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Special Places

The Bell

Saturday, July 14th, 2012: Places, Special Places.

First of a series about places that have become special to my friends and me, as we’ve ventured there together year after year to share good fellowship, and sometimes to witness the mysteries of creation.

The Bell was first discovered by James and me on an exploratory outing with a bottle of cheap wine, long ago in the mists of memory before my adult circle of friends had begun to crystallize. The ferry plowed the rough swells of the bay, carrying us out to the tall, green island, past rugged headlands and lush valleys in which stately antique buildings stood vacant but well-tended among groves of palm trees. We stood on the open upper deck, where a salt wind tugged at our hair and gulls swooped hungrily at the rails.

We made our way on the ring road around the darkly forested island to a point high above the water where we could see the great bridge opening westward on the ocean, and from there we scrambled precariously down a faint, crumbling game trail to a small beach of dark pebbles, where we drank our wine, talked, and occasionally waded a short ways into the cold, churning surf. The Bell stood above us, long abandoned and windswept, on its rock that jutted into the bay toward the distant bridge.

Hours later we realized it was high time we headed back to catch the last ferry, but the wine had sorely diminished us. We couldn’t retrace our steps up the precipitous slope, and ventured around The Bell to a long sandy beach with more high crumbling slopes. The tide stopped us at the end of this, and desperate, we began to claw our way up the trackless slope, grasping roots and branches and treetrunks, finally stumbling gratefully out onto the ring road and the way back.

Years later, after my bohemian inner-city loft had evolved from its early turbulence and drama into a hard-working, hard-partying, cohesive community of ambitious young artists, actors and musicians, I led the whole extended family back to the island with a full supply of wine, baguettes, cheese and fruit, in search of the looming Bell. It couldn’t be seen from the ring road above, but again I found an obscure game trail which halfway down the steep slope brought our destination in view, still far below. From there, the narrow dirt track fell off steeper and steeper until it became a landslide. The more confident among us started onto the slide, digging our shoes in for traction, but when we coaxed one of the girls into following, she froze in place, staring at the sharp rocks on the beach below, veering into full panic. None of us had solid footing, but after a tense debate we tottered, slid, and formed a human chain to lower her down. The subsequent debauch found us all laboring successfully to put the incident behind us, as we lay like kings and queens surrounded by our brilliant domain: the sparkling bay, its windblown yachts, its distant bridge and city arrayed for our pleasure as we lounged and played on a broad pedestal of weedy cement, both stage and balcony, high above waves flashing like broken glass in the sun.

Behind us in a small grassy lawn loomed the Bell suspended from its wooden frame, taller than any of us, a stupendous weight of bronze turned grey-green by a century of salt spray, waiting for our primitive driftwood drumsticks to ring it into complex resounding polyrhythms. And below and around our platform, the sheer, black rock hosting a feral garden of agave, yucca and flowering shrubs, anemones crowding in the tide zone, and a fringe of crashing waves out of which the occasional seal hauled itself up to bask.

The pattern was set, and henceforth for more than two decades, through thick and through thin, my friends and I made bohemian expeditions across the bay and carefully down that hidden landslide path to the Bell to celebrate nature near the city but seemingly a world away, to refresh our perspectives, expanding horizons that had been shrinking and confining us in the repetitive toil of our days. Despite millions of people living around the bay, never did we find evidence of other visitors; the slippery slope that was part of our adventure helped keep our secret. On each arrival, time itself seemed to expand as all our senses came alive. Once, we were surprised by historic square-rigged ships emerging from the mist and firing cannons at each other in deafening blasts of black powder. Another time, we saw a horde of giant jellyfish advancing suicidally across the waves, from all directions as far as the eye could see, to be tossed limply on the rocky beach where their soft iridescent bodies flowed over the dark stones like molten glass. And another time, John frightened and amazed us by swimming out into the powerful breakers where none of us had ever dared to go.

We who discovered this place were experimental musicians and performers, and we saw the rock and the Bell from the beginning as both stage and living instrument, seemingly timeless, primitive, and rooted in the wild elements like the temples of the ancient Greeks. There, drumming on the Bell itself was always the central experience, and the holy of holies was to stand inside while your friends kept it ringing around you, and you felt cradled by a great humming, keening, rumbling womb. And always, we hesitated as long as we believed possible before leaving to catch the last ferry back to the city, our bodies exhausted and our spirits restored, wondering when we’d see our Bell again.

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The Lake

Saturday, August 18th, 2012: Places, Special Places.

(photo gallery at bottom)

Second in a series about places that have become special to my friends and me, as we’ve ventured there together year after year to share good fellowship, and sometimes to witness the mysteries of creation.

Good fellowship, delicious grilled food, a keg of our favorite local ale, music improvised among the trees, diving from rocks and swimming in clear water – plus the occasional romance – how could you go wrong?

To get there, you drive through a maze of winding streets and roads up the steep, forested hills above the city, over a sharp ridge then down to where the Lake lies hidden in dense eucalyptus forest filling a long, narrow valley. Fed by creek water from the surrounding slopes, it’s popular for picnicking and swimming. The western shore is a broad meadow with sandy beach and parking lot; above the lake on the eastern side, a small picnic ground lies hidden among the eucalyptus.

My first visit was 30 years ago on a company picnic with a small engineering firm that did earthquake safety studies for nuclear power plants. Our eccentric, domineering boss treated us all like his somewhat wayward children, but he was the real loose cannon. You never knew what off-color insult he was going to sling at you in mixed company. My younger brother was visiting and I invited him to the picnic.

I had a huge enamel stockpot that I used for the group meals we often shared in our loft, and I made chili, with lots of jalapenos – the boss was from Texas. But, distracted with preparations, I allowed the thin metal to overheat, so there was a solid crust of charred chili lining the pot and it ended up tasting scorched. But as I recall, we all had a great time, my young co-workers and their families and dogs playing frisbee on green grass in the summer sun with light glinting off the Lake in the background.

Years passed, the company prospered and declined with the doomed industry, and my life continued to unfold as a never-ending drama of wild romance and ambitious projects in music and art, until at the end of the decade, the loft was destroyed in a massive earthquake. In the aftermath, we survivors were drawn to the hidden picnic ground above the Lake, where we barbecued in the dappled afternoon sunlight and improvised a long, wistful dirge on African percussion and clarinet, returning often to a quarter keg of our favorite local ale sitting in a barrel of ice under a tree.

In the following year I gradually got back on my feet, conceiving a big new project, and a new beauty appeared in my life. Luckily for me, our first date was on her birthday; we shared an intimate dinner then drove to the Lake in the dark and parked near the picnic area at the head of a trail. At the bottom of the trail we crossed the creek on a wooden bridge under a low canopy of boughs.

We left the trail and found a smooth bank where we could sit under a tree and watch starlight reflecting on the still surface of the Lake. I pulled her close, smelling her clean hair, and we began to kiss. It felt like a dream, like the renewal of my world. Later we found an expensive parking ticket on the car – the Lake had a curfew – but it was a small price to pay for a new life.

We returned in a year or so, after the dream had faded and my life was again losing all its moorings, to join her large contingent of urban-hippie friends in a sloppy gathering in a larger, hotter clearing higher up the slope. Scattered tents emitted clouds of pot smoke and boom boxes pumped out a mix of the Beastie Boys and Bob Marley. There I was singled out by a swarm of mutant mosquitos, the biggest I’d ever seen, but no one else seemed to be bothered by them. More and more often I found myself the outsider at gatherings of her friends, begging to leave early.

Ultimately she dumped me, unsurprisingly when I was at my lowest ebb of self-doubt and insecurity. My friends tried to console me with another Lake picnic, this time in the cool of autumn. One friend carried a new baby, and there was even a cute single girl, a stranger who turned out on further research not to be a prospect.

The next summer saw the beginning of an epic new romantic saga, but my life was still no more stable or grounded – I was unemployed and in debt and I had broken up my last band. Within months I sabotaged the new romance by moving away to another city where I hoped to find work. Trying to sustain the relationship somehow, I returned sporadically, and we held an even bigger picnic in our favorite Lakeside grove, pulling together old roommates from the loft, co-workers from several old jobs, and the usual crew of jamming musicians. There was a group of children for the first time, and I remember one friend carried a little battery-powered fan to keep her cool – it was the envy of all of us!

From the picnic ground you could take a narrow, winding trail down to the Lake, where a rock twice as tall as any of us stood out from the shore. Swimming on this side of the Lake was not permitted, so we would wait until late in the afternoon when the opposite beach emptied and the lifeguards retired from their towers. We could dive off the rock into deep, cool and clear creek water – but sometimes we were spotted anyway and chastised by distant bullhorns. And returning, we could pick and eat wild oats among the tall trailside grasses.

After a couple of years I moved back to the area, but settled far from my old friends in a village by the sea. Meanwhile, the drummer from my old band and his neighbors had formed a mini-community around “The Grotto” in their inland backyard. We learned that the last of my former loftmates was moving to Ireland with his family, so we organized another picnic at the Lake, based largely on the Grotto crowd. The drummer had become obsessed with golf and tried unsuccessfully to interest us in drunken lessons. Saying goodbye to old friends made it a melancholy gathering, especially since they left the picnic before the rest of us and we felt abandoned.

In the summer of the last year before I moved away to my current home, a local bandleader organized a big picnic and jam session on the main meadow across the Lake. The organizer and I had never been close – I had “borrowed” a guitar player and a singer from his band so were competing bandleaders in a sense – but late in the day I was walking on a trail far from the picnic with my guitar, starting to play “Rivers of Babylon,” and he appeared out of nowhere to join me, and it turned out to be one of the sweetest sessions I’ve ever had, there by the Lake that had seen so many unforgettable moments of our lives in the city.


The Cave

Sunday, July 14th, 2013: Places, Special Places.

Max & Katie keeping warm in their cave, December 1985

Third in a series about places that have become special to my friends and me, as we’ve ventured there together year after year to share good fellowship, and sometimes to witness the mysteries of creation.

Arrows in the Fog

It all began in the fall of 1981, on a drive back to CalArts from a weekend of cheap gambling and debauchery in Las Vegas. We were taking the scenic back roads, so that Mark could show me his new favorite camping spot in the desert. I had driven across the Mojave several times on the interstate, but my Midwestern eyes hadn’t really seen it – it looked empty to me, a big nothing of flat basins and distant mountains that just chewed up a few hours of a road trip.

We drove up a long, straight road toward an indistinct horizon between low hills, flanked by rugged mountains of bare rock, and at the top we entered a dense fog and the road turned to dirt and gravel under our tires. Both of us were surprised and puzzled to find fog in the desert. We couldn’t see off the road, and a short way down the other side of the pass Mark pulled off onto the shoulder.

Mark said that somewhere out there in the fog was his cave, but how could we find it and not get lost? We settled on arrows in the ground – we would set off with Mark in the lead, using a stick to scratch arrows in the hard-packed dirt, sand and gravel along our way. He led me on a winding course down gullies and up over low ridges and around the looming, ghostly edges of pale granite boulders and rounded, dark-green juniper trees, carefully avoiding grasping thorn bushes and branching cacti and their fallen stubby joints lying in wait like land mines waiting to pierce our shoes, and we could never see more than a few yards ahead of us through the fog. It was eerily silent until we came upon rivulets of clear water trickling down tiny gullies. We breathed tangy herbal fog. It was the most magical environment I’d ever entered. We found his cave – a low, deep cavity under a boulder. We followed our arrows back to the car. For weeks, I couldn’t get those images out of my mind, but I had no idea that this short walk in the fog would become the most important thing that ever happened to me.

Bohemians in Nature

Mark was finishing school at CalArts outside Los Angeles, and I was making art and music in a loft in San Francisco. The two of us became the nexus of a gradually expanding group of artist-campers, urban bohemians who escaped into nature. Mark and I worked sporadically as an art duo called the Didactyl Brothers, producing rude, irreverent music and installations. His desert cave was part of a rolling plateau of house-sized boulder piles at the foot of white granite cliffs, and on our cave camping trips, we started experimenting with large-scale tempera paintings on rock faces. We discovered that the water-based paint on exposed surfaces would completely weather away within a few months, leaving another blank canvas.

We’d park beside the dirt road and make two or three hikes to the cave with a cooler full of beer and ice, water jugs and food, camp stove and utensils, sleeping bags, guitars and folding chairs. His cave was small and low-ceilinged, only big enough for two people to sleep in. We’d wake up in the morning, make coffee on a propane stove outside the cave, carry our paints, water and beer to the rock face, mix the powdered tempera with water, and go crazy. At night, we’d grill steaks over a crackling fire of pungent juniper wood and warm up beans on the stove. The coyotes would start their eerie calls along the horizon, and we’d get wild and crazy and make up satirical songs and comic rants feeding off each other to higher and higher heights of crude genius, until we were literally rolling on the ground, laughing uncontrollably.

Wild Domestic

One of those early trips, in the spring of 1984, happened right after I’d broken up with a previous girlfriend and met a new one. Katie, a popular figure in the Los Angeles art scene, played bass in Mark’s band, and she’d heard about his cave and was curious. Soon she and I were out there scouting for our own cave. She was an experienced outdoorswoman and we were thorough. We found a larger, better rock shelter and started working to improve it. We drove the 90 miles to Twentynine Palms for thrift-shop tools and furnishings and occasional free showers in the town park. Shopping for our cave was fun, like being kids again, playing house!

There was a nasty pile of cholla cactus joints in one corner of the cave that we failed to recognize as a pack rat nest. We got the bright idea of burning it out. Pack rats create layers of compacted, urine-soaked, slow-burning waste, similar to a seam of coal. We ended up with a smoky, hard-to-get-at fire that burned for five days while we tried many ways of putting it out with increasing desperation. Early on, we drove the 90 miles to Twentynine Palms to buy a fire extinguisher, drove it back and used it all up in less than two minutes without any noticeable effect on the fire. In the end we laboriously dug out the fire and smothered it bit by bit with dirt. And turned our cave into a luxurious desert home with vaulted ceiling, sleeping alcove, living room/kitchen with indoor fireplace, storage closet, outdoor shower, and an elevated porch facing west to watch the sunset.

Katie showed me creative ways to camp in comfort. Permanent furnishings, which were stored in the “closet” when we departed, included straw mats for the floor, foam pads and a roll of carpet for our bed, tools, folding chairs, propane camp stove, and insulated ice chests full of cooking utensils, dinnerware and paper goods, matches, cooking oil, seasonings and candle lanterns for ambiance – the round, knobby, tinted glass ones used in older restaurants. In a desert thrift shop we found a beautiful vintage chrome breadbox to protect our bread, chips and crackers from the rats. On our arrival from the city, we hiked from the car to the cave carrying perishables and stuff that was too valuable to leave out there: water, ice, food, drinks, sleeping bags and musical instruments.

Then we settled in for an idyllic interlude of hiking and exploring, improvising and recording music, writing songs and poetry, drawing and painting – all by ourselves in a vast, ancient, and timeless landscape that felt welcoming and embracing, with its mild weather and its rounded, organic architecture of granite boulders and domelike junipers. A symphony of birds and insects surrounded us on hot summer days. I began to notice subtle ways in which the desert was making me healthier. My eyes, trained to focus at short range in the city, were learning to pick out details of mountains ten miles away. In the city, our lives were hectic and our minds were always racing; here, we learned to slow down and relax. One evening as I sat on the porch, a glass of whisky in my hand, watching the light fade above the jagged cliffs in the west, a great horned owl flew over my head from behind and landed on an opposite boulder to watch me in silence until darkness fell.

(Improvised by Max & Katie in their cave, 1985, and recorded by Max in 2010)

Katie shared my passion for the desert and together we pursued it farther. We wanted to know about the plants and animals, we wanted to know if Indians had lived out here and how? Putting down roots in this exotic piece of raw wilderness, actually becoming at home here, freed us to get to know it on levels inaccessible to ordinary campers and backpackers, who were always on a journey to somewhere else.

Shrooms and Science

By December 1985, Katie had moved into my San Francisco loft, and we planned a trip to the cave with our roommate Laurie, another artist. It was a ten-hour drive, and we arrived late to find the high desert, and the cave, blanketed with six inches of snow. But inside it was dry, and Laurie and I quickly warmed it up with a roaring fire as Katie ran around outside ripping dead branches off junipers and tossing them to us.

The next day we dosed on shrooms and hiked west through the snow out of our boulder garden toward a vacant cabin I’d discovered on an earlier trip. Approaching the cabin just as the shrooms were coming on, we suddenly realized there was a person sitting in front of it, watching us. Chris turned out to be a friendly biology student from the University of California; when he heard we were shrooming he wanted some.

That night he showed up unannounced at our cave – the first spontaneous visitor we’d ever had, making us feel like we were part of some sort of latter-day Flintstones neighborhood. Fortuitously, he was interested in Laurie, and became part of our group for the rest of our visit, informing us that the University had obtained land surrounding our area and was planning to establish an ecological preserve.

Back home, I contacted the University and learned they had just hired a director for the preserve, so on our next trip, Katie and I went over and introduced ourselves to Philippe and Cindy, who became two of my closest friends. Over the years, we would house-sit for them and I would work for Philippe here and on the Bay Area preserve he later managed, and get to know their son Ben from birth.

Images from the desert were beginning to dominate my art and music, and Katie and I began studying prehistoric native rock art throughout the Southwest deserts. Mark met a new girlfriend, Maureen, who later became his wife, and they moved from his old cave to a new, more ambitious rock shelter that had an elevated porch like ours. Another artist couple from Los Angeles developed their own cave a short distance away, so now we had three desert households and could visit each other back and forth.

We discovered a large, partly open rockshelter with a high vaulted ceiling that we dubbed the Party Cave, where we hung out on hot afternoons, creating an evolving gallery of paintings. With the advent of the preserve, our plateau had occasional visitors, including classes on field trips, but they almost always walked right past our caves, unaware, since we used a rake to erase our footprints when we left. Once, Mark and Maureen sat on their porch while an entire class filed past below them without looking up. Another time, Katie and I arrived from the city to find a paper plate inscribed “Nice place, have fun!” propped against our fireplace. Never did we find anything damaged or missing, despite the fact that we were only a half mile away from a road that was seeing more and more traffic, and was eventually paved.

Echoes of the Past

On one visit after particularly heavy rains, Katie and I discovered that deposits of pottery shards had been uncovered all over our area. We realized for the first time that we were part of a long tradition – Indians had camped here before us! Looking closer, we also found beautiful flakes of multi-colored agate from stone toolmaking, and Katie hit the jackpot: a perfect miniature “bird point” finely chipped from delicately mottled pink agate. But my favorite find on that trip was Snarling Head, the skull of a coyote with the desiccated nose and whiskers still attached, which was displayed in a place of honor back home, as Katie unleashed a new body of art work consisting of found objects from the desert – from bones to bushes to rusty cans – combined in ingenious, enigmatic formations and mounted on black foam core or rusty sheet metal.

For my part, I longed to engage more fully with this part of the desert, and with Philippe and Cindy’s new enterprise. Since childhood, I’d been a compulsive organizer, recruiting co-conspirators for secret clubs and events. My network of friends in Los Angeles and San Francisco had grown into an inspiring mix of artists and scientists, and we began collaborating on ambitious, intense weekend gatherings called Pow-Wows, in which we shared ideas, experiences and stories. The second and third Pow-Wows, in 1987 and 1991, were held at the cabin where we’d met Chris in December 1985, now part of the ecological preserve. These gatherings, which people called “life-changing,” enlightened us about everything from habitat restoration to aboriginal survival skills.

In the meantime, I had learned much more about the Chemehuevis, the nomadic Indians who had lived here, sometimes in semi-permanent villages. I had struck up a friendship with the only archaeologist currently working in the Mojave, and Katie and I had met the last living Chemehuevi basket-weaver, Mary Lou Brown. From the work of the legendary linguist and ethnographer Carobeth Laird, I learned that the last Chemehuevi shaman, known to whites as “Dusty,” had lived and died near our cave.

Beyond the Cave

Katie and I broke up in 1988, but I became even more obsessed with the desert and began looking for wilderness property, advised by Cindy and Philippe. Katie and her new boyfriend Gary continued to use, and improve, the cave that had been ours, while I explored the wider desert and eventually bought a big tract of mountain wilderness with the help of another desert-loving artist friend. Then, on the advice of my old mentor, my art teacher back in Indiana, I attended the “toughest survival school in the world” to learn the skills of the desert Indians.

In May 1992, chasing my dream, I moved to the desert for a year, living outdoors on my land and then on the ecological preserve not far from our old cave. By this time, the Mojave was truly the world to me! I was befriending and helping the scientists who were doing the cutting-edge research in wildlife biology, botany, geology, and archaeology. I was working with government agencies on habitat restoration and land use issues. I was absorbing the colorful histories of ghost towns, springs, canyons, mines and mountain ranges from crusty old desert rats. I’d experienced powerful visions and performed private rituals in my desert, and considered it my spiritual home, a sacred landscape. Once, while living on my land, I drove over to the caves to camp with Mark and Maureen. Maureen asked if I’d seen myself in a mirror lately and remarked that I looked dangerous and should probably get a haircut.

That year in the wilderness cost me the woman I loved, and I ended up back in the city, broke and homeless, with no viable livelihood. The desert had become a place of bittersweet memories, as I struggled to survive in the city. But I continued to venture out to my land once or twice a year, sleeping on the ground, watching the stars turn slowly overhead, wondering what my future would bring.

In June 1995, my friend Leslie, another artist, visited from Chicago, and we drove out and camped at the cave, which was still intact and comfortable after seven years. She had a vision while we were hiking in the nearby dunes; the desert affected her profoundly and she returned the following year for another dose.

In the late summer of 2001, unemployed after the dotcom crash, I joined Mark and Maureen and her brother Kevin at their cave, and Kevin made a miraculous, almost unbelievable discovery – a well-hidden shrine to Dusty, the last shaman. At that point our group had been using the caves continuously for 20 years.

In summer 2002 I lived in the cabin on the preserve as artist-in-residence, meeting more cool scientists. Returning a year later to house-sit for them, I hiked over to the caves and the shrine, and on my return watched an evolving sunset so beautiful it brought me to my knees, weeping.

In December 2005, twenty years after our snow & shrooms adventure, I visited the caves with Philippe and his son Ben and shared with them the mystery of Dusty’s shrine.

And finally, in April of this year, on my way to the Bay Area for work, I stopped and spent a relaxing afternoon at our old cave. Everything was there, but rats had gnawed through plastic storage bins and damaged some paper goods. Mark and Maureen likewise hadn’t been to their cave in years, but their stuff seemed to be in even better shape than ours.

Beginning with those arrows in the fog, the Mojave Desert seduced and captivated me, transforming every facet of my being, to the point where my life itself became a quest for a way to sustain myself in this ancient, mysterious and powerful land. I couldn’t find the right combination in the California desert; ultimately those arrows led me across the arid Southwest to my current home in New Mexico.

But the caves are waiting – for the next generation, or for future archaeologists. Years ago, Cindy recommended a book, Colin Fletcher’s The Man from the Cave, which poignantly describes his discovery of a furnished cave in another part of the Mojave, and his years-long search for its occupant. I may be able to save the next investigator some trouble…


Mel’s Farm

Thursday, October 10th, 2013: Places, Special Places.

Cabin and studio, winter 2002

Fourth in a series about places that have become special to my friends and me, as we’ve ventured there together year after year to share good fellowship, and sometimes to witness the mysteries of creation.

Close friends have heard me talk about Mel Gray, my art teacher from the seventh to the twelfth grades, who became a mentor for much of my life, the first among a small group of elders I’ve cultivated, people who’ve accumulated priceless knowledge and wisdom and who teach by example. In our rural farming community, school functioned as a repressive form of social control, bullying us into narrow conformity; some of our teachers rebelled against that system, befriending me and my fellow struggling outsiders and welcoming us into their homes and lives, but among them, Mel was special. He lived and breathed art, but in addition, he shared the love of nature, the love of crafting and building and self-reliance, that I had inherited from my father and grandfather. His curiosity was limitless, and he was that rarest of persons in our narcissistic times, a good listener. He took us, his proteges, seriously, cared about our lives and became a true friend as we grew up and went out into the world. In school, after class, and at home with his large, friendly and talented family, he challenged us and expanded our horizons. Forever after, throughout our far-flung lives, we would return on pilgrimages to honor that.

Mel had a large property with a stone cabin in virgin hardwood forest in the hills south of our county, where hillside springs feed creeks that drain into small rivers that in turn become tributaries to the big Ohio. During and after my senior year of high school, I met and fell in love with Mel’s niece, and as I recall, it was she who first took me to what we all came to call “Mel’s Farm,” although Mel himself called it “Gray’s Wilderness.”

We were both in college in Chicago and had been secretly living together in violation of her father’s decree. Her father, Mel’s cousin, despised me, and our relationship was always tinged with danger and rebellion as we conspired to avoid his wrath. Back in the countryside for summer vacation, we arranged to borrow a car and head south into the woods.

It really was just about the closest to wilderness you could find in the Midwest. Heading south from the glacially leveled fields of our county, the two-lane blacktop begins winding along forested ridges and dipping into hollows where sycamores line the courses of the little rivers. An even smaller and more tortuous country road takes you farther back to a tiny crossroads settlement, from which you head south into the deep forest. Eventually the pavement ends and you’re faced with a rough dirt track up a long hill, impassable during and after storms.

At the top of the hill there’s a deeply rutted trail through a small farm, past a decrepit tobacco barn, through a small ridgetop cornfield, and into a dark wood. A few more gentle turns along the ridgetop, then you reach the cabin in its clearing.

At that time, the two-foot-thick stone walls enclosed one big room. With small windows, it was dark and musty inside, and sparsely furnished, not much used by the family. The only piece of furniture I really remember was an old church pew. Outside the forest pressed in from all sides and the small clearing was drenched with sun and the singing of birds and insects. We were far from people and towns, living a magical dream of young romance, and it was the first time I’d ever made love outdoors.

Another summer, we returned with Mark and John, my best high school friends, to spend a night. The friends camped outside in the clearing while Kathryn and I slept in the cabin. In high school, we had formed a band which was really a precocious performance art ensemble, bursting with creativity, inventing new art forms. Now, we mostly jammed on traditional tunes that my friends picked up from retro recording artists like Ry Cooder and Leon Redbone. Being able to share that wilderness was priceless for us: a timeless space where we were freed from the painful emotional baggage of growing up as outsiders in a traditional rural community, and insulated by the dense forest from the prying, judgmental eyes of families and authorities.

When we got ready to leave, Kathryn marshaled us into a whirlwind of activity to sweep out the cabin. I remember young bodies swinging through a cloud of dust, all sparkling in sunbeams from the windows and doors.

A year later, Kathryn had left me, and I returned during the winter holidays with Mark and his girlfriend, Linda, and my grad school friend, Tom. I rode in Tom’s sports car; the dirt road was frozen hard, and the high ruts dislodged his exhaust pipe on the way in. The air was crisp and silent, the hardwood forest was bare, and the first thing we did was hike down through the bare woods to the creek on the north side. These small creeks flowed over shelves of limestone that were full of fossils; now they were mostly frozen over.

Other local friends joined us. At night we got a fire going in the cabin and started jamming.

Eventually, Mel retired from teaching and moved the family to a little rustic “art colony” a few miles downstream from the farm. That’s where I made my pilgrimages during my years as a bohemian in San Francisco. Then, after all the kids had moved out on their own, he and wife Pinkie, a prodigious and beloved painter and mistress of traditional crafts, moved out to the wilderness. They turned the cabin’s attic into a spacious loft with rollaway beds and a wall of windows facing south over the forest, and they added a big kitchen and bath. Mel had been collecting architectural salvage at farm sales all over the area and storing it in sheds on the farm; the rebuilt cabin had bits and pieces of this, including a stairway bannister made of wooden forms for the giant gears of historic grist mills, and they built a beautiful detached studio incorporating more of their architectural treasure trove. The farm had become a family work of art, with numerous outbuildings sprawled along the ridge: a trove of craft materials, books, records and memorabilia, the museum of their lifetime, so that visits became revelatory as Mel and Pinkie took us on tours and showed off their endless curiosities, including occasionally ambitious gardens and orchards and projects in alternative, self-sufficient technology.

At the same time, I was falling in love with the desert mountains and canyons of the West, growing more and more uncomfortable in the city, and fantasizing about living off the land in the ways of the desert Indians. During one winter visit, Mel unearthed a recent magazine article about a primitive survival school in Utah that claimed to teach those ancient ways, and the following summer I headed off for a field course at Boulder Outdoor Survival School that changed my life and showed me how people really lived in the lands that I loved. Mel was still showing me the way, and his place in the wilderness was still the source.

But knowing what I wanted didn’t make it happen. I was alone in my dream. I moved to my own wilderness for a year, leaving a girlfriend back in the city. Friends sympathized but none could join me. Hard years followed, more years in the city and the urban economy that took me farther from my dreams. Mel’s health was deteriorating, and visits often consisted of watching cable TV with him in the cabin. Aging changed his world and his focus and made him into a different person, less the mentor, less the role model. But occasionally we connected just as strongly as ever. I was able to show him my latest artwork on a laptop screen, and his home in the forest retained its magic and mystery.

One winter, I walked alone through the bare trees down the south slope to the creek on that side, and followed it toward the river. Nearing the river valley where a floodplain opened out, I was surprised by a shout from above. A young deer hunter had been hiding in brush up the slope from me. I told him I was a friend of the family, and he said Mel had given him permission to hunt in return for a share of the kill.

Another time, when Mel was in his mid-80s, he needed to grade the ridgetop trail, and he let me drive his ancient John Deere tractor while he rode on the side.

Sometimes I spent the night with Mel and Pinkie in the cabin, and other times I left late, driving those back roads alone, awash with precious memories and the chill of mortality. Once I had to pee and pulled off beside the river on a dirt trail through the trees. Standing in the darkness I noticed a small green light moving slowly through the grass, some unknown luminous being. Ah, the mysteries still hidden in that tired land of childhood.

As I write this, Mel is in a nursing home and his family is struggling to dispose of the place in the woods, the family work of art, the “museum of a lifetime” and the place that stood for me and my friends as an example of freedom and hope, of a more creative way of life in the midst of the society that seemed to trap us as adolescents.

As I re-evaluated my life experience, I came to see that isolation was not the answer, that even a big family was not enough; you needed an entire, robust community. It was not for me to retreat to a cabin in the woods. But Mel had never been truly isolated; the lesson I needed to emulate was his lifelong example of listening, caring, and encouraging young people to expand their curiosity, liberate their creativity, and pursue their dreams.