The death of a moon cowboy

I am a somewhat-youth with ideas and thoughts and too many dreams that sometimes overflow as these little dribblings from my fingertips. I guess you can try to collect and capture them.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Commercial sunrise

Spilled from a leaky oil barrel--
a choking black with orange dots of all-night lighting--
the cities lie along the freeway lanes,
a concrete Styx with aluminum ships.
And the trucks shake like small earthquakes,
rumbling in aural competition
with the incessant nighttime trumpeting of the trains
as they cross over each intersection.
Overhead the planes, ever-indefatigable, are thrown
like massive darts at perfect targets,
and everyone's destination
is more important than the rest.
They never seem to empty,
those bottomless underground fuel tanks
at the 24-hour gas stations
(upon which the fervor of the new dawn
relies so unhesitatingly).
Not yet sunrise and already the masses gather,
with automobiles stretching and testing their cylinders,
lined up single-file to start the fleeting journey
that begins another fleeting day.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The alone equation: [ð + φ = ʅ]

Element One (ð): When you think you are alone, you are not.

My family all seems to love Sutter Creek—why we don't actually live there I'm not really sure. We'd gone there for Easter last year and it wasn't much of a spring afternoon, overcast and gloomy and a little too cold. The river that runs right through the town under that old crumbled-concrete bridge poured with full strength, and for a while Mikie and Jarom and I threw rocks at it and watched them sink abruptly, pulling to the left, ready to wash ashore again on another day, in some other place. Jarom was two and it was his first interactive Easter. Because of that, he was the center of attention.

We captured his egg hunt on video. All that enthusiasm, provenance unfounded, excitement that seemed to transfer among us as we watched. There was something so youthful and carefree and joyous, something we'd all been missing and only realized it then, that there was a fragment void in us all. And witnessing a moment of its actual existence temporarily filled that void and caused in us an emotion unexpected, recalled from childhood, and even spiritual.

So we ate lunch and then trekked out that untraveled road an additional 19 miles or so to Daffodil Hill: a place we knew existed but knew of nothing else. It was enigmatic, in the middle of nowhere, and worth venturing down that windy backroad to discover. But upon arrival we found that Daffodil Hill was closed for the season. A sign stated: Due to rain, hail + snow we regret that we will be closed until next year. It wasn't much anyway, just a small ranch with a few miniature windmills scattered about the grounds, and picnic tables here and there.

And then in an odd moment, a gang of motorcyclists happened through—you know the type: leather jackets, bandanas, graying beards and mustaches, doubled up on each bike with the man in front and the woman clinging bravely to said man's chest, dressed alike in their dual presentations of adult rebellion. Each paused at the stop sign before continuing on to an unknown destination, as they crossed some forgotten highway road in the forgotten forests of some tiny nook in the center of Northern California. Those bikers, bound together somehow in Podunk-town camaraderie—they've found similar people where it seemed unlikely for them to exist at all.

And it just kind of sent me this impression—this feeling—that no matter who or what you think you are, or even where, that you're alone—but not completely or permanently, because there are just too damn many people around for that. It's impossible, really. Somehow we always find those similarities, those comparisons, and it makes us feel valuable and loved and necessary. And somehow even through this we are all still unique and strive to be so; we're captured in our whirlwind thoughts and lives everywhere we go, leaving small traces of ourselves, bits and pieces that contaminate the places we pass through and the people at whom we stare, or talk to, or affect in any number of countless ways.

So those bikers. They just passed on. And we took some pictures of it all and piled back into our three-car caravan to leave behind all that only we could leave behind—because the others, they leave us behind. That's just how it goes.

... ....

As we drove I continued these thoughts, and that's when I fashioned my alone equation. It started with the realization of the first element, how even when it seems you're alone, when you're 20-plus miles into nothing—you really aren't (disregarding the company of family of course). And it seemed so odd to me at the time, so strange that these people actually exist and go on existing, indifferent towards me and mine. They have no reason to care about me, nor I them. I am nothing to them. I do not exist. This is always the case, but even so they are always there—and that is the nature of element ð.
But then I also realized that there's the expected opposite, an exception, that when you feel you are not alone you'll inevitably end up forsaken.

... ...

Element Two (φ): When you think you are not alone, you are.

1998—Heavenly, South Lake Tahoe. We snuck in at the same time the El Dorado High School Snow/Ski Team's bus arrived, passing ourselves off as team members at the counter in order to receive the free daily lift ticket. Times were so innocent then.

It was the second time I had ever been snowboarding. The first time was at Sundance, and to this day I have still never re-experienced that sort of brutal pain, never again come so close to severing my right arm in an unrepeatable contortionist position, or crash-hugged a block of ice-granite to the point of having bruised ribs. I took the equivalent of eight Advils that evening: 1600 milligrams of ibuprofen, a ridiculous amount. So needless to say, I was concerned, but determined regardless.

I really didn't know what I was doing. Couldn't carve on my toe edge, only on my heels, and going slower than the three-year old following his father, I was wary and rightfully suspicious of the snow. My friends Jeff and Ben were there, and my brother Mikie—they seemed like such seasoned veterans and so I told them to go on ahead, that I'd be fine by myself on that massive glacier, I'd just figure things out there on my own and ask for pointers later. The group of them took off at my reassuring words: "I'll be fine."

As soon as they rounded the slight bend and disappeared from my line of vision, disaster struck, oh-so-predictably. Riding on my heels I caught my front toe edge—an amateur!—and my body was thrown high ahead of me in a perfect airbound somersault. I came down hard on my left collarbone, even though I tried to roll out of it.

"Oh no." I do believe I said this audibly. Grumbled it, more likely. Playing with my clavicle bone, I conveniently found I could click the two pieces up and away from each other. Click, click, click. Some pain. Some confusion.

Broken! Broken? My worst nightmares realized! Was this possible? What would I do now? Had anyone seen, could anyone help?

But the mass of humans continued buzzing by on my left; I had nearly fallen down the slope on the right and was now an obstacle, a shapeless form to simply avoid. No one stopped, no one pretended to care. Among all these people, and not a soul to notice me. Facing few choices, I stood up and began an excruciatingly long—45 minutes to approximate—trek back down the mountain.

Look at that buffoon holding his left arm! Why's he going so slow?

I know they were looking at me. I'm sure of it. But had I a choice? I've never been the type to call attention to myself, to signal the red-suited white-cross-outfitted snow patrol and sob "Help me! I strongly believe I've broken something! I need medical attention!" Not me. I took it slowly and surely, more carefully than the time I (successfully) loaded a cookie sheet of Jell-o into the fridge. A cookie sheet, mind you, not a cake pan.

But here's the clincher: not one of my group of friends had stopped. Not a single one of them had waited for me. Friends? Brothers? I think not. They had sauntered casually to the bottom, probably had some lunch and some laughs, gone up another lift or two, never thinking to venture out to find he who was missing. They finally remembered me when I flagged them down outside the lodge, from the snowmobile I was laying in. I had finally given in and notified the snow patrol at the base of my predicament, and was being whisked away to their makeshift hospital.
I did learn something from this. Because since then, have I ever gone on ahead, even when I said I would? No. I wait for whoever-it-is, just around the corner. Of course I do.

... ...

But that experience caused no rift in any friendship. In fact, while I was deep into thought and the car hummed over broken road, I'd come across the memory of the whole ordeal longingly. And it made for such a perfect example of element φ—I was so surrounded by people but was left entirely to myself, even injured.

The image of snow brought about another memory, which became the final puzzle piece in my equation. Not an opposite this time, but a companion, a necessary component, the result of the first two combined. Element ʅ.

... ...

Element Three (ʅ): When you wish to be alone, you will never be.

The snow was the culprit, it dirtied our windows and iced over the atmosphere. Our wipers created small clearings for us to see through the windshield; we were traveling to Park City for the first time. Scaling the plateau, up one level from the valley below. My brother Joey and his friend Martin were in a heater-less car behind us—bundled up but still frozen I'm sure—while Amy and I and the kids had the luxury of warmth pouring at high speeds from our car's vents. The little highway road we traveled was like a lighthouse for the valleys, connecting one to another. It stairstepped up and up until the temperature was actually less noticeable—it just can't get any colder—it chaps your lips and eyelids regardless, and the road signs become completely illegible.

Park City welcomes all the fashionistas, the ones who tout the utmost in class and the outdoors. They smell of liquor and heavy perfume. They preach supposed opportunity and lively demeanor; they care about expense, desirability. The lives of the stars. The upward spiraling of the significant. We didn't fit in and it didn't matter. Our cars were filthy, parked next to grand shiny garaged automobiles. Our clothing was less expensive—unwashed or recycled even—our presence seemed like a mistake, but we didn't mind. We had as much a right there as say, Shia LaBeouf—right over there! In the blue sweatshirt, did you see him? Shaking hands and signing autographs, smiling pleasantly, self-assuredly, ostensibly embarrassed by the recognition.

"I love your work."

"I'm such a fan."

"Job well done. Job well done. Congratulations. Excellence."

But we weren't talking to him—though wouldn't have minded if we were—it was just the miniature swarm.

And the beady little eyes from the streetwalkers were always searching, always calculating. With every horde that passed we were stared down, each one of us—you could literally see the question being internalized: Is that someone I should recognize from television, from the theatres, from People? Some of them would continue on, still glancing backward with curiosities unsatisfied. But we all did this; there was no end in sight. A human zoo or attraction of sorts. We all may be celebrity, or none of us may be. Sight itself was deceiving—beanies, scarves, ludicrously oversized sunglasses, they all hid the most recognizable of facial features. You wouldn't have recognized a celebrity anyway (unless they wore only a blue sweatshirt like Shia). We were one and the same, yet we all walked in awe of each other.

But there was still the cold! The one vestige of reality left in that little town. It seemed to want us dead and torn from our sickly-sweet enjoyments with apathetic smiles or gaping gasps of shock still engraved across our cheeks. But we would understand as it would laugh so smugly, "They never saw it coming. They had no idea!"

... ...

That town up in the barren, snow-covered mountains was a mecca of falsehood. You couldn't be alone if you tried, because everyone there wanted to be just like each other. There was no individuality, it was a collective. I guess that's like many places. Most places. It's even like Placerville, I realized after we returned home.

There are always going to be those others around. I sometimes dream of placing the unplaced footstep, walking where no one yet has ventured, but often discard the thought as illogical and pointless. Everyone's been somewhere. Someone's been everywhere. But still we just lead our hapless little lives in the very repetition of all those who've lived so haplessly before. And yet we cling so unwaveringly to our perceived individuality—we just want to stand out, to persist and leave a legacy.

But teenage angst, begone! I used to feel so insignificant, it killed me. Oh please just reel me in, just make me a part of it all, just find me some recognition! I guess the difference now is that I find that same insignificance common, and the hatred of it petty. It's not unique or worth the hours of self-pity. And I've come to terms with it—that's where the equation fits. Because it doesn't really matter, see. Solitude comes and goes. It's a dear companion, but doesn't ever really mean anything at all, it can't ever and won't ever. Because only in our insignificance can we ever really be noticed or even care to take notice of ourselves. Remember the alone equation, ð + φ = ʅ. We must glory in it and our insignificance. It's all that we have.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Blackest of all halos

The vultures circled, a crown of impending doom. There were four of them, startlingly distinct as they flew closer and closer with every revolution. The left half of my face was open to the warm desert air, though the rest was flush against its floor. I was immobile.

The stinging sand around me opened its mouth, and in song emitted some sort of hymn, an ancient lullaby that coerced me to just shut my eyes and listen to its age-old elegy, sung to many a fallen traveler:

'Tis on a fated bed we lie
to wrench a wretched birth
In thirst we parch a body dry
to drink it through the earth
Once shadows crawl and shroud the dusk
we shall be one and same
Our prisoner now, indeed we must
return you whence you came

That was its song—and it may have just been my imagination—but it continued regardless, and I joined in, rhythmically muttering into the ground.

Something staggered towards me in the distance, looming like dark drapery to cover me, to hide me where I'd fallen. It crept in silence while the monotone hiss of the desert replaced all sound with its empty tones of melancholy. I swear I could feel the coming desolation that could never waver, could never fail to obey its calling.

In that glorified silence the very light of day was transformed, the sun blotted out and the vultures all that remained heavenward while the rest of the landscape dissipated into a newly created haze, and I was stolen—returned—my life rising skyward in a dwindling sliver until not even a fragment remained, and like a new moon I was reclaimed, sinking slowly into that singing white sand with the winds wailing and the desert savoring everything I had ever become.

... ...

Not two days prior I was riding in the back of an old pickup truck down Highway 5 towards San Felipe. I'd previously convinced a bus driver with a load of tourists to let me tag along while they were on their way into Mexicali. From there, I had asked around until I found that truck and its two shy Mexican ranchers who were willing to lift me the rest of the way—they were already headed down for some type of seasonal developmental work. At least that's what I understood.

They knew English enough, and through the open cab window they asked why I was going to San Felipe, said it wasn't much to look at. I simply said I was meeting some friends who were there already, that was all. I was in no mood for storytelling.

After a hundred or so miles on the highway—arid in the heat of August but not terribly uncomfortable—we drifted slowly into town. In the west I could see a circling halo of buzzards, those red-faced turkey vultures of Baja California, as they searched for precious carrion that was lost and abandoned to the mercy of the desert.

It wasn't much of a town. A few mid-sized resorts bordered the ocean on its eastern horizon, and to the west laid flatland and sand dune interspersed with bleak hills. Small shops lined the small streets, and along the walkways the outdoor merchants had already begun packing up their things for the day.

I bid farewell to my gracious rancheros by the shoreline, tipping them a few of my American dollars—'No, no gracias'—'Yes, por favor, yo insisto'—and then walked the beach in the dwindling late-afternoon sunlight, weaving between the fishing boats that sat banked on the low tide's sand.

A dry breeze threw my hair about, and I smiled. Was there anything to be worried about? This was Mexico! The land without rules, with endless promise found in its stretches of ocean and sand—the dunes, of course the dunes!—unpaved bounty for my exploration.

Across the street, two coffee-skinned men laughed riotously and gestured in my direction, the brims of their white sombreros jostling. I must have been so blatantly American. But I didn't care, and I smiled and laughed right along with them.

"Hey!" I shouted to them. They laughed again.

"¿Conocen la mina olvidada? La busco," I said. Do you know the forgotten mine? A pause in their jolliness, and they exchanged a glance and looked back at me, shaking their heads to indicate no. I walked on.

I knew little Spanish, but had taken a two-week crash course before leaving. That way, I figured I could ramble about in desperate but hopeful attempts to create meaning. Because of this, and for the whole excursion in general, my brother had deemed me irrational and a fool.

"You have no knowledge of the area. You haven't done any research," he had said. "Besides, you're going alone. Just wait until one your friends' schedules changes—it'll be much safer, and it'll probably be a lot more enjoyable."

He was so perfect, so logical, always perfecting and lecturing, tossing out his actuallys or did-you-knows or to-tell-you-the-truths. But what did he know? This was living; this was life. He could stagnate in his cesspool of business and education for all I cared; meanwhile I would live and travel and sense the excitement that comes with change or something unexpected and spontaneous.

So I walked westward, into the neighborhood blocks where the homes shared walls and clung to each other like within a beehive, those fragile little humble huts. The point where the town met desert came quickly, and I just stood and stared out at the sand, rolling and endless, looking so barren and empty before those hills—a wasteland even—but I knew better. I knew what lay beyond, somewhere, perhaps too far to see from here but I knew. So I smiled at everything I passed; at the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe—the little church atop the hill, and at the cab driver who happened my way a few moments later.

"Sí. Gracias." I responded when he asked if I needed a ride, and I hopped into the run-down station wagon, painted in swaths of mild yellow and off-white. "I need to go southwest, to the older part of town. You know, with the dirt roads—los calles viejos."

"No, no señor," he said, opening up a grin with his eyes set on me in the rearview mirror. "I take you to La Pinta, el hotel, el centro. They like tourists. They like you. Big pool, big breakfast. Music. Bailan todas las noches!"

"No, no thank you. No gracias. I told you. Just take me to the old town, where it's smaller. The southwest, por favor. There should be an inn there, right?"


"An inn. A hotel. You know, a place to stay, a place to sleep."

"Oh, sí, but you no want that. Is dirty, old. No fun. Resort for you."

"Just take me will you? Or no dinero. Come on, please. I don't care about your resort."

"Okay, okay," he flapped his right hand back at me in disgust, without taking his eyes off the road. "You say it. I take you. You say it."

The older part of town was on the outskirts, chalk brown and with a dust that permeated the air and churned up in billowing gusts. Fewer cars, fewer tourists, fewer people like me. But the dunes seemed closer now—that much closer.

I stepped out in front of a sickly-looking building, shallow and flat, with brown roofing that matched the roads. The Costa Castaño: my inn for the night. Inside, a man stood with his back facing the entrance, lighting small white candles on a ledge behind the wooden front counter. As I entered, he turned.

"¡Hola!" he shouted. So enthusiastic.

I nodded in return. "Hola."

"You need a room?"

"Yes, please. And just one night, for now."

"It is only you?"


I had brought almost five hundred dollars in cash, because I really had no concrete idea of what I'd need while traveling, and needed to be well prepared. While paying for the room, I noticed the innkeeper eyeing me intently.

"So what are you doing in San Felipe my friend?"

I debated as to whether or not he was trustworthy enough. Did it matter? I figured it didn't, and let it come spilling out.

"Well, you see, señor..." I descended into a whisper and hovered ever-closer to his inquisitive face. "Have you heard of la mina olvidada? The forgotten mine?" I looked deep into his brown eyes. This was the secret to end all secrets—a release of fantastic proportion or something withheld for generations.

He backed away with a sigh. "Ah, you are a Nuñez-chaser. My friend, that is an old tale, and a false one. Do not believe such madness. Lives have been wasted chasing lost treasures that were never truly lost." He held his hand outstretched, dangling my key. "Enjoy your stay."

My room was simple—tiled floor, no television, a shared washroom outside; in truth it was not much more than a pillow and a bed. Once inside I emptied my backpack of the research I had accumulated and looked it over, making plans for the following day.

I had first heard of la mina olvidada through a small publication, Buried Treasure magazine, which I occasionally flipped through at the library back home. The story had intrigued me and so I sought more information, and in doing so stumbled across various old references in Mexican lore books, often lumped together with other similar stories of lost mines.

The story followed typical convention: a lowly miner had unearthed an immense silver mine in the nearby mountains of the Sierra San Pedro Martír, a mine that he claimed rivaled even that of the massive Comstock Lode in Nevada. But there was something about this story in particular that made it seem more authentic than the others. The way the mine had collapsed, the subsequent illness its founder, Manuel Nuñez, was stricken with after narrowly escaping death, how he had recovered bedridden in San Felipe while spreading his story to a select few. The rumors spread following his death, and many had attempted to find the lost treasure over the years. They followed the verbal map that Señor Nuñez had laid out, stretching through the San Felipe desert to the base of the mountain range, two days' travel at the time—but all had returned emptyhanded.

Tomorrow I would find a guide, I determined, and I would not return emptyhanded.

... ...

Early the following morning, I awoke to a quiet but firm knocking at my door. In a sleep-ridden daze I came to the door to find two men. One was grinning wide.

I cleared my throat. "Hello?"

"Hola señor. My name is Jorge"—the smiling one—"and this is my brother Pedro. We hear you are seeking the Nuñez mine. We are also interested in this treasure. We would like to work together."

The innkeeper—he with his stern words of warning regarding the desiring of treasure—must have led them to me. I had intended to find a tour guide, and the notion of having two guides seemed to fit just as well.

"Well," I paused a moment for effect. "It's true, what you've heard; I do seek la mina olvidada. But first why don't you tell me what you know about it. Please, come in." I knew I was taking a risk by letting two unfamiliar men into my room, but really they seemed harmless. Jorge had a gentle appearance and a soft voice, and his apparently mute brother Pedro just followed along behind. I beckoned them inside.

"Pedro speaks no English. Forgive him," Jorge said, and Pedro nodded in affirmation, as though he'd been through this routine before.

"That's fine, I know a little bit of Spanish."

Jorge pointed to the stack of research on the tile next to the bed. "It looks like you know the mine well. You see, we always wanted to search for it, but never had the money or information to find it." I handed him the stack and he and Pedro glanced through it. They must have been impressed, flipping through it all like that. "Do you know where you're going?" he asked me.

"I think this will lead me there." I held out a photocopy of my map, limp and worn now, with faded markings and what I'd assumed were landmarks. "And I'm going to get some sort of transportation and a tour guide to join me. It should be easy enough."

They passed a few words in Spanish too quickly for me to understand, which seems to be the nature of the language—so incomprehensible as it flies by at hundreds of miles an hour right under your nose. But he returned to me. "If you want our help, we are familiar with the area, and would like to search with you."

I was easily convinced, because they would make the perfect crew—and how they had just fallen into my lap! So I agreed, and we discussed what plans we could make.

"We need a vehicle," Jorge said. "I know a man named Rico with a small truck. And Pedro and I have enough equipment for each of us."

So we set about making a plan. And although I had reservations about bringing on this Rico, an additional member, Jorge was correct; we needed a vehicle. As we sat there and talked, my mind spun, agitated. I could taste all of it: the recovered mine, the notoriety, the riches.

... ...

So 10:00 AM. Jorge and Pedro had gone to find Rico and his truck, and our rendezvous point was set to the tourist office—a small white building with barred windows. I waited outside while the heat began slowly growing in intensity as it does in the summer months. My presence called the attention of no one—save the lone receptionist in the office whom I saw glance my way more than once through the bars—because with my American clothes and backpack and sandals, and with pale skin and a patched jigsaw of facial hair, I was the perfect candidate to be sitting right there where I was.

They arrived late by fifteen minutes. Up they drove to meet me in a rusted, ugly beast of a pickup, white with gray patches of raw metal, a worn Toyota logo on the tailgate.

"We have brought plenty of equipment, señor."

"Perfect Jorge. Perfect." There were four shovels and two pickaxes in the bed of the truck. Pedro talked with who was obviously Rico, short and thin, with a strip of a black mustache below his nose (but his most significant detail being a golden front tooth, revealed whenever his lips parted in pseudo-smile). I made out the word comida from their conversation. Food.

"Okay everyone!" I interrupted, trying to show some authority. "Let's go pick up our supplies. We have got to get going! I'll buy food for all of us that will last our two or three day trip."

"Bien, amigo." said Jorge. The other two just looked on, evidently not as interested in the details.

"I'm not quite sure what we'll need though," I said in a semi-whisper.
"We'll go to the marketplace. I'll show you."

We stormed the bustling mercado down the central street, the only street really, and set about gathering fruits and dried meat, tortillas and beans, some cornmeal, coffee, flour, and some wood for a fire, should we need it. I purchased four large leather canteens which we filled with water. We also filled two 15-gallon containers of gasoline at the station in town, and threw them in the back with the tools. They watched as I paid for everything, because this was my journey, and I was its master. I tried to hide my money, but inevitably one of them would spy me as I detangled some cash from the stack and paid a merchant.

And so it began. We left the rising dust of the town behind and chased the forgotten mine of Manuel Nuñez across the crawling sands of the San Felipe desert, on a road that seemed in all appearances to lead nowhere—and no less, into the very center of it.

... ...

Jorge and I sat together in the back, with Pedro and Rico up front. We just rested, tired already from the heat.


"Hmm?" He looked up at me, head bumping along with the ruts in the road.

"Are you really so trusting? Were you really interested in this mine, or were you just looking for something to do and I came along at the right time?"

"Well my friend, let me tell you this. I had always heard tales of this treasure, and Pedro and I used to pretend we would be the finders. Of course, young boys, that is all. And my family is very poor. We have the fishing boats in town for many years, and my father always planned for his sons to do the same. So those stories were just dreams for us. But we liked those dreams.

"When I was younger, I took jobs working for a company. We worked construction and traveled to different cities. I became friends with the owner. During the summers he helped to educate me and taught me other things. Because of him, I now I wish to move north, to be a businessman that man who has helped me so much."

"Well that's great," I said.

"But it is not. My family does not like my ideas. They think my good fortune is not earned. They curse me. So I do not see them much—only Pedro. He is a good brother and a friend.

"So you see, there is reason why I hope we find this mine; it can help us all."

We'd driven for nearly three hours when a grinding, saw-like sound shook the truck, and Jorge and I were thrown into the air. Rico stopped and came out swearing at no one in particular. He ducked under the hood and retrieved a bottle of fluid which he poured into some tank hidden in the bowels of the vehicle.

"Transmission," Jorge explained. "Has only a leak." A leak?—that was more than likely—but the jolt alone felt like something far worse, though I was no mechanic. "But don't worry he says, there is plenty of fluid left to keep it running properly."

"Okay." I nodded my head, still unsure but not overly so. Things seemed to be going so well. Jorge has assured me that he and Rico had both told their families that they were going out for a desert run, and they'd know immediately where to look for us if there were any problems.

"See those birds?" Jorge pointed toward a small grove of cardon cactus. Each cactus was vertical, with massive stalks growing out together, and the vultures sat perched, watching. "We call them las bocas de la sangre—the blood mouths. They will eat anything, if it is almost dead!" He laughed and stood partially hunched, a scarecrow, trying to frighten them away. There were three, and they opened their beaks and wings and took to the sky with a screech. I had one of those feelings that welled up inside of me, but I quelled it and pushed it back down for fear of it overtaking my attitude.

Nightfall came quicker than expected—we probably drove for six hours or so—and we set up camp in a rocky outcropping.

"The base of the Sierra San Pedro Martír should come soon tomorrow morning," I said. "We have a lot of digging to do, so let's get as much sleep as we can."

"Espero que venga pronto," said Rico.

"¿Qué?" I asked. He hadn't spoken very loudly.

"Soon," he said, smiling the golden tooth-smile and raising a mug of the coffee he and Pedro had been brewing in my direction. "Soon."

I hadn't spoken at all with Rico. He supposedly knew little to no English and so Jorge would do all the communicating. But the guy had me somewhat disconcerted, and I couldn't really explain why.

Jorge and I heated some beans and tortillas and made a small meal. Rico and Pedro sat smoking in the distance; I could see the rise of their cigarette puffs making trails to the dying sky, while their cackles of laughter echoed across the emptiness. I was so pleased. ¡Qué suerte! We unrolled the tarps and blankets we'd brought and laid out four beds.

... ...

I awoke to the blunt sound of foot against metal and saw Rico kicking the passenger door of his truck. Jorge was under the hood this time.

"What's going on? What's the matter?" I asked hurrying over to the truck.

"Rico tried to start it this morning, but it would not start," Jorge said. Rico was then inside the cab, turning the key to reveal a tired, subtle cranking, as if the truck's iron lungs had given way and were taking their final drunken gasps of air burbling with gasoline.

"Oh, no." I said. Indeed.

There was no denying it, the truck was dead, and most likely not due to the transmission. I began second-guessing the lack of apprehension that had led me here, and the words of my brother resonated in my head:'re going alone...,'ll be much safer...

"¡Carro estúpido! ¿Porqué estamos aquí?" Pedro had broken from character and was shouting at his brother. They spoke rapidly with heightened voices, ignoring me.

"Hey hey hey!" I joined in, hoping to calm things down. "This isn't helping"—still ignored—"just stop!" I tried to push the two apart. Pedro looked as if he hated me; Jorge looked apologetic.

"What else can we do here, besides fight?"

We all paused, silent for a moment, and then Jorge spoke. "I think two of us should go back to town, and two of us should stay here. That way, we are not alone, and the two who stay can go on to the mine site. From the map, it can't be very far."

"I don't know..." I started thinking. Walking one hundred miles back to town in the desert heat with few supplies was insanity. But so was staying.

It only seemed right that I see this through to the end, because this was mine. Not theirs. So I volunteered to stay.

"I stay too." Rico piped up where he stood, still alongside the truck. That was unexpected. I'd hoped Jorge would volunteer to stay, or even Pedro, but not Rico! He went on to admit (to Jorge) that he had not told his family or acquaintances where he was, and that he thought it best if Pedro and Jorge headed back together; they would be the first ones missed and may even run into a search party. They could then return in a different vehicle to collect us and continue on to the mine sit, that we'd have hopefully located by then.

Jorge looked at me. "Is this okay?"

"Sure. Fine. We'll find it. Just don't forget to come back for us okay?"

Rico and I kept two-thirds of the remaining food and water would stay, while one-third was taken by Pedro and Jorge. They needed to keep as light as possible.

Around 11:00 AM our two groups departed in opposite directions.

I kept looking back until Jorge and Pedro were just flecks of dust on the horizon. Then I attempted to communicate with Rico. "Hey, ¿Qué podemos hacer?" What are we able to do?

He pointed ahead at the blurred outlines of the hills. "Follow," he said. He gestured towards my pack and made motions as if he were reading a newspaper.

"Oh, the map—here," I handed it to him.

Holding it up against the sun, he traced a slight outline on its upper right, then traced the same outline in the air as it corresponded with the peaks of the barely-visible mountains to our right.

I clapped him on the back. "That's it! We're there! We're going to be rich! Let's go let's go let's go."

He sneered his golden sneer, still holding my map and hardly even looking at me. I gave a little shiver but kept walking. Things still didn't seem quite right with him—but he'd just discovered the first landmark, and it seemed that even with our problems, our luck hadn't run out yet.

In silence we headed northwest three hours towards the closest looming foothill. The ground started exchanging fine sand in favor of chunkier gravel; shrubbery become more abundant and the smell of the air was tinged with a freshness foreign to the open desert. At the base of the foothill were two giant rocky outcroppings that led upward like a cliff, and without warning Rico pocketed the map and leapt at one, scaling it. I figured I better follow him. Who was I to argue with the local?

So I too leapt at the rock wall, found handholds, and began climbing—I was ready to do anything, to perform mid-desert stunts of arrogance, to ascend mountains and forge rivers, to endure the heat and survive regardless of circumstance.

Above me, maybe forty feet up, Rico had already retrieved the map again and was comparing it to our new view of the hill. He wore that sick smile like a badge. I panted and pulled myself up, crouching for a moment to regain breath.

"Come see. I think I like what I have found," he said with all-too-perfect English that I'd temporarily forgotten shouldn't have existed.

"Really?! Let's see!" I stood.

He pulled the map to his side. "You want?"

Yes. I nodded. Of course I did.

"I let you see—but first—where is all the money you are keeping?"

"My money..." My voice trailed off as I instinctively covered the bulge in my right front pocket where I kept it all.

And his motives became clear—here, without anyone else's company, without gentle Jorge to protect me from the fake language barrier that this criminal used for a crutch. Here, in the rising hills of the Sierra San Pedro Martír, where the buzzards and the sun kept watch, and brothers and boats and rancheros and inns and even mines were forgotten. Here I would reap what I had sown.

He threw the map and lunged for me. "No!" I shouted and danced to the side to avoid him, but he was smaller and more agile than me and caught me by the wrist. Our little rocky clearing was miniscule, and it took all my strength to prevent him from throwing me off.

"Let... go...!" I wriggled from his grip before he was able to get his second hand on me, and I kicked at his shins. I had never been in a fight before, and Rico appeared far more experienced.

He slapped me hard, and my eyes stung and immediately watered, blinding me. "Hey! Leave me alone!" I shouted. "What are you doing? They're going to be back soon!"

I threw my hands out as fists, and actually made contact, a weak little punch at one of his cheeks.

I was pushed. "You are not scared, amigo?"

My vision returned, and I turned around to try to find my way back down the cliffside, away from the madman. But a sharp pain from of a chunk of rock that was thrown at my back stopped my attempt short, and with a groan I stumbled off the slanting edge to fall seven feet or so to another outcropping below.

... ...

One of my eyes managed to open—the other must have been injured from the fall when my face scraped jagged rock—and I saw Rico smiling over me. That golden tooth. One of my legs had caught unnaturally and was skewed, surely broken.

"Don't... Please..." I said, moaning, as Rico pilfered my pockets and unstrapped my backpack.

"Thank you my friend. Thank you well." Holding my things, he looked down at me. A hard kick from one of his boots caught me in the midsection, and I clutched my stomach with what strength I could manage. And then he hooked his hands under my upward-facing arm and leg and rolled me, rolled me right off of where I had landed, and I was free, free to sail downward and fall another twenty or thirty or forty feet into the bed of desert sand below.

... ...

It wasn't until late afternoon that my eye opened again and looked east into the barren world beyond. I had fallen far, and was tucked up against the hill, everything still coated in that inescapable sand. I couldn't feel my arms. My broken leg throbbed angrily. My breaths were partially obstructed by the ground and I could feel the forced heaving of my chest and lungs—forcing up, forcing down, creaking, splintering. I couldn't tell how long I had been there. The same day, maybe two, maybe three days later. And as I looked up into the sky I did see something:

I saw a trail of death blowing in the wind, an unmistakable breath, breathing the cyclic nature of life into the inevitabilities of fortune and greed and love and anger alike as it grew larger and larger. It was a circle of birds—those birds, those simple creatures of instinct and survival and misfortune, of pain and happiness and yet still, somehow, nature and beauty—and it took to the air gracefully and effortlessly. They were filled with hope, desire, and they scoured the desert floor for something lost, something gone and forgotten, something perishing—something for which they longed desperately—as they, the blackest of all halos, adorned what was left of my view of the sky. I exhaled. The vultures circled.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

In the city of celebrity [v.2]

[This is a poetically-reworked version of a post I made in February regarding our little stint into Park City. See, I wanted to submit some poems to this contest, but all mine were so normal. So I took this one , a journal-y entry thing, and upgraded it into a more poetic form. I also changed the content slightly, and then I called it a poem. Maybe it's not much better. Probably not. But here it is anyoldway.]

Snow is the culprit, dirtier of windows, icer of atmosphere.
Field and clearing surrounds us,
en route to the city in the mountain mist.
Canyon roads lay as fractures spilling across white foreign land,
and these vehicles, these ubiquitous vehicles--
spouting fumes into the freeze--are just insects,
burdensome, mosquitoes in the summer.

Scaling the plateau, up one level from below,
against the backdrop of frosted tips and glazed peaks.
Somehow we are led unscathed by the unrelenting winter,
by the beacon of the valleys, the roads that connect one with another,
stairstepping up and up until the temperature's drops are unnoticeable--
the cold imperative--it chaps lips and eyelids,
renders road signs almost completely illegible.

We are welcomed by the fashionistas,
they who tout the utmost in class,
opportunity and demeanor, expense and desirability.
The lives of the stars. The upward spiraling of the significant.
We do not belong, our vehicles glare filthily; it doesn't matter.
Our presence is one of mistake, but we've as much claim here
as say, he: There, in the blue sweatshirt,
shaking hands, signing autographs, smiling self-assuredly,
ostensibly reluctant or embarrassed by recognition.
"I love your work." "I'm such a fan."
"Job well done. Job well done. Congratulations. Excellence."

The forever-eyes search, calculate, with each passing group they stare
into your deepest, densest self. Some continue on, glancing backward,
curiosities unsatisfied, still seeking, searching.
And we all do this; there is no end in sight.
A human zoo or attraction of sorts.
We all may be celebrity, or none of us may be.
But sight deceives, for we are one and the same,
yet we inexplicably walk in awe of one another.

But the cold!, the shameful, conspiring cold!
It would find nothing more joyous
than the sight of thousands of preserved, frozen bodies
lying prostrate in the street gutters,
torn from their sickly-sweet enjoyments
with smiles of indifference or gaping gasps of shock
still engraved across their cheeks.
"They never saw it coming. They had no idea!"

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Lucky Cherry Seven

There once was a time
when I implored the bastions of earth,
those stalwarts of the heavens,
those watchers in the sky,
to look after me and those of my descent.
And each night with clenched eyes
and regret for those things I had done
which may have warranted their neglect,
I sought their protection with diligence.

I was a trusting man then, of faith and superstition.

For they had granted to me
safe passage earlier that year,
on my voyage eastward to west.
While caught in the fiercest of squalls,
I was thrown about on a deck full of deviates--
praying men, passionate men of God who knew none before.
But we were destined to wash into port alive,
fear-stricken and hungry, with contrition in our hearts.

And to my daughter, who in naïve longing
had found herself married to a madman--
a sickly man of sweat, of words and vile ways--
they showed compassion.
In a fit of rage one evening he assailed her,
and as she fled amid shards of porcelain,
he stumbled, inebriated, and took to the stairs,
flinging as a carnival wheel.
Rough at first,
and then empty and lifeless as a rolling barrel,
singing her freedom with his flesh against the floor.

And to my son, away at war, they granted pity
in atrocity's stead. He emerged unscathed
from the scalding remnants of strewn soil and bodies,
guarded by branches and rotting roots
in a small pit--dug of his own design
by cupped hands, small shovels of skin
rubbed raw by the coarseness of the earth.
He was Daniel in the den of lions,
recovered gracefully and sent home to me seven days later,
more a man than a lad.

But the story goes,
and I am now but a mere wisp of myself--
haunted, driven to madness by the ephemeral sound
of hoof against hardened soil.
For I had trusted in them,
they to whom I had given
that unwavering devotion of my soul
for proof against the cowardice of fate.

It was at the raceway that year, the first
Monday in July. My honored son had
returned to that passion of his--the horses--
and on lucky Cherry Seven he rode.
Such a wild spectacle to behold,
with he on the track and I in the thick of the crowd,
looking upon the event with glee and great cheer.

Until I watched in silence
as the second turn on four
became entangled with flank and body,
a mass of moving limbs.
In the clear of the track that ensued lay
one solitary soul: one broken, smiling body,
now again more a lad than a man,
crushed under the hateful premises of luck,
with the fortunes acquired in the midst of war
peeled back by the casual insistence of death.

I gave persistent devotion and they forsook me.
I gave of all of my nights and they offered spurious promises.
I found it within to believe and I was abandoned.

And so now--
Now I will abandon them.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Pine and fir

You know it's getting warmer
when the flies are pasted to the hood of the car,
not dead but alive in a miniature swarm,
as they pick apart whatever there was previously pasted.
Heated air rises around them invisibly,
55 degrees or so, feels like 90.

Passed the ranches lined with pine and fir,
an arboreal gateway into those mountain-farms,
the same way the students now line
the circular concrete arche-structures on campus,
here and there and on every splotch of grass
like they were scooped up by some divine claw
and scattered about to just listen and write and read
in a deaf world that is shut out by more than just myself.

Drove to Will's Pit Stop, and the boy in front of me in line,
with the out-of-state driver's license, purchased some snuff and soda.
I too purchased soda, two bottles, green and stifling:
like two plastic syringes, little twenty-ounce oral injections
to satiate my hourly caffeine addiction.

Closed the car door and kicked the snow black.
Smeared it across the asphalt;
wished it were now summer and those small streaks
would evaporate within mere seconds
of being exposed to the suffocating sunshine.

Walked above the agricultural tennis courts,
peering down on them as miniature fields of turf and clay,
rectangular like farmlands from the sky.
They were below me. Everything rectangular below me.

Saw the breadbox obscuring the skyline,
lit up as best a starry earthbound building could,
trying mightily to overcome the radiance above,
with success in appearance but failure in actuality.
Though I hoped otherwise, hoped to memorize
and remember again that companionship
I now only find in books and occasional glimpses.

It's all I can do to keep walking, to keep not talking.
This world--
it's never without sound.
And it's comforting.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

King of the dance floor, second telling

[Part 2. This is the story retold, as part of an attempt to win an essay-writing contest (I'll keep you posted). This is a far happier, more organized narrative, crafted with the editors of this particular contest in mind. The ending is definitely different; more touchy-feely, less the way it really happened. But who decides? I guess it's reality either way. Basically I just exaggerated on the positive side of things in order to manipulate my own past. Isn't it great? I think it's a wonderful thing we all can do, manipulate our personal history and kind of shape it our will. That can really come in handy, I tell you.]

I've been here before. It seems like long ago, when I was unprepared, unintentionally transitioning from a high school adolescent into a more ambitious, pre-college type. Two weeks were set aside in the summer between my junior and senior high school years, when I came to BYU with forty or so other students for a computer science scholarship program, lovingly referred to as computer camp.

It was surreal to me then and still seems so now, how at sixteen I came to be involved in such an experience, and was left to fend for myself for the first time. I was so shy and unsure, uncomfortable in my own skin. But over the course of those two weeks I happened upon new opportunities to grow, to bond and build new friendships, many that would persist even a year later when I would return to BYU as a freshman.

But the culminating moment in this experience, as trivial as it sounds, was a dance. The farewell dance. It took place on the south side of campus in the nondescript Knight Magnum building. And remember, it was a dance—for only forty people, mind you.

A DJ was set up on the small stage. Colored lights splayed embarrassingly across the empty dance floor, empty because most of us were inherently unable to participate in such a social gathering. We were at computer camp; we weren't the type that took to dancing with much natural candor. Plus, the boys outnumbered the girls two to one, and in this group of our peers, few friendships were beyond the platonic.

"Hey, let's go." Alex called out to me. He was the forward one, intimidated by nothing, always with a worry-free smile on his face. We'd become friends, and to our excitement would coincidentally end up on the same floor of Deseret Towers the next fall.

"No, you guys go ahead." I nodded and he and some of the others bounded off to finally start the dance. I paced the wall, had some punch. Watched Eric as he danced with Michelle—they were the only couple that had really seemed to come together during our stay.

There I was, stalling on the now less-empty dance floor. And then, even with all my public-dancing apprehension, and thanks partially to what the others had started, I began to loosen and started to dance, albeit by myself.

What followed was a direct result, I'm sure, of the style of dance I chose: an extremely odd, 1980s-helicopter-at-an-angle dance where I circled around and kept my head cocked while alternating the stomping of my feet, a dance that in retrospect is embarrassment enough just to confess.

The DJ had apparently seen me dancing alone, for moments later an older girl approached me and asked me to dance. She was his girlfriend. She declared to me that they'd seen me dancing from the stage and had determined that I was the best one there, and because of it she'd hoped to have a dance or two with me.

And she did. Fast, slow, it only lasted a few songs. But she would smile and laugh and look to her boyfriend onstage while he manned the midtempo dance tracks familiar to us all. He would smile back his approval. I caught some bewildered glimpses from my friends, and then she was gone, returned to likewise smile down on me from her position onstage.

As the dance came to a close and marked the end of our two premature weeks experiencing BYU, I walked out into the sobering nighttime air with my friends, feeling more excited and confident than I could remember having felt before. For I had been picked—chosen—at sixteen, to dance with the prettiest girl, and even though it may have been just an act of charity for a lonesome teenager, it perpetuated a feeling of kindness through me and sent me out into the world just a little more motivated, just a little more invigorated. And with the challenges that lay in wait, that spectrum of victory and disaster we had yet to encounter socially, scholastically and spiritually, we were prepared. We were ready to face anything.