Friday, August 14, 2015

Clouds in the Alpine Tundra

A week ago, I left the Great Salt Lake and its brine shrimp and gnats and its colonies of orb-weaving spiders that I could clearly see from the road while driving by. I left Utah in exchange for Nevada. I switched from sub-$3.00 gas prices to something more expensive, albeit ethanol-free. I traded Mountain Time for Pacific Time over one rugged mountain range. 

I pointed myself towards Wheeler Peak and Great Basin National Park.


Details and general splendor and amazing cave geology aside, I didn't think about a lot of things. It was the first time I've slept over 10,000 feet in a tent. It was the first time I ever shifted my car into Low. It was the first time I ever tried to hike Wheeler Peak, from 10,000 to 13,000 feet in the middle of the afternoon. 


Looking back, I did several dumb things although I know better, so I won't self-shame and list them here. I was excited and up for the challenge on a sunny day, First Day in Nevada for me. I started off with my pack and a hoodie, ripped through the Riparian, and trudged on toward the tree line. 

The Alpine Tundra is where things started to get dicy.

The grade increased, and so did the wind. Crazy, wild wind that knocked me off of my footing a few times. Chilled to the bone, wind. Midwest blizzard sans snow, wind. And just to the west, a wall of rain approaching over the hills.


But I kept going. It was one of those hikes during which you think that the summit is near, but once you get over the hill, there are so many more to go. Higher, higher, and higher still. I hiked through the rockslide and over mosses and buttercups, said hello to pipits and charted my steps. My ancestor hikers had built little rock shelters to hide from the wind here and there, but as I neared the summit, the wind howled louder and the sky grew darker and the rain drew nearer. I knew I had to turn around.


I stopped at a peak just below the peak for a snack, then turned back. But by then, it had become clear that I had made a crucial mistake. Sleet was falling around me, wind picking up around me, gravity ready to take me, rocks ready to crumble beneath me. Nobody else around me. Nothing else taller than me. Nothing to protect me.

I kept saying to myself, "Get off the roof get off the roof get off the roof GET OFF THE ROOF" just like I were Mulan and had just lit those fireworks over the Emperor's palace. My goal was to reach tree line by the time the storm came.


I did not succeed.

Tilting my head in confusion, I wasn't sure that I was correctly processing what I had just seen. A ghost raced past me. No, not a ghost...a cloud. A great, swirling cloud passed right in front of me. Then another. And another. And then in one terrifying moment, the mountain disappeared. Clouds descended with enormously surprising speed. It was just like flying past clouds in an airplane, but instead of me being the one moving quickly, I was standing still in comparison to them. 

I hit the ground.

I couldn't see tree line. I couldn't see the hills below. I couldn't see the cliffs around, not too close, still there. But after cradling myself between rocks and hard places (literally) I realized that they were just clouds. I could probably make it if I watched where I placed my feet and stepped carefully.

I kept going. And let me tell you, I have never been so happy to see tree line in all my life.

Although the rain begins to condense and fall beneath tree line, I was happy to escape the fog. The slope flattened a bit and I walked the remaining few miles with ease and gratitude. Mother Nature doesn't have to be gracious, but sometimes she is anyway. It's the reason why she is the greatest teacher of all.

Approaching the Riparian again, I entered a grove of Aspen trees. They watched over me with their hundreds of knot hole eyes. I know that they're alive. I know that they have spirits. I wink back.

Then, I noticed that some of the Aspen trees looked strange. They were two-pronged from a strong trunk, one branch alive and healthy and golden brown, leaves dancing and waving at me as I passed. But the other branch was lifeless, leafless, charred, burned. The trees that looked like this were still alive, but parts of them were severely damaged.

Sometimes things happen to certain parts of you. Things that don't kill you, but leave you burned. 

The tree isn't going to get better. It will stay alive until it doesn't, but the part that was kissed by fire will always be burned. It's a chemical change. You cannot un-burn anything.

There are parts of me that I cannot un-burn. These parts require self acceptance and, for whatever reason, something resembling forgiveness. I do not have survivor's guilt, it's something else. Something that I'm not sure how to describe. Shame, probably. We'll call it shame. 

I knew that I identified with the Aspens and realized that I hold the burden of my damage, but even so, I was not ashamed then. I was proud. Despite the altitude, I didn't fatigue to the point of stopping. I listened. I listened to my shoes on the trail and I listened to the rhythm of my breaths; I respected those rhythms as my own personal cadence. I listened to nature, too. Perhaps not well enough, but in all of my listening, I heard no thunder and I turned back not a moment too soon. I listened to my soul rise with thankfulness. I fed my hungry body, I wrapped it up, and I let it rest.

In the morning, I spent some time underground in a calcite palace, and then I moved on.


Stay tuned.