Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Sometimes in the wilderness, the going just gets hard. There have been times when I have been wet, cold and afraid. Times when the lake just was too far away, the lightning too close, the trail too steep. Somehow I always found some strength to get back up and move along. Eventually the sun came out, the rain stopped, I arrived at the lake.
You don't want things to be easy all the time, in the wilderness or in life. I know people who sail through their lives without blisters, but it seems like you need those tough spots to fully wallow in the joyful ones. So in the spirit of this thought, here is a short list of some challenges and highlights of 2009 for me. A "What I learned in 2009" if you will.
1. Taking strangers out on a five day kayak patrol with bears, interesting seas, and strange shirtless men is an experience not to be missed! I'll never forget Brooke and our Castaway Island or Amelia and our thousands of floating moon jellyfish.
2. Taking a month off from work to go to Tasmania taught me that there are other ways to live your life than sitting at a desk until the retirement clock beeps. Now I just have to figure out how to get there.
3. Love is always worth it, even if it doesn't last.
4. You can love someone, or someplace, and still be able to leave it. You can love other places just as much, and other people.
5. Facing your worst fear (being charged by a bear in my case) and surviving is the most empowering feeling ever.
There you have it. Bring on 2010!
Monday, December 28, 2009
The snow? It's terrible. Let me backtrack. There is no such thing as terrible snow. Just like there is no terrible weather: just poor clothing choices. But I found this weekend that, good, bad, indifferent, the snow right now is a challenge.
We snowshoed up to about the 8000' elevation and it was vexing, sinking deep, nearly to the knees with each step. Jerry, who is kind of a ski snob, calls snowshoeing "slow shoeing" and it definitely was. It took us two hours and change to go two miles. Extreme snowshoeing, I call it. When it was my turn to break trail I strode grimly on, determined to stay ahead even of the dogs (It worked,they were no fools and stayed in our tracks).
It was beautiful though, in an eerie way. This area was mightily burned in the Canal Fire of 1989, and while fuzzy new lodgepoles are coating the slopes, old silver snags still stand as far as I can see. It was sunny and the ground gleamed with silver--surface hoar, I was told, an icy top layer. (There's probably more scientific ways to talk about this, but it was flaky and glistening and pretty. Sort of like mica. I expected it to make a dry rustling noise as I passed through it).
The best thing was that down in the valley town was encased in deep, soul-destroying fog, and here I was in glorious sunshine. I'm still sun-starved after living in Alaska. It was well worth the epic nature of the trip.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
In Alaska, our lives revolved around the ocean and the sky. Sometimes they were mirrors of each other, wild and gray, clouds hanging low to kiss the water. We had our own language of charts and tides, gales and rain. Our food came from the sea and everything else came by air.
Here, six hundred miles from the ocean, this is a terrestrial life. The people here are tied to the land more than the sky. They speak of distances in hours-six hours to Portland, ten to Seattle. They do not fly.
It took me a few weeks to notice the emptiness of the sky. Far off any commercial jet route, no white trails scribe the sky. Living in Alaska for so long I forgot the constant presence of float planes, Ken's souped up Cessna taking off from the harbor, John over at Harris Air headed south for the weekly Port Alexander shuttle. The buzzing of these planes was so common that it became a background music that ran through the days.
Here if a plane flies over we look up. Most likely it is Joe, bringing hunters in to Red's Horse Ranch. We stand there and watch and wonder. Once the plane is gone, the silence is complete. There is no incoming tide, no seiner humming by, no cruise ship.
Landlocked, it is a different way of looking at the world. It can make me feel a little desperate for the slow rock of the waves or the heart-sinking moment of takeoff. As time goes on I am sure I will find ways to live in this valley that will become as familiar as those things that defined my old life. I need to slow down, have patience, with myself and with this place.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Today I had two pieces of news. My firefighting memoir, the one I have wrestled with in the late hours of the night, punching it down, re-shaping it, ruthlessly cutting... was rejected, though with a lovely letter from the agent (Janet Reid, she has a great blog, google & check it out). Dismay! Heartbreak! Postponement of retirement! Mini tantrum!
Another email brought the surprising news that a short story about Steens Mountain that I dashed off in about five minutes and submitted to an online Oregon celebration site is going to be in an anthology! That makes two anthologies this year for a stunning monetary gain of $100! Guess I can't afford that cabin at the lake just yet. However, it is still something. Happiness! Elation! Shirking of work to celebrate!
Well, I guess I will slog back to my writers group and ask for advice. I'm not ready to give up just yet. Perhaps with an overhaul back at the yard, a new mast, something to make it seaworthy, my little manuscript can sail forth once again. Watch out agents!
Saturday, December 19, 2009
I love shoe trees. I ponder each pair of shoes: the high heel bridal ones, the stout hiking boots, the inevitable sneakers. What's the story behind all of this footwear? And who started this concept, and how did it migrate across the state?
What's so endearing about shoe trees is that there aren't very many of them. That would dim the mystery, quell the excitement, if there were trees festooned everywhere. The fact that there are only a few, popping up on some deserted stretch of road when I least expect it, makes them fascinating. And there's the quirkiness of human nature. Say one person hucks a used pair of shoes in a tree. Ha ha, he thinks, and drives on. How long does it take for someone else to notice them, stop, and think: Hmm. Maybe I should contribute a pair?
Now that I think about it, why wouldn't I expect to find a shoe tree in this remote, off-kilter part of the world? Here we have an odd stew of Republicans, hippies and hermits, musicians, crazy backcountry skiers, and a gathering that calls itself the "Sarah Palin Discussion Group." (A digression: really, how much is there to discuss?) We have no Walmarts, no stoplights, and no airport. We have a bunch of impossibly tall mountains and a big glacier-carved lake and creeks and rivers and a canyon that is deeper than the Grand. And we have a shoe tree. I'm pretty happy about all those things.
Friday, December 18, 2009
It's inbetween: we are still getting rain in town and up there, bare patches dot the forest. It's an uneasy time, longing for the sun-washed trails but settling for a bleak patchwork of barren trees and sodden snow underfoot. I'm in between too, halfway to settling into a different life. This is the time when it could go either way. I miss the ocean with an intensity I never thought. I thought I would miss other things: the wildness of the mountains, the soft squelching of the muskegs under my boots. But it is the ocean I miss, the tides you could set a watch by, the deep mysteriousness of it all.
So today we pushed the season, walking gingerly on our skis through the stumps and gliding on the covered places. It would have been easier to stay home and wait for the weather to make up its mind, just like it would have been easier for me to stay by the ocean. But something, maybe the same thing, called me out to see what it was like today. The same thing made me stand on the ferry heading south.
What am I looking for? I don't know. Maybe I like it this way: in between, surprising, never boring. You can wake up one day to a blizzard or it can be 50 degrees and sunny, like it was in Imnaha today. I like unpredictability. I like surprise.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
This is my week for snow park duty. I complain about the snow park because it's stressful. We only get so much money for plows and deciding to plow now might mean no money when we really need it. When on duty the luckless soul must sit near a phone for a week, waiting for that 4 am call from Bryson saying that there is enough snow to plow. Then you second guess yourself: did it really need plowing? To say the least of the people who call to complain that it needs plowing. And the need to rush back to fill out the daily diary...
But there is one unexpected perk for being snow park duty officer. I get to ski! This comes after my inspection of the plowing and the dreaded toilet cleaning. (Funny, one of my first government jobs involved this task. Looks like I have come full circle).
Today it was challenging due to the deep, unstable snow. My skis were completely buried and there were times when I was past my knees. It wasn't really a glide, but a slog. It took an hour to go two miles. I could hear the snow settling with a whoomph!
But it was beautiful, the only sound a light wind ruffling the trees and some sugar snow falling. Much better than sitting at a desk. I miss those field days I used to take for granted. Working outside is one of the reasons I started in this outfit. Sitting behind dirty windows that don't open, it's easy to grow disillusioned with the whole business. Nepa! Lotus Notes! Stagnant meetings! What am I doing here anyway? In my mind I'm still a twenty-five year old wilderness ranger.
At least there is the snow park, the troublesome, vexing, why-can't-the-county-plow-this snow park. Thank goodness for the snow park. It keeps me sane.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
I have a destination problem, which means that it is hard for me to turn around. I really, really wanted to make it to Legore Lake even though we didn't have a shovel (for clearing off the snow) or even our skates. Also, we discovered, all we had with us were the clothes we were wearing and a bottle of water. And three dogs. Jerry had to go work at Fergi and it wouldn't have been smart for us to keep going. It is winter after all, and only yesterday has it gotten appreciably over zero degrees. So we got above the mountain mahogany band but not to the first meadow, the halfway point, or to the old miner's cabin.
It was a good idea turn around: we were only at about 6,000 feet and the lake is just below 10,000. The snow is probably several feet deep up there now. The lake, most likely slumbering under a blanket of white. In my lake skating experience, conditions have to be right for the perfect sheet of glass. Most times they freeze unevenly, with treacherous bumps. Twigs can freeze into the ice, tripping the unwary. Wind is the key.
So most likely we would have been hungry, cold, unable to skate and coming down in the dark. In the old days I would have gone for it but I seem to have acquired some element of practicality. (I remember crossing the straits from Mackinac Island to Round Island in an open canoe, armed only with wine coolers. I don't remember us having life vests. Hopefully we did).
Legore Lake, I'm coming back someday. Sleep on.
Friday, December 11, 2009
Just some random thoughts today as I struggled to breathe frosty air today:
1. Why can't things stay the same? I understand that the world is in a constant state of motion, and I guess people should be too; but I want to go back to the way things were sometimes, to suspend time like I was caught in amber. My life has changed so much in the last two years; sometimes I was the instrument of change, other times it feels like one big earthquake, rearranging my personal topography. How many times can people bounce back? The earth bounces back from the weight of ice; that is what it feels like I am doing right now. Slowly, an inch a year.
2. Will I ever sell a book? Or should I just become a dabbler, and just call it my hobby? Maybe take up something else? The worst are the agents you never hear from...
3. Should I buy a five acre piece of land and build my own cabin, set down some roots, or keep renting and on the move every few years?
4. Or, should I actually do what I've been threatening and move someplace for a year, immerse myself in writing, instead of working ten hour days pushing paper?
5. Why, oh why do people insist on these godawful Christmas lights all around their property? Okay, Santa on the biplane is kind of cute, but a fence full of candycanes? Come on people. Where do you think your electricity comes from?
6. Wow, what a beautiful sunrise over the snowy Wallowas.
Thoughts and suggestions on any of the above are welcome.