The haibun is a Japanese literary form combining a prose section and a haiku. I plan on doing one for each season in Arizona.
It is the day before Halloween, the last day of a week-long hitch for a conservation crew in Apache National Forest in eastern Arizona. We have been axing down tall, broad ponderosa pines to clear the way for a cattle fence that will be put up. Physically exhausting but rewarding work, though without any clear conservational value. At noon, we tool up and hike five miles back to camp, then 8 miles to the van. We camp by a creek. The 2012 election is in a week, so the far left-leaning crew talks politics. The election seems somehow distant, less real than the fire warming us in the autumn chill of high desert Arizona, less real than the woods we had lived in and worked with during the week, less real than the trees, than the moon rising above the trees. Their words and ideas, though well thought out and intelligently spoken, continue to slip through my hands, going up and away with the smoke of the fire. I stay silent and listen, to their voices, to the wind in the trees. I look to the moon.
October full moon
Trail crew talking politics
The creek flows by us
The 90-year-old woman used to protest in the streets. She didn’t do that anymore. It wasn’t that there was nothing to protest; it was more that there was too much. There was everything to protest. There were walls everywhere she wanted down, but in the end the walls would stand. One would fall, another would be raised. Hers was an unknown protest, but I found out about it at the end.
I was walking past her house one day when she chucked her T.V. out on the lawn. I was a senior in high school and would graduate in a month. My gated private school was in the poor neighborhood so I walked through where she lived every day. I saw her before she saw me. She was getting ready to swing a wooden baseball bat down on the T.V. She looked back at me, her eyes were tiny dancing balls of strangely disarming rage. I had never seen someone so old so mad. It seemed to me that old people never really got mad, only irritated, which was boring and irritating to me. But madness, true madness, in every sense of the word, was rarely boring, especially in the old. I stood staring at her like that for what must have been five minutes.
As she stared back, the madness slowly ebbed away, though not completely, and her face started to flow naturally. It was an interesting face; it seemed to express everything all at once. It was ironic but not detached, open but questioning, almost ecstatically joyful and at the same time deeply sorrowful. It was not an old face. She was old, her face looked young; when she was young, I got the feeling her face had probably looked old.
After the longest time I’ve ever stared into the eyes of a 90-year-old woman, she asked me what my name was.
“What are you doing, Brad?”
“I’m walking to school.”
“No, you’re not.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You’re staring at me.”
“Yes, I’m staring at you.”
“Come in, Brad.”
I walked in. The room looked nothing like I would’ve expected it to. Then again, I had never thought about what a 90-year-old woman’s room looked like. But if I had I wouldn’t have thought of this. There were nudes on the walls and countless bottles of wine and gin on the floor. There was no bed, no furniture, just a thin light blue pad on the ground, a desk, and a typewriter. So this is what the house of an ascetic alcoholic 90-year-old writer looks like, I thought. The window looked like it had been recently busted open with a bottle; from outside I could hear birds singing and cars honking.
She asked if I wanted some gin, and I told her I didn’t drink. She asked again, and I told her again.
“I think you should have some gin, Brad,” she said.
I watched her as she poured the drink. I didn’t know anything about drinks, but I could tell this was a strong one. As she poured it, I wondered how she was still alive. I thought of trees after storms and shores after hurricanes. She practically forced the drink into my hand. I took a sip.
“What’s your philosophy on life, Brad?”
That took me by surprise. I had never taken Philosophy on Life; my school didn’t offer that. I took another sip and prolonged the sip. No answer came to me, so I answered honestly.
“I don’t have one, I guess. They haven’t taught me that yet.”
“No, they wouldn’t. What have they taught you?”
“Oh, all sorts of things. I’ve learned about the founding of America, I’ve memorized the periodic table, I know about trigonometry and calculus and biology.”
“That’s good, Brad. Br is for Boron.”
“Wow, that’s right.”
“I’m not a moron, Brad.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“I’m going to die, Brad. I’m 90 years old.”
“Yes, I suppose you are. This drink is good.”
“Yes, it’s a good drink. Before I die, I want to teach you what can’t be taught.”
“Alright, teach me.”
She laughed. I laughed too because her laugh was infectious, although I didn’t know why she was laughing. She had a wild laugh. There was something courageous about it. It came from deep within, and was let out slowly, building up into a raucous climax that seemed more like a beginning than an ending. It brought me in, allowing me for a few moments to experience the world together with her. We were over seventy years apart; we had just met. It didn’t matter. Her raw, joyful laugh connected us like deep sorrow. We were intertwined and I understood that so were sorrow and joy.
I had to go, I was late for class.
“Come back tomorrow,” she said.
The next day from outside her door I heard symphonic music coming from inside. I walked in and she was dancing. Dancing! I couldn’t believe it. She moved with rhythm, every part of her in synch until there were no parts, only unity. She didn’t notice me; her eyes were closed. She whirled, tiptoed and twirled; she swayed; the music seemed to enter her and she held it inside, letting it out slowly, letting it out as she took it in, taking the music in fast as it sped up and then letting it out at the same speed. The dancing was passionate and powerful like the startling lucidity of a dream that grabs you and shakes you awake. It felt real because I felt alive while watching it. Just because a thing was dream-like didn’t mean there was no reality to it.
The dancing was all the more powerful because of the expression on the old woman’s face. It took me a while to define what exactly she was expressing, not just with her face but also with the movements of her whole body. Perhaps what she expressed resisted definition and definitive analysis. Her movements went along with the movements of the symphony. When the symphony became calm, and this was rarely, there was something in her slow swaying that made me think of the swaying of a lone tree on a mountain just before an earthquake or an avalanche. The tree struggles as uncontrollable forces around it threaten its life with their power. It is the only tree left and it is strong, it will go out on its own terms. It will die when it is ready. It moves so as not to be moved, it sways so as not to be swayed, it holds on desperately to its roots by letting its branches shake wildly in the wind.
That’s what it was, if I had to define it. She was expressing desperation but without any corresponding despair or anxiety. Her desperation came from a celebration of life rather than a fear of death. The tree is calm when all is calm toward it, but when threatened from the outside, it reveals its strength. It becomes resilient, unmovable. When threatened with death, it shows how much life it has left. It is ready for the end, but the end is not ready for it. It has too much of beginnings in it, too much of spring. Winter shudders to look at it.
I realized that my schooling up to this point had been hopelessly inadequate. You could not be taught how to dance like this old woman because you could not be taught how to be this alive. What truly mattered was to be alive; you couldn’t be taught what truly mattered. Was this what she had wanted to teach me?
The music stopped. She opened her eyes and looked at me.
“Come close,” she whispered, her eyes dancing.
She was lying on the blue mat now. I went over and kneeled down.
“What is it?” I asked. “What do you want me to know?”
“Nothing, you already know. Now you just have to find it.”
“Some gin, Brad.”
I poured her a half-pint glass, straight. She drained it in one swallow. Then she launched the empty glass at the window a good 15 feet away with what seemed to me to be impossible strength, shattering the glass and laughing. Was she courageous or was she insane? She looked at me again. She was no longer smiling, on the outside at least, but her face was not hard. Nor was it resigned or complacent. There was that same expression: a celebration of desperation without fear or despair.
You could go out feeling secure, you could go out feeling resigned, you could go out feeling helpless or hopeless. She wasn’t going out in any of those ways. She was going out desperately. It wasn’t the same as helplessness or hopelessness. I knew nothing of her life. Her experiences were her own, but she had loved them. She had grown from them all, good and bad alike. I could see that; I had seen her dance. Like the tree, she was holding on to her roots by letting her branches go. And her branches had always gone wild. She motioned me to come still closer. I leaned in. She looked at me once more.
“Find a reason to dance,” she said.
I watched as her eyes, dancing to the music of Death I could not hear, closed for the last time.
In the midst of all the sorrow,
Sometimes there comes joy.
Unsought, not bought,
It comes and goes in an instant, impossible to grasp,
Like an unexpected siren that heralds a life saved.
Sometimes you feel both at the same time,
Both sorrow and joy.
These are the best times.
Like the time you were walking down the foreign street at dusk,
Feeling as unlike an alien as you’ve ever felt.
The water of the canal, burning with glory, reflected the sun
As a man rowed his boat alone, making very little noise,
Creating only the slightest of ripples.
And then you were standing on the bridge,
Your hand in her hand,
Both pairs of eyes fixed on what is never fixed, what is always in flux.
The sky. The water. The bridge that would one day collapse.
You thought to yourself: tomorrow
This will all still be here:
The sky. The water. The bridge.
But in the late afternoon on the next day you walked with your hands in your pockets,
And as the sun set
You grasped your fingers tight to the solid, stable, immobile rail,
That would not, that could not flee.
Again there was a man rowing alone in his boat,
Making very little noise,
Creating only the slightest of ripples.
You watched him,
You were him.
They came at the same time then.
In that moment,
As the sun set on the foreign town where you were now a stranger,
You felt both sorrow and joy.
The Prescott College orientation is a three-week backpacking trip in the Arizona wilderness.
We have just finished a ten-day trek through Grand Canyon,
Now we are in the Superstition Range of the Tonto National Forest,
Outside of the Phoenix-Tempe-Mesa-Scottsdale metropolis.
It is the first morning of solo.
Two days to be
Alone with yourself,
Alone with the desert.
I go to a spot on the western hillside where I will feel the first rays of the sun.
It was a cold night; the water is frozen in the Nalgene.
I sit and listen to the bee-like buzzing of the hummingbird,
Hear the spirited call of the cactus wren.
Perhaps it rasps with expectation, watching the sun come down the hill,
Closer to this spot.
Or maybe the bird is above,
Already feeling the sun’s warmth from the branches of a juniper.
Good to be a bird, able to fly up and meet the rising sun.
I close my eyes
As the sun comes up from the east, over the hill.
I feel its warmth, feel my toes as they thaw out,
Touch the leaves and the sticks around me, the rocks.
In my mind’s eye, I see the shrubs and trees I know to be close by:
The tall alligator juniper behind me, the beargrass in the sun to my left,
The smooth red manzanita in the shade to my right.
I see too without opening my eyes the cloudless blue sky,
The rocky wash between the prickly pear cacti and the cat claw and the velvet mesquites,
And the small flat area, just big enough to lay down the pad and sleeping bag,
Where I bedded down last night.
More birds chirp and sing now; the sun is up and over the hill.
I don’t know the names of the birds,
But my ignorance does not detract from the loveliness of their songs.
I hear bees buzzing around me,
Feel the first fly of the day land on my left foot,
Perhaps attracted by the scent of unwashed flesh, two weeks now.
I feel the slightest of winds, hear a plane flying overhead.
I open my eyes
And pick up the book I had been reading.
The truth of the words within feel as natural
As the sun that warms me this morning,
Have all the clarity of the deep blue desert sky.
I bring the book close to my face and smell its pages,
Like a librarian who in the early morning when no one is watching
Opens her favorite books at random,
Breathes in the sweet pure fragrances of the pages she loves so well
And then puts each book back in the stacks,
As if the books are lovers,
And maybe they are.
I close my eyes again.
The sun is warm now.
I take off all my clothes and sit on a rock,
Feeling my bare ass contact the cold hard granite surface.
Another airplane flies overhead
But does not disturb the stillness or my solitude.
The plane is distant, far away;
It can only be heard for a fleeting moment, and then it is gone.
The desert is here.
I can see it, hear it, smell it, feel it.
I changed into my green pants, perfect for climbing and scrambling, comfortable and light. The legs when moving always stay warm regardless of weather. Almost always, that is. They would certainly be cold in about an hour and a half. And another, more sensitive member above the legs most emphatically would not stay at all warm. There was no trail. Branches scraped me, roots tripped me, I continued cheerfully up. About 500 vertical feet above the road, there was some snow. 500 feet above that, the snow covered the ground and I sank into it with each step, knee deep at times. Still the legs stayed warm, since they were moving upward on a steep slope. After pushing my way through the forested portion filled with trees 10 to 15 feet high, I made it to a clearing. I predictably and naively had thought this clearing was the top from the bottom. Not even close, as I should have known. And here the wind came back. The trees had partially sheltered me before. Now I felt the full force and power of the wind at my back. Not a kindly tropical zephyr wind, but an angry arctic indisputably wintry wind.
Angry? An angry wind? It seems to me, the professor of anthropology says with a decidedly learned air, that you are giving a human quality to a inhuman force. Personification, if you will. Anthropomorphism, if you’d prefer to give it a more academic ring. A solid point, professor, sir. I will try to elaborate, for your sake and for mine, if I can. I do not mean to attempt to describe the indescribable, to give human emotion to what is inhuman and unemotional. I hope that my words do not detract from the mother who is forever silent, for silence is always superior to speech, but if possible add to her, to her grace, to her silence. No, that’s not it, not add to her, that cannot be done. What is unconstructed, what is wild, cannot be improved upon by man. Man can only destroy it or respect it. If he respects it, he does not alter it. No, not to add to her, but maybe to open people and myself to the silence of nature, which is only ever a stillness and never a silence, as well as the silence that lies within us; within you, professor of anthropology, and within me. The wind, though it might not have been angry in the sense you and I mean it, was certainly not silent. And if there was anger, it was not senseless. Senseless anger is solely a human quality.
So perhaps there was a reason for it, though it seemed unreasonably fierce, perhaps the winds were righteously angry, and their anger was such as cannot be harnessed, beyond the ability of humans to control. Uncontrollable. The dog may be able to be tamed, but woe to the man who attempts to tame the wolf. Woe to the man who attempts to control the uncontrollable, harness the unharness-able, tame the untamable. Woe to the man who looks at the wild river and thinks only of the cash that could come from damming it, who looks at the mountain to wonder what minerals might lie within it, who sees the forest as lumber, to whose eyes nothing is beautiful but what is profitable. Woe to that man, woe to those men who manhandle what should only ever be handled gently, or not at all. So to conclude, professor of anthropology, that’s the type of anger I’m talking about, the anger of the winds, or at least the anger I attributed to the winds.
The thing is, though I said the winds were angry, this is not true. Nature is indifferent, the sun does not care who it burns, the cold night does not care who it freezes, but Nature is never hostile or vengeful, as long as we change ourselves for the land and not the other way around. So-called civilized people change the land to suit their interests, bulldozing forests to build high-rise apartment complexes, making concrete roads and sidewalks where there ought to be fields of high uncut grass. The “uncivilized,” the “savage,” before whites came with reservations and forced assimilation, never changed the land for his own interest, he changed himself to suit the land. If the land was harsh and uncompromising, the uncivilized Navajo or Eskimo with no desire for civilization did not try to mold the land. Instead, he worked with the land, eating what food was provided, living where there was natural shelter or using natural materials to build a shelter. He realized that all a shelter needed to do was keep its inhabitants dry. Warmth came with the fire. Luxury was unknown. Those in touch with inhuman Nature realize sooner or later that human nature does not fit in with her scheme. Human nature is not natural.
While Nature is indifferent to the plight of its inhabitants, whether they are cold or hot, whether they are unhappy or happy, civilization keeps some people warm and comfortable while it lets others freeze, it keeps some people well-fed enough so that they can convince themselves they are happy, while it lets others starve. Prejudiced hostility rather than indifferent neutrality. Nature is indifferent, but it is also neutral. Whites are rocked by the earthquake the same as blacks. People from Louisiana are no more protected from the hurricane than people from New Jersey. Nature, in its unprejudiced indifference, is a leveler of all people, the master socialist.
Warren Zevon, from “The Indifference of Heaven”:
“Gentle rain falls on me
And all life folds back into the sea
We contemplate eternity
Beneath the vast indifference of heaven”
On the slope, I kept climbing up, amidst the vastness and eternity, amidst the calm indifference of Nature. It was almost easy, the wind at my back. The deep snow made slipping actually less likely; powdery snow, not wet and slippery. But the wind was cold. The air might have been in the low twenties or high teens, but the wind chill made it feel subzero. The snow began to freeze on my pants, and I hurried faster, trying to stay warm through constant movement. It worked, but I knew once I made it to the top and stopped moving, if I made it to the top, the cold would be unbearable. The last little bit was one of the steepest slopes I have ever climbed up, and I crawled on my hands and knees for balance, a low center of gravity. 4 limbs on the ground. Like a wolf, like a bear, like a tiger. I saw an eagle here, the first I’d ever seen in the wilds, circling regally over the mountains, king of the skies, seemingly unaffected by the winds. A plane flew directly above me. The path the plane made in the sky looked beautiful from this height, where nothing looked ugly, where nothing except the plane could be seen of human civilization. And nothing heard, not even the plane, which was drowned out by the winds.
Crawling, reverting to the nature of the beast, I eventually reached the top. Of course, it was not the tiptop. I could have, if it had been a day without 100 mile per hour gusts of wind (perhaps an exaggeration but I don’t think so), kept on going. Although it was a flat area, there were countless other mountains further on and up. But the wind seemed to double in velocity once I got to the top, and there was no way I could go on. I could barely take my gloves off to take a few hurried pictures. I put on my hat and pulled down my neck warmer, which had been on my head, so that only my eyes were visible. Still, I had to look down and turn my back on the wind, or else my eyes would burn from the snow the wind picked up and hurled in all directions. I could barely see, but what I could see was of such astounding beauty that tears started to come to my eyes. It was either the astounding beauty of the surrounding landscape or the snow blown by the wind that was burning my eyes or the pants freezing to my legs or my increasingly frigid penis that brought the tears to my eyes.
Probably all of them. I had to pee slightly, but I was not at all tempted to. I was truly in the sky; the mountains around me were only slightly higher than I was. I could not stay though, the wind was quite insistent on this point. I started quickly down, backwards so I wouldn’t be facing the wind. Mostly so that sensitive member I referred to earlier would not be facing the wind, as it was now quite cold and definitely confirming Costanza’s crisis. But my crisis was more severe. Cold is worse than wet, a physical rather than a Napoleonic hardship. However embarrassing wet might be when seen, said wet member can be dried and embarrassment can be forgotten, if slowly and painfully. Cold can be warmed, but not thousands of feet above the road and the car and the heat. This was real cold. Not Virginia cold, not even the Arizona high desert cold. No. This was Alaska cold. Frostbite cold.
Once I could face the wind without being pushed back several feet, I ran down, fast, the deep snow helping me not to slip and fall, though not helping to warm me, especially the one part, or unfreeze my pants from my skin. I kept running, thinking that at least it wasn’t painful now that numbness had set in. Necessity gave me speed, and I ran straight down the mountain, two thousand or so vertical feet to where there were trees. Trees and protection from wind. Even when I got to the trees, I kept running, though this was a mistake. Falling countless times into deep snow did not help to warm me. Eventually, when I had been running for about an hour, my head down the whole way to protect my eyes from the wind, I finally stopped when I noticed that there was no snow on the ground anymore and found out that I was burning up. From close to frostbite to too hot. I took off my wind jacket and put it in my pack. As I did, I noticed another blue article of clothing. Thermal pants. They had been sitting comfortably in my pack while I had been literally freezing my ass off (I had sat down on the snow once during the hike at one of the only moments when there was comparably little wind. Another mistake).
I went slowly now and found a running stream that I hadn’t seen on the way up. A few days or weeks from now it would be frozen, but now it was flowing and the sound of it was pure music, pure as only wordless music can be. I sat by the creek in an opening where the sun shined between trees. The warm sun seemed to belie the pure righteous anger of the winds, which had finally quieted down. I could hear the river below me, the creek beside me, the birds in trees above me. I couldn’t hear any cars below on the road. I sat there in the sun, on the spongy tundra. I sat there in the sun, on the side of the mountain. I sat there in the sun, leaning my back against a spruce tree, and closed my eyes.
I spent the fall before I started at Prescott living with my cousins in Kenny Lake, Alaska, 40 miles south of Glenallen and 220 miles northeast of Anchorage. I spent my time at their place chopping wood to keep warm at 30 below, doing odd jobs for neighbors, snowshoeing through the woods, reading, writing, and watching Lord of the Rings with my three younger cousins. They were three of the best months of my life. When I had worked enough odd jobs that I had money to travel, I did that. One day I decided to drive to Fairbanks.
Driving from Glenallen, I wasn’t sure where I was going to stop for the night. Most campsites were closed for the winter, so I thought I would just pull off the road and sleep in the car somewhere. There was a sign for a campground by a lake, though, that looked like it might be open, at least it was not gated off, as most of the campsites were. I pulled in, drove the loop. There was not a soul in the 50 plus site campground. The lake, Paxson Lake, was run by the BLM, a governmental organization, so technically it was probably closed. This was the time of the government shutdown. But the shutdown seemed so totally irrelevant here, so far removed from this campsite by the lake, surrounded as it was by mountains and trees, that I never expected a ranger might come to kick me out. A ranger did come to kick me out, but not until the next morning, so I still was able to enjoy the stillness of the deserted campsite for the night. I set up my tent and then walked around gathering dead spruce wood for a fire. I laid the wood in a pile, took off my boots and socks, digging my bare feet into the rocky sand, and leaned back against the hard wood.
Good. Wood gathered, tent set up, fire burning. What else? Food? Why not. I cut up my quarter pound of sausage, put the pieces on a stick, and stuck the stick in the fire. Cut open a bagel and stuck it in the fire. Got my steel cup, filled it up with water, and stuck it in the fire. Waited. Leaned back against the wood, looked at the sky, darkening now. Took the sausage and bagel out. Put the roasted sausage on the toasted bagel, added some cheese which instantly melted from the heat of the bagel. Took the cup out and added a teabag. Dinner. Good. Anything else? A book? But that would require standing up, and the fire was so warm. Something of an issue, but one that could be overcome. Simply required an exertion of will. I could do that, I could stand up. I stood up, and ambled gingerly in my bare feet to the car, found a book, went back and leaned my back against the wood again. Edward Abbey would be my companion for the night. And a good companion he would be, better than many, than most, his voice truthful, passionate, alternately loud enough and silent enough to be heard. Often though the fire would distract me from his righteous and pure polemics, and I would put the book down and stare at the flames, thinking nothing, not at all oppressed by the beauty of the night, not at all lonely, but feeling liberated in the aloneness, which was not mine as loneliness would have been. Not my aloneness, but the aloneness. It had been here before I came, and it would be here after I left; I joined it, the aloneness, become a part of it, more a part of it than I would have been if I were not alone.
Unhappiness here did not make sense. The trees were happy where they were, the rocks on the shore were content that the water in the lake flow gently over them, the animals pleased to roam and find food. It made sense only to conform to the contentment of these natural living beings and life-giving forms, and it was the only type of conformity that made any sense. Part of me dreamed that life could always be this simple, this easy, and maybe it could. But perhaps, another part of me thought, it is the difficulty and monotony of everyday life that make the rare times of easy happy simplicity when there is no conflict between the inner and outer life, when there is no distinction made between the two, when you are a part of the outer and the outer is part of you, so meaningful. A pool of water in the desert wouldn’t be an oasis if the desert were filled with water.
It snowed during the night, 2 or 3 inches. I had fallen asleep by the fire and moved to my tent after the fire burned down and the cold woke me up. In the tent I slept soundly and warmly and didn’t realize it had snowed until the morning. I was in no rush to leave so I stayed in the tent and read in my sleeping bag. After an hour or so of this, I heard strange motorized sounds coming down towards the lake. I heard the strange motorized sounds stop by my tent, heard someone get out of the car and shut the door, heard someone ask if anyone was in the tent. I feigned sleep. She asked again, I answered. She was pretty nice about it.
“This campsite is closed, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. The governmental shutdown and all. You can get dressed and everything first.”
Although this ruined my plans, which consisted of staying in my sleeping bag doing nothing, it was alright. I would press forward. The Denali Highway was a few miles ahead, and perhaps not yet closed for the winter. My Uncle Peter and Aunt Patty had recommended driving on this road, which led to Denali National Park, but it was mostly unpaved and always unplowed. If it had snowed heavily during the night the road would be impassable.
At the entrance to the road, there was a sign which read “Travel Beyond This Point Not Recommended,” and a second sign which warned that wind, snow, and other perilous weather conditions were almost always present. In other words, only a fool will keep driving. More to the point, you, driving the 2003 Subaru Forester, are a fool. Do not continue, turn around, you have never driven in the snow, have you? No, of course you haven’t, which is why you consider continuing. Stop considering it. There are winds on this road which have flipped cars twice the weight of your little utility vehicle, conditions which have put the fear in drivers infinitely more experienced in the snow than you are. I listened for a minute or so to the signs, physical and otherwise, and then went beyond. There was a campsite about 20 miles away, Tangle Lakes, surely closed, that I would drive to. I’d turn around there, if I had to. On the way, I saw a caribou in the middle of the road. It paused for a few seconds and looked at the car, then turned and ran, stumbling a little. Perhaps it was hurt, hungry. I cursed myself and the noise of the car for frightening it and making it use energy to scamper up a hill, energy it might have needed to find food. I could have watched it from afar and waited until it was out of sight before continuing. As it was, I made it act other than it would have had I not been there. I changed the natural flow of things, and not for the better. When does human interference ever change things for the better?
It started snowing when I was about halfway to Tangle Lake. Not too hard, but definitely snow, not rain. Cold enough outside for it to stick. For Alaska, a minor storm. Fairly windy, snow accumulation if the pace kept up of maybe half a foot by the morning. Nothing to get worried about. In Washington, everything would be shut down. Then again, in Washington everything was already shut down, snow or shine. The governmental shutdown and all. At Tangle Lakes, I stayed in my car for about half an hour, thinking through the options, which were two. Press on or go back. West or east. Right or left. The first had the ring of adventure to it. Press on, in a general westerly direction, through snow and wind, through some of the wildest country that man has yet profaned with a road, seeking adventure. Go back? Retreat? That definitely was not adventurous. Not an attractive option. No romance to it at all. So I turned right, towards adventure, the west, towards a fair chance of fatality. The snow, as if in answer to my foolishness, immediately started to come down harder, the wind picked up. The weather report that Patty and I had looked at the day before had said that winds would be gusting at over 70 miles an hour. Travelers were forewarned. After 3 or so miles of driving under 10 miles an hour, I turned around. A couple more miles more and I might have had trouble doing even that. Later, when I returned to Kenny Lake, Peter told me that the Denali Highway had been closed for the winter that very day. I was probably the last one on the road.
Back on the main road to Fairbanks, I stopped in and got a cup of coffee at a cafe. Just to see the reaction, I asked the old man there if he thought the Denali Highway was passable. He looked at me for a second, looked outside at the snow coming down hard, and looked back at me.
“No. Not a chance. Stay on the main highway there, my friend.”
I did so, heading up to Fairbanks, 3 or so hours away, which for some reason I wanted to see. To see the difference, maybe. See how I would fare in a city for the first time in a month. I thought, mistakenly, that after a few weeks of living with my cousins away from the land hungry evil twin brothers of progress and industry, living in the shadow of some of the most majestic mountains in the world (Wrangell-St Elias Range), I might better be able to handle the brutal meaningless sounds of the town and city. And if I could not, then there was the library. I could always retreat there. There was a university with stacks and stacks of books. And there was always the car. And the road. The car on the road, departing. I could leave if I couldn’t stay. I arrived at night on Tuesday, after picking up a couple of not so reputable or respectable but nice enough hitch-hikers (one of them started singing when I put on James Brown, “Man, I haven’t listened to this since I was a kid. Do you got It’s A Man’s World?” so we sang it together.) I dropped them off so they could look for drugs and then parked my car and slept surprisingly well in the parking lot of the 24 hour Wal-Mart. Before I fell asleep I wrote a poem, just one of probably thousands of Wal-Mart parking lot poets all over the USA, down on our luck.
I stayed in Fairbanks the whole of Wednesday, mostly in the university library reading the poet Robinson Jeffers, leaving the library once to go buy some books at a used book store. Libraries and used book stores, the shining beacons of civilized life, which have saved many a wanderer, salvation for those who don’t know why they are there at all, why they aren’t climbing a mountain, riding waves in some sea, wandering in some desert. Jeffers, from the poem “De Rerum Virtue”:
“One light is left us: the beauty of things, not men;
The immense beauty of the world, not the human world.
Look—and without imagination, desire nor dream—directly
At the mountains and sea. Are they not beautiful?”
Or as the Grateful Dead put it:
“Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of man.”
I left early Thursday morning, left the land of men, returned to the mountains; left the dangerously hopeless dream (or nightmare), returned to the starkly beautiful reality. In the words of one young unpublished poet, I left the land of rules and returned to the land of reigning silences, left the land of fools (myself included, no less than the rest), back to the land where there are no disguises. Driving from Fairbanks, I started to feel excited, more alive. I had felt dull and lifeless in the library, though the most refined thoughts of the greatest writers this world has known sat in books all around me. Driving now, Zevon on the stereo, I switched on the cruise control and watched the sun rise in the rearview mirror over some hills (mountains in any eastern state, hills in Alaska). The sky was almost completely clear, a rarity in perhaps any part of Alaska at this time of year, though I can’t say that for certain, having not traveled over the one-thousandth part of the state. Alaska is so massive, and with such wildness, such beauty. I wanted to climb every mountain I passed. But the Alaska Range, close to Denali National Park, was about 100 miles ahead of me. I decided to park my car somewhere ahead, in the range, and, while the sun was still shining, climb until I had cleansed myself of civilization by a process of detoxification. I parked the car shortly after a sign reading Wind Area. The sign had it right; the wind was powerful, though not quite as strong as it had been on the Denali Highway. Besides, the mountains were irresistible to me. Wind or no wind, I would climb.