My Blackfoot Whispers

AUTUMN 2006 Blackfoot River
AUTUMN 2006 Blackfoot River (Photo credit: Doug kueffler)

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.  I am haunted by waters.  ~ Norman Fitzroy MacLean, A River Runs Through It

In the summer of 1981, I worked as town boy and ranch hand for a small guest ranch tucked into a great stand of cottonwoods, aspen and pine at the confluence of Montana’s Blackfoot and Clearwater Rivers.  I was given this gift and, like so many that are wasted on the young, didn’t fully appreciate it until the experience had been swept from my hands like so many granules of sand. 

Montana is a rugged place.  The Blackfoot valley was carved by an ice flow fist formed in the Pleistocene period by a great glacial lake.  In this less traveled part of America, people live in respectful harmony at the foot of mountains that can be penetrated only by logging roads and on horseback.  Some places in the adjacent Bob Marshall Wilderness remain untamed and only tolerate those who choose to pass through.  And for the experienced angler, the Blackfoot ranks among the Madison, Frying Pan, and Fire Hole as sacred places to practice the mystical art of fly-fishing.  

I had fished for perch, blue gill, sunfish and trout in local lakes as a boy, but never held a 9 weight switch of graphite rod that whipped neon line out across the water in a great rolling sine wave.  My first day on the river, I watched spellbound – the last of a fisherman’s line hesitated, silent in the air, his monofilament leader attached to a microscopic artificial caddis fly that would alight gently on the ripples.  As he stripped his line toward the shore, a flash of brown and red shot through the green riffle of water as a brook trout rose to attack.  There was no bait, no shrill cry of victory nor creaking of a rusty reel.  There was only sweeping wind, a splash and an ancient struggle as the angler landed a three-pound, 18-inch fish on a silk thread capable of snapping once two pounds of pressure had been applied. 

Netting the fish was as much an art form as the act of hooking him.  Yet, within minutes, his creel was opened and the fish was deposited to be served within two hours for dinner.

The Blackfoot is a magnificent and reckless flow of water that cascades 137 miles down from Rogers Pass atop the Continental divide — some of the wildest land in the contiguous United States.  Fishing consumed my waking hours.  My friend and I called it “Stalking Big Daddy.”  Although chores on a working ranch never truly conclude, on brief breaks and on our one day off a week, we would ride rusted bicycles down long dirt roads through sagebrush and chaparral, bumping along with fly rods, creels and nets.  We carried an insect net fashioned from a metal coat hanger and cheese cloth, which we would sweep beneath stands of cottonwood along riverside reeds, catching insects and hoping to match our fly patterns to the color of the captive bugs. Big Daddy was the term we used to describe the biggest fish in the river – a fifteen pound brown that lingered in the shadows of the cut river banks near our ranch. 

Our heroes that summer were curmudgeonly anglers who would don neoprene waders and work the river’s edges and runs — whipping home tied, wet and dry flies with the precision of a lion tamer.  As the trout would jump, tail and sip at the confederate lures, we would stand at a respectful distance trying to emulate the effortless bullwhip strikes of line that would extend across the water, dropping flies into places no larger than a postage stamp.  Big Daddy was there, watching us from underneath a shelf of rocks and branches. 

Fly-fishing was our new religion and these ancient fisherman had become our reluctant clergy.  They would shake their heads in condescending contempt as we shook at branches and tore at tree limbs that had snagged our back casts.  A retiree named Bud patiently taught us roll casting and how to read a dead drift. It seemed an innate obligation that they pass on this knowledge to the hungry neophytes who caught more leaves and sticks than trout.  John, a local rancher, scolded us to understand that each day the river changes, so you need to know how the water will guide and place the trout you want to catch and release.

We became part of that river, spending hours wading its shallows and sand bars, often stopping to watch an osprey, eagle, moose or white-tailed deer hesitate for a moment then melt back into the deep forest.  Each trout that rose to our fly had the potential of being Big Daddy.  If you were fortunate enough to hook a phantom brown or cagey cutthroat, your fishing partner would stand in silent envy, torn between not wanting to acknowledge your superiority as a fisherman but tortured by the need to know what fly pattern you were using.  “Black ant?” he would say nonchalantly, looking down river.  “You say something?”  I would smile, and then finally confess to the Wolf Hair Caddis. 

Twilight lingers forever in the Montana summer.  The dry, warm air slowly rises, giving in to small pockets of cool air that rush like phantoms down across the river at night.  The “early evening boil” was something to behold, as the trout would once again rise to feed.  We stood, silent silhouettes, swaying rhythmically with dark cords lashing quietly against a pink and purple sky.  Suddenly it would be dark, and we would pedal by moonlight to the cabin we shared with wranglers who worked the corrals and led the guests on horseback rides. 

Late that summer, I arose at four to take guests to the airport for an early morning departure and saw what looked like great wavy spikes of white light rising into the sky.  Dawn was still an hour off, but these beautiful sheets of light moved and swayed – blown by some magic celestial wind.  It was my first glimpse of the aurora borealis, and it is burned into my memory against the jagged skyline of the great Swan range.

As I get older, many of my senses have dulled while others have seemed to sharpen.  I sometimes stop to just listen as the wind rakes pine trees that guard the adjacent woods. I can almost hear the dry Montana wind sweeping down  pushing the tops of the pines, and shaking cottonwood and aspen leaves until they quake with exhilaration.  The river moves tirelessly and is restless, always eager to lean somewhere beyond the bend of an adjacent dirt road.  The Blackfoot is like the course of my life, creating new banks, patterns and places for others to hide and watch. 

The river provides for everything that lives along it and ministers to anyone who takes the time to listen closely to its sacred theology.  It flows back to me at night in my dreams.  I am always standing in the river, the weak morning sun streaming over the trees.  Just out of the corner of my eye, a faint riffle and flash.  A trout rises.  I roll a cast across the sequined water, squinting to see if I landed the fly on the narrow run that eddies into a deep pool.  A large brown belly turns as the white mouth gapes for the fly.  It is only eight in the morning and the Blackfoot whispers to me that there is no rush.  We have all day.   

The Search for Peter Starr

A photo of mountaineer Norman Clyde taken in t...
Image via Wikipedia

“I sort of went off on a tangent from civilization and never got back.” – Norman Clyde

August 24, 1933 – There was a sudden chill as the first rays of a brilliant morning sun were interrupted by a stray cloud. Norman Clyde stretched his arms and glanced up the narrow talus shelf that he would use as a base to climb Michael’s Minaret.  The degree of difficulty to ascend this lonely dagger of granite could not be underestimated.  It was vertical on all four sides and rose narrowly through jagged chutes that eventually gave way to an impossible hourglass summit. For the last five days, he had scoured every inch of this isolated range looking for clues. Clyde had pieced together small bits of information and returned to this particular minaret. How someone could attempt to conquer this serrated spine with no rope and only tennis shoes was beyond him.  Clyde rubbed his hands together to prepare for the climb.  He was 40 years old and beginning to feel the strain of failing in his mission.

Earlier in the month, Walter Starr Sr. had made an emotional appeal to Clyde and other members of the Sierra Club to help search for his son, Walter “Pete” Starr Jr. who had was last seen climbing toward Lake Ediza along the John Muir Trail.  Peter Starr was an athlete, Stanford graduate, promising attorney at the prestigious law firm of Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro and an accomplished mountain climber at the age of 26. Having been raised in the rarified air of San Francisco wealth, Starr had enjoyed the privilege of education and travel.  With his money, he was able to circumnavigate the globe and climb some of Europe’s tallest mountains.  His father was among the first to join the fledgling Sierra Club, and was on a first name basis with the famed photographer Ansel Adams.  He had instilled in his son a deep love of the timeless peaks that served as California’s crooked Eastern spine.

A rare combination of the physical and cerebral, young Starr was a success in every aspect of his young life.  He had a great ambition to be first in life and focused his personal passions on completing what he hoped would become the preeminent mountaineering guide for the John Muir Trail and Eastern Sierra.  For the past few months, Starr had been in the final stages of completing his manuscript.  After attending a wedding of a Stanford fraternity brother, he had taken advantage of a three week summer window when clear skies, dry conditions and melting snows allowed for access to the Sierra’s highest passes and most difficult peaks. Starr loved the solitude of the Sierras. In the mountains, the seasons established a harsh but predictable cadence that forced each and every living thing to conform to the inevitable certainty of change.  Starr would keep a journal and would often reference the defiant permanence of these mountains – grand monuments to a reassuring sense of immortality and a belief that something within each one of us might endure long after our physical lives have ceased.

Clyde arched his back and considered the route up the spire.  He was now the only person still searching for Starr.  He had never met the young climber but was familiar with his journal and efforts to detail the entire John Muir Trail and the peaks and valleys of the Eastern Sierra.  He had heard through friends that Starr had even made reference to him in describing Clyde’s ascent of the last unclimbed 14,000 ft peak in California, a difficult Middle Palisade, named Thunderbolt. With typical humility, Clyde had dismissed this “first ascent” of the “last 14’er”- – one of 82 first ascents of mountains for which Clyde would become famous – as difficult but manageable.  Starr had been amused by the stories of taciturn Clyde and his itinerant lifestyle of guiding, camping and living year round as the self-anointed caretaker of his beloved Sierras.

This area of the John Muir Trail was a rugged strand of great peaks and hidden lakes that sat silently like a string of black pearls along basins clawed out of limestone and granite across five million years of evolution.  Great silver fingers of glacial streams coursed like capillaries down the mountain sides ultimately feeding into the San Joaquin River which would flow steadily west and down into the fertile Central Valley of California.  These mountains had always served as a final gateway to the Pacific Ocean. For two centuries, settlers and damaged souls seeking new beginnings would attempt to cross or skirt these 14,000 foot peaks – choosing between an inferno of desert or frozen, precarious mountain trails to reach the proverbial land of milk and honey in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and the Sacramento Valley.

In the case of Norman Clyde, he had come to live in these mountains after the premature death of his 24 year-old wife from tuberculosis. Clyde was devastated by the loss and sought to shut out a frenetic urban America by accepting a position as a high school principal in Independence, California. His catharsis was climbing and he quickly distinguished himself at a mere 160 pounds as a unique physical specimen.  He could climb for a dozen straight hours into the highest of elevations carrying a 90lbs packs.  He once hiked over from the top of Mount Whitney at 14,995 to the lowest point in Death Valley at – 295 feet in less than twelve hours.

Clyde was becoming a free spirit, loner and an iconoclast who had less and less use for people who were not interested in those things for which he held great passion. Clyde would be called on dozens of times in his career to find missing persons, downed planes and trapped climbers.  He was highly respected and was a local and national celebrity in climbing and naturalist circles – known through his first ascent records, his ardent environmentalism and his pragmatic journals.

Walter “Peter” Starr Jr’s disappearance haunted Norman Clyde.  While equally capable climbers, including his close friend Jules Eichorn, had finally surrendered to the fact that young Starr had been mysteriously swallowed up by this untamed maw of wilderness, Clyde was unconvinced.  He had reconstructed the climber’s last few days through a discovered journal and a series of cold camps that led him to the base of the Ritter Range.  “It was here”, he thought, “that Starr had tried to summit one of the spires.”

A ledge worked its way to the west and stopped suddenly at the foot of a chute.  Working his way up the narrow passage, Clyde reached the third chock stone in a shoulder-width gap – slowly making his way to the top.  He was exhausted and perplexed.  He should have uncovered some evidence – a cigarette butt, a scuff mark, displaced rocks or a trace of trash.  As he turned to warm himself in the afternoon sun, Clyde noticed a fly.

Author, mountaineer and Clyde biographer, William Alsup describes Clyde’s next few moments, “As I carefully and deliberately made my way down toward the notch, I scanned and re-scanned the northwestern face. Much of it was concealed by irregularities. Suddenly a fly droned past, then another, and another. . . . I began to follow a ledge running in a northwesterly direction. When I had gone along it but a few yards, turning about, I looked upward and across the chute to the northwestern face. There, lying on a ledge not more than fifty yards distant, were the earthly remains of Walter A. Starr, Jr. He had obviously fallen, perhaps several hundred feet, to instantaneous death.’

It was a poignant first meeting of two Sierra legends: Clyde, peering out from under his broad-brimmed campaign hat, rope coiled about his chest, standing among the ruins of the ancient range as a storm gathered; Starr, the debonair “club man,” clad in khaki trousers and white undershirt, arms outstretched, lying on his back on a narrow ledge, facing the heavens.”

For Clyde, it was a bittersweet conclusion to a great mystery.  To those who had sponsored the expedition to find Peter Starr – his father, famed photographer Ansel Adams, Sierra Club President Francis Farquhar and dozens of the day’s most expert climbers, it was devastating closure.  A week later, Clyde, along with his friend Eichorn, returned to bury the young man at the base of the spires that had seduced and ultimately killed him.

Norman Clyde continued to climb his way into the folklore and grey granite roster of local California heroes and regional treasures.  In High Sierra camps, he was given the nickname, “the pack that walks like a man”. He was a modern day John Muir – – gently seeking to understand and trace every crevasse, couloir, peak and high alpine meadow that made up the broken rows of jagged teeth known as the Sierra.  He continued to lead hikers and climbers into his mountains well into his sixties.  At the age of 80, Norman Clyde still preferred to sleep outside his home in a sleeping bag. His body finally failed him at 87 years old when he passed away in Bishop, California just 50 miles south of where Walter Peter Starr’s cairn rests at the base of the Michael Minaret.

If you find your way to the eastern fringe of the Sierra Nevada, you can follow the Owens River as it winds through the high desert towards the scabrous, fortressed turrets of Mt Banner and Mt Ritter joined by the parapets of the Minarets. If you happen into a local bookstore, you will find Starr’s Guide to the John Muir Trail – a primer still considered by many to be the most comprehensive overview of this section of California. Turning to the section on the Ritter Range, you will find a description of the Minarets including “Michael’s Minaret.”  Adjacent to this infamous soaring tower of stone, you will find the description of an equally magnificent obelisk that was formed in the same mid-cretaceous period.

It is simply named, “Clyde Minaret”.

East Meets West

Two people on the shore of the Pacific Ocean
Image via Wikipedia

No matter what happens, travel gives you a story to tell. — Jewish Proverb

As a native Californian, I return to the Golden State each summer in an effort to imprint into my children’s psyches the wonders and weirdness of the West Coast. Each of my kids entered this world through a California pediatric ward looking glass but they are now Easterners – – preferring a lacrosse stick to a hiking staff and already developing that type-A need for constant motion and engagement.

We have worked to raise them in a household that is accented with the images and soft impressions of our native state.  I am the cultural attaché of the family, routinely using terms such as “dude” to address any member of our clan – including the dog.  I wear shorts in 20 degree weather. I am never too far from a baseball cap and flip flops.

It is important that my children remain in touch with their west coast roots. I fear that one day Los Angelinos may ascribe an unkind epithet to anyone who was born in California but cannot speak her language.   To truly grasp California ethos is to gain an appreciation for the muddied genealogy of a melting pot culture.  California is an alien nation and a bridge to a land of diametric contradictions.  It is venal and selfless.  It is a Garden of Eden with 14,000 foot peaks and rugged coastline and it is a corrupted paradise. It’s prime dialects are surfer, gangster, vegan and wannabe.  To be Californian is to embrace the narcissistic, the liberated, the tough, the organic and the cosmetically insane. The state seeps into every pore of your being.  You love it and hate it. To reside in California is the romantic equivalent of being married to a beautiful but highly unstable person.  You cannot possibly live with them but you are convinced to your tan lines that you could never leave them.

My efforts to keep some redeeming aspect of California alive in my Connecticut home are failing.  My visions of raising rabid, bi-coastal body surfers who could run with the bulls in New York while rappelling down mountain sides to catch, clean and eat their own trout have been derailed by a humid, temperamental geography of urbane, aggressive over achievers illuminated by bright, big city lights and a backdrop of militant New England individualism.

Our trips out West are always carefully planned to include a week at the beach visiting relatives followed by a week in the mountains to “get back to our roots”.  The beach is the quickest place for a native Californian to identify out of state interlopers.  Fortunately, for the us, most beach front residents are too mellow or too stoned to notice when a non-Californian violates beach etiquette.

My children pay no heed to my coaching. They race blindly across the beach front strand like it is 43rd and Madison – – inviting glares from scantily clad underwear models riding bikes up and down the fashion show thoroughfare.  The boys preoccupation with throwing a lacrosse ball, building sand castles, and attempting to boogie board four foot, neck snapping shore breaker waves – – are certain tells that they are from all parts East.  The surfers seem oblivious, vacuously watching for the next set of waves – wet suits peeled to their waists. They peer off into a deep blue distance — bleached, bare-chested sand pipers with calloused hands tucked under crossed arms.

Visiting the Pacific Ocean is only a prelude to our annual attempts to harmonically reunite east and west within our children. We share a deep affinity for the Sierra Nevada range – a crooked eastern spine of rigid ancient fissures that stretch 400 miles to the Cascades and south to the arid Tehachapi Pass.  Within this Range of Light, one can find the “tallest and oldest trees, deepest canyons, highest mountains and waterfalls and greatest snow depth in the contiguous US.”  As children, we spent summers deep in these conifer forests far from the light and pollution of Los Angeles learning how to camp, be self sufficient and to gain an appreciation for a sky filled with a celestial collision of stars, meteors and constellations.

As we attempt to bestow this California wilderness gift on our children, we are met with resistance. Our “perfect day” is considered a cruel, modern version of the Bataan Death March as we hike up 9,000 foot trails crossing great lupine and paint brushed meadows to eventually rest and fish alongside serene mountain lakes

On this particular mountain vacation, my teenaged Taliban have already attempted several insurrections and have filed a list of conditions around length of hikes, amount of exercise, and when one must rise in the morning.  Adhering to the Jack Bauer axiom that “we do not negotiate with terrorists,” I find myself playing the timeless “because it is my house, my car and I own your rear end until eighteen” card.  This is the parental nuclear option. While it is always guaranteed to extinguish any insurrection it often leaves the ground emotionally radioactive for some period of time..

10:00am – We have left Los Angeles to begin the six hour drive up to Mammoth Lakes. . We stop at a local juice bar to breakfast on healthy smoothies that include green tea extract, bee pollen and other “boosts” that can only be understood by a nutritional alchemist.  In a moment of great euphoria I order wheat grass shots for the entire family.  My youngest son looks closely at the watery green solution that resembles animal bile and declares, “I’m not drinking that!” I persuade him that this family journey can only be christened with a double shot of wheat grass.  “It’s like eating four pounds of vegetables” I exclaim.  This comment seems to have the opposite effect on him as he swigs the potion and immediately makes a face similar to the one he might make when he cleans the cat’s litter box.

11:30am – My youngest son has just vomited up his wheat grass, blueberry smoothie and morning bagel all over the inside of the front seat.  My older children are screaming and squeezing to the opposite side of the car. I have to admit, he warned me. After advising us that he did not feel well, he proceeded to purge his liquid breakfast with the same vigor of Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”.  The family trip is clearly not proceeding as planned.

Our route will take us through an over-built, foreclosed and now less populated Antelope Valley where super commuters still navigate two savage hours of traffic each way, each day to a job near downtown or West LA.  Just when it seems as if Highway 14 has you permanently in its suburban grasp, it releases you into a desolate stretch of never-ending horizon line known as the Mojave Desert.   My spouse and I take turns enthusiastically narrating a fifty miles stretch of box canyons, ancient burned out volcanic cinder cones and historical landmarks. My teens are unusually attentive to our travel narrative until we realize that they are all connected to iPods and have not heard a single word that we have said.

We arrive to cloudless sapphire blue skies and a brisk west to east clipper that blows determined down each afternoon from the high mountain passes.  After a first day hike into a beautiful but mosquito infested lake, the children spend the evening connecting via text and iChat presumably to complain that they are being held against their will in this prehistoric granite citadel. I overhear hushed tone expressions like “OMG – I am hiking with Satan” and “I cannot move, I am so sore…”  I smile and move to the sofa to read.

After declaring a moratorium on electronics, we spend the remainder of the week mountain biking, hiking, fishing and working out. The complaints dwindle and the family reforms each evening – – laughing, playing board games and heckling one another during low stakes Texas Hold ‘Em.  At one point, I actually see all three teens having a conversation.

To distract them from rehashing their list of hiking grievances – – the altitude, the distance, the bugs, the grade of the trail etc, we play a trivia game where they might earn credits that could be traded later for dessert, kitchen patrol exemptions and poker chips.  As we switchback our way upwards towards a hidden lake, I ask them questions ranging from world history and pop music to California factoids. The boys are hopelessly competitive and are quick to blurt out random answers to any question.  I start with any easy question that was drummed into the oldest two when they were living in England.  “Who discovered King Tut’s tomb?” Before anyone can say “Howard Carter”, my youngest son who has no recollection of living in the UK blurts out,” Brendan Frazer”.  My daughter laughs out loud. ” You idiot, he was the star of the movie, The Mummy!“

“What was Ghandi’s first name?.” My oldest daughter cringes and says, “Oh, I know this.” My oldest tson blurts out, “Jeff!” I look at him and smile. “Jeff Ghandi?”  I shake my head, “I weep for the future of this country.”  He smiles a wider grin and asks, “Was that his name?  Did I get it right?”

I ask a geography question. “Where is the Caspian Sea”. My youngests blurts out, “Narnia.” Our laughter permeates the trail. They barely notice that we have climbed to over 10,000 feet.   We crest a forested ridge and gaze down over a tear drop emerald lake surrounded by a massive 14,000 foot granite crest. The secluded lake is buffeted by lodge pole, conifer and blue spruce pines that are only interrupted by stands of sequined summer aspen.

We drop our packs and dive into the lake.  Screams echo across the silent cliffs as we shriek from the shock of the cold water.  I purify some drinking water from a stream and sit back with my reading book as the great heaving sweep of afternoon wind brushes across the water in a wrinkled sequined shimmer.  I glance over to see each kid reading a book or softly casting a rooster tailed, Mepps lure into a dark slate canyon of water that drops precipitously from our shallow rock-shelved shore.

“Dude”, my youngest says to his older brother.  “This place is wicked.” My eldest son is more non committal to public displays of enthusiasm.  He glances across the stream that feeds this midnight blue expanse of water, alert to the day’s first hiker – a pony tailed young man accompanied by magnificent Samoyed husky. “Yep, it’s sick. You know when I am older I am going to have four dogs” My wife smiles and I glance up at my daughter who is perched like a pika on a rocky outcrop.  She is normally most likely to be offended by any overt show of family solidarity. Yet, today, she looks up at me and smiles sardonically.  “Good choice – – dude.”

Ah yes, the Nutmeg State is doing a little Golden State.  East is finally merging with West and as they say on the strand, “it’s all good.”

Simply Being

Mule-ears
Image by Just a Prairie Boy via Flickr

In summer, the song sings itself.  ~William Carlos Williams

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life. ~John Burroughs

There are certain summer mornings that hang like Spanish moss off of a sapphire elm of sky.  The whole world seems pregnant with possibility and willing to extend almost until tomorrow. The heat from the previous day still lingers and causes you to hesitate, waiting for a breeze to breathe. It is a time of simple pleasures and slow, economical motion.  The green grass is dry and bleached in places where water cannot relieve the relentless penetrating sun.  The air is alive with the croaking of toads pleading for rain, insects conspiring to multiply, birds serenading the verdant Gods of summer and squirrels and chipmunks quarrelling along sienna and slate rock walls which line my hiking path.

This is a morning to wander in the New England woods along a cool river filled with shadowy brown trout.  Here, in this grove of trees, the river is little more than a wide stream in most places.  Yet, it is an ancient artery feeding this living place  –  a natural dividing line in the wild with each side appearing different once you have crossed over and have the advantage of looking back.

The woods that buffet this particular stretch of water are a restless contradiction of growth and decay.  The pastel sky heats up pushing golden filtered light across the clear, determined water. Cool air idles listlessly above the brook’s cascades and in the shadows of an old footbridge. It’s uneven planks and irregular length creak as I step above the shallows. It is the kind of isolated crossing where one would expect to meet a troll who might quickly scurry up onto the opposite bank and demand a tithe for passage. The north side of the water’s edge is a cat’s cradle of ferns, vines and wild flowers that fall down to a broken root and stone pocked shore.  A butterfly floats into the spotlight of sun, lighting on a giant midnight purple foxglove – its fanning wings moving rhythmically like the colored sails of some exotic Chinese junk.

My Australian shepherd, Brody, canters at my side.  Moments earlier, we had been content to rest underneath a giant oak at the edge of a meadow, readying for our morning adventure. He is forever indentured to my whims and obligations.  Yet, he is secure in his purpose.  He is a working dog and is content to patrol the edges of my world and to shadow me with quiet, unconditional companionship. He runs ahead and turns to be certain that I have followed his padded path.  He leaps and pivots as a hidden deer breaks off in the distance, crashing through impenetrable undergrowth to watch us from a safer distance. His ears rise and fall as he digests a world filed with constant motion and commands.  He is my eternal scout forever probing for the hidden pulse of any new place.

It is ten o’clock. Already great galleons of thunderheads gather off in the distance – – an invasion force of chrome cotton man-o-wars armed with lightening and bursts of rain. There is a shrill sound like cicadas that seems to be warning us that this day may be conquered by a sudden storm. Yet, on a morning where one is so alone and yet so surrounded by life, one must accept the notion that anything is possible.  It is hard to not think of grander things on a delicious day such as this. My best laid plans of July pour forth from a soul at peace – goodwill that bubbles up with great expectation and grand intentions – only to later lose momentum falling still in stagnant pools of inaction like the brackish water that sits silent between rocks of dry August streams.

I am carrying only a backpack, water, my journal and a water bowl for my companion.  Our plan is to climb away from the stream working our way through pines and hickories up the southern ridge of this wooded canyon.  We pass ebony ponds along a wide path swept of its topsoil by wild spring streams and winter run-off.  The trail is marked by dark, muddied edges and deep pointed imprints of deer that had passed this way in the soft dawn. Brody suddenly stops and looks up the trail.  A young couple is moving briskly in our direction. The man in his late twenties immediately slaps his leg and beckons my companion to him.  The young woman appears more cautious, uncertain if my tri-colored partner harbors bad intentions.  My shepherd joyfully accepts the overture and bounds in two leaps to the young man – leaping up to tattoo two perfect muddy prints on his white undershirt.  “I asked for that.” He mused as he unsuccessfully wiped the marks only further smearing the mud.  Sensing his faux pas, Brody circles back to me.  Gathering that my absence of criticism should be construed as praise, he pushes forward to reconnoiter the trail.

The couple carries on – – a fourth dimension encounter with my past.  It is my wife and I – – perhaps twenty years ago.  To be so young and so early on the great trail of life.  Passing them and venturing deeper into the shaded woods reminds me of Robert Frost and his spiritual journey into a snow filled winter forest.  In these moments, I consider my own mortality and my brief time on earth to breathe in an infinite mélange of scents and experiences.  I am a ship – sturdy enough to venturel far from shore – exploring new lands and experiencing the fear and exhilaration of being at the whim of something greater than myself – – an uncharted ebony ocean that is shaped by an invisible hand that guides and contours constantly shifting currents.  I could remain closer to shore always keeping land in sight and a safe harbor within my grasp or, I can set out in search of my reason to exist – allowing trades and trust to move me across unexplored places and among new and different cultures.  Hell for some explorers is routine, predictability and the absence of diversity.

We descend into a beautiful stand of birch trees that shimmer at the slightest breathe of wind.  We surprise a toad as he quickly leaps into an ink blot of dying pond.  Brody slaps at the water and noses closer to the eyes that now leer at him from the safety of this muddy refuge.  He moves deeper into the tarn swirling mud underneath the surface and obscuring his own view.  With a splash, the amphibian is gone.  Brody hesitates – half expecting a counter attack.  He instead declares war on the darting water bugs as they skate across the pond’s surface. As he uselessly slaps at vacant water,  I whistle and he jumps quickly across the trail to lead us to the highest point of our journey.

From the top of this broken ridge we can see rolling waves of green woods and summer foliage. I can almost see the British soldiers in their imperial red as they climb in disciplined cadence.  Phantom Colonials crouch behind stumps and trees waiting to ambush this ill-advised scouting party.  Somewhere to the northwest, a young Colonial officer named Benedict Arnold would distinguish himself at the battle of Ridgefield, CT by rescuing his commanding officer and leading a rear guard defense.  As a result of his actions, he would be promoted to a higher rank.  His elevated position led him to Fort Ticonderoga where his heroism would endear him to General Washington as one of his most trusted lieutenants – a faith he would later betray when he surrendered the Hudson stronghold of West Point to the British.

The hills roll like ocean swells across an endless horizon line of woods.  A few narrow roads cut the tree lines serving as fragile capillaries connecting small hamlets and towns.  It would not take too long for nature to reclaim everything that has been superficially scratched into its thick barked skin.

We linger for a minute – two time travelers.  We drink water and split a granola bar.  I am once again violating his strict diet for the sake of his sad eyes and endearing habit of licking his lips to signal his to desire to dine with me.  He is my companion and it is an unwritten rule that we must share everything.  We linger and then move south down another serpentine trail to reconnect to the river.

These woods are old and barely seem to raise an eyebrow at our trespass.  A trout rises to a fly and flashes his red stomach as he turns to devour a rare midday meal.  The riffles of water stretch further away and finally lap gently against the cut of the river bank. The stream angles and darts along this part of the woods as if it is trying to elude anyone who might be attempting to track its course.

I talk to Brody as we move across an elevated plateau carpeted by pine needles and wet sand. He hangs on my every word and studies me to be certain he is not missing some essential assignment.  We round a bend of broken pines and savaged, shattered tree limbs – exploded in an instant microburst of wind from a late spring storm.  Our foot bridge comes quickly into view and with it, our journey has come full circle.

We retrace our steps moving along a sunken road between ancient stone walls.  We mount a thin rail of two by fours that serve as a bridge across a fragile wetland.  We step down onto spongy green grass and climb to the great meadow and where we can now witness the armada of storm clouds as they gather and conspire. We deposit the moment in our pockets and move to our car.  He leaps in the passenger seat and settles into a perfect ball of fur and fatigue.  The engine whirls and we move off leaving behind dust and the memory of a perfect summer morning.  As we turn off a frontage road and skid on to a small country thoroughfare, my canine companion heaves a sigh of utter contentment.

Yes, it is true that sometimes the simplest of things can make my soul smile.

Watching for Falling Rock

Bell Rock in Sedona, Arizona, USA
Image via Wikipedia

Watching for Falling Rock

When I was eight years old, my grandfather moved from Southern California to Sedona, Arizona.  My dad did not completely understand his father’s decision to exile himself from civilization and his immediate family. The move was cause for consternation and subtle tension.

Yet, my grandfather had wanted a new start.  Suffering from chronic arthritis and the emptiness of having lost his wife of 30 years to breast cancer, he had remarried to a woman that neither son really accepted as their true mother.  With a private resolve, he longed to renew his life among the great red rock mesas and cliffs of the mythic West.  He did not view this retreat from humanity or family as a resignation from life but in fact, a beginning born out of the ashes of tragedy. My grandfather’s renaissance rose like the phoenix and over the next fifteen years, he transformed into a quirky artist, high desert outdoorsman and amateur Native American historian.

His letters were rich narratives describing the desert as a vast and ever changing ocean of life. He came to understand the hidden power and the healing presence of the natural wonders of the world. He was reborn at the sight of the Grand Canyon and cured of his gray flannel color blindness after gazing across the Painted Desert.  He marveled at the swirling, polished ravines of Canyon De Chelly. He often wrote to us of the ancients that had lived in these sacred places — the Navajo and Hopi who had walked as one with the land prospering in cliff dwellings under great overhangs of red rock and limestone.

We would travel over hundreds of miles of broken, lonely space to visit him in a mobile home outpost whose floor was a carpet of rocks, red soil and saguaro cactus reaching up to a great blue house of sky. We preferred taking the overnight Southern Chief Amtrak that followed intermittent stretches of Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago.  My grandfather would navigate his car up the serpentine roads of magnificent Oak Creek canyon to pick us up in Flagstaff on the 7AM train.  It was our first taste of freedom and he would begin to feed our restless imaginations from the moment we stepped on to the cool dry morning air.  He would faithfully retrace his route down the canyon’s nauseating switchbacks descending into warmer air and the backwater pueblo that rested like a homestead in some John Ford movie.

During our visits, he would take us hiking and point out the more hidden aspects of the desert and the natural world that seemed so foreign to suburban children.  At night, he would tell stories of the West and always regale us with the timeless classic of an Indian brave named Falling Rock who had disappeared trying to warn his people against the gathering threat of soldiers and the encroaching tide of pioneers.  The story always concluded with Rising Star, the Navajo chief and father of Falling Rock, consenting to the Army to peacefully lead his people to a life on the reservation in exchange for help finding his lost beloved son.  “That is why you will always see signs that say, ‘ Watch for Falling Rock’, he would conclude – allowing the weight of the night and the unsolved mystery of a boy swallowed up by history to settle on our narrow shoulders.

Over the years, the LA train deposited fewer boys on that summer green platform.  Finally, there came a day when no boy wanted to spend a “boring” week in the hot desert with an old man and his dog.  When he died, it seemed like some ancient tie had been severed.

As the years carved lines onto our faces, my three brothers and I went the way of men and built our own lives, allowing obligations and temporal commitments to eclipse the sage scented memories of four squinting, crew-cut boys standing next to a man with a hiking stick and a white and brown dog.

My brothers and I intuitively understand that we are bonded by a thousand invisible sinews forged during those summers of diving into an ice cold canyon creek, dodging cholla and cactus across a blazing hot broken field of rocks looking for arrowheads or sitting silent bathed in the glow of a twilight fire. Those strands stretch across a thousand miles of ribboned interstate and time. We remain mirrors of one another but we are each painted with a slightly different mix of colors from a palette of sunshine yellow 60’s, brown and orange shag 70’s, chrome and silver 80’s and black and blue 90’s.

We are a genetic collision of German resoluteness, Irish mischievousness, English hooliganism and French elan. We were pounded in the same blacksmith’s forge, alloys created out of a firebrand conservative and a new age free spirit. Over time, the boys that had once scoured the mountainsides for Falling Rock and marveled at the mysteries of great lightening storms and ancient tribes – lost their sense of wonder. As Kurt Vonnegut once lamented,” We do, diddly do, what we must, middly must, until we bust, bodily bust.”

We now only see one another when life crushes one of us with an unforeseen landslide. We gather at odd, unpredictable times, rarely achieving a quorum for a dinner or lunch –separated by miles and our own dreams. To find ourselves together unobscured by the shadow of a funeral, crisis or life milestone is a rare and fragrant moment as fleeting as a night blooming cirrus.

Observing the silent march of our independent lives, I was determined to bring us together for the simple purpose of celebrating our connection to one another.  The storms of the previous two years had not left us untouched and had formed new fissures of uncertainty across our paths.  Fear is a funny thing.  It seems when you need people the most, you often choose to isolate yourself – choosing to follow your own best thinking which often excludes those that know you best. While your partner or spouse may be there for you, no one knows you like your brother.

I became obsessed with getting my brothers together.  What better place for us to gather than among the red rocks of Sedona?  Perhaps this special place that was so symbolic of our childhood and spiritual rebirth could reconnect us to the powerful mythology of our past.  It had been over 30 years since we had communed in that sleepy community of hippies, artists and restless souls in search of some great intangible.

I sent out an earnest invitation reminding each brother that hospital beds and church pews were not appropriate locales for reunions. I challenged everyone to retrace one last time those same ribbons of highway to the crimson rock sanctuary of our grandfather. I was nervous that the memories of those few summers had been swept by life’s flash floods leaving only rock strewn gulches of empty space in their wake.  Gratefully, everyone accepted.

As the long gray line of boys arrived, I was pleased to find us falling comfortably into old stories, gently dredging the sediment of our past and current lives. Our birth order remained forever established but had clearly molded from a line to a circle. With the addition of our own children and partners, the group had swelled to thirteen.  Those outside the inner sanctum of boys could only watch in amusement as our sarcasm, hyperbole and humor rekindled a thousand stories. To their chagrin, neither my father nor our mother were able to attend to defend themselves from our relentless revisionist barrage of warm hearted lampoons.

Our time together dissolved too quickly under warm, wind swept days and cool mountain evenings.  On the last night, a sunset burned tangerine pink illuminating the great citadels of iron and limestone to the east. We paused and said nothing as if we all understood how brief our time together would be. We were ten years old again – laughing and recklessly hurtling through life like dust devils whipped up by a sudden burst of canyon wind.  The energy from forty summers past returned to radiate from somewhere among those great iron, lime and sandstone monuments.

On my final day, I looked back one last time across the great canyon lands and was warmed by a new memory and by the thought of our own shadows that would now forever dance among the mysterious Kachina who dart unseen across this mythic landscape. I turned, not wanting to say goodbye, rolling on to stretch of canyon highway that would lift me over a mountain pass and gently descend into suburban Phoenix.  As we narrowed between two monoliths called Cathedral and Bell Rock, I noticed a warning sign, “Watch for Falling Rock.”

At that same moment, perhaps on a dusty blood red road, the silhouette of an old man and dog can almost be seen disappearing into the adjacent National forest.  He comes here every day to walk his dog at twilight – and on this night, he is pleased because his grandsons have returned one last time to honor him – – simply by the act of never forgetting.

Mountain Man

Baden-Powell on patriotic postcard in 1900
Image via Wikipedia

Mountain Man

Jeremiah Johnson: You’ll do well, Del; providing you don’t get into trouble with all that hair.

Del Gue: Ain’t this somethin’? I told my pap and mam I was going to be a mountain man; acted like they was gut-shot. “Make your life and go here, son. Here’s where the people is. Them mountains is for Indians and wild men.” “Mother Gue”, I says “the Rocky Mountains is the marrow of the world,” and by God, I was right. Keep your nose in the wind and your eye along the skyline.

My self reliance avalanche started with a snowflake – a light, fictionalized account of a ten-year-old boy who runs away from home to literally carve out a new life deep in the wilds of the Catskill Mountains.  In My Side of The Mountain, Sam Gribley possessed only a small knife, string, axe and a flint and steel set.  In time, he had carved a warm home deep in the broken trunk of an ancient hemlock and trained a peregrine falcon as his pet and companion. To my amazement, in a time before child endangerment laws, Sam was allowed to live rough after his father physically finds him and recognizes his son’s maturity and independence. At night, I would lie in bed and crane my neck to trace the purple contours of the serpentine San Gabriel Mountains and Mt Wilson. I became fascinated with hunters, explorers and mountain men – those rugged societal contrarians who, chafing at the yoke of a controlling and material world, preferred the reverent counsel of a quaking aspen and the garrulous conversation of a high alpine blue jay.  Deep in the wilderness, these sons of Thoreau thrived in their own self-sufficiency.

I mingled with these free spirits in the pages of books and in Outdoor magazine’s monthly adventure feature entitled, ” This Happened To Me – Amazing True Life Experiences”.  In between pages of dead elk and rocky mountain big horn sheep, there were illustrated tales of hunters stranded in caves with killer cougars and mountain men left for dead by grizzlies. The men in these magazines were predominantly hunters, military veterans or societal anachronisms who advocated pioneering and self-reliance.  They sported buck knives as big as machetes, could field dress a five point buck faster than your Mom could make hot chocolate. They could survive sub arctic temperatures by crawling inside the freshly gutted carcass of a musk ox they had just felled with a bow and arrow.

I graduated to tales of the old West by Zane Gray and Louis L’ Amour, understudying the techniques of desperados and cowboys.  Yet, it was the novel Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher that struck me like a thunderbolt.  It was the story of Sam Minard, a settler drawn into the romanticized life of a mountain man only to have it ripped away when Crow Indians murder his Indian wife.  Vengeance drives Minard to declare war on the Crow nation and in doing so, this Rambo of the Rockies becomes an immortal force as wild and the mythic as the western landscape that sustained him.

In 1972, George Roy Hill adapted the novel into the film, Jeremiah Johnson.   I crouched in the flickering darkness of the Rialto theatre watching Robert Redford battle Indian assassins, skin “grizz” and blunt a succession of fierce Rocky Mountain winters.  The Old West held huge appeal for this young romantic eager to head west.  The fact that I lived less than an half hour from the Pacific Ocean posed a great logistical problem because if I wanted to “ go west” to live in the wilds, I must head east.  I resigned myself to the fact that I had been born a century too late.

After a demeaning afternoon of weeding and sweeping the trash area of a suburban backyard, the allure of a four by four, flat roof log cabin shanty softened with beaver pelts and bear skins, and provisioned by a squaw who excelled in turning elk into great strips of jerked beef held enormous appeal.  If pushed too far by life’s authority figures, I would simply vanish into the mountains with backpack filled with cans of Hormel chili and live out my days like Sam Gribley or Jeremiah Johnson – with a squaw and an insane pioneer lady’s son as my foster child and maybe a wolf as my dog.   The fact that I always slept with my radio on, bathroom door cracked for light and a tattered “blankee” did not interfere with my fantasy of fleeing suburban serfdom to become a wilderness alpha male with tangled matted hair and beard.

I joined the Boy Scouts Troop 354 eager to explore the deer trails and less traveled paths of our American wilderness.  It was my first exposure to a world of merit badges, bowline hitch knots and organized camping.  Initially, I was delighted by the freedom, hiking, emphasis on orienteering and self-contained survival.  We were a renegade militia meeting irregularly, choosing to avoid other troops and Jamborees.  Our scoutmaster, a henpecked oil and gas archeologist, faithfully dropped us off miles from our destination, giving us maps and instructions, and would drive ahead to our campsite to drink himself silly while waiting for us by a campfire.  It was around this swirling, roaring blaze that he would regale us with stories of his world travels divining oil and gas in the Middle East, Mongolia, the Sahara and Alaska.  It was The Lord of the Flies meets Lord Baden Powell and we loved it.  Eventually, one of the scouts gave a little too much information to his parents after a campout and we suddenly had a new scoutmaster whose obsession with khakis and cleanliness drove me to retire well short of the coveted Eagle Scout.

While, I continued to backpack well into my 30’s, I could feel my sense of reckless adventure ebbing from my bones after each night spent sleeping out on a cold ledge.  Upon reading Jon Krakauer’s non fiction account of Chris McCandless in Into The Wild , I further demythologized my dreams of log cabin living.  The life of a mountain man did not seem quite so glamorous.  I could have ended up starving to death in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wild.  For a man who believes gluttony should be an Olympic sport, starvation seemed the worst possible way to go.  I also noticed that many of these mountain ronin exercised their right to civil disobedience, and often ended up in shoot-outs with federal marshals and ATF agents.  Perhaps all the peace and quiet starts to weigh on you.  You hear voices and think that the government is spying on you.  With no mailbox or H&R Block, you forget to pay your taxes and then wound a park ranger when she comes too close to your” homestead”.  I realized most mountain men never made it past their 35th birthday. In the end, like most free spirits, I domesticated. I lost the path of the mountain man and chose to apply my orienteering, tracking and survival skills in the primordial boardrooms of corporate America.

Yet, these days, the catastrophic climate change in American business leaves me restless and feeling bloated by the obligations of a material world. I hear the whispers of the pine trees to “simplify” and can almost make out that hollow hemlock where I would set out my essentials – candle, compass, mirror, rope and miscellaneous survival gear.   A great horned owl hoots off in the distance..  My retirement portfolio is in my pocket in the form of matches and a Victorinox Trailmaster Knife.  My newspaper is the peeling bark of an ancient shag hickory, my stereo – a steady, meandering brook and my big screen television a horizon line of a thousand dawns and sunsets. As crickets serenade my slow descent into a deep, satisfied sleep I close my eyes and suddenly realize that I forgot my flashlight.

I wonder if my wife left the backdoor open.

Wide Open Spaces

Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out To find a dream and a life of their own A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone Many precede and many will follow A young girl’s dream no longer hollow It takes the shape of a place out West But what it holds for her, she hasn’t yet guessed She needs wide open spaces — Wide Open Spaces, The Dixie Chicks

 

My summer journey is always the same. The trail climbs through deep forests of conifers, pines, birch and aspen into mountains that heave out of the ancient earth and cut across an entire horizon with jagged, saber-gray lines. The air is thin here, as elevations soar from 4,000 feet to heights almost three miles above half mile. Below these eagle’s nests of granite, an endless steppe of prairie grass sighs. It is a gulf stream of constant motion, bending and bowing to relentless winds that bullwhip down from lonely ridges and high passes. It seems that a benevolent, shadowed hand is constantly caressing this hard, muscular place.

To walk in these blue shadows is to be a character in a Russian novel, dwarfed by circumstances beyond your control, mesmerized by the sheer magnitude of nature and seduced by a relentless drumbeat whose percussion of life and death creates an irresistible cadence for every living thing.

 

I pass along a rapidly moving creek that disappears around a quivering stand of cottonwoods and aspen. It is a glorious day. It is a moment in time where the brief promise of wide open spaces and a chance to live more deeply intermingle and move the soul. I consider a time where there are no roads or people. It is not too hard to imagine anything here. It is the cradle of possibility.

Out west, a day is a sinewed, maverick roan that is impossible to fully tame. It is not enough just to hold on. A true westerner must dig in his spurs and bring each moment to heel. It is a land of tall tales and pregnant exaggeration that constantly antagonizes the imagination. It inspires, engulfs and transforms everything while never really changing its own relentless cycle of life.

 

Each summer pilgrimage to the Western mountains is a drink from the deepest and coldest of natural springs. It reminds me that I will barely bend a blade of grass in the years that I walk this earth. The great sculpted mountains endure as silent sentinels indifferent to the foibles of governments, business and individuals. When the last financial instrument or currency crumbles into dust, these massive displaced plates of earth will remain unmoved.

The West remains my reckless, wild-haired companion relentlessly tugging at my spirit and whispering to me to follow her into a twilight of mountains and high alpine meadows. Lavender lupine, blood-red paintbrush and soft purple columbine color the edges of this world. I always return to her and find myself wrapped in her swirling hot breath and relentless gaze. She is my oxygen and my midwife. Each summer, she delivers me into the world and I am reborn.

 

Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life. — John Muir

I am not alone in my love for the West. For centuries, people have found redemption, resurrection and rebirth in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada ranges. The Rocky Mountains of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana remain the grand portal that all Americans must navigate to find the Eden of opportunity that awaits somewhere off to the west. The Teton Valley is, by all definitions, the front door to Mother Earth herself. The cathedral of peaks known as Le Grand Teton literally translate from French to mean “the large bosom.” It is a sacred place — a gateway to Yellowstone and the northern wilderness of Montana and Canada. To the south, the peaks are called the Sangre de Cristo — the “Blood of Christ.” Native Americans drew deep satisfaction from their connections to the mountains, rivers and forests. There was a common belief that these places brought sacred connection to the Great Spirit and healed the People. The prominent Tetons were called “The Four Grandmothers Standing Tall” by the Shoshone, who saw the mountains and wide open spaces as a centerpiece to a connected ecosystem where man and nature lived in symbiotic harmony.

What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset. — Eagle Chief Letakos-Lesa of the Pawnee

There are those who come to the West wanting to become someone else and those who make a living off of being exactly who they are. A real cowboy loathes talk, loves action and speaks in grand hyperbole. “That canyon was so big, why I could yell Good morning’ at 9 o’clock at night and nine hours later, my echo would return to wake me up.” It is a kingdom of balance and diversity. The equilibrium is found in the eddies, channels and cut banks of Wyoming’s ancient Snake River that changes each day as water levels rise or fall. Balance is heard in the cries of osprey and bald eagles as they clasp cutthroat trout with black razor talons. It is fields of sage and wheat grass which move rhythmically in hot mistral winds while great moose, elk and bison move like phantoms across the grand plateau. It is the serene silence of a glacial lake fed by a thousand silver veins of frigid water as it cascades through stands of blue spruce, aspen and cottonwoods. A great owl swoops across an open marsh in search of an early dinner. A trout rises to a mayfly as the river becomes a boiling cauldron of feeding fish. A bison bays a lonely cry across an open plain. It is an anthem of renewal and return. The Tetons are the bones, skin and sinew of mother earth herself.

No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied — it speaks in silence to the very core of your being. — Ansel Adams

If a person finds cause or passage beyond the spectacular Rockies, he or she will encounter the Sierra Nevada, which stands as a serrated knife-edge before gently sloping to the San Joaquin valley and the Pacific Ocean. The Sierras explode into view from the bleak high deserts of eastern California’s Owens Valley. They are the spine of California and its headstone, marking the deep fissure of earth which was its birthplace and perhaps one day might be its epicenter of destruction, the San Andreas Fault.

The heart of this magnificent expanse of mountains is Yosemite. One of the United States’ first national parks, Yosemite is a massive national monument of polished glacial domes, snow-fed waterfalls and meadows of white-tailed deer, black bear and beaver falling like celestial steps to the deep gorges carved over thousands of millennia to become the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Photographer Ansel Adams captured the essence of this “range of light” giving physical form to the words and journals of Scottish naturalist John Muir, who viewed these mountains as his living companion.

Each western summer eventually loses its vitality and slips into a deep, frigid sleep. The first snow comes surreptitiously, scratching at cabin doors in late September, early October. Winter lingers until the rebirth of the people and the land the following June. The mountain summer never really goes away. It hangs in the air, a dusty perfume of sage and smoke that instantly reminds of warmer days and greener grass. She is our past, present and future all intertwined across a horizon of wide open spaces.