Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

Richard Brautigan’s Cowboy Boots

(From “Mean Grey Old Morning,” a short-story collection)

So I wound up marrying a girl from the Pacific Northwest whose dad was a Norwegian with the wanderlust. His wanderings ended abruptly beneath the fall of a massive Douglas fir when he didn’t hear the faller’s warning above the racket of the noisy chain saws that were replacing misery whips and double-bitted axes in the 1950s.

She was eight that year, and somehow took it into her head that if she was a good enough little girl, her father would return to her. That was one of the saddest things I ever heard.

Daughter of a wanderer, she drifted with me during my newspaper gypsy days. We came home to the Northwest the year after her mother died. It was the same year her oldest sister came home from Norway, leaving a marriage to her Norwegian first cousin during which they had lived on the same land their family had occupied on the heights above Bergen for four hundred years.

I began to learn things about the Norse: each generation seemed to spin off at least one wanderer like my wife’s father, who settled far away, while the rest stayed close to the ancestral land. The stay-at-homes liked to travel, too; they thought nothing of visiting across the planet to far-flung descendants of the wanderers, before returning to the Land of the Midnight Sun. Children of the wanderers routinely made pilgrimages to the home country. To the offspring of Vikings, it seemed, the whole wide world was a smallish neighborhood.

There seemed a special affinity between the Pacific Northwest and the Norse. Not only family members from Norway, but family acquaintances, would show up for visits. That’s how I encountered Richard Brautigan’s cowboy boots.

Brautigan was an American writer of unusual gifts who enjoyed a vogue in that strange time in America that bridged the era of the Beat Generation and that of the hippies with flowers in their hair. He spent a lot of time in San Francisco with the hippies, but he was a Pacific Northwest native.

“I was about 17,” Brautigan wrote about his arrival in California and living in a pasteboard-lined shack across from a welfare mom, “and made lonely and strange by that Pacific Northwest of so many years ago, that dark, rainy land…”

I would never have known a thing about his work if I hadn’t married into the Northwest. Brautigan’s words had come to represent the drowned landscape of Western Washington as surely as the coming and going of the traveling Norwegians.

I was reading his unusual prose when the Norwegian poet came visiting in 1973. I never quite grasped the poet’s connection to my in-laws; he didn’t have a lot of English and the in-laws took his arrival as a matter of course without need of explanation.

So there he stood in our foyer, long and lanky and with limp blond locks over his shirt collar, because part of visiting was to stop in at every house connected to his host.

A Norwegian poet wearing cowboy boots. I wondered if he was a Wild West fan.

But no, he had received the boots as a gift from Richard Brautigan when he visited the writer in San Francisco on his way to the Northwest. I heard “Brautigan” amid the Norwegian consonants. His hostess and translator, my sister-in-law, explained that Brautigan was quite popular in Norway.

The lanky poet’s smile was as wide as the Midnight Sun; on his pilgrimage to San Francisco, his icon had given him his cowboy boots! Not only that, Brautigan had personally described the Pacific Northwest to him. I thought about one of the author’s descriptions in the book I was reading then:

“… the Pacific Northwest: a haunted land where nature dances the minuet with people and danced with me in those old bygone days…”

The Norse poet had been completely dazzled by his meeting with the author; that needed no translation. Now, wearing Brautigan’s cowboy boots, he seemed ready to step out right this minute in a haunted quadrille.

Then he was gone, to continue his rambles in Richard Brautigan’s boots until the fjords called him home.