Thursday, August 23, 2018

"Hitchhiker" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

"Crooked River Gorge" Watercolor & Ink on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
Lowell Jaeger

No snapshot of this exists except
for the shutter of memory’s random
flash impressions. So much else
went by unrecorded, almost as if
it never happened. Or — if it did —
my eyes were closed and the light shut out.

But that dawn woke with my bones
half frozen — frost on the prickly pear,
the sky pooled ice-blue, 
and snowcapped distant peaks ablaze
in the early sun’s glare.  Three days
from home, and no one had warned me

how high-country desert nights turned
arctic, how each star looked down
with a barren stare. How I’d shiver
fitfully with hard-scrabble exhaustion
where I’d been dropped at a back-country
exit to rolling expanses of open range.  How I’d rise

through misery and dance like a madman
to flush my chilled limbs with fresh 
blood.  How I’d laugh and fling my useless
summer-camp sleeping bag to its final
demise in a forgotten ravine.  Then
shoulder my rucksack and step toward

the highway, inhaling the moment,
dizzied, a-tingle, awed by the earth at my feet,
thrilled to be my body walking, waking
amidst pungent sage, letting the sun’s new rays
seep in; absolutely certain I’d carry with me
the joy of this and someday write it down.

Poet’s Notes:  Somewhere along the way, or maybe straight out of the womb, I’ve been anointed with fairy dust.  Somedays I’m amazed to look back at my earlier life and I’ve no clear explanation of how or why I’m still here.  

I once awoke in the sage desert of eastern Oregon, having blindly thrown my sleeping bag on the ground only a few short steps from the edge of The Crooked River Gorge. An awesome crevasse in the earth, and – since I’d stumbled my way from the highway in darkness – I didn’t even know it was there.  Three paces short of an early exit to the ever-after, and I didn’t even know it was waiting.  Yet, when I opened my eyes that morning, I was flooded with awe and joy. 

Near Oslo, Norway, I once looked a Mack truck in the headlights headed smack toward my young innocent face in the passenger seat of a Volvo stopped in the wrong lane at a railroad crossing.  I could see the truck driver’s panic as he braked and downshifted.  I sat immovable as stone, though not because I’m brave. I just knew I’d walk away unscathed.  That sounds foolish, even as I write this.  I apologize to the gods for that.  I’ve been lucky.  I’ve been blessed.  I’ve been dusted with magic. 

Literature is full of “coming of age” stories.  Folktales offer abundant accounts of the “hero’s journey” in which the young man or woman leaves home and transforms internally after facing external challenges.  All of us, of course, have completed journeys of our own, though so many of us are unaware. Poets, on the other hand, live mythically, always composing the story to tell – the story of our lives -- even before we find the ending ourselves. Sure, we bend the facts, embellish the highs and lows, shape the plot to suit the audience and to please ourselves. I was born to do this work and I relish telling tales.

When I began scribbling in my notebook the first draft of the poem “Hitchhiker,” I had no idea I’d write . . .” waking/ amidst pungent sage, letting the sun’s new rays/ seep in; absolutely certain I’d carry with me/ the joy of this and someday write it down.” The poem took me there to remind me I’d tumbled to earth from a falling ball of flame.  Those lines opened my eyes like awakening in the early glare of the day-star and the menacing splendor of The Crooked River Gorge. 

Editor’s Note:  “Hitchhiker” was previously published in Or Maybe I Drift Off Alone, and Verse Virtual.

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