman stayed over to care for Lillian and my wife for two days.

When I heard about sickness or simply heard Sally blurt on the phone, sometimes through tears, “I just want to take a nap” (or take a bath, or read a book, or simply get away from here for a little while), I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I wanted to help, to do something, anything, to just be there for her, to simply take Lillian while Sally showered, or slept, or went out for a solitary hike. But, stranded as I was on the other side of the world, there was nothing I could do.

Slowly the countdown to our departure date ticked down from triple-digits, to double, and then, almost unbelievably, to single days. Our stoic, stone-faced replacements arrived and, soon, we cheered the takeoff of each flight toward home: the transport to Kuwait, the chartered jet through Ireland to Fort Lewis, Washington, and then one last, short flight back to Boise.

Amidst the signs and balloons of the small crowd of families gathered on the tarmac, I found my wife. We didn’t say a thing, just held each other and kissed and kissed and kissed and kissed. After loading my duffle bags into the back of our car, Sally offered Lillian to me and I held my daughter in my arms again, gazing into her big gray eyes. Wide-eyed, she stared back for a moment, then turned to her mother and pushed me away. She didn’t know who I was.

Lillian not knowing me is but one of the myriad intangible casualties of warfare and as old as warfare itself. Two other soldiers that I deployed with also missed births of their children. Sixteen years before I missed Lillian’s birth, a former Marine in my unit stood knee-deep in blowing snow in a rice paddy in Korea when another Marine handed him a telegram and said curtly, “Congratulations.” The telegram said he’d had a son born that day. He smiled, put the telegram in his pocket, and kept on training. (He still has the telegram.) While my father was missing his share of his children’s birthdays and a wedding anniversary during his year-long stint in the highlands of Vietnam, he had only letters and the occasional reel-to-reel tape recording with which to stay in touch with his family.

In Iraq, there were 4,000 other people in my Brigade, 150,000 soldiers deployed in Iraq that year alone, and that was just one war, one war of so many. While the terrible numbers of deaths by roadside bombs, vehicle rollovers, and helicopter crashes was (rightly) spread across the front page and technicians at Walter Reed Medical Center tracked the total number of limbs lost, there are no statistics for the even more numerous intangible costs of war. No one counts the number of nightmares veterans will have for the rest of their lives, forever plagued by incoming RPG rounds, burning Humvees, and charred pieces of children. No one keeps count of veterans’ total divorces and break-ups, the newfound paranoias, the discomfort around fireworks and automobile backfires, the flashbacks, the spousal abuses, or the alcoholic benders. And no one will count the days that all those military parents missed playing with children far, far away.

For me at least, I had made it home whole and I could start counting anew the days spent with Lillian. Iraq began to fade, ever so slowly, into memory as I jumped into a few weeks of accelerated ‘Daddy School’ where Sally taught me how to feed our daughter, play with her, get her into and out of her car seat and secure her while she slept.

One day, I was holding her as we danced in the middle of the living room to some blaring pop song. I rocked, dipped, and spun her around the room as she giggled and squealed, a sound I then knew was the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. I looked into her big eyes and it all hit me: I was, at last, a daddy. I hugged my 11-month old Lilli Bean close and finally said the words that I had for decades imagined saying to my firstborn on the day of their birth; “Hello Lillian Rose Chesak. I love you. Welcome to the world.”

Postcard: Vernal, Utah

It doesn’t take long to realize Vernal, Utah, is different from other mountain biking destinations. All you have to do is walk into the smoothie shop on Main Street (it’s called “I ❤️ Drilling”) and check out the price list above the counter. You order your smoothie, the gal makes it, then when you go to pay, she asks, “Are you a conservative or liberal?” Your answer determines how much your smoothie costs. They also sell T-shirts that say, “Yes, liberals pay more here!”

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Journey Down the Art Trail

The Hudson Valley Art Trail begins or ends at my front door. Some days it feels like living inside a Thomas Cole picture. Other days it’s like an action painting done by an artist suffering from salmonella. Today, though, it was a Frederic Church kind of day because I had an appointment at his house—called “Olana”—to talk with some high school students about the sublime, how important it was to mid-nineteenth century American artists and writers. It’s important to me too, but in a different way. Anyhoo, it was too far to walk to Olana and still be on time for my appointment, so I drove. Besides, the Art Trail is paved the whole way.

It wasn’t long into this journey before I spotted one of those dreaded blaze-orange highway signs: “Reduced Speed, Work Zone Ahead, Fines Doubled”. Things slowed down drastically from there. Soon I came upon a road crew re-paving a forlorn stretch of the Art Trail. A little late in the season, it seemed to me, as this end-of-October morning was blustery and cold. Thick and noisome vapors were rising from freshly laid tar, enveloping the workers and their equipment—not to mention all innocent passersby—in an appalling mephitis. The scene brought to mind a line from D.H. Lawrence: “Darkening the day-time torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto’s gloom.” It sure smelled like it.

For the next several miles I was outside any pretty picture of the Hudson River School. Instead it was more like a dreadful creep through a failed installation piece, some monstrous cross between a drunken night ride on the Jersey Turnpike and a Robert Smithson glue pour. Close to the road was a fetid-looking lake with dead trees. A deer carcass lay in the breakdown lane. An old man was inexplicably riding his wobbly bike against traffic. What was going on around here? Then a billboard came into view—an ad for something called WatchTVEverywhere. com. I wanted to stop and take a picture of it but I had to keep my eye on the road, I mean, the Art Trail. After what seemed an eternity, I came out the other side of Pluto’s gloom. It was like making it to the end of Plato’s Republic.

And there was Olana, on the far side of the Hudson River, shining gloriously atop its venerable hill in golden morning light! By that point, I was having a little trouble breathing, but it would pass. In any case, I was ready to talk about the sublime.

Land in the Sky: Thoroughly

David Rothenberg and I were strolling along a path on the shore of Walden Pond discussing how tired we have grown of literary allusions. As we passed a small cove on the northwest side of the pond, we spotted in the clear, shallow waters what appeared to be a smart phone attached to a selfie stick. How did it get there? How long had it been submerged? Would the phone still work? Let’s find out!

So I extended my arm into the pond and retrieved the curious item. We pressed the button to turn it on. For some reason—perhaps pertaining to the laws governing fiction—it fired up. Should we call somebody? Neither of us had any urgent business to conduct with anybody else at the moment, so we took a picture of ourselves instead, using the selfie stick to hold the phone under the pure waters of Walden Pond.

After posting our selfie to Facebook, we put the phone back where we found it and continued on our not so solitary way, discussing other things.