Rants from the Hill: An Assay on Old Lang Syne Peak

Taking a right gude willie waught for the turning year.


“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Every New Year’s Eve, drunk people from around the world sing some approximation of “Auld Lang Syne,” a song whose words they rarely know—though one of the song’s many strengths is that when arm-in-arm revelers slur out “For hold and sign” or “Fart old Ann Zyne” or “Four old aunts shine” it still sounds damned good. But even when we do know the words we don’t know what they mean. This confusion is forgivable, since “Auld Lang Syne” literally means “old long since” (huh?), and even idiomatic translations like “days gone by” or “long long ago” don’t entirely clarify the situation. As Billy Crystal’s character puts it in the chick flick When Harry Met Sally, “‘Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot?’ Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances? Or does it mean that if we happened to forget them we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot them?”

“Auld Lang Syne” emerged from the great Lowland Scots ballad tradition, but is most closely associated with Robert Burns, who brilliantly recrafted the song as a beautiful poem that was published in 1788. As Scots, including my own kin, emigrated to every corner of the globe, they took this traditional ballad with them. It thus became Scotland’s greatest cultural export—though, in fairness, the competition was haggis, bagpipes, and plaid skirts for men—and is now beloved by inebriated folks the world over. The version of Burns’s poem we sing today is radically simplified, and omits a number of lovely verses which, if sung in the original Scots, would make a decent field sobriety test. My favorite of these is Bobby’s original closing verse:

            And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!

            and gie’s a hand o’ thine!

            And we’ll tak’ a right gude willie waught,

            for auld lang syne.

On the off chance you’re as confused as a character in When Harry Met Sally, “willie waught” is the world’s most lyrical euphemism for drink. Here, then, is Burns’s poetic celebration of hand clasping and cup raising in memory of times gone by. It is among the oldest gestures known to human culture.

Thinking about this song caused me to wonder if anything in Nevada might be named for it, which led me to discover the existence of Auld Lang Syne Peak, an obscure, 7,400-foot mountain out in the North Central part of the state. I say “obscure” because this mountain lives in a nearly uninhabited stretch of the Great Basin Desert, where it resides amid innumerable other mountains, including much higher ones like Star Peak and Thunder Mountain, nearly 10,000-footers in the nearby Humboldt Range, where Mark Twain went broke chasing silver back in the early 1860s. But it was the name of the peak that drew me, not its lofty elevation, and so I recruited my hiking buddies Steve and Cheryll and we set out for Auld Lang Syne.

A two-hour drive east from our homes in the western Great Basin takes us from Paiute country out into Shoshone country, and eventually we pull off to recaffeinate at Puckerbrush, Nevada, where a dilapidated sign informs us that we are at 4,288 feet in a town whose population is 28. However, no town is in evidence, just a truck stop with road food, strong coffee, pints of liquor, and those kitschy dream catchers, which together comprise four of the five things a long-haul trucker needs (the fifth is available at the PussyCat, down the highway a stretch toward Winnemucca). From Puckerbrush we rattle overland on washboarded BLM roads through open-range ranching country, then past a small placer gold mining operation. I glimpse the feed hopper and rotating grizzly as we wind through the site, past the settling pond, and then upcanyon into the historic Dun Glen mining area, where we park the truck off in the sage and climb out to gear up for our hike. Founded in 1862, Dun Glen boomed for thirty years before simply vanishing in the early 1890s. All that remains of the miners who sought their wild fortune here are a few broken-down remains of cabins that were hand dug into a hillside above Dun Glen Creek. We explore these remnant structures, admiring the construction of their hand-laid stone foundations, wondering what it might have been like to eke out a life in this remote place 150 years ago. I notice the fractured, bone-colored loop of a teacup’s handle, set carefully on a foundation rock, a reminder that families lived here. Perhaps some, like my own, were brightened by two beautiful little girls, growing up too fast. A mile or so into the hike we ascend a low ridge from which the desired peak finally comes into view. It is an anticlimactic moment, as the mountain appears to be a low, unimpressive dome, barely worthy of a stroll, let alone 300 miles of driving. I apologize to Cheryll and Steve for dragging them all the way out here for what looks like a mild constitutional.

“Let’s find something else to climb while we’re here, y’all, ‘cause in a half hour Auld Lang Syne will be in our past,” I say.

“We’ll see,” Steve replies. “There’s more vertical out here than you’d think.”

Our route is up this low ridge, then across the canyon mouth via what looks like an earthen dam but is actually a giant tailings pile. We scramble up a steep, rocky slope, where the detritus of old mining operations is everywhere visible. Here are the collapsed remnants of a tin shed, there a prospect hole made into a mirror by snowmelt.  We guess at the vintage of what we find by observing the nature of the junk. Cheryll finds a piece of threaded pipe, which became widely available in the 1880s. Steve notices a few nails with round rather than square heads, an innovation that dates to the invention of wire nails in the early 1890s. We also find shards of old bottles, many of which are sun purpled, an effect produced when the magnesium dioxide-infused clear glass produced during the second half of the nineteenth century is transformed into a lovely hue of lavender by long exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Here on this remote desert mountain we are surrounded by the scattered fragments of auld lang syne.

Even on the steepest pitches we find vertical shafts whose bottoms remain invisible, though the echoes that return when we drop a chunk of quartz into one suggest impressive depth. Soon we stumble upon an actual mine, which we peek into but know better than to enter. For some reason it makes me uncomfortable to think of people up here so long ago, ghosts digging into the earth with their hands. I wonder if they found what they were looking for inside this dark hole, on the flank of this mountain, in the middle of this illimitable expanse of desert. It is the kind of place where it is easy to imagine great dreams being fulfilled, and also easy to imagine them perishing forever.

Climbing above the long-abandoned mine, we begin what turns out to be a surprisingly difficult ascent through the snowy scree, as we separate and begin to traverse obliquely across the north face of a high ridge and toward a narrow saddle that is strung below the peak. Keeping my head down as I cross the steep slope I see plenty of scat. Probably elk, since it appears large, roundish-oval, and less dimpled than mule deer scat tends to be, though this rough terrain and high elevation also make desert bighorn a contender. As I pick my way across the steep face I occasionally go to three-point, using my uphill hand to stabilize my footing as I work my way toward the distant peak. It is on this slippery traverse that my faulty estimation of the wee, half-hour climb becomes palpable, and I suck wind working to achieve the saddle, which appears to recede before me. Pausing to catch my breath, I look up to see that a second mountain has come into view. Behind what I assumed was Auld Lang Syne is a sister peak that is more distant and also higher. It is in fact the further of these twin summits that we’re bound for, and while we’re already quite a few half-hours into this climb, it is apparent that there are plenty more ahead.

Having tackled the long traverse by our independent routes, Steve and Cheryll and I eventually meet up at a rock outcropping on the saddle below the sister summits. I am the last to arrive. We break here for water and trail food, and for the expansive view. While leaning back against a boulder I notice a golden eagle describing perfect circles directly over the crown of What Used to Be Auld Lang Syne Peak, as if signaling that this unnamed summit might yet have some special significance.

“That’s so beautiful,” Cheryll remarks, admiring the eagle’s effortless gyre. “Perfect! You should write about that.”

“A lone eagle, ignited by shattered sunlight, describing perfect circles over the crown of a domed peak, as if signaling that this unnamed summit might yet have some special significance?” I reply. “I can’t write about that. Way too nature writery. Sounds staged. We know this is actually happening, but readers will think it’s horseshit.” Steve, smiling, points silently to a nearby pile of wild mustang dung.

“Well played,” I reply in response to his wordless punch line.

The eagle circles a few more times, counter-clockwise, winding the hands of time backward, and then is gone. Now for the final pitch of the climb. We scramble around the shoulder of What Used to Be Auld Lang Syne Peak onto a rocky bridge between the twin summits, and then start straight up the exposed crown of the mountain. This is the steepest part of the climb but also the shortest, and we soon find ourselves standing together on the peak. Once again I am the last to arrive, and Cheryll greets me with a serenade that she has arranged in order to celebrate the occasion. She’s loaded a melancholy pop version of “Auld Lang Syne” onto her phone, from which she now plays a crooning, heartbreaking take on Bobby Burns’s old gem.

Of course the moment is intended to be ironic, we three self-consciously reveling in the summit climax of a wilderness experience by cranking pop tunes on an iphone. But the genius of this song is that it will brook no irony. While I subscribe firmly to the maxim that “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be,” the Burns ballad belies any hip dismissal of the imaginative power the past wields over our experience of the present. This tune is the world’s greatest anthem to ephemerality, a poignant expression of the desire to check the rush of time, to turn back on the trail, if only for a moment, toward the always lost country of our past.

As I listen to the song’s verse about friends separated by oceans, and by oceans of time, I think of the families who lived here 150 years ago. When the Dun Glen miners scoured these hills, they had to assay what they dug out of the earth. Assay, which in its mining context refers to the testing of ore to determine its quality, is actually a much older word, and one with broader connotations. Since the fourteenth century, an assay has been a “trial, test of quality, test of character.” To assay is to “try, endeavor, strive.” The sister word to assay is essay, whose etymological pedigree also points to the idea of trying, and of trial. An essay is a weighing, an examination, an endeavor. An essay, ever and always, is an attempt.

As the would-be irony of the song is overwhelmed by the genuine emotion it produces, I gaze in all directions from the summit of

Auld Lang Syne Peak. It is wide open country as far as I can see, with alkali and sage playas laid down gracefully between endless waves of snowy mountains, ranges receding one behind the other into this boundless ocean of high desert. In one direction is a lowering storm, settling on a dark range with veiled fingers of rain and snow that reach for the earth; in the other is a basin and range dramatically illuminated by the late afternoon sun as it descends through azure notches in a mat of silver, flat-bottomed clouds.  Which is the view of the past, I wonder, and which the future? Time will tell. Until it does, we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
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