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.

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

Land in the Sky: Signs Along the Way

The collie puppy and I decided to do some winter bushwhacking. I grabbed the map nearest to hand—a facsimile 1893 USGS topo for Durham, New York—and headed out the door. We set off through the woods. Here in the Catskill Mountains, the woods do not come to an end. They just keep going. A few inches of hardened snow covered the ground. Easy walking for me and the collie puppy. The cold wind was at our backs. And in our ears. We walked and we walked and we walked. We crossed the track of many a deer. No hints of any living people, just the traces of those long gone—in the form of old stone walls, lithified lines of gnomic verse across the landscape. We started following one. We were drawn deeper into the woods. Our direction was toward the base of a mountain.

DEC-SignWithout warning, we came upon an official sign put up by the state. We looked at it. It was shiny and new and denoted the boundary of a wilderness area. We stuck to this line and came upon another sign denoting the same thing. Then another. The shiny signs continued to appear along the old stone wall. In the 19th century, these rock fences established the bounds of a pasture. The pasture has since vanished. Forest succession took care of that. Eventually the shiny signs petered out, but the old wall kept going. And so did we. The wall finally came to an end in a grove of dying hemlocks at the lip of a deep ravine. Below was a big creek buried under snow.

On the other side of the ravine rose the steep, wooded spur of a mountain named after a famous 19th century landscape painter. That painter never set foot on this peak. He must have known better. That didn’t stop us. We plunged into the daunting ravine, crossed the snowy creek, and started up the precipitous slope. The higher we climbed, the deeper the snow became. The wind grew louder. We were well above any shiny signs or old stone walls. The few game trails we saw all led downhill.

We continued our ascent, but the collie puppy was starting to have his doubts. The snow was now up to my knees and his neck. Drifts were deeper still. Neither of us had snowshoes. I pressed on, breaking the trail. The collie puppy followed close behind. On and on this went, higher and higher. Formidable ledges loomed above us. The sky turned a ferocious blue. The wind became a bitter dragon-roar.

The collie puppy at last lost patience. Surely, more fun was to be had down below in the sheltered hollow where the deer were running. Why climb this snowbound peak forsaken even by its namesake? He started scolding me, nipping at my calves, treating me like an errant sheep. I told him to stop. He barked. I told him to stop. There was no appeasing him. I had forgotten his cheese. He barked and he barked and he barked. At last I relented, “Okay, we’ll go down!” He yipped with delight. He frolicked in the drifts. He led the way downslope. We dropped our elevation in a quarter of the time it took to gain it. The wind subsided. The snow wasn’t so deep. The terrain leveled out. The deer tracks reappeared.

We came upon what seemed to be an old road, bordered by another stone wall. The road—barely a track, to be honest—had long since fallen off the newer maps, but there it was on my old map. We followed this road down a gentle hill. It was like strolling along in 1893, only through woods instead of pastures. We passed a spring and a cellar hole filled with snow. A former home site—it too was on the map. We kept walking until we came to a feature not on the old map: another of those shiny signs marking the boundary of the wilderness area. This one was nailed to a tree near what was once a gate in the stone wall. We passed through the gate without any trouble. After that it was the same all the way home.

Collie-Puppy-on-Winter-Bushwhack

Land in the Sky: Dwelling Anew

Last Christmas Eve down at Pandora’s Tavern, while everybody else was watching a bowl game on the bar’s big screen, I found myself re-reading some Heidegger. One does things like that down at Pandora’s Tavern. I first read this philosopher in the early 80s, under what might be called peculiar conditions. You could say that reading philosophy under peculiar conditions only serves to thicken the peculiarities, and you’d be right. Even under the most normal of circumstances, all it takes is a few minutes of casual browsing in a volume of philosophy—and everything takes an odd turn. But what did I know, I was a young, enthusiastic scholar pursuing my studies in the wild woolly-wags of eastern Maine, far removed from the lures of Wall Street where some of my old chums were already raking in the big bucks and had not yet been busted for insider trading.

In one of his less formidable essays, Heidegger makes a distinction between “building” and “dwelling.” Not all buildings, says the philosopher, are dwellings. “Bridges and hangars, stadiums and power stations are buildings but not dwellings.” That may seem pretty obvious. But when it comes to philosophy, the obvious is preferable to having a ding an sich shoved in your face. Anyway, by Heidegger’s lights the house I grew up in in suburban North Jersey counted as a dwelling. That’s because my family actually lived there. Whereas the nearby Pulaski Skyway—though certainly a building in the technical sense—was no dwelling. Nor was the giant stadium they built in the Hackensack Meadows, which opened in 1976 (the year I graduated from high school) and has since been torn down. Nor was the big mall— put up on what had been the wooded edge of our town—a dwelling, though it now teeters on the verge of bankruptcy and may soon be shuttered and become a haunted house of sorts.

To complete this picture, it should be noted that, in the New Jersey landscape of my youth, genuine dwellings were rapidly giving way to mere buildings—to the point where a peculiar kind of human-fashioned wilderness emerged, one distinguished by car dealerships, fast food joints, gardening centers, Kinney Shoes, pawn shops, dry cleaners, National Guard armories, bowling alleys, Entenmann’s outlets, lumber yards, drive-in theaters, donut shops, Robert Hall, and pet stores. And that’s just a partial inventory of the terrain. Yes, a peculiar kind of wilderness, which—in keeping with Federal law—is a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” I for one could not remain in New Jersey, so I lit out, as soon as I could, for the wilds of eastern Maine, where I misspent what was left of my youth.

And that’s where I first read Heidegger. The peculiar conditions were these.

I was a struggling graduate student in literature. The monthly stipend I received was just enough to cover the rent for my cheap digs, the cases of ramen noodles and beer that provided my sustenance, and the gas for my 1973 VW Beetle, which more often than not was out of commission so I mostly didn’t have to worry about filling the tank. I was assigned an office, which I shared with three other people. It was located on the fourth floor of what was then called the English-Math Building. A large portion of this unattractive structure remained unfinished on the inside because the university ran out of money to finish the project, so the place felt more like a parking garage or roller rink than an ivory tower. By no means would this echo of a Bauhaus blunder ever be considered a dwelling in the Heideggerian sense. Hell, it didn’t even have a proper name.

As fate would have it, I was forced one day to abandon my meager lodgings—in a snug trailer in a vintage mobile home park out near the town dump—due to a flea infestation. Having nowhere else to go, I moved—temporarily, or so I told myself—into my office in the English-Math Building. All my books were already there and a padded bench dragged in from the hallway provided a fine place to lay out a sleeping bag each night. My officemates didn’t mind. Nor did the kindly department secretary, who brought me coffee each morning and let me keep my beer in the department refrigerator. And my various friends, who were dwelling under more secure circumstances, regularly invited me over to their places for a meal and a shower. In the evenings, after the last classes were dismissed, a tomblike quiet would descend upon the English-Math Building, which proved a perfect environment for getting some serious reading done—reading that included works by Heidegger. Because rent was no longer a worry, I had more money than ever before. I was able to buy more books, including nice hardbound editions of Walden and The Maine Woods, both published by Princeton. I soon realized that I actually enjoyed living in my office. Things were simple and complete. The English-Math Building—at least my little corner of it—had become a dwelling. My dwelling.

I did harbor a few doubts about this place—this situation—that I was now calling home. After all, what kind of person lives in his office? (Think Bartleby, or Ted Kaczynski, or a Washington politician.) What would people think? What if I took ill and needed to be confined to bed? More than anything else, I worried about becoming lonely. Happily, those doubts were driven out when I discovered that another grad student—in math—had also moved into his office, on the same floor as me but on the other side of the building. I was no longer alone! I stopped by one evening to introduce myself—“Hi, I’m your neighbor from down the hall”—and he invited me in. Unlike my office, which indeed looked like an office because I rolled up and put away my sleeping bag each morning, this guy’s looked like somebody lived there. He had a big cushy chair, a gray tufted-back sofa sleeper with a couple kilim throw pillows, a girlfriend’s painting hanging on the wall, a color TV, a fancy microwave, and a hot-plate. The shelves around the room were packed not with books but canned goods. It was the most posh graduate student dwelling I had ever seen. And it got me to thinking, maybe I should spruce up my place.

Alas, that never happened. A few nights later I was at my desk, working late as usual, when a disruption occurred. I always left the door open so the night janitor wouldn’t be surprised to find somebody in there. When he made his rounds, I’d chat with him as he’d empty the trash buckets, then we’d bid each other a neighborly goodnight. Once he had passed through, I knew it would be safe to unroll the sleeping bag and bed down. On that night, the janitor had already made his rounds. I was just about to call it quits, when this great commotion erupted out in the hall. I heard the bang of the stairwell door bursting open, then the clomping of boots on the tile floor. I looked up from my desk to see a line of campus policemen charging past my door and down the hall. Whatever could be the matter? A few minutes later they filed back the way they had come, but now escorting my neighbor—in handcuffs. The cops never even bothered to peek in on what I was doing, but my neighbor did. The look on his face said: “Get the hell outta here, buddy, as fast as you can!”

And I did. I grabbed my sleeping bag, headed out into the snow, and trudged off to a friend’s—a grad student in geology—who was living in a homemade teepee deep in the university forest. I stayed with him till things cooled off back at the English-Math Building. Then I resumed my cozy office dwelling. I figured if I continued to live in such a way as not to call undue attention to myself, I’d be okay. And I was. But I never saw that math grad student again. When I stopped by to see how he had fared with the cops, I found his office stripped bare. Empty. As if nobody had ever dwelled there. It was forlorn as an abandoned mental hospital.

As for me, I continued to dwell in my own office for another couple months—till I somehow contracted salmonella and had to go in to the hospital for a few days. After that I didn’t go back to my office. I moved on to other lodgings—and many others in the years since. Yet each time learning how to dwell anew.

Five Reasons Why Valley Uprising Rocks

FIVE REASONS WHY “VALLEY UPRISING” ROCKS

BY SIDNI GIORDANO

Yosemite is high on the radar of everyone from NBC News to Rock and Ice but something else big happened when it comes to the history of America’s favorite big wall playground this week. Sender Films released “Valley Uprising,” it’s film about the history of big wall climbing in the park on demand on Vimeo. If you care about climbing, or are even just a casual observer, you’ll want to check this out. Here’s why:

It’s not just for climbers. Since its inception, REEL Rock Film Tour has featured an epic mix of short films highlighting the latest climbing porn laden with stories and characters that only hold significance among the climbing community. However, in its 9th year, Sender Films and Big UP Productions decided to showcase Valley Uprising, a full-length documentary that explores the 60-year climbing history of Yosemite National Park. You don’t need to come from a climbing background to appreciate the stories of 60s counter-culture, drug-smuggling plane crashes or the breathtaking views of the Valley itself. In fact, it’s even narrated by Hollywood actor Peter Sarsgaard.

It’s a work of art. This 90-minute film was indeed a labor of love, taking seven years, 50 interviews and dozens of trips to Yosemite to complete. The historic, never-before-seen photos are revamped with a 2.5-D animation twist and the soundtrack features . The cinematography within the first five minutes alone will have you questioning why you’re not in the Valley at that very moment.

It pays tribute to the legends. It’s rare to be involved in a sport where the majority of the men and women who brought it into the forefront are still alive today. Many modern-day climbers start out by pulling plastic in the gym, removing them from the rich history and culture that once dominated the community. This film allows the newest generation of climbers to cultivate a deep sense of respect for the founders who made it all possible.

It will make you feel like you were born in the wrong generation. You will leave the theater feeling nostalgic for events that happened before you were even born. Valley Uprising does such a great job at glorifying the dirtbag days of Camp 4 that you’d do anything to go back in time to live like an elective refugee and eat expired cat food with Yvon Chouinard. Well, maybe some of you Mountain Gazette readers were born in this generation…

It gets you psyched for the future of climbing.
 Before Warren Harding made the first ascent of The Nose in 1958, climbing El Capitan was considered impossible. Just a few decades later, climbers are free-soloing the same route in a matter of hours and BASE-jumping from the summit. It’s really amazing to see how much the sport and its culture have come, and the possibilities are endless for future generations. The free ascent of the Dawn Wall is just the beginning.

Postcard: Ptarmigan on a Fourteener

You have to wonder if the ptarmigan knows how cool of an animal it is. To turn snow white when you need to hide in snow for seven months of winter is not just a sign of evolution but also a boon to the rest of us. I like seeing a ptarmigan on my ski tour. I’ve seen up to nine at a time scurrying around on the side of a mountain, almost invisible but for their eyes and beaks. This dude or dudette was hanging out next to an abandoned gold mine on 14,265-foot Quandary Peak yesterday. Did he mind if I took his photo to put it on the Internet? I guess I’ll never know.

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

Land in the Sky: A Walk Down Memory Trail

Once upon a time in the Gunks, I lived at this very spot. On the shore of bucolic Duck Pond. For a whole summer. In a diminutive shack. I fetched my water from a spring. I cooked my meals on a little Coleman stove. I wrote letters at night by candlelight. Few wrote back. The other day I took the collie puppy for a walk down Memory Trail. We visited the scenes of my fond remembrance. He peed on some trees.

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