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That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic

Wild Rides and Wildflowers: Philosophy and Botany without Bikes during a Plague

In March of 2014, Torrey House published a collection of essays, correspondence, and unforgettable repartee by Scott Abbott and Sam Rushforth in Wild Rides & Wildflowers: Philosophy and Botany with Bikes, an exploration of their personal, professional, and faith crises and deep connection to each other as carved into the mountain-bike tracks of a beloved Western landscape. Some years on, the two are not riding the trails anymore, and amid pandemic they are even more physically separated as so many are while folks stay home to protect the vulnerable. But their intellectual and emotional bond is as profound as ever. Enjoy this ride from Scott Abbott in today’s That Thing With Feathers.

28 March 2020

Woodland Hills, Utah

Mornin’ Sam.

I know you’re feeling low, pain meds fuzzing up your mind, but I’ve got some thoughts this morning that feel like they should be part of our long conversation. No need to answer. You said on the phone that the docs have diagnosed your increasing back pain as a result of arachnoiditis. I looked up the spidery word and it says that damage to the arachnoid membrane causes swelling that causes the nerves in the spine to stick together, messing with nerve function and causing intense pain. Holy shit Sam! I’d drive over to give you a hug and tell you some off-color jokes but will have to rely on Nancy to pass on the hug and I can tell you the jokes by phone. I learned last night that the word “quarantine” is biblical: the proverbial forty days of lent and wandering in the wilderness and the flood. In that context, I would fast and pray for you, but I’m currently aiming those activities at the White House. If the virus struck down a couple of bumbling clowns, Nancy Pelosi could be our president. It complicates things a bit that I’m an atheist. But I’m doing the best with what I have.

From my perch a thousand feet above Utah Valley I can see your house at the mouth of Provo Canyon. Well, I can see the mouth of the canyon and I could see your house if I had a good telescope. Twenty-five miles separate us from south to north. We rode mountain bikes and conversed and cursed and found natural inspiration almost daily in Provo Canyon over the last decade of the millennium. Twenty-one years ago we started writing our “Wild Rides and Wildflowers: Biking and Botanizing The Great Western Trail” column for the Salt Lake Observer and Catalyst Magazine. Our riding ended with you and your bike collapsed at the bottom of a deep drop, your face shattered, months and years of operations ahead. We kept our conversation alive by putting together a manuscript for Torrey House Press, finally published in 2014. The way sales of the book are going, we’ll pay off the $500 advance Kirsten and Mark gave us for the book in another five or ten years.

“At home, soaking muscles and bones in a hot bath, I recalled our many trips up and down central-Utah mountains, Sam, climbs and descents far from civilization that healed and fortified us as they forged a friendship.”

A couple of weeks ago my sons Tim and Ben convinced me to strap on my old backcountry skis for the first time in ages. Remember how those new skis (“She Mates, She Kills” next to the threatening red hourglass of a black widow—arachnids abound this morning!) tickled our adolescent fancies? Tim bent one of them as we skinned up, marveling at the stiffness so different from today’s backcountry designs. From the Aspen Grove parking lot we skied up the mountain to the north, snow falling and clouds obscuring the views, two fit young men followed by their old man. After a couple of hours I suggested that maybe that was enough. We peeled off our skins, Tim assembled his two boards into a single snowboard, and he and Ben pushed off the edge of the steep slope, turning effortless arcs that left me gasping (and proud as hell). They waited while I demonstrated my lack of confidence and loss of muscle memory in cautious zigzags. We looked down at a stand of aspens and Tim said: “I’ll always remember the two credos at the beginning of your and Sam’s book. Keep both skis on the same side of the tree and . . . and, what was the other one?”

“Keep your ass back on your mountain bike,” I reminded him while Ben mocked the lapse.

“Yeah yeah,” Tim said, and then carved sweet curves through the aspens on his board, swiftly intersected by Ben’s elegant telemark turns. I skied down slowly enough that the one time my skis ended up on either side of a sapling I hurt nothing but my pride.

At home, soaking muscles and bones in a hot bath, I recalled our many trips up and down central-Utah mountains, Sam, climbs and descents far from civilization that healed and fortified us as they forged a friendship.

Now the bad news. When the Park City resorts were closed because of the corona virus a week after our ski trip, Tim lost his job at a snowboard shop. Tom is left to blow his horns at home in Brooklyn with all the bars and jazz clubs closed in New York City. Maren lost her job as a teacher’s aide when the schools closed in Utah County. We’re old men, Sam, and can no longer afford the falls and crashes we sustained on our skis and bikes. Nor will we do well with virus-induced oxygen loss. How the hell will we get through this? More importantly, how the hell will our families get through this?

P.S. The first spring beauties just blossomed. What delicate little pink beauties!

3 April 2020

Woodland Hills

Hey Sam,

More good tidings up here on the mountainside this morning: the first Wasatch bluebells and the first glacier lily of the spring.

Just in time, Sam, just in time to remind me that the rhythms of Nature continue. As you know, it’s easy for me to forget that. I’m in my study this morning reading papers my students have sent by email, missing the face-to-face interactions that make teaching so rewarding. With my conscious mind focused somewhat intermittently on the essays, my subconscious mind, as it always does when I’m feeling anxious, scrambles for what feels like meaningful structure in numbers. Normally, box scores from yesterday’s basketball games do the trick, or I can check baseball stat sheets for ERA and batting average and home run totals. But zero is the only number available for sports during the shutdown. I’m not driving to work so I can’t count license plates from other states. So this morning I count the essays I’ve graded (23 of 60, 27 of 60 —it’s going to take all day) and beside me my iPad traces the movement of the stock market (the DOW sliding down from its early high of 21,406.86 to 21,110.30 then up to 21,187.20 then down to . . .)—you get the picture Sam. I find idiotic refuge in the polar opposite of meditation.

Because I know that is only an escape mechanism, I look for (or listen for) more meaningful structure in a 1964 Cornell University concert by the Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy. Right now, early in the concert, Mingus is playing a solo, a four-minute take on Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” and while his powerful and nimble fingers improvise on the chord changes set up by the tune, Jaki Byard comps with occasional soft chords on the piano. I imagine your voice comping in the background, Sam, while I improvise on the chords my teaching responsibilities impose. And like Mingus often does, I hum along off-tune because I’m acutely aware that we and our loved ones are in danger. As the clueless congressman said during the Clinton impeachment hearings: “we’re on a runaway train in uncharted waters.”

33 of 60 essays read. I tell them that the only difference between bad writers and good writers is the number of drafts they are willing to do.

Mingus’ tune “Fables of Faubus” is next, with Clifford Jordan’s tenor sax and Eric Dolphy’s bass clarinet screeching a dissonant denunciation of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. You can hear Mingus in the background calling drummer Dannie Richmond: Name me someone who's ridiculous, Dannie.

Governor Faubus!

Why is he so sick and ridiculous?

He won't permit integrated schools.

Then he's a fool! Boo! Nazi Fascist supremacists!

Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan).

The solos that follow the head are playful and brilliant, mocking Faubus and his racist backers with echoes of “Yankee Doodle,” Chopin’s “Marche Funèbre,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” and on and on. It’s a 29-minute, 42-second manifesto by jazz geniuses who will now structure their own new world, thank you very much.

51 of 60 essays. I keep urging them to ask better questions.

Sam, it’s one thing to kick against the pricks—to turn a Mormon phrase on its head, something you and I have enjoyed doing for decades—quite another to sit here this morning with little chance to do anything about the pandemic. We can stay home to inhibit the spread of the virus. You can home-school your granddaughter Isabella (math, spelling, reading, writing, and “Lost in Space”; lucky girl, fortunate man). I can write these thoughts and text family and friends and try a new recipe from Maricel Presilla’s Gran Cocina Latina (what a marvelous cookbook) and take photos of clouds over the course of the day.

Clouds remind me of improvised jazz. The weather of any given day sets the theme and over time the clouds perform variations on the theme. My photos document the variations and augment my faith in shifting form, supplement my joy as a witness of beauty.

Beauty aside, Sam, you and I have kicked against a lot of pricks, unwilling to live with injustice, eager to demonstrate solidarity with the powerless and against the powerful. Remember Bertolt Brecht’s poem An die Nachgeborenen, first published in 1939 in the face of unimaginable changes in Germany? This is my translation of a couple of verses (taking the liberty of replacing Brecht’s “talking about trees” with “a photo of clouds”):

To Those Who Follow

It’s true, I live in dark times!

. . .

What times are these when

A photo of clouds is almost a crime

Because it entails silence in the face of so many misdeeds!

. . .

I joined others in the age of turmoil

And with them I was outraged.

. . .

I ate between battles

Lay down to sleep among murderers

Made love thoughtlessly

And viewed nature without patience.

. . .

There was little I could do. But the rulers

Were more secure when I was gone, that was my hope.

That’s my hope too, Sam, trusting that our meadow will soon fill with the brilliant yellow of arrowleaf balsamroot, that your docs can deal with your back spiders, and that we can continue the conversations that have nourished me for more than three decades.


Scott Abbott is the co-author, along with Sam Rushforth, of Wild Rides and Wildflowers: Philosophy and Botany with Bikes. He has also written book about Freemasonry and the German novel, and two books about travel and literature (with Zarko Radakovic): Repetitions and Vampires and A Reasonable Dictionary. He was the jazz critic for the Salt Lake Observer and has translated several works by Austrian writer Peter Handke. He is Professor of Integrated Studies, Philosophy, and Humanities at Utah Valley University.

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