lower colorado river

I ran into Bill O. down there in the woods today, after the rain let up a little and the river got back down into its banks. He’s cut his hair and trimmed his beard since I first met him this spring on another rainy day, when he was back in the tall weeds behind the factory with black dog and wooden staff, trying to find his way out like some run-down Istari.

Bill lives downriver in the old office of the asphalt yard, a wooden building right off the highway so overgrown with bramble that it is almost invisible. He said he’s been there for years, sharing it with another guy, making stuff and salvaging stuff.

This morning Bill was wearing a blue cap he just made. It looked like a German army cap, or one from the Civil War, flat-topped ball cap with a trim brim, sewn from old blue jeans with thick white thread. He said he was making a new one that would be better, a mix of grey and blue.

There were a lot of guys camped out in the woods behind the factories this summer. They know how to find the best spots, secret little campsites folded into the fabric of the city. A Tyvek teepee draped over long stalks of insurgent bamboo trimmed from the right of way of the old ferry crossing. An igloo of black vinyl tarp and thin PVC deep in the canebrake behind the bent chainlink along the access road. A base camp in the zone of urban flotsam over the first bank, with a good tent, a found inflatable kayak, a fresh citation for petty theft, and a stack of middle grade nature books pulled out of the piles. This morning they were all gone, washed away by the big river, not two weeks after the park police came through and cleared out their occupants.

If you ask the cops they tell you most of these dudes camping in the woods are recently released convicts you should report to the authorities as soon as you see them. Bill says a lot of the new guys are soldiers, back from long tours in the Long War. One of them this summer said he had a job but just couldn’t afford the rent in this town. All I know is that they are all good at disappearing, and figuring out ways to make shelter from the things they find in the interzone between the industrial park and the riverine woods.

This summer another guy passing through the zone built a piece of earth art, a vortex of repurposed mustang vine and broken hackberry. It was still there this morning, surrounded by a stranded school of shad shimmering on the muddy trail as if they had swum through from the other side. And I wondered if some of these guys the rich city has no home for might have found their way there. Stepped through the portal, into a better Neverwhere.

If only. Humans are harsh landlords, and the secret shelters are getting harder to find. Especially for those who can’t or won’t get on capital’s treadmill.