Part 1: early July to mid-August
Part 2: mid-June to early July
Part 3: mid-May to mid-June (to come)
Part 4: Traditional Ways, mid-August (to come)
First off, this is your annual report on a gathering of radicals off in the mountains of Colorado. Now, we’re all living in a time when everyone wants the world to change drastically—not the only such time, but certainly such a one. For a lot of people, that desire can be satisfied by the occasional trip to a voting booth interspersed with a lot of complaining and expressing opinions that seem self-evident, especially on Facebook. Okay. Everyone has their path, and I’m only obliquely attacking that complacency here (partly because it’s a target that requires a large attack and partly because I still feel uncomfortably like part of the problem myself). The point, here, is that those self-evident opinions percolate up to the clicktivist armies from somewhere, and one such source is to be found in places like a mountain meadow in southwestern Colorado over the week of the summer solstice.
The first year I went to Wild Roots Feral Futures—this year was my fourth—it was explained to me as an anarchist primitive skill-share gathering. And that’s what it was, and what it’s been. The people who show up are the most amazing misfits, people on whom the very concept of categories seems to break asunder. A lot of queer folks show up, for instance, but if you’re used to thinking of genderqueer people as fragile Tumblr shut-ins who’ve never done anything physical, well, there was a genderqueer person this year who taught a workshop on the various parts of guns, with visual references from their own armory. Another person I know thinks of themself as a fairy, an idea that is not, in the slightest, at odds with the nights they spend around the fire hammering out punk songs about bringing fire and destruction to industrial civilization on their banjolele. Some look square, and then you find out that not that many years ago, they lived in a punk house where they headbutted Dog the Bounty Hunter in the face back before he got famous, and got away with it too. It may tell you something about Feral that I, even after living out of my backpack for 3½ years, hopping trains, and generally declining to live the life course set in place for me by the culture we live in, still feel decidedly like one of the squarest people there.
Feral is composed of workshops interleaved liberally with downtime when everyone hangs out around the fire, passing around cigarettes and Colorado’s finest homegrown. The people, of course, are the soul of the gathering, and the workshops are where the people both learn and take turns letting each other shine brighter with their particular skills. Which is why it’s a bit melancholy for me to note that Feral was a lot smaller this year. While in previous years it’s always felt like a serious production, an event people would travel to, with camps set up and a morning circle that can encompass a pretty large chunk of meadow, this year it felt more like some local friends having an admittedly pretty big camping trip in the woods. In other years there have been over fifty people at a time, but this year I don’t think we ever hit twenty. And so there was a sort of listlessness, as people who wanted to teach something found themselves without quite enough motivation to do it for so few people, and why don’t we wait until tomorrow, and oh dear the whole week has almost gone by, hasn’t it?
I’m not sure what to make of this, honestly; my exposure to the radical scene at large is perhaps shamefully minimal, so I don’t know if I should chalk this up to an ebb in radicalism or just a year when all the usuals have gotten themselves involved in other things. Nor do I know if I can generalize anything about Feral’s shrinkage to the health of the nation’s radicals as a whole, or even the region’s. All I can tell you is that it felt listless this year, and we did a lot of talking.
In previous years at Feral I’ve learned really cool things I can do with my hands: I’ve practiced archery, I’ve felted, I’ve vaguely participated in tanning a hide and pit-roasting a turkey. And though I rarely believe beforehand that it’s what I’m coming for, I’ve also always ended up having conversations I’m glad I had. About half of the stuff that people lead at Feral, in the past, has been workshops on hard skills, and half has been conversations on stuff like, “We talk about ‘decolonizing’, but what does that even mean really, and can you do it without stealing other people’s culture?” Once you put it down on paper as a bald little question, conversations like that don’t sound like much, but when you’re sitting in a meadow at ten thousand feet passing around a talking stick and dredging up childhood memories in order to make your contributions to the question as real as possible, it’s the sort of place where people start crying.
This year I was rapt while learning about the movement for Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, where people band together to bypass the bureaucratic and idiotic disaster relief that FEMA and other governmental agencies render, by just rendering it themselves. (During Hurricane Harvey, and probably during most hurricanes, FEMA has elected to set armed guards over its food and water giveaways to avoid wild mobs; civilians have set up mutual-aid giveaway vans and found such mobs not forthcoming. People in a disaster help each other. FEMA regards them with suspicion, as subhuman hordes, especially the poor ones.) You heard it here first: this is going to be an important part of dealing with our future, which will be full of disasters and even fuller of ineffectual and apathetic government.
Even so, there’s only so much time I can spend talking before I wish I could go pick up a bow and arrow. This year the physical stuff was mostly unscheduled: hiking down the steeply switchbacked trail to the river, for instance, and rebuilding the hot spring containment tub with new rocks to keep the fresh-melted water of the Piedra River from mixing too much with the near-boiling water trickling out of the riverbank sand. The handicrafts people seem mostly have moved on to other ventures in life. I hope they come back for Feral next year. As much as I love the ideas that radical people come up with and get circulating, I also love the cool stuff we do day by day, seizing our own personal means of production by just making cool shit. That’s how we get freer of the Vast Machine, and how we live once we’re free of it. Maybe they were all just too busy doing that. Maybe I should find them and go visit. Maybe I should just start making cool shit myself and bring that to Feral next year. But in any case, I did have a lot of fun and I got to spend time in the mountains and hang out and hear good stories. So I still count it as a win.
Here comes another train story
The skyscrapers of downtown Denver thrusting jaggedly into dirty air troubled by city noises and city worries; ugly luxury apartments piled up along a multiuse trail by the South Platte River, with joggers jogging at paces their cardiologists would approve of, and cyclists zipping by on three-thousand-dollar carbon-fiber bikes: I sat on the other side of the river, in thick dust and dirt under a bridge, utterly unconnected to all of it. I’d seen Denver. I didn’t want Denver tonight. I wanted a train.
I had a plan. I was going to go visit my cousin Travis, in Missoula, Montana. And I was going to do it all on freight trains. I had only ridden a couple hundred freight miles this year, just enough to tantalize but nowhere near enough to satisfy, and while I was out west for Feral I intended to make the most of it by putting in some long miles staring out of a freight car at mountains and plains. As far as freights go, this trip was practically a straight shot—thirteen hundred miles with only one transfer. BNSF’s M-DENLAU takes off from Denver somewhere within six hours either side of 9 a.m. daily and takes thirty hours to chug on up to Laurel, Montana, where any of several westbounds each day will get you across the state to Missoula.
I had the underside of the bridge almost to myself, though other train riders had been here not too long ago, and left tags to say so. A Honduran man came by and told me in animated and authoritative Spanish about the train I was waiting for, and the security people who would surely see me, and where I’d be better off, until finally he and I both decided he had no clue what he was talking about and I’d be better off following the suggestions in my Crew Change Guide. Later he came back and was joined by a woman who stood there patiently while he had second thoughts and told me all of it all over. When we finally reached a conclusion, he left and I turned to her and said, “Hola,” only to have her tell me, “No habla español.” I never did figure out why she waited so patiently while two people she couldn’t understand jabbered on. She left to go find a friend; the Honduran man came back and drank with a friend of his inside a big boxy girder; but by and large it was a quiet night that I shared with the river slooshing quickly by.
It was certainly devoid of northbound trains. The train I wanted would be coming over the bridge, moving slowly around a tight arc (tight for a train, anyway) as it came out of one yard, crossed over the river, then crossed right back over to get to another yard where it could get on the right track for Montana. I didn’t expect my train until morning really, but in trainhopping you have to expect things you aren’t expecting, and although I suspected the Honduran man was wrong when he told me my train would leave at five in the morning, I thought I’d better keep vigilant all through the night just in case. As I dozed and rolled around in the dust, accumulating a thick coat of gray-brown grime, I remembered what I’d learned the last time I caught out here, two years prior: many trains use this bridge, but most aren’t doing much. They’re heading out of a yard and then backing back into it, or they’re just two locomotives transferring from yard to yard, or they’re the Amtrak stopping for no reason. Each of these made me wake up and examine the train closely with my heart preemptively beating fast enough for a backpack-laden sprint along the train and a catchout on the fly, and then each time I “read” the train and saw it was plainly not for me, and fell back asleep, more or less.
I woke up before dawn and waited for the 5:00 train, but as I’d suspected the Honduran man was wrong; by now, though, I was up and figured I’d just wait in case it was early for its 9:00 departure.
What was I thinking? Trains are never early, except when you’re late to the catchout spot. Even when the information you have about their departure time comes from the Crew Change Guide, which is compiled by people actually watching the trains, not by dispatchers giving the time they hope the trains will be ready, you still have to figure your train will very likely be a number of hours late, or possibly on a schedule that bears no relation whatsoever to what’s predicted. I alternately picked my way through my Carl Jung book with a brain far too sleepiness-fogged for this, climbed around on the bridge’s exposed girders desultorily, and stared around sleepily. There was a convenience store half a mile away, but I didn’t dare go too far from my spot, because when you leave is when the train comes, and worse, if you’re alone, you never even know whether it left without you or not. Nine o’clock came and went, as did ten o’clock and, in its turn, noon. I rolled around in the dirt and washed my hands in the river many times. I was feeling pretty terrifically filthy, a real personal hygienic low point, and starting to look forward quite eagerly to not being under that dusty bridge.
My train finally came at 2:30, identified by having three engines (long-distance power) and a Montana Rail Link boxcar (locked). It came alongside me slowly but soon started speeding away, though not too soon for me to grab onto a marginally rideable grainer that was improved by being hooked to another grainer—one hidey-hole for my backpack, one for me. And like an unexcited gazelle, the train took off into Rennicks Intermodal Yard at a heartbreakingly underpowered pace, then stopped with my car right in the middle of the yard.
It didn’t look good. I wasn’t on the mainline. All around me were dead strings of cars that hadn’t moved in weeks. My train hadn’t cut air, but it seemed like only a matter of time. We sat. After half an hour, I started devising plans for how to get out of this yard unseen in broad daylight, and after an hour I started thinking about precisely how much longer I should wait before putting those plans into action. Then suddenly the train took off again without so much as an informative intercom message.
It still went slow, maddeningly slow, but it went up the right track and into places I remembered from when I took this trip two years ago. That time, I caught some winks on top of the grainer I was on, and then found myself being woken up by police in Orin Junction, Wyoming, who wouldn’t believe that I was really just sleeping, not hiding, and that I hadn’t heard them until the one cop climbed the ladder and shouted at me. This time I was wiser; this time I would go all the way.
The train stopped again in Broomfield, between a highway and a fence. I didn’t know it was Broomfield until, having spent an hour and a half waiting angrily between the train and the fence, I finally walked to the nearest business to ask for some water and figure out where the hell I was. Broomfield is a wholly subsumed subsidiary of Denver, and I had made a measly thirteen miles from my bridge. Luckily, the place I found all this out was a Dairy Queen that I hadn’t seen until I got off the train to look around. I got myself not just water but also a Blizzard, then sat under some shade trees they’d mercifully planted until suddenly my train aired up again and I ran and grabbed on to two different grainers further back the train. Suddenly I was eating ice cream on a moving freight train and feeling like I was winning at life in the grandest way.
The feeling didn’t last too long. This train was a rotten piece of junk, rarely cracking twenty miles an hour, stopping for no reason all the time. At one point after dark it stopped on the mainline and cut air with a sudden violent PFFSHH!, and the engines took off down a spur line with the front half of the train, leaving me sitting there in the back half in the middle of nowhere and nothing. Luckily the engines came back half an hour later, having left the rest of the train who-knows-where. At least I’d gotten off that half at Dairy Queen. I caught shreds of sleep and willed the train to go faster, but finally it pulled into a godforsaken little three-track switchyard somewhere past Fort Collins and cut air.
But I didn’t go to sleep just yet; I wanted to keep an eye on developments just a little longer. And that’s how I saw that my train’s engines had treacherously picked up a different train sitting in the yard, and were taking off with it. Quickly I found something passable to ride on the new train and rode off with it to wherever it was going.
Luckily, that was Cheyenne. I discovered this around dawn from a gentleman who told me, “Get off my train, man.” We were in the middle of fields that carried on to the horizon, next to a nondescript warehouse’s spur track. Not the sort of place one expects to see railroad personnel. But there he was, radioing to his partner in the cab to stop my car next to him. “Cheyenne’s about four miles that way,” he said, and also, “I didn’t see you,” and he gave me his blessing to walk along the tracks, as long as I was careful. “We’ve got a lot of trains coming through here.” As it happened, most of what he told me was bullshit; Cheyenne was nearly six miles, and not one train went by the whole time I walked it. But when I finally saw the placid lanes of Alternate Interstate 80 in the Cheyenne morning, along them was something I needed: a hotel with continental breakfast.
Free hotel breakfasts are one of the great unsung scams, and functionally a victimless crime since all the extra food would just get thrown away. I stowed my backpack in a bush and acted like I belonged there, which first entailed going to the bathroom and luxuriously washing what felt like a lifetime of grime off my face. Then I stuffed myself with eggs, sausage, and pastries, and even got my bearings using the lobby computer, and walked off into Cheyenne triumphant.
The Cheyenne catchout is at the top of a thirty-foot embankment right near the scrap metal district. My train came by not long after breakfast, but I waited for it to start moving. I could have walked back a little ways, but its tail end was hanging out on a bridge over a road that was actively trafficked, and I just didn’t trust the good people of Cheyenne to turn their blindest eye to me this morning. Unfortunately, that was how I found out that when trains leave Cheyenne, they leave in a hurry. By the time a rideable car came even with me, I couldn’t keep up, and ate shit on the ballast trying to. Bitterly, I let it go to Montana without me.
With nothing else to do, I wandered around Cheyenne and found it mostly a pretty boring place, aside from the lady who asked me for help making bus fare and, when I gave her a dollar, grabbed my shoulders and planted a weird kiss on my cheek, and then, inviting herself to fondle my braid, told me breathily, “God was Aztec, though.” Cheyenne has nowhere decent to get a milkshake, and in a hot town like that, I think that speaks volumes about the derangement of their priorities. I read more of that Carl Jung down the embankment, and slept a night, and waited for the next morning’s train. Well, at least I got some sleep.
I caught the train successfully the next morning, hand-over-handing my way back it across the narrow bridge while drivers below paid me no attention. Finally I was home free: whatever I’d been riding to get here wasn’t the M-DENLAU, but this far out of Denver and at this time of the morning, this train clearly was. I rode very evasively through the Air Force base, then found myself free again in wide open spaces. I got out of my grainer cubby onto the porch and stretched, looked around. There were hills, eroded away to leave their geological strata out for everyone to see. There were cows, including one herd grazing under the otherworldly brow of a long rocky mesa. There were streams, bubbling by crystal-clear underneath me. There were pronghorns, which I couldn’t remember ever seeing before, just grazing quietly with the cows. And there were the various things people build. My favorite was probably an old modest brown house, its roof covering a porch half the size of the house, looking out over the train tracks.
The train went awful slow and stuttering, though not as bad as the last one, and it was evening by the time I cleared Orin Junction and made it further than I’d been before. During a long wait in Glendo, I drank a beer and started talking to trees. I hadn’t talked to a human all day.
The train pulled into Casper at midnight to change crew. I hoped they’d change fast and get going, because I was clearly right next to downtown and didn’t want to lay out my bright orange sleeping bag right there. But after an hour or so I judged it safe enough and myself too tired to give a shit, and crashed hard. The thing is: when I woke up at 5:30 the train hadn’t moved.
This is where I decided firmly that it is always a mistake to take trains when you have a schedule to keep, even if that schedule leaves you ample amounts of wiggle room. Trains can be prompt and punctual, but they will only do so if you don’t really need them to be. If you have any time constraints whatsoever, the trains will reject you as an uncommitted dabbler, and they will see to it that you don’t make it where you’re going. Your schedule is not welcome aboard freight.
I gave the train a couple more hours, during which it did fuck-all, and finally gave it the finger and took a short walk to an Interstate onramp. I caught a ride with a miner who was going to work in Big Timber, Montana, over three hundred fifty miles away, and thus got farther in one ride than I had in three days of trains. I caught a second ride in negative three minutes—I was in the convenience store refilling water, and would’ve made it to the onramp in three minutes if a guy hadn’t seen my Missoula sign right there in the store and offered me a ride—and I was in Missoula by midnight.
I still love freight trains, but damn if they don’t sometimes do their best to change that.
Babies appearing everywhere
I have, of course, seen babies before. Tomato-plump little bundles with wondering eyes and jowly faces, being carried around on someone’s back or pushed in a stroller. They’re everywhere, eminently show-offable. But these have been, for the most part, ripe babies, exposed to the fortifying air for a few months, tautened up, curious about the world, and more or less familiar with the concept that they are no longer physically a part of their mothers. Something unfamiliar to me was the kind of baby that has barely yet begun being a human, with wings still all soggy and crumpled from the chrysalis. Nor was I familiar with what life is like when you have such a baby in your care.
It so happened, though, that my cousin Travis had just arranged for there to be such a baby that I could come see—though really he farmed out most of the hard work to his wife Carol, who is the real MVP here. Of my cousins, Travis is the closest to being my peer; he’s a year older than me and we spent some of our childhood summers together floating down the creek on old truck inner tubes at my Nana and Papaw’s place out in the hills in West Virginia. Then he moved out west and for the most part we lost touch. But we still see see each other often enough for me to know that he had a baby coming back when the baby was still coming. I believe it was my mom, who’s fond of babies in much the same way that fish are fond of water, who told me in June that Carol had actually given birth, that the baby’s name was Bodie, and that he was just the cutest baby in the history of the world, aside from all those other babies who were also the cutest babies in the history of the world. I figured as long as I was out west, it’d be worth the trip up to Missoula to at least say hi. I didn’t imagine I’d be interacting very intellectually with Bodie or forming much of a lasting impression on him, but I could at least do something to fill up that terribly empty room Travis and Carol had in their basement, and maybe even hold Bodie now and then while Travis or Carol did the occasional task that required two hands.
And thus did they welcome a grubby hobo into their house to spend time with their newborn. I may have been the grubbiest visitor, but I wasn’t the first. Bodie was Carol’s first baby, but most of the time she was carrying him she was at a midwifery school in Texas, so she knew a thing or two, and one of those things was that right after having a baby it can be terrifically helpful to have a rotating crew of family and friends stay with you to help you out with mundane tasks and make sure you, say, remember to eat. Some of Carol’s family had been there for a while; for a few days it would be just me and a friend of Carol’s who was visiting town, and soon Travis’s mom would come up. I figured my tenure as helper would probably be a low point as far as actual helpfulness went, inasmuch as I’ve never really cared for a baby and don’t know what to do with one besides keep it right-side-up, but as it turned out this seemed to be just fine, because about a month in is when you apparently start reaching a state where words like “routine” and “stable” begin to have meaning again.
I got dropped off just outside Travis and Carol’s house after 11 o’clock at night by the friendly schoolteacher I’d hitched to Missoula with, and I tiptoed inside trying to find the door to the basement. Though they’d given me good directions to it, it was dark and the door was one of several in a confusing cluster of doors and then my huge houseless-person backpack started brushing things off tables and then Travis’s irritable dog Roach woke up and started cussing me out, and suddenly I was off to a wonderful start of not being particularly helpful, as Travis groggily turned me around and directed me downstairs. But all that notwithstanding, we woke up the next morning and started having a great day. I got to meet the baby, to start with. This was how I discovered the difference between brand-new babies and ones who’ve been around a little longer. Bodie still looked incredibly fragile and vulnerable to me. He could mostly hold his head upright now, but he had no idea how to use his limbs yet, and had been devoting a good half-hour once or twice a day to just lying on his back and flailing them around to try to get a handle on how to move them in an organized fashion. He was no Laughing Buddha yet, still agangle with scrawny arms and legs and un-chubby cheeks. And when he cried it came out in a straining tremolo, as if it took all he had to get that noise out. Everything about him seemed to say, This is a being who needs lots of help.
But help is what we had to give him, and while we were doing that we could go and have fun. It was Saturday and the weather had turned up terrific, and Travis and Carol figured it was a good time to go out to the farmers’ market. Travis set some RPG miniatures going in his new 3D printer while Carol supervised Bodie’s morning flail session, and after a while we were ready to walk downtown, with the kid in a little carrier sling switching between Carol and Travis, and me and Carol’s friend helping manage the two dogs. On this walk I discovered that Travis and Carol were still Travis and Carol—to my surprise, and then to my surprise at being surprised about that. Their names hadn’t changed to Mom and Dad, and they were still doing the things they always did, only now they were doing some of them somewhat less, and taking care of Bodie instead. They showed us around the market, and we ate something that involved kimchi, and we got our feet cold in the Clark Fork River. Carol visited her friends at a yoga studio she’d been teaching at before Bodie was born. In a hip little this-and-that shop, Travis found a greeting card with a picture of a gnome riding a cassowary. “There’s something for a D&D campaign. Gnome riding a cassowary. You could build a whole world around that.” Travis freely admits that he spends a lot of time plotting out D&D campaigns (far more time than he actually spends running them). When we got back he showed me the map of the world he’d devised, and explained the history of all the various polities’ alliances and wars. I’d been all set to ask Travis and Carol about how life has changed and what it feels like to be a parent, but I realized the question was answering itself: it’s substantially the same, except now you also do a lot of baby-tending and suddenly there’s another little person in your life who you love vastly.
On Sunday we went out with Bodie on his longest outdoor adventure so far, up to Maclay Flat on the Bitterroot River, where there are trails good for ambling, and the dogs could run around and we could spend some time contentedly thinking about swimming before deciding that’d be nice except that we’re on the shady side of the river and anyhow the water looks kind of cold. Travis and Carol first met while they were both working as whitewater rafting guides, and they’re rarely far from a river. At their wedding they symbolically poured some water from each of their home states into one bowl.1 Bodie will grow up on the water. Who he’ll grow up to be, none of us have the faintest clue, but they can put him on the water, at any rate, and see what happens.
I had, of course, also seen parents before. But my image of them was strongly formed by my experience with my own parents, who I never knew before they were parents. In much the same way I’d never seen a baby just starting to unfurl his spirit into the world, I’d also never really met parents just starting to be parents, nor known someone well both before and after he became a parent. But I’m now at an age when the people all around me are starting to have babies. Over on the Chequamegon, one couple of friends is already pregnant, another pair has just gotten married and told me about trying for one next year, and various other relatively-newly-weds are liable to make announcements. Parenthood has always been, for me, something that belonged to the previous generation, but now at last it’s coming down to my arrestedly developed one, and I find I’m profoundly curious about the whole thing. What’s this process by which regular people turn into dads and moms? For some people it seems to start even before any baby is involved; I know at least one guy here with a pregnant partner who’s going to be a champion at embarrassing his children. But a big part of the secret appears to be that there’s not really a secret, you just keep on being the weirdo you are, only now you’re raising (and hopefully embarrassing) a kid and now people interpret your previously uncategorized weirdness as dad-weird or mom-weird, and the general things you do (and some new things you start doing) as dad-things and mom-things.
I’m not saying or not saying that I’m doing research on the phenomenon of parent-becoming because I think I’ll need to know how to do it myself sometime soon. I’m keeping the answer to that question a secret even from myself. But it is quite the thing—regular-sized people creating tiny little new people who they can then embarrass and learn from—isn’t it? One can begin to understand why such a large percentage of novels and movies and the creative output of humanity deals with it. And here I am, a voyeuristic alien peeking over my friends’ and cousins’2 shoulders for the first time. It’s so much fun.