The Man in the Creek: Jim Harrison, 1937-2016

Writer Jim Harrison at his home in Patagonia in 2012. | Scott Baxter

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Harrison, an acclaimed writer and a resident of Patagonia in Southern Arizona, died last week at age 78. In his honor, we'd like to share a story our managing editor wrote about Mr. Harrison for the August 2012 issue of Arizona Highways.

The Man in the Creek
Jim Harrison likes water. Actually, he loves water. Ironically, he doesn't find a lot of it in Patagonia. What he does find is inspiration for his novels. He also finds camaraderie in some of the characters that live in his neck of the woods.
By Kelly Vaughn

In Paris, he says, the people treat him like Hemingway. But in Patagonia, Jim Harrison is just Jim.

For a man who believes that gods and spirits live in rivers and streams, the lack of moisture in the arid grasslands that encircle the small Southern Arizona town can be troubling. But after decades of traveling from Livingston, Montana, to this hamlet of artists and nature-seekers, the author has reconciled drought. 

And he’s relocated his gods and spirits to the stands of bamboo that surround the tiny cottage where he lives with his wife. 

“All my life I’ve loved thickets,” he says. “There are plenty of them here. The only thing I miss is water.” 

The birds, though, don’t seem to mind. Hundreds of them buzz and hum around Harrison on an unusually hot early spring afternoon, their cadence broken only by the kiss of a breeze. Harrison knows them all — both by heart and by name. There are finches and thrushes, countless hummingbirds. He swears that he’s been visited by an elegant trogon. 

“He came right up to the window,” Harrison says. “Just stayed there for a while. All the birders thought it unjust that he came to me.” 

Birds, thickets, water and the spirit of simple things pervade Harrison’s work in much the same way that they characterize his existence in Patagonia. 

Sonoita Creek runs along Harrison’s property, sustaining the thickets and nourishing the birds. Its easy trickle swells to a roar only occasionally — after a rare downpour, or during a midsummer monsoon. The creek runs west from Sonoita through Patagonia, and it sinks below the surface of the earth in places before running into the Santa Cruz River near Nogales. 

But the creek flows aboveground and wide near the cottage. Harrison walks his Scottish lab, Zilpha, through the water each morning. The dog is loyal and lean, her golden coat darker than those of standard labs, her affection for Harrison evident through her easy attentiveness. She splashes while Harrison watches in his thick rubber boots. 

After, the author sets up the road to a small house on the Alto Ranch. It belongs to Bill and Bob Bergier, and there, Harrison writes.

His table is draped in a white cloth and topped with countless books and papers, a water cup, an ashtray, a lamp with a yellowed shade. Light pours from the windows and tumbles over potted cactuses and family ephemera — everything in the house belongs to the Bergiers, with the exception of Harrison’s supplies. Though the author doesn’t “want to think about how much time” he’s spent in that room, he does acknowledge its effect on his craft. 

“This feels like the right place,” he says. “Writers worry that they’re not in the right space, but I don’t. Not here. There’s so much wild country, and I have my ideal neighbors. No one.”

So he writes and he smokes — American Spirits, one right after another. They’ve turned his voice to silt and his skin the color of an old catcher’s mitt, yet he lights them with the longing of a man consumed. 

The words fall to white paper in black ink, poured from Bic Rolling Writer pens. Harrison works in longhand and eschews technology, with the exception of the fax machine he uses to send pages to his longtime assistant, Joyce Bahl. She types and returns them, and Harrison takes to his edits. He once wrote a novel in nine days and changed but a few lines. He doesn’t, he says, take the “slash-and-burn” approach. 

***

Born in Grayling, Michigan, in 1937, Harrison has written often of the Midwest, the place he knows best. His characters are the types of hearty, humble men you’d expect to find on tractors and in farmhouses, the kind whose forearms are lithe and brown from the tending of earth and whose hearts are as big as their appetites — the kind whose skin smells of diesel and dirt.

It’s easy to assume that Harrison models some of the men in his stories after himself. He’s quick to reject the claim, but Harrison himself isn’t an easy read. Denial comes with a wink of his right eye — the good one — and it’s followed by a story about how he went blind in his left.

“It happened when I was 7,” he says. “A girl shoved a beaker in my eye.” He adds that the girl attacked him because he wouldn’t stop flirting with her. 

Though his vision was compromised, his passion for literature wasn’t. Harrison first connected with poetry at the age of 14, when he read Keats. His own poem followed, and he says that he hasn’t stopped writing since. 

Poetry is his first love, but Harrison began writing novels, as well, while recuperating from a nasty fall and at the prompting of his friend, Thomas McGuane. Wolf: A False Memoir was published in 1971 and was quickly followed by A Good Day to Die (1973) and Farmer (1976). 

Now 74, Harrison has dozens of novels to his name, as well as countless poems. He and his wife, Linda, have been married since 1959, and his two daughters have given him three grandchildren. One of them “pretends to write.”

Harrison’s most famous work is Legends of the Fall, a sprawling collection of novellas that tracks a Montana family over several decades. Jack Nicholson financed the project, and Harrison claims to be the only person to have ever paid back the actor. That was due, in large part, to the story’s success as a major Hollywood film that starred Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins and Aidan Quinn. 

“It’s a Midwestern thing,” Harrison says. “You pay your debts.”

 The story’s success, and the performance of subsequent novels, has enabled the author to travel, to do the things he loves, like hunting quail, fishing — Montana’s Big Hole River is one of his favorite destinations — cooking and listening to Cubano music. He’s even working on a cookbook with his friend, chef Mario Batali. 

Legends of the Fall may have been Harrison’s largest commercial coup — and its artistry is apparent — but his other work speaks to his own travels. 

Take, for example, The English Major, which Harrison published in 2008. Its hero, Cliff, explains the diversity of Arizona’s landscape:

“I had begun at dawn driving toward the fabled Flagstaff then slowly descending five thousand feet in altitude from the forests of the north to the hellhole of Phoenix, then turning east toward Tucson. When I found Sandario Road running through the border of the Saguaro National Park I was stunned as if I had suddenly been transplanted to Mars.”

Ultimately, Cliff, an unwilling divorcé who’s embarked on a road trip across the western United States, ends up along the U.S.-Mexico border, and again, the author’s predilection for water reveals itself:

“Suddenly, I saw sheets of rain headed toward me and my brain yelled ‘Praise God.’ The rain hit me as if I had been slapped by a wet towel. I opened my mouth wide like a bullbat does for insects. I made a cup of my hands and licked at the gathering water and then took off my shoes so that they would catch the rain which they quickly did in the cloudburst which was so strong that I had to close my eyes.”

***

Harrison, who admits to hating commas, first encountered the desert’s rainless, Martian landscape in the 1960s, when he was invited to read his poetry at the University of Arizona. Something about the state resonated with him, and he’s visited each winter for decades. 

“I figure I’m usually ready to head south around November,” Harrison says. And he’s not the only Montana outdoorsman who migrates to Patagonia — his friend, author and activist Doug Peacock, does the same, as does a group of former war correspondents — some from Newsweek and Time — and news producers. 

“Once, Peacock and I were camping in Mexico,” Harrison says. “I fell down the side of a mountain and had nine different types of cactus stuck in me.”

He tells stories, too, of encountering immigrants along the road and of coming home to an unusual roommate. 

 “I picked up a little Mexican girl who had tried to cross the border,” he recalls. “I took her to Nogales — she was a fat little thing — and I imagine that she ended up back home. Another time, I went to France and came home to find that my wife had left the French doors open. A rattlesnake was on the floor in our bedroom, so you know what I did? I’ll tell you what I did — I shot the bastard.”

The friends — sans Peacock — gather at the Wagon Wheel, a popular Patagonia bar. The journalists tell tales of Hunter S. Thompson and Nick Proffitt, stories of the Eritrean War, of being wounded by shrapnel and chased by soldiers. 

Harrison holds court, drinking vodka-tonics, flirting — “There aren’t any attractive women in Patagonia,” he says — and, of course, smoking. The bartender, Romeo, knows the author’s order. He fills it without prompting but with a few light-hearted barbs, both for Harrison and the men who indulge the author by encouraging him to “tell us about the time …”

But he’s tired, and he’ll shortly be heading back down the highway, toward the creek, toward home. He lights another American Spirit and decides to oblige the group with one final punch line. 

The table roars, and Harrison turns to go. He pauses, searching for something to say. Then he finds what he’s looking for. 

“I’ll die before I run out of words,” he says. 

Comments

I am drawn in and breathless all at the same time the hot desert makes me thirst and I want more of this story to quench it.

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