The chance straw hat, once honored

In 1996, on Halloween, I found an orange straw hat at the top of a hill in an empty field in Boulder.

I was sitting in the field in fresh snow and I was fairly soused when my friend Matt caught up to me and shook me to my feet. Flakes came down fast. The bars had all shut and the streets were nearly empty. Snowfall muffled the normal noises of the sleeping city, deepening slumber and drifts and solitude. Matt and I stumbled away up the hill.

The hat appeared ahead of us at the top of a rise. I picked it up and dusted it off. Snow had filled any footprints that may have led to the hat’s original owner. Nobody was nearby. The world seemed no bigger than the cone of light under a streetlight, big enough for just us. I set the hat on my head and wore it home.

For many months the orange straw hat bounced and flopped joyfully through social occasions, delighting many. I remember one event where people were particularly appreciative: They kept slapping me on the back and complimenting my hat. That’s how I met a jolly gentleman named Gordo. Gordo and I spoke for a while and he told me that his business often took him to Mexico. He indicated that he liked my hat very much.

I was living a relatively docile life, and I remember wondering at that moment if things were a bit too tame for the orange straw hat. My business did not seem likely to take me anywhere near Mexico, for example. The world is full of hats in hat boxes; but the orange straw hat was made for adventures. I felt a tightness in my throat (from the hat’s chinstrap, I think) when Gordo lifted it off. The hat bobbed away with him.

• • • •

Some time later I did some traveling myself, mostly in the South Pacific. My way went through hurricanes and heat, around the perimeter of the great red desert, from island to island through crocodile swamps and over rocky volcanic ranges. I spent many long days in sunshine and many nights dancing. I could have used a good straw hat, but I’d let mine go with Gordo.

Then I came to China.

In China, wide straw hats were quite common. They were unanimously straw-colored. So when I saw the orange hat akimbo among books and bottles in a small apartment there, I had to look twice. Yes, it was the same hat. It had come to China with John, a friend I visited who also knew Gordo.

John told an incomplete tale of the hat’s long travels. It had been on many heads, to many places — to Mexico, to the coasts. It weaved in and out of view, always riding above a crowd of admirers, all the way to China. I smiled to think of it.

Then John grew somber. He related how an uncouth expatriate recently had upturned the hat and emptied a bellyful of booze into it. After that misfortune, no haste could have prevented the hat’s colonization by Southeast Asian jungle life. Its insides were as furry as a kangaroo’s pouch. It was no longer fit to wear.

This seemed a sad end to an illustrious career, and I was glum until an inspired onlooker suggested we have a pyre. Of course! We could not leave a hat of this caliber to rot slowly in some Chinese dump.

We hung the hat on a rusting post in the yard and tried to ignite it, but in its vegetated state it was as flammable as a lily pad. So we brought out a can of insect repellent bearing a likeness of General Mao and, wielding the spray like a blowtorch, took turns blasting the hat. We all shouted joyfully when the thing finally lit. The vapors of a well-worn, well-loved hat ascended to the heavens.

• • • •

From China I passed through Indonesia and spent several weeks in Bali. There was a club there, the Sari Club, which later was destroyed by a bomb. But the club still stood when I was in Bali, and I liked to stop there after dinner some nights to enjoy a cool coconut drink.

One night I went to the Sari Club and stayed until dusk. I didn’t like walking after dark in Bali: Once before on a dim sidewalk I had encountered a pack of predatory urchins who pulled on my arms, grabbed at my pockets and scratched me with their fingernails. I didn’t want to see them again and I was apprehensive leaving the club.

I walked quickly in the evening, through the winding streets, past crooked alleyways and dark open doorways. The island wind was wild, tossing grit and loose trash around. Suddenly a great gust tumbled a straw hat around a corner and straight towards me like a dog to a whistle. The hat hung up on my feet and stopped. Nobody came chasing after the hat. I picked it up. It was in fairly good shape. I put it on and nobody followed me.

That was a great hat. It had a tropical-print fabric band. It didn’t fit my head very well but I didn’t mind. It didn’t fit in my luggage either so I wore it every day, through Indonesia, from Sydney to Cairns and on to Fiji.

(photo by Ethan Crawford, 1998)

For the traveler in Fiji a straw hat is more valuable than almost any other article except perhaps flip-flops. And everyone I met in Fiji lost their flip-flops. I think there must be someone in Fiji who finds all those flip-flops. I wish that person would write a blog post like this one, describing their incredible luck with flip-flops.

• • • •

My luck is with straw hats. But I didn’t know this about myself when I realized, half a day after flying from Fiji, that I’d left my second straw hat there (along with two pairs of flip-flops). I made this depressing discovery in a Greyhound Bus station in Los Angeles. I rode bareheaded and brooding across the vast salt desert of America.

But two days later, pedaling a bike in Boulder, I found a third straw hat. It was sitting unattended on a low wall by the side of the road.

I skidded to a halt and shot a querulous look at a man waiting nearby for the bus. He stared back blankly. Watching him all the while, I slowly picked up the hat and put it on. He stared back blankly. I made a gesture by which I intended to communicate to him that I was about to ride away on my bike with this found straw hat, and he had only an instant to prevent it. The man replied with a blank stare that clearly said, “What straw hat?”

I still have the bus-stop hat. It fits very well, but I’m afraid I have handled it roughly, packing it and wearing it often. I hardly trust it outside the house anymore. A few brittle straws break every time I pull it on. One day soon the brim will tear entirely away from the cap. When that happens I will dignify its demise somehow, though probably without General Mao-brand bug spray.

Anyway, the bus stop hat is retired. One day as I drove on a mountain highway, the driver of a Porsche Cayenne made an inconsiderate turn that forced me to brake quickly. As the Porsche sped away, a straw hat flew off its roof. I pulled to the side of the road and watched in anguish as speeding cars passed over the hat, which cartwheeled in their wakes.

None squashed it. In a lull I leapt into the road and snatched it up. It fits fairly well. It has a camouflage band and a leather forehead pad and it is the most expensive straw hat I have ever worn.

• • • •

The years go by. Nowadays I wear the Porsche-driver’s straw hat infrequently, but it was never meant for great adventures anyway. It had its terrifying moment, dancing in thin air with metal death all around. Now the hat is safe in the basement. It comes out for lawn games. It travels a pleasant circuit from the patio to the porch.

I don’t suppose that I am the only person who has good luck with straw hats. I’m sure there are others. But among the people I know, I have the best by far. Straw hats just find me.

In idler times I have wondered about this luck. If every class of thing has a deity — if there is a god of teacups, of tarantulas, of teeth — these motley divines are surely starved for ceremony. Any gesture will suffice to gratify them. But with such small domains to lord over, these deities can reward us with only the oddest fortune. The chance straw hat, once honored, always returns.

The chance straw hat, once honored