The Black Isle, Isle of Skye, Isle of Harris, and St. Andrews, Scotland
The Black Isle, Isle of Skye, Isle of Harris, and St. Andrews, Scotland
Sometime early this year I came across a couple of quotes, probably at the bottom of somebody’s email: “Nothing ever happens until you leave home.” “The difference between a dream and a goal is a date.” Those two notions stewed in my head until I picked a date and left home and went to Scotland, a place I last visited in 1973.
I was seventeen then, the lucky recipient of a high school graduation gift from my parents – a six week trip to Europe with the American Institute for Foreign Study. We spent three weeks at the University of Aberdeen, taking classes, going on field trips, and eating fish and chips sprinkled with salt and vinegar and wrapped in newspaper by knuckled old hands contorted with arthritis. There were about 200 kids from schools all over the US, which made it a cross-cultural trip in more than one way, this being my first exposure to soft-drawled girls from the Deep South, including one named Letitia who taught me one or two lessons, but not the kind I was hoping for.
One afternoon Jim Conroy, our robust and ruddy-faced field trip leader, took a bunch of us kids on a field trip by bus somewhere up the coast to gawk at puffins and kittewakes, and at some point on the long ride back to Aberdeen he realized that he hadn’t done a head count and yes, had left one or two of us behind, and the bus driver, who was probably thinking about getting home to a good Scottish dinner of neeps and tatties and maybe some blood puddin’, had to turn that bus around and drive back up across miles and miles of rolling brown and olive drab heather moor, and we picked up our missing people and Jim Conroy reached into the pockets of his tweed britches and pulled out a giant fistful of good hard British currency, pounds and pounds in both weight and value, and shoved it into that bus driver’s hands without once looking to see how much of his own money he was giving away to make amends.
But when I returned this year, my friend Becs, raised in the Highlands, warned me that you mustn’t offer money to a Scot who has done you a favor, no matter how big, because that would be seen as an insult, the notion being that the favor was just to be expected, and you would do the same for them, wouldn’t you? Well, I said, thanks for the advice, Becs, and went off on another one of my ridiculous longish hikes through the rumpled and boggy Highlands, and about one week into that hike I did someone a pretty big favor when I was greeted by name by an utter stranger and drafted to help with what turned into a helicopter rescue of a hypothermic, overweight and underprepared English (aka foreign) accountant who’d taken a bath in a storm-swollen Scottish burn, and just about ruined my knees and got hypothermia myself in the process, and sure enough nobody tried to give me any money for my trouble, which I nearly had more of when at the end of the hike I had to cross an honest-to-God bombing range to get to the Cape Wrath lighthouse that looks out at the Arctic Circle.
It wasn’t until after I took a bus and a boat and a bus back to Tom and Becs’s place that I realized I had left my raincoat somewhere behind. A raincoat, you might have heard, is not an optional article of clothing in the British Isles, and after lots of head scratching I figured I’d left it at the Smoo Cave Hotel, where I’d eaten fish and chips and drunk beer brewed in the Orkney Islands to celebrate my survival crossing the bombing range. And those folks at the Smoo Cave Hotel put my jacket on the bus with a driver who delivered it to me on a street corner in Dingwall, where, forgetting Becs’s advice but remembering Jim Conroy’s act 41 years earlier, I tried to tip the driver. He would have none of it, but he didn’t seem insulted either. Maybe he wasn’t Scottish.
We left the British Isles, back in ‘73, and flew to Venice, where we boarded a large, leaky cruise ship staffed by young Greek sailors who were soon enjoying a cross-cultural experience with the one hundred or so American girls on board, which prompted Letitia’s boyfriend back home, a Tennessee gentleman of some means, to haul himself to Europe to stake out his territory.
At the farthest reach of that trip, we visited Israel. I remember reaching down and out the bus window to buy my first-ever fresh fig from a little Palestinian boy. A group of 20 or 30 of us, including some crafty New York City girls, went on a walking tour through one of those narrow, crooked 1000-year old streets crowded with shops and food vendors, and our guide, ruddy-faced and robust, who told us his name was Moses, which could have really been his name but was more likely a tag he laughed about later over a beer with his friends, he appointed me the sweep, and I was to come get him if we lost any of our group in the confusion of it all.
And sure enough, a couple of those crafty girls from New York disappeared into a deep and dark shop with hand-made textiles and ceramics and brass trinkets and every other manner of artifact designed to catch the eye. I cautiously poked my head inside that cavern and saw the two girls trapped in a sort of military engagement, so I ducked back out and shouldered through the crowd of criss-crossing locals with their arms full of produce and found Moses and told him we had a little problem, so he strode back to that store, parting the sea of humanity with me following in his wake, and I watched him negotiate with the storeowner for the release of our captives. The merchant claimed, of course, that the girls had been shoplifting, and maybe they had been and maybe they hadn’t, and maybe the merchant was crafty too, I’ll never know, and Moses didn’t know, or maybe he did, but at any rate he reached into his robe, and he pulled out a pile of shekels to satisfy that merchant. Later, at a shop in safer territory, Moses invited me to pick out anything I wanted as a thank you for my tour of duty, and I settled on a little hammered copper plate, which still collects my pocket change each day when I return home from the utterly safe streets of Enterprise.
After getting my raincoat back, I flew not to Venice but to Chamonix, France, a tony little mountain town that sits 12,382 feet below Mont Blanc. You can ride a crazy cable car up to a restaurant that sits on a giant spike of black rock called the Aiguille du Midi, and from there climb to the summit 3,000 feet above. Some people, including a French trail runner I met who thought I was from Great Britain, may snub the mere hills of Scotland, but there are 282 of them, called “Munros,” over 3,000 feet above sea level, which is just about where you have got to start from to climb most of them, and that without use of a cable car. Lots of Scots have climbed them all, including the fellow who roped me into helping out with that helicopter rescue, and that is probably a far sight harder than climbing Mont Blanc once from the Aiguille du Midi, although probably equally pointless, especially considering that half the time you can’t see two feet from the top of one of those Munros, what with the weather coming in off the North Atlantic all the time.
I went to Chamonix because I had a friend there who is a hot shot mountain guide and speaks French a hell of a lot better than me. We walked the Tour de Mont Blanc, circling the mountain, stopping at gites, auberges, and refugios – places with a roof and a bunkroom and afternoon wine or beer and family-style dinners and something that the Continentals call breakfast but the Scots surely scoff at, and in the course of that week-long jaunt we passed through corners of Italy and Switzerland. I left my good wool shirt at the refugio in Italy where I thought I had become part of the caretaker’s family, but they never did respond to my email about the shirt, although they did thank me for the picture I sent them. Those Italians.
So I bought a new shirt and rode trains across southern France, stopping to look at castles and play petanque and drink aperitifs at outdoor cafes and watch girls in dresses riding bicycles with baguettes and bouquets tucked in their baskets, and got to the small town of Hendaye on the Atlantic coast.
I had it in my head to go on one more ridiculous long walk, this time along the spine of the Pyrenees, to end at the Costa Brava with its hillsides terraced with Roman vineyards and its beaches facing Asia across the Mediterranean Sea. I walked down to the beach, skinny dipped in the Atlantic Ocean because the locals were, and started walking up into the Basque Country. This was no remote wilderness venture, because western Europe basically has no wilderness, although there is some rugged country to be sure. There were trail runners in tight and gaudy spandex and Spanish families with men wearing white-framed sunglasses and smelling of cologne, and cows and horses and sheep, also smelling and every single one of them wearing a bell, so I sometimes had to wear earplugs in my tent. And there were gites or refugios just about every day, but I chose to sleep in my tent, and only stopped at those mountain huts for a little bit of conversation and to eat omelettes served with bare naked pieces of good French bread.
That summer turned out to be the coldest, wettest summer in the Pyrenees since 1934. My tent was punctured by a hailstone the size of a golf ball. A good Scot would probably say, “Och, it’s just a wee thing,” and would pick up that hailstone and play nine holes right then and there. But I’m no Scot, and sometimes all that kept me going was the prospect of seeing Homer’s sun, “leaving the waters of the splendid East, leap up into the firmament to bring light to the immortals and to men who plough the earth and perish.”
Which I did – see the sun leap up, that is, over the warm waters of the Mediterranean – from the summit of Canigou, where I met a band of grubby itinerant grape pickers, four men and a woman, who had a few days off on account of the unusually wet and cold weather, and on account of increasing automation, which you cannot blame on climate change. They climbed the mountain in sandals and ragged sneakers, and carried a puppy and not enough clothes. The woman, a blue-eyed Lithuanian, pulled out a cow’s horn and blew three long loud notes that echoed off the Crete de Barbet, jagged and dark in shadow. She sang songs and sounded a tuning fork in the sunrise.
Later, we lunched together on the patio outside the gite below, where the puppy chewed on my shoeless feet and Matias, bare-chested, missing teeth, with hair on its way to dreads, carved a wedge of Camembert with a giant wooden-handled Choix Opinel folding knife. While we talked politics, he waved the knife around to make a point, and I said, in my best French, “Jamais disputez avec un homme avec un grande couteau.” Never argue with a man with a big knife.
Seven weeks after skinny dipping in the Atlantic, I walked into the Mediterranean Sea wearing shorts, because the locals were. Except you don’t necessarily always want to do what the locals do. While our group of kids was waiting in some whitewashed, sundrenched coastal town for our leaking cruise ship crawling with horny Greek sailors, a couple of us boys jumped off a 50 or 100 foot cliff into the Mediterranean Sea because we’d seen the local boys doing it. Only after we jumped, the local boys upped the ante by climbing onto the flat roof of a blockhouse that sat back about 10 feet from the edge of the cliff. They would run off the roof, clear the edge of the cliff, and arc into the sea. I could recognize a home court advantage when I saw it, so I folded my hand and lived to jump into the Mediterranean another day.
I walked down the coast into Spain, from one little tourist town to the next, until I got on a bus and then a train and, after a few detours, ended up in Barcelona, where I stood in line with the throngs to walk inside the Sagrada Familia, a ridiculous perpetually unfinished tribute to Spanish architectural monumentalism, masquerading as a tribute to God, complete with piped-in Holy Music. Walking back to my apartment past cafes with people drinking endless cups of coffee and smoking endless chains of cigarettes, I stumbled on a merely large cathedral. It seemed like a country cottage. I stepped into the dark and cool interior, which took me back to Venice in 1973, where, walking back to our hotel very late one night, the streets dark, the canals quiet and lapping, our small group of teenagers from the land of purple mountain majesties and amber fields of grain saw a little church. We snuck inside the darkened temple, and listened in silence to the sound of one old man playing Vivaldi on his violin.
* * * * *
Six years after that first trip to Europe, while living in Portland, Oregon, I learned that my girlfriend’s coworker’s wife had once dated Jim Conroy. Four years ago, in my dining room, I watched Becs meet a Wallowa County friend and discover that, 50 years ago in Scotland, his dad and her mom had dated. This spring, I took in a housemate who, it turns out, had once worked at a ski area with my friend in Chamonix. I guess it really is a small world, which makes me get half a notion to go back to Europe, and not let 41 years go by this time. Who knows who I might meet.
Well, I don’t have room to tell you how that fellow in the Highlands knew who I was, or what happened at the pub with the six-and-a-half foot tall Belgian, or about other well-meaning but ill-considered favors I have gotten mixed up in, like borrowing a chainsaw, without asking, from a hunting camp festooned with bottles of Jack Daniels and Wild Turkey, in order to help out a hapless Portland (aka foreign) fellow who’d gotten his truck high-centered on some lodgepole pine saplings, and who also did not offer to pay me for my trouble, which was considerable especially when I went to return the chainsaw, and which offer I would not have refused. These stories will have to wait until I have time to get around to them, which, according to the same logic that assures me I have money in my bank account as long as I have checks in the checkbook, should make me immortal.
Only I know I’m not, now that some of the hairs on my chest are starting to turn white, and neither is Moses, or was Moses, because that was in 1973, remember, and Moses was in fighting trim, and I sometimes wonder whether he got called up later that summer when yet another war between the factions in the Holy Land broke out. And we’re all still fighting, so I call it a win when I remember to be kind to the person sitting next to me.
Happy Holidays and Peace on Earth
The Watkins Dictionary of Religions and Secular Faiths, by Gerald Benedict : “A scant mythology suggests that many Micronesian cultures believed the world to have always existed, an article of faith that simplifies matters considerably.”
It’s getting to the point where I’ve lived in this place, Wallowa County, long enough that maybe I’ve learned a few things about how to act and where to watch out for black ice and how to split a few cords of wood without taking off any of my toes, like one fellow did, only that was with a lawnmower, not a splitting maul or chainsaw, and he was wearing flip-flops, so what do you expect? And he grew up here, so I guess that just goes to show there’s no guarantee that, even if you’ve lived in a place for thirty years or more, you’re not going to go and do something stupid.
Which I have done my share of, but one thing I have learned over the years is that in a small community, you just don’t know who is related to who, or who was married to who, or who had a kid with who. So you’d best think twice before you say what you really think about so-and-so, although sometimes not saying it actually gives you a chance to have second thoughts and maybe even change your mind, so I suppose there’s some virtue to be gained from having to watch your tongue on account of not knowing for sure who’s related to who.
Along those same lines, I’ve learned, more or less, to look around and see who’s in earshot or eyeshot before I go blabbing about this or that. That’s why, when I ran into an old acquaintance, Gerald, while standing in line at the post office, which as a place to see and be seen is right up there with the hairdressers, I just sort of talked in generalities, because I knew that, in addition to all the people in line, the lady behind the counter was listening to every word, just like she listens to every word of every other conversation that takes place while people are waiting in line with their package to send, or with their little yellow card saying they’ve got a package too big for their box, and there was a lot of that going on because it was just before Christmas that I ran into Gerald.
I asked Gerald if he was keeping busy, and he said he was, still driving bus every once in a while. He looked pretty good, even at 75 or however old he was. He was one of those spare, small men who probably had next to no bad habits, and even though at his age he had to have a few aches and pains, there he was just smiling for no particular reason other than he happened to be one of those guys who couldn’t help but be pretty positive and optimistic all the time. What I didn’t say to Gerald was, “How’s Sally?” because, truth be told, I couldn’t even remember if Sally was still alive.
It had been years since I’d seen either one of them. She’d been a computer customer of mine, back when you looked at green letters on a small screen and printed your stuff out on a daisywheel printer if you wanted it to look good, as if it came off an IBM Selectric. She used it for word processing because she was a writer, but I never did read her stuff, I just sold her a computer and helped her with her problems when she had them. But it had been years since I’d seen her, and of course, since she had been my main connection to that family, not Gerald, it would have been kind of odd for me not to ask after Sally, but I didn’t, not there in front of everybody at the counter, because some little voice inside told me I might be sticking my foot in my mouth and it could be embarrassing for Gerald and for me.
But once we’d both finished our business at the counter and I was getting my mail out of my box, because sometimes if it looks like it’s busy or going to get busy, and you have business at the counter, you want to go to the counter first and get the mail out of your box second, because otherwise, while you’re standing there fumbling with your key, or with the combination, if you have one of those kind, two or three or maybe four people are going to walk through that door and walk past all the boxes and go stand in line, each one of them making the little bell ring as they pass under the invisible motion detector. And if it’s Christmas time, the traffic can be kind of heavy, so that’s why I was getting my mail out of my box after having chatted briefly with Gerald at the counter, and why, as he was about to walk out of the post office, I was able to catch him a second time and ask, more or less privately, how his wife was.
Gerald flashed me the subtlest kind of look that said, “Thanks for asking. It would have been a little odd if you hadn’t,” but maybe I was just imagining that. He told me that she’d been suffering with a long illness for years, and could hardly get around, and it was up to him to make all the meals, besides driving the bus and chopping the wood and cleaning the house, which last three are all things he didn’t mention but I’m sure he was doing them, without complaining and with that good-natured attitude of his, just taking the dish he’d been served and eating it without complaint. And when Gerald and I shook hands and I told him to give my greetings to Sally and he walked out of the post office, I knew I was watching a better man than me head home, because I do complain.
Which reminds me that some of my friends, who, having only lived here for maybe ten years or so, haven’t quite figured out this business of picking your time and place to say just exactly what you think of someone or something. Because it was in that same post office a day or two later, standing at that same counter in front of that same postmistress, that I ran into one such friend. I was in the process of dropping about sixty bucks to mail a few books to some friends in Scotland despite the fact that the postmistress told me that if I could get the package to under four pounds, instead of the four point six pounds it currently weighed, the price would drop dramatically, only I wasn’t about to take the package apart and decide which book or books to pull, and then have to ask to borrow tape to put it all back together again, only to find out that I’d only gotten it down to four point one pounds.
So I just stood there and took the announcement of the cost like a shot to the gut, and then my friend, who had arrived in the midst of this revelation, asked what I was sending off, and I named some of the books, including Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, only I said “Louie” not “Lewis” and my friend, who is smarter than I am by a long shot, gave me a black eye on top of that gut shot, laughing loud and long in front of everyone there, “It’s Lewis, not Louie! Robert Lewis Stevenson!” He didn’t have to say, “You idiot!” because everyone there knew that was just naturally understood, even though my friend meant no harm, he just thought it was funny that I had mispronounced Robert Louis Stevenson’s name. I think Gerald, if it had been him in my place, would have just smiled and thanked my friend for the correction, and gee you learn something new everyday and have a nice Christmas. But I, who used to work for a literary non-profit, just stood there with a red face and swiped my credit card so the post office could get their sixty bucks to send Treasure Island and Huck Finn and some other books off to my friends in Scotland, and then I walked home.
Friday the thirteenth of December 2013 lived up to its reputation, because when I bumped into Ralphito, as he is now known, he told me that the Odd Fellows Hall had a little problem, which would not be all that unusual, since it was built in 1920 and had a healthy dose of what some folks call “deferred maintenance” but which in the old days we just called “neglect.” But since we did, with the generous help of several philanthropic foundations and our main tenant, the Soroptimist Thrift Store in the basement, put about $100,000 into the structure, including a new roof and insulation and three new one-ton ceiling beams which took a crane and twenty-five volunteers and a handy window and a bit of fancy maneuvering to get into the building, plus a case of donated beer afterwards, which come to think of it means one volunteer didn’t get a beer, because 25 is bigger than 24 (but let me tell you, that odd man out was not me), we expected that we’d taken care of most of the problems.
Except that it turns out there was this one piece of plumbing that none of us knew about, where in retrospect we think those old Odd Fellows had put in a drinking fountain, because they had fancy ideas back when all the fraternal organizations, which are mostly dying off now, were in their prime. Because those old boys had figured out that this piece of plumbing was problematic when the weather would get cold and freeze things and then warm up and thaw them out, and that is when old cracked galvanized pipes will give you trouble, they had installed a stop and waste valve to shut off the water to this one particular piece of plumbing.
But the one fellow living who knew about that stop and waste valve neglected to tell anyone else about it, and probably forgot all about it himself, life being full of other expectations and obligations, until, when the water was caving in the new insulation over the Soroptimists’ donation sorting room and destroying their new floor and dumping about a foot of water down in the Odd Fellows sub-basement, (the basement below the basement, one step closer to Hell), why then when Ralphito got that one living fellow over to the hall, he remembered that stop and waste valve and they pulled all of the dolls and clothes and knick-knacks that people had donated to the Soroptimists off the lid where that valve was hidden and they turned the water off, and then pumped out most of the thousands of gallons of water that had done all the damage, but even then there was still a bit of a mess, and then I bumped into Ralphito on the street and he said we have a little problem over at the hall.
We’d had a work party planned anyway for Saturday the 14th, to do some more gussifying of our building with its newly beefed up and insulated and painted main dance hall, but instead we put on our heavy work gloves and descended into the sub-basement, where the old boys had installed a pot-bellied wood stove and had decided to store all the scrap wood they ever came across, including acres of ponderosa pine slabs with the bark on but coming off, and strips and chunks and slivers of leftover two by fours, and everything in between, of which the bottom foot or so was as waterlogged as some old Spanish galleon that had sunk to the bottom of the Bermuda Triangle.
But there wasn’t any gold bullion down there, I can tell you that, because I and five other boys, every one of us well over fifty years old, except for one who’s not even close to fifty and who didn’t show up because he was busy drinking mimosas for breakfast with a couple of friends of his, we handled every chunk of that wood and all the little bits of ponderosa pine bark and sawdust that had turned into black waterlogged crud, about two cords worth, or two hundred fifty six cubic feet, which we fished out of that sub-basement like a chain gang slaving away in the hold of that sinking Spanish galleon, and we filled up about a dozen truckloads and trailer loads of crappy old mill ends and slabs and chunks of waterlogged wood, constituting, when they weren’t waterlogged, an unholy fire hazard, so, as Ralphito said by way of consolation, it was something we should have done a long time ago.
Other than the fact that I slipped and fell down twice in that muddy goo, it was all right, because all the wet kept the dust down, and there I was working side by side with one Brother who I’ve known for about 30 years and used to own the OK Theater and would complain just incessantly about what a yoke that place was, it being built about the same time as the very same sinking Spanish galleon we were bailing out, and then he finally sold it after 18 years, and no sooner did he sell it than I caught him lamenting how sad he was ever since he “lost” the theater, but I caught him on that one and he’s never used that language since.
And another Brother who I’ve only known for maybe 10 or 15 years, him and his wife being newcomers to the county, and he used to be some sort of professor over on the west side, and he likes to take the long view in any conversation, which is that in the long run we’re all dead and the earth’s just going to be a lifeless ball floating through space or consumed in the eventual explosion of the sun, so what exactly is all the fuss about the environment and social justice and climate change and Obamacare and just about anything else you can think of? This used to bother me some, but lately I’ve maybe come around to his point of view so we get along all right, which is a good thing when you’re standing in the hold of a sinking Spanish galleon handing load after load of mill ends to each other.
And then there was the Brother who just recently returned to the county after an absence of maybe twenty years and I visited him and his family once or twice over there in Salem, which was an all right place to live but it wasn’t Wallowa County, so when the kids got off to college he got himself back here, and since he got back we’ve played music once like we used to in the old days, when we played old-timey and Irish music and even formed a band called the Celtic Cowboys and made a cassette tape which is now a collector’s item, and some hard-drinkin’ cowboy bar over in the mill town of Elgin heard about us, but heard the Cowboy part more than the Celtic part and wondered if they could pay us to come down and play our music some Saturday night and we just said, “Thank you very much, but we don’t think so.” It felt good to play and sing with my Brother again, and we sang the Milwaukee Blues, which always was one of his favorites and mine now too, and it felt good to be working side by side with him.
And another Brother who isn’t exactly an Odd Fellow yet but there he was, helping out, I think he got hit pretty hard this past year when his good friend, maybe his very best friend, up and died from pneumonia not much beyond 60, and that friend was a friend to all of us too, and every time I saw that friend he had a smile and a laugh on his lips and it was a shame that he went so young. That hit my Brother pretty hard so it felt good to be working side by side with him and ribbing him about not having the good sense to just walk away from this dirty nasty job since he wasn’t even an Odd Fellow, and all the while me remembering how some 20 or 30 years ago when I was younger and more foolish than I am now this Brother and his wife threw a Halloween party and I showed up as a pirate complete with a fifth of Clipper Ship rum, which, in pirate-like fashion, I proceeded to drink, and then drove down to the Fireplace for a bit of dancing, but not before clipping the corner of his little blue impeccable Fiat on the way out his driveway, and I’m not proud of that or of driving while being three sheets to the wind and heeling way over and taking on water, but I’m getting close to 60 myself and who knows when I might go, or when any of us might go, so I might as well up and out with the truth right now so as to give you the real story, ugly as it might be.
One thing I can tell you is that my Brother never would let me pay him for the damage to that little blue impeccable Fiat, which he continued to drive for some number of years, him insisting that it wasn’t worth the money it would take to fix it, and I thought and always have thought that was pretty big of him, and I was probably thinking about that in the back of my mind as we swabbed out that hold. And then there was Ralphito, who I’ve known just about since I moved here back in 1980, and who has gotten me into enough trouble by planting ideas of one kind or another in my head, that I better just stop talking about him right now.
The first time I fell down in the hold I sprained my left thumb, and it hurt bad enough that I took off my glove and inspected it and flexed both it and my right thumb in order to compare the relative degrees of pain and make sure I hadn’t broken it. My right thumb provided a good yard stick because I did break it on July 1 while working for the Forest Service, or Forest Circus as many people around here are happy to call it. I was way out near Lord Flat, which, to get to by vehicle, you have got to plan on a full day of driving and use four wheel drive low and not look too hard over the edge. When a six inch diameter meat pole that was tied up about ten feet off the ground with baling twine and fence wire fell all of a sudden onto my thumb, which was busy working on that fence wire, it shattered the last bone into three pieces, and although I didn’t know for a fact at the time that it was broken I distinctly remember hearing a little voice say, “I think maybe I just busted my thumb,” so I splinted it with an empty plastic mechanical pencil lead container and a few wraps of duct tape, and that worked well enough that for the next day or two I finished up my business cleaning messes out there on Lord Flat before putting that big Forest Circus rig back into four wheel drive low and driving back to town with the truck bed full of garbage, and went to the doctor and got to see the picture of exactly how many pieces my thumb had been shattered into.
So I spent the next few months wearing a splint, only the doctor’s splint wasn’t nearly as good as mine, and in fact when the doc, who happened to be a Brother too, saw my splint he admired it and said he would buy such a splint from me if I were to go into the business of manufacturing them. Whichever splint I happened to be wearing at the moment didn’t keep me from keeping on the job, which consisted of a lot more plain unpleasant heavy manual labor, moving big boulders and logs around in a valiant but I am afraid possibly vain attempt to keep people from destroying the wilderness through ignorance or not caring, which is how, maybe, we cause most of the damage we inflict in all realms of life. But then again, in the end it’s all just going to be a lifeless ball floating through space, so No Worries.
In between bailing out the Good Ship Odd Fellow and misadventures out at Lord Flat, I kept busy with African drumming, and going to dinner at some friends’ cabin where I was treated to a solo trombone performance, and missing my 40th class reunion but making my friend’s 60th birthday party where we mostly played music and drank whiskey but not too much because we are none of us too young anymore, and housing two young Whitman College lady student interns who learned how to sew on my sewing machine and kicked my butt once or twice playing soccer, and having a little unnecessary accident that resulted in an unnecessary trip to the ER in my first-ever ambulance ride during which the EMT rightfully complained to me about the state of education these days and which privilege cost me more money, even with insurance, than I even want to think about, but in the course of which I did learn that I have a heart abnormality called a Right Bundle Branch Block and now I carry a little card in my wallet saying so.
And going to my adoptive niece’s college graduation up in Spokane where not one single student in a graduating class of over 600 bright and promising and hard-working young men and women got a four-point and I admired that and thought that’s the way it ought to be, four-points are way too easily come by these days, and afterwards that niece and her family came out to where I was camped by the Spokane River which was running high in flood stage and we sat around the campfire, and that’s the way it ought to be, too.
And besides that I had to get a new passport, which gave me reason to compare my new photo to my old photo and gawk at the difference, and then I used that passport to go for my third time to El Salvador, this time without my friend Gilligan but with some other folks including Ralphito, and maybe the most electric moment for me was while we were driving out to the little village of El Progreso, which drive rivals that drive to Lord Flat, and recognizing one of the little corrugated tin-roofed shacks by the side of the jungle road and hollering from the back of the van to the driver, “Halto por favor, Don Julio!” and Don Julio stopping on a dime, which was easy since we were climbing up the mountain on that rutted dirt road.
I opened the sliding window and leaned out and yelled, “Ceci!” and Ceci, whose round and angelic face reminds me of my friend Flipper, she looked at me and saw the beard, which has since gone away, but which fortunately I still had at that time, and she recognized me because of that beard, despite the fact that we had not been in any kind of touch for eight years, she and her husband Ademir and their five kids just being campesinos and not having email or even a handy post office. She came up to the van and we hugged with me hanging about halfway out the window, but we didn’t say too much because I can barely speak any Spanish nor her any English, but we said what we had to say with that hug.
And I saw Mama Hilda and Papa Angel and the little village didn’t look too different, which is to say dirt floors and tin roofs and corn and beans and coffee plantations and a woman, someone’s relative no doubt, cooking up pupusas by the dozen in an earthen oven and I wished we could have stayed for some of those pupusas and conversation to go with, but we were in a rush and I had to leave about a week sooner than I wanted to.
After a two-week hiatus during which I tried unsuccessfully to fight off a nasty cold I caught on the airplane, because that is what everybody blames when they get sick on a trip, even if they didn’t fly, my daughter Angela and her boyfriend got me a round-trip Amtrak ticket from Portland to San Francisco and back so I could visit for Thanksgiving, and I had a sleeper car compartment called a “roomette,” which is right because it measured 3.5 feet by 6.5 feet, but I spent most of my time hobnobbing in the dining car with its white linen, or the parlor car with its feeling of a 1950s roadside café, and enjoyed first rate service from the staff, including a couple of wine and cheese tastings and the pleasure of being accosted every time I headed up to my sleeper car. “Are you staying in one of the sleeper cars?” they’d ask, because they were just making sure I wasn’t one of the riff-raff riding in the coach cars, trying to sneak into the Promised Land of the sleeper cars, instead of trying unsuccessfully to get a good night’s sleep in a coach seat on a seventeen-hour train ride, which I have done in the past and it wasn’t too comfortable.
I had a good visit with Angela and for her birthday we went to the horse races because it was Dollar Day and admission and hot dogs and beer were all a dollar, and the minimum bet was two dollars, and they give you a little book explaining how to bet, which was a good thing for me since I had never been to the horse races before, but now I know exactly the difference between win, place, and show, and what a trifecta is, and I bet on two races and won both times and would have walked away three dollars richer than I walked in, except I bought a hot dog and two beers, so it was a wash.
In October I met up with most of my siblings and we all visited my dad at his adult foster home in Washington. He’s now working on 86 years old but he doesn’t know it, just like he doesn’t know that he’s the last one left, all his brothers and sisters gone now, and his wife our mom has been gone six years, but that he remembers because she’s not there by his side, although remembering that doesn’t keep him from sometimes enjoying a little kiss with one of the old ladies who live there. One such kiss we all witnessed, which was wonderful in part because, the two of them maybe thinking they were married to each other, they were, in a way, paying homage to their spouses, even though her spouse is still alive and well.
I played what was probably my last cribbage game with Dad, because when he stops to think about counting his hand he just can’t do it anymore, he who taught us all how to play and who hand-crafted each one of his four kids cribbage boards in the shape of a 29, which is the most points you can score in cribbage but is so rare I’ve never seen it happen. I was ahead but on the last hand he got sixteen, which is a pretty good hand even if I had to help him count it, and he beat me by just one or two points. And I suppose in the end this place is just going to be a lifeless flaming ball, but in the meantime I am enjoying my friends and family, and trying to do a little good work here and there, and casting about for a kiss once in a while, and I hope you all are too.
I first met Richard “Amtrak” Alexander somewhere in Vermont, I think, at one of those three-sided shelters that those of us hiking from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail thought of as home – for one night, anyway. Then it was on, ever northward. He wore then, as always while I knew him, a slight and impish grin as he prepared to deliver his next wickedly funny and devastatingly accurate critique of life’s absurdities. He had no lack of material.
In the easy-come, easy-go way of thru-hikers, Amtrak (along with his sidekick, Hayden, a duck tolling retriever) and I crossed paths casually a few times through Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, until we found ourselves finishing the trail together after what some called the worst early-season Maine snowstorm in 60 years.
I consider myself fortunate that our friendship continued after the Appalachian Trail. Amtrak came to visit me in eastern Oregon, where we went backpacking in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. And I visited him in Boise, where he lived for a time.
Then there was the time he and Dave and I drove up to the Enchantments in Washington, and were stopped by two young and over-zealous policemen on the outskirts of Ellensburg. Eleven at night, a VW bus, three scruffy looking men … what could be surer cause to issue a citation? But, partly because of Richard’s typical coolness under fire and disarming-but-somehow-sneakily-insubordinate charm, the two coppers soon almost bowed to us as they waved us on our way to what was to be a fine autumn hike through alpine granite and golden Western larches.
His keenness of observation and appreciation for irony always delighted me. I am sorry to see him go. Here’s to Amtrak, long-distance hiker and fine friend.
(Below are excerpts from my journal account of the last few days of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2000, including a few snippets of moments shared with Amtrak, and evidence that he deserved his trail name.)
October 9: 28 degrees. We stop for lunch at White House Landing. The proprietor says, “I hope you have a good campfire tonight, because you’re going to need it, heh heh.”
October 10: Wadleigh Stream leanto. It’s cold. It’s wet. Snug in my bag, very glad I wore earplugs last night, as the din of rain on the metal roof of the shelter is very loud. Not yet dawn, but light enough that I can see some snow on the ground. White stuff, the start of winter, death by hypothermia.
As we climb Nesuntabunt Mountain, the snow gets deeper. At the summit, I catch Gilligan and Flipper, who have lost the trail. The woods are lovely, with golden leaves and pine needles falling on top of the snow. We hear and see trees falling or shedding limbs under the weight of the snow. It’s ironic that the leaves, which bring such beauty to the autumn woods, also spell doom for some trees by catching the heavy snow.
I end up somewhat dehydrated, for water to drink is somewhat scarce. My feet, however, are soaked. At 3:30 I arrive at the shelter, which is full. There’s a Welshman, two days into the woods, with a broken leg. He tried crossing the stream on a pair of skinny, ice-covered logs and fell into the stream. Amtrak and Walkabout have already got him stabilized. The Welshman’s buddy has walked out for help.
A discussion starts about “stop or go”–I choose to stop and waste no time about it, for my body is cooling off. I go up the hill and kick the wet, heavy snow aside, down to hemlock needles. In these dark woods, I’m getting cold very fast. As I pitch my tent, I keep the fly draped loosely over it so that the big drops of rain and snow dropping off the trees don’t soak the tent before I even get it up. I immediately get into my bag.
I hear chainsaws or snowmobiles, or both. I venture out, although this requires putting the wet socks back on. Yech. I go down to the shelter, which is all a-bustle with a dozen search and rescue men getting ready to carry the Welshman out on a board. Yoda and Amtrak have splinted the man’s leg so well with pieces of Z-Rest that the doctor leaves it be. The moon shines briefly through the dripping hemlocks.
October 11: It requires an act of will to get started in the morning, but I’m up against it. I don’t have the food to hang out; the season has gone too far. I’ll be walking in snow and slush and mud all day.
I feel concentrated, serious. I’m tossing about in my mind what it will be like to go up Katahdin, if at all. If the weather doesn’t improve, it won’t happen. I will not go up in whiteout, cold conditions. If the weather clears, it might still be impossible. Two dayhikers tell us the mountain is “closed for the season.” Or I could keep going, up the mountain, park rangers be damned, one step at a time until I can’t go anymore, until I must stop.
At Hurd Brook leanto. Gilligan and Yak start a fire, and we all hang wet stuff out to dry. We’re going to stay in the leanto tonight. It’s dark, and we’re packed in – Gilligan, Sideways, Yak, Yetti, Flipper, Godfather, Snowblazer, me, Hayden, and Amtrak.
Before we go to sleep, Flipper sings a Dylan song, and Godfather regales us with story after story, putting us in stitches. Gradually, conversation drops off. Hayden does the push-against-you thing to me most of the night. Amtrak snores.
During the night I feel bent and squeezed. I sleepily kick Hayden at one point; later, he’s gone. He’s down on the ground and I feel guilty. Amtrak and I urge him back up.
October 12: I set out before anyone else and walk through the still cool woods, though it is sure to be a fine day–the sky is blue. I walk fast and purposefully–I don’t know if I’m excited to get to the end of the trail, anxious to find out exactly what the story is at Baxter State Park, or running away from an emotion I cannot name.
At Abol Bridge, my last maildrop, friends have sent me wine, cheese, sausage, crackers, chocolate, and, by special request, six little bottles of rum. Hikers gather and talk, talk, talk about whether the mountain is “open.” Finally, we get out onto the trail at noon – Yak, Yetti, Gilligan, Amtrak, Hayden, and me. The day is warm, the aspen are naked, I walk without a shirt for a long while beside the Penobscot River shining in the sun. We see beaver dams and fresh-chewed white birch.
Then we turn up the cascading Nesowadnehunk, with polished humps of rounded granite, winding through the forest, rising toward the mountain. I am quiet, focused, gathering my energy. We meet Soul Man, walking south, but I’m not interested in talking to him–I’m almost in a trance, I don’t want to hear any more stories or cautions. I just want to get to Katahdin.
Briefly separated from the others, Amtrak, Flipper and I walk the trail toward Katahdin Stream. A park ranger in a truck stops and questions Amtrak about Hayden. He doesn’t tell her that Hayden has walked the entire way from Georgia.
At the campground, I burn my last dinner. In the early evening I walk out into the clearing to regard Katahdin’s moonlit snow-shining slopes and the moon itself, a sliver shy of full, a sliver shy of seven full moons from the trip’s beginning.
October 13: Up at the usual 5 or 6. The Aussies with their day packs bid us adieu. Riddler and Amtrak leave next, while I eat split pea soup for breakfast. The ladies are last up; we finally get our unnecessaries stashed just as we see a figure approaching wearing a hunter safety orange vest. We race up the trail into the woods. I don’t know who or what we saw, but we don’t want to stick around for a confrontation.
Heading for the summit of Katahdin, we are: the Aussies, Riddler, Yak and Yetti, Gilligan, Peanut Butter, Flipper, Datto, Bear, Frogger, Ziggy, Dog (who isn’t a dog), Mossy Old Troll, Amtrak, and – everybody’s favorite – Hayden, who is a dog.
At treeline, we all put on wind gear and begin the bouldering phase of the climb. There are massive stones, some with ironwork of ingenious design embedded in them. There’s a brisk wind, and chilly, to justify our clothing. A lenticular cap can be seen over the highest part of the mountain, and there’s a band of cloud to the southwest that makes me feel like we are none too soon in climbing the mountain. The clambering is slow but enjoyable, with only occasional pockets of snow. The rock itself is almost entirely dry. It’s a delightful walk up to and along the ridge proper which leads us to the edge of “the Tableland.”
We walk along the flat ground, drifts of snow littering the landscape, making our way with little conversation, each mostly alone with our thoughts, towards the tiny figures already at the final summit just above us.
At the top, every single person hugs every other. It’s a joyful and prolonged process. Yak and Yetti cry into each others’ arms. Using the tiny bottles I picked up at Abol Bridge, we do a little rum ceremony honoring Pamola. There’s a brief round of Angeline the Baker, then we share crackers and cheese and sausage and champagne and chocolate all around.
We give the celebration full measure–but finally it is time to descend. I lag behind, sauntering in the afternoon sun, letting the “doing of the thing” sink in. It is enormous and puny all at the same time. I take a final gaze at the colored hillsides in light and shadow as the cumulus get pushed across the sky. I fill up on Katahdin Stream water, call out toward the dark hills to the west, and finally, “it is done.” I am ready to rejoin the other world.
Someone, I’m sure, has written about how difficult it is for addicts to kick their habits unless they stop frequenting the same places and keeping the same company with whom they developed the habits in the first place. I think that someone is right, which is why I’m going to have to write off the handful of college “friends” who are still dogging my tracks, keeping me in VW Prison.
The primary culprit, a man I’ll just call CW, got me started down this path back in 1974 or so, inviting me to learn how to drive a manual transmission by taking over the controls of his 1968 baby-poop-yellow VW bus while a group of us were driving back home from a winter jaunt up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As I recall, that particular bus broke down at 3 o’clock in the morning just a few miles north of our dorm at the University of Connecticut. You’d think I’d have the sense to take that as a warning, but the VW loosey-goosey toy stick shift feeling has stuck to my hand ever since.
That was the same trip, I think, during which I slept across the front seats, feet propped up on the steering wheel, wrapped in an interesting variation on the concept of “sleeping bag” – a one-inch thick piece of foam, which supposedly increased in thickness as you cinched it tight. Nice idea. Too bad I didn’t have the sense to test it before spending a night in it at 16 degrees below zero. And that was the trip that … no, that story will have to wait for the category Winter Camping Disasters.
Not having learned my lesson about VWs, I was foolish enough to join CW, a couple of his Pennsylvania buddies, and a Former College Roommate on a cross-country trip to the Canadian Rockies. Besides changing my life 33 years later, that trip lured me into the clutches of VW-mania for what has become a very long time. I especially liked the way the vehicle seemed to miraculously right itself after being driven off the road by a driver who was trying to steer while simultaneously cleaning the windshield by reaching out the side window with a camping pot full of water.
It turns out that if he had simply pressurized the fluid reservoir, the built-in windshield washer would have worked. I know this for a fact, because when I bought that very same bus from CW, its engine in pieces in several cardboard boxes, for $400 cash (another warning that I ignored), I performed that routine bit of maintenance, and voilà!
And I liked the smell of hot oil on baking asphalt, as the rest of us waited while CW hitched into the next Wyoming town, only 50 miles away, to pick up some more motor oil. Seems he decided that the oil in the crankcase was dirty. He had one extra quart of oil, so he parked us by the side of the lonesome highway in searing summer heat, then unscrewed the drain bolt, thinking to let about a quart out, pop the bolt back in, and add the spare quart. When the draining oil, a few hundred degrees hot, hit his hand, he dropped the bolt, and 2.5 quarts of good Quaker State motor oil – the total capacity of a 1600cc VW engine – spilled on the pavement in an ugly black pool. So off CW went for more oil. I remember how, while waiting, I dug up a spindly little Wyoming pine seedling, put it in an empty tennis ball container, and presented it to my mother upon returning home to Connecticut. She planted it, and the damned thing survived.
There are other VW stories, of course. Anyone who’s owned one for any length of time has them. And I’ve owned one or two, pretty much continuously, since that day in 1977 when I towed that baby-poop-yellow VW bus home, where I would learn all about internal combustion engines with the help of a mechanic’s book called How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot (for Sedan, Ghia & Transporter) by John Muir. The other John Muir. And illustrated by one Juniperus Scopulorum (the scientific name for Rocky Mountain juniper), who, based on the drawing style, just might be Robert Crumb.
So, now and here, in January 2013, what shows up at my front door, personally delivered by CW’s local accomplice KGB, but a large gift-wrapped box? And what do I find inside that box but a VW bus? And, like the very first VW I owned, it came in pieces, 1,332 of them. That’s probably about as many pieces as I put together in the cool shade of the shed behind my uncle’s house back in 1977, when I experienced, for the first time, the magical feeling of turning a key and hearing an engine I built start up. And run well enough to bring me here to Oregon.
Still, a cell is a cell no matter how nicely equipped, and I fear, by accepting this gift and assembling its 1,332 pieces, I will never be allowed out of VW Prison. “Verboten!” Oh well. Keep On Truckin’.
Pinball Wizard, Cribbage Wizard
“He ain’t got no distractions
Can’t hear those buzzers and bells,
Don’t see lights a flashin’
Plays by sense of smell.
Always has a replay,
And never tilts at all…”
Pinball Wizard, The Who
It’s quite possible that my dad has never heard of or listened to The Who, nor ever played pinball. Why should he need to, when he can play cribbage to the same devastating effect?
Now 86, mostly deaf, blind in one eye, and suffering significantly from dementia, he can no longer really keep track of the game. He’ll count his hand, sometimes accurately, sometimes not. (If he goes on automatic, he can count it, but if he stops to take a second look and think about it, all is lost.)
Having counted his hand, he looks at the board and almost always asks, “Which color am I?” By the time he’s figured out which pegs are his, and which direction we’re going, he’s forgotten how many points he had, so he’ll look back at the cards and count his hand again. Then he’ll look at the board and ask, “Which color am I?” I’ve been tempted to see how many times he can do this, but I inevitably break into his infinite loop with a bit of advice.
Doesn’t sound like a wizard, does he? But the old goat draws to inside straights more than the Laws of Nature dictate. And consider this, which has happened many times:
It’s my lead. No cards have been played yet, so he has no idea what I’ve got in my hand. Before I have a chance to play my leading card, he’ll pull a card from his hand and hold it out, face down, ready to play.
Now I am no spring chicken when it comes to cribbage. I’m not at all disturbed by this move on his part, and I don’t really think he’s even trying to psych me out anyway. I make my decision, lay down my leading card, and he flips his card. Sure enough, he makes a 15, or pairs me.
Ain’t got no distractions, plays by sense of smell. Here’s to you, Dad.
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.
And I …
… was the “One-Eyed Jack with a Monkey On His Back.”