New Year, midnight, alone. Standing atop a 70-foot concrete arrow pointing west. The nearby revelry drifted in and out of my awareness on winter’s whispery breath. Aerial explosions suddenly illuminated my surroundings: rocky cliff, creosote, curve of the Virgin River. And the incongruous arrow. Surrounded by desert, apart from and a part of the celebration.
I stood atop the simplest of aviation aids, navigating this life on a wing and a prayer.
Early in our nation’s acquaintance with aviation, few navigational aids existed. Pilots flew with railroad maps and picked their course across the topography below. In the 1920s, concrete arrows were constructed 10-30 miles apart across the nation, offering childlike route markers for the daredevils of the ether. Though night flights were deemed suicidal, it was our need for connection, communion and correspondence that finally drove men to take to the starry skies.
The Postal Service sought to prove to a circumspect Congress that the air was the most efficient route for the country’s mail. This assertion was true only if pilots made use of the light and dark hours. So they did.
The first night fliers relied upon Postal Service employees and friendly farmers lighting bonfires and torches on the ground, illuminating a path across the Midwest and toward the dawn. The most rudimentary innovation carried our most advanced invention safely through the unknown.
The arrow on which I stood above St. George directed commercial and airmail flights from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. A steel post once held an oil lantern to illuminate the arrow in the darkness. A string of these lanterns spoke to pilots — this is the way … this is the way … this is the way … — a small, flickering prayer. Warmth in an otherwise empty sphere.
The early aviators flew on faith: that someone on the ground was thinking of them, that the lanterns would be lit, that morning would come.
The concrete arrow held my weight as I searched for the same assurances: that the darkness would end, that light would follow. The fireworks were my beacon into a new year, toward something more.
When I was a child, as the New Year crept forward, I would ritualistically comb my hair, brush my teeth, put on my pajamas and cuddle the cat — my last chance for the year — each act filled with great significance due to its finality. Every movement was slow, methodical, a way to draw out the final moments before the end, before I could never do these things again within the comfortable embrace of a known timeframe. As a child, I approached transition with such great care, putting the endings to bed and tucking them in before I could greet the beginnings. Hanging onto the befores until the afters left me no choice but to be swept along into tomorrow.
But this New Year, there was none of the care of yesteryear, none of the ritual or grasping. The previous months had been a time of hasty transition, reckless release and grand leaps into the unknown. In one fateful day, I found myself homeless, carless, jobless, penniless — divorced at age 28. Necessity dictated there would be no tenderness toward the finalities.
Instead, necessity dictated flying onward, alone in the darkness — on a wing and a prayer — toward an uncertain dawn, searching for navigational reassurances that this is the way … this is the way … this is the way … somewhere. Perhaps home.
Senior correspondent Jen Jackson’s last story for MG was “When In Doubt, Pee on the Fire,” which appeared in #183. Her blog, “Desert Reflections, can be found at mountaingazette.com. Jackson lives in Moab.
“How come you called me here tonight? How come you bother with this old heart at all? You raise me up in grace, Then you put me in a place where I must fall.” — Leonard Cohen, “That Don’t Make It Junk”
It was not totally my fault; rather, it was God’s fault for making the weather so shitty that my wife, Gay, and I found ourselves seated at our respective barstools in Handlebars Saloon in Silverton for something like three hours longer than we had originally intended, and we had originally intended to be there for several hours to begin with. Finally, though, the storm moderated enough that we could dash to our vehicle without getting drenched to the bone, so we decided to get while the getting was still mostly good.
Since my dog had been sentenced to the 4Runner the entire time we were inside Handlebars, I opted to walk her back to the Canyon View Motel while Gay navigated the vehicle (read: risked the DUI) (I can’t believe she falls for that one, time after time, even after all these years). Within a few blocks, however, I started regretting mightily the fact that I had not visited Handlebars’ men’s room prior to leaving. Just as I was seriously thinking that I might pee my Quick-Dry (thank goodness) Grammicis, I noticed leading up a hill a footpath that ascended into clouds low and thick enough they could more accurately be called fog. Visibility was scant feet in any direction. I sprinted up as fast as my wobbly legs would carry me, eventually reaching a secluded spot where I felt comfortable taking care of what had become very necessary business.
It was then and there, while spraying a glorious golden arc above Silverton, that the hair on the nape of my neck started standing up a bit and I started getting the feeling every person who has spent much time in the backcountry knows all too well: I am not alone. Someone or something is watching me. And that someone/something is close at hand. Even before my purge was complete, I turned a bit and glanced over my left shoulder to sneak a peek, lest someone inordinately crazed or something exceptionally big and hungry be lurking nearby (“DIED WHILE URINATING” being a totally unacceptable epitaph).
Something was. And it startled me so badly that, next thing I knew, I was tumbling ass over teakettle part way down the hill I had just staggered up, pants not yet re-zipped, finally coming to a stop on my knees, which hit terra firma so hard that skin was removed. What had been standing behind me the whole time I was draining was not some ax-wielding hick straight out of “Deliverance.” What was there was not a mountain lion, fangs bared, ready to pounce on my pissing self. As I struggled to regain some semblance of mental orientation and physical composure, which was not easy, given the circumstances, what I saw standing there was far worse. Jesus Christ!!!, I thought, it’s, of all goddamned things, a giant, well, Jesus Christ!!! You want to talk about a man who was having some serious difficulty reestablishing any sort of grip on reality. The 200 recently consumed brewskis did not aid and abet my attempt to understand what the fuck a veritable Christzilla was doing stalking me in the woods. I mean, my recent transgressions were not really that noteworthy in the grand scheme of sinful things.
As I was about to unleash a non-sequitorial ad hominem admonition to have mercy on my unworthy soul while I searched fervently for an escape route, the breeze picked up and swirled some of the fog away and things came into sharper focus. Of course! Though I had never before visited it, I remembered that, above Silverton, is the Christ of the Mines statue/shrine, erected, according to the plaque, in the 1950s “ … to ask God’s blessing on the mining industry of the San Juans,” a blessing that apparently did not work too well in the long run, given that there is hardly any mining industry left in this entire part of the state.
So, OK, at that point, I get back on my feet, zip myself up, dust myself off, look around to make certain no one besides my mightily perplexed perro witnessed my frantic tumble, examine the scrapes on my knees and walk back up the hill to face Christ of the Mines.
My relationship with Christ started out so poorly that recovery, even after 50 years, has never been even remotely possible. I was six years old, and it’s fair to say I was a bad boy rapidly getting badder. People understandably roll their eyes when I relate this, figuring that there are some Fayhee-esque memory-enhancement issues at play here (perish the thought!), but, at that tender age, I had already visited the back of a police cruiser twice — once when my exasperated mother, tired of my constant thievery, called the Air Police (we then lived on an Air Force base) and asked if they would frighten me in hopes that I would stop horking shit. They picked me up at the appointed time, drove me around, tried to scare me straight, then brought me home with a stern warning about “next time.” And, next time, when I dumped fertilizer into the gas tank of our neighbor’s brand-new Mercedes-Benz.
On my bedroom wall hung a fairly generic profile painting of Jesus Christ. Head and shoulders only. Bearded Caucasian hombre with long hair who bore a striking resemblance to just about every hippie I knew in college. Understated halo. Innocent eyes. The whole holy shootin’ match. Every night, before the lights went out, that painting was the last thing I saw, though its presence did not much influence my increasingly recalcitrant behavior. One night, though, the impression stakes were raised in a big way. I awoke in the middle of the night and there standing at the foot of my bed was not any variation on the usual kids’ wild imagination monster theme — no Frankenstein or Dracula or even the dreaded Hand — but, rather, a life-sized version of the Christ depicted in the painting on my wall, but with fury emanating from his every pore and a dagger raised high above his head, getting ready to … stab me to death.
Despite the captivating raised blade situation, I crawled as fast as I could toward my imminent assailant. Maybe I thought that Christ would be reluctant to stab me in the back. Maybe I wanted to up my potential grovel factor. Maybe my then-pugnacious self figured, OK, asshole, you’re going to stab me, I’m going to try to get a few punches in first. Either way, just as I got to him, Christ disappeared, pretty much never to again bother me with any manner of encore visitation.
When I casually told my mom over Cheerios at breakfast about Christ trying to stab me during the night, she smiled nervously and said I must be dealing with a guilty conscience, but the look on her face bespoke some very understandable serious parental concern.
Christ’s visit to me that night did not positively affect my behavior. Quite the contrary. For the next seven or so years, I was a hellion whose anti-social repertoire was fast growing to include serious destruction of private property, breaking-and-entering, burglary and arson.
Though I was christened a Catholic when I was a babe in swaddlings back in my native U.K. (my dad’s Irish-lineage clan was made up entirely of myopic pope sycophants), my fractured family was not exactly what you would call churchgoing. While we lived in the northern Adirondacks, then in central Kentucky, we didn’t even pretend to attend houses of worship. A couple times a year, I would be invited along by friends whose parents were concerned about the lack of theocratic structure in my life as they attended various Christian indoctrination camps, most of which, if memory serves, were of the snake-handling, speaking-in-tongues, fire-and-brimstone, twitching-on-the-floor variety. I would go for a week or two, then predictably revert to my natural heathen ways, wandering through the forests of a Sunday morning instead of prostrating myself in front of and singing really bad songs in praise of the scumbag who tried to stab me to death in the middle of the night when I was six.
When we moved to my stepfather’s home turf in eastern Virginia after my seventh-grade year, my well-deserved independent Sunday-morning woods-wandering reverie was flat-out torpedoed all to hell: Out of the blue, sans sufficient enough warning to develop any sort of tactical counter plan, we started attending church regularly — Ware Episcopal Church, the oldest Episcopal parish in the U.S. Truth be told, our lamentable religious conversion had at least as much to with networking opportunities as it did a sudden bloom of faith. As a new lawyer in town, my stepfather needed to make as many professional connections as possible, and, in Gloucester County, Virginia, at that time, Ware Episcopal Church was the place. The rule was that I had no choice but to attend Sunday-morning services, as well as Sunday-evening gatherings of the Episcopal Young Churchmen, until I was 16. The exact nanosecond my 15th year ticked away, I stopped going with the family to Ware Episcopal Church. I didn’t stop because I necessarily disbelieved any of the words uttered or sentiments expressed within those stifling Colonial-era walls. I just wasn’t interested, the same way I have never been interested in hockey, though I have never denied hockey’s existence. And thus it has since been. The only times I have ever entered houses of the holy in my adult life have been for unavoidable funerals or weddings.
All of which was neither here nor there as I zipped up and went to face the Christ of the Mines, which loomed above me, maybe 20 feet tall, with arms raised and spread, like he was saying, “I caught a fish THIS big!”
I walked over and, right then, a passing bird splatted a load on the ground between yours truly and the holy ghost. I took that as a sign, and turned to return post haste to the land of the living. At that moment, I caught sight of what looked to be a lectern placed not far from where I had just relieved myself. Like maybe people occasionally came up here to deliver sermons to the good folks of Silverton, who, I’m certain, appreciate the live entertainment. In actuality, it was a more like a desk, mounted on a post, with a transparent writing surface covering a storage area that included literally hundreds of handwritten prayers adorning everything from napkins and matchbook covers to notebooks so overflowing with text that they took final form as palimpsests upon palimpsests. Though I felt like a peeping tom, I pulled that mound of pleas, praises, entreaties, promises and supplications out for closer inspection.
Here are some of the prayers I read as darkness fell.
“I wish that I was an angel.”
“Thank you for my blessed life. I hope in your light to continue walking with an open heart.”
“As I stand here in the quiet and peace of the early morning, looking around at your marvelous creation, I can’t help but feel you are close. How beautiful are your works! Thank you for the works of your hand. The magnificent paintings you bless us with and the love and care with which you do it.”
“Help us win the Powerball or a big jackpot.”
“Help my back” (written on an Iron Horse Bicycle Classic card)
“In thanksgiving for our four daughters and getting us to town safely with a broken water pump.”
“Please help our hearts heal, Lord. Please help us restore our health and trust and faith in you. We lost our minds. I lost my head. I need it back.”
“Dear Jesus: Please slow down on the volume of stupid and unnatural people you send to this planet.”
“Lord, Please help me do math.”
“Thank you, Lord, for blessing me & help me get a wife.”
“Dear God, Hi! What is wrong with this world?”
“Dear Jesus, Thank you for helping us climb the mountains safely through rain, hail and troubled travels. Bless Vincennes, Indiana.”
“Help my parents quit fighting.”
“Please Lord let us find a way to get along, at least till we get home.”
“Hi God! What’s going on? It must be cool to be high all day.”
“Pray for us. We need a lot of prayer. More than most.”
“Dear Lord, please bring my son back to believing in you.”
“Dear Lord, Tell my mom I miss her.”
There is no doubt whatsoever that, were one inclined toward the cynical, a lot of those prayers would make for easy targets, and, given my personal history with Christzilla, it was mighty hard to tamp down my auto-response jaundiced inclinations. But it was too pretty a scene for even reflexive negativity. Instead, uncharacteristically, I pulled a credit card receipt (Handlebars: $73.82) from my wallet and decided to leave a small prayer of my own, even though I believe it’s fair to say that my experience communicating with the Big Sky Daddy is, shall we say, limited, and that inexperience initially translated to one of the few cases of writers’ block I have ever faced. Ergo: My first thought was to scribble: “Dear Whoever You Are: Please unclog my current writers’ block.” That seemed a little blasé for my inaugural bar-credit-card-receipt-based communique with the alleged almighty.
So I went heavy: I thought about asking that all my fellow mountain travelers — hikers, bikers, climbers, paddlers and skiers — be blessed and made safe during their backcountry forays. Thing is, it’s hard to solicit blessings when you’re not really sure what a blessing actually is. Like, is there a limited stock of blessing dust in heaven, so that, if the hikers and bikers get sprinkled, are some of the starving kids in Africa left out? Or, is there plenty to go round, plenty for everybody?
I then thought about just asking Sky Daddy to say howdy to my mom and tell her I’m doing just fine.
I thought about soliciting celestial influence over the Dillon Dam Brewery staff to make an extra-big batch of raspberry ale come spring.
I thought about giving thanks for having a patient spouse.
I thought about asking for some sort of general-amnesty forgiveness for all my various misdeeds, even the fun ones.
In the end, though, I opted to keep it humble. “Hey there,” I wrote upon that receipt. “Next time, remind me to visit the men’s room before I leave the bar.” Not exactly worthy of inclusion in the Book of Common Prayer, but it was at least sincere.
And then I walked back down into Silverton, not knowing when or where the dagger would eventually fall.
Before coming to Afghanistan, the guys who had already served a deployment or two told us what we could expect. The greatest danger we would face — apart from being run over — would be indirect fire, or IDF, attacks. We are a support unit that hangs out inside the wire and behind the walls with all the gear, and so we don’t face ambushes or any other sort of traditional military threat from a guy with a rifle, but they, whoever “they” are, can and do shoot rockets at us. The chances of being hit are pretty long: “It’s like winning the lottery,” one sergeant told us back in the States.
While the odds of becoming a victim of a rocket attack and the odds of winning substantial sums of money in a government-operated gambling scheme may be similar, the final results differ somewhat, and, every time I hear the rocket alarm, I cringe. When they hit, the warheads — depending on distance — sound like a car door being closed if the blast is far away or a big heavy door being slammed shut if it’s closer. If you’ve been out on avalanche-control day, you know the sound. The alarm makes a haunting noise and then, once the siren stops, a pretty British female voice comes on and says “rocket attack, rocket attack” in a truly delightful way, as if we’ll all be heading out for a spot of tea later.
And to call these events “attacks” gives the “attackers” way too much credit. An attack implies some sort of coordinated effort aimed at attaining some sort of objective. An attack has military significance and is planned so that it meshes with the overarching strategy of the entire campaign. Attacks involve large numbers of personnel and substantial amounts of materiel. Based on the above criteria, our so-called rocket attacks occupy a spot on the mischievous — rather than military — scale about four rungs up from kids shooting bottle rockets at cars.
The military minds in charge of the base have cooked up a detailed procedure for responding to rocket attacks. The rules are very serious, and the copy I am most familiar with is taped to the doors of the stalls in the latrine, which ought to indicate the preposterous position our Army has maneuvered itself into here in Afghanistan. The mighty United States Army defending itself against the local pranksters by posting its defensive tactics in the crapper.
We are to lie on the ground for two minutes when the charming voice tells us we are under attack. Then we are to move to the nearest hard structure or concrete bunker and wait for the all clear announcement from the same charming voice. We can find ourselves standing around in the bunkers for an hour or more. There is a procedure for those in cars and yet another procedure for those in armored cars. The Army covers all bases.
As difficult as it can be to take the “attacks” seriously, it’s just as easy to feel a real threat, especially when the shells fly overhead and explode less than a thousand yards away.
The closest call so far was a rocket that hit about 30 yards from our platoon office. The warhead exploded in front of two vans in the street. No person sustained any damage, but the vans were mortally wounded. Their spilled oil stained the ground black. The shrapnel sliced through their painted skins, and a combination of concussive force and flying metal broke their bodies, which sank, lifeless, on their flattened tires. The emergency response team arrived, discovered it was too late and had the vans hauled off to a boneyard somewhere.
You might guess that my fellow soldiers and officers may have felt a bit cursed. Perhaps they were shaken by the close call and thought themselves lucky to be alive. Maybe they felt scared and on edge as they realized that this place is full of people trying to kill us, however ineffective their methods appear to be. The hours after a close call seem like a good time for some sober reflection on the fragility of our lives, the severity of our situation and the dangers we face.
Instead, my fellow soldiers were celebrating their good luck at having a rocket explode 90 feet away. They would all win the Operation Enduring Freedom lottery and qualify for a Combat Action Badge! Giddiness dominated everyone’s emotions as they composed their sworn statements attesting to the fact that they fell under enemy fire.
Being shot at seems a strange thing to celebrate, but everything seems a little strange in Afghanistan.
Ex-Colorado High Country dweller Sgt. Mike, still with no Combat Action Badge, hopes his string of bad luck will continue.
In the shadow of Homa Mountain, near the shores of Lake Victoria, long before I called the San Juan Mountains and southwest desert my home, I saw a tree shaped like Christmas and approached it.
Elijah, my Kenyan host brother, stood atop a distant ridge waving to me vigorously. “Hallo,” I shouted back to him, waving cheerfully. On this bright day filled with horizon, it seemed such a fine idea to bring a little taste of American Christmas to my host family, a parting gift for their year of generosity.
The tree was small, maybe five feet in height and three inches in diameter, so I cut through its trunk with little effort. Dragging the tree half a mile to my home was also easy, since I was very fit, walking miles every week that year to bus stops, the lake shore and the homes of distant friends and relatives.
My host sister met me at the opening in the dense wall of euphorbia that surrounded our compound of huts. Elijah stood behind her, shaking his head and speaking in Luo, a language I had not mastered. No matter. The sentiment was clear.
“Laura Adhiambo,” Mary Auma said sternly in fluent English. “Did you not see that this was the only tree of its kind?”
During my year out of water, I had committed many errors, cultural and otherwise, but, from her tone, I knew this one trumped all. Calm and disciplined, with an inner strength I admired and coveted, Mary Auma had become a hero to me; her disappointment hurt like a slap.
The tree I felled was likely Callitris robusta, which to the untrained, eager eye looks like cedar. Starting in 1950, Kenyan agro-forestry programs distributed several types of trees in South Nyanza, my family’s home province. C. robusta was especially suited to the climate and land and would provide generations of timber and fuel, both of which were in short supply. With visions of a better future, my host family had secured one sapling and planted it near their garden of groundnuts. I deserved the slap.
Later that day, someone leaned the tree in a corner of my host parents’ hut. Embarrassed but relieved, I honored the gesture of conciliation. Pieces of wood and other found items became ornaments. Sheets of notebook paper became stars and snow.
“Tell me about snow,” said Mary Auma, and so I described snowflakes, cold air, wet mittens, white outs, snowdrifts.
As we sat in the mud and dung home with no running water or electricity, contemplating the resource whose life I’d just cut short, everything sounded ridiculous. “We pop corn kernels then string them together with a needle and piece of thread. Also, there’s this silvery metallic stuff, long strings of it, that gets draped on the tree limbs … and red and white candy in the shape of canes … oh, and strings of green and red electric lights … ”
Out of kindness, I believe, my host family did not ask what happened in America to the venerated trees once the holiday was over. How would I explain trees lying curbside waiting for the garbage truck?
Ten days after Christmas, my year in Kenya ended. Our focus now was on the year past, the friendships formed, the miracle of bonds that transcend culture and distance. But when my host father delivered the traditional pre-travel prayer in his shuttered hut, the decorated tree still occupied its corner.
In Kenya 1979, where old tires became sandals and scraps of clothing were endlessly reinvented, I can hope this Callitris robusta had multiple afterlives. Over 30 years later, I imagine Elijah’s capable hands creating a small statue or new handle for the door of his mother’s hut. In Mary Auma’s hands, a branch or two may have helped boil a pot of morning tea, enjoyed then by the entire family while they swapped stories and laughed about the odd American girl who was very sweet, though a bit simple, and so very far out of her home water.
Laura Kerr is a fish in water where the Santa Cruz and Animas rivers flow. This is her first piece for MG.
We’re in the market for decorative envelopes to help beautify our Letters pages. If you’ve got an artistic envelope bent, pull out your weapons-of-choice, decorate an envelope with our snail mail address on it, mail the resultant envelope to us, and, if we print it, we’ll give you a year’s subscription to the Mountain Gazette.
John: I’ve been a backcountry cook & guide since 1992 and I’m TOTALLY FLATTERED by Vince Welch’s tribute to dory cooks! (“Dory Cooks,” Mountain Notebook, MG #178.)
Dear John, I have been translating the Morse code of your articles in Mountain Gazette and am curious as to whether it is a word jumble? The most recent translated to BELLA GERANT ALLI, and last month was more incoherent, TIMENDI CAUSA ESTNES CIRE. Now I am no NSA analyst code cracker, so what do these mean?
Hello, good folks, Enjoyed #182, as always. M. John, I especially appreciated your comments on 9/11 (“North By Northwest,” Smoke Signals, MG #182), going beyond mindless patriotism to take a cold hard look at what horrors were leveraged in the aftermath of our collective shock and fear.
And Sgt. Mike (“Send in the Boosters, Deploy the Granolas,” Dateline: Afghanistan), for a breath of fresh air and a taste of reality from the quagmire.
Thank you both! You’ll hear howls from those who just want MG to stick to fun and games, but, since these insights rarely appear in the mainstream media, it’s valuable to have them popping up in lots of other places, like MG.
Arden Buck Nederland, CO
Lightning in the Noosphere
John: In response to your call for lightning stories (“The Bright White Light,” Smoke Signals, MG #181): Ol’ pal Derwood and I have been around the West alright, from the Sierras to the northern Rockies up on the Canadian border down to the desert southwest. Seems like the only time we’ve ever had run-ins with life-affirming lightning was in the High Country of Colorado.
There was that one time atop Arapaho Pass, where we squatted on our packs as our hair stood straight up and a friend from California finally took off running down the mountain, screaming, “My father warned me about going to Colorado exactly because of the lightning! Aaaaahhhh!!” Good times.
Another time, we were on the boulder field on Longs Peak when we hoofed it past a hiker wrapped in one of those metallic silver blankets quivering (maybe the correct term is “seizuring”), having been blasted, and waiting for the Flight for Life helicopter as the swirling wind blew the graupel around. Freaky times.
The thing that finally changed my thinking about the respect owed to mighty Thor happened on the back side of the Maroon Bells, about 15 miles in on a backpacking trip that, we planned, would take us down to Gothic and up over to Conundrum Hot Springs. We started with four of us, but two bailed — one was a buff aerobics instructor from Brooklyn who, our other bud had assured us, was in better shape than any of us. Which might have been true, from a physical standpoint. Trouble was, loose talus on the flanks of Snowmass Peak and mad mountain exposure was more than she ever conjured on the sea-level flatlands, and so they bailed on us and headed back to Aspen on the third day.
So Derwood and I went up over Trail Rider Pass and down the other side and up the Crystal River Valley. We figured we’d make it up just past treeline in Fravert Basin below Frigid Air Pass and call that a day.
We made it right where we wanted to — hoping mightily to elude the spikes of rain that were threatening us all afternoon. We probably should have found a spot in the trees instead of above them, but the draw and vision of high, exposed peaks right outside our tent door was too much for us, so we plodded on, and thought we found the winning spot in the high basin above the trees.
We saw an interesting brown circle amidst the verdant tundra, and thought maybe a previous camping crew had set up for a few too many days and killed the grass. We thought of pitching our tent right there on that spot, but it was down a ways, and there was a fine spot right at our feet, so we doffed our packs — just as that cool Colorado rain began to pelt us. We dove into the tent, wet but not soaked.
And then. And then the damn thunder started rattling our tent poles, not to mention some dental work around my back molars. We figured some herbal remedies would calm our nerves — and probably did, at least until the time horizon between flash of lightning and crash of thunder shrank to instantaneous.
Truth be told, we started freaking a bit. We thought we should take our hiking boots off, because the bottoms of them were wet and that might conduct electricity better. Then we thought we should put them back on, because, if one of us did get blasted with lightning, and the other lived, then time would be wasting for the living to go get help and shouldn’t be bothered with the time-wasting process of getting one’s boots laced back up. Still, it somehow made a little more sense to avoid getting blasted altogether, and so the better answer was to dry off the boots as best we could, and take the boots off.
Holy mother of Zeus! That one cloud-ripper not only made us flinch, jump even, but when I looked on over at Derwood, his eyes got simultaneously beady and dilated, like he was peaking on a good double-dose while turning into a prairie pheasant. Finally, we consulted our laminated pocket first-aid guidebook. We always had a good time flipping through that manual — the best part was in the last pages, when it moved on from simple remedies on cuts and abrasions to advice on amputations. The line that contributed to more than a few backcountry guffaws was the counsel: “Then, cut the bone.”
Oracle thusly consulted, we settled upon a two-prong strategy. One: get our boots back on, again. Two, check out the topo to see which was the quickest way back to civilization, just in case the one living person of us in our tent would have to trek on out to get help or a hearse.
Having settled upon a plan, and too terrified to do anything, especially the things you might think would be de rigueur after a day’s pack over one pass and to the flanks of a second — like, say, piss and eat — we settled into our sleeping bags, hoping against hope that we’d be able to sleep, perchance to dream.
Damn if I didn’t do just that. The crazy thing was, I had this dream about an old elementary-school friend of ours, Matt Karwowski, whom I honestly hadn’t given a single thought to for literally years. But there he was all the same, inside my head at some elevation north of 10,000 feet, in the heavenly lap of a bowl on the backside of the Maroon Bells, helping me get through some dreamlike cityscape that sort of approximated the metropolis Charlton Heston lived in in “Soylent Green.” So, Matt helped me out, and when I woke up, it was light out.
I was so happy. We made it through the thunderous, lighting-spiked night. I zipped open my bag, and zipped open the door of the tent to revel in some early morning blue sky I knew I could count on.
What the? — I couldn’t see the top of any of the Bells because they were infected with a creeping, charcoal crown of clouds that did not look friendly one single bit. I leaned back to tap Derwood and whisper a choice expletive when — shitfuck! Shitfuckshitfuck! — a splinter of lightning accompanied by a simultaneous roar from some medieval creature made Derwood sit up straight, and fast.
“Dude!” I said.
“We’re still in this thing?”
We decided — it seemed like a good idea at the time, anyway — that the best course of action was to not stop, do not collect $200, and just get the freaking hell out of this cursed cirque. As we were packing up the wet tent, I think it dawned upon both of us at the same time that the brown circle in that meadow below us was probably not from a tent set up for too long. No. We both looked at each other knowingly. All that grass was singed dead because 10,000 volts from the sky fried the ever-loving shit out of its green verdant life.
We hoofed it, triple time, up the rocky trail, into the clouds where we could no longer see if we were getting close to the top of the pass or not. C-c-c-c-crrrrack! “Fuckshit!” We had hiking poles with us. Truth be told, they were ski poles doing double-duty during the summer months. We again both looked at each other knowingly. Ski poles. Metal ski poles. Portable lightning rods!
We decided to ditch the poles, then found a boulder that we rationalized could maybe keep our heads dry from the rain that began pelting us, and maybe at the same time it would keep the lightning from snagging us.
I know, I know. Still, at the time, having not eaten or pissed in probably 18 hours, up near 12,000 feet, it seemed perfectly logical.
We sat there, in the cold rain and savage lightning, pondering whether we should continue going upward because, in theory, that would bring us even closer to the lightning. As we talked about calculus and differential equations and the random nature of lightning strikes, all of a sudden it occurred to us that we hadn’t heard any thunder in a number of minutes. We stopped talking. We waited. Derwood raised an eyebrow at me from behind his speckled specs. It occurred to me that the rims of his glasses were some metallic substance, and me sitting next to him was no better than holding onto a ski pole when you get right down to the relative attractiveness of elements to lightning. But before I was able to reach over and grab those confounded glasses and throw them down the mountain along with the ski poles, I realized that another minute had gone by in non-thunderous silence.
We were sitting on a pile of edgy maroon rocks, in the cold, in the rain, in the clouds, at two miles above sea level. But we could deal with all that, because the existential threat of our very existence no longer needed to be a topic of conversation, and we could start the process of discussing more material things, like whether our frozen, frightened nut sacks would remain the size if not constitution of a frozen mouse medulla, or not.
We decided the time was ripe to continue our journey up into the clouds, and I stumbled the stumble like when you reach the top of the stairs in the dark and think there’s another stair to step on but you’re already on the top. And I was. On the top of the pass. Not that I would know it, since we were squarely in a pea-soup cloud. But a silent cloud. Here’s to the silent clouds!
We made it a hundred yards or so down the other side of the pass, silently ruing the disappointment at having come to the hard-fought top of a pass, with the ineffable views that go with all that, and all we could see was the inside of a bag of cottonballs.
And just then, a sly wind from the north blew against us, and it made us both stop. The wind blew out of nowhere, or everywhere maybe, and after a minute, like a dream, a few banks of clouds blew away, and it revealed a golden-grass landscape below colored peaks that were now mottled with snow. Honest to God, it was one of the most sublime viewsheds I ever laid eyes on. Matter of fact, tears swelled up from inside my head and I wept a bit. It was a cry of beauty, and of grace, and also of hunger and exhaustion, and of tapped adrenals — we made it, and were rewarded.
Epilogue: When Derwood and I made it back to Boulder, we discovered that an old friend of ours — that’s right, Matt Karwowski — had been shot dead in New York City. He was killed the very night Derwood and I battled the lightning in the heavens, the selfsame night Matt came from out of nowhere to help me navigate the demons of my dreams. I figured we were as close to heaven as a mortal needs to ever be, not to mention feeling like I was as close to losing my mortality as I ever wanted to be. And the spirit, or soul, of Matt came flying through the metaphysical spiritual noosphere on its way around the world and out of town.
Todd Runestad Boulder CO
Mr. Fayhee, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your Smoke Signals column in Mountain Gazette No. 181. I’d never had any harrowing experiences with lightning until the summer of 2009 when I started section hiking the Colorado Trail. I have yet to complete this trail, but have hiked 343 of the 485 miles over the last three years. To paraphrase sports writer Peter King, “Factoid of My CT Hike That May Only Interest Me”: All of my encounters with lightning during the CT excursion have happened during the Independence Day holiday weekend.
A few thoughts have emerged from these encounters with “The Bright White Light”:
1. I really need to lose weight and get in shape, so I’m not above treeline when the afternoon thunderstorms arrive.
2. To plan all future hikes above treeline around monsoon season in Colorado rather than greeting the arrival of the monsoon at elevation.
3. Perhaps I’ve done something unpatriotic to alter my karma causing patriotic weather gods to wreak havoc on me during the 4th of July holiday weekend.
Am working on 1 and 2, should I want to continue the CT hike next year.
Thanks for sharing your experiences with lightning in your column. Am looking forward to the next edition of Smoke Signals.
Here is a look back at some of my CT Journal entries: