The Gap lay through a narrow and sinuous break in the mountain along the dry stream bed of intermittent Cutthroat Creek. In the shadow of the cliffs the sun was just a glint off the granite near the top of the defile.
Young, scrappy, dedicated to my studies, science and the earth, I cut a “fine figure”, I knew I did, in my suntanned field wear, shiny black cowboy boots, sharpened steel Geology hammer and fancy Brunton compass in a worn thick leather case slung to my belt. And of course the black cowboy hat I had affected since I came to Norman from New York two years earlier. I even affected an Okie accent. Gotta get along.
There was one house in the valley, a small valley maybe three quarters of a mile square, like a box, fault bounded, ancient. The starkness and the gleam of the rocks, and the quiet overcame me as I stepped out of my car for a full view. Seven hundred foot cliffs of the reddest granite, brilliant, reflective of both deep, rich, and light red, surrounded me on four sides, with jet black massive sills of crystalline gabbro shining like a mirror that was stroked through the granite. Intense contrast in color. And at the bottom a soft creamy sandstone called the Post Oak formation derived from the granite and gabbro during the Cretaceous some 80 million years ago. Perfect!
And the quiet! Only the rapid movement of the clouds above let me know there was a world outside. There was no wind. Stillness. Lowing of a cow. It supported a few head of range cattle.The few trees , scraggly oaks, a few willows by the creek, madrona, had lost most of their leaves, the oaks looking like streaking black lightning outlined against the cliffs.
The stream down the center of the valley was dry most of the year. Grass, sparse now with the lack of recent rain, spotted the flat valley floor. The desolation was beautiful, magical. I breathed deep. But it felt dangerous too. I knew there were copperheads and prairie rattlers. I was glad of my boots! But it was more than just that. Ancient. The place was ancient. Millions of years of deep time secrets to be discovered or never to be known?
I drove to the house, a small cabin really, gray clapboards and a steeply peaked roof, to ask permission to be on the land. The old gentleman rancher was on the porch, just rocking, a hand rolled cigarette, looking out. “Hello! Hi… my name is Charlie Hanson and I’m down from OU to work on my dissertation... like to study your land on and off for a few months if that’s OK sir.?.”
“Come on up, sit down. If you close the gates and don’t collect too many plants or specimens that’ll be fine.”
“No, sir. I’m here to collect rocks, I’m working on my doctorate in Geology. I wanna be a rich oil man”, I chuckled. .
His face changed. Looked very gray, older, stared out at me. “Here, sit down….” He motioned for me to sit on the crude weathered bench by his rocking chair.
Then he told me about the Cutthroat Gap massacre. Of course I was curious about the name. “There’s more I guess you have to hear”, he said as if in a deep depression. “I don’t much like telling this part of the story, but you have to hear it”.
He turned quickly,and somewhat unnaturally looked me right in the eye. I was startled by this sudden move.
In a slow, very serious voice he started, “ Every year about Easter some of the Kiowa tribal council would come here driving down from Carnegie, the Kiowa “Capital”. I would put them up for a few nights in my spare rooms. I always welcomed their company and their stories. Each time a young man would be honored by being asked to go spend the night up there dancing and praying.” He pointed to a promontory on the cliff on the northwest edge.
“Every year until 1964 they came. Since then, never again. Very sad, well, more strange than sad.”.
This depressed tone started when I mentioned geology, rocks. What was going on?
“The young man, Jim I remember his name was, came down from his night on the High Place and in his hand was a piece of the red granite. Nothing special. Just a rock. When the elders saw it they started shouting, asking where he got it, how he could be so stupid? I watched as one of the elders rushed at him and was going to hit him! But then something made them all suddenly fall silent. They looked up and pointed to my roof.
“Sitting there staring at them, at all of us, in the fullness of the bright morning, was a large brown and white, deep-eyed owl.
“ Then the panic really started! They shouted, honked their car horns, screamed, wept, banged pots! But the owl just stared immovably... staring directly at them..
“Now I had heard owls at night, but I never saw one here in the daytime. The owl wouldn’t move. Now you have to understand, owls are an evil omen to just about all tribes of Plains Indians. There are stories of Kiowa raids as far as to Mexico to get horses that, seeing an owl, turned to home immediately sure that someone would die or that there was some sort of calamity going to be visited on the people. These people staying at my house were good church going men of course… but the old ways? They stay strong.
“And here, in Cutthroat Gap, the realm of the ghost spirits of the massacred, their panic was truly frightening. An owl! For a shaman his road included killing an owl to show his immunity to fate and his bravery. He would use the skin as a hand puppet to foretell only evil.
“So they wept, went inside my house and paced, just paced. They would try anything, save climbing up and touching it or harming it in any way, to get rid of the bird. A solution? They hoped that if Jim climbed back up and put the rock back maybe then it would be OK. . They were desperate. Even though the sun was climbing in the east, my front room felt like it was in pitch darkness.
“Standing right here, they watched him as he climbed and a few minutes after he topped the cliff the owl flew away! It just flew away...I never saw another one since, but I can still hear them at night”.
Okay. Seriously. This guy is having fun with me. A young geologist, all full of himself, a creature of rational thought, the Scientific Method… and rocks are sacred, and rocks are cursed by Owls that are more than owls. Big Joke!
“Look, I think you can be free to collect but just not from up there. Look, respect for the traditions, OK? “ Yes, respect. Buy I knew he believed in the whole owl mystery.
“Yes, respect”, I answered.