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Jen Jackson Rocks!
Editor, I loved Jen Jackson’s piece on Moab (“When in Doubt, Pee on the fire,” MG #183). It really captured the spark that makes living here great despite being inundated by goobs most of the year.
Sgt. Mike Rocks!
Dear Mr. Fayhee: Long-time reader, first-time writer here. Thank you for Mountain Notebook Dateline: Afghanistan. It’s the best thing I’ve read in years.
And to Sgt. Mike, how about this: Thank you for telling the truth. It may be the greatest service of all. Godspeed, Sergeant.
Struck by thunder, premonition and synchronicity
John: In reference to your “The Bright White Light” (Smoke Signals, MG #181). For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been having what might have been a premonition. Out on this ranch in the San Juans by myself, I have a lot of time to think, and a lot of fence to fix, so much that I can’t always get it done before the afternoon storms of this summer monsoon. One thought repeatedly produced by the constant banter of my subconscious has been: what would it be like to be struck by lightning? If not fatal, would it be enlightening? Spiritual awakening has been described as like being struck by lightning, but it has also been said to be an interminable process. Enlightenment hasn’t come to me yet, through prayers for it or through meditation, so I had wondered if getting struck by lightning might actually bring a sort of enlightenment with it. Apparently not.
Lately I’ve been reading about synchronicity in James Redfield’s “The Celestine Vision.” Premonitions and strange coincidences, like thinking of an old friend and then running into him or her for the first time in years, are at the basis of this idea of synchronicity, important in Redfield’s philosophy and literature as well as that of the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Until now, I’ve been thinking that I’ve never experienced synchronicity, except for possibly a few occasions, nothing that could not be otherwise explained. Of course, it can always be explained — like being in the right place at the wrong time.
I had also been thinking about my friend Mark Volt, a kind of old-timer on the Gore Range. He is full of odd and funny sayings, mostly of uncertain origin, often of vague meaning and usually inspiring rolled eyes. Like “struck by thunder.”
The first of the rain was falling. I was standing next to a temporary electric fence of polywire, which is a kind of string with fine wire woven through it, an essential tool to manage the distribution of livestock grazing here in the High Country. It wasn’t electrified; I had built it and just hooked it up to a more permanent electric fence of high-tensile wire. I don’t think I was touching it, but I couldn’t have been more than a few inches from it.
The boom was not much short of deafening. For a moment, everything was black — except for a line of white, maybe slightly greenish-yellow, light where the polywire had been. Is that what the deer in the headlights sees? I was on the ground, half lying, half sitting, fully stunned. I have been shocked by electric fence before, and this was many orders of magnitude beyond that. Struck by thunder, indeed. I saw the thin, charred remains of the polywire on the ground next to me. My legs and feet hurt, but I couldn’t move them for the first 10 seconds or so. Then I could crawl. After maybe 30 seconds, I could stand on shaky legs and tingling feet. I willed myself to walk. At this point, I figured I was probably going to be alright. I got on the four-wheeler and rode it back down to the road.
My right thigh still hurt, and, for a while, so did my right shoulder and upper arm. Sitting on a log, I pulled off my right boot and sock and checked my tingling foot. No uglier than usual. I pulled down my pants and looked at my thigh. There was a light red mottling there, at the height of the polywire, and extending in a line down to my lower leg. It did not look or feel like a burn; the pain was more like muscle soreness.
Back on the four-wheeler, I raced the rain back down the mile or two to my truck. I lost. It came down hard, stinging my face and soaking through my light rain jacket. Shivering and dripping, I climbed into my truck, started the engine and turned on the heat and defroster. I drove off with the tailgate down, all manner of ranching equipment sliding out the back of the bed on the steep road. After gathering the tools and 50-pound salt blocks, and throwing the pry bar and spool of fence wire back in as quickly as possible, I drove into camp.
I started a fire in my cabin and heated water for matte and hot chocolate (the spicy kind with chile powder). I peeled off my wet shirt and jeans, pulled on dry ones. I realized there was a ringing, or a high-pitched electric hum in my left ear.
I sat by the fire, going over it again in my mind: the boom, the darkness, the white streak: struck by thunder. As the shock wore off, I considered that I may not be enlightened, but my earlier wondering might have been a premonition. If I weren’t such a skeptic, I would say this is a striking example of synchronicity. The thought gives me chills, but of course that could just be because I’m cold.
Storm on Willow Pass
John: Your lightning story was electrifying, a bolt of brilliance. Here’s a contribution.
Willow Basin is a gentle place, a hidden place. We are camped on the tundra above Willow Lake. We sip red wine from a plastic juice bottle before lighting the stove to boil water for pasta. We just sit on our pads and look at each other. In two years, we’ll be married, but we don’t know that yet, don’t even suspect it.
After a spaghetti dinner, we take a walk along a grassy bench, holding hands. Each of us makes a silent pledge that will not be translated into words for many months. There is no need to articulate the impulses of our hearts. We are content to have our bond unspoken, not wanting to formalize the undefined, the wonderful. This wild place invites freedom from words, from definitions, from spoken formality.
There is a flock of sheep grazing a mile or so down the valley. We hear their faint voices on the wind. We are happy to share the basin with them and their shepherd. As darkness brings us back to camp, we see the flicker of his fire, but we don’t return it. The stars are our fire. We huddle together in our own warmth. The flowers have closed their petals. The surface of the lake has turned flat and metallic. She leans her back against my chest and I fold my arms around her.
Later, we trade positions and I feel her warmth move into me. Her hands soothe my shoulders where the heavy frame pack gnawed. Muscles and skin respond to her touch, and I’m aware of a deeper feeling that her touch awakens. Our bed is soft that night on the spongy tundra that contours to tired hips and shoulders.
The morning dawns with gathering clouds, their undersides dark and glowering. Pancakes with maple syrup and sausage complement strong coffee with evaporated milk from a tin. We break down camp and hurriedly pack. Drizzle patters across the basin beneath a wisp of cloud that sweeps past. Behind it, to the west, dark clouds line up portentously, like a squadron of dirigibles.
“Wish we had another day,” she says wistfully.
“I wish we had a week, a month, a year.”
A deep roll of thunder echoes across the basin. We sling on our packs and are soon panting up the switchbacks leading to the pass. The lake is slate gray and corrugated by wind. The shepherd’s camp is deserted; the sheep have moved down into the timber. A distinct black line marks the storm’s leading edge, with drifts of rain trailing behind. The storm moves over the basin and crosses the lake.
At the pass, we drop packs and pull on rain jackets. She takes the lead on the descent into the narrow valley while I pause a moment to face what’s moving in on the strengthening wind. There’s excitement in the latent power and dark fury menacing overhead. I feel my mood shifting like the weather. I regret returning to that other world where my soul can become deadened with disquiet and sorrow. The echoes of that world seem to emanate from the deep reverberations of thunder rolling over me, rattling my rib cage.
I hurry after her as the storm breaks. We’re hit by rounds of hail machine-gunned from a pitch-black sky. The hail pings off our packs and stings our legs. A lightning flash arcs like a missile, crashing onto the ridge above us. Half a second later, a sharp report splits the air. We make a dash for the sheltering trees, skip-jogging down the trail, ignoring the weight of our packs. The hail changes to rain and the rain turns heavy and drenching.
Heads down, rain running off the hoods of our jackets, we splash through foaming puddles. The trail becomes a rivulet of rainwater where pellets of hail gather in the eddies, a white crest against the muddy flow. Salvos of lightning strike the ridges on both sides. Concurrent flashes create a strobe effect. The thunder is continuous, a deep, sonorous booming. The air smells of rain-washed mountains, a bouquet of spruce pitch blended with grasses, sedges, flowers, the redolence of the earth itself. There is no sweeter smell.
I no longer hear her footsteps, so I stop and turn. She is a dozen yards behind, walking placidly down the trail in her wet and shining blue jacket, the hood shrouding her face. On one side of the trail is a yellow-green willow thicket, the leaves glimmering with raindrops. On the other is a spray of neon pink fireweed standing head-high and nodding under the rainfall. The ridges are misty with torn clouds ripped from the dark storm that still glowers overhead.
She looks up and smiles, and I am suddenly taken by how lovely she is in the pouring rain, how beautiful among the bright flowers. There are droplets of water on her cheeks and a sparkling light in her eyes. Perhaps we are seeing each other for the first time under this cloud of rain and fire. Here is our moment, our place in time. There is no reason to rush back to the known world, so we stand in the rain and let it wash over us.
Editor’s note: Paul Andersen is an author and columnist for the Aspen Times. This vignette is excerpted from his fiction collection of short stories, “Moonlight Over Pearl.”
North by Northwest
Hey Fayhee: In reference to your story, “North by Northwest” (Smoke Signals, MG #182): I do indeed remember where I was on 9/11 … in the Sawtooth Wilderness Area in northern Idaho. I was on a solitary backpack trip, which I have done often since my first backpacking trip with my father in 1972, near where I grew up in Colorado.
On Saturday, September 8, I arrived in Boise and rented a car and headed to Stanley, Idaho. I planned a five-day excursion just west of town and headed into the wilderness on Sunday afternoon. I did not run into any one during that time, the weather was great, and I was invigorated by the time I had spent in the woods, alone. On Thursday morning, I reached my car and went into Stanley to fill up my gas tank at the Stanley Lodge.
While my car was filling up I went into the little store connected to the lodge and asked the clerk (a young tattooed, pierced man) who had won the Monday Night Football New York Giants/Denver Broncos game, I being a lifelong Broncos fan. He looked at me like I was from Mars. I blew him off and, while I was pouring a cup of coffee, I looked up at the TV that was in the corner. On the screen was the image of the second plane going into the World Trade Center. I thought it was a trailer for a new movie. I asked the clerk, “What new movie is this?” He just looked at me with a blank stare and asked, “Where have you been?” I told him I had been backpacking since Sunday. That was when he told me what had happened. An older gentleman soon came in and talked with the clerk, while I was sitting in a chair in stunned silence. The gentleman came over and told me that I was perhaps the only person in America who had not known what happened, and sat with me for four hours as I watched in horror.
On my drive back to Boise, where I would be stranded for days, I thought that I had should of stayed in the woods, forever, instead of reentering an uncivilized civilization.
Dan Ellier Chapman
North by Northwest #2
Hello John: September 9, 2001, I started a job with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps — their three-week “Fall Crew,” which found me camping and doing trail work in the Green Mountains. We set up camp that evening, only a mile or so in from the Mt. Worcester trailhead. Monday was spent learning the basics of trail maintenance, camping and the general dynamics of living and working with a new group of people.
Tuesday, September 11, we started our day by continuing to improve the worn-out lower section of the trail. It was a wonderful, sunny, warm, perfect late-summer Vermont day. There were no hikers early that morning, which did not seem out of place, considering we only saw a few on Monday.
As I was busily digging a new water bar mid-morning, a solitary hiker came by. All I remember is: He was an older man and seemed a bit odd. I think all he said to me was: “a plane flew into the World Trade Center” and kept hiking. He told each of my co-workers this fact and hiked on. We discussed this man, wondering if he was mentally stable, after he passed. I thought maybe he was telling us about a movie.
Our solitary hiker came back from the peak and told us the same thing. This time, he spoke to us longer and told us that a jet had flown into one of the towers and he decided to seek refuge in the woods, only to find a hapless, un-informed trail crew. None of us saw the indelible images that most of the rest of the nation saw. None of us knew about the mass hysteria that was taking over the nation at the time. None of us knew the enormity of the destruction of that day. We just went back to working on our trail.
Early afternoon, the supervisor from headquarters came out. He confirmed what our solitary hiker had told us, added the towers had fallen and a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. I don’t think he knew about the fourth plane in Pennsylvania. All we knew about the attackers was they were “terrorists,” whoever that was. Speaking for myself, the history of the situation still had not registered with me. The only electronic media available to us was the radio in the van, back at the trailhead.
We decided to hike to the top of Mt. Worcester, seeking the same refuge as our talisman. Mt. Worcester is only about 3,000 feet tall, but a hard slog straight up through the forest and over large granite blocks at top. None of us registered that there were no planes over our peak. We took in the sights of the Green Mountains turning into fall and lay around on the sun-warmed boulders until it was time to go back for dinner.
After dinner, we hiked out to the van to use the crew cell phone and call our loved ones. We listened to the radio in the van while each person was outside on the phone. We finally, definitely, learned what happened that morning. When I got a hold of my parents, all we discussed was the road trip I had just taken from New Mexico to Moab, Jackson, West Yellowstone and on to Vermont. There was no mention of the attacks, other than my Mom asking: “Do you know what happened today?” Which I answered in the affirmative.
Wednesday, we went back to work as usual. We certainly discussed the attacks and how they might affect each of us, with most of the crew calling the northeast home. We saw more hikers on Wednesday, all of them escaping to the woods to get away from what we would later lean was incessant televised carnage. Most of them talked with us and asked if we knew about the attacks.
We went back to the van later that week to listen to W. speak to the country. In my life, that has to have been one of the few Presidential speeches I have ever completely listened to. We again called our parents and I actually discussed the attacks and bin Laden with them.
Saturday, the 15th, found us moving our camp and stopping in Montpelier to do our laundry. Even though it is a small town, only about 8,000 residents, it had always seemed busy to me. That day, it was almost deserted. The laundry attendant told us the owner of the laundromat was from Lebanon and with the intense xenophobia that had taken hold, even in bucolic Vermont, had been out of sight since Tuesday.
Four days after the attacks, we still had not seen the television images that everyone else saw. By that point, the over-saturation of the media was beginning to slow, though we might have seen one image on CNN. We did get a hold of some newspapers, but again, four days later, they did not have all the images that certainly everyone saw in their Wednesday morning paper. I knew what had happened, how many were missing or dead and who the attacks were attributed to, but I am not sure if everything had soaked in by then. Ten years later, I have seen maybe an hour total of the televised insanity of that day because I was busily ensconced in the mountains, digging a water bar.
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