Lately, I’ve barely been in my apartment long enough to do laundry, work a few shifts, and repack the gear pile scattered on the floor. I have climbed more routes, hiked more miles, slept outside more nights, bagged more summits, and consumed more ice cream in these weeks than in the past ten summers combined. While I try to avoid using superlatives, I cannot deny feeling a level of awake-ness in my limbs that rivals that of the last twenty-nine years.
The full stories are better told across the table, toes on the sidewalk, glass in hand. For now, some field notes, musings, and excerpts of the road-song:
I. Mount Adams & the Lewis River.
Two rounds of the animal game, a distraction from the momentary panic of what feels like more weight than I’ve ever carried on my back and six sun-baked miles to climb with two brothers who walk much faster than I. Sundown over undulating blue-toned ridgelines, moonrise above two red Gore-Tex jackets, nearly half a color wheel. Our night at base camp is battered with rain, wind, and lightning until the sun rises, and ultimately I give up on being silently afraid of the storm because I am too tired to care anymore. So much for the alpine start, and I forgot the fucking coffee(!!), but at least there are breakfast burritos (thanks Tyler). Light and heat return to further melt the boot tracks up the mountain. We sweat into the snow and fight gravity one heavy step at a time. Finally, the true summit and a technicolor dream-pole of prayer flags. Rainier scoffs wordlessly from its great heights, a tequila flask is passed around, my fingers turn white and burn with pain. Then, it’s glissade descents and off-trail detours and a long, hot slog back to the car—huckleberry milkshakes are the mantra of the final two miles. Refueled and back in the sub-alpine, the search for a campsite that doesn’t exist reveals a prehistoric swimming hole, complete with hanging gardens growing up through the mist of waterfall spouts. A pterodactyl joins the party, we eat pie around a fire, and I sleep cradled against a tree trunk in my hammock. The bar is set high for future adventures in the land of controlled chaos.
II. The Wallowas.
Fifty-five hours of Type 2 fun: 40+ pound packs carried across 43 miles (including two in the wrong direction), up and down four mountain passes, 10k+ elevation gain and descent, endless water crossings, wildflowers off the Richter scale, and a gazillion bloodthirsty mosquitos. We pass more than a dozen pristine lakes but find that we just want to keep walking, settling each night in the folded hands of a different hanging valley. While descending from Glacier Pass, I step around a block of white granite marked with two pink veins of quartzite and hear my dead grandmother’s voice speaking. I turn and blink at the unmoving rock, and she repeats the words once whispered to me in the kitchen years ago, urging me to remember. I can feel the warmth of her arms around my shoulders, still. Maybe I am just dehydrated, but I don’t really think so. I tell her I miss her; she remains with me for a long while. In the Enchanted Valley, we fall asleep below a Sleeping Fox and Marblecake Mountain, haunted by strange dreams until morning. Day three evolves into 17 miles of ‘let’s see how it goes’; when we see the final trail junction, I hurl my hiking pole like a javelin in exasperated joy, both of us thinking the rest will be a downhill cakewalk. Well, no. Our ambition is rewarded by a never-ending Fuckery of Shrubbery (a.k.a. The Booty-Shorts Death March), and I start talking shit to a maddening slope of skin-destroying foliage. Finally, finally, the car.
III. Mazama and the Sahale Arm.
Your teeth are cutting into me in between the ribs and I look to the peaks for safety, but they bite down as well; round every turn in the highway another jagged sawtooth snags a rip in whatever patch of acquiescence I had going. Damn these brown, snowless ridgelines gapped by charcoal thunderheads pregnant with rain, they tempt me further under the knife of your mouth nibbling gently along the line of my collarbone. We pass the turquoise Diablo, singing fu-gee-la in the shadow of unnamed glacial scarfields. Sysiphus is growing moss among the wizened glades of cedar and misplaced scree. Surrounded by bush-thickets of Devils club and maidenhair fern, his feet are probably stuck into the carpet at this point, ’cause he sure as hell isn’t pushing any boulders up those slopes.
A dark, one-lane road to the top of a dead timbered pass, ghost trees sentry to the fears and dreams of wearied walkers and minivan family circuses. We sleep like the near-dead and awaken with the life of wolves revived from a decade of deathless limbo. On Slate Peak the crumbling granite seabed of a long disappeared ocean stretches into the next country and I see that my soul was born here. It rose aloft on the backs of ravens wings, and rode a westerly warm front all the way to Akalat. The front tire blows just after Deadhorse Point. (Gratitude to Jim and Dale for the mid-mountain rescue, hope y’all got your lug nut back.)
Fieldnotes: (1) wild mountain blueberries taste like bananas. (2) A 30% chance of rain in the mountains is always 100% when you’re without a tent. (3) BEARS ARE REAL, and they are not scared of you or your ice axe. (4) When a sign states “0.5 miles” as the distance for any trail, anywhere, it’s lying. But at least there are blueberries.
Home, finally. In the midst of so much movement, a forgotten voice came back to my peeling fingers, timidly at first, then rushing out with abandon, saying to hell with what he thinks, these are my reclaimed bones and skin. The old skeleton now lies uncovered, visible beneath the tall grass with wildflowers growing up through the hollow ribcage, intact. What a relief, that bones never die—always, they can be sung back to life.
[Thanks to Katie Jaybird and Crystal for snapping several of these photos!]