The Trip Home
[Brandt Morgan (who you all know from the Tracker Association
and previous articles) wrote this letter to us after a visit to the Tracker
Farm. We thought you would enjoy reading it. Brandt is also the
co-author of Tom's new survival series of handbooks by Berkley Books. The
first in the series "Wilderness Survival Skills" will be out in the
Dear Tom, Judy, Frank, Karen, Craig, Eric, Lauri, Joe, Paul,
Tommy, dogs, cats, horses, owls, woodchucks, opossums (road kills included,
rest their souls), weasels, deer, ants, turtles, ticks, blackbirds, and other
assorted wildlife in the vicinity of Tom Brown's maniacal menagerie,
This letter's been hanging around for quite a while, done but
not quite finished. So now, two weeks out of date, I send it on its way.
As I say, it was a real jolt to drop down into Seattle and take
up life where I left off (with some notable exceptions which I won't
discuss). To fill you in on the mundane history of my homeward expedition,
I got bumped from the first flight and managed to get book for a continental
cruise out of Kennedy at 6:30 p.m. It was a sure thing, they said -- seat
and all. So I hopped a shuttle to Kennedy. The bus threaded its way
through Sunday beach traffic, passing bums and picnickers lazily clinging to
kitestrings in the afternoon sun. Ever so gradually it circled around the
towers of New York City, offering whiffs of salt air from the Atlantic as it
homed in on the world's greatest skystation. From quite a distance I could
see the steel cigars nosing their way into the sky, hot on each other's
tails. But the Pine Barrens are slim pickings in some ways. Right,
Joe? Ha! Ha!
It took almost two hours to reach the airport, but soon enough I
was sealed into one of those cigars myself, staring out the window toward a
squadron of no less than nine jet aircraft of varying sizes (from Lears to
DC-10s) all lined up for takeoff. A whole family of steel-winged monsters
shimmering in the sun. Ours was one of the big birds, and it left the
ground more reluctantly than I had hoped, inspiring silent incantations to the
Great Spirit. Then, on the fringe of the Atlantic, it did a series of
spectacular 360s around the Big Apple, corkscrewed up to 39,000 feet, and
leveled off for the long haul.
God, what a flight! Feeling no less fortunate than a space
traveler, I glued my eyes to the window for the better part of five and a half
hours. I interrupted my personal survey of the Earth Mother's complexion
only for quick gulps of coffee, mouthfuls of veal and chocolate cake, glimpses
of the more exciting scenes from "Chariots of Fire", periodic journal
writing, and occasional exclamations to my fellow passenger. He was a
red-bearded medical researcher who had done some landmark work on the
physiological effects of placebos and written a 500-word article on it for Psychology
Today, for which he'd been paid a dollar a word.
"Easiest money I ever made", he said.
"After that, I got to thinking I might be in the wrong
business." I reassured him it was only a fluke. I also asked
for a quick synopsis of his findings and he said that placebos have a measurably
positive effect on pain reduction. Stress, pain, and the
belief that the medicine will work combine to make the body produce a substance
that acts like morphine.
But all this is beside the point. Outside
was a kaleidoscope of water, clouds, earthscapes, colors, and reflections that
somehow made the eight-mile-high action on the movie screen seem
ludicrous. Here are a few paltry descriptions of the visual treats.
I inhaled along with my veal and pepsi:
"Cruising at 39,000 feet, northwest of
Duluth, Minnesota -- about halfway home in this airy, globe-encircling envelope.
We're chasing the day and losing the race ... A huge thunderhead
below, mushrooming like a hydrogen bomb, cascading outward like a raging
avalanche ... We push our way through a pink-stained sky above a landscape of
checkerboard green. Beautiful, deep, groaning greens. I'd always thought
of North Dakota as a parched land ... Ah, the Missouri River -- there's the
"Seems like I can't take a plane flight without imagining
what it would be like to spread my wings and float down to Mother Earth from
such heights. What an inspiring last leap that would be -- so carefree as
one dropped through the clouds. (Well, up to a point, anyway.) The clouds, those
milky puffballs, are floating with my thoughts. Thoughts of this sphere sailing
so gaily through outer space; thoughts of how precious life really is,
and how it ought to be savored like tea and incense beside a rich
"Gary stayed over at Tom's farm for a couple of days.
Said it was the weather. Can't help but think it was partly his reluctance to
release the spirit of the Pine Barrens. I see him hunched by the fire, a bulky
figure wrapped in wool, alone, savoring the warmth of the coals in front of the
barn. I see him on his motorcycle, too, burning up the road to Colorado, feeling
the wind in his face, living with no tomorrow ...
"Now the clouds are like waves. Great undulating rollers
on an ocean of cotton. And beneath them the green folds of the Montana Rocky
Foothills. Rivulets thread their way through the mountains in almost explosive
patterns. The earth's circulatory system finally seen from afar by a displaced
corpuscle. Reminds me of Bill Foster, the old mathematician I met ten years ago
on the Crest Trail, talking about getting to know the country through its veins
"Sun glints off the leading edge of the wing. That
wonderful plate of steel and rivets that holds us aloft actually fills up more
than half the view. The sun shines like a red fluorescent ball. It seems to be
hanging there waiting for us, goading us on, enjoying the chase. Gray-brown
flatlands show up now through a thick haze that makes the earth nearly
featureless as pressurized passengers (many of them wired with plastic
earphones) belt drinks and "Chariots of Fire".
"Snake River Canyon, a crack in dried mud.. The Idaho
Rockies -- deep bowls spiraled with snow. Glacier-carved cirques and horns,
knife-edged ridges sweeping northward to Canada ...
"Roll on, mighty Columbia, roll on! Darkness descends as
the river snakes north. Now the Cascade billows begin, roiling up in huge gray
clumps. Cumulous mushroomheads salute the last of the day with blasts of pink
and red. I look out to see varied strata. Wide, deep blue of space, fiery
horizon, cloud mantle, cold steel, mist mountains. Playgrounds of the gods. And
there, to verify the thought, is a fun-loving squadron of cumulo-fantastic
shroom-shaped Columbia peppercorns bouncing and scudding across the sky ...
"Wild Cascade country. The descent begins. Jagged
mountains, deep chasms, swirls of ice and snow, memory-packed rilles and
valleys, steaming cauldrons of beauty and power. This is the rumbling home of
the avalanche lily. There's Mount Baker off in the distance. In my mind's eye I
can see the Coleman Glacier licking its flank like a great tongue with hide as
tough as elephant skin. And there's ice cream cone Rainier, glinting ghostly
from porthole to porthole until the plane drops back into the soggy sponge of
Puget Sound country and finally comes to rest among the twinkling lights of
Well, that is a taste of the journey, but there were other
aspects, too. For instance, throughout the flight I frequently pestered my
fellow passenger, the doctor, who for some reason kept closing his eyes.
("Look at that! My God, do you see that CLOUD? Christ, it looks like a
hydrogen bomb blast! ... Hey, sorry to wake you but I thought you might want to
see the Missouri River -- it's glinting in the sun down there ... Jeeesus, those
are the BADLANDS down there .. (yawn!) ... OK, I'll let you know when we get to
Montana... .. Hey, you're gonna FREAK when you see the Cascades in the sunset.
You're from California, you've never seen anything like this. You won't believe
Normally, I wouldn't have been quite so obnoxious. But, you
see, something got into me in New Jersey. It's hard to trace it back. It might
have been when I bumped my head on the roof of the Land Cruiser as it leaped
into mid-air along the road to Good Medicine Waters. It might have been in Good
Medicine Waters itself, where a measure of contentment and self-control were
swept away with the current. Then again, it might have been the effect of being
buried to the nostrils in warm muck and wondering whether skin can sprout green
orchid tubes, or burst into golden boils.
On the other hand, it might have been on the farm, where any
number of events could have triggered a temporary insanity. The pre-dawn flutter
of swallows searching for a way out of the loft. Turquoise-bodied dragon-copters
raking insects from the sky. Spinning around under the
stars, tethered to the wings of an owl. Thrashing dumbly through the oats with
Dexter in quest of deer. Gallumphing in the fields with Tommy and the frogs. The
jeep-light sight of a grown man hunched bare-assed in the middle of a raging
river, yelling, "I GOTTA FEEL THE POWER!". A sinewy roof repairman
climbing a mountain of hot slate toward a pair of airborne hawks. The arousing
hugs of shapely women (notice I didn't say what kind of shape -- Ha! Ha!). The
mountains of food consumed. The replusively hairy, ratlike feet of a crippled,
hunchback hypochondriac. The insane rantings of Tom Brown, Jr. about the
importance of keeping an eye peeled for rabbits and raccoons while gulping a
burger with fries and concentrating on blonde hair and hindsight.
Yes, my friends, these things can have an effect on the mind.
I left none too soon, I suspect, to readjust to my natural habitat, for Seattle
has not seemed quite the same since my little sojourn. Far too tame. Far too
civilized. Far too nice and proper for my liking. What I need now is to hear the
screech of barn owls, the declarations of frightened frogs, the squeal of
subterranean whistle pigs, or just one calm, rational voice saying, "Let's
WILDNESS, my friends, that is what is missing here. Wildness,
rape, red headbands, mystic warriors, hopeless dreamers. But don't worry.
Somewhere, somehow, I'll manage to get enough ... until we