Late August I’m always reminded of the mountains of West Virginia and a spot of two lane blacktop that turned my life upside down. In August of 1979 we were heading north on a rain slick U.S. 250 in Larry’s 1973 Mercury Comet. Just the two of us. Larry was driving, I was slouched in the passenger seat, trying to nap. A touch of the brakes made me open my eyes. The grill of a van was all I could see. We smashed head on and then tumbled over the side of the mountain, finally stopping far below the road with our wheels in the air. My chin had caved in the dash, and I was dangling by the lap belt, unconscious, blood running down my face. Larry recalls jumping out of the car without even registering we were upside down. Both his arm and the steering wheel were broken in half. Our friend Rich was supposed to be on that trip, but he backed out at the last minute. Said he had a feeling.
I didn’t open my eyes again until three days later, in the pale light of a hospital room in Elkins. Larry was there, and I said to him “This is the best place you could find?” which made his lip scabs crack open…
Just a few curves before our impact I remember thinking to myself how good I was feeling, what a wonderful trip it had been— ocean and mountain, breakers and waterfalls. I actually said out loud to Larry that if we were to die I was ready and well accounted for, because my life could not be any fuller. Then I closed my eyes.
Death is easy. None of us is ever closer or farther from it than I was right then. Forty four years later it’s still just a tap on the shoulder away. My challenge has been to try and make every moment like that one, descending Cheat Mountain in the rain, full to the brim.
I have not been back here this century. It’s not on any map. Overgrown and abandoned, you can pass within a few feet of it and never even see it. A quarter mile into the woods suddenly you’re on the brink of a precipice—unexpected, immense, baffling. Out of nowhere, sheer drops reveal a vast limestone pit more than ten stories deep and just as wide, surrounded by dense ferns and undergrowth.
It is here, forty years ago today, Dona and I first exchanged our wedding vows. In the decades since, the sinkhole has been forgotten, even by the locals. Something in me is glad for this, as if I could live long enough to be the only person to remember this place at all. Today I can’t find a way down to the cathedral bottom where we once stood together, hopeful, unsure of what the future would bring. The way I used to know is obscured with tangles and uncertainties, and no one would find me if I slipped.
Standing on the edge of a beautiful secret, I open my notebook and trace the outline of a heart. I place the word always into its center, and fold the page into a paper airplane. I set fire to the paper and launch it into the abyss, imagining an unwavering flaming trajectory to the very center of the sinkhole, and a feathery float of ashes to the bottom. Instead, my plane dives almost immediately and disappears from sight beneath the first ledge. I wait a moment for a wisp of smoke and take a good look around, not knowing if this will be the last time. All we can do is try.
The years have brought so much good to us, the hurts and hard times seem more and more faded. I feel blessed and thankful. I could not have wished for a better partner in life and mother for our kids. They have grown up with lives of their own to make us feel proud and loved. Our marriage, fraught with its own tangles and uncertainties, has not come through completely intact. But our love for each other endures, the source of it remains, not always spoken or visited every day, in a place deeper than any disturbance. A sacred place no one else knows. Today I found out I can still get here.
My old reliable truck, 276,000 miles, plucked from its parking spot of eight years—not for its monetary value, but for its dual catalytic converters and some short term scrap metal hauling. Gone forever I’m thinking. A week later I get a call at 3AM. Albuquerque police found my truck in the middle of a residential street, doors wide open. “Can I go get it?” I ask. The cop on the phone tells me the truck’s not driveable, they’re having it towed.
Next day Dona drives me out to a salvage yard on south Broadway to check it out. The tires are shredded, rims chewed up and cracked. Both exhaust pipes cut open where the converters would be. I try the mangled ignition and the truck starts right up, louder than an old Harley. We sort through what’s left in the cab. The thieves forgot a few things: a rechargeable dremel for cutting tail pipes, a used meth pipe, a DC phone charger, some spent shell casings and an intact 9mm cartridge which I keep for a souvenir.
The truck had been good to me, but I had been coming to the truth that I no longer needed it. In my transition from construction retirement to literature I had already decided to just drive it until it quit, and then move on. So here it is, no longer worth the cost of keeping. I sign the title over to settle up with the wrecking company, and I’m moving on.
So I’m walking now, another week gone by. The sound of a revving engine makes me look up. There’s a red KIA skittering past me in the middle of the street, all four tires blown, sparks flying off the bare rims. Driver and two passengers. I turn to watch them disappear around the next corner, a smile forming on my face. So they too had moved on. It’s what we do.
I was lucky enough to hit the road recently with my son Nick—3461 miles of it, including some of the most jaw dropping two lane stretches in America: US 550 from Durango, CO up to Ouray; US 50 into Lake Tahoe; CA 120 across the divide into Yosemite; CA 180 through sheer verticles into King’s Canyon; CA 198 from the majestic sequoias to the hot lands; and CA 1 through fingers of fog along the coast of Big Sur up to San Francisco.
Nick’s feat of driving was astounding. Whenever we had the road to ourselves he would get us into a beautiful rhythm, hitting the curves at the perfect velocity, feeling every undulation, so that it seemed to me like we were dancing with the landscapes themselves as we passed through layer upon layer of unfolding grandeur.
This was the trip, day after day, Nick driving and driven, always pushing us further, always taking in more, a lush composition of sensations that became a symphony: snow on the ragged peaks beyond our reach, ancient pulse of sap in the old giants of the forest, dashing tumbling rivers carving their cathedrals of stone on their way to the sea, condors soaring over waves breaking over rocks like teeth in the sun, rubber eating up asphalt hungry for the next bend in the road, the unshakeable strength of this nation rooted in the immensity of the land itself, the road its own destination.
I no longer pay attention to fear mongers, they have never made my life better. My horse is a low horse, I have no power or wealth. You are my only audience. My home is one room, eleven by twelve. I don’t know how to eradicate fear, I’ve never been good enough at comforting others. So this is not advice, or a boast. This is just me trying to deflect some of it. This is me interacting with a piece of the world.
I’m fortunate to be able to say that fear, for whatever reason, hasn’t knocked at my door lately. No tears over that. And I don’t sympathize with those who profit by it. This has allowed me to enjoy walking off trail in bear country once or twice every week for years. Given me confidence in the face of abstractions. I find that a person’s wallet doesn’t put me off anymore, full or empty. I can work well with immigrants and transsexuals. Humans in general no longer worry me much. And while it’s true that particular individuals still DO have the potential to worry me in certain situations, it’s not because of their skin or accent, bumper stickers, or holy books. I automatically distrust strangers but enjoy their company, and that includes almost everybody, since I have very few friends.
As a child, I was no stranger to fear and its tactics. In catholic elementary school they had us hold our hands over a lit candle to give us a tiny taste of the torments of hell. We were taught that the real thing would be infinitely more painful and that it would never end. Eventually I came to view anything that never ends as a kind of hell. My own mortality is a fear I still cling to, even utilize: it’s part of my original motivation to have kids, it still makes me write— the chance that something of myself might outlast me.
Small comfort. But I’ve been neglecting my fears more and more lately. They aren’t so well watered or carefully tended anymore, even though the bears are real out there. My time has gotten too short for me to spend it guessing, or scared. My attitude these days is: we’ll see. That’s as sure as anything.
Before I was born is a cloud of hearsay to me. I can recall the telling of it, or the reading of it, but it’s all someone else’s word.
My earliest actual memory emerges two months before my first birthday in the living room of the house I was born into. The occasion is a photo session, and I am the subject. There is the photographer with his eye glasses, and his artificial lights of transcendent brightness. With me are my parents, and my dad’s parents, whose house is also ours at the time. There are many poses, with an assortment of props, from a variety of angles. I distinctly remember an ottoman, which I was to lean upon, would be re-located several times before a satisfactory composition was achieved.
Anyone can see what I was wearing that day, the shape of my face, my disposition of the moment— these are all perfectly preserved in the surviving prints. What is striking to me now, in my memory of that day, is that I could follow the conversation among the adults as they discussed what to do for the next shot, and their instructions to me. I felt no need to verbalize in response, but I had no trouble processing what they were saying.
This surprising awareness has since informed my grown-up interactions with even the smallest of children: they know more than they say.
And from that day to where I now sit, I have been continuously, and consciously, “me”.
Yesterday they handed me my friend’s ashes in a box too small for a cake, but big enough to hold a copy of his book, all the loose poems he left, a pen and his pocket flask. I was surprised at the weight of it—these were not like the ashes of the campfires we huddled around, white and weightless the next morning, disappearing at a touch or a breeze. This was like a box of sand, to remind me of the heft he commanded with his words and heart.
We called each other “flaco”, a team of scrawny brothers stepping out of the shadows for the occasional spotlight, more often laying low with a poem, or just a beer and a laugh. Bob spent a long time on the streets, starting over every time he woke up without his backpack, hundreds of poems washed away like silt in the river.
This last year had been tough because of the pandemic. We weren’t able to get together on Sundays anymore, the nursing home slammed shut to visitors. It wasn’t until he was hospitalized finally that I could be face to face again. On his last lucid night we watched Saturday night fights on the hospital TV and he sipped a milkshake Dona dropped off from Wendy’s.
I have his words and our memories, as close as my heart. Deep down in there I have said the big goodbye to him many times over the years—he came so close so often, so my peace with his passing is well rooted. Whenever I miss him I just close my eyes or open a page, and always with gratitude. He is my dear friend and a hell of a poet. As he himself once wrote, death is just a vacation from life. And this:
SUBURB: poem from Street Milk by Robert Swearingen (words and voice)
I have earned a living with my hands– building for others, for hire. I have worked together to make a family. My writing proceeds from having lived. But the old ways no longer suffice.
We are now at a point where any truth we want is available. Any public figure can be made to do or say anything. Elections have become a game show judged by the audience– let’s see whose results are the most convincing. Politics and religion are one and the same. Virtual and actual are interchangeable. Any prophecy is self fulfilling. Vast segments of the population now occupy mutually exclusive realities– fractured, customized, repackaged, and consumed by subscription. There is just one channel, personalized to tell us only what we want to hear 24/7…
The mountains which rise up on the edge of town are beyond the range of any signal. Here I just have to figure out how to negotiate the next canyon. Nothing else. I encounter the oldest challenges, the prehistoric narratives. Because from time to time I need to put my weight on something that was here long before I was, something that will outlast all of this.