"One time were going down to
his swamp to split some wood. We
arrived at the pile we'd bucked up the day
before. Kesey used a wedge and sledge. I was a maul man. He set the wedge and pecked at it with his sledge until
the round of wood split down the middle.
I set a round up and lifted the maul high over my head and brought it down hard enough to split the round with one whack.
He said, "You know, you'd save a lot of energy using a wedge and sledge instead of that maul."
"Yeah, but it would take twice as long."
"Twice as long as what? You're not going any faster than I am."
"You kidding me? There's no way you can split wood with a wedge and sledge faster than I can with a maul."
"You want to bet?"
"Does a fox suck eggs? Name your wager and make it easy on yourself."
"I'll go twenty bucks for twenty minutes."
He nodded and we set in. I grabbed those rounds
whacking for all I was worth. I could hear him hitting
at a steady beat. This was going to be a cinch. After a while I had to take off my sweat shirt. His forehead wasn't even damp.
"That's it," I said. "Time's up."
He stepped back and surveyed the pile. "Well," he said. "I guess you hornswoggled me this time."
You bet I had. It wasn't even close. We'd split that whole pile and he hadn't done piddling.
The flush of victory lasted about two minutes. It
that long to realize I'd been hornswoggled. He didn't rub it in
though. We took the twenty bucks to Jim's Landing and drank gin and tonics.
Next day I made a phone call.
"Hello, is this the Sheriff's Office?"
"Yes. What can I do for you?"
"I'm calling to report Ken Kesey is hiding marijuana inside his firewood!"
"Thank you very much for the call, sir, we'll look into it."
The next day, the Sheriff's Deputies descend on Kesey's woodpile.
They bust open every piece of wood, but find no marijuana.
They sneer at Kesey and leave.
The phone rings at Kesey's house.
"Hey, Kesey. Did the Sheriffs come?"
"Did they chop your firewood?"
"Happy Birthday, buddy!"
BARLOW ON THE RANCH
timbers made up Barlow’s corrals. They surrounded his abode, a second
on the Bar Cross some distance from the main ranch house. Between the two ran a cart track a f
ew hundred yards long, up and down which, that winter, we daily shunted hay out for the cattle
from a tractor drawn rick. “This is fire breathing work!” John would say as our breath steamed
and mixed with the snow falling, against a background of dark, blue-toned horizon clouds flashing
with lightning, “Tis the very thunder of Thor approaches!” “Commonplace hereabouts, I can tell ya!”
Conversation with John was ever runneled through with lines of poetic timbre; he strove for and often
reached couplets of immediate meaning and understanding. This was an environment of range and
geophysical drama, as if the scope and potential of human freedom was limitless. You could feel it on
the end of a phone line – in those days, the 1970s when he worked the Bar Cross, John would reach out
in the middle of the night to his friends, many in California, inspired to talk and spark ideas, and the
visionary poetics of his landscape would come through loud and clear.
“You seem to be
impressed by the country, fauna & flora up here,” he said on a
to Wyoming, which was an understatement, more or less fresh off the boat from England as I was. “Well,
I can show you something.” And off we went across the plains, through forests and along riverine
escarpments in his trusty El Camino, past elk and wildfowl till arriving at a very place in the high country:
a boggy, heathy, outcropped headwater region where three great American rivers arose – the Green,
the Wind, and the Colorado – all in a small area. “This is where the Water Witch lives, Guardian of the
Headwaters,” John said, pointing to a ramshackle establishment nestled in a slight hollow. There seemed
to be no other houses anywhere, and we had passed none for miles. It was remote, and I felt as if entering
an otherly domain, especially when, in this somewhat entranced mood, the house and its occupants turned
out to be, Oz like, a very ordinary middle aged American couple, beaming with the joyful comfort of their
domicile in its lonely, magnificent and potent, mountain peaked surroundings. Such a discovery of oneself
in an off-beat conflation of circumstances and events was pure Barlow magic; common humanity with a twist
of the surreal. We had a cup of tea, which I didn’t fail to notice had a touch of Alice to it, and talked of the
prevailing conditions in their domain.
The next day,
back at the ranch, the adventure was of a different sort. After Melody,
and proficient cowgirl you’ll ever meet, had taught me how to smooth the ride on one of the Bar Cross mares,
John and I saddled up and rode off to check on a herd a few miles distant from the ranch. What we found
was perilously close to a worse-case scenario: some 30 or 40 head were lying on the ground close to a dry well,
gasping their last and eyes rolling. The pump had failed. We galloped back to the ranch, as I forgot everything
Melody had taught me and hung on for dear life, filled a pickup with cans of water and headed back. The pump
man from Pinedale arrived while we were still hand watering half an acre of supine cows. One of us would turn
limp heads upwards from the ground while the other poured water down parched throats. As I remember, all
cattle survived, and my intimacy with the awesome desperation of the great beasts never forgotten.
the ranch community marked an iconic event in range life with some
cooking, lively talk,
a drink or three, and an ironic wit, particularly from John, as if to say “commonplace hereabouts.” The ranch
house exhibited an atmosphere of spacious accommodation of all the exhilarations and hardships of life at altitude
in grand space. Here was the domain of Mrs. Barlow, matriarch: sitting room of blazing fires, generous hospitality
and welcome; kitchen large and fit for hunger; mud, laundry and storage rooms of outsize proportion – in an urban
setting, that is, but for this land, “… just enough.” The upstairs landing was like a prairie: vast, empty, a common
floor off which opened bedrooms and bathrooms and onto which one day on yet another, future, visit, John would
unbox his boyhood train set and proceeded to set up a track for the wonder of my own young son.
But in that
stormy winter before these summers held their sway, another Western
was soon to unfold.
Inclement weather raged too often around the cabin where we huddled by the stove, talking ranching and writing
and drinking Wild Turkey. Mornings, John would fix a huge and complex breakfast featuring a lot of onions, eggs,
pepper and bacon designed to both nullify the downside of our indulgence and to fortify against the cattle feeding
run, whatever the snowstorm or freezing cold. Then, back in the cabin, it was the conversation of couplets, for this
being the time of song creation for Bob Weir’s first solo album, Ace, Barlow was fine tuning the lyrics, and would
throw out tangents and soliloquies of all kinds. As music publisher for his songs to be at Ice Nine, I was a useful and
interested foil, and when it came to Cassidy we jammed on Cassady, he of roots and On the Road, “Lost now on the
country miles in his Cadillac” for an evocative entanglement of names and energies for the lyric. And a road trip
was soon to be our own most potent adventure.
notified one day that his father was ailing, perhaps rapidly, at the
apartment in Salt Lake City.
Concern became action and it was decided we’d drive to Salt Lake immediately. Normally a four-hour trip of 250
miles, we set off as dusk fell and the storm loomed ahead, its darkness already flecked with snow, and settled into a
slow drive through hours of what became whiteout conditions. The El Camino soldiered on; where is the The Way ....
we were looking for it, and it was hard to find. Roadway borders were indistinguishable from the flat and featureless
high plains; the road itself was unmarked, the only car tracks ours, behind us, soon covered. Often we had to get out
of the car and look for signs of edges. The storm worsened. “John,” I murmured, “Isn’t this a rather dangerous situation
we’re in? We could die out here . . .” He laughed, agreed full heartedly, “Commonplace up here.” Trackless was a place
Barlow was able to live in with an attitude of equanimity; being on the edge was familiar ground. And a determined
energy carried him through, forging tracks. We made it to the city; his father recovered.
John told this
story often, but the joke was on me: newbie Englishman meets the Wild
hand beats the odds.
John took on the odds and came out even more than most of us.
ACT Eugene, May 1, 2018