The traditional hike began on Christmas Eve about 25 years ago. That year, as well as this, I walked from my house at the bottom of the hill to meet my brother on the summit. He began the walk from his home on the opposite side of King Hill. The meeting site is an old abandoned car in the woods that grow on the summit. Each Christmas Eve prior to this one, we descended from the hilltop to our mother’s house which is located about a hundred yards downhill from my brother’s domicile. That’s where relatives would be gathering for traditional German food and drink and the opening of gifts. This year we didn’t gather at my mother’s house. She’s 85 years old, and it was easier to drive her into town to my sister’s home for celebration.
For the previous 15 years or so, my son Brent has been a hiking partner on the walk to meet my brother. This year we left the house, as usual, with insulated clothing, walking sticks, mood enhancer, and (finally) some clarity about our departure time. Traditionally, my brother and I would hem and haw over the phone before we left on our walk, trying to decide what time to leave our houses so we’d meet about 3:30 at the industrial wreck in the woods. In recent years, Brent has claimed that only he can figure the appropriate time to leave. If our figuring is correct, my brother doesn’t have to circle the ancient heap, trying to stay warm while pulling from his whiskey flask and wondering where the hell we are.
H.D. Thoreau once said, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.” Here in New York State the streams I fish in have not been iced as yet, although they’re flowing a bit high and muddy from recent rain. There’s no time to fly fish now, although my thoughts still run to favorite pools and riffles. Thoreau’s stream of time resembles my brook trout waters to a degree, but in late December I step out of them briefly to enjoy friends and family and to gain a new perspective.
The uphill hike over the abandoned road can be challenging. Some years the snow-covered ice on the roadway has us slipping and kicking for a foothold along with the deer that go sledding on their white posteriors. It’s hard to believe that in the early years I climbed this route on cross-country skis. This year the hike to the rusted rendezvous point– the shot-up Chevy with saplings growing through the chassis– progressed with less anxiety about broken bones and passing time. The views of the surrounding hilltops were again inspiring. Ravens flew above the summits in a great stream of earth and sky– a place for imagination to wade along like a fisherman, as if angling was little more than a ramble through crystalline atmospheres.
In the hairy days of my youth I lived a short while in a small commune, of sorts, in rural New York. A group of friends shared an old farmhouse for various reasons, one of which was to assist the owner, a former suburbanite, work his way through mortgage payments and a host of personal difficulties. Despite the problems that he had, I was surprised when he hung himself from a barn rafter and left behind a note saying, “I’m a man out of time.” Out of time, indeed. But not in the sense that I’m suggesting here. If you remove yourself temporarily from the stream of time Thoreau went fishing in, you’re not looking Death in the eye.
“Rust in peace,” we said to the forsaken Chevy in the woods. It’s probably been there at the end of its road since the 1960s, and I doubted that even a dilapidated outcast like this auto has serenity. Nature keeps biting away at it, piece by piece. On one snowy visit we observed an ermine running in and out of its cavities. And “Rest in peace,” I said to a human friend from another era, buried who knows where on this vast planet.
We were on our way to wine and dine with those close to us at holiday. I figured that, as we all hike and fish and travel on the routes we choose to follow into winter, it’s a good idea to try and step aside briefly from the stream of time. We might stand there on its banks and say to the sun, please bring us warmth from above. We might ask the wind to hear us and to bring us soft breezes every now and then.