The Power Lung Kid

  • South Sister, Cascade Mountains,Central Oregon,USA.

    Christian Heeb

At 8:30 a.m., the Power Lung Kid knocks at my trailer door. I'm eating Lucky Charms, staring out the window at the low-slung volcanic rock and aspens that rise into the ponderosa, spruce and fir of south-central Oregon.

"You know why I'm called the Power Lung Kid?" he asks, leaning back in his chair.

"No," I say, doubting it's because he's a cross-country runner.

"It's because I can take a hit so big it can fill up the entire room," he says.

I take another bite of Lucky Charms.

"From a big ol' snake bong," he adds, "with a snake running all up the side, with three different chambers that hold water, and you take the hit through the snake's mouth. And yesterday –– yesterday my buddies, Wolf and Bud, decided they would take me with them to make a sale, since it's always a little bit safer to have a kid along. …"

As he talks, I think about getting out of here, not away from the Power Lung Kid, just out. Out of the trailer. Out on top of something big and steep with a wide-ranging view. A place where people don't have their heads immersed in clouds of pot smoke, far above drug deals, guns and the kind of buddies I never want to meet.

"I'm going to go climb a peak today," I say when the Kid pauses for breath. "I'm leaving in 15 minutes. Grab your stuff if you want to go."

I don't know what I expect, but soon he's back with roast beef, a pipe and baggie.

"You going to hike in jeans?" I ask.

"Yeah, why?"

I give him another look. This is the only chance I'll get. "Let's go," I say.

I've come to Chiloquin, Ore., for the past two years as the Sprague/Williamson writer-in-residence, not to wander its spring-creeked and many-wooded ranchlands, or to investigate its small-town, tough-as-bricks, economically depressed methamphetamine reputation, but to teach writing.

When I arrived last year, the Power Lung Kid plopped down against the wall of my trailer, drunk and high and ready to welcome me. What was I doing here, he wondered? After all, Chiloquin has a painful history -- the 1954 termination of the Klamath Tribes' reservation, the stripping of 1.8 million acres of land, and then the restoration of federal tribal recognition in 1986 – and confronting that history feels like a kick in the guts.

"I'm a writer," I told him. He grinned at me.

"That's weird, man." He laughed. "So you, like, write?"

"Yeah, I write an outdoor column for a local newspaper and some stuff for fly-fishing magazines. I'm a fly-fishing guide, too." I paused for a few seconds. "But mostly I write poetry."

"Poetry," he mumbled. "Poetry?"

"I'm going to be teaching at Chiloquin Jr./Sr. High School," I added.

"I got kicked outta there, man." He was tall. Lanky. Hard-edged. And young: 12 or 13. I handed him a box and began unpacking my truck.

The high school students turn out to be hungry, wily and tough. They push against their teachers like doors. I watch a teacher lose an entire class in 10 minutes and send them all to the vice principal's office. The vast majority are on free and reduced lunch. They have purple hair, blue hair, pink hair. They are unexpectedly generous and courageous. And they write.

Sometimes, when I urge them to think about the natural world, they write about snowstorms and eagles, but environmental writing is the least of their concerns. They don't write about the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, or about ranching or salmon or logging. Instead, they write about hunting and riding their quads and horses; they write about love, lost love, werewolf love, beasts and maidens and evil shadows; they write about Emo and Dubstep. Mostly they write what they need to, processing abuse, loss, poverty, drug use, family, wanting to fit in, wanting to be loved.

And of course they write because they are in school and I show up eight hours a week with generative writing exercises. I hope they write, in the end, for themselves.

The Power Lung Kid and I huff through the last half mile of our hike, a half mile that rises sharply from the ridge in a series of short switchbacks and steep drops.

"I'm going to die, man, I don't want to die."

"You aren't going to die," I deadpan, urging him on.

At the top, clouds swirl around us. The Power Lung Kid reclines against a boulder and slams six slices of roast beef into his mouth at once.

"That was crazy," he says.

He offers me a slice of roast beef.

"Thanks," I say.

In that moment, I don't think about drug busts, expulsions, field trips or homecoming games. I don't think about how much I want the kids in Chiloquin to find their voices. I don't even worry about what's going to happen to the Power Lung Kid. It occurs to me later that most of the difference I make is through simple acts like this one: I show up, listen, and respond to each student's landscape of words and ideas. And I try to open my world to them in ways that I hope will help them see their world more clearly.

"Yeah, man," the Power Lung Kid says. "This is like really having your head in the clouds."

Yeah, I think. It is.

The Sprague/Williamson Writer-in-Residence Program was created when Doug Frank, a co-founder of the Oregon Extension program, brought Chiloquin to the attention of Fishtrap, a literary nonprofit, in 2007.

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