THE FLUTE REED RIVER MOUNTAINS
the next summer. Terrified of
LSD, I avoid Lon and Farmer and seek refuge. I plan to go alone into the mountains, to explore the Flute Reeds. Putting together food for seven days,
I pack my backpack and go, fearful, excited. I've got two old Forest Service maps. They're sketchy. I know only that these mountains are rugged
and little frequented.
On the first day I'm clumsy. The soles of my feet recoil from the jolt of a rocky trail that winds up through dry sage foothills. My skin shrinks from brush that whips and stings my bare legs. Stumbling over a root snaking across the trail, I'm carried forward by the bulky backpack and go down sprawling. I get up panting, grabbing a huge granite boulder to steady myself. The palms of my hands are scraped raw, and I cringe at the rough, granular edges. I make camp early and try to relax.
Hunting for firewood the next morning, I do better. Each foot finds just the right fulcrum on rock and root. I build a fire and set a pot of water on to boil. I see that mice were here in the night. The corners of a chunk of cheese I overlooked in the dark are nibbled away through the tight plastic wrap by fine teeth, leaving many pairs of tiny parallel grooves. I cook oatmeal and raisins, then linger with coffee in the mid-morning sun, re-organizing my pack.
Soon, I head out on the rough, unmarked trail. All day I move deeper and deeper into remote forest never touched by axe or saw. Here is the original face of the land, the land as the glacier left it, the land absolute. Here are pine and fir and meadow grasses, the deer, antelope, and squirrel that followed the glacier's retreat. All this wells up before my eyes as I slowly march toward the center of the range.
The next afternoon, after a second camp and a morning hike that brings me up out of the dense timber, I feel I belong again. I leave the trail to follow a nameless creek that winds to the north, higher and higher, up into ghostly white peaks. Under brilliant skies and a blazing sun, I pass two large lower lakes fringed with pine and fir. They're beautiful, but I don't linger. I'm restless, eager to find the fourth lake, the very top of the chain, just a faint, small circle on the old map. Into this, ten thousand years ago, the remnant glacier collapsed - tons of rotten ice and snow.
At the inlet of the third lake, I push through tangles of willows. Then, the creek side steepening and my backpack flopping, I slide on rock faces peppered with loose gravel. Entering a deep declivity, smooth walls rising on either hand, I hop from one exposed boulder to another, sometimes wading, finally crawling on hands and knees up a gurgling watercourse of tiny pools and waterfalls threading down through turf and upended rocks.
Suddenly rock and water end in sky, and I'm standing on the lip of a small lake, encircled by peaks and scattered with low alpine fir that crouch behind rocks, sculpted by the relentless winter winds.
I drop my backpack and throw myself down at full length on the rich grasses. Now, at the end of this third day, my skin welcomes harsh sun, dry air, the powdery windblown grit. My flesh and bones relax gladly into sharp-edged rocks. Sitting up, I wiggle my buttocks in the lumpy turf, placing the sharp exposed edge of a small rock comfortably between my hams. The creek brims out at my right hand. I pull off boots and wet wool socks and drop in my feet, then snatch them out, groaning with the deep cold ache.
Leaning back against the pack, stroking the cool, wiry green grasses, I look back down on the three lakes below me, each in its basin, the four beaded together by a twisting watercourse that wanders south, now through meadows strewn with giant blocks of stone, now disappearing over the edges of cliffs. The basin, cupping blue sky, was bitten from the circling peaks by glaciers, gnawing, moaning, grinding their icy teeth - century piled on century. In the ten thousand years since their retreat, in fields of rubble and blasted rock, it is these plants and trees before me, just these, that have come to take root.
I sit on thick, emerald turf. It teems with varieties of weeds and grasses, wild flowers and mosses. It creeps in pseudopods of earth, root, and stem as thick as my body, creeps in slow motion a few feet in a century, creeps in great fingers over rock after rock till stopped by snowfield and cliff - a green flesh softening every bitter, glacier-fractured boulder.
The sun lowers, a cool breeze drops off the peaks, and I'm chilled in my sweaty clothes. I rummage in my pack for an old sweater, wool pants, and some dry wool socks. I pull on my boots and slowly circle the lake - airy and floating without the pack on my back.
Climbing another steep watercourse, I stand in an immense treeless field of boulders that ends against the great north wall of the cirque. Beneath my boots in the scattered rock and turf, seeps of snow melt bubble up everywhere, fed by winter snow fields dying against the cliffs five hundred feet above me in the hot, angling afternoon sun. Each spring surrounds itself in grass and mosses, the turf honeycombed with tunnels of unseen small creatures that open out onto the water's edge.
The sun falls toward the peaks at my left hand. Time to make camp. I turn and begin to walk down, honoring the ancient sods and mosses, careful to place my boots only on the rocks, islands in the turf. As I go, the springs now re-gather into streams, descending toward shelter, the alpine fir reappearing, tangling, gnarled, hugging the ground, hiding behind rocks, resisting yet conforming to all the forces of rock and sun and wind, accepting a life on the edge of this or that house-sized chunk of granite - accepting what is and thriving.
With each step down toward more water and warmth, my boots crush increasing, tenacious life, root tendrils following seams in the granite, until suddenly rocks split and meadow and forest are everywhere, home to trout and goat, elk and eagle.
Suddenly I know. I've caught the goddess in the very act of creating the garden! She gathers her strength here, alone, growing more beautiful since the glacier melted ten thousand years ago. She waits. With wonder and a catch in my throat, I fall down on my knees and worship her in the thick emerald turf. Icy water sponges up into the knees of my wool pants as I lean forward and spread my arms wide to gather in the earth, kneading my fingers into the sod. I bury my face in sun-warmed grasses, inhale moist, fecund, mushroom smells, and open my lips, licking my tongue deep into the hairy fiber and grit of the sod.
Tears well up and I'm shaking, sobbing with loss and grief and gratitude. "Oh, I love you, I love you," I murmur into the grass that tickles my lips and tongue, and I hug her close, crushing my face into her belly, crying a small boy's tears.
I can't live without her! I must touch her, stroke her, adore her body, find there the outside of that mind that lies secret, deep. A mind prior to thought - patient, sacred, an ocean of consciousness, its shimmering surface buoying this earth, the plants and animals, the women, children, and men.
The sun has just swung behind a peak on my right. It's suddenly cold. I move down off the meadow, stepping from boulder to boulder down another steep slope. Above me, angling afternoon sunshine rakes the shattered rock of the mountains into deeply contrasting light and shadow. The bowl of sky inverted over the cirque is a deep brilliant blue. Occasional puffy clouds cap the peaks. Then I'm on rim rock above the lake. I stand for a minute, shivering as cool evening air begins to roll down off the slopes and cliffs above. I see my little blue tent. Good. I'm ready for the sack. I'll eat more cheese and bread and forget about cooking.
Plunging chilled hands in my pockets, I slowly descend the last few hundred yards, following the creek as it widens out and runs, only a few inches deep, over broad bands of glazed, glacier-polished bedrock. At last it drops in a little falls into the lake - glassy now as the wind dies down with evening, gently pulsing, mirroring its cup of rim rock. Standing at the brink of the falls, the cirque darkening, I see a few circles dimpling the surface where rushing white water grows calm as it enters the depths. Trout rising! They're watching for bugs carried down by the stream. Fish for dinner? I could cook after all.
At camp, a knot of anticipation in my stomach, I kneel by my pack and assemble the light spinning rod. My fingers, clumsy with cold and trembling with excitement, tie the fine spin-casting line onto a small lure. Several thick-bodied trout lazily cruise a few feet off the rocky shore, making the evening circuit. Beneath the water their bodies are green-yellow. They have flaming red spots at the gills. Goldens.
I stand abruptly and, seeing me, they spook and dart into deeper waters. I slow down and stalk, heart pumping, moving along the water's edge, waiting for the evening hunger that I know will drive them past wariness. Still they don't return.
I sink down behind a rock and poke up only my head, scanning the water. Now three big ones drift by, cruising just beneath the surface, dabbling the water with their noses. Without standing, moving cautiously, I poke up my head and cast awkwardly from behind the rock.
The lure hits the surface and the biggest goes for it, fiercely outrunning the others. With a jerk I set the hook, then give him line as he rushes out of sight into deep water. I raise the pole, slowly reeling him back, but he runs again. The rod bends double, he breaks water in his fear and rage, and I give back more line, afraid he'll break free.
After a half doZen runs, he tires. Gently, I bring him in close to the shore. At last he rests at my feet in a foot of water, his tail waving, fins pulsing. He jerks his head stubbornly from side to side, struggling against the gnawing hook. He's too tired to run again.
I reach out my hand very slowly from behind, then suddenly get my fingers under a gill and flip him up onto the turf. He's a good fifteen inches, and fat.
I kneel down and admire him, entranced with the golds and reds burning in the fading light. With a pang, an ache deep in my own flesh, I reach with two hands, grip his firm, slippery body belly up, and swing him high over my head, then down sharply to crack the back of his skull on the edge of a fractured boulder lying next to the shore.
There's a snapping sound and instantaneously, like a lightning strike, I feel rows of fibrous muscles up and down his spine ripple under my fingers, a quivering shudder of death. Pulled fresh, living, from the waters, he's a jewel - golden treasure. Now, even as I pull up grasses to cushion his body in my canvas side bag, his vibrant reds, greens, and golds fade to a dull silver.
I take two more smaller ones and, hungry, I can't wait. No need to cook anything but fish. I head back to camp and lay them side by side on a flat rock that juts out into the water. Kneeling, taking up the big one, I sever cartilage under the jaw with a razor-sharp knife, then with a slight sawing motion slit him from anus to gill case. With the finger and thumb of my left hand, I grab the loop of his jaw and with my right thumb and fingers pull the throat cartilage down and out, shucking gill case and guts. In the fading light the entrails seem to glow, an iridescence peculiar to goldens.
I slit the gut to see what he's eating and find a tangle of insects and stone caddises. I set it aside, and as my left hand returns, about to reach for the next fish, I'm shocked.
The grey-pink heart, just the size of the tip of my forefinger, sticks to the middle of my palm. It's contracting, pulsing - still beating with the rhythm of the life I've just ended. I stare for a long moment, my own heart in my throat, then slowly throw this slight piece of flesh as far out into the lake as I can.
My hands are painfully numb with the icy water. I put them, fishy and slippery, into my pockets for several minutes till they begin to warm up. I kneel down again and with my thumbnail strip out the membrane that holds a line of blood just below the spinal column. I clean the other two, then take up each one for a final, careful rinse.
Back at my pack, I pull leather work gloves on my icy fingers, quickly gather wood, and start a fire in a heap of dry branches in the stone ring I built three days ago by the edge of the lake. Since I packed in only a single aluminum pot, I hunt around the camp for green willow sticks while the fire burns down to coals.
On a lattice of these laid across the stones, I roast the three goldens. In the heat their eyes turn from clear balls into small, opaque white marbles.
Halfway through cooking, the green sticks burn through and the fish fall into the fire. I jump up to rescue them, scrambling to cut more green sticks and rebuild the lattice.
It's almost dark when the fish are done. I check them with a flashlight. The flesh is salmon pink and running with juices. I brought neither plate nor fork, so I lay them out on a flat rock by the fire and eat with my knife and fingers, first popping out their delicate cheek muscles, then eating chunks of flesh off the ribs, finally holding the skeletons like corn on the cob, tail in one hand, head in the other, nibbling off tiny luscious morsels where the ribs meet the spinal column.
Gorging on their fat diamond bodies, chewing grit, ash, and blackened skin flakes, I don't stop till I've eaten every one - then lean back on the rocks with a sigh, hands and face smeared with their grease.
I sit zaZen, cross-legged, for an hour as the fire burns down. The pure, smokeless embers glow in the ashes and, one by one, wink out. It's moonless again tonight. The Milky Way gently pulses over my head. A chill penetrates me - up through my legs and spine from the earth - down into my ears, face, and skull from clear sky.
Oh, you beautiful creatures, we all suffer and die. Now your bodies are inside my body. You nourish me - not just with flesh - but with beauty. I rob you. Some day, in turn, my own flesh will be scattered. To whom will I give nourishment? Whose hunt will thieve from me?
The fire is out and I'm shivering. I keep sitting. It's this moment I hunt for. All five senses taste the cirque that surrounds me - deep, still, transparent. Behind me I hear the bubbling rush of the inlet creek, threading down rock and melting into deep waters.
* * * * *
The next morning is clear and cold. Frost whitens my green down bag and lingers on the turf in the shadows behind rocks. I spread the bag out in the sun to dry. After a breakfast of oatmeal, raisins, cocoa, and coffee, I survey the wall of the cirque and decide to head for a cleft between two peaks that might lead down the other side to another chain of lakes. Looking from here, I can't tell whether I can make it. I see several hundred feet of steep slide rock. That I can climb. But it's broken in several places by tongues of snow and dark rock faces. And it winds just out of sight before reaching the saddle. The other side, of course, could be a sheer wall. I'll have to be careful. I'm alone. No mistakes are permitted.
I put together a lunch of cheese, hard unyeasted bread, and chocolate, and stuff that, along with water, raingear, and a jacket, into my day pack.
After walking a half hour up into the back of the cirque, I come onto the slide rock and begin climbing. Here are goat tracks, goat shit, even an occasional tuft of white goat hair on rough, brittle twigs. A good sign. They may use this pass.
Soon I'm in steep talus, the sun hot on my back. I break into a sweat and pant in the thin air. I rest for a time, turning around to look back down over the four lakes that step down below me, then begin a rhythm of one breath for each step higher.
Then I'm in a scree slope of fine gravels so steep that even a vibration from my boot starts it showering down all around me. With each step up, my boot slides back, and sometimes I lose ground. I try to place my boots on occasional head-sized boulders half-buried in the slope. Dotted along the route, in the lee of rocks, are small green mosses covered with tiny blue flowers. I kneel down to breathe in their delicate honey scent.
Suddenly the scree is pinched off by vertical slabs of broken rock on my left and a tongue of grainy, melting snow streaked with rock dust on my right. Can I go further? I don't want to expose myself to a fall.
After taking a breather, I find I can brace myself between the snowfield and the rock and inch up step by step. Now I see almost to the top of the saddle - another hundred feet of slide rock. Several goat trails cross each other here, and there's a smell I can't clearly distinguish from my armpits.
Head down, I climb slowly and doggedly up the remaining distance, eager to see the other side. As the slope levels off, I look up and stop dead. Thirty feet away, two goats stand just below the top of the saddle. They seem relaxed, easy, eyeing me with curiosity. I stay rooted to the spot. Behind them another line of mysterious white peaks stands up wildly across the horizon.
I breathe slowly, unlock my knees. I'll hold my ground as long as they hold theirs. They shift their weight calmly. Their dark horns sweep up and back to fine points, their coats fluffy with the mountains' perpetual chill. They look at me, then out into the distance, then back at me again. Finally, hooves clattering among rocks, one slowly turns to go down the other side of the pass. The other one follows.
Moving up quickly and quietly, I'm in the notch - fifteen feet of level gravelly rock that plunges off the other side a thousand feet into a deep blue lake. This is the end of my walk. The lake shimmers in the midday sun, a cluster of slow, lazy spangles winking on and off, a few at a time, at the far end. Great blocks of stone step up on my left and right hands, west and east, impassable, ending in spires fifty feet above me. The notch is strewn with goat track and goat shit. Loose gravel has been stomped into little hollows for bedding places.
Below me, the goats pick their way down along invisible ledges. They seem to walk on air until an occasional rock, clattering, bounding out into space, betrays their contact with earth.
I throw down my day pack, pull off my boots, spread out my soggy wool socks to dry in the sun, and move rocks and sand to create an even place to sit and eat my lunch. Then, cooling down as sweat dries out of my clothes, I pull on a sweater, stretch out at full length, and squiggle and scrunch my back to rearrange several sharp rocks beneath me. My body basks in heat from the sun. A puff of cloud a hundred feet above me scrapes the top of a rock spire that guards the right side of the pass. Fluid, flowing, it forms, half dissolves, then re-forms as warm, moist air moves up and over this great wall and suddenly cools.
I drowse - then come awake on the verge of shivering. The sun lowers. Clouds hang over peaks in the distance and wind gusts through the saddle. I quickly load the day pack, drop a hundred feet, then spot a route up to a high jumbled peak lying to the east.
Can I get there in an hour? I don't want to come down in the dark.
Try it! How soon will you be able to come back here again?
Circling down and then up to the left, I come onto a ramp of broken rock that peels off the walls above in talus ranging in size from an armchair to an automobile - a broken stairway for giants. After three quarters of an hour clambering up and around and over huge blocks, I'm almost there. The talus disappears and I work along narrow ledges, clinging with both hands to cracks in the rock as I maneuver around bulges in the face.
Finally I reach for the very top, find one last toehold, and muscle myself up. Pulling my head above the rock face, I freeze. Twenty feet away on the narrow rim rock is a nanny goat - and between us a tiny kid. The kid eyes me curiously, glances back at its mother and, sensing her agitation, springs back and forth on delicate hooves. The mother darts to her kid, then shoulders by to stand between us.
Suddenly she's sprinting towards me, head down, horns shimmering black in the bright afternoon glare, hooves clattering in the broken rock.
I'm shocked. A twenty foot drop below me ends in sharp, jumbled rock. I sink down behind the wall and hang - arms extended, fingers crawling into small indentations, one toe tip clinging, heart pumping.
They'll never find my body!
Rocks rattle above me. Then silence.
Minutes drag by and I slowly pull myself up and peer over the top. They're gone! I worm up over the edge and stand. Fifty feet below me they pick their way down through impossibly steep slide rock, the kid going ahead, the nanny, glancing back nervously, following behind.
Shaking, I sink to my knees on the broken rock. She's the goddess too - fierce, protecting, catching me between sharp horns and empty space, ready to trade her own life for her kid's. I watch them for long minutes until they drop out of sight. I shake my head and turn back down toward camp.
Halfway down a long talus slope, I'm suddenly running, sailing, high as a kite, balancing down from rock to rock - mind awake in each foot as it touches, awake in each boulder - sensing, just before contact, its center of gravity, knowing whether to strike it with toe or heel and just where. A torso-sized boulder tricks me, stirs suddenly on its own secret balance point beneath my left heel. Thrown off my stride, nearly plunged headlong down the steep, shattered rock, I catch myself - exulting in the split second dip of my left knee, weight shifting between shoulders with a balancing upswing of my right hand - and run on.
at camp just before dark, plopping down on the thick, chilly turf, crossing
my arms and legs, I lean back against my backpack. The wind is down and the surface of the lake resolves into
a silvered mirror dimpled by widening trout circles. Inside one set of liquid circles, reflected, shimmering, an
early star pulses slowly up and down. Dropping my hands into my lap, I stare out into the basin. The immense, still atmosphere becomes
darkening transparent tea bounded by rim rock, the cirque a teacup I balance
on my upturned palms.
Nothing on my Mind
LSD, Two Zen Masters, and a Life on the Dharma Trail
By Erik F. Storlie
Quoted by permission