One of Us Must Know image

One of Us Must Know

April 26, 2016

Reading Time: 17 minutes.

Sometimes words rattle – no – not words, something else: a mixture of things: thoughts, ideas, memories, things that fire, that tumble, that rumble, on and on and on.  Such things – whatever they are – come loose inside ahead sometimes, rattle like a stone in a shoe.  When they do it’s best not to let them rub you raw, but just write them out.

I drive across a great American plain, the insect dashed windscreen a dirty great cinema of Americana – the sky IMAX big. Ten hours on the road, morning: desert and scrub, Mohave brown and tumbleweed, afternoon: foothills rolling out flat, vineyard and cattle grazing green. Now the dusk is coming on as Dylan plays loud:

Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited, lyrics drifting, fog and stone, lyrics that trigger me to listen close, lyrics that trigger those rattling thoughts.  With Dylan, I often wonder if what he’s singing about means anything at all, whether his meanings or what others read in all a scam. Perhaps you could say the same of this, ambiguity something that takes practice.  But does it matter, when it does, when his maybe nothings meaning something to me?  Anyway, Bob always gives me the highways blues.

I am a tourist here, in this landscape, rolling through, out of place, out of time.  Tomorrow I’ll be home.  Instead of this: this here, I’ll be there, back in suburbia: kids playing in the street, bikes left strewn, ramps made from bricks and wood.  Ireland is a good ten years behind the UK, twenty years behind the US.  To go home there is to truly go home, the past no foreign country.  I always imagined I’d live somewhere a little more hip, some New York loft or Montana mountain shack, not The Good Life: neighbourhood watch, bins on a Wednesday, a wooden shed, but that’s what it is: good, nice nothing to be afraid of. 

I’ve had no home for a decade, maybe longer, only a draw, a shelf, some space in a cupboard, half a bed, a free tenancy, but never a hearth, no pyjamas, no slippers.  For a long time, the home was just a brick bivy, my heart that of The Littlest Hobo (well the untidiest anyway).  These things were my fault, of course, just angles in my brain, a view of things that was misaligned in some way with what was in my best interests.  A place to stay without commitment is nothing more than that, yes roots trap, but roots also nourish, and without them sooner or later you’ll wither. 

I stayed with the photographer Martin Hartley a month or so ago, in his bottom floor flat set in a victorian house in Bristol, the walls white, old wooden shutters too. The rooms of his home are heavy with the sense of the many lives that had lived here, layers of paint a midden to intimate history.  Martin is one of the worlds leading adventure photographers and is as hardcore as it comes, no doubt twice as hard as most of the hard people he photographs.  His home is a perfect reflection of Martin, his life, his spirit, his history, every item within it like a museum piece, an exhibit of Martin, each a clue to the man.  Like Francis Bacons studio you could seal up Martin’s rooms like a time capsule so that we could forever know such a man.  Bones, tooth and claw, light metres, old Leica and Nikon bodies, dented and wrapped in tape to stop flesh sticking in the cold, each appear here and there, placed more than chucked, not simply storage but composition. 

The walls of Martin’s flat are hung with old pictures, maps and charts, a sense of proportion in everything, set with the easy eye of the artist’s instinct. Skis sprout from behind radiators, their orange skins rough from Antarctic sastrugi, while a weight vest hangs behind the door, bent ski poles where umbrella would live.  This is boys flat, a boys own adventures flat.  Speaking late at night with Martin you get a sense of a man who made some difficult choices, to do that, or to do this, art or love the cost, passion for both, to go or stay, choices that haunt everyone who is forced to choose.  But then I think perhaps in some things our choices are fixed, the outcomes set, the deed done back down the line, the switches pulled, just yet to be seen through, us the last to know.  For many of life’s right angles, it’s simply a matter of ‘If not now, then soon, what seems cruel to some, those that hurt the most, just the plaster ripping.  I tend not to be jealous of most people, after all even those with all life’s gold are still forced to lift it,  but I was a little jealous of Martin’s home that night, in that it was Martin from floor to ceiling, making we question why I lacked all these things, the flotsam and jetsam of life.  Then I realised why his flat was the way it was.  It was devoid of anyone but Martin.  It was all him because it lacked another.

You see a lot of homeless people in the US, harmless zombies you blank out, avoid eye contact, outside the cinema, at the junction, sat in Starbucks.  A lot of people want to be free, free of all their junk, well this is what it looks like, rolling stones kicked into the gutter.  I saw a homeless guy with a sign the other day, an old homeless man on the streets of Las Vegas, sat on a bridge, the whole world passing him by, glam and sad, fat and thin, rich and poor, all passing by.  On his sign, it read “Just looking at butts”.

I think about home.  I try to picture my front door, remember the colour, or if it has any colour at all, wonder if I’ll find my key after so long away, stuffed in some haul bag I hope.  The colour of that door – or its lack off – reminds me of coming home from Antarctica and barely remembering a single password or log in, such things as keys and credit cards and passwords just junk down there.  They say if you let a pig escape the farm it soon grows thick hair and fangs and become a boar, soon turns wild, reverts from meat to animal. 

“When you shot him was he wild?” the interviewer asks the hunter, the hunter sat beside the bear in the TV studio.  “I was furious!” replies the bear. 

The key to happiness is to be that escaped pig as much as you can. 

I think about that door again, slipping in the key, turning the lock.  I’ve spent a lot of my time coming home but more leaving.  Things have changed, as they must. That key to home is not just a key like all the others, but one fitted with a piece of blue plastic that cost me twenty pence that makes it stand out from the rest.  It’s no longer just a key that one day will no longer have a lock to fit, that once meant something but is orphaned and just has to be thrown away.  It means something.  We are committed.  I think about turning the key, think of the silence of that house, clean and tidy, awaiting my mess, Vanessa still at school no doubt, but as excited to see me as I see her.  I know I’ll get that little joy and relief to be home, to dump my stuff and be done with it for a while, but the house - the home - will feel empty until I hear her car drive up – her key in the door.  I complained a week ago about people’s Instagram accounts being shameful, dishonest, only ever giving the good news, pushing half the truth of life often full of doubt and hardship and sacrifice, the light but rarely the shadow.  I think it’s only right that people tell the truth of their lives, not give it a PR spin, more than just a sponsor hashtag hustle.  Two people I like on Instagram, people who could be all spin, are Lea Crane and Beth Rodden. with Lea (@leahcraneclimbing), although never explicit,  gives me a sense of someone driven hard, talented, but who gets knocked down a lot, most often than not standing on the highest podium.  I see the frustration, the desire, the drive, the disappointment.  I get a sense of this not through her pictures (just a person hanging off plastic lumps), or even what she says, but somehow read in the space between her words and images. I have zero interest in bouldering, especially indoors, but I am interested in people, especially those who get their asses off the mat and don’t give up.  With Beth (@bethroodden) it’s more pronounced, a rarity amongst US climbers, and not just mock drama, but honest and real.  I remember meeting her briefly when she was just a girl, maybe be sixteen, in the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria, before Tommy. I’ve met a lot of people over those Formica tables, legends large and small (including Alex Honnold, who sat down and asked me if I was Andy Kirkpatrick!),  but that meeting Beth stuck, the reason simply the way she listened.  Why I follow Beth is for something more valuable than simply the banal ‘send’, but her simple humility -perhaps what I really mean when I say ‘listened’.  And so here’s some shade: when I open that door, with all the nice feelings I know I’ll have, and the feelings to come, there will perhaps - no there will be - that pang of sadness: no kids to rush into my arms and tell me that I’m smelly.  And there you go, a thought like that, a highway blue, a thought that rattles.


Have you ever seen a tumbleweed?  They’re pretty cool, just rolling along and tinder-dry, no direction of their own, just a twiggy sail set by furnace wind.  When you see one for the first time in the flesh, well in the bush, you think: ‘Oh a tumbleweed’, a dusty shooting star, knowing it to be what it is the second you see one. I saw one crossing the road today – to get to the other side - but got hit by the car in front.  I don’t know how old tumbleweeds are, what it takes to get so big, but it shattered like glass, to dust. I wonder how far it had travelled? 

Dylan sings on:
I couldn’t see when it started snowin’
Your voice was all that I heard
I couldn’t see where we were goin’
But you said you knew an’ I took your word
And then you told me later, as I apologized
That you were just kiddin’ me, you weren’t really from the farm
An’ I told you, as you clawed out my eyes
That I never really meant to do you any harm

I think about who may read these words I write, including you, laid in bed – perhaps – flannel wrapped hot water bottle keeping you warm, or sat at the airport waiting – somewhere –  time that needs to be murdered – down in the valleys, deep and wide and dark between the summits of action, of life’s meaning, where there is only light.  Why do we give so much to reach the top? To set ourselves goals? What do we miss when so much time seems simply be there to pass, the darkness not dark at all, just shade. 

What does the tip of a spear know of the world? 

I look out of the window and see a landscape devoid of peaks and summits, just far off hills, where just beyond I know the Pacific laps, wild as a sea can be, where great whites, dolphins and Yvon Chouinard swim.  I think it’s wrong to give all you’ve got to win, to imagine yourself superhuman when far from either.  No summit can sustain the joy in reaching it, can be nothing but that fleeting calm between desire and obsession.  True happiness is to have at least been there, to have felt it just once, nothing between you and heaven, no shadow down on you.  I’d like to believe there is some simple alchemy of the normal, a potion, a recipe to follow to make joy without a drop of pain.

Not far ahead a man stands beside his car at a crossroads, a sign in his hands saying: “Out of gas can you help”.  He looks sad, and I think for a second about stopping, after all, it’s the type of thing I do every time I drive a car, second-guessing just where empty really is.  But then I see a hundred yards on there was a gas station.  I think he’s being a bit dishonest, a better sign one saying: “Can’t afford gas, can you help” or “Not only have I run out of gas, but I’ve also run out of money”.  Maybe I’d go back, maybe tell him to change his sign, tell him I’d maybe have helped if he’d run out of gas, but that not having the cash was different – after all if I gave him some money he’d only spent it on gas.  And so I drive on, stealing his story and giving him nothing back in return, that man may be still standing at the crossroads still as you read, four days on – waiting for the devil to sub him some cash – unaware he’s here as well, a rattling thing.

When Dylan sings he breaks my heart a little, the way music can sometimes do: leads thought astray, drags you back, wheels spinning hard, digs up the bones and looks again for ways to join the dots.  Some people can never escape their past, the spirit in the well, people I often meet.  You see it in their eyes.  Wounded.  A gift I have to see not the joy but the pain, every beating heart carrying a story.  It’s taken me a long time to feel happy again with my own company, to be confident I can look after myself - funny when my reputation is founded on isolation.  Once I could not be trusted, a journey like this, a day alone, no good at all.  It’s not nice to live in fear, worse still in fear of yourself.  Someone asked me the other day about suicide, so certain it was wrong, that sooner or later thing always get better, my only reply that ‘sometimes people can’t take the pain of waiting’.  But as for me, alone with my thoughts, I feel them now elbow warm, safe to dip, even soak, those bitter places - still wounded - OK to touch upon.

The night comes on, Dylan on repeat.  I skip Rainy Day Woman and play One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).

I think about forgiveness and mercy.  Me forgiving those, that trespassed on a heart, that heartbroken reason to stamp on theirs.  I think it’s a curse to see the other side, to be like a bull charging at first, then to look at the carnage caused and reflect on the truth of it all.  How does love turn to hate in peoples hearts?  To see it and experience it is to know how and why people get so damaged, for some life too short ever to heal.  But some do, no time for history.  Hate betrays love, but then hope - and forgiveness, and understanding - can turn it back. 

A fly explodes on the windscreen, big as a small bird, making me jump.

I think again about the tumbleweed, the man at the junction, Martin’s home, where my key could be, as Dylan sings on, my motel still two hours away.

A mayfly only lives a single day.  I wonder if such a creature has time for hate. 

There is no mercy in nature, but then perhaps that’s because there’s no need.
Sometimes thoughts rattle like stones in a shoe.


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