Monday, April 12, 2004

Bin Ramke - Denver, CO

We left Logan, Utah in brilliant sunshine on a cold spring morning, and headed east through valleys and passes toward the Colorado border. Before we reached
the stateline we hit a tiny town called Garden City, right on Big Bear Lake, a splendid body of water that emerged before us hundreds of feet below as we descended to it.

With food once again driving my desires, we found the only restaurant open, the Hometown Inn, a place
that advertised their famous raspberry shake and completely run - it seemed - by 14 year olds. Missy took our order and Melissa started the food cooking. Once the burgers were ready Melissa went out the employee door to the front of the place to neck with her surly boyfriend, someone I believe who must be named Snake or Spike. He was sitting in his Camaro, passenger side, smoking a cigarette. They provided us a good deal of entertainment while we ate. I'd have a bite, have a drink of water, and then turn to see how Spike was doing negotiating the gear shift and Melissa's blue Hometown Inn apron.

Inside, Missy asked us a couple of times if our food was okay, then she'd rest her elbow on the counter, place her chin on her hand and stare out at Melissa and Spike as well.

The town was picturesque and clean and snug against this brilliant blue lake. We could see deer across the road munching on the grass and a gigantic mountain pushed against us from the west. I wanted to say to Missy - who might have lost the affection of Spike weeks ago (who knows?) - "What a great town. You must love it here." But of course I'm in my 40s. I've been in small towns and big cities. I've seen enough to know that a place like this is made for me. The city was great when I was in my 20s, but now I just want to reduce the people in my life and increase the trees and mountains.

But as Missy stared out the window, I sensed she was waiting for the end of the shift, the end of high school, and the start of her life somewhere away from here.

After we finished our food we took the trash and dropped it in a bin. Melissa had unhooked herself from Spike and was back inside cooking up someone else's hamburger. I looked for a tip jar, wanting to leave something for the kids. Missy, who I imagined would one day make it at least as far as Denver or Salt Lake City, and Melissa, who I knew would figure Spike was a dead end pretty soon and would need to get out of here as well.

We spent the night in Fort Collins, 60 miles north of Denver, and when we emerged from the hotel the next morning we saw snow on the ground, and our truck covered with ice. It was in the 20s, and though the sun was shining, the wind tore through us.

We drove down I-25 to Denver and then found our way to the University of Denver where I'm scheduled to meet with Bin Ramke, a terrific poet and editor whose work I've loved for years. Aside from his own poetry, he's widely revered for his work as the editor for Denver Quarterly and the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series. His choices for both venues are always impeccable, clear, lyrical work of a wide variety, always challenging, always opening.

Ramke greeted me warmly in the hallway outside the Quarterly's suite of offices and we went in his personal office. We talked a bit about the trip and he asked after some of his pals I've seen on the trip.

We ran through a bit of his geographic history, youth in east Texas, college in Louisiana and Ohio, then a decade long academic start in Georgia. He's been in Denver now for nearly 20 years and provides a lot of insight into how his youth in the South fits together with his long time in the West. He talks about the mountains that surround this large western city as barriers, as an isolating influence for the residents here.

For the past few years he's taught as a visiting writer in Chicago at the Art Institute, and he talked about the interesting dynamic that created, Fall semesters in Chicago - with endless museums and everpresent public transportation - and then Spring and summers in Denver, a more sprawling city where cars and highways fill every conceivable space in between the mountains.

We chatted long after the normal range of these interviews, and I would have happily continued. But the highway called. Ramke walked out with me, met my wife, and the three of us chatted a while longer. The sun was brilliant, and the company was welcome.

When we got in our car and headed east, it was with the knowledge that this last gasp trip to the west was over. It was just 750 miles back to our temporary home in NW Arkansas. The next months will see one last interview (with my MFA mentor, the poet Henry Taylor), and hours and hours of work putting the book together for a July deadline with my publisher.

We drove out of Colorado, into Kansas, and watched mile after mile of empty, fallow fields. Each minute now seems full of import, full of examination of what these 6-7 months have meant to us. A journey that in some ways just started, is nearly over. What have we learned? What do we want? What next? Where next?