Monday, August 17, 2015

Magnanimous and Wild: Meeting Bob Gates and Jack Loeffler

For a man who spent significant portions of his life deciding who lived and who died, Bob Gates was startlingly placid. For a retired saboteur, Jack Loeffler was almost suspiciously congenial. And David Gessner – well, I'd read enough of his work to have a bit of a notion, and the man alive bore quite a resemblance to the man on the page. In the Gospel of Nonfiction Writing according to Gessner, that's high praise.

I'd probably never met three people of such personal and widespread import in the same year, let alone the same week. But the stars aligned in northern New Mexico in early June and there I was, two days after having lunch with the former Secretary of Defense and current president of Scouting, shaking the hand of one of Edward Abbey's best friends and meeting the contemporary author whose voice has come as close as anyone's to gripping my imagination like Cactus Ed's always does.

Robert Gates
Robert Gates is regarded by many as the best Secretary of Defense in the post-WWII era. He somehow preserved his sanity while serving consecutively under Presidents Bush and Obama, this after a long tenure as director of the CIA. He saw the light after Iraq and began a transitioning of America's image from pugnacious to peace-loving. Recently, he has assumed the Boy Scouts of America's highest unpaid position and has led the stodgy old white guys on the national board to see the light of tolerance, his speech to the body this spring the catalyst to Scouting’s overdue decision to remove its membership ban on homosexual adult leaders.

In conversation, Gates presented as a man profoundly at peace with reality, hardly what one might expect from one whose life has strung out from crisis to crisis, warzone to warzone. Rather than discuss the things he'd seen in Kabul and Kandahar, he was eager to share stories of his formative experiences in the West, of youth leadership training at Philmont and fishing at summer camp in Colorado. Now, in retirement, he resides in the northwest corner of the U.S., with a house in Washington's San Juan Islands and another in remote country east of Bellingham.

“I imagine you've been a fisherman ever since?” I asked after hearing his Colorado camp story, imagining this laid back man in jeans and a ballcap living the retired angler's dream in the Pacific Northwest.

But instead of a catalog of stories, I got a brief sigh in response. “You know, I've just never really had the time.”

Here was a man unafraid to admit regret, but far from sunk by it. A man deeply in touch with himself and the world, enough to tip the scales of an inertia-clogged organization toward the future, and to do so not in rejection of its past, but rather to preserve its true heart for all, its natal ideal of teaching youth to better the world through undiscriminating service.

When I met Gates, the resolution had not yet passed. After lunch, I gave him a final handshake and said the thing I’d been saving. I thanked him personally for his work toward equality in Scouting. “It means so much to many of us here,” I told him. He held my hand in his firm grip a moment longer – a man of small stature and large vision – and looked me in the eye, sighing again. “I know,” he said. “I think we’ll get it done.”


The Gessner reading two days later was typical Santa Fe. A bookstore-coffeehouse full of baby boomers in flipflops, artisan bolo ties, and everything in between. Besides a few student types shuffling on the outskirts, our row of five twenty-somethings was the only semblance of youth at the event. After an outstanding talk by Gessner, with help from Loeffler, I pointed the age disparity out during Q & A – much to the indignation of the barnacled masses – and asked the authors what Abbey and Stegner might have said to the apathetic youth of the social media age.

Loeffler's response rang out, refreshing as a clear mountain morning.

“You have to get out there in it. Ed and I always believed, once you've really been out there in it – for an extended time – you have no choice but to defend it.”

Jack Loeffler
As the crowd trickled out, I caught Loeffler for a quick handshake and thank you. I wanted to tell him a story or two about “getting out there in it,” about how we were doing our best, under the auspices of Scouting, to give 20,000 teenagers each summer that inimitable extended immersion in wildness. But Abbey's old mate, now fully grayed in hair and beard, sporting a turquoise bolo and the requisite neckerchief-style blue bandana, seemed tired. Though his eyes still possessed great energy, the creases around them spoke a different story. The man was not here to be a celebrity. While Gessner signed and drew cartoons in books and chatted with fans, Loeffler showed no desire for the spotlight. I could tell he was ready to collect his things and slip out of the cramped bookstore, back into the adobe-lined streets and the glow of the Southwestern evening.

So I abandoned prior visions of the conversation, abandoned my muddled mystical longing to somehow imbibe a bit of Abbey's lingering soul through his longtime friend. I thanked Loeffler once more, returned his smile for a moment longer, hoping somewhere within that brief connection I had brought a shred of optimism to the old monkeywrencher, a bit of relief that there were still good, grounded young folks out there fighting for the land he loved.

And perhaps that tiny piece of Ed really was passed on to me. Perhaps the real Abbey may have resembled the shy Loeffler more than the gregarious Gessner had he been at the same event. For all of the brazen iconoclasm his persona portrayed on the page, the Ed known by people like Loeffler was pensive and withdrawn more often than not, a gentle man of open spaces.

“Abbey is, more than any writer I know, this side of Montaigne, alive on the page,” writes Gessner in All the Wild that Remains, the newly-published literary ramble on Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the current West which prompted his visit to Santa Fe. For this reader, Gessner has followed in that line, and is a more vital voice than anyone I know this side of Cactus Ed. Meeting him was several years in the making, and was just as pleasant as hoped, but it was the surprise of Loeffler which has lasted, and which has become inseparable with the surprise of Gates.

The two would seem opposing figures. Gates directed the very agency which could have investigated Loeffler. He may never have actually set eyes on Abbey's sizable FBI file, but Gates was certainly aware of the movement men like Cactus Ed and Jack had spurred. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the former agent and the former outlaw were similarly cored.

Relaxed, engaged, cordial and unassuming – they are, unsurprisingly, two men who “got out there in it.” Whatever divergent paths their lives took, there was wildness stamped on each of them. A boy from Kansas fishing and camping in Colorado, a free-thinking Northeast defector falling in love with the western expanse: they had carried “the peace of wild things,” to borrow from Wendell Berry, with them through the world. And they had channeled it to great – if disparate – ends, to achievements which drew a spotlight they neither desired nor denied.

Now, at the end of a summer which has restored some of my damaged faith in the idea of Scouting, the Sangre de Cristos lie sprawled behind me, creamy thunderheads swirling over the deep green slopes. There are stands of Doug fir, Engelmann spruce and Ponderosa pine out there where I’ve lost myself in peace. A few thousand young people are in it right now, gaining greater intimacy with a wild world which will teach them to look beyond themselves. That I have had a hand in that growth is ample fulfillment for closure. New roads await and I will meet them beginning to grasp – still striving for – Gates and Loeffler’s contentment, the contentment of magnanimity.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Running Ridges, Changes

My feet were wettest in the deep leaf-litter. The snaredrum patter of rain on leaf pervaded, echoing through the mind chambers until no possibility of a world apart from it existed. The frequent puddles were easy enough to dodge, but when the trail sank into small gullies, last fall's oak and maple and beech became a half foot of slippery brown carpet, the chill of moisture seeping through my running shoes slowly, measurably.

That it was Marathon Monday, Patriot's Day in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, only added to the swift-arriving knowledge that I was exactly where I needed to be. Home again in the ever-welcoming womb of the old eastern hills, bearing witness to the ageless progression of early spring. The Canada geese and a great blue heron on Plum Pond next to my parents' house, barred owls raucous through my open window at night, each day a sharper raw odor of skunk cabbage in the woods, more of its prehistoric yellow-green and eggplant-speckled flowers sprouting through the soil.

Just beneath the Horse Caves of Daniel Shays – as true a New England Patriot as ever was – I stumbled upon, almost literally, the surest regional symbol of the season yet: a red eft. The bright orange, diamond-spotted juvenile stage of the eastern newt, two inches from head to tail, brilliant as a student's dropped marker, highlighting the brown pages of the forest's spring text. I paused, leaned down close to the salamander, tempted of course to pick it up, to complete the sensory extravaganza, to feel the cold stick of its delicate flanks across my fingers. But no one has picked me up against my will during the latest change in my life cycle. In Coming into the Country, one of John McPhee's magnanimous counterparts refuses to fish the wild rivers of northern Alaska, weary of “take-and-put fishing” and wondering “what kind of day a fish will have after spending some time on a hook.” I left the red eft alone and pushed on, through the tight gap in the old cave-band, up foggy Mt. Norwottuck. The summit view was a mystical deception, the front enveloping the settled valley below, naught but the hardwood blanket and dark stands of pine and spruce visible before the sea of cream-cloud, enough to make one believe himself, momentarily, amidst a vast wilderness.

The day was far from the mild, pastel-hued imaginings of nostalgia’s April. Steady rain, thermometer stuck on 48. The temptation of an afternoon on the couch with the book I'd just started (McPhee) had been significant. Despite the excitement of accepting an offer to attend graduate school in Montana in the fall, I was in a bit of a funk, to be honest. Montana sounded great, but I was not there right now and August remained a long way off. I was barely a week returned to the understated landscape of the East and I already missed the jagged clarity and drama of the West. I missed the New Mexico sky, missed my friends there and elsewhere. But wallowing had certainly never helped me before: if I was going to run the Seven Sisters 20k in two weeks, it was well past time to begin something like a training regimen.

Midway through the run, ascending a steep, leaf-padded stretch of trail, the metaphor arrived, as they often do in strenuous moments. I recalled a passage in the book I'd just finished, All the Wild that Remains, David Gessner's new study of Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the current state of the American West. While the regionally-revered authors espoused very different approaches to environmental protection, both were men of action, staunchly opposing the writer's trap of remaining content and aloof on the sidelines, narrating and commentating with the pen from the comforts of the book-lined study. “One brave act is worth a thousand books” wrote Abbey, the anarchist, the burner of billboards and pourer of sugar into bulldozers. Stegner, committed to the notion that a just and sustainable American culture was still possible, sat through long meetings and authored proposals to protect wildlands. “The highest thing I can think of doing is literary,” he wrote. “But literature does not exist in a vacuum.”

“Cold-eyed clarity,” is the virtue Gessner ascribes to Stegner. And Abbey possessed his own version, too. Both men knew the realities of their region and its recent history of abuse, and they fought like hell to improve its future. Now, as Gessner concludes, with climate change altering the arid west more aggressively than anywhere else, our populace has never needed a stiff injection of these authors' “cold-eyed clarity” more. “Stegner understood the necessity of hope,” Gessner writes, “but in the end knew that cold-eyed clarity was more important.” Do not mistake him – or Stegner – for asserting that the two are mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are interdependent: one has no foundation for hope without a clear understanding of reality.

And the reality is this: we are in the thick of the woods, the changing. The rain is falling, cold and steady, the trail to the ridge ahead most certainly uphill. We cannot wish or deny it away and return to the rosy days of the past. If we are to run this race – truly the race of our time, and of our children and grandchildren's – there is nothing to do but lean into the cold, clear our eyes, and put our best foot forward, one stride at a time, wet shoes and all.

We may even stumble upon some surprising orange inch of beauty along the way.

"Eastern red-spotted newt" by Bruce Lucas.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Taos Revived

Five o'clock on Friday in the middle of the first big storm cycle. Winter has engulfed the country, with Florida the only state on the white and pink map showing no areas of snowfall within its borders. A slippery, weary commute all that separates the workforce from its two-day respite while in northern New Mexico the minds and bodies of an intrepid subset are bent far from relaxation. Sixteen inches already this week, they collude in hushed tones, as if the internet were silent and their voices if raised would reach past the stateline to those looters from Colorado and spoil the secret. Two feet – could it be true? – still to come this weekend.

Flat, gray light waning as my loaded hatchback departs for the mountains. Sentinel ravens teeter in the chilling air like drunken specters in a world of slate. The week's heavy snows have forced the elk down from higher grounds and on the flats beneath the canyon a herd of fifty are a stone's throw and a barbed wire fence from the highway, their tawny hides clumped tight against the storm as two cows rear up magnificently equine to heights of ten feet at least and brandish front hooves at one another in agitation, as if the very beating heart of western wildness were pumping their thick crimson arteries.

I must temper forethought and footloose enthusiasm as I reach the slowly rising curves of the canyon, the road narrowing and its surface a steady progression of icy deathtraps. Snow now peppers the windshield with greater intensity, its vertiginous onslaught jarring my thoughts toward the reality that it is a year to the day since three young men from my alma mater, from the same ultimate frisbee community which cradled and challenged me, lost their lives on an icy road, on their way to a weekend of passionate recreation. Also arriving is the moment earlier this day when sorting through old paperwork I stumbled upon the name of a protege and friend of my own from a summer past who fell to his too-young death climbing in the Cascades. How insignificant our lifespans, how reckless and taunting of the world's destructive potential that we should choose these jagged and indifferent mountains, this wild season of icy abandon, as our playground.

The lump in my throat lends focus to the driving and I remember the words of an ex-teammate and budding novelist after the accident, his postulation that the afterlife might just as likely as anything else consist of a perpetual residence in the emotions and actions of our final earthly moments, and that in such a habitation those three boys were bound to all the zealous anticipation of vigorous and youthful exercise, the iron security and uplift of manly comradeship. I fish for a distant quote saying how we live each day is the truth of our existence and I realize that skiing may be trivial to the arc of nobility or justice but that it holds too those moments of urgent vitality which I cannot replicate elsewhere, that the pursuit of its mastery in the company of friends is as good a thing to love and chase as any.

It is fully dark by the time I creep up Palo Flechado Pass, the snow pelleted and insistent. I will not begin the winding descent I have been dreading yet – traffic is stopped and the creased friendly face under a ballcap and thick yellow slicker says through the icefall they're cleaning up a wreck at the first hairpin but it should only be a few minutes more. I sit in the carheat watching the flakes melt as they hit the defrosted windshield, the rivulets twisting downward like ski lines, like the unknowable pathways of life.

It is an easy descent once it begins, the slow procession of backed-up vehicles down the red-salted road an unforeseen gift of forced temperance. I reach Bill's just after the Santa Feans, their own travel a harrowing slog up the frozen curves of the Rio Grande Canyon. The abrazos are numerous and heartfelt, soon we're drinking beer and eating hot dogs, but there is a modest and urgent reverence among our company as we watch the snow pile outside and wonder incredulously at the forecast. A foot and a half already, and we're two thousand feet below the base of the mountain.

I haven't seen this in years, Bill says, and he means it. We might not see it again for even longer, Sam replies.

At 2:45 the air mattress is sagging and my mind is racing out of a canyon of icy dreams and into the dark living room. There is no logical reason why one experiences a soldier's insomnia the night before a powder day but it must be some torturous sign that skiing has invaded you to the core. I slide in and out of sleep for another three and a half hours before the alarms start sounding and we're up and out. Scant breakfast, slammed coffee, layers, hushed conversation and away. Climbing the canyon by 7:30, ahead of the crowds from points south. The envelope of cloud on mountain is absolute. It is as if we are entering a reality absolved from time and space where ravens, dark trees, snow and snow and snow have never ceased to exist and will not ever.

The throng awaiting first chair swells into the hundreds as eight approaches nine but we are near its front. Patrollers come down from invisible heights, their beards bombarded by ice and frost, like grave and haggard beasts returning to morning from the fathoms of endless night. The chairs will not all be running today, they tell us, but we will do our best. It's slow going up there. Finally the bell sounds as if to start a derby, cheers rise up from the congregated faithful, and we are carried foursome by foursome into the sea of cloud and snow. As we approach the first lift's terminus, four figures explode onto the steep run below us like superheroes of the populace, greeted by more cheers from every rider within view. Each of their turns pours a new cascade of snow downward and they are dolphins breaking the milky dormant surface, torchbearers for the devotees soon to follow their wake.

A quick and tantalizing groomer to the base of the next chair, a shorter wait, the ascent to the top, and then it begins.

The terrain of Taos Ski Valley is a connoisseur’s delight, a Stravinsky in a world of wheezing compositions. The mountain easily boasts two dozen expert runs the steepness and technicality of which can be approached only by a single pitch or two at nearly all other North American resorts. Many a brilliant skier from across the world has pilgrimed to Taos, and many have never left afterward. One is Alain Veth, former slalom and giant slalom champion of France, who is now raising a family of skiers while owning a quaint tune shop on the mountain. At eight this morning, I picked up my skis from Alain after their midseason checkup and discussing the snowfall the rapid excitement in his accent was more schoolboy than Olympian. Standing now atop Upper Pollux, gazing down at a line of deep, tight turns between aspens and snow-saddled firs, it strikes that I'm about to ski as majestic a run as any slope in the world could offer at this moment. But there is no time for sentiment at the drop-in.

I have skied deep snow before and turned my way down many a steep aspect on just the right side of control, but such a combination of pitch and powder I have never known. Turn after bottomless turn erupts beneath my skis, the trees a passing rush in the breeze, the midweight snow a tumbling pillow beneath like falling through a white dreamworld of deadened gravity. Now Sam and I are hugging and high-fiving at the bottom of the glade like giddy Christmas morning siblings and the day becomes a blur of adrenaline joy. Pipeline, Lorelei, Edelweiss. Werner's, Longhorn, Jean's. One after another, our skis pour down familiar runs with unfamiliar grace. It is the harmony of mind and body and equipment with the ancient landscape, the momentary inclusion in the nameless truth of the mountain. And it is fleeting and nearly untenable like all of the world's most pure things.

There is terrain which remains unexplored through the morning: the Highline Ridge and the West Basin, accessed only by hiking up from the topmost lift. With the highs of Taos' extreme slopes come the sobering reality of their destructive potential, never more grave than after a massive and sudden storm like this. Since dawn, patrollers have been testing the terrain, the echoing crashes of their grenades periodic through the day as they seek to trigger loose snow from the hidden empty faces. With our season passes, we have bought the peace of mind that anywhere we ski has been deemed safe. For their paychecks, the patrollers battle the haunting and capricious monster of the avalanche.

The unequaled rock-strewn chutes of the West Basin will remain closed through this storm, along with the sprawling face of Kachina Peak and its new summit-reaching chairlift, a poetic mockery by nature of the ski industry's best laid plans. By midday the Highline Ridge has been cleared however and we embark on the climb with the unfortunate haste of children rushing toward a plate with not enough cookies for everyone. There's a saying for it – no friends on a powder day. The race for first tracks seems churlish, infantile even, to the onlooker who has not been hooked by the lure of untouched descent. But the rush of anticipation has us motoring our boots upward with doubled effort, bent on finding that immaculate line.

Eclipsing treeline, all forethought ceases. We hit the ridge and an assault of wind and precipitation renders visibility and hearing near naught. The conditions on the resort below seem a plaything – ice and snow lambast from all angles like the million daggers of some Norse necromancer or crooked deity of violence and frigidity. I lose sight of the path and stumble into a chest-high drift of snow, all of a sudden swimming alone in this mad white world, legs and feet and skis fighting to slog through the weight of the misstep. Out of the drift finally, there's a quick uptick in visibility and it's just me and the ridge. Sam, the only one ahead, must have already dropped down into his line. I reach a good spot on the envisioned cornice and it's now or never. I launch forward and land eight feet down like lovers on a feather bed. One, two, five swooping and unforgettable turns have me down the first wall. A hundred-foot traverse and I'm in the shelter of the trees. Cutting left from the few tracks ahead of me, I drop into an unchristened line through a favorite stretch of glade, the turns flowing by effortlessly, the mind emptied, time an alien thing. When the run drains out onto the trafficked resort, it comes as a jarring surprise, as if the raw new world above were made to extend infinitely. But there's Sam, beaming and telling me without hint of hyperbole that was the greatest ski run of his life and me staring at my skis, at the snow, at my friend, without breath or cause to refute.

The afternoon winds its way on like the second act of a winter ballet. We ski hard until the end, catching our last chair at 3:57 for a victory lap with Bill. With the snow continuing, an evening of exhaustion and exultation finds us asleep by ten and collective soreness makes for a slower morning as we wind back up the canyon in an ant-like parade of trucks and Subarus. The word must have gotten out. But it is the mountain and not the people which will have the final dictum on Sunday. A big slide in the West Basin overnight has shut down one side of the resort, while the entire Kachina drainage is too unpredictable for opening. Skiing will be bottlenecked to the lower front side for the morning if not the entire day, the resulting lift lines bringing anxious visions of Summit County to many. But Taos has a final gift amid the turbulence as we watch patrol drop the rope and the season's first skiers traverse into North American, a steep glade which twists 1,500 vertical feet down the resort's front side, culminating in two narrow chokes requiring current snow depths for safety. By the time we're off the lift and reach the top of it, we are hardly the first to enter, but the snow remains pillowed between the naked aspens and the crowd inside whooping like questers in a revival tent. Delving into some inner reserve, the legs gather strength for a last hurrah. They pump like pistons once more as I charge down through the great grove, washed with gratitude, and maybe it's just my imagination but the sky seems a tick brighter as I course into the turns below.