by Bruce Patterson, June 19, 2013
I’ve lived in or just outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Annville, Pennsylvania, Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Clarksville, Tennessee, Geyserville, Yorkville, Boonville and, now, Prineville, Oregon. You figure the odds then tell me that doesn’t make me unique. What’s it worth? It’s worth a sentence, anyway. How’d it happen? Pure Serendipity.
When, back in the late 80s, Dave and Nancy Gowan opened up Anderson Valley Farm Supply and Animal Deli, they put out a T shirt by that name and decorated its front with portraits of plump little teddy bear-like moo-moos, baa-baas, trot-trots, cluck-clucks and quack-quacks. Thinking it’d look good on me, I bought one. Since the only button-up, collared, short-sleeve shirt I’ve owned in over 40 years I bought to wear at my eldest son’s wedding (and then donate to Good Will), before it wore out that old deli T shirt got a good amount of public exposure. And, as you’d expect, 9 out of 10 people I encountered refused to lay eyes on my fashion statement, and about the same percentage of those who did ventured a comment—“Nice shirt, man.”
Anyway, a few months later, Trish, Abel, Jeff and I are on our way to Chicago to attend a Beverley Family reunion. In the name of the Bible, devout Chicago Irish Catholics, like Mormons, tend to breed like rabbits. Trisha has 11 brothers and sisters, a matching number of in-laws, 37 nieces and nephews—you get the idea. The cheapest convention center the Beverley herd could find for their reunion was on the campus of a Catholic college in the Mississippi River town of Winona, Minnesota. Since the actress Winona Ryder is an Anderson Valley alumni, I’ve occasionally wondered if she’d been named after it (ten states have towns called Winona, and there’s no guarantee the actress was named after any of them). Yet, if by chance it’s so, that’d be another instance of serendipity.
By the way, here’s how Mr. Webster defines the word in his American Dictionary of the English Language (a Founding Father and great patriot, was he): “The gift of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for. A word coined by Walpole, in allusion to a tale, the Three Princes of Serendip, who in their travels are always discovering, by chance or sagacity, things they didn’t seek.”
So, during that trip to Chicago, we’re hoofing it along a secondary trail in Yellowstone National Park. Since the boys are still little and it’s grizzly country, I’m in the lead and I’m wearing my deli T shirt to maybe scare them away. We come around a bend and a fellah about my age freezes so suddenly it strikes me he’s an old army buddy.
“You live in Anderson Valley?” he asks, eye-balling my T-shirt and grinning like a Cheshire Cat.
“Yip,” I admit.
Turns out the fellah is Philo born and bred. Now he does construction in the Sierra foothills, but grew up chopping wood, setting choker, pulling green chain, picking and packing apples—the whole works.
Now my surviving combat had nothing to do with serendipity. For one thing, I damned sure wanted to live (to get out of there if nothing else). For another, if the Viet Cong could shoot straight, I’d’ve been killed twice in the same morning. The nearest my survival came to being serendipity is that it was a gift. At once my young ass was frozen in a snapshot and I was made as ancient as fratricide.
About four years after I got out of the army I reached the low point of my post-war life. I made a solo run up into the Trans-Sierra to get out of the LA smog and try on some childhood memories. Meaning to make it into the Sawtooth Range, I fell short and wound up sitting on the empty south shore of Mono Lake. A dust devil appeared across the water, it caught my eye and imagination, and when I got back behind the wheel of my car I was changed forever. Having already passed through a couple of dozen foreign countries on five continents, and having criss-crossed the US by car, bus, thumb, train and plane, and having always been a traveler, I realized I still wanted to see the world. I wanted to see the life underfoot, the changing sky and seasons, lightning and raging seas. From a human perspective, just the geo-sphere is practically infinite in its complexity and mysteries, and I wanted to get my nibble before I tipped my hat. By seeing into the world beyond humans and human concerns, I realized I’d become more a person, more alive—better. While I’ve never been able to do it with my entire being, that day I finally laid down my gun.
We spent three weeks getting to and from that family reunion. We had the money and I made the time, and I wanted to give Trish and the boys what my dad had given me: a loving spoonful of the wide open American West. We’d camped in six National Parks, had passed through a couple of others (not to mention the “world famous” Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota) and now we were at the end of our trip and camping at the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
Now the worst part of being on the road is getting off it. Feeling a little bluesy, I went on a solo hike to go and sit on the rim, watch the sunset and take accounts. Jeff was born mentally disabled and—naturally—he’s easily frustrated and very difficult to keep happy. Yet Jeff had taken to “roughing it” the way any blue-blooded American child does if given the chance. Remembering how Jeff had laughed his ass off watching the prairie dogs carrying on inside their prairie dog town, and how he’d felt compelled to repeatedly touch the pink and white hoodoos in Bryce, I felt confident that Jeff was hooked on camping and exploring and I felt good mighty good about that. Abel, who is nearly four years older, was already hooked and, being what’s called a keen observer, for him the journey was, to say the least, enriching.
A few years before Abel was born, sweet serendipity had hooked his mama, eastern flatlander big city girl that she was. It was November, I’d just completed my first season setting choker, I was flush with petty cash and I took Trish camping up into Modoc by way of Reno. It was raining when we approached Alturas and, after consulting my map, rather than continue on to Lava Beds as planned, we decided to drive over the Warner Mountains and camp in the Nevada desert to wait out the storm. We stopped for supplies and advice in a sunny little crossroad town called Cedarville, and I was pleasantly surprised to meet a fellah who had kin in Anderson Valley. Equally surprising was that nobody in town that I talked to—and I made a point of asking a few—knew anything about the condition of the graded dirt road heading eastward into the ocean of sage. “Is the road wash-boarded?” I’d ask. “Can’t say.” “Know of any washouts?” “Never go out that way.”
Confident I wouldn’t get my ‘65 Chevy Bel-Air sucked down into a sinkhole, or fly it over the bank of a dry arroyo, or break its front axle in a pothole, or get it high-centered up on a boulder, we headed off to where the deer and the antelope play. After maybe 30 miles we came to a bronze-colored horseshoe of rimrock providing windbreak for a little valley. There was a two-track road winding toward the head of it, we followed it and, sure enough, it ended at a campsite crowned with an elegant fire ring made of lava rocks. After pitching our backpack tent, gathering the makings of a fire and then, from atop the rim, watching the sun set and the Milky Way come alive, we were back at camp cooking hotdogs over our fire when, standing in the flickering shadows, we saw a pair of coyotes eye-balling us and sniffing our offerings. After freezing and staring at each other for a couple of seconds, the coyotes lifted their noses and pranced away into the blackness.
I glanced at Trisha, she burst into laughter and I knew absolutely that she was one happy camper. If there’d been any doubts in her mind about her place in the “wilderness,” they were gone now. As were my doubts about whether or not she was a keeper.
In Zen you cannot try to achieve enlightenment, and you cannot try not to try. Serendipity is like that. You can’t pursue it and you can’t stop it from catching you. Luckily though, there are ways to allow serendipity to more easily find you. Hit the road, go anywhere new or revisit a scene of childhood memory and see what happens. If that’s impossible, find a solo sitting spot in nature and use your five senses. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. While the wise person seeks to broaden his or her horizons, remember it’s what’s beyond the horizon that broadens you.