Vantage Point

Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places.

Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.

-Stewart Udall, fmr. Sec. of Interior 1961-1969

Standing on Paintbrush Divide, life was simple.  The decision that led to this moment happened a few months earlier.  In the summer of 2016 I was writing my PhD dissertation and planning a late summer getaway to celebrate the culmination of this effort.  I was putting together logistics, along with my brother David and his fiancée Ashley, for a through-hike of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains.  We planned to stay high, hugging the continental divide as we followed the loose outline of a route described by backpacker and writer Alan Dixon.  On paper our goal was simple; hike the 80+ miles from the Green River lakes in the north to the Big Sandy Campground in the south.  In doing so, we would traverse what Dixon has called, “the finest non-technical Alpine route in North America.”  In practice, this feat wouldn’t be so simple.  The Wind Rivers are some of the most heavily glaciated mountains in the Rockies, and our route was to be largely off-trail.  We’d be carrying 9 days worth of food for three people in bear-resistant containers and spending most of our time above tree line, out of natural shelter and exposed to the elements.  This was exactly what we craved, a test of our mental and physical endurance.

On September 2nd, my 28th birthday, we set up camp in Forest Service land at the southern edge of the Winds, planning to catch an arranged shuttle to our northern start early the next morning.  We had arrived well past dark and hurriedly set up our tents in a thunderstorm.  As it turned out, this wouldn’t be our only night in the rain.  We were repeatedly drenched as we ascended through the early portion of our route.  Our first high pass, through a field strewn with car-sized boulders, was also marked by a violent storm.  We were well above the trees and could see the clouds approaching.  Soon our vision was limited to several feet and the three of us, alone in the mountains, also found ourselves isolated from one another as we each sought a way to maneuver over these rocks.  The snow came first, then the hail.  Next was thunder, like a wave rolling through.  I couldn’t see my brother, but I could hear him yelling instructions.   Remove your pack.  He was right, the lightning was too close, we had to be proactive.  I took off my backpack, slid it away, and sat curled up in a ball.  Hail and snow filled the air, caught in the wind.  Though I couldn’t see the sky, each strike of lightning was obvious as the small visible world around me was suddenly illuminated, like the flash bulb of a camera.  The thunder was instant.  We each sat alone, waiting.  As the storm began to give way, we shouted to one another from our individual perches.  This storm was past, but more would follow.  The rest of our time in the Winds followed suit.  After an overnight snowstorm, our route forward over a talus field was too dangerous.  We were forced to make a decision – wait a day and hope for an improvement in the weather or turn around now and hike out.  With limited food and a tight schedule, we ultimately chose the latter option.

Despite our disappointment at the early turnaround, the Winds were a strikingly beautiful range.  We used our newfound extra days to spend time hiking and camping in Grand Teton and Yellowstone.  This unexpected opportunity has become one of my most cherished memories.  What I took home from this trip was bigger than the stories or the pictures.  It was the recharge that only wilderness can supply.  After hiking up Paintbrush Canyon in the Tetons, where we were forced to wait while a bull moose grazed along a narrow section of trail, I found myself standing atop a large rock on the exposed pass.  We were halfway through a loop that would descend through Cascade Canyon and around Jenny Lake.  The final push up the pass was, as is frequently the case, a grueling ascent over rocky trail.  Snowfields dotted the landscape both above and below our vantage point.  Standing on the pass was euphoric; it was only from within the Tetons that I could feel the true magnitude of these jagged peaks strewn with glaciers and warm green lakes.  On my rock perch the wind relentlessly threatened to knock me over, filling me with a sense of smallness.  Nothing is as grounding as nature, a grand display of geological feats that have formed over a time scale hardly imaginable to the human mind.  There is a comfort to be found in the vastness of the wild, in the realization that nature is both beautiful and harsh.  Millions of years have passed and countless lives have come and gone while these mountains have endured.  Here I am nothing, and that means everything.

-e

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The plan grew overnight. I went to bed with the idea in my mind and woke up the next morning, decided. I get in the car and take the turnpike from Massachusetts to Michigan. The drive is boring. Especially the long stretch across New York. I drive for hours, trying not to think about what I am doing.

The drive is more interesting around Cleveland. The turnpike runs along the outskirts of the city. In one particular turn, the highway peaks around the edge of Lake Erie. The lake is nearly at eye level. It’s a huge body of water and it feels ready to spill over and swallow you up. But then it’s gone. The road curves, serpentine, crowding my view. The city to the right is a mixture of gray and red brick pumping out plumes of smoke.

I drive away from the city. There is corn on either side of the road now. Ohio is at the edge of the corn belt. The soil is hospitable for it; for agriculture in general. But corn is a resource heavy crop. Year after year corn is swapped for soy, or a cover crop, and sometimes tomatoes, to give the soil a break. Corn is the money maker. Not organic corn but GMO corn. Food that will take us to/through Armageddon.

I get off the turnpike and take the highway to Michigan and toward my hometown. The area is flat. It is flat for the same reason it’s fertile. Thousands of years ago the glaciers retreated across North America. They gouged out the lakes. The weight of the glacier and the melt water flattened out the region, filled the lakes, and deposited the silt and materials enriching the soil. I take a left on a narrow country road; almost there.

The sun is glaring down and the ditches are overgrown. Bundles of goldenrod and cheatgrass threaten to take over. The cornfields are sapped of color: browned by heat and drought. It rained last night, too late for anxious farmers. I roll down my window. The smell of wet hay slips into the car.

The road is cracked and uneven. I dodge new potholes. I drive till the pavement ends. The road continues as a dirt path that leads to hometown. The house I grew up in is on my left. My mother and step-father sold it the month before.

I drive around the block, park on the side of the road, and give the place one last look.

The cat tails, rooted in the murky ditch, look like rotten teeth. The gash in the earth, that forms the ditch, are gaping-crooked lips. Wasps swarm a rotten apple. Red moss blankets the ground. The pool I helped dig is filled with strangers. Grandparents look on from the porch my step-father built. A farmer rests his hands on hips and puzzles over his tomato crop.

The barn behind the house slumps. The roof that covered the cow stall has fallen in. Years ago, I fed Bobo, our cow, ears of corn by hand. The ducks were picked off by coyotes. I buried them, along with two cats, in a pet cemetery fashioned from the vacant pig pen. We ate the chickens. We ate the cow. When the animals were dead I made the barn into a haunted house. I worked on it after school. I wandered around its empty rooms letting my mind unravel: planning-picturing my setup. I invited the neighborhood kids the week before Halloween.

A small path leads away from the barn to the wooded lot; the end of our property. A honey bee nest rests in the crux of a thick oak tree. I’m sure it’s still there, but that’s someone else’s surprise to discover.

I get back into the car and roll down the windows. The dirt road follows into my home town. I change direction and get back on the pavement. I don’t know where I am going. I drive and drive and drive. The tears come to my eyes while I shout thank you to the fields of corn that stubbornly persist.

 

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Periwinkles

periwinkleThe blue sky meets the ocean. The narrow beach is blasted white. Clam shells, bleached from the sun, litter the sand. I walk along the shore. The waves gently push and pull at the small rocks and debris at the edge of the water, they roll and mash against one another; it sounds like an hour glass endlessly flipping over and over.

I find a rock. It is granite with a heart of quartz. I hold it in my hand and look to the ocean. The boats rock on the waves. A man in a swimmers cap glides along the frigid water. Across the way, New England money park their boats on a sandbar and walk across to a small cantina. From where I stand, it looks like they are walking on water. The cantina has a patio with festive outdoor lights. Their motions are silent against the waves. I lose interest in the rock and hurl it into the ocean.

Ahead, a cache of sea glass. I pocket the shards of green and brown. They have been worn smooth and their color dulled by time and the bombardment of sand. Their cleaved edges are smooth. I rub them in my pocket.

A plastic fork is plunged in the sand. It’s lost one of its tongs, like a hand that’s lost a finger. It is otherwise forgettable, but the fork is blue with a faded-buffed texture giving it an appearance that strikes me as New England. I put it in my pocket.

There isn’t any rhyme or reason to the process. There is no right way to perform this ritual.

Periwinkles mound up in piles on the shore. They are not native to New England. They come from across the pond, living and breeding off the coast of Europe from Southern Spain up into Russia[1]. A friend had taught me a trick: place a periwinkle near your mouth and hum. The creature will stick out its appendage. I’m sure it’s torture to them.

The periwinkle is a traveler. It does not assume control of where it ends-up. It has no music. It asks no questions. It doesn’t tell any stories. At least, none that can be understood. I pick up a periwinkle. I place it near my mouth. Does it know it exists? But that doesn’t matter. The real philosophical question, the heart of our anxiety: does the periwinkle know I exist? I let the creature roll from my palm and fall back into its pile.

 

 

[1] ‘Common Periwinkle’ Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_periwinkle accessed August 2016

Cocaine, Buddhists, and Getting Over It

CocaineA “key bump” is a small amount of cocaine snorted through the nose off the tip of an ordinary house key. Key bumps are especially nice at bars, or other party venues, that lack table space or any semblance of privacy. A quick run to the bathroom or turning ones back ought to provide enough time to perform the key bump ritual. It goes as follows: Insert the key into one’s little dope baggy, making sure a good amount of blow is wedged in the crevices of the brass key, insert into the nose, and snort away.

Suddenly, the people around you are most interesting. You are more interesting. The fear of rejection and the mountain of student debt at the precipice of collapse are a distant worry. There’s another cold beer in your hand. It doesn’t matter what you came here to do because there’s a woman across the bar giving you the eye, you’ve won your last game of pool; the night is looking alright.

Maybe I would take a girl home. Maybe we would sleep together. Maybe we wouldn’t. You can’t assume you’ll sleep together; if that thought is at the front of your mind, she’ll never—pay attention boys—never go home with you. But the ritual was always there. Getting drunk, sneaking off to get some of that white girl, and looking out over the bar, the party, the banal get-together, and thinking: who are these people and who am I? When I met the Buddhists, it was on a particularly bad night.

I was deep in my key bump ritual. My gram of blow was nearly gone and that made me sad. The Russian who sold to me was nowhere to be found. Molotav’s, in Lower Haight, was very busy, and no one had met my eye. I was lonely and stumbled out of the bar feeling the hunger only a night of drinking could bring on.

Ahead was the vegan sandwich shop Love’N Haight. It’s been around for nearly twenty years. It is run and operated by a woman and her children. I believe the man I saw there sometimes was her husband. According to a trusted friend, they are practicing Buddhists. I think they are Chinese. Maybe Tibetan. Since their opening, they have transitioned from a meat serving establishment, to vegetarian, to a strictly vegan eatery. It’s a staple in the surrounding community. And on this particular night it was packed.

It’s a small place that’s cash only, with strange murals on the wall, and no air conditioning. There were at least twenty people ahead of me. The crowd, not as intoxicated but getting there, roared in the line. I was already sweating from doing too much blow, and the heat from the shop and the fluorescent lights overhead was overwhelming.

I had two twenty dollar bills in my hand and a feeling of helplessness mixed with the courage only cocaine can bring. I marched to the front of the line, cut-off whomever was speaking to the woman who runs the joint, and made her the following offer:

“Get me the vegan duck on a Dutch-crunch and you can have it all.”

I flashed her the two twenties.

She looked at me, and turned to the man behind her, seemingly her husband. They had tired looks on their faces and said something brief and inaudible to one another. Another pause. The old man stepped to the counter beside the old woman. The man in the line who I had cut-off was huffing and puffing with his hands on his hips. The couple took another look at me. The husband, let’s call him, waved me over to the side, and asked me what I wanted.

The old woman whipped my sandwich together. I handed them the two twenties and they accepted only one. The old woman handed me the sandwich. She did not smile but asked me to be careful. I brushed it off and was already stuffing the sandwich in my mouth before exiting the building.

I walked out into the busy street to see other people like me. People drinking, partying, probably sneaking off to have their own key bump ritual somewhere and thought: I just bought a Buddhist. I left with yet another example of how everyone has a price. I thought about all the myths people hold onto to keep themselves sane: the hope in facts-as if they made anyone more at peace.  God, philosophy, the myth of “the one”, and even the religion of the key bump and felt utterly disappointed. I walked home feeling convinced that anyone would skate the rules just to get a little ahead.

Time went on, things happened, and I was starting to feel less depressed.

I went back to that night and because things in my life had changed and I had the courage to consider the following: Instead of the Buddhists accepting my bribe as evidence of the world’s moral failure, maybe it was its opposite. I had a choice in how I interpreted the exchange, just like I had a choice in how I felt. Perhaps they saw me:  a desperate not-so-young man and decided to do me a favor[i].

My Key bump ritual was coming to an end. I needed a new faith. I know, as a rational agent, they accommodated me to me out the door. At most, it was a passing moment of pity. But maybe they saw me, and understood my desperation, and did me one simple kindness. Perhaps they took the money, made me the food, and got me the hell out of there because that’s exactly what I needed. If I am willing and have the courage to see it like that, other events in my life could bear re-interpretation.

 

To be continued
D.B

 

[i] To be specific, perhaps they saw what Sartre called “bad faith”