It’s not the River Ganges; these are only campfire ashes they’re spreading on the waters, and these guys are not really panning for souls, either. However, the ashes of a couple of close relatives would eventually be committed to these
My mother in this way hoped to meet up with my father again, even though he was given to the sea off-shore of Monterey Bay.
I released Karen at the same spot on the Roaring Fork River, near its confluence with MacFarlane Creek, east of Aspen. It always was a matter of catch-and-release with her, anyway. It’s Gold Medal Waters. ‘Nuff said.
Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley.
Soldiers watch another day end in Afghanistan. Most will see 330 sunsets, give or take a few, before heading home.
A year ago, when our company commander told us that we’d be deploying to Afghanistan, one skeptic said: “I’ll believe we’re going to Afghanistan as soon as we start rolling down the runway.” I had reason to hope that the whole thing would be called off, as it wouldn’t have been the first time the Army had cancelled something on me.
Army leadership gets fired up sometimes, and it can formulate some wonderful ideas for things the soldiers can do. Like, “We’re going to do a company ruck march on Thursday,” an officer might declare on Monday. As the plan percolates down to the platoons and the teams, the complications begin piling up to the officer.
For instance, getting all the soldiers to participate poses a problem. A soldier can abuse the Army’s health care system, feign an injury and obtain a physical profile that absolves him or her from certain physical tasks that he or she may not feel like doing. And, so, as soon as news of the ruck march spreads, many soldiers will pull up lame, go over to the health clinic, complain of lower back pain and return with a “no ruck marching” profile. And then there are guys who, though issued a ruck sack, suddenly don’t have a ruck sack, and you can’t ruck march without a ruck sack. Within a day or two, it becomes clear that only a fraction of the company will be going on the ruck march.
And then the officer will learn he has a meeting on Thursday. Plus he has the 30 or 40 “injured” or ill-equipped soldiers to deal with and a stack of paperwork to complete detailing the entire plan — route, emergency medical services, water supply and on and on — for the ruck march, which starts to seem like more trouble than it’s worth, and he winds up canceling it.
Thus far in my military career, the Army’s threats of action and activity have turned out to be hollow about 60 percent of the time. With that in mind, I prayed that the deployment would become ensnared in some hideous FUBAR SNAFU that would keep us in the States. My prayers were for naught, and late last July, we were inside a 767 as it started its takeoff roll on the way to Afghanistan.
Once we arrived, however, the hollow threats began anew. We were threatened with going up to Bagram. That didn’t come to pass. We got threatened with some training on the range that would help prepare us for combat, which we didn’t do. We got threatened with a mission on the worst Forward Operating Base in the country, and we wound up on one of the best. It gets to the point where I can’t take any plan too seriously unless, of course, I happen to like the plan.
We’ve been threatened with an early trip home. The company was ordered to spend a year as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, but it’s looking as if the deployment could be cut short by a couple of months. Not too long ago, the commander sent out his Warning Order telling us to be “off the battlefield” by the end of a month, which I am unable to disclose lest some bad person use the information to attack us. The order was fantastic news, and we began speculating when we’d be back in the States.
I was so optimistic that I had already been in touch with a friend and made some plans to drift size-10 Drakes — that’s what ought to be hatching when I’m planning to be on the river — over trout somewhere in the Rio Grande drainage. I haven’t booked any tee times yet, but I’m thinking about some of the courses I’d like to play. I checked the minor league baseball schedule to see when the Round Rock Express would be at home.
Beneath my optimism lies a dense layer of military reality. My mood soured when word spread that we’d likely wind up staying for the full year and my plans started going down the drain. I got hacked off at the Army before accepting the fact that I should have known better than to make any plans at all.
“It’s all good,” I had to tell myself. “Be patient.” I can handle fishing more gently and casting smaller dry flies on a finer tippet. The golf courses will still be open, and the baseball season will still be underway. Living in shipping containers and tents and having to hike to the bathroom has become routine.
I can’t suppress a sense of urgency, though. The more time we spend here gives some officer more time to cook up a great plan for us to take part in next phase of the war against the Axis of Evil. I just want to get out of here before we get threatened with loading our trucks and heading west where I can start writing a column called Dateline: Iran.
Sgt. Mike is an ex-Rocky Mountain newspaper editor. Dateline: Afghanistan appears monthly in MG.
Rivers are the lifeblood of the planet, and the sculptors of mountains. Where I live, on the cusp between the jagged peaks of the Southern Rockies and the mesa tops of the Colorado Plateau, winter is finally relinquishing its hold and mud season still in force. Soon we will have our brief warmth, after bouts of storms and possibly even late snows.
Sometimes it seems like we live in a world of two seasons in Colorado — winter and summer, and what’s between them is a no-person’s-land where anything can happen — hot sun, cold snow, driving rain. Here’s a selection of short poems for this season between seasons.
— Art Goodtimes
Early morning snow flurry melts
within an hour.
During which, Dream Queen,
what did you achieve?
I listened to a crow’s mazurka
on a pebble roof.
— Anne Valley-Fox Santa Fe
Common Sense #14
People who hold themselves
with the grace of a cat
do not fear the jump
from one platform
to the other
— David Patton St. Louis
Legs forming a perfect four,
bare shoulder leaning
into the side of the shore’s
ramshackle tackle shop.
Johnny rsvp’d twice
before lock up.
— Kierstin Bridger Ridgway
I envy the dirty and alive,
the sleeping tired
Who rise to no care
but to get out there
And ride snow water dirt
Lungs pounding and tight,
cursing and vivid.
— Bryan Shuman Laramie
In spite of my
I pull myself up
square my shoulders
and keep on
— Nancy Davenport Menlo Park
On The Road
The gray swirls of its coat
still startling in the daylight,
guts spill across the Sumatran highway
and confirm its determination
in this jungle
— James Penha New Verse News Jakarta
Play the aspen leaves
Like piano keys.
They do not recite; they write.
And they recall nothing.
I am shattered; I am mended.
And this is my religion.
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.
Editor’s note: My wife, Gay, and I just returned from a trip to Cameroon, during which we visited three different rivers. Herein, we share some of the photographs, along with appropriate annotation, from those tropical watercourses.
1] We visited Kalamaloué National Park, in the far north of Cameroon, specifically in hopes of viewing elephants. We first spotted these two juvenile males on the other side of the Chari, which is in Chad. The elephants made their way across the Chari right to where we were standing with our guide, our driver and a park ranger. Once the ranger realized the elephants were coming in our direction, he ordered us to beeline post haste to the vehicle, which, with the elephants a few meters away, upped the adventure quotient by refusing to start.
2] People crossed the river between Cameroon and Chad all day long with absolute impunity.
3] The Chadian capital of N’Djamena as seen from the Cameroonian side. The main visible edifice in the presidential palace.
1] Barely visible, off toward center/left, is a small monkey that was coaxed out of hiding in the impenetrable foliage by our guide, who apparently spoke fluent simian-ese. The chances of Gay and I seeing that monkey on our own were nil.
2] My kingdom for a basketball court. We visited a pygmy village on the side of the Lobé, where we met with this dude, the local chief, whose spear, lore had it, had once dispatched a full-grown elephant. The chief reluctantly let me hold his spear, but once I started taking aim at a nearby tree, he asked for it back.
3] The word “pygmy” is, by all accounts, a pejorative. I was unsuccessful in my attempts to learn a different name by which these vertically challenged people could be less insultingly addressed, but failed. “We just call them ‘pygmies’,” said our guide.
4] Lobé Falls, about 20 meters high, is supposedly one of the few cascades in the world that empties directly into the ocean. When we arrived, we witnessed a local lad come within a whisker of drowning. We did not see how he arrived at the lamentable circumstance of being swept out to sea right before our very eyes, but it was only via the gallant efforts of several locals that the boy was saved by the skin of his teeth.
5] For a man who is repulsed by the idea of eating food with his hands, this was a tough feed — locally caught shrimp (heads still attached) and the ever-present French fries and fried plantains served up in a small restaurant near Lobé Falls.
6] Gay and the guide effortlessly paddling a hand-made wooden boat that can hold 10 people in a squeeze and, judging from the effort it took to haul it onto shore, probably weighed several hundred pounds.
7] It took some coaxing, but the guide eventually gave in and let me try my hand at paddling the boat. Though I have considerable experience paddling canoes on flatwater, my attempts to keep this vessel pointed in a straight line were not wholly successful. The guide was still laughing about my poor paddling several hours later over beers.
8] Canoe carved out of a single tree trunk.
1] A short hike through the jungle from the Ebogo was this massive, 1,175-year-old tree. We never did get a grip on the name of the species, as the guide did not know the English name. We were constantly frustrated by our inability to understand French.
2] At 800 kilometers in length, the Ebogo is Cameroon’s second-longest river. At the time of our visit, it was less than a meter in depth. The rains were late. The flood-stage line, which was clearly visible in the proximate jungle, was about six meters high.
3] Modern African architecture (how to say this tactfully?) leaves a lot to be desired. These were the nicest new buildings we saw during our visit. They are tourist cabins that had never been opened because of some sort of bureaucratic snafu.
The jail cell door clangs shut. I am in a tiny concrete room with a concrete bench and a concrete wall that shields the stainless steel toilet from a viewer’s eyes. The only viewers that will peer in through the thick window for the next long hours will be the detention officers of the Coconino County Jail. I am here on purpose. I am here alone.
The first thing I do is scan the room for something, anything I can write with. The officers have taken my jewelry, wallet, pens and notebook. They have left me my hearing aids and partial dentures. I’m grateful for that. At 71, my hearing is fading. I need to hear every sound and word that echo outside. And I might be able to use my dentures to scratch a message into the wall. Protect the Sacred Mountains. Stop Spiritual Genocide.
But the walls are flecked with brown spots and I am squeamish. I take notes in my mind. The choked howls coming from the cell next door. The thud of a body slamming against a thick door. The carving in my cell door, an Indian in a feathered head-dress and the letters NDN. My friend in a cell across the hall, tracing the words Protect the Peaks on his window; and the fact that he and I are the only white people I see in the tiny windows or being taken into a cell. Those not-so-subtle demographics are the same as the last time I was arrested twenty-five years ago to protest a breccia pipe uranium mine being drilled into sacred Havasupai land thirteen miles south of the Grand Canyon.
I am in this barren room because I’ve committed civil disobedience to protest a local ski resort’s plan to make snow with inadequately treated wastewater on the San Francisco Peaks, a high-desert mountain sacred to thirteen tribes. Because I have friends from five of those tribes, I refused to step away from the huge excavator that was gouging a pipeline trench in the living rock. I stood fast also because I am forty years older than the next oldest of my companions. Look, I wanted my action to say, you do not have to be young to be filled with passion. You do not have to be young to act.
The howls next door have faded. Hours stretch ahead. With no pen, no paper. There is nothing but the dirty walls and locked door — and the knowledge that outside this county jail, my friends are collecting bail. They know I am in here. I’ve never in my life felt less alone. In that, it is more than my white skin that makes me different from the others locked behind these heavy doors.
I trace words with a fingernail on my forearm. I am here. I will remember every detail. And I will write.
Sojourner is the author of “Bonelight: Ruin and Grace and the New Southwest,” “Delicate: Stories,” “Solace: Rituals of Loss and Desire,” “Going Through Ghosts” and, most recently, “She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction.” She lives in Flagstaff. Her blog, “Hoodoo,” can be found at mountaingazette.com.
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.