The Power Of Fantasy
If Labor = Time + Skill Level
Then Labor + Money - Wind = Ranch
Then Labor + Money – Water Leaking = Boat
If Labor (L) does not equal X, and Money (M) does not equal Y, then Ranch ( R) = abandoned buildings filled with mouse crap and surrounded by dead trees. Or, if you change the equation to something that involves salt, seal lions, and white bearded guys with missing fingers, then if (L-X) + (M – Y) is less than Y, you end up with a mast sticking out of the water at Pier 39.
You get the picture. These aren't lifestyles that appeal to most people. They shouldn't. Most people are sane. Most people don't want to drive 100 miles to buy a bunch of bandannas and some deck screws, or worry about putting their feet into a puddle of salt water when they get out of bed in the morning because their bilge pump's power lines corroded through during the night. Most people simply don't want that level of chaos and difficulty in their lives.
But I'm not most people. It's a fact that's made hideously apparent to me every time I drive to Fernley (population 19,368), look around, and scream “How do you people live in this urban abyss?!?! You're like rats, rats in cages stacked one atop another in a fetid jungle of steel and concrete?!?!” (Or I would if I weren't terribly polite. Instead I just think it. Very. Loudly.) Some people are just not designed to live around lots of other people. We don't like the restrictions. We don't like the rules. We don't like the rudeness. The we don't like the smell.
We don't like your driving.
Ultimately civilization is a bit like Los Angeles. It produces colorful, interesting things. Its fun to visit upon occasion. It's filled with people who are much better looking than you and your friends are. But in the end, it's soul is a prison cell done up like a themed suite in a Mound House brothel: it has the trappings of love, but none of the reality. It is void. Maya. Illusion. And no matter which girl you pick from the lineup, you aren't going to find romance. Just a credit card debt you can't pay and the lingering suspicion that you ought to see a doctor.
* * *
But enough about my state's colorful native culture.
Like I said: not a lot of people want to live an open ended engineering problem as a lifestyle. Those of who do aren't even members of 1% of the population. We're more like a percent of a percent. A .01%. And that's true for anyone anywhere. Given a choice, most Bedouin give up heating their tents with camel dung, move to an Israeli housing project, and get a job taking care of orange trees. Given a choice, most Eskimos stop living in igloos, move to Denmark, and learn to put umlauts over their vowels. That's what most people do: they exchange personal liberty for 420 cable channels and 24 hour access to blue flavored Slurpee’s. It's lame, but only human.
It's also because they aren't insane.
“And maybe if I had a camel-portable solar array, I could...”
But there are others.
She's one of those petite scientists the French send down to the Kerguelen Islands to study arctic cabbage. You know her: the one that comes up with excuses not to leave when the last plane to Johannesburg is about to go and the icebergs are already in the harbor? The one who could have been a model or an ambassador's wife, but now she's all wind-bitten and gap-toothed, arguing furiously with a colleague in Paris about spectrograph results on Skype while smoking Gauloises? Yeah, that one.
The kind of guy who sets out alone from the coast of California in a 19-foot single-masted sailboat. He tells his friends he's sailing to Hawaii. He may even tell himself that. But in reality he's just sailing toward the horizon, to nowhere, to an imaginary island where there's fresh water, coconuts, and maybe a couple of Polynesian women wearing nothing but grass skirts. He never gets there. It doesn't exist. But he keeps sailing onward, hoping that Captain Cook and Paul Gauguin were on the level after all.
Why are people like us so fucked in the head? Why do we always cause so much trouble – especially for ourselves? Our camel dung doesn't turn to methanol, our fruit trees die, we don't find a new species of arctic cabbage, and Polynesian women don't wear grass skirts anymore. Yet we keep on sailing, even though it's apparent to everyone but ourselves that we are insane.
Why? It's because of the power of fantasy. Because of books. It's because we read a book at some point, lost our bearings, and became part of the book. And there's no way out anymore because we no longer exist outside of the context of that book. We've lost the plot, but the plot hasn't lost us, and there's nothing to do but see if maybe, just maybe we actually are Thor Heyerdahl, Cody Lundin, or James Wesley Rawles after all.
* * *
Of course there's nothing new about getting so lost in a book that you become the book. People have been doing it for as long as there have been books to get lost in. The entire Zionist movement believed themselves to be characters from a book. So did the Soviets. So did the Mormon settlers in Utah. Ayn Rand read Victor Hugo and O. Henry, fell in love, became a character from a book, and then wrote books that caused other people to become characters from her books. (In Rand's defense she was a Jew in revolutionary Russia. She was going to end up in a book no matter what she did. The Torah. Das Kapital. Mein Kampf. The Old New Land. At least this way she got to create her own book.)
Or, worse yet, none at all.
* * *
Of course the 21st Century frontiersman doesn't live in a single book. Rather, he dwells in a bizarre contiguous library: a juxtaposition, a cynosure academy, an alt-real archive that touches on so many places, times, and worldviews that it cannot possibly exist in a single location – if it can exist anywhere at all. Over the doorway, burned into a re-purposed railroad tie using old branding irons reads the inscription “We are definitely fuckups; but civilization is more fucked up than we.” (In Latin. Or Sanskrit. Or Motorhead font. Or something cool like that.) The halls within are low-ceilinged and dark, lit by kerosine lanterns, Coleman stoves, solar lights, hand-cranked flashlights, and the flickering remnants of discarded 1990's laptops. Nor does it contain any single sort of reader. There are old men in buckskins sporting flowing beards shot through with gray. Dark skinned cowboys with wild mustachios and dinner plate belt buckles. Middle-aged women in floral print dresses. Serious looking men in leaf pattern camouflage, and wild-eyed hippies in stained Carhartts. Nervous looking suburban businessmen and soccer moms, all periodically glancing over their shoulders as they peruse the pages of books whose contents are almost certainly politically incorrect, possibly illegal, and definitely socially unacceptable.
The contents of the library are as motley as the visitors who frequent its dusty, cluttered stacks. First there's the magazine section. Over against one wall lie decades of yellowed copies of Mother Earth News, stacked one atop another in vertical representations of lifetimes of adobe-slathering, greenhouse-building, goat-milking solarpaneldom. In a different corner lie mouldering copies of Backwoodsman, their pages printed so cheaply that the ink comes off on your fingers while you read them. Progressive Rancher, Range, and Small Farmer's Journal grumble from one bookshelf, while Backwoods Home Magazine preaches from another. Guns and Ammo holds itself silently aloof on the stacks: the coffee table reader of a revolution that is always just over the horizon, yet perpetually out of reach.
The How To textbook section. The largest, yet least frequented, area of the library. Countless books on how to create, install, steal, fabricate, fantasize about, use, and live with solar panels, windmills, micro-hydro generators, dehydrators, greenhouses, wood burning stoves, milking stools, deep-cycle batteries, wood gasification generators, water pumps, artesian wells, and chickens. (Always chickens. Chickens, chickens, chickens: the survivalist spirit totem animal.) Books about making earthships. Books about papercrete and cob and log cabins and adobe and living inside of old mines. This room is the Third Temple, the Mecca, the Salt Lake City of the library. Everybody has to travel there to pay homage, but nobody sticks around unless they are in the midst of a crisis – at which point they hang about with worried expressions on their faces, plunging through book after book in the vain hope they will one day be able to cheaply fabricate their own photovoltaic cells, bring $400 deep-cycle batteries back from the dead, or actually understand hydrodynamics for the first time in their lives.
Then there's the fiction room: the biggest, busiest, and most popular part of the establishment. Rand and Jesus are in there somewhere (the strangest of bedfellows, yet there they are). Nock is there too, angry at Rand for ripping off his ideas and disgusted that his beloved “remnant” turned out to be disaffected suburbanite poseurs dressed in buckskins and camouflage. Forstchen and Rawles hang about the back, waiting to get put on the terror watch list. Zerzan is already on the terror watch list (Unsurprisingly, as advocating terror will do that.), while Thoreau stares at all three of them in horror, wondering who invited them all to the same party. Robert Heinlein is naked, melancholy, and genuinely sorry he wrote Farnham's Freehold while high on pills. Copies of Earth Abides, Alas Babylon, Canticle for Leibowitz, and The Stand lean haphazardly against one another – dire warnings of apocalypses that will never happen – while Robinson Crusoe and Call of the Wild strut about with manly self-confidence.
Then come the Bad Ass Room – a popular place filled with army manuals and smelling like Thor Heyerdahl on a Nazi shooting rampage. Cody Lundin is there: mad, shoeless, fire worshiping prophet of the wilderness. His buddy Dave Canterbury is there too with his five C's (cutting, combustion, cover, containers, and cordage). Steve Watts is making Stone Age tools in once corner, while James Rawles (who has escaped from the fiction room using his ninja special forces training) demonstrates how to simultaneously deliver a baby, can vegetables, and perform amateur dentistry. Kurt Saxon – bigot, atheist, biker, children's toy maker, mad bomber, Scientologist, and coiner of the word “survivalist” - is trying to convince a pained-looking Massad Ayoob that they are on the same side (really), while Ragnar Benson is dressed in a Guy Fawkes costume, quietly building a crossbow out of an old leaf spring.
* * *
This is the library in which I live – the book which sooner or later turns all people like me into its characters. The crazies. The malcontents. The dubious people of uncertain profession. The gun nuts. The paranoids. The recluses. The dropouts.
The people who don't like your driving.
Most of the other characters in the library are visitors, not residents. Again: most people aren't crazy. They don't live in the wilderness, make their own jerky, or attend PrepCon. Most people work in a sterile cubical surrounded by a piss-stained urban abyss, drive forty miles (round trip) for the privilege, and live in model four (the one with the bigger dining room) in a subdivision surrounded by models one through eleven. They escape to their library because they cannot escape from their lives. But that also is the power of fantasy - and they know enough to know that you don't really go into the book. It's the difference between a flirtation and an affair, a glass of wine and a bottle of scotch, and a suburban strip club and a Mound House brothel.
Nice people don't go into Mound House brothels or have affairs. They know the difference.
Except some of us don't.
Those are the ones who went to Palestine to make the land bloom. Who pull their children from Kansas to Provo in a wagon while singing the strange hymns of a new faith, or take on the Spetsnaz in Kabardino-Balkaria with a clapped out Egyptian rifle while crying out for Allah. Or try to build their own personal paradise in the Black Rock Desert.
Because while we read the book, the book reads us. We don't rewrite the book: the book rewrites us. And now we can't live outside of the library, and are doomed within our souls.
I don't meet a lot of new people in person who live in the same book as I do. (A lot of people you meet online claim to inhabit it, but that hardly counts. A lot of people you meet online claim to be hot, single 19-year-old-girls too.) So when I hear about some tucked out of the way somewhere (And aren't we always tucked out of the way somewhere?) within 100 miles or so of Midian, I make it a point to go meet them. And so it was that I found myself barreling down Surprise Valley Road in my wife's clapped out Ford Explorer, a cloud of dust, a babbling child, and heavily armed Chris Karma for companions as we abandoned the comforting pavement of 447 for the gravel-and-dirt roads of the Smoke Creek Desert.
The people who I was going to visit are very private, so I'm not going to use their actual names or provide specific information about their location. Let's call them the Smiths, and all I will tell you is that their children go to school with my daughter. They live very far out in the deep desert on a forty acre spread surrounded on all sides by a vast sea of sagebrush. It's on an unmarked dirt road that's off another unmarked dirt road that's off a gravel “highway” which is similarly anonymous. There's no way to call them – cell service is sketchy at best out there, land lines are nonexistent, and they choose not to have an internet connection. But I had an open invitation, the weather was lovely, and it was the weekend. So I invited myself over.
I'd been to the same place years before, back when it was called something different and belonged to someone different, so I had a fair idea of where I was going. Still, there's always a moment of hesitation when you open a gate out here and let yourself in. You are after all in a very real way crossing a threshold you can't uncross; and it's always hard to say you're sorry with a .45 Long Colt bullet in your chest. So I wasn't unduly surprised that, after I opened the gate and drove into the compound, armed men emerged from buildings, flanking us on three sides.
Let's call them Uncle Smith, Pappy Smith, and Junior Smith.
I put my hands out where everyone could see them. “Hey guys! It's Jason Walters. You've met me before.”
“Who?” Pappy Smith was suspicious. A not a little dangerous looking.
“I'm Cassidy's dad.”
“Oh.” he relaxed visibly. “Oh, yeah! Jason. Good to see you.”
I gestured toward the car. Chris was emerging from the passenger side, waving broadly, all smiles and “not threat” despite the Glock .40 strapped to his hip. “I brought Cass with me.”
That really broke the ice. Everybody loves Cassidy. As I helped her out of the car, the compound's children poured out of the main building, a gaggle of happy, dust smudged faces calling out my daughter's name as if she were an ice cream truck that had taken a wrong turn somewhere in Sacramento and had magically found its way here, like a lost dog in search of food and companionship.
* * *
The afternoon proceeded lazily in the way that ranch visits always do. We rapped about guns, politics, our pasts. We compared notes on our worldviews and came to the conclusion that, if we weren't actually members of the same clan, we were most certainly members of the same tribe; characters in the same mad children's book. We compared our approaches to off-grid living – and, most importantly, how to afford it.
The oldest child – a delicate, elf-like girl of 13 – took me on a tour of the property, taking particular pride in their garden (very real and thoughtfully executed) and their golf course (mostly whimsey and moonshine, but very real to her). Like Midian, the Smith Compound is a mixture of genius, fancy, and half-completed folly, the primary difference being that it's more compact and that its inhabitants have the traditional desert rat's terror of throwing anything out. (Note for urban readers: It's not that we are inherently messier than you. It's just hard to get anything out here, hard to haul anything away, and hard to get anything you need when you might need it. The result invariably is a lot of potentially useful things, arranged into piles that slowly moulder under the beating sun, providing excellent alternative housing for mice and black widows.)
Afterward, while Cassidy played with the other children and Chris compared gun notes with Uncle Smith, Junior and I retired to his trailer – a surprisingly modern and nice little fifth wheeler. Junior is an artist of considerable natural talent. Most of his work is of a rather risque Larry Welz/ Cherry Poptart/WWII bomber nosecone art nature, but he does pictures for children as well. He showed me some of his work, plus patches and other emblems he'd designed for an outlaw biker club. We had a look at his collection of knives; very functional, no Bud K stuff from Pakistan, mostly either crafted by himself or resurrected from the rusting ashes of “dead” knives in a manner that showed incredible patience. (He cleans pelts with them.) We inspected his rifle – a battered but serviceable AK variant of some type (Russian? Yugoslavian? North Korean?) - and, most prized of all, in a handmade bookshelf so carefully placed that it might as well have been a shrine, his complete collection of Margaret Weis, Michael Williams, and Mary Kirchoff novels.
* * *
Of course it wasn't a complete collection of books by these three authors per say. Nor were they the only three authors in the collection. Rather, it was a complete collection of the paperback Dragonlance novels (even the new ones that nobody cares about). These three particular members of that varied and peculiar fraternity are merely the ones that I know personally. Margaret Weis – famed and successful roleplaying book publisher – I had a business meeting with once. Mary Kirchoff and I worked together on a project together at one time (a TV show that didn't happen), and I've published two of Michael Williams novels.
I told Junior this, and he smiled at me indulgently, as if I'd just told him that Rey Mysterio, Dale Earnhardt Junior, the Pope, and I reserved the Pyramid Lake fishing charter together each year. Or that I regularly communed with angels.
You know. Crazy.
“No, really.” I responded, sensing his incredulity. “I published two books my Michael Williams – Trajan's Arch and Vine: An Urban Legend. They're not much like his Dragonlance stuff, though.”
Junior's eyes lit up in recognition.
“I heard about those books,” he said. “Yeah. Michael Williams is a really good writer.”
“Yes.” I agreed. “Yes, he is.”
This too is the power of fantasy: the ability of a man who is a character from a book to visit another man who is a character from the same book, and for those two men to discuss how much they would like to be characters from yet another book – written by men and women who, at an early age and influenced by giants like Tolkien, Le Guin, and Lewis – longed to be characters in their books, but had to settle for creating their own books instead.
And, in all honestly, it is this power that at an early age set me on the road to living in a book. It wasn't Rand or Thoreau or Heyerdahl. (And it *damn* well wasn't Saxon!) Those came later. It was Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson writing Dungeons & Dragons. It was Le Guin writing the Earthsea Trilogy, and my mother reading me The Hobbit when I was a child. It was those crazy, homicidal Demon Princes books that Jack Vance wrote, and even Andrea Norton's marginal Quag Keep novel. It was the longing for adventure that plagued a restless youth, shaped an early adulthood of fast motorcycles, booze, and guns, leading finally to a romantic, almost melancholy desire to become a frontiersman, a settler, and to shape my own paradise from the formless chaos of nature in a place nobody else wants to live, and to record that experience for others to enjoy.
To write a book. To be in the book, to be of the book, and finally to be the book, until at last I cast off this mortal shell and wander forever in the realms of fantasy, leaving only books behind.