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Scenic Highway #34


My grandfather told it like this:

~

"I don't know, about thirty years ago or so, me and this friend of mine, we went looking for a Christmas tree. It was December, and we had these friends that lived up on a little scenic highway, right outside of Estes the roundabout way to Boulder and Lyons. There was just this little dirt road that you'd miss if you weren't watching for it."

~

As he speaks I picture this beautiful little winding road, like the bright tracks of the Beatles, turning through mountain dirt, rocks, hills burning with the very late bright reds and deep yellows of final fall. A road that bumps and humps you through your car a road where the slower you go the more you're thrown about so you step up the gas and whir through a montage of trees and sky a painting in fast forward.

~

"These friends of ours that lived up there owned a wide chunk of land just outside of all those little tourist towns their own little place away from everything. Slim and Mary. Their names were Slim and Mary. They had this little ramshackle place up there. But I shouldn't say that it was a house kept up by Slim mostly. But is was just the basics sometimes not even that. Their water came out of this little stream that rolled past the place. And Slim had hooked up this funnel so that the water just flowed right out of the stream, through the pipes, and into his sink. But it worked for what they needed. They didn't have any electricity except for this battery that Slim had hooked up so that Mary could iron his shirts. And when we'd ask about food he'd just say that when he wanted an elk he'd wait out on his porch until they came to graze in his front yard. Once they stopped there he'd shoot one. Within a few days the elk herd would be right back on his property, grazing."

~

My brother also kills elk. He has a license for deer and other things too. I have a license for fish. When my other grandpa the one we call Papa catches a fish and wants it for dinner he just grabs it around its midsection and whacks it against a big rock until it stops squirming. He says that it's better than letting it die slowly in a bucket or basket or something. Fish make a horrible noise when they're banged against a rock. The thud is distinct. But it's the sport of catching one that is so definitive. If you've ever felt a fish tugging at your line out of nowhere striking and then running, you know the draw.

~

They say that Hemingway was a hell of a fisherman. They also say that he was sexist and racist. I really don't care. The way he wrote was more important than any of it. Just like the way Sinatra sang. The way Picasso painted. The way Einstein thought. The way Kubrick set a scene. The way trees bloom. The way dogs hear thunderclouds before they've even breached the horizon. The way a warm breeze can cross snowy ground. The way my wife smiles. The way my grandfather hugs. The way my niece yawns. The way the world wakens on a spring morning. The way time moves unrelenting and unforgiving.

~

My grandfather and his friend hiked through the woods up at Slim and Mary's until they found the perfect trees. Then they cut them down and headed back to the cabin. It was snowy outside and I'm sure that the sun was shining. That's the way it's best in the winter. Sun and snow. And I know that their saws were incredibly sharp jagged teeth biting. And I'm sure that they spoke of friendship and old stories. Spoke, chuckled, and called on muscles.

~

My wife and I once cut down a tree for Christmas. It was from a tree lot on the outskirts of town. We took my parents with us and had a great time finding just the right shape and height. We took turns using the saw at the base of the tree and with each stroke of the saw's teeth we both began to feel more ashamed. We fought off the feeling until December rolled to a close. At that point, the tree was drying up, losing needles, and gaining cobwebs. It looked sad and still, lifeless and longing for something more. Like watching the brightest sun cave in to stirring, ugly clouds. After that we decided not to cut down any more trees. After that we ended up with my brother's hand-me-down five-foot plastic and nylon tree. It still looks great over the holidays though someday we'd like to have one that's a little taller.

~

As a child we'd go to this ranch up in the mountains and saw until everyone was content. Usually there were five or six boys crammed in the back of an aging suburban, no seat belts, no worries, no gloves, all ready to walk for hours through hills and pine needles to find the perfect holiday decoration. A tree that, as a child, never seemed to shrivel or dry, never looked discontent or out of place. A tree that, in fact, looked beautiful, full, alive, and at ease. Everyone would find their tree at different paces. Sometimes families would be spread throughout the place, just barely in sight of one another; other times, we were all right next to one another sawing, talking, laughing. We'd tie the trees to a roof rack, a trailer, pile back into our respective cars, and head home.

~

Still, friends of ours - even after childhood, teenage years, marriages, deaths, births - cut down a live tree every year. They are not alone. Millions do it. And their house always smells nice, like pine and mountains. Like leaves and wind. Like Christmas and New Year's. And their tree is always full, plenty of room for a lifetime of decorations. The reindeer made out of clothes pins, the glass globes cut-away and then decorated with miniature scenes, the cotton ball and construction paper Santas, turtles made of wax, googley-eyed monsters with no holiday reference. Those thin metal cutouts of angels blowing trumpets. The town-identified tourist ornaments, proclaiming travel. Crystal stars and paper camels. Handfuls of tinsel, faded lights with a pension for fire hazards, and a star that's plastic, old, and lovely. It's always a beautiful mess of a tree.

~

They make fake snow now. It comes in a spray can and it's hard to aim. It smells like chemicals. They make fake pine scent too. And it also smells mostly like chemicals. The icicles are made of plastic. The cranberries are too. The popcorn is real, but so old that no one dares eat it. A tree laced in chemicals, plastic, metal, glass, and all the otherworldly materials we've demanded of ourselves. The same materials we're made of on harsh days. Chemicals, plastic, metal, glass. Things that obstruct, compress, stain, and injure. All wrapped around a very alive core. All wandering around a thin body of aimless energy.

~

Aluminum trees are back in style now too. You can find pink, green, silver, blue. They're usually small and skinny and look strange next to a real tree.

~

When my great grandmother died we went into her garage to look for any keepsakes that we might want. In that cold concrete room my wife and I found everything. Housecoats and costume jewelry. Piano books and rolls of fake grass. Aged crock-pots and weathered tools. We also found her old aluminum Christmas tree. It was silver, four feet high, and the light wheel was broken, but we took it anyway. We set it up one year and it looked great and antique. It reminded us of her even though we didn't really know her all that well. Relatives told us that she set that tree up every year and they remember it vividly. They remembered her and that tree and then laughed. A little remembering laugh that meant something different to everyone. They all remembered but none of them wanted it. So setting it up made us feel good.

~

I also took something else from my great grandmother's garage: two books.

~

One was a dictionary that once belonged to my great uncle a man I never met. They say he died of a disease.

~

My great grandfather father to my great uncle husband to my aluminum Christmas tree great grandmother another man I never met used to play the harmonica. Somebody else found that in the garage, rooting through the years. It was attached to a wire hanger that he used to suspend the harmonica around his neck while he played guitar. They make these now and you can buy them at any music store. They probably made them back then too, but he made his own instead. He was that kind of guy. He also made his own cookie cutters. We still have one on our shelves somewhere. It's a heart-shaped cookie cutter made out of some old heavy-duty metal. You can still see where he gripped the metal with pliers to bend the shape. You can also still see where he filed the edge to make a sharp cutout point. Papa once made a basketball hoop out of an old coffee can. This was at their farm home in Kansas where I'm sure entertainment was pretty scarce. He cut a coffee can in half and bent the remaining metal down on itself to make a stronger rim. Then he nailed the hoop to a wooden beam in the middle of their unfinished basement. Down in that same room he rigged up a spout and a tarp on rings for a makeshift shower. Incredible these innovations these somethings out of nothings. Sons out of fathers.

~

The other book I took from my great grandmother was a tiny green hardback full of concise opera plots. It was printed in Chicago in the fifties. I have no idea why she had this book. I don't think she liked the opera. I actually don't know if she liked the opera but I knew her a little and I'm not sure it fits with what I know of her. Plus, she didn't have that many other books to speak of. But she had this little one buried away in her things. I like to think that it had some sentimental value I'll never know. That way I can imagine it everyday, when things get bad, when things are good, when things are odd, and you need something, anything, to hold onto.

~

Back at the cabin, it had begun to snow in wet heavy flakes that made everyone want to wait out the afternoon inside a warm home. Mary invited Slim and the boys inside to warm up with a little drink before setting out in the snow for the drive home. My grandfather was poking around their very tiny cabin looking at the wonders of a mountain home when he stumbled onto a bookshelf. He told me:

~

"Here on this bookshelf, were all the classics. All the books that you should read. The ones they give you in school. And here they all were in neat little editions that looked well read. And they weren't the type of people to put anything up just for looks or to make people think they were smart. They were up because they read them. They continued to read them."

~

I recently counted the books in my own library. I have roughly 1,100 fiction books, 500 non-fiction, and 1,000 plus plays. In those stacks is a dictionary with "Dwayne" written in pencil on the inside cover the hardback smudged with lead. Also in those stacks is a small green book about operas. I don't like operas but I keep the book around anyway. I like it. It makes me feel proud for some reason. There is also a book written by my wife's grandfather. It's called Stout . There is a picture of his bulldog on the inside cover. There is also a steel covered soldier's pocket Bible that my parents gave me for Christmas. Inside that book we found a scrap of newspaper with no full words left. Beside that is a bright red pocket copy of The Sayings of Chairman Mao Tse Tung . There is a first edition of The Catcher in the Rye , a signed copy of The Things They Carried , and a small, smoke-ridden box set of Vonnegut's first works. I put Mein Kampf next to The Bible , just to see what happens. As for all the other books, some were good and some were bad. I honestly don't know why I have so many. I just like to collect them. I love to read them. I think that there is a hidden message somewhere in there. A secret that only years of reading and absorption will reveal. A letter or two in each volume, all adding up to one secret, wholesome message written just for me.

~

And all these volumes came from 26 letters.

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abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz

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But do I have the books for show or for entertainment or for sentimental value or for something else entirely? I'm not sure. But they're here, and I have them, and I keep putting more in the shelves, and when someone else dies I'll get another book or two that I don't know the meaning of. But I'll read it and think about it and imagine whatever I like. And that's the point of all this. We live in a strange world full of stories and unknowns. An experiment doomed to fail: too many variables. Stories in stories in stories.

~

words: J.A. Tyler, Colorado (about J.A. Tyler)
photo: Dorothee Lang, Germany (blueprint21)

 

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