It’s late July on the north edge of the Valley of the Sun, and things are dreamy as the roosters crow at false dawn. I’ve got beery memories of crystal meth cowboys hitting the glass pipe before furiously hammering together a tack room in an old wooden shed … white light white heat instead of ye olde white lightning, Metallica instead of Willie and Waylon, but cowboy hats and boots all the same. I was drunk and trying to help but ended up on my back in the desert dirt watching night lightning explode silently beyond the jagged black outline of thirsty mountains north, west, and east. Not a drop of rain though. Not for 100 days or more.
The cowboys are still hammering away. I can hear them loud and clear from my cave in the back of my truck, where I’m sweaty and covered with flies fresh off the manure pile. I’d sleep in my Dad’s trailer if I could, but need a few hours respite from the permanent clouds of cigarette smoke that have gradually stained EVERYTHING — ceiling, can opener, framed photos, false teeth, curtains — a yellowish brown color. He’s in there right now, finishing up his morning prayer and getting ready to light his first smoke and pour the day’s first shot of gin at 6 in the morning. No savings, no retirement, nothing but lost years, a disability check and an ancient trailer to house his broken body. A youth spent riding bulls and whores now just riding it out — hard living and a long decline punctuated by a monthly trip to Safeway and the daily ritual of cranking Hendrix and the swamp cooler up to full blast round about 10 a.m.
The sun rises from behind the Mazatzal Range, instantly nudging the thermometer into the mid-90s and forcing me out of my sanctuary. I slip on pants and shoes and crawl out of my truck, ready to kick the rooster that attacks me every morning, but he’s nowhere to be seen. I relax and piss in the gravel between a mound of old tires and the remains of two vintage satellite dishes. Such wreckage is everywhere: Pickup trucks without engines, engines without trucks, piles of pipe and fence posts, bent bicycles and broken toys, rusted horseshoes and barbed wire, bullet shells and beer cans, and tumbleweeds impaled upon the perimeter fence line. Not to mention the scrapped singlewides at the edge of the property, windows shot out, chock full of black widows and bad memories.
The brand-new doublewide (only one window busted out) right next to Dad’s place is all closed up, but the television is blaring already. It’s probably been on all night. In a little while, that trailer door will open and a toothless tweaker grandma will stand on the rickety stairs and holler endlessly in the most-grizzled and raspy voice imaginable: “GODDAMN IT PEANUT, GET BACK HERE PEANUT, GODDAMN IT PEANUT” — Peanut being the family Chihuahua who’s yipping at a rattlesnake coiled beneath the monster truck in the driveway.
But, for now, things are peaceful, and other than the hum of distant traffic on I-17, I hear nothing but the sounds of animals: the coos of mourning doves, chickens clucking as they peck at scraps thrown from all the front doors, packs of cattle dogs stretching and scratching fleas, a few dozen cattle staggering toward feed troughs and the snorts and whinnies of horses demanding to be fed. I wave to a tiny Guatemalan woman as she steps out of her windowless shack along with her three young children, all of whom quickly begin filling water barrels, distributing hay and oats and grooming the horses like they’ve been doing it all their lives. Maybe they have been. Her husband was swept up by La Migra three months ago when they raided the racetrack where he cleans the stalls of thoroughbreds and nobody knows when he’ll be back. But the folks who own this place (a pious Mormon wife and a beer-swilling Jack Mormon husband) are kind to everybody who’s found refuge out here. They’ll feed and shelter the family until El Padre is able to make the long walk across the border and through the desert. Again.
High noon. 105 degrees or so, supposed to top out around 113. A morning of sharing his stroke-and-gin-slurred rodeo and racetrack stories has tired Dad, so he settles into the easy chair for a nap. I open the trailer door and am hit by an oven blast of heat, then down the steps to the driveway, across the cattle guard and into the desert.
People say they love the desert, and they probably do … at Thanksgiving when they’re visiting family in Tucson and walking around in sandals; in winter when they’re fleeing Midwestern blizzards to ride mountain bikes in Las Cruces; in springtime when they’re snapping photos of El-Niño-year wildflowers in Death Valley. Few would claim to love the desert now, during a July that is slated to be the driest on record, just as the sun reaches its apex.
The intense heat is exhilarating, but I’m only hiking a few miles today, on mostly flat ground, with plenty of water. Not long enough to feel the full force of the summer Sonoran desert sun. Not far enough to get disoriented by shimmering heat waves. Not thirsty enough to gauge my own love for the desert.
The path is a cow path, a horse trail, a slinking coyote track, and it braids its way through this bone-dry floodplain, where the miles-long slope of the bajada — gravel and cobbles eroded from yonder mountains — meets the sandy bed of the New River. There are stones in the parched river bed that are pleasantly smooth. Nothing else here is pleasant or smooth. Mountains rise like the armored back of a Stegosaurus. Black chunks of basalt are sharp and baking hot beneath my boots. Turn one over and you might find a scorpion, angry and ready to strike. The bleached ribs of unlucky cattle are splintered and pointy. The rattlesnakes are poisonous and marked by angular patterns, the tarantulas hairy and as big as a man’s hand. The javelinas bristle with wiry hair and tusks — TUSKS! — and rabid packrats hunker down beneath an impenetrable midden of gathered thorns. Even the ghosts of life-giving waters — the same waters that caressed the river stones to smoothness — are rough and tumble: raging flash floods are far more common than the occasional placid spring flows.
There are animals all around me, but I am unlikely to see them today. Some have burrowed down into cool earth, or followed others who did the digging for them, and they won’t come out again until nightfall. Others have walked to scattered pockets of shade, or — like the Yavapai Indians of yore, or modern exurbanites rushing north to Flagstaff second homes — migrated upward to rest in the relative coolness and sip from the hidden springs of the Mogollon highlands. A handful — the vultures especially — are riding it out thousands of feet up in the sky, soaring for hours on thermal updrafts created by the very heat they seek to escape.
Clouds are piling up above the piney island of the Bradshaw Mountains — virginal white cumulus clouds signaling the annual arrival of moisture from torrid climes farther south. Everywhere else is arching blue sky and blinding sunlight, and the hopeful spring tide of plant life is ebbing. Clumpy brown grasses are brittle and rattle in the occasional hot breeze. Parched shrubs crackle at the slightest touch. The succulent flesh of stout barrel cacti is wrinkled and pale. A few desiccated flowers cling forlornly
My feeble human brain is tempted to pity these suffering plants. This is a foolish notion. One misstep could send me reeling into a white mass of cholla cactus, and I would spend the next year yanking tiny Velcro-like spines out of my flesh while pondering the tenacity of desert flora. Unable to flee the merciless sun, these plants must endure it, and the hammers of drought and heat have crafted extreme adaptations that allow them to survive where little else will. Roots secrete poisons to keep other plants away from their patch of sporadically damp soil. Waxy stems seal in precious moisture. Many trees have no leaves at all — their green bark contains chlorophyll, which allows them to photosynthesize without transpiring water to the incessant suck of the greedy desert sun. Taproots plunge deep into the earth in search of reliable groundwater. Seeds lie dormant for decades at a time, waiting for conditions to become just right before germinating. And everywhere, on almost everything: THORNS, SPIKES, QUILLS AND NEEDLES parry the desperate nibbles of creatures yearning for a taste of succulent plant flesh.
I pause in the long shade of a centuries-old saguaro to sip water and wipe the sweat from my face. The once-exhilarating sunshine has become oppressive, but I know the end is near. Not for me, but for this particular chunk of Sonoran Desert. I see the survey stakes. I smell the diesel fumes. I hear the bulldozers. Just beyond the barbed wire, just beyond this doomed wash, the heavy machinery of civilization is transforming desert into something else entirely: The Phoenix.
I hop barbed wire and enter a lifeless war zone of churned gravel and black diesel smoke. Earthmovers versus Earth, steel Caterpillars versus actual caterpillars, dump trucks versus desert. The desert is losing, for now anyway, as these acres are bought and sold down the dry river, destined to become a Big Box overlooking a floodplain golf course. I stroll through the wreckage, dodging heavy equipment and men in hardhats, who seem not to see me, and step upon a sprawling expanse of fresh black asphalt that’s been sponging up solar radiation for many hours. The temperature quickly becomes unbearable, forcing me to make a beeline through acres of shiny new automobiles toward the gigantic stucco refuge of an OUTLET MALL.
In an instant, the harsh Arizona desert becomes scenic backdrop, and I’m strolling through the pastels of a shady Spanish villa, a haven of hanging flower gardens, singing fountains, cooling mists and flamenco music emanating from hidden speakers. My solitude is gone as well, for I’m surrounded by people: clean people in clean clothes braving infernal parking lots for a chance at a square deal on kitchenware or golf accessories. The door to the food court opens, releasing a gust of Arctic wind that swirls frigid for an instant before being swallowed up by the simmering afternoon air. I am tempted to enter, tempted to sit and relax for a moment in climate-controlled comfort, but force myself to keep walking. Must not taste the forbidden fruit of air conditioning, not this early in the day.
I leave the mall, cross another sun-blasted parking lot, blister my hands climbing a molten chain link fence, and find myself surrounded by a jumble of exit/entrance ramps, stoplights and a mad rush of plumbers, soccer moms and cement trucks rushing too and fro. To my surprise, there is a sidewalk, and I follow it across a freeway, the only pedestrian for miles around. Everyone else is sequestered away in boxes of steel and glass, windows sealed, air conditioning blasting away, denying the desert its due. Exhaust fumes fill my nostrils. Gritty sweat stings my eyes. And then a mirage: twin white waterfalls cascading down miniature mountains into crystalline pools.
But it’s not a mirage — it’s ANTHEM BY DEL WEBB, an award-winning development by one of the planet’s largest land developers. Just five years ago, this was 20,000 acres of empty desert, home to roadrunners and a handful of half-wild cows. Four years ago, the first survey stakes appeared, and the saguaros (as per state law) were tagged and removed. Now, there are two new freeway exits and two new zip codes receiving J.Crew catalogs for upward of 20,000 people (slated, recession notwithstanding, to be 36,000). Instant city: just add water, and the barren desert sprouts Safeways, Walgreens, McDonalds, Starbucks, sports bars, Radio Shacks, dry cleaners, places of non-pagan worship, hundreds of miles of roads and thousands upon thousands of brown stucco homes marching up the hillsides — or as the billboard says: WE BUILD THE PLACE YOU BUILD THE LIFE.
I pass between the gateway waterfalls — one on each side of “Anthem Way” — and a long row of mini-malls toward the Welcome Center, where I rest in the shade of a 20-foot-tall aluminum golf ball and gaze through tall windows at a big map of the neighborhood. Five neighborhoods, actually, each tailored to a specific income bracket, plus three schools, two country clubs, and scattered pockets of “gated-access” communities. Street names seem to fall into four categories: community ethics (Prosperity Rd., Integrity Ln.), intrepid explorers (Kit Carson Pl., Lewis and Clark Circle), homage to recently displaced wildlife (Panther Run, Noble Hawk Dr.) and American literary icons (Whitman Dr., Thoreau Way).
And what would Henry David Thoreau do when the digital thermometer reads 115 degrees? Take a dip in his swimming pool behind his home on Walden Court, I’m sure, but since I lack keyed access to that side of town, I cross the street and head for the Community Park instead, eyes peeled for artificial water features. The park is green with well-tended grass, and indeed has a small lake and a couple of fountains. Nobody is around. I smell like I’ve been sleeping in a barn — right next to the barn actually — and I’d love nothing more than a swim. But signs inform me that the park is for Anthem residents only. And no swimming in the lake. And keep off the grass. And no wading in the fountains either.
Right on cue, a white pickup, SECURITY, rolls slowly down the deserted bike path, headed my way, so I turn my back on the life-giving waters and jaywalk across a busy feeder street to the supermarket parking lot. Car alarms howl. SUV doors open and slam shut. Horns honk as vehicles jockey for coveted parking spots close to the entryway — trying to minimize exposure to the long hot summer day. I pause in front of the automatic doors, take a deep breath, then plunge into the confines of a mammoth Safeway store. 78 degrees: nearly 40 degrees cooler than the uncontrollable climate outside. I shiver my way to the beer aisle — 10 below zero surely — and ponder my options: I’ve got some loose change in my pocket, enough for a high-fallutin’ bomber of microbrew or 40 ounces of shitty beer. Feeling white trashy and thirsty, I purchase a 40 of Mickey’s and return to the uncontrolled climate outside.
A few minutes of air conditioning has ruined an entire day’s worth of hard-earned heat tolerance, and I feel like I’m standing too close to a bonfire. Fortunately, I’ve got a big bottle of rapidly warming beer and a good idea. Outta the shopping plaza. Pass through the brimstone parking lot. Ignore dead ends and cul-de-sacs. Deny beckoning iced coffees. Overcome the fear of Neighborhood Watch. It’s 3 in the afternoon, and the mercury is peaking, but I’ve got my eye on the prize. I trod the sidewalks back to the main arterial roadway, glory bound for the gateway oasis.
The pools reappear — aquamarine jewels beneath tumbling falls. Settled in the partial shade of manicured shrubbery, I uncap the bottle, take a big swig of malt liquor, and remove my boots. Traffic whooshes past. Sirens wail. More beer and the stinky socks come off. Bulldozers grind away another acre of desert. The Welcome Center hands out another brochure. Another big guzzle and I’m down to the Fruit of the Looms. Scorpions crawl through cracks in cinder block walls and into barbeque backyards. Mountain lions slink down arroyos and into the exurbs. I finish the bottle, toss it into the xeriscaping, then strip off my underwear and slip into the lukewarm water. Floating on my back, arms outstretched, sweaty balls bobbing as the broiling sun inches its way towards the brown haze of the western horizon.
Charles Clayton, who grew up in Colorado’s Fraser Valley, is an upstanding citizen and pillar of his community in northern New Mexico. He no longer floats naked in suburban fountains. You can check out his blog, “Pagan Parenting,” at mountaingazette.com.
And let’s say, also for the sake of argument, that this someone is not a trained circus performer.
Let’s further say that the propellant for said fire-breathing is Everclear.
And finally, let’s say that the majority of this vile substance has already made its way into the convulsing liver of the person asking the question about fire-breathing, rendering the spongy matter within his cranium less than entirely functional.
Do not say, “Yes. Yes, I would like to see you breathe fire.” Or there will be trouble.
Summer of 2002. Girl gone, down the tubes of destiny, following some other poor fool whose life intertwined with ours just a bit too familiarly. But this breakup, like others, carries that one happy side effect: reunions with the free-wheeling folk who had hovered on the periphery of one’s perceived domestic bliss all the while, waiting patiently for the inevitable dissolution of a bond whose half-life is clear to all but the schmuck in the middle of it: nasty, brutish, short.
JC, beautiful crazy bum seraphim. Calls up out of the blue with pitch-perfect timing. Has been living in a pickup truck while working construction in Las Vegas; in the Yosemite Valley climbing and living on two bucks a day; in Thailand, clinging to wildly improbable 5.13 lines by day and doing some wildly improbable partying by night, possibly involving lines of another sort; in Soldotna, Alaska, homesteading on a patch of land purchased for a song. Back in Salt Lake for a bit.
“Hey, Phillips.” The comically laid-back stone drone. “Wanna go down south and do some canyoneering?”
A bolt from the bright blue. Perfect. Yes. “Hell yes. Where?”
We converge later, pore over maps, and I realize we’re talking about Eardley Canyon, in the southern part of the San Rafael Swell. Elderly Canyon sounds better, though, bringing to mind images of walker-rocking, stoop-shouldered, fearlessly rappelling octogenarians, so we stick with the moniker. Looks like a great ramble: Five raps — none too long — a couple pools, natural anchors and (sigh) bolts galore, and a nice walk through a gradually narrowing canyon to precede the technical bits. Top it off with a night of camping and drinking at the canyon’s exit and a slog back to the car in the summer heat — foregoing the recommended shuttling of cars — to burn out the hangover, and you’ve got a winner.
A few home-rolled cigarettes later and we’ve decided this trip won’t be complete without CW. Pure brawn, pure Jedi, total abandon meets total ability. Without a hint of hesitation, he agrees to join us on this walk through the sandstone of time. He’s busy, with many irons in many fires, but he’s down as always. Born down.
Three days later, and my poor, belabored 1991 Subaru is motoring due south down Highway 6, a metal mini-prairie schooner unsteadily hurtling toward the “San Rafael Reef,” named such by the pioneer navigators whose terminology had its roots in nautical frustration. Navigational hazard? Yes. Kick-ass geological wonder? Yes. Also a nice place to forget about the vagaries of a faded relationship never to have faded (“I do”), revel in the simple power of long friendships and the uncaring, unsparing, welcoming embrace of the bare wild desert.
Food? Got it. Went to Albertson’s pre-trip, loaded up on EZ Cheez (re-christened “ain’t got shit to do with cheese”), crackers, sardines, jerky, beans-in-can, Pringles and some kind of gummy substance in the shape of a foot. Backpacking food that ain’t got shit to do with freeze-drying. Also not light or remotely compact. Also damn tasty.
Water? Some, yes. Mostly water suspended in alcohol. How better to ensure the body’s smooth functioning under relentless skies the temperature of the sun?
We don packs, JC and I having opted to use dry bags with straps for the whole journey, since there are a few swims on the route. Trouble is, these dry bags have nothing but simple shoulder straps and have absolutely no back pad, so my backpacking stove is at risk of becoming part of my anatomy by about 20 minutes into the hike, sticking violently into my short ribs and spurring me like a mad cowboy with every step. CW strides confidently and athletically ahead, flask in hand, as JC and I strike uncomfortable bargains with our onerous and ill-balanced loads.
We start down the funnel into Eardley Canyon, dubbed Straight Wash. Straight Wash is pretty straight. But, step by wavering step, we pad further into the unfathomable stretch of geologic time, entering the contouring confines of Eardley. We peel back layers of the Earth’s wild chronological ride as we descend into the canyon’s belly. Touching the striations of the rock delivers a sensation not unlike plugging into a wall socket with one’s bare hand: there is an electric resonance to the desert, a buzz of sheer power that is palpable if one sees and hears its language of rock and blood. Ed Abbey’s bedrock and paradox: A desert is a place of essence, an oasis of pure life in its alternate yet simultaneous valences of short time and death and love.
Friends walking together down a canyon make a music surely the rock can hear. We joke, remembering crazy trips while creating another. We take breaks, washing down mountain ranges of ain’t got shit to do with cheese atop crackers with Jim Beam and, in saner moments, gulps of pure agua. Hand-rolled cigarettes complete the assault on our health. Yet the camaraderie and joie de vivre pulsing through us form a powerful antidote to this fusillade of chemicals.
As the canyon narrows more, we reach the first rappel. The pool into which the rappel leads seems pretty shallow, as does the angle of the pour-over. We hem and haw a bit, fussing with gear and donning wetsuits. JC begins to run rope through anchors, but CW gives us — and safety — the middle finger and slides down, wetsuit-clad-ass first, relying on the braking force of friction alone, and soon emerges from the pool’s far side, unscathed, beaming and hurling anatomically- and politically-incorrect insults at us for our prudent hesitation.
So we slide.
Note: Don’t bring a nice, expensive wetsuit on a canyoneering trip. Bring an old, sun-bleached, natty one, sold on eBay by shark-bit surfers and widows and widowers of overbold canyoneers. Or rent, making sure to practice a few times before its return the unknowing shoulder shrug indicating your lack of responsibility for the suit’s deteriorated condition.
A delightful — if frigid — series of pools ensues, and we follow the course of the canyon’s creator, water, as it slides, molecule by molecule, from pothole to pothole, caressing and carrying bits of sand inexorably down, sculpting a gravity-driven architecture of geomorphic chance.
“Christ, it’s cold,” I chatter, hip-deep in the third pool. The deep shiver — full-body, utterly involuntary — of the early stages of hypothermia is part and parcel of this oddball endeavor of following the meanderings of a slot canyon, come hell or high water. But we move steadily down, emerging eventually, gratefully, into a broad, sandy and sunlit wash.
Jubilation! We re-warm, laying out piles of gear, exposing it and ourselves to the desert sun’s desiccating touch. JC produces what remains of the alcohol: equal sloshings of Beam and Everclear. Plenty, as it turns out, to catalyze a fair bit of irresponsible backcountry behavior. A big-ass fire, for starters. True, we burn everything to ash and scatter the remains of the night into the next morning, but we scour the area of damn near half a cord of deadwood over the course of the evening.
It’s maybe 11 p.m. and we’ve predictably plowed straight through pleasant buzz and into ham-fisted, twisted drunk. In a moment of lull between truth-bending, one-upping tales of exploits both vertical and horizontal, we stare collectively into the Paleolithic television before us. That’s when a particular flame-tipped juniper bough catches JC’s attention. I can only imagine the 190-proof math going on in his head as he cast his gaze back to the near-spent bottle of distilled evil.
“Hey, guys, want to see me breathe fire?”
To which, as you have been informed, we answered in the affirmative.
A quick pull off the plastic jug and JC raises the flaming branch to his stubbled face. The ensuing arc of fire has impressive height and volume. These qualities are substantially enhanced by the mini-self-immolation CW and I are witnessing. Seems a fair bit of hooch dribbled down JC’s carpet of facial hair, igniting and taking full advantage of the extra fuel.
“Feels hot,” JC says, matter-of factly, sprawling into the sand and dousing the conflagration of follicle and epidermis.
Blistered up real quick. Sunscreenless seven-hour slog the next day didn’t help matters. JC’s attempt to impersonate a dragon hadn’t ended well. He was staying with his parents for the nonce, so, teenager-like, he invented a plausible story to save his mother from the reality of his desert debauchery. Upon hearing the story, she was ready to sue a certain maker of camp stoves that require priming, JC having pinned the rap on a cranky Optimus or Svea.
JC carries just the slightest of scars, amazingly, from his circus act at Eardley’s terminus. But it is there nonetheless. The scar traces a moment, written into flesh, acting as an exclamation point of experience: the fun and folly of a fire-lit dance with firewater.
And the best trips are the ones that leave scars and spin stories, don’t you think?
Aaron Phillips teaches Environmental Writing at the University of Utah. His last story, “Cumulus Dentatus, or Why I Believe in Winter Storm Warnings,” appeared in Mountain Gazette #176.
The airplane is not much bigger than a cigarette, and its wings appear to be fastened with staples, like an art project my kids would bring home from school, but we’re spiritual people, believers in the Great Journey, and so we cross the tarmac with our backpacks and bpa-free water bottles, heads bowed, as if in prayer. Jillian, the heiress, waddles like a penguin in black polypropylene. Charlotte, my old college friend, flip-flops, her toes pedicured cherry red. I am wearing Harley boots for courage and an amulet of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which I rub for luck whenever I fly. Up the wobbly steps we climb. Every seat is both window and aisle. We sit, squeezing our knees. The Xanax-coffee buzz I am nursing fills me with equal parts optimism and apathy. I no longer worry I will die in an airplane. I still worry I may die in a sweat lodge, but I am, as the cliché goes, living in the moment. Perhaps, already, I have absorbed a few lessons of Native American spirituality.
“Where’s Taliyah?” I ask.
Taliyah is the medicine woman who will lead us in Native American practices. Charlotte points ahead to a stocky woman with a blue down coat draped over her head, like a comforter thrown over a lamp.
“What’s she doing?” I ask.
Charlotte says: “She doesn’t like to fly.”
It was Charlotte’s idea to sign up for a women’s hiking trip run by a wilderness tour company with a Native American bent. Most of these “journeys” last a week, but we working mothers want Spiritual Enlightenment delivered over a four-day weekend. In the end, only three women signed up, perhaps because, at $1,400, the trip is expensive, a splurge by any definition. I swing the finances by getting a grant to write an essay about the trip. This is the academic version of singing for your supper.
Fiona, the company’s founder, is traveling with us. She’s a petite woman with wild brown hair and a soft voice and the biggest watch I have ever seen. She looks like she’s about to cry even when she’s smiling. Like Charlotte and me, Fiona is originally from Connecticut, but has washed up in the Midwest. Born near an Indian reservation, Fiona has recently embraced Native American spirituality. Around her neck, she wears a small leather pouch, like she’s going to pay for our gas with trading beads.
The plan is to fly into Cortez, Colorado, and drive to Canyonlands National Park in Utah, where we will camp and hike and learn cool stuff from Taliyah and come back liking our lives, our husbands and ourselves, a great deal more than we do right now. The best part of the trip is that I have not had to plan it. I haven’t even looked at a map. A mother can get like this. Most days, mothers operate like high-speed modems. Has the wet laundry moved to the dryer? Can Madeline spell paleontologist? Did Lincoln wipe his butt? Most days, I am so tired, I don’t want to know anything about anything. Lucky for me, I am a college professor.
The day before leaving Indiana, I got into a fight with my husband. Sometimes I wish Peter would have an affair or lose our life savings in a Ponzi scheme, if only to create fresh drama. Instead, we fight the same fight: I accuse him of not doing enough around the house and he says I do a lot compared to most men and I say but I do more, and he says You need to relax and I say I could relax if you would do more. Here’s what set it off: It was nine o’clock at night and I was helping Madeline with her spelling and Peter had been away for three days and I was exhausted, my eyes raccoon-like, and Peter was lying in bed, on the bed, ankles crossed, reading about Tutankhamen, the Egyptian boy prince. The way I see it, if my husband really loved me he would say: “Darling, let me take over. Take an aromatherapy bath. Pick out a sweater from the Sundance catalogue. Pour yourself a glass of Chardonnay.” That he didn’t say any of this made me feel unloved. When I feel unloved, I become unlovable, petulant, a shrew, slamming around the house muttering: No one picks up anything but me. Peter shouts easily, but recovers just as fast. I simmer, like a pot of black beans. Long after we made up, his last cutting blast hovered over my head like a toxic inversion. “You need to get away. Just go. Get out of here.”
Another, far more serious thing, happened right before I left Indiana. Near Sedona, Arizona, three people died in a sweat lodge during a “Spiritual Warrior” retreat led by New Age guru James Arthur Ray. Armed with his motto, “Create Harmonic Wealth in All Areas of Your Life,” Ray built a self-help empire so successful followers paid $9,000 to attend his retreat in Angel Valley, a Sedona center offering vortex experiences, angel connections and crystal skull meditation. Earlier that week, Ray dispatched followers into the desert for a “vision quest,” a 36-hour solo without food or water. When the exhausted travelers returned, they crammed into a small wooden structure covered with blankets and plastic while Ray’s “Dream Team” hauled in steaming rocks. People vomited and fainted in the heat. A few crawled to safety. Ray, meanwhile, sat outside in the shade, periodically rousing himself to exhort his disciples: “You’re not going to die. You may think you are, but you’re not.” But three people did. James Shore, 40, and Kirby Brown, 38, lost consciousness and could not be revived. Liz Neuman, 49, fell into a coma and died nine days later. That this supposedly religious ceremony ended in three fatalities was not only tragic, but ironic. The goal of a sweat lodge, according to Ray, is for participants to experience spiritual rebirth.
Our toy plane has Tourette’s. Hipishly, we twitch 25,000 feet over the Rockies, quivering above snow-covered ridges that shine in the sun like diamonds or chrome. This is the view I imagine God sees, the heavenly vantage point that reassures him he is an artist of divine proportion. I debate a second Xanax, but decide it will be hard to hike if I am sleeping. Over the engine roar, we chat about our relative fitness and how Jillian and I will keep up with Charlotte, whose personal trainer calls her “the machine.”
“I’ve been in training,” Jillian says. “I can do plank pose for a minute.”
Charlotte does her best to look impressed.
Jillian adds: “I count fast.”
Jillian is a dozen years older than Charlotte and me. She’s 57. Her graying hair is buzzed into a crew cut and she wears thick black glasses and the largest watch I have ever seen before I saw Fiona’s. She’s tall and thin, twitchy like a broom. Her patent-leather black sneakers have a separate compartment for her big toe, like mittens for your feet. I like Jillian right away because I gravitate toward people who complain, exaggerate and prefer chocolate to hiking.
Jillian extracts something from her gear. “Ladies. I brought my eyebrow tweezers for the trip home in case we need some fluffing. A few plucks can make you feel like a princess.”
During the flight, we trade family news. Charlotte tells us her in-laws are getting divorced because her father-in-law had an affair.
“How old is he?” I ask. It seems wrong for couples to divorce past 60.
Charlotte rolls her eyes. “Seventy-one.”
“You’d think he’d have given up on affairs.”
Jillian chimes in. “Some people do. I have a male friend who is 75. One day he told me: ‘You know, Jillian. I’ve outlived my dick.’”
As we fly past long stretches of brick-colored rock, I do not miss my children, but I think of my children. I remember, with some satisfaction, that, while Peter was lying in bed — on the bed — I taught Madeline that the geological formation that I am now admiring is not spelled Plato.
In Cortez, we met Chance, our guide, our cook. Chance is 36, but looks 26. He’s thin and tan wears a hand-knit hat with dangling ties. Chance says a lot with his hands. What Chance says with his hands is that nothing matters much or rather everything matters, but we’re not going to get upset about any one particular thing. Chance conveys this easiness by turning his hands, palms ups, palms down, like he’s cooking a grilled cheese sandwich that will taste good no matter which side lands on top. It’s easy to look at Chance and believe you’re wasting your life.
Chance asks if anyone needs anything before we head into the wilderness.
“Breath mints,” Jillian says.
Chance nods, poker-faced. He is, I can see, a professional.
“Breath mints. OK. Anything else?”
Chance drives his truck. The women climb into a rented SUV. Fiona drives, mom-like, up front with Taliyah. The paying customers, the kids in carpool, are stuffed in back.
“Fiona,” Jillian calls up. “Will we see wildlife?”
“Sure,” Fiona says. She wants her clients to be happy.
Fiona smiles into the rearview mirror. “That’s doubtful.”
Taliyah weighs in. Her deep voice carries the authority of a grandfather clock. “Be careful what you ask for. Be very, very careful.”
“OK,” Jillian says. “We will be precise. We will ask to see a mountain lion at 30 yards, heading the opposite direction, but still offering us a full frontal view.”
Jillian changes subjects: “Did you hear the governor of Texas wants to secede? I say ‘Go for it.’ Take the Bushes and the border guards.”
Charlotte gazes out the window. “That would be great.”
We drive past fields of mustard-colored grasses and purple hills, past silos and grain elevators and dead sunflowers that look like charred bodies from a war. The sky is doing that big-sky thing like it’s a huge bowl over our heads, the color of washed-out denim. It’s October and the cottonwoods are golden chandeliers, shimmering in the breeze. In the distance loom red-rock formations, plateaus and buttes. We pull off at Indian Creek, a Mecca for crack-rock climbing. Climbers scale a sheer six-story face of Wingate sandstone. They cling, in various stages of ascent, neon, bug-like, dangling, debating where to place their foot, a hand. We stare transfixed. We are watching ourselves.
Fiona stops for lunch at Newspaper Rock, a collection of Anasazi Indian paintings engraved on a 10-foot blackened boulder. Taliyah points out The Four Winds, the serpent, the medicine wheel, the ladder to the spiritual world, the robot-looking man whose antennae show he has attained a high state of spiritual awareness.
Taliyah says she’s from the bear tribe, but she reminds me of a badger. She has a crew and a long braid that reaches down her back. Her skin is the color of coffee with cream, and her eyes are small and watchful. She moves slowly and wears a lot of clothes. It is hard to imagine her being a girl, skinny and running. She likes to laugh, although I don’t pick up on this until later because most people I know with a sense of humor don’t whisper, while admiring petroglyphs , “Oh my God. There is a God. The Great Mystery.”
I want to ask Taliyah about her life, but am too shy. Next to her, I feel spoiled and white and worry I’m going to say something stupid and reveal my inner Pocahontas.
On the back of his truck, Chance spreads out lunch: organic chips, tomatoes, cheese, vegetarian baloney.
“Where’s Taliyah?” I ask.
We spot her blue down coat. She appears to be singing to the toilets.
“She is collecting seeds,” Fiona says.
I nod, as if I had been contemplating a similar harvest.
We stand in the parking-lot sunshine, happyhappyhappy to have made our escape. We’re in the Southwest. We are independent women. We can do the plank pose for a minute. I look into the fields of sage and piñon and soak up the emptiness. Taliyah reappears, saying: “If you see me spacing out, I’m focusing on the rocks and listening to the old ones.”
And I think: If you see me spacing out, I’m spacing out.
We camp beneath giant rocks that look like mushrooms. The scenery is stunning but we’re equally excited about the Port-o-Potty. It’s 4 o’clock and we rush to set up tents. Jillian can’t wait to decorate. Charlotte can’t wait to play Kumbaya on her guitar. Taliyah stares at the ground and says, “You can’t tell me where to camp. I need to feel it.”
When the tents are up, Taliyah shows us her seeds. Fiona asks how she will know how to plant them. “We will listen to them and they will tell me,” Taliyah says. “The knowledge is in the hands of all that went before.”
Such earnestness makes me feel squeamish, like a teenager watching a sexy movie with her parents. We never went to church when I was a kid, and I never gave religion much thought until my mother’s breast cancer returned for the third time. We were living in Spain and I started to drop into empty churches and gaze up at the Virgin Mary, imagining my prayers rising into the heavens like cigarette smoke. All over Spain, I tossed Euros in fountains, lit candles, pleaded my case. It didn’t do much good. My mother still died at age 68. She was a healthy woman, a practicing lawyer, an ocean swimmer. She was not ready to go. My nieces, good Episcopalians, worry they won’t see Gran in heaven because she didn’t believe in God. My Dad, now in his seventh decade, is suddenly curious about religion. “I’m waiting for you to take the first step,” he says. He keeps asking me if I’ve thought about going to that nice stone church on the corner. Whenever I walk by it, I debate going in, but the doors are locked, and I don’t have much interest in sitting through a Sunday sermon. I just want to sit.
Sometimes, I think I’ve founded my own religion, one that has no organization. I take a trip. Stuff happens. I write down what people say. Usually I find a bit of God buried in the words, like a palimpsest, writing under the writing, meaning under the words. When I travel, I see things more clearly, feel things more deeply. It’s like I take my heart out of my chest and let it breathe.
Chance fixes dinner. Having a man in coveralls cook for us gives us an erotic charge. Before dinner is even served, we all have crushes.
As the sun sets, I walk out to the gravel road and admire the vastness of the desert. The quiet is stunning. The ground is crusted. The rocks are not moving. The rocks have never moved. The rocks will have the last word. The sun drops below the hills. The air thickens. The red earth glows. Jillian and Charlotte approach on the road.
“You almost expect to see dinosaurs,” Charlotte says. “The earth has gone through so many changes. We’re just a blip, a nanosecond.”
Jillian looks grim. “But think of all the terrible things we’ve done to the planet.”
“Yet, ultimately, I feel hopeful,” Charlotte says. “At least in our lifetimes, our children’s lifetimes, this will all still be here.”
Jillian sets her chin against the cold air. “So long as we get rid of Texas.
Charlotte and I have been friends since college. Both of our mothers died of breast cancer. We both weathered infertility, although I got off easier than Charlotte, who lost two six-month-old babies in utero before having two beautiful children through a surrogate mother. We were supposed to go to our 20th college reunion together, but Charlotte went into rehab instead. I should have seen it coming. Her father drank himself to death. Those last years, he holed up on Cape Cod, a widower, dying of cancer of the esophagus, shooting bourbon into his feeding tube. Charlotte’s youngest sister, on more than one occasion, discovered him collapsed in his own excrement and vomit.
Such horror is hard to fathom when I look at Charlotte, with her bright blond hair and blue eyes. Charlotte is a feminist and a terrific mother and fierce competitor and I would go anywhere with her — except possibly on vacation — because I am looking at four days of camping without a drink. This bothers me more than it should. Most nights, when the kids are bickering and the pasta starts to boil, I pour a glass of wine, and stop at that, but I’d rather climb in the bottle and swim laps. Packing for the trip, I debated stashing mini-bottles in my duffle, but didn’t, because smuggling booze on a Native American retreat would confirm I have a drinking problem or am a complete asshole.
While Charlotte plays guitar, Chance gives us a tip for keeping warm at night: Don’t hold your pee. Otherwise your body wastes energy warming your urine, energy that could be better spent heating your body.
I wonder how many other ways I have wasted my energy. And, if I hadn’t, how warm I might be.
Taliyah rolls her eyes when someone brings up the horrors of Sedona. What she doesn’t say, but what I sense, is that the New Age movement is just another form of white exploitation. Now that we’ve taken Indian land, we covet their religion, pervert it into a caricature for a profit. As if you could learn Native American spirituality from a white guy with a website and a mansion in Beverly Hills.
The oddest part of the Angel Valley story was the ages of victims: 38, 40, 49. They were not young and foolish. They were not old and frail. They were middle-aged. Our age. The age when you should know better. You could dismiss their seeking as just another mid-life crisis, but I bet this shorthand doesn’t do them justice. I imagine they wanted to test their mettle. They wanted to better understand themselves. They wanted to have a spiritual experience, to feel just a little bit happier.
Over appetizers, Taliyah teaches us our first Native American expression: “Giwabna,” which means: “Who’s to say?”
I try it out different ways. “Who’s to say?” “Who is to say?” The phrase grows on me. It seems to concede how little we know. It also feels democratic, like anyone could be God, but it’s probably not your turn today. Taliyah tramps around the campsite, staring into the sand. “I can tell my ancestors walked this land.” This is such a great expression I can’t wait to use it the next time I am Greenwich, Connecticut.
We picnic in the dark. I’m wearing so many layers, my elbows no longer bend. Taliyah gives us a sweat-lodge primer. The sweat lodge, she says, is a symbol of the womb, a place of rebirth. The four doors represent the four directions. The fire is the Grandmother and represents the breath of life. There are four rounds, one for each sacred herb: tobacco, sage, cedar and sweet grass. Native people sprinkle tobacco as a way to give thanks. You put tobacco down to express gratitude to the elders and the earth. Pick a flower, put tobacco down. Pick up firewood, put tobacco down. I’ve been awake since 4 a.m. and Taliyah’s monotone makes me sleepy. Her words blur together, something about the stomach being the center of intuition. Something about the sweat lodge being a time to listen to the small, still voice within.
Ever practical, I ask how long the sweat lodge will last.
Taliyah says it will last as long as it needs to last.
This is not what I wanted to hear. I imagine myself, sweating in my Speedo, dizzy, claustrophobic, wet, crawling into a sleeping bag shaped like a coffin.
Charlotte’s face flickers in the firelight.
Taliyah pauses, and Charlotte says: “I’m in.”
After dinner, to warm up, we walk down a road going nowhere. Nylon swishes between our thighs. The stars are bright and scattered. Jillian keeps bumping into me in a way I find reassuring. We’re talking sweat lodges. Jillian says: “I would hate to have you two come back and say ‘It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in my life.’”
Charlotte says: “She had me with the small quiet voice within.”
Jillian says: “I like to be respectful of other traditions, but I do not like to be cold.”
As usual, I am ambivalent. Maybe something amazing would happen, a vision, a purge. “Maybe we can wrap it up in a half hour?”
“Maybe.” Jillian glares at Charlotte. “If some of us can keep our prayers short.”
I can’t sleep. When Yahoo weather said it would be 40 degrees at night in Utah, it didn’t seem so bad. Indiana was 40 degrees at night. What I’d forgotten is that when it’s 40 degrees in Indiana, we sleep in a house. Charlotte snores. Jillian thrashes. It occurs to me a bed is a beautiful thing. Perhaps this sort of gratitude is holy. I debate taking a Xanax. I dream of mini-bottles. I hoard my urine, then drag myself up to pee in the grass. (The Port-o-Potty is so far away, it might as well be in Texas.) A million stars stare down at me, whispering in the cold: Who are you? What are you worth?
In the morning, we compare notes.
Taliyah says: “I smelled wild urine around my tent.”
Jillian says: “That was Charlotte.”
As the sun rises over the rocks, Charlotte does odd stretches she calls pelvis tippers. Jillian complains about her IT bands. I have no idea what either one of them is talking about. In Indiana, we don’t have as many names for the things that ail us. We don’t have as many cures either. Charlotte has a personal trainer, a guitar teacher, a nanny, a yoga teacher, a house cleaner, a life coach, and her AA meetings. I have white wine.
We ready for the hike. Taliyah stays home because her chest feels tight. Chance puts on his Virgin of Guadalupe cap. This ups his coolness factor exponentially. Jillian wears four layers topped off with a black puffer. She’s still cold. Chance’s poop kit hangs on the line, untouched. Charlotte asks if we know how pelicans die. We don’t. She says they go blind by diving. I say I don’t get it. Charlotte says they can’t see the fish and starve to death. And I say, I see.
The sun is up. Everything gleams. Jillian rubs sunblock on her ears. She takes a breath mint, rearranges her gloves and dickey. Her backpack is full of clothing. “Let’s face it, ladies. We have no idea what nature has in store for us.” I look up. The sky is a perfect blue. Jillian says: “Now a drink of water, and I will reveal a new layer.”
We set out on an 11-mile hike. The land stretches before us, a million shades of ochre and rust. “The machine” is soon out of sight, and we break off into two groups. I will catch up with Charlotte. Jillian, Chance and Fiona will pick up the rear. We will meet at Confluence Overlook, where the Green and Colorado rivers join. With each step, the rocky landscape turns more surreal. There are rocks like pinball bumpers and rocks like wedding cakes. There are Whoopie Pie rocks and drip-castle rocks. The rocks start to feel like people. The rocks start to feel like God. This is not a new idea. The practice of worshipping rocks is as old as Stonehenge. Even my mother, the good Yankee, used to worship rocks up in Maine, bending down after her swims to collect gray rocks with white rings around them. She believed ringed rocks were lucky.
We walk. Time slows. This always happens when I travel and I never understood why until I heard this piece on NPR. Basically, the brain has to work harder to remember new experiences. The smell of a Paris bakery. The sunset at Key West. In new places, your perceptions are more layered and startling and rich, which makes time seem to pass more slowly. This explanation scientifically confirmed the paradox I’ve long intuitively felt: the best way to slow time is to keep moving.
When we arrive at the overlook, the Green River is green and the Colorado River is brown and they join together 1,000 feet below us in a paisley swirl like desert sauces on a fancy plate. When Jillian crests the ridge, we clap. She says it’s a good thing she has a body like a gazelle. She says she’s “yummy tired.” Chance makes lunch, then sits on his haunches, like a cricket, and cleans our bowls with dirt. We coo about how delicious everything is. Chance says hunger is the best sauce.
Jillian yawns. “I hope I can stay up tonight for Kumbaya.”
The way back, Charlotte and I use our walking sticks like ski poles and slalom over the rocks. We feel light and strong and free. It seems a safe place to confess my worries about drinking. Charlotte ticks off warning signs. If you make rules for yourself, like I will only drink on weekends. (Yes, I do this.) If you can’t imagine doing certain activities without drinking (English Department parties, check. Mother-in-law visits, check, check). If you experience negative consequences, like a blackout or DUI, but keep drinking. (Thank God, not yet.) “You’re probably OK,” Charlotte says. “You’re probably just a stressed-out mother.”
Charlotte and I bask on a limestone boulder waiting for the others. A half-hour later, Jillian’s grinning face appears on the horizon.
“Did you see any animals?” Charlotte asks.
“We saw a squirrel.” Jillian turns to me. “How’s the essay?”
I shrug. I have no ideas about an essay. Jillian says: “I hope there is someone in the essay who had a lot of clothing, and then one day didn’t bring it all, and everyone thought she was hearty and stalwart.”
And I say: “I’m sure there’s room for a character like that.”
Chance cooks Mexican food. We eat like wolves. After dinner, we build a fire and Taliyah leads a prayer meditation where we pass around a clay pipe and share the thoughts that lie close to our hearts. I babble something about how great it is to spend time with Charlotte. Jillian says her light grows dim when she doesn’t get out in nature. Charlotte talks about finding her inner voice. Fiona confides that her husband doesn’t understand her need to journey and build her business. The funny thing is that I grew up in Connecticut and Charlotte grew up in Connecticut and Fiona grew up in Connecticut. I wonder if women from Connecticut spend their lives trying to fill an emptiness they cannot name.
Taliyah reminds us there is no right way or wrong way to enter the sweat, so long as your intention is pure. Then she drops the bomb: Men and women generally don’t share a sweat lodge, she says, because they are often so moved they orgasm.
After dinner, we take our ritual walk. We look like padded robots. Our breath is visible. We’re talking sweat lodges.
Jillian says: “I don’t want to feel like a voyeur. This is important to her, but it’s not important to me.”
I say: “I don’t know who I would be praying to. My ancestors? Her ancestors? Her ancestors don’t want to hear from a white girl from Connecticut.” What I don’t say, but what I also worry about, is that my intentions are not sufficiently pure. For this same reason, I never take Communion. The truth is that I don’t know if my intentions will ever be pure enough to join someone else’s religion.
Charlotte says: “We’re going to have to say something.”
“Maybe we could do a mini-version?” I suggest. “Like, change the entire Native American tradition to meet our needs.”
Jillian nods: “Right, after we get rid of Texas.
Charlotte says, “We’ll just be honest.”
“How?” I ask. I loathe confrontation and will endure almost anything to avoid it.
Charlotte says, “I’ll talk to Fiona.”
“Oh my God.” I grab Charlotte’s arm, suddenly remembering something. “You remember Jack?”
“Your old boyfriend?”
“Right. I’d completely forgotten. His stepfather died in a sweat lodge.”
My tent is crisp in the cold and smells like sweat. From the blackness, Jillian screams.
“There’s a spider in my tent!”
“Kill it,” Charlotte yells back.
“I want to read the book.”
“Yes, but . . . “ Frantic slaps. Silence.
Jillian’s voice rises through the dark: “I have killed an innocent.”
In the morning, Charlotte talks to Chance who talks to Fiona. The sweat lodge is canceled. While this is a relief — no death, no orgasm — there’s also little chance for a religious epiphany. This confirms what I have long suspected: Faith is just more hard work you have to muddle through on your own.
We replace the sweat lodge with a marathon hike. Charlotte maps 12 miles. She wants to do more, but looks at me and says: “Don’t let me be the person I am.” Chance will come with us. The rest plan a shorter hike. We’ll meet at 5:30, before the rain is expected to start. At the entrance of the trailhead parking lot, a sign explains the amazing geological formations. “The needles were formed by a series of fractures in the rock surface causing movement along a deep underlying layer of salt. Erosion by rain, water, and snow along the fracture lines resulted in a row of columnar rocks . . .”
“I don’t get it,” I pout. I resent how even basic science eludes me.
Jillian peers into my face, calm as Buddha. “Don’t worry. I don’t get it either. You don’t have to get it.”
After 20 minutes, Charlotte debates leaving her jacket hidden behind a rock for the trip back. “Guide Rule #2,” Chance says. “Never get separated from your gear.”
“What’s Guide Rule #1?” I ask.
“Carry everything. No, Guide Rule #1 is smile.”
As we walk, we ply Chance for guiding war stories. Mostly, he’s too nice to oblige: “The bad news makes the headlines.” We press harder. He concedes he’s had difficult clients, but “I try to see those moments as opportunities for compassion.”
I turn around and roll my eyes.
Chance laughs. Finally, he shares one of his favorite rescue stories about a guy who banged his knee up badly in Greenland. Chance floated him up with painkillers. At a resting point, Chance asked the blitzed-out man how he was doing. The guy replied: “Man, I can only hear you when I take my sunglasses off.”
For lunch, Chance pops a can of kippers. I plant the oily fish on a Wasa cracker and taste the earth. Chance says: “I have another can of kippers if they change your life.”
I look up. A fish rock is swimming over a mountain.
I say: “I’m glad we’re not rushing back for the sweat lodge.”
Chance says: “This is enough religion for me.”
All day, we walk. I like the simplicity of this mission. We are not multi-tasking. I am not trying to be a teacher and a writer and a mom and a housewife and a vixen. We pass a chef’s-hat rock, a Dutch-wooden-shoe rock and a rock that looks like a little boy’s penis. I am getting tired, delirious, but don’t complain because Chance runs these trails. Chance once ran across the Grand Canyon, rim-to-rim, 44 miles, 11,000 feet of gain. Temperatures topped 102 degrees.
“I like to think it was pretty worthy,” he says. “But I don’t believe in bragging rights. Don’t tell me about the crazy thing you did. Tell me how much fun you had.”
Charlotte disappears again, but Chance sticks with me. I have warned him I have no sense of direction. He says: “I am going to powder my nose. If you get lost, sit down.”
“Guide Rule #3.”
The path splits. I take the high road. I decide to take a pee and weave off the path. Suddenly there is no path. I pee, start walking, feel lost, sit down.
Ten minutes later, Chance finds me.
“I don’t want to lead,” I tell him. “I just want to follow.”
We pass a decapitated-Cinderella rock.
Chance says, “The Hopi say every step is a prayer.”
The day passes. My feet hurt. My back hurts. My bunion is throbbing. I feel righteous. I feel holy. I need to take a shit. This need to take a shit soon replaces all thoughts of poetry or God. We’re on our eighth mile and I am a desert zombie. I need a breath mint. I’m thirsty but don’t dare drink because if I pee other things may emerge that I am unprepared to deal with. I see giant faces with cracked patrician noses and cursed plants and the oncoming grayness of nighttime. We are running late. Chance picks up the pace. At this moment, I realize the most humble of truths: the grand challenge of my journey is not whether I will die in a sweat lodge, but whether I will poop in my pants. My eyes are fixed on the back of Chance’s calves. His muscles pump, his veins pump. I am not sure why I don’t fall or even why I am here, in the middle of my life, in the middle of the desert. I wanted to test my mettle. I wanted to better understand myself. I wanted to have a spiritual experience, to feel just a little bit happier. Voices circle my head like hawks. Don’t let me be the person I am. I will take a drink of water and reveal a new layer. Keep your prayers short. You don’t have to get it. Carry everything. No, smile. I can only hear you when I take my sunglasses off. Every step is a prayer. If you get lost, sit down. When they can’t see the fish, the pelican starve. This is enough religion for me.
From a bluff, we see a road. Then, a car. Then Jillian, dressed in black tights and what appears to be a yarmulke. We whoop. They wave. I see a Port-o-Potty, but it might be a mirage.
On the drive home, Jillian reports: “We saw a whole gaggle of Germans, a dead cow carcass and a squirrel. I wouldn’t call it an abundance of wildlife, but it’s something.”
Chance says: “Call National Geographic.”
The moon is fattening up. The sunset is a pink puff.
Jillian says: “If it rains, we’re all getting in the truck with Chance.”
Chance says: “That’s a different fee entirely.”
The last night, we hang out in a cave. Now that we’ve gotten the hang of outdoor living, no one wants to leave. I haven’t showered in three days and no longer care. It’s my turn to wash dishes. Squatting, I scrub plates, but the smoke makes me cry, and my tears loosen my sun block, which makes me cry more, and I am laughing and crying and I remember one of Chance’s mountaineering sayings: Do it wrong, do it twice. I decide this is my new motto for marriage. Fiona says we lucked out on the weather. Jillian looks into the starless sky and says: “It’s raining somewhere.”
Taliyah asks what we will take with us from our journey. Fiona says she has learned she needs to be true to herself. Jillian says her dim light is shining brighter. Charlotte says that things happen the way they are supposed to if you don’t clutch or panic. I say I’ll have to think about it. There are so many things. Taliyah says, “Being in the hands of the blessed one, I am at peace.”
An hour later, I think of what I should have said: Giwabna.
Who’s to say?
The next morning, we pack up, feeling chummy and wistful. As we drive out of the campsite, something feels wrong. My notebook is full. We’ve taken from the land, but given nothing back. I realize this is the one lesson of Native American spirituality I can take with me, a gift from Taliyah, a treasure I will keep in my pocket like a ringed stone from the beach. I say to Fiona, “Before we go, we should put some tobacco down.” Fiona stops the car. We climb out. Fiona taps tobacco from her pouch into our palms. We stand on the dirt road. The air smells like sage. We squint into the hard sun, and everything looks gold and shimmery, like visions, like heat, and I think of my ancestors, my mother, my grandmother, and I think of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and wonder if she sees me, and I think about what it means to be a mother, a woman, trying to have a job, raise a family, keep a husband, build an inner life, and how the bottle won’t do and the sweat lodge won’t do and how we have to improvise, leave home — Just go. Get out of here — find our truths in the desert. The sun is so bright I can barely see. I release a dusting of tobacco, watch it float away on the warm, dry breeze. It feels like sprinkling fairy dust. It feels like spreading ashes. My heart burns. I smile at my friends. We are women, putting tobacco down, living on the edge of magic.
Lili Wright’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek and literary journals like The Normal School, The Florida Review and Cream City Review. Author of the memoir, “Learning to Float,” Wright teaches creative writing at DePauw University in Indiana. This is her first story for the Gazette.
Old man Harrison knew the apple business, and he had a vision. He liked to walk the orchard with his fastest pickers before the harvest, telling us how much we’d make on the first day, thanks to his judicious pruning, thinning and the measured applications of water, fertilizer and pesticides. When we agreed with his appraisal, he showed his pride by picking a still-green apple from a tree. He’d open his pocketknife as we walked and cut slices to hand around, so everyone could taste how much sugar was coming up in the fruit.
“I’d say just a few days now, these trees’ll be ready to pick,” he predicted. As we walked on, the old man described how he’d seen the future while on a driving vacation through California with his wife a few months back. “Why, those dry valleys are nothing but sun-blasted brush now, but they could be filled with orchards, just like this–,” he interrupted himself to wave at the trees, “–with water, you could grow all the fruit you wanted.” He looked around at us, “And I saw plenty of water, behind that Hoover Dam.”
The old man grew the best-damned apples I’d ever picked, with irrigation water impounded by one of the projects extolled in the local paper’s masthead, “Apple Capital of the World, and the Buckle of the Power Belt of the Great Northwest.” Although I was several years shy of my 21st year on the planet, I knew enough to listen to him.
The orchard was next to the once-mighty Columbia River, now tamed by an assortment of dams begun in the 1930s. Private electric companies had opposed the competition from public funding, while irrigation promoters loved the promise of cheap water and flood control. Bonneville and Grand Coulee became “New Deal” names rolling off the tongues of left-leaning politicians hooking for votes from an electorate recently humbled by economic collapse, while right-wingers thundered that it was all part of a “Socialist boondoggle” leading the country to ruin. To help combat this charge, by 1941, the Bonneville Power Administration had retained an “information consultant” named Woody Guthrie to write songs for a film promoting its projects. From Woody’s “Grand Coulee Dam” comes this:
“Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ’33
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me.
He said, ‘Roll along Columbia. You can ramble to the sea,
But river while you’re ramblin’ you can do some work for me’.”
While the Northwest’s self-named Inland Empire digested its doses of backbiting and branding, Hoover Dam had already jump-started the Desert Southwest’s multi-decade fling with cheap hydro. To transmit the electricity produced, transmission grids that eventually became part of the Western Interconnection soon crisscrossed public lands, and enough impounded water was pumped from the canyons of the Columbia and Colorado rivers to feed dreams of human industry.
I’ve been dreaming old man Harrison’s industrious vision tonight, after a long day spent driving a rented HEV (hybrid electric vehicle), looking at BLM’s (Bureau of Land Management) proposed SEZs (Solar Energy Zones) in the Mojave Desert (no acronym, sorry) of southern California (SoCo). Several decades beyond my fruit tramp years and in a new century defined by fears of impending collapses, the idea of orchards in these dry valleys seems far-fetched, as abandoned lettuce fields in the Imperial Valley 100 miles from here grow dust-clouds so the over-booked Colorado River can continue sprouting housing developments on the California coast.
I’ve seen four SEZs in the last few days, will drive by three more tomorrow, and can close my eyes and visualize the landscape surrounding about a dozen more from rambles similar to this one in decades past — seemingly, aimless travel on a budget is a side benefit of living a life of outdoor leisure interrupted by short (usually) periods of industrious labor for (sometimes) lucrative manna, with which to finance my hedonistic pursuits in “undeveloped” places managed by the alphabet soup of public lands agencies.
After dark, I turned off the highway onto a dirt road that led toward the dark side of Joshua Tree National Park, hoping it would lead to a dead-end set of ruts, and maybe a bit of shelter from a tailwind that had raised the hybrid’s digital efficiency graph to periodically claim 75 MPG (yup, another one — miles per gallon, this time. Get used to it, there’re more of ’em coming.). The road ended in a bulldozed patch of dirt by a chain-link fence. The wind kept howling, and I unrolled my sleeping bag on the lee side of the low-slung car. Not as good as hoped, but not bad.
Now the only light is from a half-moon that rose while I slept. It shines directly in my eyes. Ah well, probably what ended the dream for me, but at least the wind has died. The only sound is a gentle burbling from the other side of the fence. It is the sound of water flowing. No more sleep for a while now. A short walk to the fence confirms that I’ve managed to camp right by the Colorado River Aqueduct as it carries old man Harrison’s vision through the still-dry-as-dust Mojave. To the west, there are no orchards, no green fields. Beyond the aqueduct, the moon lights the Coxcomb Mountains inside the national park. Northeast, the proposed Iron Mountain SEZ site is hidden in shadows cast by its namesake mountain range. South, toward Interstate 10, is more crosshatching on the BLM map that marks yet another SEZ.
It’s time for a bit of exploration here. The SEZ process seems to be another effort to establish long-term land-management plans during my own home-state-produced, honest-to-gawd cowboy-hat-and-boot-wearing Secretary of Interior’s tenure. Though it’s hard to paint the honorable Mr. Secretary as an environmentalist’s wet dream, overall it’s been a refreshing change from the “Drill, Baby, Drill” sloganeering of the now-busted boom time. He reminds me of an old-time steward-of-the-land-type rancher preaching grazing rotation and summer/winter pasture gospel, though, as usual, “the devil is in the details,” as me own aphorism-spouting, FDR-hating great-grandmother would’ve phrased it.
SEZ is an acronym dreamed up by the current occupants of the Interior (DOI) and Energy (DOE) departments, in the process of setting an overall policy for permitting utility-scale solar-energy projects on 22 million acres of BLM land in six states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah). The plan would remove another 77 million acres of BLM land from consideration for solar, while streamlining the permitting process in 24 zones (yup, the SEZs) chosen for proximity to power transmission corridors and roads. Current projections are that between now and the year 2030, developments will cover over 200,000 acres with solar arrays producing 24,000 megawatts of electricity (an output roughly equal to five Fukushimas).
As of now, the details are still being hashed out, and as a citizen of the benighted empire, I’ve taken the liberty of casting myself as a “stakeholder” while attending public meetings, reading virtual reams of official descriptions and media coverage courtesy the web, chatting with a few jargon-fluent Departmental suits, walking some proposed SEZs, driving past others, clicking panoramic photographs handily available on the solareis.als.gov website (I know, I know, enough acronyms/abbreviations already), and closing my eyes to visualize just what some of these zones would look like with brush, sand and rocks replaced by fields of solar collectors pumping electricity into the humming wires of the Western Interconnection.
According to every formula for effective “advocacy journalism” I’ve ever stolen from, this is where I should deftly preach my own gospel of a shining future: for the enviro-defensive demographic, the preservation of our beloved public-land jewels; for upwardly-green-and-mobile strivers, a 21st Century riff on ol’ Woody Guthrie’s paean to the Grand Coulee Dam. I know, I know — but one problem is, we’ve got some cross-over on this one, as defenders of extraction extol the virtues of open spaces (the preservation of which will incidentally improve their favorite oil/gas/coal/nuclear corporation’s bottom line), while more than a few self-proclaimed environmentalists offer to trade acres for peace of mind on the production front (quoting actual online comment here, “Ultimately, I think it’s worthwhile to displace some tortoises if we can get real meaningful energy change by developing solar plants.”).
Comments I’ve collected so far have some environmental organizations defending their favored stretches of “habitat,” farmers worried about competition for water and land, residents of housing developments jealous of their “viewshed,” accusations of a BIG GOVERNMENT SCHEME TO LOCK UP THE WEST IN A GREEN ENERGY SOCIALIST BOONDOGGLE, and/or (fill in a favorite fear or two here), while corporations hoping to crash the renewable energy production party let their actual endgames lie fallow, to let bureaucrats take the heat. We’ll hear more from them later, I’m guessing. Currently, the multi-agency group that drafted the plan is sifting through a mountain of opinions, accusations and actual relevant comments while finalizing an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement), so tune in for the next round in coming months.
Here’s another problem — a point-of-view can be an amorphous thing, subject to having “skin in the game,” as the investment gurus say these days. After all, Guthrie’s celebratory lyrics promoted projects that took a formerly free-flowing stretch of public river and turned it into a daisy chain of industrial sites that provided a decent chunk of my early, very minor, part in boosting the empire’s GNP (gross national product [couldn’t resist this one, sorry]). I don’t recall being racked with guilt as I spent that apple-picking money. Depending on the stretch of country I see, I can feel both sides on this one, too. As a certain young brasileira sadly said to me as I left Rio long ago, “Is muito complicado.” Yes, I agreed, complicated indeed. So, what the hell, I’ll do as always and ramble on.
*SEZ DOI DOE BLM GNP*
So it’s the next day, and I’m poaching a hike on one of America’s jewels, leaving tracks in a shallow desert wash without benefit of a day pass. A line of signposts awhile back proclaimed the park boundary, and my view is a ragged skyline far from popular parts of Joshua Tree NP. Turning east, I can see the shape of my rented hybrid car by the flowing aqueduct, and far beyond the Iron Mountain SEZ, I can visualize other valleys in the Mojave that some corporate-board-types may be eyeing as I walk. Across the Interior West, the prospect is the same.
I rented my eco-consumer’s transitional dream car in a desperate bid to not change my pattern behaviors too much, now that gas prices are pushing past $4 bucks a sip again; and I’ve got to admit it feels good to be researching solar development sites without asking my old Chevy’s 350 CI (cubic inch) engine to suck at peak oil’s ever-ready teats. In my decades of rambling, when occasional bouts of social consciousness have interfered with my daily routines, I’ve rationalized that my unseemly gasoline consumption is more than offset by an equal number of years living with minimal drain on the electrical grid that keeps our cities and backyards secure from the terrors of darkness, but if enough of us switch to HEV or EV (electric) cars to make a serious dent in national oil consumption, we’ll need more electrical generation and transmission capacity than now exists.
Most of the proposed Solar Energy Zones I visited are near highways and along existing power lines. It’s hard to make a case that putting a solar plant on most of these would scar the landscape more than current uses, but the idea of yet more industrial sites on public land offends my sense of balance. Noise and dust pollution, water use, loss of habitat and wildlife corridors will vary with each site and by type of power generation built. This makes a one-size-fits-all assessment impossible, but some zones are beyond roads and along corridors that have not yet had transmission lines installed. I’m eyeing the Colorado River Aqueduct, seeing shadows of old man Harrison’s vision of the future, and envisioning sacrifice zones.
Right now, choices are being made in corporate and government offices that will decide the mix of power generation in the rest of this century. King Coal wants to dig, Big Oil/Gas wants to drill, the Nuclear Renaissance wants to do both, and a budding Green Energy industry promises enough capacity to give extractive-industry-types nightmares. Common ground for all the above is the desire to dig, drill and/or build on public land, rather than deal with the headaches and hangovers of private land development (read: cheap land = higher profit). Also in agreement on a desire for more power transmission lines, corporate lobbyists of all stripes clamor for additions to the power grid, preferably near their clients’ investments. For proposed power lines on public land, count on finding a multi-year planning process already grinding its gears toward completion, so Solar Energy Zone planning is not the only game in town right now.
We need to decide how much undeveloped public land can be turned into bottom-line profit; put another way, “Just how many displaced tortoises does it take to power an empire?” The piecemeal approach to permit processing has led to rape-and-run Superfund sites, and to true-believers climbing trees, trashing equipment or crashing resource-leasing parties with fake bids in desperate, usually futile attempts to save this or that jewel from development. You know the stories by now, and I know these observations could be expanded into a visionary gospel, but I see too many incongruities anymore. As the old saying goes, “One man’s meat is another’s poison …” or something like that.
Before looking for a place to camp yesterday, I drove my HEV to the top of a hill overlooking an operational solar power plant. Rows of collectors concentrated the sun’s heat onto tubes full of fluid, superheating it enough to power turbines that fed energy into wires stretching across the desert. There was no plume of smoke, no smell of burned petroleum, no invisible cloud of radiation. To the east and west stretched strings of trucks and cars on the highway that replaced old Route 66, the Mother Road that carried Woody Guthrie to California a few years before he sang for the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams. Beyond the shining rows of collectors, traffic and wires, I studied the Mojave’s mountains and tried to decide if the solar plant was a blight or blessing for the desert landscape.
As I drove back to the highway, I approached a roadside antique store’s back-lot. It was full of old signs: Standard, Texaco and other blasts from our passing fling with muscle cars and unlimited resources. As I drew closer, I saw a scantily clad mannequin leaning against a chain-link fence — and then she turned around and glanced my way. As the lovely leather-bikini-sporting model waited with her retinue of irritated photographer and bored assistant, I continued driving my oh-so-defensible dream of renewable mobility right through the background of someone else’s fantasy shot of unattainable pulchritude. See — incongruity rules. Ah well, so goes life on the mother, the road.
I realize I’ve started stripping off layers as the sun brings on another day’s heat. Turning back to the mountain, I climb toward a longer view. I don’t yet know how far I’ll go, but I’m going to leave you with a vision that came to me — of a no-longer-young man walking naked in the desert, picking a cautious path through a wilderness of thorny denizens and dilemmas. Now try to think of your envisioned character as a slightly confused uncle. Sam, let’s call him. He doesn’t know yet which way he’ll turn, and asks for some advice.
This Uncle Sam needs more from his citizenry than slogans, accusations and fear. Take a look at the public lands in your own stretch of country — then have a say in how to generate the power our visions and dreams will cost, where you’d like to see it developed, and maybe, just maybe, how much is enough.
More alphabet soup anyone?
Here are a few places that will aid entry to “renewable” energy’s weird wired world of grand plans and piecemeal permit applications.
Keeping in mind that all internet links are ephemeral, check these:
So what’s transmission got to do with it? This year, rivers have been out-competing wind projects for space on the Western Interconnection’s transmission grid in the Northwest, pointing up the impending storm over too much generation capacity and too few wires. This’ll get you started:
If high-tech methods fail or leave you cold, contact your oft-maligned Honorable Representatives of a government of by and for “we the people” — via old-fashioned mail, phone or the very direct action of walking into the local office of said minion. Good luck and let your reception guide your vote. Enough said.
Senior correspondent B. Frank is the author of “Livin’ the Dream.” His blog, “The Ragged Edge,” can be found here. Frank splits his time between the Four Corners Country and the Borderlands.
I am climbing Granite Peak, the highest mountain in Montana, and sweat is pouring off my brow. I’m choking back vomit and my spine really hurts, yet I’m happily wallowing in this abject misery. And I think you’ll understand why.
But first a little about me. I’m a sport climber. And a lazy one. I belay off the bumper. If the approach to a crag crests 15 minutes, I seriously reconsider ever climbing there again. So, with no backpacking experience, borrowed alpine gear and poor cardio, I decide to take on one of the hardest summits in the country: dangerous climbing, consistently exposed positions, notoriously unpredictable weather and low odds of reaching the top. Aaron, my hardcore backpacking friend, stated my odds the most eloquently: “It will destroy you.” Perfect.
Why? Well, I’d left the International Climber’s Festival early to swing by my girlfriend’s house and surprise her. I did. Surprised her ex-boyfriend too. In crippling silence (the sound of hurried re-buckling and shallow breathing notwithstanding), we all stared at each other for the longest minute in history. Following that, I drove home, threw up, wondered why I’d been with her for two years and then got drunk for a week. (Or two. I dunno … Not important.)
After countless weepy trips to the bar and an endless barrage of apologies, I decided that I couldn’t wallow in my own bottomless self-pity forever and I needed appropriate catharsis: self-immolation, seppuku, pull a “Leaving Las Vegas,” etc. After careful thought, I determined the crippling mental and physical pain of mountaineering was a more reasonable outlet.
And I had picked a damned hard mountain at that. Remarkably climbed after Alaska’s Mt. McKinley and Wyoming’s Gannett, Granite Peak was the last state high point to be conquered. After multiple attempts from multiple parties, Elers Koch finally scored the first ascent August 29, 1923 — just two weeks after he found his wife Gerda in bed with his longtime friend, Bernard DeVoto. *(That’s not true. Could be though)
“I need you to promise me something, Dan,” I tell my climbing partner between labored breaths on the saddle overlooking Mystic Lake. “No matter what I say or do, make me summit. I’ve never done anything like this before, so I might feel like I can’t and try to quit.” I’m a junkie before a painful detox, making sure I end up clean no matter what desperate bargaining might take place. I want enlightenment, goddammit. And I’m not going to find it at this altitude. I stare at him and say, “I need to summit.”
We hit the Switchbacks From Hell, and I exist only one stunted, 12-inch step at a time. Slowly, with each mile traveled, cuckoldry is fading from my
consciousness. Despite a rapidly growing level of physical discomfort, I’m feeling better overall. It starts to rain gently as we approach treeline, and I can’t help but smile. With the deep blue waters of Mystic Lake majestically spread before me, flanked by massive lofty peaks, I slowly begin to understand why people go backpacking.
Kinda. My knees are really starting to hurt.
Next comes Froze-to-Death Plateau. Like some giant, boring treadmill, the flat miles inch along. We slog through marshy swamps and leftover snow banks on our determined march to the peak. Now my lower body aches deeply. Roving gangs of mountain goats circle us the entire way, hungrily lapping up any salty urine we leave behind. Piss vultures. Gross.
Just when I think I can’t, we finally arrive at a suitable bivy site, with the jagged summit of Granite peering at us over the ridgeline. I collapse against the stacked rocks. I am a sacred vessel of hurt. I am the holy martyr of suffering. I am Saint Gangulphus of Burgundy, the remarkably appropriate patron saint of deceived husbands, unhappy marriages and knee pain. *(That is true. Google it.)
Every joint is throbbing. Genuine, palpable, physical suffering has replaced all my petty emotional suffering. Perfect. This I can manage. My brain doesn’t seem to be functioning properly. Maybe it’s the elevation. I can’t think good. I can’t remember her “dog-just-got-in-the-garbage” facial expression when I walked in. I can’t even remember her face. She doesn’t exist at 10,000 feet. I feel a Zen-like calmness. I’m happy. Time for bed.
4:15 a.m. Cold dark alpine start. I awake to black and wind. Granite by moonlight.
10:15 a.m. Endless skies above. I’m on the highest mountain. Montana beneath.
3:15 p.m. Bivy site and goats. I pack the tents, pump water. Time to return home.
I’m pissed. While I was able to transcend the issue of indiscretion on the hike up, I can feel it start to (re)consume my consciousness on the hike down. I’m slowly dipping back into the Hot Tub of Emotional Torment. “Where’s my enlightenment? Where’s my damned inner peace?” I mutter as we finally get off Froze-to-Death and head back down the Switchbacks. Damn! I feel cheated. All this suffering for nothing. I’m waiting for something to happen — deep spiritual clarity, inner peace, a moment of realization, etc. I’m annoyed that nothing took place. And then something did.
Fifteen hours of constant effort begins to break down my doughy sport-climbing physique. My ambitious pace slows to a labored, waddling gait. Joints begin to scream. Every footstep sends lightning bolts of pain up my legs and my eyes start to well up. My climbing partners scoff and charge ahead around me, agreeing to meet me at the car, which is still six miles away.
A mile later, a stabbing muscle cramp clutches my right leg as I step down. I stand all of my weight on the side of my foot and then crumple. Grasping my twisted ankle and biting back tears, I finally feel like I can’t. Every joint is screaming and I can feel my ankle swelling. I’ve overloaded my pain circuits and blown the fuses. System failure.
I give up and cry like a bratty toddler. It’s all too much. What the hell was I thinking?
A few desperate minutes later, as I wipe the snot off my face with my forearm, it finally dawns on me: only I can get me the hell out of this canyon. Feeling bad for myself wasn’t going to do a damned thing. My friends were miles ahead. It was getting dark. I couldn’t change the fact that my ex-girlfriend betrayed me or how far away the car was. I could only change myself. I was going to get to the car and I was going to get over her because I had to. Simple. Why not do it right now?
I determined that the next few hours of my life would involve crippling pain and I decided to enjoy it. I spend the last six miles in complete nirvana, slowly limping with a massive smile on my face as every delicate inch of sinew in my lower body weeps from constant abuse. I can’t stop laughing.
Long, long after my friends arrived back at the parking lot, I finally hobble down the hill to join them. “What the hell took you so long?” Dan calls out from the parking lot. I’m so happy I could throw up.
I had done it. I had successfully returned from the highest mountain in Montana. I haven’t been this happy in a long time. I come back to reality with a renewed perspective, ready to face the onslaught of apology messages with icy indifference. Sorry, but you can’t hurt me. All this suffering is nothing compared to what I just put myself through. I just limped my sorry ass up a big damned mountain and back, so I can sure as hell blow you off when you come crying. I am at peace.
Then, in a tremendous display of karma, she got fired from her job, had to move back in with her parents and is generally miserable *(Bitch). Perfect.
Dave Reuss is the managing editor of Outside Bozeman magazine. This is his first piece for the Gazette.
…Hope, Fear. Ruin, Rebirth
There is a buried and meandering channel of history moving unseen through the Moab Valley’s narrow, rimrock embrace. It curves through eras of rock art and warpaint, medical research and industrial warfare, salvation through service and damnation in detention. The substance of its serpentine events — now captured in history’s stony embrace — is infused with the elemental polarities of human nature: Hope, fear. Ruin, rebirth.
Though this channel of stories is now dormant beneath a newly laid desert floor, the curves and turns of yesteryear still tug at the paths forged today.
They are called paleochannels — abandoned streambeds from ancient landscapes, now buried under layers of sediment-turned-stone. Uranium miners followed them. Like ouzels, the birds that dive under cool canyon currents and walk submerged surfaces, these men dove below stone to the canyon bottoms of a previous age, searching for the sustenance that uranium might provide.
They mined around meanders and dug deeper-down pour-offs. They sought the phantom pool below the extinct waterfall for the logjam or dinosaur corpse providing the organic matter where uranium accumulates.
Uranium is a shape-shifting element. Ever lonely, it seeks the companionship of carboniferous deposits. It infuses tree limbs and bones with its essence, slowly replacing the dead matter with its elemental self. It is constantly on the move, from deep in the earth’s mantle outward, migrating on the wings of water. Driving plate tectonics. It is a vagabond. And it resists identification, hiding behind a multiplicity of hues and concentrations.
In this way, it mirrors humankind’s shape-shifting nature, each of us wavering on the tightrope strung between our hopes and our fears. With each falter and overcorrection, we shift the terrain of history. And we fashion the course of our lives.
“We inherit the warlike type,” said William James in his 1906 essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” “Our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bone and marrow and thousands of years of peace won’t breed it out of us.”
In this way, tales of war act like uranium, seeking the companionship of our hearts and minds, seeping into our bones, remaking individuals and societies in its elemental image. Even when we are not at war, the metaphors and memories remain in our lives, livelihoods and literature. Are we ever truly at peace? Is peace an illusion? Is it simply a time of preparation, of readiness? A state of tension anticipating some red glow on the horizon?
“‘Peace’ in military mouths today is a synonym for ‘war expected,’” James continued. “[T]he battles are only a sort of public verification of the mastery gained during the ‘peace’-interval.”
Is peace a less stable element than war?
What is the half-life of peace?
In the years leading up to World War II, the Civilian Conservation Corps built 23,000 miles of hiking trails, 125,000 miles of new roads and 47,000 bridges. They stocked one billion fish in waterways nationwide, strung 89,000 miles of telephone lines and erected 3,470 fire towers. They spent over four million man-days fighting forest fires, dedicated seven million man-days to habitat restoration and worked for nine straight years on erosion control, water conservation, forest management and rangeland improvements. They are best known for planting over three billion trees.
It was the largest peacetime mobilization of men in our country’s history.
The CCC was phased out in 1942. We needed the manpower to go to war.
Fifteen short months after the closure of Moab’s Dalton Wells Civilian Conservation Corps camp with the advent of World War II, the site was converted into the Moab Isolation Center, a Japanese internment camp. The barracks that once housed men intent on building a better future for themselves and their country now detained Japanese Americans — “troublemakers” from other relocation centers. Prisoners were shipped to this remote desert outpost and held without due process, kept under military guard, given no warrants, no right to defense, no trial and no contact with family. Their mail was censored. The Japanese tongue was not allowed. They required military escort to perform basic bodily functions.
The head of the War Relocation Authority at the time — the agency responsible for Japanese internment — referred to the Moab Isolation Center as “nothing but a concentration camp.”
One man was held there for the crime of referring to a Caucasian nurse as an “old maid.”
The Moab Isolation Center was never publicized. The world was largely unaware of these desert detainees. All photo documentation of the camp was destroyed. It became a hole in the landscape, a gap in the deep history of Dalton Wells, an abandoned meander in its course of events.
The Japanese internment camp in Moab was officially referred to as a “rehabilitation center.”
Rehabilitation from what?
When detainee Harry Ueno was moved from the Moab Isolation Center to another internment camp, he and four other prisoners were placed in a blacked out, four-by-six box with a single air-hole. They were transported this way — in the back of a truck — across 11 hours worth of gravel roads.
What kind of rehabilitation is this?
In peacetime, Dalton Wells was a place of hope and regeneration. During war, the same desert silence, the same modest buildings, the same sage and redrock and dust and wind … these elements forged a hell for 49 Japanese Americans.
In the powdery soils of Dalton Wells today, we find that hope and fear are made of the same raw materials and supported by the same ground. Our collective consciousness and conscience determine the differing outcomes.
The landscape — just like the heart of a nation — is vast enough to hold both realities.
Individuals, too, are raw materials. We, too, can become infused with the elemental — war and fear, compassion and courage — as it emanates from the hot mantle of those in power.
It is a fragile division between peaceful pursuits and wartime atrocities, between the solace of a desert’s solitude and the despair of its isolation. It is a fine line we walk within our own hearts and in our collective capacities for kindness and contempt.
Not far from Dalton Wells, on a remote canyon wall, sits a millennia-old Barrier Canyon-style being who seems to catch comets. He is painted in red, outlined in gold. He is taller than I. This panel’s beauty is one that transcends the truth of its meaning — one which we will never know.
The same reds and golds that give life to the comet catcher are the ones once used as warpaint by the Ute and Navajo. The same reds and golds once used in war were later shipped east to color ceramics like Fiestaware.
This element from the desert that speaks in hues of red and gold was used by Madame Curie in her efforts to cure cancer. Some of her radium came from Moab-area mines. This same element that was used to end suffering also caused more of it than the world had ever seen in a single day.
When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a member of the Enola Gay crew recalled that the mushroom cloud included yellowish clouds enveloping reddish clouds.
One-seventh of the atomic bomb’s radioactive material came from Moab.
Altruism and war. Beauty and suffering. Caught in the channels incised by our chosen leadership and our basic needs, we meander back and forth between the poles.
Of the men who worked in Moab-area uranium mines after World War II, many remained, many became sick, and many died here. Some sought a cure through nuclear medicine, bringing the element full circle. Uranium — a vagabond element, a shape-shifter. A killer and a redeemer.
These men — with their own shape-shifting stories — mined the raw materials of our sense of safety during the Cold War. They also invested in the Moab community. Uranium money built schools, neighborhoods, churches, roads and the necessary infrastructure to support a burgeoning population. Moab was blessed by war.
When the Atomic Energy Commission no longer needed uranium, Moab suffered. When the uranium processing mill finally closed in the early ’80s, Moab all but dried up and blew away on persistent desert winds.
“Global peace has been a disaster for the uranium industry,” wrote Tom Zoellner, author of a book on uranium’s deep history.
Global peace nearly killed Moab.
“A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure economy,” wrote James. “So long as antimilitarists propose no substitute for war’s disciplinary function, no moral equivalent of war…so long they fail to realize the full inwardness of the situation.”
The Dalton Wells site, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is a ghost of its former self. The cottonwood trees that the CCCers planted remain. The concrete foundations scattered on the desert floor are buckled, cracked, submitting to the elemental forces that shape this landscape. The area is now used by recreationists. They set up their RVs across the foundations of another time, using the site as a staging area for their adventures — atop motorcycles, ATVs and mountain bikes. This forms the basis for Moab’s current economy: Industrial tourism. A pleasure-based economy. Our antidote to the boom-and-bust cycle of supplying the raw materials of war.
As the two-stroke engines whine across this storied and stony landscape, who follows the flow of stories just beneath the surface? Who studies the oscillations between hope and fear cradled in an unlikely and isolated space? Who studies these ancient, subterranean routes so that we — as a people — might learn to chart a new course?
Who will now walk the paleochannels? And for what reason?
Who will now wander the prison yard? And what will he dream for its tomorrows?
Who will now collect reds and golds? And for what purpose?
What is the half-life of memory?
Here and elsewhere, we continue to walk the tension between our conflicting potentialities, engaging in this daring-and-dreamy high-wire act that we refer to simply as life. And we also walk a subterranean route collectively cut into this earth, our footprints a soft attrition. It is a channel of ruin and redemption incised deeply in the shared landscapes of memory, heart and home.
On this walk, we carry with us our layers of kindnesses and faults — mirroring the rocky strata of the Moab landscape — allowing erosion to determine which echelon we act upon and which serves as counterbalance in our ever-meandering destiny.
Senior correspondent Jen Jackson’s last piece for the Gazette was “A Hiker’s Guide to the Desert,” which appeared in MG #177. Her monthly blog, “Desert Reflections,” can by viewed at mountaingazette.com. Jackson lives in Moab.
(Re-printed from Volume 1 Number 1 — Winter ’72-’73 — of Powder magazine. Thanks to Dave Baldridge for the transcription services.)
In the white brick courtyard of the 16th century Catholic church in Managua, Nicaragua, a dark mob of angry Central Americans were screaming two familiar epithets: “Yankee go home!” and “Vaya Gringo!” Inside the church, yours truly, a very blue-eyed, blonde-headed gringo ski patrolman from Stowe, Vermont, was kneeling down in sanctuary in one of the ancient back pews. Save for “Donde esta el baño, por favor?” (“Where is the bathroom, please?”), I did not speak Spanish.
My Indian hitching partner, Sincere Smiling Wolf, from the Sun Valley ski patrol, was last seen on the outskirts of Mexico City, wildly swinging his gold Scott ski poles in mock anticipation of our arrival at Portillo, Chile, and the end of an 11,000-mile hitch-hike. The Indian, as he was called, had not made our proposed meeting in Guatemala City. He’d either been abducted by guerillas in Guatemala or had grabbed a boat in Veracruz, Mexico, and was waiting for me in Panama City — our alternate “if-things-fall-through” plan. I did not know where he was. I did know that Portillo was still 7,000 miles away and that things were falling through.
Now, however, outside, the people in the courtyard were becoming more vehement. I pressed my head against the pew in front of me to supplicate the Norse ski god. An elderly silver-tressed woman stopped in the aisle next to me, reached out and gingerly touched my shoulder.
“Are you a North American?” she asked in English.
“Yes,” I replied.
“How wonderful,” she said. “I pray that more North Americans come to our country as tourists.”
I moaned and moved my head back onto the wooden pew again. Maybe the Indian had joined the Cubco/Gresvig demonstration team and split for Hawaii, I thought. Suddenly, out of the ceiling an ominous resonant voice boomed, “Can I help you, my son?” I turned and looked into the eyes of a red-frocked priest.
“Yes,” I replied. “I’m going in the direction of Panama City and my ride let me out here somehow. Is there another way out?” I pointed sideways out the door toward the courtyard in an unnecessary explanation of my plight.
“This way,” he said, and led me through an enclosed compound to another exit, where he hailed a cab that took me to the outskirts of Managua and dropped me off on the Pan American Highway. At the highway, I stopped a bus full of chickens and chicken farmers (one chicken per farmer) and was again, I hoped, moving in the general direction of Portillo via Panama City and my scheduled meeting with The Indian. I was determined to ski in South America after two years of procrastination and,
despite the slow progress of the chickens and chicken farmers, I was zooming in on Chile by ox cart, train, bus, car and plane at the rate of 200 miles a day.
Sincere Smiling Wolf is a New Mexican Indian from Los Alamos who mysteriously jumped from the Thiokol Corporation onto the Sun Valley ski patrol one year because (he said) they needed a token minority group representative. He cannot ski. He takes pride in the fact that he cannot ski. He is, however, a very stable man with a toboggan. He can also speak fluent Spanish. His given name is David Baldridge, but he considers that name condescension to the neo-colonialism of the white man in “his country” and prefers his Cheyenne war designation. His name is fitting. He is not only the fastest Indian in Sun Valley with a pitcher of beer, but also can out-smile anyone there. He has a set of screaming white teeth that are the modus operandi of his persuasion. He is an Indian Diplomat out of place and time. He would have complimented Crazy Horse at the conference table. Too bad for the Indians; good for Sun Valley.
I met The Indian at Alta, Utah, where we both had journeyed for the National Gelande Contest. I had come from Stowe, where I had been a token Western Powder Hound the Mt. Mansfield ski patrol takes on for amusement each year. At Stowe, I had learned what ice REALLY was, and I was eager to recall the more prosaic ecstasy of powder and hitched out to Alta in hopes of finding some and maybe even making enough money to ski the summer in Portillo. That is, if I finished high enough in the Contest.
The Indian had come to Alta to laugh at the people who were jumping in the National Gelande Contest. One day, he helped me off the outrun after a practice crash that I had been perfecting. The other jumpers called it “burning out.” I was becoming very practiced at the art and The Indian had been watching my development.
“You’re insane,” he said as he waved the next jumper off.
“I know,” I replied, “but I like money.”
“What the hell for?”
“I want to ski Portillo this summer.”
“I’d rather walk,” he said.
“So would I,” I replied.
“One more of these and you won’t be able to crawl,” he pointed out.
“Yup,” I said.
“Have some wine,” he smiled.
I took the wine and one thing led to another as one step led to another and we were in Alta’s Shallow Shaft drinking beer and planning our summer escape to Portillo.
The round-trip airfare from Alta to Portillo is $1,268.41. That price includes the cost from Alta to the Salt Lake International Airport (about five dollars). At the Hotel Carrera in Santiago, the La Tour Travel Agency has a bus that goes to Portillo daily — weather permitting (about eight dollars). The Indian estimated that we could hitch to Portillo and back on about $200 each. It seemed feasible to me. We sent customary job applications to Portillo and soon received customary rejection slips and accompanying travel brochures. The brochures were effective. We decided to hitchhike.
The Pan American Highway is a long system of surface transportation extending from Canada to Buenos Aires, Argentina. It covers 12,000 miles; roughly halfway around the world. I had done extensive hitchhiking in the United States, Canada and Europe and did not feel that the trip was unapproachable. It was a highway and it stood to reason that any highway had cars and hitchhikers on it. The Indian and I spent a day in the library looking at the atlases to determine what we would be confronted with. The road went 30 miles past Panama City into the Darien Peninsula jungle, where it temporarily ended. In Panama City, it would be necessary to catch a boat or take a plane to Columbia and continue hitchhiking there. Barring unforeseen difficulties, we felt the trip could be accomplished.
May 15,, we shipped our skis to Santiago via air from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then picked up our passports, immunization records, water purification pills and beaded rosettes (a symbol of good luck, The Indian said), which we sewed onto our packs, and began our journey.
The first instance of bad luck, which prompted me to throw away my rosette, was the five-hour wait for a ride on the highway out of Albuquerque. After the first two hours of waiting, we split up in hopes of getting a ride easier. Ten minutes later, I saw The Indian pass me in a silver sports car as I walked down the highway. Two days later, I met him in the student cafeteria at the University of Arizona. His first ride was from a young starlet in a Porsche 911 Targa who went 300 miles out of her way to take him to Tucson. My rides included two drunk drivers preparing for Le Mans; a grandmother who lectured me on the evils of hitchhiking, and a Mexican farm worker who could not speak English — a precursor of difficulties to come.
Mexico was a disaster. The Indian and I found it was possible to take a train or bus to Mexico City for $25. Why hitchhike? The Indian was right. On May 18, we sweat-boxed by Mexican National Railroad to Mazatlan, where we stopped to check out the fabled Mazatlan beach. It was infested with sand fleas. Despite our diligent search for a campsite, we were unsuccessful. The next morning, we were on a bus to Guadalajara.
To combat the “Revenge of Montezuma,” The Indian would drink nothing but Coca-Colas or mineral water. He was continually taking pills or reading a tour guide book that explained the local diseases. This was sound policy. However, his reasons were not to avoid being ill. I later discovered that he felt it was necessary to set a good example for me.
“I’m immune,” he said.
“How can you be immune?”
“Indians no longer fight each other; our enemy is the forked-tongue White Eyes. Los Coyotes Rubios, the blonde coyotes.”
In Mexico City, we split up to make faster time. We would meet in Guatemala City in a week, or if we got a through ride, send a note to the American Express there and meet in Panama City in two weeks. I felt I had picked up enough Spanish and local “machismo” to get along.
As I hitched to Veracruz, I realized I had made a mistake. A bus picked me up going toward what I thought was Puebla. It left me 20 miles from the road. In Veracruz, an eight-year-old Pancho Villa hustled a Swiss Army Knife out of my pack while teaching me the language. Later, I caught a bus in Veracruz that dropped me off in Villahermosa — 150 miles off my route.
At Villahermosa, I caught a bus that took me the circuitous route to the Mexican/Guatemalan border town of Tapachula. I arrived in Tapachula at midnight and managed to find an available room in a “pension.” The “pension” was a relief not only because of the Latin ambiance of the building’s open courtyard but also because Tapachula signaled the end of the Mexican segment of my journey.
At the Guatemalan border, I learned that, if anyone plans on hitchhiking to Portillo, he should first visit the embassies of each country he will pass through and obtain a visa. Many of the border stations do not issue visas on their own authority, and even though it is possible to get them in Mexico City, it is much easier to do so in the United States. Also, it is wise to have at least $500 in travelers’ checks as proof of self-sufficiency. In some of the countries, a ticket out is necessary before you can get in. Fortunately, I caught a ride with a fellow from Southern California who had immigrated to Costa Rica and told the border authorities I was his traveling companion.
Costa Rica has the worst roads on the Pan American Highway (which is called the Inter-American Highway in Central America). The rainy season extends from May to October and the roads are creamy with mud. However, equipped with the two indispensables of hitchhiking: a good rain poncho and much patience, I was able to make it past Costa Rica’s two large mountain ranges and reach the flatter country and better roads of Panama.
I found The Indian soundly entrenched in Panama City at a local yacht club. He was at the pool with a glass of lemonade. He told me he had swiftly traveled the distance from Mexico City to Veracruz and had there caught a ride with a university student who was going to Panama to visit his parents in the American-controlled Canal Zone. While he waited for me, he played tennis and had done some golfing and sailing at the invitation of his host. He thought it would be simple to get a job crewing on a yacht going to Argentina or Chile.
We looked for a boat going in the direction of South America for four days and then, because I was eager to be on my way before I spent all of my money on hotels, we split up again to meet in Lima or Santiago, depending on our luck.
We would write a letter c/o the American Express office to the other person in the event of catching a ride through to Santiago.
Panama City to Santiago is 5,500 miles. Most of the road is “all weather,” a broad euphemism for “travel if you’re lucky”— except for the Darien Peninsula between Columbia and Panama, where there is no road at all. In Columbia, the Pan American Highway is called the Simon Bolivar Highway. Regardless of what it is called, it is a thrilling experience, reminiscent
of being strapped into a roller coaster for the first time as a child. On a side excursion to Bogota, I was told by a friend in the Peace Corps that the greatest danger in Columbia is travel by bus on the country’s highway system.
From the Colombian border town of Ipiales, I hitched 750 miles along the mountainous route of the ancient Inca Empire to Quito. At places on the road, it was necessary to stop and back up when meeting another vehicle because the road was so narrow. In Guayaquil, I decided that my nerves could not distinguish between the old Inca road and the new “improved” Pan American Highway. I took a plane over the earthquake disaster area in northern Peru. I had gone well over my proposed $200 allotment by this time, thanks to the cost of visas and hotels and other unplanned expenses.
In Lima, I sold my climbing boots to a Peace Corpsman who needed them as desperately as I needed the money. I immediately purchased a ticket to Santiago via TEPSA. TEPSA is the Greyhound bus service of South America. Their buses carry more people than livestock. They have an accident rate that is so much lower than their competitors, I was actually able to sleep as the bus sped the 2,000 miles down the Pacific coast to Santiago, which I reached on July 10.
I expected The Indian to be waiting for me at the American Express in Santiago. I did not find him or a letter from him. I found a student “pension” that included three meals a day and light housekeeping for $40 a month. I made a pilgrimage to the American Express each day in hopes of greeting him.
One week passed and I had heard nothing. In the interim, I had gone to the airport and claimed our skis: one pair of which I immediately sold. I had to. Next, I took an excursion to the ski resort of Farellones, which sits high in the Andes Mountains overlooking Santiago. Just to yearn.
When I returned, I still did not have word from The Indian. I left a letter for him at the American Express in Santiago and sent another to his home in New Mexico. Then I packed my bags and purchased a ticket to Portillo.
I stayed in Los Andes, a small town 50 miles from Portillo, while the Chilean Army cleared the road of avalanches to a point where the tourists could get to the hotel by taking the lowest of Portillo’s seven lifts. That lift crosses over the lower switchbacks of the road and deposits the newly arrived guest steps away from the hotel’s registration desk.
I walked past the solitary yellow hotel 150 yards and pitched my bright blue climbing tent between two large boulders, which sheltered me from the wind, set up a cold storage for 47 cans of salmon that I had purchased in Santiago, unraveled my down sleeping bag and considered myself encamped.
For the next five weeks at Portillo, I rented my ski equipment, sold Chilean escudos on the black market and started a one-man underground ski school to make enough money to occasionally obtain a room in the hotel and leave my blue tent. When I did not have the money, I skulked around the hotel and ski slopes with Bryan Nelson, a racer from the University of Colorado, who was training for his winter jaunt on the Can-Am Circuit. We looked for ways to avoid the eventual boredom of a one-hotel ski area after two weeks.
On August 20, I finished fourth in Portillo’s South American Gelande Contest and won a bottle of Chilean wine. As Bryan and I were celebrating my moral victory (he had coached me out of my “burning out” predispositions), I received a letter from The Indian. He was not coming to Portillo and appeared to be safe in the warmth of the Caribbean.
“Sorry I couldn’t make it. Surf and suds as scuba diving instructor here at Bimini too much to pass up.” — El Indio
I decided that my Portillo Summer had come to a welcome end. I sold my skis, ski poles, boots and a pair of Levis (the Chileans purchase them whenever possible from tourists), returned to Santiago and boarded a plane for Miami, where I landed 12 hours later.
For next summer, The Indian has proposed a tour to Bariloche, a ski area in southern Argentina.
“Hitchhike?” I said. “No way. I’ll meet you there. I’m taking a plane.”
“El Coyote Rubio grows old like rusted metal ski,” he smiled.
Richard Barnum-Reece (RIP) is Mountain Gazette’s special correspondent to the hereafter. His last story for MG was “Skiing Naked,” which appeared in #175.
Will makes the first move the day he stops by my desk during his lunch break. “Cute dress,” he says, the opposite of what my boss had to say about my sleeveless lime-green and hot-pink Hawaiian muumuu. With his thick, curly beard and big, hairy hands, Will epitomizes my conception of a mountain man. The stark blueness of his eyes penetrates his wire-rim eyeglasses. He fails to mention his girlfriend in California.
Our first date, Will picks me up in his Ford Bronco for the drive to the Mt. Sherman trailhead. There are 54 mountains in the Colorado Rockies over 14,000 feet high. Will wants to climb them all, pick them off one, two, three at a time, the conquest, by his reckoning, to be completed within a couple of summers. According to the Colorado Mountain Club guidebook, Mt. Sherman (Sherman who helped win the war with his scorched-earth strategy) is the easiest 14er — a romp through the tundra, the ideal introduction to mountaineering.
I do not question Will’s choice of hiking mates, the timing of our departure. He is 10 years older, with two master’s degrees from Stanford. When he was two months old, he rode to the top of a peak overlooking Los Angeles in his father’s backpack. At age 11, he made it to the top of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Lower 48, on his own feet — his nausea from the altitude tempered by the view his father indicated with a sweep of his arm. In college, a summer of scrambling up the tourist-free routes of Mt. Moran and the Grand in Teton National Park secured Will’s rite of passage to manhood.
I come from more sedentary stock. My parents admired the view of Longs Peak from the front porch of our summer rental cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park. At home in Kansas City, my mother kept in shape, and her hair dry, by swimming at the country club pool in her shower cap, while my father traversed the golf course in a motorized cart, knocking off 18 holes without breaking a sweat. During tornado drills at school, I could duck and roll with the best of them, but the vertical drop from wooden seat to linoleum floor barely exceeded two feet, not enough conditioning for the psychological challenges of mountaineering.
On Mt. Sherman, Will and I are the only ones going up. Everyone else is coming down. They started hiking at daybreak; we arrived at the trailhead at noon. I manage to stay within earshot until we reach timberline and Will catches his second wind. The rougher and steeper the terrain, the more impressive his performance. Boulders that remain upright as he hops from one to the next lurch and buck me off. He gains altitude; a landslide carries me backwards in slow motion, toward the car. At this rate, Will will bag the summit before I can scramble to my feet. The wind doesn’t help; its velocity pummels me.
The wind drags a sheet of moisture in its wake and our destination is draped in grey. The ferocity of the impending storm is telegraphed with a buzz of electricity. The subsequent boom sounds like it has blown up the ridge, and the echo roars across the basin. Spared by a lightning bolt from the humiliation of failure. I did not see the elongated flicker of light that preceded the strike, but Will must have. He is running down the boulder field, the boulders rocking and rolling beneath his dancing feet. Force of will harnessing the force of gravity. The only pin left standing in the alley, wobbling and spinning without toppling over.
After that outing, we cast ourselves as Lady Emily and Lord Willard in a Gothic adventure story inspired by my English ancestry and favorite novelist in adolescence.
“Willard!” I shout whenever I lose sight of him, which is frequently.
“Emily, over here,” identifying his location with a wave of his white hat.
He tries to let down his California girlfriend gently. She wants to know why. He says I don’t mind sleeping in the back of the Bronco with the tailgate open so we can watch for shooting stars, and I keep my hysteria to myself when his unconventional route up Mt. Blanca peters out, and we have to turn around and descend the same steep, icy couloir we crawled up. Will left the rope behind.
His bouquet of roses for my birthday is a photo of Lady Emily stretched out on a hummock of Rocky Mountain sedge and arctic gentian. His Christmas card is a photo of a blue spruce decorated in a twinkling coat of fresh snow. We didn’t make that summit. We lost our traction in the steep snowdrifts.
Will makes the next move atop Mt. Elbert, the highest mountain in Colorado. Above timberline, I am still a virgin. Ours is an awkward coupling, but a coupling nonetheless. Our contractions give birth to momentary equilibrium. His physical prowess and grace; my timidity, astonishment and longing moderate during the exchange. His movements, my response, this rock under my spine, that marmot whistling for handouts, and all the other distractions dissolve with the racing clouds that carry off time, perspective and distance.
Motion consolidates and preserves the union, refines our teamwork. Over the course of the next three summers, Will teaches me how to defend myself in an environment so harsh, only one animal will risk the winter above timberline: the pika, a cousin of the rabbit that adapted to the climate by sacrificing its ears and tail for heat conservation. In its mad-hatter dash to collect enough haystacks to sustain it through the winter, the pika seems impervious to the hazards, such as that haphazard row of boulders resting on the ridge that reminds us of a display of decapitated heads after a public execution. We get the message and rise from our snack break.
My turn to tie into the umbilical cord, the dangling rope. I start around the corner, and the route to the top of Dallas Peak disappears into thin air, like Will did 45 minutes ago when he took the lead. Once my eyes adjust to the glare, I realize I am standing on a snowed-in ledge that leans away from the mountain, toward Blue Lake 2,000 feet below. My postholes in the snow cannot take the heat at this altitude, and the only secure route back to terra firma collapses.
The ledge looks like it will run out soon, and then what? Dump me? I break the golden rule and look into the bottomless void and pray for a search-and-rescue chopper. Maybe I can fake a sprained ankle. Except for an occasional tug on the rope and his disembodied “Off Rope!” Will hasn’t kept in touch. I shout at him to tighten the rope. The wind is blowing with deafening certainty. He can’t possibly hear me. The rope jerks to maximum tension. He must be up there somewhere, guiding the rope, protecting us both with properly positioned chocks and slings. If I slip and his backup fails, the rope in his lap might unwind in a heartbeat, wrapping him in its tentacles, and we’ll both fall off.
A bonk rattles my helmet, then another. The rocks have found the perfect target: the black X I taped to the top of my helmet for good luck. I shake off the debris. Three chocks nest on the buckle to my climbing harness. The protection Will placed on the traverse must have popped loose and slid down the rope. “Tighten!” I yell. The wind howls back. The rope doesn’t move. This time, Will can’t hear me. Maybe the weight of my body will slow the swing of the rope as it pendulums across the cliff.
At the end of the ledge looms one of those thank-God-there-is-a-chimney that consoles mountaineers with vertigo. The chimney is filled with rotten snow and loose shrapnel. Either I commit to the climb or I shriek at Will to feed me more rope for the retreat.
I flail at the first lift up until the front points of my crampons catch. Left point, right point, ice axe swinging at any mark in the rock that resembles a crack. An unorthodox technique to be sure, but I don’t give a damn because there is my reflection in the eye of Will’s 55-mm lens. I crawl past and find a seat as far from the edge as possible.
I manage a victory smile as Will wraps his arms around my shoulders for the summit portrait. Of the 100 highest peaks in Colorado, we have just climbed the toughest one. Eighty-six down. Fourteen to go. Will researches the access and the routes; I keep score with checkmarks in the margins of our list.
Our wedding takes place in an outdoor chapel overlooking Cripple Creek and its cemetery, where death is the great equalizer, and gunslingers and prostitutes are buried alongside respectable mining families. It is July and the alpine meadows are awash in red paintbrush and purple lupine. When the minister finishes his recitation and turns to me, my mind goes blank. I can’t remember my part of the agreement, even though I wrote the vows. The ring Will slips on my finger is set in agate. He purchased the polished stone at a rock shop after noting the resemblance to the color of my eyes. The necklace I string around his neck is made of leather and decorated with wooden beads. After the ceremony, a friend of my father’s says, “You looked like the hangman at an execution, Jane.”
In the required Colorado Mountaineering Club course for aspiring trip leaders, the instructor drills us in the art of tying knots, handling the rope and rappelling. The double figure eight is the most difficult knot for me to learn and remember. I have to withdraw enough rope from the coil to loop it twice into a figure eight; in such a tight embrace, the parallel knots are indistinguishable except for the seam at their junction. It takes me a half-dozen tries to trace the second loop around the first one without kinking the rope. I have to trace the pattern of the first one exactly.
My double figure eight secured, I check both locks on my carabiner gate twice, as instructed, then walk backward toward the edge, clutching the rope in my right hand.
“Let the rope flow gently through your hand as you back off the edge and lean away from the rock,” the instructor says. “Your feet will balance you.”
I stand on the edge of the cliff, my eyes on the hand that is supposed to control the rate of my descent, and not the bottom of the cliff, another instruction.
“Don’t rush or hold on too tight. The rope will burn. Take your time and lean back.”
I look at him for reassurance. He grins and gives me a thumbs up. “If you hug the rock, you might get tangled up in the rope, and we’ll have a hell of a time extricating you.”
On the rappel off the summit of Dallas Peak, I got carried away with excitement and went too fast and leaned too far back. I turned upside down and hung by my harness, twisting in the breeze.
“Grab the rope,” Will hollers down when he finally hears my shrieks. “Pull. Pull yourself up.”
At first I do not believe him. The rope will snap in two, or I will yank him off with me.
“Use the rope to pull yourself up. I’ve got you.” The rope jerks. He is reeling in all the slack so I won’t bounce and strain the rope with more weight than it can support.
I reach up and grab hold. The rope twitches and turns. My head and torso swing upward — a stunned hummingbird restored to flight, fluttering toward the sugar water.
Will’s chocks and slings, and my double figure-eight, hold.
The last mountain on our 100-highest-peaks list, which has no name, beckons. Snug in our tent in the trees, we prefer to wait for the sun, but we’re in a bigger hurry than it is, even though the rock won’t dry for hours.
Over his customary mountaineering attire, Will sports the tuxedo he wore to our wedding. The down tie I gave him for Christmas adds a touch of optimism. It is as blue as a Rocky Mountain sky in autumn. But once we emerge from our stand of Engelmann and blue spruce, we realize the sun may never appear today. Gray dawn yawns into infinity. We pass Conundrum Hot Springs, moisturizing ourselves in the drifting steam. Braced for the ascent, we advance on the tipping saucer of the rock-strewn tundra. Patches of skunk cabbage sag in rusted heaps, smelling of old library books. The higher we hike, the dicier the weather. Clouds swirl like wildfire smoke. Wind-whipped graupel stings our cheeks with second-degree burns. We keep climbing — our mutual peak-bagging endeavor undefeated by deteriorating weather. Will consults his compass so he can navigate in the fog, and we shout at each other so we can hear above the cacophony. The wind pastes icicles onto Will’s beard, sucks us dry and bends us into old women with arthritic spines.
We totter on, our footing insecure, propelled by our determination to complete a decade-long project. The celebration on the summit is brief. The tips of Will’s tie and the flying ruffles of the turquoise nightgown I wear over my climbing attire intertwine like the necks of courting swans. We name our nameless peak Mt. Gray because of the similarity between the rock and the weather, and the contrast with our mood.
The celebration resumes in the hot springs among friends who have backpacked in a bottle of champagne and a floating tray of gourmet delicacies for the occasion. Curried deviled eggs, cranberry goat cheese, homemade angel food cake dipped in melted Ghirardelli chocolate. Having skipped the summit bid in favor of a prolonged soak, they withhold their congratulatory greetings until we strip and plunge in. Then the cork pops and the foam spurts. We lose track of time. Night sneaks up on us in a swirling confusion of migrating steam and breath. The dreaded storm never materializes fully, more bluster than substance, as was the case during the ascent. In the shrouded moonlight, our glistening albino faces and iced eyelashes substitute for the absent stars. I wish I had Will all to myself — until midnight, when our friends have to fish us out, as helpless as newborn twins. They escort us to our campsite, propping us up the whole way so we don’t tip over or squash the tent on our arrival. They tuck me in first before shoving Will in beside me. Will falls asleep the moment his head rolls into his sleeping bag hood, his cheeks still toasty from our hot bath.
My sleep is cut short by the fullness of my bladder. I crawl out of my bag, unzip the fly, stick my head out. The sharp point of a tree stump is softened by a plump cushion of snow. Bare branches are whiskered in white. Evergreen boughs droop from the weight of a generous Epiphany offering.
On my way back from our designated latrine, I flop on my back, carving angels out of a freezing mattress. The moon has slipped out, inescapable and inexhaustible. Wide-awake now, I enter its time machine. It transports me back to the dawn of an Ice Age and the formation of a mountain range. Dizzy with vertigo, I am whisked into the future, time whirring by like hummingbird wings. In the shaded soil where my ashes were scattered, I glimpse lady’s slippers, their translated generic name, Aphrodite’s sandal, paying homage to the Greek goddess of love. The time machine rolls to a stop with a blast of cold air. A warm sleeping bag awaits me in a dry tent. I crawl back in and wait for Will to awaken from his dream.
I name my house Bijou, for the street outside my bay window in Colorado Springs. Bijou is French for finely crafted ornamentation of a delicate nature. Will bought this house and renovated it for a rental unit. Once my name replaces his on the title and I start paying the bills and redecorating, I will call the house Jane’s house. This is the first house I have ever owned. It was ordered from a Sears catalogue, and the pre-cut lumber was shipped by rail. The front porch tilts, fingerprints disfigure the wallpaper along the door jams, and the siding is pockmarked from exposure and age. For a house that was built before statehood, it has weathered the storms rather well.
After the divorce, Will kept Ruxton House, our Victorian home in Manitou Springs. He paid for it and he renovated it.
We split the topo maps 50-50. I spread them out on the carpet in my upstairs study, tantalizing and torturing myself with possibilities. Six-hundred-and-thirty-eight mountains in Colorado over 13,000 feet high, each one a monument to someone’s version of history. It would take several lifetimes to do them all. I would climb them all in this lifetime, if my body could tolerate the punishment. I want to leave my mark, scrawl my signature on a scrap of paper and add it to the collection in the summit registers. I want to possess these mountains as they possess me. I want to know everything about them — the density and condition of their forests; the scent and variety of their flowers; the angle, age and condition of their rock; the size of their summits. I rank them by altitude — the highest ones first. One hundred-and-fifty highest. Two hundred highest. The tricentennials. I will conquer them all in that order. I was the first woman to climb the 100 highest peaks of Colorado; mathematical precision reduces the enormity of the rest of the task. I group the mountains on my list in logical, achievable categories, recording each triumph, like a bird watcher, in my notebook with the date and initials of my companions. The solos with my dog are signified with his nickname spelled backwards: God.
I climb for the exercise, burning off bad memories as if they were Christmas calories, transforming grief into muscle. “What’s the rush? Are you training for an ultra-marathon or something?” my friend asks when I return to camp an hour after he does. He turned back at timberline, exhausted by the pace I set.
I climb for the thrill of it, scaring myself shitless on more than one occasion. But my body is up to it — legs of granite, heart and lungs a 200-horsepower engine that propels me upward at 1,800 vertical feet per hour. Sixty-five heart beats per second, 3,600 per hour. On the trail, my body has a weight to it. My footsteps land lightly, but my feet feel rooted. Every step a declaration of intimacy with the grass, the rock, the soil. The tapping of my hiking poles synchronizing with each inhalation and exhalation. My breath distilled into the clarity of light.
Mummy Mountain, Rocky Mountain National Park: I glance back at the dilated, bruised clouds and pick up the pace as I scramble up the last 200 feet of the summit block, beating the lightning-charged hailstorm to the top by 10 minutes. The ridge I pick out as a logical shortcut to camp proves correct, and I outrun the storm’s southward progression in my direction. Back at camp, I am welcomed by a Boy Scout troop leader who covets my spot for his party of 10. I’m happy to comply, confident I can beat nightfall and make it out in time for a sanitary dining experience. No pine needles in the teacup. A steam-cleaned fork. A USDA-certified source of protein on the porcelain plate. I don’t want to break my dinner date with my parents, who have rented a condo in Estes Park for the week. They think I am hiking with a friend.
How do I explain that, even though I am alone for the first time in my life, I am not as alone as they would assume? That I feel safer in the mountains on my own than I do among strangers in the city? That this is my rite of passage. I earned it; I paid for it, the scar tissue on my legs and in my heart, a map of the interior topography of my life. Maps can be revised.
Ophir Pass, San Juans, early August: A coyote shows me the truest of seven false summits. Head cocked back, nose sniffing for a meal, he eyes me warily and lopes off the other side of the ridge, exposing the summit cairn next to where he sat.
Pole Creek Mountain, San Juans, late August: Eight miles up Lost Creek, I find a safe place to cross, where the elk have flattened and narrowed the bank with their habitual crossings. Their hoof prints in the mud provide stirrups for the leap to the other side. I land without falling backward into the water. Several hundred feet below the summit, another set of elk prints guides me through a cliff band without incident. I will reach the top before the lightning storm and return to camp by lunchtime.
Uncompaghre Wilderness, mid-September: The whoosh of a low-flying hawk awakens me from a late-afternoon nap in a basin beneath Mount Silver. It is three hours back to camp and the sun will set in two. The persistent bark of a coyote encourages me to keep moving. She is safeguarding her pups, leading me away from the den, toward my car.
Culebra Range, early October: A trail of fresh bear scat through the forest issues a challenge. I hustle along at warp speed, even though I know it is not a grizzly. The last one in Colorado was shot in 1976.
“You love the mountains more than you will love any man,” my mother says, and, although her comment rankles, I am beginning to suspect she is right.
The conversation with the architect I met at Wild Oats comes to a halt when he looks down at my bandaged feet in the post-op sandals. He says he’s running late for his doctor’s appointment and he’ll have to skip the coffee refill. We hadn’t gotten to my mountaineering resume yet, or the bunion surgery.
The tenured professor agrees to meet at my favorite Mexican restaurant in Denver. At this stage of the game, I insist on rendezvous sites that cannot be traced to my house. He orders chips with hot salsa, and after the waitress delivers the order, he says, “I reserved a room for you at the motel across the street.”
“Even the coyotes don’t do it that quick.”
“Oh, no, that’s not what I meant. I thought you’d be too tired to drive home tonight. It’s a long drive in the dark, isn’t it?” he asks, ignoring the Dos Equis with squeezed lime that the waitress left on his placemat.
“I’m not driving home tonight. I’m camping out in the mountains.” The chef put too many jalapeños in the salsa, and I’m on my third glass of ice water.
“It’s May. There will be snow up there. You’re alone.”
“My tent and sleeping bag are in my trunk.” I look at his watch (mine disappeared in a ravine) and excuse myself before the waitress brings the dessert. “Got to pitch that tent before dark.” I do not tell him about my trophy collection, which is probably bigger than his.
San Luis, Tijeras, Blanca and Pico Asilado, hidden away in a back valley, like the name suggests, with enough exposure to skip my customary meditation on the summit. Cyclone, Cirrus and Oso, where a member of the Hayden survey of 1874 encountered a grizzly and lived to write about it. Heisspitz, Heisshorn and Little Matterhorn, as if the Colorado Rockies were an extension of the Swiss Alps. Engineer, Galena, Eureka, Gold Dust, Crystal, Treasurevault, Lucky Strike, which isn’t how I felt about it a century after the bust as I detoured around one collapsed mine shaft after another, hauling my mutt by the collar to keep him out of the arsenic-tainted water. Conundrum, Comanche and that pragmatic compromiser, Ouray, who died before the forced march to the reservation. Nathaniel Meeker, self-righteous Indian agent whose murder precipitated the banishment, Kit Carson and Ulysses S. Grant scattered across three ranges on opposite ends of the state, while Arapaho and Navajo share a ragged ridge in the humiliating wake of the conquest. The Ts, the Vs, the Ss, the numbered and nameless peaks, my preference. A name transfers ownership. I wouldn’t mind a Susan B. Anthony Peak. She toured Colorado in 1877 on behalf of the suffragette movement. Of all the mountains in my trophy collection, only a handful bear a woman’s name. My favorite: Silverheels, the nickname of an anonymous prostitute, who, after nursing the miners of Fairplay through a smallpox epidemic, contracted the disease herself, covered her ruined face with a veil and vanished.
I climb Silverheels twice: once before the divorce, a second time with women friends who are also adjusting to changed circumstances. On the way down, when the terrain switches from talus to turf, we strip off our jackets and wrap them around our hips. Then we leap into the air and land on our sides and roll down the mountainside like a spilled sack of potatoes. We come to a stop in a bed of alpine forget-me-nots and moss campion cushions, unharmed. Kathleen unbuttons her shirt. Judy clasps her hand to her mouth in a futile attempt to suppress a giggle. I rip off my clothes and they follow suit, a pack of alpha females intoxicated by their collective strength.
Weekdays I work to pay the bills, to convince myself I am capable of taking care of myself. During back-to-back integrated marketing meetings, while team lead Tim recites the messages, I confine my perambulations to pictographs in my notebook: half-circles for solo walk-ups, Aztec pyramids with red dots to indicate the route of the sacrificial victim, an anthropomorphic figure with an eagle head, human torso and coneflowers for hands. I stifle the howl in my throat, which could be misinterpreted as the wailing of self-imposed singlehood or the mating call of coyote woman.
I climb until the vision in my left eye clouds over, and I stumble into my ophthalmologist’s office, complaining of the sunlight in my eyes when I drive, and he schedules cataract surgery. I climb until the joints in my big toes dislocate and the podiatrist orders me to take three months off to recover from the bunion surgery. I’ll climb until my heart skips one too many beats, and they find me beside the trail, belly up, my richtus grin a cautionary tale for parties who ignore the electrical power of a high-altitude storm.
I wear out two sets of tires on my Honda Civic, not counting blown and shredded ones, and a U-joint, leave the bumper behind at a creek crossing in the San Juan Mountains; and the 100,000 marker on the odometer resets to zero, restarting the journey.
Fifteen to 20 peaks a summer, and I lose my way only once without sacrificing the summit, my sense of direction restored with a careful examination of the topo map. I can feel the tingle of electricity on my scalp in time to dodge an incoming lightning strike and find a summit in the fog, but lose my car in the grocery store parking lot. The orienteering course offered by the Colorado Mountain Club does nothing to minimize my disorientation in town. I am dyslexic with street signs, especially in my former neighborhood in Manitou Springs. Mountain Meadow? Deer Path? Elk Park? The names do not compute with the Kentucky bluegrass lawns and domestic cats sunning themselves in the living room windows.
After a lengthy absence, I test my orienteering skills in Manitou Springs. I park my car with the Texans in the public lot near the Penny Arcade and walk the crooked, hilly streets for hours on end, until my stamina gives out. I start out at dusk, when most of the tourists have already packed it in for the night. The camera around my neck identifies me as a stranger.
I walk up Ruxton Avenue until I reach the staircase to the house where I lived with my husband for 15 years. The rusted gate has separated from its upper hinge, and it won’t open without a hoist and shove. The steps are covered in piles of dead leaves. I take a deep breath. There are 76 steps, and they are steep. The leaves crackle as I begin the ascent.
The slap, slap, slap of running sneakers on asphalt stops me in my tracks and I spin around. There she is — my successor, the Nordic goddess, perpetual youth. Copper-toned skin glistening with sweat, bared leg muscles taut and rippling, twin greyhounds trotting along on her right and left, eyeing the street riffraff ahead. I know it is she because Will has boasted of the dogs’ racing pedigree. She races by in skin-tight, sky-blue Nike polyester, the greyhounds in lock-step. She must have been doing laps, training for the Pikes Peak marathon. Will runs it every August.
I retrace my route on Ruxton Avenue, pausing to admire the Mexican and Indian imports in the window of Casual Comforts before turning onto Manitou Boulevard. Patsy’s popcorn stand is open for business but no customers are lined up at the order window. I cross the footbridge and stroll down the alley, into the Penny Arcade. It takes me nearly 20 minutes to find Zambini, the Fortune Teller. Between the throngs of tattooed, spike-haired teens and the rat-a-tat of their “Star Wars” dogfights, I am completely disoriented. But, after asking the night manager for directions three times, I finally find Zambini in a dusty, dimly lit corner of the antique room. I drop a quarter into the slot, and wait for the turbaned head to fix me in its red-eyed stare.
I must have been his first customer in years. His voice warbles as if swimming from the bottom of a fish tank. “Look into my crystal ball,” he commands.
He holds the ball in his hands. Then his gut clanks, and a card pops out of the metallic slit in his shirt pocket. He orders me to take it.
“Your lucky color is green.” He got that one half-right. I have hazel eyes. In the sunlight, flecks of green speckle the brown irises. Several blind dates have been complimentary. They say my eyes are my best feature.
I fritter away a wallet full of quarters until the fortune I am seeking finally slides out of his pocket. “Unlucky in love? Your luck will change but only if you stop looking in the usual places.”
Jane Koerner is creative nonfiction and journalism instructor and former magazine editor with several hundred published articles to her credit. She lives in Logan, Utah.
No matter how you get there, standing on top of a mountain inspires a universal thrill. It’s a big WOW! Beyond that, it’s difficult to articulate. If you almost died getting there, it’s easy enough to explain elation and relief. Those always make the best climbing stories. But if all it takes is a long walk, or a bike ride, or a ATV trek, or a chairlift to get to the summit, what is it about being up there, way up there, that infuses that first moment at the top with rapture and repose?
Obviously, the rarity of the experience is a factor. It’s not something most people do every day, and unless you’ve bagged one of those 14ers that attracts more visitors than an RV show, you’re probably (with a pal or two) the only one there. It’s you and a view of dozens, if not hundreds of other empty peaks. The visual evidence suggests you are, literally, top of the heap, above all. Your are freshly special.
That view is the ultimate open space. As human animals, we love open space, especially if we can be up over it and looking down. Our oldest biological ancestors, those Hominid predators with acute vision out running around and hunting — and running to avoid becoming prey — at the dawn of time, knew what a good view meant, and their comfort, confidence and pleasure with elevated perspectives of open spaces hasn’t left us.
Why that WOW! at the top? Because in the context of our human-ness, a mountain is a very, very high tree with all of the physical and psychic advantages.
As one broad-thinking biologist, Elaine Brooks, imagining herself climbing a tree and looking out over the old, old savannas of our beginnings, put it, “Once our ancestors climbed high in that tree, there was something about looking over the land — something that healed us quickly….Biologically we have not changed. We are still programmed to flee large animals. Genetically we are essentially the same creatures as we were at the beginning.
We are still hunters and gatherers. Our ancestor’s couldn’t out run a lion, but they did have wits. We knew how to kill, yes, but we also knew how to run and climb — and how to use the environment to recover our wits.”
The smart ones, the ones who survived, weren’t just running randomly from the large animals chasing them, they were running for safety, for the trees, for home. There is a certain residual implication that we know the higher we can get, the safer we are.
Maybe this is why a high spot with a good view is an undeniably desirable place to stop and rest. Quickly, the effort and adrenaline rush of the climb fade. Our breathing slows. Our heart rate drops. The sky is beautiful and endless. The land below, treacherous and interminable though mountains may be, is beautiful. Atop peaks, we are for a moment completely unthreatened. We can put down our psychic defenses because we are ultimately safe. Hardly a climber will deny the sensation of ultimate escape, and the secret urge to make it last. That’s the stunned silence of the top — a victory and its secret in the same emotional package.
In 1833, Captain Benjamin Bonneville was the first white man to stand atop many of the peaks of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. He was so weirdly taken by the immensity of the scenes he saw that he wrote of himself in the third person, as if the point-of-view inherently granted him omniscience enabling him to rise outside himself and look down on his own expansive reaction. He wrote: “Here a scene burst upon the view of Captain Bonneville, that for a time astonished and overwhelmed him with its immensity. He stood in fact on the dividing ridge the Indians regard as the crest of the world….Whichever way he turned his eye, it was confounded by the vastness and variety of objects. Beneath him the Rocky Mountains seemed to open all their secret recess: deep, solemn valleys; treasured lakes; dreary passes; rugged defiles, and foaming torrents; while beyond their savage precincts, the eye was lost in an almost immeasurable landscape, stretching on every side into a dim and hazy distance…. Whichever way he looked, he beheld vast plains glimmering with reflected sunshine, mighty streams wandering on their shining course toward either ocean, and snowy mountains, chain beyond chain, and peak beyond peak, till they melted like clouds into the horizon…. [H]e had attained the height that from which the Blackfoot warrior, after death, first catches a view of the land of souls, and beholds the happy hunting grounds….The captain stood for a long while gazing upon the scene, lost in a crowd of vague and indefinite ideas and sensations.”
In the way-up-there and way-out-there of a high range, it’s hard to resist thinking about the edge of eternity, and inviting prospects of concocting treehouse-like plans to make the mountaintop a permanent home. Completely unrealistic, unless the home you have in mind is heaven itself, of course, but we can’t help the idea crossing our minds.
So, like our Hominid brothers after a sprint for safety and a regroup in the trees, once on top, we are elated and blissfully spent, and can’t help trying to figure how to apply the secrets of this undeniable victory to what’s next. Open space and a good view mean you can see all the corridors of coming and going — the safe and the vulnerable, the possible and the impediment. It has all the advantages of the ultimate home: a safe place to think about what’s next and how to get there — whether you are planning to go back down or devising a strategy assuring your place in the Land of Souls.
David Mazel, editor of “Pioneering Ascents,” a study of the diaries and writings of America’s first climbers (and source of the Bonneville passage above), points out that the long-view, long-range-planning instinct affords visions and imaginings of the future that extend beyond the metaphorical implications Elaine Brooks discusses. Expansive forecasting instincts, evoked in America’s first climbers by the ultimate open spaces they saw, found broad cultural expression.
Many of America’s early climbers were not climbing for individual amusement or psychological regeneration necessarily. Their intent was exploration, leading to invasion, and leading to exploitation. “For such climbers the act of conquering a mountain…had value as a sort of mental rehearsal for conquering the territory below,” Mazel says. For them, the mountaintop provided a view that fed their perceived racial privileges, even their perceived Manifest Destiny. The mountaintop was a point of domination, a vantage where the future looked irresistibly good for the inevitable victories below.
Agree or disagree with Manifest Destiny, but the good feeling the conquerors of the continent felt wasn’t unique to their particular sense of domination. With a big view, we all feel a degree of control, and from up there, our abstractions swim with sustenance and growth. The early Hominids in trees felt secure, but they also saw a world out there that would provide and nurture. The higher you get, the better your chance of seeing something good. Though distorted by ambition and racial hubris, the pioneers who stood on mountaintops and felt that same sense of confident well-being weren’t just elated with the idea of maraudings to come. Built into them was a sense of hope a gaze into open space almost genetically guaranteed a human being. The hope extended to all he associated himself with.
Some biologists, including Harvard scientist Edward O. Wilson, point to these rewarding sensations as signs of the “biophilia theory,” in which “a decade of research reveals how strongly and positively people respond to open, grassy landscapes, scattered stands of trees, meadows, water, winding trails, and elevated views.” Expressed ecopsychologically, a good view is good for you.
There’s evidence. According to Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” hundreds of studies conclude that time in nature reduces stress. Outdoorsy kids have twice as many friends. Backpacking improves proofreading performance. Experiences in nature boost a child’s attention span. Children in homes with good views concentrate better, especially girls. Louv writes: “Environment-based education produces student gains” in every subject and “improves standardized test scores and grade-point averages,” and “develops skills in problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making.” Louv cites a “link” that states children with access to the outdoors are less likely to suffer from ADHD, especially boys. People who spend time in nature are less angry. “Most transcendent childhood experiences happen in nature.”
Why climb to a mountaintop? Because, if you’re human, it’s the safest you’ll ever get, it’s the most visionary you’ll ever get and it’s the healthiest you’ll ever get. It might be the best you ever feel about the chances of your kind. That WOW! you feel when you get to the top means all the advantages of open space have just become all the advantages of the ultimate open space.
Long-time Mountain Gazette senior correspondent Wayne Sheldrake is author of “Instant Karma: The Heart and Soul of a Ski Bum,” winner of ForeWord Magazine’s 2007 Adventure “Book of the Year” and contributor to America West, NewWest.com, Writer’s Digest, The Bloomsbury Review, Your Health, Triathlete, Velo News, Snow Country and Rocky Mountain Sport.