May 19th, 2008

Tetons and Me

Personal/Theological Notebook: Arriving in Jackson for the Retreat

Well, McGlinn just drove off, the last of today’s travelers exiting Jackson Hole, leaving me sitting in the shade of Kev and Frannie’s front porch, just starting to wrap my mind around the last four days. It is always a strange sort of thing to attempt to summarize an especially rich period of time, like this retreat in Jackson Hole has been. But I suppose that that is just a variation on the perennial literary challenge: to reduce to words experience that is intrinsically beyond words. Was it a strong – even a great – social, intellectual and spiritual experience? Sure. Was it unreservedly so? A continual high of spiritual ecstasy? Well, no. But neither did I expect or hope it to be.

Last night featured an extended discussion on the nature of this beast we had created: the do-it-yourself retreat. This was our second one: the first was in Nashville, Indiana, probably some five years ago. Some local Indianapolis Notre Dame alums who were at that one were absent at this one. This one featured the addition of Michael Wurtz, C.S.C., a friend of Kevin’s and mine from days in the Notre Dame Folk Choir when Michael was a sophomore touring Ireland and Northern Ireland with us as my and Kevin’s friendship started really taking off. Now he’s a(n almost) 31 year-old priest of four years’ experience who is starting doctoral work in Liturgy in Rome this fall. So this was a smaller group of Kevin’s friends who had gathered together so as to see what the mere dedication of a stretch of time might bring us. The do-it-yourself retreat seems to have an agenda that is set only by the free flow of conversation. The do-it-yourself retreat featured a presumption of some kind of dedication or knowledge of the faith: we were all Catholics with either degrees that touched on some aspect of the faith or with work interests and experiences that leaned in that direction. The do-it-yourself retreat does not require, but it definitely enriched, when one of the set is a priest, like Wurtz is: in this case, he no more than anyone else was leading the retreat, but being empowered to lead us in a daily Mass sitting around the dinner table was a definite plus for a Catholic group. The do-it-yourself retreat has absolutely no set activities: no trust-building exercises, no getting-to-know-one-another activities, no obstacle courses, and no schedule. The do-it-yourself retreat seemed to presume a certain level of trust and knowledge of one another, or the confidence that such knowledge, when made known, would be received in a climate of trust.

So here we were. Five guys, three of whom were conveniently named “Michael,” along with one Scott and one Kevin. I’ll just be “me,” for convenience’s sake, with “Wurtzy” being another and “Michael” being the third, since that’s more his stage name, anyway.

Michael and I flew into Jackson together on Thursday morning from the Frontier Airlines hub in Denver. I hadn’t laid eyes on Michael in four years, since finishing up the recording of my CD Life and Other Impossibilities in Nashville, which he graciously produced. We’ve kept up with one another by phone, email, and word-of-mouth since then, but it isn’t the same. So I was tickled to see his near seven-foot frame slouched in a waiting room, poking away at a music mix on his new Mac laptop. We had a little time to catch up before boarding, which was convenient so that I could get out of the way when we arrived in Jackson Hole and let Kevin show him around for the first time. As we drove into town to drop off our stuff and Kev gave him the where-and-what’s of the town and his time in it, I just enjoyed the process of seeing Michael take it all in for the first time. We had a bit of time to kill before Wurtzy would be the next to arrive, and so we drove out to Kevin’s in-laws’ place. When Kevin and I first started kicking around the idea of having another of these retreats back when I was visiting last October, we had hoped that we could do this without housing costs by using their large spread. They were fabulously gracious in being open to the idea, but then it happened that this summer was needed for some long-delayed work on the interiors, and so staying there became an impossibility. But Kev took us up there to show it to Michael, and we had the fun of running into some small groups of buffalo along the way. When we saw the gutted state of some of the house, and the great new interiors that were being made, we certainly couldn’t help but be pleased for the family in fixing up the place. In a fun, rather juvenile mood, we took some photographs that played with the incongruity of a toilet we found sitting outside one porch, overlooking the Tetons like some inappropriate throne.

One of the touchstone events of the weekend happened shortly after, as we drove down the winding hillside road from the house and then through some small woods. Having already run into moose on the way in from the airport, some elk on their migration north from the National Elk Reserve north of town, the afore-mentioned buffalo along the road to the in-laws’, and just a few minutes earlier, a pair of buffalo on the road near the house, Michael piped right up when he saw some movement through the trees on our right. A medium-sized canine creature appeared: “Hey, look over there!” Michael cried, “Is that a dingo?!” We all looked at the thing for a moment and then I thought I saw something else, “Um… it’s got a collar and tag on….” A moment later, the animal’s blonde owner came into view, walking around a curve in the road before us, and we all busted out laughing at the absurd moment of bad “Wild Kingdom” expectations, especially of the wrong continent sort. Kevin even greeted the owner and explained what had just happened, to her indifferent reaction, which seemed perhaps more concerned with why we were in her neighbourhood. But “Dingo” became a key riff word for the rest of the weekend.

That took just long enough for us to get to the airport and to walk in through the doors just in time to see Wurtzy walk in through his gate across from us. Since he, like the rest of us who had flown in, was a wise, carry-on-luggage-only passenger for such a short trip, he spent less than 3 seconds in the airport, which is probably some kind of record. As we now only had to wait for Scott to drive into town that afternoon, we dropped off Wurtzy’s things and stopped downtown for a Billy Burger lunch at the famed Billy’s Giant Hamburgers of Jackson, Wyoming. And so now we caught up with Wurtz, and brought him up-to-date on some of our lives. He had concelebrated Kevin and Frannie’s wedding at Notre Dame in 2005, and I know that Kevin’s respect for him as both friend and priest has simply continued to grow over recent years. This was his first time in Jackson since he was a kid traveling through with his parents, and so he was enjoying a bit of the look-around as well. When lunch was done and we drove back to Kevin’s place, Scott had arrived and the party was complete. Scott was a friend of Michael’s who had attended the first retreat through that connection, and it was cool to see him being able to take part in his again. He had recently gone back to graduate school at Saint Louis University, investigating the natural law tradition in American political history and philosophy, particularly among the Founders, and so he brought that distinct vantage point into our conversations throughout the week.

During the afternoon, we went shopping for food for the weekend, and I was a bit taken aback at what was deemed necessary for five guys over four days. Now, I’ll grant that I am a comparatively light eater, the most embarrassing example of which was when my friend Amy rejected my contributing to a dinner she and Dan had prepared at their house with the response that I ate less than their two children, aged 3 and 1. And some of the guys are built considerably more solidly than I am. But this afternoon, the guys had the most over-loaded grocery cart I’ve ever seen, where Scott won the “Price Is Right” bet at the counter by predicting the closest estimate to our $550 price tag. I thought they were going too high and lost with my piddly $400 prediction. The staff somehow filled three carts with the bags full of what we had jammed into one (fruit and bread on the bottom – why are most grocery stores laid out that way?) and we started realizing that we were going to have a volume problem when we wanted to add our bags and instruments to the food. I then went next door with them where we bought $150 worth of wine, port, and beer for the four days. (There was a bit of food left over, but I think we drank everything. Bizarrely enough, after twice consuming the bulk of a bottle of port between the two of us, Kevin and I both never felt it hit our heads: I’m a notorious lightweight, and two glasses of wine are often enough to do me in, but I never felt anything of what we drank this weekend. Maybe because of $550 worth of food….)

We delayed heading out the cabin we had rented so that we could attend a Little League game for Kevin’s son Paul, and with their nanny watching little Sophia and Max, Frannie and Paul were able to join the party for dinner before we headed out that evening. So we went to my much-loved Nani’s, where the regional Italian menu for the month was Umbrian food (not Venetian, as it had said on the apparently out-of-date website when I checked), and I found myself having the best pork I’ve ever eaten, a porchetta dish that was melt-in-your-mouth delicate, but flavourful enough to make most yummy pork dishes seem dull and boiled by comparison. Wurtzy had let it slip that his birthday was coming up, and so someone breathed news of this to the kitchen, which produced the requisite pastry. We then produced the traditional song, and the festive spirit of the evening now simply had one more reason fueling it. A toast was made for the weekend itself and our gathering, and another important one was offered for Frannie’s being able and willing to give Kevin these “days off” and to take the burden of the children by herself for these days, which, as with Michael’s wife doing the same, really made this time possible. (So I hope their payback is something equally long and fun for them.)

We had rented a giant papal-white Nissan Armada when we realized how much luggage and food we were trying to fit into Kev’s Jeep and Scott’s rather small car, in which Scott had brought out Michael’s guitars and recording gear when he had stopped by Michael and Beth’s Kansas City home a few days before.