Mid life, recently divorced and with a phalanx of books to his credit, Rick Bass sets off with writing students in tow to pay homage to his literary heroes. Having been metamorphosed from reader to writer by a book (Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall), he knows firsthand how a story can change a life.
“When I read it, the slow sleeping atoms in my blood began, with that one awakening, to realign into crystalline forms that were unfamiliar to me,” he writes. “I followed them, no questions asked.”
From his early aspiration, while living in Mississippi, to work as Eudora Welty’s yardman (“I figured I could learn things just by being bold enough to breathe some of the same air), to refusing George Plimpton’s offer to punch him in the nose, Bass has his own literary lineage. So why not visit those who had gone before him, “blazing trails through the dark forest,” cook them each a fine meal and provide his students with “a makeshift apprenticeship” along the way? It was, he writes, “a pilgrimage of gratitude and generosity.”
For the reader, it’s a road trip like no other: a series of sketches and insights into the interior world of writers, and a deeply personal reflection from Bass on his craft and life, midstream.
And the menus: wild game, from elk and antelope to ruffled grouse and Hungarian partridge, harvested by Bass in the Yaak; exquisite desserts (peach galettes with blueberry caramel sauce, lemon-lavender sugar cookies); and “comfort foods” that comingled smoked salmon with sweet potatoes, or parsnip soup with morel cream.
Among my favorites stops along the way: 86-year-old Peter Matthiessen, a literary giant who was dying of cancer when Bass arrived on his porch (where a whale’s skull resides); eco-warrior Doug Peacock, “with a wildness so palpable as to be galvanic”; and fabled poet Gary Snider at Kitkitdizze, his home in northern California.
He even leaves the continent for a near-disastrous visit with David Sedaris (Bass flies elk from the Yaak to England, blood dripping in his wake, and ruins the much-touted pine-nut tart). And then to France to meet intellectual, novelist and art critic John Berger, who lives in a remote valley in the Alps and tells the threesome of cooks who appear in his kitchen: “The mere fact of your presence feeds me in a way that no meal ever could.”
In response to Bass’s question, “What do I need?” the older man replies, “Courage … You make the hard decisions and go on.” Apt advice for writing and life.
Bass sets a turkey on fire at Tom McGuane’s; and the bedraggled entourage unleashes “a skyborne barrage of food,” that had been tied to the top of the car, while traveling from Montana to Madison, WI. Finally they land, full circle, in Oxford, Mississippi.
Along the way, Bass finds affirmation that this rambling roadshow was “not harebrained or indulgent … A thing I love from the way-back has passed through me and been handed to a traveler in the way-future.” The storytelling, sharp observations and conversations make this a journey well worth taking.
– Kristi Niemeyer