400 Pound Slab of Limestone Gives Heartache, Backache, and Egyptian Flashback

Limestone slab

I went to the landscape store to pick my stone for a wide step down to the ground from my new deck. All limestone slabs give me a thrill because of the massive amounts of time encased in beautifully layered stone, so I took my time enjoying myself in a field of roughly stacked piles of flat stones. The one I liked was almost six feet long, weighed 400 pounds, and roughly shaped like Australia. A friendly, smiling man loaded it into the back of my Ford pickup with a heavy forklift. “Have you got a loader at home?” I smiled back, saying, “Just me and my wife.” (We are both 60-something-ish). My exact thought was, If I lift one end at a time, that’s only 200 pounds. I can do it.

At home, I put on my power-lifting grip-gloves and after several manly heaves, realized this stone was not moving. I literally could not budge it. (I’m a retired UPS driver). I began to doubt the wisdom of having 400 pounds of flat slab sitting in the rubberized bed of a truck and wondered how bad the resale value of my Ford truck would be hurt with an immovable stone in the bed. A greater, darker fear emerged: What if you hurt your back? This rock could really knock you up. Game over. No more lifting and playing with the grandkids. No more careless afternoons in the garage doing work working projects. No more sleep for the rest of your life. I got out a scissor-jack from my wife’s Honda Fit.

Using it sideways, pushing with blocks and posts against the back wall of the truck bed, a piece of flat sheet metal beneath the front of the stone, I was able to move the stone about one-inch per minute of cranking the jack; retracting the jack; repositioning the blocks and posts; using a pickaxe to lift and reposition the path of the stone. This is when I began to feel like an Egyptian.

I thought: This is a mere flake of limestone compared to the giant blocks ancient men moved by the thousands. I began to appreciate them. How did you do it, guys? The only answer was: They knew something we no longer know—Mysteries of Moving Stone. Just try it and you’ll agree. They had something better than a Ford F150.

I created a bed of thin, used (rather slippery) plywood paneling for my mighty stone to fall upon, hopefully to slide upon, if I survived the fall.

After three hours of non-Egyptian pushing and shoving, I had the stone teetering on the edge of my tailgate (braced underneath by plywood and 4×4 posts) and was finally (with the help of my power-gloves) able to lift one end, and slide the other end to the ground. There the mighty slab stood, an Australian-shaped monolith leaning against my tailgate—while I pictured all the ways things could still go wrong trying to lower the stone to the ground: a crushed hand; a wrenched back; the truck tailgate gouged or buckled. (I could hear the Egyptians from 6,000 years ago snickering, jeering and laughing).

Since pride and pink-slip of my pickup were at stake, I manfully grabbed the top-heavy end of my Australia-shaped stone and pulled hard. It slipped an inch sideways, but would not come towards me. I was not man enough, or Egyptian enough. I pondered for an hour, sitting, sweating, sipping lime water (which is supposed to clarify thinking). Okay. The Egyptians took pity on me. They told me what to do.

I put a heavy wooden crate below where the stone would fall and pulled heartily on the bottom end of the stone. Then—like the shift of a continent, the bottom of the stone slid on slippery paneling and the top fell onto the crate. My beloved Ford was not hurt. My swift, powerful hands were not crushed. My back was only slightly tweaked. I took two days away from the stone to do more thinking.

Then—my wife and I, using blocks for fulcrums and 2×6 boards for levers—were able to incrementally, in just under two hours—shift the great Australo-Egyptian slab on its ten-foot journey to its new stepping-stone home below my deck. This, I assure you, is the last time my wife and I will ever move a 400 pound stone again. By the way, the new limestone step is beautiful, perhaps a million years old, and it will never move again so long as I live. The Egyptians whispered to me: Once you get it there, leave it alone.

Why Real Writers Carry Notebooks—and a Super Secret Tip

I carry a pocket-size spiral-bound paper notebook in my shirt pocket. Why? All of us get random thoughts coming out of the blue at no particular time of the day. I’m talking about ideas that pop into your head when you’re not thinking about anything at all. By the time you get to a piece of paper, the thought has virtually disappeared into thin air. You can’t remember a thing about it, not even the faintest thread. As for me, I write it down instantly. No need to rely on my faulty memory. No need to fumble around with expensive electronic devices.

The spiral notebook never lets you down (unless you accidentally drop it in a lake); it never runs out of batteries. You can jot things down quickly, or at least make a quick sketch of two or three words if you’re at a stoplight, so you can pick up the thread when you have a chance to stop and write it out.

Here’s the Super Secret Tip. You’re not just jotting down only your obviously brilliant ideas. You’re jotting down the humble plain and simple ideas as well. “Her eyes were the lyre of my love.” (Maybe the beginning thread of your next beautiful poem). And “Pick up a gallon of milk.” (Maybe your spouse is speaking telepathically). You get the idea.

Here’s the incredibly important Secret: You’re building a relationship with your subconscious mind. That’s where those fleeting ideas come from. That’s where the really good stuff comes from. Why record the beautiful and also the humble ideas? If I say, No, that’s not a great idea. I’m not writing that down—that’s a big mistake. You’re pre-editing and passing judgment on the subconscious source. This shuts down the creative process. You must cultivate respect for your subconscious mind. The greatest ideas come from this deepest source. Get a spiral-bound notebook. You could become a real writer.

“The Gold Hunter” BlueInk Review says:

This story, the first in a projected series of four novels collectively called The Goldfinder, is a well-crafted excursion into the world of magical realism. A surreal dreamscape that moves back and forth through time, identities and presumptions, the book is set in mid-19th century American West where everyone is infected, one way or another, with the4 often-fatal disease of gold fever.

Why I Can’t Write Simple Action/Adventure/Western Fiction

Here’s how it’s supposed to go for popular Action fiction.

He’s a good-looking young stranger rides into town on a long-legged buckskin wearing tied-down guns and a flat-brimmed black hat. He’s good with a gun, in fact lightning fast, but he’d rather not find trouble. In fact, he’d like to settle down, maybe start a small ranch and maybe find a good woman who can handle a Winchester rifle as well as make good strong coffee. But trouble finds him real fast and right away he’s up against a whole bunch of bad guys who also have amongst them a really bad guy who’s also lightning fast. There’s gonna be a showdown. This is classic Louis L’Amour plotline (Kilkenny). If you study Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, you see a not much different character, just super-sized and amped-up to the level of violence characteristic of modern Action/Adventure.

If I could keep my stories this straight and simple my writing work would be so much easier.

My character, Petr Valory (The Gold Hunter) is morally complex. He’s not afraid of anything, but he will avoid violence if possible because of moral radar that warns him if he’s too close to an action with karmic consequences. Because of flashes of insight gained inside the shining heart of the secret Gold Lake, he knows he has lived before and will live again. He knows if he harms anyone or kills someone there will be dire consequences in this life or in the next. Kilkenny and Jack Reacher do not have these moral restraints. What a pleasure it must be to write without restraint, to just blast bad guys!

Of course, there are two characters in my story who act without restraint: the Indian, Sabbah, who kills to revenge the murder of his son; and Dain King who believes he is a Viking returned to wreak havoc on the Indians and anyone else who gets in the way of his carving the gold-rich mountains of California into his warrior nation, called Gold Nation. I have painted Dain King purposefully horrible and murderous and without conscience for reasons not to be revealed until the last book of the four-book series called The Goldfinder.

Truth is, I don’t enjoy writing horribly immoral characters, the bad guys. I prefer good guys.

My good guys, the moral and restrained-by-love characters, are 17-year-old Petr Valory and his 8-year-old sister Annabel. They portray Love dealing against the dark doings of evil: Sabbah and Dain King. How does goodness survive against evil—without committing evil? That is the question I am hardwired to write about—and find very challenging to answer. Even if I try to not write about it, I still end up writing about it. How I sometimes wish I could write like Louis or Lee.

But I can’t. I must write like good old morally-complexed me. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. Jack London tried it once in a novel called The Star Rover where his character is imprisoned in a straight-jacket, discovers he can escape into a past-life and leave the misery of the jacket behind. Very possibly few people will really understand what I am trying to get to: solid, moral meaning in a world rife with confusions of good and evil. My work has been called magical realism (BlueInk Review). I take that as an intended compliment. But for me, writing is metaphysically infused reality not commonly understood in the black and white tabloid-reality of the world. I am compelled to write this hard way, Action with metaphysical undertones and overtones. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. It’s a moral compulsion. It’s what I do. Also I love every minute of it. When I publish a book, I publish with great regret that I will no longer be spending time with my characters taking on the bad guys in very spiritually thoughtful ways. Michael Carradine’s ‘Cain’ in the old TV drama ‘Kung Fu’ comes to mind. But let that be for another time.

Why I Think the Greatest Time to be Alive was The California Gold Rush

I heard the hush of an icy Sierra Nevada mountain creek rushing down from one of the high places; I smelled the powder sugar breath of Ponderosa pine. Something magical happened. Instantly I was transported back to the greatest of all times in history, the California Gold Rush. I was born in 1949, a hundred years too late. But I felt like I was one of them, the gold seekers, the gold hunters. I could see them so clearly.

Hungry, desperate men coming by land and sea from all around the world: German, Spanish, Chinese, French, Portuguese—all these and many more—coming from all around the globe. Never before or since was there such a rush of men, all believing in the power of gold: You get rich just by moving a few shovelfuls of dirt! History has proven again and again: Men hungry and wild with gold fever are the most driven men on earth. I can see them now.

When I walk through silver valleys sliced by flashing streams, in my imagination, I see their camps, I see the men. Wood smoke rises from a dozen shanty cabins; the men say very little as they strain and grunt and swear, knocking rocks together as they move them across boulder-filled streams so they can get deeper into the rushing river. Gold treasure is buried somewhere under these cold streams in underwater vaults and these men will not stop until they get rich, or die.

You haven’t seen men like these before. They are not particularly big men. Their muscles are hard as the rocks they move. Mostly they are thin and hungry-looking because they haven’t had enough to eat in months. They are very hungry all the time. Day’s spent in the river hunting gold leaves little time for hunting food. But one good gold strike will solve all their troubles. That’s what they believe.

Of course, they were deluded. Those who survive will work as laborers in lumber camps, farming, or simply go back home, broke, but filled with stories of their greatest adventure. Hopefully they discovered their own families were their greatest wealth and happiness. That’s how I write it.

I write about these men because I can still see them and hear them, and I must do my writer’s best to portray them and give them a voice. It was the greatest time to be alive—the California Gold Rush.

Why I Write Stuff, or, You Don’t Know What You’ll Write Until….

I started writing stories at a pretty early age, 9 years old. My first story was about a caveman named Uk and his wife Og seeing their first total eclipse of the sun. I remember both of them were terrified, but Uk somehow becomes a hero to his wife. I think he told her not to worry, the sun would return from the mouth of the beast. The last words of the story were from Og: “Oh, Uk!”  Not exactly a brilliant display of early talent.  I was in the fifth grade, my teacher put in the comments on my report card that “Philip gazes out the window a lot.” That was probably pretty accurate, but not a bad thing in my humble opinion. Then I won the eighth grade spelling contest against the smartest girl in the class—and I was off to the races. From there, I bought a little locked-key diary so it forced me to make an entry on a daily basis and it seemed important to me not to leave a day blank. It still seems important not to have blank days.

That was long ago and what I have really learned is that you don’t know what you’ll write until you sit down and write. Which is another way of saying: You don’t know what’s inside you until you write it, until you face the holy of holies: The Blank Page.

I certainly didn’t know I would write a novel about a 17-year-old boy who would find the greatest source of gold in the California Gold Rush. I didn’t know I would write about the falling of giant trees, the great Redwoods and what it took to bring a big one down. Or that I would be researching the Paiute Indians of Pyramid Lake. Or that I would revisit three horrific battles of the Civil War: Stones River; Chickamauga; Missionary Ridge. I never would have known if I hadn’t sat down to write.

I believe all of these things were inside of me like seeds that just needed to grow under the sunlight of a writer’s attention and love. Yes, I do love what I write about. Stephen King calls it the workings of “the boys in the boiler room” Yes, the subconscious mind.

People say, “What should I write about?” For the sake of discussion, let’s just say your heart is an amazingly powerful magnet (I believe it is) and is magnetically drawn and turns just like a compass towards what it loves. When you start feeling drawn to something, someplace, or event, and most particularly, a certain time and place, there you will find what you will write about. There is your goldmine, your jackpot, your motherlode. You’ll be drawn to it just like magic, just like a magnet. There you will find your joy. Follow your bliss. Don’t ever bother with the Million Dollar Lotto. That’s bogus. Your heart’s joy is not there. But that’s for another discussion.

By the way, I didn’t know I was going to write any of this until I sat down to write. Goodbye for now.

–  Phil

The Goldfinder Series: The Gold Hunter, Entry 17

The burnt match smell very strong now, tainted by something worse, something rotten and dead–was the lake lined with dead bodies? Given Stoddard’s story, maybe it was lined with dead gold hunters. Fear was growing. He gave himself another mental shove.

You came here to find the legendary Gold Lake, didn’t you? Go find it.

The smell was so bad his legs shook. It was like entering a fog of rotten stench. He moved forward pinching his nose, trying not to gag.

A hundred steps more brought him to the steady hissing sound of a waterfall. So there must be a lake; even small waterfalls produced prodigious amounts of water. If there was no outfall stream, where was it going? And why did it smell so bad? Well, another minute you’ll know the answer. Are you a man or a boy? Suddenly he was running toward the sound–the answer–even if a big gob of fear in his stomach told him to run the other way, and his mind was crying, God help me.

He grew weak. He slowed down until he found himself crouching awkwardly forward, expecting the whizz-thump of an arrow in his chest. His shoulders ached. His feet felt like lead. His eyes were popped so wide he couldn’t blink. He tried to rally himself mentally: You’re seventeen now. This is one of those places where you become a man.

Nearing the backwall and the waterfall, at least he would see the big white buck up close and even if there wasn’t any gold it would be worth the trip. There wouldn’t be any gold. (Would there?) On the other hand California was the Promised Land.

This was an unexplored canyon. (Wasn’t it?)

Finally he saw it. Silver showering water fell at the back of the canyon. He forced himself forward. There was a cool breeze. The smell was mostly gone. He felt the sting of the arrow that would end his life. But he had to see this lake now.

The Goldfinder Series: The Gold Hunter, Entry 12

Jack had told him all about it. Jack knew all about such things. The manitoo was a forest creature that lent you wisdom; it could help you prosper. Jack had seen this white buck and said it would be bad luck to shoot it. It was a good birthday gift. Now it was watching Petr Valory. It doesn’t like the rifle. Okay. Be rid of it then.

He ran downslope until he found the biggest cedar tree he had ever seen in his life. Massive survivor of centuries, it was tent-like, with branches that covered the ground. He crawled inside. It cool, dry and fragrant. He set the rifle against the trunk. There. Good. Crawl outside again. He made a stone pyramid to mark the tree. Come back later.

He didn’t know he wouldn’t see that rifle again for twelve years.

He searched upslope, but the white deer was gone. Probably wasn’t a manitoo anyway. Still, you didn’t see a magnum buck like that every day. Just a good luck sign that today was a lucky day: Head for that dry waterfall. See what you see.

He scrambled up until he was atop the smaller crest with its big view. Little Rocky would never make it up here. No worries about that. Again he would be wrong.

To the south lay the big blue expanse of Long Lake. Jack’s cabin looked like a toy house on a peninsula of pines jutting into the lake. To the north lay a gray valley holding two blue-jewel lakes, primitive and wild. A strong, sugary wind breezed up from the valley, a sweet pine wind. It was beautiful. Go there–to the valley of the lakes. He checked his watch: 2:15. Plenty of time before sundown. That was another miscalculation.

There it was again. The manitoo deer stood beside the first small lake, lapping up water. It raised its wide antlers at him, as if to say: Well, are you coming? Then it trotted away westward.

The Goldfinder Series: The Gold Hunter, Entry 11

He believed it was the same falcon he and Annabel had taken food scraps to down by the river. He waved, yelling,”I will find that gold lake and I will be free as you, high flyer.”

With the rifle sights, he scanned the high cliffs of the crest. No need to go there. Gold wouldn’t be there. He didn’t know much about “goldfinding”, but he had heard gold was the heaviest substance on earth. Gold would run downhill. It would be in valleys or rivers or at the bottom of lakes–somehow. The biggest chunks would be in a river or lake.

He scanned the rifle south.

There lay the big blue lake called “Loch Loong” by its solitary dweller, Big Jack–Jack Gorgius Frazier. He had helped them build their cabin last fall. The Scotsman had found no gold. No need to go there. But Petr would share the gold lake with Jack when he found it.

He scanned the rifle north.

There rose a sharp ridge that, once crossing it, led down into the North Fork of the Feather River; the wild rich mining camp called Gold Nation where they took a wagonload of lumber each week, and then Papa hustled him away as if the place was full of disease.

The watch made a pretty, sing-songing: ching-ching! It was two o’clock. Mama’s gift was awareness of time. Why? Why was there always secret unhappiness under everything she did?

Papa’s gift-rifle was getting heavy. Papa had warned him. Top those cylinders off with grease or they will all blow off a once and remove your face. Papa had properly loaded it. It was ready to fire, a powerful tool that could shoot six times. That meaning was clear. Petr, you’re a man now. But he never wanted to kill anything. The rifle was useless to him as a stick of lead.

He ran fifty paces, walked fifty paces, hopped over countless rivulets of spring runoff. Not far away was a small paradise of blue lakes held in rocky bowls made like giant cups. Big Jack had told him all about it. Three years ago Tom Stoddard had found a lake somewhere. It was filled with gold–so they said. But five hundred determined men failed to find it.

Petr vowed: “I will find it.” Another thought hit him: Dain King was one of those determined men, you can bet on it. That’s why he explored the Feather River. That’s how he found gold on the North Fork; what he was now calling The Gold Nation. It all made sense.

The rifle was getting unbearable. Sweat dripped down his face. Getting hot. Getting thirsty. It was the first hot day of spring. He was running on naked stone, up a lower crest that led to the Sierra Crest. A hidden gold lake might lie somewhere in the bowl between the two crests. He would bet five dollars on it if he had five dollars.

It was a steep climb up the mountainside. When he heard the falcon again he looked up. He couldn’t find it, but high on top of the rising cliff was a deer, a big one.

The biggest buck he had ever seen posed silently a hundred yards away on a sharp gray ledge. It was white. Pale as cream and its antlers spread like tan flames. What would Papa say if he brought home a white deer? Petr aimed the rifle and the deer disappeared like a puff of smoke. He set the rifle aside, scanning the trees, and moments later the buck reappeared atop a dry waterfall above a small circle of boulders. It made a high whistling laugh. Petr shouted back at it.

“I won’t hurt you! You’re beautiful. You’re magic–a white deer–you’re a manitoo.”