Please visit my Kickstarter page!

Dear friends,
I’ve been working on this book for the last three years. It is ready! “Then There Is No Mountain” began as a chronicle of my road trip and climb of Mount Rainier with my pal, Joe. The tale grew with the telling, as they say. It became a full-fledged memoir of my life on and off the American road, from the 1970s of my youth to 2009, when we climbed Rainier.

I need your backing to get it into print, my friends. I am completely confident that if we can get it into print, it will find its market, and be a big success. Please visit my Kickstarter page to see how you can help, and see the rewards you will get as a backer of my project. I’m counting on your help.

Here’s the link: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1067155587/then-there-is-no-mountain-an-american-memoir

One more thing…. will you please help me spread the word? If you find it worthy, I’d be deeply grateful if you would become a backer AND tell others about our project. Send a link and a kind word to anyone you know who may be interested.
Thank you!
Rich

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from the chapter “A State of Grace”

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With every exhale, I lost more of my Self. Breathing the world in, breathing the self out, I became diluted to the point of nonexistence.

Aware of everything yet focused on nothing, I glided weightlessly through the flowers and grasses. I seemed to hear everything with new clarity. The wind’s rough whisper, bird and insect songs, swish of grass, trickle of water, all distinct, yet blended into one. I became separated from my feet, which made their own decisions and were never wrong and never stumbled.

from the chapter “Nashville”

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I heard music and smelled smoke as I scrambled down the bank and ducked under the bridge. There were nearly a dozen men gathered there. We did not exchange greetings. Several men were sitting around a stinking, smoky fire. One of them had a guitar. When I arrived he was singing and playing ‘Chug-A-Lug’. Some of the others sang along, laughing and wheezing, on the chorus.

I shrugged out of my pack and leaned it against one of the bridge piers. Then I took off my coat, made a show of sliding my knife around from my hip to my side, and dug a wool sweater out of my pack. After I’d put on the sweater and my coat, I sat down, huddled against my pack, and looked things over.

Two men off by themselves sat on a tarp together, silently sharing what I took to be their last cigarette. One man with his back to the rest stood at the edge of the rain looking out at the river, smoking a cigarette, like a man standing on his porch. Others sat huddled alone in the darker recesses, their tarps, sleeping bags, rags and blankets drawn around them. Others like them had lain down and seemed to be sleeping. Some were old, some were young, all were thin. Once I’d sized them up, none of them looked like a threat.

We were not a community. We’d been tossed together by happenstance. I imagine that we each felt we didn’t belong there among the others. Despite the singing and laughter around the fire, an undercurrent of mutual wariness remained.

When the singer began the Grandpa Jones song, ‘Good Ol’ Mountain Dew’, his audience hollered their approval. After it was over, someone asked him to play ‘White Lightning’, which he obliged. I sidled up to the fire. No one moved to make a hole for me, so I sat a little behind the circle. As a result, I got more smoke than heat, but still, it felt better to be nearer the fire and music. After he finished ‘White Lightning’, the singer sang ‘Hey, Good Lookin’. Someone pulled out a harmonica and tried to play along, without much success. I joined the others in the chorus, but only at a mumble that no one else could have heard.

Young men with guitars have always made their way to Nashville, ready to play for anyone who’ll listen. Some end up at the Ryman, some end up under the Deadrick Street bridge, and some end up under the bridge on their way to the Ryman. Our singer was about my age. He wore a dented cowboy hat, pushed way back on his head, which signified friendliness. He had a black eye. He wore gloves with the fingers cut off. Like the rest of us, he needed a good cleaning up, some dental work, and a few hot meals. He brought the song to a close.

“Play ‘Lost Highway’,” I called out. The expression that came over his face was like that of someone who’d been overtaken by his pursuer after a long chase. He looked at me over the fire, speechless for a moment, and then said, finally, “I don’t know that one.”

Best of This Land Press Anthology

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Good news! I just got word that an excerpt from Then There Is No Mountain, entitled “Candy Creek Ritual”, has been selected by This Land Press for inclusion in their “Best Of This Land” anthology. It was published by them in March, 2012. I’m not sure when the anthology will be published, but I will update here. I posted that same excerpt here a few weeks ago. You can find it in Recent Posts. Check it out!

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Progress report

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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.

from the chapter “Vernon Mack Higgs”

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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.

 

from the chapter “Hiding In The Woods”

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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

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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.

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A brief encounter from the chapter “Christine”….

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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.

“Huh?”

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.

My Summer of Cherries and Trout

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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.