“How come you called me here tonight?
How come you bother with this old heart at all?
You raise me up in grace,
Then you put me in a place where I must fall.”
— Leonard Cohen, “That Don’t Make It Junk”
It was not totally my fault; rather, it was God’s fault for making the weather so shitty that my wife, Gay, and I found ourselves seated at our respective barstools in Handlebars Saloon in Silverton for something like three hours longer than we had originally intended, and we had originally intended to be there for several hours to begin with. Finally, though, the storm moderated enough that we could dash to our vehicle without getting drenched to the bone, so we decided to get while the getting was still mostly good.
Since my dog had been sentenced to the 4Runner the entire time we were inside Handlebars, I opted to walk her back to the Canyon View Motel while Gay navigated the vehicle (read: risked the DUI) (I can’t believe she falls for that one, time after time, even after all these years). Within a few blocks, however, I started regretting mightily the fact that I had not visited Handlebars’ men’s room prior to leaving. Just as I was seriously thinking that I might pee my Quick-Dry (thank goodness) Grammicis, I noticed leading up a hill a footpath that ascended into clouds low and thick enough they could more accurately be called fog. Visibility was scant feet in any direction. I sprinted up as fast as my wobbly legs would carry me, eventually reaching a secluded spot where I felt comfortable taking care of what had become very necessary business.
It was then and there, while spraying a glorious golden arc above Silverton, that the hair on the nape of my neck started standing up a bit and I started getting the feeling every person who has spent much time in the backcountry knows all too well: I am not alone. Someone or something is watching me. And that someone/something is close at hand. Even before my purge was complete, I turned a bit and glanced over my left shoulder to sneak a peek, lest someone inordinately crazed or something exceptionally big and hungry be lurking nearby (“DIED WHILE URINATING” being a totally unacceptable epitaph).
Something was. And it startled me so badly that, next thing I knew, I was tumbling ass over teakettle part way down the hill I had just staggered up, pants not yet re-zipped, finally coming to a stop on my knees, which hit terra firma so hard that skin was removed. What had been standing behind me the whole time I was draining was not some ax-wielding hick straight out of “Deliverance.” What was there was not a mountain lion, fangs bared, ready to pounce on my pissing self. As I struggled to regain some semblance of mental orientation and physical composure, which was not easy, given the circumstances, what I saw standing there was far worse. Jesus Christ!!!, I thought, it’s, of all goddamned things, a giant, well, Jesus Christ!!! You want to talk about a man who was having some serious difficulty reestablishing any sort of grip on reality. The 200 recently consumed brewskis did not aid and abet my attempt to understand what the fuck a veritable Christzilla was doing stalking me in the woods. I mean, my recent transgressions were not really that noteworthy in the grand scheme of sinful things.
As I was about to unleash a non-sequitorial ad hominem admonition to have mercy on my unworthy soul while I searched fervently for an escape route, the breeze picked up and swirled some of the fog away and things came into sharper focus. Of course! Though I had never before visited it, I remembered that, above Silverton, is the Christ of the Mines statue/shrine, erected, according to the plaque, in the 1950s “ … to ask God’s blessing on the mining industry of the San Juans,” a blessing that apparently did not work too well in the long run, given that there is hardly any mining industry left in this entire part of the state.
So, OK, at that point, I get back on my feet, zip myself up, dust myself off, look around to make certain no one besides my mightily perplexed perro witnessed my frantic tumble, examine the scrapes on my knees and walk back up the hill to face Christ of the Mines.
My relationship with Christ started out so poorly that recovery, even after 50 years, has never been even remotely possible. I was six years old, and it’s fair to say I was a bad boy rapidly getting badder. People understandably roll their eyes when I relate this, figuring that there are some Fayhee-esque memory-enhancement issues at play here (perish the thought!), but, at that tender age, I had already visited the back of a police cruiser twice — once when my exasperated mother, tired of my constant thievery, called the Air Police (we then lived on an Air Force base) and asked if they would frighten me in hopes that I would stop horking shit. They picked me up at the appointed time, drove me around, tried to scare me straight, then brought me home with a stern warning about “next time.” And, next time, when I dumped fertilizer into the gas tank of our neighbor’s brand-new Mercedes-Benz.
On my bedroom wall hung a fairly generic profile painting of Jesus Christ. Head and shoulders only. Bearded Caucasian hombre with long hair who bore a striking resemblance to just about every hippie I knew in college. Understated halo. Innocent eyes. The whole holy shootin’ match. Every night, before the lights went out, that painting was the last thing I saw, though its presence did not much influence my increasingly recalcitrant behavior. One night, though, the impression stakes were raised in a big way. I awoke in the middle of the night and there standing at the foot of my bed was not any variation on the usual kids’ wild imagination monster theme — no Frankenstein or Dracula or even the dreaded Hand — but, rather, a life-sized version of the Christ depicted in the painting on my wall, but with fury emanating from his every pore and a dagger raised high above his head, getting ready to … stab me to death.
Despite the captivating raised blade situation, I crawled as fast as I could toward my imminent assailant. Maybe I thought that Christ would be reluctant to stab me in the back. Maybe I wanted to up my potential grovel factor. Maybe my then-pugnacious self figured, OK, asshole, you’re going to stab me, I’m going to try to get a few punches in first. Either way, just as I got to him, Christ disappeared, pretty much never to again bother me with any manner of encore visitation.
When I casually told my mom over Cheerios at breakfast about Christ trying to stab me during the night, she smiled nervously and said I must be dealing with a guilty conscience, but the look on her face bespoke some very understandable serious parental concern.
Christ’s visit to me that night did not positively affect my behavior. Quite the contrary. For the next seven or so years, I was a hellion whose anti-social repertoire was fast growing to include serious destruction of private property, breaking-and-entering, burglary and arson.
Though I was christened a Catholic when I was a babe in swaddlings back in my native U.K. (my dad’s Irish-lineage clan was made up entirely of myopic pope sycophants), my fractured family was not exactly what you would call churchgoing. While we lived in the northern Adirondacks, then in central Kentucky, we didn’t even pretend to attend houses of worship. A couple times a year, I would be invited along by friends whose parents were concerned about the lack of theocratic structure in my life as they attended various Christian indoctrination camps, most of which, if memory serves, were of the snake-handling, speaking-in-tongues, fire-and-brimstone, twitching-on-the-floor variety. I would go for a week or two, then predictably revert to my natural heathen ways, wandering through the forests of a Sunday morning instead of prostrating myself in front of and singing really bad songs in praise of the scumbag who tried to stab me to death in the middle of the night when I was six.
When we moved to my stepfather’s home turf in eastern Virginia after my seventh-grade year, my well-deserved independent Sunday-morning woods-wandering reverie was flat-out torpedoed all to hell: Out of the blue, sans sufficient enough warning to develop any sort of tactical counter plan, we started attending church regularly — Ware Episcopal Church, the oldest Episcopal parish in the U.S. Truth be told, our lamentable religious conversion had at least as much to with networking opportunities as it did a sudden bloom of faith. As a new lawyer in town, my stepfather needed to make as many professional connections as possible, and, in Gloucester County, Virginia, at that time, Ware Episcopal Church was the place. The rule was that I had no choice but to attend Sunday-morning services, as well as Sunday-evening gatherings of the Episcopal Young Churchmen, until I was 16. The exact nanosecond my 15th year ticked away, I stopped going with the family to Ware Episcopal Church. I didn’t stop because I necessarily disbelieved any of the words uttered or sentiments expressed within those stifling Colonial-era walls. I just wasn’t interested, the same way I have never been interested in hockey, though I have never denied hockey’s existence. And thus it has since been. The only times I have ever entered houses of the holy in my adult life have been for unavoidable funerals or weddings.
All of which was neither here nor there as I zipped up and went to face the Christ of the Mines, which loomed above me, maybe 20 feet tall, with arms raised and spread, like he was saying, “I caught a fish THIS big!”
I walked over and, right then, a passing bird splatted a load on the ground between yours truly and the holy ghost. I took that as a sign, and turned to return post haste to the land of the living. At that moment, I caught sight of what looked to be a lectern placed not far from where I had just relieved myself. Like maybe people occasionally came up here to deliver sermons to the good folks of Silverton, who, I’m certain, appreciate the live entertainment. In actuality, it was a more like a desk, mounted on a post, with a transparent writing surface covering a storage area that included literally hundreds of handwritten prayers adorning everything from napkins and matchbook covers to notebooks so overflowing with text that they took final form as palimpsests upon palimpsests. Though I felt like a peeping tom, I pulled that mound of pleas, praises, entreaties, promises and supplications out for closer inspection.
Here are some of the prayers I read as darkness fell.
- “I wish that I was an angel.”
- “Thank you for my blessed life. I hope in your light to continue walking with an open heart.”
- “As I stand here in the quiet and peace of the early morning, looking around at your marvelous creation, I can’t help but feel you are close. How beautiful are your works! Thank you for the works of your hand. The magnificent paintings you bless us with and the love and care with which you do it.”
- “Help us win the Powerball or a big jackpot.”
- “Help my back” (written on an Iron Horse Bicycle Classic card)
- “In thanksgiving for our four daughters and getting us to town safely with a broken water pump.”
- “Please help our hearts heal, Lord. Please help us restore our health and trust and faith in you. We lost our minds. I lost my head. I need it back.”
- “Dear Jesus: Please slow down on the volume of stupid and unnatural people you send to this planet.”
- “Lord, Please help me do math.”
- “Thank you, Lord, for blessing me & help me get a wife.”
- “Dear God, Hi! What is wrong with this world?”
- “Dear Jesus, Thank you for helping us climb the mountains safely through rain, hail and troubled travels. Bless Vincennes, Indiana.”
- “Help my parents quit fighting.”
- “Please Lord let us find a way to get along, at least till we get home.”
- “Hi God! What’s going on? It must be cool to be high all day.”
- “Pray for us. We need a lot of prayer. More than most.”
- “Dear Lord, please bring my son back to believing in you.”
- “Dear Lord, Tell my mom I miss her.”
There is no doubt whatsoever that, were one inclined toward the cynical, a lot of those prayers would make for easy targets, and, given my personal history with Christzilla, it was mighty hard to tamp down my auto-response jaundiced inclinations. But it was too pretty a scene for even reflexive negativity. Instead, uncharacteristically, I pulled a credit card receipt (Handlebars: $73.82) from my wallet and decided to leave a small prayer of my own, even though I believe it’s fair to say that my experience communicating with the Big Sky Daddy is, shall we say, limited, and that inexperience initially translated to one of the few cases of writers’ block I have ever faced. Ergo: My first thought was to scribble: “Dear Whoever You Are: Please unclog my current writers’ block.” That seemed a little blasé for my inaugural bar-credit-card-receipt-based communique with the alleged almighty.
So I went heavy: I thought about asking that all my fellow mountain travelers — hikers, bikers, climbers, paddlers and skiers — be blessed and made safe during their backcountry forays. Thing is, it’s hard to solicit blessings when you’re not really sure what a blessing actually is. Like, is there a limited stock of blessing dust in heaven, so that, if the hikers and bikers get sprinkled, are some of the starving kids in Africa left out? Or, is there plenty to go round, plenty for everybody?
I then thought about just asking Sky Daddy to say howdy to my mom and tell her I’m doing just fine.
I thought about soliciting celestial influence over the Dillon Dam Brewery staff to make an extra-big batch of raspberry ale come spring.
I thought about giving thanks for having a patient spouse.
I thought about asking for some sort of general-amnesty forgiveness for all my various misdeeds, even the fun ones.
In the end, though, I opted to keep it humble. “Hey there,” I wrote upon that receipt. “Next time, remind me to visit the men’s room before I leave the bar.” Not exactly worthy of inclusion in the Book of Common Prayer, but it was at least sincere.
And then I walked back down into Silverton, not knowing when or where the dagger would eventually fall.
Man, I needed a drink.