With Alan in the Wilds

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With Alan in the Wilds



      Though I endure the shore
      Moorish villas
      surely I love you more

      by waterfalls than fountains
      for our friendship
      came of hardship
      wandering the mountains.

A few weeks before my college graduation I was approached by an astonishingly beautiful boy from Venezuela, a junior in Branford, the residential college adjacent to my own Saybrook. He wanted to show me his etchings, no, make that poems. Or so he thought. Instead we began a year of tempestuous sex. Alfredo and I had nothing in common but sheer horniness. Though both of us had “fooled around,” neither had any real experience before we met. An early beneficiary of Yale’s appetite for diversity, Alfredo was no more my intellectual rival than was I a rival to his beauty and sensuality. Actually we did have one thing in common: we were both fucked-up Catholics.
     I took a job in Hartford the following year not so much to write speeches for the senior executives of Connecticut General, as to remain within one hour of Alfredo. I hit the rails every Friday afternoon to return to New Haven and make love 20 times in 48 hours. Really. I was just delirious. Couldn’t get enough! But a year of Murphy was enough for Alfredo. He threw me over for sobriety and Opus Dei, who have replaced the Dominicans as our latter-day dogs of God.
     So there I sat in Hartford, broken-hearted and overheated. For the first time in my life I went to a gay bar, The Warehouse, in an industrial park underneath an elevated portion of I-84. Fashionable discos had already opened in major cities, but in Hartford the height of gay décor was a red-painted concrete floor. My second night in that loud and tawdry place I was writing a mournful letter to my little brother, tears dropping onto the cream-laid paper caressed by my Mont Blanc pen. Up walked a bright-eyed young man who said “I didn’t know anyone in this bar could read or write.” Now there was the pick-up line for me!
     That weekend we piled into The Beast—Alan’s 1968 Ford station wagon—and headed for the White Mountains. Alan wanted to audition his new boy scout on some serious vertical relief. I’d only been chain-smoking for five years, during which time I’d been running all over New Haven and Camp Wilderness, so I easily surpassed his expectations. Unlike Alfredo and Tim, Alan and Tim had much in common. He was a songwriter with a natural gift for rhyme and rhythm, and he was nearing completion of his first novel. Despite having been a poor student at Trinity College in Hartford, he was an autodidact with an insatiable curiosity for everything. Unlike me, he was versed in the physical sciences, and he knew vast amounts about every earthly or celestial phenomenon I had neglected in my single-minded pursuit of poetry. We also shared an obsession with the Watergate scandal, and could chat for hours about arcana of the Nixon Administration.
     Alan did NOT want to work for a living, and figured I might be the answer. I did NOT want to cook or keep house, so that sounded okay to me. He had about as much use for the faith we were baptized into as I had. Both of us had studied the I Ching, read Chuang Tzu, loved T’ang Dynasty poetry. He had a little Latin. I had a little Greek. Perfect! Within two weeks we decided to make our lives together. By some miracle that courtship of two weeks’ duration finds us uneasily connected thirty-seven years later.
     By summer of 1973 I’d had enough of Hartford and speech writing. My dad was making more money per month selling life insurance than I was making in a year. That August Alan and I packed our books and rags into The Beast and headed west to Minneapolis. There Tim, who looked like he was sixteen, proceeded to approach sexuagenarian millionaires with the intent of planning their estates. Connecticut General preferred to hire men in their forties with extensive sales experience, and when I broached the idea of becoming an agent with the brass in Hartford, they had me spend a day with every failing young salesman in the Hartford branch office. But when I was undissuaded, H.E. Mohr, the national director of sales, laughed “You can’t keep a prize filly at the county fair.” And Mr. Mohr didn’t even know I was gay!
     I underwent three months of exhaustive training in which I learned every tax-advantaged way to take money out of a small business and disinherit the IRS. I virtually memorized vast sections of the Internal Revenue Code, a task for which my studies with Robert Penn Warren had magnificently prepared me. I loved going into a room filled with aging accountants, attorneys, and my prospect, knowing more about the intricacies of stock redemptions and defined benefit pension plans and wills and trusts than anyone in the room. I doubled my Home Office salary in my first year, doubled it again the second year, and doubled it again in the third. But it was only a job, an opportunity to refresh powers of persuasion learned on Harlan Shuck’s debating team.
     For escape from the exigencies of workaday life, I drank, wrote inept verses; and freed from the constraints of a college curriculum, I read ever more widely in poetry, history, philosophy, both Occidental and Oriental. Far journeys on which Alan accompanied me. He had another release. Denied my eight to five contact with the bright business owners I worked for, he pursued other very young men. He could charm birds from the trees and boys from the beach. Yes, Minneapolis had a gay beach, on Lake Calhoun, just a few blocks from the place we chanced to alight on. Alarmingly promiscuous, Alan collected one-night stands as I collected volumes of verse. This bothered me exceedingly at first, but it was the Seventies, and it would be a few more years before AIDS reached Minneapolis.
     In those years we both underwent a political conversion. I had read The Capitalist Manifesto, by Louis Kelso, a radical book that proposed the creation of employee stock ownership plans as a means of dissolving the conflict between capital and labor. Bob Bartley was in his second year as the editor of The Wall Street Journal, and two young gay ex-socialists were rapidly becoming libertarians. Fifty percent of my marginal earnings were going to taxes by the time I was twenty-five, and I was in a position to persuade my clients to transfer the risks and the rewards of their enterprises to the workers whose loyalty to those firms were indispensable not just to the success, but the survival of small business. So in addition to all else that we had in common, Alan and I shared an evolving political consciousness which persists to this day.
     For real relief, however, we sought the vast spaces of the American West. The Beartooth Range on the Montana/Wyoming border was only a day’s drive from Fargo. The Wind River Wilderness, which had the great good fortune not to be included in the crowded National Park System, was little further. The Black Hills, sacred to the Sioux, loomed after seven hours’ drive from Minneapolis. Devil’s Tower and the Wyoming Big Horns lay just beyond them. It was either the late Paul Gruchow or Bill Holm, a poet, who described the skies of the Midwest as “big and beautiful as a bible for the blind” in an essay entitled “Horizontal Grandeur.” But Alan and I needed not a thousand miles flattened on an ironing board, but vertical relief.

      Jasper Lake

      Perched on a granite peak
      where golden eagles shriek
      my love and I peer down
      watching the Rockies drown—
      crag and evergreen
      sunk in aquamarine.
      Over the lake last night
      speckled trout took flight,
      leaping the mirrored moon.
      Now in the warmth of noon
      gullied glaciers groan,
      pouring silt and stone
      into the seething streams.
      Brief! Brief! a marmot screams,
      diving under the scree
      as its mountain heads for the sea.

Now far in the past, that time of youth and vigor seems brief indeed. After catching mono from the only (female) virgin I ever deflowered, I was intermittently ill all through my twenties. Smoking also took its toll. My stamina was declining before I hit thirty. One time around 1980 we drove to the summit of Beartooth Pass on a beautiful day. We scrambled to a rock outcrop where we could look out over the jagged peaks of the Absaroka. I jogged back to the truck and blacked out. Horrified by my seizure, Alan took the wheel and raced me down a vertical mile to Sunlight Basin. There he pitched our tent in a roadside campground, while I cast some flies in a stream amid the cottonwoods, and gasped for some oxygen.

      Return to the Beartooth

      Each year our packs grow heavier
      and glacial torrents deeper.
      Cutthroat trout are savvier
      and switchbacks steeper.
      We have outgrown our ardor.
      Nights are colder,
      groundbeds harder,
      and the lovers on the shoulder
      of the mountain older.

To celebrate my second big wheat harvest, I bought a new Ford 150 pickup with camper top, and we set out for Alaska. The roads through Yellowgrass and Medicine Hat were familiar from a trip we had taken to the Canadian Rockies, but beyond the last cultivated land at Grande Prairie, we entered terra incognita—the muskeg country of the Yukon. Before Whitehorse, we drove through a smouldering fire scar of 1.4 million acres. The fire had burned the year before, but the peat was still smoking. In 1984 much of the Alaska Highway was unpaved, but the gravel was actually better than paved passages over permafrost. After a few years the asphalt had become so frost-heaved that at times we made only fifteen miles per hour. My catamaran could go that fast at sea.
     Arriving at Kluane Lake, we stopped at a rustic café adorned with local wildlife by some busy taxidermist. Over the fieldstone hearth were two locked caribou skulls. Given that we were fighting over my drinking, we each said “That’s my poem!” But we were too travel-weary and schedule-pressed to begin at once. Versification had to wait until after our side trip to Haines in the Alaska Panhandle, whence a bush plane took us to Glacier Bay Lodge. There, over a bottle of Courvoisier in a dim, wood-panelled library, my draft came so swiftly that it scared Alan off formal verse for another decade:

      The Quarrel

      Climbing in sullen silence past treeline
      where blasted spruces drunkenly incline,
      we stumble on two racks of caribou.
      Clasped in a deadlock neither bull could break
      they bleach beside a frigid Yukon lake—
      amateurs who never locked horns with you.

                    — Destruction Bay, Yukon Territory

Another summer we flew to Auyuittuk Park on Baffin Island. The final leg of our journey, from Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit) to Pangnirtung, we took a flight known locally as “The Pang Screamer.” This twin deHavilland looked as old as I felt. Seeing the lenticular clouds on the horizon, Alan warned me that it would be a rough ride, and so it was. Every air pocket we hit, the Inuit women and children screamed. It was one of those flights where everyone applauds after the landing.
     An Inuit hunter bore us up the bay in his inupiak. We saw two other young hunters madly circling, firing their rifles at a narwhal. Later, back in town, they would try to sell us the little white whale’s fluted horn. Our destination was the head of a trail through the granite and ice range to the Davis Strait. Wading ashore, we hiked many miles inland, fording torrential freshets. We pitched camp amid blowing sand on a glacial moraine. There were actually dunes in some parts of the valley. We had to heat our soup under cover from the sandstorm. But the wind eased late in the day, and I walked the last mile north of our camp to an inukshuk—the cairn which bore the legend “le cercle arctique.”

      Man of the North

      I am a wall of rock,
      a raucous rookery
      where thieving skuas flock.
      I am a sunlit sea
      where murres and puffins splash
      into the tinkling brash.

      I am the slaughtered whales,
      walruses and seals,
      the storm-shredded sails
      and bleached, skeletal keels
      of whalers run aground
      with all hands drowned.

For summer trips we chose the heights or the Far North. For winter trips we drove southwest. We switchbacked up Mesa Verde to see the Anasazi ruins which years later gave Alan a big poem, Los Perdidos de la Mesa Verde. We saw the artifacts of early agriculture on the plateau where the Ancient Ones grew the corn and beans on which Western Civilization now depends. At Chaco Canyon we slithered over the impassable grease of thawing dirt roads. We awoke in Kayenta to look out at sunrise over ‘The Mittens’ of Monument Valley, those improbable sandstone spires on which Dodge used to perch pickup trucks.
     One March we descended the Grand Canyon on muleback, having signed releases against fatal accident on the trail. It was worth the risk to ride with our muleskinner, whose pulchritude we rated twelve on a scale of ten. At one point we had stopped for a breather on the 4500 foot descent. Our guide decided to tighten the saddle straps on his ungentled young mount. The mule lashed out with a vengeful kick and nearly launched its tormenter over the canyon wall. Because of ice in shady spots, our mules were wearing the horseshoe equivalent of crampons. When we reached the bottom, a crew had just laid new planks on the footbridge across the churning Colorado. We emerged from a spooky tunnel through a fin of rock, and there was the swaying span. Alan’s mule balked halfway across. Each rider bore a short whip, but nothing would make that mule budge. Alan was forced to dismount on that spindly boardwalk, take the mule by its bridle, and lead it the rest of the way. We heard Mister Twelve tell the construction crew on the far side “Good thing we had an experienced rider.” Alan smiled wryly. He had never ridden before.
     The return was even scarier, via a different, steeper trail. The weather had changed overnight; it was cool at the canyon floor, and frigid higher up, with gale-force wind on the exposed juts. We had not brought gear for such conditions, and the chill went to our bones. It was snowing by the time this acrophobe and his cranky beast negotiated a switchback called Skeleton Point. I looked down—big mistake!—and beneath me, maybe a thousand feet below, I saw how the place got its name. Our muleskinner assured me it was “only a baggage train.”
     To me, though, the most beautiful place in the region is not the inhumanly huge Grand Canyon but the invitingly habitable Canyon de Chelly. Alan and I have been there a couple times, seeing it from the north and the south, descending an icy trail to visit the White House Ruin, standing atop a windswept mesa to look down on the rock paintings beneath us.

      Canyon de Chelly

      Love tarries another year
      though passions ebb and flow
      like freshets fed by snow

      or dart like fleeting deer
      in ochre petroglyphs
      weathering on the cliffs.

Alan and I are no longer the boy goats who ran up Mount Washington in 1974. A fainting fit atop Beartooth Pass rather reined in my vertical ambitions. During the Eighties, we started to rely on horses, which bore us and our heavy packs into the mountains. We met and befriended Bernie and Connie Kelly, who ran a trail camp in Wyoming’s Wind River Range; and Tom Wolfe, another outfitter, outside Red Lodge, at the foot of Montana’s Beartooth Mountains. We would ride to the top of a watershed, pitch a base camp for hikes up nearby peaks, then walk our gear out. But I have suffered from a bad back since boyhood, and now I couldn’t even pack forty pounds down the West Rosebud trail. Seven pounds of iron by Winchester is about all I can carry these days, on the flat stubblefields of autumn prairie.


      Up switchbacks to passes
      we ride winded horses
      through spruces, then grasses
      ribboned with watercourses—
      the Wind River’s sources.

      A trail called Highline
      meanders through flowers
      from treeline to snowline
      where War Bonnet glowers
      on Cirque of the Towers.

      A bald eagle’s shadow
      plummets from its aerie
      then circles this meadow
      whose cold waters carry
      some hope to our prairie.