Sunday, December 17, 2006

Primitive Man - the case of the missing pony

Among the cast of strange characters that populate this town at america’s edge.

I met Primitive Man (PM) while working construction during my off seasons. PM was not a regular on the crew but was brought in for remote jobs or on days that required extreme forms of human strength. PM is relatively short, but large and lean with tremendous pride in his strength and build. Despite working with him only during the winter months, any day with sun and temps above thirty meant that PM would be working without a shirt. His tolerance of temperature was even lower if there were females on the job site, his ability to withstand cold increasing with the attractiveness of the observers.

Fortunately it was a cold winter, and PM was normally fully clothed, the mating displays were kept to a minimum. PM moved to the area about seven years before I did. He bought a 40 acre chunk of land with lakeshore that was a bargain because it was a good mile and a half from the nearest road. The only easement to his land that he could pry from the Forest Service was a special use permit to maintain a mile and a half of trail from the road to his land. He moved to Axe after a few years of factory work in Chicago, from a large poor rural family, he lived in a dump while in the city, saved every penny and was able to pay for his land in cash. PM’s dream was to live off the land, a modern pioneer in the northern forest.

Though he had enough cash to buy his land he scarcely had enough to begin to build. For the most part he built his cabin from materials from his land and goods he scavenged from job sites and buildings that were torn down. Anything he scavenged had to be carried the long mile and a half to his home site. PM claimed to be able to live off under five hundred dollars per year, and I don’t doubt it. He worked when it was convenient for him, the rest of the time he fished and hunted, gathered wild rice, worked his garden and worked on his homestead. He was an opportunistic, driven and merciless scavenger. PM survived through a constant single-minded calculus of his needs and available resources. When attending pot lucks, parties, or community feeds PM would gorge himself silly with the hope that he could skip meals the next day and conserve his scarce resources. At the job site he would fill his carpenter’s apron with nails and screws near the end of the day and show up the next day with an empty apron. If he came across a fresh road-killed deer he would butcher it on the shoulder of the road in the beams of his head lights.

PM’s frontiersman swagger and oft displayed muscularity held a certain appeal for women. He was predatory but monogamous, after a brief period of courting he would convince the woman to move out to the woods with him. Each new conquest resulted in a burst of construction on his land as he would try and modify to homestead to accommodate the new woman, her offspring or her ideas on what frontier living should be. The first time PM had me out to his land I was stunned when I came over the last rise before the lake and discovered a virtual village of small cabins and sheds, a couple of ramshackle towers and a small house with walls plastered with mirrors. One of my coworkers was the subject of active pursuit by PM while he was between women, she went so far as to actually visit the village. In dismissing his suit she said: “All he can think or talk about is food, money, sex and his body.”

Which brings us to the pony.

Back in the day when PM’s village was just a rude cabin and a woodshed he began his first and longest northern relationship with Nancy, a tall and rugged woman who prior to meeting PM was engaged to a jazz saxophonist in Chicago. While Nancy was enthusiastic about frontier living she was not satisfied with the small dirt-floor cabin they called home, and PM’s first building boom commenced. Soon they were visiting construction and demolition sites throughout the area, piling the cast off pieces of buildings atop their cars and dragging them to the homestead. They became legend around town for bringing meager offerings to pot lucks and parties and leaving with backpacks stuffed with discarded food. Late that fall PM blew out his back trying to carry a chest freezer strapped to a backpack frame down the long rugged trail to his land. With a new cabin partially complete and piles of scavenged materials waiting to be pulled down the trail Nancy heard of a family looking for a home for Stormy, a somewhat elderly Shetland pony. She figured she’d solved the problem of transportation. Nancy contacted the family and convinced them to give Stormy to her and PM with the promise that the ex-owners could visit when they wanted. A sledge was rigged and Stormy was put to work dragging material to the homesite. Unfortunately Stormy did not take well to the labor camp and required grain and hay for what limited services he did provide. About this time Nancy took a job in town, and was not available for work at the homesite. PM felt that this was an unjust division of labor and told Nancy that she would have to pay him for half the hours he worked building since she was no longer contributing. This marked the end of Nancy and PM right about the time that the new cabin was complete.

That spring the ex-owners of Stormy walked out to PM’s homestead and asked to pay a visit. PM stared at them and when they insisted on seeing stormy he led them into the root cellar he’d carved from a gravel knoll. There in the dim light of the earth bound room he gestured at shelves burdened with dark mason jars, row after row, on each metal lid scrawled in marker one word; Stormy

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