Chapter 2 – Treetop Yodeling

Monday, noon; Day 1

I’d only made it to Portland, Oregon, but had managed to get lost. Standing among a maze of freeway overpasses, I couldn’t see any signs or directions. A mystery onramp waited on the other side of the freeway. Maybe I could see a sign from there, and planned to reach it by dashing across six lanes of highway. That plan left me stranded on a concrete median, surrounded on each side by three lanes of a roaring rush hour.

Luckily, the median spread wide, designed to protect cars from hitting an overpass abutment and offered a good space to sit. Realizing I needed to hang tight until the afternoon traffic eased, I sat in a state of suspended animation.

With my back against the pillar and legs stretched along concrete covered in black tire dust, the view conjured a dreamscape—thousands of gleaming machines strafing me only feet away and roads snaking in the air above and below. Intersections led to bridges crossing the Willamette River, each reflecting different stages of history, architecture and technology: bridges of dark iron girders, swooping suspension cables; arched concrete passed down from Roman aqueducts. Each echoed a geometry that looked as if they spelled out the formulas that created them. All of the structures represented millions of hours of work, lifetimes of achievement, laid down for generations to come. I marveled.

When the traffic subsided, I slipped my way to the on-ramp I had started toward two hours earlier, found some signs, took another dash across several more lanes, climbed down an embankment to reach a southbound ramp and stuck out my thumb.

A small purple truck with a homemade cedar camper slowed to the shoulder. Trotting up, I could see that the camper formed a mixed breed of Tyrolean chalet and a backwoods cabin. The roof, complete with asphalt shingles, protected everything. A black stovepipe extended from the front and elbowed to the peak of the roof. Shutters of ornately painted red tulips over a white background surrounded a rear-facing window. The back featured a mini barn door a man could pass through if he ducked. Walking up, I couldn’t wait to see the driver.

“Hey there! My name’s Treetop.” He extended a calloused hand with thick yellowed nails. Weather had worn his face; I guessed him to be I his early forties, but ten years younger remined a possibility. He sat, like Abraham Lincoln, disproportionately tall and thin. His straight grey hair blended with a long pointed grey beard. He wore a denim shirt rolled up to the elbows, and the knees on his jeans were worn silver. Even though his face held deep lines and a dark tan, through his eyes shone a young twinkle.

As I stepped in, the cab struck me as Hindu/Christian-surfing-drive-thru-temple that smelled of cinnamon incense. In every nook lived a trinket: feathers, flowers, tassels, stickers tapestries, figurines—all blended into the kaleidoscope that reflected his life.

The dashboard ignited with wood paneling covered in a crimson stain, turning the fine grain pattern into flames. Flipping down my sun visor, I saw he’d discovered the perfect place to mount one of those plastic prism pictures that change when tipped between different angles. Swinging the visor provided a controlled morph from a guru sitting in flowing robes, to a picture of the multi-armed Hindu God Vishnu floating on a lotus flower. Gold fabric draped across the dash, surrounding a figure of Jesus accompanied by bobbling hula girl shaking at his side. The bench seat lay covered in a thick woven Navajo blanket, and a few Grateful Dead stickers populated the outlying territories.

I’d joined Captain Bizzaro in his schizophrenic cabin.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to a plaque etched with a gold crescent moon and a star positioned between the points of the crescent.

“That’s the symbol for Islam.”

“Oh, yeah.” I felt dumb for not knowing something that basic. “They’re the ones who worship Mohammed.”

He looked at me and shook his head. “No, they don’t worship Mohammed.”

I winced.

“They see Mohammed as the last prophet of God, but they don’t worship him. They worship only God.”

“Which God?” This had always been one subject where I prided myself on being a garden variety idiot.

“Same God as Jews and Christians,” he said. “All three start in the Garden of Eden, and include Abraham, Moses, Noah, the flood—the basic Old Testament stuff.”

Adam and his sprouted rib, forty days and forty nights, wandering the desert forty years—there’s a lousy tour guide; I had an idea of what he was talking about.

“Jesus is also a Muslim,” he said. “He might be the only person to be a Jew, Christian and Muslim all at the same time, even though he didn’t know it.”

“Sounds like they’re a bunch of inbred hillbillies.” My insult sounded about right, and even thought I sounded the ass, I didn’t mind.

“The crazy part is that Islam has Jesus returning in the second coming.” I barely knew about the first coming, now a second appeared in the works.

“Basically, all of the big religions say the exact same thing. Don’t get full of yourself. Help those in need. And the soul is eternal.” He didn’t miss a beat. “I guess you could say it’s hillbilly simple.”

Eternity didn’t make sense, especially for a fabricated soul, but not being conceited, and helping others, struck me as reasonable.

“That’s why I stopped and picked you up. You were in need of a ride, and I have one.” He smiled. “I don’t always have a lot, but I’ve learned to spread it around.”

“So which one are you?” I wanted to establish whose side he took, Hatfield or McCoy, or maybe he was a revenuer. “Which religion?”

“I don’t know. They’ve all got plenty of flapdoodle and they’ve all got plenty I hold close… I pray to my God.” He looked up through the windshield. “After I pray I listen, and when I hear something, I trust it.”

I nodded knowingly, but had no idea what he meant. Maybe he hallucinated on a regular basis.

Treetop seemed to recognize that I’d absorbed enough to keep me thinking, and he changed the topic.

“See this,” he asked, gripping a red wooden apple growing on the end of the green shift lever. “My wife made it.”

“This is quite a mobile you have here.”

“Yep, designed it myself.” Treetop made a loose fist, cocked an arm above his head, so his thumb pointed to the rear. “Heck, my second son was even born in back. We were in Utah and I decided to name him the way the Navajo do.” He brought his arm back down and patted the wool blanket protecting his good horse. “When a child is born the father names it for the first things he sees after the birth.” Then, with a well rehearsed flow, “I stepped out back of the camper, looked up, saw a butte in the distance with a pure white cloud floating over it… so I named him Butte Cloud.” Treetop beamed and looked at me.

“Cool,” is all I could muster. But envisioned Butte sitting in grade school dying to change his name.

Treetop, enjoyed telling stories. But mostly, he liked yodeling. “Two weeks ago I won the National Yodeling Contest. I’m the new US champion, across whole dang country.”

Until then I didn’t know such a champion existed. Yodeling struck me as something only a person with supreme confidence could pull off. Sounding ridiculous and letting people see through the shell of decorum isn’t for everyone.

His voice brightened and lost the smooth delivery he’d projected so far. “Yep, the competition was in Tennessee and I won. Couldn’t believe it!” He turned to me and his eyes became blue gems. “Want to hear me yodel?”

I blinked.

“I’m goin’ to pull over,” he said, “so we can step out.”

We stopped on an empty side road and once out of the truck there was nothing horizontal about Treetop. He became a vertical man. His long thin frame pointed up, his beard formed an arrow pointing down, and his sapling legs rose out of the ground. He cupped his right hand next to his mouth, making half a megaphone, tilted his head back, and let loose.

The undulations in pitch from high to low seemed to break through a musical sound barrier. He kept a quick rhythm and melody that reminded me of birds darting through trees. And although his pitch roamed wild, the hollow notes resounded with fluid ease. When the last wail flew to the horizon he slapped his thigh and looked at me.

I stood motionless, replaying the sounds in my head. Then, as if breaking from a trance, “Oh man! How’d you learn to do that!?”

“Most people have never heard real yodeling,” he said, looking pleased he’d enlightened yet another neophyte. “Most folks think yodeling is all about Switzerland, but it’s used in New Guinea, India, Brazil, all across the world. If you need to be heard over a long distance, you can’t beat it.” His music jazzed me. While stepping back to the car, I too became interested in yodeling.

As we drove off he settled in. “There were these ol’ boys at the county fair playing bluegrass, you know banjos and mandolins, and one of them starts yodeling.” He rocked his head back and forth and chuckled. “I was just eleven but that was it. It hooked me. That was 1954.”

I still couldn’t shake the unnatural vocalizations I’d heard. Treetop’s arms hung loose on the wheel, while we road an open highway. “I went out and bought a record called So You Want to Yodel.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.” I started laughing. “There’s a record for that?”

“No, that’s the truth, I swear,” he said. “The first instructions told me to close the windows and doors.”

I kept laughing, but now harder. Unfortunately, I could relate. “Yeah, I actually tried yodeling once when I was twelve. Don’t know why. I figured no one could hear me since I was in my bedroom, but after about five seconds my mom shouted down asking if I was sick.”

Now it was his turn to laugh. “Yep, a little embarrassment is good for the soul. Keeps us humble.”

I hated embarrassment.

He straighten upright. “You’ve got to use two voices,” he instructed, “and be able to switch between them without anyone noticing.” He’d trained himself in vocal sleight of hand. “Singing from my chest gives the lower tones, and moving my voice into my noggin gives the higher notes.” Now, armed with that knowledge, he prodded me into yodeling.

I sounded like crap, which is an insult to crap. That moment marked the end of any aspirations I may have had to become a famous yodeler. But I didn’t feel uncomfortable. He provided an easy audience.

“Don’t worry, it takes a lot a practice,” he said with a practiced kindness, and let out another quavering yowl that filled the cab to bursting. The bellows of his chest emptied. Pulling in another breath, he continued, “Not much yodeling in rock-n-roll, and that’s too bad.”

“No, not much. That’s probably why they didn’t call themselves the Yodeling Beatles.”

We laughed again.

Time drifted by and in the back of my mind I wondered what a man like this might do for a living. He probably couldn’t make ends meet yodeling. I figured his job would be exotic, maybe spiritual, for sure kooky. “So what do you do for a living?”

“Pick fruit.”

I sat silent, as I realized he, and probably his entire family, were migrant farm workers; transient field pickers. From an outsider’s view he couldn’t get much lower on the social ladder. Instead, I pictured him higher, more respected, a professor.

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