CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Whose Idea Was This Anyway?

Clay Jenkinson wrote this Tuesday.

I don’t deserve to pretend to be Thomas Jefferson. Not only don’t I speak and write French and Italian, but I have virtually none of Jefferson’s famous organizational skills. My home library has more than 20,000 volumes now, and though I have a relatively logical library classification system, I have a hard time finding books that have been fetched up at some point and not returned to their proper places. I’ve taken tens of thousands of pages of handwritten notes in my lifetime, but I almost never consult them — essentially never consult them — and they are so haphazardly filed that it’s easier just to start over. Jefferson had a rage for order almost unique in American history, and I’m at the other end of the spectrum.

I’m with Lt. Frank Drebin in the “Naked Gun” series. “Oh, there’s the missing evidence in the Kellner case. He was innocent.” “Frank, he went to the chair two years ago.” “Oh.”

In Aesop’s fable of the grasshopper and the ant, I’m the grasshopper. Life catches me off guard so often that it would be comic if it weren’t so painful.

A few days ago, I drove up to Fort Mandan on the Missouri River about 40 miles north of Bismarck. It was a stunning early fall day — Oct. 7. I’m writing a new book about North Dakota and I wanted to work on a chapter entitled “The Language of Cottonwoods.” I spent a couple of hours sitting under the great trees just drinking in the dance of the golden yellow leaves in a perfect shirtsleeve afternoon. I had to fly to Chicago two days later for a single night, and after I got home, I intended to bring in all the hoses, make sure my snow blower started and winterize my Steinbeck rig.

You will remember that in a fit of sheer madness, I bought a used pickup over the summer and a modest, used Steinbeck-like truck camper. Rocinante. I’ve arranged with a rancher who is a vile barn denier to park my rig in his giant rodeo barn for the winter. I intended to do that over the weekend. Then a blizzard appeared out of nowhere, closed all the schools and the interstate highway, and most of the flights were canceled in and out of Bismarck. In a career of more than 30 years of thousands of performances and thousands of flights, I have never once missed a gig. This threw me into scramble mode. I wasn’t even sure I could get my car to the airport, assuming I could get a flight.

In the end, I made it to Chicago on time, though I was a nervous wreck by the time I had fought with gate agents, missed a connection, been the one standby person in the last seat on the last flight to Chicago. And I got home, too, though I was assured that a second, bigger blizzard was on its way.

So, my hoses are now buried in snow. I managed to get the snow blower started, essentially by pouring gas over its every surface and throwing in a match. I cleared my sidewalks so that my Hamiltonian neighbors don’t rat me out to the city snow patrol.

I tried to get my pickup to the side of my house, where I parked the camper on its stilts, but the snow was too deep and I got stuck. Am stuck. So, I decided to winterize the rig on the spot and hope for a break in the weather when I return from France, which will be about Dec. 2. By then, it will indeed be winter. So, the rig may spend the winter parked on the side of my house. Not the end of the world, but not my well-laid plan either.

To winterize an RV of any sort you must drain all of its fluids. There is the fresh water holding tank, which can hold up to 30 gallons; the hot water heater; and the waste water tank, one euphemistically called the gray line; and the other, the black line. You do the math.

Now it had frozen in my absence, so it was at least possible that I had burst pipes. The water heater is the most vulnerable unit in the rig. As an RV neophyte, a pathetic RV rookie, a man with few mechanical skills, I had no actual idea about how to do any of these things. But I have friends who have the full panoply of practical life skills, including the barn denier, so I began to figure it out. Their derision was palpable, but the key to knowing me is that you can never be harder on me than I am on myself.

I don’t know about you, but I belong to the three-trips-to-the-hardware-store tribe. No home project can ever be done with a single trip to Ace Hardware, or even two. Whatever you buy is the wrong thing, or just one of several things you wind up needing and no matter how helpful the helpful hardware man is, you have to be able to describe your dilemma if you expect him to solve it for you.

So, all of this took five hours when the haughty barn denier would have accomplished all the winterizing in about 45 minutes. By the time I finished, I was physically and spiritually exhausted and, of course, I have no idea whether I did things right or whether I will be taking Rocinante in for extensive repairs come May, if we even have a thaw by May.

My hands are chapped, chipped and numb, knuckles bloody. At one point, I had to snake a socket wrench where it really should not have gone — Jefferson would have had a beef with the manufacturer — by which time it seemed to me that no rational being would travel in a Steinbeckian camper rig, that staying in hotels is underrated.

So now, I need to try to get my truck out of the snowbank and I need to pack for France. Simplify simplify says my other hero Thoreau.

When in my fit of madness, I bought the Steinbeck rig I had dreams of wandering about this great continent in search of America, of the joy and satisfaction of living on the road in a tiny space, of driving life into a corner and reducing it to its lowest terms. In my gauzy dream life, I failed to consider the following things:

  • 1. You buy an RV you have all the basic appliances of a house and you are going to have the usual maintenance issues.
  • 2. Even a modest rig like mine gets about 12 miles per gallon on the road, which means that my Thoreauvian pleasure is killing the planet Earth.
  • 3. I’m gone so much of the time that I would have to be a super-ant not automatically to be a grasshopper instead.
  • 4. In my suburban home I really have no place to store an RV when it is not in use and my barn-denier friends are so selfish that they won’t drop everything on a moment’s notice to accommodate my erratic whims.
  • And 5. It is winter in North Dakota about seven months per annum.

By midafternoon today I would have sold that rig for 10 cents on the dollar to anyone with a socket set and the pink antifreeze you have to funnel into all the orifices of your Thoreauvian alternative home.

I’m sure my spirits will recover in the south of France, where Jefferson, who called himself a mere orangutan, a creature of the sun, found renewal in 1787. But at the moment, I am not feeling very Jeffersonian. From within my bruised grasshopper’s exoskeleton, this project now seems to belong to the category of “at the time, it seemed like a good idea.”

You know what Kerouac said, “(…) the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Send gas gift cards.

Leave a Reply