We are walking through the cornfield we didn’t think looked promising—and it isn’t—when I realize it, at least a little bit. He says to me, “I think I’m going to start carrying my gun this way,” he shows me, the muzzle pointed to the ground, “so I can get it up to my shoulder faster.” No, I say after a second, when something has clicked.
Viewing entries tagged
The sagebrush is singing a golden song today as we creep towards the chukar, urging Cedar along. I am aching deep in my chest, a hollow feeling—I want so badly for him to find this bird, to lock up when he hits the scent—but the lessens while I listen to the sweet hymn that rises as we walk, each step stirring up the quiet harmonies of a world grateful for the bright mid-winter light. He is excited, looking back at all of us, a crowd for what we hope will be his first point. His little spotted body quivers in anticipation of something he doesn’t understand yet, his wee snout tests the air. We walk him out a little farther, bring him a little closer to where we think the bird is. Mt. Hood looms over us, a deep, resonating bass line to the many melodies weaving their way through the valley floor—and then, the music stops. Cedar smells it, suddenly, his head whipping to the left. He is confident, sucking down scent in ways that we cannot imagine, as he heads for the bird in the bush. The whole world goes still, waiting—until he freezes, drops his shoulder, locks his body with unerring tenacity at that chukar, and what feels like all of creation erupts back into joyful noise. My bird dog’s gonna hunt.
Later, on the drive home, my Dad will say it gave him chills, and I’ll admit that I teared up, and my Uncle will even go so far as to say that it was pretty cool. I am proud to have witnessed that moment, when my puppy—that little life that I have been responsible for nurturing—found his place amid the grand order of things. He was born knowing bird, hardwired for one smell, and it was on this golden-song day that he was celebrated for it.
We cheer as he holds his point—good boy, good boy, Cedar!—and then I creep up behind him, forcing the bird to flush. The sudden burst of energy, all those feathers in motion, surprise him and he startles, looking back at us for affirmation. That’s such a good boy, Cedar. Such a good boy. We are ebullient, the sky cheers too, we are all so happy to be here and witnessing this soul-stirring moment.
One puppy’s success does not define the rest of the bird-hunting day for the three big shorthairs waiting in the truck (we couldn’t let them steal his thunder), so we keep moving. The big dogs are rambunctious and rowdy, they know what’s out there and what’s to come. They are eagerly anticipating that smell—that most satisfying of all stinks in the world—and they are none too patient in the car. We release the hounds, Darren takes Cedar further away from the guns, and the rest of us head up the road to see what else we can find.
We are walking towards Mt. Hood now, a little chaotic as a group—I walk next to my Dad, Michael out to our right, and my Uncle to the left. The dogs are running wild, free of the truck and eager to burn some of that excess energy that built up while Cedar was discovering his reason to be. A small price to pay. We fan out over the sagebrush, get lost in the rippling shades of sun that the light breeze is turning the grass to, and watch the dogs. I am always too eager, they say—I want my gun (the Verona, you know her) on my shoulder while I’m creeping up behind the dog. Patience, then action, that’s the key. Remi is holding a stiff point, and I move slow, getting conflicting directions from my Dad and Uncle. Then the bird flushes and instincts take over, a magnificent rooster hanging—suspended for a heartbeat—against the backdrop of Mt. Hood rising up to meet the sky, Mt. Jefferson and Adams close behind, and then the drop when my aim is true.
Hank brings the bird back, beady black eye now shut, feathers no less shiny for death. The gentle weight of the bird settles into Michael’s vest, one scaly foot still lightly clawing the tan of the canvas. The dogs nose the back of the vest as if to ensure the bird is really there—that it all worked as it should—then they move on, a job still out there to do.
All day—from sun-up to sundown, it is surreally beautiful, a privilege to be where we are. Do you know that feeling, to look around and see people you love in a place you feel lucky to be in, doing a job you feel proud of, connected to a universe larger than yourself—do you know that feeling? All day—even when it’s a cluster and the dogs are chasing a pheasant through seven-foot tall reeds and no one can get a shot off, even when we hit the dirt so Michael can shoot over us, even when Remi gets heat-sick—I feel so content.
And all day I go back to that little puppy, how proud I am of him, and how excited I am for us to learn and grow up a little (maybe a lot) together. He points again and again, incorrigible when it comes to smell, he comes back with a face full of feathers from a different fallen bird, he whines whenever the big dogs get too far away. By the end of the day he’s out with us, fine with the noise of the guns. His velvet ears fly above the sagebrush—sometimes the only visible part of him—as he bounds through, still too small to even get close to seeing over it. Everything in this light is magic, the camaraderie palpable and the pride overwhelming, all of us a part of one timeless tune.
Darren and Michael a shot they shouldn’t have and go off in hot pursuit of the bird, unwilling to admit defeat. Or unwilling to endure the taunting that’s sure to follow a performance like that, which they might still deserve. All three big dogs follow them, afraid to be left out, while my Dad and I sit on a rise over the creek, watching their progress. Cedar takes one look and instead seeks the shade my back is making, one quick sniff to the wind and then he flops to the ground, asleep before he can catch himself.
Little legs fluttering, even in his dreams he is chasing birds, and I know we’re about to have a thousand more days like these—or close. The view may be different, the company might change, but there are a few things I know for sure—my dog and I will chase golden song days and the rush of bird flights, together, a team.
It was late when we got there, late enough that I was heavy with sleep all the way over—every blink an invitation to slip back into the twisted tangle of dreams lurking just beyond my eyelids. I kept fighting to stay awake for Darren’s sake, so he didn’t have to fight the same battle I was—plus the long, windy road—alone, but the cozy warmth of the car and the reassuring weight of puppy on my lap made it nearly impossible. Each time I surfaced to consciousness I opened my eyes on a new flash of shadowed, curving highway—a familiar road turned ghostly and strange in the night.
When we arrive, a new energy invigorates me. I’m wide awake and confident getting Darren up highway 19, knowing exactly which turn was ours, anticipating the bend—this other home to me, the smell of cold, sharp air, the dark outline of hills I know well. The night is almost day in moon shine, the crunchy layer of snow underfoot casting light all around us. Puppy runs happy laps while we pack our bags into the empty cabin, the soft glow of embers in the stove the only sign that life has touched this place. I know the rest of the crowd is up at one of the summer slash piles, burning the night a thousand shades of flame. It’s late, remember, so we tuck puppy in to bed and then chase the fire and my family up the road—I don’t quite know where they are, but I remember slash piles higher up than they’ve ever been—so we just keep driving, swaddled safe in the Jeep, the forest, and the stars, until we see the tail lights of the truck. The big shorthairs jump out from the backseat, a blur of barking, wagging tails and jumping, they lick our hands and circle our feet. And here is the legendary band of brothers, the raucous and rowdy, their familiar faces licked by firelight as the dark is consumed by the flames. My cousin Spencer is here too, and his friend—someone I met once, maybe—and everyone is happy, easy in companionship. I delight in the company of this group of Uncles, I’ve known them for so long, you see—and they’ve known me. The lucky benefit of a tight-knit family, so many people to remind you of where you’ve come from, and how far left you have to go.
The fire eats into the ground and dances for the sky, smoke roils up to the above—meeting no clouds on this starry night, only the moon to whisper secrets to as it passes by. We stand around and listen to them tell stories, bullshit mostly, as one does in the presence of beer and fire, until the cooler drifts towards empty and the circle grows quieter and quieter. Muckle Matt tells my Dad he’s driving the truck back to the cabin—like hell you are—this pack of animals play fighting like any other. We follow them back down the road in the Jeep, my Dad hunched on the tailgate (of my own damn truck!), my Uncle Matt the victor.
In the morning Darren leaves early to elk hunt and I let that little puppy into my sleeping bag, until the combined heat of both our bodies is too much to handle in one down cocoon and we break out of the little cabin gasping for cooler air. The day hasn’t quite started yet, early dawn light washing the world blue, but we are up. I need too much from this place to be able to sleep in—we have so much to do and so little time to do it in, or so it feels. Cedar has no fear here, something instinctive in him has sparked, and he runs hard up the hill, free from cars and sidewalks and the noise of people. I have no fear here too. His ticked coat blends in too well with the patchy snow on the ground, and now big fat flakes are flurrying down from above, so I can hardly keep track of him as he speeds around the drive, nose to the ground. I whistle for him, whistle again, until he appears at my side (as if by magic) and we go into the big cabin.
A slow starting morning for those of us here, though we keep an eye on the porch for the elk hunters. My Uncle has a tag and is leading a bit of a war party out there—the boys all clamoring for the experience, thrilling at the thought of sighting one, hunting something, connecting to that primal animal that lives in each of us. I am content here, today—the cabin heated by the fire, coffee in the pot, my garden book begging for my perusal. The familiar voices of my family swirl and settle around me, boot stomping, a little puppy yelp once in a while from the dog wrestling happening on the floor. We’ve got a bird hunt to go to a little later on—well, really I don’t think I can go. I’ll be sacrificing today to spend with Cedar in exchange for many more seasons hunting behind my own dog, but I’m excited for the others. I know how their hearts will beat a little quicker at the ROOSTER call, how they will start (can you help it?) at that harried flurry of wings, how they’ll race towards the dog, standing stock-still in the cover, every cell in their bodies concentrated on a smell (the most delicious of all).
I know how it will go, and I know I’ll feel a brief pang of frustration while I watch them walk away—their backs a line of orange vests and camo, the men easy and open as they get started, the boys tense with anticipation—I will feel left out. Puppy will be at my feet, whining as the big dogs walk away, we’ll be united in our mutual unhappiness—standing here on a bluebird sky day, a weather-beaten barn casting shadows to our left, a hundred birds missed for the shots I won’t be able to take. And I also know that this will give way to wistfulness, and then optimism, as I head back down the highway in the Jeep with my dog riding shotgun, a day at the ranch open and all mine.
I have no time to waste on disgruntled unhappiness, not when I have an open road ahead of me and that wide blue sky above, a good dog snoring gently by my side. The local radio is playing something twangy, the black and yellow ticks by steadily as I curve down towards that land I’m tied to. Quiet again when we get back, a dead fire in the stove and breakfast still all over the counters. We were out there at Skip’s—was his name Skip?—for an hour or so, after the elk hunt proved fruitless and we drove the highway for too long looking for the right turn-off. Cedar did enough romping around that he’s tired now, and he sleeps on Dexter’s bed in front of the fire I get started again, rote in my actions although I rarely am here alone. Outside my hands are cold as I chop kindling, my nose runs constantly, my face gets a little dumb while I stand on the porch with an armful of wood. So much of this place is colored by the people who love it—this view, of the road carved out through the valley, racing away from the cabin and into the beyond---I’ve walked it a hundred times on foot and a thousand times in my mind. This view that my Dad made his legacy, that Uncle Ollie caught in oil paints, that Uncle Jay gets up early to see. The view that my Mom looks out on and recognizes the person she loved first—before all the rest of us—all the wild in an almost untamed heart, all the dreams that were made reality. And I stand here, and I see all this, but I see more too—I see what it means to me, something intangible and unspeakable, and all the things it will be to me.
These trees and rocks and dirt, they don’t mean anything until we make them something. Humanity’s gift and curse, this fight for reason—our reason to be—in a world that asks us to accept only because. But here in front of me, stripped bare and sacred, is my reason. Because I am alive and I am a part of this, more than anything else. Because I know nothing but contentment among these wild things, because to walk for miles on rocky ground is to know the only God I do. I think we are all seeking the same things, out here, though we walk different roads.
Cedar whines from inside, I’ve been gone for too long. I go inside, feed the fire through the black yawning maw of the wood stove. I make tea while Cedar wakes up, and then whistle for him outside—we’re going for a walk.
Because it’s so hot, even in September, our sojourn out to the Needles district of Canyonlands is a somewhat lackluster affair. I have a dream of backpacking down into Canyonlands for a night—our days have been so open-ended it seems like a possibility—but Darren is against this. Because above us spreads a merciless blue sky, spreading a burning heat the likes of which our Oregon skin hasn’t known before, and all around us is red, red rock. Listen, he says, assuming his I’ve been around this area I know a lot, voice—it’s just rocks, down there in the Needles. It’s just like a forest of stone. What about this doesn’t sound cool? I’m not sure. You have to remember I’ve never been here before, not like this. I’ve only dreamed of it—desert days, desert nights. And now it’s unfolding for me, and I want to know everything, every nook and cranny and hidden pocket of this red, red world. Sadly that’s being denied to me. Because of the heat. The rational part of me respects this deeply, because I dislike being too hot, mostly because I sweat a lot. But the non-rational part of me wants to throw caution to the wind, sleep in a rock bowl and stare at the stars all night—the risk of becoming a bleached out skeleton in the sun be damned!
It’s important to note that I’m also coming off of a petroglyph and pictograph high at this point, so my emotions and sense of reality are not probably where they should be. Not sure if they ever are to begin with, but we stopped at Newspaper Rock on our way to Canyonlands and it was incredible. My excitement over the extraordinary array of rock art is carrying over to backpacking through a stone forest (will wonders never cease!) so try not to be too critical towards my total lack of reason. Early in the trip—first day early—I did what any self-respecting English major would do and bought a book about petroglyphs and pictographs at the first bookstore I could find because I was so fascinated by them. What did they mean? What myths were they trying to convey? I was unabashedly a tourist, craning my neck up this impressive wall of carving after carving, flipping through pages. I can never understand, of course. No one can—we ruined our shot there. But eventually patterns start to emerge and I think I understand some of what was being conveyed. Holy, holy, holy are these places, and Darren and I have been seeking them out.
Which is how I’m appeased with our next option for the day, one that doesn’t include dying out in the middle of the desert at high noon. We decide to go to a ruin that Darren knows, tucked away on BLM land underneath a steep overhanging cliff, that features a mountain range pictograph and some masks that are slowly eroding. We head out through Indian Creek, a legendary climbing spot near Moab, but today the walls are heat-shimmering in the sun, the mesas jutting up out of the land like a challenge. Darren points out formations as we go—there’s the Bridger Jacks, that’s the Cat Wall, here’s the South Sixshooter, over there’s the North. I collect the names like talismans, turn them over and over until they’re like a hymn in my head—bridger jacks cat wall south sixshooter north sixshooter—so I can memorize them, come back to them later. I love that about climbing—if you climb it first, you get to name it—and eventually there’s a name for everything, that speaks to the person who first did it, so they get to leave a little bit of themselves, in addition, I guess, to the blood sweat and tears they already left on the stone. Anyone else bumping along this dirt road wouldn’t know that they were surrounded by legends, but we do. A name for everything.
I spot the ruin first, a little dark window against the rock, everything else blending in completely. The rest of the tower begins to emerge, as we drive closer—a line of rock here, a shadow cast down the wall—but it’s incredible how well the house is camouflaged. As soon as my feet hit ground, little red puffs of dirt spiral up into the air and before me a steep field of boulders and agave rises up to meet the little ledge that the tower is perched on. It isn’t going to be a long hike, but it will be hot. It’s beautiful, in the stark way that everything is here, in the harsh way that everything is. We start walking, following a very lightly marked trail, little cairns stacked here and there by others—probably climbers—to mark the easiest route through. Prickly pear blooms in spots, livening up the landscape with some color, and the whole way up I watch my ankles get scratched by rocks and cactus and everything in between. There’s a notched log leaned up against a particularly steep scramble and we work our way up, sweating profusely, the kind of sweating that you don’t even fight, you just let it happen. By the time we get there, both our shirts are drenched.
The tower, it begins to be clear, is built into a cliff that cuts off sharply on one side and a little gentler on the other, so we head that way, our progress slow but steady. Darren gives me a hand up on to the ledge, and then, suddenly, we’re here. The ledge is deeper than it looks, stretching the length of the steep curve of cliff band. Across from us, another mesa rises up to meet the sun, glittering dangerously. We’re protected now, from that ball of fire, tucked into the alcove of stone that someone, a very long time ago, decided to make home.
Once my eyes adjust to the shade, I start to see where we are, really. On the wall high above us, three triangle mountains are printed, a fading red against the tan of this sandstone, with a big arc over the trio. They’d clearly been to the Lasals, I could see that for sure. Storms roll off the mountains here, Darren tells me, pointing at the arc. Maybe that’s what it was—an ancient person respecting the power of a thunderstorm, racing across the desert, sent from the mountains. Or maybe not—it could be anything, really. We’re just guessing. Below the mountains, a few feet down, are three masks that are mostly chipped away now—snarling, elaborate faces unlike anything we’ve seen thus far. Normally there are stick figures, etched into the rock, but these are something different entirely. I move away from them, a little uneasily, towards the tower.
Here, between layers of sandstone and some kind of mortar--a mud, maybe?—rises up a three story tower, evidence of the floor between the basement and the first story still intact. Thick branches are thatched across each other, layered with more of the mortar. Gray light filters through to the floor below, filling the basement with an otherworldly glow. Peering into this tower, someone’s home, I become suddenly aware of how quiet it is. There’s a kind of quiet in the world you have to look hard to find, the kind that pushes in at you, presses in all around you, and that quiet is here, now. Quiet and still is the desert today.
Darren has sidled past the little gap in between the tower and the mesa wall and is moving on to other structures while I stand here for a minute, put my hand on the edge of the tower. Are we trespassing, I think, or paying homage? I follow him through the gap, climb through the window of another room—this one with no roof—and find him in what looks like a sweat lodge. Black rims a hole in the roof, which is the ground I’m standing on, as the lodge is dug in to the wall and built into the slope of the hillside. I don’t go down there, can’t make myself get into the dark, but I can see from where I’m crouched that benches are built into the walls and a deep, black circle in the center of the room marks where the fire would’ve been built. Can you believe this is all still here? Darren asks, and I can’t.
It’s all a little surreal—hiking through agave and prickly pear to the homes of people who lived thousands and thousands of years ago, to seek shade and shelter in the same curve of the earth that an ancient person also sought. What a legacy to leave, I think, as we discover corn cobs littering the floor of a granary and hundreds of pottery shards—some still painted—collected by people who have visited before grouped together on a flat rock. We sit in a particularly cool spot and debate what it might have looked like, really, before everything eroded and weathered many a storm, what the geography of this place might have been. We think some of the ledge must be gone, or shrunk, because the only way across it is through windows of the buildings, and that doesn’t seem effective. How did they get water here? Where was the bathroom? Where did this rock come from?
And who were they, I wonder? What did they dream of, what did they value? How many babies were born here, how many grandparents lost? What stirred their souls—the view of the canyon out their front doors, as it did mine, or would it have been the sight of a river, of water? Maybe they were used to this and took it for granted, as a normal part of life, like I do sometimes with my home. What stories did they tell at night? Why did they paint mountains and masks on a wall instead of the stick figures we’ve been seeing everywhere else?
After a little we leave, looking back at the tower until it disappears up into the wall, holding its mysteries close. At the bottom we pause, soak in the silence and the stillness, just able to spot the little dark window that marked the tower. There, a remnant of a culture and people, ancient lives still visible along a canyon wall. What will last of us, I wonder, and can think of nothing. What will be the testament to my life—here’s the question again, lingering. What will make people wonder about me? Maybe my writing, but maybe not—maybe there will be nothing left of me thousands of years from now. That’s probably true. But as we drive off, into the fading sun, it doesn’t seem so bad. A little anonymity never hurt anybody. Dust to dust, dirt to dirt, back to the land I’ll go, not gone, really—but a party of everything, in the end.
When we get in the car it’s already a little late to be hitting the road, but this whole trip has felt unexpected somehow, so we’re not worried. Not yet. Earlier in the week we decide to go in what is quickly becoming our fashion—a why not kind of adventure, a let’s do it that has usually spelled fun but could always be disaster. There’s something about the road that calls to a certain spirit, a little shoulder Jack Kerouac whispers in one ear, and so without too much ado we headed north, exclaiming every few of the first miles that, we’re doing it! we’re going on our trip! as if we’ve both managed to surprise the other with a little vacation. As we drive our moods follow the sun, which is great when we’re laughing and eating Chipotle even though we’re stuck in a traffic jam in Tacoma (surprise) at 6 p.m., but less great when the car gets increasingly quiet as we drive into sunset in Everett. By the time it’s full dark, our silence is heavy with the recognition that we won’t be pulling into the park until 11 p.m. and we probably should have left earlier and also this is an extraordinarily wind-y road. This, I suppose, is the more sobering side of a spur of the moment trip. We fly by country houses, kitchen windows bright squares against the shadow landscape made by our headlights, weaving up through the mountains. One patch is startlingly bare, a huge swath of brown in otherwise dense fields—the Oso landslide. Here feels ominous, a spooky pallor colors the world for a minute, this place where mountains will suddenly fall apart. There’s a house in the Gorge that was half-buried for part of my childhood, sinking every year until you can no longer see it, hidden as it is by dirt and blackberries. I tell Darren about it when we drive past, and then we are back to looking at the road and humming along to the radio. Here and there I catch glimpses of a dark black glittering through the trees, the Skagit River looking dangerous in all this night. I want desperately to know what we’re in, what the trees look like, who else might be around—but not out of fear. I want to know because it grounds us in place, lets you know how much ground you’ve covered and where you’ve been to get where you’re going. Changing landscape warms a wandering girl’s heart, but here, in the dark, we are anchorless, flying through space and time with nothing to hold us down.
The upshot is that the next morning, when we unzip the tent, it’s a surprise all over again. Not only did we leave town, we also aren’t a 100% sure where we ended up! Granted, we had some sense of surrounding when we were putting up the tent, guided by headlamps, but in the morning light everything is made new. Trees encircle our little two-man polyester home, a couple felled by last winter’s storms, and vegetation crawls over everything, layers and layers of green. We do the perfunctory exclaiming, it’s so green! It’s so beautiful! These are some dang big trees! Not even we, seasoned pacific northwesters, are exempt from wondering at the beauty of these woods. I love the feel of it here, Darren tells me while we eat oatmeal (sidenote: so strongly is Quaker’s maple and brown sugar packet oatmeal associated with camping to me it induces a Pavlovian type response any time I’m in the woods in the morning), and I agree. At first I think he’s referencing the campsite itself, honestly, probably because I note that the architecture of the bathroom lodge was particularly impressive and I assumed he did the same (luckily for me, I didn’t say that out loud), but as the weekend raced along I think I started to understand in a more metaphysical way what he meant.
It’s a lazy morning, I’ll be honest, we’re both drugged after the late night and by the greenery, and we end up spending about a half hour narrating the thoughts of this hyperactive squirrel who was running an elaborate route around our campsite in very earnest preparation for winter. Pinecones, stop and scold the humans, run down the log, circle the tent, dig a hole, bury pinecone, race back to pinecones. More scolding. It was basically Planet Earth but 4D. When we do get things into gear, to be fair, we don’t stop for the rest of the weekend, racing along from one jam packed activity to the next. Consequently, it felt like we spent about a week there, up north, instead of just the two and a half days we did.
In the spirit of we’re doing it, we decide we have to make the absolute most of our trip here because it’s almost the end of summer and who knows when we’ll be back (we’re told the Cascades aren’t the most hospitable place in the dead of winter, we pretty much learn that firsthand during this trip and it’s only the end of August) so we’re interested in doing everything. We tell a version of this story to the ranger at the visitor’s center, which is our kick-off point for our fun-filled adventure. He says, great, love the enthusiasm, but could you be more specific?
Luckily I’d done a little research, so I give him some examples, he tells us what’s realistic and what’s not (for example, climbing the Sahale Glacier trail: we could do it, but it will be completely fogged in and you may die) so we picked what we thought would be fun and then we hit the road (again). It’s an hour out to the trailhead we’re gunning for, to do a climb we found in the guidebook (guidebooks are bibles for a climber who’s worth his salt). North Cascades is known for climbing, mostly thanks to a man named Fred Beckey, who we heard speak last year about his life, which has been entirely dedicated to climbing things. I mean really, really dedicated—he has no wife, no family, no real attachment to anything, just more first ascents than anybody and a lot of luck. He’s also about 90 which meant that his presentation was mumbled and featured sepia-toned photos from the 30s and 40s, when they climbed in tennis shoes with a rope tied around their waist. It felt only right then, since we were in his territory (he was raised in Seattle and learned to climb in the North Cascades) that we do the Beckey Route up Liberty Bell. It’ll be fun! we said. A short, easy little summit, the chance to stand together on something Fred Beckey did almost 70 years ago, we’d be a part of history! Plus the view is supposed to be fantastic, and we all know that’s my primary reason for doing anything.
So we get there, consult the guidebook, and start the approach. That’s the thing about climbing—rarely do you ever just walk up to an enormous cliff band or peak and start. You have to hike and scramble your way up before you even get there, sometimes a really long way. This approach looks pretty straightforward, which probably should’ve been our first warning. A quick mile and a half up an established trail, and then a scramble up a rock gully to the base of the climb, what’s not to love? So there we go, bright eyed and bushy tailed, optimistically signing the trail log and heading out. We get our normal comments, of have fun and good luck, while we head up, the trail rising slowly but steadily through dark, earthy green, not quite as tangled as places at home but still remarkably dense considering how high we are. We hike mostly in silence, hurrying because it’s afternoon already and we don’t want to get stuck in the dark. Bright blue sky is patchy above us, dizzyingly blue in the window we get through the tops of the trees. I keep scanning to our left, after we’re out for twenty minutes or so to see where the climber’s access trail might be. They’re never marked with a sign, but it was on the map so we’re hopeful that it’ll be pretty obvious—Darren had two friends come up last weekend who woke up at 4 in the morning to do an approach and an all day climb, and they missed their cairns and ended up at the base of a completely different route. It’s easy, kind of, to do, so we’re watching, but the trail starts to feel too long—we were estimating maybe 15 minutes a mile, so we should be just about there now. Instead, as we suck in thin air and pass families taking pictures on the enormous boulders that’ve started appearing on the side of the trail, we say things like gotta be getting close now and keep an eye out, the kinds of things people say when they’re trying to mask their anxiety about getting lost.
But then we find it, just as we cross through a high-alpine meadow that looks a little out of place in contrast to the trees we’ve just come from. There, to our left, is a little cairn and a worn path through roots and boulders, and farther up, the looming Liberty Bell group, a collection of peaks that you’ll find in most North Cascades guidebooks, the gatekeepers of the East side. We start immediately climbing and I’m suddenly hit with the enormity of the distance and elevation we need to cross before we can start this climb. It’s immense. We’re trying to get to “the notch”, a little gully that gets covered in snow during the winter here, and that is, during the summer, a rock slide waiting to happen. But before that piece, we have to pick our way through a mile of granite boulders, straight up and ominous, while following the cairns. And you know this about me, I’m good at going up things. One foot in front of the other. But this is hard, whole body work, not just a normal draw to a ridgeline, not a nice little hike. This is some business, as Darren tells me. I’m in pretty good shape, but it doesn’t take long for me to be out of breath and pouring sweat, but we keep climbing, moving up, forging ahead. Behind us, the valley opens up—a circle of peaks appear, a crown of mountains soaring above us. As we get higher we’re able to look them in the eye, and that makes it all worth it, you know. Big swaths of green cut down the mountainside nearest us, a river tumbling down through the middle of it. The last of the summer’s wildflowers are waving in the breeze, bright spots of color against the almost black green of the grass.
We don’t ever stop for long, but I keep checking behind me as we go, soaking in those mountains, feeling like if I could just internalize this view somehow, if I could just take it with me. But then, now you know why I write. So here we are, still working our way up, passing through patches of mountain goat stench so pungent it makes your teeth hurt, getting closer and closer to the rock gully and the notch. We see a few more climbers coming down and we ask them how it is. Cold, they say. But a good climb.
Finally, finally we get to the rocky part. We both put on our helmets, just in case, and start going up as gingerly as possible. The danger is starting a rockslide but we hug the wall, where the rocks are bigger and less likely to shift out from under us. Since we passed the tree line it’s all rock, only rock, a paradise of sorts, for people like us. A staggering amount of rock ahead of us and below us and all around us. I stop for a minute and close my eyes. All I see are the same veiny browns and grays of this world I’ve somehow wandered into. And then it starts to hit me, just as we get to the start of the climb—icy little pricks of wet that my summer skin doesn’t register right away. Ah. It has started raining.
Neither of us mentions it but the rain is very much there, in the way that bad things usually hang between two people who aren’t ready to talk about it. Darren is aggressively optimistic, even in the face of the storm that we’re now watching roll through across the valley we were admiring not ten minutes ago, even as the temperature is dropping alarmingly. We work our way across the notch and to the start of the route, while a team of four guys in front of us is set up. They have someone on the rock already, so we wait to figure out what our options are. Hey, I say, let’s think about this for a minute, I tell him, because I have a gut feeling about what we should do here. Come on, it’ll be a suffer fest, Darren says, think about how good it’ll feel when we’re done! Part of me believes him, because we’ve come all this way, and I don’t want to climb down without standing on the top of Liberty Bell, Fred Beckey’s bell! I also know that there is a kind of fun in suffering, of battling through miserable conditions and freezing fingers and then the after, around the campfire swapping stories and laughing because you lived.
I am nothing if not a believer in gut instincts though, that intuition that whispers what our conscious minds can’t quite grasp. So I tell him, I know. But still, even if we get to the top, we have to get back down. And I don’t want to get back down in this. He looks at the clouds, looks at me. Look at this, I say, a little louder than I mean to. It’s not if it hits, it’s when! And where we’re going to be when it does!
We were just talking about that too, says junk-show guy from the group in front of us. The rock is pretty slick, man, I just don’t know. Nail’s in the coffin now for this climb, because if everyone is saying I don’t think so for weather, in the climbing world, there is no one who should say well maybe we’ll try it anyway. Too much risk, not enough reward. So we climb a little higher into the notch, and look down the other side, thousands of feet of sheer rock—the other way to get the top of liberty bell, a days-long trip up the side of the peak. We, kind of unbelievably, took the shortcut today. I pull out the sandwiches we made back at camp and we watch the storm drench the other side, the crown of peaks gone now from view, shrouded in clouds. We’re perched high above the valley, perched being the only appropriate word to describe our lofty and somewhat precarious position here on the rock, and soon, I know, we’ll be sitting in the middle of the sky, if those clouds keep rolling this way. No, though, I think, as we pack up and start trekking down, each foot step a careful touch to the ground, testing carefully before we put full weight on to avoid the rock fall. Humans belong on the ground.
While we go down we spot other climbers on the walls around us, bright spots of orange and green against the otherwise gray rock. A few are working their way up cracks, probably with tight spots of anxiety in their bellies about whether or not they’re going to beat those clouds to the top. Later we look up the climb they were doing and find it, a monstrous climb that Darren immediately wants to try. Next trip, I say. I already know we’ll be spending a lot of time here. By the time we get to the bottom my quads are quivering wrecks, I’m cold enough to shake and I keep tasting salt—the rain is washing sweat from my face and into my mouth every time I breathe. Back in the car it’s quiet again, but this is a bummed out quiet, a quiet born of defeat. We did the right thing, we made the absolute best choice we could’ve, Darren says. Yeah, we did, I say and turn the heat up higher.
Later, after we get back to camp and get changed, build a fire, get some of that liquid courage in us and laugh about the day, Darren says, we could always try again tomorrow. It’s not supposed to rain. And I laugh again, thinking he’s kidding. He’s not, of course, and that makes me laugh again, because isn’t this who we are? Incorrigible and young, surprise trip kind of people, let’s do it again tomorrow kind of people. Alright, I say, we’ll try it again tomorrow. Cheers.