On The Temporal Nature of Loss

burnt house

Photo courtesy of B. Frank

Way I remember it, he was wearing a corduroy jacket, or maybe it was wool flannel — either would have stood out as old-school, since we were already living in the age of miraculously wicking fabrics with trademarked and patented pedigrees, available even to thrift-shop-haunting dirtbags like me. I’d been following his outbound ski tracks for a mile or so away from the snowshoe-chopped roadside trail. I was climbing with my partner toward a paradise best left unnamed, the better to keep trail-choppers from realizing how easy it is to reach from a certain over-used highway in my home range.

He appeared at the top of a hill and stepped out of his ski tracks. While waiting for us to pass, he pulled out a battered old thermos and poured himself a cup of steaming dark brew. As we neared and could see his white-whiskered chin and weathered face, I idly speculated that he might’ve started skiing these mountains before I’d been born.

After exchanging comments with the old man about the day’s snow and sunshine, as people tend to do about impermanent things, we skied toward paradise, he continued down his back-trail, and I forgot that day for years — until just now as I pass by the soon-to-be-forgotten hulk of yet another piece of my home range’s history.

To hear the mourning former regulars tell it today, without the Hollywood Bar, there will be no haven from the “ … hippie bar across the street,” no place a man can “ … get a cheap beer, shoot some pool and go smoke a joint on the patio out back.” You see, this is the story of the last days of the Hollywood, a bar with a reputation for trouble and comfort, for providing sustenance to sawmill savages, dam-builders, fire-fighters, dirtbags and bar bums of all stripes, so long as you kept your name off the 86ed list. One local remembers hanging out at the Hollywood as a child, while his mother tended bar and added a few more names to the list, some with a note that the ban would last a lifetime.

As with my version of skiing paradise, I’m not going to name the town the Hollywood called home, so you’ll have to seek it out if it’s that important. If you find it, though, nothing will look the same to you, because the history is different now — so let’s go back to those final days. The tin ceiling tiles wore a bronze patina of ancient cigarette smoke, and there were brown splatters above the ceiling fan from the time a guy got his throat cut at the bar below. (It’s said he lived. It’s also said that Cactus Ed Abbey drank here, but that might not be any special distinction, judging by the author’s self-reported reputation.)

A couple years back, I took a newly arrived resident of my home range to the Hollywood, hoping to show him a piece of the area’s history, but since I’d last been there, the bar had been bought by a Texan, who’d replaced the tattered tables and ripped chairs with polyurethane-smelling wooden booths. The bartender treated my friend (a scion of a still-wild place in another urban-wildland-interface blighted state that [you’re right] I won’t name here) like a tourist. I left with only the blood-splattered ceiling, the bar-top with generations of names carved into it and a silent television screen showing a burning oil rig as reminders that the Hollywood still had a bit of history in it. I never went back inside to witness its decline into yet another sanitized caricature of a mountain-town bar. Now, of course, I wish I had.

My partner and I walked by a day before the fire, noted that karaoke night was just beginning, and went across the street to the “hippie bar.” It’s a micro-brewery that serves good food, while providing a place for traveling musicians to earn a little gas money to get to bigger, more lucrative gigs on the other side of the mountains. At least a couple of local kids have grown up behind the bar and in the kitchen, washing dishes and helping make the place a destination for the area’s younger set, along with more than a few miracle-fabric-clad dirtbags. I’ve seen forest workers, construction crews, skiers, river-rats and rednecks mingle there. The brewery was packed, the band was good and the next time I saw the Hollywood, there was a bouquet of flowers in an old Jim Beam bottle on the sidewalk, in front of a burned-out hulk.

Crime-scene tape blocks the door. A sign says that arson is suspected and warns that trespassing is a felony. The old stone walls are blackened, the roof gone. Firefighters say the blaze was so hot that it almost ignited an apartment building next door. Local gossip says the bartender 86ed an unruly patron, who slipped around back and started the fire a couple hours later. The bartop, the ceiling, the list of 86ed lifers, the still-new wooden booths, the pool table — from the alley behind the patio, it looks like a total loss.

The owner of the hardware store down the street remembers that his wife’s family ran the place back in the sawmill days, but now the mill site is underwater behind the dam, and the people who remember those days are dying off, or selling out to new folks who are more likely to take their kids to a micro-brewery with live music than a bar with blood on the ceiling and karaoke Wednesdays.

I now have almost as much white in my beard as the old man who broke trail to paradise, and as losses keep piling up in my personal history, I’m spending less time with other graybeards lamenting changes in my home range. More often, you’ll see me nursing a good micro-brew while I eavesdrop on the multifarious life stories playing out around me. Here’s to hoping the next time I pass through that little town, at least a couple of the Hollywood’s old regulars will be bellied up to the bar with me.

Senior correspondent B. Frank is the author of “Livin’ the Dream.” He splits his time between the Colorado Plateau and the Border Country.

Cold, Snow and the Fire in My Soul

Snowy Blueberries

Is it the Northern European and Highlander blood romping wildly through my veins? And that bit o’ Japanese blood found cavorting there; clearly it must hail from one of that island country’s many mountain ranges. For I cannot deny, nor would I want to, that I am a woman in love … with winter.

In the summertime, I hold my breath until it rains. Here, there are long stretches of time during which nothing wet falls from the clouds. If we are lucky enough to have any clouds. I grow bored of the blue-on-blue backdrop, the scorched and arid air. It is not very interesting. And then there are the rampant wildfires with that angry, maraschino cherry of a sun.

When summer finally ends, I am pleased as punch to see it retreat in a cowardly and vapid puff of dust. Good riddance to friable rubbish! And should 55⁰F still feel downright chilly, burr, go grab a sweater. Start adding to your coffers of rounds and splits and kindling. Chastise yourself repeatedly for not worrying about your firewood needs earlier in the season, like you always plan to do. Worry about it, get over it and then get on it. It will warm you up.

Graciously by mid-September, the days have cooled and the nights are chill. Soppy stuff falls from the gathering clouds in big, fat, confident dollops. A little more time passes and October clip-clops in, riding in his pumpkin carriage — no glass slippers here! And thank my Lucky Stars, snuggling up to October, draped in puffy white fleece and sucking on purple popsicles, is the delirious Promise of Winter.

Firewood has been split and carefully stacked under cover. Chimneys and stovepipes cleaned by the man who travels way up here from way down-valley, wearing a stovepipe hat and with a smudge of ash on his pointy nose. I stop holding my breath and release an overdue and hearty sigh, a sigh that looks like my papa’s pipe smoke spiraling upward in the Jack Frost air.

Praise Earl, god of weather, two-dog nights are fast on autumn’s heels and champing — never chomping — at November’s bit. Ready the hot wax! Add to your quiver of skis if fortune has smiled graciously upon your rosy cheeks! Damn if 22⁰F begins to feel toasty. Know that eventually 12⁰F will become blessedly doable if you are splitting more rounds or skinning up the mountain. Then, somehow make the negative numbers work.

Make certain to take midnight kick-and-glides in the light of the bright and waxing moon. Do not use your headlamp. Slide your fish scales across the mountain highway deep with snow and long since closed for the season. Gather a few good friends and bring along a thermos of blueberry
tea, a hot, adult beverage that has nothing to do with blueberries and yet tastes magically of the delicious fruit. A very adventuresome friend of mine proclaims, Everything’s better with booze. And while this may be an arguable point, it makes us laugh.

Watch as disembodied, reflective eyes mystically hover two feet above the glacier-blue and mica-garnished surface. Lynx in the sky with diamonds.

Much later, go on home, stoke the woodstove, sleep like a puppy.

The season becomes circular: shovel-shovel, split-stack, skin-ski, shovel-shovel, sleep. Grow quick and sinewy, in spite of the extra calories consumed. Snow and firewood management grow muscles. Skiing grows wings.

I dread the encroachment of late spring, with the threat of fierce and fiery summer lurking in its shrinking shadows, biting viciously at its heels. With some amount of sorrow, I anticipate the holding of my breath.

At the end of an extended winter season, across the border in northern Cascadia, when the cold and snow continued late and well into spring, nay nearly into summer, while many grew weary of the lingering cold and less enthusiastic about the promise of greening hills, an absent fire season and an increased water table, my dear and very adventuresome friend Anne called out heartily into the grey and frigid air, eyes skyward, fists clenched, Grow me some glaciers!


Blueberry Tea for a Moonlit Ski

1 oz. Amaretto

2 oz. Grand Marnier

Lemon Peel

Piping Hot Earl Gray Tea

Absolutely No Blueberries

Pour piping hot Earl Gray tea steeped with lemon peel into thermos.

Add measurements of Amaretto and Grand Marnier for each full cup of tea.

Gently swirl.

Serve hot, while moving across snow, under the light of a shining moon.

Senior correspondent Tricia M. Cook is an avid wolf preservationist who lives in the North Cascades of Washington State.

How to Watch Your Son Jump Off a Cliff

ski flip

Illustration by Keith Svihovec

First of all, remember: You were the one who taught him how to ski. You were the one who wanted him to know the freedom of letting go. Of trusting your body to the downhill thrust of gravity and speed.

When he was just a baby, you were the one who stood at the top of Big Mountain and pointed your skis down the chute. You were the one who chose a line and committed to it. You were the one who pushed off, tucking tight, letting your knees absorb the shock of the moguls, the falling away of the gullies. The one who let the speed build and build until there was no you left — just the push of wind peeling back the skin of your face and the snow plummeting away beneath your feet. Seventy miles per hour from top to bottom, holding on to that razor-thin edge between being in control and losing it all. When your friends at the base stared at you aghast, you knew you had been irresponsible, with two small children, to take such a risk. And yet …

So you stand calm at the bottom of the snow-dusted rocks that reach up 15 feet into the clear blue sky. And you consciously even out your breathing as you see your son side-stepping up the long steep approach to the jump.

Though you try not to, you think about your friend’s son last summer. The one who had gone swimming in the Blackfoot with this buddies. The one who always approached life as if it were a desert bar, sinking his teeth deep into whatever was on offer. The one who had been climbing along the cliff trail to the jump where generations of fearless, immortal young high school and college kids plunged into the deep pool below. That very same pool where your own sons had been so many times. Your friend’s son had paused on the trail that day. No one is sure why. Some thought it was to tie his shoe. But suddenly his feet went out from under him and he plunged headlong down onto the rocks … no, you will not think about him.

You see that your son stands at the top of the approach, not moving, his skis turned sideways to the hill. You wonder if he’s scared. You know you could not do what he is about to try. In spite of your daring on the slopes, you have never jumped off a cliff like this one, could not imagine trying a back flip, letting your body leave the earth and spin upside down in empty space, not knowing where you would land.

You think of another boy, Tray, who lived along the river. How your son had been playing at Tray’s house and you’d gone to pick him up. The two boys, 13 years old, were wading in a small channel of the river. While your son’s brown body shimmied through the water like a sleek muskrat, Tray stayed near the bank, decked out in the helmet and water wings his mother had forced upon him. Tray had been a brilliant kid, full of promise, but when he’d gotten a full-ride scholarship to Harvard, he couldn’t go. He was afraid to leave home. And so he works at a nice safe bank job and still lives with his parents, a middle-aged man at 20.

The flash of light from your son’s ski poles catches your eye as you see his skis turn downhill. In a no-turning-back moment, he is plummeting down the chute toward the jump. There is nothing you can do now to stop him, no way to catch him if he falls.

Your older son stands by your side and watches too. For a moment, you let yourself feel the miracle of that. Just a year before, he had laid in a hospital bed between life and death and you’d had  the same knowing, that nothing you had done or could do would change what was going to happen.

You hear the battle cry as your son nears the lip of the jump. He is going full-bore and your body memory takes over, feels what his body is feeling. As the tips of his skis come off the edge, his body is thrown backwards. His skis arc toward the sky and he hangs upside down, suspended  in emptiness, crossing that line between doing and being into the exhilaration of letting everything go. And you cross it with him.

Peggy Christian is an amateur naturalist, essayist, blogger, hiker, photographer and beginning trail runner. She lives in Montana and at www.backwoodsandbeyond.com.

Bird-watching in the Desert

Bird Watching in the Desert

Abandonment is the great white fact of the desert

— Scott Baxter, Southwestern climber/poet

The desert smells like rain.

— Tohono O’odham child, quoted by ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan 

In a dry wash north of Lordsburg, New Mexico, a skeleton dances. The bone man’s feet grind into the stony ground, dimpling the creek bed. Wind scrapes across the grey-green flats from the west, flinging sand into the eye sockets, through the slender gaps of forearm and ribcage. A fistful of gray birds surfs the wind.

Lightning flares in the bruised afternoon sky over by the Arizona line. Purple rags of cloud stream out ahead of the storm, dragging trails of virga. Silver light splashes the low hills to the east, at the southern end of the Gila Range. (The Gilas, you will recall, are where Aldo Leopold shot his wolf, where the wilderness prophet had his vision of green fire: I am walking in the bloody Holy Land.)

The dancer doesn’t care about the mountains or the lightning, or about the founding of the Wilderness Society. He dances. He executes a gritty blues shuffle, something mid-’60s Chicago, trenchant and full of longing. His fingers clatter like castanets; his feet strike the cow-burnt earth like hands working clay into something beautiful, and perhaps useful.

Thunder claps. A chill strikes the desert. I take cover under the overhung cut bank — infrequent storms have carved this wash ten feet deep. Mesquite roots claw at the air where the bank has collapsed.

I crouch with my back against the earth, light a hand-rolled cigarette and stare at the skeleton, still dancing. Something gnaws in my belly. It never goes away. I don’t need to see a doctor. The CAT scans and barium dye, the blood and tissue samples — none of it is necessary. All along, I’ve known what this thing inside me is. I don’t need a medical opinion. For years, I’ve been walking in the dry places, following unpromising washes, looking under rocks. I sleep in the mouths of played-out copper mines and stare at sunrise over the rim of a charred steel coffee cup, sure of my self-diagnosis: terminal hunger.

Walking in the desert is my preferred treatment for this malady, a basic ingratitude for the ease and abundance of my life. I am patient. I hope it takes a hundred years to kill me. Season after season, I fill a backpack and walk, grazing the thin pasture of the desert, sustained by this practice. I never know what I’m looking for till I find it. This morning, it was a pale blue trailer out on the flats a mile west of U.S. Highway 70, not far from where I sit.

Abandoned trailers always seduce me. So I marched through prickly pear, cholla and crucifixion thorn for a better look: a rancher’s old line shack with the usual broken windows, dull chrome trim and faded vinyl siding. A derelict mattress leaned against the north wall; a set of bald truck tires lay decomposing in the yard. The windmill was rusted, the galvanized-steel tank full of tumbleweed, rat turds and bullet holes.

I walked to the trailer door, kicked aside the remains of a rotting wooden step and peered through the empty window frame: a few glued-together kitchen chairs, a door-less refrigerator, broken dishes on the floor. On top of the ’fridge stood a ceramic barn owl — smooth brown feathers, flat face, eyes like saucers.

I became possessed by the idea of taking the owl statue with me. The door was locked, so I reached through the small window frame for the inside knob. When I did, the bird turned away, its head swiveling like the child actress’ in “The Exorcist.” The flash of terror in my cells was fleeting, but total.
I yanked my hand out the window as if it were the maw of a tree shredder. The owl flapped off, into another room. I stepped away, feeling more alive than I had in days. I did what one does in these situations. I bowed.

Such moments hide in the desert, waiting to happen.

Other days, other birds: In the low Sonoran Desert, a black-chinned hummingbird sits on a walnut-sized nest amid a tangle of paloverde. The bird glares at me from two feet away, daring me to come closer; I stare for one long moment, then step away. In Grand Canyon, a pair of ravens efficiently tears apart my backpack, opening bags of food, flinging powdered drink mixes, piercing plastic water bottles with beaks like knives. At sundown in the Mojave, near the apex of a slender crumbling ridge, 53 vultures rise silently on six-foot wings, drifting past the alcove I’ve chosen for a camp. No one else is watching.

Almost everything that occurs in the desert is ignored. If truth be told, not much goes on out here. But what does happen sizzles with meaning. The flick of a bird’s wing is a poem. Water seeping from sandstone is an entire language.

Human artifacts speak, too. Listen:

Last April near Yuma, a few miles north of the Mexican border, I found a tiny blue daypack, bleaching in the sun. Inside were a pair of cheap denims (women’s size 4), one lavender acrylic blouse, two pairs of panties (one pink, one blue), a brush and comb, toothpaste and toothbrush, a motel bar of soap. In a plastic change purse were 62 cents and a mass card bearing an image of the Virgin de Guadalupe.

There were no personal identification papers. No maps. No field guide to the birds. Before zipping the pack shut, I refolded the clothes, making sure everything was exactly as I had found it. I sat down and stared at the pack. I considered setting up camp there until the owner came back. I wanted to ask her some questions about the desert.

Doves coo in the washes and fighter jets scream overhead. Is there any reason to go elsewhere?

I of course love the cool mountains,
snow-fed rivers and the color green. But I belong to dry places and savor their offerings: the secretive birds, the hallucinogens of desert light and weather, the broken poetry found in the leavings of my kind. I cannot imagine a life apart from this practice of walking in the desert.

I cannot be sure that what emerges from hiding is real. I know you find it hard to believe this matter of the skeleton. I too have doubts — if I look too closely, the dancer may disappear. But for now, there he is, sleet rattling off his skull. The bones are slick with moisture.

I think he was here last week, too, when the boys from town drove up in their jeeps, smashed bottles and were cruel to their painfully thin girlfriends. He was out on the Navajo Reservation during the uranium years, so I’ve heard. I suspect that this dancer knows every turn in each dry wash we set foot in, and follows the thirsty when they look for water. Certainly he watched fifteen years ago when I tumbled sixty feet down a scree slope in Hance Canyon. I just didn’t see him.

Until today, I had never seen a ceramic owl come to life, either.

Until today, I had never witnessed an early monsoon near Lordsburg, New Mexico. The sky is weeping now, fat droplets pocking the sand with black stains that multiply and merge, saturating the ground. Rocks glisten. The air blossoms with scent — the drab and hostile plants are celebrating. The dancer throws back his head, collecting raindrops in his grinning mouth.

Another storm comes to mind. Late in May, after a week of dusty hundred-degree days in southwest Texas, the evening air was thick with heat and moisture. I lay on the
desert floor, waiting. When the storm came, it slapped the land with sheets of water that sent flash floods down the washes into the Rio Grande. Lightning tore at the darkness. After an hour of this violence, a million stars emerged and the air grew perfectly still. The joyous reek of creosote and ocotillo kept me awake for most of the night. By the next afternoon, the creek beds were dry again.

Today, the storm spends itself as quickly as it began. My cigarette burns down, leaving me mildly sick and dizzy, an ashy film coating my mouth. I don’t care. I loved lighting the cigarette, inhaling its empty promise. I field-dress the butt, flicking brown wisps of tobacco from my fingers, pocketing the tarry paper.

I look up and the bone man is gone. The windmill creaks slowly.

After a few minutes, the sun returns. A few anonymous birds flutter through the branches of a catclaw, sending liquid notes through the suddenly fresh desert air. The sound triggers a shudder of pleasure deep in my chest. I make a silent vow to learn the names of more birds.

Michael Wolcott believes in the wisdom of bones. He watches the birds and looks for water everywhere he goes. Northern Arizona is where he gets the mail.