A friend of mine going back thirty-three years died, I just learned over the past week-end by accident, a year to the date that we last saw each other. Before that week in early June 2012 it had been twenty-one years since we last visited, other than over the phone. She lived in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, and was a marvelous teacher, gardener and player of stringed instruments. A music teacher and ex-librarian, she was my mentor, without ever admitting to the decided value of the hugely varied lessons she imparted to me. I'm so far left wondering what could have happened, accident or illness, to have felled this staunch person at an age, 70, that seemed too soon.
Last summer, drawing on my old youthful joy in spending time in the deep countryside with her (our acquaintance goes back to those years in an Indiana significantly more rural than it is today) I drove from Duluth out to Rapid City, South Dakota in one long day full of lofty clouds and sun, touring in the car a ways around the Oahe Reservoir outside the city of Pierre as dusk settled. Next day it was on, via the Theodore Roosevelt National Grassland, to Wyoming in that area between Buffalo and Sheridan, where immediately the same day I began to get acquainted with such birds of the mountainsides as red-naped sapsucker and the calliope hummingbird. The watercolor kit had ridden with me in the car and a choice of hound's tongue or gypsy flower (per my friend it bore the local folk name of beggar's fleas) came quickly for a several-days' painting project.
The hound's tongue is a weed of pastures rather than a native North American plant, yet in its odd fuzziness and olive drab tone, its florets the meaty pink of a dog's dripping tongue, it seems as habituated into the nearby slopes of grass as my friend, a native of Germany, was into the range land and mountains of the American West. I found a patch of ground with both sun and shade to sit within, where a specimen of hound's tongue or Cynoglossum officinale made itself available, and spent four to five days finishing the details mainly in watercolor and gouache. The card front in its photo is shown here, with a link to where it's for sale:
When I think about that gypsy flower in blossom alongside a sparkling rill beneath a line of cottonwood trees, with magpies' prattle over in the sun's direction and from behind me the flattened little death-knell sound, like a screech owl without the tremolo, that later proved to be the western wood pewee, I think about our car excursions up to the passes in the Bighorns near the Montana state line, where snowbanks enclosed the two paved lanes on either side. My friend, putting in her gardens for the year's food crop, never-the-less took afternoons off to drive me with her to such places as Shell Falls and Crazy Woman Canyon; we saw miles and miles of the changing topography that makes up Wyoming including sub-alpine slopes with whitebark pines, and way below them the red rock chasms, sagebrush deserts and, partway up again in elevation, meadows dampened by snow-fed springs, a-flit with mountain bluebirds the greenish blue of a twilit sky.
I remember her explanations of the sights around us: her elderly Australian sheep dog with the bald and hanging teats and one crossed eye, formerly the property of some unknown sheep herder who had obviously used her as a breeding machine and almost as likely had kicked her at least once in the face somewhere bordering on the eye socket. This dog had entered into a new life at the grand age of ten, a canine career that must have felt to her like a paradise, as one old lady rescued and given to another for purposes of mere gentle companionship with guardianship as a possible fringe benefit.
There was also the story that came with the glimpses up in the mountains of runaway truck lanes: of the young transport driver who fell asleep somewhere high above Sheridan or Buffalo, realized on waking that he'd lost his chance to use the emergency lane and knew he was fated to crash into the town below the heights where he'd found himself. He dialed 911 and had the local sheriffs clear the whole route ahead of him and provided his speed and location. As predicted, with the main drag fully emptied of cars and trucks, he hurtled into town on schedule, missed a diagonal bend and crashed to his death into a building emptied of people, the walls and roof collapsing around him. The local folk took up a collection for his widow and tiny children.
There was the day I spent mostly alone, creeping along the Penrose hiking trail, further teaching myself the local flora including the clematis called sugar bowls and finding my first Lazuli bunting in song much like the indigo bunting of the Midwest, till my friend dialed my cell phone to check that I still answered and had outlasted any cougars or armed strangers or precipices. One night we splurged like big hungry girls with the metabolism of youth, eating three platefuls apiece of Asian buffet meat and vegetables. In her home I ate roast bear and heart of venison for my first time. I learned of the healing properties of mullein tea for old bronchial mucous, and vowed I'd forage my own back in Minnesota, which I have now done.
So now, more than a year later, with the western expanses of America a beacon at my workaday back each day I make my living in the north-central U.S., I have the gypsy flower art image to help remind me of this legacy in the person of a great critic, teacher and humanitarian, who had once led or misled me into thinking she was a gypsy of the Romany strain, a survivor of Hitler's pogroms and death camps. The gypsy flower might, among other things, stand for the drifter and re-colonizer in all of us.
When I envision the future with its dire impending constraints like unaffordable car travel and withering summer droughts taking place between floods and consequent washouts of roads taken for granted now, I wonder if these places forgotten by human enterprise, little bits of ground probably smaller than the tracts we hold sacred now, will still exist and be visitable by ordinary folk who yearn over them. I tend to think that they will, if at great expense in money and personal safety, somehow--maybe by bus or bicycle...