Ruby Mountains

The Ruby Mountains may be the most picturesque range in all of Nevada’s 110,000 square miles.  I watched the sun set behind the Sulphur Spring Mountains from a notch in the snow-covered Rubies in late May. From the mountaintop, I peered into the wide, flat valley to the east, Ruby Valley, where more north-south trending peaks, the Cherry Creek Range, still wear snowfields the way I wear scarves.  A great horned owl, the most widespread in the U.S., hoots its portent in the gloaming, continues the chant all night, and cries out the dawn.  By this sign, I am either blessed or cursed.  Maybe I choose.

The Rubies are far enough east to be out from the rain shadow of the Sierras.  This long range of 80 miles can catch relatively moist winds.  Orographic lift cools the air, building enough to force it to wring out its moisture.  The Rubies are the wettest range in the State.  So snow remains abundant, and I remain alone.

300 north-south trending ranges draw the stitched, jigsaw face of Nevada’s Basin and Range, the highest total of any state.  The earth’s crust stretches here, and as it does, giant fault blocks rotate, pulling the skins of intervening valleys wide and flat like a blanket.  This rifting may eventually tear the continent apart, as it is rending East Africa from the remainder of the continent.  Down in New Mexico, the Rio Grande flows through channels it didn’t cut.  Unlike most rivers, it runs through a nascent rift valley.

I hiked to a summit ridge through draws lined with aspen, a monoclonal organism representing one ‘tree’ with many shoots.  I associate their familiar scent with montane zones.  Mountain mahogany starts to bloom.    High precip totals in the Ruby mountains gives this range the most diverse alpine vegetation of any range in Nevada.  Blood-orange lichen clad granite boulders.  Towering tors, though crumbling to scree like bleu cheese, are surprisingly easy to scramble up, unlike the sketchy rubble of the Colorado Plateau I’m more used to.

The broad Ruby Valley which holds the Ruby National Wildlife Refuge spreads to the east, pocked with lakes and kettles and one long playa.  I stand on the snowy backbone of the Ruby Mountains the morning after my unannounced arrival.  Snowed-in Pearl Peak to the south burgeons with pines that poke above the snowfields.  I haven’t talked to anyone, really, in days.  I mistake a fly for a prop plane.  An early gnat for a woman’s voice.

I am riddled with doubt about A Course in Miracles (ACIM), a tome of three books written in the 1970’s by a psychologist, Helen Schuchman, a militant atheist who claimed she was divinely inspired and received the voice of Christ.  I have almost completed its 365 lessons for the second time.  My ambivalence toward my God is striking, but not without fodder.

I’ve studied most texts connected to ACIM, including biographies, treatises, simplifications, even poetry.  I’ve searched for holes, inconsistencies, for signs that Schuchman, a troubled spirit who suffered deep depression toward the end of her life (not unlike many mystics), was a charlatan.

I could find nothing phony or fraudulent connected to its inception.  Helen Schuchman and her collaborator on the project, Dr. William Thetford, a psychiatrist, were not connected with any church.  The strength of ACIM does not depend on the force of any personality.  So it does not fit the definition of a cult.  I am not aware of any accusations that either Thetford or Schuchman profited unduly from the publication of ACIM.

As I was winding down lesson 343, I came across another sacred text, an entry from the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, written in the 8th century.  It referred to ‘non-duality,’ to the ‘separation’ between  human and the uncreated creator as being ‘unreal,’ and to the need for ‘at-one-ment.’  These quoted terms are referred to in ACIM, as are the concepts which they embody.

A lay student of probability, I knew that the odds that the three terms quoted above would appear randomly in The Book of the Great Liberation and a ACIM on a coincidental basis were astronomical.  Without calculating these odds (because I don’t know how to), I arrived at the following conclusion—

Since the English translation of the Tibetan text predated the ‘channeling’ of ACIM by over a decade, Helen Schuchman had most likely not heard Christ’s dictation in her head as she had claimed.  The so-called automatic writing which became common at about the time ACIM came out (Seth Speaks is another, easier-to-see-through example of falsified automatic writing for me) is more easily attributable to another cause:  I concluded that Schuchman had read The Book of the Great Liberation, parts of it, or derivative works.  I now concluded that ACIM was derivative, too.  What a ripoff, I thought.

But I’d also read Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic of great clarity, as well as The Cloud of Unknowing.  Both of these roughly contemporaneous English texts referred to the need to place God’s creatures out of mind when one contemplates God.  Perhaps either Julian, one of the very first recognized female writers in the post-classical European world, or the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing were influenced by or read the other.

I recalled that parts of the Old Testament ‘lifted’ stories from other cultures.  Shakespeare and other writers of his generation liberally borrowed from the Greeks and other sources.  This was not considered plagiaristic, but was widespread literary practice.  The term atonement, I discovered, had its original meaning in at-one-ment.  So Schuchman couldn’t have ‘ripped it off’ from the Tibetan text.  And even though Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure, he lived in a time when roughly contemporary holy men from sects such as the Essenes cast out demons in the name of God and preached a message similar to that cast in the Gospels.

If you read much of Joseph Campbell at all, you find remarkably parallel mythologies in disparate geographies and cultures attributable to the world myth.  Whether borrowed from a common source or arrived at independently, these parallel mythologies, motifs, art, and astronomical calculi provide evidence of the remarkably similar channels through which flows human conceptions of the divine.

I realized that it didn’t matter whether ACIM is divinely inspired.  It matters what I choose.  When an owl hoots, I can choose to see myself as blessed or cursed by the portent, or as not effected at all.  Faith is a choice.  As a friend recently reminded me, faith makes things possible, not easier.  Not easier, I was discovering, to believe.  Faith doesn’t make it easier to believe.  Believing comes first.

I climbed mountainsides clad in mahogany.  From far off, the stands on other ridges seemed like caravans of camels grazing.  Up closer, like stunted acacia.  As I stepped over a lion track (as in cougar), far off granitic domes were Orthodox spires and enchanted minarets, all collapsing back to earth.

I watched ants, that nearly invisible force I encounter everywhere from remote mountains to deserts, from city sidewalks to forests.  Moving earth.  Building structure.  Organizing elements.  Like a dark matter, with more biomass than humanity itself, a force gone mostly unnoticed.  Believing in dark matter is a choice made by those who know it must be there, but who cannot yet see it.  Even physicists had faith, faith in something they can neither see nor detect but the influence of which, like the wind unseen, is felt.

I reached the second col down from Pearl Peak, the highest peak in my vicinity at 10,848 feet.  High above near Pearl’s summit, stands of limber and whitebark pine stood like hikers stranded in snow.  I thought about climbing to the top, but I like to live just beyond my edge, not jump off it.  My commitment to myself is to step out of my comfort zone, not lunge several zones beyond it.  Besides, I promised my mom that I wouldn’t get into any trouble.  I’m 300 miles from Hell’s Canyon, where anybody last knew where I was.  I like to tell myself when I’m exploring a canyon or a mountain that I don’t have bragging rights until I make it back home in one piece (I emphasized that last part on this particular trip).  My knee screamed at a lateral move I’d made scrambling a ridge.  Snowfields covered the mountainsides all the way to the peaks.  I didn’t have the right clothes or gear to reach the next saddle.  I used these facts to persuade my ego of my need to not attempt the climb to the top.  Discretion, my dad once told me, is the better part of valor.  I’m content to end my hike on a subsidiary peak.  Okay, a foothill.

A cirque indents the peak due north of me.  North of that, the central core of the Rubies rosary in and out, all snowed in. Sharp, garnet-hued rock offers my skinny butt few seating opportunities.  Monarch butterflies chase each other in aerial mating dances, then land on the boulders, camouflaging themselves in the red-rust lichen.  Ruby Valley to the east, with its broad, flat plain, reminds me of House Rock Valley northeast of the Kaibab Plateau outside of Grand Canyon.

I read.  I write.  I decide that the draw below me offers a shortcut back to camp.  It descended quicker and easier.  I’d avoid the rocky descent which reversed the climb up here along a mountain spine.  I smartly skip over two rules reserved for the less experienced hiker:

Rule No. 1:  Don’t take a drainage.

Rule No. 2: Avoid avoidance; i.e., don’t fall back on what’s quicker and easier.

You think I’d have learned Rule No. 2 by now.  I ended up hacking through aspen that grew sideways out of the walls of steep drainages before their trunks straightened out toward the sky.  I slashed through nettles of mahogany, tripped over clumps of sage, teetered with sideways ankles.  Now I knew why the aspen started their growth sideways out of the banks of the washes.

I required route finding ability (I was lost).  I became angry at myself.  As soon as I did, God became smaller.  God became too small to solve my problems.  And as soon as God shrunk and became my supervisee, another voice interjected itself.  You can always tell that voice: it reprimands, it gets angry with the plants for being in the way, and commands the little God within, now no more than a impotent conception fashioned by the ego to replace the spiritual experience, with directions not only for what god should do, but how it should accomplish these things and when it should do them by.

I learned (again) not to take shortcuts.  I learned that even my misadventure was meant to be.  Problems may start with a poor decision, but destiny has a bigger reason.

To get here:  The Ruby Mountains are an easy hop from Elko, NV.  Just take Route 227 or 228 in.  My particular Route was 228, and from the pass over the range on this road, you can continue on to Ruby Lake NWR.

© 2015 by Michael C. Just