November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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J.D. Schraffenberger

   

My Few Experiences of Mountains

 

… The most powerful human emotion is fear, which is what I felt tightening inside of me from the base of my spine to the roots of my teeth as I drove …

 

          I know I shouldn’t count driving through mountains because that’s not really experiencing them, at least not in that feet-on-the-ground, nose-to-the-wind kind of way, but years ago those wild Kerouacian embers of cross-country road-trips were still glimmering like poetry in my brain. I was driving west on I-84 through the Columbia River Gorge toward Portland to visit a relocated friend—all my cool Louisville friends were moving to Portland back then for its music scene—and I think I had what you’d call a real experience of the mountains in my old-but-new-to-me Volvo station wagon. I don’t remember where exactly on 84 we were—my then-girlfriend Tara was dozing beside me in the passenger seat—but I do recall a steep, winding ascent from the oranges and browns of the high desert and the equally steep descent into the lusty green of the Oregon rainforest.

          I think I’m making some of this up, or my memory has smoothed out the edges, as memory tends to do. It’s not like you’re in the desert and then BOOM! you’re in the rainforest. Or maybe it is like that. It’s been awhile. And I haven’t been back since.

           The experience I had wasn’t of the mountains themselves. It was inside me. (But then, where do we experience experiences if not inside ourselves?) I’ve heard some otherwise intelligent people claim that love is the most powerful human emotion, but that’s a bunch of sentimental nonsense. The most powerful human emotion is fear, which is what I felt tightening inside of me from the base of my spine to the roots of my teeth as I drove through these mountains, where the North American Plate meets the Pacific and Juan de Fuca Plates. These were the Cascades. What a lovely name for mountains, derived (ultimately) from the Latin cadere: to fall. And that’s what I feared, falling, and dying, as I climbed and climbed and climbed. My bad dreams have always involved falling from some height, veering off into a black void, losing my grip, plummeting. It’s a beautiful kind of fear, though. Maybe back then it was akin to the still-fierce grip of love I had for Tara. Maybe love compelled me to face my fear in the first place, bid me drive on, go west, young man! be on the road in love! Maybe love is more powerful than fear. 

          You think about mountains and you see a single thing in your mind, a discrete unit called “mountain.” This is how you learn what a mountain is. You draw a triangle with a zig-zag line near the tip to represent the snow line. You think Everest. You think Vesuvius and Rainier, both of which are volcanoes, too, but that’s a different drawing. You think a mountain is like a volcano without a hole in the top. You draw some puffy clouds and a few birds, maybe a semi-circle sun in the corner with straight-line rays beaming down. You think you have a handle on what a mountain is, but you don’t—any more than you have a handle on what love is by drawing hearts.

          I thought I understood something about Pine Mountain from the stories my grandpa would tell of growing up in Jenkins, Kentucky, a dusty little former coal-camp town on the Virginia border. Pine Mountain was where people hid their moonshine stills. Pine Mountain was where the outlaw-hero Devil John Wright lived. Pine Mountain was where my grandpa went as a kid to teach himself to play guitar, like some Pentecostal mountaintop guru communing with the God of the Lonesome Pine. Pine Mountain was also the location of Raven Rock, a locally famous overlook point, where you could take in all of Jenkins below. I’ve only been to Jenkins a handful of times. A few years ago I went there to have an authentic experience of Pine Mountain so that I could write about that experience and then possibly publish what I’d written. But that kind of thing hardly ever works out. Or you end up writing fiction or poetry and wishing it was what you’d actually experienced.

          I’d seen pictures from the 1920s of men gathered on Raven Rock smoking pipes in their Sunday best and posing for group portraits, and I’d read so many references to it in the town library’s archive. I knew it was a single thing, a distinct place called “Raven Rock.” You could plant a flag and point to it and say you were there. But when I stumbled through the trees onto what I assumed was Raven Rock, I wasn’t sure. The view was breathtaking, but not in a beautiful way. From this rock ledge you could see the long narrow valley that was Jenkins, Elkhorn Lake to the southwest, the new golf course to the north, but you could also see all the strip-mining going on around you, what some call “mountaintop removal.” You could see big patches of white and brown where there should be green, and plumes of gray smoke rising in every direction, like a bunch of little bomb sites, which they are in a way. 

        Raven Rock is what you’d call a “crag.” I’ve always loved that word. I’m not sure if it’s an actual geological term because I associate it with Romantic poetry. Like Wordsworth’s “narrow girdle of rough stones and crags” or Byron’s “crag-cover’d wild” or Keats’ “Crag jutting forth to crag, and rocks that seem’d / Ever as if just rising from a sleep.” It’s a rigid and insistent word. It sounds like one of those nonsense rhymes you invent as a kid while running through the alphabet: vag, spag, frag, crag. The word “crag,” and not crags themselves, may be one of the reasons I became a poet. I like Williams’ famous axiom, “No ideas but in things,” but for me it’s “No ideas and no things but in words.” Or even, “No ideas, no things, no words but in sounds.”

         I scooted to the edge of this crag, this Raven Rock, and peered down the side at the tops of trees. That old familiar fear tickled inside. I stood there alone with my fear for a few moments. If I fell, no one would know, no one could help me, and I’d probably die, so I backed off and sat cross-legged to smoke a cigarette. I wasn’t having the experience I’d hoped for. For one, I was hungry and felt stupid for not eating lunch. It was already late in the afternoon, and I was running on coffee and cigarettes. I was also not dressed for any kind of climbing or hiking in my dress shoes and khaki pants and camelhair sports coat. I was supposed to have interviewed the mayor earlier in the day about the history of Jenkins for my writing project, but he wasn’t in, so I stupidly went tramping up some old logging road toward what I hoped would be Raven Rock and a real experience of Pine Mountain. But now I couldn’t tell where Raven Rock began and where it ended. The ledge, the crag, just kept going in either direction. Here I am sitting in the “crag-cover’d wild,” not sure if it’s the right crag or some other crag, and all I can think is how much I’d like a grilled cheese sandwich with a pickle. All I can think is, “Jesus, these shoes. These shoes are absolutely ridiculous.”

          I wished I could look around me and name the names of all the plants and geological formations around me. I’d write a poem. I’d savor words like escarpment, chokecherry, kudzu, white pine. That would’ve given me some comfort, I think. I followed the crag southwest looking for its end, but Raven Rock just kept going. I backtracked and followed it northeast, but it still kept going. Sometimes I had to leap across gaps in the crag. Sometimes I had to duck back into the trees—were they white pines?—before I emerged again onto the rock. Eventually I found a shallow cave, but it wasn’t what you think of when you say “cave.” I want to call it a gully, but that’s not right. And neither is gulch, but both are good-sounding words. The cave was a big black V etched into the side of the mountain, a pitched rift in the rock that I had to clamber down about twenty feet to enter. I was surprised not to find trash or graffiti or a blackened circle of ash from an old campfire because you always find that kind of thing in caves like this. It was a perfect place for teenagers to get drunk or high or have sex. But all I found there was a big sleeping box turtle. Had I been on some kind of vision quest, or if I were the kind of person who looked for omens or signs from above, I might have attached some kind of personal significance to the turtle, but it was just a turtle. I patted the turtle shell, and it didn’t do anything. That was good enough for me.

          Not surprisingly, I almost fell while climbing up out of the cave. There was a moment when I knew I would have to let go of one hold to lunge at the roots of a bush—maybe it was a chokecherry?—so I could pull myself up. I thought about that line in The Dharma Bums when the narrator realizes that “it’s impossible to fall off mountains.” I beg to differ. It may have been like cool wild jazz or an angelheaded epiphany for Kerouac bounding down some mountain or other in the Sierra Nevada. But neither jazz nor epiphanies will keep you from smashing your skull on the rocks below, or breaking your leg at least. And then what? Then you’re helpless and hungry with only this completely indifferent turtle to keep you company as you writhe in pain and die alone. I became seized with a quick terror, clinging desperate and frozen to the rock. Maybe all my dreams of falling had been prophetic after all. I was experiencing what you would call “panic,” another lovely word, meaning “pertaining to Pan,” the Greek god of, among other things, mountain wilds. What broke the panic was my own sudden, uncontrollable, and ridiculous laughter. Then Pan loosened his grip inside me, I let go, lunged, and pulled myself up, skull intact. For the Greeks, Pan may have been the erotic half-man-half-goat god of mountain wilds blowing on his pipes. But to me Pan is cool indifference. He’s all turtle.

          Here’s the thing. I didn’t have an epiphany on Pine Mountain, and the experience hardly qualifies me as a naturalist or outdoorsman, much less a “nature writer,” whatever that means. As much as I might admire them, I’m no Barry Lopez, I’m no Aldo Leopold, I’m not even Bear Grylls. I’m too much in my head all the time, thinking, wanting to know the names of things, what they mean, and what might rhyme with kudzu. What I did come to understand, at last, up there on the mountain was that there’s really no such thing as “Raven Rock” because it goes on and on and on, one long crag of cresting and receding limestone that runs the length of the entire mountain. Maybe it juts out more or less here or there. Maybe it disappears into the earth in one place before popping back out in the other. But Raven Rock is Pine Mountain. And Pine Mountain is the Appalachians. And the Appalachians are…Well, you get the point.

          I’ve spent time among other mountains: the Devil’s Path range in the Catskills, some of the Adirondacks, the Berkshires, the Endless Mountains in northeast Pennsylvania. And I could imagine them connected to Raven Rock. But now I live far from the promise of foothill and crag in the vast windy recline of northeast Iowa, in what Michael Martone calls “the flatness,” or more familiarly “the flyover.” People back east ask me how I like it here, and I say it’s all corn and soy and pigs, but it’s also an easy place to live, by which I mean the cost of living, the friendliness of the people, its relatively progressive politics, and other “quality of life” indicators. I think I also mean that Iowa isn’t a fearful place. Sure, we have blizzard, drought, tornado, flood, but there’s no place to fall from, no place to lose your grip, not really. We see things coming, we brace ourselves, we get ready. Iowa is a place untroubled by mountain wilds, where no one seems to panic and it’s easy to be in love, where the deep quiet at night is only matched by how calm and far away the horizon convenes with its sky.

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J.D. Schraffenberger is the assistant editor of the North American Review and the author of a book of poems, Saint Joe’s Passion (Etruscan 2008). His other work appears in Best Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Mid-American Review, Notre Dame Review, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa and is currently at work on a book-length study of the Iowa farmer-poet James Hearst.

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The Litchfields — Lynda Barreto