Behind The Book: Benjamin Whitmer

It was a drive through the San Luis Valley in Colorado that started me writing Cry Father. I had a buddy, Paul, who lived in Ohio and he’d spent time down there. He was always tell me that his retirement plan was to put a single-wide on a patch of five-thousand dollar land and be left alone. Paul was the kind who put a high premium on freedom, but’d had little chance to experience much of it. He was always generous with his dreams, though, and he told me that I could put a trailer of my own next to his when my kids were grown. That way we could figure out old age by shooting at cans and drinking cheap beer. That sounded good enough that I had to check it out.

There’s this moment when you’re on Highway 160 running into the valley. It’s after you leave the small town of Walsenburg and you’re driving up through the La Veta Pass. If you’re like me, you’re in some car with an engine too small for the altitude, one that needs a little work and has got you worried. Maybe your day job isn’t doing so well, or your marriage. I don’t know. But coming up through the pass, there’s this switch, and it all flushes right out of your mind. All the sudden the engine stops straining, and it’s like you’re slingshotting along the slopes. There’s this great quote from Jim Harrison, “The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense,” and the valley makes you remember that.

mount blancaBut at the same time you’re a tourist. Right? The San Luis Valley is alien to your kind of life, and I don’t care what kind you are. It’s still populated by descendents of the original Mexican settlers that moved in before the Mexican-American war. But they’re tourists, too. Before them the valley was claimed by the Ute, Apache, Comanche, and Navajo Indian nations. It’s land that’s sacred to all of them. Blanca Peak, which is the highest mountain in the Sangre de Cristos, and overlooks the entire valley, is known to the Navajo as Tsisnaasjini’, meaning Dawn or White Shell Mountain, and marks the easternmost border of their land.

Part of that freedom that Paul felt is because it’s land that makes you feel rootless. That’s my take. It’s what D.H. Lawrence meant when he wrote from Taos, only an hour outside of the San Luis Valley, that “The American landscape has never been at one with the white man. Never. And white men have probably never felt so bitter anywhere, as here in America, where the very landscape, in its very beauty, seems a bit devilish and grinning, opposed to us.” Bitter, definitely. But part of being free maybe, is in misbelonging, too.

I’ve always thought D.H. Lawrence’s quote has something to do with all the other stories about the Valley, too. It’s the cattle mutilation capital of the world, and has been since 1967, when Snippy the horse was found at the foot of Mount Blanca, perfectly skinned from her shoulders to her ears. And then there are the stories of webfooted horses, lost Jewish tribes, and a beautiful hitchhiker in a red dress with cloven hooves for feet. There are Buddhist retreats, Catholic shrines, a UFO watchtower, a gator farm, and windstorms that’ll sand the skin off your face.

gator farm_ufo watchtower

Cry Father is really the story of two places, though. And while one of them is the valley, the other is a little more mundane. Like every city, there are entire swaths of Denver abandoned as industrial wastelands. They’re where you stick the rendering plants, the oil refineries, and the dog food factories. They’re also some of the only affordable places to live in a fast-gentrifying town like Denver, where the downtown neighborhoods have turned into playgrounds for loft people.

In Denver, two of those neighborhoods are Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, where Cry Father is partially set. Elyria-Swansea is within one mile of six Superfund sites, and is one itself. North from there is Commerce City, known for the dog track and long-term roadside motels like the Hi U Inn. And then there’s Unincorporated Adams County, where I lived with for eight years, the main industries being liquor distribution, long-distance trucking, and gravel.

hi u inn

In those neighborhoods, basic services fail. The streets don’t get washed, nor even always plowed, and you might want have your stitching done at the emergency room the next township over. But with that comes a freedom all but impossible in the rest of the city. Smoking laws don’t really apply, nor jaywalking statutes. If you decide to run chickens or set up a meth lab, nobody’s going to complain about the smell. Likewise, if you can’t find a firing range for your concealed-carry practice, well, there’s probably an abandoned house somewhere around.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for some povertiresque appreciation of people forced to live in polluted wastelands. But it’s hard not to notice that freedom is a fleeting commodity in this country, and the closer you hew to the open air malls that make up much of Denver, the less of it there is. As William S. Burroughs once put it, “Most of the trouble in the world has been caused by ten to twenty percent of folks who can’t mind their own business, because they have no business of their own to mind, any more than a smallpox virus.” In that kind of climate, maybe finding a place where you can still be left alone is worth everything.

shack

Some people need more freedom than others, so they live in abandoned spaces. Some need next to none, and are perfectly happy to trade it for easy access to Starbucks. The characters in Cry Father, they fall on the side of freedom. They can’t help it. Freedom’s the answer, but I don’t think any of them have figured out the question. It might be they wouldn’t be willing to pay the cost if they did, but they can’t. And for all their faults, I have trouble faulting them that.

For the record, I’m no longer living in Unincorporated Adams County. To be near my kids, I’m in a suburb of Denver that’s a little like living in Applebee’s. And my buddy, Paul, won’t be joining me in the San Luis Valley. He was killed by a SWAT sniper in his own home last year, providing a final refutation to any notions of freedom I might have had. But I still plan to make it down there when my children are grown. And I mean to stay.

Benjamin Whitmer
Benjamin Whitmer was born and raised on back-to-the-land communes and counterculture enclaves ranging from Southern Ohio to Upstate New York. One of his earliest and happiest memories is of standing by the side of a country road with his mother, hitchhiking to parts unknown. Since then, he’s been a factory grunt, a vacuum salesman, a convalescent, a high-school dropout, a graduate student, a semi-truck loader, an activist, a kitchen-table gunsmith, a squatter, a college professor, a dishwasher, a technical writer and a petty thief.

His first novel, Pike, was published in America in 2010 by PM Press, and in France in 2012 by Éditions Gallmeister. Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, a memoir co-written with Charlie Louvin, was released by Igniter Books in 2012. His second novel, Cry Father, is coming in 2014 from Gallery Books in the US and Éditions Gallmeister in France.

He lives with his two children in Colorado, where he spends most of his free time trolling local histories and haunting the bookshops, tobacconists and firing ranges of ungentrified Denver.