Friday, October 28, 2016

The Latest: Vital Ground, HCN and a Big Opportunity

The summer rushed by. There were idyllic backpacking trips into the deep and jagged and trouty Montana wilderness. There were inspiring, joyful, sleep-later reunions with friends and family in Minnesota, New Mexico, New England, Idaho. And there was, tucked into the folds, a communications internship in Missoula with the Vital Ground Foundation, a spirited little land trust working to save grizzly bears one conservation easement at a time.

We're knee-deep in autumn now, cold nights and the World Series and larch and aspen and cottonwood popping out gold on the riverbanks and mountainsides. Last week, as I read Camas submissions from a coffee shop window, I saw the first long stringing V of Canada geese pointed due south against a slate sky. Fall is always a hopelessly nostalgic time. I put on my parents' old Bill Staines records, watch the land and weather change tangibly with each shortening day, and think back to those sprawling childhood autumns of jumping in leaf piles and covering the garden for the next hard frost. But there has been plenty of looking forward this fall, too. Here's an update on recent writing projects and an exciting one that lies ahead:

  • Alvord Lake Community Forest: This was my big summer piece for Vital Ground, telling the story of a chunk of Montana forest slated for subdivision that has now become a community-run forest. The full-length version is available on Vital Ground's website.
  • High Country News! Years ago, HCN became my go-to for informative reporting and illuminating writing about land and culture in the West. It was an honor to have them publish a shorter op-ed version of the Alvord Lake piece.
  • Great Burn Proposed Wilderness: One of those dreamy summer backpacks took me into the Great Burn, a rugged 1.8-million acre area in the Northern Bitterroots that conservationists have been seeking to protect as wilderness for the last 40 years. Afterward, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Missoulian about not forgetting wilderness protection as we celebrate the National Parks' centennial.
  • The Artists Field Guide to Greater Yellowstone: This is the exciting one lying ahead. My friend Katie Holsinger has embarked on an inspiring project to create a field guide "told through the words and artwork of fifty of the region’s most distinguished storytellers." I hardly qualify under those criteria, but I was thrilled to have Katie offer me a last-minute spot as a fill-in writer for the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. There are some big names involved with this thing, and I'm very honored and excited to contribute. Stay tuned for more updates!
Early fall colors from a second trip into the Great Burn.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Published! "Common Ground" in Whitefish Review

Hello all! I’m excited to share with you the current issue of Whitefish Review, which includes my short essay “Common Ground.” The journal is a beautiful publication from Northwest Montana that highlights the art, literature, and photography of mountain culture. Released on June 4, this issue interprets the theme of Change through an inspiring collection of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and visual art. It also serves as a tribute issue after the passing of the inimitable author Jim Harrison in late March. As such, I’m lucky and humbled to have my words published alongside those of some of my literary heroes: Rick Bass, David James Duncan, Doug Peacock, and Harrison himself.

My small contribution to the issue began—perhaps unsurprisingly—with a walk in the woods. Shortly after I moved to Missoula last fall, good friend Kurt Imhoff and I seized a breezy, sun-polished Sunday to venture up the Camas Creek drainage in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness (an area part of which just burned in Western Montana’s first big wildfire of the season). It was the first of many trips I’ve made into the 1.3-million acre roadless area straddling the Idaho-Montana border, and my imagination took off like a roadrunner afterward. The essay came together in Phil Condon’s Environmental Writing workshop as I researched the origins of the wilderness area and its even-larger neighbor, the Frank Church-River of No Return, and as my Environmental Studies coursework challenged me to think about global and local change in new ways. “Common Ground” is just the tip of a tough iceberg: it asks more questions than it answers, but I hope it inspires readers to learn and protect wilderness areas during a present and a future when nothing—even wilderness—remains fully stable. While I posted an earlier draft of the essay on Hartwords last fall, I hope you’ll consider reading the latest version, along with the other work in Whitefish Review, by purchasing a copy of the issue and supporting a dedicated and important publication. Here’s a quick excerpt from my piece:

Short on answers, I seek sanity with trips into wild places, the healing sites preserved by our forebears, vital to our successors. I call up Kurt and we drive to a trailhead before light hits the valley, turning off the news when pavement turns to dirt. Then we start walking and stop talking. On a good day, I stop thinking, and listen only—listen to the old rhythms of this planet. What sounds is the inevitability of change. Larch needles turning and falling, ice ages and droughts, brachiosaur to Brooklyn—march on, ragged world.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

GFC, and Other Images After an Ending

My grandmother made the best fried chicken I knew. GFC: Grammy’s Fried Chicken. Onions, lots of onions, rosemary, salt and pepper. She would cook it with one cast-iron skillet flipped face down over another, a stroke of genius picked up somewhere long ago. I’ll never forget the sight of her in a floral apron, wielding those two skillets like tennis rackets in a rare display of physical strength, the steam and the smell of sautéing onions rising up out of the kitchen as I watched mallards through the living room window. And the meals: chicken, white rice, green beans steamed and squeaky, probably pulled from the garden hours earlier. Vanilla ice cream and home-canned peaches out of the cellar for dessert. Unpretentious, beautiful, prepared and served with quiet but steadfast pride.

When I was young, in the summertime, we would ride bikes to the neighborhood garden down the street from Grammy and Gramp’s. Gram rode a big, elegant maroon bike with a wide leather seat. It was another forceful image, like the skillets – she rode with the same slow-motion grace a child sees in the sight of his father casting with a fly-rod or his mother scooping him out of harm’s way from a passing car. In the garden, she and Mom would pick flowers while Gramp drilled us in the finer points of pulling carrots. We’d all ride or walk back to the house, baskets laden, triumphant in our simplicity.

Sometimes, when we were visiting around Christmas, we would drive into downtown Rochester to see The Nutcracker. We’d put on our dress shoes and nice shirts, Gramp a dark suit and a red tie, and Gram would bring out her fur coat. After the performance, my parents and Gramp would hem and haw about this scene or that, noting a lackluster or extraordinary performer, or discussing the Philharmonic’s next concert. Gram might chime in with a smile and a nod here, an “oh, yes” there. I will never know what emotions passed through her as she watched candy canes waltz and the violin sections sawed Tchaikovsky to the rafters. Somewhere in her past, probably before the Depression, had the young Jean Lincoln dreamed of dancing with a prince through a moonlit forest? Had she known that her life could be as beautiful and free as a sleigh cutting through freshly fallen snow?

We are losing the generation that knew a different world. The world of the Dust Bowl and Auschwitz and Hiroshima, in which barbarism could still run rampant and tornado-like across the surfaces of our so-called developed nations. My grandmother: the antidote to savagery. Beautiful, composed, private to the end. What irretrievable knowledge will pass as our elders do?

Too many of my memories fall during her waning years, when Gramp handled much of the cooking and yardwork to avoid boredom, or after they left the house, after he died suddenly, momentously, like a record ripped from the turntable with the final track unfinished. Her days then passed like the slow rolling of a placid sea, waiting for the occasional swells of family or friends visiting, holidays or the first snowfall, the single weekly uplift of Sunday dinner with my aunt and uncle. Or perhaps just waiting, patiently as ever, for that distant shore to finally appear.

At one of those Sunday dinners this past December, the last meal I would share with her, we ate strawberry rhubarb pie for dessert. I asked Grammy if she and Gramp had grown rhubarb in the garden for pies. I knew, of course, that they had. Strawberry rhubarb is my dad’s favorite, and my own, for a reason. But I wanted a story. What I got instead was poetry. “Oh, yes,” she said, smiling, then pausing as the grin faded. “Goodness, I guess those days are gone now.”

That night, unable to sleep, I wrote that Gram’s ninety-five year old mind had become a blizzard, everything blowing around, relocating, indecipherable. But beautiful to witness in its transience.

My own mind jumps too quickly to images of her in a wheelchair, fumbling a pillbox or fussing over unkempt hair, trying to remember which grandson lives where these days. But deeper back, deeper down, is the image that I know will last, the touchstone of enduring love. The sky is blue and the house snow white, and Grammy and Gramp are standing together, hip-to-hip by the old mounted bell at the end of the driveway fence, waving goodbye for now.

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.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Why We Come Back

And just like that, you're 25 years old.

The passage of time can be vertiginous when the places around you have changed far less than you. When you return to those formative places, those character factories of your late teens and early 20s, just the sensory nostalgia of homecoming is enough to make you forget all the interim. The same fiery sunrises, same cracked dirt oven heat of mid-afternoon, same raw smell of ponderosas after rain.

Then there are the re-lived experiences, the big dinners and star-strewn nights with your old friends who are back to visit. You talk, of course, about the new stuff, the desk jobs and the boyfriends and the graduate programs, but that's not what sticks in your abdomen and spins your mind for a loop. It's the dumb movie quotes you remember, the now-swollen legend of the day you peaked seven mountains and still made it to the bar afterward, the night you fell out of your roommate's truck.

But places with real depth do more than hold you in the bosom of the past. The land, like us, is never still. There is endless challenge in the mountains, a springboard capacity for absorbing even the longest fallers and propelling them back into the unknown clean and galvanized, bringing along the frontier zen of morning sun beside a little trout stream, the indefatigable cheer of banjo rolls on the crisp night air.

These are the places to which we return, the love we don't let die. An average of 29,127 days on this ball of earth and rock and water -- how many will be spent in the same stale fluorescent-lit air, having the same superficial conversations, thinking the same tedious thoughts?

We grow full in the shadows of the mountains. If we are lucky, we stay with them. If we hold anything like truth, they stay with us.

New Mexico Weather, Mt. Phillips, May 2012