How to Clean your Conscience Chapter 11: A Baby’s Clean Conscience

July 23rd, 2016.  11:30 PM

They say your life flashes before your eyes right before you die.  I never doubted it, but never had any concept of understanding it…

Not until that night.

The sun, though millions upon millions of miles away, surely has no trouble dealing punishment to anybody brave enough to set foot in Southern Idaho. She is a relentless bully, one that’ll leave you burned, dehydrated, and if careless, completely miserable without a flinch—our sweat-drenched, energy-deprived bodies proof of its inexorable ways.  But even the fiercest of warriors require a respite between battles every now and then. And there we were, survivors of the night, still standing after everything she had thrown at us; enough fuel in the tank for one more round.

A sharp pop from my beer interrupted the faint trickle of the Boise river, a few rocks throws away from our hotel room balcony.  I took a sip then turned the can, taking the time to examine its exterior, already suffering from severe condensation.  Coors Original.  Hard to believe we considered this a delicacy once… I took another sip and melted into my chair, the taste a refreshing contrast from the IPA’s and microbrews I had become accustomed to in recent years.

Bill stepped outside, laptop in one hand and the remnants of a six-pack in the other.  To make room, he stacked his beer on top of a can that had been left on the table from the day before, as if it were the base of a beer staff, minus the duct tape.  The practice can be witnessed at your typical college party, as students and party-goers alike will walk around with staffs several cans high, adding a link after each consumed beer.  I may have participated in the ritual a few times, but not like Bill.  Every once and a while, him and Jay could be seen strutting around the University of Idaho campus, proudly wielding their staffs and causing a ruckus.  Each outing wasn’t complete until the staff towered over each of their heads—a rite of passage for any partier, the main requirement if the rank of wizard was to be awarded by the end of the night.

Jay… The name gave me goosebumps.  Bill grabbed one of the beers, popped its top, and lifted it to his mouth.  I followed his lead, taking another sip of my own.  Man, the times we used to have drinking this stuff…  I looked up to a sky littered with stars, imagining Jay’s figure forming in a cluster of them, watching over us amongst the giants. I lifted my beer to the sky for a toast—just in case.  I miss ya buddy.  You left us way too soon.

I took in a full breath of air, anticipation for a long speaking engagement. They were all too common on nights like these, especially with Gibson.  Add in a pack of cigs and a cheap case of beer, and you could count on it! Just be careful not to bring up politics.

I couldn’t count the amount of times we had staying up late with a beer in hand, exploring the reaches of each other’s conscience on a variety of topics, ranging from football, to philosophy, and every once and a while, women.  In fact, once, I discretely remember him staying up with me until 4 in the morning, just to make sure I got over a girl. The night was much colder, but similar to this…

Before I could speak, the soft plucking of an acoustic guitar came from the computer speakers; a simple rift, slow, but familiar… and comforting.  Ugly Casanova—Babies Clean Conscience.  Bill has played this before… A gem from our youth, written and performed by the front man for Modest Mouse, yet hidden for 15 years under a pseudonym.  Turns out, it’s become one of our favorites…

My words stalled, searching for the right moment to interrupt.  The rift repeated itself for a few measures, the sound of a lazy summer day, stocks of wheat brushing against the side of a barn; two friends sitting beside it, embracing youth and its eternal state.  A small break in the plucking signaled the entrance to the chorus.  I prepared myself.

…This reminds me of home.   I didn’t say it.  I hadn’t the will to speak.

I’ve got a babies clean conscience,
I walk around with my head off,
And in the state of the big sky
The ground holds on to my grandpas…

My eyes drifted down my arm as the song led into the first verse, following a contour map made from layers of perspiration and dirt, soaked, then dried, then soaked again throughout the course of the weekend.  I continued, down my sweat drenched shirt and to my dirt-stained cutoffs.  My hand, wetted with condensation sifted through my hair, separating the knotted strands adhered together by an emulsification of sweat and river-water. My gaze floated upward, eventually locking once again with the glowing night sky.

We’ve been here. Many times…

It had been over a year since we had arrived in Pony, Montana, but the sights, scents, and feels remained.  The air was crisp in that small Montana town, barely changed since the frontier days of its founding.  And with as many horses as cars and a local bar where a beer only costs you 2 dollars, granted somebody doesn’t buy one for you first, it would stay that way for many years to come.  And on the night of our arrival, Bill, Gretch and I stood outside the Dutcher cabin, gazing upon a starry spectacle, so clear that streaks of the Milky Way were visible to the naked eye.

Photo by Alan Labisch on Unsplash

Within the blink of an eye, the world had been transformed—a world enshrouded in darkness, all but for the cluster of stars above.  Atop a bed of water, we gazed upon the majestic sight, soaked in the benefits of isolation, the central tenant of the Boundary Waters experience. Protected by a solid wall of timber, a tributary of lakes, and two Boundary Babes by my side in the small corner of Northern Minnesota, we knew that nothing could harm us.  Nothing could corrupt us.  And in a world filled with evils and wrongdoings, we knew that for that moment, we could live in peace.

I took another sip, my gaze still commanded by the stars.  Here’s to you, Lauren.  The spirit of the Boundary Babe lives on…

A short gust of wind pressed against the surfaces of our exposed skin, reminding us of the soothing presence of stagnant air—one of the many comforts of an Idaho summer.  Even in the dark of night, a t-shirt and pair of shorts is all you need, much like it was at the gateway of Hells Canyon the night Jimmy Dawson, Collin Morlock and I sat and watched a shower of meteors broke the calm of a crystal-clear sky, our minds consumed with pinpointing each instance of the astrological phenomenon. Known as the deepest canyon in North America, all it takes is a few minutes inside the naturally sculpted channel, carved through millions of years of geological turmoil to forget that a world actually exists outside the canyon walls.

The memories flowed, hundreds of them it seemed, one after another as the sound of a strained guitar waned forward, one descending note at a time.  It repeated itself over the song’s original rift, a musical line that would eventually lead to a conclusion.  I listened and stared, petrified in total awe at the infinite ceiling, much like that night on the Palouse, hoping that somehow, I could be frozen in time.

It was another pounding of snow over the plot of fertile farmland that spreads across the southeast border of Washington and Idaho.  Perfectly timed during finals week at Washington State University, I furiously trotted through the snow, dead set on a mission across campus to fetch a case of energy drinks in what was anticipated to be another all-nighter.  Our thermal systems design project was on my mind, and time was running out.  “We still have calculations to do.  We’ve barely started writing the report…  There’s so much work—how in the world are we ever going to get this done?  We’ll never make the deadline—“  I stopped dead in my tracks.  Gasping for a breath, I looked up to the heavens, ready to make a desperate plea to God.  Instead, flakes of snow fell on my face as I stared up through the fog.  There were thousands of them, each making a soft puff as they hit the ground, the only audible sound throughout the neighborhood. Above it all was a bright, yellow orb glowing in the sky and lighting the snow-covered planes of the Palouse. I stayed there for several moments staring, too awestruck to move.  “Oh, my God.  What a beautiful sight.”

I savored that moment as long as I could, but as soon as that thought entered, another one sifted in.  I just hoped there was enough time fit everything in…

Cruising up Bryden Canyon Road to another summer party at Josh’s parents, an event that I was destined to get kicked out of.  “I’ve had 20 shots, and I’m not even drunk,” he’d say, believing that his farcical taunt would be enough to get me to take another shot… which it usually would.

Countless music festivals at the Gorge—one giant, three-day party smack dab in the middle of Washington State.  Overlooking the mighty Columbia River Basin and surrounded by tens of thousands of other concert goers taking it all in, it was easy to get lost in the spectacle, believing whole-heartedly that we were in the happiest, most beautiful place on Earth—and you’d be right.

Sitting in the basement of the Sanden’s house with Brandon, Shaun, and the rest of the crew after a long day of skating, wasting away with a video game after a long day of skateboarding in the Lewis-Clark Valley, waiting for the next day to do it all over again.  I took another sip and stared into oblivion, letting the familiar feeling sink in once again—the feeling of absolute bliss.

It must’ve been a night just like this when Bill and I met.  And it wasn’t just Bill.  There was Moody, the Drizzle, and a whole slew of us.  We were merely just a couple kids then—kids with nothing to lose, nothing to worry about, and nowhere to look but up.  And in that little oasis they called the Lewis-Clark Valley, two towns on the Washington/Idaho border separated by the Snake River sat a skatepark—the perfect place for a few strangers to share a common love, establish a bond of trust, and over many seasons standing atop a piece of plywood with a set of wheels, form lifelong friendships.

Too most, it was an abomination.  Its ground was crusty, the obstacles uneven—not even making sense at times. There was a rail, “Big Red” they’d call it—much too high for the amount of runway that was provided and pushing required to hit it.  Miraculously, nobody ever racked their nuts on the thing—except for Ben Woodward, of course.

But the park had personality.  We knew how to ride it, knew ever little crease—how to hit each transition to maximize pop.  It was our park, our sanctuary from the symptoms of teenage angst… thus, it was so much more than a park.  It was a place where legends were made.

We screamed and cheered at the Hot August Nights Comp when Kevin Lentz pulled a 360 kickflip over the hip, only to be outdone by Nate Pasch’s melon off the wall and over the quarter pipe.  Many a times we stood shoulder to shoulder when unwelcomed visitors tried to start trouble, or when there was a prank or two to be carried out on innocent bystanders. But perhaps most precious of all, once our bodies were enervated from a day of skating and shenanigans, we’d sit along the side of the park, imagining the thrill of sliding down a handrail, or soaring down a flight of stairs—whatever combination of flips and grinds our minds could devise.  We’d sit on a park bench without a responsibility in the world, silently scanning each obstacle spread across the crusty asphalt on a warm, starlit summer night, and we’d dream.

…I could remember it all as if it were yesterday.

Hard to believe this movie was made 10 years ago. And staring some of the finest.

The song resolved into oblivion, the dreams fading from my memory bank as the obfuscation of reality set in.  We sulked in the silence—the stillness, left frozen in the night.  Now, it seemed like an eternity, this familiar feeling, this look that was commonly donned during a simpler time and this prosperity we sought, abundant in life, but lacking in materialistic desires—the successful career or the Mercedes-Benz, all part of a life that I was forced to return to in less than 24 hours…

A life that had been slowly transformed over the last 15 years.

Suddenly, I felt numb, like a frog slowly accustomed to boiling water.  The skatepark was gone, replaced by a newer, sexier model.  It had been years since I seriously stepped on a board, unable to feel the magic of riding out a smooth transition, rediscover the thrill of grinding down a ledge. And the friends… people you’d spend every waking hour with, now lucky to see once a year, if that.

Sitting on that balcony at the advent of my thirties, gazing upon the endless sky, I couldn’t help but battle a tear, pondering a cold reality.

My God, how so much has changed…

I turned my head ever so slightly, in fear of creating disorder in the universe. Through my peripheral, Bill peered into the darkness, the ambient sound of a running river filling the void.  He wouldn’t dare move a muscle—wouldn’t dare disrupt the comforting force that gravity exerted on our bodies.  And like me, he was destined back to Texas, back to his own version of a career-driven reality.

Age does wonders to the soul.  Whether we realize it or not, it develops wisdom within us, one that makes us cringe at the mistakes of our past, better informs us for the future, and eventually, for the sake of removing ignorance, helps us realize when it’s time to move on. And after a weekend engaged in conflict between friends, enemies, and the forces of nature, it helps us realize what a rarity moments like these are… that it’s never too late to clean your conscience.  We’re never too old to sit back in wonder.

…We’re never too old to appreciate the calm that comes after a long, summer day.

And in that small pocket of time and space, overlooking a small aggregate of flora amongst the rugged landscape of southern Idaho, maybe… just maybe, Bill was thinking the same exact thoughts as me…

“Hey Bill,” I said at the risk of destroying the ambience we had carefully crafted.  It was the first words spoken since we had returned to the hotel.  He paused for a moment, cautiously waiting for the follow-up. “…Play that song one more time.”

Bill reached for his computer.  With a few clicks, the simple, acoustic rift once again blotched out the sound of running river water.  He sat back, took a sip of beer, and braced himself for another round of deep introspection.

I sat back in my chair, my head forward, staring into the abyss.  I took a sip of beer, and smiled.

…Some things will never change.

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