The subject here is art fear, and I just remembered something else. Among my youthful talents was that I sometimes wrote things. There was this nature magazine, not one of the well-known ones, that I’d come by in my adventures. I had a subscription. One month there was an advertisement for a national essay contest. The prize was being one of twenty-four (?) high school boys admitted to the Student Conservation Program for a six-week assignment in Olympic National Park. All backwoods trail grubbing, hiking deep into the wilderness with bears and stuff. The essay was supposed to be about why I wanted to go.
Why I wanted to go?
And it turns out that I won. This was in the middle of our family’s extended move from Abilene, Texas to Massapequa, New York by way of six weeks in Chestertown, Maryland. Just the way you want to spend the last half of your junior year in high school. (I can’t recommend it enough. Aaaghh!) At any rate, that I was a winner in a national writing contest must have slipped through the cracks. When we finally moved into the new home on Long Island, I brought it up again. As I remember, the hardest thing was asking my parents for money. I still needed boots and a backpack, but the big thing was the bus ticket: fifty whole damn dollars round-trip, Manhattan to Seattle and back, four days each way on a Greyhound Scenicruiser. The worst thing about asking them for money was the grim moral inquisition that followed: was I worthy, and if not, by which penance could I achieve worthiness, and did I understand the awful responsibility of not embarrassing them?
Totally absent in all of this was how exactly it had come about. Namely, that I’d just won a national writing contest. No one said, “Way to go!” or “Do you think you’d like to be a writer?” or the ever-useful, “We’re really proud of you!” The result was I felt like I’d done something wrong because it was going to cost them money. As if by entering that contest, I’d gotten away with something I shouldn’t have. If I’d asked permission to write that essay, for example, there would have been a big long discussion over how I’d pay them back for the bus fare if I won, and I might have given up.
There probably was a penance or a duty or some such. The old man was freaked out by the cost of real hiking boots and backpacks—hard to find in those days, for one thing, and mostly made in Europe—so he took me to an Army surplus store in Brooklyn, where I found a British Army pack frame, a U.S. Army knapsack, an army canteen, and a smelly surplus parka. On the way home, he stopped at a shoe store and bought me a pair of sturdy lace-up work boots, too. (Good on him!) I was ecstatic over this equipment and didn’t mind a bit that it was olive drab or dented. I remember that he was somewhat ill at ease throughout, however. Who knows why, except I know for sure that he had never won a contest like that, ever done much camping, or been allowed to ride a bus all the way across the country at age sixteen like I was about to do.
I trained for the adventure by filling the backpack with fifty pounds of National Geographic magazines and wearing that while I walked the dog each night. It hurt like hell at first. I was a former Boy Scout, though, and ready to rock and roll. The rest is untold history that needs writing down. (Do you wonder why I haven’t yet?)
But there were bears, I met Ansel Adams in the mountains, and Marilyn Monroe died, too.