“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” Fred Rogers
There has been no surf this whole trip. Again there is no swell as I stop to camp on the Salmon River in Oregon. I have been here before for a friend’s wedding. I pulled into the parking lot late last night, and pirated my campsite right there. The morning tide has almost completely backed out to ocean. I jump onto the inflatable stand-up paddleboard and ride the outgoing tide to the ocean. We glide on the shallow brackish water with ease. On the other side of the lagoon is an old YMCA camp my friends rented for their wedding a few years back. It was a rough time for me then and it is strange the way emotions become embedded into places, even ones you only visited once, but I remember my emotions from then, and I remember the long solitary beach here and I look forward to walking it again, a different person at a different time, washed by a different emotion, but still the same too. We ride the tide out to the edge of ocean and lagoon, surprising a few young otter pups and then some seals again as we coast the swell to sea. I carry the board above the tide line and we run down the beach together and yet alone.
Lately, I can’t help but think about what it will be like when I don’t have Chico with me anymore. I joke about wondering what will happen to the voice I use when I speak for Chico. People ask me if that is what I think he sounds like, but no it doesn’t. He seems a much too serious of a dog for my cartoon voice I give him. His voice is only mine and I wonder if I will walk around the house talking to myself after he is gone. It is almost too sad to think about. He, too, loves the ocean. He loves the ecotone, the soft wet sand, the smells of distant far off places, objects washed to shore. The freedom of the open sand, the coolness on his paws, he runs down to the waves, careful to never get too far in.
In Guatemala I would try to lure him into bigger shore break to wash over him. His precious head soaked, dripping as he looks at me indignantly. He hates to get his head wet. He bounds along the shoreline in certain dog bliss. I run after him and act like I will get him. He prances along like a puppy with his front paws galloping into the air. In Guatemala, he would chase the sand crabs down to the ocean, pawing at them, pouncing on them. Sometimes he would crush them and then almost feel bad when they wouldn’t move. Sometimes they would clamp onto his beard or lip or paw and he would shake them off with a quick whimper, and as usual, look up at me with indignation. All pain seems to be my fault.
We sit down behind a rock to block the wind coming off the ocean and to write for a bit. Chico finds a post from where to watch. He is always on guard, always watching. I make a lot of my decisions in my life thinking about my dog, making sure it is something he can do, or somewhere he can go. I figure, he lives his entire life just for me, and maybe the food I give him, it is really nothing for his dedication and loyalty. He’s not brave, and will usually bark and then run next to me, but he is loyal. Maybe that is more important. Chico sits with his legs spread out, nose to the wind, an extension of my own senses, he reaches out beyond me.
Eventually, another dog runs up to us, no owner in sight. He is a rambunctious young dog running circles around Chico, but that doesn’t stop him. If he was a mountain lion or bear, I think we wouldn’t have fared too great. Thanks Cheeks.
His tags read Percy. He wants to join our clan, but Chico keeps pushing him away. Chico sits closer to me, watches to chase off Percy; however, Percy is undaunted and sneaks behind us, crawls through the grass until his nose touches me. Chico jumps up and runs him off again, but Percy is too fast. I think dogs often want to join our clan of two, to hit the road, the paddle, the boat, the airplane, the canoe, and adventure life with us. Can other dogs smell the adventure and freedom through Chico, the scent in his ass and beard? Eventually I call the name on the tag and find the owners are staying at the nearby YMCA camp. They are preparing for some sort of day there; staff is on with their shirts. A few young kids come running to get Percy. Percy doesn’t want to go. They try to carry him away, but he struggles lose and runs back to Chico and me…twice.
In Portland I stay with some really good friends and we paddle the Willamette and the Sandy River. Most of my friends have children now and they all raise them different, or maybe the child raises them differently. Their 20-month old recently stepped into hot coals and badly burned her hand and foot. Their child was handling it as only a child can…barely stopping her. The parents seemed a bit worse off, but the wounds were healing fast for all of them. The mother is a trauma therapist and we talked briefly about how trauma happens and what might come of this from their child. Trauma always happens. She says it doesn’t have to be something that gets locked away in the body, but the important part was the love and support there for the person after—that they do well.
When I leave, I drive up the Columbia River. The heat of the day is coming fast, but the mighty river is unfathomable. This river has carried so many people, fed so many people, and captured the imagination, spawning salmon and migrations. Water seems to connect us all. I have hiked many of the mountain headwaters of rivers that dump into the Columbia. We often think that a river stops when it reaches the ocean and it starts on the mountaintops from winter snowstorms. I have an image of the way water attacks land. Water sends storms high above like drone attacks, rains down like chemical warfare, erodes land like terrorism, and carries bits of the dead to sea to wash on the beaches littered like plastics. The dams of the Columbia are terrifically horrifying. I think about dams every time I drive up out of Boise towards my father’s house as I pass along Arrowrock and Lucky Peak dams.
Arrowrock holds my imagination because of Wallace Stegner’s book Angle of Repose. An angle of repose is the amount of materials one can pile before slumping off due to gravities pull. The only way to go higher is to go wider also. Stegner’s book is loosely, if not controversially, taken from the life of Arthur De Wint Foote, a man of vision for the American west, but who seems to have been too far ahead in his thinking. Foote saw promise in the Boise Valley and purchased the water rights to the Boise River hoping to run irrigation ditches all around the valley and turn the almost desert-like Boise into a fertile growing valley. Foote failed, but the idea was moved forward by the Bureau of Reclamation and finished exactly 100 years ago. At the time, Arrowrock Dam was the largest concrete arch dam in the world. 225 feet thick in concrete at the base, angling to 15 feet thick at the top, the dam is 348 feet tall. The 580,000 cubic yards of cement hold back 286,000 acre-feet of water for irrigation to Boise farmers. I drive pass this water often going up the mountains to my Dad’s place.
At my Dad’s house, I can breathe. Maybe, the ocean is so far away, that call of the sirens is muffled. While salmon once reached all the way up Grimes Creek, they don’t anymore. While sometimes I feel like the ocean is attacking land, salmon and steelhead are my meditation. It is hard to imagine the historic, or maybe, prehistoric salmon runs. Millions upon millions of salmon from the ocean spawning up rivers, hiding behind rocks, resting in eddies, a thousand mile journey towards death and rebirth. In Alaska, I would get glimpses of this past, in days when nets weren’t cast in front of the river, the salmon would push with the tide. I miss those days. I don’t like how I long for the past sometimes because longing doesn’t bring it back. I can’t let go the past. The brain loops like seasons and tides and movements of the moon, and migrations of animals, and blossoming of flowers, and the spinning earth on the axis, and my own migration to see friends and family and to hold onto love that seems to constantly slip away, erode out to ocean, spawn and die. I am still slipping.
“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” Buddha
My Dad and I go with some of his hunting friends to hike into a basin to fish. One of his friends told us about a lake he found that was filled with 18-inch trout. My foot is hurt and hiking is painful, but physical pain is nothing. It is hot and we hike into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness to Island Lake. The hike is exposed and suffocating because a fire burned through the wilderness a few years back. The summer has been hot. Drought is everywhere. Even the most devout climate change denier whispers about the changing seasons. During a long uphill section, there is no shade and we power past it all, longing for the water. The mosquitoes seem relentless, but we reach the lake with ease. I didn’t bring a fishing pole; I don’t have a license. I haven’t in a while. Something broke inside of me with fishing many years back. I tell my Dad I just want to watch. Chico and I circle the lake, and see along the banks the trout mulling about. A mayfly hatch is dancing along the shores and the fish dart from shadows to the surface, pull them down, and disappear back. The explosion into the calm excites me. It is commitment and purpose. I can feel the animal inside of me, the desire to hunt. I love the soft feel of fish in my hands. I hate the death. There isn’t a gem in the world that can capture the colors of fish. Rainbow, cutthroat, bull, dolly, brown, golden, brook—salmo, onco, char. I am enamored by fish, my past schooled with them, the stories I tell are those I share with fishermen, and yet, I don’t anymore.
I walk to the far end of the lake where the rocks waterfall into mirrors. Marmot peak over rocks, the pika carry tufts of grass deep into the crevices. A slight breeze pushes all the mayflies against the rocks where I take off my clothes and dive into the cold water, hoping for baptism, hoping for release. I pull myself out onto a flat rock and take in the sun, look out down the canyon to the scarred hillside where fires followed wind up gullies and across ridges. It bulldozed right over the lake; about half the trees were spared. I am fascinated by those that remain, how many fires have they endured or been spared.
Slowly my Dad and his buddies fish their way around the lake towards me on the rock. I can hear the hollers of success and the exasperation of loss as sounds echo across the flat water. One is younger, he told me a story about his girlfriend and how her ex-husband called her one-day at work and shot himself on the phone for her to hear. He has always been giving and welcoming and I can see it sometimes leads to pain. It is his cabin we stayed at and I biasedly scoff at the collection of Bill O’Reilley books about Killing Lincoln, and JFK, and Jesus. He rarely talks politics, but chooses to talk hunting. They all talk hunting. He walks past me and continues to fish along the lake.
My dad comes and sits down for some snacks with me and tells me about what he caught and what he lost and the photos he took so people would believe him. His other friend approaches. He has caught and kept the largest fish of the day and it is a prize specimen. He takes off his shirt and fishes with his pistol tucked behind him. He was a police chief and left California for a job in Alaska running a prison and retired back to Idaho to a small cabin next to my dad. They are becoming good friends. I also frowned at the FOX news homepage and the stack of Ann Coulter books tucked onto the shelf when he graciously let me use his computer to complete some work. He tells my dad he wants to get me hooked on shooting and we’ve gone before. I’ve always enjoyed shooting. He thinks of me as “liberal” and therefore with certain assumption about the world, and I do the same surely. He is teaching my dad to load his own bullets and they often exchange beers, as they both can’t stop talking about bowhunting for Elk this season together. He comes over to my Dad’s house and they swap ideas and theories and help each other as people who live in the mountains do. My Dad gets along with almost everyone.
The Bosnian neighbor across the canyon stops by often, usually brings his own slightly warm beer, and is always there to help with any chore. He has assisted my Dad on his truck; he was a mechanic back in Bosnia and believes in fixing everything. He tells me stories of the war, horrific and honest stories. He tells me about asking a doctor for pills for erectile dysfunction because he can’t have sex with his wife and his fellow soldiers make fun of him, but they fight in their villages, for their villages, and their family and life right there with them. The other soldiers eventually ask for pills too. They were all terrified of dying and loss. He talks about crapping his pants once when he was driving a car with ammo and an airplane started dive-bombing them and they were swerving to get to shelter.
His stories remind me of my martial arts teacher’s stories of what it was really like to watch communists come into his country and to lose everything. I tell him stories all the time of what is on the internet and what is on the news and what friends say and he laughs at most of them. He is the only person I know who really prepares for a tyrannical government while others puff chests and argue on the Internet, he makes real plans that involve the people he loves. His plans aren’t what you think, but once you know them, you know this comes from a person who has lived it.
When we leave for the day, it is hot, but the hike is all down hill. My foot hurts, but I take ibuprofen and power down the hill. My injuries make my body feel heavy. I try to remember how to feel light again. I like how the body can almost fall with gravity; each step is just a brake as the body collapses down the broken rock ravines. Chico is hot, and I don’t stop much. I hike in my head, thinking too much about things too big and yet too real. I think about climate, and water, and war, and death, and family, and weapons, and religion, and guns, and ecosystems, and fish, and hunting, and political parties, and rhetoric over and over and over—as if the solution is somewhere deep inside of me, and I can’t go deep enough to find it. We get back to the truck and I fall asleep in it, listening to my father and his friends talk hunting and fishing, and spot ridges where they might return, and techniques they could use. The hunt and the hunted.
After that, I head out with my Dad’s neighbor, to my Uncle’s farm across town to the agricultural land by the Snake River. My Dad’s neighbor jokes that he is petitioning to join the Millard family and become a brother. He likes my uncle and my uncle likes him. They all had a recent bonding experience fishing trip together in Montana. Today, we are all going to float the Snake River together. My Uncle doesn’t get out as much as I wish he would. There was a time in my life when I laughed harder than ever each night over beers after working construction with him. We would linger around the shop and he’d tell me stories and probe for some too and teach me about life in ways only uncles can. All of my uncles are such amazing people, so honest and open to me. My Uncle was in Vietnam and I know the war still haunts him. He’s told me some stories and some have come from his brothers. I don’t know it all, but I know the killing hurt him. I know his job was to kill people. I know he has a good work ethic, and I know it hurts him now. I think he wishes it had been different. He used to tell me a story about how he would dump out his grenades from his pouch and fill them with mangos.
We don’t talk about any war. We float the river together, tell jokes to each other, and make fun of each other. When my uncle is going, it is often aggrandizing and sometimes self-deprecating, and always witty. I love and respect him with all my heart. My aunt is equally remarkable, and filled with energy. The river is slow moving; catfish and suckers dart around the shallows. I think I see Sturgeon too, but I have never caught one before. I have read about them. They are an ancient fish, unchanged in the fossil record. Some varieties can grow to be 12 feet long, and some live upwards of 100 years. They are bottom feeders, threatened by habitat destruction like so many of our fishes.
Chico and I sometimes just float on the paddleboard, and I think about this river, and how often it has been in my memories—memories of how I used to sit above the Bonneville Shoreline and imagine and the ancient lake breaking the borders and rushing down the Snake River and out the Columbia. The lake breaking was my own failing relationship. My interpretation of nature blended into the interpretation of my present, emotions embedded into places. I think about my grandpa on my mom’s side and how he would ride train from Twin Falls to Shoshone and up to Ketchum, how he fled a life of working on the trains like his father did and his family all did, and ran away with my grandmother to California. Perhaps I romanticize how they both escaped their pasts to make a future together.
I miss my grandmother, the matriarch of the family, the glue that held us together, slipped with dementia into childhood memories and into death, and we seemed to scatter like her memories, as if we each have bits we chase like litter in the wind. No key to know how to put our family back together. Her past was never gone. Those are the deepest memories, the things we return to, even when we think we escaped them.
My Dad’s dad, my grandpa Millard, is getting old. At 98 he had to go to a nursing home for the first time. I hear he is ornery there and I can only imagine. He has tried to leave many times, told people to call him a taxi, and tried to walk out the door. My dad, my brother, and I head over to visit with him. I bring Chico with me. It is dinnertime and all the residents are in eating. Chico can’t come into the dining hall, but as soon as I walk into the entrance, one lady sees Chico from a distance. She instantly stops eating as if by instinct, she turns her wheelchair and rolls directly towards Chico, her expression changing to joy and memories. She loves Chico and tells me stories of the dogs from her life. I don’t want to be this person. I don’t want to leave Chico to just a memory, but I know it is inevitable. She had a dachshund she loved and she went everywhere with her. We are informed my grandfather is on the second floor, but I can’t just walk away from the lady. I try to listen to her stories. I try to take in her memories as if I must be a container for them. I can’t stand the thought of memories pouring from you, percolated deep into water tables beneath us, lost into the giant underground lakes. I think about fracking and how we are contaminating ancient water, Bonneville water, and Sturgeon water.
We go up to the second floor and my Dad gets my grandpa from his dinner and wheels him out to us. His demeanor lights up when he sees Chico. My Dad asks if he recognizes me, and he says he does, and I can’t hide behind a beard, but his eyes seem to search and he focuses back down on Chico and pets him over and over again, smiling a toothless smile. He isn’t wearing his dentures and it ages him drastically. I was already warned about this, but I hate to see this. My Dad tells me my grandpa never wanted to whither away in a nursing home. He made him promise to just drop him off in the woods, let him die with dignity. However, it was his decision to go to the hospital. He woke up from his house with fear of death, fear of something wrong. He does not want to go gently into that night. He has been slipping back into memories of World War Two. He talks to people as if they are in the army or if they are civilians in a war zone. War must lodge itself so deep into the body it never leaves. We have been at war too long now. Whole generations of people reared under wars, but wars most never even acknowledge are happening—wars so distant and foreign, wars we forget we are fighting, or forget why. We only know the word “terrorism.” To be at war must damage us all, to think whole nations of people want us dead, and to hear our own people say the same back, to live thinking about enemies. It must still be there, lodged into the communal conscious. Our land is filled with people always returning from war, millions of veterans seek release. The VA covers my grandfather’s stay at the nursing home. There have been so many wars since WWII.
My grandfather doesn’t hear well. He says it was all the shooting of guns, both military and hunting through his life. He once told me that a great regret of his was that he didn’t take better care of his ears. As we talk, another older guy shuffles up staring at Chico mumbling about a past dog he once had. Although he never says his name, it is written across the Velcro tabs on his shoes next to dried spaghetti—Allen. He begins to tell me about his deceased wife. She died from smoking. He said she would smoke in the car and flick the butts out the window and the wind would carry them back and land on the back seats and burn holes. I chuckle at what he remembers and he chastised me for laughing. She could have burned up, he says, it isn’t funny. Seats back then didn't have fire retardant. He then tells me about his father and when he died there was an open casket and his aunt spit on his fathers open grave. He told his aunt he would snap her neck and he explains to me that he could have back then because he hauled 100-pound sacks of potatoes around and he was in shape. I want to let go of all the wrongs people have done to me and me to them. Take those memories away.
We hug my grandfather and let him return to his food. I want him to live forever and yet this isn't the way he lived. I worry I may not see him again.
I think of my other grandfather, how far away he moved, and the pain I know it causes his kids and us grandkids and the great grandkids too, but he is seeking happiness too. I understand that. I want to pull everyone I love together, buy property for them all to live close to me, and I wish I could catch them all. They say the path of enlightenment is about letting go. I don't ever want to let them go.
My boss told me that Buddha named his only son Fetter before climbing the wall and leaving him forever. I wonder what chains bind me, which walls do I climb, and which paths do I strike out towards. Isn't the more difficult one to stay and join?
My Dad, my brother, and I pack up for our annual backpacking trip. This year we are leaving the Sawtooth Wilderness and returning to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. We arrive late at the night and sleep at the trailhead. The hike the next day is long and exposed because a fire burned through the area. We wake up early and hit the trail the next day. All day, clouds threaten the skies. When we get to the lake, we quickly set up tarps and tents to protect ourselves. I walk back to the rocky point of the lake and watch the clouds expand across the open skies while my dad fishes. My brother, recovering from a cold, sleeps. My dad and I day hike up to the next lake. The lake appears sterile for fishing. We walk around the rocky shores and see no movement. We look back out across the watershed, I can see where the fire ravaged up ridgelines, jumped rivers, and ran up the valleys. Fire isn’t an exception in the high country. It is part of the norm. Fire creates new growth. I know this technically, but the destruction looks devastating. I can see the new growth, the fireweed emerging from even the most scorched earth, and yet, it feels sad to me. I think nature is a reflection; the metaphors we create are how we see at that moment. I want to see the beauty of the fire.
I walk off to poop while my Dad waits for me. When I return, he says I pushed a bunch of Elk out from the trees and they headed up over the ridge. We hike around trying to find them again. My dad is a hunter. He sees terrain like a hunter, thinks about how he would work the cirque, where they might bed down, where they might push through. I know the Native Americans used fire. They were the first managers of this land. They used fire to open up the understory, to open up hunting grounds, to be able to see the game move better, and they created a healthy forest ecosystem that thrived off the fire. They say, most of the European settlers walked into a vastly empty America. But it wasn’t always empty, disease spread like wildfire across the plains and into the mountains. By the time Cortez reached the capital, most people were dead. Before Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific, disease had already crossed the lands. The land felt ghostly empty because it was. And the few that remained weren’t listened to. We didn’t stop to ask them how they lived, or what they did. We killed and slaughtered and took. I remind people often that our national parks, and national forests, the places where humans don’t live, but visit, were once inhabited. They are monuments to the successful massacre of the people who once lived here. So little is left when the victor tells the stories of victory. Am I complacent in a revisionist history of the world?
The next day, we load of daypacks and hike out of the one watershed over to the next one to check on some lakes we see on the maps. No trail is listed so we contour the rocky cliffs hugging the tree line for passage over the ridge.
We hike off trail to a small peak below Roughneck Lookout to get a glimpse of Finger Lakes. What I would do to see a thousand-year old timelapse of a mountain growing, breaking, collapsing, and washing down ravines. Able to stand so tall when united, but once cracked, the individual rocks spread out, repose is lost. Mountains are always in decay, always relenting. However, I read that the Sierra Nevada actually gained in height recently because of loss. With so much water lost, so many lakes running dry, so much land without moisture, the weight of the entire mountain range has lifted up off the lake of molten lava on which it floats. The mountains are floating higher without the depressive weight of water, and yet, life dies from this.
We pass along the scree field beneath the lookout platform high above on the peak, and in the jumbled mess of rock, paint cans, and tin cans, and garbage. I doubt it was tossed from the top, but instead, has slowly cascaded down with the crumbling rocks. Rust stains mark rocks where they sit, but nothing stays still. Mountains are not still. Trees are not quiet, life never stops, and we just can’t see it. Life is going so fast for humans, we breathe in seconds, and give up years. Decades wash away and centuries are dust.
We jump a dear and push two goats of the scree field; we hear them before seeing them. The sound of falling rocks in a quiet life of mountains; the goats bound up over the ridgeline and disappear. We are not in a place where humans typically go. We are off trail and aim for a small promenade that looks out over the southern side of roughneck peak, out to a different watershed above Finger Lakes. We stop and trundle rocks ourselves, as if moving mountains makes us feel bigger than we are. The explosion of rocks thunders up the canyon and the rock tumbles down. Do we hasten the mountains demise?
I stop to write as I look out across the burned forests. The same fire crossed watershed and moved around mountains. But in my time-lapse of mountains, a fire is the passing wind that churns a lake, and life settles back down. I like to see the pockets of survived forests. It needn’t burn so much and so hot, but neglect works that way. Doing nothing isn’t always the best, suppressing rarely is, but a few survive, the stalwart ridgeline trees, the loners escape the torture of fire, a few small families ride the storm like a farmhouse in a tornado. I know we tend to deify such events, and why not? What others words work better to tell the story of survival—chance seems too abysmal and infinitesimal.
Rain falls off and on, thunder rolls, the sun spots the mountains. We are thankful for the showers and clouds making the hike cooler, but whom do we thank?
I used to tell people that I would never commit suicide; I would disappear. I would walk away from it all and reinvent myself. I have been drawn to such stories of Everett Ruess and Chris McCandless, to the mountain men traumatized by a Civil War who left, most never to be seen again. I sometimes long for such reinvention. Some say you can’t walk away from who you are, but that isn’t it. It isn’t me so much as it is the world around me. I break away from my Dad and brother, tell them I want to walk around this peak and I will meet them on the other side. I walk an area I am sure few people ever have been. Often I find little clearings in the woods and wonder how long one could live right there without being found. How many places in our wilderness are there to disappear still? I am sure people do this. I don’t think it is difficult. The hard part of life is staying and fighting. To look at a broken world and how it is mirrored inside of you and everyone else and how we mend each other through relations and through talking and sharing and loving.
And as you put yourself back together, parts are missing, and as you try to glue yourself to another person, both fractured and missing parts, we leak, we leak over and over again and those parts are crucial to living a whole life, and so we apologize, as we chisel the glue that once bound us away and crumble and cascade down mountains into water. Is the only way we can be back together to dissolve into nothing, to melt into water, to subduct deep beneath the ocean into molten lava and burst back forth anew, spewed into the world? I know my atoms keep leaving me. Everywhere I go I leave bits of something that once was me and I rarely get that back. My connection is too tenuous. And yet I keep seeking new places in the world. I long for adventure and relations and learning and each one takes some part of me away, and gives back something different. I have no ownership over the atoms and yet I do have some amount of choice, the food I eat, the places I live, and the people close to me. We share a space and share atoms and share the air I only partially breathe and give back to you. Sometimes I want to hold my breath and not let anymore of me escape. I want to hold on to this right now.
I meet them back on the other side of the ridge. We return back to our campsite right before the sunsets behind cloud-filled skies. I sit down on the edge of the lake to watch the colors change across the sky. I learn from nature so much. I know this is about recovery and rebirth. It is about healing. Even the way a lake moves and calms in the changing winds, the way insects emerge at just the right moment, how life opens if you listen and watch. A robin keeps fluttering by, dancing on the water and perching on a floating snag, something in her mouth, she gives me a sideways look and consternates to one side of me and then flutters back to the other. I imagine a nest is near, but I don’t look. Fish boil in the water feasting on the bloom of insects. At my feet are the luminescent wings of dragonflies, the remains of demise, and yet on the shores of the lake are the crusted bodies of the dragonfly larvae where they crawled from the water to emerge from the hardened skin. The molten skin still gripped to the grass where they left behind the old. There is no escaping the skin I am in; my transition can only be metaphoric. Bats emerge on a light wind as the day darkens. I’ve grown to love the long setting suns of northern latitudes, the way the light lingers, and fights night off early. It is only part of a perpetual cycle, and each has moments of glory in them.
My father and brother go to bed and I sit up and watch the skies move, the water move, the clouds move, and stare out at the burned trees. Something Rilke once said sticks with me:
“Love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away, you write, and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast. And if what is near you is far away, then your vastness is already among the stars and is very great; be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own…and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.” Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet
In the morning, we hike off trail again to another lake on our way leaving. We hike through the burned out sections of trees, up to another lake, then back down following the carpet of huckleberry filling the voids of the burned grounds. They are not ripe yet, but they will be. At some point, the sweet smell will cover the forests. As we hike back to the car, I keep stopping to watch the wildflowers filling the burned spots of the mountains. I stop to see the topography that I would not have seen when the forest was dense. I stop to admire the seed trees that survived and the young saplings emerging from rocky soil. I stop and watch the healing process and try to imagine the next time I come, and then hundred years from now, a thousand years, and I hope these forests emerge from the wreckage of humanity. I am so sick of burning. I want to look out and see the contours of life, to see the fireweed pushing through ashes. I give my breath to the forest. I breathe my life into this place. Take it, inhale it, make it something beautiful.
After backpacking, I stop on the Payette to camp with my cousins for a few nights. I have not camped with them for many years now, but they were once like big brothers I would come to visit in the summers. They too have not camped together in many years, but both are going through divorces and living back home. There kids are with them. We all grow so far apart in life and yet, sometimes those gaps of time collapse us back together. I am not sure I have told them I love them in a long time, maybe never, but I try my best to express this now. We soak in hot springs and sit around campfires and sing songs. We tell stories about hunting and fishing. We try to be a semblance of a family, fractured and split and partial, but there together anyways and I am glad to be there with them for now. And yet, I must head home soon. I often just want to stay right there next to the river, but I know it isn’t the river, but the people I am with. The people with whom I try to share it temper my solitude. Everything can feel so alone at times.
All the hate in this world, all the way people use religion and politics and ideology and business to hate another person, to get higher on the mountain by pushing more out to the bottom, to only see your spot on the mountain, but not realize where you stand. You can’t hate the people who hate you and expect a different reaction from them. Love is so elemental it belongs on the periodic table, and yet we try to tell people how to love, whom to fear, whom to blame, and each time I breathe in, I take some of that into me too, and I want to get it out. I want to heal. I want to rebuild myself around a world that isn’t afraid of the scars of life, and doesn’t allow those to control every decision afterwards. I want a world that can take in the hurt, transform it into growth and renewal. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “One of the most difficult things for us to accept is that there is no realm where there’s only happiness and there’s no suffering…If we focus exclusively on pursuing happiness, we may regard suffering as something to be ignored or resisted. We think of it as something that gets in the way of happiness.” His solution: mindfulness. To be present in each moment. To breathe in and out the world around you. To not let fear and despair lodge into the dark cavities of your body and mind. To not make decisions in the world out of that fear. To take in your suffering and use it to expand out, to open up, to feel compassion and love for life on earth and beyond. To hold history close but not let it control your future. To see burned out forests and see the new growth and the potential. To see hurt and injured people and focus on the ways they are learning to love again. To see death coming and embrace life and the future. To forgive by accepting and pulling it closer. To see people in that very moment, in that very breath, as people to be loved.
I load everything back into my truck. I walk down to the Payette River and jump into it again. I am not seeking baptism. I am seeking to feel alive. The smoke of the fire washes off my skin, the pores tighten around the cold mountain melting snow, my breath shortening and exhilarated. I step out of the water and look up stream, up to the Sawtooth Mountains and give my gratitude. I hug my cousins, still dripping from the river and tell them I love them. I load Chico into the truck, double check everything is strapped down, water bottle close, audiobook ready, and seatbelt on. I look over to Chico and ask him if he is ready. I reply for him in his cartoon voice, and I think he looks at me indignantly, like he always does. I tell him I love him. I tell him that someday I will be in a nursing home telling stories of everything we did together. I know the day he dies will be one of the saddest days of my life, but I will temper that with all the great days we have had together exploring this world. I honk, wave, and start the long drive back home, back to work, back to a life that doesn’t have a clear path; there is no release, only acceptance and awareness and love, a mindful path of heart, a wide open forest of potential, another set of waves rolling in from a distant storm. All I can do is tell you that I hurt, I hurt like so many of us do, hurt from love, hurt from suffering, and hurt from being alone, but I am telling you this right now because I trust you. I love you.