Today is one of those that makes a midwestern autumn day so wonderful. Chilly enough to need a jacket or sweatshirt, cool sunshine, gray clouds, yellow and green leaves still clinging to the trees, despite the soft winds that play at the edges. I’m refilling the bird bath with a garden hose, spraying out the old leaves and muck, refilling it, all while an irritated chickadee peers down on me, commenting on my slowness. The sunlight sparkles in the spray, patches of rainbow flicker about.
I realize how fortunate I am to be alive, to be a sentient being at large in world of color, sound, and feeling. I’m trillions of interlinked cells somehow mobile, electrical impulses that come together in miraculous ways, light patterns on the back of my eyeballs making images my mind makes into comprehensible pictures. I am blessed indeed.
I know that it’s not a wonderful world out there. I’m in a place that’s worth being, though I know so many, many people in the world are not. I sometimes feel guilty about that, but I also realize that my guilt does nothing to fix anything. And if there’s a God, He has a rationale that’s beyond understanding and beyond my ability to have any effect.
And if He doesn’t exist, well, it’s a world that is as it is, and I somehow have the ability to appreciate and react to it. There is beauty, and I get to experience it.
More fundamentally, as the years have gone by I have come to understand how temporary this is. People I know have gone over and never come back. The first was my first childhood friend, who died when we were seven or so. The latest, I guess, was an aunt who died last year, leaving my mother as the only one left of her generation in our family. I think about my father, gone for more than 20 years, and of the walks and talks we shared; they were real, and now they are gone. He felt the sunshine and wind, and now he’s gone.
And so soon will I be. Gone to that long dirt nap from which none return.
But not yet. Today the birds are at the feeder, the sun still shines, and I feel the breeze sharp against my face.
And whatever else awaits, I’m grateful for having been here.
What does one do with a three-day weekend? How about driving 1800 miles round-trip to take a two-hour 4.5 mile climb? That’s what I did.
I should explain.
Forty years ago I worked as general news reporter for a weekly paper in far western Nebraska, in ranch country, in a part of the state permeated with wild buttes and ravines, sage and sand, tumbleweeds, jackrabbits, rattlesnakes, and pronghorn antelope. And cattle. Lots of cattle at home on the range. On Thursdays (the day after the paper came out) I would go wandering with my dog. To Scotts Bluff, a rugged promontory and national monument that marked the final resting place of Hiram Scott, an early trader and trapper; I climbed that frequently and wandered around it. Also Chimney Rock, perhaps the most well-known landmark on the Oregon Trail; and a ways further to Courthouse Rock, so-named because it reminded emigrants of the courthouse back in St. Louis, where most of them started out from; and Jail Rock, the smaller prominence behind it, so named because every courthouse should have a jail behind it. I climbed them all.
Further south another ridge of buttes loomed, among them Hogback Mountain, the highest prominence in Nebraska. I always meant to climb it, but never got around to it. Eventually I moved back east, and Hogback receded into memory, albeit with a checkbox on my bucket list.
This past weekend, for personal reasons, I needed to get away. I had three days to fill, which I didn’t want to do by hanging around town. So I threw stuff into a bag, grabbed my hiking boots, climbed into our 16-year-old Mazda, and drove 600 miles, to Kearney Nebraska, at the far edge of the great plains. I watched the flat middle of Nebraska roll past, sympathizing with the folks who drive to Colorado and bitch about the boring sameness. Having grown up there, I felt differently; watching the distant water towers pop up like mushrooms reminded me of my childhood, and just felt right.
At Kearney, too tired to keep going, I took a motel room. Next morning I drove the final 300 miles, from farm country to ranch country, where the flat land following the Platte River began to rise, bordered by sandy mounds and a distant rim of sharp buttes and ravines. Towns grew scarce and the radio signals became mostly country-western music and preachers. Except when I stumbled onto the area’s public radio station, which faded in and out. In my haste to depart I had forgotten to bring many CDs, so I spent a lot of time scanning the radio. Fortunately my two CDs were Tom Petty’s greatest hits and George Harrison’s “Let it Roll.” So I had soulmates along.
I checked the map, and, almost to Wyoming, turned north off the interstate, onto a surprisingly well-maintained but almost deserted state highway that shot arrow straight through rolling sandy hills, toward the heart of buttes. I began to wonder what the Hell I was doing, what had caused me to give in to such a sudden impulse, the sort thoughts that arise when one has been driving for what seemed like forever, and heading, in Tom Petty’s words, to “God knows where.” I also began to wonder what would happen if my car conked out; I had my cell-phone but who would I call? AAA might have a connection out there, but it would take hours to get help, and I doubt it would be worth fixing the car. If parts were available. I’d probably have to simply abandon the car, sell it for whatever salvage value it might have in this buyers’ market, and rent or buy a car to get home.
The weather, too, was questionable, seasonably cool but gray and threatening showers. I’d somehow forgotten about the wind that blows constantly out there. Fortunately I’d brought a windbreaker and sweatshirt, so I’d be okay as long as the rain held off. Again the question, what was I doing?
I decided to honor my impulse and whatever inner voice had invited me to do this; not the least of which had been the simple question of, at 69 years old, how many chances, how much time, would I have to do this? And I felt a surge of strength, meaning, and calm. I’d follow this road to where I was meant to go.
Eventually I hit the turnoff for County Road 40, which I knew led to the base of Hogback. The road was not all that inviting, a narrow graveled stretch with a “Dead End” sign at the start, and I rumbled across a cattle guard a ways down the road, which. I followed until it ended, at a house beside a corral. A stocky,wind-wizened guy was standing in the yard. I knew it was “Arch,” the man who rented the house (I’d done some research on Peakbagger, a site that catalogs the highest peaks in each state and discusses them). I told Arch what I wanted and asked if that was Hogback. He said it was. I asked if he had any problems with me leaving my car there and climbing it, He said no, just open yonder gate, which went through a barbed wire fence, and to follow the vague trails through the pastures and down and across the draws, and gradually up the “mountain.” He said I wasn’t the first to come along, and he didn’t care if I went up there. “Of course,” he added, “once you go through that gate you’re on someone else’s land.”
“Does he care if I’m on his land?”
“Doubt it. I trespass there all the time.”
“What about cattle?” I asked, careful not to make the greenhorn mistake of calling them “cows,”
“You probably won’t see any. If you do, don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.”
So off I went, following the slightly muddy ruts through the grass and spiky yucca and prickly pear cactus, past frequent fairly fresh reminders that cattle had been there in the not too distant past. In the distance I saw the cliff faces of more buttes, but in front of me the pasture simply rose gradually toward the edge of Hogback, whose top kept receding into the distance. The trail led steeply down into wooded draws and up again, sometimes almost slick with mud.
The landscape, especially the draws, was dotted with thick patches of cedars, which the wind pushed through with a sort of soft moan. I’d previously used the word “soughed” to describe wind in the trees, but realized I’d never really heard it before. Almost spooky, lonely, as though the landscape were breathing, and I was an intruder. In other words, just the perfect word. The wind soughed in the trees.
I knew that distances deceived the eye out here, and that nothing was as close as it seemed. Every prominence I climbed revealed a higher one behind it, and things got steep, the ground littered with, sometimes slippery with, pieces of limestone that had weathered out of the buttes. More than once I sort of leaned backward without meaning to, and almost lost my balance. I realized that I was alone out here, and that Arch would not likely worry about me till maybe the next morning, after I had perhaps been nibbled to death by coyotes or badgers. I had my cell phone but reception was poor. I thought of the old movie “Little Big Man,” in which the title character, as an old man, lay down in spot much like this, closed his eyes, and said, “it is a good day to die.” But in the movie it began to rain lightly, and the old man got up.
So did this old man.
Fortunately for me, the rain held off and the peak was drawing near. The climb got steeper, occasionally up limestone cliffs and again I nearly fell backward. I wondered again what I was doing but decided I had come this far and may never come again. So ever onward. I saw a pair of antelope bound upward in the not so far distance, while crows circled and argued below.
Finally I had nowhere higher to go, and found myself on wide, flat, edifice. The landscape fell away on all sides, and I could see in all directions. I’d half-expected to experience a sense of disappointment, a sort of “is this all there is?” But instead I felt a calm sense of accomplishment. I’d done what I’d set out to do. I picked up a souvenier rock, and stuck it in my pocket. All that remained was going back down without falling or getting lost.
Since I’m now home and writing this, it should be obvious I neither fell nor got seriously lost, though at times both seemed reasonable possibilities. When I reached the bottom, careful to close the gate behind, Arch was nowhere to be seen. I pondered going to his door, but I doubted he cared much. And I wondered if some sort of guard dog lay in wait somewhere in the debris and detritus that fronted his house. So I took a few last photos and headed back out, back to my day to day life, with one more item checked off the bucket list. Nine-hundred more miles of driving with truck stop coffee and fast food.
And, without a doubt, I can say it was all worth doing.
I’ve mentioned before that when Carl Jung was still finding his way, at one point he began working with rocks -- building a stone city, investing his spiritual and psycholigical self in a project that was, pardon the pun, concrete.
I find myself doing the same thing as my life moves through a turbulent passage. I’ve been gathering stones and doing some landscaping, trying to live in the moment with things of timeless age. Almost like I’m moved to do it, from some inner voice. Looking out the window at a garden patch in the backyard, I realized what it needed, and the image arose in my mind. So I went off to the hardware store and bought some bags of “river rock” -- stones scooped from some quarry and sifted to be about one inch in diameter. These were not tagged as “decorative rock”, those cost more and I guess are selected for perceived beauty. The stones I bought come out of the bag brown and dusty (or muddy), plain and boring. But as time goes by and the rains come, the inner beauty of these small rocks begins to show, and they turn out to be a panoply of colors and shapes and patterns.
Kind of symbolic of people or even the universe at large. There’s beauty everywhere, if one has time and patience and opportunity to look. Things ignored by us all may in fact hold wonder and beauty. In several places in the Bible mention is made of the stones that were rejected ultimately become the capstones. Or as William Blake said, “to see infinity in a grain of sand.”
Be that as it may, I dumped the rock around the edge of the flower bed, behind the circle of brick that I laid out a couple years back. I then added some larger stones, salvaged from construction sites or places where dirt is dumped. These rocks, too, rarely show themselves until the accumulated dirt of centuries is washed off during their return to the surface. Like the huge rock in my front yard, salvaged from utility workers who were putting in gas lines and had to drag it out; I asked for it and they dumped it on my lawn, a big tan lump. Which washed out to gray, which in turn began to show patterns and even to sparkle with micaceous crystals.
After of these are the end point of a long journey that began in higher ground as the rains and weather -- or glaciers in the Ice Age -- wore down (“weathered”) the mountains and other high points, and stones from all sources were pushed together and jumbled in tumultuous torrents. Hard eges mostly worn off, surfaces glazed and polished, and so on. So they could end up as lawn decorations.
As if they cared or if it mattered in the long run. It doesn’t; my life and all its accoutrements are but the merest mite of wink in the time of a stone. Long after I’m gone the stones will survive. But no matter. Working with infinity helps keep me focused in the moment. Since it will all be taken from me soon enough anyway.
A little bit of literary drivel with none of the angst or deep thoughts that most bloggers here present. Just a bit of animal tomfoolery.
I bought a cheap bag of wild-bird seed, called "Country Bird Mix," but it turned out to be primarily cracked corn and millet, with only a few of the real seeds mixed in. Not what I wanted for the bird feeder, but I quickly realized it would be perfect for the "outsiders" -- the chipmunks and squirrels and sparrows. So I poured a rather large pile onto the back patio.
My daughter showed up, and, with me, watched what she later termed the chaos.
One chipmunk emerged after a few minutes and made a bee-line for the pile. He all but rolled in it, the way Scrooge McDuck used to roll in his money in the Donald Duck cartoons. He spread himself over it, and began stuffing it into his cheeks. Soon another chipmunk came, and the two had a sort of posturing contest, each trying to intimidate the other. But soon both turned to the corn.
A few minutes later a third chipmunk emerged, not as laid back as the other two, and he charged with apparent serious intent. The first chipmunk took off with the newcomer fast pursuit, reminding me of the old Chip and Dale cartoons featuring a pair of chipmunks - the squealing and squeaking was reminiscent of "Alving and the Chipmunks"-- and vanished into the flower bed. The attacker came back to the pile, and the second chipmunk backed off for a bit, then edged his way back in. A few minutes later our resident cottontail rabbit appeared, and both chipmunks moved off a bit. The chipmunk who had been chased into the flower bed ventured back, only to be chased off again; apparently he is at the bottom of the totem pole.
Meanwhile the braver of the chipmunks made a fast dash to the pile behind the rabbit's back; the rabbit, catching a glimpse of something moving fast just out of his peripheral vision, jumped straight up into the air and spun around. Realizing it was one of the chipmunks, he settled back into place. Soon, though, all three chipmunks were at the edge of the pile furthest from rabbit. Until one of the squirrels ventured onto the scene, and chased the rabbit off. The squirrel left a few minutes later, and all three chipmunks returned, soon joined by a fourth and fifth (who knew so many chipmunks in our backyard, unless word was spreading through a chipmunk grapevine.)
All was good, chipmunkwise, until a pair of mourning doves fluttered down. Doves may symbolize peace, but these were not peaceful doves. In manner I never would have thought them capable of, they spread their wings, lowered their heads, and charged. The chipmunks backed off. When the doves had eaten their fill, the took off again, and the chipmunks quietly resumed their feast.
Well, not really quietly. There was a lot of squabbling and chasing as they jockeyed for position, but always staying close. Until the rabbit returned and it all started up again.
So what's the point of this little tale? Not really much of one, more of a writing exercise and, more importantly, a reminder that Mother Nature doesn't really foster the idyllic life of fairy tales and cheap poetry. And all this among the herbivores; just think what chaos would have ensued had a dog or cat or fox wandered in, or a hawk had circled overhead.
But at least it's a good and entertaining way to unload a bunch of crappy bird seed. Crappy for my purposes, perhaps, but obviously beauty is in the mouths and pouches of these beholders.
I think I've written before that I have an autistic son. No, I should say my 22-year-old son has autism. Anyway, he is or does.
He's a bright, mostly-happy young man who does not quite get what the larger social world is all about. He tries his best to accept it, but has no real desire to "fit in" beyond the part-time jobs he has (and would just as soon not have). He loves numbers and data -- ask him about any element and he can tell you its number and atomic weight, ask him to name the presidents, ask him how many days till Christmas -- but simply has no interest in translating into something "useful."
He is a classic case of living in the moment but talking of the past.
He has a good sense of humor, but he takes awhile to process things. So he refrains from regularly joining in conversations, because he simply can't keep up, can't frame his responses quickly enough. So when he and I talk -- other than the few times one of us is sharing current personal issues like bed-time or piano practice -- we usually make the same jokes over and over, but with different iterations. Or sometimes we will re-visit a previous conversation, and go over it almost word for word,
This is especially the case as we stand outside the garage waiting for the van to take him to work. He leans against me and puts his hand in my pocket or his arm around my back or holds onto my hand -- this man who doesn't usually care much for physical contact -- and we re-discuss really mundane things, like why one should never stand under a tree during thunderstorm, what elements do what or who discovered them (I have learned so much, just to keep up), whether "one" is or is not a prime number, why the Milwaukee Brewers are a frustrating team to follow, how many days till Christmas, or even what is the best season. Things we talk about every day, the same way, same words, reaching the same conclusions.
In one sense it's a safe way to pass the time, but I think it's more than that. It's making good use of the time.
Many years ago, during summer vacation, I would accompany my traveling-salesman-dad on his "route." We would spend 4 or 5 days on the road, staying in small town hotels (such things thrived in those days). On some of those longer rides time would hang heavily (this was central Nebraska after all, mostly flat and filled with cornfields). Invariably at those moments we would drop back into some old conversation, about things that happened years before, or that our family had done, or things like re-visiting games played (and usually won) by the then-might Cornhusker college football team. We weren't saying anything new, the purpose was affirming common ground.
I picture those conversations as river rocks, subject matter rounded by the tumble of time, jagged edges worn off, safe to pick up and put down as needed.
I loved those talks with my dad as we waited to see the next town's water tower. I love these talks with my son as we wait for the van to roll into our driveway. I think my son does too. In fact, I know he does.
Separate names with a comma.