tobias crabtree

defining lines; drawing and writing

Tag: colorado

We have a little lost boy…

The Villa Italia mall is a memory. It no longer exists, not even a bit or a piece. It used to set back in the center of it’s parking lots on the corner of Alameda and Wadsworth in Lakewood, Colorado, where I grew up. Whenever I’m chatting it up with my buddy, Nick, especially about home, we somehow bring up the Villa Italia Mall. We both chime in and sing the ditty that was played on the commercials, both radio and telly. Nick has a knack for remembering the things that make me laugh anyway, and so we sit around and laugh at the memories of a mall long since torn down.

My Ma worked at Jocelyn’s, which was a kind of Macy’s or Nordstrom’s from back in the day. When I was a wee tot, just learning how to ditch my Mom in that weird way that a 5 year old can do, I somehow wandered off. This was back when there wasn’t as much baby snatching and stuff. My Ma had 5 of us kids going this way and that, and so, it was easier for my to pull a stunt, like a quick walk down the wrong aisle and on out into the oblivion of lostness.

I kinda remember the first few minutes of not knowing where Ma was and they were similar to holding your breath for too long. A dizziness right before hysteria. Absolutely no logical thought at all. Then running and some quiet crying before turning it up a bit and then full on, like a siren. I think I was corralled somewhere up the mall near the Orange Julius, a lady that knew my Ma saw me with a security guard. The word was on the street, I’d been found. I heard, as if I was a part of an international emergency, my name mentioned over the loud speakers; the usual, weird, mall music interrupted with, we have a little lost boy, named Toby, he is at the security station at the center of the mall. It was only minutes and my Ma was picking me up with twinkling eyes and the knowledge that I was me, a little wanderer, even way back then with 5 years tucked firmly under my belt.

There is a grand timberland on the western slope in Colorado. The Uncompahgre Wilderness stretches for several hundred square miles across some of the most wonderful land in the United States. The high country streams are full of trout and the Aspen groves are miles long. It’s full of elk and bear and winding passages that crawl up the flanks of 13,ooo foot peaks. If the Rocky mountains were a mama, she’d be proud of this pretty child, The Uncompahgre. When I was 17 I went out into the hills for a week or so. I did this kinda thing often, but mostly with my buddies. Kevin and Kelly, two tough ranch kids from my school, were always down for a good fishing excursion. Fishing was always just a good reason to give for any kind of mountain adventure, so when we said “fishing”, we really meant runningswimmingclimbingwanderinglaughinglyingandeverythingunderthesun. I loved the thought of leaving and being in the woods. But this little meander was different, I was out and walking over country, alone.

As can happen, it got cold. A bit of snow fell and I was a day or two out from where I had left the car. I was intimidated by the onset of the cold and I decided I should loop back in the direction of my vehicle. I remember that I was confident as I followed ridgelines back to the place where I’d started but I also noticed that everything looked slightly different in the snow. Darks were light and mountains changed shape. The birds, ravens, jays, and hawks tipped and slid across a rugged Colorado sky. My pace was fine but a little quick with a little anxiety as I thought about my route back.

When I came across some footprints in the snow, there were several thoughts that passed immediately. Who the hell is out here this far? How old are these tracks? and then a kind of comfort in the thought, i’ll bet this person is going to the trailhead as well. I kept on with my direction but was, I guess, a bit more carefree for some reason. It’s human to be drawn to humans.  About 2 hours later I came across yet another set of footprints. I was tired and I sat down and looked out as the two sets of tracks rolled off in the snow.

You know that weird sickness that you feel when you’ve made a mistake? Like when you walk out of your friends house with your morning coffee after saying goodbye and you see that you didn’t set the emergency brake after you started your rig and now it’s rolling, mowing down mailboxes? or like when you get up to the ticket counter at the airport and start to dig for your ID and then you remember it laying there between the seats of the taxi where you set it to put your gloves on because it’s damn cold in NYC that time of year! or like you just dropped out of a helicopter into the pacific and you are a mile from shore and it’s night time and you realize the strap on your left fin has broken from hitting the water. — Well, that’s the kind of sick I felt as I realized that those footprints, both sets, were mine. I had just walked in a huge circle for the second time. It was early evening. With a tightness in my throat that is the onset of panic, I forced myself to walk, not run. I studied every slight variance of my trail and finally saw my mistake: I had followed a false ridgeline that skirted the top of a large plateau. I dropped off and stayed steady, soon I saw a marker and knew I was ranging back onto the trail system that led down to my rig. Being lost in a circle is a strange thing.

I hope I don’t sound like a know-it-all here. I ain’t one. Getting lost really isn’t that terrible. For some reason, it feels bad but I really do think it’s because we are not in control when we are lost. Control is a contrivance. It is all dependent on the environment. The most lost I feel these days is in the middle of huge crowds that have given up on being aware. Like when the Peregrine slammed into a dove and dropped into the middle of an outdoor coffee shop in LA, bounced off a table, hissed at the onlookers and then flew away with bloody coup in her talons and I hooted out loud and everyone looked at me like I had caused this terrible thing and were aghast that I loved it…yeah, like that! Awareness isn’t some new age word that can only be used in yoga practices and Sanghas, it’s simply looking with a wide open lens. So, instead of being wrapped up with being separate, it’s believing in your inclusion, understanding that sight is only part of seeing. What we do with what we see is more a part of being aware than simply seeing. When I’m too self-conscious, I am more lost. I think that’s why I feel lost on the highways during rush hour, because I can only want out but I am driving in a long line of souls and we are all kinda sad that we are trapped in our worlds of confusing, fast, raging stuff. I include me because I gotta.

But every now and then, when everything stops, I’ll look over into another window, and I’ll see a soul and that soul will see me. Contact made. Humanness for a second. A chance at realness that includes a heart, lungs, eyeballs, smelliness, sadness, hands, wrinkles, and feet that could, if given the chance, make marks in the snow next to mine. And I wouldn’t be alone, or lost for that matter.

this little day

At 4:13 I snap out of dreamland into regularville. This morning, regular is 11 degrees below zero, fahrenheit, and a serious need to take a leak. I have my little dolphin nussled up in my brother’s drive, which is in a cute, little neighborhood on the outskirts of Lakewood, CO. I chance it and jump out naked, and I let’r fly between my rig and the blue spruce. My feet are squealin’ to get back into the dolphin and I can’t tell where my cold parts begin and end, if you know what I mean. Yes, you know what I mean.

Coffee is on and I have my trousers draped over the space heater, while I do my cold-man dance in the low, yellow light of the stove. I love this. The heavy whipping cream that I left on the floor by the door is frozen almost solid and I gotta pick at it with my pocket knife — one chunk aaand one more chunk. I hear my brother’s rig start up. He’s on his way to the job site. Ol’ Josh has always been more of a man than me. I step out and we talk about the cold and he laughs at my barefoot prints in the snow in front of his truck. “Call of nature must’a been pretty strong,” he says. He pulls out onto the street, the squeak of the snow is loud in the air. I grab my cup and go to the garage. There’s a thirty degree difference that makes my face feel hot as I hit the lights and say, “g’mornin’ ladies!” to no one in general. (I suppose only Hunter’ll understand that one, since that’s what he yells to me in the mornings and he kicks the lights on when I’m staying there at Orion Forge up in Bend…what up Hunt?)

Drawing pictures from the dreams the night before. Old matchboxes and pocketknives. Fishing kits and dog-eared maps. My dreams are a jumble that I’ve yet to piece together. I imagine i might just live out this life without finding any rhyme or reason to my night-time travels. I’ll tell ya this much, they sure do provide me with material for drawing!

Inside the house, the boys are asleep. I hear the dog let go with a little growl at the top of the stairs, she don’t trust me yet. I like that about Blue Heelers, they’re slow to let down their guard. Seems smart to me. I go out and start my rig and then the jeep. The old dolphin cranks alive and I let’r warm up a bit then shut it down. I gotta run up north this morning and grab some parts. It really ain’t important where I’m headed, but it’s through my old stomping grounds, so i take the side roads. The roads are treacherous and icy, the temp. hovers at zero. The jeeps locked in 4 wheel drive and I’m listening to Terry Gross do an interview on the radio.

Of course, this might seem mundane to you. It’s not some shining thing, bright colors flashing, to keep your attention. This is only life, and it ain’t even yours. Hell you might even want to cut out now while you got the chance.

There’s always something sad about old neighborhoods and this morning, with the blue in the air, even more so. The Colorado cottonwoods are white as bones along the ditches. North on Kipling to 32 Ave., take a right. All these old farmfields are covered in snow. Now a patch of yellow thistles along the fence. The old graveyard where my Granny is buried. Somewhere out there, I don’t even know where, under the snow and dirt, is a casket with my Granny in it. I wonder about all that stuff, you know, all the things we do to deal with death. I pass the cemetery and turn north on Sheridan. Along the way I see things that seem like they are typical of Colorado; some place called Lube and Latte, where I’m sure you can get a good oil change and a bad latte, and then there’s Senor Burrito in an old Taco Bell building, and burly homeless folks wearing thin coats and standing in the snow drifts, faces red, noses dripping. And Terry is talking on the radio. She’s interviewing a famous cartoonist who wrote a memoire about the death of her parents. The cartoonist, whom I recognized from the New Yorker, was funny as hell but as she spoke I could hear the tone of her voice and the sorrow it carried. She missed being by her Mom’s side by only minutes when her Mom died. I was impressed by her nature. So candid. And she said, “yeah, when I got there, she was gone…but she was still warm.”

I stopped and walked out into the park before I got back to my brother’s place. It’s always a wonder to me how the wild world is just around the corner. It ain’t like the wilderness has a choice, we certainly ain’t waiting for permission to move in. Down in the creek bed, I see fox tracks and coyote. On the other side of the creek are raccoon prints, their tiny hands obvious even from here. Up toward the tangle of cottonwoods and willows and birches are a whole bunch of skunk tracks, back and forth. I think about the time my brother walked out the back door to find a skunk, raccoon and his cat, all eating from the same dish while politely taking turns; a fragile but necessary entente cordial. I walk back to the jeep and notice some graffiti on the back of an old fireplace, the last remains of an old burned down house. Written in tricked out letters, it read,  zombieland. A different kind of wildlife, I think to myself, but wildlife, indeed.

The air is amazing. Icicles are forming in giant patterns on my dolphin. My breath shows in billows out in front of me. My back is stove up from the cold. The sun is shining cold with a kind of flat light. Foxes are curled in their dens awaiting the night. Skunks are walking with impunity, snuffling and rooting and bandylegged. Now my nose is dripping. We do not know the number of our days, guarantees are cheap. I am walking around noticing stuff, something i sometimes forget to do. If all else fails, I gotta try and remember that we can’t get ’em back, these little days.


the colorado sky is amazing in the summertime. i can’t think of a truer blue than that morning sky draped down against the rockies. there are smells and landmarks, significant contributors to my colorado childhood, that will still quicken my heart and cause my eyes to focus out into some distant past and effectively cause what is probably best defined as a thousand yard stare those skies, man, they went on and on. and the clouds, floating in from the west, spaced perfectly from horizon to horizon, they helped kickstart an imagination that has kept me busy ever since.

those clouds remind me of the inside of my head, wild ideas floating in from all directions. i try to capture the images and concepts with words or lines and they begin to change,  just like clouds. sometimes there are bits and pieces of an original thought, sometimes there’s nothing but the memory of it; like the vague shape of someone’s footprints after the wave pulls back. even the important things dissolve. in fact, the important stuff seems like it’s more slippery than anything else. that’s what happened this morning. there was some thought triggered by a poem i read before i slept last night, when i woke up, the thought was pure and perfectly shaped in my mind. i laid there and allowed it to run it’s course, but then i began to want it. i climbed from my roost and chased it in my mind while i found my britches and made some joe. i could feel it slipping away. the thought began to loose it’s edges. the shape changed. now it’s gone.  that’s ok.  it might have only been as good as it appeared to me at that moment. maybe it wasn’t meant to be seen in full. still, i carry it’s hint.

i worry a little about my mind slipping. you know, every now and then i’ll not be able to remember someone that i know i should be able to remember. or the name to some song. or i’ll set my wallet down in the weirdest place on earth and i’ll say quietly to myself, don’t do that, but then i will and then i’ll forget where i put it. am i telling too much right now? i wonder if some day i’ll say a little too much about what’s going on in my head and a truck’ll show up with the guys in white overcoats and that they’ll wanna put one of those jackets on me with the really long sleeves that have buckles on the ends. maybe that’s not something that happens anymore. the new straightjackets are little brown bottles with pretty white pills inside. it’s way easier to issue some medication and send someone home than it is to herd them into a padded room where you gotta check on them and feed them and stuff. and the doctors smile and wink while they tell you that you’ll feel better once you take your meds and that the side affects may include drooling and anal bleeding and suicidal tendencies. um, yep. hold on, i got way off subject. i wasn’t planning on ripping on the system today. (a little rip is ok though, isn’t it?  come on, just one little poke at the system ain’t gonna hurt.)

back on track…or off it. i like to carry books around with me. like, actual books with words that stay put on the page and pages that are marked by numbers. if you want to find the spot where you left off, you gotta find the page number by flipping through the book. it’s awesome and you don’t need to plug it in or recharge it! there are things that books do for me that are similar to friendship. sometimes i’ll read something that is so wonderfully put, so beautifully stated, that i need to carry it around with me. and when i feel the weight of my book, i am reminded of the nature of it’s words, and i live slightly differently. books carry the thoughts that inhabited the head of someone else. often i don’t fully understand some of the things i read but i know, if i give these concepts some time, i will absorb them. so even 200 years after the author’s bones have turned to dust, i might capture some beautiful notion that once crossed his mind. one person’s thoughts can jump time and space and become reanimated in a head (mine) that is traveling about 5 foot 7 inches off the ground. these thoughts are being passed, like a baton, in a race across the eons. and when the last brain conjures the last colorful thought, right before the lights go out on humanity, the race will have been run just as the last thought falls down against the ground to reunite with what caused it.

i carry a computer bag that doesn’t always carry my computer. it’s a kind of military looking thing with too many pockets and too many buckles. it’s a graveyard of sorts. it has pens that live and die in it’s hidden pockets. it holds pads of paper and obsolete business cards. this bag is loaded with projects in various stages of completion, all enduring reminders of my life-long capacity to begin several things without having the slightest clue about how i might finish them. here a bag of owl feathers from a pygmy owl i found on the side of the road, there a solid copper square that needs a lanyard. a spool of twine. a small drawing from my nephew. three beads made of bone. a bag of turmeric. passport. last years calendar and schedule, never used, but saved because there’s a cool map in the back…and i love maps. i love them.  a small collection of rubber animals. a black book for drawing. old eraser. a condom that looks like it was passed down from generation to generation (more of a reminder that i’m human than anything else…sometimes i pull it out and show it to folks to see their reaction, which is usually something like, “dude, throw that thing away.” but it is good for a laugh and i’m sure i’ll be buried with it). a cord from some electronic device that goes with my computer, at least i think it does; besides, it looks expensive and i’d rather carry a useless cord till the sun burns out than buy a new one for $30.00. there’s a note from a friend that says i’m important and it seems to make me feel good when i’m feeling sorry for myself, which is about 17% of the time…maybe 20. there’s two Actually People Quarterlies, put out by the fontaine sisters and alexis petty, that i like to show people when i want to prove that i’m smart because i have really smart friends. there’s an old list of things to do in there that makes me laugh because none of those things are marked off and, quite frankly, i don’t know if i ever did a single thing on the list. all this in my computer bag, maybe a little more, but i sure as hell won’t know because i don’t feel like turning it inside out.

this wasn’t the beautiful thought that was in my head this morning. it’s more like a picture of the jumbled mess that accompanies anything that might be worth noting inside the white-skull confines of my cranium.  it’s world in there, tilted on it’s axis. lotsa clouds. yeah, a hell of a lot of clouds. and tons of space for more stuff. i like saving space for the wonders that abound inside the wonders that abound.

our minds are lovely mills that are pushed by the reddest of reds that flow from these thundering hearts. and what use is all this? and what sparks these muscled engines in our chest? what causes the tides to pull and push? what bends the light across the void between the spiraling galaxies and the interstellar winds where churns the belly of the universe? oh yes, what indeed?

extra medium

there are things i just can’t spell out, no matter how hard i try. i can’t make you feel the freezing, crystal, colorado mornings from my childhood. and the ice at the bottom of the stairs in the backyard by the woodpile. and the squeak of the snow between my shoes and the ice. and the way the wood splits under the ax that is different than in the summertime.  and the way that the world is quieter because sounds can’t fly as well when their wings are cold. 

there is a part of me that is still the 8 year old boy who is walking toward weir gulch at the bottom of harlan hill. i still carry a butterfly net and some fishing line and hooks. i’m prepared to catch things and witness the world that lies beneath the mint plants at the edge of the creek. i’m ready to assign names to creatures and feel the whirl of the earth. all my mindfulness is barely enough to give me a cupful of real, honest wisdom. instead i think with awe at what i’m missing and how i can’t explain the things i actually understand. growing up is a trip…and i think i’m grown up. or at least it sure does feel that way. 

i have a friend who always gives me a hard time. he says things like, “hey, tob, the eighties called and they want their hair style back.” he will ask me whose little sister gave me the pants i’m wearing. he says i like my t-shirts that are extra medium. he really loves his own jokes and, quite honestly, they are pretty good, even though i bear the brunt.  but about that term “extra medium”…well now, that’s a good one. it’s funny because it makes no sense. i relate to that. i’m in the middle of my life (i think) and i might be a little beyond that. that might make me “extra-middle”. 

writing tonight is just barely worth it. it feels like when i am groping around in the dark for a toothbrush that i can’t find, so i settle for the old toothpick i find in my shirt-pocket. i feel caught somewhere between the delete button and the bourbon bottle. i might use both, one for sure. there’s little beyond the force of practice, but that i do believe in. i never planned on a pulitzer and i wouldn’t have a place to show it off,  beyond the dashboard of a 1983 toyota dolphin. that might be kinda cool though. 

earlier today, before the rain came in, i watched the little black kitty hunt and catch a tiny vole. she’s a great hunter and the vole just didn’t have a chance. she caught it and began the long, drawn-out session of catch-and-release. i finally took heart for the tiny vole and tried to pull the cat off so i could finish the job. the cat turned and bit and i let her go. she continued to be a cat, i continued to be a strange, melancholy, two-legged observer. some don’t care. i care a whole helluva lot. it’s all so beautiful and terrible. do you know what i mean?

there is so much.  so much to worry over. so much to love.  there will be crops that fail, babies will be born with tricky hearts, a sparrow will fly headlong into the window and leave a dust print like a tiny angel. our oceans will suffer from our addictions to convenience. the moon will swing and swoon across our sky. the robins will hop and tilt and stab and pull the worms from the fresh turf on million dollar golf courses. whales will swim to where the ocean goes quiet and there, in the extra-middle of nowhere, they will love one another and they will breathe the sky and drink the ocean and they will wonder if everything is going to be ok. they will wonder about folks like me and i will wonder about folks like them. 

one more sip, no more words, a few more thoughts, a trillion stars. that’ll be good for now.

off to the ’83 dolphin. the dashboard is safe from clutter.