It was hot as hell out on the wrought iron balcony of my third story room at the Old Town Villa Guest House on Ursulines Street in the French Quarter. The year was 1975, and the month was August, and the radio said it was 90, but with the humidity it felt 95 to 100 degrees and for some reason the heat felt good. I had been there for a week, holed up in a room the size of a large walk-in closet. Ursulines Street squealed with the sounds of the dignified southern peel-out crowd burning rubber in the hot night air…screaming queens in ratted hair and ratty dresses strutting their stuff in high heels…black guys with processed hair stoop-sitting and passing cold malt duck, which was purple in color and I imagined in effect. The buildings over which I looked had steep peaked slate roofs and dormer windows and wrought iron balconies just like the one outside my room. They were built in the mid 1800’s, and from the outside, they looked like the crumbling ruins of a civilization dead and gone, but they were hammered together on frames of cypress and they would probably last two or three hundred years more.
The Qwaahtah, as it was called by locals, was jammed with places where you could eat red beans and rice and sausage for a buck; a Dixie beer was 50 cents (35 cents at lunch), and a regular drink, say a Pimm’s Cup # 1 topped with a splash of 7-Up and a slice of cucumber could be had for a dollar. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine that I was in back in Beirut before the civil war, palms jutting between the rooftops, giant live oaks filling courtyards with cooling shade, pavement bright white ablaze in the sun, doorways hooded with overhanging ironwork balconies leading to long passageways taking you back there to dark places behind the walls.
There was virtually no telephone service there at the Old Town Villa, so it had been impossible to reach me during the week I had spent there. I needed that kind of forced isolation every once in awhile back then. Over the past few years, the urge to hole-up somewhere and be quiet for a week or so, preferably in a foreign country – which the French Quarter may as well have been for all intents and purposes – had come over me about once or twice a year. It was a luxury, and by the summer of 1975, it was one I could afford. Occasionally people in New York City were willing to pay me to go off by myself and sit still and drink gin and tonics and think. It had been my habit to take a portion of the expense advance for such assignments, if they could be called that, and buy cocaine. That time was no different. I arrived in New Orleans with enough of the stuff to rot my mucous membranes for the better part of a month, but after only about a week, I ran out.
Previously, this unfortunate change of circumstances would have caused a great flurry of activity and an intense search for the ratty little character who could turn me on to some skinny creep with shifty bloodshot eyes eager to relieve an out-of-towner of too much money for too little coke. This transaction would keep alive a process which had its roots back in the 60’s, when getting high and staying high was an end in itself, so the deep thoughts and clear visions and the magnificent feel of pacing my closet-sized castle on Ursulines Street would be kept alive for maybe a week longer. Yet gradually over the past couple of years I had begun to welcome the idea of running out of dope. This, I had come to realize, was probably a clumsy metaphor for something just slightly profound like growing up.
There was in those days within my small circle of like-minded friends an obsession with figuring out when the 60’s really ended and the 70’s actually began. You may have had such a discussion yourself, back when things like that really mattered. Like, the ‘60s didn’t really begin until the free speech movement at Berkeley, or was it the civil rights movement in the South, or was it the first peace march and the introduction of marijuana beyond the narrow confines of jazz musician hipsterdom, or was it the summer of love and the onslaught of acid? The argument could go on forever, and the same with its corollary, that the ‘70s didn’t really begin until the end of the war in Vietnam, or was it the women’s movement, or was it Watergate, or was it the “personal growth” movement?
My New York writer friends and I were sitting in the Prince Street boite Raoul’s one night throwing this important subject around the table when all of a sudden I felt like running screaming from the room. I didn’t know what came over me. One minute I was sitting there like any other dufus 20-something year old New Yorker playing circular navel-gaze between rapid-fire trips through the kitchen to the restroom for the express purpose of snorting cocaine, and the next I was struck dumb by the futility of it all. I had spent the previous week running around New York nailing down magazine assignments so I could go out on the road and careen around the country writing stories so I could earn money with which to buy more cocaine so I could buy more time to run around and get more magazine assignments so I could go out on the road and earn more money with which to buy more cocaine. There was within that closed system all the logic of the economy which spawned the self-indulgent market for the drug in the first place, including the inevitable result of indulgence which was default. It felt very much like I was about to default that night at Raoul’s, so I conjured up an lame reason to excuse myself from the table and lumbered my way back up Sullivan Street to my loft. The time had come, I knew instinctively, for a trip to the Jerome Bar in Aspen Colorado.
Not many people of my acquaintance knew of the healing powers of the Jerome Bar, but I did. I was told about them by a friend who on the occasion of losing his wife of nine years, flew immediately from L.A. to Aspen and threw himself on the mercy of a bar tab tendered by Michael Solheim, who was at that time proprietor of the Jerome Bar. So I spent one more cranked up day running around town securing a couple more magazine assignments, packed up my 1968 Dodge camper van and pointed its blunt nose West. The last time I had spent a week recovering at the spa of the Jerome Bar had been about a year ago. I knew the way by heart, I still had some cocaine left, and I made it out there in two days.
And now, seated at a table in the front window of the bar at the Jerome, the spa was working its wonders on me. The side of Ajax mountain, visible above the rooftops of the town, was ablaze with gold and yellow aspens, a forest fire of color in the hot sun, scrub oaks, burnt-orange and red adding their heat. A terrible eczematic rash had broken out on the soft insides of my elbows and the backs of my hands. I could feels the poisons of the previous months literally evaporating from my skin. I had turned into a Rocky Mountain leper. And who did I see walking toward the bar down the street but one of my oldest friends, Cherry Jensen. We were school kids together in Oberammergau, Germany in the mid-1950s. She was an Air Force brat and her family lived right below us in an apartment building on the post. We used to put on our ski boots every morning and ski from our building’s front door to the school down the hill and stack our skis against the wall outside. We would change from our ski boots into regular shoes, and later when school let out, change back into our ski boots and ski through the village of Oberammergau to the ski area on the mountainside just beyond, ski until the place closed at dusk, and ski home in the dark. It was a magical time, one we both remembered fondly.
And now here she was in Aspen. She had lived there for about ten years, alternately waitressing and skiing and traveling the globe, climbing mountains, hiking in Tibet, rafting down previously unexplored rivers in Africa, working as a boatswoman on the wooden boats down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Every time she put $1500 together, she would split, but now she was back in Aspen to pick up where she had left off in the Spring. She was gorgeous – blonde hair, rosy-tanned cheeks, elegantly muscled body in a t-shirt with a day-pack on her back, moving through town like an antelope on her way to a spring. I spied her through the window and waved. She came in, we embraced…it had been about a year since we had seen each other…and she took one look at me and said let’s hike up to the Conundrum hot springs tomorrow.
I had heard a lot about the hot springs around the bar at the Jerome in conversations which usually consisted of, you’ve got to get up to the hot springs, man, to which I would invariably reply, yeah the scene up there sounds incredible. The stumbling blocks to getting myself up to the hot springs so far had included my deteriorated physical and mental condition and my natural aversion to the idea of walking 12 miles uphill from around 9,000 feet to 12,500 in order to arrive there.
Yeah, let’s hike up there, I found myself saying. I had no equipment, no hiking boots, only a down vest and a sleeping bag. So I put together some amateurish round-trip two day supplies – home made fried chicken, salt and pepper, extra set of clothes, a knife, six cans of Coors and a fifth of Henry McKenna in a special plastic jug which I picked up from a local mountaineering store, along with a day pack to put it all in. I thought stupidly that I would come up with some way to put the cost of the supplies on some magazine’s expense account tab. There was a brief moment there when I actually thought of putting about a grand worth of pure mica cocaine on the magazine tab, which you could get in Aspen if you knew the right people, and I did. Then as suddenly as the thought occurred to me it left. The logical thing to do was get with Cherry and head for the hot springs, said to have life-regenerating powers, which I certainly was in need of.
The next morning, I met Cherry at her apartment. I looked like a backpacking fool, in a hunting cap and skiing shades. Cherry looked like she belonged there, in Austrian hiking boots and jeans and a loose-fitting shirt. Off we went driving up one of the valleys outside of Aspen on a wooded dirt road in Cherry’s little Datsun. Finally a big meadow appeared and we parked. On went the packs, Cherry’s larger and heavier than mine, and with a last glance around at the edge of civilization we hiked.
The uphill slopes began immediately – short steep ones; longer gradual grades followed by quick dips and then another steep slope, never a flat stretch. There was a fire in my legs, pulling, straining in the thighs up through the lower back to the trapezoids yielding soreness across the shoulders, tightening in the lungs and a numbing sense of futility that the steep slopes would never end that you’d never get there. On the rare occasions you had to walk down a small slope, the knees were pounded, hip sockets beaten until you actually looked forward to going back up again. We walked, walked, walked until finally you entered a kind of Zen of the mountain, that you’re really up there with the elk and the grouse, crossing a creek once, twice, three times within a mile, gazing down into pools of trout. And you walked on, past the beaver lodges stately as twig mansions in the middle of small ponds at 10,000…10,500…11,000 feet.
Up there, things really started to change. The light crashed through softly blowing aspens landing on the grass like droplets of clear water. Of course I was babbling away, telling tall stories about covering Bebe Rebozo and his part in Watergate, what an asshole Evel Knievel was, and Cherry listened and threw back her blonde head laughing at the folly of talking and talking and talking in a place where the only really important sound was all around us in the wind and he trees. As we went higher, I fell into her natural silence, her easy awareness of everything around her. I felt a lightening of my senses. The creek, once a docile trout stream, now fell steeply over mossy rocks booming into deep pools.
This was the third extended hike Cherry had taken in as many weeks. The week before, she went up and over a nearby pass to Crested Butte and back to Aspen again, a three day hike…by herself. Pack up and split. Sleep with the moon; walk with the sun. Now she was up there not alone but with me, walking along, thumbs hooked through her pack straps, balancing across 50 foot logs crossing the stream. Suddenly, I was right there with her in the middle of her world where the biggest worry of the day became how far below the springs we should stop for firewood because the springs are so far up there, they were above the tree line.
We stopped to rest and discussed the matter of firewood for a moment and decided we’d better gather some right then. She took off her pack and began gathering and breaking up sticks as big around as your calf. Collecting together a pile with some kindling, she untied her pack-flap and strapped the wood across her pack. I did the same with mine, we put our packs on and started up again. With the firewood across her back, she looked like either a dead bush or a miniature blonde elk.
We ended up on a flat ledge just at the top of a hundred foot waterfall and unpacked, laying out our sleeping pads and sleeping bags and getting a fire ready to light when we returned from the springs later that evening. With that done, we walked further up the trail and finally across a low marshy slope we could see the hot springs – three indigo pools set in white scree smack dead the center of a bowl formed by a ridge and mountain peak another 2,000 feet above us. Cherry was standing in front of me, taking in the view of the springs, legs together, just staring. There was an aura about her, a stillness in the air behind her that was easy to slide into, comfortable. Even though we had been friends since childhood, we were never very much alike. I was talky, moody, impatient, restless, insistent. Cherry was quiet, level headed, also restless with the military brat’s need to keep moving, but she took her time, liked to go with the flow as we said back then. I had been in command of men in the Army, and what Cherry had commanded was her own body, moving it through space and time gracefully, gently, quietly and very, very prettily.
Walking with her up to the hot springs that day I discovered there was spot-weld between the extremes of our experiences, an intersection of highways through the weirdness. What we had in common was a drive to take risks along with the constant possibility of failure. I had been a complete failure as an Army officer, a disgrace to West Point and to my family. When push came to shove back then, I had been somewhere else, lacking not the skills of leadership, but belief, faith that what I was doing in the Army was right. The failure was way down deep inside me, and I learned a few things about myself in the process. It was no mistake then, and it’s no mistake today, that I am a writer, responsible to no one but me, leading as Norman Mailer once said, an army of words across a keyboard.
For Cherry, risk-taking was skiing the backside of Bell Mountain above Aspen, totally illegal and out of bounds, cutting through powder, shooting through trees where no one else has skied, feeling the snow splashing up high on your legs, zip around this tree, play chicken with that one. She broke a leg back there the year before and had to drag herself several hundred yards through deep powder to reach a trail that was covered by the ski patrol. On their last patrol down the mountain before dark, two ski patrolmen found her and strapped her to a toboggan and took her down the mountain. If she hadn’t reached the trail and they hadn’t spotted her, she would have frozen to death overnight.
Cherry turned to me: what do you think? She asked. The blue pools of the hot springs were like shimmering beads of sweat on the forehead of the mountain in the late afternoon sun.
You told me it would be like this, but I didn’t believe you, I said.
Cherry was a believer, a dreamer, a pure one like we all were back in the ‘60s, believing that if we all did our own thing and took responsibility for ourselves, it would somehow turn out okay. She lived out her dreams in unique, practical ways – hiking in the high boonies; ski-touring a wilderness area for two weeks camping out in the snow; running white water on the Colorado River or the Snake River, any water that was fast and brown and mean; hiking alone to the base camp on Everest. She did some of those things for the first time ever; she was the first licensed boatswoman in the Grand Canyon, and certainly the first woman to hike alone to the 17,000 foot high base camp on Everest.
Yet even by that afternoon at the hot springs she was on her way to becoming an anachronism, because the things she did for real were at that moment being transformed into mass-market products and were being sold by people who turned the Rocky Mountains into symbols for “freedom” and “nature.” Back then, John Denver and Robert Redford came to mind as people who were marketing woodsiness and mountainness to the masses. Today, there are entire industries and malls filled with the stuff. The great outdoors has been transformed into McLuhan’s global village, and the language has taken on a new tense – future anachronistic to describe things that are over almost before they get started. Maybe the ‘60s ended about the time it was no longer possible to be the only student in the dorm with the first album by Van Morrison and “Them;” to be the only freak in your small town; to have been one of the 400,000 at Woodstock. Even by that time, everyone had been to at least one Woodstock, everyone owned a pair of hiking boots (albeit not Austrian-made), and almost everyone had climbed Everest.
But on that Fall afternoon high above Aspen, Colorado, we hiked up to the Conundrum hot springs because that night was a full moon, and we wanted to lie stark naked in the hot springs and watch…no, feel the full moon come up over the mountains. So we undressed quickly before it got any colder – the temperature would plunge from around 70 to below freezing in a matter of minutes – and we jumped in. The water was around 105 degrees, a luscious hot caress of bubbly sulfurous fingers, five feet deep with rock ledges under the water to sit on with just your head above water. Soon three guys who had hiked over from Crested Butte were in the water along with a couple of hippies who had been camped out up there for about a week. The seven of us settled in to await the moon, whiskey, reefer passing around the pool, the chill air filling our lungs, taking turns sitting next to a PVC pipe that carried the hot water down the slope from a higher pool, a natural Jacuzzi on a mountaintop. A couple of hours went by, then little by little the mountainsides around us were lit up by the moon, still out of sight. Then the light began moving down the mountainsides and it was about 100 yards away from us moving much faster, then 50 then 25 and suddenly the springs were awash in bright light, our naked bodies visible below the surface, the moon now proud and full and as white as the snow on the peaks above us.
We were speechless, overcome, paddling and splashing around the pool like a bunch of otters, grinning then yelling, screaming at the moon and the mountains. A gigantic jolt from the sky. I couldn’t believe it. I had wings. I could fly. I’d been to the mountain and the mountain was a beautiful woman from a childhood 20 years ago and hot mineral water and moonlight and bare skin and pure joy.
A few more sips of whiskey, a few more tokes and we were out of the water into the 20 degree air, dried off and dressed and down to our camp. We started the fire and heated up my fried chicken and cooked some pasta and sat there eating warmed by the fire listening to the waterfall crash into rocks a hundred feet below us. Off with the clothes, into a deep sleep naked in the night warm in our down bags. The next morning we made oatmeal and coffee and headed back up to the springs for a last daylight dip, dried off and dressed and headed off down the trail.
We hardly talked at all, just tramped along pounding the dirt, taking in the colors and wind and the constant burble of little rapids and falls along the stream. My head was as empty and clear as a water glass. I had always thought that turning it off and letting it flow was a bunch of hippie space cadet psychic burn-out stuff. But hauling myself up and down that mountain crazily behind Cherry, watching her tanned muscles flicker and click in the sun, the whole thing looked different to me now. Down at the bottom we loaded back into her Datsun and drove back into Aspen and it was over…but it wasn’t. Something was nibbling at me so softly I could barely feel it, but I knew it was there, whatever it was.
Cherry and I hung around Aspen for a couple of days and one morning we jumped into my Dodge van and drove to San Francisco the long way, looping through every canyon and twisty stretch of road we could find on the map, stopping at night in little roadside pull-offs, making camp fires, sitting around sipping wine or whiskey or maybe a little of both, watching the stars wander by overhead. We were gone a couple of weeks but then she had to be back in Aspen to pick up her waitress job where she had left off in the Spring and I was due back in New York to turn in the stories I had written along the way. I had a feeling as I drove east out of Aspen headed across the passes that had become familiar to me ever since the Conundrum hot springs. I was re-charged without feeling manic and quiet without being depressed.
It was a feeling I had been chasing for the past few years, and I had managed to capture it in hotel rooms in Tel Aviv and Beirut, in motels in Kansas and Illinois and even a room on Ursulines Street in New Orleans. I came to think of it as the Cherry Jensen feeling, a sense of stillness in the air behind her as she walked steadily up and down the mountain. Toward the end of that trip, I came to think of it as the time when for me the ‘60s ended and the ‘70s began. Yet even as quiet and satisfied as I was right then, I somehow still lacked a center and wondered what if anything still counted?
Well, getting high still counted, but somehow it didn’t feel as necessary as it had before. Chasing experience around the country and the world still counted, but I had come to realize that even the rawest most exciting events in the world had a beginning, middle, and an end. Rock and roll still counted, but it didn’t seem as much of an elemental part of my life as it had been only a few years before. Living fast and loose and being hip, man still counted but at what cost? I remember crossing the George Washington Bridge and turning south toward the Village and thinking I was glad to be back in New York but I knew I had left a little piece of me out there on the road, along the creek on the mountain, next to a campfire with my head resting in Cherry Jensen’s lap.
I turned left on West 10th Street off West Street and drove a couple of blocks and there was Allen Ginsberg bouncing along the sidewalk, a big grin on his face and a bundle of pages under his arm. I waved to him and he waved back. Hi Lucian, he called out cheerfully.
I was home.