When Larry McMurtry passed away last week, I was halfway through “Lonesome Dove.”
Of an evening, we have been bingeing latter-day Westerns — “Yellowstone,” “Longmire” and Canada’s own “Heartland.” I fall into them headfirst. This is, pardner, my woo-woo column. Be you Buddhist, Jain, Hindu or Sikh, you may find common cause here in the realm of reincarnation. But if you think the supernatural is bunkum, so goes deism. Mind you, I am only reporting what follows. Belief costs extra. “Horseman, pass by,” as McMurtry wrote.
In this life, I toiled two years before the mast with the Sundance Kid, riding the rocky mounts outside Bob Redford’s resort with an imaginary six-shooter at my hip against very real rattlers that spook the horse. Oddly, Western ways come naturally to me. Reared in the citified East, I felt born out of time and place. I felt trapped in the wrong century. At 10, I wrote to James Arness and received a signed Matt Dillon publicity still. It graced my desk in my first job, writing Old West books for Time-Life. Write ‘em? I felt I’d lived ‘em.
As soon as I could, I talked my folks into riding camp. Brittle 8 mm film found in a shoebox when my father passed yielded footage he had taken of my running the barrel races in a camp rodeo, hat blown back and grinning ear-to-ear. But my first uncanny entry into a parallel universe came when a friend and I went hiking on Martha’s Vineyard. As we stepped into a clearing in the woods, I was overcome with a feeling of dread and ran until my breath gave out. Later, we consulted a map. We had wandered into an old Wampanoag burial ground.
Years later, in the December deeps, I traversed the Dakota Badlands in a rental car for ABC News. I was struggling to see through a blizzard. As I passed through a particularly desolate stretch, I heard screams and gunshots. Foot to the floor, I fishtailed in terror down the snowy road. When I arrived at my destination, I was ashen-faced. The farmer I had come to interview asked me what was wrong: Had I seen a ghost?
Embarrassed, I proceeded to describe my strange hallucination. He asked where I had been. I described the particular place, recalling a sign I had glimpsed through an obscuring frost of snow. It read “Pine Ridge” something-or-other. He said, “That’s the rez where the 7th Cavalry massacred hundreds of Lakota Ghost Dancers back in 1890, right there. Ain’tcha heard of Wounded Knee?”
I’m no Elizabeth Warren. I claim no Native American ancestry. On the contrary, I’m afraid that alongside the sensation of being born out of time, in such moments of heightened awareness and out-of-body perception, I felt myself to be an interloper — perhaps even one who had taken part in pursuing the Sioux. This mingled with a disturbing sense that in this life I might be atoning for past sins, whether of commission or omission. As if I hadn’t committed enough this time around. None of this was conscious, and I do not present it as fact or belief — mine or yours. Your humble reporter sporting spurs to the imagination. Did I see signs for the reservation? Did I remember Leonard Peltier? Had I glimpsed a map of Martha’s Vineyard? Did my childhood penchant predispose me to flights of fancy? All I know is I never had such moments of sudden terror and conviction anywhere else, before or since.
Why relate all this now? The past is dead and gone. I am a creature of certitudes built upon a career of news and documentary work. Like most of us, I have experienced moments of prayer and answer, faith and doubt, but that does not indicate past life experience. The brain can manufacture its own smoke signals as strong as the most potent opiates. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, as Coleridge recalled the fragments of a dream. The daydream of life is one we experience as the only reality of which we can be sure; the present the only certain tense.
And yet, as I fall asleep to McMurtry’s words and the dust kicked up by them, the world of today dissolves into the haze of memory, and the path into the future foreshortens. I am unsure of the ground on which I tread. I hear hoofbeats in the distance. With my ear to the tracks, there is an approaching rumble. Whether this train is bound for glory or derailed by a dislodged spike, colliding at a stuck turnout, I know less than when I started. What is beyond the mountains remains a mystery. When I cross over, I will do my best to report back. Listen to the wind across the plains and I’ll be there.