Mark vs Cancer

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sudden Solitude

I went for a hike up Massey Draw yesterday afternoon.  It was sunny and breezy, blue sky streaked with wispy white clouds.  I was alone.

I parked my truck and started up the trails through the prairie, mostly brown grass with green shoots poking through, and entered the mouth of the steep, piny valley.  Unexpectedly, the creek was completely dry at the bottom.  This far into the spring, I had thought the creek would be engorged with run-off, but I was wrong.

The climb was steep, and I took it fast, quickly breaking into a sweat.  After ascending a rocky staircase, the valley narrowed, thick pine forest on one side of the creek and sheer rock wall on the other side.  I stopped to grab my water bottle from my backpack, and listened to the breeze whistling through the pines.  I was only ten minutes and less than a mile from the parking lot, but already the valley had folded in on itself, obscuring any sign of the suburban sprawl below.  I looked up at the afternoon sunlight diffusing into the shadows of the pines, at the streaky blue sky above.  The tree tops swayed in the breeze, and I closed my eyes and swayed with them, the scent of ponderosa suspended in the shadows.  The sudden solitude was exquisite.

Then I was off again, more rocky steps, more pine.  Towards the top, the valley narrowed considerably, and heavy sheets of ice covered the creek bed, the tinkling sound of water running beneath melting snow pack.  Somehow, this scant stream of melt-water vanished before it descended to the prairie below.  It must go subterranean through some crack in the granite, I thought.  A fallen tree crossed the trail, a casualty of winter winds and age.  I scrambled over it and came out near a boulder pile, where a rush of movement caught the corner of my eye.

Out of a deep recess in the boulders, something large, black, and furry came lunging at me.  I jumped backwards into the rock behind me, and then breathed a sigh of relief.  Not a bear.  A large, friendly dog came sniffing from the cave.  I caught my breath and reached down to scratch his head.  "Hey, big fella," I said, "You up here alone?"

Then I heard voices tumbling down the creek from above, and four teens, two boys and two girls, emerged into view.  The boy with moppy hair and the profane t-shirt called out, "Here, Zeke!  Here, boy!"  And Zeke bounded up to him.  I continued up the trail, and as I passed the teens, I offered a friendly greeting, chuckling as I told them I thought Zeke had been a bear.  They avoided eye contact, offered uncertain laughs or silence, and kept descending without a word.

I made it into the aspen forests on top of the valley, all bare white trunks, no green yet, and then ascended into the scrub oak.  At a trail crossing, I veered towards Gothic Overlook, my intended destination.  Rounding a corner, I came over onto the crest of the foothills, the path meandering away from the sheer cliffs of the valley below.  In jerky movements, the vast horizon of Colorado's Front Range came into view.  Downtown Denver, Castle Rock, Chatfield Reservoir--hey, wasn't that the park where my kid's played soccer?--and then plains stretching forever eastward into Kansas.  It was always a breathtaking view.  Below, I could see my truck in the parking lot, and I could see the teens just emerging from the valley floor, Zeke still out in front.

The wind was chillier up top, but the sun was strong and warm.  I wound through the scrubs oaks and reached the end of the trail, a small clearing set atop the knob of the foothill.  Downward, towards the cliffs, there was an outcropping of rocks, a prime spot for a little reading, writing, and meditation.  Just a hundred yards off the trail, which was prohibited, but who was going to stop me?

I went off-road, stepped over the fledgling scrub oaks, greening grass, and scattered boulders and negotiated my way to the outcropping.  But once there, I saw that the terrain still continued to slope down towards the cliffs, where another granite crag jutted into the valley, punctuated by an ancient weathered juniper.  I kept descending.

The juniper was dead, polished smooth by wind and snow, a brown spiny skeleton perched on a shelf of granite.  Even here, the mountain sloped down further towards the cliffs, toward more jagged rocks and then the canyon beneath.  From the top, I hadn't guessed at the extent of this hidden pitch.  But I chose to stop now.  A flat indentation in the present rock looked comfortable enough, so I slipped off my pack and had a seat.

I grabbed a granola bar and had a sip of water, then fished my Robert Frost book out of my pack, pages rippling in the gusty breeze.  I opened to a new poem, "Build Soil: A Political Pastoral."  Long, and poignant, a hidden gem, Frost at his whimsical and melancholy best.  Then another one that was new to me:  "There Are Roughly Zones."  Brilliant.  Then I went for the familiar:  "Mending Wall," "To Earthward," and "The Road Not Taken."  The cadences of these poems are like listening to my favorite songs on my iPod:  I know them by heart, yet they (and all their connotations and reminiscences) carry me someplace private and transcendent.  Then I turned to "Desert Places," which concludes with these lines:

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces 
Between stars--on stars where no human race is. 
I have it in me so much nearer home 
To scare myself with my own desert places.

With that Frostian prelude, I reached for my trusty yellow spiral notebook.  Spiral notebooks for me are like a security blanket.  My pen acts like a conduit between the ephemeral thoughts of my mind, filtering, amplifying, translating to the concrete paper beneath me.  This is why I have a box of a couple dozen old notebooks in my basement.  I can't bear to part with them, even if they are filled with random doodles and poem fragments.

But today, my muse failed me.  Nothing would come.  The wind was rippling pages and my thoughts weren't coalescing.  After some blank moments, I thought I would make a list of all the things I need to do.  It quickly became depressing, so I stopped.  Looking down into the valley where I had been an hour before, I saw the pines waving, and I thought, let me just connect here.  I have time.  I have nothing pressing to attend to.  I'm alone.  Let me just relax and exist in the moment.  Meditation.  Out of time, out of mind.

The granite rock had a nice flat space, so I lay back and closed my eyes, tried to empty my thoughts and cast them into the wind.  Time to be a human being . . . just being.

The sun was warm on my face, the wind settled down and was gentle, and for a moment--who knows how long?--I found my Zen Point.  Laying on my back in the sun and the wind, a child of the universe, existing on this rolling sphere, a speck in the cosmos, and I felt harmony, tranquility, surrender.

Then sudden sharp voices fluttered through the wind.  An F-bomb.  Teens.  More profanity, cackling laughter.

Bummer, I thought.  I sat up, and there, emerging over the cliff's edge fifty yards away, came three teen boys.  Different teens.  They must have climbed straight up the cliffs, I thought.  They didn't have any equipment.  Maybe those cliffs aren't as steep as I thought they were.

They looked up the slope and saw me perched on the rock, and I waved.  They were startled, silenced for a moment, and one of them waved back tentatively.  Then they huddled together, another burst of laughter.  They clustered over the cliff's edge for a while, one of them clearly more boisterous and the leader, all clutching cans that I hoped were cokes and not beers.  They were quite vulgar, from the fragments of speech that the wind carried to me.  The discussion seemed to be centered on Viagra and female anatomy.  I lay back down and hoped they would move on soon.  Thankfully, having conquered the cliff and discussed life's great mysteries, they had soon had enough of the experience, and they descended back down from whence they came, disappearing over the cliff's edge and towards more conquests.

I was alone again.  I tried to get back to my Zen Point, but my mind was now cluttered with other thoughts.  The afternoon sun was sinking low in the sky.  Reluctantly, I reached for my cell phone, checked the time, and in so doing my email chimed.  Six new messages.  I scanned through them.  Three junk, three important.  I considered whether to deal with them now or later.  Later, I decided.

I gazed out over the Front Range again, the sprawling city, a half million houses, two and a half million souls.  Rich ones comfortably in the mansions just below me, less affluent ones painting the distant nooks and crannies of the city.  Within my field of vision, someone was dying at this very moment.  Someone was being born.  Crimes were being committed, loves consummated, agonies endured, triumphs attained.  And here I was, invisible to them all, an ignorant eye in the sky, a part of their world and yet completely separate, connecting ever so tangentially and transiently with awkward words, fleeting gestures, scattered emails.  Sharing so much, sharing so little.

The sun was angling obtusely behind me.  The wind had settled down again.  A sip of water, a few hardened gummy bears that had remained in my pack after a recent airplane trip.  Time to go.  Time to reconnect with the civilization that lurked below.

How to descend?  I realized I was not interested in returning to the trail and going back the way I came.  Should I follow the teens down over the cliff's edge?  No, that might mean engaging with them in some manner.  Not a good idea to climb down solo, anyway.  I scanned the eastern contour of the foothills with my eyes.  If I headed north and down through the scrub oak, and climbed over a rocky rim, then the brush turned to a long, steep grassy slope that descended until it spilled into the trail that would lead me back to the parking lot.  Easy enough.  It was off trail, sure.  But again, who was going to stop me?

Heading east off the foothills, I dropped into shadow while the suburbs before me remained splashed in golden sunlight.  The wind died down to a murmur.  A few bikers crisscrossed the prairie trails below.  I was feeling mellow, rejuvenated.  I let out a subdued yawp that disturbed no one.  I picked my way through the brush and rocks and made it to the final steep slope.  I lightly traced my own mini-switchbacks to slow the descent, to take the pressure off my toes.  I was getting a blister.

I kicked a rock loose on accident.  It wobbled, paused, and then gravity pulled it over a threshold.  It tumbled a few feet, then paused, creaked over the threshold again, and rolled downward.  It bumped and zagged and kept tumbling bit by teetering bit, a slow motion landslide of one.  I was almost keeping pace with it.  It slowed, but nothing was going to make it stop.

My new rock companion and I continued to travel downward together, and it was with some sadness that I saw it finally come to rest in a clump of grass just as the slope flattened out at the bottom.  The pressure came off my toes.  This rock's journey was over, and so was mine, nearly.  It had been sitting on the side of that mountain for maybe a million years, heaved there by unfathomable seismic forces rumbling from the earth's molten core.  There it had sat as an inanimate object of potential energy until my misguided step unleashed its inner rolling stone.  Now it lay fifty yards off the trail, buried in a grass clump in a depression at the bottom of the slope, likely to never be disturbed again for a thousand years, maybe a million, its energy released, its potential energy depleted, one entropic step closer to its destiny as a nondescript component of a homogeneous, cold, and flattened world.

My phone chimed again.  Voicemail.  I ignored it.  Then my email chirped.  I had to look.  What was I doing here staring at this rock?  I better head back to my truck.  I had things to do.

1 comment:

Tye and April said...

Sounds like a pretty good day. Didn't we put "The Road Less Traveled" to music back in the day just for fun?