Studio of Edwin & Marcia Ward

Friday, November 18, 2011

(as in the plural of coincidence)
     Last August, my wife Marcia and I are soaking in the large pool at Strawberry Park Hot Springs outside Steamboat Springs when a funny coincidence occurs. I’ve been coming to these waters once or twice a year since 1974 when a summer’s go-wherever hitch-hiking adventure that started in Philly and ended in Manhattan included a week’s stay here. The place was then, and is still, mystic with coincidee.
     Of the events of my first time here many are ripe with other-orld-ly importance. My partner in adventure at the time, Lucia, and I had hitch-hiked ten dirt road miles from town – way off the grid so to speak – to get here. We had been inspired to visit by the storytelling of two kind benefactors, Ron and Vickie, whose buffalo robe scented Dodge van had transported us from Central Nebraska to Rabbit Ears Pass. In their description of the springs, they’d nicknamed the scene Strawberry City and said it was a very high, very trippy place where hundreds of adventuresome characters like Lucia and me were hanging out for the summer. “Don’t go if your adverse to pot or nudity,” they warned, an admonition meant to peak our curiosity.
     And now as Lucia and I approach the Strawberry Park Hot Springs deep in the National Forest in the back of a pick-up truck – two local teens have given us a ride as they have sojourned hither for a local boy’s mischievous teenage binocular-ed look-see at the rumored naked hippie chicks – when we climb out of the truck’s bed and begin our careful descent down the trammeled muddy hill into the pocket of running water and alpine mountain holding the springs, I’m quite disappointed with what I’m seeing as I look down upon the scene. My prurient self had hoped for a fog of pot smoke and sea of naked women and there are not even any strawberries! Just a touch of juniper and hollyhock with a lot of rock and shale adorned with rivulets of steamy smoky water running into a pool aside a creek. Of the half dozen bathers, none are naked and there’s not a wild haired one among them. Oh, where is the summer-long party that Ron and Vickie had described? Where are the sun worshippers? The Hippies? The madcap day-trippers and on-the-road adventures like Lucia and me? Where is Strawberry City?”
     Well. We’re not two minutes into our switch back approach down from the top of the west hill where the local teens had parked towards the waters of the springs when a most marvelous and unexpected thing occurs. Where just now there were six bathing-suited soakers enjoying the warm waters within view, there are now ten times that, as out from behind that many trees and bushes step dozens of naked men, women and children, as if cued to startle us, most with more than enough hair on their heads to qualify the scene as a drop-out hippie city by the name of Strawberry! Lucia and I are quite stunned as the nudists appear for she had just voiced aloud what I’d been thinking, “Where are all the naked people Ron and Vickie talked about.”
     “As if by magic, their appearance” one would think, but, most times, there is a very real explanation for such coincidee.
     Apparently the Steamboat Springs Police have a policy of visiting the Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Daily, they drive up from town for the purpose of writing revenue-generating tickets and scan the scene from a secluded further hill with state-of-cop-art binoculars in search of anyone sans swimsuit or smoking pot. They generally arrive most days in the early afternoon, a routine well known by the denizens of Strawberry City. Usually some civic-minded person volunteers to serve as lookout, and when the gendarmes are spotted approaching, a warning is signaled and everyone naked scurries into the forest to hide from view. When the cops end their surveillance and head back down the mountain, an all clear is signaled and everyone returns from hiding to the sunlight and hot spring waters of Strawberry City, with today’s ruse and theatrics coinciding with our arrival, “a Fellini moment that should be filmed,” as Lucia would say, in the ever-surprising script of a life.
     So, I’m waxing poetic and nostalgic with wife Marcia about my first soak here all those years ago when she queries me with a prankster’s merriment and sky-blue-eyed wonder before swimming away to the cold water of the creek: “Would you rather be here or in Greenwich Village?” And with a splash of mineral water in my direction she adds, “And, look: there’s Damian.”
     Now Marcia and I, after thirty-three years of marriage, have little games we play when out and about in the world. One involves seeing semblances of someone we know in a stranger. We type people because of the way he or she might look or talk or act. And so, I immediately get the “Damian” reference when I study the view where Marcia had been looking when she had said, “There’s Damian,” for across the length of this middle pool and the pool above it, by the sluice gate, a guy stands talking with a young woman many years his junior. She appears amused and bemused with his chatter and to the casual observer (in this case: me) her body language denotes a coquettish interest despite the math of their ages: he: forty-something; she: just legal. His long dark hair gathered and bundled atop his head easily sets him apart from most everyone else and draws attention to his stature. His lean physique suggests fitness not hunger and from this distance, some thirty yards, the sparkling demeanor of his eyes is friendly. He’s willing to share whatever it is he’s got and the young woman wants some. A Damian for sure!
     Now Damian is a man I met some thirty-seven years ago when I departed these springs that first time.
     I meet Damian through the workings of another guy I meet here at Strawberry City, Frank. After a week or so of partying and hanging out, mostly naked and under a cloud of smoke, Lucia and I decide to head out again on our come-what-may hitchhiking adventure. For the most part, we’ll go wherever our rides will take us as we generally have only a half-hearted commitment to any romantic destination we might have in mind: The Rockies, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or, as we decide upon today, The Grand Tetons. Lucy’s luxuriously French pronunciation of Tetons is barely off her pout-y lips when a stranger appears out of nowhere in the shallows of the small spring aside our campsite. “Hey,” he says, “would you happen to know anybody looking for a ride to Jackson Hole Wyoming. My partner broke his leg and is staying behind to recover. I could use some company as I’m planning to take a very scenic route to get there, as in Forest Service roads, back country access roads, and no roads.” That Jackson Hole lies in the shadow of The Grand Tetons is just another one of them coincidee. And so, we join Frank on a four-day backcountry over-the-mountains meander to Jackson Hole that through another series of coincidee brings us to Damian.
     Did I mention that Frank was a survivalist long before there was a pop reference to that breed of man? His vehicle was a surplus Korean War era U.S. Navy step van (think Fifties bread delivery truck) that he bought as a kit and built himself. He hand tightened every bolt and screw in its assembly. Frank was dropping out into the wilderness, and he was prepared to forage and explore the backcountry of America for the next two years. His well organized van was packed with canned goods and dried food, gallons of drinking water, topographical maps of Montana, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, two suspended hammocks for sleeping in bad weather, assorted fuels, extra this and that, essential spare parts for the van, a generator, a radio, fishing rods and flies, rifles and ammunition, and mountain climbing gear. Cross a mountain man with a Navy Seal and you get Frank, a bearded, self-taught can-do-anything man. Unfortunately Frank thought he could sing as well as conquer wilderness and for much of the four days of our off-highway jaunt to Jackson he sings show tunes, and I’m not talking hip tunes from off-Broadway or the rock opera Tommy, I’m talking Oklahoma. Over and over and over. Believe me, “Oh what a beautiful morning/Oh what a beautiful day/I’ve got a beautiful feeling/Everything’s going my way” is not so beautiful when Frank sings it for the fifty-fourth time! Anyway as we approach Jackson Hole, the only way into town from the south is on a highway that Frank reluctantly takes. We no sooner hit the asphalt after exiting the wilderness when a thunderous hailstorm explodes in the sky and we are forced to pull off. Another vehicle soon joins us on the highway shoulder, and with coincidee ripe, one of the occupants exits the other car and hustles through the hail to join us in the van. This gentleman - his handle is Doc (his ditty bag contained an assortment of drugs, both pharmaceutical and street) - actually is an acquaintance of Frank, for Frank had given Doc a ride a month earlier as Frank crisscrossed the back country of Northern New Mexico outside Taos and Doc sojourned after the ghost of Carlos Castenada’s Don Juan. Doc suggests we (he, Lucy and I) swap cars for the final drive to Jackson Hole so he can sing-a-long with Frank, a suggestion I applaud, as any excuse will suffice to get me out of earshot of another round of “Oklahoma”! When Lucy and I get into the other car, a Comet with Mississippi plates, we meet its back-seat passenger Damian, a meeting which prompts me to whisper “Right out of Blake,” as this starry-eyed stranger could easily have modeled for William Blake as he illustrated the demons and angels in his famous manuscript. His hair had apparently been growing uncut since the musical Hair was first staged on Broadway; aside from dungarees, woolen serape and denim shirt, he is possession-less, even shoeless, barefoot as a Penitentes Brotherhood pilgrim. Carrying neither money nor ID on his way to The Rainbow Gathering in the Great Northwest, his simple currency for travel is his belief that love provides. When not speaking almost reverently of the town of Bisbee Arizona from whence his travels commenced, he quietly singsongs the Beatle refrain, “All you need is love, Love, all you need is love.” With a nod I concur with his belief in the power of love, but say under my breath to Lucy, “It will be me, not love, that will buy him a beer when we get to Jackson.” No surprise here: Damian will provide for further coincidee.
     When our van/car caravan reaches Jackson Hole it is still raining; thus, we travelers – Frank, Damian, Doc, the Comet’s owner Scott, Lucy and I - all take refuge in a tourist saloon on the main square of Jackson Hole. When we enter we are hardly noticed as every patron seems to have their eyes glued to the TV, and for good reason, for at the very moment that I conclude paying for a first round of drinks (Coors for the men and a Coke for Lucia), the first president of the United States to resign, Richard Nixon, does so on the TV under which we stand, prompting an applause that concludes with the firing of a bullet right into the screen of the TV. Glass and cathode tube explode just as a man walks into the bar. This guy, Little John, spies Damian, walks right up and hugs him, and asks if we all need a place to stay. Damian’s eyes catch mine and they seem to sing “All you need is love, Love, all you need is love.” Little John, some long lost friend of Damian, bids us follow and we do, outside, back to our vehicles, and to a smidgen of National Forest land nearby where we are offered the use of a huge communal canvas tent where we weather the late afternoon and evening thunderstorms the next two days. Our first night Damian sermonizes around the campfire about the power of love and about the dropout city he calls home, Bisbee, Arizona. “In Bisbee, all you need is love” he tells us more than once. In fact, his Bisbee rhapsody is so convincing that sixteen years later my wife and I will move to Bisbee in search of that alternate reality where all you need is love. And guess what happens when we venture there? We find Damian living there with a young violinist some thirty years his junior, having managed to live rent-free in the dropout, drop city, former mining town on the Mexican border. Marcia winds up having a solo exhibition of her fine art photography in the studio/gallery that Damian manages, and I wind up with a Poetry Hour on Cochise County Arizona’s community cable radio channel for which Damian produces fine arts programming. Oddly, my mother, before marrying my father, dated Michael Ansara, the actor who played Cochise on the Fifties TV series of the same name.
     Just how many coincidee does it take to lead one to where they are? More than sheer coincidence can account for, that is sure.
     And now, to come full circle, let us return to the hot waters of Strawberry Park Hot Springs last summer, where the guy engaging the attention of the young woman switches his attention to me. After looking in my direction, he bids the doe-eyed youngster ado, and makes his way across two pools to slip into the water beside me and asks rhetorically, “Nice night, yes?” before going on to detail what brought him here. “I just spent a night in Greenwich Village and it ain’t got nothing on this place,” as if he had somehow overheard Marcia ask me if I’d rather be here or in Greenwich Village. She’d asked because the Village is where the American literary world, its capitol, resides, and the writer in me is always lamenting my lack of a literary agent, many of whom live in Greenwich Village. In effect she was teasingly asking would I trade my life here in Colorado for one in Manhattan? And now this guy, Eric is his name, Eric is telling me that he just stayed a week in the Village. He goes on to tell me about how he lives in Boulder Utah and extracts plant essences. He’d been giving a lecture in Maine on the somewhat arcane process he employs and a member of the audience – a young New York City literary agent who counts a Pulitzer Prize winner among her stable of writers - was so impressed with Eric, that she had offered him the use of her place in the Village. She would be traveling for the summer and she gave him the key to her home. With a nod to the surrounding woods, he says, “Yeah, two days ago I slept in a swank big-city condo, but believe me, I’d rather be here sleeping in the Forest Hotel.”
     When I mention the coincidence of my wife just having mentioned Greenwich Village, he quotes Bob Dylan, nasal-ing Bob’s “Take what you have gathered from coincidence” before telling me that I remind him of an old friend.
     In a reply prompted by more coincidee, I tell him that my wife had just expressed the same about him to me, that she called him Damian. Expressing an immediately interest in this line of coincidence, he asks me to tell him about this Damian.
     “Well, for starters,” I say, “Damian’s hair was as long as yours, he loved younger women, and, most unusual, he wore no shoes.”
     “Well, well, well,” he interjects, “neither do I. Wear shoes, that is.”
     We go on to discover much that we have in common as we share a few hours together in the coincidee-laden waters of Strawberry City. We exchange contact info and promise to coincide again some time. He also provides me with the name and contact info for his new friend Mary, the very successful literary agent, in New York.
     Now a coincidence I’d really enjoy would be for Mary to be as interested in me, my writing, as she apparently is in Eric, his plant essence extracting, thereby completing a circle of coincidee almost forty years in the making. To spark her interest, I’ll be sending “Coincidee,” for her reading pleasure.