Thursday, April 30, 2009

In Belated Praise of Lonesome Dove

I haven't read a western in a long time. Gram and I went through a Zane Grey phase one summer; I'd check out a towering stack of plastic-wrapped large-prints whose covers were graced with smudgy oil paintings of cowboys and Indians raising hell and dust on prairie mesas, and we'd curl up by the sunny window in her bedroom and while away the afternoons with tea and Girl Scout cookies.

I'll read anything (including the backs of shampoo bottles in their entirety, VCR instructions, and every word of every magazine I subscribe to), so it didn't seem significant to me to swallow a whole series of westerns in a matter of months, but for some reason I avoided Lonesome Dove for almost 25 years; I've never even watched the movie. When I finally picked the book up last week I didn't actually expect to read it, but I grabbed it on the way out the door to pass a lonely afternoon at the plant after my chores were done and opened it while the filter was wasting. And then I couldn't put it down. I devoured it in two days and am still trying to figure out why.

I guess I love the landscape, for one thing. No matter where I may live, the west lives in me, and like the tourism ads, well, advertise, the Old West is still truly just under the surface in Wyoming. (I love the trademarked slogan: Forever West. So true.) It's a way of thinking, a way of life, and no matter how modernized the trappings become (a modern man surely feels the same glowing pride and fierce possessiveness over his truck that a cowboy once felt about his horse, if indeed modern man doesn't still have a horse, because I know quite a few who do), it's still evident in the pace of my world and in the faces of the people I spend the most time with. My boss Jeff, for instance, didn't have indoor plumbing until he was 13 years old (neither did my mother, incidentally), took a team and sleigh to school, and still farriers horses with shoes he shapes by hand on an anvil after heating them in a forge. There is nothing more western than that. Lonesome Dove is chock full o' sagebrush, creosote, snakes, wind, prairie grass, sage chickens, blue northerns, wind, icy rivers, guns, horses, ropes, wind, campfires, coyotes and cows, and that's still just a walk around the block out here.

The story is just epic enough for me, and there's just enough tangled fate and tragedy and one whopping identity crisis, but I think the main thing is that I instantly, for all his faults, fell more than a little bit in love with Gus McCrae. You can usually credit the characters if I can't. Put. A book. Down. Even an unbelievable or too-convenient story -- and Lonesome Dove isn't one -- can be saved by believable, sympathetic characters, so a good story like this one only gives well-rounded characters solid ground to stand on. (It's worth noting that the plot focuses more on personal emotion, understanding [or lack of], and interaction than on fundamental westernness.) McMurtry is a good storyteller who appoints his characters with plenty of truthful facets and appealing flaws and marches them off on a cattledrive with muddy enough motives that it's more like a pilgrimage to the last great untamed wilderness in the west. Hello, Pulitzer.

Hello new addition to my Compulsively Readable Necessary Escape shelf. I'm only sorry I came so late to the party.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Confessions and Complaints (and the U.P. 844)

I'm irritated by everything right now. The rotten snow in the gutters, plowed piles lapsing and leaking in the corners of parking lots like the Wicked Witch of the West puddling in full shrieking death throes. The rotting vegetation from last fall. Every new book I pick up. The inexplicable grind of Puck's 3rd gear, which will be diagnosed next Monday. (Our tally since San Diego is over 18,000 miles. How did that happen?)

Easter was lovely, as lovely as any holiday has been in a long time. Christmas was hell; Easter was nice. It started with an unexpected phone call from one of my favorite cousins, who lives not quite two hours away (in Wyoming, we measure distance in time). He had been awakened in the night by a rare and exciting sound, the throaty moan and inimitable rhythm of a famous 1944 Union Pacific steam engine chugging and huffing through the sandstone canyon his home and his grandparents' and uncles' homes share with Interstate 80 and the Union Pacific railroad tracks. The sounds of trains echo from the rock day and night, interrupting conversations, lulling one to sleep. But this noise was different, and even in his dreams he knew it.

He met Steam Engine 844 leaving the yard in the city nearby and followed it to another railroad town farther up the line, and up the freeway beyond, when he called me and told me it was coming; he couldn't keep up. Jeff and I took up the watch from the back porch of the plant, where in just over two hours we saw it come around the bend from the south as the sun broke through the clouds, chugging along beside the river, belching a solid white cloud, and even in the distance it was obviously black, massive, and glittering. I had tipped off Morgan and Cordale (I was too early, but they were game) and didn't intend to go downtown to see it stop behind the Depot, but Jeff gave me a knowing look and sent me along. I turned onto Highway 150 just in time to race it along the river behind the State Hospital, under the freeway, catching glimpses of its black iron bulk and following the puffs of steam, and as 150 turned into Front Street I found myself right next to the hulking, barreling thing, merely 100 yards away, and I screamed.

My erratic driving attracted a carload of Utahns, who followed me to the Depot, where the train stopped with a graceful abruptness behind the Union Pacific shop; people were already gathering. I can't tell you why steam engines make me giddy. Regular diesel engines make me smile, but this wheezing behemoth, 900,000-plus pounds (that's 450 tons) and almost 115 feet long with tender, makes me crazy. It shoots flames from its sides, pours condensation from its boiling belly, sparking and hissing, and its flat, round nose is adorned with a little golden glowing lamp and a chiming brass bell that seem ridiculously dainty on that giant black mass of a train. The piston rod that turns its 80-inch driving wheels must be about ten inches in diameter, and every inch of the U.P.'s ambassador of goodwill, which lives in Cheyenne, is painted, polished, and spotless.

I was thinking afterward how much Dad would have enjoyed those few minutes basking in the shadow of that great machine -- which was lubed, watered, and panting noisily off after what seemed like just minutes, unexpectedly wailing with a force that made Morgan and I yelp and duck -- and then I remembered again (I had thought of it earlier in the week) that April 12th means he's been gone for four years already. Some days it feels like forever; others only a short while. Cordale certainly enjoyed the 844, proclaiming it the best Easter present ever. And I am so grateful that even at nearly 15 years old, he is charmingly enthusiastic about many things other teens are forced by that characteristic false apathy to pretend to ignore. Except for being an expert on everything, our boy is deliciously unaffected.

If you live nearby and want to meet the U.P. 844, it's scheduled to come through again -- and stop as briefly -- on May 11th between 10:30 and 11:00 a.m.

We had moose roast for Easter instead of ham; we're all tired of ham. Mom and June came and we toured the camper with the cool spring breeze blowing in the windows, erasing the mustiness of a winter spent shut up in the backyard, buried in snow.

I am both hostile and lonely these days, busy and yet accomplishing what seems like very little. I feel trapped and hopeless. If the plague of the day is not politics and the economy, it's work or my fellow tenants (who finally started picking up after their dogs but insist on tossing the waste loose into the dumpster). Or an unappetizing baby carrot hideously gnarled with false joints like a knobby orange finger. (Why do I eat those? They don't even taste like carrots.) Three days in San Diego felt like stolen bliss, except for the hour I spent at the hospital, but that's a story for another day. When I got home after my 13-hour drive I stepped out of the car into six inches of fresh snow. In my flip-flops. The snow was gone before I could even ski on it.

I didn't have time to get my camera, but Morgan brought hers, so I will have photos of 844 shortly. And maybe a better attitude. Or some good news. Or something. Anything but this dreary, muddy, uninspiring moment between miracles. I just have to get through today.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

San Diego M.S. Walk, April 4th, 2009

I love the desert in the evening. Somewhere around Barstow, I think.

This is the front door of the house in Imperial Beach where we lived for six years, including the four years I went to high school at Mar Vista. A lot of stuff happened to us in that house. I loved the bougainvillea and the droopy lilies and the pepper tree, and the giant hedge of jade plant along the sidewalk. In the right-of-way between the sidewalk and the street, all the poppies and daisies I planted are blooming in profusion.

Imperial Beach looking south towards Mexico.

Pier Plaza in Imperial Beach.

Faith Esperanza. (Faith Hope. And her mother's name is Hope. I find it amusing.)

Tapioca, quite possibly the cutest creature alive. She's sweet, too, and she's SOOOOFT.

Twinkie and Heather's Damien, who is expecting a sister in five months!

Toni and Dad.

Starting line. Only a 3-mile walk, and the weather was gorgeous, about 67 degrees. I love San Diego.

Kym, Heather, Damien, Tapioca, Twinkie and Toni.

San Diego M.S. walk 2009.

My beautiful city from the northwest.

Leina and friend came from Barstow, but I drove farther.

Downtown from the Coronado Ferry Landing, one of my favorite places anywhere.

My girls after the symphony, Toni, Twink, and the impossibly glamorous Kym.

It was heaven.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Imperial Beach, Thursday