Sometimes get into the car and just drive roads unfamiliar or simply unremembered perhaps from childhood past fading farms with ruinous silos collapsing into goldenrod profusions empty of monarchs what only last year or the year before were pastures for cow painters or fields of knee-high by the Fourth of July signs everywhere along the road this one says “1968 National Highway Beauty Award” hard to see that obscured by encroaching trees as is an old cemetery tucked in among thickening shade of ash and maple close by leafy-laned driveways to second homes of successful artists from the city before all opens out unexpectedly into expansive playing fields rising up from which a new regional high school at first mistaken for correctional institution after that hand-painted banner in front of a ramshackle farmhouse with yard cars the message “Make America Grate Again” till abrupt arrival at a sagging redbrick river town “Awaiting Restoration” according to notices in the vacant storefront windows nowhere around here to get a cup of coffee nowhere to go no more history so stroll along a weedy path to river’s edge where green signs mark “NYS Permitted Discharge Point” and in the park right next to that the annual “Blessing of the Animals” going on today pit bulls and kittens goldfish in a bowl one roly-poly child with teddy bear seeking priest blessings bestowed and thoughts of heading home but which way to go how about another unfamiliar this or that road past mothballed generating station until utterly turned around maybe get on the Thruway and pull into a rest stop we all know the way home from there.
Thirty years ago, my friend Charlie and I got lost while backpacking in the northeast corner of Yosemite National Park. It was all my fault but that’s a long story, almost as long as the “shortcut” I suggested we take that got us lost in the first place. We were committed and there was no going back. Anyhoo, at one point I turn to Charlie and say: “You know, this is someplace we’re never gonna be in again.” And he says: “Or anybody else either.”
High on one of the highest peaks in the Catskills, just below the summit, in balsam-brake and moss, close by Rip Van Winkle’s now-depleted spring, we came upon the wreckage. Broken wings, battered fuselage, relic scraps of metal strewn across forest floor—all that remains of the small plane that came down here in thickening weather one June evening half a century ago. Two lives lost, no survivors. Days passed before the crash site could be located and the bodies recovered. A report was submitted. Probable cause of crash: “Pilot in command became lost/disoriented.” This is the place. No plaque. No marker. No record of any names. Just the bones of Icarus picked clean.
About an hour south of Missoula in western Montana, the Bitterroot Valley provides a vast, quiet recreational paradise for those who live there. I passed through last week on assignment and got out for a sunset ride with a handful of locals. A nearby wildfire helped create the colorful sky.
For the last three months, the collies and I have grown accustomed to hearing the song of the wood thrush during our sunrise walks: one bird here, one bird there, each singing from his own leafy perch. I love them so, and I think the collies do too. But in the last week, the wood thrush song has ceased. The birds’ attention now turns to other matters. Before long they will depart for warmer places. I already miss them, and I think the collies do too. So when we got back this morning, I found a wood thrush video on the internet and played it. The collies barked for joy, and I think I did too.
This is what I think about when I’m sitting at my desk during the summer: wildflowers in an alpine meadow surrounded by big peaks. It evokes a sense of freedom unto itself. Running down a trail through said meadow only magnifies said sense of freedom. Last week’s circumnavigation of one of our local peaks proved that once more.
Some mountains are worthy of cross-valley staring. Mount of the Holy Cross, pictured above my friend’s head, is one. Even in late June, the famous cross on the 14,005-foot peak’s east face is clearly visible. It’s the same view pilgrims traveled thousands of miles to witness in the 19th century, and the best part about it is nothing has changed.
As I rode my bike past this tennis court just southeast of Crested Butte, Colorado, I felt a pang of sympathy. Its brethren in Florida and Arizona and most places in the country, really, teem with people and balls and action. Not this one. He sits alone surrounded by peaks and trails and aspen groves, pining for company, pining to be needed, played on. One can only hope he enjoys the view.
We are sitting at the bar in the Blue Fox in Anchorage, Alaska. It’s an election year and the TV is tuned to the National Geographic channel. Right now it’s a show about elephants. On the big screen we see a mama elephant and her adorable baby sharing an affectionate moment. Even though the scene takes place out on the African savanna where things are supposed to be “nature red in tooth and claw,” everybody here at the Blue Fox looks at the TV and goes: “Awww. . . .”
Then for no apparent reason, mama elephant tips over and collapses to the ground. Everybody gasps. “What’s going on? Is this how elephants take a nap? Is she dead?” Meanwhile baby elephant has his own problems. He is looking at mama lying there on the ground. The expression on his face—and yes, you can recognize it—is one of bewilderment. The look says: “What the hell, mama? I love you, please get up!” But mama does not get up. She does not move. She might really be dead. The look on baby elephant’s face now shifts from bewilderment to full blown terror. He turns and runs away, exiting the camera’s frame.
Enter now a couple of scientists dressed in stylish his-and-her safari outfits. We know they are scientists because he’s shouldering a tranquilizer rifle and she’s carrying what appears to be a medical satchel. The volume on the TV is turned off—and we’ve all had a few drinks—so admittedly some of this report should be taken as guesswork on my part. Nonetheless, the two presumed scientists, smiling for the camera, proceed with their business.
They attend to mama elephant, who—it’s safe to infer—is out cold from a Mickey Finn delivered with a dart. The scientists start taking measurements of mama’s body. She does not move. If she’s still breathing, we here in the bar can’t see it. The female scientist, still smiling for the camera, reaches into her satchel and pulls out the all the gear needed to make a venipuncture and draw some blood. The bar goes silent. All eyes are on the smiling scientist as she steps toward mama elephant’s comatose mass. She runs a cool hand over mama elephant’s ear. The vein is located. The needle is unsheathed. It glitters in the African sun. “This won’t hurt a bit. . . .”
Somebody in the bar shouts: “I can’t take this anymore! Change the channel! Let’s watch the Republican convention!”
Sometimes we sit in this place, just stare out the window at mountains and forests and parking lots. This is Alaska and that’s what happens here. Elsewhere it’s another story. And another. And yet another. A less pleasant story, one that’s on its way. It draws closer and closer. It will be here soon. What ever shall we do?
Look! There. See! Our reflection in the window.