Tarry Nights, City Lights
One of the major advantages student life has over real life, whatever the hell that is, arrives around May and tapers off circa late August or early September. It’s an annual epoch that most people know from childhood as “summer vacation” for so many years that “summer” and “vacation” become synonymous. Kids don’t understand the meaning of the word “vacation” so much — or, at least, we didn’t in my house, where out-of-state trips were rare, camp was something the church crowd did, and I got to see salt water exactly once, during a road trip to Pensacola, before the age of 13. My parents were self-employed, which translates to “always working,” and most of that just to keep a roof overhead and cereal in the pantry. The summer for us, the vacation, was for departures less outward than inner — for reading books and rotting our brains on Nintendo and firing guns and home-making fireworks and watching gameshows and picking ticks out from the waistband of your briefs after a day in the woods. It wasn’t until God invented the driver’s license that summer took on different shades of freedom, but by then, it was a short hop to the perpetual year, in which vacation was haggled for and wrested from employers who would count the very hours of your life and expect you to explore on your own time. The pity of that approach is that there are more corners of the planet than days in which to see ’em. Imagination needs fuel. For that, you gotta leave the office.
So last summer it was a migration from Arkansas to Vancouver (required road miles: 2,200; road miles driven: 6,400). This summer started with a 1,000-mile drive from Vancouver east to Calgary, then north to Edmonton and Fort McMurray, Alberta, the capital of the tar/oil sands development (above) that’s going to keep North America snuggly in carbon-laden fuel long after we should have been forced to come up with better ideas; then back to Vancouver, to Seattle, by air to Oakland, then to Arkansas, then to New York. There I couch-surfed through a monthlong stint on the Times’ video desk before flying back west for Year 2 of grad school. Between May 1, when my previous Vancouver lease ended, and Sept. 6, when I found a new home, I slept in 20 different beds and paid six weeks’ worth of rent. It wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t know generous, beautiful people scattered across the continent.
The clips that came out of this gallivanting were, per usual, unpredictable. Here’s an example of the sort of thing I was helping with at the Times. In the leadup to the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, I assisted the videographer Dave Frank through five shoots of various artists who responded to 9/11 in some fashion. I was responsible for the rough cut of three of those pieces, and after further edits these two emerged most like the draft I put down:
And then there was this piece, for Grantland, about the Calgary Stampede, an event I frankly doubted I’d ever get to attend (too far north) but which, to my humble shock, was actually on my way back to Vancouver (hot damn, straight south!) from the hinterlands of upper Alberta. The final piece came out shorter than I sent it, and one scene in particular I was sorry to lose, because it felt so Stampedey to me. My friends Calyn and Dan and I were knocking back beers in a ginormous tent/venue called Nashville North on the Stampede grounds, mostly feeling three-dude awkward in the midst of this rompin’, stompin’, pearl-snappy country party going on around us. It was too loud to make casual conversation, and none of us were carrying any inclination to have a yell-session with strangers. So we were mostly just schlubbing it, ruminating on how funny it was that all the professional rodeo cowboys we’d interviewed were humble, while all the cowboy hangers-on and hangers-out were nothing more than douchebags from smaller towns, guys clearly as obsessed with image and status as any urban twerp, but with chips on their shoulders to boot.
Actually we were trying to come up with another setting in which a major North American city (population of metro Calgary: 1.3 million, just shy of actual Nashville) turns itself over to cowboy culture for an entire week. Everyone in jeans. Everyone in boots. Everyone in wide-brimmed hats. It works out to a rather large tribute to all things country. That’s when Dan noticed a girl dancing beside us. She was wearing a feather on one earring and a patterned sun dress, and was mouthing the lyrics to the Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” (which at that moment was drowning out much hope of conversation) while letting her hands surf above her head. He asked her, sort of redundantly, “Do you like this song?”
Then a guy standing beside her stepped up to us and got snitty. “Do you think any of these three guys can saddle a horse?” he asked the girl and her friends, yelling. We were struck dumb. He was a wiry, sharp-faced young man in a red western shirt, with chin whiskers and cluttered teeth both a shade of dirty blond. He had pegged us, not unfairly, as city mice. He jabbed a finger toward at each of us in turn. “Can you?” he asked me, and didn’t wait for an answer. “Can you? Can you?” He spun, herded his lady friends ahead, and barked to us, with no hint of apology, “Sorry.”
We stood and looked at one another. I was more amused than anything — we had just been talking about these very poseurs! — but Calyn was sore: “I’ve saddled a horse. I should have put him in his place.” Out of sheer surprise or maybe a bit of stoic cowboy code, we lived out our indignity in silence. Blake Shelton’s “Kiss My Country Ass” came on, and the whole place sang along: “You can find me in my camouflage hat / My T-shirt an' cowboy boots / If that don't fit your social class / You can kiss my country ass.” We hung around, finished our beers, and gathered ourselves to head to the train. Outside, rain fell on a Tender Beef stand. I took this crappy picture of it because, well, sometimes you know this is where a story will take a breath, or maybe come to rest altogether.