Bonfire At Yellowgate

by Flynn Washburne, August 17, 2016

I hate to keep flogging a dead horse, but some things manage, through sheer black-hearted cussedness, to continuously prod one's ire and therefore demand public excoriation.

Last night I was on the yard after the sun had gone down and I no longer risked actual combustion by exposing my skin to the unfiltered summer radiance of the Mojave, and was treated to the sight of a gorgeous low-hanging orange moon. Fatly shimmering on the horizon's edge, its color and brilliance were emphasized by the nondescript sand and scrub of the intervening landscape. The only thing impinging on the spectacular view was the spiky, jutting arms of that pestilent weed known as the Joshua "tree."

Can we just begin with the misleading nomenclature? See, actual trees don't need the word "tree" in their names to convince you of their arboreality; they display it with their bark and leaves and grandeur, in addition to kicky accessories like bird's nests and squirrels a-scampering. Real trees don't hang out in the Blasted Lands, but choose climates in which it is possible to maximize one's potential with rich, nourishing soils and plentiful rainfall.

Imagine yourself, for instance, in the extravagantly wooded confines of Mendocino County. For most of you, this is not a stretch. A stranger from the desert asks you, "Say, what is that thing over there?" You say, "Oh, you mean that incredibly majestic thing over there towering over literally everything? That's a redwood, or giant sequoia. Only the tallest thing ever, no big whoop. Pretty much the ne plus ultra of the entire plant kingdom."

There is no need to qualify its designation with "tree." Its treeness is manifest in its stately mien and lofty attainment.

If you're going to refer to those gnarled, cancerous shrubs as trees, though, you may as well claim that ant-lions rule the savannah and guinea pigs contribute significantly to the composition of a BLT. In other words, naming a thing don't make it so.

I think it's important that I occasionally air my most cherished antipathies, be they for stunted pseudocacti littering the desert and masquerading as trees, terminally mellow featherheaded country-rock schlock merchants, or states with a "z" in them. Hint: there's only one, though I'd be interested to know how Missouri came to be pronounced that way. They may as well surrender their esses to someone who understands how sibilants work, incorporate the "z" which has always been implicit anyway, and embrace their kinship with Arizona, which is the answer to the question: "What should we do with all these elderly Nazis and kids flush with tuition money and double-digit SAT scores?"

I'm not especially negatively disposed toward Mizuri, except that it is subject to the sort of free-floating contempt I hold for the south and Midwest in general, and they are a little bit of both. If I know my history, and I'm not sure I do, Mizuri vacillated on the slavery issue back when that was a topic, and to this day suffers from a lack of respect for not establishing a clear position and sticking to its convictions. Its neighbors are loath to include it in any adjoining-state functions. Bad-boy Arkansas won't tell it anything for fear it'll snitch; goody-goody Iowa won't have its reputation sullied by associating with slavers; cosmopolitan Illinois can't be seen hobnobbing with hillbillies, leaving only Kansas, who nobody anywhere wants anything to do with. The only people glad for Kansas' existence are Nebraskans, who otherwise wouldn't have anyone to feel superior to.

In my extensive travels, I have visited and lived in some pretty redneck-intensive areas, and concluded that you can find people of that description just about anywhere, but I contend that hands-down the red-neckiest, hill-billiest, most back-assward sons of the soil ever to draw breath do so in the redwood-scented air of Mendocino County. I wondered why this should be—after all, if Mendo has a reputation outside its borders, it is as a hippie paradise—and concluded that it is the remoteness and lack of urban influence on the transplanted culture brought from the Dust Bowl, Ozark hollers, and other pockets of rusticity during the Depression. These people holed up out in the woods, festering in their backwoods possum-and-moonshine modus vivendi with little or no interference or influence from the outside world, and to this day live in a manner virtually indistinguishable, save for some sophisticated electronics, from that of their adventuresome forebears come to sup the milk and honey of the Golden State.

I in no wise mean to impart judgment on the breed nor ascribe any pejorative connotation to my characterizations; after all, I personally got eight solid years of public education while being "raised" by day drinkers, which at least qualifies me as spiritual brethren to the hillbilly community, and it is probably only my peripatetic nature and relentlessly inquiring mind that kept me out of the trailer park. My veneer of sophistication overlays a core of mostly white-trash DNA tempered with the influence of some raw intelligence and cultural literacy, so just because I can tell a Klimt from a Klee does not mean that these people are not, in a very fundamental way, my people.

* * *

So, I had been keeping company with one of the evil Jennifers for a few days, and when she jumped ship for greener pastures she took with her a sack of schwaggula and some gas money that was in the glove box of my car. Not a major loss at all, but enough to piss me off, and when a couple of her young rivals, with whom I'd replaced her, suggested that some sort of purification ritual be performed involving the possessions she'd left in my trunk, I heartily agreed. Actually, what she said was "Let's set her shit on fire," but I saw it as a healing rite and necessary to my continued progress as a human being. The two young ladies and I drove up to Yellowgate, a party spot up the Sherwood road blocked by one of the yellow-painted gates erected by Georgia-Pacific to define their (former) stewardship of the forest and prevent anyone interfering with their plans to render it into easily stackable planks and reams, and excavated Jen's bags from the trunk. Her stuff made a decent pile when emptied out, and proved, when assisted with some accelerant, to be nicely combustible. It was a brisk, still, clear night, perfect for a bonfire. We danced and chanted around its perimeter, alternately drinking and sprinkling a half-gallon bottle of 100-proof rum, cheering when the alcohol-fed flames leapt high.

As the pile was reduced to embers, I first urinated and then vomited on it (it's a thin veneer), symbolically (and actually) purging toxins and bitterness from my stomach and psyche and rendering my overall outlook fairly rosy. Too late for Jen's things, but their sacrifice made it possible.

We stuck around for a while, drinking and castigating Jen specifically and all black-hearted light-fingered bag-whores in general. I rendered myself quite insensible, and the next thing I remembered I was sprawled half-in and half-out of the passenger seat, with the door open and in completely unfamiliar surroundings. In stirring I roused what had registered as a warm weight against my leg, and proved to be one of those wintertime dogs with the pale blue eyes. He looked at me expectantly and I patted his head. "Hey, boy," I said. "Where the hell am I?”

No answer was forthcoming, so I eased myself out of the car and followed the dog, who was trotting confidently up toward a house and looking back to make sure I was coming. The door was ajar and the dog shouldered his way in. I called out a Hallo… and heard from inside, "Come on in," in a distinctively rusticated cadence.

I walked down a dim, musty smelling hallway lined with pictures and saw light spilling from a doorway on the left. I went in and saw, bare feet up on a log in front of a ticking potbellied stove, a shirtless, wide-gallused gentleman with a prodigious beard and a wide-brimmed pinned-up hat with a semi-conical crown. In one hand was a knife of the variety known as the Arkansas Toothpick, in the other a stick of wood being converted to tinder. On either side of his chair rested a spittoon and a bottle of Evan Williams. I took the scene in for a few moments, wondering how the guy from the old Mountain Dew bottles had come to life. No way was this guy for real! He had to be some kind of post-ironic metabilly making a cultural statement.

He looked up at me and said, "You must be Flint. Girls are asleep yonder." He flipped the knife up to indicate behind him. "Heard aboutcha bonfire. Heh, heh. You gotta watch that one. She'll getcha."

"Oh, you know Jen?"

"I know'm all. They all come up here from time to time. She's devious, that one. Watcher back."

I sat down slowly in a vacant chair, a little dazed.

"Hep y'self," my host said, nodding at the bottle. Earl and I drank and talked til the sun came up and beyond, and there was not a thing contrived or affected about that man. I doubt the question of his genuineness ever entered into his self-perception; he was who he was. His grandparents had emigrated from Missouri, bought, homesteaded or otherwise commandeered the land back in the twenties, and the family had been there ever since, Earl only leaving the patch for a four-year hitch in the Army. He lived a mostly self-sufficient life up there and extended hospitality to such tamales as cared to make their way up there. Wherever that was; I drove back out later that morning, directed by the girls, but after 30 minutes of rough road and many turns which eventually spilled us out onto Highway 20, I had no more idea of where we were than I did Atlantis.

If we ever cross paths again, I'm going to ask him how he feels about the Joshua tree's jumped-up claim to occupy the same genera as those girthy monsters bravely hand-felled by his intrepid granddad. I don't think he'll think much of it.

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