A friend used the word “weird” to describe the feeling he got when he read my last hole journal entry from Germany. I wrote him back and asked him what he meant by weird…He said this,
“I didn't mean to infer weird so much as the dangerous sort of artcentric writing that entered into all of this with your German reportage. I kept hoping, reading that, that the performance element of this -- while always present -- subsides again for the solo aspects of these projects, the inner journeys.”
Dangerous? Artcentric? Dang it! I think I sort of know what he means. He may have a point! But for now all I can do is follow the HOLE. The journey is inner. And Outer. Join me...
On the edge of a plain overlooking Red Lodge, Montana, at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains, a man in a suit digs a hole in the midday sun. I am here beneath humongous sky by a barbed wire fence surrounded by sweet smelling sage. I wield a brand new pick and shovel purchased at a hardware store in Bozeman one mile from the airport.
The sun at midday blazes clean, a mile high, and the air is light and thin. I am looking for rattlesnakes and grizzly bears and Blackfeet Indians. I am whistling Mick and Keith and Lewis and Clark and the birds in the cottonwood trees. My female assistant/wife is nearby in the shade protecting her alabaster skin. The earth gives way and I sweat through my white dress shirt. I hang my suit jacket on a weathered fence post and roll up my sleeves. I am a hole ranch hand.
When the hole is ready we take a few pictures. Having my wife help on this is a first. She’s never seen me dig a hole. She’s letting me boss her around a little. I tell her to get a different angle, maybe get higher up on the stepladder. Please. Thank you. This is the rare situation she knows nothing about and she gracefully assumes a subservient role. This pleases me. We should do this more often. For now I am the one and only hole earth expert.
We plan to come back at golden hour and try to get some photos when the light is less flat. I dive into a cold pond down in the woods and then we are taken by our friends in a high powered pick up truck up into the Bear-tooth pass, across the border into Wyoming.
We find a snowfield and I stumble out and dig again. June sunshine bounces off the spring corn snow. I make a hole fast and climb in and I can feel how mighty and deep winter must have been here. The snow is cool neutral, like last time in the dunes of Cape Cod, only now I am two miles above sea level. Two miles closer to the sun. Nothing grows out of snow. No seeds are planted here. I begin to shiver.
Back in Red Lodge the other hole is golden shadow waiting and we scramble up through the woods to the prairie “bench” overlooking town. I get in. My wife lets me boss her around some more. She’s all in--and up on the stepladder with the camera. “Higher”, I say. “You won’t fall. See me in this hole, woman? See what you’ve done to me!?”
I wake up just before dawn the next morning and can’t get back to sleep. Drank too much at the Snag Bar after the hole. Shot pool with our host and lost. I’m worried about what I’ve agreed to do in Livingston, Montana. The Danforth gallery has invited me to make a hole. But they have no place to dig near the gallery and it has been suggested instead that I build a hole in the gallery. Build a hole? A hole needs to be below grade, below the surface, right? I agreed to the idea weeks ago, but now I’m feeling like a fool for going along with it.
I call the contact woman at the gallery, Sho. She is on the board and seems genuinely stoked about my project. I try to extricate myself from the entire situation. I tell her I’m not sure it will work logistically etc etc. She is extremely persuasive, calm and easy to laughter. Our conversation bubbles along and I realize maybe I can build her a hole. She knows what she is doing. She is leading a horse to water and I am feeling thirsty.
The next day I do a phone interview with a woman from the local, Livingston paper. I have no experience with this sort of thing and beforehand I pace and smoke and drink a little. I plan to be succinct and precise with my language. But I end up rambling, trying to make her laugh, trying to be deep, babbling. When I hang up I can only hope she will be kind.
The gallery “hole” will be part of the Livingston monthly Art Walk. The town has, among other things, a dozen or so galleries, an old railroad station, inviting bars, and the Yellowstone River. Authentic bohemian old west vibrations abound. We’re staying in a hotel called the Murray. The railroad station is across the street. A note about the train whistles going off all night is attached to some earplugs and waiting on our pillows.
In the afternoon lovely Sho takes me to a ranch owned by the Juhnke family. Dick and Gay Juhnke are maybe seventy and live ten miles outside town. They have a sign at the end of their driveway that says Juhnke Junction. They own a junk shop in town and have some kids, two of which are called Dusty and Rusty Juhnke. I shake Mr. Juhnke’s strong rancher hand as Sho tells him what I need the stone for and that I am a “performance artist” etc. He nods, looks me up and down and comments on my boots, the ones with the steel toes worn through from crawling up Manhattan. I tell him how the boots got that way and he nods calmly and says I can take all the stone I want from his quarry. Mrs. Juhnke stands by, one hand holding her mail, one hand on her pick up truck.. She is having trouble breathing. She explains that she’s fighting some kind of cold that won’t go away. Last night she woke up suddenly because she could barely breathe.
At Sho’s place nearby I get the keys to her pick up truck, the key to the gallery, and directions back to town. On her porch we drink a beer and hear coyotes cackling in the distance. It is late afternoon. She says the coyotes never call out like this before dark. She says this is highly unusual. I say they are laughing at the holy man.
On the way back to town I clock jet black ravens crowded into a juniper tree and one all alone hopping along the side of the highway. The ravens in Montana are clearly up to something.
Trains roll through my head all night long. In the dream I am clinging to the roof, hurtling towards a tunnel. Before the tunnel I jump off and when I hit the ground I jerk awake. First light glows behind the curtain. I’m out the door.
I drive the truck out to the Juhnke quarry and unchain the gate while mosquitoes buzz and bleed me. The rising sun burns them off and I fill the truck bed with angular flat-sided chunks of rip rap Wyoming rock. Ravens watch from the quarry cliff. Fat marmot gopher mammals duck in and out of sight.
On the way out I chain the gate closed. In some high grass I spot a pile of old rusty mailboxes, car fenders and wheel wells. I grab a few of those too.
Mr Juhnke is working behind his house. I thank him for the stone and mention that I’d like to find some driftwood. He tells me how to get down to the banks of the nearby river on a hidden dirt road. I follow his directions and find a mother load of bleached out roots and branches and trunks, piled high from a long gone flood.
Back in town with a full load of stone and wood and metal I back the truck up to the gallery. I unlock the door and start building a hole. It doesn’t take long. I pull a couple pieces out at a time, bring them in and place them in a circle. It’s like I’m following long ago memorized instructions. It is downright eerie how quickly this hole/nest thing comes together. I get in and test it. It fits.
After more work the wall nearby is covered with two dozen roughed up unframed Hole Earth photos from the past few months. The photos need to be priced. Me? In a hole? For sale?
I read the local Livingston, hot off the press. The Supreme Court has ruled that people can get married now in any state. Obama sang amazing grace at the memorial service for the nine people killed in their own church. The cops shot one of the escaped convicts in upstate New York. Some guy is building a hole in a gallery downtown while wearing his father’s suit. Sounds dangerous. Might have to check that out.
People fill the sidewalks going from gallery to gallery. The Danforth is packed. I am in my suit and planning to hob-nob and spend a little time curled up in my hole to show people how it looks. But I realize early on that I need to get down inside and stay there. It doesn’t feel right just standing around like a big doofus when I’ve made a special place for myself to be.
I get down inside, close my eyes, and stay for a very long time, listening to people talk and move around me. I go into a trance, drooling slightly from the corner of my mouth. But I keep listening and the voices are everywhere.
Children gather around my nest and I hear them say, “What’s he doing?! Is he dead?!”
Parents reassure them.
A woman gasps and shouts
“OH MY GOD HE’S IN THERE!”
I hear cameras going off over me.
A few drunk dudes in straw hats stand around my hole and cheer and raise their cups and chant ; HOLE! HOLE! HOLE!
A woman leans down and whispers to me that she knows what I’m doing. She says she knows I’m looking up skirts.
I hear my wife’s voice in the din. “He’s actually quite tall when he stands up. He’s been in there for a while. He’ll get up eventually. That photo is from Germany. That one is Manhattan I think. Or the Bronx…”
Another woman blurts down at me, exasperated, ,
“I don’t know what this is. I don’t get it. It doesn’t make sense.”
I hear a voice in my head say---I’ve been brought to this. What have you been brought to?
There’s talk about a couple prints being sold. Could there really be money in the holes? My music paid for Germany. Maybe holes can pay for Montana.
I hear a boy’s voice that reminds me of my son. I remember that first dig with him, the one in the field behind our house, the origin hole, filled with rain water now, home to a teeming little ecosystem. I miss my boy. He’s down in Yellowstone Park with his grandparents. That’s how this all started. I was going to drop him off with them and then wander around with a shovel and pick, alone with my journey…
Now here in this crowded buzzing gallery it is so right to be down on the floor hibernating and eavesdropping from inside my vessel. Is this what they wanted? Everyone seems to be into it. Just let me lay here listening with my eyes closed until its over.
Someone reaches down and touches my shoulder. I peek for a split second and see that is attached to a swollen troubled looking woman. She presses down gently on my shoulder, as if to make sure I am real and alive--or to tell me that she is. Her warped energy zaps through me and is gone. I keep my eyes shut.
After a while I stand up slow so as not to disturb my nest and some people clap or just stare or look away at the paintings of dogs and birds on the other side of the gallery. I’m quite disoriented.
A tall rangy Lee Marvin looking rancher man squints at me. I look him in the eye and nod.
“You’re weird,” he declares flatly.
He forgot unnecessary. And important.
I’m introduced to a few groovy looking sun blasted locals. People ask questions and I can’t bare the sound of my voice or the shape of my answers.
Someone says, “This could really turn in to something.”
I heard that when I was crawling too.
I grab a shot of whisky, drink it quick, and get back down into my hole. We are leaving town tomorrow at the crack of dawn. The gallery is quieting down and after a little more time I hear my wife’s voice tell me it is okay, I can get up now.
Later that night I open the trunk of our brand new rental car and I stare down at my barely used shovel and pick. I’ll need to give these tools away. They won’t let me take them on the plane.