Tuesday, May 24, 2011

East of the Mountains

This country looks best at the fringes of day. Mornings and evenings I'm slunk low in the sagebrush of some coulee - the word for it in the wheatlands. I would have said gorge. The landscape is more Utah than Washington. High stone pinnacles, flat bottomed coulees, circling hawks and tormented lizards. Rock bluffs slink off to the mountains, hiding their streams like relapsed addicts. I followed one till it exhausted and gave out its water, then promptly dropped its sides and I came onto the plains of Eastern Washington, as bewildered by the change as tho I had lately popped up from a hole.

There was around me a vast Nothing in one of its more desolate incarnations. I had been warned as much while still in the towns on the slopes of the Cascades, but realized then that my interpretation had been vastly more populated. Acre beyond acre of sage, raked earth, and sprouted wheat like a cloth on a tabletop, and so much sky overhead it could never be drunk but must swallow the world entire. From where I came out of the coulee, I could spot a grain silo eight miles distant. It held the horizon till I arrived and passed it and found it to be just that: a lone silo with no house or barn or shed to accompany. Tho, mercifully, an outhouse. And then again, the emptiness of wheat, earth, and sage.

It is a hard land. The soil so parched it must be irrigated 2 years before it can grow grain. Packed stiff against graves and not a tree to burn. None that got there by its own power, anyway.

There are towns - clustered around a silo even when they have a church - but they are minute, utilitarian, and infrequent. And in the space between there is often this: a house with no one to fill it, the windows in pieces, and outside, trees dying for water.

My shadow has woken before me, waiting quietly for the rest of me to rise so we can go on looking for wherever that sun keeps coming up from. Together we are just about the only things to walk across the plains. Everything else moving has wheels or wings or is the wind itself. Larks are great in number, singing so loud that most mornings I am woken sure that one has gotten into my tent. But no, it is the stone some meters distant he is singing over, telling the screeching killdeers to lay their eggs somewhere else. Predatory birds stalk the air: coopers and red-tailed hawks, burrowing and barred owls. Golden eagles. I watched a pair of male red-tails circle each other screaming for dominion of a shelf of sage and lupine. They wheeled and dove and cried, with no determined victor for the while I watched. And then the mystery of a pool of water in all this drought, and ducks, geese, and - strange to see 200 miles from the ocean - sandpipers, California gulls, whillets. How did they know that on the other side of those 10,000 foot crests and another hundred miles of desert there would be this?

This is not a wilderness, and marks of man abound. For starters, there is the wheat, whole square hectares of it coming up. Then the road. Then the lonely towers of the silos, and the rails where trains once carried people. Now that function is performed by the pickup truck, packed three to a cab.

Swinging across the fields, like Cervantes' giants, the pylons stride. Quixote would recognize this place, a new world Estremadura, where the land is a smoothed vellum that smells of dust and stale seeds and the inhabitants know there is more beyond the plains, but pretend that nothing could be better than to live where no feature can interrupt either sunrise or sunset. ("Not the middle of nowhere but the center of everything," brags the town of Hartline.)

The image of the elder knight in my head, I find it hard to think of anything else. I see the same mirages. I turn the electrical lines to gargantua and the combines to mirrored adversaries. A book I have never read but mean to. It must be time. Ah, but the la Manchan is unknown here. I ask the librarian of Davenport for a copy of Quixote, but there is not one in stock. ("Did he write fiction or non-fiction?" she asks.)

And then the sunset comes, and my shadow has gotten to my resting place before me, but I will outlast him. I still have my dinner to cook, which may be done at the same time as his shadow meal. But likely he will retire before, and I will be alone beneath the stars, boiling my rice on a fire of sagebrush. An owl may fly over.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Cascade Mountains, Part II

Snow fell the night of May the 2nd.

On April 29th, I had started east from the Skagit River Valley up highway 20. Though the road was closed did not matter. I had thermal tights. I had snowshoes.

It was elder bloom along the creeks as I began, till I came to where spring was younger and the old of winter crouched in the shade of cedars, where the Skagit River breaks into streams that flow from glaciers, and these I followed up into the snow. This was the 1st.

Along the way, my mind and body had been very separate. As I went thru the wash-outs of a worn-out and little used trail along Canyon Creek, I was thinking about glaciation, and how the whole of the North Cascades was once under ice. When I ran out of trail and began boulder hopping on Slate Creek, somewhere around 3,500 feet, I thought of how the Yahi natives of the Sierra had avoided detection by the government of California for decades by using creeks to travel. As the creek narrowed to a slot between two rising peaks, I began climbing the shale side, pitched at about the angle of a pint glass, the shale scattering under me like cherry pits.

Passing one hand above the other, gaining fingerholds by inches, musing on how long it must have taken the creek to wear thru the basalt of the peaks to get to this sedimentary stone, I gained about 70. Then, I came to a cedar that had pitched over the ledge, yet continued to grow prostrate, creeping along the slant, and I wondered if it might be a krumholtz, a form of growth trees assume in severe alpine environments where wind and ice keep them prone and tortured.

My arms were outstretched, clinging to the snarl of exposed roots. My feet pushed away the potato-size jut of shale that had kept me up and I felt it crumble from under me and shatter.

There is a famous Zen story, where a man dangling from a cliff sees a strawberry and eats it, having found a joy in the limitations of his predicament. I didn't look for any strawberry. I considered no joy. The enormity of where I was and what I had done finally caught up with me. There was no way down, and still another 40 feet to go, and no space to rest, or even take any sort of position that might relieve a single muscle.

I didn't curse. I didn't say any words. I just put my head into the roots of the cedar tree and screamed. I screamed like a burn victim denied morphine. I screamed like someone being disemboweled with table cutlery. I screamed till I tasted blood.

Then, I climbed up the cedar. A shard of root stuck me in the ribs and scraped me down to navel as I crawled up the rest of the ledge on my belly, moving my hands as deliberately as a seastar. Never hastening, but never so careless as to stop.

When I got at last to a place where I could fall no great distance, I didn't look back over what I had just escaped. I collapsed, my forehead to snow, not even bothering to stand up as I crawled to the bell of a hemlock tree and camped beneath the snow. I drank no water. I ate no food. Too tired to even stand. That was the 2nd.

With the dawn, I continued along the ridgetop, maybe some 4,400 feet up. I found a set of blackbear tracks and followed them, till they led me to where the creek rose up to its source. If it has a source, then there is a pass, I assured myself, and let the bear lead me there.

But I never did. I wandered the Okanogan National Forest till somewhere around Sky Pilot Pass, some 6,000 feet. The creek was frozen over. There were two meters of snow beneath me. I carried no map, but knew that even if it were a pass, it would bring me to the wrong side of the mountains. The compass confirmed it. I was heading NNW, further into the Pasayten Wilderness, rather than ESE, towards the remainder of Highway 20, Mazama, and Winthrop, where I would resupply. I had a day's worth of food left.

I realized it then, with a gentle apprehension. Lost. I was lost. I have never used the word seriously since I have never been uncertain enough of location. I have been on the Earth, and that is enough for me. But then there is the more final meeting. I was not confused. I was irretrievable. Solitude begins where the scavengers will scatter you before anyone knows you're gone.

Snow began to fall again.

This was the 3rd.

My legs were black and bruised. I could not move them without pain. My ribs were scored from rock and root. There was blood beneath each of my nails and slices on my palms from where I had gripped the shale. I had wanted then the mountain to feel the pain and frustration and make it bleed as it was making me. I had no idea I could be so adolescent to ignore what I knew to be a bad idea and to get myself so far as to be beyond knowing or care of others. I felt so ashamed.

Slowly, I let myself to my feet, brushed the snow from my pack, and set out in a direction that seemed promising. It led me back to where I had left prints earlier.

I made no words on the day of the 4th. I found a prospector's cabin and rested. By the 5th I was out of the Okanogan and back on the road that would lead me again to the valley where I had started. I had turned another year older, but was not sure if it was in fact the 5th. But it was, and I was now 27.

On the afternoon of that day, I came to the town of Newhalem, the last town west of the Cascades (or the first) and sat beneath a cherry tree, all in bloom, and watched the Skagit River flow out towards the Sound. A woman of the town offered me a cup of coffee. I thanked her and counted my blessings. They came down to this: I was drinking coffee beneath a cherry tree.

I have never been in a fight, yet I don't think I have ever been so soundly beaten.