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Spring 2001, Volume 18.3

Essays

 

Shale Sloat

Labor Day & Green River, Wyoming Sketches

photo of Shale Sloat.

Shale Sloat graduated from the University of Colorado with a B.A. in Geology. She then spent 15 years in advertising, before returning to Arizona State University as a M.F.A. student. Currently, she lives in Reliance, Wyoming.

 

Labor Day

An open valley unfolds beneath a storm that we overtook on the way up from Phoenix, driving into and out of a curtain of northwesterly traveling rain which has now reached us in the hills north of Prescott. Sections of the valley are obscured and revealed in turn as the rain sweeps through on winds which snap and lift a large plastic tarp that is inadequately anchored to a few thin poles. Its torn edges rip a bit more each time the wind reduces the pressure above and the whole rises like a graceful wing. Well-meaning men gather to pull the poles back to earth, holding on as if they can outwait the storm, as if in a few moments the conditions will change, as if the sun is merely tardy and we will need the tarp's shade soon, as if it will not have been ripped from its flimsy attachments and carried away by then. The rest of us sit at picnic tables underneath the sorry tarp until someone finally suggests that they take the thing down. It takes a few more passes of the wind before the men acquiesce to common sense and begin cutting the fragile tie-downs with pocket knives. In a few minutes the tarp has been cleared away and the evacuees, who have been standing by on the downwind side of the food stand, reclaim our tables with jackets, lunches, cups of beer or soft drinks, and the rest of the miscellany necessary to picnics. Like many holiday get-togethers, this one is essentially a `non-event' except that the Volunteer Fire Department will benefit from the proceeds of beer sales, which have been brisk since before breakfast, and a raffle that offers a dune buggy as first prize. Most of the raffle tickets have been pre-sold to people in the community who will not attend the picnic, and those who are present fall in two non-exclusive groups: horseshoe pitchers and drinkers.

A debate arises over the size of a ranch that fills the valley (and most of the land from here to Nevada if the estimates are to be believed). The number of acres to a section has been correctly established at 640, and a man who purports to have spoken with the rancher who owns the land sets the number of sections at 380. The required multiplication becomes a matter of much mumbling, and the discussion is abandoned when everyone realizes they have no way of grasping the magnitude of the number anyway.

I try to carry on a conversation with a short, dark-haired, cube of a woman who sits across the table from me. She cuddles a baby girl against her chest and eyes a three-year-old son as he alternately dashes away and pesters her for food. She and her husband are moving to Tennessee tomorrow to establish a new life. Her name is Daisy and she is a nurse. He is a sometime pool cleaner but most recently a full-time house husband. I am a stranger to her but she lets me know their circumstances immediately.

"My parents didn't want me to marry Bill. They didn't think he was stable. They don't talk to us, don't see their grandchildren. Yesterday was the first time they saw the baby." She shifts the baby while sipping her beer. "My sisters sided with my parents, so as far as I'm concerned, I don't have family here anymore. This is it. The kids and Bill. And I have a friend in Tennessee. She's my help. Bill will find that out. We'll see how he likes it. I've supported us for five years and I'm sick of it."

"Well, families are different now. They trade off working and staying home," I say. Even as I make this idiotic comment, which is meant to help her save face, I squirm. Her man is a dud, and worse, her parents told her so. We sit quietly, waiting.

The wind is quieter now as we watch the back side of the storm cross the valley. I came to Prescott today with a new friend, a man I met at a bar in town. A day in the country sounded fine, but when I picked him up at 6 a.m. he held an open beer and was stuffing two more into a day pack. He alternated beer and black coffee on the drive up, whether to handle a hangover or because it is his usual habit, I don't know.

I sit across from Daisy trying not to judge the party-hearty types, who at 10 a.m. are killing one headache while creating another. My new friend has disappeared with Daisy's husband, supposedly to retrieve a bottle of formula from their car. He's hit the keg steadily since our arrival, and it is now clear that we came to the fundraiser so that he can say farewell to Bill in true alcoholic style. The two have already disappeared into that enclosed, numbing isolation which infuriates the bystander, where all is reduced, degraded and devalued in relation to alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes, pills, and the camaraderie of the afflicted.

"It's about time," Daisy says as Bill and Kelly reappear. "It doesn't take an hour to go to the car from here."

Bill hands her the baby bottle and his excuses. "Lou and Florence were up there and invited us into the house for a minute. We just got to talking."

Kelly, my companion for the day, says he's sorry for being gone so long. The acrid smell of dope explains the delay and he changes the subject quickly. "Hey, Bill says there's petroglyphs across the road. You know, Indian writing. Right, Bill? Somewhere down that wash?"

There is a Western irony that goes like this: the people who seem most intent on escaping to the country, who praise its beauty and the freedom they say they find there, are often so confined by their addictions and personal failures, are so limited in their perceptions by chemical ingestion and social isolation, that nature can be little more than a convenient loophole into indulgence in those perils. Kelly grips a cup of beer with his left hand and takes my hand with his right. He thinks he's being charming when he asks me to take care of him.

"I'm getting pretty screwed-up," he says, rattling on about the beauty of the riverbed and the charm of the little symbols pecked out by aboriginal people. He stumbles occasionally.

The resident metamorphic rock is beautifully worn by the intermittent floods that wash the cut in the hillside, down which we descend into the valley. Scouring has highlighted the differential hardness of thin beds in the original mudstone and recrystallized ribbons of quartz that criss-cross the outcrops. Wet from the continuing drizzle, they gleam against the dark schist. I have come to a conclusion. If I want an American man, I'd better be prepared to settle for a boy. Kelly, his buddy, almost every man I've ever met, is proud to be a boy, indeed, has no ambition of becoming more. Indulgence is their goal, and they want a woman handy to clean up the mess.

The day wears on with only minor incident until it is decided that we should remove the party to Lou and Florence's house. The `boys' will watch the kids (and keep that buzz going) while we `girls' drive into town to buy groceries for dinner. I have spent the day with strangers, watched them drink, listened to life stories of consummate pointlessness and I'm ready to go home, not to engage in more of the same.

"Kelly, I didn't come up here to be with these people. I've gone along with it because I know you're saying good-bye to Bill and Daisy. But I'm tired of watching everybody drink. It's not interesting."

"You don't want to do the shopping? Bill and I will do it then." He tries to look sincere but his face dissolves into a tipsy smile. "C'mon, please?"

My car keys lie enticingly in my pocket. I'm faced with one of those questions that never has a satisfactory answer. Can I abandon someone 110 miles from home who has no car, not even a driver's license, because he's a bore?

"You go with Bill and I'll stretch out on the couch for awhile. But we're leaving right after dinner." He smiles crookedly. Damn the Irish. Damn my drunken grandpa.

  

weber studies/spring 2001
ESSAY

Shale Sloat

Green River, Wyoming Sketches


So few and far apart are the towns of Wyoming that if one were to connect them on a map, the figure would look like a constellation, like stars upon which man has forced association. Outside is Green River, the last town I would have guessed I’d land in when I passed through on my honeymoon in 1972. Somewhere is a photograph that I took that day, of a dog that waited outside a barroom across from the railyard.

The winter solstice passed without notice as I fluffed my newly rented house; scrubbed cupboards, battled contact paper, painted. Around noon I retrieved my travel trailer from a friend’s house twenty miles away, a chore that I had been avoiding, but the peculiar dread with which I’d viewed the task vanished and I merely towed it home and parked it next to the extraordinary, roofless garage that accompanies the place.

Everything necessary to furnish a house lies in storage in Arizona where it has waited for years. Shall I buy a mixer? No, I have one. Silverware? There is enough to hold a banquet. Chairs, tables, a chest of drawers? These also wait for funds to retrieve them. All my cash has been used to drive to Wyoming, to hand over a deposit and a month's rent. With what remained I purchased the Christmas tree that stands in the empty front room, hung with decorations that the thrift store had for sale.

My new residence rests at the foot of the unimaginatively dubbed Castle Rock whose slopes, built by uncountable, ongoing rock falls, underwrite the neighborhood. Little vegetation disguises the infertile lake deposits that form palisades and buttes along the river—proof of forces we cannot ourselves sense, only infer. All of this lies outside my house, evidence that we no longer circle man's dream beyond the ring of firelight.

To the dogs it makes no difference where we stay, as long as they have their law and order, as long as I take them driving and produce supper. The red dog sleeps atop me, unmindful of the awkwardness of my topography. Contact is uppermost in her mind. Surely she possesses a mind as simple as her thoughts may be. The black dog runs along the edge of the bed in a fit of So few and far apart are the towns of Wyoming that if one were to connect them on a map, the figure would look like a constellation, like stars upon which man has forced association. Outside is Green River, the last town I would have guessed I'd land in when I passed through on my honeymoon in 1972. Somewhere is a photograph that I took that day, of a dog that waited outside a barroom across from the railyard.

The winter solstice passed without notice as I fluffed my newly rented house; scrubbed cupboards, battled contact paper, painted. Around noon I retrieved my travel trailer from a friend's house twenty miles away, a chore that I had been avoiding, but the peculiar dread with which I'd viewed the task vanished and I merely towed it home and parked it next to the extraordinary, roofless garage that accompanies the place.

Everything necessary to furnish a house lies in storage in Arizona where it has waited for years. Shall I buy a mixer? No, I have one. Silverware? There is enough to hold a banquet. Chairs, tables, a chest of drawers? These also wait for indecision before he leaps to join us. They are funny friends, devoted to the fact that I take care of them.

Snow that has come to south-western Wyoming increases the uneasy feeling that I'm still terribly far from comfort. The soothing clutter of an established life is not available to me. Not at any price can the rich multitude of beautiful things be acquired in this thingless place.

Light, granular flakes fall like dust on the sidewalk as I retrieve a portfolio of drawings from behind the truck seat that I have carried with me since 1985. One resembles an eye that floats above a dark blue mountain. Golden wiggles, like worms about to spin cocoons, descend from the eye to earth. The eye might be an airship sent to seed the earth. Perhaps it's time to look back to the time of these drawings, before everything went wrong.

Last evening I washed buckets of broken ceramics in the bathtub, then conveyed them to the back porch to dry, having collected the assorted discards at an abandoned mine dump. The dogs scrambled past me, then took off down the patches of broken asphalt that distinguish the road, stepping on foot prints we had made the day before. Perhaps all this stuff could be turned into something artistic. It sounded unlikely, but I didn't care. Conditions were tolerable and little snow remained.

The bare, brushy valley where the dump lies is one of the quietest places I know, the air so still that the silence draws attention to itself. The site is clean, the trash having been burned off years ago. Little is intact except for an occasional small bottle that held shoe polish or naughty cologne. Thousands of food cans have been reduced to rust. Something that had been missing was restored in the simple act of plucking ceramic shards from the earth, and if finding them interesting, dropping them in my bucket. I may or may not make something from my loot, but it hardly matters. I've left a cross-country trail of artistic productions, and only a small stack of drawings and a few sculptures mean anything to me.

Paradise as is; the point was to make my own way regardless of how it turned out. Death sent me back, even if I didn't want it to. I can't say that I was grateful to my rescuers, although I said I was. It was as if I had been tossed back, that's all, and my problems tossed back with me and increased. A biography, of necessity, must begin somewhere, but a particular life may accumulate like snow, until it moves forward slowly, as a glacier does. For some, life is a jigsaw puzzle in which the picture is inevitable, whichever piece one begins with.

The front door to my house stands open, and cool but comfortable air moves through the screen door. A bell rings at the middle school up the street and fleetingly, the image of a child runs into my house and calls me Mom. But there is no puzzle piece that shows a child.

Clouds without rain: ever-changing banks of gray are driven on outlandish winds. My mood was immune while I worked indoors, but on venturing out the dogs turned wild and my temper soared. The Companions ran alongside the truck, tracing happy, erratic lines until I sped away, stopping on a ridge. The two quickly appeared in the rearview mirror, wedged between the gray lumpy skies and the gray lumpy hills. The black dog mounted the tailgate but the red dog ran effortlessly alongside for another mile, bounding into the brush like her legs were spring-loaded. We sped away again—would she give up? But as I watched, my athletic girl emerged from the flat background, running without the least fatigue. She danced by the door, then circled the truck and hit the tailgate lightly. The two barked crazily until I became hoarse from yelling, which had no effect on them.

The surrounding country is decidedly bleak when viewed from a dirt road that crosses the plateau above the Green River. The yellow soil is derived from crumbly shale and beds of sandstone, some of which are dense and hard and splinter when dropped. A stratum of maroon arkose erodes into flat, ovoid pillows and perfect croquet balls. Imported cobbles of colorful quartzite hint at complex geology far away, forming a rough and welcome pavement over areas of the monotonous plateau. Their dimpled surfaces feel cold when held against the face. On sunny days, when isolated clouds throw shadows across the uniform land, it can be said to be pretty, as a plain woman may be pretty if she takes pride in her plainness.

The house is cluttered with objects that have been shot full of holes—enamel pots, wash basins and buckets—and a painted ice cream cone that formerly signaled to passers-by from a dairy drive-in. I hesitated before seizing the four-foot tall metal cutout from where it had been propped inside an equally shot up kitchen stove, pointing like a dark, rusty feather toward the sky. Would anyone miss it? Bullet holes, and there are hundreds, have rusted together in great patches, some of which could swallow a golf ball. Tonight it leans against a wall in the living room where the red dog curls beneath it as if it were a young tree.

Many afternoons we follow a dirt road where it parallels the Green River, turning off along a track that shoots to its side, to a spot which was prettier when river ice had fractured and skidded up the banks, adding height and geometry and brilliant whiteness to winter gray. In early spring, mud flats embedded with shotgun shells and beer bottles meet swift water that is gray like its surroundings. The black dog resembles a motorized coffee table as he swims, which for him is a genetic act, but for the red dog it's a mystery. At the instant her feet part from the riverbed she scrambles ashore, watching as he merges himself with the alien element.

On a morning such as this, when the air over our Wyoming desert is lit by the sun but is not yet hot, when the sagebrush and greasewood are as colorless as the powdery dirt they hold to, when no plumes of dust trail the skies, when a human being can see two hundred miles from mountain range to mountain range; the dogs run invisible lines across the vacant plateau.

This might be all there is to the world; yellow wheel-tracks cut yellow hills where the lowly snakeweed and bitter creosote grow so uniformly that ant hills and their territory form welcome interludes. There must have been provincials who were drawn by the distance from Rome into small lives like mine, curiosity seekers who discovered that they must go around the world the wrong way in order to find the center of things. Consciousness may be the basis of our material yearning but happiness remains the relationship between the human mind and what it finds. A joining of time and place and person that produces a belonging so very different from membership in a family or a society. I never wanted what others offered, as if life is a matter of shopping for a dress. When I finally die, I won't be handing back a disguise or a costume.

There is a potent emptiness that when entered into makes the simple great. Joy in the small: I love the simple, from the yellow bluffs around the house to the rocks, bones, rusted metal and twisted wire that I find. Always the dogs close at hand. These are the facts of my existence.

Blue light, the day's last, finds the gaps between the slats of the window blinds along the south side of the house. The receding bands of light make the wall
appear to be infinite in length as it merges with the murkiness at the back of the studio. I delay turning on the light because the illusion reminds me of peaceful times in other houses. Being a householder again has become pleasant. I clean and fuss, walk the hills and water the rocks in my tiny, spare front yard. It's a plain old place. The screen door slams as I let go of it.

The riverbanks are green today. A western green, not yellow-bright like the new growth of an eastern spring or the artificial color of a garden hose. As clouds pass overhead, the river turns reflective like a puddle of solder that has run and chilled. The dogs find fascination in the area, but the reality conjured by their noses as they pursue scents from shrub to den to footprint is impossible for me to enter.

Even here, where I would claim that the land is necessary to my well-being, where I would claim to be at home, I feel that I have another home to which I can never return. It is as if my central being is a yearning and that the body wrapped around the yearning is forgettable. This feeling visited me often as a child and has ever since, whenever I am content or happy.

When am I happy? In warm weather, inside the envelope of dusk, my feet placed firmly on the ground, my sight turned elsewhere by the familiar, the ordinary, the thousand unimportant things that connect us to other moments in earth's past. A longing for what was comes from a similar present.

There is a meant-to-be that has no destination, no goal. Meaning arises from a match of spirits, from a Persian blue sky that is an extension of the skin, from the noises of the neighborhood. Tires roll on dark asphalt, a dog barks insanely, windows funnel yellow light from deserted rooms. The night pulls at me with the same soft voice that seduced the child of a radical chemistry, whose thoughts pointed away from home as she stood in the geometry of light that escaped our front door. I have remained in the meeting of home and night as if the juncture is a power source, feeding at the mysterious tide of light and dark like a fish that rises from the deep to be nourished by the exchange of polar and equatorial waters.

Although my past is a pool that has vanished into the sand, I cling to the spot where I lost contact with the essential flow that animated my limbs and supplied motive for my intellect, wondering what has happened to that great fist, which in the past, when I had lost hold of the line of life, punched through my chest to grab hold again.

Through the unstructured and dollar-perilous life of a nomad, I dreamed a youthful episode, then crashed, my soul crumpled like a piece of paper crushed in someone's fist. I have unfolded it, but the surface will never again be smooth.

Loneliness is clearly the theme, but the question as to what it is that I long for has no answer. Motion evades loneliness as if it is bad weather that can be left behind. Now, nothing relieves me—caught between the loneliness presented by the nearness of people and a loneliness that crawls up my spine, a loneliness which has nothing to do with money, human density or location.

"Fulfillment is unavailable" is the idea that warps the fabric of my universe, dividing my heart from my mind. The two must meet again if I am to exist as other than an intellect joined to grief.

We follow wheel ruts that end in a perspective of the valley and a bit of the west end of town. A town so simple that it hurts. A storm rumbles to the south and continues in that direction. The landscape `becomes' now that summer light moves across it. All winter the mountain outlines were distinct, but in the clear spring light only their snowfields hang above the horizon. The nearby bluffs are painted in museum tan, pink and lavender, the layers of rock distinct, transparent, lightweight. Above us the sky is a being of pure blue truth, utterly lacking in connection with human beings.

In a place such as this, "What is the meaning of life?" is a dangerous question.

Everywhere seems far away tonight—ignorance of the world outside my neighborhood is aided by a train headed afar, by rain-padded air, by a sudden change in me. I am back in the present, safely absorbed in my puttering house care, my junk pile and my trips to the cloud-washed countryside.

The conversion of matter and energy: this is what we are. The rest we invent to amuse and impress ourselves
and to create comfort. All philosophies, ethics, and moralities attempt to bridge the mystery between the human animal and a new type of being that can modify its behavior. How easy it is to forget that goodness is not democratic. By means of history we collapse time, compressing lives into interlocking fury, when those we remember may have existed in planetary array, alone and lonely, uncomprehending of their reputed intent and purpose.

From high spots on the plateau the edge of the world can be seen. Along the southern horizon stretch the Uintah Mountains, and to the north, angling toward Yellowstone, the abrupt Wind River Range becomes a mirage of dark teeth. The intervening country is composed of desolate buff earth and rock, the vegetation limited to sagebrush and other plants of low stature. Clouds are important players in so plain a landscape, providing not only shapes overhead but shadows that roam the dry, pale hillsides, revealing volumes not comprehensible on a cloudless day.

Within the boundaries of this deserted land there would seem to be no outside. The thought of leaving used to occur early on, during the first few months, that is, but I seem to have forgotten all previous existence. No sensation accompanies the incomplete pictures of my former doings. It is as if one had unwittingly relocated to Shangri-La, its gift of emptiness unexpected. If needed, I could recite fragments of inconclusive importance, but I now believe that I have no past.

Not even a walk through one of the dumps with the dogs, a black sky threatening rain to the east, could break a bout of internal wrangling. It's cold this evening and clouds cross the moon, which is full and ringed with ice; snow is on the way. Winter again, and winters past fold over the present lending depth to my surprise. Where was I while summer used its allotment of days?

A tough wind shakes our few trees violently but the sound of whipping leaves and twisting branches soon gives way to silence. An empty can rolls along the street, and another. The red dog naps toes-to-nose, a heat-seeking missile who finds relief from the unexpected cold by snuggling against my thigh. It's a good night to sleep on the couch with the door open, to awaken in the night with a shiver, to roll-up in the extra blanket.

The season changed overnight with a small, intense storm centered over our town. Brilliant lightning and crisp thunder that cracked so hard it seemed to invade the house awakened me, my scalp prickling in the pink light and darkness. The red dog instantly wrapped herself around my chest like an Ace bandage and her frantic panting filled the dark room with warmth and fear. A second blistering crash followed, and in a surreal view of the living room made possible by bluish flashes, the old dog, normally as calm as granite, scurried to where we lay on the couch, burying me in frantic, twirling fear, hot breath and canine vocalizations.

The wrangling in my head has almost ceased, submerged beneath silky sheets of air like a great breath arising in the west. The desire to exist in exclusive states of being simultaneously, that is, to enjoy the peace of anonymity while picking the fruits of impulse and action—the unresolved emotions around this
restless conflict exhaust me at times. Routine holds me together and in turn, my identity is generated by routine. Only the rocks return something for my glance.

To write about Wyoming you must write about the wind, about the unseen, about what you can know through your skin. What you see may be a hundred miles away, but the wind touches you, raising dust and sand to the level of your attention, forcing you to inhale and swallow the earth itself.

The days are hot, still too hot in the afternoon to take the dogs for a romp. The old dog struggles to keep up, panting as he waddles on stiff legs. He can't bear to be left behind, so we wait until evening before driving up rutted tracks to the plateau top—bouncing, jolting, raising dust like a dragon tail blown apart by the wind. It's always windy up top and the dry seed wands of bunch grasses point to the east like flights of arrows that have pierced the dirt.

This place is all erosion. The truth of this can be seen at the passage into night when the lumpy plateau, especially where it falls to the river, is pulled taught by the angling sunlight like a well-made bed. In lending shape to the land, the late-formed shadows expand the awareness of size. This place is all size. The truth of this can be seen in the smallness of man-things, in a town broken into small golden triangles beneath a line of rocky noses. Promontories isolated between drainages that began as creases, as veins where water flows.

 

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