Affirmation River, & Mountain-Style
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
After a series of eastward-blowing storms, it’s been brilliantly sunny again. Besides the pleasant warming ambiance, it has meant the ritual snowmelt, with the quickly saturated ground giving up its overflow in a convulsion of water. Migrating in sheets off the steep cliffs and mountains, it breaks up into liquid fingers gurgling down parallel gullies, then plummets from the ledges in 2 feet, 6 feet, or 100 feet drops. No matter their individual mini-headwaters, their destination is the same, gravity combining with earth’s ecosophic purpose to feed a quickly swelling river.
Quickly, I say, sometimes rising from a foot deep to over 20 feet deep, and from gently moving at a relaxed pace to madly rushing like a herd of bison stampeded by lightning. Today the Sweet Medicine River varied from 3 to 5 feet depending on its width, as well as on the holes scooped out by the swirling force of eddies. At such times it would be reasonable and perhaps even wise to stay at home here, in wood heated cabins perched far above all but the most biblical flood heights. Reasonable, however, does not determine my actions when there is a cause to be championed, an innocent to be defended, a mission to be furthered… mail to be mailed, or cream, butter and treats for the gals to be got.
The adventure begins with taking off my pants and shirt and rolling them up, then holding the bundle of boots, clothes and outgoing mail above my head while stepping off into cloudy swirling waters where I can’t see the bottom. From the second I touch bottom on sucking sand or bruising rock, the current pushes me hard down the canyon and to the southwest and Arizona and Mexico when I need to remain determinedly pointed to the east. To compensate I set off 30 yards upriver from my preferred landing spot on the opposite bank, then bounce across in leaps that give in equal proportions to the diverging directions of man and river.
I’m very warm blooded, but snowmelt anywhere above the thighs is stunning to say the least, a jolt that arrests all thought even as it so loudly reminds me through every sense that I am alive. Getting out onto largely muddy ground with clean feet is a trick best accomplished by holding onto railings of exposed Alder roots, and then squatting and dressing in atop its foundation of shore-clutching arms. The climb to the waiting vehicle starts out at a 30 degree incline, and any thought of being cold is gone within the first third of the ascent. Sitting for hours writing articles, books and emails is poor exercise and preparation, and my legs begin to complain. When I was in my 20’s, I made it a practice to run as fast as I could without stopping for the entire 2 mile climb, carrying a pebble in my mouth because I had read the Apache ensured breathing through their noses that way, causing greater stamina. Now I considered a satisfactory feat just to be able to scramble up its sides on deer trails that for a deer would be a relaxed pace. And while the snow lay only in patches at the bottom of the canyon, with the first 500 feet of elevation increase the snow had thickened to a 18 inches or more, obliterating any sign of the winding way up. With familiar landmarks draped or obscured and the ground appearing but a single precipitous angle, I was likely seldom if ever actually a trail, making headway by thrusting the sides of my boots into the snow for each step, and proceeding more sideways than forward myself.
Increasingly aching legs and ever more slippery and indecipherable terrain inspired even greater attention to each committed step. A slip could mean plummeting at breakneck speeds checked only by collisions of flesh against bark, careening pinball style off one ponderosa tree after another. The Winter is found no less lovely by the trekker, knowing that growing stiff and weary, or stopping and taking too long of a rest could mean never getting back up again. There is only continuing as an option for life, as it is with all life forms empowered by this force and will to live, the anima. And less dramatically, there is never any stopping and giving up for me. Older and less exercised limbs showed no sign of giving out, but only signs of continuing to give their all. In fact, the aching actually eased for the most part at the point when the climb was most difficult, and in that I found great encouragement.
The microclimate shifted with each few hundred feet of ascent, such that near the 7000 feet level I found myself walking into a cloud, a strata of airborne strata so pronounced that for a moment I could see my boot clearly while everything at head height was covered by mist. Like the entrance to Avalon, all magic seems to be veiled for protection by a cloud of unknowing. But for me then, it was a knowing instead, the knowledge that once in the cloud I was essentially at the mountain’s top and a waiting snow-tucked vehicle. As always, the cream in our coffee will be made all the more enjoyable by the means through which it was obtained. The books sent out will have an extra story to go with them, recounting their untypical journey. And the where and why of our lives is yet again reaffirmed, not by the ease of our admitted paradise but by what we are willing to do for and because of it. Affirmed mountain and river-style, instead of through its vista and sparkle we come to know its measure by its depth.
(Post and share freely. Photos (c)2010 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)