King Holly, King Oak

It’s a maple, not an oak, but it will have to do for now.

“You were just starting to get into your groove,” the dog-walker said apologetically as I yielded the trail, interrupting the run I had just begun.

More of a rut than a groove, I thought. I run this trail pretty much every Monday and Wednesday, and then lift weights afterward. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, I ride. On Fridays, I brood. Especially when the Friday in question happens to be the shortest day of the year, followed by the longest night.

If I ever actually found a groove and was getting into it, I mused, it would probably be something like the groove on an old vinyl LP, spiraling in at 33 1/3 rpm toward the black hole in the center. Stairway to heaven? More like highway to Hell.

Now ruts I know. I had been in an actual rut the day before I encountered the dog-walker, climbing Trail 341 counterclockwise on my second-best Steelman.

Anyone who saw me lurching upward in the 36×28 might have thought me a lost, loopy roadie, Trail 341 being a narrow, serpentine climb, sometimes featuring actual serpents; rocky where it isn’t loose, fenced with cane cholla, with a couple-three blind corners, no passing lanes, and the occasional rut just to keep things interesting.

But I was in the best mental health I could summon in December, especially this December, and as I said, it was my second-best Steelman. Plus I was climbing, not descending, which lets me ease into trouble rather than diving in headlong.

I had been descending Trail 341 when one of these ruts caught me unawares back in July 2017. I was aboard the Voodoo Nakisi, which with its plump Bruce Gordon Rock n’ Roads is ordinarily more than a match for this short, not particularly technical descent.

But my mind had wandered, as it will, and it didn’t wander back until after I had bitten the dust, grabbing a handful of cholla as I went down.

“What the hell are you doing?” my mind asked.

“Oh, shut up,” I replied, yanking spines from my left hand. “This is your fault.”

“What, I told you to yardsale in a rut?” my mind chortled. “I was just trying to get a little work done while you were dicking around. Jeez, I can’t leave you alone for a minute.”

Ever since taking that little digger I’ve ridden Trail 341 as a climb instead of a descent, though the neighborhood Singletrack Sanitation Service has ironed out a few of its nastier wrinkles. It leaves me in something of a metaphorical rut, true, but it’s a problem I don’t need to solve; a nettle I don’t care to grasp.

Especially in December, when there’s never enough sun to really warm your bones, and what there is of it hangs low in the sky, either blinding you to the path or cloaking it in shadows.

My rides and temper shorten with the days. I get up in the dark and by the time I‘ve gotten a handle on current events — what has the Arsehole-in-Chief managed to shit on today? — it’s dark again and time to go back to bed. This makes for unsettling dreams.

Dreams. The ancient Celts saw the solstices as battles between twin kings, Oak vs. Holly, warmth and light pitted against cold and dark.

Neither king is ever truly vanquished. The Holly King is ascendant as the old year wanes, but as the new year approaches the Oak King reclaims the throne.

It was a murky morning as this year’s winter solstice came to Newgrange, and the Oak King did not make an appearance. But this doesn’t mean that the Holly King has finally triumphed. The struggle continues.

And I recall another Irish legend, who once said: “We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future.”

Don’t curse the darkness. Light a candle. Grasp the nettle.

• Editor’s note: I had planned to make this an episode of Radio Free Dogpatch, but various ruts kept tripping me up. At least you can give a listen to the music I had in mind for the background — “King Holly, King Oak,” from Johnny Cunningham via “Celtic Christmas,” a Windham Hill sampler I’d forgotten I owned. And happy solstice to you.

Tags: , ,

20 Responses to “King Holly, King Oak”

  1. khal spencer Says:

    On the bright side, the various religious offerings have been made and The Sun will start returning tomorrow. I had this discussion with a colleague yesterday. We agreed that the forthcoming Christian holiday is really a primitive northern hemisphere rite that acknowledged “holy shit, the sun has been disappearing a little more every day. What the hell do we do to bring it back before it disappears completely?”

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      This is why my people invented whiskey. Doesn’t bring back the sun, but it takes the chill out of a dark night. Day. Whatevs.

    • Steve O Says:

      Goethe’s final words: “More light.” Ever since we crawled out of that primordial slime, that’s been our unifying cry: “More light.”

      Sunlight. Torchlight. Candlight. Neon. Incandescent. Lights that banish the darkness from our caves, to illuminate our roads, the insides of our refrigerators.

      Big floods for the night games at Soldier’s Field. Little tiny flashlights for those books we read under the covers when we’re supposed to be asleep.

      Light is more than watts and footcandles. Light is metaphor. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet.” “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” “Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom — Lead Thou me on! The night is dark, and I am far from home — Lead Thou me on!” “Arise, shine, for thy light has come.”

      Light is knowledge. Light is life. Light is light.

  2. Chris Coursey Says:




  3. Hurben Says:

    Sounds like a classic case of rule #5
    Merry Christmas, (or insert your favored holiday here), everybody

  4. Pat O’Brien Says:
    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Well chosen, sir; well chosen. Backed by the North Mississippi Allstars he is, too.

      Cold as snot with a big frozen smile
      Ain’t foolin’ nobody after a while
      Time to let the cat out, I’ve got a real short fuse
      I’m just about to blow up these ol’ wintertime blues.

    • Steve O Says:

      Git tix for JH with his long time running buddy Lyle Lovett, just around the corner at our 1k seat theater. It ain’t Red Rocks, but it also ain’t triple digit ticket prices and 3 hours of windshield time getting there and back.

      • Patrick O'Grady Says:

        Ooo, you gon’ have big fun, you.

      • Pat O'Brien Says:

        OK, I’m officially jealous. I am the MC tomorrow for this performance at the Arizona Folklore Preserve. Not, JH or LL, but volunteers get in for free. Plus I get to watch pro sound guys, the band, set up their own sound system.

        • Patrick O'Grady Says:

          He’s got a cat, so you know he’s cool. Also, good genetics (hi, Linda!).

          Meanwhile, I seem to have puzzled out the Behringer Xenyx 1204USB mixer. Some aspects of it, anyway. Unless I’m greatly mistaken, I can now record my own voice plus a Skype caller to Audio Hijack on the Mac and to an external digital recorder (Tascam DR-05) while also taking various types of input from an iThing (iPhone for calls, iPod for music/sound effects).

          Takes more cables than they used to hold down King Kong, but what the hell, it works. I think.

          Mixin'' it up.

  5. JD Dallager Says:

    PO’G: Positively poetic, persuasive, and perspicacious. Well done!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: