Wendy woke up around 5 am. She gripped the side of her night-table and pulled herself out of bed and then walked downstairs. She needed to get the paper. She did not place a single garment upon her frail body. Her white hair was shoulder length, her blue eyes were brilliant, and her skin sagged. Down the stairs, out the door, and to where the morning’s paper lay on the concrete stoop she shuffled. She bent over, gravity pulling upon her skin, pulling and straining it towards the ground. She reached a curled, arthritic finger towards the bundle of local news. Her late husband had often growled, “It is more a newsletter than a newspaper. They can't even do a decent obituary.” But, regardless of what Old Henry had thought, he had gotten a lovely obituary.
Wendy grasped the plastic rapped bundle, and righted her aged body to an upright position. Slowly. Standing as straight as she could, she took in the neighborhood. She stood as a matriarch should: back straight, head moving slowly from left to right scanning and observing, her lips smiling. She smiled without showing any teeth because, well that just isn’t how a queen should smile; it would be vulgar. One might think vulgarity an insane attribute to aspire towards while registering the fact that Wendy was in deed standing upon the stoop of her home, within the confines of a neighborhood occupied by families and children, naked- not that there is anything wrong with a naked body, but it would be shocking in the confined burbs. The matriarch, if one would allow such illusions, didn't possess a concern in her mind. She stood completely and unabashedly naked. Wendy turned to re-enter her home. But, out of the corner of her cataract-eyes she noticed Mr. Thompson walking out of his house: briefcase in one hand and a coffee cup in the other. Oddly, Wendy registered hat he was another neighbor who had purchased an automobile that could be started within the confines of their home. Before they were even strapped into the steel frames, the leather seats could be warmed and ready for the worker bees en route. Good for them, she thought. Although Wendy had never driven, she could appreciate comfort. Because she saw him, she thought it fitting to wave. She raised one arm straight in the air, again gravity pulling and shifting her skin, and with the slightest twist of her wrist she waved. Mr. Thompson had walked out of his home still fighting the desire to climb under his down comforter and feel the form of his wife lying beside him. Instead, he was freshly showered, his suit was on, his hair combed with precision and patience, his car was running. Then, he saw her. Mr. Thompson saw, from across the street, that Wendy Johns, his elderly neighbor whom he had known since he had moved to the neighborhood, was standing on her front porch stark naked. He stopped and he stared. He couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t believe that she was standing there without a stitch of clothing on and she was waving to him. She was actually raising her hand and waving to him. He was jolted from his trance by the scalding contents of his coffee cup falling unnervingly close to his wool, suit-pant covered privates. He growled obscenities that would have been indecent to say in front of a woman of Mrs. John’s age or his children- despite her present condition and the likelihood that they had heard far worse on the bus ride to school. He kept moving to the car, opened the door and sat down. In his rear-view mirror he saw the wrinkled, sun deprived white ass of Mrs. Wendy Johns disappear within her house, and he muttered, “Friday.”
The line in the sand was bold and it was straight. Three men stood and stared at the line, it separated one from two. For each man, the line possessed a varying weight of consequence. The consequence of the line, of each individual decision, also bound them together. Even the wind seemed to recognize the gravity of the drawn ultimatum, stopping so it would not be altered or swept away.
The One stood alone, hands clenched by his side. His face was crisped by heat and lashed by wind. The One clamped his eye-lids shut, shielding brown irises from the unobstructed sun. Shuttered vision deferred the tragedy un-spooling on the other side of the line.
The Two stood side by side. The oldest of the pair fidgeted with his hands. His green, buttoned shirt was stained and greasy to touch. Despite the heat, it was buttoned to the collar- a habit formed in in the fields of Mississippi when he was a teenager. The youngest of the duo ground the stubble on his chin with grimy fingers. Neither man vocalized troubling thoughts festering in their minds- spoken words were not trusted. They did not look at each other. Avoidance.
The One opened his eyes, relaxed his hands, and asked, “What's it going to be?”
The sun forced The Two to squint. Sweat stung their eyes. They could not see The One's face, it was blurred. They looked down. The One stepped closer to the line. He was trying to remain calm, trying to dampen flaring rage. Restraints holding simmering madness were buckling. His own desperation distorted perceptions of time and the effort of others. He saw only himself as TRYING, as DOING SOMETHING to get out of their current predicament. The One smacked his dried lips and croaked, “I'm not waiting anymore.”
The oldest of The Two, who could still muster words from a ragged vocabulary in frenzied desertion, asked, “What do you want me to say, David?”
The desperate plea was countered by silence.
The only voice to address The One: David, was compelled to say more. He wanted to reason, to bargain, to even fight. He wanted to yell: “He's my brother! How can I make this choice?” He needed a way around the line. He knew he was stalling. Instinct. The youngest of The Two, whose mistake had forced the three to run, swayed. His eyes were unfixed and drifted over the landscape. He saw David standing beyond the line, alone and agitated. He saw his brother and knew something was wrong. His grasp of their circumstance was loosening, he was confused. He pinched sweat from the corner of his eyes, but that irritated them more. Whatever reserves of will and spirit he had once possessed were gone. He could not continue, not on his own. He said nothing.
The elder brother's thoughts rushed at his mouth, reaching to explode in the air between he and the line. His lips barred the path. Words and emotions were corralled within haunting introspection. Some unknown part of himself, hidden in a place unfamiliar, knew that speaking would not shift David's position or alter their circumstance. Questioning and reasoning and bargaining would not ease the titanic load of divisive choice and arresting decision. He needed to act, to choose. It was the consequence of action that mattered. He twitched with an impulse to scatter the line, to erase it. But, he didn't. And then, a bolt of clarity revealed that the line existed, drawn or not. He heard Old Mr. Talley's voice, “You might as well piss into the wind, boy.” Judgment was unavoidable. A fool would understand that much.
David turned from the line. He admired sand climbing for the sky and watched birds, flecks of black: flying, soaring, and gliding upon bursts of wind. Momentary distractions could not erase or blot the remorse he felt that there was no alternative to the desperate and sad ending. He and the two brothers had worked together for a long time. He cared about them. He had taken care of them. Accumulated time, however, wasn't blood. His father, glassy eyed and dim from a bout of drinking, slurred that sentiment to him, David's only inheritance, one night when he was nine. David did not follow all of his father's advice, nor was much given, but that calloused wisdom remained. He did not know if it was because he believed it or if it was his personal resignation that he was his father's son. David had never been shown his potential. Where he came from though, that was repeatedly beaten into his brain by the cold indifference of adults who judged him by the actions of his old man- his future had been foretold before he had lived. When his father died, killed by a store owner tired of thugs and unwilling to give his money away, outside of Sacramento, he was a family of one, and despite his affection for The Two, he could not, even if he had wanted, afford an offering of sympathy. Sharing such sentiments would help no one. Not then, and probably never. He had bent his rules more than he ever had for the brothers, but he had a limit. There were always limits. He shook his head, trying to dislodge the spreading headache behind his eyes, and said, “I've helped as much as I can, Brian. Stay. Or, cross the goddamned line.”
Brian could no longer delay the moment that had seized all that had been and all there ever would be. His conscience was under siege. He felt the panic of a drowning man: futility of action and tragic inevitability. To stay was certain death. To continue on did not guarantee survival. Could I leave my brother if he surrenders? Brian asked himself. He had only choices void of hope. The pressure of David's cold prompting, anguished contemplations, and the taunting line unraveled Brian's remaining threads of sanity. Brian screamed with feral ferocity. His brother covered his ears and looked at the line. David clenched his jaw. Brian's mind faded to black.
Dragged straight and deep, with the heel of David's deteriorating boots, the line was a mechanism of survival. David had watched the third continue to weaken. He saw Brian losing his own resilience, step by step, wasting dwindling reserves of strength worrying about his younger brother. David forced the confrontation because he knew they could not reach the border as a trio. He did not envy Brian's position nor could he foresee the beleaguered brother's decision. David did know Brian must make the choice, that the decision must be his. Any alternative would only prolong a summation of life that could be resolved here and now.
David's perspective was starved to a point of biological simplicity: he wanted life and he would buy that with the two brother's deaths, if necessary. He was not sure if he was right or wrong, such a contemplation was extravagant and unaffordable. No one alive in the world had always been on the side of what was right, of that he was certain. Such perfection was myth. He filtered his professional and personal choices through a rationalization that what is right and wrong is the dealer's choice. But, corrosive doubts were building. Fatigue and the fringe of his own sanity led him perilously close to an unrestricted conscience- it's presence felt odd and cumbersome. The filter was breaking.
A dark bar in El Paso, Texas, cluttered and dusty, stumbled into Brian's mind. He heard the gravely voiced singer crooning. He saw hunched forms cradling bottles and glasses and flicking cigarette ash on the tiled floor. No one had paid attention to the singer but Brian. He heard, out of the mouth of the red-eyed man perched on a stool, his ips pressed against a microphone, a code he understood: a man who doesn't look after his family is no good. He had followed that code, without prompting, his entire life. The memory did not last long. A fly landed on his nose and revived him. He looked at the only family he had ever known. His brother's head was drooping, his shoulders were rolled, and the fabric of his pants were torn at the knees. Brian had spent the entirety of his life trying to take care of his brother, hoping to help him get past limitations of character and circumstance. Brian wanted a way out of the twisted fate he was fastened to. He had done the best he could. Neither had had many options in the short life they'd known. Brian had worked with what he had understood, what he had learned in his own limited experience. He wished he had done more. He hated that he did not believe more could have been done.
Brian looked up at the sky. He closed his eyes and began to pray. He had never done that before. Brian had never felt inspired by the idea of God or religion and he had never possessed familial obligations of believing. He stopped shortly after he began. The sky looked as empty and expansive as it always had.
The Third, the younger brother, looked up from the line. He grimaced and raised his eyebrows. His question was unspoken, but it was clear.
If any water remained in Brian's body, his eyes would have been slicked with tears- muddy washouts of despair. No tears could be squeezed out. He was gutted by his realization.
A train howled, faint and far away. The sound, a cruel reminder of a world still spinning beyond the small piece of real-estate defined by the line and the three who stood around it. It was a distant world, but not yet unreachable.
Brian stepped towards the line.
David slid his hand under his shirt and gripped the handle of the knife tucked into his pants and cinched by a cracked leather belt, held in place at the small of his back. He studied Brian's face. He fixated on his eyes. Eyes betrayed intentions. He would be ready whether it was in greeting or confrontation.
The gap between the line and Brian was small. Four steps and he arrived at the peninsula of his delayed conclusion. He blinked. He stared. He knew the answer to the unmovable question, but he did not know the words. He did not know how to end something as fundamental as brotherhood. His first words were indistinguishable, fragmented sounds gurgled between lips. His oath had dictated the course of his life, an oath not even their parents had honored- whoever they were. It was the oath to protect his brother that flailed at a strengthening resolve of reason and impartial practicality. The oath was fighting a losing battle. Brian was fucking tired. Fatigue. Time. Life. These were the culprits hacking at the artery fueling the oath and it bled out with a futile prompting, “Cross the line. Come with us. I can't stay. Try.”
The Third looked down at his feet, two of his toes poked through the front of brown shoes two sizes too big. He looked at his brother- eyes wild, his face drawn and tormented. He knew Brian had tried, in that moment and every moment before, to help him. A challenging task. He knew, this time, he would not pin Brian under his inabilities and the burden of who he was. He would not be a cinder-block ride to Brian's death. He couldn't go on, but his brother could. Matthew cut Brian free. He sat. An act of grim acceptance. Redemption at the bell.
Brian's stomach knotted with violent spasms. He felt like vomiting, but there was not even bile in his guts. He did not speak again. Words would be redundant and futile, a waste of energy. He touched the top of Matthew's head, squeezed the blonde rats-nest of curls: a last goodbye, a last physical sensation of the person most significant in his life and an apology. Brian backed over the line: one foot and then the other.
David let go of the concealed knife. He nodded when Brian reached him. David considered tossing the slumped form of Matthew his blade- a quicker exit when the time came. But, David wasn't convinced he wouldn't look for outs eventually too. There were many miles and little hope until the border. The knife remained where it was.
The wind returned. Scattering grains of sand were the only sound. Brian and David turned their backs on the line, the one left behind, and they walked against the wind. They trudged towards an unlikely outcome- an outside chance and a long shot gamble- that they'd find a path out of the sand-box. Brian's departing footprints were quickly filled and erased by the whipping sand, erasing the past and leaving only the present and each step forward. He worried that though he had chosen to press on the cost of survival rendered him an apparition. He had chosen to live, but he feared he was walking dead.
Matthew lifted his head and looked at the line. He stared at it and he believed that he was able to see each individual grain of sand filling the judgmental indention. He did not doubt his decision to stay. He said, to the wind that slung sand against his face, “It was the least I could do.” For the first time in his life, Matthew felt proud. And, pride rarely is free. The wind intensified. He closed his eyes.
The line was gone when he awoke. He wasn't sure how long he had been sitting there. The sun had nearly set. He was tired. He hoped Brian was far away and able to see that there had never been a choice, that he deserved to live as much as he could, for once, for himself. Matthew rolled on his side. He closed his eyes and hoped his dreams were pleasant and kind. The sands washed over him. THE END
I pulled on suspenders, faked a New York accent, and sold, “Papes” after I saw the musical movie Newsies in the early '90s. It was not long until my parents suggested I put down the bundle of ink and paper, pick up a pen, and sit at a keyboard and write. It was a step up, I suppose. But, to a six year old, it wold mean giving up the fist-fights, rock-slinging, and cruising with pals. Or, did it? Not long after that discussion, while in the first-grade and with the help of my father, I started my first paper. It was a small newsletter and it covered the topics we miniature people thought were important at seven years old. There would be a couple of other renditions of this activity. Eventually, I worked for my college paper and then a daily paper in New Hampshire. Similar to my music, writing as a journalist drifted in and out of my life for a long time. An interest in reporting always sparked when something of importance took place. I would get a feeling, down deep within myself, a compelling jolt to write. The notion of actually becoming a reporter as a profession did not arrive until after I had graduated from college and I was standing on a barren job site dotted with large machines and: hot, dirty, and tired. My tardy recognition that mos of my life had been an accumulation of practical skills, development of style and talent, accumulation of life experience, and training for the work of a journalist was a welcomed revelation. But, it did not arrive with the complimentary companion of knowing how to become a reporter. I found a job board for journalists, and I applied often. I spoke with aging newspaper fellows, and most of them offered little insight and even less encouragement. Most of them were either retired or were soon to be retired. They greeted my questions with scowls and snorts of confusion. Most asked a variation of this question, “Why the hell do you want to do this?” And then they offered advice, “Go do something that will make you some money.” I thanked them for their time and continued on my way. I possessed no illusions about the business. I was not chasing romantic ideals. I was interested in working with a purpose in a profession I felt was a calling. In lieu of words of advice or helpful direction from anyone, I read a lot. I conducted my own graduate course of journalism and writing and reporting and chasing stories. I found a job board for journalists and applied often. I spoke with aging newspaper fellows, most of them offered little insight and even less encouragement. Most were either retired or on their way out. They greeted my questions with scowls and snorts confusion. Most asked a variation of this question, “Why the hell do you want to do this?” And then, they offered advice, “Go do something that will make you money.” I thanked them for their time and continued on my way. Illusions of the business did not occupy space in my mind. I was not chasing romantic ideals, drunk on visions of All The Presidents Men. Working with a purpose, in a profession I felt was more a calling than a career, and addressing the issues of my lifetime were the current pulling at me. In lieu of helpful words of advice or constructive directions, I read a lot. I conducted my own graduate course of journalism: the style was literary, the skills were writing and research and questioning, the substance was truth, and writing and chasing stories were the fuel. My qualifications expanded. The next step was to land a spot in a newsroom- I needed an opportunity to prove myself and learn the grit and grime of the job. Academic understanding needed to be replaced with active participation. I sent cover letters, resumes, and inquires of work, willing to relocate anywhere. These inquires were either lost in the abyss of job-searching or returned with a note. The note often went like this, “We see your potential and admire your drive, but you do not have enough experience yet.” Well, holy-shit. How the hell is one to get experience without an opportunity to do so? Through the grind and frustration of futile application mailings, I learned that my will and resolve to press forward and do the work was unwavering. I had lost many battles throughout my lie, and I would lose man more as the years passed, but I never did, nor have I ever surrendered the war. An opportunity finally arrived when an editor at Foster's Daily Democrat granted me the chance to cover stories as a freelancer. The day my first publication ran was a moment I will never forget. I was living in China, working on a very different story when it was printed, but I was able to see the copy online. My byline, the story on the front page, and knowing I had helped a good organization get their message out was monumental. And so, I have carried on and followed stories and events of interest around the world and America. It has all been on my own dime, to this point. Writing the stories I have uncovered, encountered, and experienced between here and there. A continuous process of perpetual learning, this writing business is. And, as I continue to hone my style and proficiency as a reporter and story-teller, I am confronted with the mechanics of securing buyers. This endeavor has taken me around the world. I lived in Western China for a while in 2014 while I followed an American ultra-marathon runner who had been living throughout China for nearly five years. Our time together began in Shangri-La, a city that is culturally Tibet and claimed by the Chinese and shaped by extreme forces of nature: high altitude, freezing winters, little water, and towering mountains. I followed him as he migrated south to Dali, a tourist destination for many, but for us, it was optimum training ground: faster workouts with less wear on the body, an environment similar to the one he would race in, and a large mountain less than two miles from our small apartment. Time on the road does not always allow for planned exits. I found myself highly motivated to migrate south. I caught a midnight train towards the border in late June of 2014, I was bound for Indonesia. I traversed the island nation and engaged with the people, the environment around me, and followed one of my most important rules: Never leave, whatever domicile I am residing in, without my camera, my notebook, and pen. Other stops on that story-hunt included Oregon, San Francisco, New England, and then there was Germany, The Balkans, Africa, and the good ol' United States. The concerned expressions and incredulous questions regarding my motivation for pursuing this work continue. I remain undeterred. I consider journalism to be crucial. Real journalism, that is. It must be the brand of reporting that is stout and sturdy with truth. It must be a profession where the focus is sniffing out the important stories, scrapping off the glossy layers, and getting to the root, the source. Don't accept a first response as the complete truth. Follow up. Doggedly pursue with honorable intention- this last piece is important, there must be a measure of restraint and self-respect as well, there is no need to be the harassing vultures that appear far to often. There is always a line and sometimes it must be crossed, but the consequences should be realized and accepted before the feet move. The concerned expressions and incredulous questions regarding my motivation for pursuing this work continue to confront me, and I remain undeterred. My intentions are good and they are genuine, free of romantic notions or misplaced aspirations. Journalism is crucial, real journalism that is- I do not limit myself to classic outlets of newspapers and magazines; news is information that is true and the form in which it is delivered is of less importance to me than the successful transmission of hones reality. Whatever the style, classic or new-journalism, it must be a brand of reporting built with sturdy truth. As I work my way into this profession, I am dismayed at the state of journalism. This enterprise, vital to the health of society and the well being of peoples everywhere, is failing. Stories are written with shallow interest, subjects of importance are passed over for subjects considered to be more appealing to readership, and in short: business interests dictate far too much. Reporters have traded pride in delivering the heart of a story to the people for a desire to be celebrities in their own right. Political correctness has clipped the balls that are necessary to put forth truth when a glossed version would be easier. Covering a breaking story flogs good people into seething vultures who abandon the grace of humanity that is important to maintain. Editors misjudge their readership and are broken, forgetting a passion they once had- an eventual retirement is looming on the horizon. There is too much glitz and glamor in the business. Too many cliches are spouted and vocabularies are shrunken by sensationalistic and inflammatory adjectives- hyperbole rules the airwaves. If I never hear a reporter lazily describe something as, “A miracle,” it will be a fucking relief. There is value in reporting, despite the growing voice of nay-sayers who claim it is a dying business- maybe the structure of the business is changing, but there will always be a need for reporting. At least, there should be a need. What a sad and troubling day it will be if journalism withers and is overrun with the invasive presence of pop-news and the many extensions of sprawling political mouth-pieces. Journalists should carry themselves with pride, willing and content with their knowledge that they delivered the heart of a story to the people. They must not be vultures void of self-respect and a respect for others's emotions. It is a difficult balance to find, let alone maintain, but it must be strove for. They must pursue a story with dogged endurance, but their intentions must be honorable. Ratings and headlines and money are not worth sacrificing the humanity that reporting is meant to protect.
Stories quickly lashed together to sooth editor's demands, demands contrived from the unimaginative and uninspired minds of men and women who suffer from the panic of ownership groups gasping in a state of economic suffocation clip the scope of their reporters and they misjudge the interests of the communities they serve. It is not the local papers and regional news stations that are most shameful. The national news-outlets are an embarrassment to what was, at one time, a calling. They are the most watched, they wear the label of “credible” and “real” news, and in a society fixated on titles and labels, they are trusted. And, they fail at what is their most basic purpose: to deliver news. Too many are more celebrity than news-hound, chasing increasingly large pay-checks, notoriety, and book deals.
There is value in reporting when it is weighted by the responsibility for writers to tell the whole story, nothing but the story, so help their conscience. Whether it is encased in the narrow margins of a newspaper or given the room to run in a book does not diminish the core goal and responsibility of the writer at large. Good reporting, like most enterprises, is hard work, and hard work is best addressed when sleeves are rolled up and an effort of disciplined effort is put forth. It is a work that has suffered in the past decades, which leaves the people blind and uninformed. So much time has gone by, that people are even forgetting how to be informed, where to turn to for a source of news free of frills and flashing distractions, information they deserve and should demand. I am determined to bring this quality of story to them. I will deliver stories fresh from the source, unfiltered, undistilled.
HERE AND THERE MONGOLIAN NIGHTS: THE HUNT II BY DYLAN P. LAURION
I ran down the hill toward the revived jeep- white puffs of air chugged from my mouth. I hoped, as I slowed to open the door, that we would not turn back, that close calls and faulty mechanics did not inspire retreat. I was relieved, once I was seated- squeezed in place between door and Mongolians- to find everyone laughing. The riling relief of navigating narrowed avenues of success instigates a special breed of laughter that frolics. Shakespeare's Puck would have enjoyed the moment- mischievous little bastard that he was. The headlights were not turned on for ten or fifteen minutes, a cautionary policy allowing time and distance to buffer us and the roaming ranger on his motorcycle. The moon, which I had recently wished away, provided enough light to navigate the road-less land. A mechanical presence of sound, a faint rumbling at the boundary of my thoughts, remained while I looked past the cold window.The prudent driver eventually flicked the lights on. A night, partially illuminated in white and yellow tones, became the scene. We crossed the landscape at a moderate pace. Cruising. Hunters require patience and the lingering discomfort of the squirming twelve year old required me to embrace this quality as a mantra. I settled into the moment- a grinding lull. I was certain action, of some kind, would materialize. When it did, I would be ready. Hunters require patience. Hunters require patience..... Nuances were focused upon: the rocking car, the clack of gun barrels, a cough. I considered the idea of total silence and wondered if it really existed. I decided that it was a truism too often used, a flat one dimensional observation of a moment. Rare is the moment that is truly, entirely, completely silent. To find a moment in space that is silence uninterrupted is indeed special. Even in the very quiet there exists persistent noises of life beyond one's self. I am often put to sleep by such a lullaby. That night, however, I was nursing the thrill. Cold wind entered the square space of the jeep when the man in front of me lowered his window. He stretched his arms out beyond the frame and began scanning the landscape around us with Tumar's spot light. He was methodical. I was intrigued. Occasionally, the driver would mutter a couple of words. I imagined he was asking, “See anything? See anything?” Who knows, I hadn't learned the lingo yet. I don't buy much when I am overseas or on the move. The experience can not be summarized by a token. What my eyes have witnessed, tears that have fallen, blood that has dripped, and sweat that has poured encapsulates the period of time. Intense trinkets in their own right, the grand total is often difficult to put into words. It is probably why it has taken me so long to write this story. I've told it a thousand times, spoken word is kinder to improvisation and the impulse to share. To sit and write, that is the same as looking in the mirror or presenting yourself before a judge- there is only the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. You better have your facts compiled and sorted before that moment comes, other wise you are found desperately wanting. Heavy thoughts. That was what crept into my head back then. And, it creeps into my mind, even now, as I work around the world. Stay present. Tangent. I lurched forward. The philosophical, self-accounting thoughts were flung through the windshield. The cushioned front seat stopped me from following. The boy, who had rendered my left leg dead, grunted his disapproval of being squished into the seat. “Sorry, kid,” I muttered. After the jeep's abrupt stop, stillness was shattered by quick motions and voices of hushed thrill. I opened the door, the boy sprung out, and I followed. The assembly line of process had begun by the time I rounded the back of the jeep: One man speared the earth with a handmade bi-pod-a piece of wood fitted like a Y-, another was pulling out a monstrous rifle-an old Soviet semi-automatic, caliber unknown- from the jeep, the spot-light-man was standing next to the driver side headlight, which remained on, and Ganbagana stood by me. We watched. I stared down the slope illuminated by all of our electrical might. Every pair of eyes scanned the forest in front of us. Someone had seen something. I moved just behind the shooter's left shoulder. He was kneeling and aiming his rifle at the hillside. He was waiting for one of several spotters, myself included, to call out a target. There was a creature out there, and it was now being actively hunted. I pulled my binoculars from within my dell and held them in my gloved hands. The rubber rims were cold when I pressed them to my face- unlike the Mongolians, who often held their binoculars as if they were a monocular or a pirate's telescope, I used both lenses. I did not hold a rifle in my hands, a concession I agreed upon with Ganbagana, I had good eyes. And, good eyeballs are as necessary as a bullet on a hunt. The light scanned. A short, brief notation of direction was spoken. The boy coughed. A branch twitched. I turned my head to the right. And, through the magnification of my binoculars I saw the narrow head of a deer. It stepped into the light, out of the trees, and into the bramble and low foliage of the distant hillside. I was still looking through my binoculars when the rifle exploded: a roar of powder and lead, a stark-fucking-contrast to the silence that had permeated our small space in the world. I turned to watch the man below me. He was methodical. One shot, one roar, a brass casing ejected and flying to the ground, a pause, a shout of direction, and another shot. The rifle was impressive. The shooter was not. Round after round was fired without hitting the deer. The slender animal was pinned to the hill, though. The deer ran left, a shot. The deer stopped. The deer changed directions. A shot. The deer stopped. Damn confusing for him, I thought. Silence. Smoke curled from the barrel of the gun. A few words and some quiet laughter. “They don't know where it went,” Ganbagana said. I put the binoculars back to my eyes. I watched, slowly moving across the slope. Then, I saw it. It was hunkering down, lowered on its haunches. I touched the shooter's shoulder, pointed, and told him to look left- one of the few words I had perfected from my time hailing makeshift taxi cabs in Ulaanbaatar- and then the shooter saw it: BOOM “Right!” I shouted. BOOM! the rifled answered. “RIGHT” I shouted, again. BOOM!, the rifle answered. “LEFT!,” I shouted. BOOM,BOOM, the rifle barked. Silence. I couldn't see the deer. The air was thick with sulfur, the cold seemed to keep the smell of gunfire hanging over us. “Did he get it?” I asked. “I think so,” said Ganbagana. Voices raised in volume. The shooter stood up. He handed the rifle to one of the men by the jeep. The shooter and another Mongolian grabbed two smaller caliber rifles. I put my head lamp onto my head. Everyone began running down the hill. Once again, white steam chugged from my mouth as I ran down yet another hill. My heart was thumping with adrenaline. Our booted feet pounded down the slight slope. One man slipped and fell. We laughed. He got up and ran after us. Ganbagana was smiling. At that moment in time, it was one of the more surreal events of my life: a strange dreamlike sequence where historical past and personal present had slammed into each other with a post-modern flare. Our pursuit of the deer was slowed by the brambles and the prickers that wove a tight defense against our large bodies. We crashed through. The boy's slight frame offered a course of less resistance. Nimbly, he weaved in and out of the grabbing thorns. I could hear the fabric of my dell plucked, but it was a small price and I've always enjoyed the look of something that has lived and experienced. There was no time for the sanitary. Moving as quietly as possible through a tall stand of trees, we came upon deer. Standing still, near a tree, the animal was motionless. From where I stood, I couldn't tell if it was hit. There was no evidence of impending death: no blood, no limp, no staggering. What the hell? Had the shootist been that delinquent with his fucking aim? Had the deer gotten so bored with the dance of lead that it stopped and was giving in? Maybe it was sympathetic to a nomad so poorly trained and felt that it would need to lie down and just give itself to the twit pulling the trigger. I had not considered the size of the animal until then. It was small, juvenile in appearance. Something seemed odd about the animal. But, I couldn't place it. A rifle, maybe a .22 caliber, was raised and fired. The sound was a whisper compared to the big Soviet creation still up on the hill. The deer flinched and ran a few feet. We formed a line and walked forward. The deer stopped. There was a twinge of discomfort in my mind because so many were pursuing such a small deer. The animal began to limp and I, who possessed a trustworthy memory, could not recall what was bothering me about the deer. Another shot. The deer dropped to the ground, stood up and ran at us. It struck one of the men and kept running. Because of its size, no damage was done to the man. I am not one to personify animals, but I was impressed with the grit and will to fight to the end. Our line adjusted. We followed flecks of blood on the white snow. The deer was walking very slowly. It stopped. And then, the deer lay down. The men were talking quickly. I was watching the deer, its slender neck still raised and eyes blinking. I felt compelled to shorten the lingering life that I imagined was incredibly painful at the moment. I couldn't imagine what they were discussing. I decided that I would lower the curtain on the scene. Suffering should be avoided. And, I was determined to accrue as many tokens of respect within the community as possible. I could be the hero, I thought. I pulled my knife, sturdy, thick steeled blade from its sheath, and stepped forward. While I walked towards the deer I felt a gentle brush against my shoulder. The boy, whom I had lost sight of, rushed past me and reached the deer quickly. In one motion, he leaped onto its back, gripped the deer's head in his hands, and deftly snapped its neck. Dead. The deer was dead. A boy had killed it. A boy's small hands had done what dozens of bullets could not. Fuck. I put my knife away. It had all happened so fast. Being one of the stronger men, I carried the deer back, pulling it by its leg through the brambles, up the slope, and to the jeep. The man who had waited by the jeep in case a quick exit was required, helped me lift it and put it in the back. He covered the dead animal with a canvas tarp. Laughter, back patting, and masculine behavior followed. I was occupied with many thoughts and the surreal nature of the moment. “Thank you,” I said to Ganbagana. He nodded. He was smiling. He touched my shoulder. I returned to my sleeping host family, creeping past their still forms, and slipped onto my small cot. I did not fall asleep quickly. My mind was herding thoughts, separating questions, and processing a moment rare in both the action of experience and the implications of its substance. I had managed to get myself within a part of Mongolian life that was neither clear or easily defined by a standard rubric of: illegal or legal and right and wrong. A long day.
A Note From The Editor: This story will be presented to you in two parts. Look for Part II next week.
HERE AND THERE MONGOLIAN NIGHTS: THE HUNT BY DYLAN P. LAURION
My bed was appealing. I was exhausted. I had spent the day working a herd of cattle in the morning and then, in the bruised twilight, I drove a rearing, racing, band of 75 half-wild horses home. The cattle, kindly, did most of the work on their own- they seemed to possess a keen sense of when and where they were going. The horses, however, were motivated by their instinct to roam. And, in Mongolia, on the expansive plains, there is a hell of lot of room to run. Some experiences burn themselves into memory, never to be forgotten. That sound: hooves pounding the earth, that sight: shaking manes, wild eyes, the dust rising, and that feeling: heat radiating from the horse I was riding, pulsating energy of galloping among and within the herd, and then racing to catch those who tried to break away, and pressure of responsibility, knowing that I had been trusted to return several families shared livelihood. The herd was free during the day, but at night they needed the protection of wooden-railed shelter. After driving the herd of short-legged-horses into the corral of my host-father's family, I joined my Mongolian host-mother, her four year old daughter, and husband for dinner. Tumar, my host father, and I scraped the bottom of our boots on the threshold, washed our hands with cold water in a dented metal washbasin framed by a small wooden cabinet hung to the left of the door, and waited while the evening meal finished cooking. Darkness brought the cold and a quick flash of snow. The stove, fueled by wood I had chopped in the morning, had been continuously stoked since mid-day. The one room cabin glowed with electrical lighting, the power was generated by a solar panel mounted on the roof. The luxury of electrical lighting at night was helpful, but what often appeared to be of greater significance was the ability to watch television, particularly Russian soap operas and action films that would fetch C or D ratings of quality upon the American cinematic scale. This was often our entertainment at night, when we did not play cards and drink vodka. During dinner, while eating a robust stew of cleaved meat, root vegetables, hand-made noodles, and accompanied by milk tea, I attempted blurbs of Mongolian. My hope was to nurture some kind of connection between my host parents and I. Whatever words were not spoken, the effort was appreciated. Language is a funny thing. When fluent, countless words are spoken. They roll from within a person and coat the air. In the absence of words, people learn that the world can be narrowed and bridges of connection can be built with gestures, facial expressions, and the non verbal communication often ignored, unrealized, and underrated. For four people virtually incapable of speaking with one another, we laughed, we worked together, and we formed a bond that was touching and familial. By the time I left them, they trusted me with their child, their livelihood, and their home. And, in that world, the land of the Mongolian nomad, there is little more important than that. Khuko, her small form curled on my narrow bed, a box of crayons I had brought for her spilled in front of her, had already fallen asleep when the rumble of an engine was heard and bright headlights illuminated the ground between the front door and the thin-slat fence encirclin the cabin. Visitors were not uncommon. I had seen many arrive at the door, welcomed in with the Mongolian's longstanding tradition of always receiving guests, even strangers, whenever they arrived. Many of the people who visited while I lived there had made a special trip to see me, the white-man. In my case, I was the hairy white man, whose arm hair and beard prompted laughter and calls of, “Chon,” which means wolf in the beautifully guttural language. I was writing in my journal when the door opened. The visitors were different than before. Two men, one tall and one short, both stout and smiling broadly, walked in behind a rush of cold air. Tumar immediately moved from the table to greet them. His hand gripped theirs. They slapped him on the back. My host-mother smiled, wiped her hands on a gray, often used towel that had been draped on the edge of the narrow wooden table- painted blue. Words were uttered. Hands pointed out beyond the walls and windows of the cabin. Tumar nodded. I watched, my pen still held in my hand. Tumar moved past me and to the back corner, where, at the foot of my small bed, he kept several rifles. He pulled out a large, hand-held spot light. And then, I knew, what the two visitors were about. They were on a hunt, going after whatever they could see in the consuming darkness present beyond the arch of their headlights. Adventurous inklings began to rumble in my stomach. Adrenaline of an impending thrill was starting to flood my veins. I was working quickly to improvise a way to get an invitation. My opportunity arrived when the door opened next and one of my language teachers walked in. Ganbagana seemed to exist in a constant state of mirth. He was always willing and even pleased to help whenever he could. He was just past thirty when I knew him. He had aspirations of law school, but had yet to climb into the halls of the legal eagles that existed in Ulaanbaatar. I liked him. He was a good guy. And, when he came into the cabin, I knew I had a chance. He, unlike myself, could properly explain my intentions. He spoke quickly with my host-parents and the hunters. Ganbagana turned and faced me, his smooth, round cheeks were framed by a hat lined with fur. The jovial expression I was accustomed to was gone. His eyes and the ensuing words that left his mouth were serious. “If you come, you can not tell anyone.” “I won't,” I promised. My oath, too, was serious. Ganbagna said nothing. I repeated, “I won't say anything. You have my word.” He nodded his head. My host-mother instructed me to lift my arms with a look and a motion of her own strong, muscular arms. She then carried my dell, a long robe of heavy fabric that is the traditional garb of the plains people, from the foot of my bed and slipped it over my arms, wrapped it around my body. After she had fastened the folds in place: small wooden toggles slipped through loop holes, I cinched my belt around around my waist. Into the bib of my dell- where Mongolian men often keep items they use regularly: cigarettes, binoculars, gloves, a little bottle of vodka, snuff to be snorted, and other assorted items- I slipped my headlamp, buck-knife, and binoculars. Gloves were pulled onto my hands, hat was pulled tight over my head, and a scarf was wrapped around my neck. It was a fucking cold winter night that March and I didn't know how long the hunt would last. Climbing into the old soviet jeep, a popular genre of vehicle because of its interchangeable parts allowing for quick, impromptu repairs, I squeezed my body next to three other men, including Ganbagana. We shared a narrow seat and a boy, perhaps ten or twelve, climbed onto my lap. Between the back seat and the front was a stack of rifles, of varying caliber, standing butt upon the floor. The driver shifted, the gears clanked and groaned, and we rumbled away from the cabin. There was a lot talking, jibber-jabber, bouncing around the cramped ride. Most of the words were unrecognizable to my untrained ears. But, I did not mind. There was plenty to think about. After a while, I tried speaking to Ganbagana, but he was pressed against the opposite side of the jeep and the engine was loud. Shouting, he explained, “We're hunting wolves.” His voice was once again even, laced with excitement, no longer coated with thick nervousness while he contemplated my involvement in the night's activities. I had worked his defenses well, but the deciding vote was cast because, over a short period of time, he knew he could trust me. His adamant and declarative statement that, “No one can know about this,” bore a heavy truth: I was protecting his job by maintaining my discretionary silence. I also know, and I assumed he did too, that I would be equally fucked if higher authorities discovered our excursion. There were strict policies forbidding involvement with fire arms. But, I was there in Mongolia to experience the heart of the culture and to gain an understanding of the people. It seemed irresponsible, to me, to not participate. I am glad that I never had to test that particular trial defense. I couldn't imagine passing up the opportunity to join the men on their hunt. The rules be damned. I accepted the risks and I never reconsidered as we jostled along the landscape. Not long after leaving the cabin, the driver turned onto a slightly worn path of tire tracks. The grasses were still short and not yet green after months of snow, ice, and wind. And so, even in the daylight, with keen eyes, the path would hardly be distinguishable from among the landscape of faded colors. The chatter continued. I had officially resigned myself to the role of observer. I didn't feel the need to speak, my words would offer little improvement to the moment. What I can recall, that is significant, is the ratcheted sense of being alive and thrilled: high voltage. There have been few moments that compare to those days, days that seem like a life time ago, when I existed with the nomads. Quick shifts in people's energy are particularly noticeable in small spaces. When the chatter stopped, cut off abruptly, the humor and mirth evaporated and a mood of grim seriousness enveloped the jeep. “What is it?” I asked Ganbagana, finally able to speak in a normal voice. Before he could explain, a single headlight was seen cresting the small hill behind us. The driver of the jeep, in two quick motions, jerked the steering wheel and turned off the headlights. We careened off the path and barreled down a series of hills. My heart beat quicker. Events were becoming precarious: damned interesting. I asked again, “What is it?” Ganbagana had not heard me the first time, he was distracted by his own thoughts, but this time he replied, “Ranger.” One word. One word represented an entity that had silenced an entire vehicle and made all of our minds sift through the possibilities. Most of them were not good. While I considered the implications of Ganbagana's revelation, I began to piece together the available facts. And then, in a flash of thought that should have been realized sooner, I knew we were not on a sanctioned hunt. What we were doing was not legal. We were poaching. Shit-A-God-Damn. Ask the nomads who live and have grown up on the same land that their ancestors had if they are poaching and many of them will say, clearly, definitively, obstinately, honestly, “No.” They are hunting for food and for ritual. They hunt as a practice of honor important to their culture. They are hunting as they have always hunted. Many of them will not stop because of a governmental declaration and an official’s label applied to a region- declaring it a hunting free zone- in the interest of environmental protection and wildlife management. A tremendous amount of education and cooperative work is required to integrate such policies.1 They were nomads. They were hunters. They were riders. They were people of the plains. But, there are still consequences and I was acutely aware of those. The ranger, if he caught up with us, I hoped would be a family member of one of the men. It was my hope, but I would not envy his conflicting roles of a man bonded by oath and bonded by blood. Selfishly, I hoped for blood trumping his role as enforcer. Bruce Springsteen's song outlining a similar conflict of relationships came to mind as the jeep rolled to a stop. But, the song was quickly interrupted by another shift in spoken tone. “What is happening now?” I asked. “The engine isn't working.” Ganbagna replied. For the second time that night, I recognized an expression of sincere concern. There was little room for humor in that jeep of building consequence. Everyone climbed out of the stalled vehicle. The night air had gotten even colder. The wind was low, which helped, but it was the kind of cold that freezes nose and facial hair and seems to amplify the slightest sound. The broken jeep and our group of six were stranded in a wide clearing bordered by trees- a bad place to be when on the lamb. The ground crunched under our boots, the snow that had fallen was no longer soft, but hard and crusty. The Mongolian men were huddled around the front of jeep, the hood lifted. Bursts of of words rumbled from mouths and hands worked in the guts of the vehicle. I watched as mechanical parts were removed and discarded on the ground. Several voices began to speak at once and one man knelt down and half of his body disappeared under the dashboard. When he stood up, he held a fistful of wires. “What's broken?” “I don't know. This is why Soviet jeeps are good. Parts are switchable,” Ganbagana explained. “Great,” I said smiling. I couldn't help it. I thrive on excitement, even if that excitement is dire. And, I've always felt that being able to smile when the proverbial shit is hitting the fan is a skill not to be scoffed at. Go down with a grin and flash of teeth, I thought. Ganbagna shifted his feet in the snow, he was rubbing his hands together in front of him- I was not sure if it was from the cold or nerves. “It will be OK.” I said, hoping to reassure him. He chuckled. What else was there to do? One of the mechanical surgeons walked over to us and muttered quickly to Ganbagna. “He says you should go stand over there and watch.” “OK.” I walked to my post. There was no need to ask for what I was searching. The moon, not yet full, was large and beautiful. It was a stunning scene, fit for film. I wished that I had a camera better equipped for such a moment- I was still a couple of years removed from my first digital camera: a tough concession. What was beautiful and even, under different circumstances, serene was not a friend at that moment. I would have preferred a heavy rain and darkness, making the prowling eyes of the ranger obscured and distorted. I stood, a solitary figure, a long shadow on the snow, waiting and watching. My parents read to my brother and I, every winter, a book called Owl Moon. It was about a father who takes his daughter into the woods to look for great horned owls. They walk quietly, their breath caught in the cold air. And they waited and they listened. I waited and listened, but unlike the father and daughter, I did not want to hear the sound my ears were searching for. The engine turned over once, sputtered, turned over again and a steady roar followed. They had fixed it. Somehow, some pairing of mis-matched wires, had brought our getaway car back to life. I turned around and saw Ganbagna waving me back. I ran. (TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK. THANKS FOR READING. BE SURE TO COME BACK TO SEE HOW IT ALL ENDS.) 1The events of this article took place in March of 2007. The views and information portrayed in the piece reflects that time.
A Note From The Editor: This edition of HERE AND THERE was found in the basement files of Dylan's wanderings. It has been dusted off and reformatted for your consumption. This story took place in the early days of 2011, during Dylan's first trip to China.
HERE AND THERE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS BY DYLAN P. LAURION
Guangzhou, China -February 2011-
I’m staying on the other side of the tracks tonight. Macau's marbled history of Chinese and Portuguese ancestral roots and the suffocating allure of the towering casinos is behind me. It has become another destination represented by a stamp in my passport and a collection of photographs securing memories: walking along paved and cobbled streets, sampling delectable treats, studying the intricate woodworking inside of large Catholic Churches, drinking beer with friends on stone steps shrouded in shadows, watching tourists and locals meander through the squares located throughout the city, and the electrifying entanglement with the legendary poker tables of The Grand Lisboa.
I’m staying on the other side of the tracks tonight. Not an encouraged destination for travelers. Rather, it was a summation of a calculated decision. The proximity to the train station, bus station, airport shuttles met our transportation needs for the following day. Convenience should be embraced, whenever possible. There are enough difficulties to sort out without adding to the list of opposing forces needlessly and so we ventured across a concrete bridge spanning the numerous iron rails rolling trains, filled with both cargo and people, in all navigational directions. It was a short walk and at that moment, it was easier than trekking across Guangzhou using the subterranean labyrinth of subway routes to reach hostels designated for ‘foreigners.’ People like us.
I’m staying on the other side of the tracks tonight. The hotel, the only hotel found that would accept our Alien selves, blatantly disregarded a national policy to house foreigners in specifically regulated hostels or hotels. There would be no entry in a registry listing name, passport number, and the next intended travel destination. I had gone through the process numerous times, sleepwalking through the bureaucratic requirement that really only needed a word placed in the right box. To this end, I often spit out whatever Chinese city first entered my mind. The hotel that night was the first building on our right after crossing the footbridge. One of many squat, block buildings stacked upon each other, with alleys and streets snaking between them.
I'm staying on the other side of the tracks tonight. Money was the key to our discreet admittance into the hotel. R.L.G used his developing China Land lingual skills to conclude a brief negotiation of prices. An exchange of China-Tokens and we were in possession of the coveted room key. No request was ever made to see passports or record the identification number located in the blue booklet, stamped with golden seal. The strength of currency left the hotel attendants temporarily blinded, like money often does within a mercurial society comfortable with bribery, corruption, and a premium attached to self preservation.
I'm staying on the other side of the tracks tonight. Both the crowd and the environment is a far cry from other hotels I have seen, both in China-Land and elsewhere. But, the rooms were clean, the beds fresh, the shower hot, and an assortment of complimentary items: soap, toothbrush, comb, and tea were available, and all were eagerly placed in my pack as a practical re-supply. I like places like the Alien Friendly Hotel. I enjoy seeing the smaller, harder to find worlds offering a more intimate glimpse into another end of a cultural spectrum- people’s lives are unvarnished and not filtered through a lens of purposeful, tourist cleanliness. Tourism is often focused on a version of the truth. Much energy is spent providing tourists with what they want to see, hear, eat, and feel. Tourism is often a performance, the role of pimp supplying the fulfillment of a desired experience or romantic notions. I try to get past that particular veneer.
I am staying on the other side of the tracks tonight. R.L.G and I left for a night time walk, we wanted to burn some energy before a long day of traveling set to begin when we woke up. We passed by a rougher, saltier crowd of people as we retraced our steps across the tracks that had led us to that night's resting place. The crowd of people gathered around the hotel and the listless shapes huddled together or laying solitary and prone on the concrete walkway over the iron rails, passed by in the waning sunlight of the day and in the shadows cast by street-lamps illuminating the first part of our stroll around the northern part Guangzhou is a sharp contrast to the faces I had become familiar with on Shamian Island: a small oasis of serene, quiet, tree lined streets, and buildings indicating the extended historical influence of the West in the region and the first of three different locations I stayed on various trips to the large city cut in half by the Pearl River. I carried no particular preference for the polished or the grimy. Both the rough and smooth need to be experienced in order to develop a complete understanding of a world lived in. It is certainly not a consequence of romantic desires to be “roughing” it, a staged slumming, but rather a desire to knock over whatever may shelter the truth. This particular desire is often satisfied when willing to consider the gray areas.
I am staying on the other side of the tracks tonight. I've returned to the hotel and it has become a lively, ruckus driven, Chinese world below my window. The sounds, though loud and different to my ears, resemble a controlled quality of normalcy. The feel of the environment is of reality and a dramatic departure from the money injected city of Macau: the largest gambling center in the world.
I’m on the other side of the tracks, on the other side of a border, and I am on the other side of a trip that began in China-Land four months ago. My path is once again headed north, back to my trip's origin. A new stage in my journey has begun. I agreed, just the other day, to a six week ESL teaching position at a university in Qingdao. My reasons are both economic necessity and investigative curiosity. This new venture is dictating my road, steering the next two weeks of traveling.
I’m staying on the other side of the tracks tonight. I am ok with the location, the feel, the reality. I am ok with the explosions of voice and emotion and linguistically imperative tone booming off of the concrete walls and through my window. I am on the other side of many things. Right now that is the only place to be.
HERE AND THERE THE ALBUM STORY BY DYLAN P. LAURION
I begin this edition with an apology. HERE AND THERE was promised to be a consistent and regular voice to follow. And, I missed the mark in June. I swerved off a path of diligence. I can assure you I was not gallivanting in fields or ferreting away in pursuit of lesser goals. Since my last submission, while on the road, headed to Southern America in May, I submerged myself below the surface and into the murky depths of finishing my third album. There will come a time when there are not so many projects barking and howling for my attention. When that time arrives it will be simpler deciding what and how and when to work on something. Today, I'm one step closer to settling my outstanding creative debt. I am one step closer to streamlining this venture I have begun. And, I am privy to another lesson as I navigate unknown and never before seen experiences. Just another run through the border-lands. So, reader, my sincere apology for abandoning my post as editor and writer of this column. Consider it admission to a front row gallery, spectating and experiencing creation on many levels. Remember, the front-row, whether it is Blue Man Group or a boxing match, can be messy: Paint will be flung, sweat will fly, and maybe blood will spatter.
For this edition, in lieu of the impending album release, I shall type for you the origin story of DANGER HILL. As a matter of principle, I do not typically speak for a body of work. The words, the emotion, the messages, the concepts, energy, and displayed artistry are to stand on their own. They are created to bare the brunt of inspection, consideration, and interpretation without a sturdy hand of explanation and defense. But, for this occasion, in response to several e-mails inquiring about the album, I will sketch a brief introduction.
DANGER HILL received its namesake while I was staying in my old-pal-Rudy's garage in Silverton, Oregon for a couple of weeks in the late summer of 2014. I had just returned to the USA after many months in Western China, a mind-warping week in Indonesia, and a brief visit with my brother in San Francisco. I was in Oregon to document and write about Rudy's training leading up to the Eugene Marathon. Rudy was going for a faster time, another step closer to his goal of nearing the Olympic qualifying mark. As a part of documenting Rudy's efforts I would join him for runs, which coupled with my own physical fitness regiment. On most of our legged excursions, when we returned to the house, our final ascent was a sharp incline marked by a traffic sign: DANGER HILL. I had seen the sign many times before, but it became, in one instant, a striking stimulus for the arching concept of the album. After showering, I sat down with my guitar and began working on the words for the title track and the anchor of an album that took nearly a year to write, record, and deliver packaged and ready for the ears and minds of anyone hoping to take a ride.
People often ask, "Do you write the music or the words first?" or "Do you come up with an idea for the album or just collect songs?" They are good questions. I will say this, sometimes the music leads the words and sometimes the words draw out the music. It is a dance in tandem and not a conscience, forced decision. Regarding the second question, I am a true believer in albums as a cohesive story-telling device, not merely a collection of songs taped together to be quickly dissected as singles. The current trend within the music industry seems to be plummeting away from the artistry of the album, which makes my creative intention a marketing challenge. Maybe I am late to the game and the album is truly threatened, but I can not subscribe to any other way. I work to shape songs that have been written autonomously and combine them with songs I write specifically for the theme I am confronting. It is like having a core group of friends and bringing in a few new people that share common qualities and will compliment and enhance the swelled collection of personalities. DANGER HILL is such a blend. There are songs that have been sitting and only performed live and fresh songs never heard before. Together they have been built to ride like any hill possessing a slopping upside and a screaming, plunging descent.
Creating an album requires tremendous patience and a gentle feel of both the creator and the created. Honesty is a strong collaborator. Because only Honesty will whisper when to dig in and defend a position or to compromise. Honestly will illuminate the path of songs that will bring a listener through a complete story. Honesty will let you know that a song is simply not ready and should be left behind, hoping to catch the next train to somewhere. The concern in that moment is the song you are momentarily affected by will lose its relevance and will never be heard. Thus far, I find that songs, even if unheard, have their place and that place may only to be to fill a backlog of lyrics and chords: A pile of ideas shaved off like sawdust. Do not be mistaken, to write a song that I connect with, that I feel deeply and honestly, and then hold it back from being released is difficult. In this matter I trust my instincts and hope to remember the stark difference between fully-realized and in-progress. It is a pulley of love and lust. The former is often the richer.
DANGER HILL was percolating in my head, it was growing in shape and size when I drove to Wolfeboro, New Hampshire to play a short set for a NGO's benefit concert last winter. While tuning my guitar and going through my set-list another musician began unpacking. Ryan Ordway and I began talking and in this brief introduction we made plans for my visit to the studio he had recently opened with his business partner Franz Haase in Gilford, New Hampshire. After my first visit to The Recording Co-Op, I knew I had found the space I would bring DANGER HILL to fruition. The sound in the former horse-barn and the atmosphere was unmistakable. It was a work-shop where music reigned supreme. In February I began the recording process, a process that spanned four and half months. Part of the delay was my return to Germany in March. But, even while abroad, Ryan and I corresponded, I wrote new songs, polished old ones, and returned to the Granite State rearing and ready to roll. I learned a hell of a lot about music and the process of creating albums. It was not always smooth and at times it became momentarily contentious as I tempered expectations, spoke my mind, tried to maintain a firm grasp on artistic principles and what I was striving to create. But, it is all part of the process. Music is a strenuous form. It requires a willingness to concede certain responsibilities to others and a un-distracted vigilance protecting the vision, the quality, and what is at the core a honest creation you began with. Wonderful surprises come from collaboration and experimentation, but the excitement of newness should not drown the intention that is at the heart of a work. A balance between yes and no is paramount. And, after the last back-up was complete and guitars were packed, when I walked out of the work-shop, DANGER HILL finished and ready for production and mastering, I knew I had found a safe harbor of creativity with Franz and Ryan and within the walls of The Recording Co-Op.
After a period of dormancy and obsession with this project, the album is finished now. It is being packaged and polished and it will soon arrive for sale and dispersal among you. It is an honest album. It is a complete album. Like most of my work, I gave to it a large part of myself. I am told that, that can become taxing. But, I do not know any other way. The words and sounds come from within me and if I am going to create them I can not withhold. What would be the point? When I get caught up in obsessing about meter and the boundaries I falter. I am at my best when I am trusting instincts and my ability to persevere. DANGER HILL was created with the intentions of a craftsman and not that of factory production. It is a blend of the folk-rock tradition, intricate lyrics, and a wide variety of instrumental interplay. It is a testament to a period of time and I encourage you to ride the lines between the beginning and end of DANGER HILL.
Now that the album is in production, there is little left to do but wait and listen. There is little time to relish in the culmination of an intense project. I am sure when the physical copy arrives in the mail I will have a moment of reflection, but until then and immediately after, there is much work to be finished. I missed the mark in June, but I hope this unveiled offering of my latest album's development will soothe the breach of contract between columnist and reader. Until next time.
I believe that I am fortunate to not have encountered the writing, rambling, and ranting of Hunter S. Thompson when I was young. Somehow, I missed that unique voice until I was older. His brand of hell-raising would have been combustible mixed my own recklessness and need to find the outer-banks of whatever I was doing, am doing. It is not difficult for me to push a little too far beyond whatever established guidance lines exist. (Pushing a little too far can quickly become a stumble, a fumble, a rumble, a crash. Escalation, for me, has often run on rocket fuel.) I find Dr. T's work is complicated by the scope and expanse of his life, a life that broke the boundaries of a box singularly labeled as writer. H.S.T. became, due to what seems like his own provocation, I never knew him personally, a caricature of himself. The outlandishness and absurdity of his life, as he got older, placed him behind the cage bars of mass-media attention and sat him before people to poke and prod like an animal in a zoo. Or, so it seems to me. As I said, I never met the man. I would have liked to. There are lessons learned by reading both H.S.T's work and the work created about him. I prefer his older material, his clearer work, the pieces before his craziness became more significant than his brilliant rhythms and lancing perspectives on this or that. I do not think of H.S.T. as often as I do other writers, but I couldn't help picturing him sitting in my current abode: A Motor Inn off of 287 in Nyac, New York. Bumping music plays out in long sessions at 5 30 AM. It is audio camouflage for the prostitutes working on the other side of the motel. Google just informed me, a little late, that the hotel has had "previous issues with prostitution rings." Maybe it is true. Maybe it is not. It certainly fits the decor, the clientele I've passed in the hallway. You can not read and believe everything on the internet, you know. If it is true, to the hotel owners credit, there seems to be some division between the travelers without another option and the working members of the guest list. I am in the first category. Campgrounds had been the plan, but timing and torrential rain shifted the itinerary and the cheap rate of the motor inn pulled us from the rolling of highway driving. Hunter came into my mind because this is the kind of place I pictured when I read a story he pounded out, a finger at a time, on his typewriter, about the Cuban migration in Florida. He wrote about and described a location where debauchery and mayhem were the complimentary entree. What occurred, according to Thompson, was a stunning debacle. I can see the barking writer held up, vats of alcohol fueling late night writing sessions influenced, through osmosis, by the sounds and activity around him. Taping into the energy of a place is a priceless ability for a writer. Sometimes it is an overwhelming experience. I try to steady myself and take whatever ride I have caught, absorbing, cataloging, and engaging. I am better at that than actual surfing, which is the image I was picturing when I wrote that last sentence. Here is a brief side-note: I tried surfing in Indonesia during a week that I took to decompress from an intense exit and existence in China-Land. I crashed hard surfing. Both China-Land and Indonesia are stories for another time. Not today.
This motel is a last ditch effort by everyone here: Travelers passing by in need of cheaper accommodations than 140.00 to 250.00 hotels in the much more affluent neighbor of South Nyac and Nyac, travelers like myself who were forced to change plans, cheap weekly/monthly rates for people in need of a home, prostitutes and johns looking for a discreet liaison, and other folks somewhere on the sliding scale of life here in America.
There is much to be desired in a place like this: A motel where the lobby smells of either decaying bodies or truck loads of cat-piss, the wooden door to my room has a long, running crack from being pried open. I have stayed in a fair number of different accommodations throughout my various time between here and there. On more than a few occasions I have had legitimate, focused concern that I would have to deal with the unpleasantness of bed-bugs. Pulling back the sheets, looking for tell-tale signs of rust-colored blood stains became a habit. But, there have been many unique and memorable moments because of either my openness to new situations or my lack of options. In Macau, I stayed in a former brothel where the thin plywood walls did not even reach the ceiling. The place was a collection of little chambers erected by green painted partitions. Despite an inability to stop any and all night-sounds: Snoring, talking, sex and babies wailing, its location led to several of my most enjoyable evenings during a six month stint abroad in 2010-2011.
The music has stopped again. Doors just opened and closed and muted voices trailed off down the hallway. Another session completed, I suppose. I am tempted to pick up my guitar and offer my original score to the audience of early morning risers. I wonder, would they appreciate it more than the barrooms of people focused on playing pool, conversations, and waiting for a song to be played that they know the words to, waiting for the human juke-box? Maybe. Maybe not.
Options are not always plentiful and decisions must always be made. I was glad to pull off of the road and lay on a semi-firm mattress and sleep. The place, despite the seedier quality of hallways and outer appearance, thin walls, and the look of other guests that suggest a worn, and tiring existence, the room is pretty clean and the water is hot. Sometimes, that is all you need. Most of the time, that is more than you need. A brief exhale of rest and hot water and then back on the road.
I'll be moving on today, wandering New York City, and then blasting on past The Big Apple for the lower end of Pennsylvania. Many of the other folks at this motor lodge will remain here, making ends meet and probably grateful for a roof over their head. This is a last resort kind of place. A place where options have been exhausted. But, for some, there is a new day and a road leading out of town with the fresh choices of miles to come. I am grateful for the miles I have driven and the ones leading around the corner. Being sucked into the muck of choked choices and desperation is never easy. It is damn unnerving.
I am almost packed and ready to slide behind the wheel of my newest chariot: The Rock, and move on. This piece will get its final punctuation momentarily, and my thoughts of Hunter Thompson will have faded away again. Surely, they will return. Before I go and this piece ends, I must scrawl this note: Again, I am glad I encountered Dr. Gonzo when I was older. I was able to appreciate the substance of the man and not be driven by the sugar rush of his antics. Keep your eyes and ears open and write like hell, that is what I learned. Any way it plays out, I am glad to be back on the road again. Until next time. Dylan P. Laurion Nyac, New York 2015
Acceptance. That is how I got here to this moment, sitting in Munich, Germany at 6:30 a.m., and thinking of the best way to introduce myself to all of you. HERE and THERE will serve as a bi-monthly column, an outlet of my thoughts, experiences, and ponderings, which will cover anything and everything I am compelled to sort out. My opening salvo will be a brief re-cap of how I arrived at a point in time where I needed a website, was recording a third album, finishing a debut novel, and chasing stories and adventure. Acceptance, that is my one word answer. Not the acceptance of others. Rather, it was the acceptance of myself and a lurking suspicion that became a swarming truth. Acceptance was the first, maybe the largest, obstacle I encountered on my way to here and now. For a long time, I tried to encapsulate my work as a writer and a musician within a box labeled: HOBBY. It would be a side interest, a side-kick to whatever career I'd choose. But, whether it was the luck of several bouts of misfortune, a few cases of failure, the patience of loved ones, an incessant itch to explore, a chronic unwillingness to quit until the choice was no longer my own, or a mind that finally opened entirely, I accepted the work I needed to pursue. I was a writer. I was a musician. I joined the family business. It has been one hell of a ride so far. I look forward to every stomach flipping turn and body-shifting drop to come.
Boundaries of distance, culture, sexual identity, political affiliation, and many other communal markers are fraying. The world grows closer. We are finding our way into the substantive grey area, the border lands where intersections take place. Within this space there is a mutual possibility of both fear and hopeful opportunity. I find comfort in such places where I follow trails of humanity, thoughtful reflection, and an instinct for the action. I will deliver to you, from the nether-lands: Happenings, people's stories, the plight of victims, the agendas of villains, and the milestones of our time.
I can fulfill my promised delivery of stories, in part, because of the home my parents raised me in and because of the meld of experiences I have had so far. You see, I was raised by artists, philosophers, teachers, storytellers, and other creatives entering and exiting the periphery of my existence. Art and creation transcended my world. I learned music from the many greats sounding off through speakers in my childhood home. A song book of Neil Young's, now yellowed, expanded my view on songwriting. Veracious reading habits marinated my mind in the balance needed to structure a story upon the page. Art shows were a common occurrence. I wandered around talking to people, watching people, and considering the art on display when I was not sampling the tables adorned with snacks. I happily participated in the game, "What is your favorite painting?" a neat way to engage a young person's mind with the art they are confronted with. Regardless of the quality of the artwork and the mastery of the craft, it has always been people I was most interested in. I've always seen people as people, an outlook I am sure was learned. And, I know Kermit The Frog offered similar words, but it was a mantra growing up. Look someone in the eye, listen, and when it is time to speak, speak who you are and interesting things can happen. It is one of the principles I focus upon when creating and living. Tricky things can come to pass when a person forgets to be real.
In retrospect, I am amazed there was so much confusion regarding the path my life would take. Photos, memories, and stories scream to me now, with merciless energy, the answer I spent so many years looking for. Why were they muted back then? On the darker days, I think I spent all of that time running from what I knew I needed to confront. I kept the truth clamped down. I tried to hide behind academics, work, financial practicality, and a long list of other veils. You see, I knew how hard the life of an artist can be. I knew that the work of an artist, stripped of romanticism and drenched in reality, is often unrelenting, challenging, and exposing. I knew the extreme commitment art requires and deserves and how far it is from the often perceived work of "slackers." It was not a flippant decision, but a decision of great consideration and acceptance of consequence. But, courage was summoned and desperation pushed me across the line and into one of the great scraps of my life. To win, in most conflicts, fear must be put aside and a willingness to confront the great joust embraced. This time, instead of a physical foe, I battled the ghosts and the doubt. I emerged ready to duke it out with whatever scourge of injustice crossed my path. There are many.
Birds can be heard outside the window, a reminder of spring's arrival. This introduction has run long enough. It is time to wrap it up. I'll have more to say soon. But, before I pick up my trusted guitar resting beside me, know this: Whomever you are and whomever you may be, I have been in and out of the border-lands for a long time. A part of me has always been there. And, now, this will be my space, my current platform sharing my trinity of creative output: The Writer, The Musician, and The Reporter. Whatever exits were taken, doors opened, or paths followed, we ended up both here and there. I've ridden on the ragged edge, stared down at the roaring abyss, and I now accept my life's work. I am a poet warrior traveling and working my way from town to town. I am not the nameless man, a fleeting shadow. I am Dylan Laurion. And, these are my words.
Post-Script: People have always lamented the lack of job security in the arts. I've always been inclined to agree. I've witnessed a great many creatives struggling to make ends meet. But, why the hell is that the case? There should be good job security as an artist, especially if one of your principle aims is to give the world scope. There is a great need for that. And, if hampering and reigning in the bastards and sons-of-bitches, of which there are many, is a part of your work, there should never be a slow day. That is that. Tit for tat.