The following is an excerpt from Richard Higgs’ upcoming book Then There Is No Mountain–An American Memoir. Additional excerpts can be read on his blog: thenthereisnomountain.
When I met my wife, Louise, I was a long-haul truck driver, and I’d been on the road long enough that my connections in Tulsa had grown tenuous. I’d been living in the cab of my truck, and all the people I’d once known so well had begun to feel remote to me. Truck driving will do that to you after a while. You spend all your time on the road either completely alone or in the company of strangers you’ll never see again. I no longer had a place to stay in Tulsa, or at least it felt that way. By the time I quit trucking, I’d been seeing Louise whenever I’d pass through town, but staying at her place was out of the question, so I’d been sleeping in the truck when I stopped in Tulsa, just like I did in any other city. So, when I parked my truck for the last time in the Oklahoma City truckyard, drew my final pay, and drove my beloved old saab back to Tulsa, my first stop was an army surplus store. It was July—hot and humid.
I bought a sleeping bag, mosquito netting, insect repellent, a coffee percolator, galvanized plates and cups, a couple of lightweight tarps, a backpack, and other supplies, including a very cool pith helmet (the only hat I’ve ever looked good in, although Louise has a different opinion about this). Then I stopped at a liquor store and got a pint of W.L. Weller bourbon. Lastly, I stopped at Walmart and bought a rod and reel and some tackle. Then I drove up north, past Skiatook to Candy Creek.
Candy Creek has wallowed out a wild valley from the prairies of the old Osage Nation. Over the years, I’ve hiked every one of the valley’s 25 or so miles, and fished much of the creek, from its source to its mouth, through the wild horse pastures in the upper end, down into the broader, partially wooded lower end where it feeds into Bird Creek. Candy Creek Valley formed the back pastures for a series of large ranches along its course, so virtually no one lived in it. The lower end had been acquired by the Corps of Engineers for a dam project. The project was abandoned while still on the drawing boards. Once this happened, the valley became orphaned land—owned by the public but managed by no one. It had always been wild, but in its abandonment, it began actively returning to an earlier, wilder state.
I knew of some limestone springs that never went dry, out there deep in the valley. The water was cool and sweet. I drove as far as I could down the abandoned valley road, hid my car behind a sand plum thicket, and then hiked to the springs with my gear. The first thing I did was dip my cup into the spring and drink, again and again, until I could feel the water’s weight in my belly. I spent the hot, humid July afternoon setting up a lean-to camp in the deep shade near one of the springs. I caught a couple of bass out of Candy Creek which I filleted, wrapped in foil, and cooked in the coals of my small fire, next to the chiming streamlet that tumbled out of the stone.
As the sun went down I sprayed myself with mosquito repellent, arranged my small fire so that I’d have something to look at as it slowly burned down, and sipped on Weller’s and spring water from my tin cup.
“You need to make a plan,” I said to myself. “Yeah, but not right now,” I replied.
Summer nights in the wild, tanglevine Oklahoma bottomland are noisy. All around me, near and far, all the creatures of the world, it seemed, howled, bellowed, and screamed all night long. Packs of coyotes on the move howled back and forth to each other, cattle bellowed on the distant upland pastures, dogs on the hunt yelped for joy, hoot owls and whippoorwills sang to themselves, frogs rang together like a thousand stuck doorbells, and countless species of insects created a collective, high-pitched drone. There was also the tormenting whine of mosquitoes probing around me for a way past the DEET.
The Weller’s and the campfire diminished at about the same rate. By the time the bottle was empty and the fire was out, I’d added my own voice to the chorus. The first time I howled, every other creature stopped to listen. After about thirty seconds, the insects could stand the silence no more and started up again, quickly rejoined by the frogs, and then all the others. At my second howl, they all quieted down just for a moment and then carried on.
By the third, my voice just blended in.
* * *
In the bright morning sunlight, I pulled the coffeepot off the fire. Once it stopped perking, I could hear the little stream tumbling away from the limestone spring. I poured a cup of coffee and sat with it in my hands, looking at the blue smoke rising like a genie. “You know what your problem is?” I asked myself.
“No, but I have a feeling you’re going to tell me,” I replied.
“You need more ritual in your life.”
A long-haul truck driver is a human pinball, bouncing randomly all over America, never knowing where or how far you’ll bounce next. I thought about that for a while as I drank my coffee.
“Maybe you’re right,” I replied, once I’d emptied my cup and stood up to break camp. “And I still need a plan, too,” I said.
Well, my plan was simplicity itself. I packed out, drove the old Saab to Tulsa, got an apartment by noon, and a job by the next day. Louise and I married and bought a house, and she and I and her son, Robin, whom I came to call my own son, moved into the house, and then he grew up and moved out. Then it was just the two of us in our small home, which we’d filled with books, music, and art. Much of the art is of her own creation. She is a brilliant and passionate painter.
Over the years, I remained a frequent visitor to Candy Creek. Sometimes, I camped close to its banks and fished its deep holes. Other times, I rambled the meadows, glassing birds, and sometimes I just walked, exploring the rocky side streams that tumbled down from the surrounding uplands. Occasionally, I mused about the lack of ritual in my life. I’d wonder what it was like to take comfort in ritual. If you perform an act over and over again, an act that may otherwise be meaningless—that would almost certainly be meaningless if done only once—and you perform it in the same way each time, and at specified intervals, what do you get from that? Why is that attention to form so comforting to so many, so central to their identities? I felt that I must be missing out.
One day out there, I looked across the valley from the eastern ridge and noticed on the opposite ridge, about three miles distant, an isolated knob a little higher than the surrounding terrain. It had a pleasing curve and a copse of blackjack oaks on the crown. As I dropped down into the valley, it disappeared from view, so I walked across the valley floor, and then up the opposite hill, sensing my way toward it by dead reckoning until it re-emerged above me. Before long, I was standing on top of it. Just as I’d known I would, I had a clear view of the distant horizon in all directions. Looking east over the valley to the opposite ridgeline from where I’d come, I decided to build an observatory on the spot, where I could witness the sunrise on the first day of spring and the first day of autumn every year. I would make it a ritual and see what came of it.
I stacked fieldstones, ruddy sandstones, into a cairn about a foot taller than myself. At eye-level I left a window about six inches square, for a viewfinder. In the base of the window I placed a flat stone that protruded out from the cairn and came to a point that pointed due east, according to my compass. In the stone I cut a groove in a straight line as a sightline that ended at the point. Standing up to the cairn on its west side and looking into the viewfinder and following the sightline groove, my eye landed on the spot on the far horizon where the sun should pop up on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.
I admired my observatory from various distances as I hiked the several miles back to my car. Its form and function were pleasingly mysterious. Once the grass had covered my footsteps around its base, and healed the scars where the stones had been removed, it would be difficult for anyone to know how old it was, which also pleased me.
* * *
Fall approached and I took three days off from work. The last day of summer, I packed up and went out there. I found a pretty site in the edge of the woods at the base of the observatory hill and set up camp in the afternoon. I built a hearth and a lean-to and gathered firewood. Then I searched among boulders in a shady draw until I found the right one and, using a chisel and hammer, cut an image of a horse into its side. I’d stolen the design from a centuries-old Chinese drawing. I returned to camp and got a fire going. I heated up some beans and made coffee. After supper I climbed up to the top of the observatory hill.
First I inspected the observatory, but avoided looking through the viewfinder. It was unchanged in the months since I’d erected it. Then I found a good place to sit and faced west, where I watched the sun lower itself down to the horizon and melt like butter on a griddle. Once the first star came out, I walked back down to camp. I stared into the fire for a while without thinking. Then I stared up at the Milky Way for a while, and scanned it with my binoculars, not looking for anything but beauty, which was there aplenty. I didn’t have a watch, but I imagined it was still pretty early when I crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep.
When I woke up it was cold and deep dark. The Big Dipper had spun around the sky. I stoked up the fire and fell back asleep. When I woke again it was still dark, but it felt like morning inside me. I dressed, banked up the coals in the hearth and put on coffee. While the coffee perked I grew alert to the changing light of the sky. I hadn’t overslept and missed my first observation. I took my coffee and drank it standing out from under the trees, in the chilly wind, watching the sky closely as the stars dimmed.
I climbed to the top of the hill and stood around the observatory watching the eastern horizon. I felt more like a kid at Christmas than a man in September. The sky grew lighter until finally the sun was seconds from rising. I took my position and looked down the sightline and waited. There he was! My sightline was off a couple of degrees, so I quickly adjusted it with a few nudges. It was now empirically correct. Once the sun had cleared the earth I stepped back from the viewfinder, having completed my first observation.
I felt as if I hadn’t merely witnessed the turning of the earth, and swinging of the seasons, but that I had actively participated in these. After savoring the experience for a good long while, I went back down the hill to camp and had a leisurely breakfast in the crisp fall sunshine. Over breakfast, I pondered how the sunrise swings back and forth along the horizon between the spring and fall equinoxes. It behaves like a pendulum.
A pendulum’s speed varies constantly during its stroke, reaches maximum velocity at the bottom, and slows to a stop at each turnaround point, before reversing direction and accelerating back to the bottom. The sun’s apparent speed, as measured by its changing day-to-day position on the horizon, as it swings out the seasons, also varies constantly and in the same manner. Around the equinoxes, the sunrise positions change most rapidly. Approaching the solstices, the position changes slow to a stop, reverse direction and begin accelerating back to the next equinox.
Why should the sun behave like a pendulum? It seemed like a clue to something.
* * *
I spent that fall day exploring the woods and prairies around me. Just before sunset, I climbed back up the hill and observed the sunset by looking back through the viewfinder from the opposite side. I spent another night, and the next morning I broke camp after breakfast and walked down the valley to my waiting car. I got back to Tulsa mid-afternoon.
That became my twice-a-year ritual for the next several years. It was important to seal off a full 24-hour period on-site, in order to fully inhabit the place. I remember waiting atop the hill near the observatory, in the chilly pre-dawn, sometimes wrapped in a blanket, sipping coffee, my heart pounding, and my smoke-stung eyes riveted on the horizon beyond the valley as the sky grew lighter and lighter. I remember a feeling of victory as the top rim of the sun shimmered into view right at the end of my viewfinder sightline.
Leading up to each spring and fall season, as the pivotal day grew closer on the calendar, I became more and more restless in the city. By the time I headed out, I’d been thinking of little else for several days. When I came back from out there, I felt satisfied and serene for days afterward, so it seemed as if I’d found what I was missing out on.
One late afternoon out there I looked up at the hill from the edge of the woods by my camp and saw that one of the hilltop oaks was on fire. Studying it, I saw that it wasn’t really aflame but was glowing strangely, unlike any of the trees around it. Unlike anything I’d ever seen. I climbed up for a better look and, to my wonder, discovered that it was covered with monarch butterflies, thick as leaves, thousands of them basking in the late-afternoon sunlight. They’d stopped to spend the night during their migration to Mexico. I laughed out loud, and thanked God for the gift.
After several seasons of not allowing anything to get in the way of my semi-annual three-day ritual, one spring I let something stop me from going. I don’t recall what it was. My usual feelings of mounting excitement and restlessness had been muted that year. I witnessed the equinox sunrise from the driver’s seat of my car on my way to work. I couldn’t have missed it, actually, since Tulsa streets lie on a cardinal grid, and the sun rose right out at the end of the street, blinding all eastbound drivers. I’d be willing to bet that auto accident records for Tulsa would show a spike on the equinoxes.
I was so disappointed in myself that, the following fall, I set everything else aside and went out to the observatory. I had a fine time, as always, but my observation felt rote, my emotional involvement forced. The following spring was similar. And then I missed the following fall and subsequent spring.
I went out one last time the following fall but the spell had been broken. I sat on the hill and pondered it. I realized that I’d put the cart before the horse by trying to manufacture meaning out of ritual. Rituals arise out of pre-existing meaning. They confirm something meaningful. That’s what I learned about the power of rituals. Since then, I’ve returned to my old ritual-free way of life.
Although I continued to occasionally hike, fish, and camp in Candy Creek Valley, it was several years before I trekked back up to my observatory hill. I was surprised to find that my cairn had collapsed into a random pile of rubble. I blamed it on cows, those dumb agents of entropy. The only remaining signs of my having been there were the crude hearth at my old campsite, and the images I’d pecked into certain boulders.