Boyabreen, tongue of Jostedal Glacier Phot Cred: Finn Loftesnes
The museums of a country are said to reflect its culture. The Wine Museum across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower in Paris is world renowned, as are the Swiss Alpine Museum in Berne and the BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche museums in Germany. And somewhat belatedly, as it opened 20 years go, Norway has a Glacier Museum.
Its raison d’être is linked to Norway’s famed fjords. The fjords are the claw marks of glaciers that gouged valleys in bedrock out into the sea as they left the land at the end of the last ice age. Ice formed the topography of the country of today, and there’s still much of it about. There are 1,593 glaciers in Norway, and together they cover about one percent of its land area. The biggest one, Jostedalsbreen (“Jostedal Glacier”) inland from the west coast, is the largest on the European mainland, more than four times the size of the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland, the largest in the Alps. That prevalence of glaciers led to their being part of life in the country; children learn about them in school, and mountain hikers and touring skiers often cross parts of them.
In 1991, the Norsk BreMuseum (“The Norwegian Glacier Museum”) foundation was set up by the International Glaciological Society and six Norwegian academic institutions, NGOs and public agencies. The foundation worked apace. In 1992, the museum building designed by internationally renowned Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn was finished in the Village of Fjærland on the west bank of the Fjærland Fjord, about six miles south of the southernmost tongue of Jostedalsbreen.
The location couldn’t have been better for the purpose. The Jostedalsbreen consists of an upper ice field on a plateau and 50 tongues extending down surrounding glacial valleys. Of the tongues, 28 of them are named on maps. The glacier and its tongues are maintained by the heavy snowfalls, not by low temperatures, as coastal Norway is warmed by the Gulf Stream. Moreover, Jostedalsbreen is a temperate glacier, which means that it always contains water, because it’s at the melting point, from its base to its surface. So the glacier easily can shrink as well as slide at any time, sometimes dangerously so. The Briksdalsbreen tongue has been found to be receding so rapidly that it may be on the verge of breaking away from the upper ice field and has been closed for ice climbing. The complex of the Jostedalsbreen and its tongues have become a giant laboratory, now much studied by Norwegian researchers, as well as by scientists from abroad. The Tunsbergdalsbreen tongue is monitored by the Glaciorisk European Project and the Bøyabreen is monitored by the University of Würzburg in Germany.
Glaciers are among the planet’s most sensitive indicators of climate change. So, in addition to studying glaciers and collecting and exhibiting the minutiae of them, the Museum conducts climate research, now in a purpose-built research facility opened in 2007 by Walter Mondale, the Vice President in the Carter administration (1977-1981) whose ancestors hailed from the village of Mundal just a mile-and-a-half west of Fjærland.
The Museum, the first of its kind, has had an unexpected spinoff. It inspired the creation of glacier museums elsewhere, including the extensive Glaciarium in El Calafate at the edge of the Patagonian ice field in Argentina, opened in February 2011, a small museum in the town of Höfn near the Vatnajökull Glacier in Iceland and Magic Ice, the first ice museum in a warm climate, opened in April 2011 in the Forum Shopping Mall in Istanbul, Turkey.
Norwegian Glacier Museum website at www.bre.museum.no (in Norwegian, English, and German; click on British flag to access the English version).
Jostedalsbreen National Park website at www.jostedalsbreen.info (in Norwegian, English, and German; click on British flag to access the English version).
Breheimen Center serving the Jostedalsbreen and Breheimen National Parks, www.jostedal.com (in English).
Other glacier museums: Glaciarium, El Calafate, Argentina, www.glaciarium.com (selectable in Spanish, Portuguese, and English), Jöklasýning Glacier Exhibition in Höfn, Iceland, www.rikivatnajokuls.is (in Icelandic with summary pages in English), and Magic Ice in Istanbul, Turkey, www.magicice.com.tr (selectable in Turkish and English).
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo, where he works as a translator. A natural scientist by training, he takes his vacations in France. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in MG.
Upon our arrival in the canyon, with an evening chill following our footsteps down the steep grade, he confided that he might be suffering from Alzheimer’s. His eyes brimmed over, even as he laughed at the realization’s awkward profundity. I tried to comfort him, to hug him — as his trip leader and as a stranger. He pushed me away. He wanted to be alone with his mind and his fate. I had simply caught him at a weak moment.
We were in a remote reach of the canyon, miles from a road, a trailhead, a cell signal, a familiar voice or touch. Divorced from comfort and home. We were living on the canyon’s terms, with its flood-rushing river. And he, in turn, would also live by the terms of a mind — a self — rushing headlong into the unknown.
But he refused to leave.
Before embarrassment usurped candor, he told me how his wife had noted some strange behavior, but he hadn’t believed her. That his mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s, a dark misery for a once-sharp woman. That he never thought it would come on so fast. He pointed at his water bottles on the ground. He was sure he had filled them before the hike, and now they were empty. Had he actually forgotten to fill them? It didn’t occur to him that he had consumed the water on the walk in.
The plastic bottles, the mundane source of his realization, caused him to cry anew. And then the door into his heart abruptly closed. The remainder of the week found me wondering at the interior life of an inscrutable man. Which were the quirks that comprised his being in this world? And which were signs of its slow withdrawal? What could be chalked up to the man, and what was derived from his sudden absence? Unable to know, I simply observed: the strength of his work ethic, his disregard for group conventions, his occasional and brilliant wit, his confusion at meal times.
I once witnessed him standing alone, empty-handed, swaying, staring at the ground. There is no sight lonelier than that of a man again witnessing his own departure — and bearing its hollow emptiness.
Though the mind can be our worst enemy, it is at times our only comfort. Oblivion with a heartbeat seems a cruel existence. And perhaps crueler is the life of the loved one who bears a husband’s passing but continues to see his face, feel his touch, smell his scent, hear his voice — grief renewed and impermanence reaffirmed every day.
In contrast, our week together found us working in a landscape of memory, a place that has not yet forgotten. A long-ago cowboy chipped out our route of descent from the canyon wall. The man chiseled his name into the sandstone and constructed a small cabin overlooking the river. The building still stands, now holding only rusted bedsprings, mouse droppings and memories of ghosts.
Up-canyon from the cowboy cabin is a millennia-old wall of pictures, including bighorn sheep, turkey tracks, human figures and concentric circles. A wavy line — a seeming horizon — extends 50 yards across the rock face. Above it appears a celestial body with a tail, perhaps denoting the passage of Halley’s comet long ago.
The long-departed still tell a story in this place. The desert holds remembrances and present reality with equal grace.
However, cabins crumble and carvings fade, as do our bodies and minds. Succession, loss and the slow entropy of forgetting, while painfully poignant, make room for the next surge of stories and songs. And if we are fortunate, a heart or two will hold the spark of our memory long after the embers of our life are reduced to smoke. Remembrance becomes the greatest gift from — and for — the departing and the departed. Whether writ on a canyon wall, heralded by an empty water bottle, or carried silently in the depths of one’s soul.
Jen Jackson lives in Moab, Utah, where she writes to as an act of memory and presence in the midst of this all-too-fleeting existence.
On the night of March 16, 1244, in the Province of Languedoc, France, four clerics and their guide slipped out of the Montségur fortress and rappelled hundreds of feet down the sheer west face of underlying hillock for which it was named, carrying a treasure on their backs. They were Cathars, whose stronghold had capitulated two weeks before to a far superior force. But the nature of the treasure they carried is unknown. Through the centuries, legends have held that it may have been the Holy Grail, of which the Cathars were believed to be the custodians.
The four clerics were fleeing persecution by the Roman Catholic Church. Toward the end of the 12th century, Catharism had become the leading populist faith of Languedoc, supported by the nobility as well as by the common people. That displeased the Church, which sought means of suppressing it. Inconveniently, the Cathars were Christians. But they weren’t Catholics. Their faith was based on events before the Catholic Church set its dogma (see box). So the Church claimed they were heretics and invoked two suppressive strategies.
First, in 1184 the Church instituted the Inquisition in Languedoc. In 1232, Pope Gregory IX assigned the conduct of inquisitorial procedures to the Dominican Order. In 1252, Pope Innocent IV specified that the procedures could include torture, at which the Dominicans became formidably innovative.
Second, military force was brought to bear. In 1209, Pope Innocent III mounted the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. Unlike the other Crusades that were European military incursions in foreign lands, it took place in Europe. Before its first engagement, the siege of the city of Béziers on July 22, Arnaud, the Abbot in command, was asked how the Crusaders could tell Cathars from Catholics in the city. He replied: “kill them all; the Lord will recognize His own.” The Crusaders obeyed. At the end of the day, Arnaud wrote to Pope Innocent III: “Today, your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age or sex.”
The next engagement was the siege of Carcassonne, which was well fortified and resisted two weeks longer in August. The people of the city were spared, but were forced to leave wearing only their underclothing. The following June, the equally well-fortified town of Minerve was attacked. It resisted fiercely for six weeks but fell on July 22, after its main well was destroyed. The Cathars were given the option of reverting to Catholicism. Most did. The 140 who didn’t were burned at the stake.
That left three Cathar strongholds, all high on ridges. Peyrepertuse was surrendered in 1240 without a battle. Montségur withstood a siege of nine months before capitulating in March 1244. A small fort at Queribus fell quickly in August 1255. The few remaining believers then grouped in the mountain village of Montaillou, where they surrendered in 1324. It had taken the Church 140 years to vanquish the Cathars.
Despite its suppression, Catharism exists today, in writings, associations, music and well-maintained historical sites. Yet much remains unknown, because most of the Cathar writings were destroyed during the Inquisition and Crusade against them. So the mystique persists, leading to speculation in modern non-fiction (“Holy Blood, Holy Grail”) and fiction (“Da Vinci Code”) on the events of their time. A mountaineer visiting the sites in the foothills of the Pyrenees might wonder about other matters. The fort at Queribus is particularly intriguing, as three of the four approaches to it would classify as technical climbs in the mountaineering lingo of today.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo, where we works as a translator. A natural scientist by education, Brady takes his vacations in France. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in MG.
“The Straight Course: Speed Skiing in the Sixties,” by Dick Dorworth
Nowadays, the average person will have approximately five to seven careers. Less limited than previous generations, the choices for careers are endless and, with that, finding the “right path” can be daunting, overwhelming and demoralizing. Which is why long-time MG senior correspondent Dick Dorworth’s latest book, “The Straight Course: Speed Skiing in the Sixties,” is so relevant 50 years after the events he describes. The ’60s were unsettled and challenging for the country and the world of skiing. Despite pressure to ski within a certain style, politics that could make any patriot of ski dissent and challenges with injuries and his personal life, Dick held strong to what he knew skiing did for his life and how it filled it with more meaning than if he gave up when his path appeared blocked. “More important was the hard (and hard earned) knowledge of something not right.” By staying true to his heart and path, he accomplished incredible achievements in speed skiing. Dick’s honesty about looking within to find that truth and, once found, never letting go, offers new generations a way to find direction through the confusion. After all, “a company job is not necessarily the best thing a man can do with the time in his life.” Time might be better spent skiing over 100kph down a fast, unrelenting speed track. “The Straight Course” is a fascinating look into the history of a pivotal time in skiing, while offering wisdom for finding our own way through the world. $15.95, westerneyepress.com
“Fred Beckey’s 100 Favorite North American Climbs,” by Fred Beckey
Besides starring in the world’s most hideous climbing outfit (on p. 209), I spent two weeks with The Fred on three of these routes (Prodigal Son, Touchstone Wall and Crimson Chrysalis) while he was working on this book in 1996-98. His goal was to climb every route in this “guidebook,” a feat I’m pretty certain no climbing guidebook author has ever achieved; Fred didn’t quite either. But “guidebook” might not be the right term for this publication, which suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. It’s the size of a small table (13.2 x 9.4 x 1.3 inches) and weighs 5.2 pounds. It looks and feels like a coffee-table book, but when you read it, it describes climbs, with topos and photos and other basic information — yet, you wouldn’t stuff it in your pack and head out. In short, it’s a guidebook inside and a coffee-table book outside. So, to appreciate this book, you have to look at what’s in it. “Beckey’s 100 Favorite Climbs” (there are actually more than 100 — 29 of which were Fred firsts) is a catalogue from the jam-stuffed brain of the most knowledgeable, experienced and well-traveled climber in American history. Fred introduces readers to peaks like Ironman in the Adamant Range, Oubliette in the Ramparts and Golden Klattasine in the Coast Range. These aren’t peaks on the tongues of your typical Western U.S. climber — hell, I had no clue something like Gimli Peak existed until I started reading this book. This book is a mind-opener. It’ll make you realize why you started climbing to begin with, and that there’s a whole lot more to see out there than what you originally thought. After waiting 16 years, I am not disappointed. $79.95, patagonia.com
“The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader: Oregon and Washington,” edited by Rees Hughes, Corey Lewis
This is not a guidebook, but rather a collection of writings about the Oregon and Washington stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (there’s a companion volume for California). This means that the book is short on maps and “just-the-facts” information about flora and fauna, but large on firsthand experiences of folks who’ve trod the iconic trail. There’s blissfully little poetic navel gazing and plenty in the way of good stories about any aspect of the PCT experience you can imagine. Jogging the entire 2,600 miles. Figuring out/being given your “trail name.” Journeying with goats, children or painful injuries. Getting lost and being rescued. Hiking at night, or alone, or through the ash fall of the Mt. St. Helens eruption. Coming face-to-face with bears, lynx, huge toads, heart attacks and hypothermia. And always, through all three sections of the book — “Forests Forever” (Oregon), “Lava, Moss and Lichens” (Southern Washington) and “The Great White North” (The North Cascades) — folks suffer through chronic sogginess and all manner of precipitation, particularly toward the end, when hikers are racing Pacific storms and Old Man Winter to the Canadian border. The book itself might not change your life, but some of the essays within probably will, and, if nothing else, you’ll be inspired to shake off that dusty pack and seek out some adventure of your own. $19.95, mountaineersbooks.org
In the civilian world, getting fired pretty much sucks. You lose your income and get a big bruise on the ego. Worries turn into fears as your reservoir of cash evaporates. Toothaches become a major menace. The wounded self-esteem takes time to heal, and you find yourself reassessing your value to the rest of the world. Occasionally, getting canned will have a silver lining, but on the whole, it’s an obstacle and a handicap. In the military, on the other hand, it can be a good career move and a definite way for improving one’s quality of life.
In my younger days, I was full of ambition. I wanted to be my own man, writing great things for an ever-expanding audience. I wanted to stand out and open the world’s eyes to the truth. Of course, such a life is a continuous struggle. Being remarkable required a good deal of arrogance and a sincere belief in my utter uniqueness and, dare I say, superiority, to the average folks who constituted the unsophisticated rabble, the very rabble that went to work on me, knocked me down a few notches and introduced me to the humiliation of being fired.
Having been knocked from my position of exalted highness, I came to consider the possibility that contentment could be found as a standard-issue, conforming member of the rabble, and what better way is there to join the rabble and learn conformity than by enlisting in the United States Army?
As the day to leave for basic training approached, I prepared to become a sheep. I quashed any ambition to be outstanding in any way. I would do whatever the Army told me to do, no matter how silly, humiliating or moronic it happened to be. I would strive for uniformity and give up any sense of my own specialness. I would seek out opportunities to be average.
Even though I sacrificed my constitutional rights when joining, the Army liberated me. I had no worries and no concerns. I was responsible for myself. As long as I could get up, get shaved and get dressed on time, the Army was happy with my performance. I was a good soldier, apparently, and shortly after finishing training and getting to my post out in the regular Army, it wanted to promote me. With extreme ambivalence and a measure of dismay, I went through the motions and became a sergeant. Along with the rank, I received five soldiers to take care of and a big pile of equipment to sign for.
Here in Afghanistan, I led my team out to our FOB and got our gear set up, and it was a serious pain the neck. But in line with my pledge to do whatever the Army told me to do, I went along for the ride and carried out my duties only to return from two weeks of leave to find that I had been fired and replaced.
I was stung and angry, and I have to admit to having a bit of resentment for the staff sergeant who used to be my boss. “What a clueless idiot,” I catch myself saying when I hear the guy’s name. I felt the same shame and the fear I felt the last time I got canned. I was ready to battle to get my job back and prove that I was up to the task of leading a group of recalcitrant soldiers on our mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. I wanted to prove my indispensability to the Army’s effort. How dare it not recognize my brilliance!
All this from the guy who pledged to be sheepish and average.
And so, with a little time to cool off and settle down, I decided that getting fired was very much preferable to retaining my status as a team leader. I held on to my pay grade, and the money appears in my account two times every month. There’s been no interruption in my dental or health coverage. I get three hot meals a day and a place to live. I still get 30 days of paid vacation every year. When it comes time to return home, the Army will pay my way. And, best of all, I have been absolved of responsibility. The gear is gone and the soldiers are someone else’s problem.
Meanwhile, I can get back to achieving the military goals I set for myself: being the most subservient, unremarkable, sheepish conformist I can possibly be. Success will be mine!
Sgt. Mike, a former mountain-town newspaper editor in Colorado, expects that some measure of his ambition will return by the time he’s honorably discharged in 2013.
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.
Jen Jackson Rocks!
Editor, I loved Jen Jackson’s piece on Moab (“When in Doubt, Pee on the fire,” MG #183). It really captured the spark that makes living here great despite being inundated by goobs most of the year.
Sgt. Mike Rocks!
Dear Mr. Fayhee: Long-time reader, first-time writer here. Thank you for Mountain Notebook Dateline: Afghanistan. It’s the best thing I’ve read in years.
And to Sgt. Mike, how about this: Thank you for telling the truth. It may be the greatest service of all. Godspeed, Sergeant.
Struck by thunder, premonition and synchronicity
John: In reference to your “The Bright White Light” (Smoke Signals, MG #181). For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been having what might have been a premonition. Out on this ranch in the San Juans by myself, I have a lot of time to think, and a lot of fence to fix, so much that I can’t always get it done before the afternoon storms of this summer monsoon. One thought repeatedly produced by the constant banter of my subconscious has been: what would it be like to be struck by lightning? If not fatal, would it be enlightening? Spiritual awakening has been described as like being struck by lightning, but it has also been said to be an interminable process. Enlightenment hasn’t come to me yet, through prayers for it or through meditation, so I had wondered if getting struck by lightning might actually bring a sort of enlightenment with it. Apparently not.
Lately I’ve been reading about synchronicity in James Redfield’s “The Celestine Vision.” Premonitions and strange coincidences, like thinking of an old friend and then running into him or her for the first time in years, are at the basis of this idea of synchronicity, important in Redfield’s philosophy and literature as well as that of the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Until now, I’ve been thinking that I’ve never experienced synchronicity, except for possibly a few occasions, nothing that could not be otherwise explained. Of course, it can always be explained — like being in the right place at the wrong time.
I had also been thinking about my friend Mark Volt, a kind of old-timer on the Gore Range. He is full of odd and funny sayings, mostly of uncertain origin, often of vague meaning and usually inspiring rolled eyes. Like “struck by thunder.”
The first of the rain was falling. I was standing next to a temporary electric fence of polywire, which is a kind of string with fine wire woven through it, an essential tool to manage the distribution of livestock grazing here in the High Country. It wasn’t electrified; I had built it and just hooked it up to a more permanent electric fence of high-tensile wire. I don’t think I was touching it, but I couldn’t have been more than a few inches from it.
The boom was not much short of deafening. For a moment, everything was black — except for a line of white, maybe slightly greenish-yellow, light where the polywire had been. Is that what the deer in the headlights sees? I was on the ground, half lying, half sitting, fully stunned. I have been shocked by electric fence before, and this was many orders of magnitude beyond that. Struck by thunder, indeed. I saw the thin, charred remains of the polywire on the ground next to me. My legs and feet hurt, but I couldn’t move them for the first 10 seconds or so. Then I could crawl. After maybe 30 seconds, I could stand on shaky legs and tingling feet. I willed myself to walk. At this point, I figured I was probably going to be alright. I got on the four-wheeler and rode it back down to the road.
My right thigh still hurt, and, for a while, so did my right shoulder and upper arm. Sitting on a log, I pulled off my right boot and sock and checked my tingling foot. No uglier than usual. I pulled down my pants and looked at my thigh. There was a light red mottling there, at the height of the polywire, and extending in a line down to my lower leg. It did not look or feel like a burn; the pain was more like muscle soreness.
Back on the four-wheeler, I raced the rain back down the mile or two to my truck. I lost. It came down hard, stinging my face and soaking through my light rain jacket. Shivering and dripping, I climbed into my truck, started the engine and turned on the heat and defroster. I drove off with the tailgate down, all manner of ranching equipment sliding out the back of the bed on the steep road. After gathering the tools and 50-pound salt blocks, and throwing the pry bar and spool of fence wire back in as quickly as possible, I drove into camp.
I started a fire in my cabin and heated water for matte and hot chocolate (the spicy kind with chile powder). I peeled off my wet shirt and jeans, pulled on dry ones. I realized there was a ringing, or a high-pitched electric hum in my left ear.
I sat by the fire, going over it again in my mind: the boom, the darkness, the white streak: struck by thunder. As the shock wore off, I considered that I may not be enlightened, but my earlier wondering might have been a premonition. If I weren’t such a skeptic, I would say this is a striking example of synchronicity. The thought gives me chills, but of course that could just be because I’m cold.
Storm on Willow Pass
John: Your lightning story was electrifying, a bolt of brilliance. Here’s a contribution.
Willow Basin is a gentle place, a hidden place. We are camped on the tundra above Willow Lake. We sip red wine from a plastic juice bottle before lighting the stove to boil water for pasta. We just sit on our pads and look at each other. In two years, we’ll be married, but we don’t know that yet, don’t even suspect it.
After a spaghetti dinner, we take a walk along a grassy bench, holding hands. Each of us makes a silent pledge that will not be translated into words for many months. There is no need to articulate the impulses of our hearts. We are content to have our bond unspoken, not wanting to formalize the undefined, the wonderful. This wild place invites freedom from words, from definitions, from spoken formality.
There is a flock of sheep grazing a mile or so down the valley. We hear their faint voices on the wind. We are happy to share the basin with them and their shepherd. As darkness brings us back to camp, we see the flicker of his fire, but we don’t return it. The stars are our fire. We huddle together in our own warmth. The flowers have closed their petals. The surface of the lake has turned flat and metallic. She leans her back against my chest and I fold my arms around her.
Later, we trade positions and I feel her warmth move into me. Her hands soothe my shoulders where the heavy frame pack gnawed. Muscles and skin respond to her touch, and I’m aware of a deeper feeling that her touch awakens. Our bed is soft that night on the spongy tundra that contours to tired hips and shoulders.
The morning dawns with gathering clouds, their undersides dark and glowering. Pancakes with maple syrup and sausage complement strong coffee with evaporated milk from a tin. We break down camp and hurriedly pack. Drizzle patters across the basin beneath a wisp of cloud that sweeps past. Behind it, to the west, dark clouds line up portentously, like a squadron of dirigibles.
“Wish we had another day,” she says wistfully.
“I wish we had a week, a month, a year.”
A deep roll of thunder echoes across the basin. We sling on our packs and are soon panting up the switchbacks leading to the pass. The lake is slate gray and corrugated by wind. The shepherd’s camp is deserted; the sheep have moved down into the timber. A distinct black line marks the storm’s leading edge, with drifts of rain trailing behind. The storm moves over the basin and crosses the lake.
At the pass, we drop packs and pull on rain jackets. She takes the lead on the descent into the narrow valley while I pause a moment to face what’s moving in on the strengthening wind. There’s excitement in the latent power and dark fury menacing overhead. I feel my mood shifting like the weather. I regret returning to that other world where my soul can become deadened with disquiet and sorrow. The echoes of that world seem to emanate from the deep reverberations of thunder rolling over me, rattling my rib cage.
I hurry after her as the storm breaks. We’re hit by rounds of hail machine-gunned from a pitch-black sky. The hail pings off our packs and stings our legs. A lightning flash arcs like a missile, crashing onto the ridge above us. Half a second later, a sharp report splits the air. We make a dash for the sheltering trees, skip-jogging down the trail, ignoring the weight of our packs. The hail changes to rain and the rain turns heavy and drenching.
Heads down, rain running off the hoods of our jackets, we splash through foaming puddles. The trail becomes a rivulet of rainwater where pellets of hail gather in the eddies, a white crest against the muddy flow. Salvos of lightning strike the ridges on both sides. Concurrent flashes create a strobe effect. The thunder is continuous, a deep, sonorous booming. The air smells of rain-washed mountains, a bouquet of spruce pitch blended with grasses, sedges, flowers, the redolence of the earth itself. There is no sweeter smell.
I no longer hear her footsteps, so I stop and turn. She is a dozen yards behind, walking placidly down the trail in her wet and shining blue jacket, the hood shrouding her face. On one side of the trail is a yellow-green willow thicket, the leaves glimmering with raindrops. On the other is a spray of neon pink fireweed standing head-high and nodding under the rainfall. The ridges are misty with torn clouds ripped from the dark storm that still glowers overhead.
She looks up and smiles, and I am suddenly taken by how lovely she is in the pouring rain, how beautiful among the bright flowers. There are droplets of water on her cheeks and a sparkling light in her eyes. Perhaps we are seeing each other for the first time under this cloud of rain and fire. Here is our moment, our place in time. There is no reason to rush back to the known world, so we stand in the rain and let it wash over us.
Editor’s note: Paul Andersen is an author and columnist for the Aspen Times. This vignette is excerpted from his fiction collection of short stories, “Moonlight Over Pearl.”
North by Northwest
Hey Fayhee: In reference to your story, “North by Northwest” (Smoke Signals, MG #182): I do indeed remember where I was on 9/11 … in the Sawtooth Wilderness Area in northern Idaho. I was on a solitary backpack trip, which I have done often since my first backpacking trip with my father in 1972, near where I grew up in Colorado.
On Saturday, September 8, I arrived in Boise and rented a car and headed to Stanley, Idaho. I planned a five-day excursion just west of town and headed into the wilderness on Sunday afternoon. I did not run into any one during that time, the weather was great, and I was invigorated by the time I had spent in the woods, alone. On Thursday morning, I reached my car and went into Stanley to fill up my gas tank at the Stanley Lodge.
While my car was filling up I went into the little store connected to the lodge and asked the clerk (a young tattooed, pierced man) who had won the Monday Night Football New York Giants/Denver Broncos game, I being a lifelong Broncos fan. He looked at me like I was from Mars. I blew him off and, while I was pouring a cup of coffee, I looked up at the TV that was in the corner. On the screen was the image of the second plane going into the World Trade Center. I thought it was a trailer for a new movie. I asked the clerk, “What new movie is this?” He just looked at me with a blank stare and asked, “Where have you been?” I told him I had been backpacking since Sunday. That was when he told me what had happened. An older gentleman soon came in and talked with the clerk, while I was sitting in a chair in stunned silence. The gentleman came over and told me that I was perhaps the only person in America who had not known what happened, and sat with me for four hours as I watched in horror.
On my drive back to Boise, where I would be stranded for days, I thought that I had should of stayed in the woods, forever, instead of reentering an uncivilized civilization.
Dan Ellier Chapman
North by Northwest #2
Hello John: September 9, 2001, I started a job with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps — their three-week “Fall Crew,” which found me camping and doing trail work in the Green Mountains. We set up camp that evening, only a mile or so in from the Mt. Worcester trailhead. Monday was spent learning the basics of trail maintenance, camping and the general dynamics of living and working with a new group of people.
Tuesday, September 11, we started our day by continuing to improve the worn-out lower section of the trail. It was a wonderful, sunny, warm, perfect late-summer Vermont day. There were no hikers early that morning, which did not seem out of place, considering we only saw a few on Monday.
As I was busily digging a new water bar mid-morning, a solitary hiker came by. All I remember is: He was an older man and seemed a bit odd. I think all he said to me was: “a plane flew into the World Trade Center” and kept hiking. He told each of my co-workers this fact and hiked on. We discussed this man, wondering if he was mentally stable, after he passed. I thought maybe he was telling us about a movie.
Our solitary hiker came back from the peak and told us the same thing. This time, he spoke to us longer and told us that a jet had flown into one of the towers and he decided to seek refuge in the woods, only to find a hapless, un-informed trail crew. None of us saw the indelible images that most of the rest of the nation saw. None of us knew about the mass hysteria that was taking over the nation at the time. None of us knew the enormity of the destruction of that day. We just went back to working on our trail.
Early afternoon, the supervisor from headquarters came out. He confirmed what our solitary hiker had told us, added the towers had fallen and a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. I don’t think he knew about the fourth plane in Pennsylvania. All we knew about the attackers was they were “terrorists,” whoever that was. Speaking for myself, the history of the situation still had not registered with me. The only electronic media available to us was the radio in the van, back at the trailhead.
We decided to hike to the top of Mt. Worcester, seeking the same refuge as our talisman. Mt. Worcester is only about 3,000 feet tall, but a hard slog straight up through the forest and over large granite blocks at top. None of us registered that there were no planes over our peak. We took in the sights of the Green Mountains turning into fall and lay around on the sun-warmed boulders until it was time to go back for dinner.
After dinner, we hiked out to the van to use the crew cell phone and call our loved ones. We listened to the radio in the van while each person was outside on the phone. We finally, definitely, learned what happened that morning. When I got a hold of my parents, all we discussed was the road trip I had just taken from New Mexico to Moab, Jackson, West Yellowstone and on to Vermont. There was no mention of the attacks, other than my Mom asking: “Do you know what happened today?” Which I answered in the affirmative.
Wednesday, we went back to work as usual. We certainly discussed the attacks and how they might affect each of us, with most of the crew calling the northeast home. We saw more hikers on Wednesday, all of them escaping to the woods to get away from what we would later lean was incessant televised carnage. Most of them talked with us and asked if we knew about the attacks.
We went back to the van later that week to listen to W. speak to the country. In my life, that has to have been one of the few Presidential speeches I have ever completely listened to. We again called our parents and I actually discussed the attacks and bin Laden with them.
Saturday, the 15th, found us moving our camp and stopping in Montpelier to do our laundry. Even though it is a small town, only about 8,000 residents, it had always seemed busy to me. That day, it was almost deserted. The laundry attendant told us the owner of the laundromat was from Lebanon and with the intense xenophobia that had taken hold, even in bucolic Vermont, had been out of sight since Tuesday.
Four days after the attacks, we still had not seen the television images that everyone else saw. By that point, the over-saturation of the media was beginning to slow, though we might have seen one image on CNN. We did get a hold of some newspapers, but again, four days later, they did not have all the images that certainly everyone saw in their Wednesday morning paper. I knew what had happened, how many were missing or dead and who the attacks were attributed to, but I am not sure if everything had soaked in by then. Ten years later, I have seen maybe an hour total of the televised insanity of that day because I was busily ensconced in the mountains, digging a water bar.
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There’s hardly a dweller in the Mountain West who doesn’t vacate at some time during spring mud season. Sometimes it’s just an afternoon trip down the hill to get your feet on some steady turf. Or you can have the trip of lifetime and travel only 300 miles. Note that “trip of a lifetime” can be a good or bad thing.
1) Got Prozac?
If your spring travel plans mandate that you rub elbows with cheery people, you’re doing well to remain in the Mountain West, where only one city ranked in the top half of Travel + Leisure’s top-20 rudest cities for 2012. The Phoenix-Scottsdale area got tagged at No. 8 due to crabby locals. Evidently this edginess is due to snowbirds filling their space just as the weather gets nice enough to go outside. Three-time champion Los Angeles lost its spot to New York City this year, so we’re wondering if folks in L.A., now in fourth place, will get pissed off enough about that to reclaim their title in 2013. Other non-friendly spots in the top-10 include Miami, No. 2; Washington, D.C., No. 3; Boston, No. 5; and Dallas-Ft. Worth, No. 6. Las Vegas managed a semi-respectable 12th place, Seattle for some odd reason came in at 17th, San Diego in 19th, and — get this — Salt Lake City was 20th. FYI: You should know that T + L listed Vegas No. 8 for the worst drivers in the country, with Phoenix-Scottsdale at No. 10.
2) Gas pains
These days most people would rather go to hell than the gas pump. Spring travel usually has a lot to do with gasoline, unless you’re hitchhiking, teleporting or just staying on the couch and taking hallucinogenic drugs. We digress. As of Feb. 28, these were some of the prices found in the West: Colorado Springs, $3.11; Salt Lake City, $3.21; Santa Fe, $3.40; Phoenix, $3.79; Seattle, $3.99; and Santa Barbara, $4.40. The lowest price we found was at the Gasamat at Elk Street and Elias Avenue in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where a gallon put you back a scant $2.89. The U.S. average was $3.68.
3) Beats airport pat-downs
In the name of keeping it together, we’re not recommending the first teleporters to come off the assembly line. But if you’re looking for fast travel into another dimension (or just Rock Springs, for that matter) for your spring travels of the future, consider that quantum physicists at the University of California at Santa Barbara have developed a rudimentary teleportation device. In basic terms, it means that an object you can see in front of you may exist simultaneously in a parallel universe — a multi-state condition. See previous entry about hallucinogenic drugs.
4) What happens in these places
One of the absolute worst things to happen during spring travel is to arrive at a destination, only to find it is listed among the top places in the United States for illicit drug use. To help your planning, you should know that Iowa has the lowest rate of marijuana use (3.8 percent), while the District of Columbia, oddly enough, has the highest reported cocaine-use rate at 5.1 percent within the previous year. Closer to home, you need to know that it is not California causing all the problems, but rather, Colorado. A handy study we found from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of Department of Health and Human Services showed that a full 10.96 percent of Colorado residents over age 12 had used drugs within the previous month. That compares to 9.1 percent in California, 6.43 percent in Utah, 8.6 percent in Wyoming and 10.2 percent in Washington.
5) So many choices
The lead-in goes like this: “Would you rather eat ice cream that’s been sprinkled with dead bugs, or have a photo of yourself being disemboweled by aliens?” Portland’s Freakybuttrue Peculiarium Museum, established in April 2011, has a little something for everyone. We don’t know about you, but it’s on our short list of Spring Travel stops. There were rumors about a new exhibit on spontaneous human combustion, as well as one entitled “Star Wars fan, Star Trek fan fight to the death.” Does that mean both of them die?
6) A little dirt to clean you out
Three-hundred-thousand people can’t be wrong. Now, we can’t say that number of annual visitors have been healed by the famous dirt of El Posito, the sacred sand pit housed in El Santuario de Chimayo. But we have to say, the place known as the Lourdes of America has an eerie but good feel to it. Tons of people have attested to instant cures to incurable diseases after visiting the shrine and handling the dirt (one room is stacked with braces and crutches that have been cast aside). And if you’re not in need of a miracle, you can still go home with a refrigerator magnet from the nearby gift shop.
7) But it feels good, really
With spas becoming big business in destination travel, the things they offer have gotten substantially weirder/decadent in recent years. For example, if you want to add a plane ticket to the cost, you can travel to a spa in Israel that specializes in snake massages — letting the cool serpents slither over your tired muscles. If reptiles aren’t your thing, there’s a spa in New York that will give you a $180 facial with sanitized nightingale dung. Closer to home, you can travel to Santa Fe’s Eldorado Hotel, where a 24-karat facial (using a sheet of liquid gold) will erase fine lines and tighten your skin. It will make your wallet a bit looser, however — the cost is $475.
Tara Flanagan splits her time between Boulder and Breckenridge.
Desert rendezvous, westbound; destination Pacific Ocean. You can’t drive to the island, and it’s too far to swim. Time to make the Pierhead Leap. Start scanning the horizon. Feel the Earth turn as the Sun sets and stars come out. That’s where we’re going.
Where water out of an iron pipe is warm enough to shower. Where winter is two days with louvered windows closed and wearing socks. Where Christmas is a refrigerated ship container of trees, tied in bundles, and a stack of Coors beer in the entrance to the liquor store, which disappears before it can be stocked in coolers.
Where time is what you see in the sky. The Clouds of Magellan are where we’re headed, every night, standing South, South-by-Sou’west, a-quarter-South, and in the fo’csle bunk below, the sound of the sea rushing past.
But the Colorado River is “Closed to Navigation,” so we drive.
Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley.
I keep coming to Big Bend because other people do not seem to go there much. There are spurts of visitors in the spring and the fall and that is about it. In heat, I can own the whole place. This summer night is silent, no insect sound, just the occasional scream of a falling star. The rain has failed for eleven months. Big Bend is drying out. The terrain is a natural barrier and so in this zone, from Presidio down river to about Del Rio, human traffic has long been light. I once met a guy in a village in Mexico who had a bull get loose and head north. He crossed the river on horseback, trailed the bull over a hundred miles to Fort Stockton, lassoed it and somehow got it back home. What struck me about his story is that he didn’t think it much of a story. He was the kind of person Big Bend — on both sides of the river — seemed to breed.
The river is almost gone. Since the 1930s, the demands on the Rio Grande have exceeded the natural flow. Since about 2000, the river has failed to make it to the sea. With global warming and a drier weather pattern, it is certain to decline yet more. In the middle reaches of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, the annual floods ended in the early seventies when Cochiti Dam broke the back of the river. Now the cottonwood bosques are becoming senile and in a century will be gone if this management continues because there is almost no replacement by seedlings dependent on the yearly flood cycle of the natural stream. Which brings me to Big Bend, the only national park on the entire eighteen-hundred-mile river.
It was supposed to be half of an international park joining the Sierra del Carmen with the Chihuahuan Desert on the U.S. side, or at least that was FDR’s notion. This never happened. Now there is talk of walling off the river lest some Mexican come north and terrorize us with decent food. Big walls are the new form of American installation art. The federal government is also building new housing for Border Patrol agents within the park to catch a non-existent flow of migrants. This is becoming a problem on the frontier of the empire. Last fall, I had drinks with some Border Patrol people on the Arizona chunk of the line. Their station had 350 people and bagged only 300 migrants a month. They were a little concerned that the public might some day learn what it cost to catch a poor person seeking work.
I come to Big Bend to be alone. For years, people have told me why they do not come here. It is in Texas. It is a dead end with a long drive in and out. It can be very hot. It is a desert. One guy told me it was the commodification of the natural world. Yes, and be sure to tell others.
I avoid the river with the two major campsites and also avoid the Chisos Mountains with their forests and facilities. I prefer to dry camp at various primitive park sites. So far, I have never run into anyone at such locales, but there is no guarantee my luck will hold. Like all fine places, there is nothing to do. And as a bonus, in Big Bend there is not a lot to see by conventional standards. If one is careful, one can find a patch of creosote and dry ground that does not pester one with vistas. At night the stars make a lot of noise but I have gotten used to that.
I seem to blunder about aimlessly and then get tired and sit down for a spell. I have never had a big idea in Big Bend and of course I am very grateful for this fact. There was a time in my life when I would hole up in Marfa writing books and periodically would become insane because of marauding art galleries, a serious menace in the area. I would drive to Big Bend and sit down very quietly and these seizures would pass. Also, I am here to tell you that one of the best roads in the United States runs from Presidio, Texas, to Big Bend, a two-lane slow path along the river through little canyons. Don’t bother to take photographs in Big Bend. James Evans owns the place and frankly you should simply buy his books and save yourself some time. He not only has what it looks like, he has what it feels like and means. This is a very rare thing.
Big Bend is a place to be. And not much else. To my knowledge, anyone having an epiphany there is summarily executed. I cannot prove this but I am a creature of hope.
Lately, I have realized I have spent my life surrounded by two kinds of professional liars — the normal Chamber of Commerce felons and the pious trolls of academia. They have always said there would be enough water, they have always said you can’t stop people from coming here, they have always said national defense was job number one, and that if we simply had some more meetings, it would all work out. They have always lied. Big Bend, for me, is a haven from this talk. It is pretty much uninhabitable and the Mexican side is equally isolated. I have a friend who ran dope in this area for years — he’d bring it north through Panther Junction. One of my first visits to Big Bend was when he showed me his former haunts and routes, including where in the beginning he’d crawl through the bosque on his belly dragging a burlap bag of grass. He soon advanced to better days and was doing about $750,000 a month when he made a fatal error: he refused to pay a bribe to a U.S. Custom agent because of his prejudice against crooks in law enforcement. This moment of integrity cost him five years in a federal pen.
Three javelina root around in the brush by the river. The sky is overcast and soon comes the first rain in months. The arroyos run here and there from desert showers. The walls of the wash are red and lavender and yellow. The water rolls over the rocks and the ground comes up and slaps my face with scent.
Just across the river is the village where they killed Pablo Acosta.
He’d come back from the United States in 1976 and found disorder. The man in charge of the plaza in Ojinaga just upriver had quit his post and no one knew exactly who to contact for payoffs. Drugs were small time, a sideline in a poor area. Acosta grew with the industry and soon things were big enough that the Mexican federal police set up a headquarters in town to collect their cut. Acosta also shipped money to the Mexican army. By 1983, Acosta was big time and bringing planeloads of cocaine in from Colombia. He once considered executing my friend.
And then he was gone. He was murdered by a Mexican commander with the help of the FBI.
That happens in that business and in this place.
Just to the west is the gouge of Santa Elena Canyon, the river now a latte color from the waters rushing in from the flooded arroyos. The thunder is near now, and lightning slices the sky. Steam rises from the road as fresh raindrops fall.
A couple pulls over by the suddenly rising waters, she carefully wades out a short bit and he takes photographs and this is right across the river from the machine-gunned building where they took down Pablo and my God life is good at this moment and I suck down the breeze and believe, well, if only I knew what I believed.
The Chisos Mountains loom like gods in the mist and across the river the Sierra Carmen walls off Mexico. Los Diablos stand around and chat. They are a firefighting group formed in Boquillas del Carmen, the Mexican village just across the river. The Diablos fight fires in Big Bend and elsewhere — last spring, they were up to save Los Alamos, NM, America’s city of scientific death. On the rocks are small wire creations of scorpions, roadrunners and ocotillo cactus. They go for five or six bucks a piece and a hand-printed sign says the money helps schools in Boquillas. Traditionally, visitors to the park went across the shallow river for breakfast and to buy little bits of Mexico. 9/11 ended that for Boquillas and Santa Elena a ways upstream and both villages fell apart. The small wire figures are contraband and the government warns against such commerce. The Federal authorities also ask visitors not to give water to any illegals they may encounter in the desert but to promptly call 911.
The sign says that God will bless for any donation.
The creosote is brown. Dead prickly pear heaps dot the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. The diggings of the javelina show desperation. I woke up at gray light on the ground and listened and there was nothing, not the dawn song of the coyote, not a single note of birdsong. Nothing.
A ranger says in time this place will be like the Sahara. He goes off on how the U.S. has the habits of a cancer cell and is killing the earth in general and Big Bend in particular.
The fresh air is suddenly rich in scent after the first slight shower in eleven months.
Down by the river, the government has posted a warning: “Beware of Javelina! Protect Your Property. Javelina in search of food may rip up your tents.”
At the mouth of Dog Canyon, a javelina bolts. The early camel corps came through in 1859 as they tested the Middle Eastern beast for the War Department, an early foray in national security. The experiment was cut short, when the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, decided to quit his job, and lead a movement to destroy the Union. Before things settled down, 600,000 Americans were dead.
Back at the Boquillas crossing, Los Diablos laugh. Their caps sport the flags of the U.S. and Mexico, plus a big red devil.
There’s talk of reopening the crossing in the spring of 2012. But I am not sure my fellow citizens can bear such a risk to their safety.
There was a moment in my childhood when I realized my family and my school and my friends and my neighborhood all meant death. I took to sleeping on the roof until my parents outlawed this behavior.
But when I roll out my bag in Big Bend and look up I remember this and know, at least for a little moment, why I am here.
The sky has always meant freedom to me.
Big Bend still has sky.
Charles Bowden is the author of many books, including “Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family,” “Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future” and, most recently, “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.” Bowden’s last story for MG was “The New Colossus,” which appeared in #184. He lives in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Read about one man’s journey through climbing and divorce in Where It Ended