A meditation on mud and loss.
My cousin Randy and his seven-year-old son, Nathan, had driven up from Houston to join me on a deer hunt in the Hill Country and had brought the ingredients for our version of a New Year’s Eve revel: no fireworks, no cases of whiskey, but big, fat, organic steaks, ears of roasting corn, butter, green olives, baking potatoes nearly the size of junior-league footballs, eggs, cream, sugar, coffee. Arriving at the camp, Randy had left the gravel roadbed and tried, inexplicably, to take a shortcut through the woods, where he quickly became stuck, sunk not just to the axles—the usual barometer for such mishaps—but to the frame itself, so that he had to roll the window down and climb out, unable to shove the door open against the force and mass of so much mud, which had been rained upon almost ceaselessly for the past week.
Even from a distance, I could see the big blue truck—or the top half of it, at any rate—when I came walking through the cold, gloomy woods later that afternoon. I’d been out hunting. Randy stood, wielding a shovel, up to his ankles in slaughterous red mud. He had been working for hours. Each shovel of slurry he pitched away was replaced within seconds by the porridge-like flow of new material from the freshly opened perimeters of his excavation; worse, he could see none of his work, for the entire operation lay beneath the surface of the slowly broadening milky-red lake of his making. He heard the gravel and mud scraping against his shovel and felt the leaden weight of it each time but could ascertain no progress. When he saw me come slogging up through the rain and gloom, a smile cracked his mud-streaked face, and, wordlessly, he handed me a second shovel.
The sides of the big truck were smeared with mud, as though it were a wild animal that had been chased there before finally being brought to bay. Through the rain-streaked windows Nathan peered uncertainly, his face bathed in the blue glow of the little portable DVD player with which he traveled. (I later learned that during the ordeal Nathan had screened Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so many times that he ultimately soured on that old favorite.)
Trying to use my little sled of a rental car to pull the truck free was completely out of the question. So was calling in a tow truck from Johnson City, seventy icy miles away on a fast-gathering New Year’s Eve. Indeed, the nearest pay phone was almost twenty miles away. It was root hog or die, and strangely, I felt a sudden sense of pleasure. My life had a focused and immediate purpose. It grounded me in the moment, allowed me to escape for a spell the grief and absence I’d been feeling all autumn and winter, in that first year after my mother’s death.
Being at the lease, a place intimately familiar to me since childhood, had clarified my loss yet again. The reality and permanence of it had continued to come upon me as I walked around, searching for deer, focusing on the hunt, or focusing on not focusing, which is sometimes the best way to hunt. She had loved this place, and it was a strange and deep ache to realize, to begin to realize, that from now on I would be seeing it, seeing everything she had loved, for her.
By the time darkness fell, Randy and I were working in concert. Our strategy was to dig out a new lane, like the exit ramp from a subterranean parking garage, up and out of which we might one day be able to drive. There was also, deep down in the mire, a jack, with which we were attempting to hoist each wheel free of the muck’s embrace, just high enough to place a flat stone or a laddersticking of branches beneath the tire. So deep-sunk were the wheels, however, that we were having to kneel on all fours to reach beneath them, and even then found ourselves working in water and slurry up to our necks and then our chins and then our noses, tilting our heads sideways, straining to shove a flat stone into the breath of space between tire and temporary bottom-muck.
It was getting colder. Hearing us thumping around beneath the truck, Nathan looked down anxiously and studied without comment the assemblage of various-sized sticks and branches that kept popping to the surface and floating all around us like so many circling alligators. Randy pulled out his ever-trusty Coleman lantern and, with shaking, frigid fingers, pumped up the pressure and then grubbed a match crookedly against the matchbox, Jack London—style. The match caught, and, shivering, Randy shoved it up into the glass globe, where that tiniest taper of flame found the serpent-hiss of compressed gas and blossomed into a magnificent burst of light that captured and encompassed immediately the cast of all our work.
A scene of ruination surrounded us, and although it cheered us to have light, there was an awkward period of transition in which we had to accustom ourselves psychologically to the new reality. At this we were not initially successful. The lantern’s throw of bright light possessed a peculiar trajectory, fading quickly from an incandescent whiteness to a softer tone of yellow before finally, at its farthest reaches, dissolving into fairy dust pixels of barely illuminated drizzle; and because it was to these farthest reaches that our work extended, it gave us the perception that the entire world was a swamp—that, for all our eyes told us, it might as well have stretched to the horizon.
At least the rain appeared to be lessening. It was a freezing drizzle now, plastering our hair to our skulls and running down the backs of our necks. There was nothing that was not soaked, and we’d pause from time to time to stand before the lantern, steaming as if burning, to milk a moment of warmth. Our fear now, as we stood there considering it, was that the sludge might freeze around the truck and then harden overnight, like concrete.
I noticed a few stars appearing beyond the outer edges of the lantern’s light, felt a stirring of breeze, and in that subtle shifting a sound came to us—the long baleful howl of Colter, my pointer, waiting for us back at the cabin. Eerie and beautiful like the cry of a wolf, it rang and resonated around the campfire-like focus of our lantern and within my mind’s chambers. We labored on, wallowing in the frigid trough, splashing back and forth with stones and branches, and as Colter continued to bay and howl, it seemed very much to me that we had gone back in time. I thought of Van Gogh’s painting The Road Menders, a scene of a road-repair crew glimpsed working outside the mental hospital in Saint-Rémy where Van Gogh had been incarcerated for a time in 1889. The painting radiates a sense of health that surely the recuperating painter himself was beginning to experience, there in the return of spring. Even the trees seem animated, and throughout there are the cool pale-emerald colors of new spring, of recovery, personified as well in the schematic, rectilinear step-by-step laying-down of stones into the roadbed.
I glanced up to see if Nathan might have returned to the window to stare down at our work but saw instead that there was only the continued blue flicker of the DVD player. What would he make of the evening, long after it was over? My mind drifted to my own childhood, embedded in this same landscape, to memories of the five of us—my father, mother, two brothers, and myself—driving up in the spring to look at the bluebonnets; and of riding around in an open-topped jeep on the weekend, smelling this wild, fragrant country; and of my brothers and me harassing the natives—leaping from the jeep to pursue fruitlessly a roadrunner or jackrabbit or even one of the newer immigrants, an armadillo. How curious is the nature of the blood that exists in a boy. I was sure it had been wonderful for my mother to have boys, but standing in the mud I imagined, bittersweetly, how much she would have loved to know my daughter, who had been born that spring: to watch her grow, to be a grandmother.
We sledged on, laboring in the freezing soup. We knew better than to attempt our escape prematurely. To make a few short yards only to slide off our underwater road and back into the muck would be to fail spectacularly, wasting all of our previous work and consigning our stones and branches irretrievably deeper to the mire. And so, like the road menders, we continued on, getting everything just right: plotting and planning and scheming.
It stopped raining altogether and grew colder still: wretchedly cold, though deeply beautiful, with the stars leaping now into the new blackness, blazing gold. It kept getting colder and colder, until I could not remember ever being so cold. Colter had stopped howling, and it was very quiet. The only sounds were Randy and me sloshing around in the trenches, thigh-deep in places. The light from the lantern began to dim, and the blue light from within the truck’s cab clicked off as Nathan curled up in the back beneath a mound of sleeping bags and went to sleep.
Bit by bit, our underwater road began to feel substantial. We could walk on it now, could feel it finally firm beneath our feet, even in the deepest of water, and dikes of slurry rose just as high above us. We were lost in the process of building it, scrounging flat stones and cedar slats. Gradually our ten-degree incline of stone and juniper emerged from the swamp. The stone path, the mended road, continued on in this manner a good distance out toward the sodden but firm gravel road. It was too far to lay stones and branches all the way there, but our hope was that if we could get the truck up out of the wallow pit, we might be able to gather enough speed to skitter across that last distance, making it all the way to the road. It had once seemed outlandish to even imagine, and yet now, viewing our work, it was starting to seem possible.
I climbed—slithered—into the truck. From his nest in the back, Nathan roused sleepily when I started the truck and dropped it into gear. Randy would push from behind, would stand on the bumper and try to rock the springs up and down, to help the tires find traction. I could feel him faintly hopping around on the back like a monkey.
I gripped the steering wheel and mashed on the gas, expecting only the heartsick whine and grease-slick spin of nothingness, but right from the very start, it was as if the truck seemed determined to climb up from out of the land’s grip. I could feel the tires engaging with stone and wood, could hear and feel the cascade of rocks and branches thudding and clattering beneath us as the spinning wheels sorted and scrabbled through them—the tiny monkey in the back hopping wilder and faster now—and then, unbelievably, with the accelerator still pressed flat, we were slogging up and out of the pit, grinding our howling way forward, surging and sliding cattywampus along the general direction of the new road; and the fear that we would slide off our narrow path or that our progress might slow, causing us to bog down once more, was met by flames of hope that, yes, we were moving, moving forward, and the world was scrolling past—oak trees, prickly pear cactus, agarita, juniper, hackberry, hickory—and like the evolution of joy, one moment the truck was simply out of danger, driving as a truck should, skimming over the logs and branches just the way we’d hoped, just the way we’d planned and designed, hurtling upward with the branches snapping and thwapping against its sides like the beatings and croppings of some sturdier jockey goading this thunderous warhorse on; and now so certain was our success that Randy had jumped off the back bumper and was running alongside us with a wild, whooping cry, leaping for joy with outstretched pliés and tour jetés that looked all the more ridiculous for his mud-caked boots and sopping camo, until we bounced suddenly onto the hard-packed gravel of the road itself and came to a stop, silent in the strangeness of the moment, to feel the safety of the ground firm beneath us, to start over with the understanding that we would make it, that we would not go sinking downward again.