Promise of Spring

A title is a promise, or so I hear in writing circles. If that’s so, then this one, I’m telling you, has been broken for a long time. I’ve waited for warm dirt since last November when the first wet snow fell, and I’ve waited in earnest — and in vain — since the beginning of March. No dice.

Let me be clear: Spring in the Northwest is excruciating. Not crisp or cool or refreshing. Not even gloomy or depressing. Excruciating. The weeks between the last snow and the first flower stretch out endless as a Kansas interstate, interminable as a dentist appointment where the guy leaves you in a room with your jaw wedged open and then just forgets about you. Only worse. Because, in this case, there’s always a tease. You look out the window after a long spell of gray, maybe six weeks of drizzle, and you see the sun. The sun! You step outside — bundled in a wool coat and hat — and the wind blows fierce but you don’t care. You turn your face upwards only to see clouds rush in — from where? — to obscure the light.

John Denver had a song called “Late Winter, Early Spring (When Everyone Goes to Mexico).” Sometimes I remember the slow plucking dullness of that tune and think that’s how this feels, except that it’s mid-spring now not early spring, and anyway what was the name of that album? “Rocky Mountain High.” Colorado. 300+ days of sun a year. OK, OK, I admit it. My problem may stem from the fact that I grew up in Southern California, where we started swim practice outdoors the first week in February. The tradeoffs you get for living in the North Cascades rather than Greater LA are worth it, I know: clean air and solitude, green trees, waterfalls, and in summer, the high country. And it’s Lent anyway, I tell my formerly Catholic self, time to wait it out, cultivate patience.

Instead, I decide in late March to move to Arizona.

Seriously. I decided just that, emphatically, last week, when family obligations landed Laurie and me in Phoenix next to a swimming pool. Never mind that the hotel was surrounded by a Cracker Barrel, a riverbed littered with shopping carts and a thousand car dealerships. It was warm. Maybe there was no warm dirt, but there was plenty of warm cement, and that seemed good enough. I didn’t decide to move to Phoenix — I’m not yet that far gone — but Flagstaff, for sure, high dry and sunny. I was sure about it.

Until today.

There’s always a today, every single year. But I forget until it’s here: full sun, green grass, tiny shoots of tiger lilies, lupine, columbine, glacier lilies, water leaf, balsamroot.  None of it flowering. Not yet. But the promise is enough. And, yes, the dirt is warm, sun-soaked and smelling strong. I walked the gravel road this afternoon, skipping across potholes, in shirtsleeves, and, back home, I lay in the dirt and the fir needle duff among saw chips like confetti from a winter limbing project and brown maple leaves, dry as crepe paper, twitching in the breeze, and I stared straight into the sun.

 

Re-Entry

We hiked that winter morning from the river to the rim, from sun-soaked beach through deep red mud to dry cold snow. From a grubby two weeks camping, past Europeans in city shoes, to the visitor center pub where Jim Croce played on the jukebox and ski jumpers launched on flat screens over the heads of Midwesterners sipping toddies. All of it, every detail, felt new and alive, nearly foreign, and snagged our attention like raingear on mesquite.

Re-entry is like the space between waking and rising, a dream-place, a passageway. People who travel overseas call it culture shock. People who work outdoors, as we used to do, camping for weeks at a time, know the familiar shock of sudsing shampoo under warm water — warm! — or easing a gas pedal up to sixty or marveling at the grocery produce section. There’s overwhelm in it, but there’s also magic: the sense of being remade.

Sometimes, of course, you’ve been made new so often it becomes blasé. You go into the woods, you come back out. Big whoop. But, this time, we’d been made really new. We’re backpackers, Laurie and I, skiers, sometimes bikers. We are not river runners. Especially not in February in the Grand Canyon. To be in your forties and cede control of nearly everything to someone else, even dear old friends, is unnerving.

We’d known our river-running friends many years earlier when we’d all toiled at a lodge on the North Rim doing lousy work for lousy pay in a gorgeous setting. We hadn’t seen them much in-between. But, as is so often the case, the kind of people they’d been was the kind of people they’d become: sun-weathered and silly, cautious and reliable, wild and gentle in equal parts.

“The Grand Canyon still has something to offer us,” the email invitation read.

So we headed off. Were we out of our element? Yes. Were we cold? Yes. Were we scared? Very. When we hit the rapids, and our boatman-friend said “hold on,” by god, I held. After two weeks, only half the river days the rest of the group would spend, I had new palm calluses. Then, in no time, the trip was done. We were back in the realm of the familiar: in well-worn boots, hiking with packs, preparing to re-enter.

I crave it. Who doesn’t? It’s like Joseph Campbell said: the call to adventure runs full circle to the triumphant return. Only this triumph comes with a heavy dose of humility. And aloneness. No one, it seems, can understand what you’ve been through, what you’ve learned, lessons so obvious as to seem mundane: how little we need for happiness, how much we have to be grateful for, the plain wonder of the world we live in and the deep responsibility we have for it. How can you explain that? You can’t.

Even as you try, as you leave the rim and drive to town, it’s slipping away like the effects of high-altitude training leeching off at sea level. You stop for groceries. You nudge the speedometer toward eighty. Pretty soon, you’re boarding a jet for home. An airplane! For this kind of shock, I’m not ashamed to admit, I require Xanax.

I’d just taken my middle seat and half a pill when I looked up at my seat mate. She was a talker. A giddy one, grinning wildly, eager, nearly desperate, to tell the story of her travels. I pocketed my headphones and tried not to sigh.

Turns out, she’d celebrated her 50th birthday with her first trip ever to the Grand Canyon. She’d planned the trip for months, but by the time she arrived in Arizona, yet another El Niño storm looked likely to keep her away. Then it happened: the snow cleared, her father took the wheel, and they showed up at the snowy edge.

“We could see the river,” she said.

I did not want to fess up. I didn’t want to one-up her for one thing, but also it suddenly seemed very private — my changed-ness, my quest — something I ought to hoard like Halloween candy or piety. But there was no way out of it now except to lie. So I came clean, and we swapped stories as we ascended. She’d seen a sunrise and a sunset, the same as me. She’d walked an icy trail gripping the handrail, the way I’d gripped webbing.

Now the plane banked, and there it was below us, the geography of our remaking, the Grand Canyon in its wholeness, end to end, as though you can digest it this way, in three minutes or six. You can’t, of course. We both knew that, my seatmate and I. You come, you stay, you arise made new. If you’re lucky, you can share it.

Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington. Her new book, “Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness,” will be published in spring 2011.

Snapped

At dusk, the power crew rolled up the road between the high plowed berms, not a crew exactly, just our two neighbors, Bob and John, who would ski out in the last of the light to see what tree had lain across the line and whether it might be a simple job, something they could cut and clear without alerting the bigwigs, a job that would officially require a union crew and a long wait unless they got there first. They were racing the dark.

Not just dark. December dark. Three-thirty. Four at the latest. Which meant sixteen hours of darkness awaited us. And with the power out and likely to stay that way, dark meant really dark. The thought made us a little panicky, Laurie and me, more panicky certainly than the big approaching storm that we’d been hearing about ad nauseum all day on NPR before the power went out. I’m telling you, we had no choice. We could sit home in the orange glow of the woodstove or the blue glow of the LCD lantern listening to our new battery-powered XM radio with a thousand stations not worth listening to (weather in Pittsburgh, ’80s top-40, right-wing rants) until our sanity snapped. Or we could put on skis.

We rifled through the jumble on the porch: poles and skis, snowshoes and shovels, on hooks and waiting to be hung. We tripped over the extension cord with a duct tape label — heat tape, no use to us now — and chose skinny rock skis. We packed headlamps, but we didn’t bother to change into rain gear, no time for that, blue jeans and ball caps would do. Never mind the snow dumping off the fir limbs where it had sat for so long, wet clumps loosed in the wind.

We usually don’t get wind. Not in winter. We get inversions. Now we had wind like adrenaline, wind like something at long last happening, and we’d be part of it. We skied down the driveway and across the plowed road, stepping gingerly, not sliding, for fear that gravel exposed in the tire tracks might scrape even more of the scales off our so-called rock skis, and back into the woods: fir, cedar, pine, dogwood, maple, cottonwood. More fir. We could not hear chainsaws in the distance, a bad sign, but then we could not hear anything over the splatters on ourhat brims and the clatter of snow bombs and limbs themselves crashing onto rocks and other limbs and onto bridges and metal roofs and the hoods of cars, crashing everywhere. We skied on.

We skied across a bridge over a narrow creek toward a row of summer cabins by the river, the river running low and trees bowing to one side, then to the other, some bending far, some barely at all, like a group of women in aerobics class with varying levels of flexibility. No, no, check that. Like fourth-graders in PE. Like kids who are supposed to be stretching but are fidgeting instead: bouncing, hopping, lunging. Not swaying. Swaying would not be the right word. Not even close. This was not a slow dance, but an encore. Not a marijuana stupor, but a speed frenzy. We saw tracks, but we didn’t see Bob or John. We didn’t see anyone. We only saw trees arcing, swirling, waving. Falling.

Trees were falling everywhere. We could hear them, and we saw several down. Not snags. It’s not snags that fall. I worked trails for years, so I’d known this forever: dead trees don’t have needles to catch the heavy snow and hold it until wind can use it for leverage and yank the whole deal to the ground. Actually, I should say, I’d known this forever in theory based on the blowdown evidence, but here it was in process. Pines seemed most vulnerable with their showy needle pompoms, like catchers’ mitts full of snow, bigger than baseballs, bigger than softballs, more like volleyballs.

“We ought to head home,” Laurie said. I stood stone still, examining the pine needles. She was over-reacting, I thought. I could see there was some danger, sure, but nothing as bad as whatawaited at home. I was not ready for blue LCD and the music of Phil Collins. I was busy thinking about canceling that XM when Laurie’s voice sounded again, more shrill.

“Come on,” she cried.

Trees weren’t falling anymore. They were snapping off mid-trunk, a sickening crack. Like a femur. Like a firecracker. Like several. And Laurie, I suddenly remembered, has tree-falling phobia. For me, it’s jet airplanes. For Laurie, being out in the dark on skinny rock skis in a windstorm with trees snapping like straw was about how it would be for me freefalling in a 747. With that in mind, I picked up the pace, kick-and-glide in her tracks, head down, toward the road where headlights glowed. The power crew, we thought. John and Bob. But we were wrong. Rangers.

Not rangers exactly, but our neighbor, Loretta, driving the ranger truck with a new recruit. They wore hard hats inside the cab and were trying to figure out a place to turn around.

“You can turn around at the Bowles place,” I said.

I was annoyed that Loretta could forget something so obvious even in a snowstorm. But this is what winter does to us, I thought. All that darkness rots our brains.

“You shouldn’t be out here,” the new kid said. “Trees are falling.”

I ignored him. “Right up there,” I said, pointing behind me into the howling dark.

Loretta shook her head.

I turned to look.

A half-dozen half-trees lay crisscrossed across the road between us and the turnout.

We hightailed it then, Laurie and I, the opposite direction down the middle of the road, ski scratches be damned, and waved to Bob and John as they headed home defeated. Then we charged up the unplowed driveway, not stopping to catch our breath, not stopping for anything. We could no longer see the trees jerking in the wind, but we could hear them and sense them and smell the freshcut pungency of a newly cleared trail, of a lumberyard after a rainstorm. My jeans were sopping wet, my skis hard to lift in the slop. I could see Laurie far ahead on the porch with her headlamp waving her arms over her head.

“What?” I cried. “What?”

And then I could see: she held two cold cans of beer.

Laurie offering a beer while trees toppled was like me uncorking champagne as the fuselage flamed. But what the hell? The worst of the danger was past. We were under a roof, twelve-inch rough cut-rafters, so we might as well watch. I traded my wet cotton for dry wool, and we sat together on the porch in the dark, listening.

We’d listened from this porch before: to coyotes, to owls, to the ocean roar of the river at flood stage, to neighbors testing out their automatic weapons on a lazy Sunday afternoon. This was louder than any of that. We tried to count but gave up and sat and sipped and listened some more. Snap. Snap. Snap.

By morning, were we back out on skis with a saw clearing the road? Or did we let other people do it? Did we stay inside for another Peter Cetera song or the latest body count from Iraq or the latest college football poll from AP — Oregon in the top ten? — or the weather from Phoenix? I don’t remember.

I only remember a week later, after the union crew came to restore power and the sun came out and the crust froze hard. More firewood than we could cut in a month lay scattered willy-nilly around the yard, and we knew exactly what to do. I’d buck the rounds and load the plastic sled — a cheap kids’ sled from the hardware store we use to haul groceries — and Laurie, the better skier, would hold the sled rope in one gloved hand and take off down the mellow grade. Better than a wheelbarrow any day. A snowplow, a telemark turn, a hockey stop, a sip of beer, and she’d dump the rounds in a pile outside the shed and head back up for another load while the sun skirted the ridge top at noon and shone till two, then three, weak as a low-battery headlamp, but shining still. Sometime near dusk, Laurie’s pole caught on a maple sapling and wrenched her shoulder. She laughed. What would we tell the doctor? That she’d been sledding firewood on skinny rock skis on ice while drinking beer? There’d be no doctor visit. We’d nurse her shoulder overnight with snow in Ziplocs, hoping it would be a simple injury, nothing to worry about, then we’d head back out in the morning to stack the rounds and burn the limbs and buck some more, racing the next storm.

Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington. Her new book, “Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness,” will be published in spring 2011.