The Cowboy God

The white sign seems to glow in the gray of the rainy afternoon. It stands at the edge of a Texas byway, alone, weeds clinging to the two whitewashed two-by-fours holding it up. COWBOY CHURCH it says in simple red letters. Below the words a red arrow points off to the right into the gloom.

My wet brakes don’t grab at first, but once they boil off the water I slow and turn off the blacktop and look down a long, straight dirt road. No doubt about which way to go. Gently I pull forward, even that little nudge making my wheels spin for a moment before taking hold. The ground is saturated; water stands in a sheet over the mud of the road.

I creep along for a mile or two, glimpsing the road ahead for a fraction of a second with each pass of the wipers before the downpour obliterates my view again. Finally I make out a structure ahead, gray like the rest of the world. In front is a large area clear of weeds; I pull into that. The building is a large steel structure, a barn with a modest steeple at the crown of the roof over the door. I park next to the only other car in the lot, a faded blue Oldsmobile from sometime in the ’70’s. One of its windows is down and water is collecting in the footwell. A Bible lies getting sodden in the front seat. I push it farther over, out of the direct rain. I open the car’s door to roll up the window, but there is no crank handle.

Already wet, I dash up the steps to the front door. In the inadequate protection of the front porch I try to scrape the mud off my shoes. The wind is tossing the rain around and I am getting progressively wetter. This is a cowboy church, I decide, they should be used to a little mud. I slip through the door and close it quickly behind me, the sound overwhelmed by the drumming of the rain on the metal roof.

I am in a vestibule partitioned off from the sanctuary by walls that don’t reach the ceiling. Carved wood doors in front of me lead into the main chamber. To one side is a folding table with mimeographed sheets in various pastels. One stack is of light blue sheets neatly folded in two, with a line picture of the church on the front. Beneath are the simple words “Cowboy Church” and a date, past or future I do not know. Finally, in fancier script it says, “It’s never too late.”

I set the paper back down and square the pile. There’s nothing left but to go inside. The door is heavy but moves easily on its hinges; I close it with a gentle click and turn to inspect the room. I am standing at the back of the sanctuary. Folding metal chairs are lined up neatly in rows across the concrete floor. At the far end of the space is a modest altar. On one side of the room is a cast-iron stove glowing invitingly, near it is a folding table with a pair of large coffee urns. On each side near the front hang long banners of red cloth depicting Jesus doing a variety of good things. The lights are off; the only light comes from a row of small windows down each side of the building and a pair of large skylights. The place lacks the soaring majesty of the great cathedrals and the simple joy of the modern house of worship. This is the Cowboy Church, all right.

I step forward into the Cowboy Church, not sure why I came, not sure what to to.

In the Cowboy Church, pray to the Cowboy God.

“Hello?” The voice comes from the back, behind the altar. There are two doors there, one on each side, leading through another partition to spaces unknown in back. The voice is small, and female. A church mouse.

“Hello,” I say. Suddenly I feel like I’m intruding. I should have knocked. “The door was open.”

The door on the right opens and a figure emerges, small and gray and lost in the gloom. “Of course,” she says. She steps forward into the splash from one of the windows. Her hair is dark and very long. Her skin is pale. She looks moonlit. “Preacher’s not here,” she says.

“That’s all right,” I say. “I’m looking for the Cowboy God.”

She takes another step forward and stops, back in shadow, but I can feel her watching me. After a moment she says, “We got the same God as everyone else.”

I nod slowly, but then shake my head. “No,” I say.

What kind of God would a cowboy create? To whom does a cowboy pray while the rain pours off his hat brim in a steady stream and all he has to look at are the filthy asses of the cows plodding in front of him? It wouldn’t be some great being promising a life of comfort and joy. It wouldn’t hold out the promise of Heaven. A true cowboy sees Heaven every day. If he didn’t he would have packed up and gone to the city long since. The Cowboy God doesn’t bring promises and doesn’t offer hope. The Cowboy God is the kind of God that sits at the next barstool, listening to Willie and sipping Bud from a long-neck bottle. He’s a little run down himself—his back is bothering him from all the heavy lifting and his knee goes out from time to time. Maybe the cowboy’s foot is broke and his shoulder takes longer to get going each morning. It’s not worth mentioning because there’s nothing to be done about it and there’s work that’s got to be done tomorrow. They’ll both be getting up before the sun, and tending to their business. It’s the hardship as much as anything else that makes the cowboy who he is; take that away and you take away his soul.

They don’t say much, the cowboy and his God; not much really needs saying. Each is a comfort to the other, a source of strength. After a couple more beers they shake hands, maybe clap a shoulder, and leave. The cowboy climbs in his truck, the manufacturer more a source of religious fervor than the God he prays to, and he wishes his God a safe journey home and feels in his heart the blessing returned. The cowboy might in a real pinch ask his God for a blessing, but he’ll give the Lord his best wishes every day. The cowboy knows what it’s like to carry a burden.

She’s taken another step forward, into the light of the next window. One eye is as gray as the day outside, the other is lost in shadow. She is trying to look into my soul. “What is it you want?” She sounds suspicious, protective, as if I might be a threat to the Cowboy God. Have I come into his lair to call him out, like some gunslinger in the old west? She stands shyly, her straight hair pushed back behind her ears, her hands clasped in front of her. She is wearing a brown skirt, her legs two pale stakes like the signposts. Over her white shirt is a brown coat that matches the skirt. She stands, afraid, ready to defend her God.

“I just want to ask him a question,” I say.

She relaxes a little but suspects a trap. “Preacher will be back soon.”

“All right,” I say, but I’m not interested in him.

“Can I get you come coffee? I just made some in the back.”


While she scuttles off to fetch the coffee I drift over to the comfort of the stove. I look out the window, to where the Cowboy God really lives. “What’s it all about?” I ask. My breath fogs the glass.

“Did you say something?” she asks, bringing me a styrofoam cup filled with steaming black coffee.

I accept the cup. By the window I see that her hair is lighter than I first thought, but here eyes are still gray, and open a little wider than seems natural. Her lips are pale, almost indistinct, and pressed together. Shadows under her eyes give her a weariness that speaks of experience and gives her otherwise youthful face a gravity that makes her age impossible to guess. I sip the coffee. It’s good and strong. Cowboy Coffee, I suppose. “Thank you,” I say. “I was just asking my question.”

“Oh,” she says. Perhaps she is distressed that I could be on speaking terms with her God, that I didn’t talk to the preacher first. More than that she is curious.

The sound of rain had faded so slowly I hadn’t noticed its absence, but now it resumes with more furor than ever. The day grows even darker outside. A clatter begins above, and hailstones thrash the land.

“Guess you got your answer,” she says, the corner of her mouth twitching upward even as she turns away, embarrassed for joking at my expense. I look at her pale profile, glowing white like the sign by the highway had. She is watching me from the corner of her round eye.

“Guess so,” I say, and I think she must be right.

She steps to the wood pile and selects a log, then opens the stove and delicately places it inside. The yellow light gives her face some life as she inspects the fire. “You should wait till the storm passes before you drive,” she says. She almost has to shout to be heard over the hammering on the roof.

I Love the Road

Long Road Ahead Somewhere between Hoover and Glen Canyon, on the stretch of road where I took this picture, it hit me. Not for the first time, not for the last. You know the feeling. You look at your lover/spouse/significant other over breakfast and the face you see just blows you away. “Wow!” you think to yourself. “I’m so damn in love!” It never gets old. Her face, his face, whoever’s face it is, strikes you as new and completely beautiful. It’s the first time you’ve ever really seen that face. There’s something about it that strikes your soul.

Yesterday I saw the face of the road again. I was blasting down a two-laner, sun baking the land, when I passed under a vulture catching a draft off the blacktop. I went directly under the raptor, and praised the sweet lord of the open skies for the ragtop as I looked up into the huge bird, its great wings aglow from the sun above. I shot past and nearly locked up my brakes for a doe and her fawn crossing the road. Sublime to rush. Love.

A couple hundred feet later I saw a deer dead at the side of the road. I think about death out there. Every rain-slicked curve at the edge of a cliff could be my last. Every time a semi hurtles past on a small highway, knocking my hat loose, I pass within feet of death. One sneeze, one seizure, and my tiny car is crushed beneath the juggernaut. A swift, unexpected way to go. That’s death on the highway. A matter of moments.

Out there, there are crosses by the road, marking places where people have died. I look at the contours of the road, trying to reconstruct the events that led to the tragedy. Sometimes it’s obvious, other times it’s a mystery. Some unholy and unfair convergence of the world, or just asleep at the wheel. I have passed my fair share of twisted metal, surrounded by flashing lights and solemn policemen, shattered coffins spilling blood onto the road. Move on, the officers say, waving emphatically. My presence can only compound the harm. I stare ahead and resolutely do not add to the slowdown, riding the bumper of the car in front of me.

But you can’t have death without life, and you can’t have life without love. The road is the perfect lover. There is the yellow stripe shooting down the middle of the asphalt, stretching out into the future, always there, varying but never ending. The road itself is constant, an uninterrupted ribbon connecting here with everywhere so well that there is no here and there anymore. The road itself is the only remaining place. To the sides of the road, above it and under it, is constant change. Even the same stretch is different every time. Seasons pass. Stripmalls appear. Towns wither and die. The road is still there.

Today I drove through the Chama Valley in all it’s autumn splendor. I chased rainbows on the plains. I got cold, I got wet, I shouted into the roaring wind. I was on the road.

I See Beauty and Stuff

Moonless night now here on the upper floor of the Earth. I step out into the darkness, into the humming cloudless night, and they are all there. All the names I know, and even more I’ve forgotten. Polaris, constant enough for our sorry lifespans. Antares, heart of the scorpion, named for what it isn’t. How would you like your name to be “Not John”? Alkaid, shining at the end of the handle of the Big Dipper. The name is Arabic, and means “the base” or “the fortress”. The street I used to live on was named for that star. Osama bin Laden also took a shine to the word.

Cassiopeia lies along the Milky Way, stretching her wings across the galaxy behind. As my eyes embrace the darkness she is almost lost among the clamor and light. The bears are there, diminished in reputation by the dippers they support. Draco, I never could pick out. It seems to be all the leftover stars that couldn’t fit into any other shape.

Arching almost directly overhead is the Milky Way. I look and try to turn that mysterious band into a disk of countless stars, but it is too much for me. There are enough stars I can see already.

Across the backdrop of the untouchable infinite crosses the works of man. High above but almost close enough to touch pass the blinking rumbling jetliners, crossing the sky but not daring to leave a trail behind them. The stars will not tolerate such impudence tonight. Another light moves across the sky, brightly lit as it crosses the plane of the galaxy then quickly fading. After a few seconds I lose sight of it, but I keep trying to look sideways where I think it might be, hoping to catch a hint of motion out of the corner of my eye. Whatever it was, it was big, and far above the atmosphere. ISS, I have chosen to believe. I could look it up, but I’m not going to.

Earlier tonight, driving back from a shopping run (the store closed early), our local star had just dipped below the horizon, carelessly leaving behind a rich sky full of pink and lavender. The ponds I passed stole from that palette and shamelessly reproduced it. The grass, green and haughty and still filled with the rain I had called forth, chose to contrast the colorful solar residue rather than echo it, which just made it all the better for me. I drove too fast, choosing to skim across the tops of the washboard ruts. It was good. It was thus with fondness that I said bon soir to out giant plasmic meatball, and welcomed the night.

Alone in the dark, more air below my feet than above my head, the stars blazed forth, barely bothering to twinkle. The hum of night insects surrounded me, supplemented by the vague, uncertain alarmism of Spike, who has obviously been paying too much attention to the government lately. Better to bark and have your ass kicked than to simply have your ass kicked.

The stars, and, strangely, no planet that I could identify (except Earth), continued on their vast journeys, unaware or our ridiculous fears.

Random stuff

My parents have been married forty-five years. That boggles my mind. It’s longer than I’ve been alive. (Wait for it… wait for it… bingo. You get it.) They’re planning to whoop it up for their 50th, and why the heck not? Turns out there’s an eclipse just then, so the party will be off the shore of China. Count me in! My parents are very good at being married. They’re so good at it that they are constantly working to get better at it. They are the Tony Gwinn of marriage; they take batting practice every day.

Does a one-eyed dog dream in 3-D? Does a blind man dream in color?

My cousin John opined (if you knew John, you would know that ‘declared’ is a more appropriate verb) that the electric guitar is one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. It sure made protest music louder. When the man has a microphone, turn up the amps. When the man has a media empire, no amp will be loud enough. The Internet is the next electric guitar. Carry on, Dr. Faustroll! Carry on, Dr. Pants! Médecins Sans Sanités! The fate of the republic rests on your shoulders! Oh, yeah, and I’m a candidate for president. (Note: that was mock French. The actual phrase for sanity is not as graceful.)

I just heard Transvision Vamp on the TV radio. I think that’s the second time I’ve heard them when I wasn’t playing the music myself. It was Baby I Don’t Care (not to be confuesed with the You’re so Square song by some other band), which is an OK tune, but further over on the pop side of the spectrum than the tunes I like the most. If I figure it out, I’ll give you a little slice of the love with a music posting á la Pants. If only learning weren’t such hard work.

I’m thinking that perhaps blasting East to hang with Jesse in his pre-fatherhood, pre-travel days, then working my way back west might make sense.

I am stunned, flummoxed, and amazed that anyone still wants George W. Bush to be president. Are you not poor enough yet? Do you not realize that being in debt is the same as being poor, and that government debt is your debt? Aren’t you tired of the billions and billions he’s spending on his war ending up in the pockets of his buddies? Have you not noticed who benefits from high oil prices?

The Czech Republic has now played hockey for exactly 1/3 of the time they’ve been on the ice. Now they’re going to have to play all 60 minutes to get past Sweden or Finland. At least the ice won’t be the slush pile it was in Prague. Those guys were wading, not skating. With so many NHL players the Czechs should be comfortable on the smaller ice, but they’ve built a team almost exclusively of skaters, and a fast rink can only help them. I really missed the mikes down on the ice while watching the Czechs demolish Germany. None of the voices of the skaters, none of the smack when stick strikes puck, and none of the crashing of skulls into boards after a good check. And, the best sound in hockey, the sound of the puck bouncing off the pipes.

According to Sam-I-Am Lujan, Rio Arriba County is where rookie state troopers are sent. “They’re all rookies. They don’t know crap.”

I still haven’t deleted the epilogue from The Monster Within. It has nothing to do with the rest of the story anymore; there are characters that don’t show up anywhere else, and obviously some history of events that never happened, but I like the way it feels. It’s a nice way to exhale at the end of the run. I guess I’ll discuss it in more detail over at the hut forum so I can put spoilers in.

The Flavors of Solitude

Solitude is not simply the state of being alone, it implies active insulation from the rest of humanity. Solitude has many flavors, characterized by what is avoided and what is missed.

The taste of solitude changes dramatically depending on whether one is stationary or in motion, isolated or ostracized. When you are stationary you can form a connection to a place, even if it’s just a rock in a meadow, and even if it’s just for a short time. You are somewhere, and it is a place that is yours. Sitting alone at your spot in a bar or in your comfy chair, solitude at rest is peaceful, a shelter.

Solitude in motion has a different flavor. No connectedness, no restfulness. There is a drive behind the motion, something disquieting that prevents rest, either a quest for something unattainable or a flight from something. The mind is at work, gnawing at itself, yearning for the unattainable. The only thing harder than moving on is staying put, for motion becomes the mechanism that enforces solitude. By never staying too long in one place, no attachments can form.

I heard an interview of a guy who spent five years riding freight cars, not knowing how he was going to eat that night when he woke up in the morning. He found a way to express his thoughts as he drifted, and published a book of poetry that made quite a bit of money. In the interview he said something like “I’ve been settled down for a few months now, but I’m going back out there soon. I feel the need growing in me.” Unasked, unanswered, unanswerable, is where the need comes from. Is life in mainstream society smothering him, threatening him, or just disappointing him?

Solitude is the state that allows the mind to turn inward. Free from the obligations that come with all human interaction, you can simply think. This is the essence and the allure of solitude, and also its curse. Free to think, there is no avoiding thought. ‘Curling up with a book’ is not solitude, even though you’re not with other people. You’re with a book. Solitude is the state when thoughts are free and unfettered, and consciously you have very little control over them. It is the state of complete personal honesty, when the thoughts happen that you will never tell anyone else. It is the time we dance with madness.

Artists are the ones with the courage to tell us what they saw there.

American Road Myth, part 2

I’ve touched on this already – that solitude is a big part of the American Road Myth, so forgive me if this repeats some of what has been said before by me and by you. In part one, I described the road as a path to personal wholeness, or the myth of wholeness, at least. Implicitly, those on the road will never know that wholeness. The road is a place for the unwhole. They just keep moving. They are the drifters.

The road myth is all about the drifters; they are the frame that the myth is hung upon. People with no place. They go everywhere and belong nowhere. The heroes of American legend are drifters. The road has shaped our heroes and our old heroes did much to build the road myth itself.

It’s the classic story – a stranger comes to a troubled town. He knows no one, owes nothing to anyone, and has nothing to lose. He understands evil, though. He knows how it works and he knows what to do about it. His separateness from the rest of the people gives him a power they don’t have, a mythical energy that comes from strength of character and moral certainty. At least, that’s what the townsfolk see. We know that any American hero has demons as well, ghosts that drive him mad even as they give him strength. It is the evil he fights within himself that gives him power over the evil he meets. The road looks like the path to escape the demons, bit it isn’t. The road is where the demons live.

At the end of every story, the hero is presented with a choice – stay in town, put the demons to rest, settle down with the prettiest girl, or return to the road. Return to a life of haunted solitude. The choice is always the same. (Although there is the occasional story where they have to shoot the girl to get him back on the road). Big trouble in Little China did it best: “Aren’t you even going to kiss her?” “Nah.”

Many countries have adopted our loner-hero character, and the Australians may have improved upon it, but it is still a peculiarly American myth. A hero in a story is only allowed to have a social life if an equally prominent character demonstrably does not. Bad guys are surrounded by people, Good guys go home to empty apartments with chinese takeout cartons overflowing the trash can. They have no furniture but a lazy-boy and a small TV on a milk crate with a coathanger for an antenna. They like it that way. Jackie Chan has a family to nag him, Nick Nolte probably never even had a mother.

I have certainly embraced the idea of the hero as a loner in my writing. The main character in The Monster Within is about the most solitary person I’ve even seen written down at the start of the story. The Fish, while still in its infancy, is a story directly about the search for solitude. By disconnecting from the world, the narrator is able to see the nature of ordinary things through many different layers, and hear the stories going on around us all the time.

Which brings me back to the drifter. When he finds a new place, he sees the things that everyone who lives there has learned not to see. He sees the truth. His power is to show the truth to others. He may be the best with a gun, or perhaps Kung Fu, but his real weapon is truth. It is why the town appreciates him so much, and why they don’t try too hard to make him stay. Too much truth, all the time, would be scary. It’s better for everyone if he just… vanishes. As if he never was.

He shows them the truth and makes them free, but he never shares the truth about himself. That is for the drifter and his demons alone.

The Other Rooms in Hell

But what are the other rooms in Hell, and what would they be like? Hell’s bathroom?

Hell’s bedroom is fertile ground for marriage jokes, but let’s face it, the potential for pain and humiliation is greater there than anywhere else. Hell’s foyer would, I think, be understated and tastefully decorated. Hell’s dining room, on the other hand, would have all sorts of fine china, but you have to eat with hammers..

I think I would like to visit Hell’s library. Taste the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Mmmm… magically delicious!

What about Hell’s laundry room? Hell’s garage?