Dispatches from Atz’ is an on-going series chronicling the writings of Atz Kilcher during his time at Freedom Ranch for Heroes with the veterans of Project Healing Waters.
“I might as well tell you a little bit about my experience with disabled veterans who are part of Project Healing Waters in Wise River. It is another testimony and powerful experience in music and storytelling, in daring to share your journey, and believing that as humans we can affect each other in a positive healing way,”
Vietnam veteran Atz Kilcher is an accomplished singer, song-writer, musician, story-teller and proud father. He is most widely known as the patriarch of Discovery Channel’s Emmy-short-listed program Alaska: The Last Frontier. Atz joined the Project Healing Waters family in 2021 during a trip to Freedom Ranch for Heroes.
The more I think about it, and the older and hopefully wiser I get, the more I realize how often my behavior and my moods, and the way I end up feeling or treating people, is caused by triggers and subtle cues outside of myself. It rains and blows into my face and I get mad. Somebody smiles at me and I feel good. Somebody cuts me off on the freeway, and to keep from getting angry or taking it personally, I have to repeat a mantra I have developed,” bless you angry man, bless you angry man”. I am not sure which angry man I am blessing. The driver who cut me off might just have been in a hurry or was having an emergency, so I guess the angry man I am blessing is me. I am out in the beautiful wilderness, and I feel inspired. I watch a movie like ‘a River runs through it’, and I am deeply touched for years. I see life more and more as just a never ending series of cues and triggers. And sadly, it follows that when something triggers me, the way I act in turn triggers those around me.
This message came to me while I was out jogging this morning. I have gotten some good messages out jogging. Not sure where they come from, but they definitely come to me more at certain times of day, or while I am doing certain activities, like jogging or driving or out in nature. It’s sort of like cell phone reception. I’ve had to learn what time of day and where to be to get reception. Sometimes these messages are only a thought, they come and go. Other times they may become a poem or a song. Sometimes a story, or an essay, but more times than not I believe they are for my betterment. Usually these messages feel like they are in answer to something I have been thinking about, working through, or struggling with. I usually don’t argue with these messages, or judge or evaluate them, because they all do me some good. Sometimes it’s the same message I’ve gotten before, sometimes it’s said in just a little different way. Sometimes it’s a brand new one. Or it could be that it just seems new because I forgot the old ones.
This morning‘s message came from two horses grazing in a meadow along the road where I went for a jog. I think in part it also came to me because for the last 24 hours I have been interacting with Veterans. I’ve been thinking about some of the serious triggers many of us deal with.
Our group leader/coordinator is a third generation cowboy. By cowboy I mean he was raised a cowboy and he is still a cowboy. Cows, horses, ranch, blue heeler, rodeos, the whole works. So I think it got me going down that cowboy trail of my past.
You see, I used to be a cowboy myself. First I was just a homesteader, a sodbuster, a farmer. Name anything to do with farming or homesteading, well I did it. And what I did is what I was. It’s how I defined myself. Well, then some cowboys from Arizona and New Mexico moved into the area. It wasn’t a big career change for me to become a cowboy. I just had to learn how to rope, and castrate and brand and de-horn. I had to learn how to train horses. I learned to train cows to accept an orphan calf. I had to train calves to hook up with a new mom. I had to learn how to give shots, do minor surgeries, deal with prolapsed uteruses.
And I’d say one of the most important aspect of being a cowboy is learning how and when to sometimes be louder and scarier and more aggressive than a mean horse or cow that is trying to hurt you, and when to be gentle. Learning what kind of cues those animals are sending you. Are they scared, or hurt and asking for help, are they about to try to take you out? And what kind of cues you are sending them? Like, “mess with me and you will be real sorry”, or “I am harmless, I am part of the herd”.
And of course I wore cowboy boots and spurs and a cowboy hat and was proud of it. Not only did I know I was a cowboy but I wanted everyone else to know. I would say it was my first real identity. There were only two other cowboys in my school so being a cowboy wasn’t real popular. But I didn’t care. Because I finally had a family, I finally had an identity. And, it beat my previous identity of being a backwoods Homestead hick.
Back in 66 when I won the Alaska Junior championship all-around cowboy title, well it was like getting a PhD in cowboyology. Didn’t matter a bit to me, that “all Alaska”, really meant just a small part of Alaska that had cattle and horses and cowboys. It didn’t matter that if I remember right there were only about 10 guys under 18 participating. Nope, didn’t bother me at all!
But am I still a cowboy? I feel more like I used to be a cowboy. Just like I used to be a social worker. Just like I used to be a school teacher. I say that I am a musician because I still perform and write songs. I used to be a pretty good athlete but I no longer say that I am an athlete. So at this point in my life I either say that I used to be, or that I am retired. Interesting how we define our self.
But I am a veteran. I didn’t used to be a veteran. I didn’t once was a veteran. I am not a retired veteran. And I think it’s a title we’ve earned. Kind of like once you’ve been a Senator you can always be called Senator, or Governor or President. Just the other day in a coffee shop in Homer, the barista asked me if I was a veteran, I said, “yes ,why?” She said that a veteran had been in earlier and given her $100 to buy free coffee for any veterans that came in!
A coffee shop at the Bozeman Airport when I arrived, said there was no charge for Vets. I love it. Funny,how even a small thing like that, served as a powerful trigger! Held my head just a little higher. Felt just a little more proud.
So I’m jogging down the road and there are two horses loose in a field beside the road. I know enough about this area and about horses to take an educated guess that they are tame, probably well trained, probably used a lot. Still I’m smart enough to know that even well trained horses can be scared of strangers. Or they can have a mean streak. I don’t want to get hurt. I don’t want to scare them. But I’m tapping into my used to be cowboy days, and want to have a little chat with them. So I step across the ditch closer to their space and tell them that I don’t want to hurt them and ask them if they are scared. They say they’re fine. So since our relationship is moving along fairly well up to this point, I ask this closest horse if he wants to come over and visit a little bit. I give him some arm and hand signals welcoming him into my space. Then I let him know I am not scary and not gonna hurt him by looking down at the ground and not straight at him. I turn away just a little. And I hear him say, “yeah, you’re a cool”. Then he walks over to within inches of me. I pet and scratch him. We had a nice moment together. It sort of made my day. We were communicating, we were picking up each other’s cues, triggering each other in a good way.
Now if you don’t own horses or dogs, haven’t hung out with them or trained them, or know that communicating with them is very real, not only with hand signals or word, but even with emotions, you will think I may have jogged a little too far, and was a little dehydrated and heads started imagining things.
Now I realize horses are curious creatures and sometimes will come right up to you even if you don’t do anything. But I do know one thing for sure, had I given that horse different cues he would’ve run away. Had I put my arms up and my fingers out like the claws of a bear, or made myself look big and scary like a cougar up on a rock, or slithered on my belly in the grass like a snake, He probably would’ve run. Chances are also pretty good that had I been really scared, or acting really weird, or otherwise giving off bad vibes, I would have gotten a different reaction. Chances are he would’ve run away. He certainly would not have come up to me.
We give off some kind of cues all the time. Cues that say, come here I am friendly, I want to get to know you. Cues that say, stay away, I want to be alone. Cues that say, I am dangerous you better run like hell cause I’m gonna hurt you.
The other day I was driving home and going pretty slow. I think I may have been daydreaming. When I looked in my mirror there was a big black scary looking truck right on my bumper. I think he was sending me a message. So I sped up to the speed limit which was 35. He stayed on my bumper. I just concentrated on staying calm. When I took my turn off, I swear he almost brushed me as he sped by and gunned his diesel truck so hard it sounded like a freight train, blew black smoke all over my sweet little innocent Tacoma truck, and scared the bee whacker’s out of me! I repeated my mantra all the way home. “Bless you angry man, bless you angry man”. I was not the angry man that I was blessing, I was the scared man. “Bless you scared man bless you scared man”! Not sure if that would be considered a cue he was sending me, a trigger, or a full blown message, but I definitely got it!
I’m not a cowboy anymore, but it has made me partly who I am. Lots of good training and philosophy that has stayed with me. I have done a lot of things. I have been lots of things, ended all is still part of me.
But I am a veteran. Not a retired veteran, a full-time veteran. And as a full-time veteran I’m making my full-time job studying the cues and triggers that still affect me. I am still learning how they affect me. Still learning which cues are helpful or hurtful. I am also trying to become more aware of those cues I send to my fellow humans. I am learning to become more aware, not to send out negative or angry cues when I am having a hard time, when I feel depressed or anxious. I am also learning that there is a very good chance that when I send out negative cues, inpatient cues, or angry cues, that it will set off all sorts of triggers for people around me, especially those close to me.
Do I pay attention to a certain cue because it might save me a lot of trouble and keep me from harm right now, or is it a cue from long ago? How can I reduce the power which that trigger has over me, by perhaps saying to it, “I once needed you, you had an important job, you helped me survive, but I don’t need you anymore.” Can I learn to treat the unwelcome cue of long ago as I might a young child, by gently rocking that memory, that traumatic experience or trigger, until it falls back asleep? Can I learn to pause a moment, to be mindful, to pay attention to that voice or memory or trigger, to see what it has to say and then instead of reacting, choosing an appropriate action instead?
Because I believe I’m still a simple part homesteader, part cowboy at heart, I try to keep it simple. It’s all about triggers. It’s all about cues It’s all about choosing which ones to listen to, which ones to intentionally send out?
Ultimately, I think it’s about learning to trust our own inner voice, our own higher power, and to cue less and less off of people and things out of our control, outside of ourselves. Ultimately, to learn to accept that which simply is, and cannot be changed. To try not to live like a leaf tossed by every breeze that comes along. To learn that just as clouds come and go, the weather and the seasons change, there will always be highs and lows and ups and downs and painful memories of the past in our life. We have no control. If we can only be happy when the weather is perfect, well, we will be unhappy a lot.
Sometimes just knowing those cold, dark, and angry clouds will pass, is all we can do. And I believe if we work at it long and hard enough, we can even learn to see those dark clouds as decorating a beautiful sky.
“They’re just clouds”
I long for a place where I can make my bed
Safe Harbor soft pillow where I can lay my head
And listen to my heart and try to realize
These dark clouds won’t always be in my skies these dark clouds won’t always be in my skies
There was a time not so long ago
Her warm arms were the first place that I would always go
No words needed she spoke with her eyes
Those dark clouds won’t always be in your skies
Those dark clouds won’t always be in your skies
I started writing this song because I was feeling a lot of anxiety and depression. I just started singing and this is what started coming in. It was my unconscious helping me review all the things I have tried in the past. All things which worked for a while. Safety, comfort, sleep, soft arms, a woman. Even though they were only temporary distractions, I kept believing that at some point the re-occurring pain or anxiety or darkness would start to go away and eventually disappear.
You keep hoping. You keep looking for that feel-good.
But I didn’t want to be reviewing what I add done in my past to feel better, that’s not why I was writing that song, I wanted an answer to what I could do differently, and I had a feeling it would come in the chorus of my song. I worked on the song for quite a few weeks. Eventually something else came drifting in but it was just another no good verse!
Where are my old friends, who took away my pain
Gently rocked me, then locked me inside my foggy brain
And every morning with taunting voice they cried
“nanny nanny boo-boo
those dark clouds are sti -ill
in your sky
Nanny nanny boo-boo”
and now you have a hangover on top of it
Nanny nanny boo-boo”
When I was performing this song for the vets I actually interrupted my chorus and saying that Nanny nanny boo-boo, in an attempt to trial this voice, taunting anothechild.They especially chuckled about the fact that the next morning you still feel bad but now have a hangover on top of it. I think I will throw that Nanny nanny boo-boo in there every time I perform the song from now on. Hey, their chuckling was a cue! It triggered my feeling of success, of hitting my mark!
Those dark clouds will always be in your skies
Those dark clouds will always be in your skies
Okay okay I’ll admit it! There were many years of my life when I looked forward to that time evening or late afternoon, when I could begin drinking, or getting stoned, anything to take away the pain. Maybe tomorrow would be the day those dark clouds would go away forever!
I kept singing those three verses over and over. Even without the answer, without the chorus, it did me good to review my life. It did good to realize those dark clouds would always be there. Maybe it was time to believe my”Old friends”. They tried pointing it out to me many mornings over a period of many years But I’m not sure it made me feel a whole lot better. Butt it did make me realize since I could not make them go away, and they had been there all my life, I perhaps was barking up the wrong tree
I still remember the exact place the chorus did come to me. And yes it did come to me out of the clouds. I was coming back from the head of the bay. I had just come out of the brush line and started across the mud flats. I was between the first and second bridge. I looked up at the sky, partly blue partly rain clouds, and the chorus dropped in on me. I could almost hear that hallelujah chorus!
You can’t blow them away
you can’t wish them away
you can’t scare them away
they’re just clouds
But you can change your point of view!
They decorate the blue!
Doing what clouds do!
They’re just clouds!
I had to take a moment! I turned off my Honda four wheeler. I didn’t have to sing it over and over to memorize it. It was solid. It was part of me.
I cannot claim originality. I am sure I have heard this message many times and in many different ways in my life. But for some reason, which is hard for me to fathom but I will not argue with, I really heard it for the first time. It sank in! And even though I was hearing my own words, my own voice in my ears, somehow it was authoritative. I didn’t just have to wait and suffer while the black clouds passed over! I could look at them as decorating the blue sky, even though I couldn’t see the blue sky behind them. Somehow seeing the clouds as decorations, made them more friendly and more temporary. And I swear to you my veteran brothers, I now see my dark moods, my depression or my anxiety not only as passing, as temporary, but I have truly begun to see them as something that will always be there, decorating my beautiful soul which always lies just underneath. And yes, they will pass as all clouds do. Focus on the blue sky, just a few layers down. Focus on my beautiful soul just behind that depression. Keep breathing. They will always be there. And they will always pass. What I do have control over, is focusing on the blue, seeing them as decorations, breathing.
It’s always hard for an artist to pick their very best piece, their best poem, their best song. This song,”They’re just clouds”, may not be my best, but it has certainly had the most profound impact on my healing journey. And my journey ain’t even done yet!
But this here little song, this here little nugget that dropped down on me right there at the head of the bay where I chased cows and protected the herd against predators for many years, where I did so much growing up, where I learned so much, where I did so much healing, where I went as a young teenager trying to figure out what it meant to be a man, how fitting that right there in that magical place where I had just spent a couple of days, that little nugget would you give me a big boost. Give me a lot of courage to go from here to the end of my trail with a little more joy and confidence, and with a little more acceptance for what I cannot change, and a little stronger belief that I no longer have to shiver and cower or run for shelter, when I see black clouds. Give me a little more confidence, that the harder I looked, and the more I searched, the more other answers would come to me.
What a beautiful 75th birthday gift. I used to run the mile. Four laps. The Last lap was always the best. Maybe not the fastest but the best. Well, I got three laps of 25 years each under my belt. I’m at the three lap mark. Three quarters of the way done! And I have every reason to believe the last lap will indeed be the best. Looks like it so far! I checked the weather just to make sure, and sure enough! The word is out! There are some really beautiful playful dark black and gray clouds lining up on the horizon! Tons of them! All of them so excited to keep decorating my beautiful sky!
What makes this story even more magical and miraculous to me is this. My father had many skills and strengths. Many essential homesteading tools. But I don’t believe he had any tools for dealing with his internal demons and pressures, much less the many pressures of survival, having to raise and protect a family in the wilderness. Bad weather and his tendency to avoid and put things off, greatly increased his already touchy and volatile nature.
For me as a young boy it was like watching the building of the perfect storm. The rainy season and freeze up was approaching. The window would soon close for bringing our winter supply of coal up the dangerous,narrow and steep switch back road from the beach. My father procrastinated, did not take advantage of those sunny dry days. It started raining hard. The muddy road was now slippery and treacherous winding up the steep canyon. It started freezing parts of the road were now glaciered over. Not only was the job made much harder. Get stuck. spin out. Unload the coal. Drive forward. Carry those heavy chunks of cold with freezing hands, up the slippery road and put them back into the trailer. Only to do it again and again.
But I am sure it was the fear, the very real fear of slipping off the edge, into the canyon, that was the worst. It had happened before.
Whether that scenario or any number of others, that were precipitated by something needing to be done last minute because it had been put off, but now having to be done in the driving rain, or snow, or strong winds. The perfect storm for always the same. And I got better and better at predicting them. But there wasn’t much I could do to prepare.
I watch the storm build. I can do nothing but brace myself. My fear of the danger. My fear of his screaming. My fear of his fear. My fear of that hard strong calloused hand that sooner or later will find a good reason to slap me so hard that I will see stars. It only takes me a second to be right there again. But only now, when that frightened inner child finds himself there again, I can reach back and hold him and comfort him and tell him that none of it is his doing. Only now, I can also put a comforting strong, loving and understanding arm around my fathers shoulder. And I tell him as many times as he needs to hear it, that those important tools he and my mother gave me, those gifts of nature and music, had within them, all the answers I would need as I was growing, all the good medicine I could ever hope for. Little Atz under one arm, my young 45-year-old father under my other one. I can feel them relax. I can feel myself breathing again.
For years I was affected by weather and seasons. Spring with its limited time and pressures to get seeds into the ground. Fall and the short limited amount of time to bring in the crops, left to grow as long as they could, needing to be harvested before they froze. The many things to do, to prepare for the long cold winter ahead. The pressure of the hard work of the task itself. The pressure of having procrastinated. The pressure bad weather.
Those shoulder seasons! Bad weather! I am still happiest in early spring. Midsummer and midwinter. Autumns are still a challenge. Bad weather and angry building dark clouds. Still a challenge. No wonder I use dark clouds as a metaphor to describe those challenges of my soul. Weather passed on to me genetically, or whether learned from my father as I shivered and trembled there by his side through those storms. Whether added to by the traumas of life. Addictions. Divorces. The death of a young baby. Or the traumas of Vietnam and a homecoming to a divided country. It really doesn’t matter.
My life’s task has been to overcome those challenges. To improve on what I was given. To slowly learn to love and appreciate all seasons, and all weather. To slowly begin to see that gratitude and acceptance and changing my point of view are really the only things I have control over. And I am gaining just the little every day!
My life’s work now is to pass on to my children and grandchildren, the tools of pioneering the soul. And if they already have them and know how to use them, at least I can show them that I’m using them, that they are working. As a dad, I can still be a good example.
My life’s works now is to show them as often as I can the healing power and the magic and the medicine of nature and music. To remind them to be grateful every day for the great heritage my parents came to this country to pass on to them.
Thank you music! Thank you creativity! Thank you mom and dad! Thank you my understanding and forgiving children! Thank you nature! Thank you God! I am grateful!
Atz Kilcher was raised on a homestead in Homer, Alaska after his father and mother, Yule and Ruth, emigrated from Switzerland in the late 1930’s. The many skills learned and required on a homestead, as well as living a self-sufficient lifestyle, helped shape Atz’s character. As an adult, Atz worked as a rancher, horse trainer and carpenter. He received his Bachelor degree in psychology and his Masters in Social Work, which he used working with troubled teens and marriage and family therapy. He served in the army in the late 60’s and spent a year in Vietnam. Dealing with his own PTSD from a dysfunctional family and the trauma experienced in Vietnam, Atz developed great empathy for all veterans and anyone dealing with any type of trauma. Although he has been a therapist and been to many therapists over the years, talking with other veterans and sharing successes and failures as well as ups and downs has been the most helpful in his healing journey. Atz is an accomplished singer, song-writer, musician, story-teller and proud father. He is most widely known as the patriarch of Discovery Channel’s Emmy-short-listed program Alaska: The Last Frontier.