The performing arts were not the only disciplines featured during the opening celebration for the Schwartz Center. The written word also was represented, in readings by William Gruber, chair of Emory’s English department, and Jim Grimsley, director of Emory’s creative writing program. In 1972, as a newly married graduate student at the University of Idaho, Gruber moved to an abandoned log cabin on forty acres in the state’s panhandle in search of solitude and adventure. “I wanted to disconnect myself from city surroundings and bury myself in books,” says Gruber. He came to appreciate the rigors of farm life over the seven years he lived and raised a family in Alder Creek, through experiences like gathering seventy-five pound bales of hay by hand, installing a bartered engine in his battered Willys, and confronting a “confident” bear while cutting firewood. But Gruber also formed a deep, lasting connection to the remote community and its quirky residents, featured prominently in his book On All Sides Nowhere: Building a Life in Rural Idaho (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), which last year won the coveted Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize. “Life there proved to be splendidly energetic, rich in thought and in society,” he says. “It is a more democratic place than I’ve ever seen.”–M.J.L.

The following is an excerpt from On All Sides Nowhere: “Junked Cars.”

In Alder Creek, abandoned vehicles were commonly part of the landscape. No homestead lacked them; a few of them were only temporarily immobile, awaiting time and parts; but most had obviously become permanent residents, a peasant’s version of garden statuary. In a terrain without street numbers and road signs, these broken machines could also be important navigational tools. Even when these landmarks disappeared, they clung to local memories in the way that long-vanished glaciers are said to influence migrating butterflies. Once, seeking directions to a particular fishing spot, I was told to “go about two miles after where the Caterpillar used to be parked.”

We inherited a modest number of junked cars, a Ford and a Chevrolet. The Ford squatted comfortably in the grass, covered with needles and moss; it seemed profoundly at rest. The Chevy for some unaccountable reason lay on its side. A mystery of people long gone, our own miniature Stonehenge: what hands, what desires had raised that car on its side in the woods? Both cars were the same shade of pale green. Accident? Or was this a clue to the personality and taste of our forebears?

Both vehicles were 1953 models, and both were missing their wheels and their hoods. The missing wheels were easy to understand; I didn’t know anyone in Alder Creek who had not salvaged wheels and rubber from abandoned cars. But the missing hoods were a puzzle, until years later somebody told me that they had been removed by a tenant in the late sixties. Inverted, their snouts curved sideways and upward in a bow, and in that graceful curving sculpture that desperate tenant saw a sledge that he could use to haul small bits of firewood across snowbound fields.

The cars were stored more or less together, nestled and partly hidden in a grove of white pine and white fir just beyond the south fence line of the yard. You could see them from the kitchen. You would imagine–at least, this was what I imagined when I first saw them–that two junked cars would have been an eyesore. But in a very short time I came to enjoy looking at them. To see them in no way damaged the visual appeal of the rest of the landscape. On the contrary, the look of them resting there in the grass was oddly comforting. I liked the way they complicated the woods with their presence, and the longer I lived there the more I saw the distinctions between them. They took on character and personality, somewhat like a keepsake. It was a little like having your own family graveyard. To look at them was to remember that you, too, along with all the other golden lads and chimney sweeps and chrome bumpers, must one day come to dust.

Somebody had set a short length of timber across the front fenders of the Ford. It made a fine perch, and all of us went there often. It was a place to retire to think and to smoke, in the days when I still smoked, and after I quit smoking it was still a good place to watch the wind whiffle in the aspens. My daughters played games near it, and later, as they grew up, they too sought out the car as a place to sulk or to take friends to smoke and to contemplate adult life.

The cars were a place for mice, for voles, for ants, for ground squirrels, birds, and worms. Pigweed, bristlegrass, and ox-eye daisies grew through the floorboards of the Ford, and in the engine compartment a few white fir seedlings made their way upward around coil springs and steering gear.

And they were places to entertain guests. Once an old friend from the East Coast came for a visit. We had dinner and took a short walk, and then I asked him, What would you like to do for amusement? He thought about it and then replied that if I didn’t mind he’d like to go shoot a car.

I was more than a little surprised. You have to understand that this was a person who chose to become a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. This was a person who once told me it pained him to look at the stuffed head of a deer on the wall.

It was a side of him I had not seen, to say the least.

”You want to shoot a car? What car?”

“Yeah,” he said. “The ones you got out back. I’ve always wanted to shoot out a windshield. I think it’s all my years living in Brooklyn.”

As it turned out, neither of my junkers had a windshield any longer, but there was still plenty of glass in the doors and rear. So we took the .22 and a handful of shells out to where the Chevy sat and blasted small holes in the rear window and trunk. By the time we had made six or eight holes each we were both getting into the spirit of the thing, and so I went back inside and got the twelve-gauge shotgun and a box of shells. With that gun we really started to do some damage. We took out the trunk, part of the roof, and, by the time the smoke cleared, most of the back seat. We blasted away for maybe ten minutes, although it seemed to take much longer.

I have to report that it was a deeply satisfying experience.



© 2003 Emory University