As fiercely reclusive as he is enigmatic, Cody Cortez is probably the most compelling Western writer you've never heard of. He lives off the grid and loathes the trappings of the literary life, spurning bookstore readings and appearances on National Public Radio. Among devotees, though, the pages of his books-in-progress, especially his memoir-in-the-making, Cowboy Rinpoche, have the reputation of sacred texts not unlike the illuminated manuscripts that Italian monks secretly pored over during the Middle Ages.
While his published ouvre is modest: a poetry chapbook, Meditating to Get Even, a children's book, G Is For Gerbil: The Creatures We Live With, and a recent critical study, Language Poets of California: Why?, the upcoming memoir may finally vault his hermitic genius into the consciousness of word lovers worldwide. HCN writer John Calderazzo caught up with him recently in an aspen grove in the high Rockies.
High Country News Cody, why all this wolverine-like reclusiveness? It's almost as if you don't really exist.
Cody Cortez First, I prefer to live with animals in the backcountry, a Thoreau-Bass-Lopez-Matthiessen-inspired deal; it keeps my writing from being culturally compromised. Second, I've finally decided to confront my past. It all started in 1959, at Camp Hale, near Leadville, Colo. During the Cold War, the CIA desperately wanted to stop the Communist Chinese incursion into Tibet, so the U.S. secretly flew more than 200 Tibetan fighters to Colorado for military training.
Cortez Well, one of those Tibetans, a tall Khampa warrior so intense it was said he could make an enemy's head explode just by meditating, struck up a romance with a former rodeo queen from Cody, Wyo., who worked at the camp and had a lively interest in Tantric sex, unusual for back then. But then Pop -- that's what I've always called him -- was shipped back to Lhasa, and likely died fighting the Commies. A month after he left, Mom discovered she was pregnant.
So I'm half-Wyoming cowboy, half-Tibetan warrior. Thus, Cowboy Rinpoche, which I think has a nice ring to it. My editor loves the book's haunting theme of abandonment mixed with stoic, high-altitude mysticism.
HCN What's your next project?
Cortez I'm plunging deep into the Colorado River water wars with a novel: Barista! The Girl Who Re-Watered the West. A hydrologic engineering student, who works in a coffee shop in Fort Collins, is pouring a cappuccino one day and gets this idea to divert part of the Mississippi River to the West. Something about the foam rising in her cup o' joe re-kindles a memory of a childhood trip to Hannibal, Mo., where she was shocked to see a volume of churning brown water unimaginable to most Westerners; the Big Muddy's a mile wide there. Her scheme calls for diversion tunnels which branch off to refresh the endangered Ogallala Aquifer and purify thousands of fracked oil and gas wells along the way. The remaining river water is then pumped to the surface in places like Rocky Mountain National Park, feeding dried-up Western rivers. Word is that Spielberg's very interested.
HCN We've also heard you're investigating the real reason behind Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe's denial of climate change.
Cortez I've got to nail down the details, but let's just say Inhofe's rage against climate science may stem from a hush-hush trauma in his childhood. Sources tell me he was a bookish and sensitive boy, until he found himself attending the same summer camp as a much more muscular kid from Tennessee, a bully all the boys called "Big Al."
HCN How have you managed to make a living over the years as a writer?
Cortez Ultimately, it's all about the work, about getting it done. Despite living frugally in the woods -- I kind of jump-started the mountain yurt movement, by the way -- it hasn't been easy. I used to ghost-write Himalayan travel stories for some big-name writers who couldn't manage to dig up the material I already had, thanks to all my pilgrimages back to Pop's home sod. I also did some movie stunt gigs. Remember the final scene in Thelma and Louise? Who do you think was behind the wheel of that convertible, wearing a red wig, with a parachute tucked out of view? The way of the artist is incredibly hard, but you've got to cowboy up.