In the mid 1980s I traveled to Oregon to research the Paiute tribe for a play I was writing. The play, Honeymoon Near Lava Lands, was later produced by the Sacramento Theatre Company. This poem details experiences from that research trip. I publish it again today in anticipation of Earth Day next week and reading I’m doing at Grass Valley’s Sierra College campus.
Some things I remember:
straight black braid
hues of purple
straight as his backbone
he sat in his swivel chair
eyes carving into mine
discerning my truth
“Will you help me?” I ask.
His eyebrows raise, nose narrows as
he scans my white man map.
“These lines means nothing,” and he looks away.
I follow his eyes to the tokens on his wall,
notice the diploma: “Wilson Wewa: Harvard University.”
“What’s the Pauite word for water?” I ask,
whisking out my reporter’s pad.
“No notes.” That flat, ungiving look again.
“Take only what you can remember.”
With no map and notepad I am naked, spindly.
He sits silent, immense,
black eyes swerve toward no apology.
“Pa-nin” he says in a flat voice.
And I repeat, “Pa-nin–running water.”
Learning a new language in a land of no control.
I’m glad to be the passenger as we journey back to camp.
Sepia blunt cliffs.
Look down a canyon to the river a mile below.
Looking still, blue, a trickle.
I hear Wewa’s remembrance in the canyon’s echo:
“On horseback with my grandfather,
we hunted antelope on the bluffs.”
I see them in shadows, this country their world,
guns raised as the bow once was
rifleshot piercing a silence they understood.
Now our car winds the pavement toward camp.
Fences scar the landscape, markers of a land
once thought not taken, like sky or air.
We pull into Big Bend Camp Ground
(on the Deschutes River)
snake around to our campsite
the most remote on the riverbank
where we’ve spent a week.
In front of our narrow drive lurks a silver R.V.
Twenty feet long–Silent hulk.
The entrance of our campsite blocked
we skirt the road, roll our small car onto the grass.
A man steps from the rig.
“Didn’t think you’d mind. This is the best campsite.
Your tent’s so far down the hill.”
I look around at the empty campsites he might have chosen,
and at our tent, thirty feet away.
The R.V. sits ten feet from our picnic table,
impossible to miss.
“Took me twenty minutes to level my rig.
Sure hope we don’t have to move.”
I feel the blood rise thick in my neck.
I scan him from balding gray to cowboy boots.
My husband takes me aside. “It’s our last night. He’s old.
Let him stay.” I am too angry to speak.
I nod against my will.
He tells the old man,
who returns to his silver world.
We do not see him again.
I cook facing the river, back to the silver rig,
feeling it choke me.
My food tastes like bile.
My dreams are full of fences.
By morning I cannot speak,
cannot share the language of
the man from the R.V.
Heading south through Oregon
I still see Wewa’s hair flying as
he cantors his horse,
rifle hanging from one arm,
spine agile on the bare back.
I have no language to tell him
that I am the man
in cowboy boots.
I am the man