With the sail up, and not currently on duty, I’m no longer tied to my rowing seat, so I crash atop the oars, forgetting, as I do every year, not to lean against the thick shrouds, those enormous tarred ropes which hold up the mast. My long braid gets stuck to the tar and I have to wrench it off. I’m pretty sure this is why Vikings braided their beards.
We still had some good time outdoors, working the new dog The latest of his German wirehaired pointers under the big skies, driving the long straight roads, and eating lunch at quirky small-town cafes. In one, I ordered a Reuben sandwich for a change, bit into it, and realize that something was different. Rather than the usual corned beef, it was made with roast beef. But the menu had promised local beef—and that probably was the case, whereas corned beef would have come off the Sysco truck or something like it. And it tasted good, so who cares?
Then on the 22nd it was time to turn southwest again. When I cross the Missouri River on US 83 — the longest river in North America, actually — it’s always a homecoming, leaving the intensely farmed Midwest for the tan rolling hills of western South Dakota, a change of ecosystems and time zones all at once.
Once in Fort Pierre, South Dakota, I wheeled into a riverside parking lot. I had meant to stop at a municipal park in Pierre, on the east bank (Central Time), but it was full of construction materials and blocked to visitors — a new highway bridge is being built.
In thanksgiving for having returned to the West, I clambered down the rocky riprap with a plastic mug of Jim Bean whiskey and poured it (generously!) to Mother Missouri with a prayer of thanks.
Leaving Spearfish, South Dakota, on October 17then route to eastern North Dakota, I decided to skip the Green Bean coffeehouse, as much as I like it, and fueled up on motel-room coffee and a leftover partial burrito. I was on the road shortly after eight, up to Belle Fourche and then east on US 212.
US 50 across Nevada is often publicized as “the loneliest road in America,” but US 212 between Belle Fourche and the Missouri crossing at Charger’s Camp also qualifies. You come to a town of what looks like thirty people and then it’s forty miles to the next place. Tan rolling hills with the occasional butte—Bear Butte, Mud Butte, and the rest—to serve as landmarks. So it goes for more than two hundred miles.
Between Faith and Dupree, having crossed into the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, I saw a figure walking east beside the road. I thought he was a (probably) Lakota teenager with an instrument case (trumpet?) slung on his back. I blew past him at 75 mph and then re-considered. There was almost no traffic. There never is. He was miles from anywhere. Well, who will pick him up if I don’t? I turned the Jeep around. (It’s so hard to break that driving rhythm when you have 450 miles to go.)
As I drove back west, I scanned the two vehicles that I met, a pickup truck and a sedan full of people. I did not spot him. But suppose he was lying down in the bed of the truck?
“I’ll drive to the top of the next rise and have a look,” I thought. Sure enough, a dot in the distance, there he was. I tossed some stuff from the passenger seat into the back.
Travis (we exchanged first names) was grateful. He was no teenager, but rather 33 years old—I got his birthdate and much of his life story. Father an Anglo biker, a regular at the Sturgis motorcycle rally every summer (they had lived in nearby Rapid City), Vietnam vet, died of prostate cancer in 2016. Mother Lakota. For some trivial reason, he had missed visiting his dad at the VA hospital in Sioux Falls, and shortly afterwards, his dad was gone, and he was still angry with himself. He told me where his mom was from—I recognized the name, a little town off the rez, that’s about all.
The grey thing on his back was a duffle bag with everything he owned in it.
He had been visiting a man whom he called his “father figure” (a maternal uncle?) in Iron Lightning, a place I know only from seeing the sign when I go by the turnoff. Let’s just say that there is no Wikipedia entry for Iron Lighting.It’s just ten or twelve houses, I gathered, probably BIA housing. He said that the evening before, he and the other man had walked along the meandering little Moreau River to a butte where eagles nest. They had prayed there.
Then they went to the man’s house and started drinking—sweet wine, by the smell of his sweat. The “father figure” passed out, but Travishad started walking south toward the highway some time around 2 a.m. It is about ten miles out to the highway. He had stopped for a sleep, he said, and was walking again when I saw him about 10:00 a.m.
Food and water? None. I gave him cold coffee and apples from a neighbor’s tree. He said that he had done this kind of reservation hitchhiking before, with an emphasis on “hiking.”
I got his story: the jobs he took off the rez (there is nothing on the rez except tribal government work, basically). The broken marriage to a Lakota woman, who was currently in Eagle Butte, the reservation’s administrative center. The 11-year-old daughter he has not seen for several years. The recent time spent at some rehab center in Wyoming for his alcoholism, which was a good experience, he said, but of course after a couple months, back his old situations, he fell off the wagon. He had worked construction recently in Rapid City, but oddly did not know where Canyon Lake SchoolI attended Canyon Lake School for grades K-4 was, so he must have had a circumscribed view of that town. Or maybe he just paid no attention to elementary schools.
He was headed for Mobridge, a larger town about ninety miles away. I turned north at Dupree, having planned to go through the Standing Rock reservation and on up to I-94 that way, a new route for me. But I realized that turning east to Mobridge and then continuing north on US 83, one of my usual routes, would be about the same distance, so I gave him the hitchhiker’s dream—a straight-through trip to a friend’s house where he hoped to be able to stay awhile. The friend’s pickup was in the driveway, so Travis hopped out, thanked me, and was gone.
Everyone in the world is damaged, has susto or “soul loss,” I often think. We medicalize this condition with terms like post-traumatic stress disorder, but I heard one curandera say that even your birth can set off susto, if it was a difficult birth. This is all just starker out there on US 212, where the tan prairie rolls away and there are no other human beings for miles.
I gently suggested at one point to Travis that he go out somewhere and offer up his problem to his ancestors on both sides . . . make a little offering . . . there might be someone who could give him a nudge in the right direction. Maybe. It’s his choice.
If this were a normal year — and we know it’s not — I would be in Boston right now with 10,000 of my closest friends, attending the annual meeting of the American Acafemy of Religion and its smaller, parent organization, the Society of Biblical Literature.The SBL was founded in 1880 and the AAR in 1909, originally as the Association of Biblical Instructors in American Colleges and Secondary Schools. A typical meeting involves hearing papers until your brain is full, meeting with publishers and editors, shouting into friends’ ears in noisy hotel bars, attending receptions (free food!), touring the host city, drinking,eating, buying too many books, and generally getting your intellectual batteries recharged.
This year we are all Zoomerati. I got off to a bad start this morning, having quickly walked and fed the dog, made coffee, built a fire in the woodstove to warm the kitchen and dining room for M. when she got up, and settled myself to “attend” the first session of the day, a workshop from the Ritual Studies group.
I had attended a similar workshop last year, which was limited in size by the nature of the workshop. This time, you were supposed to pre-register, and I thought that I had done so, but sometimes I am a little dyslexic about online forms and stuff. The time came, but the “Join” screen button did not.
It turned out to be full. Evidently I messed up when I thought that I had registered — or I had been too late.. Today the session’s chat room was full of people asking “Do I have to register”” “Can I register?” “I paid for AAR — why can’t I register?” and so on.
Is there a way to make a reservation in advance to attend a session? No need to do this—just join the session when it begins.
A normal annual meeting is five days. This virtual annual meeing goes from November 29 to December 10, but still manages to produce situations where I want to be in sessions that meet simulataneously.
Like Tuesday. Some scheduler put New Religious Movements (which was the first home of Pagan studies before we got our own unit), Indigenous Religious Traditions, and a “exploratory session”: “Things That Go Bump in the Night”: Folklore, the Supernatural, and Vernacular Religion,” all at the same time! Ten days they have to work with, yet much of what I want to attend happens all at once.I should add that most groups have more than one session; Contemporary Pagan Studies has three, for instance.
“But they will be recorded, surely,” you say. Maybe Not that I can see from the info in my planning app! Crap crap crapola. (I would love to be wrong about that.) Do I just jump from virtual room to virtual room? Apparently so.
And there is no book show and no dinner in a nice restaurant on the publisher’s tab. No quick trip on the train up to Salem to buy witch kitsch. No window-shopping on Newbury Street. Just the same old house and the same old screen.I pity attendees in Europe, who have to say up through the wee hours to attend.
But there is at least one book that I bought last year in San Diego that I have yet to read, so I will pretend it’s new.
On the opening day, Saturday, January 25th, I admit that among the various talks on dealing with bad changes — extinctions, elections, end times— the one talk that really stuck with me was Murtagh anDoile’s “With a Whimper, not a Bang: The ‘Death’ of Pagan and Magical Traditions.” It put me in mind of a talk that I had with my friend Evan John Jones (English witch, member of Robert Cochrane’s coven in the mid-1960s), who said that on his death, all his Craft-related papers were supposed to be burnt.
From my vantage point, a very long way away, I do not know what happened. As a writer, John left behind at least some records that deserve to be archived. Maybe not everything, but some things.
At any rate, the Albrecht Auditorium is an up-to-date lecture hall at Claremont Graduate University, with lots of elbow room, AC and USB chargers at every seat, and other good stuff. So when I finally had to stand up and fill an hour on the history of Pagan studies and some things that I would like to see more covered in the future, it was a pleasure to be in that room.
It was a good conference where you could hear thoughtful Pagans discuss our response to some of the Big Issues — and like all conferences, the best parts were in the restaurants and bars afterwards! But about about 6:30 on Sunday evening I had to pry myself from the big table at Packing House Wines (in the same complex as Augie’s Coffee, where my Claremont visit began) and accept a ride from a conference-goer who was headed east through San Bernardino anyway.
The train rolled in on time. I had booked a roomette (sleeper) because I knew I would be tired. I dropped my bags, went to the dining car for supper (included), and when I came back the attendant had my bed made up, into which I fell.
Around 2 a.m. an announcement from the conductor woke me (and everyone else). A man in my car was having an acute asthma attack. “Does anyone have an EpiPen?)”
I thought for a moment — I did not have my first-aid kit with me, so I could not even offer pseudopehedrine. And does a Wilderness First Aid card let you give drugs? I think so, if they are over-the-counter things like that. But I had none. Twenty minutes later we were stopped in Kingman, Arizona, and as another passenger told me at breakfast, the ambulance was waiting and took him away.
And thus on across New Mexico and southern Colorado, where I retrieved the Jeep at the railway station and drove home at night through an increasing snowstorm, past the signs that warn that roads are not plowed after 5 p.m.
It was a 20-minute walk from the hotel to Claremont Graduate University, where the Conference on Current Pagan Studies rents space during CGU’s winter break. CGU is one of the seven “Claremont Colleges” — five undergrad, two graduate schools — that together form a “collegiate university.” Six of them share a campus with a combined library and other facilities. Pomona College, the oldest, dates from 1887; the others were founded in the 1920s, which must have been when Claremont shifted from “citrus town” to residential suburb of Los Angeles.
Walking to CGU, I did not see anything that resembled a “student ghetto,” which made me wonder if there is such a thing as off-campus housing, or if those students must all commute.
Was I on the right street? I looked at some license plates. Yes, this must be the right building.
When Fritz Muntean started The Pomegranate in 1997, its subtitle was “A New Journal of Neopagan Thought.” That approach fits this conference too, and in fact, a new online journal is in the works that will take up that strand of Pagan publishing, I was told. More on that when I learn more.
The conference draws a mixture of older and younger Pagan academics, at least one outside PhD student researching Paganism in academia, some writers, some original West Coast Pagan figures from the 1960s–70s, and other members of the (chiefly) West Coast Pagan community.
The difference between this and the American Academy of Religion Pagan studies sessions that I am used to is that there is less of a sense of working on issues in the larger world(s) of religious studies and more a sense of telling our own stories, working on our own issues (like what happens to archives when groups shut down?), examining our origin stories, and talking about what is changing.
After killing time at Augie’s Coffee, I faced a mile walk through bosky Claremont to the hotel, but because of the roller bag, I gave in and summoned a Lyft driver. No need to put extra wear on the little plastic wheels. That is my story, and I am sticking to it.
Expecting to be told that my room would not be ready until 2 p.m., I was happy to learn that I could have it right there at 8:30 a.m. I could sleep! Only I could not. Exercise is good, so I did walk about a mile to a copy-print shot to get fliers made up promoting The Pomegranate and Jefferson Calico’s excellent new book on Heathenry, Being Viking.
I spotted a Trader Joe’s grocery near the hotel, and picked up a sandwich and a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck.Charles Shaw wine, the grocery chain’s house brand, is priced at $1.99 for 750 ml, the same as a small bottle of water at the hotel. Now which is a better deal? Half a bottle gone, I finally slept.
Later, I spent the evening re-reading parts of George Hanson’s The Trickster and the Paranormal (2001). This is not an easy book. Hanson was a paid university parapsychology researcher, one of a “club” of about fifty such people in the United States. As he points out, the budget of one paranormal-themed Hollywood movie is bigger than the budgets of all the programs such as his.
The book is not an easy read. It goes into lots of area: sociological theory, history of paranormal researched, history and personalities of the professional skeptics (think CSICOP), the prevalence of cheating by psychics, etc. Hanson wonders why, when at least half of the population accepts some level of “psi” phenomena, it is so completely off the table for academic researchers. Likewise, scholars of religion are all about texts, not “woo.” They would rather discuss gender theory than people’s experience with divine power. (Hint: part of the problem is monotheism and the idea of a transcendent god who is outside of the cosmos.)
I was honored this year to be asked to give a keynote address at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies.The other keynoter was the feminist writer and poet Judy Grahn. Yes, the website badly needs an upgrade. For journeys under 500 miles — and sometimes more — I would rather drive. If the trip is longer, I look first to see if Amtrak will get me there. If all else fails, I end up jammed into a metal cylinder with a bunch of strangers, which is about as much fun as being stuck in an elevator.
Southern Colorado to southern California is a combination of the first two — drive a bit, and then catch Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, get off in San Bernardino, and catch a Metrolink commuter train west to Claremont, where the conference was to be held at Claremont Graduate University.
I booked a coach seat on the way out, which would be easier on the organizers’ travel budget ($112), and used Amtrak reward points to get a roomette (sleeper) on the way back.The best way to accrue reward points is to use Amtrak’s Guest Rewards Mastercard.
Understand that a coach seat on the train is huger than first-class on an airplane. Muchly huger. You have a foot rest and a leg rest. You can recline your seat without bashing the passenger behind you. Smart passengers bring a small blanket and a pillow and make themselves quite comfortable.
Me, I had a warm jacket, but I forgot the inflatable neck pillow, So it goes. I made myself comfortable, stretched across two seats—the car was only half-full. After a burger at the station snack bar in Albquerque, followed by a little whiskey from my flask, I opened an episode of theStrange Familiars podcast on my phone and rode west into the night.
I usually can sleep anywhere, but not this time. I don’t blame all the podcast discussion of fairy orbs, Bigfoot, “hell gates,” ghosts, etc., but rather the fact that I would have to get off at 5:30 a.m. I knew that either the coach attendant or the conductor would make sure that I made my stop.I had ridden this way multiple times before, but always getting off at Fullerton or else Los Angeles Union Station, in the daylight. They are usually good about that. But the monkey mind would not settle down. So when the conductor came down the dimly lit aisle, I was already sitting there with my jacket zipped and my carry-on bag at hand, watching the highway next to us.
You know you are in southern California when the freeway traffic — in the dark, at 5:30 a.m. — is already stop-and-go. The train whistles on past, into the San Bernardino station, a Mission-style edifice four times bigger than it needs to be. (Did the town ever need that station?) Across the tracks is a huge intermodal operation, acres of bright lights and freight containers being stacked onto rail cars.
On the platform, a robot voice reminds you that “We care.” It’s about a suicide hotline.
Meanwhile, the pre-dawn students and commuters line the platform, staring at their coffee cups or into the middle distance, until the brightly-lit double-decker Metrolink train rattles in and, after forty minutes, deposits me at Claremont station on its way west to Los Angeles.
I’ve done my research: about four blocks away is a coffeehouse that advertises it opens at 6 a.m., and it is now 6:30. I walk into Augie’s Coffee, which sets a high bar for industrial-spartan design, with walls of hexagonal tiles like a 1920s bathroom. The baristas interrupt their chess game (Awww!) to get me a cappuccino and chocolate croissant. Outside, the palm trees are turning from black-and-white and color. I am here.
When you are a scholar of religion, sometimes you forget how seriously people take religion.
Riding across New Mexico this week on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, M. and I went to the dining car for supper. All the tables seat four, and to save space and facilitate service, if there are fewer than four of people, the steward will seat others at your table (or you at theirs) to fill them up. To some people, this is social event; others just greet you politely and then ignore you.
He asked what I did. I said I had worked as a newspaper journalist and magazine editor, which is perfectly true. I did not say that I was on my way to the annual joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature, because if nothing else, many people will think you are Bible Answer Man or something.
Like the time I was riding a shuttle bus between my Chicago hotel and the McCormick Place convention center and the bus driver shut the door, looked over his shoulder, and said, “I bet you gentlemen know when Jesus is coming back.”
I let the Protestants on board handle that one.
My encounter with Fred, though, was mild compared to what another friend encountered on her trip to San Diego this year:
[I spent the flight] listening to some techbro explain to the Dean [of a certain seminary] how he and his friend started their own church based on self-actualization through electronic dance music.
He ended the plane ride by making the Dean make a Facebook video for his gurufeed (his words) about what he was grateful for and the great synchronicity they had.
I thought about trying to send the Dean a rescue party, but the Southwest flight attendants wouldn’t allow it.
If you are shy or just feeling anti-social, sometimes it is better not to say that you are a religion scholar.
I left our Salem apartment last Thursday to walk to the site, but what people used to think was the site is not the site. In fact, the true location, which was of course known at the time and remembered through at least the mid-18th century, when the last persons who witnessed the executions of 1692 would have been passing away, was then forgotten.
Somehow, Gallows Hill, because of its prominence, became fixed in people’s minds and was promoted throughout the 19th century as the site. The city acquired it and some nearby land in 1936.
I waked through typical New England streetscapes of (mostly) white-painted frame houses mixed with some commercial areas. The “No Tour Buses” sign was a clue that I was near someplace important — but was I?
I walked right past Gallows Hill Park (do the tour buses go there?) because it was not the place and continued on Proctor Street.