A long time ago, I found my dad doing something he loves: sitting in front of a sound system, with one of his favorite artists cranking out tunes. My dad spent years of his life as a professional musician, all the way back to his early teens, and is a bit of an expert when it comes to audio. If he didn’t have his headphones on, the house was filled with sounds ranging from Aaron Copeland to Pink Floyd.
In this instance it was Chuck Mangione. Mangione is a legendary trumpet player, jazz artist and band leader back in the 1960s and 1970s, and one piece in particular is considered one of his best. It starts out with Mangione on a lonesome trumpet solo, then builds as the full fury of his orchestra is unleashed.
The title of this song: “Hill Where the Lord Hides.”
It made me wonder what inspired Mangione to compose such a thing, and to have it titled so.
Years later – many, many years later – I found a place that could fit the description of Mangione’s piece. It was on the side of a hill, ancient boulders all around, in the middle of a stand of Oklahoma forest and away from the noise of the city. I paused as the sun was setting and felt that if there was anywhere God might be in those woods, it would be there. It demanded me to stop.
Ask my folks what sort of kid I was and they’d have plenty of descriptions, but one theme that would often arise is that I had no problem entertaining myself. Play with kids? Sure. Do my own thing? Just as good.
This carried over well into adulthood. Running, hiking, lifting, whatever. I enjoy doing these things with other people. I also enjoy doing them alone. I’ve long been comfortable spending many hours punishing myself on the trail with no one else around.
A few years back, I drove 10 hours to Denver to meet a group of friends for a climb of Capitol Peak. The mountain is one of Colorado’s famous 14ers, a moniker denoting peaks that rise to 14,000 feet or more. Of those 14ers, Capitol is considered the toughest.
I felt good about joining this group because of how experienced everyone else was. Confidence in a team’s experience becomes confidence in yourself, I’ve found. But the weather that week was awful, particularly in the northern half of the state. Heavy rains and floods ravaged much of the East Slope, and well into the Rockies. Higher up, such weather would turn Capitol’s already challenging and tricky route into something far more dangerous. The plan fell apart, and as the days rolled on the group was less and less excited about finding another destination.
For me: a major bummer. I drove a long way to stand on a pile of rocks, and I wasn’t about to head home without trying to summit something. So I fixed my eyes farther south, where the weather wasn’t so nasty, and on a mountain that my experience and skill would prove adequate, even if I was solo.
So on a Sunday afternoon, I pulled myself away from a televised football game, hit the highway and made my way southwest toward Buena Vista. I car-camped at a trailhead in the Collegiate Peaks, a stone’s throw away from a creek that began its flow high in the Missouri Gulch Basin. I’d been here before, 10 years back, to hike Mount Belford: a steep but straightforward march that tested me and a bunch of friends who were new to the whole 14er thing. Memories of that trip – and the route to the basin – would help me navigate my way up Missouri Mountain at dawn.
Like any 14er hike or climb, this one tested my legs and lungs as well as my will. As far as I knew no one else was within miles of me, so I had to rationalize continuing as my body and the weather said “turn around.” Being a stubborn ole goat, I forced my way up to Missouri’s summit ridge and topped out mid-morning.
Clouds swirled, built and fled, almost as if they were teasing me with the possibility of unleashing a storm, or perhaps blowing away altogether. At times they were light gray, then moments almost charcoal. Winds were moving them, but unheard even high atop that ridge.
Below me were layers. All the layers of the alpine in the fall. Grays and browns of ancient rock, and light browns and greens of the tundra. Still farther down were deeper greens of willows, then evergreens, and in the distance, red, orange and gold hues from aspens in full fall regalia. Alone at the summit and surveying the sublime greatness of the high country, I verbally expressed my gratefulness to God. If I were him, I’d be in places like this every day.
The spot where I like to run has a network of trails that covers 48 miles through a trio of tree-carpeted ridges on the southern edge of the Osage Hills on Tulsa’s south side. Before I learned of this place, I’d been a running for about a year, picking up an exercise habit from my youth, but not coming into my own as a runner – really identifying as a runner – until I started pounding dirt on those trails. So many paths to explore, so many opportunities to get lost, turned around, see new things and discover new places, all within 15 minutes from my doorstep. Years later, if I don’t get out there at least once a week, it feels as if I’ve missed a crucial opportunity.
One such week, I had some free time but no real reason to run. The day was growing long, but there was still enough time to jump in my car, get to the trailhead and log a few miles, even if it was just a hike. I eschewed the running gear for sturdier, warmer hiking garb, including a trusted pair of boots, and hit the trail.
My hope was to do a loop that would take me to a sweet little outcrop nicknamed “Rock City” by local mountain bikers and trail runners. I liked it because it was out-of-the-way, quiet and, with the trees stripped of their leaves by the winter, curiously scenic. I’m not sure why, but I felt an urge to go there and catch the views as the sun was going down.
I also knew that as darkness approached, the trails would clear out. That sounded good to me. Some time alone on the trails, in the depths of the woods, was what I needed, almost in the way that you might crave a certain type of food after a week of privation, or maybe a shot of caffeine to jolt you awake in the morning.
As I hiked I knew there was no way I’d cover the two miles to Rock City before dusk. The relative warmth of the hour was giving way to the chill of night, a subtle nip and lengthening shadows signaling the waning strength of day. It was time to pick up the pace, so the hike turned into a run despite my initial intentions. I had somewhere to be, and a finite bit of time to get there.
I am amazed by how much water can fall from the air.
I figured the cloud cover on that early June day in 2010 would be a blessing, shading my hike from the hot Oklahoma sun. Well, I got that. And a whole lot more. Shortly after hitting the trail in the Charon’s Garden Wilderness of the Wichita Mountains, those blessed, cloudy sunshades dumped their contents on me and pretty much the rest of western Oklahoma in record amounts.
A weekday hike in a wilderness increases the possibility of solitude. A deluge? Well, that pretty much seals it. Solitude was what I was looking for, and solitude is what I got. Me, alone and waterlogged in the ruggedness of the Wichitas, working out a few of my demons while trying to find some calm during what was, fittingly, a very stormy part of my life.
Eventually those rains gave way. The thunder and lightning subsided. I’d been given a break – a pass, maybe – to continue on.
My destination was an ancient crag called Crab Eyes, so named because of the two, nearly identical boulders perched atop a giant slab of granite. Seen from the north, it looks like a massive stony crab peering over groves of scrub oak and cedar.
Hiking there is a matter of following a skinny trail over a couple of gentle ridges before a final approach to the formation itself. It disappears from view behind the folds of the terrain looming over the trail, and then you make one last turn around a bend.
And there it is.
A short headwall forms the base of Crab Eyes, a foundation for the rock tower that holds the “eyes” of the formation aloft.
It’s easy to describe how Crab Eyes looks. But actually seeing it, even feeling it, well, that’s another matter. It took me a long time to figure that out. I knew it felt different from the rest of the wilderness. The peaks surrounding it are bigger, and maybe more grand. But in truth, Crab Eyes is the center of this little universe. Like I said, it took me some time to capture its feel, but years later, I know. Crab Eyes is akin to a temple, its headwall leading to an altar that overlooks most of the range. During the stillness of the lull in the storm, it felt almost holy, its playful name thoroughly unfit for its actual character.
I walked up the headwall, then had a seat on the giant base of the rock tower. The views of Elk Mountain, Granite Mountain and Twin Rock Mountain were spectacular. The clouds thinned slightly and birds began to sing. I snacked on some trail food, reclined on a rock and enjoyed the quiet warmth of midday. I could easily see how other people would also revere this place, perhaps even hold it sacred. I could imagine native peoples coming to a site like this to do business with their creator in days long gone. I felt that, too.
Right then, what I needed was peace. I needed a calm in the storm, somewhere the phone calls and texts and emails and all sorts of urgent voices couldn’t find me. I could imagine God himself feeling that way. Maybe Crab Eyes was a place God would go, to bask in his creation for awhile before resuming his urgent work. Maybe such a thought is heretical. Hell, it probably is. But in that time, I felt drawn to that stony temple, to seek refuge, even for just a short stay. And God was with me, showing me the place he likes to go when things get too loud for too long.
Hiking boots aren’t the best choice you can make for running trails. On the plus side, they’ll handle anything underfoot. You feel like a human version of a Jeep as you plow right over rocks and roots, and through mud and puddles. They’re also heavy, and the running becomes laborious. But the clock was ticking, the sun lowering, and time was running short.
I finally rounded a familiar bend, and to my right were the rugged landmarks of Rock City. I’d arrived just in time to stop, snap a few pics and take in the views.
I like the way these hills look at sunset. Any photographer will tell you that late afternoon light (as well as that of dawn) is prime time for shooting the most dramatic pictures. Softening light colors the terrain in deeper shades and the warm glow of the sun contrasts with the shadowy contours of the trees and the rocks. The light is ever-changing and fleeting, so timing is everything.
After a time, I’d taken all the photographs I thought I could get. So I found a stony perch, sat down and watched as the sun sunk low in the west.
I didn’t come here just to shoot pictures. I came here to be alone. I heard a runner pass by a few minutes before, but now it was just me, a light breeze and the occasional rustling of dead leaves from a squirrel scurrying for cover as night approached.
Suddenly my mind was flooded with memories, and most of them were bittersweet, faces of people I know and knew, of pleasant moments and hard times. Reflective thought is often like that, when you get enough time to stop and let regrets revisit you like old ghosts. What-if scenarios play out. Your own history accuses you, not in a prosecutorial way, but something more subtle. And yet it stings just the same, cruelly tearing at you and leaving you feeling a little more tattered and frayed.
Thinking he’d be the only other being out there, I brought these things to God. I asked for things I knew I couldn’t have, beseeching him for favors when I knew the answer was a preordained “no.” But why not? An all-knowing being knows what I’m thinking anyway, so I might as well come clean and get it off my chest. The past is the past, unchangeable and ultimately affecting the direction of our future. I expected those prayers to become teachable moments, but not in the way where immediate revelation is bestowed. I suppose I’d have to wait for clarity.
A lot of people don’t believe in God, or prayer, or any sort of spirituality at all, and I get that. But even if my thoughts and words are floating away into space, unheard and unheeded, there is still value to finding a little sanctuary like Rock City, tending to my scars and letting the stillness of the woods serve as a place to convalesce, even if for the brief time it took for the sun to finally dip below the horizon. I looked to this place for some catharsis, and I got what I came for. Dusk was upon me, and it was time to go.
One might be tempted to look at solo ventures to lonely places as a setup for brooding, but it’s not always that way. There are times when you’re in a wild place without a soul to be seen for miles and miles, and completely different emotions wash over you. Being alone for a few hours doesn’t have to have an emo-laden soundtrack on perpetual repeat.
About a year ago, I trekked to far western Oklahoma to see a place that had transfixed me since I was a teen – Black Mesa, the highest point in the state, so far away from everything else in the Sooner State that it exists in the Mountain Time Zone. A little town called Kenton is nearby, a picturesque village of maybe a few dozen souls stubbornly clinging to the western lifestyle of the High Plains.
Black Mesa is no towering peak or grand formation. But it’s beautiful just the same. It’s the remains of old lava flows that coursed through the area eons ago, the hard rock of solidified lava standing firm while softer rock and soil slowly eroded away.
The hike to the top is straightforward and not too difficult. On that mid-December day, no one was out there. All I saw were some cows (the Nature Conservancy allows ranchers to run cattle out there), a few birds, and maybe some ground squirrels. But other than that, it was as still as you can get.
Topping out took a little time, and once I did I hiked to the western rim of the mesa, plopped down on the edge of a cliff and stared out across a panoramic view overlooking northeastern New Mexico. Far in the distance loomed a lone volcanic peak, clothed in snow.
My meal was simple and delicious – rolls, summer sausage, cheese and an orange. Clouds that had obscured the skies briefly broke, and while it was cool, it wasn’t uncomfortable.
Nothing negative bounced inside my head this time. Instead, I spent my lunchtime reflecting on the trip itself – the weird noises of unseen creatures I heard at camp the night before, the improbable beauty of the Glass Mountains near Woodward (a couple hours east of me), the conversation I had with the owner of a lonely gas station farther east in the Oklahoma Panhandle. I was looking forward to hunting down some dinosaur tracks on the way out, a cold brew, and if time allowed, some famously good barbecue for dinner.
Meeting new people, hearing their stories and seeing new places is energizing. The views from Black Mesa were equally so. I’d spent seven hours driving out here, hoping that there would be some sort of payoff, and there was. In spades.
The trip itself was a gift. Not that anyone surprised me and said, “You’re going to Black Mesa!” as if it were a game-show prize. But how it turned out – being able to do all these things, and have the time and physical ability to do so (not to mention cooperative weather) was a pleasant confluence that left me grateful.
Sometimes you have your moments. The universe smiles and says, “this day, this place, is for you.” Black Mesa symbolizes that for me. It may not have the radical vistas of the Rockies, or the storied scenery of China’s Huang Shan or whatever, but gratitude is what Black Mesa means to me. It was good for me to be there, and better to enjoy it on its terms, with no distractions. I suppose I could have stayed home, watched Netflix, hit the gym or done some laundry. But it wouldn’t have topped the experience of slicing off another chunk of sausage and munching away as I stared out into the seemingly endless New Mexico prairie below.
Certain places will provoke dread or pain. Others comfort or safety. But Black Mesa? That place is a big ole smile.
Leaving Rock City was a lot like how I go there, a slow clomping run so I could cover as much ground as possible before darkness fell. The ruggedness of the trails and the failing light made me think better of it after only a few minutes.
Slowing down to a hike allowed me to look around a little more, to notice things that might have escaped my attention if I were still looking at the ground in front of me, picking lines to avoid tripping and face-planting into the dirt. Walking is way easier than running when darkness falls.
There is a spot on the trail that opens up, where trees have been cleared to make way for a row of powerlines that feed electricity to the city. The gap allowed me to see something rising where the sun had just set: Venus was shining bright in the purple and dark blue of the evening sky. Looking to my left, the skies were already blackening, and the stars glinting brightly as night took over.
I’m not sure why this particular trip to Rock City sticks out, but part of it has to do with Venus and the stars, sort of a cosmic wink letting me know that despite my angst, things were going to be OK. And when they weren’t, I could always come back, find my bit of peace, and have my words with God in the quiet embrace of the forest. It would be there, and he would be there, in the lonely places. The sacred places. The happy places. The hill where the Lord hides was in these woods, at the edge of an ancient lava flow, in a stony tabernacle of crags, and on the lofty heights of a Rocky Mountain summit.
These are the places where the worldly and the otherworldly meet, and it’s what continues to draw me to them.
If you’re curious about the Mangione song referred to above, here’s a video showing a live performance. You’ll really dig it if you’re into that 1970s jazz sound with a huge ensemble.