Monthly Archives: April 2006

Mount Diablo

I’ll say this: to a person accustomed to climbing Diablo in moderate, rainy weather, the climb on a sunny, 80-degree day is a whole different animal. Calochortus pulchellus in the shade, Stylomecon up the hill, and a gigantic valley full of Ceanothus in full bloom. No camera, as I was looking to leave weight behind. In fact, I hardly even took clothes: just a black t-shirt and running tights, hedging my bets between hot ascent and late cold wind on the way down. The half-expected shrieks of outrage and horror at the fat guy wearing Spandex never materialized. Counterintutively, in fact, a number of people — women, mostly — struck up conversations with me along the trail.

Among them were Dixie and Amy, who appeared in mid-trail, dryad-seeming, apparently rubbing poison oak on their nostrils. I said something in mild alarm but it was another plant they were sniffing, one that grew beneath the poison oak, and they laughed and thanked me for my concern. They were budding herbalists. We started talking plants. I spent the next half hour with them walking the trail, Amy shooting photos of the plants we talked about, Dixie asking me to identify them, me doing so successfully about three quarters of the time, and then stammering every time I made eye contact with Amy. I get self-conscious around dryads.

(D&A, if you do stop by here, Dixie was right and I was wrong about that white flowering CeanothusCeanothus cuneatus — the yellow composite we looked at growing through the chamise was Ericameria,  and Edward K. Balls in Early Uses of California Plants says that California coffeeberry bark “has similar properties and is frequently used by individuals as a substitute for [Cascara sagrada]”. UC Press published Balls’ book in 1962, and apparently mentioning laxatives was considered rude back then. And do drop a note. I’d love to stay in touch.)

The easiest summit yet, despite the dry and heat. 13 miles hiked and 3786 feet climbed. 141 miles and 30,273 feet climbed year to date. One of the best hikes so far this year, and not just because of the dryads.

At the mile mark

It was dark — a moonless night beneath dark clouds, and my run at just before midnight. I did not see her until she was ten feet away, her luxurious black fur glinting in the dim light of far-off sodium vapor lamps, two broad white stripes running from nape to tip of tail. Ten feet away and she was startled.

I had been running near-asleep, my thoughts cascading to place after increasingly nonsensical place, and I was startled too. I have no particular fear of skunks, have lain gladly and quietly in my sleeping bag while they sniffed around my head, but neither one of us had expected the other. I stopped, backed up a few steps.

She was at the base of a thick wall of grass two feet high, mown to the ground at the edge of the path, fresh water flowing into salt behind the grass, the tidal section of the creek swollen with spring tide. There is a species of snail that lives down there, native I think, blacker than the introduced French garden snails that eat my chard, and abundant on cool nights like this. She must have been after them. They would have been an easy meal, and filling, and she surely did not expect a loud, massive figure to come running up to her out of the dark. It was hard to see her gestures more than vaguely. She did not stamp with peremptory forefeet that I could see, but leapt straight up, an alarmed hop a foot into the air, moved toward me, moved back, then turned and ran away from me on the path and into darkness.

I watched her black figure fade into night. I had no way home but to run after her. For half a mile the path was hemmed on one side by fence — a recreational vehicle storage lot’s chain link and then the back fences of tract home yards —  on the other by creek. She knew I was coming now and would be ready. Perhaps if I drop all guile as I run, I thought, she will let me pass. No, I answered myself, that is New Age bullshit. A barn owl screeched above me, flew down-creek toward the bay.

A startling meeting, and yet four generations back, or five, my forebears would have treated it with idle derision. How seldom we encounter animals these days, other than ourselves, who can cause us more than inconvenience. We stood on the threshold of the Pleistocene and saw a world full of things that could eat us with a swipe. We killed them all. Short-faced bears and giant cats, fifty-kilogram wolves, all poised to flick away our rude stone-tipped spears and dine on monkey meat, and now a few stray tigers hide from us in the thick woods. Some of the beasts are safely locked away in fossil time, twelve thousand years ago, but not all of them. Some left only yesterday. In 1450, more or less, the citizens of Paris reported a wolf roaming their streets, a female of that Eurasian race that populates the Slavic nightmare myths, roaming the streets a generation after the agony of Joan. Nothing is known of her fate. Did she slink pregnant down to the Seine to drink, then slip away in night? Did les citoyens hunt her down and kill her, or worse baptize her? We cannot know. But a mere seven lifetimes ago wolves walked the dark of the City of Light. My walking out at night unafraid of all but people is a situation wholly new in the history of the world.

All that remains to harm us now are elements: the sun, the sea, rockfall or lightning strike. To some these pose too great a threat. I slept on the ground a week ago, unmolested by all but wind and frost, and felt a bit of shame at climbing in the truck four hours after waking. On the Interstate near the Halloran turquoise mines I saw a Christian fish plaque on an off-road vehicle towed by a HumVee, towed by a Winnebago. “If Jesus had had those in the desert,” I later told a friend, “those forty days would have been no problem.” The old equation has been inverted. The monsters now stand guard for us against those minor elemental inconveniences. We lie to ourselves that the world can work this way for long.

Our world increasingly carpeted with those lies, the sea will rise up to cover them. The skunk and I faced each other on land four feet above the bay. The water will come up, erase this story, engulf a billion other stories, our new world a tale of Atlantean hubris edged hard up against the oil-slicked, ruined shallows. The boats across the chain link will come unmoored, float through drowned streets. The Winnebagos will be homes for fish. I will see this before I die, and I am old.

I ran, trying to discern black against black void. A third-mile up she scratched hard at soil five feet above sea level, in a patch of ivy beneath the chain link fence. The path was ten feet wide, so that is how much berth I gave her. She looked up placidly, her head turning to watch me as I passed.

Words

What is a word? All I have. I walk down to the park this morning with my old dog. Subject predicate object subordinate clauses, symbolizing but not fully signifying. His ache, his grin, his increasing inability to stand. My fierce joy and heartache and premature grief and impatience, and love that still astonishes me it is so devastating. This is The Year, we said last night, the year his happiness becomes a higher priority than my employment, and if I am late to meetings for matching his labored pace up the hill I know I have chosen the better path to walk. There will be meetings next year, and the next.

What is a word?

They drop notes at me, frustrated and heartfelt. Inadequate, they call them, but what in this world is not? Offers, voiced sighs, stories. What a world, to know a person’s heart but not her face, his voice. The steep and arduous pursuit of love in all its forms. Bonds without descriptors, and me enmeshed in them, and glad to tears.

I am too tied up in words sometimes, too eager to moderate my raw experience. Some things are best described sidelong. A glance is not a word, nor is a tear, nor the bright smile she washed over me last night, nor the smoothness of her face against my chest.

And yet sometimes

It is easier to long for a beloved from afar in a desolate place than it is to endure the hours of fuming silence, the denials that anything is wrong, the discussion at long last whether this increasing internal distance is a bad thing, her assertion that my failure to make her happy is her fault and not mine.

That we love each other: at least we agreed on something. And that the problems we face are from outside. And that I should have stayed in the desert. She suspected this last would be the trip from which I did not return. I wonder if she was right.

Saturday night

It is not as though I lack for comforts. The rock is comfortable where it clasps my back. A twilight wind to strip my sweat, to soothe my skin in rippling shivers. Food I have, and water, a cup of roasted rice green tea, a handful of crackers wrapped in seaweed.

The phone cut out though I perched myself atop the rock, a line of sight established with the world, and I said hello. Hello? “Chris, if you can still hear me, I just want to tell you” and silence again.

Solitude assaults me and compels me both. If I loved no one, I think sometimes, I could love the world the more for less distraction. A monolith to my east, backlit by setting sun, the color of dried blood but paler. A pale blue sky, and pallid smoky green of juniper and Joshua. Before I found this place, before I left the East’s primary hues I dreamed these colors, saw them playing around the lead in beveled winter windows.

It is not as though I lack for company. A crowd of smirking yuccas all around, and ravens circling my camp, and bright scared sparks enrobed in fur leap crazy paths through brush as I approach. Six of them up the path bound in all directions, but one returns, regards me warily. A hundred feet from her I sit, and she sits down as well, poised to leap again, blinks at me, then folds her long ears back and settles in and watches the sun set, awash in orange rabbit light. If I loved no one, I think sometimes, I could love the world the more, and then remind myself that if I loved no one I would find someone to miss. A week ago, a year, or ten, there is always someone of whom to feel the lack. I know me better than to indulge in such asceticism. Instead, I drink my tea, make up a bed on stony ground.

The mountain turns a deeper red.

An ebbing, then, the core of me recedes as sea recedes before the monstrous wave. I empty. Two hours previous the desert had drawn me in again, a short waterless stroll turned four-mile run straight out, and only that domestic longing turned me back around. And then what? Here in familiar rocks, trees I have watched for a decade, and an emptying of longing for home or for the ridge beyond. And then what?

And then just these: A fitful night reclined upon the earth. Cold stars wheeling, Dubha, Alioth, and Alkaid a great hour hand to sweep the sky. An eighth-inch of morning rime to coat me. The iambic shrieks of orioles and cactus wrens’ morning alarum.

Vermilion flycatcher

The most efficient way of walking on rounded cobbles of varying size that have only recently been deposited by flood and are in no way stably placed is to assume you will twist your ankle, which will consign you to great unpleasantness, as you are thirsty and far from water under the best of uninjured circumstances. Clear your mind of the expectation of pain and a path will display itself to you through the forest of stones. You will run in an odd, stochastic tiptoeing manner, landing atop the cobbles on the balls of your feet with toes flexed, ready to push off should the stone give way beneath you. You may move two feet sideways for every five feet gained in the direction of intended travel, but you will cover ground. Not quickly, you who measure hikes in miles and thousands of feet climbed: you will measure your progress in units of time rather than distance, else you will become demoralized. An hour and a half out, two hours back, and no water on a warm day in the desert, a mere ninety Fahrenheit with a good breeze to dry you further.

A clarification is necessary here. You are not, in fact, far from water. You are merely far from water that will do you any good. Contrary to the speculation in which you and your friend Kat had indulged a few weeks previous, the creek does in fact possess enough water to drown a pocket mouse, or for that matter a pocket moose. There are deep pools at the base of slickrock cliffs and in the lee of midstream boulders. Were it not for the creek’s smelling as though a number of pocket moose had lately drowned in those deep pools, you would swim. You take shoes off to cross at a shallow spot. The water is cool, if redolent. The algae are well fed.

Across the creek and upstream, across a hundred feet of flowing water, bracketed by sheer-walled bank cliffs that ascend perhaps a hundred feet from the creek, there is a forested bank awash in bloom, small red flowers you cannot identify. Your binoculars and camera are with your drinking water. Cascades punctuate the green, a foot or so high and a few inches across, fed by a slot canyon. Their song echoes off the walls. A great blue heron bursts from a hidden pool, wheels overhead alarmed, lands on a ledge a hundred eighty feet up in the saguaros. Something has been drawing you into the desert these past few days, more so than usual, a siren song that bade you leave the ten essentials behind the passenger seat in the truck. With the backpack, you might spend two days in this canyon in some comfort, if one defines comfort rather loosely. The innovation of carrying water and extra skins dates to the Pleistocene, but it is no less insulating for its great age. You are an hour in with nothing, no one knows where you are, and you are vulnerable to mishap. This knowledge opens your pores. Without that bubble of reassurance hanging on your back, you dilate in all directions.

You arrive at prime snake habitat on this warm day in the desert: large rocks tumbled to the ground from 300 feet up the canyon walls, forming many crevices, grass making seeds to make rodents, and no other way to proceed that is not through eight feet of stinking water. You must either turn back or pick your way painstakingly through the snake field. Turning back occurs to you only briefly, a notion discarded in the face of incomprehensible motivation. It is as if a cord exists, or a chord, one end tied around your sacrum, the other to a winch on the vanishing point. Fortunately, all the reptiles you encounter have legs. Unfortunately, one of them is the rare and deadly Arizona legged cottonmouth. Fortunately, that animal does not actually exist. You wonder whether dehydration might be setting in, clouding your already-battered mind. Halfway through the rock field is a small stretch of sand on the water. You argue with yourself. You have crawled on hands and knees, no stick to probe the recesses for angry rattles. The stick is back with the binoculars and camera. Just a snack by the water’s edge, the voice had said, bring that bottle with the swallow of water in it, it’s just fifty feet away, and you acceded, and then you were off up the canyon. You have two choices now: back on hands and knees again through half the snake field, or forward through the other half with the guarantee of retracing steps? You shiver a little in the warm wind.

You look upstream. A path across the tops of the rocks has opened itself up to you.

Another hour and the conflict reaches a literal fever pitch. Mind pulls you back, heart forward, until you are afraid your neck will snap. A crossing looms, a literal one. It is nothing: a foot of stinking water bouncing over cobbles. It marks a boundary. You are thirsty. This is likely the last point at which, you decide, you can turn back without facing real danger. There is another enticing bend upcanyon. The decision is intolerable. You sit on the cobbles.

A canyon wren’s song glissades down the sun-baked walls of the canyon.

What a diversity of stone in those cobbles! The better part of them lava with vesicles, gas bubbles, so that a cobble a foot across might weigh only thirty pounds. Most of the lava is black, a significant minority red. And then there is the granite: amazing quartz and feldspar grains of thumbnail size, whole blocks of olivine, some of them flecked with shiny muscovite. One close at hand is red bubbly lava, but it cooled and then the magma reintruded and cooled slowly, and crystals of quartz grew in the vesicles. Crumbly siltstone and limestone form angular blocks: enough storms to round them will dissolve the siltstone completely and the Gambel’s quail will eat the lime for bones. Rock from a hundred different geological domains tumbled down in flash flood off the Aquarius Mountains. Flash flood wrack is bent hard against the limbs of trees fifteen feet above the surface of the creek. It is still wet, though whether from rain or flood you cannot tell.

An impossible glint of blue among the rocks: a lazuli bunting, blazing brilliant in the inexorable sun. There is his mate, shaped the same but drab. They work the cobbles for insects. A juvenile golden eagle circles far overhead. Swallows swoop from the cliffs, catch flies and land again. A least sandpiper works along the beach, spies you, flies away in a panic of shouting. Ravens circle.

A quarter mile from your truck you see the vermilion flycatcher, a blinding red mite bending a tule under its negligible weight. A laugh rises in you, blunted only slightly by your parched, near nonexistent voice. You remonstrate with yourself about taking water the next time you hear that voice. You keep that promise for a full twenty-four hours.

Wickenburg

The waitress looks at my cup.

— Is that all there’s supposed to be in there?

If you made it right, I say. There isn’t much to a double espresso.

I struggle through the first twenty pages of El Alquimista. My Spanish is far more deteriorated than I had realized, y entonces, tengo que practicar mucho. I smile at that looming steep path. The waitress approaches.

—  I love the notion

(she says as she puts my bagel in front of me)

— that if you discover your personal legend, and if you live by it, that the universe will take care of you.

I nod. She looks into my eyes for a moment, intently and familiarly.

— I just… I just love it.

Ten miles down the road, a dead badger on the shoulder. Another mile on, a dead coyote.

Watch For Elk

These mountains are heartbreak to me. I will never gain the understanding of them I long to possess. The whir of jay in ponderosa pine, the aching tectonic gavotte of granite and schist, the epochal procession of the biomes, and I want to know it all, my eyes to drink the rock, my heart to pump out algae-flecked trickles.

A lifetime, or two, would be a bare start. I have but one, and it half gone. I have spent too much of my life too far from signs to warn drivers of crossing elk.

In Peeples Valley one horse mounts another. Both of them geldings, and the mounted whirls out from underneath, nips at flank, circles its companion nickering, prancing. An extravasation of valley into the air, expelled from the ground by the joyous pressure of hooves, a gloriole of dust, and then the rumble of right tire on shoulder and I pull back onto the long road. I regain the companionable silence of the long road.

These mountains are heartbreak to me. Coming out of Prescott, miles and miles of burn. The last time I drove this road Becky and I were arguing. Burned ponderosa hulks over three-year-old shrub oaks. Two hundred miles east and ten years ago I kept to the edge of the road, shards coming off my life one after the other. A life spent wandering: to choose a home is to forsake all other homes.

Kat showed me today a waterfall she loves, a smooth granite chute and algae in the pools. Two weeks ago the water was higher. Neither trickle nor flood today, it sang as it leapt off the cliff to the Hassayampa far below us. We listened. We joked and fell silent again. To be alone in those mountains with a friend who is alone with me: what more companionable solitude, there in the spaces between the words spoken? She stalked lizards, gently crouching, stroking her left palm over her vest and then reaching out in fluid swiftness to grasp, and then in failure shifting gently, stroking palm on vest and reaching out again. One escaped her by leaping onto the hand that sought it, and then away.

Spiders, gray bands on their legs like garters, walked the meniscus of the creek between the rocks. One confronted a lady beetle, red with eight black spots no larger than pinpricks, and I put my hand below where it struggled in the creek, lifted it free. It walked from my finger to Kat’s. It dried itself there for a good ten minutes, fifteen, in the warm breeze from up the canyon and in Kat’s rapt attention. I found a frog on granite, three-quarters of an inch long and pink-seeming against the rock, and she flung herself down on the rock to see it, her hand hitting just where the frog had concealed itself, the frog somehow moving through her hand unharmed. She caught another, held it in her cupped hands for a moment to show me. Then she let it go to swim in the creek, its yellow-striped hind legs kicking lazily against the scant current.

Sun-warmed smell of ponderosa pine and juniper, and a large swallowtail flitted overhead. An hour? An hour and a half? A short time spent in idle lounging with a friend who loves the place, another in the list of places I have loved if for a moment, a life full of them one well spent. Why then this ache along the road? These mountains are heartbreak to me. Why the ardent longing for the splintered granite, the sparrow in the yucca, the memory of singing rill in smooth-worn chute? The sky is dark above the Hassayampa, and sixty miles downstream its water flows beneath the ground, occulted by the rock. I stand on its bed, in midstream were there one. There is a bit of light in the northern sky.