by tobias crabtree
by the time i was 15 i had read the tracker by tom brown at least 3 times. i poured over his words and the advice he gave about how to move through the world. i had read every tarzan book that edgar rice burroughs wrote and cursed him for stopping at volume 26 (i mean, i would’ve put a pen in his hand on his death bed and asked him if maybe he shouldn’t just scribble out one more tale…two if he was feeling up to it). the louis l’amour books held some secrets for me as well. those mountain men that lived alone for months at a time were heroes as far as i was concerned and i dreamt of a time when all the rivers ran wild to the sea; the idea that the land to the west went on into infinity was as good as it gets for my teenage passions.
i spent time in the woods, lots of time in the woods. i did my best to figure out tracks and follow animals. i even thought about saving up and going to one of the schools on native cultures to learn more primitive technology. when most dudes were trying out for the football team i was thinking about my future as a mountain man in the woods of whatever place was the wildest. i lamented not being raised by apes. i think back on it now and i gotta laugh. my sweet mom and my tough ol’ dad had this kid that wished they were members of the "mangani". so silly. sheesh.
some of those desires never went away. yesterday, in the perfect mojave sun, i walked out with a couple buddies into the wonderland of joshua tree. there’s always lots of human tracks when you start out from one of the parking lots. tracks last a long time in those washes where the wind doesn’t reach. ethan grew up here. he was a kid in this desert before paved parking lots and rv spaces were available. now he hops rocks with his son as we wander farther out. if you know where to look, there are messages from the past in those winding corridors of granite. ethan has a knack for finding the old places where the elders gathered and re-created history with words while the young men chipped stones and made fire. the wild tobacco plants still sprout at the mouth of these caves; planted from the seeds in the flowers that the elders smoked. in these spots the ground is black from the fires that were built and used for cooking and light. these "midden" sites are usually rich with little artifacts that tell the story of the people that lived before us. there are poorly made points that were from kids learning to make weapons. there are shards of pottery and blunt stones for grinding. all these things are old tracks, the puzzles of our ancestors. i leave the things where they lay because i like the story to stay intact. as a kid i would’ve plundered, but all these things don’t belong in a house or a vehicle, they belong where the wind still howls and the stars shine and the rocks remember. it’s illegal to take this kind of stuff anyway, although i’ve always thought how stupid it is that so many artifacts sit in the drawers of museums, hidden from light and sight so that someone with the proper letters next to their name can study them and tell us about some theory about the way it was. if i die someday in the back of some cave or under the roots of some old tree, leave my bones alone, please, leave them be so they can go back where they belong.
in the cowboy camps there are different things. even in the old days there are signs of the carelessness that were less when the nomadic folk occupied the land. tin cans and bottles were tossed to the side. the birth of disposable. seems like when us humans have more we care less. don’t get me wrong, i like finding these old whiskey bottles, but they indicate a grim future. they foreshadow the time when a swirl of trash the size of texas will be in the middle of our ocean.
in a time when it seems like everyone wants to be noticed, i find myself looking back at when there were these bands of people who did their dead-level best to go unnoticed as they crossed from one hunting ground to another. they used what the earth gave them and danced with wild eyes by the midnight flames. they worshiped the sky and the stones and the sea. they loved one another and created life as naturally as they braided their hair. they told history through beautifully woven stories and songs. pictures on the walls of the caves. dances under shining moons. teeth gleaming in the lights of the fires that were made from spinning sticks. words and actions were life.
as we drove out of the park rowan (who is 13 years old) was talking about a new phone. his dad said he’d need to wait. technology in the truck began to come to life. phones beeping and dinging. radio buzzing. seat belt alarm telling me to buckle up. we pulled into town and a carload of twenty-somethings pulled into the parking lot of ethan’s store (coyote corner). i glanced over because no one was getting out of the vehicle. there were 6 people in the car, every single one of them was looking down at their phones with the snazzy covers. no one was talking, just flipping and touching and staring. i thought about where i had been just an hour before, the still spaces with the drawings on the stones.
it’s my opinion (which is admittedly too forceful at times) that the more we depend on these devices for happiness, the farther from the truth we will wander. the old ways are the secrets that can give us everything we need. when we are together and laughing, we are returning. the feeling of love and contentment is as tribal as it gets. caves are not nearly as empty as the feeling i get when a room of humans is staring into a device designed to take the place of human contact. put your phone down, smile at the hottie across the room, kiss your lover in the mouth, remember a song and sing it out loud, dance like a fool to the beat in your head, climb a tree for a piece of fruit and thank the sun for what you got. give more, and when you leave, do it with humility because we are all lucky to be here. and guess what, you can’t take your phone when you go.
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