Meet Billy Buck. He hates airplanes.
The cover, so far, by my wife. Devils Tower in Wyoming has a part to play in this story. The book isn’t finished yet – sometime later in the summer, I guess.
Billy Longbuck (AKA Billy Buck) is the protagonist in a novel I’m working on right now. He’s late 40s, with two kids ages 12 and 14, a writer for a comedian whose career is on the downswing, and he’s recently divorced from his wife who has moved far from their New Hampshire home to southern California. A court order has awarded sole custody of the kids to his wife, who demands that he get them out there to California pronto. She asks that he put them on a plane to get them there and he says to her —
We’re driving, he told her, sensing it was useless to plow through the litany of horror and humiliation in dealing with airports and deadlines and crowds, security bullshit and taking off his sneakers and ending up in the back of the tinfoil tube of a plane next to a defensive lineman who for some reason smelled like vinaigrette dressing, plus not being able to get to the lav in time.
Later, to a friend, he admits —
“I don’t fly. I don’t fly because my gut is swollen from my three fucking surgeries for the same damn thing, permanently distended, and I can barely fit in the seat and sure as hell I can’t get the fucking tray table down to get as many drinks as they’ll let me, and there’s always some NFL guy next to me who smells a cross between salad dressing and locker room sneakers, and they treat you like criminals, the PA system is like broken glass in my ear, I can’t get to the bathroom when I need to, I’m trapped and strapped in and even with the kids they won’t seat us together, LaGuardia to LAX, and as you well know I don’t have a smart phone and never will, or a tablet, so I sit and squirm and the whole time my gut is rebelling, wanting me to get up and move around so it doesn’t kink up again, and that’s the main deal — if I have another obstruction, after the three I’ve already had, they’re gonna have to emergency land the plane in East Bumfuck where the only surgeon is the town drunk and I probably wouldn’t make it out alive. Remember, the first one I had, I almost didn’t make it. And that surgeon was a genius, and sober.”
There’s a fair amount of me in my main character (including the three surgeries), minus his garbage mouth and rage, but as I’ve written before, I used to fly. As a pilot. Proof below, with my rented Piper Cherokee 140, me with arms out, age 19, and my late younger brother — I think this is at Keene, N.H. airport. I had my solo license then…
Flying when you’re the pilot is fun. Flying when you’re not the pilot isn’t. Everyone who’s reading this, if they’ve ever been at 30,000 feet or more, knows what I’m talking about.
Kicking the Habit- the Downside
Giving up commercial flying completely is very tough. The dozens of places I’ve written about in this blog are now physically out of reach. Henceforth, I’ll be pretty much an armchair adventurer, writing from the inside out, but I don’t mind.
It may largely come down to living in Maine. Unlike many places, Maine doesn’t feel confining. We live on 1.3 acres on the Weskeag River, and outdoors it’s nothing but space. Our home has a wide-open floor plan – mostly one large room. You can get spoiled this way, and not want to be in small rooms or crowded streets or aluminum tubes high in the air made and flown by fallible people.
All this said, I want to return to one of my favorite small-town discoveries, Branson, Colorado, which will have to continue its existence without my presence.
Back to America in subcompact form.
This is one of those stories that has no real center, no particular glue. Branson, Colorado is a tiny town of some 70 people in southeast Colorado a few miles north of the New Mexico border, and about 30 miles east of Trinidad, CO. Nearly everyone in town is in ranching, or else works on the enormous, nearly endless TO Ranch (owned by this country’s largest landowner, John Malone) in northeast New Mexico. They’re cowboys, mostly. I went there almost entirely by accident, as the guest of a friend we’d recently made.
She values her privacy highly, so I’ll call her Samantha. We met her at a kids’ rodeo in Trinidad one hot day in August, traded emails, and soon enough she invited us to come spend the night. Well, my wife-to-be was away in New York, but I took Samantha up on it. She works with horses. Trains them. Competes in rodeos. She also teaches school. She performed in a famous East Coast circus when she was younger. She lived on the Navajo reservation near Four Corners for a couple of years, alone in a hogan, becoming fast friends with the Navajo. And she’s a writer – poetry and stories and nonfiction narratives about her life in the West.
I asked if I could bring my 35 mm Nikon F to take photos of her with her horses, and she said sure. I also wanted to shoot Branson ranchers branding their calves, but Samantha said they’d just finished branding a few days earlier.
When I got there, we chatted for a bit and then she and her friend (whose name I’ve forgotten, but let’s call her Beth) told me there was an antique car and truck auction about 10 miles east, out in a field. Did I want to go? Sure.
So, in spite of Ford Broncos and IH’s others I would have gladly snatched up, she and Beth went home empty-handed. Me too. I had a ’72 Jeep Commando, which was project enough: failing exhaust system, loose motor mounts that would lock the automatic transmission into first gear only, bad shocks, you name it.
Later, she said there’s a barn dance in Branson that night, and would I like to go? Sure. Where’s Branson? 30 miles east, all on one dirt road. Sure. So the three of us took off in their Jeep across dusty rolling flatness at sunset – the epitome of what they call the High Plains. The women wore western shirts and jeans and I, displaced Yankee, wore whatever I’d brought.
When we came into town I wondered how such a small place could support any type of community. A couple of dozen buildings, maybe. But they had a school with a small gym, and this is what acted as their Community Center and dance hall. Everyone inside dressed to the western nines – kids and adults alike – and the music (natch) was all two-step. Basic two-step is pretty simple (feet move quick-quick, slooww-slooww), but these men and women (and the kids too) had all kinds of flourishy moves and inventive variations. A sea of smiles and a chorus of voices with western drawls – I felt I’d landed in some alternate fragile universe where joy and love had been perfectly distilled. Samantha and I danced several numbers, she guided me through a couple of cool moves, and I did my best to do more than just clunk along. But in the end, it wasn’t quite my world and my feet weren’t responding. (I think I asked her at one point if I came across as an Eastern type and she told me, frankly but with kindness, “It’s written all over you.”)
It’s easy to tell from the photos that Samantha has a strong body, and at one point one of her Branson male admirers asked her, in so many words, where her “arms came from.” She snapped back (but with a smile) – “from God.” I think she feels modest about her body. Beauty and strength are internal, where they should belong.
We left and headed back to Trinidad. Same 30 miles of dirt road. For reasons I wasn’t quite sure of, I felt glowing inside, as though I’d been touched in a place that was new to me. For a couple of hours we’d been connected to a tiny remote community where everyone knew everyone else and treasured their togetherness. There was no talk about such things, as if talk would diminish it.
A few years ago, as Branson kept shrinking and the number of children dwindled, it became a model for elementary school distance learning. And still is, I think. More recently, their post office was shut down, and the whole town gathered to bid it farewell.
The next morning was photograph time. Pretty horses, great rider. My Nikon F had great optics, but of course it was 35mm film and somewhat limited.
At the end, she wanted to walk her horse outside the ring on her ranch land. I followed with my camera, wanting to frame the shot with her leading her horse off to the left.
Before leaving, I gave her a copy of my only commercially published novel, warning her it was as culturally opposite to her world as a book could be. She didn’t mind.
We connected by phone after that, but eventually lost track of each other. She has many stories to tell, but she’ll need to do that herself. I felt privileged to know her, and spend a couple of very special hours in a rare American community. Or maybe it isn’t so rare…
For other insights into this special part of the country, its beauty and troubles, see here.
There it is.