In 1976 I was a student at CSU (the college in Ft. Collins). The student newspaper had an announcement of a poetry symposium to be held on campus in a few days. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have been interested, but Gary Snyder was to be a featured participant.
I wasn’t as swept up nor taken with the mythos of Jack Kerouac like some of my friends, but read practically everything he penned that I could get my hands on. The Dharma Bums — my introduction to Japhy Ryder/Gary Snyder. Having read Big Sur sometime before, I had thought and hoped Jack’s self-destructive tendency had been transformed — but those books were written in reverse order to that in which I had read them. Anyhow …
The article showed a recent picture of Mr. Snyder. He had become quite “hippi-ized” — counter-culture — kinda like me. Had I not seen that, I would have assumed he was still the crew-cut part-time log-cutter/outdoorsman I had pictured from The Dharma Bums. And so …
A couple days later while wandering the seemingly-labyrinthine hallways of the C S U student-center trying to find the room where Gary Snyder was to be part of a panel discussion, I encountered another lonely wanderer, looking for the same venue. Recognizing the fellow from the photograph, it was like a miniature lightning-bolt hitting my brain. Gary immediately exuded a scowl of annoyance in response to my ocularly-telegraphed kindred-spirit stare. Never-the-less …
We strode up and down the stairs and hallways, talking about what, I don’t remember — free-associating, I suppose. Probably about how lost we were. Our time together was maybe fifteen minutes. I’ll remember this for as long as I can (to quote the “Because I’m Blond” contest winner in Earth Girls are Easy). We arrived fashionably late (?) for Mr. Snyder, at the hushed and expectant venue. Everyone turned to look, and I felt important because, as I sat in the audience, I think everyone assumed I was with him, and special, somehow. To remove any doubt, I kept my mouth shut.
A CSU professor was the group moderator and I probably couldn’t have told you a week later what aspect of poetry this panel, perhaps six or so people total, was supposed to be about.
But I do remember Gary telling one story. The Papago Indians resided in the Sonoran Desert, spread out over present-day Aridzona and el estado de Sonora. They lived there because they had to. More powerful tribes lived in the adjoining lands with more water, better climate, hunting grounds, and cropland. The Papagoes didn’t have much in the way of physical possessions.
The most important and valuable thing a person could own, a “possession” as it were, was a song.
I suppose “rich” Papagoes had many songs.
How they acquired a song varied, and the songs would usually come in dreams. However, to merit/deserve/make oneself worthy of such an impartation, a Papago would have to do something heroic. One might hike all the way to the sea and bring back some salt. Or go beat up on some warriors of another tribe.
When one Indian was real good friends with another, and wanted to make a gift, he’d give his friend a song.
About two years before, Betty and I were vacationing/hanging in Mexico. We had gone on a prodigious train- and bus-sojourn from San Carlos to Mexico City. On the return leg of our journey, we each were beginning to become quite ill. Forty-some hours in an enclosed (windows up ’cause it was January) crowded bus with many people exhibiting symptoms of “el grippe” and buying mystery tacos and dulces-de-cabra from street vendors — “you do the math.”
The flu, probably. A severe, head-clogging, pain-filled, tedious, foreign flu.
Jaunty at the start of this trip, it seemed we crawled back to my parents’ half-completed house in San Carlos. The night we returned, we discovered that the ‘local’ train station was more than 20 miles away. We did hitch a couple rides to halve the distance, but at midnight — and even in north interior Mexico, it’s cold after the sun has disappeared in the middle of ‘winter’ — we felt we had no choice but to burrow into our sleeping bags just out of sight of the road. Dante, when chronicling the descent into the underworld, would have had to be creative to outdo the next incident of our seemingly inexorable downward spiral. Sometime between laying down and first light, I thought the banditos had crept up and were proceeding to kick the poo-poo out of us to get our attention. No … a small herd of semi-feral burros was picking its way through the frigid lunarscape, stumbling over us, and not gently nor quietly. I thought things could not get any weirder.
A merchant with whom we had conducted occasional business drove by just after sunrise and soon we were ‘home.’ Our condition and spirits would have benefited if the house had HOT running water.
We were too weak and tired from our ordeal to do little else but try to sleep. It was so bad that late one night, as I was tossing and turning and occasionally moaning as if that would help, I did an experiment to “pass the time.” I lay still for as long as I could, trying to sink into sleep, but concentrating as best I could on just passing the time never-the-less. I lay for what had to have been at least a couple hours. I looked at my watch. Two minutes had passed.
I did sink into a pain-free sleep later that night. I was in a cave. It was pitch dark. I couldn’t see anything, but the input from all the other senses gave me as clear a picture — no, clearer — than that which could have been garnered from sight alone — if this location was outside in the light.
I knew that I was seated on a rock ledge in this cavernous room right at the edge of the ocean. The cave would have significantly different aspects depending on low tide, or high tide. The sounds of the ocean, lapping and all the nuances of waves in among rock and coral walls, was vivid. As was the slap-in-the-face smell of the salt-air. I felt the breeze, stirred by each wave and the echoes, moving my hair. This was a large possibly basket-ball-court-sized space, and I was not alone.
They were singing, many dozens of people — in a language I surmised to be the local indigenous aboriginal tongue. This was not the past, nor any time in particular. It was like I had been transported to a dimension adjacent to, but not under much, if any, influence of the world-as-we-presently-know-it. I was NOT in our children’s iPad Internet-centered text/twitter/cellphone world. That world was ‘there’ — somewhere else — but I was in the primal realm that Carlos Castaneda had tried to illuminate to all his readers.
Several layers of chanting, humming, weaving in and out. A solo-ist would intone the next line of melody, and the others would join in, point-and-counter-point with increasing layers of background chorus. The song swept over me, along with the sea-breezes and salt-cave smell and rhythm of the waves. At the time I didn’t think this, but I was a biological electrical appliance, what with all the various currents going around and through me. And everybody and everything else.
I wish I could say that I woke up and the flu was gone. But I did remember the song for several months. I still hear snippets and suggestions and hints, but not very often.