Head Shake – Bad Azimuth
Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.
-W. B. Yeats, Easter, 1916
Reading the headlines, I see they empaneled another grand jury several weeks back. Man, that is some large caliber shit isn’t it? Billionaires, grand juries, Russians, huh, wild. Hope it was all worth it.
And now there’s three dead in Charlottesville.
I’m thinking about a cabin outside Grant, Colorado, up some creek and a dirt drive that wanders up some nameless mountain out there. Place had an old cook stove in it, big ass woodstove that did double duty as an oven and range, big fucker. And I woke to an old WWII/Korea-era Marine in his tighty whities standing at it pre-dawn with a cast iron skillet the size of Delaware frying up some eggs and elk sausage; Willie cooking breakfast for a half dozen guys.
Willie could probably do a lot of things well, hunt elk and ride were definitely two of them, pretty good cook too judging by the two steaks-a-piece he served up for everyone the night before, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Given his bearing I suspect he was pretty good at killing Japanese, North Koreans or Chi-Com infantry once upon a time as well, maybe all three if the USMC had requested his presence on both occasions. He was old man strong with a great, read: dry, sense of humor, and rode like a guy half his age.
That old cabin was on that creek, in an area named after some biblical thing, Preacher Gulch, I think it was. Anyway, so named as the story goes because it was once a small mining town they had sent a preacher up to aiming to tame the whores and ne’er-do-wells. The legend goes the preacher stayed and moved in with the whores, the name stuck.
The place was heaven, it had an out building that sported a big beam that extended from the peak of the roof, Willie hung his elk from it. Everything had a purpose, everything made sense. The Rockies, well, what can you say, just beautiful.
What more could anybody want? That country, the solitude, beauty, the mountain air, what there is of it, the sky, get bored? Go to Denver.
We were supposed to spend the day riding quads. I had never really given any thought to quads, I had never had to. The extent of my quad experience was spent riding through the paddock to check on starting grids or lap times, maybe pick up some fresh rubber. I’d never spent a day aboard one much less a day routinely above 10,000 feet. I didn’t really know what to expect, I know what I didn’t expect though. I did not expect an ancient Jarhead glued to my rear grab handle for the duration like he was Cale Yarborough at Darlington.
If you’ve never had an old Jarhead who fries up breakfast in his tighty whities in a cast iron skillet the size of Delaware dogging your ass all day long on a quad from well above the treeline at cirrostratus altitude to every valley below, you really should make plans to do so. We few, we happy few, we band of egg and sausage stuffed quad riders, rode all day long and Willie was glued to me like my shadow. He was having fun. For backcountry accessibility in a tread-lightly kind of way, it is hard to beat a quad, it was access to the clouds and beyond.
By the end of the day knowing we were descending towards home, I could smell the barn, I was determined to shake the old man. Down the creek bed I slalomed, a veritable Franz Klammer parallel skiing the rounded stones, throttle pinned, skipping over the rocks. The harder I pushed, the more he stuck to me, towards the end I could hear him laughing back there. He was having a ball, all I could do was shake my head and chuckle. Never underestimate old, experienced, and tough.
Willie was the 20th century, a generation that won our wars or at least fought to a draw, ate two steaks for dinner, and sometimes went grocery shopping for fun with a rifle in mountains that have wildlife that can and will eat you occasionally. You can shoot the wrong azimuth from the top of one of these peaks 12,000 feet up and end up at the bottom miles from where you intended.
Enter the 21st Century, a population that has doubled since I was born, and ATVs and dirt bikes are just as likely to be illegally traversing the nation’s capital beltway as public lands in the nation’s forests and parks. In the day and age of YouTube and SnapChat, the look-at-me antics of riding against traffic on an I-495 off ramp beats the Jack Pines Enduro for instant celebrity. The rise of social media and cellular communications has enabled hooliganism en masse, and Go-Pros and handheld devices record it for instant YouTube stardom.
With the corresponding increase in lawless buffoonery on the nation capital’s asphalt, we have seen a corresponding increase in shop burglaries and bike thefts in the region, the better to have dirtbikes and ATVs to cavort about on illegally.
I used to ride away from DC to escape, and now some are riding to it and through it to confront. In the age of grievance politics, why wouldn’t grievance displays of moto-anarchy follow? Fight the Man – on a KX 250! In an age where all manner of behavior is egged on by an echo chamber media for the self-righteously aggrieved, where political parties knock themselves out pandering to the indignant with the most cynical forms of identity politics, why wouldn’t the victimized feel empowered to ignore all social conventions and laws?
Micro-aggressions, trigger words, safe zones used to exclude as well as protect? White racial resentment, black racial resentment, cultural expropriation, gender politics: Screw that noise, let’s go roost the BW Parkway! And that is precisely what is going on. When the nation’s leaders act like middle-school children, when there is no respect or accountability for the law or social mores at the highest levels, why wouldn’t the nation’s citizens follow their lead? If one of the first rules of leadership is to lead by example, what sort of examples are being set here?
Somebody, somewhere, has shot the wrong azimuth, we missed our rally point.
Which brings me back to Willie and the generation that emerged from the Great Depression, fought and toppled not one but three totalitarian regimes who had murdered millions, and then stuck around to usher out a fourth, the USSR, the last remaining blight on the world from that dark time that had murdered millions more.
There was a moral clarity to Willie’s time, the bad guys wore black hats and we knew how to defeat them. Great progress was made in that century, albeit with a high price at times: the Civil Rights Act of ’64, the Voting Rights Act of ’65, the victory of the suffrage movement, Brown v. Board, the end of segregation, the peaceful cessation of the Cold War. There was much work left to do – there always was, America was always an ongoing experiment pursuing an unrealized ideal, not a finished project – but there was an optimism it could and would be done.
When I met Willie, there was no alt-right, no neo-Nazis or KKK in any meaningful sense, no Black Lives Matter, no Anti-Fa, and no Vladimir Putin; he would replace Yeltsin only a year later as acting president when Boris took a powder. The country had yet to experience a presidential campaign with both candidates under FBI investigation in the run up to election day.
There were bigots, violent racists, and radicals of all stripes – domestic and transnational – of course, but they were where they always had been, on the fringes, not on the front pages. Now that has all changed. And now it would seem some believe their grievances and a t-shirt logo validates the killing of five Dallas cops, or running down citizens exercising their constitutional rights to peacefully assemble, or shooting at elected representatives on a ball field.
I’m thinking about a cabin outside Grant, Colorado, up some creek and dirt drive that wanders up some nameless mountain out there. Place had an old cook stove in it, big ass woodstove that did double duty as an oven and range, big fucker. And an old WWII/Korea era Marine in his tighty whities standing at it pre-dawn with a cast iron skillet the size of Delaware frying up some eggs and elk sausage. Everything had a purpose, everything made sense. The kind of place where you’d best shoot a good azimuth from the top or you’ll get lost.
…and I’m missing it.
Ride hard, look where you want go, and keep your eyes down the track.