In the Hills of Joseph, Part 1: The Windswept Soul
IN THE HILLS of JOSEPH
Never beg the wind for mercy
~ Ko Un
By Douglas Imbrogno | July 15, 2012
So, since my friends will ask, and family, too, what was it like, I fire up the MacBook Pro. I sit down with a one-third glass of dark-red wine inside my so-called yurt, and set to put some words upon the screen. But only since I have some things to share, and they will ask. Here are some pictures, too, that might convey the places I have been. Ah, the places I have been. The places you can go. Perhaps you’ll tell that tale. For now, here are glimpses from the trip I took to Fishtrap and to Oregon, and which you may ask me about.
I hate to just say “It was great!” To try to sum up this writer’s workshop in Joseph, Oregon, held between two cliffs of stone so high they clambered up and covered half the sky, that, yes, it’s true. It was profound. But what does that mean? I could say “It changed my life!’ But that’s too dramatic, even if there is a seed of truth in that. I tell one of my workshop mates that what I mean is captured in a better way: to say this trip re-calibrated me. When a tuning mechanism is out of whack, you must re-calibrate it back to true. Something like that, along those lines.
Quick! Say something!
~ Ko Un
I cannot tell you what it feels like to be lost. We were lost upon this trip, at one point, in the Zumwalt Prairie, a vast and windswept place. Full of blue bonnets of the larkspur, and of mariposa lily, of bunch grass and of badger holes. Beware the badger hole, my son! Some of our number spent their week among these mostly treeless humps and valleys, stretching to the east, the west, the north and south to the far horizon, biggest prairie once you pass the Mississippi.
One of the would-be writers, who spent her time among coyote yelps at night and herd of elk, described the place as — here I steal her phrase, read out after she’d returned to share her reaction at the daily open mics: ‘creator of loneliness.’ And this, I think, is true, from spending just a couple hours amid its backwash, bleached-out landscape, littered with the speckled paint drops of the wildflowers of the West, whose names I cannot give. Although my guide — a woman in my workshop who takes us on a drive to see the Zumwalt Prairie, “my favorite place upon the earth” — she calls out the names: the larkspur and the lily. She tells us “Keep your eyes upon the ridge line. Any movement that you see might be a herd of elk.” I dearly long to see a herd of elk. Some of our number do, the ones who spent their writer’s workshop at the Outpost, amid the undulating realm of prairie hills, 150 elk criss-crossing angled hillside after hillside of these bunchgrass plains.
We see, from up upon our perch — the three of us, her at the wheel, another workshop woman in the back, me co-pilot of this adventure, in a brand-new Highlander SUV — we see a couple tall-shouldered deer, one a four-point buck, bolt across the gravel path. Dash down, then up across the face of one of a thousand, no, ten-thousand rises in this untrammeled place. Sub-divided, it is true, by equal numbers of barbed wire strands. Wire tacked to angled rows of wooden posts, which are at intervals held firm in sandy soil by a cairn of rocks within a triangular embrasure. There, a trio of — we think — red-tailed hawks, leaps from their separate perches on a post.
There are one, or maybe two, contemporary houses hidden in the folds, the places where some water is. Maybe a brief hug of trees, a riparian oasis, amid the treeless miles and miles. And there — dried-out wooden ruin of a hundred-year-old farm, the bones of someone else’s dream. The years of nights they spent here, I wonder: how quiet was it after midnight? When did they see somebody else, other than the ones who shared their solitude, their prairie lonesome homestead? They are all gone. But I cannot help to wonder what it must have been to wander, headed west, in search of some kind of future. To head into these ocean waves of grit and sand and soil. And to wonder: “When will it end?”
Did some, at last, give up on finding where the ending came? And so, they said, “We’ll camp right here. For just awhile…” And that is where they stopped. For good. And that was the end. And the beginning. Of their lives.
Let’s pause here just for a moment.
Isn’t a pause significant, too?
~ Ko Un
So. It’s not some dramatic tale, though drama approached and notched up our shoulders. My workshop mate, her knuckles white upon the wheel as we took the wrong turn up the Crow Creek prairie road, backtracked. Then, we eyed the topo map: was it wise to cross the narrow North Pine Road, as it looked to intersect — far over there — with the Zumwalt Road? Which would take us out and back and down to Joseph, Oregon — or would it? The iPhones in the car are dead to the outer world, the car’s GPS un-trained upon any helpful satellites. The road grows worse and worse, the ruts are deep before us as we top a rise.
My friend at the wheel hands me binoculars and stops the car, perched at the rise’s top. I get out. Hear bird call and not much else. I scan the hills ahead, so serpentine. The rutted road twists and bend, as far as I can see to where the rutted path might go: a meander, this shape is called. A word I’ve always loved. Yet, if we make the wrong decision here — bruised purple rain clouds mass upon a far horizon — and we are more lost amid these undulations, it might get bad. Down on the floor, my driver friend taps her feet in nervousness, feet shod in flimsy flip-flops. I’d be the one who’d have to walk the miles and miles on gravel track the way we came, hoping for a car. But none have come for the better hour we’ve been way out here. And my one bad foot would tear and blister fast. And, well, I’d really, really rather not set off on foot. It is past 4 p.m. Our backseat mate suggests we soldier forward. My driver friend and I have doubts: Let’s go back the way we came. And so we do.
It is the best decision we could make. After a whole lot of ups and downs, we find the green sign on its post that points the way we came. And all is good, and there’s the road that brought us here. And there’s the burnt-brown metal ruin of a plow that once tore into the prairie soil unknown decades past and put some food upon a table. I do not say until we are safe: “You know what day it is?” For it is the 13th of July. A Friday. And the bad luck promise of the date has not enveloped us. So, we are glad.
I vow to return. To find a herd of elk someday amid the Zumwalt. Now, we spy on the horizon the snow-tipped Wallowas, the mountains Chief Joseph never lived beside again after the cavalry at last had cornered them, his last-ditch band of Nez Perce warrior and wife, and children dying in the snow. And shipped them off to Oklahoma and a kind of living death. Away from such a place as this, a prairie vast, beside a tree-lush, cut-edged sweep of mountain, beside the glacial lake, Wallowa, between the moraine where the glaciers came to rest and then retreated. Leaving God’s country behind them. And a place I recommend to you, if you ever doubt that spirits walk the hills and you are starved to feed — well, here’s a phrase by Basho that we’re turned on to at the workshop: “… the windswept soul.”
If you are starved to feed your windswept soul.
Whenever I see a road, that means
I’ve found a place to hurry towards.
~ Ko Un
PS ~ Just one more.
PSS ~ Thanks to Luis Alberto Urrea for the introduction to Ko Un. More on him ahead.
IN THE HILLS of JOSEPH
PART I: “The Windswept Soul”
PART II: “A Rivendell of Words”
PART III: “I Think I Am in Love”
PART IV: “Passing the Buck”
PART V: “Notes from the Empty Quarter”
PS: “May We All Become Neighbors”
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