I’m flirting with Hemingway. He sits, perched on my aged-oak desk at the Carnegie Library in Wallace, Idaho. Before you imagine a leather classic of “The Old Man and the Sea” propped beside my laptop and charging phone, let me tell you, he’s real, and alive.
Hemingway is old; 73 by his own account. He wears a silver-belly Stetson stained from years of use with a general’s star and a Judaic artifact pinned to its crown. Random tourists on the streets offer to buy it. He won’t sell. You might say he’s leathered with tan skin deeply wrinkled and blue eyes hidden by aviator sunglasses. He wears typical modern cowboy garb – denim shirt, straight-legged denim jeans and black pointed-toe boots.
It’s a cold and rainy July day and his brown down vest is zipped. It has a few holes and as he talks, random feathers float between us on the breath of our conversation.
Hemingway tells me he’s been working on his book for 50 years. He’s studied the classics and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) is among his favorite authors, as is Charles Dickinson and Ernest Hemingway. Decades ago, when it struck him to be a writer, he wanted to live the most outlandish life he could, experiencing first-hand wild places and life at its fullest. He’s been a soldier in ‘Nam, a miner, a cowboy, a long-haul trucker. He’s lived in Alaska and the sage country of southern Idaho. The Silver Valley called to him and he’s lived nearby in a mining town for many years.
I’ve heard that calling.
When our property managers gave us the boot from our rental because the owners felt the house would sell better empty, I protested loudly. I wailed loudly, too as the inevitable happened and our eviction day dawned. We bought a leaky trailer and bounced from squatting in our former driveway to hosting an airbnb property to accepting the charity of Lake RV who let us stay three nights for free. After the RV place inspected our leaking roof and advised us on how to fix it, we sought free camping in the national forest where we could hole up, repair and I could write.
Hemingway would say this is how a writer lives – in the thick of life’s experiences, not avoiding them.
And this is how I’m meeting real people with real stories. It’s interesting how the most generous in society are those who consciously choose to be empathetic or understand hard times from experience. Those who strive for security or feel entitled to something more than most live in fear of losing, thus are always winning, as if life were a game. But this is not the game of life. This is living. Something Hemingway understood and distilled into stark stories or real people. The author Hemingway, that is. My Hemingway is yet unpublished; an undiscovered American classic.
Here in the thick of my own life circumstances I’m surrounded by forest, birds, mines and stories. I’ve traded the barn cat of home for an aloof ginger who soaks up sun on the steps of the Snake Pit. I’m looking for the familiar among all that is new to me. I’m a story-catcher and I’m drawn to seeking stories about my new camp-home. On Monday I came to town to find internet and found all wi-fi places shut down for the 4th of July. Instead Todd and I cruised about Wallace as tourists, taking a trolley ride and going into a hard-rock tunnel to tour a silver mine with real miners. And I couldn’t resist buying a book on oral histories about the very river where we are camped.
In that book, I found Neva’s cherries. Actually Todd discovered her cherry trees. I found the story of the woman who canned the fruit when she lived in a summer shack where our trailer is parked. Neva described herself as an “old maid” in the 1920s. From Ohio she answered a pen pal post in a magazine and came to Idaho to meet and marry her husband. He worked on a narrow gauge logging train for the Forest Service and they lived in Enaville where the Snake Pit cat now resides. During the summer, Neva moved to a shack along the North Fork of the Coeur D’Alene River at the Forest Service camp known as Carters Station. Today, it is a primitive campground, but if you look closely you can see the old foundations of the station and surviving cherry trees.
To a story-catcher, knowing the name of the woman who picked these same cherries is an anchor. Meeting Hemingway in the library and giving in to flirting over shared literary ideas and writing dreams is another.
Hemingway goes outside to smoke unfiltered cigarettes and invites me to coffee if I want to follow. I can do what I came to Wallace to do – catch up on my writing duties or play hooky and explain my absence tomorrow. I could write about cats and cherries as I planned or go outside and find out what it is Hemingway is shy to ask me. I decide to live a little and leave my computer.
Outside, Hemingway tells me about his mother and that I’ve given him an insight he’s searched for all these years. It was a casual mention. How was I to know to his mother and I shared a commonality? But this is true of conversation and the relationship between story-teller and listener; writer and reader. We each make our own discoveries between the words and pages. In the time it takes me to go outside, Hemingway has penned a short story in his notebook and reads it to me. He tells me he wants to be a part of the writers in the Silver Valley, the ones called to be here.
At this point, he doesn’t know I’m a writer, too or that I’ve experienced this calling from Wallace. He just knows I’m a siphon, as he calls me, telling me I would make a good therapist. He says he needs someone to hold his hand to connect him to humans, writing humans. He wants this, but is too shy on his own. He’s confident in his decades of writing, but lacks the human connectivity. Cowboys rarely humble themselves like this, but I understand his sincerity yet vulnerability to connect. I’m thinking to myself, how is it that he’s asking for a personalized version of Carrot Ranch when he has no idea that I’m anything beyond a good listener?
That’s when I give him my card and talk about the group of writers who hang at the ranch. He says, “Oh, I’m just another dime a dozen writer to you…”
“No you’re not,” I say. He’s Hemingway. The stories he told me are incredible. But they are his to tell; his to write. I’ll share my experience but not his stories. They are yet his.
No writer is just a dime a dozen. Many of us have the calling upon us. Some spin stories; others catch them in flung nets to history or diners. We all have our reasons for being here. What’s important is that we show up to what inspires us; that we show up to the page.
It’s now pitch black and my camp is frigid. A large bonfire snaps with pockets of pitch exploding and hot embers burn orange. My laptop screen blazes bright as I peck at keys in the dark of night surrounded by forest and cherry trees and the ghosts of those who lived here in shacks before I arrived in my trailer. It’s a seasonal place and I’m tuning in to that seasonality. And I’m late in my response, but couldn’t resist flirting with Hemingway at the library.
And now, I’m going to put out a prompt I swore I never would because of what unicorns and rainbows once wrought! But I must pause to say that the weekly responses since that early prompt continue to amaze and inspire me. Writers can be shy creatures, unsure as the hummingbird that wants the nectar but hesitates when others are around. I don’t think I hold anyone’s hand at Carrot Ranch, but I hope I offer a hand up or a helping hand among the many who offer it in return. Writing might be a solitary act, but it is connectivity that results. May you live in such a way that you honor your literary art, let it breathe and live.
July 6, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a cat. It can be a cute and adorable kitten or it can be mean old tom that swipes a claw at unsuspecting humans. Cats are prevalent in the mining country – mousers and companions. Some survive in luxury with cushions in a sunny window, while others fend off coyotes. What cat comes to mind and how does it spark a story?
Respond by July 12, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Seeking a Living History Book by Charli Mills (from Miracle of Ducks)
Danni left Ike fishing at the steel bridge eddy. She doubted he’d catch trout with weekend river revelers invading. Turning on to a rutted two-track, she popped the clutch into 4WD. Hardly anyone climbed this old mountain road except loggers or prospectors. In the 1930s it was an old train track. If Danni was to connect the writings of the old journal to a definitive place, she needed an old story-teller willing to divulge tales. Atop the mountain she found his cabin and cats. He rocked on the porch smoking a pipe as if he’d been waiting for her.
Mr. Boots and the First Ride by Charli Mills (from Rock Creek)
“There you are Mr. Boots!” Sarah set down a tin of milk and watched the black and white cat lap the liquid.
“Rider!” someone shouted, and Sarah paused to watch the hustle. A handler readied a fresh horse, double-checking the cinch. Cooks to carpenters stood outside cheering the rising dust from the east. First ride of the mail ponies and Rock Creek was officially a stop. Cobb sat on his mule toasting everyone with corn liquor. He was officially a Pony Express Station Manager.
“So important,” Sarah grumbled to the cat that remained the only creature unimpressed by change.