Last Saturday, a tribute to western writer Gino Sky in honor of his 70th birthday and the 25th year of his most famous and influential work, Appaloosa Rising: The Legend of the Cowboy Buddha, was held at the Log Cabin Literary Center. Without being previously acquainted with Gino Sky or his work, it was tricky for me to imagine summing up the impact and life of a man who seemed to have lived nine lives in one, capable of moving some friends to tears when speaking of their beloved friend. That it was a moving and enlivening experience for a virtual stranger to be around Sky and the good company he keeps, says more than if I had been one of his long-time friends present of 20 plus years.
One constant throughout the night-between comments of friends reminiscing about Gino dancing on tables, Gino fashioning mailboxes, Gino living in garages-was how he is magnetic and unique in a good, soulful and unpretentious way. And his energy is rather otherworldly and yet down to earth in the most "I hope your balls get caught on the barbed wire of life!" kind of way (to quote the best line from Appaloosa Rising).
"Gino's the real thing," says Sky's friend, Pug Ostling. "Things he's really done are amazing. He has a way of taking these fabrics and weaving them with a wonderful command of the language. He writes short stories like he's telling them around a campfire."
The surprising element of Sky's success in the literary world is that he was a very poor student academically, unable to read well as a young man due to dyslexia, ADD and early learning disabilities. "I never read a book until I was 16," Sky says. "It was a collection of poetry by e.e. cummings. And being dyslexic, I'd look at a page full of words and they'd just swim together. So when I discovered the poetry of e.e. cummings-these very skinny poems with lots of space-it was like someone drilled a hole right in my third eye and opened it up."
Learning how to make sense of and retain language from there, Sky began his literary training in earnest while stationed with the Air Force in Europe after high school. In those three years, he discovered Thomas Wolfe, who he describes as an incredible, deep and profound writer. "And Chaucer," Sky says with reverence. "The poets, Keats, Shelley, Byron ... I ended up shipping 2,000 books home."
Before his official discharge, Sky's mother became ill and was not expected to live (though she is still alive today at 97), and he went home to Pocatello, "A town that I vowed I'd never return to." He studied literature at Idaho State College before it became a university and met Ed Dorn, a poet who guided Sky to working with Wild Dog, one of the most famous underground literary magazines of the '50s and '60s. "The Vietnam War was starting up and we were beginning to be very anti-war. At that time, Castro was not the Castro of today, he was the revolutionary that freed his people from the evil empire," he says of his peaking interest in progressive politics. Then, "We happened to move inadvertently into the Haight Ashbury district [of San Francisco]."
Though it was pre-Woodstock-the term "hippie" didn't even exist, according to Sky-his established life in the now infamous district led him into close friendships with the likes of Janis Joplin and Allen Ginsberg, and he even listened to brawls between Hunter S. Thompson and the Hells Angels while living beneath Thompson's apartment. "Because we were one of the first sort of artists in the area," says Gino, "we were witness to the whole period of what became known as the hippie Haight Ashbury. We saw it all. I used to babysit Jerry Garcia's kids."
Sky started writing Appaloosa Rising in an attempt to capture and express in a new way what was going on. "That's where I started writing, pushing, always pushing to try and get inside of what was happening at the time and say it in a way that no one else had said it before," says Sky. "I did a couple of chapters and I was reading them out loud and people really started to respond to them, 'cause they were kinda crazy, very funny and wild. And then I decided that I wanted to make this into a circular novel. There's a whole series of stories but they're all tied together."
He sought respite from the hubbub of San Francisco in Boise, and within five months had finished the novel. "Within a month, Doubleday had accepted it," says Gino. "And the really great thing about it was they really liked it so much, it was the first simultaneous hardback, softback that Doubleday had ever done." Though a movie was never made, the rights were immediately snapped up by Columbia Pictures and Penthouse bought two chapters due to the book's occasionally racy nature.
Evidently, the Cowboy Buddha in Appaloosa Rising is to Gino Sky what the Force is to George Lucas, and Sky began to explain: "Cowboy Buddha is kind of a state of mind, he's never a real character, but it's this evolution from the cowboy consciousness as everyone knows it in the West, with all the stereotypes, to the Buddha consciousness. There's a beautiful transition that takes place within the West and all of its open space, the vastness of it that I absolutely love, to the inner migration that happens in Zen Buddhism through meditation. And so you have outer space and inner space coming together."
But Gino emphasizes that he really wanted to write about the West. "What I was pulled back into was the West-Idaho or Utah. It was that whole attraction and more like an addiction, more systemic where it's the roots, were your slant comes from because you know that's where your heart is, your love is. There was a place where I wanted to go that didn't have walls to it."
Along with the versatile and talented poets and writers who spoke at the night's reading, including Sky, Rosalie Sorrels performed and spoke at length of her dear friend of over 40 years. After all the attention on Sky, perhaps the most poignant comment was from Ostling at the close of the evening: "Gosh, I can't wait till I'm 70!"
"I'd say in order to write, or for any artist, they should be writing 20 years ahead of their time," Sky says. With Appaloosa Rising often regarded as a classic and another novel in the works called The Fabled Land of the Far Far Left, the statement seems to be a motto for this Cowboy Buddha.