If you want to know more about the book, check out my “About” page. Today I made good progress in converting my manuscript to a template provided by CreateSpace for a book format of 5.25″x8″. I hope to have it transferred from the original Word 8.5×11 document to the template by week’s end. Then, I will convert it to a PDF file, review it, and work on a cover. Once I’ve created a cover, I will make it available for e-readers. My hope is that Kindle sales will generate some income, to help defray the cost of publishing, printing, distribution, and promotion of an actual physical book. Anything you can do to help generate interest, by sharing this blog, I would greatly appreciate! I’ll update here as I work through the process. I appreciate all comments, positive and negative, so please don’t hesitate to give me your feedback either way.
My father, Vernon Mack Higgs, was born in a cabin on Spade Mountain near Stillwell, Oklahoma, in Cherokee country, on June 7, 1925. A distant relative who still lived in the area took Danny and me to the site once. He showed us the nearby spring where they’d gotten their water, and kept their milk cool. There was no trace left of their home (that we could see) on that shady mountainside. When Dad was nine years old, during the Great Depression, during the Dust Bowl years, his parents, Daniel and Viola, lost their modest claim. They moved to Heber Springs, Arkansas, in the Ozarks, to live with relatives. Within a year or two, his father had died. About that time, probably by no coincidence, his formal education ended with the fourth grade. He was exempted from the draft a few years later, during World War II, because he was “the sole support of his mother.” My own mother, Kathleen Elizabeth Adams, first saw him when he was about nineteen. He and another young man stopped into her school one winter’s day while they were out rabbit hunting, to warm up by the school stove. She was fourteen. “I never paid him no mind,” she assured me (sixty-four years later).
He would probably be considered “functionally illiterate” by those who use such terms, but he loved to read, and he loved to read one thing: Louis L’Amour westerns. He always had at least one going at any given time. The only thing I can recall seeing my dad write was his signature: V. M. Higgs, in an old-fashioned script. I remember the first time I ever felt protective of him, rather than protected by him. I was about eighteen years old. It was time for him to renew his driver’s license. I went with him to the county seat of Greenville, Ohio. The woman behind the counter told him where to sign his new license, and he signed it in his usual way. But then she told him that he would have to sign his whole name, just as she’d typed it. She typed up another one and set it on the counter in front of him and waited. He looked at it for a few seconds, and then looked at me, and with a nod of his head, he beckoned me away from the counter. “I can’t remember how to make an r,” he said quietly. My heart went out to him. I discreetly showed him how to make an r on a piece of scrap paper.
He and my mother never had a bank account, ever. They came out of the Great Depression, so they didn’t trust banks, and they came out of the Ozarks, so they didn’t have any money anyway. They had five kids instead. We grew up “rural poor,” although he had a steady union job. There were plenty of things we’d have liked more of, under his “sole support,” but love was never one of them. His every action and thought, and my mother’s, were oriented to taking care of the family. He often couldn’t give his children what they wanted, but he always, without fail, gave us what we needed. He was devoted to us, and we to him.
Light filtered down through the Fraser Firs, Sugar Maples, Buckeyes, Witch-Hazel, Rhododendrons, and Mountain Laurel, to my hiding place in the ferns, as I nibbled on a chunk of greasy cheddar cheese and a Hershey bar. When it was warm enough, I bathed. I dried on a rock in a small pool of light. I boulder-hopped upstream and down. That afternoon, I ate a bologna and cheese sandwich.
Next morning, after another night awake, I ate the last of my food, although I wasn’t hungry. I occasionally heard the distant hum of a car on the road that went up to the pass. The unwelcome sound caused me to stand still in deep shadows and listen until it had gone. I clambered up Alum Cave Creek, and took the Styx Branch, up the steep side of Mt. Leconte. The water grew smaller but wilder. I laid down by a slender waterfall but it was too noisy, so I moved back downstream until it got too dark to walk in the thickets. I laid down in a quiet, mossy spot. I listened through the night to furtive rustlings, and small snappings around me. Once, I heard heavy footfalls and a splash as something crossed the stream below.
I spent much of the next day laying on my belly on smooth boulders, studying the fish. They flashed as they turned in the deep pools. When I felt empty, I drank the cold, sweet water.
The next morning, I woke up in daylight, surprised to find that I’d been asleep. I sat up slowly. After a while, I got on my feet. My legs were unsteady. My head was wet with the morning dew. I walked over to the cold, rushing water, sank to my knees in the mud and moss, and dunked my head. When I came up, gasping, I heard a car door slam, and voices.
I scrambled back to my bag and pack, dragged them behind an oak tree, rolled up the bag, secured it onto the pack, and lifted them onto my back. I stood still, listening. Voices calling, laughing, upstream. I fled downstream, my heart racing.
Once I was on the move, I stayed moving, sometimes along the streamside path, sometimes not, but staying along the pounding river, which seemed to be fleeing along with me. When I got into briar patches, down in the bottoms, I pushed straight through them. Thorns tore at my arms, my hands, my bare chest, and my face, but I didn’t slow down. I welcomed the burn, the sting, the small bloody ribbons. “Haaaaaahhhh! Haaaaahhhh!” I cried above my panting breath. It was a kind of ecstasy.
Camp Muir is cemented and bolted onto a thin basalt ridge that juts up out of the snow, separating the vast Muir Snowfield below from the upper reaches of Cowlitz Glacier. If you have any breath left when you get there, the view will take it away. Its elevation is somewhere between 10,050 and 10,188 feet, depending on which map you consult. Or where you’re standing, for that matter. The camp has several buildings, including a crude tarpaper and plywood hut. The hut is about the shape of a boxcar, but smaller. It is walled off into two sections, one for RMI climbers and the other for climbers using another guide service. There’s also a stone WPA-style hut provided by the National Park Service for independent climbers. Sitting on a slightly higher section of the ridge is the park rangers’ stone hut, outside of which rangers can be seen sitting aloof in the sun reading Edward Abbey while the steady ebb and flow of climbers mills around below their feet. There is also a weather station and several outhouses. Far below us the top of the cloud we’d climbed through still skirted the mountain, although it was beginning to break apart. In the distance we could see Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens, and, beyond them, magnificent Mt. Hood. Above us towered the remaining 4,400 feet of Rainier, the summit tucked out of view behind jagged foreground peaks. Above Rainier was the immaculate cold sky, a thin, blue membrane darkened by a deeper darkness beyond.
By around 5:30 the guides had boiled a five-gallon jug of water. We used the water to pour over our dehydrated meals, and make tea or hot chocolate. We all gathered together in the hut and ate ravenously, cheerfully stuffing our bellies with warmth.
When the lights came back on, sometime after midnight, I woke and sat up in place to watch all my teammates struggle quietly in the confined floor space, getting around each other and into their cold-weather clothes, and then making their ways out into the black night to continue gearing up. Once the traffic had cleared inside the hut I also got up, dressed, and joined them all outside. Joe, in his berth on the opposite side of the room from me, hadn’t stirred. Outside, there wasn’t much joking around, as everyone helped each other check and re-check their equipment, supplies, and clothing. The guides moved among them, tightening straps, checking laces, testing headlamps and avalanche transponders, making sure everyone’s carabiners were in order, and all the other necessary things, all the while reminding everyone that there was no time to waste. I stood inconspicuously among them, preparing along with them in my mind, feeling their strange brew of grim excitement. Before long, the guides had arranged them into their two groups.
Win’s team left the camp first, roped together for the rising traverse up across steep, bowl-shaped Cowlitz Glacier to Cathedral Gap. Jon’s team waited a few minutes. RMI keeps their parties broken up into smaller teams to minimize risk, and also out of consideration to other climbing parties they encounter on the climb. There’s also an aesthetic consideration. Smaller parties have a smaller visual impact on the mountainside.
As the last team headed out, I watched the silent glowworm line of their headlamps grow smaller, dimmer, and higher in the night. The climb from Camp Muir to the summit is steeper, colder, windier and more treacherous than the climb from Paradise to Muir. Every foot you gain delivers less oxygen to your lungs, your blood, your muscles. Making that climb roped together in the deep dark of a moonless night intensifies the danger and difficulty. The real test had begun for them.
When I woke up, in Christine’s bed, with Maggie sleeping on my shoulder, a whisper of gray light framed the bedroom window shade. It took me a minute to recall Maggie and me waking up in a tangle on the sofa during the night. I’d slipped my boots off and she’d led me by the hand into the pitch black bedroom. When we reached the bed we were both already half asleep again, or had never quite awakened.
I wriggled out of bed, taking pains to not wake Maggie, pulled on my jeans, and, gripping my shirt in my hand, slipped out of the bedroom. Maggie never stirred. As I turned from the bedroom door after carefully pulling it closed, I was jolted by the sight of Christine, simultaneously turning from her front door, her keys in hand, and her eyes widening with surprise when she saw me.
“You’re here!” we exclaimed in unison.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“I came with Maggie,” I stammered. “We came to see you. She said it would be okay.”
“Where is she?”
I jerked my head toward the bedroom door. “Sleeping,” I whispered.
She looked at the bedroom door, then back at me, then turned and hung her keys on a hook by the door. It took her a couple of tries to slip the key ring over the hook. Turning back to face me, she put her hands on her hips and looked me up and down. “You sure Maggie’s in there?”
I nodded enthusiastically, stepping away from the bedroom door, so she could open it and look in, if she wished.
“How’d you get in?”
“Through the window. Maggie said you’d understand.”
“I’m thinking about screaming. Just so you know.”
“You’ll wake Maggie.”
She stifled a smile. “Well, you look pretty harmless. Everyone was wondering where you were,” she added, without explanation, as she crossed the room toward her sofa.
She stopped and turned in front of me, losing her balance slightly as she turned. “I’ve been at your place all night.”
“You’ve been at my place?”
“I’d heard there was a party there. I was bored out of my mind, so I went.” She shrugged, swayed a little, and blinked slowly. “I certainly didn’t expect to find you here, in my living room. Shirtless. With your jeans unbuttoned. Not that I was looking for you.”
I could feel my face reddening. I changed the subject. “I thought you were purifying.”
She smiled at my befuddlement, and then her smile faded. “That ended at midnight. Purification is a lonely business.” She glanced darkly at the photo of her and the bearded man on the mountaintop.
I shook my head in disbelief. “We each spent the night at the other’s house. And we don’t even really know each other. Crazy. So, how was my party?”
She shrugged again. “Loud and long. Lots of boring, intoxicated people. I include myself in that estimation. That Cliff fellow is a train-wreck. Not a happy person, I think. I’d hoped Jacques might be there, stroking his guitar affectionately.”
“Jacques was at Maggie’s.”
She cackled. “That is too much!” She covered her mouth, remembering that Maggie was asleep.
“Well, I was on my way out,” I said, after an awkward pause.
“Uh, huh. I need to sit.” She lowered herself onto the sofa, and let out a long sigh, followed by a yawn. She closed her eyes.
“I’m just going to get my boots, okay?” They were in front of the sofa, right next to her feet.
“Don’t worry. I won’t bite.” She opened her eyes and regarded me with an amused smirk.
“No, I know, I just—“ I knelt, grabbed my boots, and sprang back up to my feet. I was standing close in front of her. “Hey, would you do me a favor?” I blurted, surprising myself.
“What do you have in mind?” Her dark eyes were puffy, and she didn’t blink as she stared up at me, waiting. I smelled alcohol wafting up on her breath. She was not the Christine I’d expected to meet. I stepped back.
These passages are excerpted from the long chapter “My Summer of Cherries and Trout”.
The orchard was about ten miles out on the peninsula that separates Grand Traverse Bay into two halves. I introduced myself to the family standing in their front yard. The farmer and I shook hands, and I was hired with little more than a nod. The cherries, however, were still ripening. I was at least two weeks too early. My recent lover’s friend was the farmer’s daughter. She was about my age.
She gave me a lift for the mile or so back down the road to the row of migrant shacks. None of the Mexican workers had arrived yet, so I had my pick of accommodations. My room was a cinderblock cell in a row of like cells. I had a south-facing window, a bare electric light bulb centered in the ceiling, a one-burner hotplate, a dorm-size refrigerator, a formica table with two chairs, and a very squeaky single bed. There was an outdoor shower, and an old wringer-style washing machine, also outside, under a porch roof tacked to the back of the building. A row of outhouses stood off by itself. The migrant camp was set among miles of orchards –cherries, plums, prunes, apples, and peaches, planted over rolling dunes. I unfurled my sleeping bag on the bed, and set my few things out on the table.
The farmer’s daughter gave me a ride into Traverse City, where I spent most of my meager funds on groceries, and a cheap coffee percolator. Along the way we chatted about our mutual friend, and told each other about ourselves. All the while, we were looking each other over. She was going to be around for a couple of weeks before returning to the east coast, where she’d been living.
She came to visit me alone a few times before she left, and before the Mexicans arrived. A very squeaky bed, indeed. A few times, we went into Traverse City with friends of hers, particularly a young couple who lived in a stone cottage on the wooded shore of Bowers Harbor. They had a beehive, and a garden. Dried herbs hung from their front porch roof. He had a beard, and she had hairy legs. Their yellow dog wore a red bandanna. They were always overflowing with laughter. The four of us would go out to a hoppin’ jukejoint called The Sawmill (motto: You’ll never get bored feet at The Sawmill!) to eat cheeseburgers, drink beer, and listen to rowdy stringbands stomp it out for the dancers.
I ran out of money before the cherries got ripe. I’d been boiling eggs in a Campbell’s soup can, and to supplement my egg diet I roamed the orchards looking for early cherries but there wasn’t much to be had, although I found nice stands of wild asparagus. When I wasn’t foraging, I sometimes sat outside my door in the sun, leafing through “The Whole Earth Catalogue,” or studying “The Dome Builder’s Handbook,” planning my dream home.
My farmer’s daughter was gone but my hairy friends with the cottage fed me a couple of meals, and then gave me a fishing pole and a small tackle box. In my rambles through the orchards, I’d found a farm a half-mile or so to my west with a couple of ponds out back of the house, just beyond the barn. At dusk, I walked through the orchard, climbed a fence, crossed a lush hay meadow, climbed another fence, and slipped up to the pond and went fishing. I fished mostly by feel, as I kept my eyes on the house, which was lit up for the evening. Among the yellow lights, I could see the blue glow of the TV flickering, so I felt pretty safe.
The pond was stocked with trout. Overstocked, in my opinion. They were so hungry, I got a bite on every cast. They especially liked the red and yellow Rooster Tail I was tossing at them. Within ten minutes I had three good, pan-sized trout on my stringer. I was so hungry I could hardly wait to eat them. When I climbed the fence to the hay meadow, my figure atop the fence spooked a couple of horses loitering there in the low evening light. Back at the shack I rigged up a grill and built a fire of apple deadwood in the yard. While it was burning down, I gutted the fish, and when the fire was right, I grilled them. I can still taste them. Every fish I’ve eaten since has been and still is measured against that meal. After I’d eaten, I perked a cup of coffee and drank it and looked into the fire. After that I played the harmonica for a while. I played the only song I knew: “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. I played it over and over, putting different kinds of English on it, until the fire died out.
This chapter was published by This Land Press in their March, 2012 issue.
Joe, my wife Louise, and I left Tulsa in the plush sanctum of Joe’s big black Land Rover at a little after 6am, headed for Boulder, enroute to climb Mount Rainier in Washington. The tight, familiar, urban weave unraveled to one twisting two-lane threading north out of town, up through the Osage Nation. As we drove along a scruffy oak ridge through the old oil camp of Wolco, we could see across Candy Creek Valley. I pointed out to Louise my old observatory hill sticking up out of the valley, a couple of miles distant. The rubble remains of my old observatory were not visible from where we sat.
When I’d met Louise a dozen or so years earlier, I was a longhaul truck driver, and I’d been on the road long enough that my connections in Tulsa had grown tenuous. I’d been living in the cab of my truck, and all the people I’d once known so well had begun to feel remote to me. Truck driving will do that to you after a while. You spend all your time on the road either completely alone or in the company of strangers you’ll never see again. I no longer had a place to stay in Tulsa, or at least it felt that way. By the time I quit trucking, I’d been seeing Louise whenever I’d pass through town, but staying at her place was out of the question, so I’d been sleeping in the truck when I stopped in Tulsa, just like I did in any other city. So, when I parked my truck in the Oklahoma City truckyard one July morning, and drew my pay for the last time, and drove my beloved old Saab back to Tulsa, my first stop was an army surplus store.
I bought a sleeping bag, mosquito netting, insect repellent, a coffee percolator, some galvanized plates and cups, a couple of lightweight tarps, a backpack, and other supplies, including a very cool pith helmet (the only hat I’ve ever looked good in, although Louise has a different opinion about this). Then I stopped at a liquor store and got a pint of W. L. Weller bourbon. Lastly, I stopped at Walmart and bought a rod and reel and some tackle. Then I drove up north, past the town of Skiatook to Candy Creek.
Candy Creek has wallowed out a wild valley from the prairies of the old Osage Nation. Over the years, I’ve hiked every one of the valley’s 25 miles or so, and fished much of the creek, from its source to its mouth, through the wild horse pastures in the upper end, down into the broader, partially wooded lower end where it feeds into Bird Creek. Candy Creek Valley formed the back pastures for a series of large ranches along its course, so virtually no one lived in it. The lower end had been bought out by the Corps of Engineers for a dam project. The project was abandoned while still on the drawing boards. Once this happened, the valley became orphaned land –owned by the public, but managed by no one. It had always been wild, but in its abandonment, it began actively returning to an earlier, wilder state.
I knew of some limestone springs that never went dry, out there deep in the valley. The water was cool and sweet. I drove as far as I could down the abandoned valley road, hid my car behind a sand plum thicket, and then hiked to the springs with my gear. The first thing I did was dip my cup into the spring and drink, again and again, until I could feel the water’s weight in my belly. I spent the hot, humid July afternoon setting up a lean-to camp in the deep shade near one of the springs. I caught a couple of bass out of Candy Creek which I filleted, wrapped in foil, and cooked in the coals of my small fire, next to the chiming streamlet that tumbled out of the stone.
As the sun went down I sprayed myself with mosquito repellent, arranged my small fire so that I’d have something to look at as it slowly burned down, and sipped on Weller’s and spring water from my tin cup.
“You need to make a plan,” I said to myself. “Yeah, but not right now,” I replied.
Summer nights in the wild tanglevine Oklahoma bottomland are noisy. All around me, near and far, all the creatures of the world, it seemed, howled, bellowed and screamed all night long. Packs of coyotes on the move howled back and forth to each other, cattle bellowed on the distant upland pastures, dogs on the hunt yelped for joy, hoot owls and whippoorwills sang to themselves, frogs rang together like a thousand stuck doorbells, and countless unknowable species of insects created a conglomerate pulsing high-pitched drone. There was also the annoying, recurring whine of mosquitoes probing around me for a way past the DEET.
The Weller’s and the campfire diminished at about the same rate. By the time the bottle was empty and the fire was out, I’d added my own voice to the chorus. The first time I howled, every other creature stopped to listen. After about thirty seconds, the insects could stand the silence no more and started up again, quickly rejoined by the frogs, and then all the others. The second time I howled, they all quieted down just for a moment and then carried on. The third time I howled, my voice just blended in.
In the bright morning sunlight, I set the coffeepot off the fire, it stopped perking, and I could once again hear the little stream tumbling away from the limestone spring. I poured a cup of coffee and sat with it in my hands, looking at the blue smoke rising like a genie. “You know what your problem is?” I asked myself.
“No, but I have a feeling you’re going to tell me,” I replied.
“You need more ritual in your life.” As a truck driver, I’d been living as a human pinball, bouncing randomly all over America, never knowing what direction or how far I’d bounce next. I thought about that for a while as I drank my coffee.
“Maybe you’re right,” I replied, once I’d emptied my cup and stood up to break camp. “And I still need a plan, too,” I said. Well, my plan was simplicity itself. I packed out, drove the old Saab to Tulsa, got an apartment by noon, and a job by the next day. Louise and I married and bought a house, and she and I and her son, Robin, whom I came to call my own son, moved into the house, and then he grew up and moved out. Then it was just the two of us in our small home, which we’d filled with books, music, and art. Much of the art is of her own creation. She is a brilliant and passionate painter.
Although I lived there, so to speak, only for one night, I remained, over the years, a frequent visitor to Candy Creek. Sometimes, I stayed close to the creek and fished the deep holes. Sometimes, I rambled the meadows, glassing birds, and sometimes I just walked, exploring the rocky sidestreams that tumbled down from the surrounding uplands. Sometimes, I mused about the lack of ritual in my life. I wondered what it was like to take comfort in ritual. If you perform an act over and over again, an act that may otherwise be meaningless –that would almost certainly be meaningless if done only once –and you perform it in the same way each time, and at specified intervals, what do you get from that? Why is that attention to form so comforting to so many, so central to their self-identities? I felt I must be missing out on something.
One day out there, I looked across the valley from the eastern ridge and noticed on the opposite ridge, about three miles distant, an isolated knob, a little higher than the surrounding terrain. It had a pleasing curve and a copse of blackjack oaks on the crown. As I dropped down into the valley, it disappeared from view, so I walked across the valley floor, and then up the opposite hill, sensing my way toward it by dead reckoning, until it re-emerged above me. Before long, I was standing on top of it. Just as I’d known I would, I had a clear view of the distant horizon in all directions. Looking east over the valley to the opposite ridgeline, from where I’d come, I decided to build an observatory on the spot, where I could witness the sunrise on the first day of spring and the first day of autumn every year. I would make it a ritual, and see what came of it.
I stacked fieldstones, ruddy sandstones, into a cairn about a foot taller than myself. At eye-level I left a window, about six inches square, that passed through the stones as a viewfinder. In the base of the window I placed a flat stone that protruded out from the cairn and came to a point which pointed due east, according to my compass. In the stone I cut a groove in a straight line as a sightline which ended at the point. Standing up to the cairn on its west side and looking into the viewfinder and following the sightline groove, my eye landed on the spot on the far horizon where the sun should pop up on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.
I admired my observatory from various distances as I hiked the several miles back to my car. Its form and function were pleasingly mysterious. Once the grass had covered my footsteps around its base, and healed the scars where the stones had been removed, it would be difficult for anyone to know how old it was, which also pleased me.
I awaited the first day of fall with growing anticipation. I took three days off from work. The day before, I packed up and went out there. I found a pretty site in the edge of the woods at the base of the observatory hill and set up camp in the afternoon. I built a hearth and a lean-to and gathered firewood. Then I searched among boulders in a shady draw until I found the right one and, using a chisel and hammer, I cut an image of a horse into its side. I’d stolen the design from a centuries-old Chinese drawing. I returned to camp and got a fire going. I heated up some beans and made coffee. After supper I climbed up to the top of the observatory hill. First I inspected the observatory, but avoided looking through the viewfinder. It was unchanged in the months since I’d erected it. Then I found a good place to sit and faced west, where I watched the sun lower itself down to the horizon and melt like butter on a griddle. Once the first star came out, I walked back down to camp. I stared into the fire for a while. There was nothing on my mind. Then I stared up at the Milky Way for a while, and scanned it with my binoculars, not looking for anything but beauty, which was there aplenty. I didn’t have a watch, but I imagined it was still pretty early when I crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep.
When I woke up it was cold, and deep dark. The Big Dipper had spun around the sky. I stoked up the fire and fell back asleep. When I woke again it was still dark, but it felt like morning inside me. I dressed, banked up the coals in the hearth and put on coffee. While the coffee perked I was alert to the changing light of the sky. I was getting excited. I would have hated oversleeping –and missing my first observation. I took my coffee and drank it standing out from under the trees, in the chilly wind, watching the sky closely as the stars dimmed.
I climbed to the top of the hill and stood around the observatory watching the eastern horizon. I felt more like a kid at Christmas than a man in September. The sky grew lighter and lighter until finally the sun was seconds away from rising. I took my position and looked down the sightline and waited. There he was! My sightline was off a couple of degrees, so I quickly adjusted it with a couple of nudges. It was now empirically correct. Once the sun had cleared the earth I stepped back from the viewfinder, having completed my first observation.
I felt as if I hadn’t merely witnessed the turning of the earth, and swinging of the seasons, but that I had actively participated in these. After savoring the experience for a good long while, I went back down the hill to camp and had a leisurely breakfast in the crisp fall sunshine. Over breakfast, I pondered how the sunrise swings back and forth along the horizon between the spring and fall equinoxes. It behaves like a pendulum.
A pendulum’s speed varies constantly during its stroke, reaches maximum velocity at the bottom, and slows to a stop at each turnaround point, before reversing direction and accelerating back to the bottom. The sun’s apparent speed (as measured by its changing day-to-day position on the horizon, as it swings out the seasons) also varies constantly, and in the same manner. Around the equinoxes, the sunrise positions change most rapidly. Approaching the solstices, the position changes slow to a stop, reverse direction and begin accelerating back to the next equinox.
Why should the sun behave like a pendulum? It seems like a clue to something.
I spent the day exploring the woods and prairies around me. Just before sunset, I climbed back up the hill and observed the sunset looking back through the viewfinder from the opposite side. I spent another night in camp, and the next morning I broke camp after breakfast and walked down the valley to my waiting car. I got back to Tulsa mid-afternoon.
That became my twice-a-year ritual for the next several years. Hike up to my camp the day before, spend the night, observe the sunrise, spend the day lounging, hiking around, and pecking images into the boulders, then spend another night, and hike out the next day. It was important to seal off a full 24-hour period on-site, in order to fully inhabit the place. I remember waiting atop the hill near the observatory, in the chilly pre-dawn, sometimes wrapped in a blanket, sipping coffee, my heart pounding, and my smoke-stung eyes riveted on the horizon beyond the valley as the sky grew lighter and lighter. I remember a feeling of victory as the top rim of the sun shimmered into view right at the end of my viewfinder sightline.
Did I gain meaning from this ritual? Leading up to each spring and fall season, as the pivotal day grew closer on the calendar, I became more and more restless in the city. By the time I headed out, I’d been thinking of little else for several days. When I came back from out there, I felt satisfied and serene for days afterward, so it seemed as if I’d found what I was missing out on.
One late afternoon out there I looked up at the hill from the edge of the woods by my camp and saw that one of the hilltop oaks was on fire. Looking more closely, I saw that it wasn’t really aflame but was glowing strangely, unlike any of the trees around it. Unlike anything I’d ever seen. I climbed up there to see what was going on. To my wonder, I discovered that it was covered with monarch butterflies, as thick as leaves. There were thousands of them, all basking in the late afternoon sunlight. They’d stopped to spend the night during their migration to Mexico. I laughed out loud, and thanked God for letting me see such a sight.
After several seasons of not allowing anything to get in the way of my semi-annual three-day ritual, one spring, I let something stop me from going. I don’t recall what it was. My usual feelings of mounting excitement and restlessness had been muted that year. I witnessed the equinox sunrise from the driver’s seat of my car on my way to work. I couldn’t have missed it, actually, since Tulsa’s streets are a cardinal grid, and the sun rose right out at the end of the street, blinding all eastbound drivers. I’d be willing to bet that auto accident records for Tulsa would show a spike on the equinoxes.
I was disappointed in myself, so the following fall, I made sure to set everything else aside and went out to the observatory. I had a fine time, as always, but my observation felt rote, my emotional involvement felt forced. The following spring was about the same. I missed the following fall and subsequent spring.
I went out one last time the following fall, but the spell had been broken. I sat on the hill and thought about it. I realized that I’d put the cart before the horse by trying to manufacture meaning out of ritual. Rituals arise out of pre-existing meaning. They confirm something meaningful. That’s what I learned about the power of rituals. Since then, I’ve returned to my old ritual-free way of life. I claim no credit for the fact that the sun still rises at the same spot on the horizon every spring and fall equinox.
Although I continued to occasionally hike, fish, and camp in Candy Creek Valley, it was several years before I trekked back up to my observatory hill to visit. I was surprised to find that my cairn had collapsed into a random pile of rubble. I blamed it on cows, those dumb agents of entropy. The only remaining signs of my having been there were the crude hearth at my old campsite, and the images I’d pecked into certain boulders.
I was sitting in a cloud, breathing with intent. Joe had gone ahead, upward, with the others. Their single-file track in the snow coalesced out of the pale gray gauze a few feet below me and disappeared back into it a few feet above me. Breathing had become a conscious act, a set of discrete steps. Pull each lungful in through the nose, fill to capacity, hold it for two seconds. Visualize oxygen bubbling into capillaries, and the heart jackhammering enriched bloodfuel down to leg muscles. Force the depleted air out through pursed lips to create backpressure, wringing every molecule. Repeat.
As I sat there on my pack, spine erect, eyes vacant, and my steady breaths adding white to the cloud, a finch, of a type I’d never seen before, appeared and landed on my ski pole sticking out of the snow three feet in front of me. It looked at me hard with first one small dark eye and then the other, and then flicked itself back into the cloud. By my feet, a spider of some kind crept calmly over the pure snow, going through its day. How does it live up here, in the cold, on the snow? When the cold had begun to seep through my layers of mountaineering clothes, I stood up slowly and shouldered my forty-pound pack, ready to continue the climb.
Eric, my patient shepherd, the guide who’d been dispatched to stay with me as I’d fallen further and further behind the team, had been waiting off to the side, watching me. He stood when I did, shouldered his own pack, looked me in the eye, nodded slightly, smiled encouragingly, and together we returned to the trail.
A couple of hours later, when we rejoined the rest of the team in bright sunshine above the clouds at Camp Muir, elevation 10,000 feet and change, they were surprised to see us. They all thought I’d turned back. We’d gotten there about 30 minutes after the last of them. The bright summit of Mount Rainier was still over 4,000 feet above us.
“Where have you all been?” I joked, as they gathered around us. “Eric and I have been worried sick about you. Thank God you’re all safe.”
Everyone high-fived me, and patted me on the back for not giving up. “Man, am I glad to see you!” Joe said, beaming. He gave me a bro’ hug. “They said you’d turned back. Let’s get that pack off!” I was glad to see him, too.
Once I’d eaten and rested, and chomped down some chocolate covered coffee beans, Joe and I stood together in the slanting afternoon light, really digging the high, pristine place where we stood. The clouds below us had broken up and drifted away. We looked over what we could see of the path that had led us there. We’d come from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to climb Mount Rainier. We’d crossed many old paths of mine, along the way from Tulsa to Camp Muir.
Except that there’s really only one path, and who can say where it begins?
1970s, Camp Muir, Cherry orchard, Coming of age, Farmer's Daughter, Harvest, Michigan, Migrant worker, Mount Rainier, Mountaineering, Outdoor Adventure, Road Stories, sex, The American West, Traverse City
Then There Is No Mountain -An American Memoir is my new book. The manuscript is polished and ready. I am in the process of getting it in print -coming soon! Stay tuned! This site is to give you updates on its progress to publication, and also to give you samples from various chapters.
The narrative spine of Then There Is No Mountain -An American Memoir is the story of a three-week road-trip throughout the American West, with my friend Joe, on our way to and from a climb of Mount Rainier. In addition to the climb, and the road story, we visit the cities of Boulder, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and Las Vegas along the way. It’s a road story. It’s an outdoor adventure story. It’s a travelogue. It’s a love song to America. It’s a cancer survival story. But, it’s also much more. Since I’ve traveled extensively in my life, we kept crossing old paths of mine along the way, and those crossings became the occasions for stories from my past. It all adds up to a memoir of my life and travels in America, from the ’70s, to today.
Please browse! I hope you enjoy.