April, as always, turned to May with a flourish of flower, as Wisconsin awoke from a long winter. But I wasn’t ready to graduate from college, no matter the month. I wasn’t ready to answer that troubling question, “Who am I?,” that had been haunting me for six months.
So I ran away to the mountains, safe again during the long days and starry nights in the warmth of a summer camp. Just an hour past Denver, high in the Rockies, I was living another Denver’s lyrics, I’d come home to place I’d never been before.
But one of the funny things about life is that you’ve always got to deal with it, no matter what “it” is. There’ll be times, my years of teenage angst stand testimony, where it seems like a conspiracy, a fallacy, but you can’t simply climb a tree and escape.
With that question of identity pulsating my every move, I tried to run off again, but on a more grandiose scale. I went on a road trip. I persuaded a bystander to join me, she had the car after all. Our only guides were our desires each morning and Backpacker’s October 2001 guide to the best backpacking in America.
Strangely enough, you can only traverse the grand spine of the Tetons so much before it becomes more quest of identity than a quick escape. On a hot day, it generally happens in the second or third mile. Exploring the trails of Yellowstone that have never seen a motor-home is less a sulking retreat than a introspective journey. Summiting Long’s Peak,
Standing just beyond the yawning doors of St. Anthony’s Catholic church, I felt a need to justify my dissidence. It’s a strange, but not uncommon, call to conversation in my long inner dialogue of questioning and answering. Laura the good Catholic girl went to mass that Saturday afternoon, but I didn’t. I needed to explain and defend that decision, at least in my own mind. That’s what took me to the streets of Pecos, New Mexico.
A small town high in the bush country of New Mexico’s Rocky Mountains, Pecos the village is much like Pecos the world-renown wilderness area – unharnessed by modern convention and conveniences. No sidewalks in the town to take me in the direction of my fancy. What a quaint and unpromising way of life, it seemed to the visiting Midwestern boy.
The sharp squeal of abused brakes broke my detached critique. “Get off my fucking lawn,” a young man snarled out of the passenger window of his friend’s pick-up truck as it sped past. I snapped into fear. I’m unaccustomed to bravado, spite, swearing, and skin darker than my own. He continued to spout venom as his friend drove on. The car never stopped.
I laughed. I didn’t know what else to do. I was scared and saddened, confused and concerned. His bitterness was so unintelligible to me, but it made me feel frightfully alone and different. I was mad that he had so much malignant power over me, so I began to wonder how I could beat him. I decided, not far from that church, to pick up the trash lining the far side of the main road in Pecos.
Broken beer bottles glazed the uneven steps leading up a small hill to the Pecos schools – elementary, middle and senior high all in one fenced compound. Even the railing accompanying the concrete terraces was trashed, half fallen into the overgrown patches of grass next to the stairs. The venomous young man began to make more sense now; it was as if the town was not a community at all. No sense of pride, civility, or communalism. Everyone’s yard was their own, buried behind crooked fences. And who needed school, if education will only make you want to explore beyond your own shackled home. I began to pick up the biggest shards of white, green and brown glass one at a time, shaking my head.
I must have made no sense to him: a blonde-haired young man, curly hair pulled back half-heartedly into a ponytail, creeping up the schoolyard steps with a garbage bag. I don’t know how long he watched me from behind his wrought iron fence. Now contemplating both my disassociation with all things religious and the uneasy convergence of my background and the culture of the rural Southwest, I didn’t notice him until the first grunt.
It was guttural, nearly primordial. It scared me. It had the depth of death; it sang a song of nothingness. It was a drunk one step from unconsciousness, except perfectly sober.
I looked at him and he grunted. He grunted with the tenor of moaning. He was just a boy, but unshaved like an old man. He grunted and flung his hand past me, as if to tell me something. The look on his twisted face almost made it seem like an urgent warning.
“Hello,” I said, hardly expecting an intelligible response from the other side of the black fence on the far side of the road. He grunted. I stopped walking. They were longer than grunts. A low moaning cry, an infantile attempt at communication. Fifty years ago they would have called him deaf and dumb. I’m not sure what they call him today.
I felt sad when I told him that I didn’t understand him. I didn’t; I couldn’t. So I lowered my head, putting another sliver of green glass – until recently part of a bottle of Rolling Rock – into my bag and kept walking.
He disappeared, but only for a moment. He came out from behind the fence that formed his worldview, through the leaning gate linking the patchwork fence and the small bungalow next to it. He followed me with plodding footsteps, still grunting.
I turned around and stopped. I introduced myself, less than sure of my wisdom behind my decision. “Hi, I’m Jeremy,” I said quietly. He was too far away to offer my hand in friendship. He didn’t smile, he grunted.
I took one step down the stairs and one step forward, timidly. I held out an extra garbage bag. “Want to help?” I asked, except in a slow, loud tone, hoping it might help. “WAAN-T TOOO HELLL-P?;” obnoxiously slow and troublingly broken, as if it would help translate my words across an impervious barrier.
I don’t remember if he grunted or not, but he slowly took the bag, then lurched forward, almost falling, and crumpled to his knees. Instead of broken glass, the straw wrapper next to him, or a rusty AA battery close by, he scooped up a dozen pebbles, sweeping them into a pile on the step. As he looked up at me and grunted, I noticed that the stones formed – intentionally or not, I’m not sure – the letter “Y.”
The smart bastard, I thought, he wants to know why. Why wasn’t I sitting in on the Sunday evening mass at the church? Why was I, a skinny little kid from Wisconsin, in New Mexico? Why was my new friend’s life so different than that of everyone else? Why should anyone spend their time cleaning a meaningless street in a tiny town so far from their reality? Why?
I decided not to give him the long answer, I didn’t think he would understand. He grunted again, so I spoke. “It’s a good thing to do,” I said, offering just a part of what brought me to that particular street. “It makes me smile.” In his moanful sort of way, he grunted.
I’m not sure if he was acting in approval, defiance, or ignorance, but he swept the pile of stones into the bag I had given him. He ripped a clump of weedy grass out of the sandy soil and shoved it into his bag. He grunted once before proudly holding the bag out to me and putting it into mine. I stood and watched as he staggered off, half-galloping, with his oversized blue stocking cap flopping with each step, threatening to fall over his eyes each time he jerked his body into motion.
As he disappeared behind his fenced refuge, I couldn’t help but stare. I don’t know if he understood a single word I said that day, even my simplistically abbreviated short answer. And I doubt anyone would find my long answer intelligible. Luckily for me, I think I understood everything he wanted to say to me on that narrow street in Pecos, New Mexico. It doesn’t matter much if that young man – or anyone else – understands me or finds much validity in my long answer, just as long as I do.