The Apocalypse That Wasn’t

Overcrowding! Biblical traffic jams! Cats and dogs living together!

The eclipse was supposed bring it all out. From record sales to the crazies, we were gonna get it all.

We got nothing.

No, really…I walked over to a trailhead the morning of the eclipse and saw no cars. Not just a few cars, but none. Zero. Zilch. Nada. The store did its lowest level of business in a decade. Apparently everybody did listen to all the warnings from the Park Service to stay away.

That being said, I still did my long-ass hike to get away from it all…then I did something very, very dumb.

Oh, the first part of the hike went well. And let me tell you, being on top of a mountain to watch the eclipse was seriously cool. The light started to fade, and to turn to that particular shade of orange-red that you really only get at dusk (which looked truly odd with the short, noon-time shadows!).

Then it got strange.

The more the sun disappeared behind the moon, the more quiet it got. I don’t mean a normal hush. No, by the time of totality (well, 98% for me) it was totally and completely silent.

Animals…birds…even the damned insects, they all went quiet. That was, honestly, the eeriest part. With this much life and activity around Yellowstone, it is never silent here. But it was yesterday, and it stayed that way for all three minutes of the totality.

That is what surprised me. That is what awed me.

Of course, none of that was the stupid part. I saved the stupid part for after the eclipse.

So, there I am sitting on top of a mountain. I had a perfectly good trail to go back down. Did I use that trail? No, sir. Not me. I’m the damned explorer. I’m the bear-whisperer. I go where I want, trail or no trail.

I decided to scramble down the opposite side of the mountain, and head to a lake I know a few miles away. I would just pick up another trail there, and head back home. Easy peasy.

Umm…no.

It sucked. No, really – it sucked donkey balls. I almost died (err, well, almost got severely injured, anyway) more than once on that particular little jaunt.

Where the mountain wasn’t trying to kill me, the bears were. Now, keep in mind, I do a lot of off-trail hiking. More than is good for me, in all honesty. But, in my defense, I am very good at it, and I very much enjoy it.

And, yes, I always carry bear spray with me. In all the miles of backcountry stuff I’ve done, I’ve never had to so much as pull that can of supercharged pepper spray out of my pocket. Yesterday, halfway down that mountain and walking through a meadow, I had the fuckin’ thing in my hand, ready to fire…and ready to GTFO as soon as I did use it.

Thank God I didn’t run into the (very large) grizzly who owned the tracks, scat and beds I saw, because he would not have been happy to see me walking through the very heart of his territory…and I almost certainly would not be typing this right now.

Yes, it was indeed one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done.

With the nights in the thirties, and the days starting to cool, it is beginning to feel like fall not just to us humans, but also to the animals. The elk are ready to start bugling for their rut, and the bears are starting to really get after the food in preparation for hibernation in a couple of months.

I think my off-trail days are over for the year. There’s over a thousand miles of trails in Yellowstone, maybe I should check out a few of them, instead.

I will miss that backcountry stuff, though.

Cheap Guitars, And The Demons Of Memory

It’s Sunday night and I’m sitting out in front of the store drinking a beer while I plan my “Welcome To The Apocolypse” hike for tomorrow.  No offense, but the last thing I’m ready to do right now is write a blog post.  At least, not a post that is coherent and, well, useful.

Screw it…it’s been a while since I did something from Silence.  So, I guess it’s snippet time:

A one-gallon bladder, soft and flexible—bought from a kitchen worker with the promise of free booze—was no easy thing to hide in a four-by-eight cell of concrete and steel. Not when it was filled to the brim with a mash of ingredients busily fermenting away. No easy thing, but not impossible. No, sir, not impossible…not to someone who had grown up on t-deck.

Connor’s thin, cheap mattress might never be the same again, but a minute or two to open it and rearrange the stuffing and he had a neat little hiding spot. If the mappo didn’t look too close.

That was the trick, of course: to distract the guards while they searched, and to point their attention elsewhere.

A shrug, then, and a mental sigh. They’d find it or they wouldn’t. Shou ga nai.

He took a moment to look out the small window in the now-securely-locked cell door. There were just two teams tossing the cells, but they were doing a pretty damned thorough job. Clothes and mattresses and knickknacks were flying out of the first two cells to land haphazardly on the dayroom’s floor. Typical mappo bullshit: make as big a mess as possible, remind the animals just who ran the fucking zoo.

They were taking the cells in order, starting with the first floor. That was a good thing; it meant they weren’t targeting specific people, nor looking for anything in particular. The downside, for Connor, was that it also meant it would likely be a long while until they got to his particular cell, tucked as it was into the far corner of the second level.

A cheap, rudimentary ‘screen sat on the meager desk, called to him. It connected only to the prison library, that ‘screen, but Connor had long ago learned the value, and the truth, in the written word. Oz had taught him that.

His jaw clenched, and he fought for control. The demons—those demons of memory, and of pain—they were always threatening to break loose, and that he did not need. Not here, not now…not ever.

He drank the remainder of the jar in a single gulp and rinsed it carefully in the small sink bolted to the wall. Why waste perfectly good booze on a shitty drain?

A moment more to consider, but the decision was easy. No reading, not now. His prize possession was calling even louder than that ‘screen, and the words and wisdom it contained. Connor was one of the few in all of Chapman Pen with no cell-mate—few knew how much effort that had taken to arrange—and the cell’s top bunk served only one purpose: to cradle and hold his guitar.

That guitar was a cheap, battered pity-gift given by a sympathetic guard. It was also Connor’s most precious possession. His only possession, when you came right down to it.

Music…music mattered to him. The only thing that mattered as much as reading. It was equally a gift from his past, of course. If Oz had given him reading, Marie and Vin had given him music.

And he’d killed all three.

There were those demons again.

Shit.

Teaching himself to play had been a slow process at first, but that same guard had linked him several songs and manuals, and Connor had worked hard to learn. Harder, in fact, than he’d worked even to learn the languages and culture of his new ‘home’.

The desk was a tiny bit of metal sticking out from the wall, and its seat was an even tinier bit of metal. No one could be comfortable sitting there, but Connor decided a perch on his bed would just attract attention to the fact that he did, indeed, have something to hide. Onto that uncomfortable metal seat he went, then, guitar in hand.

He’d made the mistake of remembering, of course. The past had power, tremendous power. Even now, a year later—even after the demons had gone quiet and were staying in their little holes at the bottom of his mind—the past still called. The emotion…the experience…the reality…the pain.

Around him echoed the typical prison cacophony: yells and insults between cells, inmates pounding and kicking at doors, the sheer joy of noise and chaos for the sake of noise and chaos.

It was complete misery to Connor. Silence, and a bit of peace: the things he had never had in his life. The things he wanted more than anything else in the universe.

He started to play, then, and to sing. Quietly, yes, but with all of the honesty and emotion that Marie and Vin had taught him lay at the heart of music. Emotions he could express in no other way.

Images went through his mind, carried by the music. Flashes of those he had known. Those he would never see again. Marie. Vin. Oz…Oz’s blood, Oz’s body.

His friends. His brother. Everyone he loved. Everyone he had.

The song was almost automatic, one he had played many times before. It carried everything he could never express. Not in prison…not in life…not ever. Only through the music.

Every time he played that song, he found another layer to the music, to the words. Every single time. It said what he could not, carried everything he kept buried.

He had no idea how long he played, how many songs he sang. It couldn’t have been long—he didn’t know all that many songs—but it felt like forever. That was the only time in his disaster of a life when the prison went away, and the bitter rage with it: when he was playing. When he let himself feel.

It was the closest he came to feeling that peace he and Oz had so wished for. That peaceful place to die.

Oz had found his peace, but Connor? Connor had found everything but.

He never heard the guards arrive outside his cell, so lost in the music was he. Never heard the whirring of the lock.

“Shut the fuck up, you piece of shit!” a voice screamed, right next to him.

That he did hear.

A surge of violence that he resisted, but barely. It was no easy thing. The one thing that finally stopped his rage was the weapon in his hands; there was just no way he would waste his precious guitar on the head of some useless prison guard.

The End Is Nigh!

I’m not exactly ground zero for the coming eclipse, but I’m pretty damn close: the “line of totality” is only about an hour south of me.

Am I going to go down that way to watch the sun die?

Are you freaking nuts?

The Park Service is expecting well over a million people in Grand Teton park alone, and a couple million more along other parts of the eclipse’s path. The state of Wyoming (where Yellowstone and Grand Teton are located) normally has about 500,000 inhabitants…on Monday it is expected to have well over three million. Three fucking million.

Yellowstone itself is expected to be in total and complete gridlock all day Monday.

As if the damned bison jams* weren’t bad enough.

*Yes, they really are a thing…and I’ve been stuck in several. I am, however, pretty sure it’s just the bored bison fucking with tourists: “Hey, watch this, Bob…I bet I can make ‘em all stop!”

I am, I should add, quite happily not working that day. I am going to grab my pack early, pack some booze and a nice big lunch, and head to the top of a remote mountain to watch the whole show. Even if the animals go a little nuts (as the biologists predict), they’ll still be a damn sight better – and safer – than the tourists that day.

I haven’t yet run into any of the crazy “end of the world” whackjobs, but a lifetime of cynical experience tells me it won’t be long. And, no, I don’t want to repent, thank you very much, even if the end is at hand. What’s the old saying? Oh yeah: it’s better to regret something you have done, than something you haven’t.

By the way, I did make the mistake of reading the news today, and I feel dumber for it. Do I really want to go back into that day-to-day world in a couple of months?

Err, no. Not really.

Not at all, actually.

I like my simple life of blissful ignorance at this point. My biggest problem lately has been breaking in my new hiking boots…and I like it that way. The company I work for has several other properties in other national parks. Hell, they have winter jobs here in (well, near) Yellowstone.

-40 degrees and ten+ feet of snow? It still sounds better than the news I just read…

Torches And Pitchforks: An Angry Village Finally Wins One

The hulking shape hunched at the reins while the white wagon lurched and creaked under his great weight.  A look of anger on his face, and of resentment, as he fled the village once prey to his tyranny.

And on the face of the poor horse pulling that wagon? A look of equine resignation that did nothing to hide his misery and depression. Reduced to pulling a troll…where had his life gone so wrong? His mother had been right, he should have become a plow horse, like his father and grandfather.

Behind that wagon, the villagers cheered and danced. Maidens with flowers in their hair glanced shyly at the young men clustered near the ale keg, hoping for a dance and a kiss. Those same young men, however, could not tear themselves away from the nearby cluster of village elders.

Having drunk deeply of the ale, and of the sweet wine of freedom, those elders were busy regaling each other with tales of the troll’s vicious wickedness. Every one had a story, every one had felt the sting of the troll’s evil. Something else all shared, however, was a common refrain: the nightmare was over! The troll was gone! Salvation and freedom had come finally to free them from fear and dread!

Separate from the others stood one woman. Beautiful and strong, she had faced more of the troll’s wrath than any other. Now she stood alone, at the end of the village street, and waved a mocking goodbye to that white wagon as it slunk away. No words did she speak, no sound did she make, but forever would her laughter of joyous relief ring bitterly in the ears of that giant, bloated figure.

Umm…yes, it’s metaphorical. And, no, I won’t explain. Nope, not when I have to go back to the ale keg and continue telling stories…

WARNING! WARNING! DANGER! COMPLETELY STREAM-OF-CONSCIOUSNESS WRITING AHEAD!!

I’ve already hiked-out a pair of boots. No, really: I bought brand new Timberlands last October, and I noticed today just how destroyed and falling-apart they have become.

I’d make some joke about things not being made like they used to be, but let’s be honest…I’ve put those boots through a metric ass-ton of abuse over the last three months. There are A LOT of pretty hard miles on them…

The more hours I spend in the backcountry, the harder it gets to think of Connor and his world. I find myself thinking more and more about the two or three fantasy stories/series I have floating around the back of my mind. Hell, I’ve written six or seven snippets for those stories, if only to explore the main characters, and their world/society.

It’s amazing just how much your surroundings impact the work…hell, how much they impact the vision and imagination. When I’m “home”, working on sci-fi isn’t all that hard: I can see and feel Connor and his world. Okay, so, in all honesty, I’ll admit that I don’t exactly write hard-sci-fi. My college physics experience was most definitely proof that C’s do, indeed, get degrees…I couldn’t write hard-sci-fi if you held a gun to my head. My stuff is as soft-sci-fi as it gets…and as character-centric: Connor’s bitter, cynical world of contrast and strife is fairly easy to come to when I’m surrounded by people and concrete.

But what happens when those give way to trees and dirt? Different story. No, literally: I have a completely different story in my head. Different tone, different meaning, different message. When I’m bushwhacking through spaces that haven’t seen a human in years – if not decades – I can’t help but imagine what life must have been like a millennia ago.

Hell, hiking-out those boots illustrates to me one of those concepts that has really changed over time: that of distance. 8 miles is nothing to us, it’s a trip to the convenience store for beer and munchies at midnight. 8 miles is also, however, about the maximum that your basic, out-of-shape tourist can walk in a single day. Put Betty the Cubicle-Dweller on the trail, and after 8 miles she is completely done.

Hell, even I struggle to do much more than twenty miles in a day, and I hike more in a month than most people do in several years.

Just to offer a contrast: the Roman legions marched thirty miles a day, rain or shine, road or no road, just outside of Rome or in hostile territory. Then they built a fortified camp at the end of that march. Every single night.

THAT is the concept we have lost: just what a day’s walk really is.

You think London and Canterbury are the same place? Walk them. No, honestly: get out and walk the road…your understanding of distance will change rapidly. And, no, horses don’t really change the math. Sure they can run, trot or jog much faster than us…but only for short distances. For a long-haul journey, it’s time to walk, and a horse walks only about one mile an hour faster than a human.

Okay, that’s enough of this entire digression…

Maybe I should point out that I, literally, just got back from my hike. Instead of laying down for a nap, I decided to try and pound out a post (since I didn’t have one ready for this morning). That may have been a mistake…

On the other hand, I have another huge load of pictures for later this week. Yay!

The Bellowing Of Horny Males

The bison are horny. No, really…the rut is starting early this season, and the bison are starting to gather in a couple of the larger valleys for what can only be described as a giant (in every sense of the word) orgy.

Picture a shaggy-furred, two-thousand-pound Austin Powers and you start to get an idea about an adult male about this time of year. They start making this loud, strange almost-but-not-quite-bellowing sound while they follow the fertile females around like lovestruck teenagers.

The employee dorms are not, it must be said, a whole lot different. From bellowing to following around to, well, orgies, it’s pretty much the same the thing.

Both are funny as hell.

Ever watch a twenty-eight year old man make a complete ass of himself over a nineteen year old girl who has zero interest in him? It’s pretty damned entertaining…not to mention reaching entirely new levels of pathetic.

Now, I do happen to have a hard and fast rule against fishing off the company pier, so I get to remain purely a member of the audience. Sitting around and watching this all, however, is far from boring. Heckling and mocking all these proceedings happens to be one of my favorite non-hiking activities right now.

Hell, even the handful of gay couples have added their own drama and spin. If I ever decide to turn to writing romance, I’ve got enough for a five book series after just three months of this!

All I know is that by then end of this summer, there will be exactly zero new marriages…and zero divorces. Pretty much everyone will go out the way they come in, and there’s something right about that. The married folks are still married…the single folks are still single…and the desperate are still desperate.

Yep, the universe is still chugging right along. Now, if we happened to get as many “Yellowstone babies” as the bison will, things might be a bit different…

At any rate, this ersatz-Saturnalia does get me to thinking about love interests, and about romance. Especially about how those two things need to be organic to the work. One thing I cannot stand, as a reader, are those stories where a “beautiful and spunky” love interest is shoe-horned in just because someone decided that every story has to have one.

Spare me.

More than ever, I keep falling back on (what is to me) Rule #1: do what is right for your story, and for your characters. Don’t put a damned romance in if it doesn’t belong. Don’t saddle your protagonist with a love interest that, well, wouldn’t interest him/her in other circumstances.

Honestly, the best love story is the one that makes sense. Then again…not a single one of the ever-changing, ever-humorous relationships I’m watching develop and disintegrate in the dorms makes any real sense either.

Crap, now I want to write a protagonist who is brave, brilliant, supremely capable…and is a complete cheap-slut.

Grinding Tears Into Wine

I’m supposed to write about pet peeves today. More specifically, I’m supposed to write about those pet peeves that I have in regards to the writing.IMG_0163

God knows, I’ve got my share of ‘em. You’ve all already heard about my need to write in taprooms, and about the impenetrable shields that are my earbuds…

But I’m still not ready to write about that. I’m not ready to write the sarcastic, wry post I had in mind. My friend’s death is too near, and far too powerful: I still hurt, and I still mourn.

So, instead, this is a post about catharsis…about how I heal with the words, and about the need to write.

I’ve never mentioned before, but the first piece I ever got paid for was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was supposed to be a simple obituary, voluntary and unpaid. But it became something far, far more. It became an ode to pain, and an expression of my rage at the loss, and at the fucking uselessness of it all…and it got picked up for that.

It was the obituary for a seventeen year old boy who committed suicide.

Writing that was the only way I had to deal with the pain, the only outlet that preserved sanity. Just under thirty years ago, in similar circumstances, I hadn’t yet learned that outlet. I hadn’t yet learned the power of putting words onto paper. I hadn’t learned the healing that comes with storytelling. Instead, I internalized everything: the loss, the pain, the rage, and the complete and utter confusion.

Oz very much is the combination of those two suicides…of those two friends. Yet, even now, I still haven’t released it all. The pain and rage and confusion are still there, and still they shape who I am, and how I think. Every single word I write is part of the healing process – and part of the venting. Every single word is my own blood on the page…and the blood of those many friends I’ve lost. If I didn’t write those words, if I didn’t use the blood, I would go back to drowning under the weight of it all.

Sometimes I still do.

Most of the subtexts and messages in both Wrath and Silence are planned and intended. Most, but not all. Some…some grew organically out of the writing…grew out of my own subconscious telling the rest of me to fuck off and taking over.

Alone is worse.

For something I once thought a simple throwaway line, that particular phrase has taken on a hell of a lot of power.

Writing Oz’s death scene almost broke me….but with the writing also came a certain amount of healing. I had to write it, I had to explore that particular moment…almost as much as I had to heal.

That is why I write. That is why I tell people that, while I write this blog for others, I write the stories for me. That is how I cope, and how I heal.

And if, someday, something I write can make a difference to someone I never meet…then it was all worth it.

Why?

There’s another drink at the end of the bar. I don’t want to say that…fuck, I don’t want to have to say that.

IMG_0720But I do: I have to put another drink on the bar. Another drink to join all those I’ve set to toast the souls to whom I’ve had to say good-bye.

I came up here to rediscover life, not to lose one of those friends who helped me do so.

I didn’t know Gerard for long, but I did come to trust and admire him like I do few people in this world. He was, in every single sense of the word, a gentleman. He was, with no exaggeration, one of the best people I’ve ever met.

He was a hell of a lot better of a man than me.

Yet, here I sit, still alive, still drinking whiskey and still mourning the dead.

I’m sick of mourning the dead. I’m sick of being the last man standing while my betters are cut short.

Yeah, yeah, I know: it’s all grist for the mill. It’s all emotion and passion and experience that can go into the words. No one knows that better than I: I would never – could never – have imagined and created Connor and Oz without having lost far too many close friends to suicide.

Yes, loss and grief, just like pain and anger, are what we writers live on. But, you know what?

Fuck that.

If this is the price I have to pay, I’d rather go back to losing my soul in a goddamned cubicle.

What makes all this worse? Gerard’s wife is just as good a friend, and just as admirable. I love that woman…shit, I used to joke to my friend about just how much I envied him his soul-mate and how I was going to steal her.

Now she’s shattered and broken.

I’ve been shattered and broken…hell, I’m not sure I’m still all that far from shattered and broken. But to watch Jacqueline fall into that hell, to watch her lose the center of her world…

I spent today holding it together because I had to: the business was open, and someone had to keep it going. I had to announce to the staff, several times, the death of a man that most considered their second grandfather. I had to announce, several times, the loss that tore at all of our souls. Then I had to carry on. We all had to carry on…even when all I wanted to do was go out and get drunk and raise a toast to my friend.

I had originally intended this post to be such a toast, but the words….for the first time, the words are failing me.

I could put together a thousand-word post and not come close to doing justice to my friend.

I could spend every ounce of my remaining strength (which ain’t all that much, right now), and not touch on everything I should say.

I could do a lot of things…

But, for now, I’m going to think. I’m going to mourn. I’m going to cry. And I’m going to get very, very drunk staring at yet another drink at the end of the bar.