Great Western Frontier, Part 3

“Every time I visit Portland I feel like it’s more of a caricature of itself,” Steve said as he dodged through rush hour traffic on the 205 to exit the freeway.

“Yeah, right. Portland has become its own parody,” I said. I’d been half asleep. “God, it’s a big city, huh,” I said as I surveyed the rush hour traffic. Thoroughly modern cars, whizzing around in a thoroughly modern city. Thought leaders, off to their next important meeting.

“It’s so cool to be in Portland now,” he went on with a sarcastic tone. “Organic coffee, microbreweries, nanobreweries, aquaponics,” he continued to list off quirks that the world had come to know of Portland, Oregon.

It’s true too. Portland has become an epicenter of progressive thinking and self-awareness. But, it’s not all hipsters on fixed-gears worrying about their carbon footprint. Like any great city of the Great American West, or any city for that matter, Portland harbors its dark underbelly of society. Junkies, prostitutes, paranoid schizophrenics, and so on. Too many in our modern world see these as the throw-aways, the wretched. ‘They should work harder.’ ‘They made poor decisions.’ It’s too easy to too many to consider them all like a plaque on society. But it can’t be scraped away by a few farm-to-table cafes and pay-as-you-like yoga studios. Like tooth decay, the rot ultimately comes from what you consume. If you don’t take care, it bites you in the ass when you lose all your teeth. Society has been eating souls ever since it figured out how to put a dollar amount on the human condition. The plaque comes from never scrutinizing its bad habits.

We were now navigating the city streets to our motel. I’d booked us a room in the Motel 6 on the north end of town several weeks earlier. We’d purposely chosen it for its poor reviews and crummy location. We wanted to see this side of Portland.

“It’s gonna be just off the freeway,” I said as I helped Steve navigate. “Ah, up there, just across the street from the strip joint and Taco Bell.” A light on the sign had burned out and it read “Mote  6″.

“Got it,” Steve shifted into 3rd gear as he moved over a couple lanes to turn in. “Looks like we won’t be disappointed here, buddy!”

Two cops were shaking down a junky in front of the office as we rolled in to the parking lot. A young looking fellow with shorts and tank-top. He looked like he’d been strung out for a few days and just needed a meal.

“Yelp was spot on,” I grinned as Steve pulled slowly toward the back of the parking lot. “This place is gritty.”

“Hey, looks like a hooker over there?” Steve said as he found an empty parking spot.

I looked out the window and through the windows of the car next to us. In the corner of the lot was a young woman in a short red skirt – cigarette hanging loosely from her mouth and wavy brown hair down to her shoulders. Her halter top revealed a large and botanically inspired tattoo across her right shoulder and down her bicep. She leaned into the front window of a green Chevy Blazer. I couldn’t hear, but she appeared to be in quite the conversation. The driver of the blazer looked like the typical uninspired bro. Flat brim hat pulled down over his short hair, and even the tops of his ears too. He had on a pair of Oakley sunglasses, and short stubble covered his acne scarred chin. From the body language, he seemed more of a pimp than a John.

As Steve and I got out of the truck, she gave a long hard look in our direction. Eyeing us as potential clientele.

“Hey, I’m gonna go check in and get our room keys,” I said as I stretched out my legs.

“Yah, buddy. I’m gonna do some organizing,” Steve said as he did a bit of calisthenics against the back of truck.

“Actually, you know. How about a quick pull on that rum,” I looked around for the bottle in the back seat. “You?”

“Oh, yeah. Sounds about right!” He grimaced as he stretched his hips and turned his face toward the sky.

I took a swig and handed the bottle to Steve. As I turned toward the office, a red corvette pulled in to a parking stall next to us. The nicest car in the lot by a long shot. A kid about in his twenties got out. He wasn’t ugly, but didn’t look all that exciting either. Brown hair combed conventionally across his head. A clean face, although it appeared he didn’t have much facial hair to maintain. He had on a pair of khaki shorts, a polo shirt, and converse sneakers. Likely a recent college graduate with a reasonable salary and nothing better to spend his money on.

As the kid stood by his car the prostitute walked, with deliberate stride, around from the back corner and toward his car. She gave a nod of recognition and he followed her up the stairs to the second floor and vanished behind a dull green door.

I made my way to the front office. By now, the cops had finished interrogating the junky and were just pulling out of the parking lot. The inside of the office was all tiled floor and stainless steel table tops; easily cleaned surfaces covered everything. The bright lights and sharp sounds of a television set bounced around the room.

The television, hanging lopsidedly, from one corner was playing FOX News. If it can be considered news anymore. Major broadcasting executives have had the formula dialed in some time now. Find your base and feed them fear and loathing all day, every day. Better yet, dress it with pretty people in little red dresses and before you know it, you’re selling sex just like any other major cable station. It never was about news. It was always about money and power.

Sensory stimuli continued streaming from the television. A platinum blonde in a sleeveless, red top and too much makeup ranting about the collapse of American Values. She went on and on, as the men sitting next to her got to wear suits and ties. ‘The liberal elites think they have the moral upper hand…’ ‘…Obama era…’ ‘Hillary Clinton…’  This ‘news’ continued through a flurry of buzz words and one-liners, asserted through the guise of a news anchor. The only thing sadder than the propaganda was the lie she told herself – that anyone cared about what she had to say more than how she looked. She’d probably lost her chance on a real career in journalism when her college professor promised an A for wearing a miniskirt to class. She had learned the power of her body, and before long, she forgot she actually had real talent. It wouldn’t matter. She would continue to advance her career as long as she wore the right outfit and didn’t say the wrong thing to the wrong person. Before long, she had her own internet following, a few product endorsements, and a limo with a chauffeur. And all she had to do was tell herself that lie.

Eventually it was my turn at the desk. A motherly looking Mexican woman had been discussing some issue with the desk clerk. About what, I hadn’t payed attention.

“Hey man, what can I do for you?” the kid asked from behind the counter.

“Good evening. I just need to check in and get 2 room keys, please,” I said. “I reserved a non-smoking room for two,” I added.

“Sorry about that wait, man. That lady that was just in here…” he waited for me to respond. “She came in here yesterday and stayed the night with her 2 kids,” he paused again.

“Oh, yeah,” I replied, wondering where he was going with the story. Had she stolen a pillow? Smoked in a non-smoking room? Left some illicit drug paraphernalia conspicuously in the room? These are the thoughts you have in a seedy motel office. Especially if exposed to any amount of television ‘news’.

“Yeah,” he continued his story in a mystified tone. “Well, she got home today and found out her bank never charged the payment for the room. She was worried that we never got the payment. She came in to pay the charge in cash, man,” he finished in a crescendo.

“Really, huh?” I said with a grin. “There are still authentic people in this world! If you are lucky to happen upon them, I suppose.”

“Thing is; we would have never known. I would have just forgot about it,” he added.

I finished checking in and got our room keys. Outside, Steve was rummaging through the contents of the back of his truck. I hadn’t been more than ten minutes inside, but the red corvette with its young tech geek was already gone. The prostitute back at the Chevy Blazer, deep in conversation once again.

“Hey, Danny,” Steve glanced over from the back of the truck. “Stev-o is downtown at some bar. Wants us to meet up for drinks. Wanna go?”

“Yeah, I need to shower first,” I said.

“Yeah, I could use one too.”

“Ok, let’s get clean and I’ll line up an Uber,” I said as I hauled my bag up the stairs to our room.

The overall appearance of the room was decent. Nothing great, but there were no signs of gross negligence. Although, it did smell like stale cigarette smoke, and a fist sized, poorly executed, patch job marked the middle of the bathroom door.

I was finishing getting dressed as Steve got out of the shower. Figuring we’d be ready to roll in a matter of minutes, I lined up an Uber ride.

‘Charles. In a white Toyota Prius.’  The ride would cost about 13 dollars, plus tip. From the small photo on his profile, he looked perfectly Portland. Young, smart, and idealistic. And he’d arrive in 4 minutes.

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Great Western Frontier, Part 2

We’d had enough of Chemult and now headed north toward US 58. This would take us through several more relict towns along the climb through Willamette Pass and over to Eugene. Interstate 5, that great artery of the west coast. And from there, about another 2 hours to Portland, where we had plans for the week to attend the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America.

“Ah, the PCT. I remember passing this point back in ’06,” Steve broke the silence as we winded through the mountainous stretch of the highway.

“Oh yeah,” I replied. “How long did it take you from Tahoe to get here back when you did it?”

“I think about 5-6 weeks. But, all of Oregon took only about 3 weeks. It goes fast; short and there isn’t so much mountainous terrain.” He was waxing a bit nostalgic by now.

“Yeah, well, we just polished it off in a morning,” I replied sarcastically, as my mind wandered.

The passage of time is fickle. We all pass along this strange 4th dimension together. Depending on our state of mind, it can move slowly sometimes, or other times, you blink, and it’s gone. The real bitch of it all is that when you seem to be having the most fun, time moves quickly. Then, when you’re dragging along and bored, time passes as if you are staring the hour hand of a clock, waiting for its indiscernible movement to register in your brain. All the good times are gone by the time you realize you even had a good time. That’s the real bitch of time.

We kept at it over the pass. Highway 58 is windy and often only two lanes, and since Oregon speed laws permit only 55 mph on most roadways and highways. So, we tried to keep in under 80 mph as we felt this was a perfectly sensible speed for most of the open road. Except when we got jammed up behind an 18-wheeler or one of the many varieties of rental RVs. In these cases, we had to apply patience and wait for a wide shoulder or passing lane.

RVs are a particular nuisance as you never know, immediately, who’s behind the wheel. After a few moments of sharing the open road, you can tell the RV owners from the renters. But, it’s never readily apparent at first, and you must be well versed in subtle nuances to rightly tell. An RV owner knows their place on the road and applies the appropriate civilities. But any more, one can rent an RV from any number of companies looking to make a quick buck on someone else’s poor life-choice. So it becomes a game of who’s who on the road. If you know how to spot the difference, then you may be fine so long as you apply patience and exercise caution with passing.

Most of my experience with rental RVs came from years of working and traveling around Yosemite National Park. Locals, foreigners, flatlanders with no fucking idea. And any number of other perfectly jaded families trying to patch together some resemblance of happiness. ‘Let’s rent a big RV and see the great American West! I know I’ve been gone a lot for work and you’ve had to stay home and take care of Kimmy and Owen and the dog we got them 5 years ago. But, this will be a great trip, honey. Really bring us all back together.’

There it is. The thoroughly modern family. Two kids, a dog, and all the power cables and charging units needed to stay plugged in indefinitely. Once loaded and on the narrow, serpentine mountain roads of the Great American West, these poor bastards usually find themselves in the midst of a self-inflicted, hellish nightmare that only a thorough blend of alcohol and anxiety meds can hope to assuage.

I once watched two of these units swipe side-view mirrors, splintering glass and plastic all over a two-lane highway in Yosemite. Someone told me the renters insurance you pay for doesn’t even include those mirrors.

Now Steve and I were polishing off a couple beers and fueling up at some roadside truck stop somewhere near Salem, Oregon. We’d been on Interstate 5 since Eugene. Many young, stoned college kids on their migration back to University for another school year. These were the first wave, and the rest would be arriving within a couple weeks. All of them, having survived another summer vacation with the family, back home. Eager to continue their learning in the fine arts of sex and drugs.

“Look at this poor fucker,” I said to Steve as an unwieldy RV skidded to a stop at the gas pump across from us.

On the side of the monstrosity, in bold letters, was printed ‘800 – RV4RENT’. On the back ‘Cruise America’. And all over the box-shaped body of the vehicle were printed beautiful color photos, in hi-definition, images of America’s favorite natural wonders.

“Jesus,” Steve replied hopelessly.

Before the RV could come to a complete stop, a teenaged, purpled haired, and well-pierced kid flew out of the door. Cursing his parents for his miserable existence. The dog almost made it out the door too, but yelped as someone from inside must have yanked it by the collar. By now, Dad had stepped down from the driver’s side door and was fussing with the gas pump as the attendant came around to help.

“Hi there, Sir. What kind of gas you need?”

“I can pump my own gas, thank you very much,” he replied in a distinctly southern accent.

“Well, actually, no you cannot. Here in Oregon, by state law, gas station employees pump gas,” the attendant informed.

“What the Holy Hell kinda law is that?” fumed the angry father.

“Sir, what kind of fuel?”

“Unleaded, regular,” he snapped back.

By now his wife, young daughter, and the dog had also exited the vehicle. They made for the nearest patch of lawn and let the dog have free rein. The man fumed and waddled his way to the shade of the nearby gas station sign. He pulled a pack of smokes from his shirt pocket and then a lighter. After a couple drags, smoke wafting in slivery streaks, he was visibly more calm. He was not overweight, but rather looked like a former athlete that somehow managed to keep a slim figure on a steady diet of cigarettes, hard liquor, and very little to eat. He wore boat shoes and khaki shorts. His polo shirt tucked in to his belted waistline and a ball cap pulled over his gray, receding hairline. Tan, leathery skin stretched over his jaunt jawline, likely from years in the sun at the golf club. ‘The Great American West?’ he probably thought to himself. ‘Goddamn kids don’t even look out windows anymore. My wife hates me. This damn RV cost me a whole month of golf, and the toilet don’t even work. What the hell are we doing out here???’

“Hey Steve, I finished my beer. We good with the gas?” I asked as I walked back from the picnic bench on the lawn.

“Yeah. We are all good to go,” he replied with a grin on his face.

“Good, I’m ready to get out of this scene.”

“Hey, Danny. I could use a drink. Some iced-tea or something. How bout I buy ya a McDonalds! Then we’ll hit the road,” he said playfully as we rolled out of the parking lot.

“Yeah, sounds good,” I could use the caffeine.

We were off, once more. Northbound, and almost to Portland. Visibility still piss-poor –  not even the closest mountains were visible. Mount Hood, close by somewhere to the east, hidden away in the miasma of the Great American West.

Great Western Frontier, Part 1

Steve and I had been driving all day. From Reno to Portland in one well-tuned, 10 hour stretch. We kept the stereo set to classic country and several live Dead shows to keep our minds busy as we rolled through northern California. All along,  the great western frontier was thoroughly ablaze. Like a strange carnival, wildfire basecamps lined the sides of the highway. Headquarters for the thousands of personnel busily putting out the flames of ‘Manifest Destiny’. No luck for our hopes of getting even a glimpse of Mount Shasta. I had remembered from my childhood years on family road trips that the great volcano was visible from more than 100 miles away.

“Hey, Steve?” I glanced over from the passenger seat. “Shouldn’t we be able to see Mount Shasta?”

“Yeah, well. There’s the wildfire season for ya,” Steve replied as he broke from belting out a line from Wharf Rat.

“Ya know,” I said with a pause. “I’ll bet 90 percent of these fires are started by dumb-fuckers flicking cigarette butts out their car windows. Down in Mono County, they water down the sides of the highways to prevent these sorts of fires. People are stupid, you know. Strictly speaking, fifty percent of people are below average.”

I needed something to cut the edge, so I reached behind the seat and grabbed a Coors from the cooler. Northern California is so large, bigger than many entire states, and I needed some additional mental fortitude. One can only take so much of the burned out west. Pitiful stands of evergreen forest dead of drought and beetle infestation. The entire region a poster child for the consequences of the arrogance of a single species.

We continued through until at last we made it to Oregon. The first city of any real magnitude was Klamath Falls and shortly after we passed Upper Klamath Lake and began our northwesterly approach toward the Willamette Valley. Now we were deep within the forested northwest; evergreen trees covered everything. Like cookie cutters, the houses and towns on the landscape carved from this sea of green biomass. Eventually, we arrived in the town of Chemult. A small stop off US highway 97 – a couple gas stations in operation surrounded by artifacts of the American Dream. We stopped because we needed gas, and we were hungry too. But we soon realized we should have stopped back in Klamath Falls…

We pulled into the gas station on the south end of town. I hopped out and proceeded to maneuver to the gas pump as I remembered we were in Oregon and you couldn’t pump your own gas.

“Yeah, just fill it all the way with regular unleaded? Thanks,” I replied to the dutiful pump attendant after waiting several minutes.

After we gassed up, we pulled into an empty parking stall and made our way into the busy gas station for some food. Subway didn’t sound appealing and neither did a ‘Chicken Torpedo’. We agreed we’d earned a bit of a break from driving and so we shopped around for some real local food before leaving town.

Chemult, Oregon is a town that has apparently been thoroughly fucked by the ‘rural-urban migration’. Once a rail station town, Chemult now had more closed businesses than were open. We’d been hoodwinked by several signs for diners and cafes as we first pulled into town. We walked first to KJ’s café on the south side of the gas station. It had strange hours of business posted on the door and we weren’t actually sure it was even still in business. We could see what looked like a small deli up the road and decided to stretch the legs a bit. We walked by a broken down RV in an empty dirt lot.The gas door flap was even still open. A strung-out type sat in a rocking chair on his flip phone with a bud light in hand. A few logging trucks barreled by as we made our way to the deli.

As we walked up, an old gentlemen stood dignified by his Chevy truck, waiting to be gassed up by the attendant. We stepped inside to check out the grub. A colorful menu board lit up the interior of what looked like a one-size-fits-all establishment. Up front had the usual gas station wares – snacks, cold drinks, sundry vehicle maintenance fluids, and, of course, a rack of smutty magazines for the lonely roadster. We found the back end where the hot food was served up and rang the bell.

“Hello,” I called back to what looked like the kitchen.

“I dunno, not too promising. I suppose the guy out front pumping gas runs this whole gig. Doesn’t he have a cute daughter to help him out,” Steve said with a grin.

“Yeah, well. They’ve all left for the big city, I’m sure. Find their true calling in life.”

We waited for a few more minutes, holding out only because the boysenberry shakes looked really good and also the chicken sandwich. Finally, we stepped back outside and the dignified old gentleman still stood patiently by his Chevy.

“Hey, there,” I said. “You know if the deli inside is open?”

“Yeah,” He replied languidly. “He’s open, just he’s helping fill them propane tanks over there with that fella.” He pointed to the other side of the lot.

“I see…” I replied.

Steve and I realized we weren’t gonna get that shake and sandwich anytime soon and decided to cut our losses and walk back down the road. We got to the truck and saw the little market across the street apparently sold: liquor, food, and fried chicken.

“We should support local.”

“Hell, yeah. Local,” Steve replied. “Fuck Subway.”

So we crossed the highway, dodging semis and old roadsters headed south. Immediately inside and to the right was an aisle dedicated to liquors. Mostly bottom shelf varieties, but still something there for everyone. But we were looking for food. We hadn’t really eaten all day and needed something to sustain us for the rest of our drive. After perusing the other aisles and turning up nothing, we walked to the front to inquire of the fried chicken.

“Well, I’m actually about out,” replied the gal up front, holding a bag of a half dozen or so quarter sized pieces of what looked like breading with little to no chicken inside. “I can cook them all up and charge you for 3 pieces. How’s that sound?”

By now we were happy for anything and were antsy to get back on the road. “Yeah, sounds great. Let’s get a couple orders of potato wedges too, please.”

“You got it,” she replied and dunked the selected items in the deep fryer.

“Say, Steve,” I found him eyeing the chip aisle. “I suppose a bottle of Bacardi silver may be a good idea, yeah?”

“Hell, yes. And don’t forget a bag of ice,” he replied as he scrutinized the varieties of Doritos.

With our hard won fried goods, bag of chips, and a bottle of rum and bag of ice, we dodged the semis once more across the highway to the truck. I volunteered to man the wheel from here and let Steve have a break. I inhaled a few chicken pieces and a potato wedge, burning my mouth in haste, and set off north toward Portland. That Great river city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Strange among us, but no strangers

We pulled into the Vons parking lot and found a parking spot in the shade, near the Burger King. As I rolled into place, one final gust of wind buffeted the truck.

“Thanks mate!” Chairman said in his thick Australian accent as he reached his hand out. His powerful body stepping around the side of the truck. His grizzled face and thick, tan legs gave him the look of a mountain man. His blue eyes and grin revealed his pure joy for life on the trail and making new friends. “Next time you make it to Australia, give me a message and I’ll show you around,” he smiled at me.

“Sure thing,” I said with a smile and grabbed him for a side-hug. We’d only met a couple hours earlier on our way in to town. He was taking a break from the Pacific Crest Trail for a couple days and needed a ride to town. I was headed to town after a few days of field research to resupply water, ice, and some food. We enjoyed sharing notes on our respective native flora and fauna.

“I’m going to head to the Burger King for lunch. Think I saw some others from the trail over there.” He smiled once more.

“I’ll probably head in there in a moment.” Just got get a few things situated here. And so he turned toward the BK while I rummaged around the truck for my shopping bag.

The mid-day sun beat down on the asphalt as heat waves rose. The wind provided a constant nuisance and with occasional gusts picking up plastic bags and other trash into the air. A tap, tap, tap rang from the empty flag pole in back of the lot. Rising high above, and empty, it kept time with the wind. Throughout the parking lot desert rats, dirt bag thru hikers, and leather faced pensioners all formed an unlikely smorgasbord of humanity. My head was in a fog and I’d been up since 4 a.m. so I made for the Starbucks in the grocery store for iced coffee. The poor kid working the shop alone was working through several orders of mocha lattes and cookie crunch ‘coffee’ drinks. Several customers idling on their cell phones while they waited. Poured into their bootie shorts and tank-tops, burned red shoulders and sun bleached hair – summer had arrived.

“What can I get for you?” the kid behind the counter asked with a strained smile, after he handed out one last cookie crisp Frappuccino.

“Can I please get a large iced-coffee, black.” I asked. “Oh, and can I also get 5 dollars in quarters back please? I need to fill water tanks outside.”

“Sure thing,” he proceeded to fill a large cup to the rim with ice, then filled in the remainder with cold brew.

I was too out of it to protest and took the drink gladly and sipped from it while he counted out quarters.

I stepped back outside into the afternoon heat. Now that I had some caffeine in me, I began to feel hungry. I decided I’d walk back to the Burger King and see if Chairman and the others were still there.

Wind blew through the lot, almost providing a cooling effect if not for the heat radiating off the asphalt. A large truck, with a rusty tail gate peeled out as black diesel smoke poured from the exhaust. Just as a motorcycle gang passed through, an older woman with a bright orange pair of track pants and bikini top hollered for a ride back to Weldon.

“California on Fire! Gonna be on fire again. California on fire, “she proclaimed in between pleas for a ride. She eventually pulled a pack of cigarettes from her cleavage and turned into the wall of the building to escape the wind as she lit a Camel into a cupped hand.

I took long pulls off the iced coffee and continued to walk back to the Burger King. As I got toward the back of the lot, an older couple, wrapped entirely in sarongs and wearing shrouded field hats shuffled around in front of their RV. Eventually I realized they were walking laps in the shade of the row of trees in back. Staying within the shadow of the few Bartlett pear trees that lined the back of the lot, they shuffled slowly. Taking turns walking out and back, this method of exercise seemed pathetic but at the same time respectably resourceful.

The iced coffee was really kicking in now and I was feeling energetic and sprightly again. The wind was still blowing and I cinched the drawstring around my hat to my chin. I ambled through the shade of the trees and toward the Burger King. A fish sandwich sounded good.

Near the flag pole, still keeping time like a metronome, I began to hear what sounded like someone yelling. As I turned around the corner of the fast food chain I noticed a thin strung out dark skinned guy. After a moment I recognized him as the busker from the front of the store 15 minutes earlier. His hair stuck out in several abrupt angles from his head and his facial hair only faintly covered his gaunt jawline. He wasn’t wearing sunglasses but wasn’t really squinting either. He was sitting cross-legged on the curb of the parking lot, clearly strung out from too much acid, and it was hard to tell if he was deep in, coming down, or just perma-fried. I’d actually thought he played well on the guitar. He had a soft but confident voice, and even sounded like he had written his own tunes – I’d have given him a few bucks if I had had any cash. But now, he had relocated to the vicinity of the flag pole and decided to take arms against the obstinate noise maker.

“Fuck you! Don’t you ever shut up. It’s all day long with you, isn’t it,” he looked half entertained with himself as he waved a fist skyward at the recalcitrant flagpole. “Disturbing the peace, you are. Don’t make me call the cops,” he shouted again. Had this been some other town, this scene may have attracted unwarranted trouble. However, the residents of Lake Isabella, California were comfortable in their eccentricity. No one really seemed to care too much as long as violence was projected toward unanimated objects or delusions. Like a festival, everyone was in their own little world that afternoon. Maybe it was the sun, or the wind, or likely a combination of the two.

He kept it up for a few more moments before he broke into a cappella. This seemed to keep him pretty occupied and even a few passers-by stopped briefly to listen.

I finally stepped into the Burger King and was hungry so I made straight for the counter to order. I asked a couple old ladies if they were still waiting to order or waiting on food. They nodded and so I stepped to the counter and ordered a fish sandwich. The older gentleman who took my order gave me one of the most authentic smiles I had ever received at a fast food restaurant. I thanked him and returned the smile.

Once I had my order number, I scanned the booths for Chairman. He was sitting across from another couple of hikers with a full tray of food and large drink.

“Hey Chairman, how’s that food!” I stepped over to him as he unwrapped a large burger.

“Hey, Danny! Yeah, it’s great, better than trail food.” He smiled up at me.

We chatted for a moment and I showed him my iced coffee, full of ice and now all but empty of the coffee.

I noticed the other two hikers again and asked where they were from. A girl and guy. Both busily eating through burgers and fries and relishing the calories.

The girl responded first. She had long blonde hair pulled into a braid and had the look any thru hiker would. Sun tanned, hard worked, and happy.

“I’m from Alabama,” she responded in a distinctively southern accent.

“Cool, I grew up down there,” I responded, always thrilled to meet other folks from Alabama.

“Where you from?”

“Auburn,” she replied.

“Now way, me too!” I got excited.

“What!” she too was excited now. “No way. Well, OK, I am actually from Opelika, but no one knows that town, so I just say Auburn.”

“Me too! Holy shit, same thing. Well, I actually lived in Auburn too, but did kindergarten through 8th grade in Opelika.”

“What year did you graduate?” she asked. “I graduated ’04.”

“I was ‘03”, I replied.

“Well, we must know a lot of the same people then,” she proclaimed.

“Do you know the Yarbroughs,” I asked, knowing that if any family was probably widely known down there it would be them.

“Yes! Lenny, and Cody and Scarlett,” she knew all of them.

I laughed and told her I had known them since I was 5. Lenny’s mom, Charlotte, was my kindergarten teacher and we had been friends ever since.

“Oh my god!” this is amazing.” She said.

“Yeah, I actually just got married last November and they all came out for the wedding.”

By now she starting naming off every mutual friend and acquaintance we had from Opelika, Alabama. People I had known from grade school, and many who I still stayed in contact with.

“What is your name?” I asked. She had given me her trail name, Dixie.

“Jessica Mills,” she replied.

It wasn’t familiar to me as I probed my memory for that name from childhood.  She had moved to Opelika about a year after my family moved away from Alabama to Utah. One year different and we’d have likely met almost twenty years ago in that small southern town. Now we were sharing memories in a Burger King in a small desert town in southern California.

Chairman was enjoying watching the whole interaction play out. Maybe it was something about being in another country and seeing strangers meet and realize they aren’t so strange. He told us he had actually met a woman early on the trail who had just two weeks before gone out with his son. He said he only knew two people in the states – his son and an old friend. Then somehow he met this woman.

Me and Chairman from Australia.

“Well, shit, small world, right,” I smiled at them all. By now, we had finished our food and took turns taking photos together.

Some other thru hikers had started in on the conversation too. Their mutual goals of the trail and of enjoying life created an amazing community. They all knew the trail names of each other. They even knew where others were on the trial – 20 miles back, 30 miles ahead. At least within rough measures. Like a clan of nomads, they took care of each other as they moved through the summer months together in the vast landscape with nothing but what they carried on their back. Sharing the wide open night skies, full of stars. Sharing the long days, mile after mile. They understood the joys, the pains, and the trials and triumphs of the trail. They were like a family, no strangers among them.

“Dixie” from Opelika, Alabama.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Presence of Time

I moved my sleeping roll and pillow to the back of my truck as the small oak tree cast thick shade over it in the mid-day sun, and it was much cooler than my tent. The shrike, back in its roost in the short tree, let out the occasional screeching call. I pulled the shell closed to keep out the black flies and I laid back with my beer and book and read for a while until I fell asleep, where time passed but had to presence.

Wind rocked the truck as I rested, and a sudden gust eventually woke me from my nap. I sat up for a moment and rubbed my eyes. The others were either sleeping or reading in their tents and I had plenty of time left in the afternoon to think and let the internal dialogue take my mind away. I crawled out of the back of the truck and found a cold beer in the cooler. I noticed the shade had moved off the cooler and so I slid it a couple feet back under the tree shade where it would last another hour or two. The shrike next door startled again, possibly from its nap too. I sat in my chair and let my mind wander – about time and how we pass through it.

Time is a fickle dimension in which we move.  As we move through time, our mind, our thoughts, our experiences influence the rate at which it passes. I thought about how I missed my family, my wife, friends, dogs. When the hours of the day are spent lying awake in the heat of the day, time passes slowly and with painstaking realization of separation from what I love. I relished the trip we made to visit Sunny’s mom for her birthday. I had been tired and working all day, but drove to Folsom for her surprise party. I wanted to be there – wouldn’t miss it for all the wealth in the world. I remembered leaving at 5 a.m. the next morning to get home, pack, and drive all day to go do field work. I remembered how quickly the time went by while we drank wine and beer and ate food and visited while the sun set over the American River and the nuthatches visited the feeders off the porch. We watched and the moments there in the last golden hour of the day passed. Almost like I just dreamt it and woke suddenly, it was done. Seemed unfair – that time spent in good company passes so quickly, while time away, the times when we recognize the importance of those relationships seem to pass slowly. Irony in the way we want more time when it passes so quickly, but when alone time passes slowly and we are forced to face the reality in which we exist. We never get time back. Enjoy all the moments, fast or slow.

So I sat on my chair and dug my feet deep into the cooler desert sand beneath and watched as the eastern sky turned pastel purple as the sun set. In the eastern edge of the valley, a peak covered in boulders caught the last rays of sun. How long had those boulders been there? What time had passed in their long and stationary presence? That slow and steady giant stood sentry over the valley as I sat from my diminutive position. The moments passed, I was unconcerned and in the moment. I watched until the first stars began to shine and then the milky way. I finished my beer slowly and crawled back to my tent for some more sleep before the night’s round of work would start. The shrike called one more time from its roost deep in the foliage of the oak tree and I faded to sleep under the dark sky and lost track of time once more.

 

Questioning…

We were given an assignment in my research design class. Contemplate nature, our surroundings, and come up with as many scientific questions as possible and write them down – similar to a brainstorming session. The objective is not to come up with all great questions. Rather, by asking many questions we will likely ask 1 or 2 good ones. Once we had our questions, we were instructed to take our ‘best’ from which to generate several hypotheses and predictions. This exercise is important as one of the most difficult tasks for a scientist is generating good questions. I liked the assignment and decided it seemed like a perfectly good blog post as well.

I gathered a notepad and pen and journeyed out of town into the desert near Pyramid Lake in northern Nevada. I found solitude and inspiration in the view from the craggy hilltop where I settled in to my writing. I began to consider the idea of stochasticity and its role in generating patterns we see in nature. I began to think of concepts in astrophysics and what is understood of the formation of solar systems, galaxies, and ultimately the universe. Just after the big bang all matter that now exists in the universe was distributed homogeneously. Very soon after this, ‘primordial fluctuations’ produced density variations (i.e. heterogeneity) in this matter as it began to expand outward (and continues to do so!). These variations ultimately produced all the structure we observe in the universe today. There is no singular reasoning behind the placement of objects in the cosmos. Rather, it was stochastic processes early in the development of our universe that gave rise to the structure we see now. If we replicated this process many times over, we would likely find different outcomes each time.

This led me to think of the role of stochasticity on earth in the way environments, ecosystems and biotic communities form on earth. In particular, Hubbell’s neutral theory and functional equivalence in trophically similar species. In a nutshell, similar species are likely to share many common features and the success of one over the other is due to stochasticity rather than deterministic processes.

These two examples (the formation of the universe, and neutral theory within biological communities) are similar in their dependence on the role of stochastic processes in producing the structure and patterns we find in nature. Furthermore, we may find deterministic processes in the very same structure and patterns that have risen from these chaotic beginnings.

After a while of pondering these and other things, I starting to write down all the scientific questions that came to mind. They did not all have to do with stochasticity in nature. In fact, many had to do with entirely different concepts. Here are a few for example:

What role does the microbiome play in successful colonization and persistence?

To what extent do chemical landscapes dictate the movement and establishment of organisms?

And, here is one that I had fun with so I couldn’t leave it out!

How many definitions exist for non-native, or exotic species? And, at what scale may these definitions break down? Example: A careless astronaut finds a plant-like species on another planet and it finds its way back to Earth where it miraculously propagates in the Hakaluki Haor marshlands of Bangladesh. How may this lead us to re-evaluate our definition of “non-native” species?

If you care, the full list of questions is here.

The question I chose to elaborate on of course dealt with stochasticity in nature:

What deterministic and/or stochastic processes give rise to where and how ripariansystems develop?

To set up the question, I got cosmic again and tried to formulate a thought experiment:

Imagine a Martian landscape with mountains rising miles into the air and vast alluvial fans below. Presently, no water flows on the surface of mars, and no plants or living organisms exist. Let’s imagine that water and life suddenly appear on the planet. Let’s go further and think of a large body of water on top of a Martian mountaintop. As the water begins to find its way down the mountain it will begin to carve out water courses. These water courses may grow larger as more water flows through, and some may even connect giving rise to even larger water ways, eventually becoming large creeks and rivers. If we were to recreate this scenario 1,000 times, we would likely find differences in the pattern and process each time. The question deals with the very beginnings of these ‘novel’ water courses. Why does water flow one way rather than another? What factors play a role in this? In an attempt to work through this set of questionsI can think of a few testable hypotheseswith associated predictions:

  • The placement of plants on a landscape will influence the establishment of water courses.
    • Early colonizing plants that can survive with little water will establish a community. The roots and structure provided by these plants reduces erosion and forces water to flow in adjacent channels. In effect, these early colonizing plants are the first inhabitants of a newly forming riparian ecosystem.
    • More plants will continue to establish the newly forming riparian ecosystem, thereby reinforcing the effects against erosion.
  • Engineered topology and geology will influence the establishment of water courses.
    • A subtle difference in the topology of a landscape will lead to the movement of water courses in one direction over another.
    • Similarly, differences in geology and the resistance of substrate material to erosive forces will lead to the distribution of water courses.
  • The amount of water released will influence the establishment of water courses.
    • A small but persistent amount of water will provide different outcome from a deluge of water.

 

  1. Why riparian ecosystems? Riparian means essentially “along a riverbank”. Riparian ecosystems are home to a large number of species across the globe. Since water is essential to life on earth, it is no coincidence that riparian systems are such cradles of life. But since water exists with or without life, it allows us to ask questions about the behavior of water with and without the influence of living organisms acting upon it.
  2. Among many other things, the scientific process relies on questions and hypotheses. A question is simply what it sounds like. For example, your car won’t start in the morning to go to work. A question would be: Why will my car not start?
  3. Hypotheses are more involved than just asking a question. Formulating a sound hypothesis is also very important to scientific pursuit. A hypothesis is a proposed and testable statement made to answer a scientific question. The key here is that it must be testable; experiments are used to test hypotheses. This is one area that clearly delineates science from pseudo-science. The corresponding hypothesis to our above-mentioned car problem could be: If I put gas in my car it will start. Can you think of any alternative hypotheses?

Why I Don’t Eat Mammals: Part 2

What is Alpha-Gal

After the second bout of a horrible allergic reaction, I began to seriously consider the possibilities. The first incident I thought was a reaction to legumes – I had eaten a handful of peanuts only 10 minutes prior to the symptoms. I had heard of the sudden onset of legume allergies in adults. But, after the second incident I seriously began to consider the possibility that I had this new “red-meat allergy”. Upon reflection, both times I had eaten red meat (any mammal meat). This may seem a desperate correlation, but I had severely cut back on my meat intake. In fact, the two times, months apart, I could remember eating red meat during this period, I had these reactions. Furthermore, the reactions occurred several hours after eating red meat – a phenomenon of this allergy.

First documented in 2009, alpha-gal induced allergic reactions were reported in 24 cases (Commins and Platts-Mills, 2009 and 2013). Commins and Platts-Mills papers include a lot of medical jargon, descriptions of other closely related allergies, and explanations of experiments and assays performed in the study of this relatively new allergy. I will spare you those details and attempt to distill the most important points.

Alpha-gal, or galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose is a carbohydrate, which is, in biochemistry, is a group of compounds that includes sugar. Organic sugars of several varieties are found in fruits, vegetables, and other foods. Alpha-gal, is a common component of the cell membranes of many mammal species, excluding old world primates and humans. So, if you are reading this, you do not have naturally occurring alpha-gal coating your cell membranes like a sugar dipped lollypop. Under certain circumstances, outlined below, alpha-gal can cause the body’s immune system to develop a novel antibody, IgE.  Antibodies are what your body produces to defend from outside pathogens (i.e. bacteria, viruses , etc…) The overproduction of antibodies in response to certain stimuli is what often causes various forms of allergies. The alpha-gal allergic condition – delayed anaphylaxis to mammalian meat – requires the development of the IgE antibody.

As best as scientists who study this can tell, it starts with ticks and land mammals. In the United States, the culprit is the lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum), common throughout the eastern US. As an ectoparasite, these ticks make their living sucking blood from hosts. These hosts may include all kinds of animals such as lizards and birds; however, frequently their host is a mammal including rodents, deer, dogs, cats, and humans! We’ve all had experiences with ticks if we’ve spent any substantial amount of time romping around in the forest.

Once a tick has found a suitable host, they can remain attached for up to a week. The lone star tick is a generalist feeder, taking advantage of any number of hosts. Also, they require at least three hosts to complete their life cycle from larvae to nymph to adult. During this period, these ticks likely will take up residency in various mammalian species. Now we get back to alpha-gal; during this period ticks are likely to ingest a fair amount of mammalian blood and, guess what, the carbohydrate alpha-gal along with! Once a tick gets to a point of host switching, they already have this carbohydrate in their bloated gut. The tick then searches out a new host to become an adult, produce more little baby ticks, and complete its life cycle. If you find yourself ambling in the woods, in the right part of the country, you are very likely to find yourself eventually playing host to one or more of these little blood suckers.

Once you are ‘bitten’ by a tick, the process begins. We’ve all used straws before and know how easy it is to reverse flow, even for a split second, and eject some of our own saliva in the drink. Well, imagine ticks doing a bit of the same. Except, they may actually eject a little more than just saliva. Having blood, and quite possibly, alpha-gal in their guts from previous hosts, they can purge a little of that into your own blood stream when attached. What happens then?

To answer that question, let’s back up a bit. Remember, alpha-gal is found in all non-primate mammals (i.e. cows, pigs, deer ,etc…). So, we have all ingested alpha-gal containing foods in our lifetimes – providing we have eaten mammal meat at some point. So why aren’t we always breaking out in horrible allergic reactions? Well, it has to do with our body’s immune system.

In a non-afflicted individual, alpha-gal containing food is broken down through various processes in the digestive system. Eventually, the alpha-gal itself may even be released through the intestinal walls. However, your body breaks all this down, harvests energy from the meal, excretes excess waste, and you happily go on your merry way.

Now back to the tick bite. Once the tick has bitten and, if, it releases contents including alpha-gal in your blood stream, your body sets of an immune response to fight against this foreign substance. Inflammation, irritation, and itching are all common symptoms. This is actually what happens most times we are bitten, stung, or poked by a plant or animal. Think of a mosquito bite. However, in this particular case, our body may develop an immune response to the foreign substance, alpha-gal. Think of your immune system as having a memory. Our body has now seen this foreign substance from an external wound; it now has learned to respond to it whenever it is found.

As an afflicted individual eats a burger, or steak, or anything with mammal meat, the alpha-gal released during digestion into the blood stream sets off a systemic (whole body) allergic reaction. I had hives from my head to my feet. Of the many peculiarities, the allergic reaction may take 3-6 hours to set it (Commins and Platts-Mills 2013). This was one reason why early in the history of the condition, many doctors dismissed patients concerns that they may have a food allergy to meat. Food allergies commonly only take minutes to set in, not several hours. And, while the cause of this allergy is becoming better understood, little is known about some of the details. Why the delayed allergic response? Can the allergy wear off given enough time? How many people does this allergy afflict?

Commins and Platts-Mills report that many patients develop allergic response to ingested mammalian meat 3-6 hours after eating, and that the role of lipids in the food may produce this pattern (2013). Alpha-gal containing lipids in the meat are not immediately released upon eating, and can take several hours to be absorbed. Other interesting patterns deal with the timing and severity of the allergic reactions. The study found that some patients could tolerate small amounts of meat (e.g. a single strip of bacon) with no response. Large amounts of meat (e.g. double burger) could cause severe reaction and even affect several organ systems (Commins and Platts-Mills 2013).

Furthermore, the timing and severity of tick bites may influence the severity of the allergy. Patients with recent and higher doses of tick bites (i.e. more bites, more reaction to bites) were more likely to develop delayed allergic response to mammalian meat (Commins and Platts-Mills 2013). This provides evidence for the possibility that the allergy may wear off over time; providing you stop getting bitten by ticks, and thereby exposed to further alpha-gal. However, much is still unknown and proper diagnosis and caution should be used.

Finally, how many people may have this condition? This is a hard number to come by. It was first described in 2009 from 24 cases (Commins and Platts-Mills 2009; 2013); however by 2012 it was evident that the total number of cases was likely in the thousands. Furthermore, because the condition has only recently been described, it is likely that many cases when undiagnosed over that last several decades. The true number may forever evade us. Further complicating the matter is that the severity of reactions differs among many people; some people may never develop strong allergic responses. Others, perhaps vegetarian, pescatarian, or who don’t eat any mammal meat, may never discover they have the condition.

As the condition becomes better understood, it may become more easily diagnosed. My doctor ordered the correct allergy tests, and with a small vial of blood, was able to diagnose the condition. In popular culture it has even received recent attention. The October 27, 2016 episode of Radiolab covered the story of Amy Pearl who developed alpha-gal allergies. I highly recommend the episode as it is both educational and humorous!

Why I Don’t Eat Mammals Part 1: http://wp.me/p4iZnM-4m

References:

Commins SP., and T.A. Platts-Mills. 2009. Anaphylaxis syndromes related to a new mammalian cross-reactive carbohydrate determinant. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 124(4): 652-657.

Commins SP., and T.A. Platts-Mills. 2013. Delayed Anaphylaxis to Red Meat in Patients with IgE Specific for Galactos alpha-1,3-Galactose (alpha-gal). Curr Allergy Asthma Rep. 13(1): 72-77.

Tales From the Field: Tara and the BYU Crew of Lytle Ranch

I’ve known Tara since high school and we ended up in some of the same classes in college. When she finished she started teaching Biology at our high school and at age 22, she was often confused for a student herself! After several years and completing a Master’s degree, she decided jump back in for a Ph.D. Her research landed her at BYU’s Lytle Ranch in a quiet little southwestern corner of Utah near the Arizona and Nevada border. The ranch is near Mesquite, Nevada – in middle-of-nowhere desert terms. I’d spent several years as a graduate student and research technician with the United States Geological Survey and had fallen in love with the place. So naturally, when Tara loosely invited me to visit her research site, I jumped at the chance. I never need much prodding to ramble through the desert, and so when on a trip to pick Sunny from the Las Vegas airport, I made sure to spend a couple extra days to drive up I-15 to visit.

Late April showers turned to deafening thunderstorms on the way out. The storms gathered across the desert range and reached their crescendo atop lofty peaks far in the distance…torrents of rain from dozens of miles away, with lightning added for effect. Who needed the movies when you had this! I exited the freeway in Mesquite and passed along some old haunts before rejoining I-15 on the north end of town. The rain had thoroughly wetted things by now and I wasn’t moving too fast. Passing along the Virgin River overpass about ten miles from town, I looked for the old swimming hole we’d visit mid-summer for cooling off. There’s whole stories could be told from that spot tucked discreetly under the I-15 overpass. I kept going in the rain.

Shit. I said to myself as I passed the exit for old highway 91 in Littlefield, Arizona. As I scolded myself for missing the turn – I always thought I knew this place like the back of my hand – I passed the next exit too. Well, suppose I’ll just turn around at Cedar Pocket in the Gorge.

Eventually I ended up back in Littlefield and made the turn onto highway 91 and passed through the little village of Beaver Dam. I laughed as I passed the old Dam Deli and Dam Bar. A hole in the wall stop we used to go for cold drinks. A little Mexican woman used to sell homemade tamales out front in the summers out of a cooler. The highway heads north from the interstate and stays in that forgotten corner of Arizona for about ten miles until it passes into another forgotten corner of Utah.

“I guess I need to replace my windshield wipers,” I told myself as rain poured in sheets. Distant headlamps of cars glared off wet pavement.

The 10 miles or so from the highway to the ranch was bumpy from spring rains and occasional traffic. In an effort not to wake everyone, I stopped just before dropping down the switch back to the ranch and pulled in to a clearing protected by juniper trees. I settled in, sipped my cold drink and watched the storm clouds unfurl as stars began to shimmer and eventually the Milky Way too.Version 2

In the morning I boiled water for coffee and listened to Heriberto’s whistling ascend through the tree canopy below. As ranch caretaker, he and his wife spent all of there time there, even when just the two of them. He’d mastered the art of self entertainment. The birds had been long at it since 5 a.m. and his whistling added to the chorus. I poured coffee into my mug and drove down the hill to the ranch.

Not sure where to find them, I poked around a bit for Tara and her crew and eventually ran into Heriberto. He was a stocky built and tall Mexican. Rounded features accompanied his friendly face and his mustache was tightly trimmed over his mouth. His greying hair was just visible from the edges of his leather cowboy hat.

“They usually head into the field around 8 a.m. But they come back for lunch,” Heriberto said in his thick accent as he turned from his conversation with a couple birders.

I spent the morning hours ambling around the ranch and finding old spots I’d visited on previous trips years before. Looking at a map, I realized the Utah/Nevada state line was only a couple miles west of the ranch. I followed the dirt road from the ranch as it ducked into riparian woodland and crossed Beaver Dam wash a couple times. I continued on as it made a couple switchbacks to the top of the canyon rim where it opened onto upland desert scrub spotted with Joshua trees and sagebrush and the road trailed off into the distance somewhere in Nevada.

Sometime around 10:00 I wandered back down the canyon rim to the ranch. A Summer Tanager had my attention and I stood staring through my binoculars into the large cottonwood tree that kept the bunkhouses in shade for much of the day. Just then I heard a truck come down the lane and a loud RAT-A-TAT as it crossed the cattle guard. I looked down from the tree and saw Tara in a tie-die t-shirt and ball cap sitting in the passenger seat of the first of two trucks. Behind her in the back seat sat three younger looking girls – undergrads working on her research for the summer.

“Danny! I wondered if I’d see you here,” Tara smiled from the truck window.

“Well, I figured I’d find you. I left you a phone message a few days ago, but knew you’d likely not get it,” I sidled up to the window.

“Everyone. This is Danny, my old friend from high school…The one I was telling you about the other day,” Tara said to the others. “This is Bailey, Becca, and Ashley,” she gestured to the back seat. “And this is Josh,” she pointed to the driver.

“I suppose I just missed ya’ll this morning on your way out. How was the work this morning?” I smiled at everyone.

“It was great, sorry you missed us. We finished some transects up on the rim that we started yesterday. We bailed when the thunderstorms came in. Hey, we’re going to Mesquite for lunch, if you want to join?”

I decided to stay behind for more exploring while they took a couple hours in Mesquite for lunch and supplies. I found the pond where we removed bullfrogs once for a field trip in my herpetology class. It enjoyed a canopy of cottonwood and willow trees and the yellow warblers, like little golden balls, chased each other through the open air over the water. I found a picnic table and read my book as the birds began to settle in for the afternoon. Around 1 I ambled back to the bunkhouse in time to find them all piling gear into the 4-wheeler and side-by-side. Tara was loading her things on the back of the 4-wheeler with Josh to go collect some gear. The afternoon air stirred and was thickening and anvil topped thunderheads loomed high above the distant horizon.

“Danny, wanna go with the girls to collect the Shermans?” Tara asked. “We left the trap line out and just need to go pick them up.”

“Yeah, sounds fun,” I looked over to the girls as they were putting on rain ponchos.

I brushed a strand of hair that blew into my face and pulled myself into the back of the side-by-side with Ashley. Becca sat in front of me in the front passenger seat.

Bailey pulled herself into the driver seat. She was athletically built and had long brunette hair. And an infectious smile. She turned the ignition and with serious demeanor, as if a natural born racer, took off up the dirt track. The throttle lurched us forward as she steered around the gate and around the switchback toward the top of the canyon rim. All the while I attempted to hold myself, white-knuckled, upright in the backseat. After a few moments of this, I realized the thing probably only went 15 mph and eventually this settled my nerves. But between the wash-boarded dirt road and sound of the motor, one would only guess.

“So, you’ve been enjoying working out here with Tara?” I yelled over the motor to Ashley.

She looked over with questioning eyes. I leaned a little closer and repeated.

“Yeah, I love it out here,”  she hollered with a smile.

We had now climbed out of the canyon and were perched on the upland desert with 360 degree views around of the desert. Mountains rose gently from the desert floor and into the sky where the afternoon thunderstorms still gathered. As we walked along the desert floor – plants verdant from spring rain – purple and yellow flowers of Krameria and Coleogyne blossomed from the lush green foliage.  Then, the red berries of Lycium. And all along were the mascots of the Mojave Desert, the Joshua tree. Like a Dr. Seuss creation, their short bent forms rose from the desert floor and white fruits began to develop on their outstretched arms. Aside from the few most common of plants, I’d realized how much of the desert flora I’d forgotten so I stopped at nearly every plant and asked the others for the name. They’d been hard at it most of the year with plant ID, and so rattled off names almost unconsciously, and where they didn’t know the exact species of some of the less common forbs, told me their field name they’d devised. We continued this for a while as we collected the small metal traps along the way and all the while discussed botany, ecology, and science in general.

I was now walking with Ashley behind the others. She had blonde hair and fair skin. Her brown eyes revealed her deep thought and contemplation. She spoke with depth and clarity.

“What do you like most about science?” she asked.

A bit of a broad question, I thought for a moment.

“I suppose…What I like most is the never-ending nature of it. The more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know,” I smiled. “I suppose, we may never run out of questions to ask. So long as we keep an open mind.”

We reached the end of the trap line and each of us, arms full of traps, turned and walked back. They asked me about graduate school and how to prepare and what classes are best to take. I didn’t really feel that prepared to answer those kinds of questions. I suppose I didn’t think I had all the right answers but I answered with what I’d learned over the years as we loading back and rode off back toward the ranch. The clouds had started to break up and it almost seemed like whatever storm was brewing had begun to dissipate. But, being spring, and being the desert, we didn’t count on it. As we road, West Mountain rose out of the desert in the distance and with the clouds rolling over, it looked even larger and even more isolated.

Back at the bunkhouse, we reconvened with Tara and Josh and made one more trip to Tara’s experimental plots just above the ranch on canyon rim. From atop, the sandstone bluffs rising from below were now glowing red in the evening sun. The Beaver Dam wash was evident below in its green ribbon of riparian vegetation.

“So what’s your 30-second elevator pitch for your research?” I gave Tara a shit-eating grin.

“I hate that question, everyone always asks that.” She smiled while unloading gear. “I am studying competition of invasive species after abnormal fire events in a desert ecosystem.”

Wow, I thought. She’s got that down.

Specifically, she studies post-fire invasion and competition of non-native grasses; Red Brome (Bromus rubens), Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), and Schismus. Her work employs a menagerie of fine-scale vegetation monitoring, precipitation experiments, and other ecological field techniques. All, very obviously time consuming and critical to her research.  I looked out at the large experimental plots, their size quite breathtaking.

“So what exactly is going on in these?”

“Each of these experimental areas are split into quadrants, for a full factorial study on the effects of fire an small mammals on post fire completion of invaders.” Tara said as she pulled on a spool of wire.

Version 2I looked out across the huge installation, astounded by the amount of work it must have taken to just set up. Each large fenced area was split into four smaller segments. Two segments were burned, and two unburned. Likewise, two had been fully removed of small mammals while the other two hadn’t. This provided a simultaneous look at the influence of both presence or absence of fire, and presence or absence of small mammals. What seemed like on paper a simple design, stretched out before me into what looked like work for 10 full-time workers. Tara and the others were now busy mending holes in the fences that were meant to exclude small mammals from the plots within. I had been tasked with cutting lengths of wire for the repairs.

“What has been the most frustrating part of graduate school so far?” I asked Tara.

She looked over at me as I struggled to clip a piece of wire from the spool. “Ha!” She looked out at the others patching the fence, and beyond the desert fanned out almost endlessly. “There is so much work out here for the 5 of us. What’s frustrating is the lack of a sufficient number of field technicians to keep up with it all. We are up at dawn and work till sun down everyday.” And with that, she turned back to the fences and the others.

Beyond the bluffs of the ranch and to the west the sun began to approach the horizon, stretching our shadows along the desert floor. The mountains to the east glowed red boding us good evening as we finished mending the fences and stashing the equipment for the week.

And so there we were, working hard and knowing it was hard work. But that it was in a place so beautiful meant something. And what it meant was different for each of us, but we all knew we loved that place and so all the hard work and the years and lines on our faces from the sun were more than worth the price.  As we road back down from the rim, rain clouds gathered again – portending another stormy night over the Mojave Desert.

Islands in the Sky

The two men perched on the ledge, now in silence, as long sharp lines of shadows cut through the red Wingate sandstone. A pair of vultures lazily circled nearby in silence and the mountains, uncaring, rose against the sky to the south. On their peaks snow reflected the late morning sun. A bird song rose from the canyon below that moments before had been the echo chamber of a din of explosion and profanities and mumbling. But now it was silent again and only the two of them on the ledge.

“She’s kinda a bitch,” a voice, tinged with a southern drawl, cut the silence. The tall, skinny man grappled with his thoughts as his long hair, matted with sweat, lofted in the breeze.

“What the hell man? Fuck you too, Aaron,” a voice spat back with a wheeze. What’s that about anyway?” it managed.

“You said you missed her. Said you always feel a longing when something shitty happens,” Aaron rambled, a cigarette tacked to his lip moved along with and flung bits of ash.

“Oh…,right,” he lifted his head again returning from a daze. “What you mean, she’s a bitch?”

“Ah man…” Aaron’s left arm only moving slightly, returning the cigarette to his stubbly face. He pulled long and hard at the cigarette. “Fuck…went out. No more lighter either, dammit,” he weakly flung the thing from his long scrawny arm into the abyss. He knew he’d need a bit of a rest now if he wasn’t able to finish the smoke.

“Hey, Aaron…Liza’s not a bitch…Why you think she’s a bitch?” he responded to silence.

Aaron rested his head now on the sandstone and although it wasn’t comfortable it was better, and cooled his head where it touched. He watched the sweat move off his face and, as it percolated into the stone, it released the smell of iron on the wet rock. He remembered missing that most when after moved away. The smell of the stone after rain. Really, just the smell of the desert after rain when the creosote and stone and sand, all like potpourri, filled the air. He remembered first coming back and, after it did rain, laying in the sand, rolling around. Then sticking his nose on different plants and surfaces and taking long breaths. He had missed it for too long.

“I had a hard time with her at first is all, Matt,” he returned from dazed silence. “She’s a bit of a food Nazi. I made homemade biscuits and gravy one morning…” He started to trail off.

“I don’t know what the hell you are talking about,” returned Matt in a raspy voice.

“I made biscuits and gravy from scratch,” continued Aaron in his drawl. One morning after we’d all been up late drinking. You know what she said? Before even taking a second bite? She didn’t say thanks. No pleasantries…No gesture of gratitude…She said, ‘the biscuits are too dry.’ That was it. What the fuck. Biscuits are too dry. That’s what the gravy is for,” he started trailing off into silence once again.

“Jesus, man. That’s your problem?” heavily breathing. “You know she went to school to be a cook. She can’t help but be critical, dude. She had to learn all that shit in school. You’re a real fucking baby, you know. I don’t even remember…When was that?” He wheezed once again.

“Hell if I remember exactly when it was. Maybe five years ago. Remember, it was the night we all ended up at your parents’ house cuz they were out of town. Ethan was there too, and then you got Samantha to come over. It was a big deal cuz he finally got laid that night. Remember that?”

“Oh yeah, he was all smiles and giddy that morning,” he smiled.

“Yeah, well, we were all pretty ripped that night but somehow I managed to get up around 6 the next morning. I felt like shit, but I was also feeling ambitious so I made biscuits and gravy for everyone.”

“Haha…yeah, I remember that now. Oh man…” Matt attempted a laugh and winced instead. “So she said the biscuits were dry, huh?”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I like her now, though. I don’t think she’s a bitch. Haven’t for a long time. Maybe at first, but she’s cool. OK,” Aaron said.

“Well, why’d you say it? Huh?” Matt wheezed again. His lips were white with sweat and his body and biceps were wet too.  His hair was short, but even it looked matted down with sweat. He would have slouched if he could, but he couldn’t. He lay instead. His chest heaved up and down and the hairs on it beaded sweat. His eyes were still circled in tan lines from the winter.

“I was trying to evoke some kind of inner fire; I guess…” Aaron responded. “Buddy! We got two legs and maybe two good arms between us to move this fucking piece of shit rock off. But, we’re gonna have to fight for it. I was trying to engage your inner hulk. You been pretty dedicated to making all those muscles. As good a time now as ever to put them to use,” he summoned whatever euphoria he had left.

“Well, Liza’s not a bitch,” Matt assured once more trying to muster energy.

“Yeah, well, I still think she’s a food Nazi,” he grinned back.

“I guess I’ll let you have that, you son of a bitch,” He grimaced as he tried for a smile.

“OK. You ready for a try here. You’ve got brawn, but you’re also pretty fucked and looks like pinned pretty well against that slab. How much of your arm you got?” Aaron thrashed to free up his leg.

“Uh, let me just…” Matt fussed around and twisted his body a bit. “Ouch, dammit.”

“I heard a pop, what the hell was it? You OK?” Aaron now had a bit of his leg free.

“Shit. I think I dislocated my shoulder,” Matt shook his head and let it hang down. He continued, “What’s the point anyway? My harness is fucked dude. The rope is ripped in half.” The frayed end of rope dangled limply over the ledge. He stared blankly at the useless piece of cord then turned his gaze slowly out over the edge. They were only a couple hundred feet from the ground, but the talus cone stretched on for several hundred feet beyond into the desert floor below so it felt like being one thousand feet up. The sagebrush below looked happy, he thought. It all looked ideal. The red sand stretched out for miles, punctuated by only sagebrush and ribbons of green where washes still released what water was left from winter snowmelt. Even the snow, trapped in isolated nooks of north facing drainages looked copacetic. The breeze was just enough to cool, but not too much and the vultures continued to ride lazy circles higher into the sky.

Matt continued from his horizontal position after a pause. The boulder had him pinned into a soft corner at the base of the slab rising from the ledge. Only a few more inches and he would have been sliced in two.

“Even if we get out from under this we can’t get off the fuckin route. Plus, we’re probably screwed anyway. I think I’m bleeding inside. Do you feel that way?” he mumbled.

“I feel OK,” Aaron lied. “Don’t think too much. Let’s just get out of this problem one step at a time. All we need to worry about now is getting this off us. OK. Now listen. You’re much stronger than me, but you’ve maybe only one leg to use now.  I’ve got the advantage of a good arm and one leg, even with my puny ass. I think this boulder is balancing somewhat so we may be able to roll it off. It looks like your right leg is somewhat mobile, yeah?”

“A little,” said Matt. “My other leg is stuck under the boulder. Luckily it didn’t smash but it’s pinned down too tight to move.”

“Alright. So can you manage a knee bar with your good leg? If you can get a knee bar, you may be able to push out on it.”

Matt struggled to lift his leg into position. He wasn’t sweating now…Too dehydrated. He could feel the soft sandstone under his back and he could smell it and he knew it was still wet from when he was sweating. He grunted and managed to get his leg wedged into the small space between the boulder and wall. He could feel his temples beating now. It reminded him of when he was a little kid running around outside in the summer before dinner. When he had to come in, he’d stick his head in cold water in the sink then look at the mirror. His face all beat red and sweat dripping and he could hear his heart beating inside.

“That’s my boy!” Aaron attempted a holler as he watched a few feet away. “How’d that feel?”

“Aaron…”

“Yeah”

… …

… …

“Matt… MATT!”

“Huh,” he flinched up. “What.”

“Shit, you scared me. Thought I lost you there. You feel alright?” Aaron’s voice shook.

Matt looked over, glazed eyes, “Hey, Aaron.”

“What?”

“You think we can have a beer when we’re done here.” He let out a pathetic chuckle.

“Yeah buddy. Hell yeah! Let’s get his thing off us. Alright, I’ve got a leg and an arm free. On the count of three I’m gonna push with them against this load of shit like a fuckin tweaker. You have to do the same too. OK. With your knee bar,” Aaron said, returning some confidence in his voice.

“OK, Aaron,” he wheezed again but this time without any sound of strength left. “You’re a real piece of work. A beer…I think I have a beer in my bag…” He trailed off again as his head dropped.

“Matt.”

…. ….

“Hey, Matt!”

.. .. ..

“MATT!”

“Matt! Buddy…Hey Fuck-tard, wake up! I don’t think she’s a bitch…The biscuits probably were dry,” his voice now faltering. “Wake up. We just need to get this fucker off us is all. Then we’ll go get a beer.”

The sun had passed over noon now. Shadows short but still sharp along the red sandstone. The desert fanned out below and scarce water revealed itself in narrow strips of green that either dissipated or joined larger veins of verdant desert life. Across the valley the desert slowly rose again and slowly turned from red to green where it climbed into the foothills. Beyond, the La Sal Mountains rose into the sky like islands. And they all had snow above a certain point, but Mount Peale, being highest, had the most.

Aaron remembered discovering Ed Abbey in college before he’d been to Moab for the first time. He read Desert Solitaire one spring break and remembered Abbey’s lone ascents in the La Sals and glissading down. He remembered how he’d imagined the scenery before he had ever been there. The mountains didn’t seem as high in his imagination. The red desert against the azure sky too. He always thought the imagination would overestimate reality. But he remembered the first time he rolled into Castle Valley in his parents’ old van that he had borrowed one summer after classes. He remembered the mountains seemed to rise out of another land far away, and went all the way to the clouds. And the blue sky pierced between the lofty clouds and where the clouds were low on the mountains the mountains looked even bigger still. And all this. All of this was beyond the valley itself. Cast beyond the towering pinnacles of Castleton Tower, Sister Superior, The Rectory. All these sitting atop a talus cone that climbed hundreds of feet sharply from the deep red sands of the desert below.

A canyon wren was singing somewhere below and he could hear it. He always liked that bird’s song. Like a waterfall, its whistle cascaded down from the canyon walls. It sang again. He liked the way they would announce themselves. He remembered exploring canyons alone and the only sound for hours was the silence throbbing in his head. Then, he’d hear the buzz of the canyon wren warming up. Somewhere up the canyon walls out of sight. He’d hear it again. Then it would let loose with its cascading whistle and it would echo down the canyon walls bouncing off the smooth red sandstone. Then again. It would continue for a few minutes before the silence resumed and he could only hear the throbbing of his heart in his head.

The canyon wren carried on for several minutes. Each cascade of notes bouncing around the rocks below and Aaron kept listening for it. He looked out toward the low ridge at the end of the short slot canyon they had hiked through that morning when the sun was just rising. And though he couldn’t see it, he looked to where the car was parked.

“Hey Matt… Let’s go… Let’s get that beer,” he tried again for a response.

“Matt….matt…” his voice quivered into silence.

He leaned back again. His body cooled by the rock wet from his sweat and he rested his head against it, breathing in the smell of the wet rock again. He rubbed his face in it and where it made his face wet, the breeze cooled. He looked at the boulder. Like a small car it sat heavily. He remembered his geology class in school. Geological processes play out on a time scale far beyond the scope of a mere human life. Fuck if that wasn’t the case, he thought. He’d remembered reading about this chockstone in a guidebook when he was planning his first trip to the desert. Large chock stone, third pitch up is solid. Would require earthquake or other geologic calamity to remove. He laughed a little and then winced. Geology is a prick, he thought. Like a slow giant, moping about. It stays put for years. People build homes, cities, highways off its dependability. Then when some sudden event occurs, they write it off as some slow moving geologic event and it doesn’t seem so bad because usually it just destroys a landmark. Or a lonely road. Or something nobody ever cared about but maybe a geologist. But that’s the real bitch of it, he thought. Geology doesn’t care where someone or place may be. It doesn’t care what time it is. It just happens suddenly and nothing anyone does can stop it.

He kept breathing in the smell and it gave him some comfort. He blinked his eyes and they readjusted on the sky above and he saw the vultures again as they circled higher on the afternoon heat. Another breath of the wet sandstone by his face. His heart throbbed now in his head and his temples pulsed with its rhythm as he breathed in again.

The canyon wren sang again in the canyon below. He didn’t remember hearing it when they passed through that morning. But it pierced the silence now with its cascading trill. And again. Then silence. Then one more cascading, tumbling whistle.

Then the silence again.  He felt it in his head. He tried to remember if it sang that morning but he couldn’t. The silence pounded. It throbbed in his temples and he could feel the heat in his face. The heat and the silence throbbed and he rested once again on the wet stone and felt the coolness flow into his body.

 

Regarding the Raven’s Wing

“It’s not that hard?” The man sighed as he combed his hand through his loose hair once more. He placed his worn jacket across his legs and folded his arms.

“You’re too idealistic. I can’t see how you can possibly enjoy a place like this.”  The woman spoke in dignified tones as she pursed her lips and placed her handbag on the seat next to her. Her hair looked recently washed and had been left to dry in the cool spring air.

The train attendant passed through the car and checked for tickets. “Ma’am, do you have your ticket?”

“Yes,” she responded in a tone of superiority. “It’s in my bag.”  As she sorted through her bag, she made sounds of annoyed frustration.

“Ma’am, if you don’t have a ticket, you may purchase one at this time.” The attendant suggested dryly.

“No, it is in my bag, just let me find it. Just hold on!” her voice rising.

“Sir, do you have your ticket?” the attendant turned to a man in the seat across the aisle from her.

He produced his ticket from his shirt pocket. The attendant nodded at the paper slip and, after tearing off the end, handed it back.

“Hey, there… For her ticket.” He said calmly as he handed the attendant a 5 dollar bill.

“Yes.” The attendant nodded and left the two alone.

The train started to turn to the north providing a look across the valley from the man’s window. He looked out at the mountains to the west, and surprising himself, he realized he remembered their names. Vivid memories came back of winter alpine ski tours. He couldn’t recall the last time he had strapped into a pair of ski boots.

“Well, it’s not difficult.” He expressed again, although his attention was still out the window. Sunlight from the opposite side of the car illuminated his face, highlighting his beard.

“What was that?” she said tersely.

He looked away from the window now. “What?”

“You just paid the attendant for my ticket. Why? I have money, you know.”

“Yeah, well, so do I. I was trying to save you the embarrassment of not having a ticket.” He smiled.

“But…I had a ticket.” She began tearing her purse apart again. “I know it’s in here. I put in in here.” She demanded of her purse.

“Well, did you have a ticket?” he asked rhetorically. “You seemed pretty preoccupied with your phone earlier. Whoever you were talking to, you seemed pissed.”

“What are you talking about? That idiot on the phone…Please. And yes, I have a ticket. Why wouldn’t I have a ticket? she asserted.

“Idiot…hmmm. A new guy, huh? I don’t know the guy, but yeah, he sounds like an idiot.” He smirked.

“Well, I assumed you didn’t have a ticket, because I saw the scene you put on back there. You were really something else on the phone. Your arms waving around. Really quite a sight. You should have been there,” he was in story mode now. She hated story mode. “Right as you stepped to the machine to buy your ticket, your bag flew off your shoulder as you made one last phenomenal gesticulation. When you reached down to pick it up is when the train blew the horn. You rushed to the door and barely got in. Still on the phone, mind you. From what I could tell, you were too pissed at the ‘idiot’ to realize you never even bought the ticket. That’s why I think you didn’t actually have a ticket.”

“Well… well. La ti da!”

“I was just glad to see you made it. I was sitting in here wondering if you’d even show. By the time I finally saw you run up to the gate, I had just about written you off. Punctuality never was your strong suit. But, I’m glad you made it.”

“Well, thanks but no thanks.” she rolled her eyes and looked out her window.

For what? Thanks for what?” he seemed confused.

“For the ticket.”

“Oh, right.” you’re welcome.

By now, the train was nearing the south end of the valley. Next stop. Draper Station. Please remain seated as the train comes to a stop. The voice on the intercom said in a robotic voice. The train jolted and started to slow. A couple bikes clattered together in the rack – someone didn’t strap their’s in properly.

“I always liked when the train conductor actually announced the train stops. Gave a certain air of humanity.”  The man said in a reminiscent tone.

“You know, I never could understand how you could like it here.” The woman scolded. “The church runs this whole place. Everyone is so goddamned happy all the time, like a cult. Too happy if you ask me. No one should be that happy. And… To top it off, you can’t even get real beer here.”

“Colorado has similar beer laws, you know.”

“Oh, god. You are always defending this place. Well, Colorado has legalized marijuana.”

“Utah legalized same-sex marriage before Colorado.” He fought back.

“Yeah, well. The pious right who run this place refused to issue licenses and so the state went a year without issuing same-sex marriage licenses.” She raised her voice. “You try to defend this place…I have no idea why. It’s all religious nut jobs and their weird happy families.”

“Well, some religious nut jobs and weird families. It’s just not as bad a place as you make it out to be. Sure the religious right stopped issuing marriage licenses to gay couples as they tried to fight the ruling. But, it still happened here. It happened, because a group of activists fought for it to happen. It’s an exciting place to be. I’d rather be here where there are battles being fought than some place where everyone mindlessly drones along with the social tide.” He lectured.

“Yeah, well, maybe you should just move back here then.” She said.

The train had come to a complete stop. A few people walked thru the back end of the car to exit. One woman removed her bike from the rack. A young father entered the train car with a toddler. He helped the awkward boy to the front end of the train and thru the door to the next car. The train doors closed again and the two were alone again. Please use caution as the train accelerates. Next stop, South Jordan Station, announced the automated voice.

“Why don’t you move back?” she asked him. “You don’t have any family in Mississippi. Do you even have many friends out there? Are there even any woman that you are interested in dating?” she interrogated him.

“Blah, blah. God, you really know how to carry a conversation.” he quipped. “Maybe I’m not done out there yet…” He trailed off.

“Done? With what? Starving as a teacher at a pathetically small community college in a town that no one West of the Mississippi has even heard of? What time are we supposed to be there?” She redirected.

“It’s not pathetic.”

“I said pathetically small.”

“I know what you meant… And we were supposed to meet them at 7. She’s bringing her boyfriend.” He looked away and rubbed his scruffy face. Minutes passed in silence as he continued to look out the window. He noticed an Ebay campus just off the tracks. Well lit and thoroughly modern looking. He remembered when Salt Lake Valley was smaller, more simple. Now tech start-ups and software companies were sprouting up all over, and plenty of new college graduates to staff them all twice over. When he left twenty some years ago, he’d heard of the internet. Now, it was the reality of the whole valley. He saw Kennecott Copper mine tucked in the mountains southwest of the Valley. The scar had grown too. He’d heard you could see it from space now.

As if uncomfortable with the long silence, she returned the conversation. “What are you waiting for? You think you actually will save a whole community out of poverty with your history lessons? You think any of your students will remember you in ten years? Even 5? When they are on their Nth child, living in squalor living off government money.”

“Why is everything always so fucked with you?” He returned from his absent gaze out the window. “Rather than embrace the possibility that maybe one, just one student comes away from school thinking they CAN make a difference…That they can do something more with the hand they were dealt. Rather than consider that maybe that one kid is worth all the others who will never care, you just relegate them all to the ‘trash’ pile. Sure, plenty of what I teach falls on deaf ears. Most of what many teach probably falls on deaf ears. But I don’t teach because I want the whole world to listen. I just hope that maybe one student has a better life. Maybe not because they took my class. Or because something I said. But, because maybe they had just enough encouragement. Just enough helpful teachers that they stuck with it. No one person is going to make the whole difference; it takes many people to make the difference.”

“You graduated with honors. You had scholarships…fellowships. You could have had your pick at faculty positions at academic institutions…” She harped.

“And what. Teach a bunch of spoiled middle class kids, who also don’t care much for learning. More concerned about the weekend party. Whose getting laid by who. You know I was never sold on ‘Academia’.

She rolled her eyes and turned to look out the window. Silence again. The snow was all but melted from the towering yosemite_valleypinnacles of Lone Peak. She remembered climbing the peak with Owen the first summer they met. She had only been climbing a few months and wasn’t sure she could do it, but with some gentle prodding, he convinced her. She felt safe with him then. And more importantly, carefree. She could do anything. They went to Yosemite that next spring after spending the winter months working on the mountain and training at the climbing gym. After spending a week warming up on smaller crags in the Valley, they climbing The Nose. Then Middle Cathedral, Half Dome, Royal Arches. As spring turned to summer they moved on to higher ground and climbed Daff, Stately Pleasure, Fairview, and other domes in Tuolumne Meadows. She remembered saying “I love you” for the first time from the top of Tenaya Peak. They would share cheeseburgers from the grill and watch the sunset over the superlative Tuolumne Meadow.

Next stop, Murray Central Station. Use caution as the train comes to a stop. She jerked her head at the automated voice and looked back to where Owen was sitting. He was reading a book – The Canterbury Tales. She noticed his hair was beginning to get white in it now. Lines faintly grew from the corners of his eyes. She searched his face for the youth of their past. His shoulders were still broad, making a V to his waist. And his hands. Still powerful. Fingers long and swollen from years of use. Arthritis appeared to have started to take its hold.

What was different now? She thought. Where did it all go. The carefree life we had. Twenty years ago she would have never imagined herself becoming who she was now. A lawyer. A homeowner. Stressed and fried nerves. Two children from two failed marriages. Why had she made life so hard, when it seemed so free and easy.

Owen’s eyes had begun to close. His book fallen to his lap as his head bobbed slowly. She suddenly remembered vividly a climbing trip in Yosemite. A sea of granite stretched out, vertically, horizontally, all around them. Miles of more granite fanned out all around them. She remembered the long splitter crack and the thin face of the route. They struggled. Their only struggle.

On the last pitch, Owen was leading. He was tired and they had run out of water. She should have packed more. He was about 70 feet above her and she no longer could see the him, only feel the gently tugging of the rope as he continued to move up. Everyone once in a while he would yell down, and when the wind wasn’t too loud she could hear him. She slowly fed rope thru her ATC.

They had been climbing for 2 hours now and were 350 feet up the route. Just a little farther. Owen continued up as she fed rope and he slowly came back into view as he began moving out diagonally along a final thin hand crack to the top. He placed his left hand in the crack, his powerful shoulder adjusting the position. Without seeing, she could tell he was jamming his right foot, and his waist was pulled closely to the wall. Then he reached up and locked his right hand into the crack above. She could see the tape on his hands was starting to fall apart. He was struggling to keep his hands in the crack. He always hated thin hands. He glanced over his shoulder and pulled a cam from his harness and battled with it into the crack. His left hand looked solidly placed in the crack at chest height. She slowly fed a little rope as he reached for rope to clip, her calves were beginning to burn. He had the rope within a foot of the cam then suddenly, he dropped it. In a flash, he fell from her sight again.

“Woohoooo!” She heard him yell as she was pulled violently into the wall toward the anchor.

“Owen!” She yelled up. “You OK.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just took a bit of a fall. I’m good! Woooohoooo!” He let out a howl.

It was her turn to climb up after him to the top. As she pulled the last piece of gear and topped out, the granite began to sparkle the late afternoon sun. He was sitting on top, belaying through two pieces of gear and a slung horn. He had a smile on his face and his lips were white with chapstick and dried spit. His hair was sticking at sharp angles. His orange fleece had been ripped in one elbow. She topped out and walked to where he was sitting and pulled in close to him. She could smell the granite on him. The musty smell of his sweat too. They held each other close and looked toward the East to Mount Conness. They were tired. Sore. They shared what was left of a peanut butter sandwich. But they were happy.

They sat atop Daff Dome and watched the trees gently bend in the breeze. Thin cirrus clouds punctuated the clear blue sky above. They watched the light change across the high sierra as the sun continued its daily descent into the Pacific Ocean out of sight. They held each other close and looked toward the East to Mount Conness. They were tired. Sore. They shared what was left of a peanut butter sandwich and watched the scene play out all around them. A bird sailed in lazy circles from below them flapping a couple times as it circled over the cliff edge and back again. Then turning gracefully into the slight breeze it perched on a small pine tree growing out of a crack in the stone above them. She looked up as the bird turned its head to one side, then the other. Its eyes fixed on hers. A breeze picked up and ruffled some of its feathers as it hunched slightly. Then, as quickly as it arrived, it sailed off the tree limb and into the breeze, dropping back below the cliff edge toward the forest below.