The Descent

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.

The Ridge

I walk the ridge line, following the well-worn trail past 300 year old longleaf pines that stand like sentinels before the passage of time. There are other sojourners here too–gnarled black-jack oaks, mountain white oak–even the huckleberry bushes that cover the ground where the sunlight filters through the canopy seem old–much older than I am. Much older than I will ever be.

The tallest of the longleaf on this spot of ground has been struck by lightning. There is a long scar, bark peeled in a smooth strip from near the topmost branch all the way to the ground. It is an old scar, but a wound none-the-less. A visible indicator that a jagged bolt can descend from an angry sky and change everything in an instant. The plight of the tree reminds me that standing tall and proud is not always the best option, for trees or people.

A small fire blazed up from the lightning strike. It was brief but intense. Some of the smaller trees, stunted dogwood and scrub persimmon, were burned before the rain followed the lightning spark and doused the flames. Such is the nature of storms. It is not always the tallest and strongest that take the hit and suffer. Sometimes the innocent bystanders have the worse fate.

I pick up a strip of the thin peeled bark and put it in my pocket. It is a talisman of a sort–a reminder that other bolts will drop from these same heavens, sometimes even before a whisper of a breeze indicates that a storm is on the horizon. Jagged, loose electricity without a wire, high voltage descending through the stillness of heavy air. Such are not random, though they may appear so. They are predestined, preordained before the beginning of time. There is no other way that they could be. Like the trail worn by the passage of feet and hooves for ages and ages that I walk on this Fall day. There is no other place this trail could be; no other time that it could be walked by me in this way and in this moment.

I cross a ledge where the trail narrows in the ridge line. It is a thin, rocky place between the broad flat of the hilltops before and behind me. I imagine that from the air above it looks as if God pinched this spot while the bedrock was cooling, like a woman works the edges of a pie crust out of soft white dough. The soil is eroded and thin–nothing grows here for the lack of an anchor-hold. I mind my feet on the exposed granite. This is where the rattlesnake comes to warm on the first few cool days of Fall.

The ledge safely crossed, I follow the trail a few hundred yards until the ridge flattens wide again. Another trail, more faint but still discernible, angles toward the side slope. A fox squirrel chatters a warning as I step onto this path to make my descent. Whether this warning is for me or for other squirrels, I cannot know. Only time and the descent will tell.

I only know that I am headed down, but I have known that in my heart for some time now. Down the steep side slope to the broad level land in the hollow below. There is a creek flowing there, although I cannot see or hear its music yet. And near that creek is my destination.

Next: The Descent

The Republican Debate

I’ve written here before that I don’t much like politics. Unfortunately, in the last three years I have come to understand that I’m going to have to become more involved. Governments at the local, state, and federal levels have too much control over people’s lives in the U.S., and it’s time for common people to change that.

I don’t listen to a lot of speeches or debates. I end up getting more angry about our current situation if I do. I mostly read what has been written, and analyze what people do–not what they say. I did, however, make myself watch a little of the Republican debate on CNN last night. I was curious about how they might present themselves.

Allow me to give you my impressions.

Ron Paul: A Libertarian who runs as a Republican, this guy is attractive on the surface because I think a lot of Libertarian ideas are great. But Paul is a nut job. He has his moments when he says something brilliant–which he quickly follows with something that is bordering on insanity (“We must cut this unsustainable level of federal spending!”; “I have recently been in touch with the President of Venus, and this is what he says…”).

Rick Santorum: Reminds me of the smart kid who lost the spelling bee. “I was the best one there! I thought she said ‘remittent,’ not ‘remittance.’ You know that’s what happened. Your blue ribbon has no credibility.”

Rick Perry: The guy who I originally had high hopes for. He does pretty well until someone asks him a tough question. Then he looks like a Texas deer in the headlights of an eighteen-wheeler.

Newt Gingrich: Probably the most intelligent guy of the lot, but it’s hard for me to imagine he’d make a good leader. Maybe a cabinet position, but not President. If your wife can’t trust you then why should I?

Mitchell Bachmann: “Will you go to the dance with me?” No. “Will you go to the dance with me?” No. “Will you go to the dance with me?” NO! Leave me alone.

Mitt Romney: “Look at my teeth. Don’t I have great hair? I have confidence in me, and you should, too. The people of Massachusetts love my health care plan. Never mind that it bankrupted our state. Have you looked at my hair?”

Bottom line: you put all these in a sack and shake ’em up and dump one out, and it won’t make much difference. It’s just the same ol’ same ol’ the Republicans have trotted-out since 1988.

Then there’s Herman Cain. He’s the only one in the lot who gives specifics. The only one who is not a career politician. The only one who knows what it is like to work, to pay bills, to balance a check book.

I have high hopes for you Mr. Cain. Please don’t let me down.