“I don’t sing about myself. I sing about life. The songs don’t belong to me, they belong to those who hear them.”
– Po Campo – Camp cook for the Lonesome Dove cattle drive
If a crew is a hard working wagon wheel, then the cook is the hub. All spokes lead to him. He sits at his hearth, fanning the flame that energizes the core. He’s the crack of dawn coffee that brings you to the center so the wheel can align once more. He’s the embrace of comfort food that binds the dusk and invites the stories of the day. He’s the monarch of his humble realm and will smack the hand that tries for an early piece of bacon. He will listen with his heart wide open, but his kitchen knife will cut right through the bullshit. He will pour his heart and soul into a meaty pot of stew that’s always spiced with a dash of arrogance. It’s required to stay ahead of the cowboys that come to supper with spurs still jangling. But the fire that simmers under the stew will always come from a selfless temper. There may be big-hatted buckaroos leading the teams, but the camp belongs to the cook.
* * *
When you camp under the stars, it’s the sliver of dawn that usually wakes you, but this morning, it was something else. It was a mellow drone. I lay in my sleeping bag for a moment thinking that it sounded like maybe the hum of a fish tank pump, or something electrical. I unzipped my bag and sat up into the chill of the morning, leaning on the wall of the Octagon – an eight-sided wind block that doubled as our survey station and campsite. “Something is out there!” I thought – which was peculiar because the survey team of BRC is always alone on playa. I stood up to peer over the wall. There was just enough morning glow to announce the vastness of the open playa once more – and there, about fifty yards away, sitting hopelessly alone with only the stretch of the desert as backdrop was a folding table with a coffee urn and a plate of still warm beignets sitting on it. The mellow drone was coming from a small Honda generator powering the urn. There was a small stack of paper cups with a carton of half and half, sugar packs, some wooden stir sticks, and a tiny wastebasket. No one was there. This could only be the work of Spoono.
“Hey – wake up everybody! You gotta check this out.” I said.
Astounded crewmembers were sitting up in their sleeping bags not believing the smell of fresh brewed coffee wafting about. The St. Nick of Survey – Spoono, had visited us.
* * *
I don’t remember meeting Spoono. It seems that I have always known him. It seems that he has always been our camp cook. He was a large man with a larger heart that knew better than you what you needed. 2009 was the year of the coffee urn and was also the year that he started cooking for the survey crew. Like many of the positions out here – he got the job by doing the job. He had often said that his favorite time of year was to be out on playa under the open sky, frying bacon and beating pancake batter in the pre-dawn as we lay slumbering in our bags.
We all knew that his health was slowly failing him, but he had told me over the phone that he had one more survey in him. It was always after dinner in the fading dusk that I would catch him sitting content on the couch, gazing into the pastel evening of the Granite Range. This year, his gaze held tears. I now think it was the gaze of a man coming to terms with how ephemeral our joys can be. I now think he knew it would be his last.
I will never stop missing Spoono. I will always have his voice in my spirit. I will always have his thorny western advice in my holster like a side arm. I will always love him as the magnificent man that he was.
May you rest in peace, my good friend.