Land in the Sky: Accidents in North American Mountaineering

East of the Catskills I park close to the summit of Mount Walmart. This prominent snow peak reminds me of Mount Jefferson in the Oregon Cascades. It can be tricky. Today the route looks sketchy. The weather could go either way. And my microspikes are dull. So I abandon any ambitions of ascent I might have had and head into the store.

Nobody knows me in this place, even though I buy stuff here all the time for reasons unknown and I probably don’t need to. I could go elsewhere, maybe another Walmart, but I’m fond of this one, so leave me alone.

Today I need new underwear. Alas, that doesn’t happen. Instead I make an impulse buy: a Dremel tool. This way I can sharpen my microspikes. I will also need to buy a little grinding stone attachment for my new Dremel. See how one impulse leads to another and the same old underwear because now the money has run out?

Anyway, once I get paid for this piece of writing, I will come back here in good weather. My wallet will be flush. I will have freshly-sharpened microspikes and new underwear. Properly outfitted then, I will attempt the tricky summit of Mount Walmart. I know it’s a dream. You come too.

Land in the Sky: On Labels

Today at a supermarket in the Catskill Mountains I saw a bottle of vegetable juice adorned with remarkable labeling: “100% Juice with Added Ingredients.” What manner of adjective is this percent? I wasn’t totally sure. I stood there longer than I should have, pondering which language game I was being invited to play. What were the rules? What exactly was at stake here? Whatever could this mean? The middle of the supermarket juice aisle is no place to philosophize. Others needed access to the goods. Nobody else was reading labels, much less subjecting them to hermeneutic scrutiny. “Just who do you think you are?”

A decent respect to the needs of my fellow shoppers required I suspend further thought till the drive home, wherein I passed a pizza parlor housed on the first floor of what appeared to be a haunted house next door to a junkyard, then an erstwhile fairground long since overrun by scruffy trees, among them a single staghorn sumac, then a shuttered bar and grill where I used to have dinner and drinks with my dad on our way home from visiting my mom in the nursing home, past that was the occasional burned-down summer resort of yesteryear, but mostly it’s like motoring through a Hudson River School painting with gas stations and utility poles and oh so very scenic. I do my best thinking while driving because that’s usually when I have no thoughts at all, just like taking a shower or posting on Facebook, but today I got stuck behind a smoky old pickup, license plate hanging by a single rusty screw, great big Stars and Bars draped across the back window, just as we were passing the untended historic graveyard with its big Civil War monument smack in the middle of a manufactured memory.

And that’s when it hit me: 100% American with added ingredients.

Land in the Sky: Another Mountain Excursion

The collies sit for hot dogs as well as cheese, what good boots these are, this Election Day summit of Wittenberg Mountain, heart of the southern Catskills, broad picnic scenery, drowned towns of the Ashokan, no porcupines persecuted in or on our account, onward then to Cornell and Slide (highest in the range, hides itself from near view), “not real mountains” some say outside knowledge, blowdowns and memories of vistas since obscured, dark waves of forest succession extend into stroll down unfrequented side of peak along abandoned trail of steps buried in leaves, eye of limited service here, foot feels through sole the forgotten path, around and down and down, down past “Posted” signs into thick ferns and composting drifts of bygone summer shade, descending sun, fast-fading registry of deeds, a party pushing through, fourteen-plus cliffy miles come to an end, into the car and go, stop at Brio’s for hamburgers ordered off the “Doggy Menu” lovingly hand fed by tuckered-out vegetarian ward as he downs a beer and another.

Land in the Sky: After That Visit to Walden Pond

When we emerged from the cocktail lounge, it became clear–largely because daylight had returned or maybe had become something other than it ordinarily is–that we should have stuck to beer and ignored what was happening on the television. In any case, now we had to find a ride home and figure out all over again–or maybe for the first time–who we were and how we got there. You went first. The rest are still waiting for your call.

Land in the Sky: Hudson Valley Landscape

Sometimes get into the car and just drive roads unfamiliar or simply unremembered perhaps from childhood past fading farms with ruinous silos collapsing into goldenrod profusions empty of monarchs what only last year or the year before were pastures for cow painters or fields of knee-high by the Fourth of July signs everywhere along the road this one says “1968 National Highway Beauty Award” hard to see that obscured by encroaching trees as is an old cemetery tucked in among thickening shade of ash and maple close by leafy-laned driveways to second homes of successful artists from the city before all opens out unexpectedly into expansive playing fields rising up from which a new regional high school at first mistaken for correctional institution after that hand-painted banner in front of a ramshackle farmhouse with yard cars the message “Make America Grate Again” till abrupt arrival at a sagging redbrick river town “Awaiting Restoration” according to notices in the vacant storefront windows nowhere around here to get a cup of coffee nowhere to go no more history so stroll along a weedy path to river’s edge where green signs mark “NYS Permitted Discharge Point” and in the park right next to that the annual “Blessing of the Animals” going on today pit bulls and kittens goldfish in a bowl one roly-poly child with teddy bear seeking priest blessings bestowed and thoughts of heading home but which way to go how about another unfamiliar this or that road past mothballed generating station until utterly turned around maybe get on the Thruway and pull into a rest stop we all know the way home from there.

Land in the Sky: No Going Back

Thirty years ago, my friend Charlie and I got lost while backpacking in the northeast corner of Yosemite National Park. It was all my fault but that’s a long story, almost as long as the “shortcut” I suggested we take that got us lost in the first place. We were committed and there was no going back. Anyhoo, at one point I turn to Charlie and say: “You know, this is someplace we’re never gonna be in again.” And he says: “Or anybody else either.” northern-yosemite

Land in the Sky: Accidental Monument

High on one of the highest peaks in the Catskills, just below the summit, in balsam-brake and moss, close by Rip Van Winkle’s now-depleted spring, we came upon the wreckage. Broken wings, battered fuselage, relic scraps of metal strewn across forest floor—all that remains of the small plane that came down here in thickening weather one June evening half a century ago. Two lives lost, no survivors. Days passed before the crash site could be located and the bodies recovered. A report was submitted. Probable cause of crash: “Pilot in command became lost/disoriented.” This is the place. No plaque. No marker. No record of any names. Just the bones of Icarus picked clean.

Land in the Sky: Dog Days

For the last three months, the collies and I have grown accustomed to hearing the song of the wood thrush during our sunrise walks: one bird here, one bird there, each singing from his own leafy perch. I love them so, and I think the collies do too. But in the last week, the wood thrush song has ceased. The birds’ attention now turns to other matters. Before long they will depart for warmer places. I already miss them, and I think the collies do too. So when we got back this morning, I found a wood thrush video on the internet and played it. The collies barked for joy, and I think I did too.

Land in the Sky: Elephants

We are sitting at the bar in the Blue Fox in Anchorage, Alaska. It’s an election year and the TV is tuned to the National Geographic channel. Right now it’s a show about elephants. On the big screen we see a mama elephant and her adorable baby sharing an affectionate moment. Even though the scene takes place out on the African savanna where things are supposed to be “nature red in tooth and claw,” everybody here at the Blue Fox looks at the TV and goes: “Awww. . . .”

Then for no apparent reason, mama elephant tips over and collapses to the ground. Everybody gasps. “What’s going on? Is this how elephants take a nap? Is she dead?” Meanwhile baby elephant has his own problems. He is looking at mama lying there on the ground. The expression on his face—and yes, you can recognize it—is one of bewilderment. The look says: “What the hell, mama? I love you, please get up!” But mama does not get up. She does not move. She might really be dead. The look on baby elephant’s face now shifts from bewilderment to full blown terror. He turns and runs away, exiting the camera’s frame.

Enter now a couple of scientists dressed in stylish his-and-her safari outfits. We know they are scientists because he’s shouldering a tranquilizer rifle and she’s carrying what appears to be a medical satchel. The volume on the TV is turned off—and we’ve all had a few drinks—so admittedly some of this report should be taken as guesswork on my part. Nonetheless, the two presumed scientists, smiling for the camera, proceed with their business.

They attend to mama elephant, who—it’s safe to infer—is out cold from a Mickey Finn delivered with a dart. The scientists start taking measurements of mama’s body. She does not move. If she’s still breathing, we here in the bar can’t see it. The female scientist, still smiling for the camera, reaches into her satchel and pulls out the all the gear needed to make a venipuncture and draw some blood. The bar goes silent. All eyes are on the smiling scientist as she steps toward mama elephant’s comatose mass. She runs a cool hand over mama elephant’s ear. The vein is located. The needle is unsheathed. It glitters in the African sun. “This won’t hurt a bit. . . .”

Somebody in the bar shouts: “I can’t take this anymore! Change the channel! Let’s watch the Republican convention!”

Land in the Sky: Sometimes We Sit

Sometimes we sit in this place, just stare out the window at mountains and forests and parking lots. This is Alaska and that’s what happens here. Elsewhere it’s another story. And another. And yet another. A less pleasant story, one that’s on its way. It draws closer and closer. It will be here soon. What ever shall we do?

Look! There. See! Our reflection in the window.