Saturday, December 27, 2008

Men's Men

Bob Shacochis. He's a man's man, a teller of tall tales, noodler of great sentences set in the broth of political intrigue, a straight-talking lover of language with a delightful intolerance of hacks and pretenders. I had swapped letters with him long before we ever met, but when I first saw him, he was barbecuing leeks and asparagus that he had marinated in balsamic vinegar, a half-cigarette's worth of ash dangling from his lips, and what looked like a nasty case of windburn.

I had gone to Frisco in North Carolina's Outer Banks to visit him and his partner, Miss Fish. After dinner and oh so many cocktails, Bob drove me out to the dunes in his four-wheel truck, spinning us up the shore to where the waves swept across the black, moonlit sands and the cyclops eye of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse spun at you through the fog.

Months before, Bob sent the kindest rejection letter I had received during a four-year stretch of opening the most vile of commentaries. He was editing The Missouri Review and encouraged me to stay in the saddle, contending that the sorry world we lived in needed writers that could take out your eye with angular prose. He had come into the land of letters through journalism, using the same back door as I had done, as Hemingway had done. We were in fine company.

Shake, as some people called him, also waded ashore into travel writing because he had been mad about surfing. The waves carried him from his childhood home in Virginia to Hawaii, later to South America and, eventually, into the Peace Corps where he discovered the Caribbean. The string of islands opened up a trove of untapped stories that Bob mined for years, studying island life. Eventually, he penned two collections of literary short stories and a novel set in the land of heavy drink, heady women, and brutal politics. He wrote exclusively about the coup in Haiti. An avid outdoorsman, he wrote a cooking column for GQ while crafting journalistic gems for Harpers and Outside, along the way reeling in the Rome Prize for Literature, a National Book Award, and other noteworthy trophies. His writing about the Third World belongs on the shelf beside Graham Greene, Robert Stone, and Joseph Conrad. When I knew him, he was the book-blurb king, his nougats of praise appearing routinely on the jackets of short story collections and novels of his peers.

The last time we gathered, I had invited him to Fairbanks as a visiting author at the Midnight Sun Writer's Conference. He was a hit, carving off chunks of wry commentary on stories submitted by participating writers and holding forth on craft without waterboarding the audience with theory.

Toward the end of the conclave, I spirited him out of bed before dawn in my subcompact, and drove the 120 miles west to see Denali. The peak, better known as Mt. McKinley, had been spotted over the past few days and viewing--they said on the news--was optimal. Denali makes her own weather, so you can't trust conditions outside of the park to witness a rare appearance. But when she comes out, she is spectacular, rising 20,000 feet over an expanse that defies the human sense of scale. We had also packed some fishing gear, a couple of sandwiches, and a bottle of vodka, which somehow ended up open by 9 am, passing between us along the highway.

The park has six million acres of wilderness, so there are hours of driving just to get from the front gate to open views of the mountain. It's a track populated with grizzly bears, caribou, wolves, Dall sheep and moose--which of course we were there to see.

We had been motoring at a decent clip along Polychrome Pass when Bob brought out his field glasses. He had a feeling he said, and sure enough he shouted for me to pull over a moment later. We hopped out of the little car and stood along the road, steam rising off of our heads and shoulders.

"Up there!" Bob said, pointing to an overhang. His intuition was right. Seated on a boulder about 50 yards from us was a mature grizzly, his coat brown and red-ocher in the morning sun. If the bear saw us, we were of no significance. But I was impressed. The pass was long, pocked with crags and boulders, and Bob picked the bear out of an impossible backdrop of yellowing tundra.

Not long afterwards, we were finishing off the vodka, driving along the road to Wonder Lake, when Bob had another moment. He shouted for us to pull over and we hurried to a high point where we could look out on the massive valley carved eons ago by glaciers. The backdrop was equally confounded with jigsawed colors and shapes, yet Bob was sure. He pointed to a deadfall of spruce between the rocks and handed me the glasses.

His intuition was uncannily sharp as ever, but he had mistaken the beast's genus entirely. Sure, the chipmunk wore the same fall colors as the bear, and its shape, rising up on it haunches with its furry head certainly suggested a genetic relationship. It was as if I had turned the glasses backwards while looking at a ferocious grizzly, shrinking the image to manageable size for viewing by boys, wimps, or other undesirables who would never makes the rugged pages of Outside.

"Look out!" I shouted. And I shouted it again afterwords, after Bob caught an amazing creel of fish, and I would shout it out on the way home, and certainly a few times the following days until I had surely worn it out. I swear to God, Bob, I'm sorry. Mostly.

"Look out, Bob," I'd shout, "he's getting ready to charge!"


tangobaby said...

You're a fun one to go camping with, for sure. ha ha ha.

Gabby said...

Well, yeah!