Note: Inspired at least in some way by two very bold and not quite justified claims I came across while traveling in the San Jacinto Mountains in the winter of 2010. The first authored perhaps by the selfsame genius architects of the tourism industry who came up with the gem “Idyllwild is one of the 100 Best Art Towns in America.” The claim – often placed side by side with that latter gem of knowledge – is that the evil spirit of an Indian maiden killer resides in the lee of the mountains. The second claim was uttered in passing by a few very ancient and thereby wise oak trees in what I shall leave to be an undisclosed location along the South Ridge pass, and it said something to the extent that evil shall find no safe harbor in the wild, and that this untruth has perpetuated your society is a mystery of the most profound depth.
See the man. See him laboring through the pines, wind-whipped and reddened and hair blown through and through by the needles of the trees and the icicles of sweat forming like daggers. Grinning. Disturbed. Knees-weakening, buckling now. He struggles to move. There is much blood on him, more than he knows. From his collarbone to his ribcage runs a strawberry burn from a crash to the ice. The blood drips drips down from his hip down his shorts to his knee.
That is me there. He’s me. Watching the granite peak of Mt. Tahquitz approach around the curve in the trail. Mountain lion footprints dot the snow. The sun is banking off the snow and warming my bare chest. There is no cold. The wind gusts and then there is cold for a small time but it fades when I sweat. In the crisp air the wood tells no lie and knows no fault but the men who move within it. Far and farther away, miles down the mountainside, miles long ago since passed, there is a warm little town nestled twixt warm little alleyways and dirttrodden streets. In town there are shanties within which scrambled eggs are being cooked by those reading about that day’s weather and who Obama’s killed now. I spit congealed spit from cracked lips which burns through the frost of the trail. They are thrilled by the proximity of the unknown monstrosity I know to be Tahquitz. Having lived in its shadow for years they take from that imagined darkness some serenity which exists in a constnat presence. They listen the thought of the water trickling through the stream from the back window in the woods by the base of the mountain, on the outskirt of town. They drink their coffee in unintentional sync with that town, they breathe the thin air in unintentional sync with that town. This breathing and this drinking is in sync with what goes on in these woods but they do not know that. They will smile at the thought of what I do and I will smile back.
I remember telling someone once: the mountains to me are like a cathedral, and running is just my way of praying. What the hell does that mean? I ask now. But I’m grinning. Disturbed. Knees weakening, buckling.
The road to the trail to the summit of Tahquitz is 11 miles of winding root-ridden dirt whose breadth of ice grows as the oxygen in the air thins. Something heavy in those misty pineladen skies. To breathe is to sift through that sky’s bitterness for those things which might sustain you.
Come with me. See where I pause on that trail to observe the bullet-riddled sign on the edge of the wilderness. This area is known for its high population of mountain lions. Please observe wildlife safety Do not approach, attempt to feed, or touch a wild animal. I plunge on. I am not brave. Do not think I am brave. There is slush frozen to my shins and I spit dehydrated spittle into the frost. The heat of that spit does not break the freeze now.
I have no notion of bravery. Or much else, anymore. This is why I am not brave.
Birds crash through the pines and twiddle serenely. The heights have made them scarcer. I see hawks prowling, soaring across the rim of the range and framed to the backdrop of cloud-blue and the tips of whitefrosted trees. Around the bend I come and I can see Taquitz again.
Here is the story of Tahquitz: he was a bold leader of an Indian tribe in these very San Jacinto Mountains. In a time when places were not a name but just a place. Taquitz was not satisfied with his power. With his popularity he was able to manipulate his faithful. He stole away innocent maidens, had his way and smote them on the mountainside. In battle he was defeated, though his spirit escaped to the mountains to lurk in the cavernous rocks near the peak, forming that distinctive A-shaped, whitewashed scraggle which juts above the entire range.
His address is 33°45′36″N 116°41′01″W if you’re looking for the bastard yourself.
Here is the story of me: I want to kill Tahquitz.
I’d never heard of him until the day before. Rewind and take that blood from my chest drip dripping down to my kneecaps purpled by the cold. Peel away that ugly strawberry-magenta snarl of reddened skin. Pick me up off that ice and put me down in air which men are meant to breathe. Hand me a shirt. In Idyllwild the tourists and vagrants and rich snowbirds and mountain-beaten hick element juxtapose a brutal image. From that twisted visage imagine spewing forth this line of pithy wisdom scrawled on the welcome sign: Idyllwild is one of the 100 Best Art Towns in America.
The hell you are, I said out loud. I felt wise and Buddha-like with a toothpick in the corner of my lip.
What? a passing pack of the touring enraptured said. They had not heard the thought of the water trickling through the stream through the backporch window yet. They had only read of it. They were only just thinking about those scrambled eggs and what the newspaper may say about Obama killing someone somewhere. Oh, that’s interesting, they said, and pointed to that sign.
Below the sign were a series of pamphlets. One was of directions to an art show which would show a copy of a painting that had been inspired by a selfdescribed raw photo entitled: A Wintering Tahquitz. Below these directions was the story of Taquitz. The one I have just told you. They did not include his address. I found that for you on my own.
Put me back on the mountain. The trail is called Devil’s Slide Trail. Perhaps the breath of Tahquitz gusts down that slippery slope and whips his would be conquerors into the riparian gorge below. Without thought, without effort. This is the Devil. Here is real evil. The root of it. I mean to kill that. I mean to summit and destroy, grinning and disturbed.
A month ago I would have thought this: when Taquitz the Indian committed those crimes and murdered those maidens and betrayed his people, he separated himself from the mountains. He and they were no longer one big One. He violated a thing sacred and for that you do not become part of the earth but you are banished from it. You are sent to some other place, where no chilly mountain gusts can breathe. The mountains are a cathedral. Running is just a way of praying.
Yet this dear friend is not a month ago. This is now. Now those are not just chilly mountain gusts. Those are biting maelstroms which make my lips crack and turn me into a redskin. I cannot make a fist. When my feet land on the ice, it feels as though I am landing on a rounded nub attached to my shin.
I have no notion of cold. Or much else, anymore. This is why I am not cold.
Tahquitz is a harbinger of this wickedness and it is to him I am drawn. I flatter myself into thinking that opposites attract. You are good, I tell myself. Tahquitz is evil. This is why you are attracted to one another.
The trail is become steep again. I run hunched over because this is how you keep down nausea when running uphill for very long. Nausea I still have a notion of. Steadily steadily the burning grips my thighs. I take measure of the trail ahead, the dirt almost entirely obscured by frozen snowdrifts, the branches weighted still with the snow that had not melted and hanging over the path, the woods on either side thick but still offering at points spectral visions of the whitewashed summit. I take measure. To run mountains is to be like a miser counting his pennies, wanting to be broke at the exact moment he has no need of his coin.
The uphill does not end. I understand I am approaching the final switchbacks. Sweat bears down round my brow to my chin and the whipping wind rips this moisture straight off my face like some ethereal force bound for or emerging whence some distant hell. I look to the trees with increasing desperation as if they might offer some guidance but they remain silent and speak in creeks and whistles only at the wind’s demand.
Soon I will kill Taquitz. I catch a glimpse of my thighs on impact. The muscle pressed through the purpled skin made slick by blood and sweat and slush. I have no notion of what murder is. I have no notion of what cold is. This is why I am not a murderer. Nor will I be. Still I grin a bit when I try to spit. Still I am disturbed.
Perhaps you would like to step back from my trot and make for warmer climes. Search out the most arid desert in your memory and place there a lizard. Make him a lightcolored one. Scales light as the sand, with two tiny horns reddish-gold. Eyes which can glow orange embers should you seek your heart made to become a fizzing crackling electrical thing. Give him a broad earnest countenance. There.
Make that arid desert into a black night lit by a blanket of stars so extensive you’d be hard pressed to find the black spaces between. Where is there room for God between those kingdoms? The universe full. We needn’t have God. The desert seeming to caress us in a suspended embrace. That is me being me. You cannot see the nearest towns but we will go to them. The desert will not hold us, even though from where you’re standing, it sure as hell looks like it’s got a pretty good grip. We will go to the ugly places and in those ugly places we will not be we. I do not want to show you this going. You can imagine it yourself. That is me
losing my religion.
Soon the world will become a pyre, I think to myself, back on the mountain, on Devil’s Slide Trail, blowing into my numbed hands, and Taquitz will burn upon that fire.
I am not as strong in the mountains as I thought I was sitting in the village. Sitting in the village I had but a notion of the animal I wanted to be. Sitting in the village I was surrounded by such finicky and delicate excesses of luxury that I could not help but feel like a growling misplaced lion. I make myself fit the image of a beast completely. I eat everything I can put my hands to. I roam for the outskirts, am drawn to the brink. I lurk in darker and remote places to seek out some acceptable substitute for the solitudinal solace of wilderness.
Yet here and now I betray it. I betray it by giving a whimper as I run because my body is getting ready to collapse in on itself. My legs have gone numb and are spasming. Floods of sweat pool off my head and coat my windburnt skin. Animals do not whimper. Watch the antelope take a beating on the African Sahara by a pursuant cheetah. Watch it heaving in the throes of lactic overload as the successful cheetah rips its flesh out with its teeth. Watch it take this de-fleshing silently and calmly before gathering the strength for a final push to freedom and another few bitter moments of life. Cheetahs can run up to seventy miles per hour. Everyone knows this. But they can not run like an antelope. The cheetah has exhausted itself, this is proven by its weakening grip. The antelope digs to its ancestral reserves and tears its halfeaten ribcage away from the jowls of this desert cat and darts in a vicious determination across the plain. The cheetah gives a brief chase but keels over in exhaustion soon after.
I want to be that antelope. I want to be that antelope that turns back to the cheetah and tramples that sorry bastard into the ground where he lay panting. I want to be that antelope that says, no thing and no one of this Earth can eat me. No thing, and no one.
I am not that antelope, though I want to be.