Note to self: Never set out on a trek through a mountain pass while reading a book about seeking a mountain that no longer exists. Mountains in mountain passes do exist. They are snow-covered, wind-swept, and real. To read about a surreal, internalized mountain quest tempts one to imagine that one’s own mountain quest can be similarly non-real (meaning: not painful; challenging in the mind-places only).
Clarification: Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain, which prompted him to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, is complex and mind-boggling enough for any gung-ho lit major. John claims it is a powerful political commentary on China’s cultural revolution. If my current rate toward completion of this novel is any indication, the world is probably a better place for my never having pursued politics. Finishing this book seems as likely as its author ever finding the elusive mountain, Lingshan. I must say, though, that the writing is beautiful.
Further Clarification: John was reading Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Need I say more about our collective headspace as we embarked on a Christmas ski trip to Upper and Lower Russian Lakes and over Resurrection Pass?
Note to Self: When the homemade sled doesn’t slide through the 18″ of new snow on the Russian Lakes trail (Day 1), don’t give in to the temptation to equate the weight of the sled with the unbearable burden of your life. Don’t strip down to your long underwear in an effort to relieve yourself of said burden. And once you have given in to both of the above, don’t threaten to burn the sled and everything in it. Like your life, the sled will still have useful purposes once it is through trudging through snowy woods for “fun”.
Clarification: John pulled the sled three miles uphill to the trailhead from our car before these pictures were taken.
Further Clarification: Ok, John pulled the sled pretty much all the time, except in the two pictures above.
Note to Self: Wood stoves in public use cabins are great. Love wood stoves; kindle fires in them, feed them, take naps by them. They make beautiful winter scenes much easier to enjoy. They make going outside to pee at 6AM and seeing the northern lights dancing above you all the more pleasant. They take away the chill of winter camping the night before. They dry clothes. They thaw ski bindings just enough that you can pry your 1980s neon ski boots out of them. They transform snow into boiled water. They heat breakfast burritos. They melt all the trials and triumphs of the day into deep, sleepy snoozes…
Note to Self: Take water breaks before the water bottles freeze, even if breaks annoy the dog. She will get you back later by claiming every piece of insulated gear as her bed. Also, hot water in the thermos. Always.
Clarification: When John suggests powdered Apple Cider packets, say yes. Make several of them daily. Mix the powder with hot water and whiskey, and be grateful for the little things in life.
Further Clarification: In fact, there are lots of wonderful little things in life. Like arriving at the next cabin after a beautiful ski. Like melting snow for more hot drinks. Like being miles from anyone OCD enough to tell you that your gloves don’t match.
Note to Self: When life gives you frozen lakes, you should ski on them. Drop your packs at the cabin and ski two miles down the lake just to see what’s on the other end. Delight in the speed of skiing in your own tracks on the two miles back. Don’t worry too much about what lies ahead. You never know when you’ll wake up the next morning to ominous skies, warming temperatures, and blowing snow.
Note to Self: When your husband says it’s time to turn back, listen to him. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that 30+mph winds, rapidly warming weather, and blowing snow make for a pleasant ski through avalanche country. Support each other in your disappointment at not making it through the pass. Retreat, and enjoy a warm Christmas Eve down below the storm. After all, it’s Christmas.
Clarification: You can’t take pictures in 30+mph winds and blowing snow. If you try to, the picture will come out all white. Come to think of it, white is all you can see anywhere you look. Time to turn around!
Further Clarification: Many a disappointed (yet wise) traveler has come before us. John says that good decisions are made before the emergency happens. As it turns out, we made a pretty good decision. Now we have to let go of the what-ifs. Think of Sherry Simpson’s essay, “Turning Back”. While hiking the Fairbanks-Circle Trail with her aging dog, Simpson decides to retreat and must face the reality of loss:
This was my only discovery: that I had reached the place where middle age tips into loss, when everything worth caring about begins to disappear – not just my beloved dog, but relatives, friends, my husband, time itself and all its possibilities. For two days I had walked just to arrive at this place, just so I could recognize that in life there is no turning back. (The Accidental Explorer, 94)
In the clear and taut writing that I so appreciate in Simpson’s work, she captures the essence of our experience as well: “But even as I turned back, I could feel the sorrow and beauty of the world sinking through me, settling into my flesh, as firm and necessary as the bones that would have to carry me along this trail” (96).
So, we let our bones – and our sore muscles – carry us back down the trail. The next day, Christmas morning, we skied out of the mountains on sticky snow that clogged up our skis. Lower still, we skied across ice-coated snow that made an awful raspy noise. We arrived at the car in the rain.
Maybe this trip was about learning our limits, or a reminder of what’s really important when we go adventuring. Life isn’t all success and sunshine, after all. But for us – still – it is warm and full of possibility. For that – and for each other – we’re grateful. And we’ll be back someday to seek the elusive mountain pass…