“Human experience, which is constantly contradicting theory, is the greatest test of truth. A system, built upon the discoveries of a great many minds, is always of more strength, than what is produced by the mere workings of any one mind, which, of itself, can do little.” – Johnson
“It sounds like a highway,” I said, listening to the wind. “Sad that my mind goes there.” My comrade, she concurred on both statements. We sat on the hillside and listened to the silence, the music of the gods. The rush of wind roared and neared for miles, entering and passing the canyon like several semis. Intermittently, a woodpecker banged his head against a branch on the opposite slope, and we spotted a Nevada blue bird with the naked eye. The ravine, dried and bony, echoed all, including the friendly voice from the evergreens above. We had dropped our packs, weary with trekking the ravine, and begun scouting for a campsite. Our leader knew the mountain best. We wandered back to the packs, but he lit out, into the denser brush and trees. We heard him, several times, from above, well engulfed in the thicket.
But his voice grew fainter, and I said, “He’ll come up the ravine, I bet.”
“That last noise, it sounded like he found the spot,” she said, hopefully. We hoped, watching the stillness of the mountainside. The stillness of a mountain, I have found, is the stillness of a man sleeping. It looks harmless, dead even, at times. An experience with it proves it lives. One wishes not to wake a sleeping mountain; especially in its winter hibernation; just so, one wishes not to wake a slumbering man too early.
He was away for nearly an hour. But, that man who seemed to slumber in the lumber above, now approached. He had descended, but now whistled below and slowly rose in the rocky ravine.
I was asked, recently, what people in Kansas are like. I thought for a few seconds and almost said that Kansas people are normal. Yet, I checked myself. Normal is relative; he needed a more exact word: “Plain,” I said. “The people of the plains are plain. They don’t have tattoos or pink hair; they don’t need mountains, or sees, or casinos, or skyscrapers; they aren’t wild or obnoxious; they aren’t loud or bumbling; they don’t smoke so much pot; they won’t talk to you unless they need to; they are down-to-earth, hard-working, faith-driven people who just want to live their lives and be left alone. The don’t need the false glimmer of casinos or nightclubs. They are the world’s hobbits.” I stopped and left the description to the man’s interpretation. But upon reflection and experience, the plain people of the plains are much like icebergs, and every iceberg is a mountain.
A man may devote himself to exploring one mountain range for his entire life, and at the end of his toil under the sun feel as if he never met the mountain but one time. The Spring Mountains, west of Vegas, if observed on any map, are a tiny range, easily overlooked and ignored. The tallest peak rests at twelve thousand, which comparatively looks like a little brother, even a child, to many mountains. Yet, it is twelve thousand feet; and I am less than six. The twelve thousand foot mountain may kill a man, or may shock him into existence just as quickly and effectively as any six foot man. When I was younger, I wanted to experience the world, to see many mountains and seas and cities. But my old bones now tell me that experience only occurs indirectly. One does not contrive an experience; one experiences an experience; one only does this one moment at a time. My old bones now remind me, with this visit to this mountain, that I am a very plain man. My body conquers gradual slopes with titanic energy and is conquered by steep inclines like a pigmy. My body can, and perhaps should, be content with its lone mountain.
It was my time to scout. I left my pack and comrades and bounded down the ravine. I left it on my right for a path, steeply ascending. As I rose, I felt the oncoming of a migraine. I thought of the woodpeckers, slamming their heads for food. I recollected that I had eaten little in several hours. My way inclined and met with a level path, which I took on the left, heading to a precipice we had spotted. The precipice was perhaps a hundred or so feet above the ravine, and I stayed away from the edge. I thought about how if there was a railing, I’d fling my throbbing head over with abandon. I thought about how I could be more free in life if I had railings.
The precipice turned grave at night. A bat flew above our heads, squealing. Its form shadowed against the stars and satellites and planes. The black hills to the right, and beyond, loomed. They looked as something beyond hills, as things, living and organic. Maybe they were only the plates of a beast, a stegosaurus resting as we played on its back. Distantly, two stars poked out of a chasm. They stared at us, and with the cut in the hills, the lower sky glared with the face of a frog. But the stars moved, eventually; or we moved, or were moving, and were moved, contemplating our rotation.
But I awoke both new and old; I awoke changed yet unchanged, a new, plain man yet. In the cool mountain air, I sipped warm coffee in a tin cup, wrapped in fleece and flannel, a beanie covering my pounding head. And I looked dizzily at the trees and morning birds, the woodpeckers pounding beaks into bark. Sometimes, I long for their tongues – that wrap and blanket their brain, cushioning the blows. Then, my head pounded without any pounding. I did not need to fall to fall, for I am fallen, and fallen men seem to fall all the harder. It is as if they fall from experience and practice it well. They fall so hard they seem stuck in the ground like a rock. I needed but thin air, a good climb in elevation, to set a migraine, to blow my mind and spin my world in circles. Despair is damning, though. Even a fallen stone rises with the helping hand of man. Many a fallen thing, no matter how rooted to the ground, may rise and even bounce back, or slowly grow like an evergreen.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Monday, September 5, 2016
Painting: “Mountain Solitude”
By Benjamin Williams Leader
Oil on canvas, 1873