Dear Dirty America


My Wasichu Vision Quest

May 31
01:51 2012
(from O’Donovan’s unpublished novel, Gargantua)
One day I came home from baseball practice and discovered that a traveling salesman had stopped by the house and had sold my mother a complete set of the Encyclopedia Americana. My sister was frosted because she was sure that this extravagance would cause my father to curtail her allowance once he got home and found out what my mother had done.
“She’s so gullible, it’s pathetic! Well, I guess I shouldn’t talk. I suppose we ought to be thankful they didn’t sell her the goddamn Brooklyn Bridge!”
Myself, I was elated. For me, the Encyclopedia Americana was a piñata filled with treasures. Huddled under my blankets with a flashlight long after bedtime I read all twelve volumes cover to cover. One subject fascinated me above all others—the story of the American Indians. The coverage in the encyclopedia was sketchy, to be sure, but it was far more inclusive and quite different from what we’d been taught in school and what I’d seen in the movies, as well as what I’d gleaned from reading The Last of the Mohicans.
In school we’d been taught that American history began when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, and the Indians were benevolent, almost mythological figures who welcomed the colonists with open arms and invited them to the first Thanksgiving dinner, after which they’d somehow conveniently melted away, like the snow on the hills. The Indians were figures of myth and American folklore, like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. But the arrowheads I’d found in the woods above Fairy Springs and up around Natty Bumppo’s Cave were real, and according to this new information—new to me—another civilization called the Paleolithic World Order had flourished on this continent for ten thousand or twenty thousand or maybe even thirty thousand years before the coming of the white man, and the country called “America” was just a tiny bubble in a vast river of time.
That posed another question. In school we’d studied Greece and Rome. This was called ancient history, our Western heritage. It seemed incongruous to me that we should study a civilization that rose and fell a world away when we were sitting right on top of a civilization that was far more ancient than the Greeks and Romans ever thought of being. And it was right here, right at our doorstep.
But I wasn’t interested in digging for artifacts. That was the past. I wanted to meet the Indians now, in person. But were there any Indians left? If so, where were they now? Did any Indians still exist?
I didn’t know the answer to this question, but two days later I discovered a library book that talked about the Iroquois vision quest. This was what I was looking for, something I could do now.
According to the book, a young man, when he reached adolescence—my age—went alone to a secluded spot in the forest where he prayed and fasted for several days in order to invite an audience with an animal spirit guide—a bear, a wolf, a lynx, an eagle—which would reveal to him his true identity and his mission in life.
We, my people, the Wasichu,didn’t have anything like a vision quest in our culture, but I felt impelled to go into the woods alone just the same and submit myself to a Wasichu version of the vision quest.
And what could be a better spot for my Wasichu vision quest than Natty Bumppo’s Cave, named for the half-Indian hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans?
On Saturday morning, I told my mother that I’d be staying overnight at Natty Bumppo’s Cave, and then I set about scouring the meagerly stocked cupboards for provisions. All I could come up with was my mother’s old standby, a can of Campbell’s tomato-rice soup. To this I added two slices of Wonder Bread and an army surplus canteen full of cherry Kool-Aid. Not much, but the format of the vision quest, strictly interpreted, called for fasting. I wasn’t all that big on fasting, but I figured to limit my intake on the first day to cherry Kool-Aid, and then, after my confab with my animal spirit guide, I could scarf down the vittles, such as they were.
For old time’s sake, harking back to carefree hikes my best friend Turk Monahan and I took to Natty Bumppo’s Cave when we were little, I stopped by the Frog Hollow Grocery Market and bought a can of Armour’s Vienna sausages, the traditional fare of those childhood excursions.
Around ten o’clock I left the house with my backpack, my grub, two army blankets, matches in a waterproof container, and a hunting knife which would serve as a can opener. I headed out the Lake Road, climbed the crumbling shale path through the forest up to Natty Bumppo’s Cave and made camp.
I wasn’t exactly sure about what to do, but since it seemed to me that the most likely time for my animal spirit guide to appear would be at night, after I’d gone to sleep in the cave, I figured I’d spend the rest of the day just sort of contemplating and then I’d go to sleep and in a dream the pearl would be handed to me. I made a fire and sat there looking down through the trees at puffy white clouds racing across the mirror surface of Otsego Lake. Nothing happened. I wanted to open my can of Vienna sausages. What if I ate just one? I drank some cherry Kool-Aid from my canteen. Why hadn’t I thought to bring an apple? An apple wouldn’t be cheating, would it?
I awoke at dawn in the damp cave. Condensed moisture was dripping from the smooth shale onto my face. I’d slept like a rock. There had been no dreams at all, or at least none that I could recall. It was disappointing to say the least. But I did know one thing. I was hungry. I was famished.
After swilling down some cherry Kool-Aid from my canteen I made a fire and opened my can of Campbell’s tomato-rice soup and my can of Vienna sausages, then I unwrapped my two slices of Wonder Bread. Rank as this pig-slop was, to me it tasted like eggs Benedict topped with sour cream and caviar.
So much for my vision quest! 

I stood up and shouldered my pack, and as I was pissing on the fire, I looked up at the sky and saw a huge bird going over, very high up, silhouetted against the dawn, without a flicker of wings, a condor or maybe an eagle riding a thermal all the way to Africa. It began as a tiny speck on the horizon beyond the lake and arrowed its way across the sky, a projectile plunging toward its destination.
It took forever for that bird to finally pass out of sight, high overhead, never wavering, never flapping its wings. Somehow I knew that I was that bird. I felt the thermal blossoming beneath my wings and the wind rushing all around me, and in that moment I knew that I was a bird of passage, that I was rigged for distance and that no artillery could bring me down.

Donald O’Donovan is a novelist, optioned screenwriter, and voice actor with film and audio book credits. His novels include Tarantula WomanThe SugarhouseNight Train, and Highway (find them here). Excerpts from Night Train have been posted at DDA. He lives mostly in Los Angeles, and can be reached

See also, Simon Rodia, Architect of Dreams and Cardboard Villages

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