Many of us have distinct memories of the exact place and time in our lives when we read a significant book. Where Was I is a regular series on the Poetry Center Blog in which we ask authors for whom this is true to contribute a story of such a reading experience. Michael Earl Craig: What was the book, what were your coordinates, where were you “in your life,” and are the book and the place intertwined in a special way for you?
As I flip through it now, the only marks I’ve made in my copy of Blood Meridian, other than my name—lightly, in pencil, at the front—are in ink on the inside of the back cover:
the judge enters p.6
Those marks were made in 1997 as I rode a horse (leased, named Babe) across Montana. I was 2 years into a 3-year MFA at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and I had the summer off. I’d been living in Montana prior to attending U.Mass., and had spent a number of summers there working with horses in the back-country, so this decision didn’t come out of the blue. But riding a horse across the 4th largest state in the nation would be different.
Tucked into my copy of Blood Meridian are some notes on a few separate sheets of paper:
p. 52 insane “legion of horribles” passage
p. 55 “a strange and plaintive chanting up there
where they’d gone to roast mules”
p. 57 – bush hung with dead babies
63 – the spit drinking lizard
The idea for this trip was to ride diagonally from Alzada, MT—the very south-east corner of the state—across and up to the Yaak Valley, in the Idaho/Canada corner. I started this trip with a friend, it had actually been his idea, but he lost interest a couple weeks in and dropped out—
106-107 -- man named Jackson beheads another man named Jackson
—and so I rode on alone, just me and my granola bars.
I had one saddle horse and one pack animal. I naively envisioned riding a lot of back roads, and across lots of open ground, but quickly learned that barbed-wire fences with NO TRESPASSING signs would have me riding the ditches along paved roadways, searching daily for water for the livestock, and day-dreaming incessantly of things like going to the movies, cold beer, and cheeseburgers.
254 -- the priapic leer (?)
p 316 terrifying run-on buffalo massacre sentence!
This was before portable cell phones, when pay phones could still be approached in small towns, on street corners, while traveling 2 ½ miles an hour on horseback. And so I spent my summer doing this—approaching these phones, slowly—while tugging the lead-rope of an increasingly unenthusiastic mule (Ben) who was kind enough to carry all my crap on his back. I had a girlfriend who was working in Montana that summer, and I would find a phone, punch numbers in off my phone card, and speak with her.
trunk of sunlight p. 236
p. 233 the caged idiot in excrement
I averaged roughly 18-20 miles a day. This trip was supposed to be fun, but most days loneliness and monotony prevailed. There was basically too much time to think, to over-analyze every element of my life.
p. 107 “the headless man was sitting like a murdered anchorite
discalced in ashes and sark”
I started out with a tent and pots and pans but got rid of them. I ended up sleeping on the bare ground, wrapping myself in a plastic tarp if it rained. Instead of cooking I’d eat things cold, like chili and corn, directly from the can. And in my saddlebags—along with a map, a small notebook, a flashlight, some twine, a tube of sunscreen, a can opener—was this dog-eared copy of the Evening Redness in the West.
p 221 – a falstaffian militia
p. 105 – the crumpled butcherpaper mountains
People would ask: without a tent where did I sleep? I slept in people’s barns and sheds and sometimes their horse trailers; I slept in ditches and once in a parking lot behind a bar during a thunderstorm. One night I slept on the ground in an area known by locals (I’d later learn) to be infested with rattlesnakes—in the morning, after packing up, as the sun began warming the meadow, I could hear them here-and-there rattling like mad in the brush as I exited the area on my bug-eyed Babe. At times I was invited into people’s homes, more than once sleeping in the beds of children who’d left home years ago—me lying there in the morning staring at rock & roll posters from the 80s, at empty fish tanks, at dart-less dart boards.
p.115 -- disgusting snake-bit horse passage
bottom p.51 -- small thin mules with malletshaped heads
* * *
I remember eating lunch one day in a bar in Lavina during a rainstorm, with the horse and mule tied across the street in a park to a chain-link fence. As a general rule I did not, on this trip, drink any alcohol during the day, for it’s a crime in Montana to ride a horse before 3 pm while under the influence. But I remember this particular day having a beer or two with lunch, and then the rain stopped, the sun came out… and I remember closing my copy of Blood Meridian and paying my bill and stepping outside feeling giddy about the abrupt change in the weather.
p. 240 – the judge lifting (and eventually throwing) enormous iron meteorite
used by another man as an anvil
Soon to learn that Babe, who had all kinds of personality faults which she’d been strategically disclosing to me as the weeks unfolded, was afraid of walking across puddles. (Right, why couldn’t this puddle be 18 feet deep!?)
p. 50 – “the captain raised his hand for a halt and took from his saddle bag
his old brass cavalry telescope and uncoupled it and swept it
slowly over the land”
117 -- Glanton speaks to a horse
I had exited the bar with a slight buzz, into intense post-rain sunlight, with thoughts of the judge and Glanton and “the kid” in my head. An older lady in a raincoat with a small dog on a leash was staring at me. I soon found myself sitting atop my leased horse, but could not, for the life of me, make her step into the wet street.