Silent Night, Firelight by John Redmond

campfire close up

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The following is an excerpt from Redmond’s unpublished memoir, Time, Speed, and Distance.                                             

I don’t remember any of the rides we caught that day between the time we got our jaywalking tickets and the time we were standing on I-80 at one of the Lake Tahoe interchanges. I know we caught some rides, and we traveled somehow through those interrelated variables of time, speed, and distance to reach that interchange near Lake Tahoe and the Nevada border.

I also know that B and I never paid our ten-dollar jaywalking fines. After a while, each of us got threatening letters from the State of California, and our fines went up to three-hundred dollars for failure to pay our original tickets. Later, each of us moved from the address listed on our driver’s licenses, that tiny basement apartment on Whitcomb Street in Fort Collins. California lost track of us, and we stopped getting threatening letters.  But through the years, no matter how my poor-student circumstances had improved in the meanwhile, whenever I was traveling through California, or staying there, I worried that my name was on some list with the state, and that someday I would get pulled over by another California state patrolman, and the patrolman who pulled me over would run a check, and that old 1972 ticket for jaywalking would see the light of day again, and I would be hauled off to jail for failing to pay my ten-dollar fine like I should have done many years before.

But all of that looking over my shoulder later is another story, and on this evening, as night was coming on, B and I found ourselves on I-80 near Lake Tahoe. We were in the California mountains, the Sierra Nevadas, and the Sierras looked a lot like the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and we were both thinking of home and wondering when and how we would ever get there.

Here, where we stood, the interstate traveled through pine-covered hills. We could smell the pine. There was a slight breath of a breeze, and the pine branches were nodding. We were standing in the circle of light cast by a street lamp onto the concrete shoulder of the road.  We were deliberately in the light so that drivers could get a good look at us. It was getting dark, and none of the passing cars were stopping or even slowing down as they passed us.

“It’s getting too late for anyone to stop,” B advised. “We might as well give up for the night and find a place nearby to catch some sleep.”

I was looking back west, in the direction from which we had come. I hadn’t noticed anyone there before, but now, standing in the closest circle of light to ours, was a young man alone.  Next to him on the shoulder of the highway were a backpack and a guitar case. He seemed to notice us at about the same time we noticed him. As I watched, he put on his backpack, picked up his guitar and headed our way.

“We’ve got company, B.”

“So we have,” said B.

After a short walk, the young man entered our circle of light. He looked a lot like we did – tired eyed, road weary, his clothes a bit dirty from travel. He was clean-shaven, except for a few days’ growth of stubble. He wore no cap and had shoulder-length blonde hair.

“Evening, friends,” he said.

“Evening,” I rejoined.

“Doesn’t look like anybody’s going to stop,” he observed. “What were you fellows going to do for the night?”

“We thought we’d jump that fence,” said B. There was an eight-foot chain link fence behind us along the roadway to keep wildlife out of traffic.  “Then we were going to look for a place to camp tonight.”

“Would you mind some company?”

“Not at all,” I said. “Say, what’s that accent you have?”

“I’m from Great Britain,” said the young man. “Thought I’d do a bit of traveling in the States this summer before school starts next fall. I just did some summer music study with a guitarist in southern California.”

“What school next fall?” I asked.

“Oxford,” he said.

No driver had pulled over to give us a ride while the three of us talked, and it was almost dark. It is harder for three people to hitch a ride than two. Almost no one will stop for three, B had explained to me.

“We’d better find a place to camp while we can still see enough to find one,” said B.

So we turned and climbed the fence, putting the toes of our boots through the little diamond-shaped holes in the chain link and holding the wire with our fingers. We climbed up using all fours, with our backpacks on. Once at the top, we vaulted over and landed on our feet.

It was harder for the young musician, because he had his hands full with his guitar case.  He made several tries and failed. Finally, on the ground where he had started, he took off his backpack. He carried the guitar with one hand and climbed with the other plus his feet.

“Could I hand one of you my guitar?” he asked. “I don’t want to throw it.”

So I took it from him as he extended it to me from the top of the fence. Then he climbed down again, shouldered his backpack and scrambled over the fence just as B and I had done.

We walked through the woods together looking for a suitable, level site to spread out our sleeping bags and camp. On the other side of the crest of a little ridge, we found a clearing. Miraculously, there was already a fire ring built out of rocks there on level ground and a neat stack of several fire’s worth of broken-up pine branches. A rock formation on the ridge hid our location from the highway.

“Someone has given up hitchhiking at dark just like us and camped here before!” I exclaimed.

“Probably many people,” said B. “Hitchhikers have probably been using this campsite ever since the interstate was built.”

We spread out our bags, not so close to the fire ring that they could be damaged by sparks, but close enough that we could take advantage of the warmth and the circle of light from the fire. I used some twigs and smaller branches to get a fire going with some matches I always carried in my backpack. Slowly the fire grew, and as it did I added larger branches until we had a good fire going. It was nice. The stars were out. The sky was clear, and we could see the brightest ones. The breeze had calmed. It was almost as good as being home. We sat on some rocks in the firelight and looked into the flames.

“We’ve found a good campsite,” said B. “Unfortunately, we don’t have anything to eat.”

“I’ve got a cinnamon roll, a big one,” said the Brit guitarist. “It’s stale and a bit crushed, but I’ll cut it in three.”

He took the roll out of his pack, cut it into three pieces and passed two of them to B and me.

“I’ve got a warm bottle of soda, too.”

“Thanks,” I said, “but we’ve got some water. You’re welcome to some of that if you don’t want to tap into the soda tonight.”

I took out my Boy Scout canteen and passed it around after we had finished our pieces of roll. Once around the circle finished it off.

“Just give a shout, anyone, if you get thirsty again, and I’ll open the soda,” said the Brit. Then he added, “Well, hell. I’ll just open it and set it out. Feel free. He pulled the tab on top of the aluminum can and set it on a rock.

I picked it up and took a swig. “Coca Cola. It’s the real thing.”

“All the comforts of home,” said B.

“Let me tell you something,” said the Brit. “This is really nice. I’m really happy I met you guys. I wouldn’t have had the nerve to climb that fence and camp here like this by myself. I’ve read too much about the American West. Grizzly bears, wolves and all.”

“The only grizzly bear around here is on the California state flag,” I said. “For sure there are coyotes, but no wolves anymore either. Wolves have gone the way of the grizzly bears. Too many people, too little wilderness.”

“But I wouldn’t know that without you telling me,” said the Brit. “The American West is what I see in the movies. I’m grateful for your knowledge and for your company.”

“We’re grateful for the cinnamon roll and soda,” said B.

“Say,” said the Brit. “Would you fancy a little concert, just the three of us?” And he took out his guitar from its case. Even in the firelight I could see it was a nice guitar.

Holding the guitar on his lap, the Brit blew on his hands. “Hands are a little cold,” he said. “I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to play.” He did some quick tuning. “There.” And he started to pick.

I’m not sure what I expected. Maybe a British take on Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”, maybe some Bob Dylan, maybe some Leonard Cohen. Instead we got something that dropped both B’s and my jaws.

“What was that?” asked B, incredulously, after the Brit had finished playing his first piece.

“Andres Segovia,” said the Brit. “Just a little piece I usually start with to warm up my hands. But forget about that. How do you like this one? This is the real deal.” And he started playing his second piece.

B and I sat enraptured. The guy was a classical guitarist.

“The ‘Praladium’, ‘We thank the Lord, we thank Thee,’ from Cantata 29 by J.S. Bach, written about 1731,” he said, after he had finished his second piece. He stopped for a moment with the guitar on his lap and blew on his hands again. “This next one is ‘Laudate Dominem’, ‘Praise Ye the Lord’ from Mozart’s Solemn Vespers.” And he played his third piece.

B and I sat there listening, under the stars, by the light of the fire, in our camp off the Interstate near Lake Tahoe. We could smell the pine from the trees around us. We could hear a quiet accompanying chorus of a few crickets, the hoot of an owl, and then silence.

“Pretty holy stuff, isn’t it?” asked the Brit guitarist. He blew on his hands again. “Hands are getting stiff with the cold. Maybe one last piece. How about this one? Everyone knows this by heart. It’s usually a good piece with which to finish up.”

I had read that “Silent Night”, the Christmas hymn, had originally been written for guitar on an occasion when a guitar was the only instrument available. I had never heard the hymn played by solo guitar before, without vocal accompaniment. Just the music. One guitar. By a skilled guitarist. His left hand worked the fret. His right hand picked the notes, one by one, and they quavered, and hung in the air, each an achingly long time. A millisecond of silence, and then the next note, with longing, hanging there, then dropping into another millisecond of silence, and then the next note, until the song was over. “Slee-eep in heavenly peace.” The last note lingered, and then was gone forever into the darkness and the silence of the Lake Tahoe night.

“My hands are done for,” said the Brit guitarist, and he put his guitar back into its case. We heard the latches on the case as he closed each one. Snap. Snap. Snap. Snap.

Nobody said anything. We sat there for a while, each thinking private thoughts. We watched the fire die down. Then we crawled into our sleeping bags. As the fire burned to embers and went out, the stars got brighter. Lying there, we looked into the dark sky at the millions of stars and the brighter, unwinking planets. Sometime in the night we went to sleep.

John Redmond on mountain topJohn Redmond studied creative writing at Colorado State University. He served as Poetry Editor for the campus literary magazine. A poem he wrote won one of the six Hallmark Honor Prizes awarded annually in a juried national undergraduate competition. After graduating, he gave up writing for some 40 years of working to earn a living. He pushed himself physically by first becoming a distance runner, then a mountaineer. By his 60th birthday, he had climbed all 54 of Colorado’s 14er peaks. Now retired, he is enjoying writing again. He lives in Silver Cliff with his wife Sharon and dog Coco.

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  • Risa

    Beautiful story!

    • John Redmond

      Risa–
      It is great to receive a comment from someone such as you concerned with the craft and process of writing. I have enjoyed reading your pieces as well.

  • Hayley LeMay

    A lovely, lyrical essay. What a memorable night! I’m glad you started writing again – keep going!

    • John Redmond

      Thanks for reading my memoir excerpt, Hayley. Thanks, too, for responding with your comment! I don’t know which would be worse–not writing creatively for 40 years, or finally writing again and having no one notice! I’m glad you noticed. Your own memoir has certainly elicited lots of empathetic comments. Good job.

  • This is a wonderful piece of writing that reminds me of a piece from The Moth series of storytelling. These moments in life are rich, and with time we can tease out the sublimity when we juxtapose them against the general drudgery. I, too, am glad that you’ve returned to your passion. Clearly you’ve simply delayed accessing the talent.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Pamela. I was hoping you would respond. As you know, I’ve read one piece of yours in Hippocampus, the most memorable “Stitching the Womb,” which certainly touched a raw nerve with a lot of readers, judging by the number of comments left. Has your writing appeared in any other issues? How about in any other e-mags that I could access? I would really like to read anything else that you may have written. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear, does it really make any sound? If a writer composes a memoir, and nobody else reads it, is it really a memoir? And is the writer really a writer? Thanks again. I’ve read many of your comments attached to other pieces, and what you have to say is always insightful and thoughtful.

      • John, I was happily published in a number of journals over the past year. My bio on here in Hippocampus (beneath Stitching the Womb) contains a link to my website, which has a tab titled Creative Works–all active links are listed there. I have a new piece, Demonios Y Canciones Mi Padre, which will be included in the June issue of the Santa Fe Literary Review.

        As to your first notion of when a writer call call him/herself a writer, I say as soon as the illustrative pen touches the notion of paper–but reader response theory would argue otherwise. I suppose it depends on what we are seeking from the act of writing. I appreciate the dialogue!

        • Sheesh! Sorry you had to tell me what should have been obvious. I usually make a point of NOT checking out writers’ websites or blogs. I’ve got this thing about computers. Not liking them, I mean. I checked out your website and was impressed by your professional presentation. I was a technical writer for several years. Worked for Data Services, the mainframe computer supporting the State of Wyoming. I put out a monthly newsletter that went to some 750 state employees. That was the enjoyable part of my job. The part that wasn’t enjoyable was writing computer application user manuals. Yuck! At another time in my life I had a couple clients for whom I was proofreading Engineering studies, and I tried to build that into a freelancing business, but it was a no go. I see you had a “hiatus” from creative writing, too. Just like I did. Not quite my 40 years, I bet. I hope your creative output continues to grow, and I look forward to reading your stuff! I appreciate the dialogue, too! Easy to find around a university. Pretty scarce here in a small mountain town.

    • I think I told you that I admired the word combination you used in your comment on the Hippocampus piece “Coyote Fence.” The combination of words you used was “transcendent arc.” I liked your words so much that I used them myself just the other day in writing a paragraph about my father, and fishing:

      “Now, nearly thirty years after his death, I remember my father on those vacations. In the early 1960’s, then, he would have been forty years old. He liked to wear blue work shirts, and faded denim jeans, a cowboy hat with an owl wing feather he had found tucked into the hatband. He smoked a pipe, and now whenever I smell the aroma of Bond Street pipe tobacco, I remember him. I liked to watch him walk out into the river in his rubber waders and begin to cast. There is a beauty of movement in fly fishing, as if it were a dance, and my father’s dance with the water was a pleasure to watch. His fly rod was a delicate instrument, rising in a kind of transcendent arc, then moving forward again. The line would move in seemingly weightless loops, never getting tangled. And the fly would barely dimple the water when it landed, just like a natural insect. That was my father at his best.”

      • Oh, very nice, John! I’m such a big fan of the writing of Norman MacLean, and your writing here evokes A River Runs Through It–not just because of the fly fishing actions, but because it relates to memory and time and the mementos that embody our loved ones.