Early this morning I awoke, Not a sound to be heard. I drew the blinds and the gray cold morning spilled over the panes. I showered and dressed for the day. Thick socks, hiking boots, threadbare blue jeans, a ratty T shirt and a light jacket. I shuffled through the garage and filled my old, worn out green backpack with lunch and dinner, a flashlight with extra batteries, and a lighter. I loaded it all into my muddy red Rubicon Jeep and hit the road just as the sun was waking. After stopping off for some fast food breakfast- powdered eggs and filler meat sausage links- I turned my trusty 4WD toward the canyon. The ridge stone contrasted the red horizon of sunrise. I had planned to stop off and pick up a couple of friends, but last night they canceled on me... must have been the early start that was so disheartening. The sun was slowly hidden again behind the rising canyon walls. The misty morning fog spilled over the edges of the narrow canyon and descended like waterfalls from the cliffs. No traffic through here this time of morning. At the foot of the trail I checked my gear to be sure it was all there. I found that I had made off with only one bottle of water. I pulled out my pack and began my hike. There should be some good mountain streams around the caves to fill my bottle in. I began my hike with a deep breath. As I ascended the trail, my thoughts were being lightly pushed through my conscious by a hum of insects, gathering pollen and dewdrops from the wild flowers and clover along the path.
Despite my pleasant surroundings, my thoughts weren't that of contemplating the simplicity of life, or the beauty of nature-- on the contrary. I found myself mulling over my life up to that point. There I was, 25 years old, nothing really to mark my existence save for my meager worldly possessions, of those things my most prized belongings were a mint condition red Dot 335 blues guitar, and a lying-in-pieces, '65 Chevy Nova which had, under the grease and grime, a pristine pearl white finish with chrome trim. Nadia: the "love of my life".
That was the simple truth. It had been 3 years since my last attempt at pursuing a love interest, and before that, a marathon track record of failures. I had nothing to brag about. I guess I had finally given up on holding out for someone who could tolerate my slow pace. After years of pushing myself to be the initiator, and then losing my confidence and taking it slow-- you know, kissing foreheads and holding hands. After doing the routine holding doors, Roses and charms, being snubbed, used, ridiculed and given that ever-reliable speech that mentions why "someone like you, doesn't need someone like me to be happy." and other one-liner shutdowns that come from a realm of logic totally foreign to me. Somewhere along the roller coaster ride I decided to take my chances with gravity and more or less became the broken man that I am.
I retook control of my conscious and planned my day. I planned to spend the morning ascending the mountainside and intended to descend a half hour before sunset, spending the afternoon within the mountain. I knew a place Just above the grassy plateau on the south face of the mountain, a limestone bluff capped the mountain and held an intricate catacombs beneath it, whittled out by eons of running water. The ceilings were low in much of the caves, but if you could handle crawling on your belly for a half hour the reward was well worth it. A few large rooms lay in the center of the tunnel formations, lit by sunlight through holes as small as pinhead in the thin eastern wall. Perhaps a million years ago, a meteorite shower pocked the thin slab above the natural cave and the small grain sized meteorites were able to penetrate it. The result became a wonderful spectacle. I called it the "Night and Day" room, 15 feet to the ceiling and about the same across the smooth floor. The noon day sun shone down through crevices above the caves and eventually reached the pinholes of the wall , giving the illusion of a thousand stars billions of miles away. I found this place many years ago, but this was only my third visit there. Something this grand cannot be cheapened by frequency. It was only there that I went when I needed assurance that there is something more to life than the daily grind, and today I was using my lifeline.
A day in the mountains would be the refreshing escape that I needed to get through another week at the shop. Enduring the pounding pace, the sweltering heat, the whir of impact wrenches. Taking orders from barking bosses, holding the customers at bay, making an occasional escape to the grease pit where I could breathe freely, and maybe salvage some of my sanity. At the end of each day, I would drive home with a stiff back, unlock my front door with busted knuckles, chill them on a microwave dinner before I tossed it in the nuke for 3 minutes as I unlaced my work boots and peeled them off of my swollen, achy feet. Then I would draw a boiling hot bath with Epsom salt to appease my stiff joints, while simultaneously soaking the stains of grim in my wrinkled and scarred hands. I would set a hot cloth over my face to steam out the dirt-caked pores, the sweat of the day running down my nose and collecting on my lips seeping into the corners of my mouth with a salty diesel taste. I would put on a CD in the stereo on the floor of the bathroom that would help me relax, lately a rotation of REM and The Cranberries. Each night this same routine, and each night I had to fight the urge to fall asleep in that filthy bathtub, lined with calcium buildup and soap scum, and just let go. Sink beneath the surface and never wake up.... The Great Escape.
The sun was heating the mountainside now, probably close to nine o'clock. I took a detour that would give me shade under forest leaves. I maneuvered through the underbrush by passing close under the trees, where pine needles mat over the ground and choke the growth of sapling elms, and the roots of the Ash trees spread wide and shallow from the trunk and make the topsoil inhospitable to weaker plants. I watched the sunlight dancing with an almost kaleidoscopic quality on the forest floor, as a light breeze swayed the leafy branches above me. a patch of Sorrel marked a spring beside the natural pathway, I stopped and filled my nalgene and nibbled on a clover stem. Behind me, a sudden racket sent pangs through my body as I jolted with involuntary reflexes; I jumped and spun around. Out of the bushes, about 10 yards from where I stood, sprang a fawn, golden brown with bright white tufts on its hind-end. It dashed across the clearing, missing a collision with me and the surrounding underbrush like a skier on a slalom course. A long-lost memory came rushing back... I was probably 10 or 11 at the time. My brother and I had spent the day poking through "the dump"--a makeshift landfill that lay about a quarter mile behind the house. We pulled an electric motor from some old "lavadora". We had brought it back to the shed behind the house and plugged the exposed wires into an orange, heavy duty extension cord. The drive pulley spun and the motor behaved like a gyroscope, We decided to use it as a grinder and went to the Utility room for some silverware in storage bins on the cinder block shelves. I grabbed three of the oldest, dullest table knives. We spent a good half hour perfecting our methods to get those knives as sharp as possible. We now had sharp knives and mom had no clue. We decided it was high time for a hunting excursion at the clubhouse. There was an old cement storm shelter in the woods by the Dump. we had built a little clubhouse out of sapling pines and scrap sheets of tin roofing. We always saw squirrels or rabbits in those woods and it seemed the perfect locale for a hunting trip. We decided not to do anything differently than we had before, we would sit and wait and the wildlife would come to us. My brother took his place in front of a large blackjack tree and practiced throwing his new cutlery into the trunk of it. I had climbed on top of the storm cellar and reclined next to the ventilation hole in the center of the structure. I gazed into the sky, watching clouds blow across the sky. Then suddenly a rustling interrupted the silence and I sprang up. There was a fawn bolting through our camp. I grabbed my knives and flung them with a notable lack of skill and they each safely missed the frightened young deer. My heart was racing with excitement. I gave chase as my brother hollered at me to stop. The terrorized fawn outpaced me and was gone before I had taken 10 strides. and that was it. My older brother was waiting with a firm tone when I returned to my place in camp. "It's illegal to kill a fawn." he said. He knew everything.
I mused over that memory as I finished filling my bottle and then retook my venture. I longed for the days when I had seen the world in full color. my vision was now riddled with circles of confusion. Fuzzy, bland images had taken the place of crisp and vibrant stimuli due to my subdued, calloused senses. But my early memories always had that rich quality. Depression had dulled my perception of the world around me years before, and though I had grown accustomed to it, I was occasionally reminded of how full life used to be... the new experiences to be had, the strength of a naive imagination and its ability to morph my surroundings in such a way that the thought was enough to spark a palpitation. Oh, the invincibility of a young boy's mind and body working together.
I remembered, the only time I felt weak was when my father was around. It was around dad that I realized my limits. I trusted Dad to drive, he trusted me to lock the hubs into 4WD when we went to cut firewood. I counted on dad to operate the chainsaw, He counted on me to pile the logs into the pickup. We would take a break from our labor and he, my brother and I would have a "hearty" lunch of military bread, Vienna sausage or sardines in Louisiana hot sauce, and lukewarm water from dad's indestructible green plastic canteen. Sometimes we would bring moon pies or star crunches for dessert. It's not that I felt weak around my father, I suppose it had more to do with my high regard for him, and my eagerness to please him. I was always watching dad.
I remember once my dad let me shoot his .22 mag pistol, "The Grendel". We shot at snapping turtles in the man-made ponds surrounding the Natural Gas well site on section 9 of our property. Once or twice we had to wait for passing "renegade" Longhorns to leave the backdrop of the watering hole and mosey into the woods before we could resume shooting at the turtles. Dad explained to me that the Turtles were carnivorous, and would eat the young bass in the pond before they had a chance to grow big enough to catch and eat. We would wait patiently for the turtles to surface for air--poking their noses out of the water. I never knew if I had hit my target because they were so quick when frightened that there was no sign of them when the water subsided from the shot.
Dad always had the Grendel under the drivers seat of his Toyota Pickup. And every time we went out on our remote Oklahoma property, my brother and I would tremble with excitement at the idea that we might get to shoot it after we got a full load of firewood. As we got older it became somewhat of a tradition. Dad would give us tips and cautions. We never got to load it, Dad would let us fill the magazines, but he was the one who put the magazines in the gun and held it till we were ready to shoot.
I could see the peak over the treetops now. I quickened my pace to shorten the last stretch between me and my goal. The sun was in full force and pockets of humid air floated across the forest. The dew was dry now. As I drew close on the columns of rock I could see heat waves rising off of them. I sat on a half buried stone in the shade to catch my breath before beginning the second part of my adventure....