2011-2012: Nothing Happened
(Download as PDF: EOY letter 2012)
Nothing much has happened in the two years since I last wrote, other than poisoning myself, in the mountains, in the winter, in the dark. It was an accident, or maybe not.
I’d gone camping in January 2012 (I know, madness to begin with) along with a pair of Supposed Friends, snowshoeing into the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Cocooned in my tent, I used my tiny stove, which burns denatured alcohol, to cook split pea soup and hot cocoa. Green gruel, then brown gruel with flecks of green gruel in it. Mmm. By 7 pm, with nothing decent on TV, I was asleep.
And dreamt I was wandering in a clean and sunny cityscape, open and bright, deserted but for a group of people loitering in a plaza 50 yards away. Then, from a puff of smoke, like a 19th century charlatan, there materialized a redheaded man in a dark suit – clean shaven, trim, athletic – looking straight at me. I knew him, knew he must not see me, knew he had seen me. I ran, but in no time was caught. He plunged a syringe into the back of my right hand. Feeling an electric painful poison invading my body, I awoke with a scream.
Winter. Cold. Dark. Mouth parched. Need a drink. I reach for the water bottle and take a swig. And proceed to make a series of “animal noises” (my companions would later say). In my groggy terror, I’ve mistakenly grabbed my bottle of stove fuel – grain alcohol that has been intentionally poisoned in order to discourage hobos, vagrants, bums, and backpackers from drinking it.
I don’t know how much a lethal dose is, but I do know I’ll never snowshoe out of the mountains before the poison does it work. In nothing but my long underwear, I bolt out of the tent, spread my feet, bend over, and repeatedly stick my finger down my throat, retching green and brown gruel into the snow. Sometimes I can taste the denatured alcohol coming up.
A song comes into my head , one we used to sing in the old days, when I was young and new to Wallowa County. We would gather in someone’s cheap but drafty rental farmhouse with an ugly, cavernous Blaze King wood stove roaring, to drink beer, play music, and sing songs late into the night, while small, dirty children ran amok, eventually to crash on piles of coats in the corner.
The red-headed stranger from Blue Rock, Montana, Rode into town one day.
And under his knees was a ragin’ black stallion, And walkin’ behind was a bay.
The red-headed stranger had eyes like the thunder, And his lips, they were sad and tight.
His little lost love lay asleep on the hillside, And his heart was heavy as night.
Don’t cross him, don’t boss him, He’s wild in his sorrow, He’s ridin’ an’ hidin his pain.
Don’t fight him, don’t spite him, Just wait till tomorrow, Maybe he’ll ride on again.
But my redheaded stranger had not ridden on. No, he’d reached into this world and steered my hand to the wrong bottle, the bastard. How had I crossed him? Why did he want to kill me?
After twenty minutes, I am chilled and, I hope, emptied. No sound comes from my Supposed Friends in their tent. I imagine them on their backs in their sleeping bags, eyes staring into the dark, waiting to hear the muffled thump of my body hitting the snow. Thanks a lot, guys.
Back to bed I go. There’s nothing left to do but go to sleep and see if I wake up. In the morning, one eye is completely red. I’ve burst a blood vessel from the sustained effort of forced gagging. Either that, or the poison is doing its work. After a breakfast of thin oatmeal – tan gruel – we snowshoe up to Horseshoe Lake, walk across the frozen mile-long surface, staring at gray peaks creased with snow, and, a day later, return to town. I make a phone call. 1-800-222-1222. The guy at the Poison Control Center tells me a toxic dose of denatured alcohol is two ounces.
Dreams. In May of 2011, having re-upped with the Forest Service, I’m back in Hells Canyon. In my little yellow standard-issue Rite-in-the-Rain journal, I rite, “6 am. Been lying awake in the tent since 5. Dreamt of horses streaming through the woods, chased by distraught owners.”
August 2011, now up in the high country. Horse packing into the Eagle Cap to clean up some nasty camps, Boss puts me on Duster, a one-eyed roan. I’m not sure what this indicates about my standing. At times we lead the pack string off-trail, through steep-sloped timber and hanging meadows, to avoid deadfall. Duster stumbles on a sloping rock and falls to his front knees, pitching me onto his neck. I hang on. He plunges into a hole hidden by grass. I hang on. He’s constantly veering toward his good side. I’m enjoying the hell out of myself.
We camp in a meadow at the mouth of Trail Creek, putting up a lightweight electric fence. “The problem with these things,” Boss says, “is that the elk walk through them, and then there’s nothing to keep the stock in.” In the morning, the fence is down, and the horses and mules are gone. We start the search. I head for the thick timber on the far side of the meadow. And see our horses, streaming through the woods, coming back home. I have been here before.
Nothing at all happened between the end of field season in the fall of 2011, and the redheaded man’s attack in January 2012. No, I take it back. My housemate and I threw a Halloween Party, attended by the Devil With The Blue Dress On. Some people thought it was creepy, although I can’t imagine why.
And I finished the freakin’ sweat lodge, Gilligan.
By April 2012, I was back in the field, working alone in Hells Canyon until the rest of the crew came on in June. Close to finishing an inventory of all the “trails” on the Oregon side of the canyon, we make a final push. Of course, I volunteer to do the last low-elevation piece, even though it is now July. It’s a hot, brambly, snaky hell down there, and we have only three days to do a four-day job. (“Crucify me! Crucify me!”) As we bushwhack through five acres of poison ivy, teasel, and poison hemlock, my companion, a young woman on her first trip into Hells Canyon, declares, “Let’s get the hell out of this fucking shithole.”
So I did, taking a hiatus from rangering to go on a busman’s holiday: hiking the length of the Sierra Nevada range in California with my brother, Tork. We were joined for the first week by one “Kramer,” who lived up to his nickname, and for another week by my daughter, her friend, and Ashi the Stylin’ Pooch.
Along the way, Tork and I take a spontaneous side trip to Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. Our choices are to climb 2000′ up the sheer north face (I don’t think so), or to go up the “tourist” route on the back side. Even that is steep. So steep that, years ago, the Sierra Club installed steel posts with 3/4″ steel cable handrails. So what if some of the steel posts have popped out of their holes? That was in 1919, and you can’t expect anything to last forever.
On the cables, there’s a regular traffic jam. It reminds me of that other tourist route – the Hillary Step on Mount Everest. “Get the Italian team out of the way!” I shout. Tork and I are fit, used to exposure, and acclimated – Half Dome, at 8800 feet, is 2000 feet lower than the route we’ve been hiking. But many of our fellow tourists are exhausted and scared shitless. The aisle between the cables is not quite wide enough for two people, so Uppers and Downers are constantly squeezing by each other. Some people are frozen to the cables, blocking the way of others.
Something goes clattering down the nearly vertical granite, disappearing against the background of dark treetops 1000 feet below us. A sheath knife. A moment later, another object, bright and metallic, clatters down and disappears into a shallow crack right at my feet. A voice up above calls, “Don’t worry about it! It’s not important!” But it’s just right there, and I’m not going anywhere at the moment, just staring at the unlovely ass of the person in front of me, so I fish it out. It’s a police badge. No toy this, it’s well made of heavy gauge metal. I try to pass it up the line, but the person I hand it to says, “No thanks, we’re headed down.” So I pocket the badge, and figure I’ll find the owner when we top out.
Half an hour later, we’re there. The summit of Half Dome is like a big convex plateau, big enough to play a soccer game or two. A cluster of about 30 people are gathered near the highest point, doing dumb, illegal things like feeding the marmots and throwing objects off the face – the same face a pair of climbers are about to top out on. I walk toward the group, looking for the owner of the badge, holding it up and hailing them. “Special police?!” I holler. Thirty people freeze, turn as one, and practically reach for the sky.
Five weeks after starting, not having taken a shower once (although I did skinny dip in at least a dozen stunning alpine lakes), we arrive at the end of our journey at Twin Lakes Resort. Lost in a maze of beachcombers’ trails, we cannot find a bridge across our last creek. We’ve hiked and scrambled and climbed 300 miles through the rugged High Sierra, mostly off-trail, and we can’t find our way through a bunch of paths made by kids with plastic pails. The hell with it. We walk across the knee-deep estuary in socks and boots, find my truck in the parking lot, and prepare to leave. When I turn the key in the ignition, nothing happens.