Land in the Sky: Back to Fundamentals

Middle of February. I have an 8:30 a.m. appointment in Albany to have the car serviced. It’s over an hour’s drive away. Need to get an early start. That means a pre-dawn, subzero walk with the collie through snowy woods.

We head off down the snowshoe trail. He runs ahead, barking into the dark. He wears a bell so I can keep track of his whereabouts. As often happens, he disappears for a time on the far side of Paradise Hill. Who knows what he might be getting into. The snow back there is a couple feet deep. At this hour, things appear dim and gentian-blue. I stop at the edge of a spruce grove and listen. I hear no bell.

So I call the collie’s name. Silence. I call again. Silence. I wait. From high in one of the spruces, a barred owl gives a hoot. I call the collie’s name again. The owl gives another hoot. Silence returns. Time passes but not the silence. I am starting to worry about my appointment. I don’t like being late for appointments. But lo! Out of the gentian blue comes the familiar tink-tink-tink of an approaching bell. Then the collie appears. I give him cheese and we head home.

Back inside the house, I remove copious clumps of snow and ice from between the pads of his feet. He assists by licking my hand. Now I notice a certain smell coming off him—rank, gamey, feculent. Once again, it would seem, he has gotten into something fundamental. No time now to give him a bath. If I leave at once I can still make that car appointment. So I head out the door. The collie barks his displeasure at being left home alone. He barks and he barks and he barks. I can hear it from all the way up at the barn.

In dark cerulean cold, the car starts only grudgingly. I drive off. It takes a long time before the car’s heater has any effect. I am halfway to Albany before I become aware of a certain fragrance, now coming off me. Talk about regrettable transfer effects. I’ve had a lot of wild ideas in my life, but I’ve never smelled like one before.

I arrive at Albany in time for the car appointment. Everybody there keeps a polite distance. For some reason, service today is particularly speedy. I’m out of there in no time. I drive back home to the Catskills listening to some Loudon Wainwright. Upon my arrival, the collie barks with joy. Till he is led to the tub. Then it’s my turn.

Dog Gash, Big Bend National Park

Dog Gash, Big Bend National Park

Trails are constructed, maintained to control us, to protect the landscape from the impacts of our growing numbers. Routes are optional.

By Brooke Williams

Three camper-backed trucks are parked a the exhibit turn out off of north-running Highway 385 in Big Bend, National Park, which seems strange. We thought no one was here. It is late January. We’ve seen no blooming plants and very few birds in our two gentle days. The trucks are empty and no one is standing at the interpretive sign. The truck’s occupants must be out hiking as this pull out is, according to the guidebook, the parking area for the Dog Canyon Hike.

Dog Canyon can be seen on the horizon… a deep crack (a cut, a scar, a fissure, anything but a canyon!) as if the time-eaten rock forming the horizon had been bent too far—beyond its breaking point. Dog Lake will no longer be the name of this place. I will call it Dog Gash.

Three people, I’m sure belonging to those campers, appear in the distance. By the time we’ve pulled and filled our packs the hikers are near enough for us to see that they are older, fit, and—by the way they move and their hiking poles, lightweight long-sleeved shirts, and big-brimmed hats—comfortable with this desert, these distances.

We’ve been talking to everyone and everyone seems comfortable talking to us. It’s as if we all share three things: we’re not from here; this desert has lured us here; we’re not sure exactly why.

By hearing ourselves speak to one another we might hear clues coming out of us.

Five of us gather where their hike ends and ours begins. The two women are open and friendly, energetic with the glow from a six mile walk in perfect weather. The man is serious. We find out quickly that they are volunteers for the Park Service—living in their campers, they answer questions at information desks, pick up trash, sell guidebooks, maps, and tee-shirts, and issue permits at the Visitor Center’s that seem to have been carved into this desert.

The serious man is all business.

Do you have water?

Yes.

How much?

3 three quarts.

Food?

Yes. That too.

Although I pride myself in the comfort I feel wandering in the desert, I consider it bad luck to ignore another’s warning.

You know it’s four hours?

No, I lie. Thank you.

Of the packs, his is the largest and I wonder about a gun.

We all smile. Terry and I turn toward the gash in the horizon and begin.

A grey, hard-panned surface spreads in every direction. I’m wondering if we find our own way across the desert expanse to Dog Gash when a footpath appears through a small patch of dried plants, suggesting a trail. Or at least a route. I prefer routes to trails.  Trails are constructed, maintained to control us, to protect the landscape from the impacts of our growing numbers. Routes are optional. Routes are prompts for our own creative wanderings. Seductions. In some cases, routes provide security, comfort when needed. Routes are suggestions. The Dog Gash ‘trail’ is really a route.

Brooke on Trail (BEST)Some routes are marked by cairns, and cairns have been ‘built’ along the route to Dog Gash. I use the word, ‘built’ loosely, because these cairns are nothing more than piles of stones.

I like the art of stacking stones and where better to practice my art than here, where the cairns—whatever they might once have been—need significant work.

The stones are perfect, some long, all of them with angles surfaces, which with the right touch and patience, I’m able to turn random piles into statues.

I follow one to the next, stopping, kneeling on the hard desert, creating structure from chaos.

After reforming three cairns, I move along the route into a vast field of creosote. These plants define this desert. They can be shoulder-high or shorter than one’s knees, and evenly spaced or random as if dropped from high in the sky. All of which depends on the source of water from which they draw. Creosote roots exude a toxic substance which keeps other plants at bay, from competing for valuable moisture. It is these distances these brilliant plants have created between themselves through which I follow the route, cairn to cairn. Creosote exudes the “scent of the desert” which I breathe in knowing that I am much better having done so.

Terry has moved on out of sight. Looking down, I notice that my path is sidewalk smooth and I stop to shed my shoes and socks. In the months since I walked barefooted outdoors, I’ve missed it. My feet are white and tender and marked by creases left by my socks. I’ve read about the benefits of walking barefooted—the chemical exchange of important ions; the massaging of points on one’s feet which are connected to our various organs. I don’t need to believe any of that to know that walking barefooted makes me happy. I stuff my shoes and socks in my pack, take three glorious steps, calculating: If walking barefooted feels this good, walking naked will be that times ten. Or twenty. I look around to be sure I’m alone, as I would feel sorry for anyone accidently seeing what six decades of time and distance can do to a body.

Dressed in my floppy hat, I move like liquid across the desert. I stop to re-build six cairns. The February sun is perfect, its beams hitting my pale body at such a low angle they’re deflected rather than absorbed. Pinching my skin, I find no redness. The route, which has been straight and directly east, turns south and winds between creosote which grow closer together here, suggesting they share more abundant water. The trail roughens and the small stones and sharp sticks require more of my attention. It turns sharply west and becomes tube-like as it drops into the large wash through which water running over the eons has created Dog Gash. Terry is there, waiting.

She laughs briefly at my naked state and we walk toward the gash which becomes a portal between two worlds. There are many rocks, which although rounded from ten thousand floods, are too much for my just-born feet.

Now with shoes (no socks) I follow her toward the Gash. We stop in bank shade to eat and drink and glimpse a small bird on a dead branch.  A wren, its white eyebrow telling us it’s Bewick’s and not  Rock Wren or Canyon Wren. Two insects buzz around us and across the wash a brilliant orange butterfly surfs an invisible breeze. Terry makes notes in her journal and I get up and move.

As I enter the gash the air thickens, compressed by the rock walls rising high above the dry wash on both sides. The gash is filled with shade and the cool air charges my skin. I wander along in a trance, wondering how I would explain this place to someone from another planet or Omaha.

stone in handA million stones of different sizes and colors and shapes pave the creek bed. I pick up those with the most unique shapes and notice they are all the same color—a pink shade of white, not grey or beige. What could shape have to do with color? Two ravens croak high in the cliffs where a cloud casts a boat-like shadow.

Terry joins me where I’m sitting on a sandy bench looking out over it all. We don’t say much, but watch time pass slowly in front of us as if it has taken on form and color.

Chilled, we get up and move back through the gash, sensing that the end to this short day is closer than we think.

Terry’s shoes come off when the trail smoothes. We walk slowly, nowhere else to be, two miles to go. I work on three more cairns. Terry follows a small brown bird. A large beetle recently crossed our path, I can tell by its tracks.

The sun melts on the horizon, spreading bright color along it. I stop to put on my clothes, which feel like they belong to someone else.

Looking north, in the fading sunlight, I can see where a massive chunk of rock has fallen from a cliff, and smashed into white powder on the dark talus slope below. I swear that it happened today, while we were in Dog Gash. I’ll find out later the rock fell in 1987.

The shadows grow as we move through the creosote. Tomorrow, we’ll head south toward the Rio Grand. We’ll see Mexico across the river and the creosote will be starting to bloom there, as the spring will be further along. I’ll wonder if I’ll be older there—further along—and  long for Dog Gash where I can be young again.

Postcard: World Championships, Beaver Creek, CO

Every two years, the alpine ski racing universe takes over a mountain and crowns 10 world champions in a fortnight. This year, said universe took over Beaver Creek in Colorado’s Vail Valley, the first time in 16 years the worlds have taken place on American snow. Say what you will about U.S. racing fans — how they only care during big events or don’t really understand the nuances — but they have shown up like there was free ice cream to be had. The stands have been packed every day, albeit with plenty of international flavor mixed in, and the action has featured both near-misses (see: Miller, Bode) and brilliance (see: the country of Austria and Maze, Tina). Also, when you win, they project your name onto the side of Vail Mountain overnight.

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

The Story of My Heart: Brooke Williams speaks with 19th century nature-mystic Richard Jefferies

Last February, winter eased its chokehold on the high desert. The sun was warm enough for both mud and sweat, and I sat on our south-facing deck, eating a carrot and squinting while the desert quiet hummed like a huge and distant insect. I had been working for months to make personal sense of a book published in 1883—The Story of My Heart—and a man, Richard Jefferies (1848-1887), the 19th century Nature-mystic who wrote it.

My wife Terry Tempest Williams and I discovered the book years ago in the far corner of a dusty bookshop on an island in Maine. We read it out loud to each other, proposed to a publisher that it be re-issued, and traveled to England to walk on the ground that inspired it. I was near the end of 18,000 “after words” that would become my contribution. I’m not sure when, during the course of this process, I became obsessed. That bright day on that deck, I felt my obsession turn to frustration.

I knew Jefferies was out there—from strange insights I’d had since finding his book, from “visits” I can neither explain nor justify. I’d read Robert Pogue Harrison’s book, The Dominion of the Day, which comforted me with the matter-of-fact description of the role of the dead in encouraging the living to “keep the story going” into the future. I had the strong sense that Jefferies had picked me to complete his unfinished business.

“Why me, Richard Jefferies?”

I was tired and needed a day off from poring over his florid but densely beautiful prose, which I was sure held clues to our modern situation. I’d asked this question many times as I struggled to capture the meaning I knew hid in those old pages. I needed to know this. I needed to know many things.

“Why me, Richard Jefferies?” I asked out loud as a breeze swirled in front of me.

jefferiesThis time he answered.

“If the eye is always watching, and the mind on the alert, ultimately chance supplies the solution.”
I clearly heard those words which had become familiar during the two dozen times I’d read The Story of My Heart. I’d begun to rationalize: Obviously, I’m so close to this book that its words are now stored in my unconscious ready to use when I need them. But then I heard, “You seemed ready when you found it on that bookshelf. I had been waiting for a long time.”

This was the opening I’d waited for. I seemed to have discovered the portal between life and death. Not wanting to waste the opportunity to interview Jefferies, I jumped right in.

You’re dead…?
Such a limited, term, “death.”

Because?
You moderns talk about it, but you give no real credence to the immortal “soul.” You say you know the soul leaves the body at death, but you ignore the “souls” of your dead when you have much to learn from them.

Why have you come back now?
Come back? I haven’t been gone.

What do we need to know?
You think you’re special and you are—never in history have humans knowingly contributed to that which threatens to destroy them. But you can change.

One day as I moved up the sweet short turf near my home, my heart seemed to obtain a wider horizon of feeling at every step; with every inhalation of rich pure air, a deeper desire. The very light of the sun was whiter and more brilliant. I was utterly alone with the sun and the earth. Lying down on the grass, I felt the earth’s firmness—I felt it bear me up: through the grass, there came an influence as I could feel the great earth speaking to my soul.

Your point is….?
You people pave everything. Or drill it or dig it for the carbon fueling your lives. The great earth cannot be heard through pavement, over the drilling and digging.

We are working to protect wild place from paving and drilling.
You speak of saving these wild places as a reminder of the past brilliance of our evolution or because they are havens for other species. This is true, but limited. You save these wild places because they will save you. The great earth is speaking about all that is at stake for the future of humans. Those who profit from paving and drilling do not know this. Not only do they refuse to hear what the great earth says, but also profit from silencing the great earth.

We do our best.
That is only part of it. Your people are strong and brave and capable of finding your way to the far corners of the Earth—no matter the season, no matter how extreme. This is admirable. But the earth-knowledge you need to save yourselves comes up through your feet anywhere that is wild, anywhere the natural system continues to function. You need only to slow down. You need only to open. This is how you evolve. You need to evolve.

How much time do we have?
Time is not what you think. Then the air around me grew quiet, and so did Richard Jefferies.

TSOMH–Interview by Brooke Williams. The re-release of Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart (torreyhouse.com), first published in 1883, features essays by Brooke Williams and an introduction by Terry Tempest Williams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Land in the Sky: Desolation

In the summer of 1992, I was 34 years old. So I loaded up my old Corolla wagon with mountaineering gear and spent a couple of months just driving around and climbing peaks along the Pacific Slope.

I climbed all the snowy volcanoes from Mount Lassen to Mount Baker. Well, except for Baker—which, in that drought year, was a formidable blue pockmarked demon—and Rainier, because the Park Service wouldn’t let me climb it by myself. (In later years I went back and climbed both these peaks with friends.) By the middle of September I was working my way around the North Cascades. I decided to climb the mountain where Jack Kerouac worked as a lookout in the summer of 1956—Desolation Peak. At the time he was 34 years old.

I rented a little motorboat at Ross Dam and navigated my way several miles up the impounded waters of the Skagit River to an overgrown landing that was the trailhead. The same route Kerouac used to get there. Nothing much had changed. It was a five or six mile hike to the summit. Along the trail I surprised a small grizzly snacking in patch of huckleberries. We were both frightened. He ran away first. I made it to the summit. Nobody was there.

The other day I found this snapshot—an old school selfie taken on the summit of Desolation. It made me happy to look at. And a bit sad. So I just said “Blah,” with a little grin, figuring those two 34-year-old guys would understand what that meant. Then I wrote these words.

February 2015 Poems

Prufrock_And_Other_ObservationsWelcome to the latest issue of Mountain Gazette poetry.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the magic of language, how it builds within our minds a world that’s been created in someone else’s (the writer’s) head. Which is to say that lately I’ve been thinking a lot about communication: verbal, written, and otherwise. About intention and perception. How it canand often doesgo wrong. You think you’re communicating beautifully with someone, and you really get one another, and then the person you’re conversing with says something like a line from Prufrock: That is not what I meant at all; that is not it, at all.

Communication is a messy experience. (Kind of like eating a peach, yes.)

And yet in these poems I find a miraculous irony: in them, there is a crystal clear embodiment of the moments they’re describing, even though the moments are all about the travails of communication. The successes and failures. They embrace the question: how do we truly know one another? In attempting to answer this question, they brilliantly convey the messiness of speech and connection. And in that I am both heartened and grieved, which is why I go to poetry in the first place. To get both sides of the coin.

Michael Henry
Poetry Editor

 

 

KEROSENE ARTS
—Jonathan Riccio

“One thing I’ve learned: go looking for fire eaters and you don’t know what you’ll find.”
—Thomas Lux

As a fire eater you will never go unemployed.

Your windpipe determines retirement.

Ember jaws, spark gums; the physical is glamorous.

Come April Fool’s Day, the lighter fluid dunk tank.

Do you remember Joe “stilt ankles” Mikelson?

Well now he runs the Missoula circus scene
with his fiancée Carol, Ms. Spinning Plates.

You who were raised on three-syllable commands:

Somersault.
Abrogate.
Genuflect.

The perfect Jesuit acrobat save for
homosexuality and that dented leg.

If you’re lucky you’ll meet the ventriloquist
with extra knuckles.

Your bellows.
His teeth.

Lord knows where that could lead.

 

 

FULL DISCLOSURE
—Jonathan Riccio

You began as a germaphobe?

I prefer the term contagion-avoiding.
Better than running from, he thrived.

Eons, websites after now, they’ll refer
to us as the society that bronzed its

footwear. Gave preservation a new
lukewarmth. Meanwhile, where’s

your microscope? Gander into that
lens and see how long it is before you

petition the committee on household bound.

But if it veers your readers in a Hughesian
direction, germaphobe it is. Either way,

it involved scalding and a lot of Dial.

P.S. That Howard should thank his
bacteria-free stars for Leo D.

I’d have leapt at the chance for some
Gilbert Grapethrob with the countenance
of yesterday’s SpaghettiOs to portray me.

Question to a chronic
hand washer: does your
lifeline rankle at water?

I scrub                         the skin cajoles.

Is it true you only wear
slip-on shoes?

If laces, phobias they’d come undone.
Undone, fear they’d touch whatever

Band-Aid, saliva mane, gum glob,
vector spring or spatter errant

that calls the pavement home.

The ground begat your brand
of awareness?

It could’ve been the ether’s glitch,
the boogey mensch.

How do you function?

By stigma disbursed.

Complete this sentence
as only an agoraphobe
of your standing could:
Vulnerability________

is the new bullet train
of a wished-for Japan.

Sterile’s a pretty battery.
Affliction takes you so far.

 

 

MY MOTHER, HELEN EILEEN
—Sue Robinson

At the edge of the road there were houses
huddled in a suffocating blanket
that wouldn’t let me find you
in those hilly streets, steep roads too new
to know about the star-lit sea we shared.
I turned before the street rose steeper,
hating hills at night, the way a car in front
can teeter in my headlights,
plunge and disappear. When you died
I trembled on the edge.
You worked at it for hours.
Your breath grew shallow, slower—
stop and start and stop.

I hope you didn’t go to heaven,
it’s too perfect to be happy there.
I remember how you played Satie’s Gymnopedie
the way the chords resolved, the rising melody
climbing the hill:
a sudden subito and ritardando
fading into silence.

 

 

THE COMMON ROOM
—Sue Robinson

At first he thought I was a friend he knew
from hot-dish dinners at the church,
he finally knows it’s me and dozes off,
wakes up wondering who I am.
We talk about the Army,
World War II, and his favorite plane,
The Flying Fortress. The radio
is playing “What is This Thing called Love?”
He cries as I beg heaven
not to put me in a place like this
when life gets thin,
slithers off me like a dirty slip.

Here the lobby doors are automatic,
gliding back and forth they hiss and mock
the common room of keening,
barely masked by finches dying in their cage.
My father never hears the birds;
he listens for the dinner bell,
he tells me he has whistling fish inside his head
that never go away.

I knew him best the day he looked at me
and thought I was his wife come back
to cook him breakfast. What’s left of love
are things that touched her hands
dirty cans of poppy seeds and turmeric
whisper curry, coffeecake,
the closet of clothes he can’t throw out,
the red wool dress, the long-sleeved arms
that lift to him at night.

 

 

BASTILLE DAY, TARASCON
—Don Pomerantz

You say that when the traffic slows
to a trickle then stops, that will be the signal
that the parade is about to begin.

The traffic continues unabated,
though off in the distance somewhere
it sounds like an announcer’s voice

coming over loudspeakers, festively
trotting its swift little journey towards us.
At least here no one honks their horns.

The traffic is slowing—no, now it’s picked
up again. At least there are no trucks—
were there trucks before? I don’t recall.

There is a rumor now spreading in the café:
the parade has not been cancelled but
merely postponed, for reasons no one knows.

But 6:30, 7:30, what’s the difference? We can
just sit back and enjoy the pre-dusk light and shade—
the heat today had come very close to hot.

I say that tonight, at least, in the village square
after the traffic, the shush of wheels,
and the sun have all punched out for the day,

the folk dancers from barely known countries
will come, there will be music then for sure:
playful accordions along with wind instruments

and strings we have never before seen accompanying
the dancers stepping the same wedding celebration steps
as their ancestral kinsmen, the same strange courtship

twittering of feet and high kicking celebrations
of heroic deeds. The women’s long sleeves will wave slowly
again as if to another welcome caravan passing along

The Silk Road as the lone horn trills hypnotically up,
then down. But for now, our drinks are almost finished
and you say that there were posters, handbills as well,

this is the route, the time, the place, wait—
do you hear something? No. Who is this parade’s
marshal anyway, Tartarin? Godot?

I look up now to shrug or shake my head
and I see it, there it is: the parade of wind
in the high leaves above the people, above the streets.

You have not forgotten us, there you are
with your very quiet trumpets of love,
a muted trombone, clarinet, and flutes.

We have discussed it and both now agree
that we will be your antique drum to be played
with sticks of lavender, thumping the old tunes.

You’re still always there, breath without a flag, old friend
marching through the branches with their fattening leaves
and in this way, we will not be so likely to forget.

 

 

A PEDAL BOAT
—Don Pomerantz

Two mallards paddle through their own reflections,
glance at the waver of their underbellies, a singled eye

scouts past us to this and that insensible predilection.
My father and I, hunched into the nearest boat lay

no bread upon the water nor shiny hooks below whose
glint in the sun they could take for epiphany, diving

to capture the morsel, feet left to kick
into a world turned upside down.

In our pedal boat occasion my father and I kick our
way into where we imagine the foot pedals to be,

to the glorious, the elliptical, the watery nowhere.

Looking back through another continuity of interrupted flight,
you call this pond what, this oldish wet and dry?

Looking up through a skylight, just now
before dusk no light can suffice to show if you

are there, or read your lost answer written as it is
in the weightless slipstream of one or more feathers.

 

 

A LITTLE JOKE
After Adolph Dehn’s A Little Joke
Hedy Habra

Like bald eagles fallen over a wooden bench, hands resting over their laps’ folds, fingers curved inwards, claws awaiting their prey, two men empowered by their black cassocks, chatter like old village gossips, distorted figures wearing a feather as a headdress you’d rather imagine bent over a breviary or behind a confessional’s lattice.

For that can’t be serious talk: the tension in their elongated limbs shows they’re sharing something much juicier, a dark string of syllables hushed in secrecy, winglike capes propped in symmetry, rounded eyes doubled by circular binoculars, two sets of eyes facing each other almost as in a duel, yet accomplices of the ebb and flow of words riding the air between the smile stretching their lips, inaudible even in the stillness of the gallery’s collection.

The more I try to decipher this arcane complicity, the more I find myself caught in a net spun by ink strokes in that visibile parlare. I am left with the fear that the artist has led me to a threadless string of invisible words just for the sake of playing a joke on me.

 

 

 

POET BIOS

Hedy Habra is the author of Tea in Heliopolis, winner of the 2014 USA Book Awards and finalist for the 2014 International Poetry Book Award, and Flying Carpets, winner of the 2013 Arab American National Book Award’s Honorable Mention. Her work appears in Drunken Boat, Bitter Oleander, Blue Fifth Review, Diode, Nimrod, among other magazines. Her website is HedyHabra.com.

Don Pomerantz lives in New York City where he is a teacher. His poems have appeared in Washington Square, Failbetter, Potomac Review, Eclectica, New Plains Review, Euphony and elsewhere.

Jon Riccio studied viola performance at Oberlin College and the Cleveland Institute of Music. An MFA candidate at the University of Arizona, current and forthcoming poems appear in CutBank, Paper Nautilus, Blast Furnace, Triggerfish, Waxwing and Stone Highway Review.

Sue Robinson lives in Boulder, Colorado. Currently she is working on a manuscript of poems and enjoying a diverse and supportive community as student at Lighthouse Writers Workshop.

 

 

Mountain Passages: On Patrol in the Backcountry

On Patrol  in the Backcountry

The trials and tribulations of a boomer who works backcountry ski patrol

By Alan Stark

A moment ago a burst of wind from the Continental Divide caught me off balance on the road and I crashed to the snow sideways under my pack, skis, and poles. I look like a ski patrol yard sale.

I struggle to my feet, curse the wind, gather my gear and move toward the trailhead looking much like a straggler on the retreat from Stalingrad. I hope no one saw my act but, hey, I’m an old backcountry patroller.

Sometimes I fall down.

Reaching the trailhead, I attach skins to the bottom of my alpine touring (AT) skis and drop the skis on the crusty snow. I plant my poles for balance, click the toes of my plastic boots into the bindings, and then slide my fat skis back and forth to clear the snow from the skins.

Backcountry ski patrol work is easy duty if you are 35. I’m a good deal older than that. Sure, I could itemize the overused parts, tally the injuries, and make any number of other excuses, but no one forced me to volunteer for this work. I can’t think of anyplace else I’d rather be right now—well, maybe the windward side of O’ahu.

The skins grab the snow and I move uphill among the trees at 10,000 feet. My pace is slow and my breathing is moderately heavy but sustainable. Going uphill I’ll cover two miles in an hour. A youngster comes up from behind, also on AT skis. She’s carrying a full pack, and blows by me with a nod and a smile. She’ll cover the same distance in a half hour, maybe a little bit more. She’s headed for some turns below Blue Lake at about 12,000 feet, and could be planning on staying out overnight in a snow cave or at least a comfortable bivouac.

The kick and glide of backcountry skiing is a metronome of shish, shish, shish as the snow gets better and better the higher I go. My thoughts drift with the steady upward movement.

As I started training for ski patrol three years ago, I stood in front of my much younger classmates to explain myself.

“So Alan, why do you want to be a ski patrolman?” an instructor asked.

“I spent most of my book publishing career in sales and marketing.”

“And.”

“Whenever I met someone professionally, they knew I wanted something from them.”

“So?”

“For my next job, I want people to be glad to see me when I show up.”

When the members of Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol first started working Brainard Lake Recreation Area, we were concerned that backcountry skiers would see us as snow cops. Yes, we do wear red jackets or vests filled with first aid stuff. The white cross that we have all earned is stitched to the back. And yes, we do have UHF/VHF radios and SPOT units (emergency GPS beacons) for calling for help. Our job up here is providing information, education, and a low level medical response if someone is sick or injured. We have no law enforcement responsibilities and don’t want any.

We were surprised that most skiers we met nodded and often said hello. Some stopped us and asked questions. Occasionally they graciously told us that they were glad to see us working up here, that our presence made them feel safer, in what to some, is a slightly threatening environment.

tree tunnelFrom thinking about how I got here, I once again think about my age and doing this kind of work. For me it is more about an obligation to give something back. My age is immaterial so long as I can do the work. Many of my peers were tear-gassed on campus quads protesting a stupid war (oxymoron?). Mostly we survived the whole sex, drugs, and rock & roll thing. And then we earned degrees, found jobs, got married, had families, and moved on. But as a generation, we didn’t contribute much out of the ordinary other than an ongoing whiny discontent with the status quo and maybe an unrequited desire to actually do something important other than to go to work, eat, sleep, and do it again the next day.

So am I holding myself up as an exemplar of Boomer responsibility? Nope, I’m just one among many Boomers finally trying to put something back into the system. And when I’m flat honest about what I am doing up here, I sometimes feel foolish for the hubris of thinking I might be doing some good. All I’m really doing is going out twice a week for some backcountry skiing and short conversations with other skiers and maybe watching out for them.

I’m at Brainard Lake now and looking up toward Mount Audubon and Mount Toll. Grey clouds are pouring over the saddle between the peaks. This morning NOAA weather radio advised that a front was due about now. In twenty minutes the wind will blast me again and then it will snow…hard. I watch the storm flow toward the lake and think about that youngster. She appeared fit, skilled, and no doubt prepared for just about anything the mountains can throw at her but I still whisper, “Careful out there.” As the storm drops into the valley she’s probably at the CMC cabin or hunkered down somewhere and thinking similar stuff about the grey-haired patroller.

The wind just hit and the snow is right behind it. I strip my skins and pack them, switch my bindings to a downhill function and lock my heels in place. I push off and the old familiar feeling of flowing downhill is on me once again. There is huge grin on my face, I am skiing in front of the storm.

IMG_1589Alan Stark is a freelance writer and volunteer backcountry ski patroller in the Roosevelt National Forest west of Boulder.

Inner Vision: A Pilgrimage in Tibet

Inner Vision

When he attempts to make the pilgrimage over Tibet’s Duge La Pass, a traveler almost loses his sight but gains new insight into the meanings to be found in the world’s highest mountains.

Words and Photos by Casey Flynn

Another avalanche rumbles down unseen slopes. Fat, wet flakes fill the air and cut visibility down to fifty feet. My fogged-up sunglasses hang from my neck, useless. The wind eases briefly and I can see other pilgrims through the white haze on the slope above me, blazing onward through three feet of fresh snow. Any semblance of a trail is buried.

Our objective is Duge La, a 13,000-foot pass that crests the spine of the Kawagarbo Range, crossing from Yunnan Province, China into the eastern reaches of Tibet. My fellow spiritual seekers and I are treading the outer pilgrimage route around the sacred Tibetan mountain Kawagarbo, a 21,770-foot monolith to our north. The two-week trek circles clockwise around the holy peak, across high passes, along steep gorges and through narrow valleys lined with waterfalls. Every year, 15,000 Tibetans walk the path around Kawagarbo, believed to be the home of a powerful protective deity.

But doubt gnaws at me. I’m throwing away years of snow safety training for the idea of completing the pilgrimage. It’s still snowing. Conditions are deteriorating. I have no idea what terrain lies ahead. But my stubborn attachment to making it around the mountain prevails. I forge upward.

Prayer flags appear out of the swirling, featureless landscape. The pass. Suddenly, the line of people stops moving. Wind whips the wet snow sideways through the rocky gap. A few pilgrims turn and start walking back toward me, but others grab hold and reassure them. When we start forward again, the cause of the panic becomes clear: a two-foot deep slab avalanche has ripped out and raked 3,000 feet down our descent route. Unconsolidated powder and scree make the going slow and slippery. Intermittent spatters of blood paint the snow surface, remnants of falling pilgrims.

In the safety of the valley meadows below, I sit on my pack to rest and eat peanuts. A Chinese man and his Tibetan guides catch up with me. He’s shivering violently. “I’m hungry,” he stammers in English.

I hand him a fruit bar. His guides don’t seem very concerned about his condition, but I am. “Do you have any dry clothes in your bag?” I ask.

He nods.

“You should change into them,” I say.

He stares at me blankly. He doesn’t seem capable of changing on his own so two of his guides and a friend began peeling his wet clothing off. I’m not much drier—with the temperature hovering around freezing, the snow is falling damp and soggy. A chill creeps up my legs. They find dry pants and a shirt and pull them over the man’s damp skin. He starts to improve immediately. The color comes back into his face.

“Thank you! Thank you!” He takes my hand in both of his and shakes hard before moving on.

I feel ill. I’m not drinking enough water. The cold and wet have discouraged me from stopping and taking off my pack to get my bottle. Now, the effects of dehydration are clenching my stomach and fogging up my head. I’m having trouble seeing clearly. Is it snow blindness from forgetting to wear sunglasses?

DSCN2516The Source of Power: “Every year, 15,000 Tibetans walk the path around Kawagarbo, believed to be the home of a powerful protective deity.” Photo: Casey Flynn

Darkness comes and I put on my headlamp. The trail blurs. My head and eyes ache. I want to take my contact lenses out, thinking it might help, but my fingers just scrape against my face, unwilling to do what I want. I extract the right lens but the pain from my clumsy attempts forces me to give up on the left. I stumble on half-blind in the night.

Later, I hear voices. Behind a large boulder, pilgrims huddle over a damp, smoke-spewing fire. They welcome me to stand with them around the crackling kindling, but the smoke sears my eyes. I stagger to a nearby boulder to rest. A father and son make space for me to join them under the boulder’s low overhang. I crawl into the cramped but dry space with them and wait for sleep to take me.

According to the Dalai Lama, “The goal of pilgrimage is not so much to reach a particular destination as to awaken within oneself the qualities and energies of the sacred site, which ultimately lie within our own minds.” Circumambulation is how Tibetans awaken these qualities in themselves, walking clockwise around the holy object with concentrated awareness. Pilgrimage sites have outer and inner routes. The outer path prepares pilgrims for the spiritual treasures that lie closer to the center.

Accomplished practitioners are said to have found hidden lands in sacred centers. I’m unsure whether these places are in one’s mind or whether they actually exist in geographic space but I was drawn to Kawagarbo and its secrets. I didn’t know what I would encounter along either path, but I needed to find out.

I can’t sleep. I can only fit into the tiny space with the father and son by curling up into a tight ball, but muscle cramps force me to stretch my dehydrated legs out until the cold forces me back into a ball. My repositioning is periodically interrupted by mice scuttling across my bag and my face, but I’m too weak to swat at them.

The father and son stir. Morning must have come but I can’t see it. My eyes are swollen shut. I listen to them roll up their bedding. The tarp that lies beneath their blanket crinkles as they fold it, stiff from the night’s cold. I hear the father walking toward me “Come, you must come,” he tells me in Chinese.

“I can’t,” I say.

“You must come!” He gently pulls me up.

“I can’t! I can’t see.”

He says something I can’t understand, but I can sense the concern in his voice.

“I can’t go. I have food, I have water, I am warm. I will stay,” I say. I’m not warm, but without sight, staying is the only choice. He keeps insisting I come but I keep shaking my head. At last, he hands me a plastic bottle full of hot yak butter tea and leaves.

I stretch out under the boulder’s overhang. I have food and water, but I’m close to hypothermic. Wet clumps of snow melt and flow down the boulder and through the zippers and cracks in my bivy sack. Day becomes night. The forest grows quiet and the cold sharper. Hallucinations and vivid dreams take over.

Late in the night, I crawl out of my bag, convinced that friends and a warm cabin are close by. There is no longer a separation between the inner and outer worlds. Shocked back to the present by the cold, I realize what I am doing and retreat back into my bag, back into delusion. Am I still on the pilgrimage?

The forest awakens around me. Birds chirp and a breeze rustles the leaves. I crack open my right eye and see light. My left eye is still swollen and a crust has formed across the lid. I can’t open it. Damp and aching, I stand up for the first time in 40 hours.

The snowstorm has blocked Duge La pass behind me. The only way is forward. At first, walking is slow and clumsy due to my altered depth perception, but over three days of solitary travel, I adapt to my partial blindness, aided by a walking stick. I gradually tell myself that my vision might be permanently damaged. Acceptance is easier and more practical than despair.

The early-season storm has ravaged the forest. Tangled masses of downed timber choke the trail and streams of snowmelt flood the path. I skirt cliff bands to navigate around blocked sections of trail. Several steep switchbacks demand that I climb down through the branches of fallen trees to reach the lower trail.

I follow footbridges lined with prayer flags and piles of mana stones, flat pieces of rock with prayers etched into them, to the village of Tsawalong. While resting in the dusty street, a man emerges out of a crowd of Tibetans and pulls me to my feet. I recognize him as the Chinese man from Duge La. Beaming, he shakes my hand, introduces himself as Zeng Yuan and thanks me for saving his life.

I hadn’t saved his life. I had only observed his condition, something he wasn’t able to see at that time. And then I realize what we share. The circumambulation is carrying us both forward. While lying under that boulder and walking solitary through the forest, I had begun to see my own condition more clearly. Though it almost cost me an eye, the pilgrimage gave me sight.

Postcard: Maroon Bells

Alone, either of the Maroon Bells would be gorgeous — a towering pyramid surrounded by much more randomly shaped mountains. But it wouldn’t be the same if there were only one. They need each other. They are famous because they are a couple. Twins. Bells, not Bell. Never mind the challenges they present to would-be conquerors, in the climbing/skiing sense. The Maroon Bells are a symbol of Colorado’s freedom, possibility, and beauty. Perhaps the symbol. Here is what they looked like last Friday, from the north ridge of Highland Bowl — an Aspen landmark in its own right.

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil