no. 6 the ridgeline

Posted on September 10, 2013

As dawn broke and the day’s first light peeked through the oval windows of our tent, I struggled to emerge from the warmth of my sleeping bag, slowly inching my way out, leaving a small trail of white feathers clinging to my long-underwear. Unzipping the tent, I quickly slipped on my boots. As my feet began to warm the chilled leather, I stepped outside.

It must have gotten pretty cold overnight. A small frost covered the surrounding willows. Taking a quick breath, the cool mountain air filled my lungs and sent shivers down my back. I looked up at the ridgeline on the horizon and began to study its edges. Outlining each little bump and tall peak, walking the slope all the way down to the foothills, I looked left and read the mountain again.

Memorizing each snowy bowl, each steep, gravel flooded draw, I followed each glacier until the met the mossy hillside. I pictured waterfall after waterfall, cascading from the glaciers’ tail, rushing into nearby creeks and flowing through the river a mere 50 yards from my feet.

Those ridgelines. So close, yet so, so far away. Mesmerized, I always imagine myself raising my arm up and out, easily touching the summit. Then I’d steadily sweep my fingertips across and down the ridgeline. Reading each shark-toothed peak and every saddle slope, like a natural braille, it was as if I was carefully unearthing some sort of secret message left in those ancient rocks. Then, with one giant leap, I’d simply hop up and stroll across the crest trail, in a matter of minutes, knowing fully that it would take hours of hiking just to reach a saddle, let alone tour the entire ridgeline. But I still imagine it, over and over, with each brilliant western range I see.

Hearing movement, I snap out of my trance. Billy and Pa were stirring and nearly awake. “I guess I’ll get a fire started for breakfast,” I think to myself. “It’s going to be a big day.”

“Have you spotted anything yet?” Billy asks, noticing my eyes on the mountain as he emerges from the tent.

“Not yet, but I gave the mountain a good sweep.”

no. 5 el gordo

Posted on June 6, 2013

I remember waking up to that smell. Toasty warm tortillas right off the comal. They were my favorite. Of course, I could never eat just one.
Billy and I each had our own style for consuming homemade tortillas. He would roll them up and bite into one side, preserving their heat while quickly devouring. I love eating them flat or simply folding them in half and I always added salt to mine. We spent so many afternoons debating about which technique was more effective while running between the backyard and the kitchen grabbing fresh tortilla after fresh tortillas.

I liked to tease Billy because of the photos I’d seen of him attacking tortillas as a toddler. With a tortilla in one had and a black chicken resting under his arm, Ma says he’d walk around in diapers, showing off his chicken, “Eagle,” with a mouthful of tortillas. They called him El Gordo.
Most small town kids have a slew of animals at home. Our family has had countless chickens, dogs and even a goat. We named him Elvis because the afternoon we picked him up he wouldn’t stop screaming on the car ride home.

“El Gordo! El Gordo!” I’d chant at Billy while we roughhoused.

In response, he’d usually grab my arm and give me a “snake bite” or put me in a headlock for a long minute. Being older, and as a result, bigger than me had its advantages.

I don’t think he minded the nickname too much. Everyone thought he was so cute. He loves that. Even if he denies it.

“Let’s go grab another!” I urged him.

“I’ve got an idea!” Billy smiled. “I’ll be right back.”

He ran inside. In a minute, he was back on the patio.

“We’re making a bunch of extra tortillas and bringing them to the animal shelter.

“Animals can’t eat tortillas?” I was confused.

“I know that! But the people that take care of the animals can and I bet they’re hungry after a hard day of caring for all those animals.”

Billy was always thinking about animals. Animals and being outside. That summed up Billy. He didn’t know it, but I loved that about him.

“Okay! And maybe we could take some to the people at the veterinary clinic and the food pantry too.”

“We better help make them then! Let’s go!”

We made tortillas all afternoon. Mixing and kneading, rolling and cooking. Flour dusted the counters and that delicious toasted aroma filled the house. After we had made more tortillas than we could count we divided them up, wrapped them in aluminum foil to keep warm and delivered them to friends around town.

Most small town kids are taught to take care of your neighbor. Our community was always having potlucks and gatherings. We loved contributing all on our own. It was a first for us.

Of course, at the animal shelter we stopped to play with the puppies. Our dog had died a few months ago. Old age. Billy was devastated. He buried him alone and stayed out there for hours.

That day we came home with a furry little Shepard mix. I named him El Gordo.

no 4. cottonwoods and ponderosa pines

Posted on May 7, 2013

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The sun was slowly climbing down from its perch. It was nearly two-thirty and I had been all the way up Hawk Creek Canyon as I started making my descent down the mountain. Pa was a few hundred yards behind me and Billy, about five minutes ahead. We hadn’t spotted a single muley all day, but a few signs showed we were on the right track.

The air around us smelt of vanilla and sugar. An uncommonly warm November sun kept the forest in bloom and our thirst high. That sweet vanilla scent had me yearning for an ice cold Coke. I loved the smell of those ponderosa pines.

Dreaming of that fizzy libation, I noticed a slight movement across the canyon. I was now on Billy’s tale and he stood staring at the same spot on the steep, rocky hillside.

Shh. He motioned with his pointer finger as he raised his scope to his eye. There were two of them. Bucks. Young ones.

Still, they were a bit too far off. And as Pa approached us, they quickly darted east, toward the creek bed.

Carrying on, the three of us quietly and swiftly continued down the mountain. As we reached a clearing, we stopped to rest and drink some water. A red-tailed hawk flew overhead and landed on the thick branch of a golden cottonwood, rooted not too far in front of our view. We had reached the valley. I could hear the creek alongside us. I watchfully turned clockwise, making sure to keep quiet. They had to be close by.

And then, under a small cluster of cottonwoods, almost out of eyesight, I spotted them. But they weren’t alone. It was a herd of six. They, like us, were trying to escape the afternoon heat under the shade of the welcoming cottonwood trees. Billy saw them too. Then Pa. Cautiously, yet calmy, they waded in the creek, lapping up the cool mountain water.

Relieved by the shelter of the big old cottonwoods, my father, brother and I passed smiles of content back and forth, simultaneously agreeing upon the challenge presented by another day in the canyon. We took one more glance then began our hike home.

It was time to rest up for the early morning. Maybe grab a chilled vanilla Coke and take a late afternoon nap under my favorite cottonwood in our backyard, dreaming about tomorrow’s adventure.

no. 3 a ferry ride

Posted on April 17, 2013

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Right before Billy’s fifteenth birthday our family took a trip to the Pacific coast. Dad was traveling there on a business trip and the rest of the family tagged along to celebrate Billy’s birthday together. It was a good trip and we made a load of great memories, but one quiet, sunny afternoon in particular has stayed with my soul and grown in my heart.

To get out of the city for awhile, Mom, Billy and I took the state ferry to one of the many islands nearby. As the ferry left the docks and we ventured out over the blue, without any notice, she appeared around the bend. As I caught sight of her in the corner of my eye, time began to slow down and nearly stopped altogether, or so it seemed.

I had seen plenty of mountains growing up in the Rockies, but never had I seen a sight so majestic. As the clouds gathered around her crown, almost halo-like, she towered over the city, the forest and the dark ocean, watching over her kin.

Slowly, I breathed in the crisp sea air. So deeply, I was sure I had never taken so much air into my lungs before. I kept both my eyes on the horizon, perhaps nervous that she may disappear into the ocean or into the sky, if I broke my gaze.

I tapped Billy on the shoulder, he was watching the seagulls battle over bits of grub. Pointing south, I eagerly shared my view. Billy immediately smiled at me, but kept his eyes on that mountain. Together, we raised our hands to the sky, grasping at the wind and opening up our lungs to the salty sea air. It is true what they say about the air in Washington, it is clean and clear and feels so good. I needed that air and that day. We both did.

My dearest Mt. Rainier, thank you for your might and grace. I don’t know when we will meet again, but I know we will, indeed, meet again.

no 2. birthday wishes

Posted on April 7, 2013

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Billy always seemed to wake me up earlier than I wished. But I remember one morning, specifically, that Billy woke me up really early. It was my eighth birthday and I just wanted to sleep in. Mom was making me blueberry pancakes for breakfast, then we were going to the cabin for the weekend. I couldn’t wait to jump in the lake. It’s been unbelievably hot in the South lately.

Yet Billy continued to stir me, urge me, nearly demanding me to wake up. The sun wasn’t even up!

Then, Billy said, “I have a surprise for you outside.”

I was in motion. Knowing Billy, it must be something spectacular.

He took me out to the field behind our house and pointed at the mountains to the east.

Morning was breaking and I’d never seen something so beautiful. Emerging over our forest, the sun lit up the sky like flames in a forest fire – red, orange, and yellow bands of light, dancing between tall green pines and the silent black night.

He didn’t even have to say “Happy Birthday” to me. I knew this was Billy’s way.

I’ll always remember my eighth birthday and Billy’s enthusiasm for our forest.

Today the mountain range is gray with ash. A recent summer fire engulfed the grassy mountaintops, the ponderosa pines and generations of memories. I’ll be fifty-eight before the forest begins to look as it did on my eighth birthday, but I guess these things happen. In the wild, it’s the way of the world.

Billy is spending the summer cleaning up the cabin and helping our friends and family clean up the mess the fire left behind. No one was hurt. That is great news. But hearts are weakened and souls are forever changed. Billy’s. Mine too.

A forest changes the way you look at the world, and a forest in the mountains, there’s just something about it that words cannot truly explain.

Then there’s our forest. The forest we grew up in. The creek behind the cabin, where, as young boys, we played, fought, imagined, for hours. The mountain crest, where we hiked along with Pa and learned the ways of the world. The mule deer, elk, beers and mountain lions, living all around us, relying on our forest, much more than we ever did.

My eighth birthday was one of those days you hold tight to, deep in your heart. One of those days that only comes along once or twice in a lifetime. A day that you never let go, you tell your grand kids about. That morning sunrise with Billy was the best birthday present I have ever received. It was one of those moments that molds you. Becomes a part of you.

Billy turns twenty-eight next week. How I wish I could give him thirteen, just for a moment. Only for a morning sunrise.

no 1. tonight

Posted on April 4, 2013

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Staring up at the black sky, I wondered. How did he always manage to find the perfect spot?

Tall, dark, pines all around us – I could smell the broken needles – the swiftly flowing river a few hundred feet behind our tent. I could hear the cold water rushing over the polished boulders – a silent sky sprinkled with hundreds and hundreds of stars – so many you couldn’t possibly count them all. If you watched close enough, every now and then, one would rebel and fall from its place on the map, shooting across the sky until it seemed to vanish into thin air.

There was something about this night. This trip. This moment. It was something I knew I couldn’t forget.

Five years older, he was always prepared and the best teacher for these types of adventures. He thought of every detail ahead of time, was amazingly organized and completely aware of his surroundings in every situation imaginable. “Murphy’s Law,” he always said. Yes, I was sure to learn a lot from him this week.

The campfire crackled. He stirred the coals and gently blew on them. They glowed, bright orange, the flames grew, then settled. He added more wood. He had developed a rhythm to the process. Some of it came from technique, though most of it was simply him. It was as if he could sense what the fire needed to grow.

As a kid, he always seemed connected to the wilderness. Now at eighteen, he spent every moment he could outside.

White-orange flames delivered warmth to our circle. It was just what was needed to balance the cool breeze at our backs. The campfire was the only light to be seen in every direction – aside from those stars – white-orange flames miles and miles away. So many miles it was hard for me to imagine so many of those white-orange flames burning in that empty black sky – miles and miles away.

We both kept quiet, my brother and I. We didn’t need to talk. I knew he was remembering the mountain range just north of camp. Steadily studying each peak in his head. I was memorizing the sounds of the rushing river and the silence in the sky.

  

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