Jeff Muse

Ground Truthing

I was only 19 when I fell for Leah, an athletic, blond junior with emerald green eyes and a tongue that tasted of alcohol, radiating in my mouth like a faint chemical burn, like the halo of a small flame. I remember exactly how it felt because I didn’t drink--not beer, not vodka, not Mad Dog, whatever my fraternity brothers may have had on hand in the basement of our crowded house. But Leah certainly enjoyed our parties, a glass bottle or plastic cup in her hand like the dozens of other coeds who packed the dance floor outside my room. She was the first girl I ever kissed who had liquor on her breath. Yet I can’t recall how I first met her, perhaps after one of her volleyball matches when I caught her eye and said, “Good game.” Or was it after we crossed paths one morning and I worked up the courage to say hello?

Either way, the circumstances of chance. Or was it? Was it instead fate?

Still, don’t ask me how I ended up living in the basement, some formula I haven’t thought about in two decades. I think all the brothers lined up to choose their rooms based on seniority and grade point average and, I bet, pot-smoking alliances kept under wraps. Sophomore year I may have been the only non-drinker in the house, 70 guys largely from upper-class families, the most self-assured among them raised in New Canaan, Connecticut, or Chicago suburbs like Glencoe--money, everyone knew. With financial aid I landed at the bottom of the stairs, where beer kegs were dragged like sandbags when full, then tossed like tin cans once drained. In the wee hours after our parties, after most people had gone home and I lay in bed, trying to fall asleep, I’d hear the cheers of drunken young men as someone hurdled a rolling keg. They called it Donkey Kong, as I recall, after the video game with a barrel-chucking gorilla.

When people ask me why I lived in a frat house, I grasp for a reason. I’m grasping now. A greenhorn surrounded by booze. I’m still trying to make sense of it. In 1987, the year I entered DePauw, more than three quarters of its freshmen males pledged a fraternity, say, 200 guys for 13 houses. Like most of them, I suppose, I wanted to belong, to be popular, to be a stud. We even moved in before classes got started (a practice the university has since changed), enjoying a honeymoon phase of virile popularity after parading like stallions through “rush week.” I remember shaking hands and touring parent-less mansions, each building a maze of intrigue and promise--stately living rooms, dining halls with polished wood floors, exotic bedrooms with pounding stereos. There were elaborate, custom-built lofts in those bedrooms, holding mattresses near poster-covered ceilings. I imagined all the girls who climbed toward those beds, their tanned legs achingly beautiful. Opening a book hardly entered my thoughts, of course, and I fretted until Sigma Alpha Epsilon chose me. And, yes, I kept fretting once I got in, especially through long, rowdy weekends.

Good thing I met Leah the next autumn. Better still, she dropped out a few months later. Had she not lured me out West to visit her, I might’ve started drinking to fit in.


In his 1957 novel, On the Road, Jack Kerouac penned one of my favorite passages: “Beyond the glittery street was darkness and beyond the darkness the West. I had to go.” Sometimes I tell myself that’s how it all started, reading those words and taking my first steps toward the mountains, toward the man I would one day become. Like Kerouac, I was hungry for wide-open spaces and experiences I couldn’t find in the East. But, really, I have to credit one of Leah’s love letters, which I’d read before anything by Beat writers, its postage mark from someplace called Astoria, thousands of miles distant, dream-like.

It was late March 1989. Leah had left Indiana three months earlier to live with her mother and stepdad awhile, and since she’d dropped out to earn money for tuition, I felt obliged to scrounge up the airfare. I flew into Portland, Oregon, early on a Friday evening, though the sun had already set by then, but she’d made sure to warn me of the rain, how soggy the place could be, how dank. As the jet glided down toward the runway, I could see a hulking darkness below--the Columbia River I’d studied on my map, the route early explorers had taken. Then we drove the two hours to Astoria, one of the oldest permanent settlements on the West Coast. It was founded by fur traders in 1811, five years after Lewis and Clark had been there.

As we meandered along the black river, its emptiness imposing yet captivating, I thought about the week-long road trip we’d planned all the way to sunny Los Angeles. And while visions of warm weather likely filled our conversation, it was what I saw the next morning that has since endured. I awoke to a view across Victorian rooftops: the Columbia’s four-mile-wide mouth. There were towering, orange-hulled tankers in the river, five or six waiting for upstream passage. Their decks brimmed with multicolored boxes. Their strange names came from faraway lands. Streamers of gray clouds trailed across distant green ridgelines, the foothills of Washington State, and white gulls spiraled above a latticework of piers in slow circles of undulating flight. For a Hoosier raised amid cornfields, flat farmland as landlocked as it comes, I was awestruck not only by the scenery but a thought that must’ve thrilled Lewis and Clark: so this is where the continent ends.

“Different, eh?” Leah may have asked, sitting by the kitchen window that morning. I’d been marveling at the view for more than an hour, since I’d seen it from the bedroom upstairs. I drank strong, black coffee and ate a whole grain bagel--another new experience, a new taste--and I listened to her parents talk about the rhythms of living on the stormy edge of America. “Oregon,” they said, “might mean hurricane, from a French word with a similar spelling.”

I have no recollection of what else they may have said, though I remember all the terrain we’d soon cover, starting with a walk down to a maritime museum and the deck of an historic lightship, painted bright red. On Sunday, Leah’s mom took us to pick up the rental car that would carry us 2,000 miles round-trip, then Leah and I sped down Interstate 5, hoping to reach San Francisco overnight. Shortly after we crossed into California, I awoke in the passenger seat. An ethereal pink light flooded the car, and I sat up to peer out the windshield. Mount Shasta loomed at sunset--a volcano right along the highway--and as its snow cover radiated with alpenglow, I struggled to find the words to describe it.

I realize now I’d never seen a glacier--a slow-moving, crevasse-laden ice flow. I was mesmerized by several of them in the waning light, the way meltwater gathered into streams. How high is that summit? I wondered. How long until its water reaches the sea? As we rounded the mountain’s enormous shoulder, the sky turned magenta, then pale blue.


As an Indiana child in the 1970s, I pored over maps during road trips with my parents, though instead of a 14,000-foot volcano, we crossed silo-studded stretches, smooth and featureless. I remember always thumbing through that atlas, asking questions about its symbols and squiggly lines, and how there was a light green shade across swaths of empty space--public land in parks and forests, I was told. Why some places had more green fascinated me. Why didn’t Indiana have as much as the other states? I pondered the mystery with a finger on the Rockies, the Redwoods, the Smokies, Yellowstone. But on trips to Kentucky, my father’s birthplace, I matched the terrain outside the window with my map, at least the blue markings I had come to understand as lakes and creeks and rivers. I remember the moment I pinpointed the Ohio--ground truthing, like a surveyor. The letters on the sign at roadside were the same as those I saw on my lap. And crossing into Louisville was exhilarating. I saw the waves downstream to my right, and though only my imagination could float along, that big river took hold of a little kid.

Writer Stephen Trimble talks about this phenomenon in The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places. “We have map-making genes strung along our DNA,” he says, essential for the survival of our species. Recognizing landmarks, he explains, comes with the full development of our brains. It’s a process that begins when we’re only four or fiv--old enough to remember the way home.

Was I piecing together North America then? Did the Ohio become a starting point for future journeys, a sort of thumbtack from which I’d string a line toward every compass bearing I’d one day explore? What I know for sure about those early trips is that I experienced an age-old rite of passage: I learned how to read the language of landscapes long before I could read most sentences. Years later, traveling down the Pacific Coast, I felt the same sensation, the same desire, the same combination of wonder and excitement, and a curious kind of longing. Driving into San Francisco reminded me of Louisville--steel bridges, a toothy skyline, sudden shadows--and Big Sur teemed with wild crevices like southern Kentucky, the leafy hollows Dad drove us through in Cumberland County.

And, to be honest, I know there’s more to these memories, more to traveling with my parents as a boy, because my mother and father split up when I was six and finalized their divorce two years later. The recollections I have of sitting in the backseat are far fewer than those of sitting up front, when my older brother, Alan, would let me “ride shotgun” next to one parent who sat behind the wheel. In particular, I recall the trips with my father, either without Alan or when he sat in the rear, when we’d travel four hours from the east side of Indianapolis to the remote valley where Dad was born. And as we drove, I could see a can or bottle between Dad’s legs, or a paper bag crinkling in his hand. I don’t recall thinking much about it at the time, though eventually his alcoholism would come between us. By the time I entered college a decade later, I would see my father only once or twice a year, but my fraternity brothers often reminded me of him--his red eyes, his slurred speech, his breath. Strangely, it was comforting at times--the way the frat house smelled, the way people talked--and kissing Leah while she was buzzed had a way of making me feel close to him.

What should I make of that realization? It’s hard to say. It’s hard even to acknowledge it. The best I can do is to describe the feeling: attracted one minute, repulsed the next. Maybe that’s why I like road trips. Any movement, in any direction, is a relief. Or maybe I like them because Dad did, the way he pointed out streams along the way. Then, of course, there’s the alcohol--an intimidating, unpredictable terrain. I’d like to think I’m only interested in what flows under bridges, but what’s flowing through someone’s veins matters too. Unfortunately, there’s no map for that. I’m as lost there as I ever was.


I should admit, though, I tried drinking as a teenager--at least one high school party my junior year. It was early November between playoff games, and scores of kids had gathered for a “kegger” in a cornfield. That time of year Indiana nights are chilly, though not winter-coat weather, and little rain. I wore a hooded sweatshirt under a nylon jacket with a football patch sewn across the chest.

The party took place at a classmate’s trailer, which sat about a quarter mile off the highway, and I sipped a beer while eying Jody Slinkard, a sultry senior who gazed right back. Funny thing is, I didn’t get the chance to talk to her before flashing lights began gathering on the horizon. Then came the shouts of panicking teenagers as a line of police cars turned into the gravel lane.

I’m not sure what pushed me to run. No one grabbed my arm and pulled me off the trailer’s deck, and the buddy I rode with was nowhere in sight--Mark, a master at lying to his parents. But I do recall thinking of my own mother, who was camping with her second husband that weekend. What would she think if her youngest got arrested? How would she feel about my drinking? So I bolted into the void that ringed the tiny yard, stumbling through furrows of corn stubble, and lying on my stomach beyond the sweep of flashlights, I could hear girls crying and a sheriff’s radio.

“Who’s that?” someone whispered right behind me. I didn’t recognize the voice, but I could smell pot.

“It’s Jeff Muse,” I said, trying to catch a glimpse. People laughed farther back in the dark.

“Muse?” the voice said. “What are you doing out here? I didn’t expect to see you running from the cops.” I didn’t know whether to be flattered or offended. My heart pounded with adrenaline and dread.

As I write these words, I’ve got my high school yearbook open, trying to find a face to match that scratchy voice, but like the darkness that enveloped us in that cornfield, all I’m left with is the irony of the moment. Before long, we moved from our spot near the trailer, slinking like commandos across the field, then we huddled in the shadows along a tree line, discussing our next steps toward freedom.

“You should come with us,” the voice said. “We’re walking to Fortville, a couple miles to my house. You can use the phone or I can give you a ride home. Hell, you can stay the night if you want.”

On one hand, I was inspired by the offer--a stoner and a jock teaming up. Then again, I thought of disappointing my mother. I thought of marijuana smoke getting into my clothes.

“Thanks, man,” I said, “but I can walk from here,” trying to make a long slog in the middle of the night seem like nothing, nothing anyone, except Mark, would find out about. “In a few hours, I’ll be home. I can make it.”

But the following spring the yearbook on my desk was published, including a Monopoly-like board game called “Student Life.” There’s a box along the margin with these embarrassing words: “Name the junior who ran home nine miles from a party.”


My mother didn’t hear about that adventure until she returned home with my stepdad on Sunday evening, though Alan, who was 22 and living with us at the time, had already scolded me like the father he’d become. Worse, Mom didn’t even punish me for my poor judgment, but rather talked about choices, her voice cracking. “Jeffrey, if I can’t trust you,” she said quietly, “I’ll have to take your car keys, don’t you agree?”

What remains from that walk is a kind of memory map, images arranged like a slideshow in my head, along with my zigzagging route through the dark that night, down one country road to the lonely next. By the time I returned to school, word had spread--about the party, about the cops, about me--and every time someone called me “Rambo” after the Sylvester Stallone movie, I gave a fake, foolhardy recount. But all anyone had to do was look at my tennis shoes: they had been new only days before, and bright white. Now they were scuffed and stained and creased with dirt. I was ashamed--Mom had spent good money on them.

In The Geography of Childhood, Stephen Trimble talks of “middle childhood,” the period between seven and 12 years of age, when our brains “learn in a uniquely fresh, receptive, and playful way,” poised between what Edith Cobb called “inner and outer worlds.” Trimble describes Paul Shepard’s “ark of the mind,” which kids load “with animals, with plants, with place”--the experiences that will one day shape our adult lives, the stories we’ll always tell and likely romanticize.

I don’t doubt that such an ark exists, a period during our youth when we take in all the world, when we’re “a vessel for teachers, family, and peers to fill.” After all, I discovered rivers and road trips then. But I also think there’s another ark, one of the heart that overflows during our teenage years, less carefree than its predecessor in childhood, more self-conscious and burdened with reflection. And I know I put that November night in there, my family’s struggles alongside the roadside images, because I can’t separate the sound of my mother’s labored voice from the corn silos whose blowers howled as I walked by. I remember, too, how slowly I drank that beer, pining for a cheerleader who’d never leave her boyfriend, longing for another kind of landscape--a girl’s body like rolling hills I’d never reach.


Two autumns later I’d fill the ark with similar emotions, in a fraternity “lineup” late one night. I was a DePauw freshman wearing only my underwear, standing alongside my 16 pledge brothers. Hazing was common at SAE, from continual pranks to slave-like service to upperclassmen, but what we dreaded most was being dragged out of bed in the dark and told to strip down to our boxers or “tighty whities.” We’d all walk single-file into the dining hall--a dim chamber of cigar smoke and silent men--then stand against the wall for an hour or two to be ridiculed in sarcastic tones, one by one. All in all, the words didn’t hurt that much--they poked fun at my sobriety and poor grades early on--and I endured the smoke as I had in my father’s house, a stench that burned my lungs while yellowing the walls.

Yet there was one lineup that did sting deeply, or precisely in the minutes after it ended, when we were asked to share a memory from a pledge-class road trip to the universities of Illinois and Miami of Ohio. Again, one by one each of us took his turn, though this time the room rang with laughter after every story, from smoking joints and bar-hopping with other SAE chapters to passing out on a stranger’s couch in a strange room. I stood uneasily near the end of the line, laughing like everyone else but also worrying. What should I say? I thought as my turn approached. I hadn’t smoked. I hadn’t drunk. I’d merely survived.

“Your turn, Muse,” an upperclassman may have said. “What’s your favorite memory from the road trip last weekend?” Putting it like that, the question seems kind of healthy--young men bonding over stories told time and again.

Perhaps I felt that way in the seconds before I spoke, recalling our caravan to Illinois and then Ohio, my Honda hatchback one of three or four in the line racing down interstates and shoulderless country roads. Or maybe the room’s lightheartedness had offered reassurance, some comfort that they’d like my story too. No matter what I say, I may have thought, they’ll celebrate. They’ll laugh for me as they had done for all the rest.

“I like that we drove 500 miles!” I exclaimed, describing the moment my odometer clicked over. “We crossed three states, maybe a dozen rivers. We ate pancakes at a Waffle House. I like pancakes.”

The room fell silent, agonizingly silent. My tale was out of step. My whole life was. No one shifted in his chair. No one said a word. Then a shy sophomore whispered something--two words, slowly.

“C-r-a-z-y M-u-s-e,” he said near the back of the room. I recognized his voice without seeing his face. He was a tall, muscular, good-looking fellow, a star teammate I admired on the football field. And I realize now he didn’t mean to hurt me. It was his way of bringing levity to an uncomfortable moment. But the new nickname Crazy Muse would stick with me. They all started calling me that, even my pledge brothers.


By the time I met Leah a year later, I was resigned to my image if not mildly proud of it: at some point every kid grows up by thickening his skin, by moving on. And when we took that road trip down the West Coast, another gear shifted in my identity. Even though our long-distance romance would peter out, Leah introduced me to the man I would become. Or perhaps it was a reintroduction to the child I’d been, wide-eyed and untroubled long ago, full of questions while crossing a big river, my finger tracing a squiggly line to the unknown. So after graduating from DePauw in 1991, I packed a U-Haul and moved to Washington with another girlfriend, Tina, books by Kerouac and other Beat writers near at hand, including The Practice of the Wild by the poet and essayist Gary Snyder. “The wild requires that we learn the terrain,” Snyder writes, “nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home.”

Imagine what those words meant to me at 22--validation and permission to roam, to escape. I could leave my clumsy youth in Indiana behind. I could start a new life with a girl who felt the same way. But wouldn’t you know it, Tina dumped me within several months, beneath Bellingham’s dreary sky, beneath all the rain, and I wish I could blame the older guy who came between us, a brawny rock climber who’d been a cop in L.A. Yet even then I knew I’d a hand in our breakup, at least my nagging restlessness did. I’d struggled to find happiness in that soggy climate. I’d itched to hit the road when times got tough.

Again, though, it was late March on the West Coast, and the highway lay ahead for the taking. I was between jobs, heavy-hearted, rootless, and before thinking it through, I headed down Interstate 5. I wore a flannel shirt and listened to a Nirvana tape, Seattle “grunge” rock full of angst and discontent, though as I neared California and veered toward the ocean, I found a purpose to get me through a few days. What if I visited Gary Snyder? I thought. In The Practice of the Wild he’d said he taught at UC Davis. So after driving down Highway 1 beside the Pacific, I crossed the Golden Gate and turned inland toward my hero.

How fitting, it now seems, that I didn’t stop in San Francisco, as if passing through had been my plan all along, like the salmon I’d seen leaping up Whatcom Falls near the apartment that was no longer mine back in Bellingham. After I crossed the bay and traveled east of Oakland, a thin raincloud lifted from the interstate’s pavement, and the glare of sunshine blinded four lanes of traffic, causing everyone to step suddenly on their brakes. Then the car right in front of me started spinning, though remarkably the flood of vehicles stopped. Straight at me stared the boys who’d lost control--four Asian teenagers with frightened eyes and open mouths.

Do I look like them? I wondered, mortified. They turned their car around, stepped on the gas, disappeared.

Within an hour I was parking on the Davis campus, seeing dozens, if not hundreds, of similar faces--Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, I presumed, cultures Snyder had embraced in his writing. I remember walking into the tall, elegant admissions building, asking for a catalog with a list of faculty offices. Then I saw “Gary Snyder, B.A.” in the English department, and a surge of nausea tested my resolve to find him. It hadn’t occurred to me that one might not need a Ph.D. to teach in a university of 30,000 students, though I also knew Snyder was exceptional: he’d published a dozen books and won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. But what I most admired about him was his journey, from his youth climbing the “great snowpeaks” of the Cascades to working as a fire lookout, on trail crews, and on seagoing tankers, then studying Buddhism in Japan before settling in the Sierras. And unlike Kerouac who had died in 1969, succumbing to alcoholism at 47 years old, Snyder had been alive and well for many decades, breaking trail through ideas as much as through any wildland. He was a literary and environmental legend at 61. Could I really walk up to him, introduce myself, chat?

Soon, though, that’s exactly what I did, in the cramped annex in which Snyder kept an office. But outside his door stood at least two dozen students, entering one by one to discuss academic matters. Not knowing what to do, I got in line, then waved additional walk-ups ahead of me. I thought at some point I’d talk to Snyder in private, though I didn’t have a clue about what I’d say. An hour or so later I stood alone, close enough to hear his voice, to see his face. My armpits dripped, and my palms were soaked. I’d shredded my stomach with nerves.

When I walked in, he raised his eyes only a little, enough to peer above the rims of his bifocals, and I couldn’t help but stare at his pointy beard, which made him look wise yet mischievous like a leprechaun.

“Wilderness lit or poetry?” I think he asked, his voice sounding fatigued, maybe stern. When I hesitated, he said, “Which class next quarter?” Then he motioned toward the pile of papers on his desk.

Oh, shit! I thought, what miserable timing. I’ve interrupted his chores, his office work. Yet I felt even worse when I opened my mouth, thinking about my road trip along the coast.

“Neither, sir, neither,” I stuttered. “I just drove a thousand miles to meet you.” As soon as the words vanished, I was horrified. Snyder was bound to push me out the door.

Instead, he took off his wire-rimmed glasses and, smiling, said, “Please have a seat.” Then he not only asked me about why I’d come, but also the signs of spring I’d seen up north.

His office was exactly what I’d hoped for: intriguing books, cultural artifacts, plenty of photographs, including one depicting him with the poet Allen Ginsberg, who’d introduced him to Kerouac in 1955. But what I didn’t expect to see was his outstretched hand, weathered and thick-fingered from outdoor work, passing me a copy of “Coming into the Watershed,” an essay he’d recently published in the San Francisco Examiner. The piece was an explanation of bioregionalism, the notion of defining our lives by ecological zones, “porous, permeable, arguable,” Snyder said, “boundaries of climates, plant communities, soil types.”

As we sat together talking about rivers--the Ohio, the Columbia, his own South Yuba--we each expressed a fascination with landscape changes, how the character of a place shifts subtly from mile to mile. And how quickly 45 minutes sped by! I could’ve listened to Gary Snyder for hours on end. Everything he said sounded like my native language, words I’d always known but never heard someone speak.

When I stood up to thank him, he asked, “How did you know I’d be here today?” He said he hadn’t taught a class since the previous year, that I’d visited during his only office hours in many months. The spring quarter would begin in a week or two, he explained. All the students had stopped by to pick up readings.

“I didn’t know about your schedule,” I said. “When I stepped through your door, it was a coincidence, dumb luck.”

Snyder laughed, I laughed, then we shook hands goodbye. Wandering had never felt so good.


A few hours later, I was rounding Mount Shasta again, heading north on Interstate 5. Beneath the rosy alpenglow on the volcano’s glaciers, I drove in silence, veering northeastward on Highway 97. The high desert of Oregon lay beyond my headlights. Adrenaline and caffeine would get me there.

That night I drove to the town of Bend, where Ted, my best friend from college, lived with Jenny, a California girl who’d been in the same sorority as Leah, and whom Leah and I had visited in L.A. three years earlier. A New Yorker, Ted moved west about the same time I did, leaving sour memories of our fraternity days behind. We hadn’t seen each other since graduation the year before, but I knew he was scraping by like me--the educated poor.

After midnight I arrived on the front porch of their second-floor apartment, where Ted bear-hugged me and our breath misted in the freezing air. He told me that Jenny was already in bed for the night, that she had to get up early for a marketing job promoting local tourism. Ted himself ran a chairlift at the Mount Bachelor ski area. He’d become a snowboarder and rode his bike each morning to catch a shuttle bus. It was a far cry from our final semesters on the dean’s list at DePauw, where we’d partnered to win the senior research award in psychology.

As we pulled out the futon in their tiny living room where I’d sleep for a few hours until they departed for work, I told Ted about my visit with Gary Snyder the previous morning, how lucky I’d been to catch him in his office. Ted knew enough about Snyder to understand his importance to me, and as much as anyone, he’d watched me grow in recent years--through girls, poor grades, awkward parties. His journey to manhood had mirrored my own, I knew. That’s why his question caught me off guard.

“Remember that lineup our freshman year,” he asked, “when everybody laughed about your odometer after our road trip?”

Inside I sank, recalling the smoky scene. Why would Ted bring it up? He’d stood there, too, agonizing alongside me.

“That’s when I got the nickname Crazy Muse,” I said, slipping a sheet over the cushion, trying to act nonchalant. But for a moment I felt like those Asian boys on the interstate, spinning out of control, looking foolish, looking foreign.

“I know,” Ted said, smiling. “I know. But look at what Crazy Muse did this time. It’s amazing.”

He nudged my shoulder with brotherly pride and then headed back to bed, back to Jenny.

Minutes later, lying on my stomach before going to sleep, I savored Ted’s words and looked at a map. Come morning, I’d drive north along the Cascade Range, cross a dozen rivers, eat pancakes along the way. I checked the roads beneath the halo of the lamp’s light--the distance to Bellingham was less than 500 miles. My sleep was easier that night, my skin more comfortable. Those days were their own geography, a route toward fate.

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