You Have to Go Over It.
Ratón Pass. Located between Trinidad, Colorado and Ratón, New Mexico, it stands at 7,834 ft elevation. It was the first major passage west through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and has been, still is, and forever will be treacherous—the dangers ranging from robbers and bandits, to steep grades and hairpin turns, to snow and ice. When it come to the weather perils, words come to mind like dicey, hairy, white-knuckling. I don’t smoke, but I always (hand on Bible) have the feeling after the successful navigation of the pass in winter that I could stop at a convenience store and purchase then smoke an entire pack of American Spirits.
Yes, there other ways to get from, say, Santa Fe to Denver, but such routes are cowardly, involving significantly more distance and significantly less drama. You can’t go around Ratón Pass (well, you can, but see previous sentence). You can’t go under it. And you can’t go through it. You have to go over it. It is sixteen years now my family and I have lived along Colorado’s Front Range. On pilgrimages back to our ancestral home of Arkansas, our preferred route first carries us south, over Ratón Pass. In that blink of time that mountain pass has evolved into more than mountain. It is metaphor. On all journeys home, either coming or going, there will be a Ratón Pass. And if you have even the slightest hint of hero in your veins, you have to go over it.
Leon Bloy wrote: “Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.”
And so over the pass we drove and arrived at my sister-in-law’s home for two days, then drove a couple of hours to spend two days with my parents. In that blink of time I attended mass at St. Mary’s where everything glowed glorious gold and purple like a big deal of Chivas Regal, took family photos in what to our wondering eyes turned out to be perfect Arkansas afternoon light, visited a CrossFit box where I was coached I’m losing efficiency on my hang power cleans (when the arm bends, the power ends), enjoyed an enlightening and enlivening conversation with my courageous son, snapped a selfie with my niece who I kid thee not is the spitting image of Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine (including headband), sat in the presence of my silver-haired parents at their breakfast table where they caught me up on all the news they felt I needed to know, listened attentively to another niece tell of her first exciting semester at college, downed drafts of my daughters’ smiles, stayed up late Christmas Eve night all by my lonesome as the combined choirs of St. Olaf’s sang to the envy of angels, feasted on my mother’s apple pie and homemade rolls and dressing baptized in cranberry sauce from a can, laughed large and loud with my one and only younger brother, unwrapped a new sweater that my mother declared as “cashmere” but it’s actually only partially so but still gosh what a softie, played a handful of Christmas carols from the Baptist Hymnal on the old Story & Clark piano I learned on as a boy, and in a still still still moment just between my father and me I heard him whisper the words “One day I want you to officiate my funeral,” and I heard myself whisper back through first-born tears “I’ll try, Dad.”
I don’t want to give the impression that everything was ho-ho-ho and mistletoe, for it wasn’t. There were bluer-than-blue Christmas moments too, such as hearing that my recently widowed uncle spent Christmas morning by himself in a booth at IHOP. I truly hope he had a festive, flirty waitress. Then a conversation with two beating hearts I dearly love who confessed things like, “We never thought we’d be those people,” but now they find they are. Plus that pervasive sense of saudade that as a poet I swim in, standing there drummer-boy humbled in the middle of all that Christmas looking at everybody hard enough with a knowing that it all goes so fast remembering Emily’s afterlifey thoughts in the final scene of Wilder’s poignant play: “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” Good grief, but still grief.
All of that awaited me on the other side of Ratón Pass. I would have witnessed not a splickety lit of it had I not had the courage to straighten my arms (when the arm bends…), shift into “low” transmission, find a fearless ballsy Texan in an F-350 to draft off of, creep and crawl and crouch through blowing snow blistered with sleety ice, apply the brakes mincingly, and pray like hell that Jesus was being bone-literal when he said, “Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.”
This would be the point in a piece of writing such as this where a handsy editor or overeager publisher would exhort me to turn toward the reader (that’d be you) and invite you in. If you’ve not felt invited by now, I’ve failed miserably. My merry albeit almost always confused hope is that over the course of these 900 or so words you’ve been pondering your own Ratón Pass, its elevation and grades and current weather conditions. And as blinkeringly frightening as it may loom, that with the crisp New Year right ‘round the corner you’d ask and seek and knock knock knock on heaven’s door until you find maybe not the pearl of great courage but at least a sliver of it. Then sell all you have, straighten your arms, pray like hell, and go on over on your crooked little path that eventually merges into mine and ours and leads us all the way home.
Sorrow is over the river and through the woods, no doubt. Yet so, my friends, is nothing less than what David James Duncan calls “epiphanic joy.” But you’ll never know unless you heroically go.