when the sky and earth are equaled
30 April 2010 § 1 Comment
The picnic table sat diagonal to the valley below, its higher end pointing in the general direction I was going. There was a mountain up there somewhere, and maybe I was on it now, but the fog obscured my view of everything beyond treeline, which was not far from me. The typical majesty found in Alaska lay across the landscape – snowcapped peaks on the south side of the glacier-fed Knik river, snow and rock and ice intermittently Midasgold and seablue. The Matanuska River, still riddled with shoresnow, ran through what seemed like hundreds of square miles of rockbars (the sand is silt, and it is in the water), where jeeps and daring teenagers in Geo Metros roamed, for one reason or another. I pulled out my camera, the Olympus that had visually documented so many wonderful travels of mine, to capture some semblance of a memory, to find that it had finally, after all the abuse I had given it, all the sand and water inside it and the many times it had been dropped, died its untimely death, there in the snow.
I left the house in the middle of the day, four p.m. or so, and was worried more about the ominous clouds above than dark falling before I reached the top. Society has its special way of getting the best of me, and sometimes I must flee to the mountains for peace. I keep a packed bag for this possibility – it sits on my closet floor, in front of a couple of skateboards and an odd collection of bags – Nike duffels, leather messenger bags from the 90’s, the grey backpack from high school… and college, that saw too many bus rides and commutes and miles walking and ink and patches and safety pins, cumbersome hiking backpacks that I despise but keep for their perceived usefulness, drybags for float trips, all kinds. As a rule, I do not collect things. And I do not waste money. While this remains true with bags, I always seem to come up with a possible use for it when I’m standing there in a thrift store with three dollars in one hand and a really cool satchel (that I will never use) in the other.
The ground was muddy. A hundred yards from the trailhead, the snow showed itself. Because hiking trails are narrow and go up and down, it is natural for meltwater to be as attracted to them as inconsiderate morons who cut switchbacks, creating new and unnecessary trails out of sheer laziness – a paradox indeed. Now, when I say ‘the ground was muddy’, I don’t mean that the dirt was wet and slippery – I mean that when your foot steps into it, it is sucked in and sinks, sometimes to the ankle – on rare occasions, to the knee!
Three years had passed since I purchased the lovely pair of boots I was wearing, and they had seen many landscapes – beaches and glaciers in Iceland, roadways and rocky shores in Ireland, Scottish moors (much more wet than this trail), city streets in concrete rainforests – they had simply trodden many a road, and while I was convinced that their souls are very much intact, their soles are not. Half the heels rubberless, the balls of the feet smooth as penny loafers, any previous claim of Waterproofness had been obliterated by decorations of frayed leather and torn fabric make these invaluable. And useless. I slipped my way up the slopes as it started to hail – covering the mud but making it more difficult to kick steps where I needed to.
Lazy Mountain is just that – more like a big hill that many young parents bring their toddlers on for their first hike, it attempts to incline in some places, but in high summer, carrying a large picnic basket and a blanket to the top on a nice day is not out of the question. Add post-winter, whiteout conditions to this equation, and it becomes a desolate landscape where, were it not for the stones strewn across the hard tundra and the extra daylight recently to melt some of the snow from them, it is a world where there is no up, no down, no horizon, distinguishable source of light, just a greyscale and infinite White. It is the sort of place where walking off a cliff is about as likely as walking into a wall, and if the clouds cleared, one might find themselves looking out over the most breathtaking view the Outside world has ever known.
But the clouds did not clear. They lingered with me, telling me that the wind was staying calm and that no fear of heights should bother me today – for there might be a soft carpet just below me (and I could not prove otherwise!). And so Up I went. It is my favorite direction and I constantly and insincerely tell myself that as soon as it becomes unsafe, that I will turn around immediately. I say this aloud – to the snow, to the clouds, but my heart does not believe it. It knows like my brain knows that I will continue until something almost tragic happens, and I will snap back to reality. This is an element of being alone that I enjoy immensely: I am allowed to toss away the logic and sanity that I feel I must maintain whilst around other humans, and I allow myself to take risks that 1) I would not take with others and 2) require the focus I cannot achieve with others present.
I found myself at the beginning of a snowcovered knife-edge ridge, whose opposing sides sloped down quickly to the valleys below. Some ridges of this sort request not so subtly that the person doing the traversing straddle the ridge to walk along it, to avoid disaster. I walked on one side, up and up and up toward the stone peak only a few vertical feet above me, a windtorn American flag flapping away to my right, some fallen veteran’s memorial/summit log in a cylinder well hitched to the flagpole. I could see the drop offs on either side of me. Scatterbrained and becoming nervous as the wind started gusting, summit fever simultaneously grabbed a hold of me, and for a brief moment I had an inclination to break into a dead sprint to the top. I took a breath, sat down, reminded myself of why I fervently avoid the egoists associated with the mountaineering world, and continued. In ten seconds, there was no more Up. I had done it, and the tips of my fingers were bit by the cold wind just as I turned around to head down (but not before signing the logbook with numb hands).
Visibility became Zero just past the knife edge, and I kept an eye on the few tracks that had been made in the snow by others before me for a way down. My own tracks had already disappeared under the new snow. I ran down, my feet sinking into the drifts, sometimes to my hip, and as I continued down, the urge to throw myself down the smooth slope and slide as far as I would overcame me. It worked occasionally, but more often than not resulted in a sore shoulder. The trails I had fought gravity for now became snowslides, and I’ve scarcely been so full of energy and happiness recently. At the top of Lazy Mountain, the skies cleared to the south and once again, mediocre, august light adorned the perfect landscape of the Chugach mountains, rivers, and glaciers.
Covered in mud and a bit salted by the obstinate behavior of a moose with her yearling blocking my way (and threatening to charge when I tried to pass them! I commented on her ill logic, from halfway up a birch tree, and negotiated a deal. Ten minutes later, she agreed, or grew bored of watching me, and they departed), and not totally convinced that the peak I had summited was Matanuska, I looked at the topo map at the trailhead when I arrived (completely soaked), and found that some up and coming artist had spraypainted the words ‘nigga’ and ‘spic’ across the map, perhaps in some pathetic attempt at humor, or perhaps developing their quintessential Alaskan graf skills (note to urban art seekers: do not come to Alaska looking for good graffiti – you’ll have trouble finding out even the shape of a pot leaf, even though sad imitations of them seem to line every piece of stray flat surface in the state). I wrote this genius a little note, complimenting his originality and was on my way, unknowing of the peak I had climbed in my visit to this other world.