I work my way around the rim of the hollow, walking carefully through the dry leaves. I leave the trail, instead choosing a more circuitous route that will allow me to go slowly and make my way down. Although I am expected at my destination at the creek that lies some 500 feet down and a half a mile below, I don’t want to come unannounced. No sir. That could be hazardous to my health.
The hollow that I am hiking into is steep on three sides. The fourth, a narrow canyon that leads away to the south, follows the creek and gradually widens out into a flat bottom that runs out into a green valley. I suppose if we were out West, rather than in North Alabama, you could call this hollow a “box canyon.” At least that’s what they were called on the old Westerns I watched when I was a kid. They were always a part of the story, and the cowboy heroes of my youth were always making their stand there. I can hear old Festus in my head: “Matthew, I believe them boys is holed-up in that there box canyon. What we gonna do now?”
Anyone who wanted to hike into the hollow would likely take the path of least resistance, through the big yellow poplars and white oaks and along the rocky creek, up through the narrow gorge that leads directly into this hidden place.
I don’t come in that way. There are trip wires there, hidden in the undergrowth. I know, because I help set them. You don’t get into this hollow unannounced.
No one in their right mind would enter the way I am. The crunching of the leaves under my boots, the openness of the forest under the big mountain oaks and shagbark hickories that cover the rim of this hollow–all of this makes me visible to anyone or anything near the creek below. That is why I choose this route–to be seen.
Even now, I’m quite sure that I’m being watched through a rifle scope. I take my time and keep my head up where my face can be seen. I’ve hunted deer since I was twelve, raised-up with guns. I know what an exit hole looks like from a 150 grain 30.06 rifle shot, even at this distance. I’m not looking to get shot. Not today.
The going will be difficult for the next fifteen minutes. The first half of my descent down to the bottom is very steep, a sixty per cent slope that will put a man on his back in the blink of an eye, sliding through the dry hardwood leaves until he comes to rest against whatever granite outcrop or big mountain oak stands between him and the ledge below. It is the kind of ride we would have looked for as kids, using a flattened cardboard box to sled down hills like the kids up north got to do every Winter in the snow.
I smile for a second at a memory–a cold Winter’s day so many years ago. We were ten, maybe twelve, and it was the kind of Winter day in Alabama when the sun is so bright and the sky is so blue that it almost hurts your eyes. It was his idea. He was always the one with the crazy ideas; always the one looking for the next thrill, the next adrenaline rush. We stood at the top of the pine-strawed slope, seeing nothing but the edge of a neatly raked lawn below. We would slide down in tandem, giving no thought to what lay at the bottom of the ride, and certainly no thought as to how we would stop. But stop we did–about a third of the way into old lady Johnson’s prize rose garden. Laughing, scratched to pieces and bleeding, we high-tailed it out of there, hoping we hadn’t been seen, but it was too late. He got off with a few rose thorns embedded in his arms, torn jeans, and a big scratch on his forehead. My daddy whipped me when I got home, and I spent two Saturdays the next Spring working in that stupid rose garden, old Lady Johnson alternating between lecturing me and bringing cookies and lemonade.
It was the way we spent our childhood. Me accepting his challenges, me getting the punishment when things didn’t quite pan out and a window was broken or a rose garden plowed through. Him always walking away without consequence.
Times have changed. We aren’t kids anymore. Debts come due. There are always consequences. And although thirty years have gone by, I still have to wonder if things haven’t changed so much after all.
He is down there now. Watching. Waiting for me.
I reach the ledge that partially encircles the hollow. My descent here will be tricky, as I face a sheer 50 foot drop of solid granite before the slope continues the rest of the way down to the creek. I will have to work my way around to a cleft in the rock, where I can ease down through to the slope below.
It will be dangerous–an easy place to fall–especially with a full pack of canned food and other supplies. But I don’t have a full pack today. Just a couple of frozen steaks, a six-pack of Pabst, and a big bag of ginger snap cookies. The ginger snaps are his favorite.
I sit in the ledge for a few minutes, breathing the cool air and taking in the beauty of the hollow. Thinking of what must be done. Wondering if our roles were reversed if he would do what I am doing.
Beside my leg I notice a mountain lion track in the soft thin layer of dirt and moss that lies in patches on the granite outcrop. The track is big and fresh. So, we are not alone here after all.
The wildlife experts all say that the big cats haven’t come back into Alabama. Country people see them on occasion, surprised to flip on their lights in the middle of the night to see a six foot long-tailed cat eating cat food from a bowl on their back porches. But the wildlife people always dismiss them in the newspapers. “What you saw was a big bobcat” they say. Maybe they are trying to keep people from panicking. Maybe they want to keep the cat’s reappearance into Alabama a secret, figuring some fool redneck will try to hunt it down and kill it. Maybe they are just stupid. I don’t know.
Those of us who get off the trails–who have walked these wild places where roads don’t penetrate–we know better.
I reach around my back and finger the .45 that is tucked into the waist band in the back of my jeans. It would stop a mountain lion. Probably even make a grizzly bear reconsider his position.
But I haven’t brought it for either.
Break time is over. I have an appointment at the creek below, and I need to get moving again.
Next: The Appointment.