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What the mountain said

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As we've done every New Year's Day for awhile now, The Observer spent part of the first day of The Year of Our Lord 2012 on top of Petit Jean Mountain outside of Morrilton. It's fairly close to Little Rock, a nice drive up and back with the family on a day off, and there's something about looking down from those lofty heights that puts it all into perspective for Yours Truly, especially when we're there with the people we love most in the world.

Spouse is nervous about heights, so she didn't like it much when Junior and his Old Man left the railed and leveled boardwalk at the top of Petit Jean and ventured out onto the rocks above the abyss. The Observer is the clumsy sort (just two days into the New Year, we managed to get our noggin whacked, hard enough to leave a stout goose egg, by the back door of her Honda while unloading groceries), so we understand her concern. There are places on those cliffs that are unforgiving — ankle-snapping crevasses; stubs of rock primed for a bone-fracturing trip; sheer drops to more stone, or to packed earth, or to thin air, with nothing to catch you but the river bottom several hundred feet below and the bosom of Jesus.

The danger, of course, is worth it; worth that feeling of standing out there unfettered in the wind, with the birds turning cartwheels below you and a good 15 miles of the Arkansas River curving in and out of sight at the horizon line. It is, we'd wager, the best place in this state of ours to think about time, about the passage of years, about the permanence of some things and the transience of others. In our experience, none of us ponders any of that business enough by half, so it's good for The Observer to go somewhere that geography and geology force those considerations upon us, especially on the occasion of the New Year.

We always notice something new when we head to Petit Jean. Coming back off the rocks from the drop this time, we noticed the graffiti there. We're not talking about spray paint, thank God — either people aren't thoughtless enough to sully that place with paint, or the park rangers are handy with a sandblaster — but names and dates actually scratched laboriously into the boulders, dozens of them, from every decade. Some of the names are carved in deep, like the inscriptions on tombstones. Others are ghostly. The mountain keeps them all, we suppose, as even the faint inscriptions looked fairly new. Mostly, it was names and dates, people who had been there and gone. One, block letters incised a half-inch deep, said "Tim + Tina." Another, in a hollow in the rock that fills with rain, was a simple, crudely-made peace sign. Another was a date: 1914. We marveled a bit over what it must have taken to get to this high bluff almost a hundred New Years' Days ago, before the road and the parking lot and the sturdy surveying platform built here by the state. We found something so touching about those attempts at permanence. The Observer, who sweats weekly over next week's birdcage liner, knows all about that desire: the need to make even a single word that stays.

We don't condone vandalism in any shape, form or fashion, not even in exchange for a crumb of immortality, but in our hoodlum dreams that night, we dressed all in black and scaled the mountain with a pack full of chisels and awls. In the moonlight, we found a patch of bare rock among the names and dates, brushed off the dirt of a century with a hand, then brought the tip of a tool to the stone.

But what to say? the chisel asked. If you could leave a single word that would outlive you, and your children, and your children's children, what to say? What is there to say that the mountain already hasn't?

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