Monday, December 14, 2015

Letter to my Students: 10 Ways to Stay Sane

Letter to my Students: 10 Ways to Stay Sane
Dear Student:

I hiked out here alone, with Chico. He bites at snowballs clustered to his fur around his paws. I’ve learned to just let him do his thing--he has more instinct than I do in this world. The doctor confirmed I broke my sesamoid bone on my left foot a year and a half ago. I kept hoping it would heal and it wasn’t. I finally went to a specialist.
The snow is coming down harder now and I tuck up closer against the trunk of the tree to stay out of it. There is no one anywhere near me now. Doctor says I need to stay off my foot. My sanity is connected to hiking out into nature--it is where I go. So, I decided to write a list of 10 things to stay sane. The list is as much for me as it is for you.

1. Go on walks with a dog. If your foot isn’t broken or, I guess, even if it is. Maybe you don’t need the dog, but I suggest it. It is snowing, I stop under a fir tree just outside Butte Meadows to write. Chico runs up and lays down next to me. It is quiet and there is nothing except the soft sound of snowflakes bouncing off the needles above me. On the drive up, people were stuck in the snow, lines of cars of people cutting Christmas trees. These traditions are part of our identity, our exploration and rite of passage into the world--young families with sleds for the first time. One car was jack-knifed with their trailer, but everyone helped pull them out. People were out of their cars, talking, drinking, and letting their dogs play in the snow. These are the narratives we build with each other, they are family and food, a reason to come together with shared intense bonds, stories...from manger to Hallmark to this strange hold-on from ancient pagan worship of a tree. I am not sure about the whole cutting down part.

Find a routine. Dogs like routines...and it ends up, I think, so do humans. The dog allows you to just real destination. Someone once told me there are two kinds of hikers, those hiking for a destination and those who are always there. Be there. Walk your neighborhood. Say hi to your neighbors. Ask them their names and try to remember them. Pick up your dog’s poop.

2. Know your direction. We hike northeast along Colby Creek towards Colby Mountain lookout. I can’t hike very far or long because it does actually hurt my foot. It has for over a year now, but I ignored it. Now, because I know what it is, I feel more sensitive towards the pain.
The storm is coming out of the Northwest from the Gulf of Alaska. Being a surfer, I love the idea of spinning storms sending waves to crash on the ocean. It is not the water moving per se, but the energy of a storm moving through the water. I would always pay attention to buoys out in the ocean to see the rise and fall of the swell, the period, and of course the direction. Know your cardinal directions. Stop saying you turned left, and say you turned east. Talk about the western entrance to a building, or the north facing slope of a mountain. A world that moves in lefts and rights is a world that rotates around you. Instead, move in the world.
Don’t be afraid of the south side. It might be more dangerous, mostly because it doesn’t have good people like you there.

3. Go back. We turn around and start the hike back. I want to stay out here forever. I always do. But the snow is coming harder and faster. My own tracks are beginning to cover up. The famous Himalayan Climber Willi Unsoeld once asked, why not stay out there forever? His answer, and mine, is because that is not where the people are. Go back. Always return even though it isn’t the same place and you aren’t the same person. You can’t be, it can’t be, they can’t be. That is the trick of time. Go back to places just to see how time changed it. Celebrate the phases of the moon (there is a full moon on Christmas and make your family go watch it rise together). Pay attention to the tides, watch a tree change through the seasons. I turn my compost every three months and I know to do this because I choose to turn it on the solstices and equinoxes. Winter solstice is soon. The perseids meteor shower is tonight. Go back. Even when you don’t want to, even when you are mad, they are mad, you were stubborn, and you know she was right, but you don’t want to admit it and your ego hurts. Leave that out there and go back. Everything has changed and will change...allow that of yourself.

4. Seek Quality. We get back to my truck and Chico is a giant ball of snow. He lays down and starts to try and bite them off his fur like he does with burrs and stickers. I call him my little seed vector. I put down his wool blanket, load him into the is really his truck and he lets me drive. My truck is a mess because of him...OK, I guess that is me too, but if it is his truck then it is his dirt. I try to keep it clean. Take care of things and make them last. Do repairs when needed and don’t put them off. Even when you know your foot is hurt, ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. That knocking sound in the engine, if it stops all of a sudden, be worried. Find experts and trust them, but also do your own research. Seek quality over quantity. The wool blanket Chico sits on is a poncho my mother made me from a used army wool blanket for a ultra-light backpacking trip I did with the Boy Scouts well over 25 years ago. Patch holes, sand down the table and put a new finish on it. I have learned to respect something well-made and well-taken care of. My dad and uncles joke about my grandfather that he wasn’t one to give up on a piece of clothing just because it had a little bit of wear. I respect my step-dad because he has good taste. He chose my mom after all. While it might seem quite anal, he buys quality stuff and takes good care of it. Use a drink coaster.

5.   Get above it all. The snow is coming down harder as the sun is beginning to set. We drive out underneath the snow and the sun bursts through the clouds from across the valley as we careen west back down highway 32 towards town. The sun ignites the white coated hillsides. One of the stories about the Christmas tree is that Saint Boniface, seeing people worship an ancient oak for Jove, Jupiter, the god of the sky, cut it down and he told the Germanic people instead to plant pines and firs, evergreens because their triangle shape represented the trinity. Either way, I can see why trees seem to worship the sun. I find a turnout up on the the edge of the canyon looking down to Chico Creek below and pull out to watch the sunset. The golden colors bounce heat off the basalt rock exposed by weathering storms from the ocean. The heat evaporates water back up into the sky and steam rises off the satiated forest. Stop and watch sun sets.
Everywhere I have lives I have found a place to go and get a vantage of my town and watch the earth spin. All of nature is built of this strange spinning and orbiting and rotating universe. Everything is cyclical and orbital, and it helps me put things into perspective. I have my places: Old Oak Park Road in Arroyo Grande, Dry Canyon in Logan, Utah, Eagle’s Nest in Karluk, Alaska, the southern beach in El Paredon, Guatemala, Upper Bidwell park on the canyon rim in Chico, California. I even have my favorite pullouts on drives I typically do: Just outside Battle Mountain in Nevada, just past Pinnacles National Park in California, alongside Goose Lake at the California-Oregon border. I will drive this soon on my way to see family for Christmas too.

6. Pull over. The sun sets behind the Mendocino Mountains, I remove all my warm winter clothes, get back into the car, pull out and look to see if any other cars are coming. They aren’t. I get up to speed, then put my truck into neutral and coast. Nobody is behind me for now. Drive defensively...for your own safety and for that of the earth. I suggest finding a vehicle larger than yours, going at the speed you want to go, and getting a safe distance behind them. They run like blockers for a football team, deers, accidents, cavernous fucking holes opened up from the earth subsiding from lack of water or too much water or hydraulic fracturing of the earth...who know, but the earth sometimes just opens up and eats asphalts like a doomsday prayer; if that large truck in front of you hit the brakes, you must be able to stop before them. For all else, they will find first and clear your path. You should be able to stop before they can if your brakes are good and you are paying attention. Pay Attention! If you can’t find a good leader then be out alone. 

Beware of the car behind you at all times...that is the person who is going to crash into you. Pull over and let them pass. When you pull over, people always wave to you. You've increased happiness in the world. When you pass someone, they flip you off, curse at you, honk their horn, flash their lights, and they scowl and you might scowl too and you carry that forward and so do they into the world and we don't need that anymore.

If possible, learn not to be in a hurry. I drive a manual transmission and I love coasting places. I like seeing how far I can make it without using extra gas or tapping my brakes. I have tried this coast many times. I dream of making it all the way into town, but I rarely make the last light, or worst, someone gets behind me and can’t fathom why I am going so slow, and I relent, put into gear, and use the gas. Today, I think I might make it, the light is green, nobody is behind me, but as I approach the light it is stale for too long and sure enough, right before I reach there, it turns yellow. I brake and wait my turn. Remember, learn to drive little and when you do, be conservative. You are burning the future a little bit each time. Especially if you are driving back from cutting down a tree. Plant two new ones when you get the chance.

7. Know the maker. As we drive into town, I stop at the CoOp to get some food. Shop at the CoOp...well, shop at the farmers market, well, actually, grow your own food first, but if not, shop at the CoOP; buy into the CoOp. Buy your food in bulk and don’t use plastic. Look at the ingredients. Know what is in season and try something new. The CoOp labels where their produce came from and if it is local. I got some great looking carrots from Pyramid Farms. I highly suggest their carrots. Say hi to Jeff if he is at the cashier. Today, he remembered my name. I must be slowly making a presence in this town. It takes a while. I forgot my reusable shopping bags, but he lets me use a cardboard box. They usually have a few under the potatoes just for people like me who forget their bags. Remember your reusable plastic bags. Darn.

8. Think metaphorically. We drive home. All the lights are timed and if you drive about 25 MPH through town, you will make them all. Once through downtown and onto Esplanade, you can increase to about 30. Stay in the middle lane. The right lane is terrible. People stop to park, trucks stop to unload, cars want to turn right, but pedestrians get in the way. Watch for people turning right. They often don’t use blinkers. They start to turn right, but people are crossing the street and sometimes they wait. I have found that it is best not to be too far to the right.
Think metaphorically. See the world around you as a metaphor for learning. We get home. Chico still has snow stuck to his paws, but it is just water. Often, it is only water. And if it isn’t, and it has dirt, well, it is only dirt. As my poetry mentor always reminds me, from her mentor, that “it is only hard.” That is to say, it most likely isn’t going to kill you...not yet.
9. Look up. So, we get home, unload the truck, take the groceries in and start to make dinner. I first make Chico’s dinner. He is becoming less and less patient in his old age. He stands over his dish and makes little sighs. I have learned to love his sighs. He reminds me to breathe sometimes. So, I make a soup from the fresh ingredients I bought. I decide to bake cookies for our class. Everyone should learn to make a couple of good dishes. This is like memorizing a poem. You want some stuff with you, even through the hard times. As you change and grow, so does the poem, so does your tastes. This gives you perspective. I love baking. It takes time and patience. Kneading bread is stress relieving. I get a batch started that I will bake in 24 hours from now. Too often, we don’t plan food enough in advance. My uncle says everyone should plant a garden. You can always, at the very least, have one tomato plant. And when those tomatoes get ripe, enjoy them over a fresh salad with friends.
I am eating alone tonight. Do as I say, not as I do. We finish eating and Chico looks like he might have to poop again. So, we do our walk. We walk out around our neighborhood. I know so many of the houses now. The people know me. Soon I will leave this place and move to a new house and new neighborhood. I will miss this walk. We walk around the Church like we always do. I stop and watch the stars for a while. The perseids are out and I can see a few. The city isn’t the best place to watch stars, but I always do. Humans have watched the stars as long as we have been humans. Orion’s story is part of my story. It is humbling to look out across the vastness of time and to know that the light you see started before the earth even existed in some instances. I used to try and identify stars that were my to speak. The light started when I was born and just now reaches me. For some reason, when I look out there and think about the endless abyss, think about this lonely planet floating on the western arm of a spiraling galaxy, I can let everything else go.


Friday, October 9, 2015

Prose to Orpheus

Prose to Orpheus

Today, walking along the shores of Pyramid Lake, itself the remnants of ancient Lake Lahontan, a lake that once covered most of Nevada, I have been thinking of Orpheus and the song he played after the death of his wife that made the gods weep. The tufa rock formations surrounding Pyramid Lake are limestone gravestones to the water that once was. I am always seeking such muses, lost love, unrequited love, new love, and sometimes just plain old lust.

The other day a new roommate moved into the house, a young biologist seeking work in the world. After almost 7 years in a relationship, she is out in the present moment and trying to find footing in the world as she hikes trails across the Sierra. The new energy in the house intoxicates.

On our monthly adventure, Markus and I drove out to Nevada, met up along the dark shores of the lake, camped in our vehicles like we have before on our surfing trips, and awoke to the sunrise out over the Lake Range Mountains, the calm lake interrupted only by early morning fishermen there for the opening of the cutthroat trout.

We are slow to rise in the morning, eat breakfast, and get out onto the lake. A storm is coming, texture is growing on the lake, but we launch our boards and try to paddle a bit before the wind comes up. We start to head north, paddling past fishermen on ladders casting to the cutthroat. In the distance, the tufa formation call to us—sirens in the wind as dark clouds loom behind the western Virginia Mountains. We paddle towards them anyways. They don’t seem too far, but they call to us.
A tree ascended there. Oh pure transcendence!
Oh Orpheus sings! Oh tall tree in the ear!
And all the things hushed. Yes even in that silence
a new beginning, beckoning, change appeared.

Chico is quick to cuddle up with the new person in the house. He nudges her door open after I leave for work and crawls up into her bed. His cries of loneliness hushed by the warm body in the bed, the belly rubs—he snores again.

Tufa rock formations beacon in the lake, they are created by bubbling springs releasing carbonate materials and meeting the calcium in the water. When the first humans at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, as glaciers retreated off the North American continent, migrated across the new land, the ancestors to the Paiute natives must have found the ebbing Lake Lahontan a paradise of life.

Markus and I paddle towards the tufa. It is a sacred area and we are not supposed to get close, along with being spiritual, it is a nesting ground for white pelicans. We paddle close to the tufa and everything feels like the ocean. Tufa look like exposed coral reefs with seabirds nesting.  We notice a bubbling hot spring steaming into the cool breeze. We know it is off limits, but we are drawn closer to it. I think of Orpheus trying to play his lyre louder than the Sirens singing as the Argonauts try to pass the rocky Sirenum scopuli.

There is darkness in lust. There is consumption and confusion. Ships are drawn to destruction by the beauty of sound, by the drowning desire of beauty.

Creatures of stillness crowded from the bright
unbound forest, out of their lairs and nests;
and it was not from any dullness, not
from fear, that they were so quiet in themselves,

Orpheus was said to sing such a sad song that he was able to walk into hell, soften the heart of Hades, certainly Persephone could not deny such love and sorrow of song. Persephone pulled into the underworld during the winter months; if anyone could understand the sorrow of loss it was she. When Hades released Eurydice to Orpheus he was told not to look back, but he did. Don’t look back. Move forward. My mantra.

I find myself looking back to love often. The future is too often muddied by the past. New legs, new touches, new eyes, and in them is a remembrance of what once was. The coming fall is in the air, the leaves turn, and Persephone begins the long walk back to Hades. Old smiles, old kisses, the longing for something that never will be again. How does anyone love for so long and then love no more and then love again? How do you play such sad songs and then play something happy again? How can we see the bits of spring even in the fall?

We paddle closer to the hot springs, but the dark clouds come down, and just as we are about to land on shore to explore the hot springs, lightning thunders down across the sage brush plains to the north. We duck our heads a bit and look to the sky. The sky has answered. We debate crashing our boats into the beauty, reckless existence for the sake of beauty and exploration. And me too, I can imagine diving into the depths of Hades for such beauty.

But from just listening. Bellow, roar, shriek
Seemed small inside their hearts. And where there had been
At most a makeshift hut to receive the music,

And I walk around the house at times, glimpses of legs, caught staring too long, the sirens pulling towards destruction. And so I run, I run into the wilderness of my own mind to find music stronger than the song of beauty. I plead for Orpheus to play so loud my own desire is lost in the intonations of lightning and thunder.

We turn and start to paddle back, but the clouds drop down on us, the thunder roars above us, and we get close to shore, look for anything from which to hide behind. The only structures in miles are tufa. We head to shore instead, lift our boards to our heads and run for cover. Rain streaks the purpling lake. In the tufa is patience I don’t know or understand. I want beauty now, lust now, safety now, the whole lake devoured into my mind, her eyes lost in the churned wind. We hike through the brambles and rabbit brush towards the road and to safety, but we look back to the beaconing tufa towers calling to us. We choose safety over destruction. I choose to retreat rather than delve into beauty. Even in this, I look back.

A shelter nailed up out of their darkest longing,
With an entryway that shuddered in the wind-
You built a temple deep inside their hearing.

We reach the road, hitchhike back to our trucks, and fall asleep to the sound of the rain.  In the morning, I wake at sunrise and walk down to the shores, Chico running along side. We sit in the post storm desert, the land satiated, the rabbit brush yellow flowers wave in the morning breeze, the song of lightning, the song of destruction, Orpheus’ song a hummed memory in my mind. The geese and cormorants air their feathers to the morning sun. I can feel the ocean in this place as if the tide is pulling, as if the moon is in want of this water. Here is the sediment of time; here is patience. When the song is over, what do we do? When we lay there in the silence of the bed, in the darkness of a song as memory, what do we do? How does the world love after such sorrow?

There are many different versions of how Orpheus died. The most brutal came at the hands of women who loved him unrequitedly. They tore his body apart and threw him into the river where his head continued to sing such sad songs. As in all Greek myths and parables, I wonder who I am in this story: Eurydice, Persephone, or Orpheus. I am most curious how the lyre, floating down the river, reverberations of a life that loved and lost, of joy and sadness, sinking to depths, is risen up into the stars. We load up our gear and go our different ways to head back home. The music still plays, the dark longing still present.

Thursday, August 6, 2015



“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”  Fred Rogers

I am teetering on breaking at times over this vacation as I surf, paddle, drive, and camp across the Pacific Northwest. It’s nothing new really. Emotions are like waves. Cold and yet exhilarating, they can be clean barreling waves you long for in salty dreams, but sometimes they are rough wind swells, choppy and confusing. The beauty of the ocean versus the river is the waves wash over you and they relent. Rivers rage or run dry, but those time spans are longer than any breath you can hold. The ocean doesn’t keep you down forever. Things pass from tide to tide, from swell to swell, from storm to storm; the ocean is ever-changing. Sometimes a wave will hold you down, tumble you to the sandy bottoms, and those fractions of seconds pass like eternities, and some don’t make it out of the surf, but it isn’t common. Usually, I follow my leash upwards, my surfboard a balloon back to sanity, and the gasp of air an opening back to the world above water, the darkness quelled. But if you stay in the ocean, then the waves will come again, they always do. It is a rare day to see the ocean glassy calm.

There has been no surf this whole trip. Again there is no swell as I stop to camp on the Salmon River in Oregon. I have been here before for a friend’s wedding. I pulled into the parking lot late last night, and pirated my campsite right there. The morning tide has almost completely backed out to ocean. I jump onto the inflatable stand-up paddleboard and ride the outgoing tide to the ocean. We glide on the shallow brackish water with ease. On the other side of the lagoon is an old YMCA camp my friends rented for their wedding a few years back. It was a rough time for me then and it is strange the way emotions become embedded into places, even ones you only visited once, but I remember my emotions from then, and I remember the long solitary beach here and I look forward to walking it again, a different person at a different time, washed by a different emotion, but still the same too. We ride the tide out to the edge of ocean and lagoon, surprising a few young otter pups and then some seals again as we coast the swell to sea. I carry the board above the tide line and we run down the beach together and yet alone.

Lately, I can’t help but think about what it will be like when I don’t have Chico with me anymore. I joke about wondering what will happen to the voice I use when I speak for Chico. People ask me if that is what I think he sounds like, but no it doesn’t. He seems a much too serious of a dog for my cartoon voice I give him. His voice is only mine and I wonder if I will walk around the house talking to myself after he is gone. It is almost too sad to think about.  He, too, loves the ocean. He loves the ecotone, the soft wet sand, the smells of distant far off places, objects washed to shore. The freedom of the open sand, the coolness on his paws, he runs down to the waves, careful to never get too far in.

In Guatemala I would try to lure him into bigger shore break to wash over him. His precious head soaked, dripping as he looks at me indignantly. He hates to get his head wet. He bounds along the shoreline in certain dog bliss. I run after him and act like I will get him. He prances along like a puppy with his front paws galloping into the air. In Guatemala, he would chase the sand crabs down to the ocean, pawing at them, pouncing on them. Sometimes he would crush them and then almost feel bad when they wouldn’t move. Sometimes they would clamp onto his beard or lip or paw and he would shake them off with a quick whimper, and as usual, look up at me with indignation. All pain seems to be my fault.

We sit down behind a rock to block the wind coming off the ocean and to write for a bit. Chico finds a post from where to watch. He is always on guard, always watching. I make a lot of my decisions in my life thinking about my dog, making sure it is something he can do, or somewhere he can go. I figure, he lives his entire life just for me, and maybe the food I give him, it is really nothing for his dedication and loyalty. He’s not brave, and will usually bark and then run next to me, but he is loyal. Maybe that is more important. Chico sits with his legs spread out, nose to the wind, an extension of my own senses, he reaches out beyond me.

Eventually, another dog runs up to us, no owner in sight. He is a rambunctious young dog running circles around Chico, but that doesn’t stop him. If he was a mountain lion or bear, I think we wouldn’t have fared too great.  Thanks Cheeks.

His tags read Percy. He wants to join our clan, but Chico keeps pushing him away. Chico sits closer to me, watches to chase off Percy; however, Percy is undaunted and sneaks behind us, crawls through the grass until his nose touches me. Chico jumps up and runs him off again, but Percy is too fast. I think dogs often want to join our clan of two, to hit the road, the paddle, the boat, the airplane, the canoe, and adventure life with us. Can other dogs smell the adventure and freedom through Chico, the scent in his ass and beard? Eventually I call the name on the tag and find the owners are staying at the nearby YMCA camp. They are preparing for some sort of day there; staff is on with their shirts. A few young kids come running to get Percy. Percy doesn’t want to go. They try to carry him away, but he struggles lose and runs back to Chico and me…twice.

In Portland I stay with some really good friends and we paddle the Willamette and the Sandy River. Most of my friends have children now and they all raise them different, or maybe the child raises them differently. Their 20-month old recently stepped into hot coals and badly burned her hand and foot. Their child was handling it as only a child can…barely stopping her. The parents seemed a bit worse off, but the wounds were healing fast for all of them. The mother is a trauma therapist and we talked briefly about how trauma happens and what might come of this from their child. Trauma always happens. She says it doesn’t have to be something that gets locked away in the body, but the important part was the love and support there for the person after—that they do well.

When I leave, I drive up the Columbia River. The heat of the day is coming fast, but the mighty river is unfathomable. This river has carried so many people, fed so many people, and captured the imagination, spawning salmon and migrations. Water seems to connect us all. I have hiked many of the mountain headwaters of rivers that dump into the Columbia. We often think that a river stops when it reaches the ocean and it starts on the mountaintops from winter snowstorms. I have an image of the way water attacks land. Water sends storms high above like drone attacks, rains down like chemical warfare, erodes land like terrorism, and carries bits of the dead to sea to wash on the beaches littered like plastics. The dams of the Columbia are terrifically horrifying. I think about dams every time I drive up out of Boise towards my father’s house as I pass along Arrowrock and Lucky Peak dams.

Arrowrock holds my imagination because of Wallace Stegner’s book Angle of Repose. An angle of repose is the amount of materials one can pile before slumping off due to gravities pull. The only way to go higher is to go wider also. Stegner’s book is loosely, if not controversially, taken from the life of Arthur De Wint Foote, a man of vision for the American west, but who seems to have been too far ahead in his thinking. Foote saw promise in the Boise Valley and purchased the water rights to the Boise River hoping to run irrigation ditches all around the valley and turn the almost desert-like Boise into a fertile growing valley. Foote failed, but the idea was moved forward by the Bureau of Reclamation and finished exactly 100 years ago. At the time, Arrowrock Dam was the largest concrete arch dam in the world. 225 feet thick in concrete at the base, angling to 15 feet thick at the top, the dam is 348 feet tall. The 580,000 cubic yards of cement hold back 286,000 acre-feet of water for irrigation to Boise farmers. I drive pass this water often going up the mountains to my Dad’s place.

At my Dad’s house, I can breathe. Maybe, the ocean is so far away, that call of the sirens is muffled. While salmon once reached all the way up Grimes Creek, they don’t anymore. While sometimes I feel like the ocean is attacking land, salmon and steelhead are my meditation. It is hard to imagine the historic, or maybe, prehistoric salmon runs. Millions upon millions of salmon from the ocean spawning up rivers, hiding behind rocks, resting in eddies, a thousand mile journey towards death and rebirth. In Alaska, I would get glimpses of this past, in days when nets weren’t cast in front of the river, the salmon would push with the tide. I miss those days. I don’t like how I long for the past sometimes because longing doesn’t bring it back. I can’t let go the past. The brain loops like seasons and tides and movements of the moon, and migrations of animals, and blossoming of flowers, and the spinning earth on the axis, and my own migration to see friends and family and to hold onto love that seems to constantly slip away, erode out to ocean, spawn and die. I am still slipping.

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”  Buddha

My Dad and I go with some of his hunting friends to hike into a basin to fish. One of his friends told us about a lake he found that was filled with 18-inch trout. My foot is hurt and hiking is painful, but physical pain is nothing. It is hot and we hike into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness to Island Lake. The hike is exposed and suffocating because a fire burned through the wilderness a few years back. The summer has been hot. Drought is everywhere. Even the most devout climate change denier whispers about the changing seasons. During a long uphill section, there is no shade and we power past it all, longing for the water. The mosquitoes seem relentless, but we reach the lake with ease. I didn’t bring a fishing pole; I don’t have a license. I haven’t in a while. Something broke inside of me with fishing many years back. I tell my Dad I just want to watch. Chico and I circle the lake, and see along the banks the trout mulling about. A mayfly hatch is dancing along the shores and the fish dart from shadows to the surface, pull them down, and disappear back. The explosion into the calm excites me. It is commitment and purpose. I can feel the animal inside of me, the desire to hunt. I love the soft feel of fish in my hands. I hate the death. There isn’t a gem in the world that can capture the colors of fish. Rainbow, cutthroat, bull, dolly, brown, golden, brook—salmo, onco, char. I am enamored by fish, my past schooled with them, the stories I tell are those I share with fishermen, and yet, I don’t anymore.

I walk to the far end of the lake where the rocks waterfall into mirrors. Marmot peak over rocks, the pika carry tufts of grass deep into the crevices. A slight breeze pushes all the mayflies against the rocks where I take off my clothes and dive into the cold water, hoping for baptism, hoping for release. I pull myself out onto a flat rock and take in the sun, look out down the canyon to the scarred hillside where fires followed wind up gullies and across ridges. It bulldozed right over the lake; about half the trees were spared. I am fascinated by those that remain, how many fires have they endured or been spared.

Slowly my Dad and his buddies fish their way around the lake towards me on the rock. I can hear the hollers of success and the exasperation of loss as sounds echo across the flat water. One is younger, he told me a story about his girlfriend and how her ex-husband called her one-day at work and shot himself on the phone for her to hear. He has always been giving and welcoming and I can see it sometimes leads to pain. It is his cabin we stayed at and I biasedly scoff at the collection of Bill O’Reilley books about Killing Lincoln, and JFK, and Jesus. He rarely talks politics, but chooses to talk hunting.  They all talk hunting. He walks past me and continues to fish along the lake.

My dad comes and sits down for some snacks with me and tells me about what he caught and what he lost and the photos he took so people would believe him. His other friend approaches. He has caught and kept the largest fish of the day and it is a prize specimen. He takes off his shirt and fishes with his pistol tucked behind him. He was a police chief and left California for a job in Alaska running a prison and retired back to Idaho to a small cabin next to my dad. They are becoming good friends. I also frowned at the FOX news homepage and the stack of Ann Coulter books tucked onto the shelf when he graciously let me use his computer to complete some work. He tells my dad he wants to get me hooked on shooting and we’ve gone before. I’ve always enjoyed shooting. He thinks of me as “liberal” and therefore with certain assumption about the world, and I do the same surely. He is teaching my dad to load his own bullets and they often exchange beers, as they both can’t stop talking about bowhunting for Elk this season together. He comes over to my Dad’s house and they swap ideas and theories and help each other as people who live in the mountains do. My Dad gets along with almost everyone.

The Bosnian neighbor across the canyon stops by often, usually brings his own slightly warm beer, and is always there to help with any chore. He has assisted my Dad on his truck; he was a mechanic back in Bosnia and believes in fixing everything. He tells me stories of the war, horrific and honest stories. He tells me about asking a doctor for pills for erectile dysfunction because he can’t have sex with his wife and his fellow soldiers make fun of him, but they fight in their villages, for their villages, and their family and life right there with them. The other soldiers eventually ask for pills too. They were all terrified of dying and loss. He talks about crapping his pants once when he was driving a car with ammo and an airplane started dive-bombing them and they were swerving to get to shelter.

His stories remind me of my martial arts teacher’s stories of what it was really like to watch communists come into his country and to lose everything. I tell him stories all the time of what is on the internet and what is on the news and what friends say and he laughs at most of them. He is the only person I know who really prepares for a tyrannical government while others puff chests and argue on the Internet, he makes real plans that involve the people he loves. His plans aren’t what you think, but once you know them, you know this comes from a person who has lived it.

When we leave for the day, it is hot, but the hike is all down hill.  My foot hurts, but I take ibuprofen and power down the hill. My injuries make my body feel heavy. I try to remember how to feel light again. I like how the body can almost fall with gravity; each step is just a brake as the body collapses down the broken rock ravines. Chico is hot, and I don’t stop much. I hike in my head, thinking too much about things too big and yet too real. I think about climate, and water, and war, and death, and family, and weapons, and religion, and guns, and ecosystems, and fish, and hunting, and political parties, and rhetoric over and over and over—as if the solution is somewhere deep inside of me, and I can’t go deep enough to find it. We get back to the truck and I fall asleep in it, listening to my father and his friends talk hunting and fishing, and spot ridges where they might return, and techniques they could use. The hunt and the hunted.

After that, I head out with my Dad’s neighbor, to my Uncle’s farm across town to the agricultural land by the Snake River. My Dad’s neighbor jokes that he is petitioning to join the Millard family and become a brother. He likes my uncle and my uncle likes him. They all had a recent bonding experience fishing trip together in Montana. Today, we are all going to float the Snake River together. My Uncle doesn’t get out as much as I wish he would. There was a time in my life when I laughed harder than ever each night over beers after working construction with him. We would linger around the shop and he’d tell me stories and probe for some too and teach me about life in ways only uncles can. All of my uncles are such amazing people, so honest and open to me. My Uncle was in Vietnam and I know the war still haunts him. He’s told me some stories and some have come from his brothers. I don’t know it all, but I know the killing hurt him. I know his job was to kill people. I know he has a good work ethic, and I know it hurts him now. I think he wishes it had been different. He used to tell me a story about how he would dump out his grenades from his pouch and fill them with mangos.

We don’t talk about any war. We float the river together, tell jokes to each other, and make fun of each other. When my uncle is going, it is often aggrandizing and sometimes self-deprecating, and always witty. I love and respect him with all my heart. My aunt is equally remarkable, and filled with energy. The river is slow moving; catfish and suckers dart around the shallows. I think I see Sturgeon too, but I have never caught one before. I have read about them. They are an ancient fish, unchanged in the fossil record. Some varieties can grow to be 12 feet long, and some live upwards of 100 years. They are bottom feeders, threatened by habitat destruction like so many of our fishes.

Chico and I sometimes just float on the paddleboard, and I think about this river, and how often it has been in my memories—memories of how I used to sit above the Bonneville Shoreline and imagine and the ancient lake breaking the borders and rushing down the Snake River and out the Columbia. The lake breaking was my own failing relationship. My interpretation of nature blended into the interpretation of my present, emotions embedded into places. I think about my grandpa on my mom’s side and how he would ride train from Twin Falls to Shoshone and up to Ketchum, how he fled a life of working on the trains like his father did and his family all did, and ran away with my grandmother to California. Perhaps I romanticize how they both escaped their pasts to make a future together.

I miss my grandmother, the matriarch of the family, the glue that held us together, slipped with dementia into childhood memories and into death, and we seemed to scatter like her memories, as if we each have bits we chase like litter in the wind. No key to know how to put our family back together. Her past was never gone. Those are the deepest memories, the things we return to, even when we think we escaped them.

My Dad’s dad, my grandpa Millard, is getting old. At 98 he had to go to a nursing home for the first time. I hear he is ornery there and I can only imagine. He has tried to leave many times, told people to call him a taxi, and tried to walk out the door. My dad, my brother, and I head over to visit with him. I bring Chico with me. It is dinnertime and all the residents are in eating.  Chico can’t come into the dining hall, but as soon as I walk into the entrance, one lady sees Chico from a distance. She instantly stops eating as if by instinct, she turns her wheelchair and rolls directly towards Chico, her expression changing to joy and memories.  She loves Chico and tells me stories of the dogs from her life. I don’t want to be this person. I don’t want to leave Chico to just a memory, but I know it is inevitable. She had a dachshund she loved and she went everywhere with her. We are informed my grandfather is on the second floor, but I can’t just walk away from the lady. I try to listen to her stories. I try to take in her memories as if I must be a container for them. I can’t stand the thought of memories pouring from you, percolated deep into water tables beneath us, lost into the giant underground lakes. I think about fracking and how we are contaminating ancient water, Bonneville water, and Sturgeon water.

We go up to the second floor and my Dad gets my grandpa from his dinner and wheels him out to us. His demeanor lights up when he sees Chico. My Dad asks if he recognizes me, and he says he does, and I can’t hide behind a beard, but his eyes seem to search and he focuses back down on Chico and pets him over and over again, smiling a toothless smile. He isn’t wearing his dentures and it ages him drastically. I was already warned about this, but I hate to see this. My Dad tells me my grandpa never wanted to whither away in a nursing home. He made him promise to just drop him off in the woods, let him die with dignity. However, it was his decision to go to the hospital. He woke up from his house with fear of death, fear of something wrong. He does not want to go gently into that night. He has been slipping back into memories of World War Two. He talks to people as if they are in the army or if they are civilians in a war zone. War must lodge itself so deep into the body it never leaves. We have been at war too long now. Whole generations of people reared under wars, but wars most never even acknowledge are happening—wars so distant and foreign, wars we forget we are fighting, or forget why. We only know the word “terrorism.” To be at war must damage us all, to think whole nations of people want us dead, and to hear our own people say the same back, to live thinking about enemies. It must still be there, lodged into the communal conscious. Our land is filled with people always returning from war, millions of veterans seek release. The VA covers my grandfather’s stay at the nursing home. There have been so many wars since WWII.

My grandfather doesn’t hear well. He says it was all the shooting of guns, both military and hunting through his life. He once told me that a great regret of his was that he didn’t take better care of his ears. As we talk, another older guy shuffles up staring at Chico mumbling about a past dog he once had. Although he never says his name, it is written across the Velcro tabs on his shoes next to dried spaghetti—Allen. He begins to tell me about his deceased wife. She died from smoking. He said she would smoke in the car and flick the butts out the window and the wind would carry them back and land on the back seats and burn holes. I chuckle at what he remembers and he chastised me for laughing. She could have burned up, he says, it isn’t funny. Seats back then didn't have fire retardant. He then tells me about his father and when he died there was an open casket and his aunt spit on his fathers open grave. He told his aunt he would snap her neck and he explains to me that he could have back then because he hauled 100-pound sacks of potatoes around and he was in shape. I want to let go of all the wrongs people have done to me and me to them. Take those memories away.

We hug my grandfather and let him return to his food. I want him to live forever and yet this isn't the way he lived. I worry I may not see him again.

I think of my other grandfather, how far away he moved, and the pain I know it causes his kids and us grandkids and the great grandkids too, but he is seeking happiness too. I understand that. I want to pull everyone I love together, buy property for them all to live close to me, and I wish I could catch them all. They say the path of enlightenment is about letting go. I don't ever want to let them go.

My boss told me that Buddha named his only son Fetter before climbing the wall and leaving him forever. I wonder what chains bind me, which walls do I climb, and which paths do I strike out towards. Isn't the more difficult one to stay and join?

My Dad, my brother, and I pack up for our annual backpacking trip. This year we are leaving the Sawtooth Wilderness and returning to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. We arrive late at the night and sleep at the trailhead. The hike the next day is long and exposed because a fire burned through the area. We wake up early and hit the trail the next day. All day, clouds threaten the skies. When we get to the lake, we quickly set up tarps and tents to protect ourselves. I walk back to the rocky point of the lake and watch the clouds expand across the open skies while my dad fishes. My brother, recovering from a cold, sleeps. My dad and I day hike up to the next lake. The lake appears sterile for fishing.  We walk around the rocky shores and see no movement. We look back out across the watershed, I can see where the fire ravaged up ridgelines, jumped rivers, and ran up the valleys. Fire isn’t an exception in the high country.  It is part of the norm. Fire creates new growth.  I know this technically, but the destruction looks devastating.  I can see the new growth, the fireweed emerging from even the most scorched earth, and yet, it feels sad to me. I think nature is a reflection; the metaphors we create are how we see at that moment. I want to see the beauty of the fire.

I walk off to poop while my Dad waits for me. When I return, he says I pushed a bunch of Elk out from the trees and they headed up over the ridge. We hike around trying to find them again. My dad is a hunter. He sees terrain like a hunter, thinks about how he would work the cirque, where they might bed down, where they might push through. I know the Native Americans used fire. They were the first managers of this land. They used fire to open up the understory, to open up hunting grounds, to be able to see the game move better, and they created a healthy forest ecosystem that thrived off the fire. They say, most of the European settlers walked into a vastly empty America. But it wasn’t always empty, disease spread like wildfire across the plains and into the mountains. By the time Cortez reached the capital, most people were dead.  Before Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific, disease had already crossed the lands. The land felt ghostly empty because it was. And the few that remained weren’t listened to. We didn’t stop to ask them how they lived, or what they did. We killed and slaughtered and took. I remind people often that our national parks, and national forests, the places where humans don’t live, but visit, were once inhabited. They are monuments to the successful massacre of the people who once lived here. So little is left when the victor tells the stories of victory. Am I complacent in a revisionist history of the world?

The next day, we load of daypacks and hike out of the one watershed over to the next one to check on some lakes we see on the maps. No trail is listed so we contour the rocky cliffs hugging the tree line for passage over the ridge.

We hike off trail to a small peak below Roughneck Lookout to get a glimpse of Finger Lakes. What I would do to see a thousand-year old timelapse of a mountain growing, breaking, collapsing, and washing down ravines. Able to stand so tall when united, but once cracked, the individual rocks spread out, repose is lost. Mountains are always in decay, always relenting. However, I read that the Sierra Nevada actually gained in height recently because of loss. With so much water lost, so many lakes running dry, so much land without moisture, the weight of the entire mountain range has lifted up off the lake of molten lava on which it floats. The mountains are floating higher without the depressive weight of water, and yet, life dies from this.

We pass along the scree field beneath the lookout platform high above on the peak, and in the jumbled mess of rock, paint cans, and tin cans, and garbage. I doubt it was tossed from the top, but instead, has slowly cascaded down with the crumbling rocks. Rust stains mark rocks where they sit, but nothing stays still. Mountains are not still. Trees are not quiet, life never stops, and we just can’t see it. Life is going so fast for humans, we breathe in seconds, and give up years. Decades wash away and centuries are dust.

We jump a dear and push two goats of the scree field; we hear them before seeing them.  The sound of falling rocks in a quiet life of mountains; the goats bound up over the ridgeline and disappear. We are not in a place where humans typically go. We are off trail and aim for a small promenade that looks out over the southern side of roughneck peak, out to a different watershed above Finger Lakes. We stop and trundle rocks ourselves, as if moving mountains makes us feel bigger than we are. The explosion of rocks thunders up the canyon and the rock tumbles down. Do we hasten the mountains demise?

I stop to write as I look out across the burned forests. The same fire crossed watershed and moved around mountains. But in my time-lapse of mountains, a fire is the passing wind that churns a lake, and life settles back down. I like to see the pockets of survived forests. It needn’t burn so much and so hot, but neglect works that way. Doing nothing isn’t always the best, suppressing rarely is, but a few survive, the stalwart ridgeline trees, the loners escape the torture of fire, a few small families ride the storm like a farmhouse in a tornado. I know we tend to deify such events, and why not? What others words work better to tell the story of survival—chance seems too abysmal and infinitesimal.

Rain falls off and on, thunder rolls, the sun spots the mountains. We are thankful for the showers and clouds making the hike cooler, but whom do we thank?

I used to tell people that I would never commit suicide; I would disappear. I would walk away from it all and reinvent myself. I have been drawn to such stories of Everett Ruess and Chris McCandless, to the mountain men traumatized by a Civil War who left, most never to be seen again. I sometimes long for such reinvention. Some say you can’t walk away from who you are, but that isn’t it. It isn’t me so much as it is the world around me.  I break away from my Dad and brother, tell them I want to walk around this peak and I will meet them on the other side. I walk an area I am sure few people ever have been. Often I find little clearings in the woods and wonder how long one could live right there without being found. How many places in our wilderness are there to disappear still? I am sure people do this. I don’t think it is difficult. The hard part of life is staying and fighting. To look at a broken world and how it is mirrored inside of you and everyone else and how we mend each other through relations and through talking and sharing and loving.

And as you put yourself back together, parts are missing, and as you try to glue yourself to another person, both fractured and missing parts, we leak, we leak over and over again and those parts are crucial to living a whole life, and so we apologize, as we chisel the glue that once bound us away and crumble and cascade down mountains into water. Is the only way we can be back together to dissolve into nothing, to melt into water, to subduct deep beneath the ocean into molten lava and burst back forth anew, spewed into the world? I know my atoms keep leaving me. Everywhere I go I leave bits of something that once was me and I rarely get that back. My connection is too tenuous. And yet I keep seeking new places in the world. I long for adventure and relations and learning and each one takes some part of me away, and gives back something different. I have no ownership over the atoms and yet I do have some amount of choice, the food I eat, the places I live, and the people close to me. We share a space and share atoms and share the air I only partially breathe and give back to you. Sometimes I want to hold my breath and not let anymore of me escape. I want to hold on to this right now.

I meet them back on the other side of the ridge. We return back to our campsite right before the sunsets behind cloud-filled skies. I sit down on the edge of the lake to watch the colors change across the sky.  I learn from nature so much. I know this is about recovery and rebirth.  It is about healing. Even the way a lake moves and calms in the changing winds, the way insects emerge at just the right moment, how life opens if you listen and watch. A robin keeps fluttering by, dancing on the water and perching on a floating snag, something in her mouth, she gives me a sideways look and consternates to one side of me and then flutters back to the other. I imagine a nest is near, but I don’t look. Fish boil in the water feasting on the bloom of insects. At my feet are the luminescent wings of dragonflies, the remains of demise, and yet on the shores of the lake are the crusted bodies of the dragonfly larvae where they crawled from the water to emerge from the hardened skin. The molten skin still gripped to the grass where they left behind the old. There is no escaping the skin I am in; my transition can only be metaphoric. Bats emerge on a light wind as the day darkens. I’ve grown to love the long setting suns of northern latitudes, the way the light lingers, and fights night off early. It is only part of a perpetual cycle, and each has moments of glory in them.

My father and brother go to bed and I sit up and watch the skies move, the water move, the clouds move, and stare out at the burned trees. Something Rilke once said sticks with me:

“Love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away, you write, and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast. And if what is near you is far away, then your vastness is already among the stars and is very great; be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own…and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”  Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet

In the morning, we hike off trail again to another lake on our way leaving. We hike through the burned out sections of trees, up to another lake, then back down following the carpet of huckleberry filling the voids of the burned grounds. They are not ripe yet, but they will be. At some point, the sweet smell will cover the forests. As we hike back to the car, I keep stopping to watch the wildflowers filling the burned spots of the mountains. I stop to see the topography that I would not have seen when the forest was dense.  I stop to admire the seed trees that survived and the young saplings emerging from rocky soil. I stop and watch the healing process and try to imagine the next time I come, and then hundred years from now, a thousand years, and I hope these forests emerge from the wreckage of humanity. I am so sick of burning. I want to look out and see the contours of life, to see the fireweed pushing through ashes. I give my breath to the forest. I breathe my life into this place. Take it, inhale it, make it something beautiful.

After backpacking, I stop on the Payette to camp with my cousins for a few nights. I have not camped with them for many years now, but they were once like big brothers I would come to visit in the summers. They too have not camped together in many years, but both are going through divorces and living back home. There kids are with them. We all grow so far apart in life and yet, sometimes those gaps of time collapse us back together. I am not sure I have told them I love them in a long time, maybe never, but I try my best to express this now. We soak in hot springs and sit around campfires and sing songs. We tell stories about hunting and fishing. We try to be a semblance of a family, fractured and split and partial, but there together anyways and I am glad to be there with them for now. And yet, I must head home soon. I often just want to stay right there next to the river, but I know it isn’t the river, but the people I am with. The people with whom I try to share it temper my solitude. Everything can feel so alone at times.

All the hate in this world, all the way people use religion and politics and ideology and business to hate another person, to get higher on the mountain by pushing more out to the bottom, to only see your spot on the mountain, but not realize where you stand. You can’t hate the people who hate you and expect a different reaction from them. Love is so elemental it belongs on the periodic table, and yet we try to tell people how to love, whom to fear, whom to blame, and each time I breathe in, I take some of that into me too, and I want to get it out. I want to heal. I want to rebuild myself around a world that isn’t afraid of the scars of life, and doesn’t allow those to control every decision afterwards. I want a world that can take in the hurt, transform it into growth and renewal. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “One of the most difficult things for us to accept is that there is no realm where there’s only happiness and there’s no suffering…If we focus exclusively on pursuing happiness, we may regard suffering as something to be ignored or resisted. We think of it as something that gets in the way of happiness.” His solution: mindfulness. To be present in each moment. To breathe in and out the world around you. To not let fear and despair lodge into the dark cavities of your body and mind. To not make decisions in the world out of that fear. To take in your suffering and use it to expand out, to open up, to feel compassion and love for life on earth and beyond. To hold history close but not let it control your future. To see burned out forests and see the new growth and the potential. To see hurt and injured people and focus on the ways they are learning to love again. To see death coming and embrace life and the future. To forgive by accepting and pulling it closer. To see people in that very moment, in that very breath, as people to be loved.

I load everything back into my truck. I walk down to the Payette River and jump into it again. I am not seeking baptism. I am seeking to feel alive. The smoke of the fire washes off my skin, the pores tighten around the cold mountain melting snow, my breath shortening and exhilarated. I step out of the water and look up stream, up to the Sawtooth Mountains and give my gratitude. I hug my cousins, still dripping from the river and tell them I love them. I load Chico into the truck, double check everything is strapped down, water bottle close, audiobook ready, and seatbelt on. I look over to Chico and ask him if he is ready. I reply for him in his cartoon voice, and I think he looks at me indignantly, like he always does. I tell him I love him. I tell him that someday I will be in a nursing home telling stories of everything we did together. I know the day he dies will be one of the saddest days of my life, but I will temper that with all the great days we have had together exploring this world. I honk, wave, and start the long drive back home, back to work, back to a life that doesn’t have a clear path; there is no release, only acceptance and awareness and love, a mindful path of heart, a wide open forest of potential, another set of waves rolling in from a distant storm. All I can do is tell you that I hurt, I hurt like so many of us do, hurt from love, hurt from suffering, and hurt from being alone, but I am telling you this right now because I trust you. I love you.