Authors: Roland Merullo
We left reservation land and crossed the state line, passing a government-issue billboard:
NEBRASKA, THE GOOD LIFE.
As if the state border marked the end of the bad life.
The other part of the sign was:
HOME OF ARBOR DAY.
There wasn't a tree to be seen! It was four o'clock and I was hungry and a bit weary from the road, still carrying the weight of Pine Ridge's desolation and curious, too, about the man we were scheduled to visit. Seese had told me they were friends from her Berkeley days, from a period when she'd been involved with a boyfriend named Saul, who'd been hit by a drunk driver in San Francisco one evening when they were out for a walk and died in her arms. They'd worked at some kind of cooperative, a worker-owned bakery close by the university, and Alton had been employed there, as well. How he'd migrated from there to Nebraska I didn't know, and why she was sending us so far from the mountains to visit with him I didn't know either.
Beautiful as it was, northern Nebraska didn't seem particularly hospitable to anyone or anything. I'd never seen so much empty, unpeopled land in my lifeâand I'm a North Dakota boy. At first, there were cultivated squares on the great expanseâcorn and winter wheat, I'd guessâand even one flat, neat little town, Gordon, with a grid of residential streets and enormous white grain elevators by the railroad tracks.
And then we entered the Nebraska sandhills, which, I have since discovered, is the largest area of vegetated dunes on earth, twenty thousand square miles of green rippled land that had once been sea bottom. On that day the dunes were dusted with millions of small sunflowers and endless square miles of waving grasses. I remembered my mother and father talking about the sandhills. Mom had a relative living in that part of the world and the relative had told her that, beautiful as the land might be, it was “good for nothing except looking at.” Nothing edible, no saleable crop grew in that sand, and so my parentsâfarmers to the coreâspoke of it with a kind of pity. Even the grasses, they said, were of such poor quality that you needed thirty-five acres to feed a single head of cattle. Thirty-five acres! Everyone knew that any grazing land worth its alfalfa feeds cattle on merely a three-to-one ratio. The Kinkaid Act allowed homesteaders to stake 640 acres of land, but even that hadn't been enough to make any kind of a living. Almost all the claims were soon abandoned. Eventually they were taken for free or bought up by wealthier ranchers, so now Black Angus cattle were raised on ranches that could be five, ten, or even twenty thousand acres in size.
I enjoyed driving through it, though. Empty as it wasâat one point we went fifty-four miles without seeing a house, gas station, building, or human beingâthe landscape was a marvelous complexity of mounds and swales, and with the carpeting of flowers all around us and the sailing cumulus above, and one shallow pond where a white pelican floated like a bathroom toy, I could have gone 154 miles without seeing anyone and still been rapt.
In the last hour of daylight we pulled into the little railroad town of Mullen. There was a lone commercial street, with a handful of other paved roads leading off it, and a railroad track along which we watched a mile-long coal train rumble and squeal. I suggested we stop and ask for directions to avoid getting lost in the hinterlands on Mullen's outskirts and Rinpoche did not disagree.
“You know this guy, don't you?” I said.
“Right. Any idea why Seese is sending us hundreds of miles off our route to see him?”
“Do we had a route?” Rinpoche asked.
I drove slowly along the wide main street, looking for a person of whom I might inquire and thinking that if I could just settle my mind a bit more I would come to understand that everything my brother-in-law said was a lesson. Everything he said, everything he did, simply his way of being on this earthâall of it was a lesson worth more than a new a summer house or a million-dollar annuity.
Do we had a route?
No, we did not have a route. Of course we didn't. But my mind, the habitual pattern of my thoughts, felt the need to rope the future into a corral. I lacked the courage to live out my life minute by minute. I needed a route, a plan, a future that was predictableâor at least imaginableâand safe, even though one second's glance at my almost fifty-two-year past would prove that no such future could ever possibly exist.
Do we had a route?
It wasn't said in a critical way. He wasn't mocking or judging, only showing me, with a kind, automatic straightforwardness, that no, we did not have a route, not in Mullen and not in life. It came clear to me then that, looked at with my ordinary mind, the trip seemed pointless, a wild goose chase of the first order, a colossal waste of time. But one step backward into clarity and it was all clearly intentional: I was being asked to give up the crutch of having a plan. I was being offered the chance to do what I might have done in my late teens or early twentiesâjust go, trust the road, see what lessons it offered, take my lumps, and savor the joys. I spotted a young woman pushing a stroller in front of a place called Red's, and I stopped the car and got out, feeling as if my mind had been knocked into an open pasture.
Do we had a route?
The young woman had the wide-set eyes and wide, pretty, pale-eyed face that seemed to me to have been handed down from the people who'd crossed these prairies on wagon trains 120 years earlier. She was somehow big-boned and slim at the same time and she had a bearing that seemed to me to speak of inexhaustible patience. Her child lay asleep in a tangle of blanket. “Hi,” she said, as I approached.
“Hi. I'm looking for a friend. Alton Smithson. The only address I have for him is âOff Route 97, Mullen.' Would you happen to know where he lives?”
“Sure. Everybody knows Alton. The computer-fixer, right?”
“I think so, yes.”
Though Alton lived some fifteen miles south of town, the directions turned out to be very simple: a turn onto 97, and then one more turn a quarter hour up the road. “He's over there on the left as you crest a hill. All kinds of antennas and stuff sticking out of the roof of his barn. You'll find him.”
“How old is your child?”
“Just a year. Nathaniel Andrew Ryan, Nate for short. It's nap time, as you can probably tell.”
“I have a son and a daughter, both grown. Enjoy your time with him.”
Her smile was a crescent of radiance, sunlight on the plains. “I will. I do. It's nice to hear somebody say that.”
“It's the best work there is,” I said. For some reason, there on the streets of Mullen, I'd turned into a propagandist for parenthood.
” she said. “Everybody's always saying how hard it is. I like it, you know. That makes me feel weird with my friends.”
“That's the opposite of weird.”
Her smile lifted into a small laugh, a few notes of relief sprinkled across the empty sidewalk. I thanked her and turned away and heard her say, “God bless you,” over my shoulder.
Darkness was falling as I turned onto 97 South, and I decided we would very much need God's blessing if I happened to miss the turn onto Alton's road. Two blocks south of town the nothingness began again, the folded hills, the dunes, the flowers. It felt like the road had been drawn through the primeval. Rinpoche and I were racing into the heretofore unimagined. Miss this turn, I thought, and you'll drive until you run out of gas. Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, the colonial cities of central Mexico.
But the turn appeared precisely where Nate's mother had said it would be, and after a few minutes of gravel road in the fast-fading light, I saw antennas off to the left, then Alton's barn, a dirt drive, a house, the man himself standing out front in a posture of anticipation. He seemed to be leaning slightly forward.
“Alton,” Rinpoche said. And then, strangely, “Do you see the ghosts around him?”
I saw no ghosts. What I saw, as we drew closer and then parked and got out, was a tall man with wheat-colored hair lifting up from a long forehead, like teased out frosting on a rectangular cupcake. He bore a slight resemblance to Lyle Lovett, the singer, but something in his manner seemed that of a beaten man, as if there were weights tied to his wrists, ankles, and neck, as if a great weariness had overtaken him at birth, a great sadness. He bowed deeply to Rinpoche, almost an exaggerated bow I want to call it, and then shook my hand without quite making eye contact.
“Anybody follow you?” was the first thing he said after the introductions.
He was looking down the road. Darkness had fallen now and a sprinkling of stars showed already above us, the advance guard of full night.
I looked back at the road, too, perplexed. “Who would have?” I asked. “Celia's home by now, or nearly so. She and Shelsa took the bus back from Deadwood.”
He smirked. At last he took his eyes from the road, ran them over me, and then fixed them on Rinpoche in a way that was almost fearful. “I'm making you a real Nebraska supper,” he said, and then the words rolled out of him. “Barbecued beef, beans, corn bread. It's what the pioneers ate, though they probably ate buffalo instead of beef, but the beans and everything, coffee if you want it, come in, come on in, I'll show you where you'll sleep, I have separate rooms for you, comfortable enough, I think, without being too comfortable. Come in, come in, thank you for visiting. It means a lot.”
He all but snatched Rinpoche's leather-handled satchel from his hands and led us along the short dirt path to his front porch. The house was elegantly simple and marvelously built, with wide-board wood floors, exposed beams, a hallway that led past a small bath to three modest bedrooms. It was as spare and neat as our farm's meditation room, bereft of decorations or photos of loved ones. In the living room was a brick fireplace, one jade Buddha on the mantle. That was it. “I'll put the meat on now,” he said, but he sounded unsure, as if he was waiting to be contradicted, waiting for Rinpoche to declare he'd become vegetarian, or that he wasn't hungry, or that the pioneer supper was a bad idea, unspiritual, a stain on our karma. It would lead Alton to a bad next life, as a cow owned by a man who beat him. He'd be slaughtered and eaten; he'd learn his lesson then.
As soon as we'd arrived, Rinpoche had taken hold of Alton with both hands and pulled him close for one of his World Wrestling Federation embraces, and Alton had reacted strangely, almost pulling away, stiff, embarrassed. At the door to the last bedroom, Rinpoche put a hand on our host's right shoulder and looked up into his eyes. “I meditate now, my good friend. You and Otto talk, cook. When the food is for eating you knock, okay?”
“Of course, of course,” Alton said nervously, but he seemed affronted. Something in his face registered surprise, almost insult, even as he was nodding and saying, for the third time, “Of course, Rinpoche.”
I left my bag on the bed and followed him around back. He put three thick slabs of Angus flesh on a charcoal grill and we stood next to each other in the most awkward of silences. “So,” he said at last, “you're a student of Rinpoche's also.”
“Student, brother-in-law, friend. He's married to my sister.”
“I know. Cecelia. I was always in love with Ceceliaâdon't be offendedâbut I never had the courage to ask her out or anything. We worked side by side for two years at the bakery and I just couldn't do it. Even after Saul . . . passed, I mean, I wouldn't have asked her
Saul passed, obviously, but even after, long after, I couldn't even ask her to sit down with me and have a cup of tea or anything, go to a movie, you know?”
“She would have said yes, I'm sure,” I said.
Alton shot me a look, wary, on edge. It was like being with an angry wolf coated in four inches of meringue. You could feel the anger there, way, way down, and on top of it a perpetual gushing apology.
“I noticed how well-made the house is. Did you build it?”
“I did,” he said, brightening some. “I couldn't bear to live in regular American society anymore, just couldn't. I inherited some money. I felt bad about that. Here I was, here we were, living the free life, sharing everything, totally unmaterial, not harming the earth at all, and what happens? The bakery folds and just as it folds my old man passesâhe was a big-shot lawyer in New York, working for all kinds of rotten corporationsâand he leaves me a ton of money. The money was made from representing oil companies and defending Wall Street cheaters and South African gold-mining companies and stuff like that. Dirty money. But I took it anyway.” He laughed in a way that made me cringe. “I am, or was, what I think of as an Abbie Hoffman type. Radical gone Wall Street.”
“People change,” I said. “Grow up. See the world differently.”
“Right,” he said. “Definitely.” But his tone was the last thing from definite. “I worked for an agency in D.C. for a while just to get my head together, use my computer skills and so on. Then I decided I'd move out here and be alone and have a spiritual practice. I was writing letters to Cecelia, hoping maybe I'd get up the courage to ask her to come out here and make a life, and then she told me about Rinpoche and told me to read his first bookâhave you read it?âand then I found out they had the Center in North Dakota and I went up there a few times and did some work for themâ”