Sunday, April 26, 2009


Recently my much-beloved, fierce, and large professor of writing at U of Chicago, Richard Stern, wrote a lovely essay about writers he has met in various ways, some of them brief and glancing, while others were lifelong friendships and even collaborations. That’s in addition to the students who actually became writers. So I thought I’d reflect a bit on writers I’ve known.

The first one was my aunt, Elsie Mackinnon Strachan, whom I knew literally from my birth or at least the day after. She’s gone now. It just occurred to me to Google her name and, lo, now I’m downloading her poems from as early as December, 1952, “Desert” magazine. Having grown up in Brandon, Manitoba, she had a natural affinity for the high dry places, and also often published in Arizona Highways as well as the Saturday Evening Post and The Christian Science Monitor. I think that though we were proud of her and admired and praised her, we didn’t quite understand her stature. She belonged to a strong circle of poet friends (mostly female) which we knew little or nothing about.


The tumble weeds came rolling thorugh the town,
Like phantom riders on the wind of night,
To stir the dust where time is bedded down,
Where forty-niners sleep beneath soft light;

And as they raced along deserted streets,
The frontier west, the rush for gold returned;
And I could hear the blacksmith’s anvil ring,
And smell the pine wood smoke where bacon burned.

And I could see the burro on the trail,
And hear great laughter in the bright saloon;
Now ponies stood beside the hitching rail,
Where fantasy was silvered by the moon.

Like riders come for gold, the tumbleweeds
Rode in as bold performers and were gone;
And then, as though the law had cornered them,
I found them lined up at the fence at dawn.
-- Desert, 1956


With roots embedded deep in centuries past,
Baboquivari, silent, granite-cast,
Towers skyward. Time and wind and rain,
In collusion with the sun, in vain
Have lashed and beaten; graven and proud she stands
Unmoved, star-high above the desert sands.
At times a lei of snow, flung ‘round her throat,
Adorns her age-long, ever-changing coat --
Now grey, now dusty-rose, now purple hued,
Depending on the hour, and on her mood.
Baboquivari, silent, granite-cast,
Keeping from you and me, secrets of the past.
--Desert, 1952

The next writer I was aware of was Chaplain John W. Beard who, with his wife, rode the Oregon trail on horseback. I see “Saddles East” is reissued now at
A division of The Long Riders' Guild Press, The world's first collection of Equestrian Travel Classics.

Here’s their synopsis:

“A great many equestrian travelers could say they were inspired to take to the saddle because of the exploits of someone who rode before them. However John Beard is the only horseback traveler whose journey can be directly linked to the influence of the famous Buffalo Bill Cody. Beard determined as a child that he wanted to see the Wild West from the back of a horse after a visit to Cody’s legendary Wild West show .

"Yet it was to be more than sixty years after seeing the flamboyant American showman before Beard, and his wife Lula, finally mounted their dreams. Setting off on a matched pair of horses, Black Diamond and Black Fairy, the Beards left to discover the long cherished equestrian quest of the author’s youth.

“Their mission in 1948 was to ride the length of the Old Oregon Trail. What followed was a 2,500 mile odyssey from Oregon to Missouri through a vast sea of weariness, thirst, hunger, hardship, and danger as the aged equestrians rode down the trail of their pioneer forefathers.

“Amply illustrated with photographs, “Saddles East” is more than a mere tale of adventure, it is the romantic story of two pilgrims of the sunrise riding back into the morning of their youth, hunting for America’s yesterday with everything they own on the backs of their faithful horses.”

The whole catalogue is wonderful stuff. I’m unclear about why he was called “Chaplain” but I suspect he took that role in WWII, which may be partly where he got the moxie to strike out on such an adventure. In the Fifties he and Lula came around to the grade schools to tell us about his travels.

As an undergrad at NY I tried to take writing courses but soon ran aground athwart an arrogant young professor. I can’t remember his name, so don’t remember whether he ever became a “known” writer. Still, I managed to get a short story into the Northwestern Tri-Quarterly.

In Browning there were writers underfoot all the time. R.L. Lancaster, that maniacal moocher, showed up in later years and left with Ace Powell’s family. Ruth Beebe Hill had fastened onto Bob in 1959 and returned to haunt us every summer with her endlessly revised manuscript of “Hanta Yo!” under her arm. I snuck a look at it once which sent her into a screaming rage. Wilbur Renshaw, spouse of the primary school principal, had his Westerns published by a vanity press. Adolph Hungry Wolf was already supporting his family with homemade books about Blackfeet lore. They were a busy lot, disinclined to encourage anyone else to write.

In Divinity School there were, of course, many writers everywhere, but quite a different sort. One day I passed Jorge Luis Borges, that very distinguished blind writer going along with a stick, and jauntily wished him “Bon jour!” in my newly acquired French. I went on smugly, leaving Borges, totally confused, standing on the sidewalk, no doubt wondering who on the planet I was in the first place and why I addressed him in French, since he spoke Spanish.

My most recent glancing contact with a writer was more satisfactory. Barnaby Conrad III left a comment on my review of his excellent book, “Ghost-Hunting in Montana” which is about this very land I live on: Valier, Lake Francis, Conrad, Kalispell. I have it off the shelf so much that I’ve stopped reshelving it. I just leave it out. Writers are everywhere. Which is as it should be!

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