Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Path of Cairns

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Last night, no, it was Friday night after dinner (warm artichoke dip and chips as appreciated appetizers when we arrived back at camp after our hike, then around the long table in the dining tent, hazelnut and kale salad, perfect tiny garlic and rosemary potatoes, grilled salmon with butter, dill and lemon, iced tea and lemonade) there was still evening light everywhere and I couldn't rest, couldn't chill on my tent porch, cute as it was with comfy chair and charming side table and a pretty view of billows of purple wild asters and the south end of the Sinking Ship escarpment.

I left camp, out the dirt road past modern cabins and a couple of house. Scared up a jackrabbit and laughed out loud at the way its long ears stood straight up as it ran.

On the main gravel road across from out unmarked campground entrance was a locked gate bearing a sign AGRICULTURAL WASTE ONLY (what?!) and behind the gate, a steep hill with a washout road.

View east from camp: Asters, rainbow and the Agricultural Waste hill

A mustached man on a moped buzzes toward me, smiles to my smile, his young black lab nimble and fast despite his plastic cone of shame. The dog jumps on me for a pet, then gambols off, his high leaping gait like that of a rising and falling rocking horse.

I do a scramble up the hill, looking for rattlers, half wanting to stir something up.

We've seen ground squirrels, including one on the trail the first day who stood up like a trained circus animal, charming us for treats we did not give him and one on the Calf Creek Falls trail who barked at us from a treetop, making us laugh. Birds too, but not much other wildlife (a mule deer pranced by as I write this in the camp hammock) so rustling up a little snaky thrill would be like that good hot sauce on my cheesy eggs this a.m.

As I rose up the hill, the town of Tropic, Utah comes into view and I'm back there now, in present tense. I'm looking for a point high enough for a view of both massive Powell's Point to the east and the red cliffs of Bryce Canyon to the west.

Moped Man's buzzing echos below and I can hear him yell a greeting to someone. He's turned onto the main gravel road that I crossed to get here and his route is now laid out before me in a triangle. The dog is a happy little dash of movement.

No camera with me to capture the moment, no pack with water or snack, I just crawled up here on my hands and and feet for some heart pounding and gulps of air.

I sit on the gravel slope at the top of my hill facing north towards town, watching the twilight sky and thinking again in those old patterns.

Dad, did you have enough time to get some perspective before you left?

He had four kids, a wife to celebrate ten years with, a successful family business, a Montessori school he had founded with a group of friends, former adventures in the Air Force overseas. And flight. I know he kept flying after his time with the Reserves because he loved it.

Cele says to her husband, “Tell her the story about how Ron would come over to our house at night.  Your dad when he’d go flying?  He had to talk to people.”

Chuck turns to me.  “He’d fly at night a lot.  He always wanted me to go with him.  Our next-door neighbor, Al Crump, was a pilot for United and Al said to me one day he would never get in a small plane.  This guy flies a stretch, to California, Hawaii.  And that stuck in my head, don’t do it.  So I kept telling Ron, I’m not going, I’m not going.  But he’d go and he’d fly around and after he’d fly he was on a big high and he’d come ring our doorbell.  He always wore a raincoat and it’d be flapping behind him as he walks around . . .”

“Yeah, with the belt undone,” remembers Weezie.

Chuck continues, “I’d make him a drink after he was flying, you know, before he’d go home.  And one night Cele and I are in bed, the kids are asleep and we’re talking and ding-dong!  And Cele said, ‘Oh that’s Ron.’  I got up, and I didn’t answer the door, I went in the kitchen and I mixed a drink.  I opened the door, put the drink out, he grabbed it and he’s walking around the house, and he’s telling me how beautiful it is and how he saw the Loop and all this.  He finished the drink and handed me the empty glass and out the door and I close the door and go up to bed.”  

Why did he keep flying? Was it this, this thing I find on mountains, this change from the cramped limitations of sea level, this expanded, God's eye view of the world?

Did you get a chance to put it all together, Dad, on one of your late night flights over the city? Your life and what it meant? Did you have a moment to feel both satisfied and hungry at the same time?

But since they are unanswerable questions, I push my mind away. Not feeling inspired on this hill. The view is great, our hikes were spectacular today but I don't have the connecting third point of the triangle.

Uninspired is okay, though. There are lots of other things I am feeling: protected, loved and liked and well-fed. Content.

I'm ready to slide down on my butt, but (ha ha) I explore the hilltop a little more and just past the mass of red yarn (?!) I find tangled in the roots of a pinyon tree like some kind of art installation, I find a gently curving road down the back side of the hill. Richard Dreyfuss finds the way up Devil's Tower in Close Encounters and tells his companions who painted the mountain in 2-D, "next time, try sculpture."

I come back to the campfire, to new friends and warm brownies and ice cream and laughs into the night.


It took the next night's post-dinner solo sunset trek to find what I was looking for.

Our campsite had two piles of stones at its edge, cairns, and just beyond, a break in the fence that separated our site from the national park.

I followed the gentle path into the low scrubby piney wood, manzanita, creosote, prickly pear cacti, juniper everywhere. Deep breaths of clean air. To the west is a rocky dry wash, an empty river bed. I find the skeleton of a large deer, the bones gone clean but for thin pieces of shin and fetlock above the hoof, still carrying ragged dun skin.

I lost the path and paused, struck. I could wander, follow the riverbed, keep the setting sun to my left, no big whup. But tonight I wanted that path. Last night was my time to make my way without my father, not tonight.

I looked around at the beautiful Mojave desert forest and with a shift and a sigh, I saw the pile of stones and understood. One here and one a few paces beyond, making my way and leading me on. Like Cold Mountain's Inman suddenly seeing the familiar in the landscape as he returns to his home, everything changed.

"(Inman) took a wide stance on the rock and stood and pinched down his eyes to sharpen the view across the vast prospect to one far mountain. It stood apart from the sky only as the stroke of a poorly inked pen, a line thin and quick and gestural. But the shape slowly grew plain and unmistakable. It was to Cold Mountain he looked. He had achieved a vista of what for him was homeland....

"He rocked his head from side to side and it felt balanced anew on his neck stem. He entertained the notion the he stood familiarly plumb to the horizon. For a moment it seemed thinkable that he might not always feel cored out. Surely off in that knotty country there was room for a man to vanish. He could walk and the wind would blow the yellow leaves across his footsteps and he would be hid and safe from the wolfish gaze of the world at large."

The moment I found my way. Sinking Ship in the background. Do you see the pile of stones?

Here is what I need, here before me, left behind by those who did this stone work for me, for us, for all path-seekers, out of love.

I can walk on now, follow the stones, follow the path, search and find what I need. I bolt on, through shade and then warm sun, delighted with the puzzle I follow through the woods, happy to find the clues but happier that they were laid here on purpose to help me.

A pair of nights and let's complete the binary/duality theme and call this my mother's night. Because everything I learn about her confirms her love. They built the school for us, their children. It was built for me, I realize, fifty-one years later, with a simultaneously breaking and rehealing heart. Even greater, it still stands and nurtures children and their children and their teachers.

She taught us to line up our shoes in the closet with a piece of tape on the floor, Aunt Ruth remembers. She holds me in the Super 8 film frame I keep on the bookshelf next to my desk, smiles at me while I wave to the camera. In the home movies she holds toddler Nancy's hand and gently helps her to walk, my mother's face filled with a smile of joy and pride. Swimming with us, dressing us for Easter Mass, picking Nancy up to sit in the off-season ski lift bench between her brothers Christopher and Ron on some hill in Wisconsin.

But greater than the individual acts of love I know of, there is the confirmation as sure as anything I have ever known, as hard as stone and as true as gravity, I am her daughter still. Joy and love, her love, flow in me. I feel them, I know them, they are familiar and right to me, my homeland. Joy and love the only way to look at and live in this hard world.

And I can say it now: Thanks, Dad, you're in there, in me, too. Risk taker, introvert, lover of time alone, tinkerer, lover of fine and pretty things. If he sold jewelry and I would rather eschew possessions, I still appreciate the bling.

They are the ancestors who laid the way for me, and so back I go again to Mary Oliver's poem, "Members of the Tribe." She writes about poets and artists, Yeats and Keats and Van Gogh, who died too young but left her their gifts.

Ahead of me they were lighting their fires in the dark forests of death.

I forgive them their unhappiness, I forgive them for walking out of the world.

I was, of course, all that time coming along behind them, and listening for advice.

I make my way alone and also I make my way with them, dear ancestors.

Thank you

The entire landscape came awake with metaphor and possibility. I hiked on and on, down to the dry river, then back eastward toward Powell's Point. I said good bye and thank you to the cairns, bushwacked on through sweet sagebrush toward a higher point, up toward the light still on the hilltops. Found another opportune break in the fence and it felt like another gift.

Thank you!

Got that mountain madness again. Totally high. Scrambled up another rocky hill and took shots of Powell in the setting sun.

Climbed up that... get a better look at this! Powell's Point

Came down off the mountain to the campfire, sweet dessert, songs and astounding stars when the light finally left us. I'd never seen the Milky Way before.

The next day, huffing and puffing up the steep 900 foot climb of the Peek-a-Boo trail, my trailmate John from St. Louis, a lawyer and expert in ultralight backpacking, says, "Breathe in through your nose. Try breathing out longer breaths. It brings more air into the bottom of your lungs."

I reply, "Say that again," and then after he repeats it, "Easier said than done," because thinking is hard in the very struggle up the hill and then I tried it, pushing out more and more of my air, pushing my core against myself to squish out the old oxygen.

In flows the pine smell, the freshness of monsoon rain season, of soft sun-baked sand trail and tall trees pumping out their oxygen for us.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, my guides, living and dead. Thank you, ancestors.