I use the word loosely.
I’m talking about just one of the Americas—the one we always see on top, a cartographical positioning that was chosen by a culture that assumes itself to be dominant, i.e. “on top,” the world’s default world view. The rest of the globe appears to have politely accepted European-North American on-top-ness, just the way it has accepted Greenwich Mean Time. Nice of them, but perilous for those who assume that their cultures can’t help but be the measures of all others; and perilous for the “southern” cultures who twist themselves inside out trying to adjust.
I flew from León/Guanajuato to Los Angeles, then on to San Francisco, where I rented a low-slung Ford Focus—which seemed to have no maximum speed for taking curves—and drove to Sacramento, to the 2014 Western Writers of America conference. I never had to ask a soul how to get there because of my portable GPS whose lovely female voice my love had switched to French—which added linguistic anxiety to general GPS anxiety. “Dans huit cents mètres, tournez à gauche.” Turn left in 800 yards! Leaving Sacramento, I insisted on continuing north on Route 5 to take the long way to Sonoma County through Williams and Clear Lake, instead of the shorter southern one Mademoiselle had plotted as shorter and more practical. As I passed by each possible exit, she instructed with increasing insistence, “Tournez-vous immédiatement! Tournez-vous immédiatement!” Turn around immediately, turn around immediately.
But back to the conference. I didn’t know what to expect. Perhaps people smelling of cigarettes and beer at nine in the morning, pushing pulp fiction consisting mostly of Bodice Rippers and Armed Male Heroes on Rearing Horses, holding Rifle Aloft. But what I found were kind, knowledgeable, intelligent writers, agents, publicists and publishers. I went to almost each session on the theory that I would pick up something useful whatever the topic. Which proved to be the case. I schmoozed and handed out my postcards that pushed my own Armed Male Hero with Moustache and Sombrero and brought up, whenever I could, the idea of the Mexican western, a concept I found not widely held among my fellow conference goers. In fact, the whole country seemed just slightly beyond my companions’ consciousness. Which is a whole topic in inself—one which I hope I will come back to later in this screed, but may not.
What I liked most about the conference was the hotel where the sessions held and where we stayed. I like to refer to it as the starship or maybe space station Double Tree Hilton, which consisted of several buildings connected by covered causeways, so that you never had to leave the building—which I hardly did over four days and five nights. The food available was delicious and reasonably priced. Especially the breakfast buffet, where I took huge servings of fresh blueberries and strawberries each morning, while others seemed more interested in the biscuits and gravy, eggs, bacon and sausages.
I was assigned a mentor, a kind man and good writer, who introduced me to various publishers and editors—for whom I felt no fear because I wasn’t offering them a manuscript with hands atremble. I had my own novel Playing for Pancho Villa—which I was now pushing as a Mexican western—and another book in gestation, which I would also bill as a Mexican western wherever that description seemed socially acceptable.
As I mentioned, Mademoiselle GPS et moi, headed north after the conference, quarreling all the way. I wanted to follow a route to Sonoma County I took in the old days when my two boys and I returned from Ishi country, as we called it, between Mill and Deer Creek, northeast of Chico, where we would commune with that fine man, a Yahi Indian, who came into the white man’s world, starving, when none of his people were left.
In Williams, I got off the freeway, probably to Mademoiselle’s relief and went into a hardware store for a piece of nylon rope from which I could hang my hand-washed clothes. Three men sat around the check-out counter, watching the World Cup on an overhead screen. The young Mexican team was trying to keep its miraculous one point lead over Holland. I concluded my purchase. All three men spoke Spanish and I asked in Spanish whether they knew where I could breakfast and watch the game at the same time. They said, almost in unison, “Nowhere.” Which was to say, We are not Mexico, where every eating place will have some sort of TV placed—even outside—for people to watch the most important game in four years. A game on which rode the entire nation’s self-esteem.
I went to the local Trading Post, or whatever it is called, where all the passing tourists were eating heavy and then buying overpriced packaged luxury food items that weren’t good for you. I had Eggs Byzantine or Florentine, or whatever you call it when there’s no ham. The sweet waitress automatically brought me ham. She was equally sweet when I sent her back to remove the ham and replace it with sauteed spinach.
After paying, I walked out into the entry area and found someone had turned on an overhead television. There was a bare table; three men sat at it in three chairs; I settled into a fourth empty chair. They were all over fifty: one man, Dutch; one South African; and one that looked Latino. They were watching the same game—Holland vs Mexico. I joined them until the enfant terrible Robben appeared to fake a foul in the penalty area and thereby win a scoring penalty shot. Holland won two to one. I didn’t want to hang around and live Mexico’s disappointment. I got into the Focus; and Mademoiselle and I headed due west. After a few side roads, she gave up trying to head me off and fell into a brooding silence. As a way of protecting her dignity, I shut off the GPS.
We entered the hot, dry, lovely hill country west of the Sacramento Valley and approached an area I knew used to have streams that the boys and I had swum in. At Cache Creek, North Fork, to the right, I saw a glorious swimming hole, with little kids—closely watched by mothers—leaping off a bank into the clear water. I drove on, looking for a way in, and found nothing. I turned around and passed the swimming hole again. I couldn’t find an entrance, and began to think it must be private property. At the creek bridge, on the right, the opposite side of the road from the swimming hole, I saw a State Park sign that said Cache Creek, Rose Bud Trail or Trailhead, and I drove in.
There was a parking lot, a small bathroom house, and various covered displays telling about the site, the fauna and flora, the site’s history. I parked Focus and headed straight toward Cache Creek to see if I couldn’t find my own swimming hole. Which brings me to my religion and the spiritual epiphanies it offers: skinny-dipping in California creeks, rivers and ponds. Then getting out and feeling the effect of water drying on my skin. That is the image and sensation I hope I call up in the moments before my death.
The first part of the creek I came to served perfectly well; not exactly a hole, but deep enough to swim twenty feet, then stand in the dry air and feel my gods breathing against my skin. One of the displays back at the parking lot had explained that Tule Elk had been released there in the Twenties and that, protected, they had flourished since then and could be seen grazing on the hillsides in the green of winter. As I dried, I wished for the appearance of one of the large creatures, preferably a gentle one—since I thought I might be swimming in one of their watering holes, without permission.
A car door banged; and then two others. I had just slipped on my clothes. Two women with children had stopped to use the toilets. The spell of being alone in an Ishi spot had been broken.
I had spent most of my life being alone in the woods in New England and then in California. There were certain spots that seem holy: a dark glacial pond with turtles; a beech grove with smooth gray trunks, far from a highway, let alone a freeway; a stream where Ishi had fished. That may be a condition of spiritual moments, that one is alone. It is hard to do in Mexico where one is never alone; where there are just too many people with a claim on the land, no matter how remote it may seem. Poor countries, the ones “underneath,” have very few protected wilderness areas, where it is possible to be alone. There is always someone moving through a landscape, sharp-eyed and intensely curious to know what you are doing in the same area.
Except in cars, where one is often alone. In Mexico, you watch for people and animals on the side of the road. They appear in abundance. At night it is quite dangerous. In California, I was alone and car-bound for much of my adult life, with National Public Radio figures as my closest companions. In Sacramento, I saw people walking in parking lots at Whole Foods and REI—but nowhere else. I miss casual contact with people when I’m in the States; I see few people walking, in contrast to Guanajuato, which is a walking city with few roads. I feel lonely in the States; I feel crowded in Mexico. But in that moment, when the toilet visitors were in their car and drove away, I resolved to visit America more often.
Just to be able to dunk naked in Cache Creek again—waiting for the elk.