He said the trees told him everything he ever needed to know. It was the way a fallen branch took root and grew on its own, “as sure as a bullfrog or bumblebee” he would say.
We were walking away from a Salt Lake City Hotel room when we heard him whispering,
“cola, cola, cola.”
He was on the other side of the street. There was plenty of traffic between us, but we could still hear him. Made it kind of amazing.
“cola cola cola,” he said again.
His voice never grew softer as he got closer so we kept on hearing him and he kept on saying “cola cola cola.” He must have said it 30 times. It was a soothing contrast from our previous night – all that screaming and stage diving from the hotel room’s upper floor. We had never been in a room with two levels. We burned pages from the bible and pretended we were on a West Coast Rock and Roll tour.
“cola cola cola.”
He didn’t fold up his arms or lean against the hotel lobby wall. He didn’t shove his hands in his pockets either. He just stood there, arms at his side, steady. He had dark beautiful beads for eyes – infinity eyes. I was both terrified and put at ease. He extended his right arm and squeezed my forearm. He pulled me closer very gently. He said it was the Apache way of greeting someone and that cola meant friend in either Apache or Lakota language. I forget which.
We had spent our last dime on that hotel room. All we had left was a bus ticket to San Rafael, California. We also had jobs lined up and a place to stay. Our new friend had lost his mother and he needed to walk. He wasn’t Apache. His mom was Northern Cheyenne and Dad a descendant of a beer baron family from Hamburg, Germany. Dad escaped the baron fate as a stowaway aboard a Krumshaka ship back when the Northern Cheyenne were living in what is now Minnesota, east of the Mississippi. He made a name for himself killing buffalo, but lost his taste for pillage and hides when he met Blue Bridge of the Northern Cheyenne. He lost his head. His heart opened. He took to her way of life.
This walk our friend was on was not an around the block walk. It was a walk with no destination. He called it a Kiowa walk to honor their neighbors to the south who took to many migrations in their history.
“Not many more migrations these days, only the inner kind,” he said, “To see with hobo freshness.” He smiled after saying that and I suddenly felt guilty about what we had done to the Bible the night before. All those animal sacrifices of the Hebrews condensed into today’s ritual prayer and yet, we decided to burn pages from the bible? Oh screw it! We were on our own journey.
We walked with him. I noticed that the cars in Salt Lake city were covered with stickers that either said “praise the lord” or “Mormons on drugs.” We walked in the direction of steeples and spires, of the Great Mormon Church or maybe they were pointy hills up ahead. It was hard to tell with the sun’s glare so strong. Either way, the horizon looked like zigzagging vital signs. We walked on and a perfect blue day turned into a perfect black night. The fringes of that horizon were still burning orange and purple when cola stumbled on a pile of clothes that could have easily been a bag of cannibalistic heads. Our minds were tricking us. Cola felt around the bag with his feet. One of those abandoned lives most likely. There were shoes beside the bag as well. Freaked me out. It was as if a spaceship had dropped in and beamed someone up.
Cola removed a few socks from the bag and tied them together like someone trapped on the fifth floor of a burning hotel room – a sock ladder of descent. He said it was a hoop and then we walked some more. He collected large fallen branches along the way and when he had enough branches, he stopped again and began to whittle away the tops and make them sharp. He used the force in his fingers and a rock he had also picked up.
He said we were gonna play the hoop and pole game.
He gave an explanation of the game’s origins, about a young virgin impregnated by a spirit named Sweet Root. The virgin abandoned the child. An old woman found him and named him Sweet Medicine because it was where medicine roots grow. The kid became a great hunter but no one cared about him because he lived with an old lady grandma in a tepee.
Cola then counted out steps in the direction of the sun rise. Musta been 30 or 40 steps. Then he continued to talk of the game’s origins.
The kid told his grandma to make a hoop wrapped in buffalo hide and to prepare four cherry sticks. Old lady grandma did just that and so he began to throw the sticks through the hoop and people gathered round, interested in this new game. He threw the fourth stick and when it went through the hoop, it changed into a fat buffalo calf, a magical calf too because there was always meat to eat from then on. The game became a promise…playing it ensured an abundance of buffalo.
*Thanks to that great big wonderful coffee table book The Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Indian Mythology for details on the Hoop-And-Pole Game.
**And thanks to baseball reference. I took a quick look at the all time leaders in fewest walks per nine innings. Candy Cummings tops the board with 0.4731. He’s followed by Tommy Bond, Al Spalding, and Cherokee Fisher and well, I can’t help wondering if they ever walked into the hoop and pole game?