The Traveling Feast: On the Road and at the Table with My Heroes
The radio operator didn’t like me. She worked the switchboard down in town for my shortwave, which was how people got in touch with me back in the late 1980s. There was no electricity up here then, no telephones, no nothing. Friends dialed the dispatcher’s number, and she rang me up on the radio. She was a severe churchgoing lady, severe even by standards in western Montana.
The radio wasn’t like a telephone call. People back in New York, or wherever they were calling from, thought that it was, because they were on a telephone. But out here, on the Canadian border, up in the trees and mountains, it was like a live talk show. Everybody in western Montana could hear our conversation, which was broadcast over the radio, and during the short winter days, the long winter nights, when entertainment was scarce, that was what a good number of the folks up here ended up doing—monitoring one another’s shortwave calls to hear all the dirt.
The radio dispatcher didn’t like me because my callers were often drunk and used coarse language. I was too shy to tell them, my callers, that they were on the air, and besides, with many of my friends—so wild!—this would only have inspired them to further profanity. I merely quivered and winced, imagining the church-lady operator listening, imagining my neighbors listening, imagining, in bouts of winter paranoia, the FBI and the FCC listening, taking notes.
Why my friends told me these things in the first place, I didn’t know. I hadn’t asked to hear them—neither had the church lady—but since I was too shy to tell them “Please, stop it,” the operator and I listened to the editor Gordon Lish use the f-word like water. “Bass,” he said, calling to tell me about some new development, as enthusiastic as a twister, “you’ve got to read this, it’s fanfuckingtastic, you’ve fucking got to fucking read this fucking book.”
The church lady didn’t even clear her throat. I trembled at some of the things she had to listen to, and wouldn’t have blamed her for holding them against me, but I never dreamed of saying anything to any of the callers. All my life I’d been shy, and I wasn’t about to change that.
Before my move to the remote Yaak Valley in Montana, I had lived in Mississippi. One summer there I attempted to become Eudora Welty’s yard man. It was one of the many summers when I was writing, but had not published anything, and did not believe I ever would. I am sad to say this was not when I was a teenager; this was when I was a grown man: twenty-four, maybe twenty-five years old.
I just wanted to be close to her, was the thing. It seemed like the perfect world. I could be close to her, but I wouldn’t have to say anything. I could just stagger around in the Jackson heat, shirtless, in her front yard, and perspire: trimming the hedges, mowing the lawn, sweeping the sidewalks and the driveway like some sort of yard savage. Standing guard is what I imagined it would feel like, protecting her, but more important, just being around her.
Why? I hesitate even to try to explain what the work of Eudora Welty, the best American writer never to win the Nobel Prize, has meant to me. Unlike Faulkner, her Mississippi neighbor, the flamboyant curmudgeon and drinker who wrote overbrimming, high-octane prose (Barry Hannah once called him, semi-endearingly, Old Blabbermouth) and who traveled the world, Miss Welty stayed for ninety-two years in her Jackson home on Pinehurst Street—the same house in which she had been born—writing, writing. “I am a writer who came from a sheltered life,” she says in her memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings. “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
It was the music of her prose that moved me: the rhythm, the cadence, the lyricism. Two of what I consider the greatest similes ever written both belong to her: her description of a bird dog’s pink panting tongue being the color of a faded rose, and the sound of cicadas in the early evening being like that of grain being poured into a metal bucket. In the former, I love how she compares the monstrous—there’s nothing nastier than a bird dog’s slobbering old tongue—to the sublime, the archetypal poetry of the rose. And the latter works its way far down into the subconscious, because even though the two sounds are not alike, both are elemental components of the Southern experience, and hearing each stirs a similar home-register in the brain.
My admiration extended beyond her writing. I had seen Miss Welty buying a frozen pizza at the Jitney Jungle one time and had even been impressed by the way she looked at each one before selecting the one she wanted, rather than taking the first one she saw. I figured I could learn things just by being bold enough to breathe some of the same air, but without ever mentioning to her that I was a writer; or rather, that I was trying to be one.
Perhaps I should not be telling this.
I bought a lawn mower and typed up a prospectus, listing my services: mowing, trimming, sweeping, etc. To increase my chances of employment, I gave price quotes that were crippling to any would-be competitors—two dollars per lawn, no matter the size. I went from door to door, putting these notices in the mailboxes, in the door slots. I would only embarrass myself further if I tried to tell you what it felt like, standing on Miss Welty’s porch with my little notice.
I didn’t gain Miss Welty’s employ. The closest neighbor who hired me was a man who lived two houses down, but that was all right—it was closer than I’d ever been before, and I could breathe the air as I mowed laps around that delighted man’s yard; that man who, for two dollars a week, was sure he was getting the better end of the bargain. But I knew better. I never complained about the stupefying heat, or about the humidity, and I kept a close eye on the yard two houses down the street. I was getting to breathe that air.
I haven’t mentioned I had a real job back then, as a petroleum geologist, an executive’s job with an office and a telephone and all that nonsense. Often people from the office would drive by in their rich cars and see me out there, laboring. It didn’t bother me at all, though my savage yard work in that neighborhood was the beginning of my downfall in that office, with those office people and their rich cars, which is another story, and one I bring up only to illustrate my point, that shy men, or shy women, cannot live among people, nor should they try.
That summer I was nowhere near the writer I wanted to be, and I decided if I couldn’t write, at least I could cut lawns, and do it well, and I suppose I wanted to show that to a real writer. The logic of it escapes me now, but I remember believing that lawn cutting would cure all the awkwardness I was experiencing with my writing.
Shyness can be a deadly thing.
About the worst case I ever heard of (besides mine) was from a writing student at the University of Montana named Jake, who related the following story to me. One time Jake and his friend Brian were fishing and drinking just outside the town where Tom McGuane lived. The sun was high and butter-yellow, a lovely June day. Tall grasses waved on the hillside where they sat taking a break from fishing, and drinking vodka. Along bounded a dog, up through the tall grass, wanting to play—McGuane’s dog, Sadie, as it happened. She was a pointer, as I imagine it, polka-dotted, like a Dalmatian.
McGuane was one of Jake’s gods. So what does he do, in his breathless shyness, in his drunkenness, in the beauty of the day? Jake, whom McGuane did not know from boo, took a sheet of paper from his notebook and scrawled his address on it. Giggling, he wrote, Tom—loved your last novel. Let’s have lunch—Jake, and then withdrew from his rucksack a story manuscript he had with him and tucked this, along with the note, under the dog’s collar.
It was a great joke, very funny, and he had Brian laughing, but before Jake could call the joke off and take the manuscript back, the McGuanes drove past in their new blue pickup on the gravel road above the river, the whole family, and the dog took off after them like something fired from a cannon.
Mortified, Jake jumped to his feet, wobbly-legged and drunkstaggering, and chased Sadie across the field toward the McGuanes’ not-too-distant ranch. The truck stopped at a gate, and McGuane got out to open it, and his little daughter looked back and saw Sadie racing toward them; and then, surprisingly, not so far back, Jake, his legs churning, arms pumping. The McGuane family watched as Jake caught Sadie, bulldogged her down in the tall summer grass, wrestled the note and manuscript from her collar, then fled for the cottonwoods along the broad river.
That’s how it is. You wait and you wait, and you work and you work, hoping to be a writer, a real writer—not as good as the ones you most admire, but good enough to maybe one day go up to them and say hello—but it very rarely works out that way. And if you’ve got this wretched shyness, you almost always seem to find yourself doing something foolish: rolling around wrestling a dog, or spending hot afternoons cutting lawns for free, when you should be inside writing. It’s much better just to go off into the woods and not ever be seen again. Protect yourself from yourself, stay cool, and do your work. You can be the party animal in the next life.
When you’re shy, and a writer, it’s not the same as being shy and, say, a mechanic. If you’re a writer, people know you’re watching them. It’s like you’ve lost all your anonymity. You can’t even stand in a crowd and be quiet, because they know what you’re up to and then if that crowd happens to be other writers, well, that’s the absolute worst.
One summer, Jim Harrison called me up on the radio and wanted my wife, Elizabeth, and me to meet him and the poet Dan Gerber in Livingston, at Jim’s daughter and son-in-law’s place, for dinner—a legendary Harrison-cooked meal, chicken and ribs and beans and turnip greens, in honor of our Southernness, Jim said. It was the first time I’d ever spoken to him—we had mutual friends at Lemuria Books, in Mississippi—and I had to brace myself to keep from falling over.
I had read his novella “Legends of the Fall,” set in northern Montana, before I moved there, and it’s the one story that metamorphosed me from a reader to a writer. I was struck by the powerful emotions beneath the surface that sometimes emerged like animals into the light of day; by the compression of story, in which the saga of a hundred years occurs within a hundred pages; and by the lush, painterly images: yellow cottonwood leaves pasting themselves on streamside boulders; an old man in a buffalo robe embracing his sons before they ride off to war, the breath of his farewell rising like smoke in a barn; a grieving soldier cutting out the heart of his war-killed brother and sealing it in wax to ferry back to Montana.
I’d been writing before I read this novella, working in Mississippi, where I made maps of underground treasure and wrote during my lunch breaks—awful stuff, among the worst prose ever written. At Lemuria, they kept trying to hand-sell me the book of the Harrison novellas. I kept turning it down, believing them to be rough he-man outdoor sagas, tales of blood and matted fur. Finally they just gave me the book, and it changed my life. When I read it, the slow sleeping atoms in my blood began, with that one awakening, to realign into crystalline forms that were unfamiliar to me. I followed them, no questions asked. I wrote a short story called “Where the Sea Used to Be” and sent it off to the Paris Review, where a young slush-pile reader, James Linville, handed it on to his boss, George Plimpton, and they decided to publish it, my first acceptance.
I still remember the letter: “I really liked it,” James wrote to me. “It reminded me of ‘Legends of the Fall.’”
It was nearly a day’s drive from where Elizabeth and I lived to where Jim wanted us to meet him. We drove seventy-five miles an hour all the way. It was as if we were driving into battle—there was that sense of finality to it.
The weekend was perfect. We stayed at their house and slept on the back porch by a rushing stream with wind in the trees above, and stars and crickets. Jim and Jamie, his daughter, spent the whole afternoon preparing the meal, and the only thing the rest of us had to do was sit around and be awed. Dan, who is also a Buddhist priest, gave me one of his books and sat by himself on a boulder in a field at the base of the mountains as dusk fell, wearing pressed trousers and a clean white shirt. He came back in after dark and showed Elizabeth and me how to rub white yarrow, which was growing all over the yard, along our arms and faces to keep mosquitoes away and to smell good. Jim’s agent and his wife, Bob and Kathy Dattila, were there—Kathy, like Elizabeth, is from Mississippi—and there were stories, stories. Kathy and Elizabeth lay together in the big hammock, and there was plenty to drink. Coyotes bayed in the distance. Jamie’s husband, Steve, a lawyer, cooked the chicken, sprinkled water on the spattering coals. I wanted not to be shy, not this one evening, but couldn’t help it. All I could do was watch and drink and eat and enjoy all the stories. It seemed to me that I lived in the woods and made up stories, but these people had actually gone out and lived lives.
There was one magical moment, after we thought everyone else had gone to bed. Elizabeth and I were outside, drinking, and in the kitchen window, we saw Jim and Jamie framed in the light, father and daughter, standing side by side at the twin sinks, working with concentration and talking to each other: Harrison’s big balding tanned head and Jamie’s slender schoolgirl-looking one, glasses on the end of her nose, dwarfed by Jim’s massiveness, both of them happy in that yellow square of light, with Elizabeth and me on the outside, unseen, and the noise of that creek rushing past us.
When you are shy like this, you feel a million miles away from anything. You want to come closer, but cannot bear to bring yourself in. When you are a million miles out, though, you can see things, and you’re free just to stand there and watch, and things that are sometimes ordinary to everyone else seem to your shy mind, in the last outpost, beautiful. You feel like falling over on your back, upturned, like a turtle.
Some years later, George Plimpton offered to punch me in the nose.
In the interim, after my defection from Mississippi to Montana, I had graduated from would-be yard man for Eudora Welty and become a bona fide writer, having published a collection of stories and a couple of books of essays. When George made his offer, we were standing in his office discussing a story of mine he was going to publish in the Paris Review, “The Legend of Pig-Eye,” about a boxer in the Deep South. I wanted to tweak it a bit further, and told him that I was thinking about fighting a guy at Gleason’s Gym in New York for the experience.
He grew very somber. “Don’t get in the ring,” he said. “Whatever you do, don’t get in the ring. Those guys are serious. They’ll hurt you. They would love to hurt a writer. Don’t get in the ring,” he repeated, so insistent that I wondered if he were receiving some kind of vision in which I was killed.
He pulled down a copy of Shadow Box, in which he had boxed Archie Moore, at that time the light heavyweight champion of the world, and toured with Muhammad Ali. Plimpton’s eyes took on an interested look, and he moved between me and the doorway.
“If I hit you in the nose, though,” he said, “you’d become part of a hoary genealogy.” He began limbering his right arm, rolling his shoulder a little, flexing and unflexing his fingers. “When I was fighting Archie Moore, he broke my nose, and he had his nose busted by Ali, who had his nose punched by Joe Frazier, who had his nose punched by…” Plimpton recited, with pride, the chain of busted noses, of which I could become the most recent inductee—the tradition of it going way back before even Jack Dempsey’s time.
I made some lame excuse toward leaving. Plimpton lingered in the doorway, and the offer was made once more, with even more conviction—but finally he took the half-step aside that would let me leave his office without becoming part of boxing history. I have always wondered what it would have been like, and if I should have allowed him to reach out and tag me with that long right.
In some ways it might have been George Plimpton himself who put the idea for this book in my mind. Beginning with my fifty-fifth year, and having written nearly thirty books and however many hundreds of magazine articles, I decided to take a break from writing and go on an extended pilgrimage. I set out traveling the country (and in one case Europe) to visit writers who were mostly a generation older than I am, the ones who helped me become a writer trained outside a university. Sometimes they helped me by reading what I’d written, and commenting on it. Other times they were simply friends. Still others were mentors without my ever having met them: blazing trails through the dark forest. Some of them, then, I would have known for decades; others I would be meeting for the first time.
Along the way, I would bring a couple of my best students, the ones I believe in most, both a generation younger than I, in an attempt to provide them a makeshift apprenticeship in the time-honored fashion of artists and artisans, of the same sort my mentors had given me.
The plan was to cook a great meal for all of my heroes, one by one, and tell them thank you while they were still living, rather than that other thing writers usually do, speaking kindly of one another in the sterility of the obituary—which, however floral or nice, is never heard by the deceased. There was no sugarcoating the venture: a number of these heroes were on the way out. Quite a few were in their seventies or eighties. Indeed, in the end the project did take on an elegiac cast, with the departure first of Peter Matthiessen, then of John Berger, and last of Denis Johnson, all of them gone too soon, and in Denis’s case much too soon.
Though occasionally others tagged along, like my younger daughter, Lowry, an aspiring writer herself, I made the majority of these trips with one of two mentees: Erin Halcomb (aka “the Left-handed Sawyer,” a Westerner, who is an outdoorswoman and a live-trapper for the Forest Service and a writer of nonfiction, and, like me, an activist); and Cristina Perachio (an Easterner who’d never been west of the Mississippi; a former chef and food critic, and a short-story writer). I had met each of these writers at summer workshops, one in Montana and one in Maine.
What constitutes a fit between artist and mentor? It is not necessarily style, or even sensibility, though sensibility gets closer to describing it. Aesthetic might be the best. If a shared aesthetic exists, the mentor can come to view the mentee as another of his projects: a shaping and sculpting, and a carrying forward of the mentor’s aesthetic.
In the end, however, is that age-old cliché, although it is the younger writers who are changed more it is also true that the mentor finds himself modified by the teaching. I had thought I would be able to stay on the perimeter of that venerable tradition, remaining a hermit in the Yaak Valley, working only on my art, because there is another tradition of the reclusive, solitary artist, deep in thought in a mountain hermitage, serving first and always the Muse. But as I eventually learned, that is only one-third of an artist’s core. The other two parts are community, and relationships to other people—the one-on-one.
So off we went. Together we undertook this pilgrimage of gratitude and generosity. For the most part, the old writers we visited were the ones who had welcomed me nearly thirty years ago, back when I was an unpublished writer they took the time to read, to believe in, and to correspond with. Through them, I wanted to pass on to Erin and Cristina the excellence of not just the craft of writing, but the craft of living.
Over the course of a few years, I said thank you to my heroes by preparing a ceremonial meal for each of them. It mattered hugely to thank as many of them as possible while they were still alive, and it matters hugely to me that their gifts and powers not be diminished or forgotten by the generations behind me. I hoped to share that beauty across the membrane of time.
Occasionally, my mentees and I visited writers who were not that much older than I am—accomplished peers, essentially—to cook and eat and discuss the influence these older greats have had on younger writers; what they appreciate about, and have gleaned from, the aging greats. But the heart of this book is the Old Ones, from whom we learn the habits and being of greatness. We were curious about their loves, and their tastes: whom they read, whom they were influenced by, what they have found helpful in their long careers.
Sometimes I missed them by a hairbreadth. My dear friend the Texas writer John Graves died as I was starting this project, before I could cook for him and his wife of fifty-plus years, Jane. And some writers declined. I couldn’t blame them. I myself wouldn’t have said yes to the request. Strangers, in my house, trying to probe the secret, creative part of my soul and brain—and in my kitchen?
Sometimes I couldn’t quite make it to their kitchens. With the great and ever-peripatetic Bill Kittredge, the dean of Western literature, the closest I was able to come was for Erin, her husband Pat, and me to buy him a burger at the James Bar in Missoula. In another time, another universe, we would have gone out to see him at the homestead of his partner, the writer Annick Smith, on the Big Blackfoot River, and grilled corn and ribs and sat around with them in the summer sun at a picnic table with a red checkered tablecloth. “Devouring Time,” wrote Shakespeare, “blunt thou the lion’s paws.” And yet I also believe that time is the essence, the fuel, of beauty.
I anticipated that over the arc of the book, a recipe for greatness—in art and in life—might present itself. A guide to navigating the shoals of midlife and aging. Because there was another thing: I was recently separated, in the long and often agonizing journey of a divorce. Through that gauntlet I was lonely, and sometimes raw.
At one point in my life, it seemed I knew what it was like to get everything you wanted—everything you’d hoped for, and a little more. I fell in love with the most beautiful young woman in Mississippi, ended up marrying her. I wanted to become a writer, and became a writer, self-taught. I fell in love with a wild mountain valley in Montana and sought to protect its farthest places as wilderness, and got lucky in that regard, too. I wanted two daughters, and that dream happened as well: Mary Katherine, in 1992, and Lowry, in 1995. It seemed back then all I had to do was move toward the dream of whatever I wanted, and I could get to where I was going. Mercy or grace—the undeserved dispensation of favor—remains one of the great mysteries in our lives. Who gets what luck and when, and why? “Why me?” any of us might and probably should ask, in the most grateful sense, every day.
One of the hardest lessons, in middle life? That even fortune’s favorite sons or daughters can’t have it all forever. Some things have to go away. The dissolution of my marriage was neither my idea nor my wish. But in the end it was not my call. I have carried that rawness in me, and do yet, years later.
Because of that bittersweetness, it was hard for me to witness these writers who have pulled off the miracle of giving their all to art and yet also maintaining long and successful—by all accounts even happy—marriages. Or who are happy now, having made it through the gate of hard times and survived, then prospered. Couples like Bill and Annick, or Tom and Laurie McGuane. Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. Those visits were hard on me. Denis and Cindy Johnson. David Sedaris and Hugh Hamrick. After those meals, I would bleed harder. And would keep moving, always moving.
That Elizabeth and I burned too hot is irrefutable. Cinders, sparks, embers, shavings of light falling from our hands and feet. In some respects, there was never a cooling period, and for that, the marriage was wonderful, which made its destruction a tragedy. When it was over, I ran.
I say it was wonderful, but of course it was not all wonderful. In time, though, I hope I will forget the hurt, and remember only the good. The woods where we lived were so amazing. I remember a camping trip deep in the wilderness, high in the mountains, when a summer thunderstorm blew up and I retreated to the tent. The rain came in waves, my green tent glowing in that afternoon light, until I heard hooves galloping our way, followed by terrified bleating and thumping. Then something tripped over the tent, a stampede, and the shadow of another animal leapt over the sunlit dome.
I shouted, to drive away the animal—a bear?—and when I unzipped the tent and peered out, two mountain goats stood panting at the edge of the five-hundred-foot cliff beside which I was camped. Unzipping the other door of the tent, I saw, up in the rocks, two mountain lions in sunlight as yellow as butter, prowling, pacing, their long tails twitching. Goats on one side, lions on the other, and me in the middle.
We lived in magical country. The goats looked first at me, then at the lions, and turned and disappeared over the cliff. Once the goats were gone, the lions also looked at me, twitched their tails again, then turned and vanished in the other direction, passing back into a labyrinth of boulders as if into a dream.
She and I were always sewn tighter together by the woods’ magic and carried it with us further into our life, where on a winter day we stared out the window of our cabin at a mercuric silver–black vortex of otters diving in and out of a hole in the ice, pulling out one small silver trout after another and crunching them with relish—and it seemed their play was the coil of all the world’s turning, and that the world was saying to us, “Be with this person for as long as you are living.”