Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Crossing

In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner's now famous Frontier Thesis declared the American frontier closed. In relatively short course, men of the western world had subsumed and undertaken wholesale settlement of the entire expanse of the young nation. With the loss of the open frontier and its associated mythos came the arrival of what passes for civilization in our modern vernacular, and thus the death of "wildness," true freedom that I think the hearts of men burn for. Loss of the wild yes, but not just in the hearts of men, but also the alteration of the physical landscape, the land as it was, the real and psychic geography of the American west, the mythos of all that is truly free, salted earth.

The "Border Trilogy" of Cormac McCarthy painstakingly renders a requiem for this west, for our losses. He writes deeply of place, of death, change, temporality, fragility, not in the words of the philosopher always, but the words of the poet, one who shares kinship with this vanished world. These books are largely about a profound sense of place, a wonderment of landscape teased out in Michelangelo-like detail. If you have affinity for the ground, and maybe, just maybe, a nagging sense that its true nature is gone from our view somehow, yet loving it still- unrestrained love- then these pages speak to you in an epic poem form in which you will find solace.

The Crossing is a work with which McCarthy is at the absolute zenith of his craft. A master. This isn't simply storytelling, not a surface coming of age tale, but an existential meditation on life and loss through the conduit of teenaged Billy Parham, and even more, the environs he passes through. In many ways the characters are secondary to the backdrop--place scrambling to cling to a way of living that in our very guts we know maybe be the truest way to exist.

McCarthy doesn't just write the land, he knows it to its core, his words precise, calibrated geological instruments tapping at the rocks, penetrating their centers, a flash flood awash down the gully, kinetic blanket of watery probing, enveloping, slinking over, thus obtaining some intimate secret knowledge of the terrain.

Symbology of the wolf is essential to the writer's motive. By placing Billy in the 1930's and specifically in Hidalgo County, New Mexico, McCarthy sets him in a rare, unique setting, one in which a person would have had one of the last opportunities to encounter a wolf in the wild. Hidalgo and the Animas Mountains were part of an ancient throughway for wolves coming and going from Mexican territory.

Through the wolf Billy sheds the operant modeling of the his rancher upbringing and taps into a spiritual reverence for her wild cunning and untamed nature. At the moment of realization, he turns south toward Mexico, not onto the road home. This connection is so strong that ultimately he will kill the wolf rather than witness her spirit defiled at the hands of men.

The level of detail in these descriptions is striking--I've read of comparisons to Melville--at times the narrative reads like a detailed manual for the aspiring cowboy or trapper. Early 1940s wolf hunter, W.C. Echols, is the model for which the wolf tracking and trapping trade secrets of the Parhams were culled. Interestingly, Echols while always a hired assassin, operated with respect for his quarry. I envision an elderly Echols perhaps in the literary person of Don Arnuldo, who Billy consults on how to hunt the wolf but who ends up giving voice to the boy's intuitive sense of the value of the wolf's mysterious nature:

"The wolf is an unknowable thing. What is caught in the trap is no more than teeth and fur. The wolf itself cannot be known. The wolf or what the wolf knows. Like asking what the stones know. The trees. The world. You want to catch this can do that. But where is the wolf? The wolf is like the copo de catch the snowflake bout when you look in your hand you don't have it no more. If you catch it you will lose it. And where it goes there is no coming back from. Not even God can bring it back."

The wolf, the land, belong not even to us out on our perceived frontiers, but to a higher reality that we can glimpse at times, but never fully understand.

As Turner's proclamation of over a century ago informed us, much like the wolf, much like Billy's bleeding, dying horse, Nino, wildness with we humans in its frame is truly illusion and is in reality a body prostrate, chest heaving slowly up and down, sucking its last breaths.

The corpse. On Billy's journey back to the border with his brother's bones, the banditos having senselessly stabbed Nino, a band of gypsies happen upon the forlorn scene of the boy and the bloodletting horse. Is there hope in this desication and despair?

After tending to the horse, a gypsy sets a kettle of tea to boil and lights a cigar, squatting to tell a story. Within those words we find: "La historia del hijo termina en las montanas. Y por alla queda la realidad de el--The history of the son ends in the mountains, and there stays its reality."

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


For years in my running thoughts I've kicked around putting on an ultra, but honestly I'm far too lazy and disorganized to make it happen. My friend Dave is neither of those things. He did quite a job putting on the race last weekend.

From my perspective as a volunteer things were fun. I never realized there was so much work that goes into one of these things. I had the priviledge of helping set up Friday, and getting out and marking trail, then returning Saturday to work the Devil's Cliff aid station (once I figured out how to actually drive there, leaving us 10 minutes to set up). The day itself was very nice, temps in the 50's and sunny, most of the silver maples having already turned a vivid golden hue. It's always inspriring to watch ultrarunners, and there were many first timers out there, making it all the more interesting. I'm hoping to be back next year.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Missouri Uplands Revisited

Moving north out of Jefferson City you are literally ticking forward on an accelerated geological timeline. The craggy rolling hills and hollows that are products of millions of years of erosion submit gradually to a young, mere 400,000 year old glaciated topography. On into Callaway County, the Kingdom of Callaway, and back onto the plains, Dissected Till Plains to the scientist, from the tribal Scots-Irish lineage to the Germanic farmers of the prairies.

The tiny blip on the map that is Hatton, MO is an idyllic sort of place. The kind of rural village that you might find referenced in a Keillor monologue or perhaps run across in those glossy “country” mags that suburban soccer moms like to read. It anachronistically sports a whitewashed general store in addition to the requisite red brick Baptist church. Just past the town is a paved road that cuts north toward the Audrain County line. I turn left at that line and drive through the glaring sunlight down the white gravel road, past now golden soybean fields that were sown with milo last year (I know this because their sporadically seeded remnants, tall and bushy headed and alien, stick out like towers among the bean rows) and down the road to the land of my grandfather and father, and now I.

Harvest is in. Another year’s gamble on this hardscrabble claypan soil has turned snake eyes. The rain that came to other, more fortunate sections of the Midwest didn’t materialize here. Yet the farmers who love this land won’t be deterred. They have weathered far worse seasons and still their hearts remain anchored. I romanticize with this prose where they surely would not, but what motivator other than love would drive a man to put his worldly wealth on such marginal odds?

I steer the 4x4 down a cut crop haul road, wide enough for a large truck, and start into the field of stalks. Looking to the south the land rises ever so gently to a swell then tapers back in an almost imperceptible slope to a tree line draw—if you’re unfamiliar with the term, the excellent dictionary, “Home Ground” defines a woody draw as, “a troughlike depression, choked with shrubs, thickets, and small trees…woody draws regulate the runoff from rainstorms and help filter pollutants.” The elegant way of putting it.

The casual observer driving past on the road might observe “just a corn field” like any other, but to understand a place you must look closely. The 4x4 parked, I walk the plains. The story of this ground isn’t just choppy stalks in a random field. It can be likened to and yet in some nagging way is alien to the tallgrass prairies of my Illinois home. Ice sheets were here but they did their work a half million years ago, not as recently as 15,000 years ago. Winds and forces of time have done their intended task and dispersed the till and loess to a fine layer here, only 6 inches in some spots, maybe to a foot if luck resides, where it doesn’t, there is none, only exposed grayish, pale clay. Illinois prairie sod may have as much as three to six feet of black, rich topsoil.

I hike. Undulation of the land is ever so slight. The draw, a swath of trees maybe 30 yards wide at its fattest runs a quarter of a mile, attaching itself eventually to a narrower perpendicular treed fence line. I would date the growth of this draw to maybe 50-75 years. The inner boy hopes this a bastion of wild woodland, but my rationalist voice whispers that this is a trough that stayed too wet to plow when the old mule farm was transformed into cropland.

My path turns to the west, walking the fringe of the woods. There are but few oaks, some maples, shrubbery and trusty hedgerow Orange Osage. And there is life here. A hawk catches my eye as he floats in on the wind current over my head to the east. He drifts closer as I walk, spiraling in a tight coil, closer and lower, closer still to my position. I am alive here and the hawk glides past with nary a wing flap in a pact of silent acknowledgement of that fact. Thus established, his flight plan lazily diverts on another course, to another field in search of prey, or maybe just passing time on a Sunday morning.

Terraces fill the space where the water has chipped away the clay, making the ground inaccessible. The farmer has filled the rivulets in spots with soil and effort. It is still a struggle, though the deer still do run through here in great herds, this is no longer virgin prairie tossing on the winds. Time and its whims have left a mark.

Stalks will give way to winter wheat, and then again to fertilizer, and again to corn, corn-on-corn to feed the sparkly new ethanol plant a few miles distant in Laddonia. Visible on the eastern horizon is a lean silver tower, an experimental measuring station for an energy company considering this land for the placement of colossal wind turbines. Dynamism is the only constant. Just like the world at large, times here change, isolation cannot exist. Fundamentally yes, on a geologic scale change comes not in technological sweeps of the hand, but by a trickle of water acting here, a pebble tumbleweed nudged along by a stiff breeze there. Geologic time is not the time that marks our paltry lives, yet its constant, subtle presence can offer a solace of sorts in these times.

And so I have gained some greater, if all too minute understanding of the land; that is to say, I have learned as much as it has chosen to share with me on this walk. I slowly climb back behind the wheel and point the vehicle down the load path, the gravel country road shimmering in the distance in the blue of an Indian summer afternoon.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


I haven't done anything long in about a month, just 3-5 milers. The pair of Brooks Beasts I bought a couple months ago are simply too tight, not considering the narrowness of the D size, a fact which I hope has been contributing to the flare up of P.F. and one that can be alleviated by switching to the wider 4E. The time is now to start laying some base for ramp up to McNaughton. Not to mention this is just the best time to be out on the trails. I'm simply hoping to hold together physically on some semi-long runs, and work from there back into hills and 3-4 hour range training.

Farmdale is in two weeks and I'm looking forward to helping Dave out. At last count he was over his targeted 50 for the race. If you're doing it, be sure and say hello at the Devil's Cliff aid station.