Jul/Aug 2022  •   Nonfiction

Big Sky Country

by Marisa Mangani


The three hippies leaned against the van, grinning into the summer sun. The fourth hippie snapped the picture. "Big sky country!" they yelled in unison, raising beer cans to honor the big blue Oregon sky. Two of them, Chris and Jon—the band's guitar players—had shoulder-length hair. Todd, who played bass, had shorter, black waves. Bill Roberts—always, always, called by both names—was not a musician, and didn't live with us but across the street, and hung around all the parties. He supplied us with pot and acid and wore a blond mop. He was also the oldest, so he bought us beer. The beers we had that day to salute the sky.

I was the observer most of the time. The girl. The non-musical one. The one who went to school and had a job. The responsible one in our rag-tag clan, although I was the youngest. The boys jokingly called me Grandma because days off from school and work, I was in the kitchen cooking up something fresh from the local co-op, blending recipes from Recipes from a Small Planet and Middle Eastern Cooking. Jon was my boyfriend.

We didn't call ourselves hippies back then, but surely others did, for we were young and free and living in an old wooden house at the end of a dirt road outside of Portland. There was a drum set in the living room, at least one baggie of pot tucked away somewhere, and a yowling calico named Taco (as named by Chris who'd said, "If we get tired of her yowling, we can always get a few tacos and a pair of fuzzy slippers outta her"). Actual hippies were our older sisters and brothers. The ones who went to Woodstock, got drafted, lived in communes, and were always angry. The followers of Manson, a decade before us, were hippies, for heaven's sake. We were not them.

We youth of 1978 were happy. Though we did question authority. Hated the establishment. (Nixon-Carter-Ford: a bunch of big liars, laying the groundwork for more big liars.) We were jealous of '60s music. And the drugs, well, we could thank our predecessors for drugs. Still teenagers most of us, we were aimless, with our futures stretched out before us like endless mystery novels. Determined NOT to be like our parents, we were certainly defiant. Some of us more defiant worked, some of us less defiant got money from parents (my parents had none). Some of us loved the drugs too much.

We were surrounded by a quarter of an acre of overgrown blackberries, raspberries, plum and cherry trees. Too young and too broke to hang out in bars, our fruit grove was our entertainment. We dropped acid, climbed trees, picked fruit, talked of the world, how stupid it was, blood for oil, and how we were going to change it, for we were smarter than everyone. All the ripening fruit gave me more excuses to be in the kitchen. While canning blackberry preserves, I'd look out the window at the boys playing music in the weedy yard, or taking turns trying to shoot a walnut off a post with a BB gun. And I'd think, well, this is great, but I'm only 18, what will the rest of my life be like?

During the long and dreary winters, we sat on the second-hand, red-velvet couch and watched our tiny black and white TV. I adored Start Trek. Idolized Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin in Saturday Night Live. The boys laughed their stupid heads off at the Benny Hill Show, a show I found degrading to women. Crocheting a multi-colored afghan I still have to this day, I tried to express my budding feminist views on deaf ears. So when Benny Hill came on, I went to the kitchen, where there was always something to do. Taco, in solidarity with the other female in the household, usually followed me with a little meow. But I think she just wanted food.

In the Spirit of the '60s—which we had all missed out on being too young—we were Dead Heads. Well, Chris and Jon were REAL Dead Heads because they were from Oakland. They'd been to many Dead concerts, and they played and sang "Truckin'," "Deal," and Sugar Magnolia." Todd could learn anything on the bass, so he did, and I went along because the music was marking an era. And the songs were great if they didn't go on for too long.

Jon and I had met working at a restaurant on Maui. We were both shy and young-dumb. I see now playing house was an act of societal training. Sex did not equal love, but it could carry things for a while. That and drugs, music, camaraderie, and the wooden house down the dirt road. We thought we were bucking the establishment by "moving in together," but there we were, stuck in the framework of American culture, boy meets girl, boy and girl cohabitate. But this boy and girl did not get married, and that's where we were radical. Jon missed his high school sweetheart a little too much, and I knew I'd miss out on my future if I stayed living with a rock band forever. We didn't talk of the future much at all. "Be Here Now," said Baba Ram Dass.

One day, Jon's high school sweetheart sent him a present. Once he unwrapped it, I saw that it was a handheld, semi-pleated fan printed with the words, "I'm a fan of Benny Hill." Horror bled into my brain in this exact order:

1. I was jealous of her.

2. I hated her.

3. Did he like Benny Hill in high school and this was a random gift, or did they talk on the phone regularly, and he told her about our, um, life?

4. She deserved my wrath because any girl who promoted Benny Hill was an idiot.

Jon, Chris, and Todd formed a band called The Krayonz ("With a k and a z!" we said to people). We drew up posters and booked some gigs locally, and I was the manager because I passed around one of Jon's hats for tips. Grateful Dead, Beatles, Airplane, and some songs Jon wrote comprised their sets. Jon had traded guitar for drums, had taught Chris to play rhythm instead of lead, and they all had to sing, because as Jon said, it was hard to play drums and sing at the same time. He was still working on that. Singing drummers were very talented, he told me, like Ginger Baker in Cream. I watched Jon practice singing while playing drums in the living room, and it looked much harder than patting your head and rubbing your belly. Jon never wrote any songs about me. (Add a number 5 to the above list.)

Full moon parties (read: LSD) at the Trout House, Johnny Winter at the Paramount, midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, hitch-hiking to Cannon Beach, hangover breakfasts at Hamburger Mary's, van trips to Oakland and Seattle, Jon's homemade thunderfuck blackberry wine, my degree in restaurant management. The '70s were coming to a close, and who knew what lay before us? Be Here Now got a little fuzzy around the edges. As Punk and New Wave infiltrated the local music scene, I got a chef's job at a small Italian restaurant in Southeast Portland. The hippie wannabes chastised me for being so responsible, for shaving my armpits, for getting a Farah Fawcett haircut. And I wanted to be like them, radical and indifferent, but I kept making these mistakes.

Jon spent the summer of 1980 home in Oakland while I worked at my new chef's job. I knew he'd see his high school girlfriend, so infidelity rocked my summer. It was the beginning of the end; times they were a-changing and we were changelings. Jon and I tried, though. Spent the following winter on Maui with my mom, living in a trailer in front of her roofless house. It was no honeymoon. When we heard John Lennon got shot, I tried to comfort, knowing my confused boyfriend cared more about the dead musician than he cared about me. Jon gave me The Double Fantasy cassette for Christmas, and I wondered why he just didn't buy it for himself. Yoko Ono symbolized everything wrong with our relationship, with her chalkboard-scratchy, dissonant voice.

In September of 1981, I left the big sky of Portland summers. I left the smiling hippies, the house down the dirt road, blackberries, Gilda and Jane, and Benny Hill. I had my crocheted afghan though, and all my Dead albums, mixed in with Roxy Music and the Ramones. Car packed to the brim, I drove off to New Orleans to start my real life, and I had all these memories—old friends to nourish me for the next 38 years.



Y'all know what a trip in the time machine feels like: lifetimes brought forward by nostalgia, social media, and Google-mapping your old house. It's a little like reincarnation. You're a different person now, and you're going back to a former life for a visit. Surely, that past has changed somewhat, but you only see what you saw before. In my case, landing in Portland after a 38-year absence, I was welcomed by the big sky framed by evergreen trees. Nothing had changed!

Then the time machine transported me to Jon's living room, and I was standing before his wife, who (strangely) was not happy to meet me.

It was odd how that happened—me standing in his living room—an accident really, unplanned. I'd been thrilled when my best girlfriend missed the downtown Portland exit from the airport and I saw the sign to West Linn looming before us. "Oh, Jon lives in West Linn," I said because I had looked him up online. Then I said, "May as well have lunch in West Linn." To which she agreed.

My friend, far more practical and responsible than I, started shaking her head when I made my wild suggestion as we paid the bill. "But it's meant to be," I argued, showing her Jon's address on my phone, "Why else would we just happen to be in West Linn? C'mon, it'll be great!"

So there we were, standing in the living room in front of the woman who'd been a girl I'd supposedly met once at a Krayonz concert, whom Jon began dating after I left, whom he married soon after, and who happens to look a lot like me (which I'd known by stalking Facebook, but now that I was standing in front of her, Really? Is this my twin?).

"Full disclosure," she was saying (who starts a sentence like that?), "I'm not comfortable with this."

Then why did she let us in? Jon being at Home Depot and all. I believe I was trying to make a nice face at her, for clearly, she was upset. "We'll leave then. I don't want to make you uncomfortable. I mean, you got the guy. And I have my guy."

"No! You wait for him here." So we sat at the kitchen table as ordered, where a pint-sized version of Jon was eating fish sticks from a guitar-shaped kid's plate. Wife went on in a voice on the verge of cracking. "When I found out Jon was looking for you on the computer, right after our second grandson was born, I..."

Was he looking for me? Well, yes, I did get a Facebook message from him once, but that was (I thought) in response to my published essay, "My Favorite Dead Rockstar," in which I mention him and the house and the band. I'd figured he probably Googled Jimi Hendrix and my essay came up and it reminded him of the hippie days. But this gal, this wife of his for 30-plus years, was upset. With me. Well, it's not like I sent him a Benny Hill fan, you know?

"...and imagine what it was like, going to his concerts all the time and hearing that song: 'It's a Long Long Way to New Orleans.' Do you want something to drink?"

I did not think he even liked me that much—wait, what? He wrote a song about me? "Um, sure," my best girlfriend and I said, dismayed that "drink" was not something stiff, but tap water. Portland water, no ice or filtration needed. We didn't see her slip anything into our glasses, so we took them, happy for props.

"I'm going to call Jon. Wait right here." She went into a room off the kitchen and shut the door. We watched the cute mini-Jon eat fish sticks. I pictured Jon's parents' kitchen in Oakland when we'd visited, where his mother served his dad breakfast as he waited quietly, and I had thought, How suburban. We heard wife leaving a stern voicemail.

Best girlfriend whispered, "We should go!"

I said, "She doesn't want us to go!" (Was she going to kill us?)

Wife emerged into the kitchen and said, "I couldn't reach him, but he just went to buy some windows. He should be back soon." We nodded. "Here, here's the album of our daughter's wedding." She placed a book before us, and we opened it upon command of her stare.

We were in the middle of a very bad play. This would never have been my life. Jon's wife surely served Jon breakfast while he waited quietly, here in the suburbs of Portland. I remember Jon's deal with his dad, back at the house down the dirt road. That he'd support Jon while he went to school, and after graduation, his dad would buy him an apartment building to manage. So that's what he was doing, buying windows for the apartments he now owned and managed. Living in a cozy house with clay pots of flowers out on the back deck, a grandchild eating fish sticks, and a wife who (apparently) hated me as much as I'd hated his high school sweetheart. Jon not changing much in all these years. The proud radical hippie musician I had once looked up to, his life grooved on just like his parents'.

I, on the other hand, had changed a lot. And, except for multiple divorces, I am not AT ALL like my parents. I've traveled, lived in several countries, lived with and loved several men, and was now living happily ever after, satisfied and sedate after such a life. Look who's radical now, dude!

Best girlfriend and I feigned being impressed while flipping pages of the perfect wedding. MY daughter was singing in a bar in Malaysia. Now that's impressive.

And then the front door signaled reprieve from the awkward, and Jon ambled in. Still lanky, more forehead than hair now, mustache, bemused expression.

Wife excused herself, and Jon sat across from me, tussled the fine hair of the mini Jon, and asked in his understated voice how I was. The voice that could sing like Grace Slick. The voice that said he only liked male singers—except for Grace Slick. The voice that had once said we should abolish the police and give everyone guns. The voice that had said fuck the establishment. His voice quiet, his lips barely moving, just like before, and all the memories are called up as we reminisce. Chris is in California, yes they still keep in touch, lost track of Todd, and how's my mom?

"I always thought your mom was so cool," he says. "We were on Maui last year, and I drove by that house on Ohukai Road." He says this dreamily like this had been a good time, when John Lennon was killed and we were splitting up.

"She died a long time ago," I say. "Throat cancer. When I was twenty-eight."

The conversation is mostly small talk, but then Jon gets solemn when I ask if Bill Roberts is still around.

"He died, um, about a year ago?" He asks toward his wife (sitting-sulking in the living room, now playing with grandchild). She agrees with this timeline. "He was living in one of my apartments, and his health—he wasn't doing so well. I was the one who found him." And here he trails off, and I'm left to imagine... Drugs? Suicide? How long dead before Jon found him?

Then I am transported back to the country of the big sky and youthful dreams, of which back then no one except me really spoke because Be Here Now and Question Authority and the next batch of windowpane or purple microdot was all there was in that moment. The periphery of our Bohemia was very narrow, and now here we all are, well most of us, Chris working white-collar in Oakland, Jon with his apartment buildings and suburban castle, Todd missing but somewhere, certainly back in California with a day job because he had also been a grill cook and don't we all eventually get the hell out of the kitchen somehow? And Bill Roberts, gone. The one we all looked up to. The one most rooted in the moment and proud of it.

I had always talked of the future, and I'd asked Jon once, didn't he want to travel, see new places, experience the world? Not really. He was happy right there in Portland doing what he was doing. While I was never happy with anything I was doing and always striving for something else, somewhere else and someone else.

I gave Jon cliff notes of my life, and his bemused expression let me know my rambunctious existence was as foreign to him as his suburban one was to me.

There must be some enlightened term for our brief encounter after all these years, sparking us to reflect on ourselves as youngsters in another time. Remembering when Jon's singing of Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" to me in his van on Maui strummed what my fractured 17-year-old heart thought was a love so deep, and wanting that feeling forever. How we both take away something different from our short time together. How Jon looks up at the big blue Oregon sky every day and can call up these memories, while I have so many memories under so many different skies.

Oddly, wife poses us all in the living room for group pictures, of which I'm unsure if the snapshots will be for Facebook or a dartboard. (They never appear on Facebook.)

Then we part. Jon and I hug. He goes off to tend to his tenants while best girlfriend and I drive out to the Oregon coast where I've booked a deep-sea fishing trip early the next morning. Because I've never fished in the Pacific, and I'd like to give it a try.