Tuesday, July 12, 2011

To Hell and Back Again: A Woodsman's Tale

Satan’s home had become God’s own temple.
Paul Schullery, Searching for Yellowstone (1997)

At the edge of the thicket I turned. Thick mud ran up my boot as I planted, listened. Far away between the mountains and the clouds there was the lake, floating platelike, serene and blue, beneath the wispy cumulus. And then came the sound again: the gradually increasing beating of drums, up and up and up to a fever pitch that echoed through the valley like the warring gong of some primal army announcing its vengeful intention. The echo lingered there in the soil at my foot, the way a touch may linger on your skin long after the touch itself, and I listened to it still till its portentousness dimmed and then faded to memory. It was the third time I had paused to hear it.

You are imagining it, I said to myself.

The forest is speaking to you, myself said back.

With the fading portent of the war drums came other sounds to replace it, hymnals of the forest that, like opening fanfare, welcomed our rugged dozen conservation crew leaders into the Lee Metcalf wilderness for trails training. Somewhere there was the trickle of water, dribbling inchwide perhaps down steps of mossy rocks; the trees, now growing thick, rustled proudly their new springtime leaves in the light breeze. Smaller birds chirped and whistled tunes of pleasant surprise, of coming peace. And the sound of our footfalls on the wet dirt trail, heavy beneath sixty, seventy pound packs, completed the wistful melody. There came to me the inevitable sense that I was in the presence of something at once holy and incomprehensible. Spots of sunlight glittered through the trees, lit the trail in sprinkles of yellow dots, and drums forgotten we marched onward to camp.


Hours waned and the sun rose to its zenith in the sky. Six of us stood on the side of the slope, sweating and cursing and laughing a little maniacally at the few hundred odd pounds of food latched to the tangled climbing rope that lay in the grass between the two great spruces. Their thick branches stood stock still in the wind, as though immune, frowning quizzically at the failed enterprise at their foot.

We have been at this for two hours too long, someone said. This is the fourth place we've tried to get this thing to work.

At this point, let the bear have it, chorused through the hillside.

For a time longer we mired at the task at hand, climbing high up each tree and rearranging branches and ropes for weight distribution and sturdiness, and soon we were ready to try again. We all gathered by the untied end, and with a dozen hands on the rope we heaved. Slowly in miniscule increments the load lifted into the hot Montana air, the brightly colored food bags wavering improbably against the a panel of white cloud.

Sweating and breathing audibly now with tightened forearms we yanked. For a moment it appeared as though the load would rise, the bags wiggling slightly off the line with our pressure. Then came the sound of a crisp snap; the pressure was released, the bags crashed to the ground, and the six of us were shot backwards down the slope.

I remember laughing hard, harder than I had in recent memory, laying back on the long waving grasses and looking at the sky which looked in back grimly and neutral and then laughing at that too. I remember dimly shifting my spot, of the others beginning to argue over the next step, and then of the crack and the hiss of the bear spray as it shot from my hip, coating my leg and wrist and safety glasses.

For a moment everything was perfectly clear. I stood up and removed the bear spray from my hip and backed away slowly from the others. Probably stay away from me, I said.

Annie came with me down the slope and to the creek. For a moment I thought about laughing, the way I had laughed when the rope snapped, not at the failure necessarily, but at the absurdity of our effort and the ensuing futility, and if for no other reason than for laughing for laughter's sake, because how else to address the fickle quirks of existence, the temperamental hinges upon which fate swings to and fro? Consider the exact series of events that brings about any great or terrible or important moment in your life, and then remove just a single one of those elements, and suddenly you are no longer you, but some other stranger that will never exist due to the dictums of random chance and circumstance. So I did laugh and grin a little as we went down to the creek, not because I could have been blinded truly, but because I was not, because for the thousandth time catastrophe had brushed my edges and for the thousandth time a part of me I did not know had dodged.

In the little gorge I dunked my burning wrist into the icy creek, squatting in the mud and patches of grass that interrupted the brief flow. Thistles tugged persistent at the exposed place between my boot and the cuff of my pants, almost pulling, as if to lure me off the bank and to the darker places. A sudden sunshower spat down from the blue sky. An attempt to be cute, idyllic, innocent. Kneeling there, the stench of the spray thick on the crisp air, the drumming noise began again.

I could die here, I thought to myself , a little sardonic, a little manic. There was no response.


Galelike and apocalyptic the winds roared down through the valley, driving up the rain and hail and collected sediment into a vicious horizontal force that seemed to proclaim a final judgment upon the workers of the land. Thick fog rendered the rest of the slope more than twenty yards distant in foggy obscurity. Hooded and helmeted figures loomed in that mist, heaving picks into the dark earth, teeth bared and eyes blazoned grimly beneath dropletcoated safety glasses. Movements betrayed moods; the slow lethargic arc of the spirit being crushed by the storm stood side by side with the methodical madness of one that had yet weathered the depravity.

Lunchtime came. We paused only if to stay in vain keeping with the order and schedule and sanity that we had tried to bring with us from without the wild. Eating seemed a lame ritual now; already some dim part of me would have rather dropped my tool at a later hour on a whim and scoured the mountainside for a fresh meal. I even considered it, the sight and smell and taste of the nickelscented air racing through my lungs as I tore through the brush in search of impossibilities ancient to my kind. In forest daydreams I run with lions and hunt bull moose with a pocketknife. I followed it till I was alone there on the trail in the mist at lunchtime, and there were voices calling me.

I hiked up the slope and into the trees after the others and found my drenched sack in the failed cover of spruce branches. I pulled out a large slimy ziploc baggie which contained some grayish-red and gelatinous organlike substance that had, at one point, four days of sunlight and two days of hurricane ago, been considered six peanut butter and jelly tortillas. Shivering and nibbling and gagging I held the substance in my dirtgristled fingers and ate away the fury of my imagination.


At a brief respite from the storm, Mark and Heidi from the Forest Service led a meaning of service discussion on Billy Collins' poem The History Teacher:

Trying to protect his students' innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.
And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.
The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
"How far is it from here to Madrid?"
"What do you call the matador's hat?"
The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom on Japan.
The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,
while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

I did not want to say what I truly thought. That it was strange and even cruel irony to hear that poem amidst those pines and amidst that seeming judgment raining down. That the idea that all nature could be less good than evil had haunted me since the moment almost two years ago I set out to see the world alone. That we could clear out and even transport into the backcountry the goods that fill the material shrines dedicated to weathering the wild: REI, Cabelas, LL Bean, Base Camp; and still there would be an element to that uncivilized air that could penetrate any gear to permeate any soul. And finally that perhaps this was knowledge that should not be conveyed to the next generation, to children, even to members of our crews. Because who volunteers to conserve hell?


After the workday the rain slowed to a drizzle and the eye of the tempest seemed to settle itself on the mountainside. It imparted in that furious calm an ominous quality, the way silence pervades a locker room before a championship, the way calmness may inhabit the corridors of an executioner's lair: the perhaps nostalgic recollection of all that has gone before and the grim foreknowledge that you stand upon the brink of a thing that must end. So I decided to go run.

Out of camp, out the thin dirt path that arced through the prairie and back into the forest where the lodgepoles were laden with droplet-heavy branches and the trails were more puddle than earth, slippery like fine ice, this sense of seething doom, of fate momentarily attenuated, was held in the air thicker yet. We ran on our toes, Adam and I, just to stay upright, stumbling and sliding almost as much as running, past trees more ancient than the concept of trails themselves and in the fresh pawprints of what was guessed to be an adult Ursus arctos.

At points the trail opened into meadows, and trusting my footfalls for the thousandth time to the fate of the never-even ground below, I looked out from the ridges to the other mountainsides across the valley. The armies of frost-tipped ferns gently reclined with the slope, the ancient andosite bluffs volcano-shaped and framed in a wispy background of steadily progressing cumulus. Remote and vacant places where ghosts of bears and lions and bears and lions may lurk, where fanged creatures long since extinct have walked more recently than man. With infinite ease I became lost in detail, in the way you become lost watching dogs play, in observing the darker spaces between the trees and the truths they held, truths whose nobility became less unassailable the longer I ran and breathed and slept and sweat and bled there on the mountain, an unwitting supplicant to an ever unfolding mystery.

When we reached the sagebrush plateau where we had parked the rigs, Adam and I split. We were short on food for dinner and I piled into three boxes as many tortillas and extra snacks as I could hope to hold. I paused for a moment there, kneeling on the dry leather of the seats and breathing the warm and stale air inside the vehicle. I paused a moment more than I would have liked to. Through the tinted back window there was a flash of lightning somewhere in the range far to the north, and from that perspective, halfsheltered there in the back of the truck on top of the plateau, the coming sky was absolutely black, in imminent collision with the sunless steady gray that had pervaded during the eye. I shut the doors quickly, gathered up the food in the crook of my elbows like two footballs, and dashed back into the woods.

You were really pretty happy to see those cars, a voice said in my head as I ran.

I really don't want to talk about it, I said back.


In midmorning darkness our crews labored away. The temperature hovered at thirty-five, drizzle having turned to rain and freezing rain and now sleet. What had once been a misty mysterious (and perhaps to some) enchanting fog had become an impenetrable miasma, relegating workers to corridors of constantly shrinking visibility. The sound of the rain and the incessant war drums drowned out conversation and at times I knew only by blind faith that anyone remained with me on the trail at all.

We worked till rumors of hypothermia began to circulate and we quit at noon, nearly everyone returning to their tents in hopes of dreaming away the cold and the wet. Sleep becomes a strange thing in the woods. It is required not so much for rest as it is for escape. Rarely do I know right away where I am when I wake up, all my dreams sourced from places so far distant and so differently shaped that the morning reality is always unclear and foreign. Yet there is something soothing in the opacity it offers, the even momentary ambiguity that all is not as it seems. There is always a part of the true woodsman spirit that craves that sanctuary, even if it may express itself in different ways.

When I came to our communal shelter, a ripped and ravaged piece of tarp strung loosely between the flagging branches of two trees, Jake was the only person that remained there. He sat rigidly immobile and crosslegged, his hands on his knees, his eyes shadowy beneath hood and winter cap, watching the wind move the grass.

Welp, he said, This sucks.

We were to make dinner that evening by five. Some interminable number of hours remained until then and I settled down under the tarp and began to watch the grass too. Jake began describing the symptoms of hypothermic victims and then started to exhibit them himself as he was talking. It was unclear whether he was example or victim and I didn't trust my brain to make the distinction. Time waned. We quoted Star Wars for hours.

I wish we had a taun-taun to cut open, I said.

This may smell bad kid, he said, But it'll keep you warm.

I wouldn't care what I smelled, I said.

From the one time I was there, I don't even remember Hoth being this cold, he said.

This soon morphed into picking which Star Wars character each of our coworkers fit best. When we finished we swore to each other to keep the conversation to ourselves (we broke that promise as soon as people started showing up for dinner). Whenever we became too present in the moment the cold settled, the dampness piercing our jackets and freezing against our skin and the wind cutting through tarp and layer upon layer of clothing straight to the core. So we willfully inhabited the past and the future, living memories and hopes aloud and silent, and then began to play the game of the things we would do to keep warm, which rapidly deteriorated to punchdrunk incoherence. Somewhere in there the rain turned to snow.

Oh, I said, nodding to the frost now coating the valley, It looks as though hell actually is freezing over.

I have to go the bathroom so bad, Jake said, But I highly doubt I'll survive. Assuming I can unzip my pants.

I'd probably just go in the dinner pot, were I you, I said. Like in old times.

Is that what happened in old times? he asked.

Jake left to go relieve himself. It seemed right to start dinner then and I sat shivering and fiddling with the stubborn lighter, fingers numb and swollen and bloody and filthy and unworking and watching the quinoa sit there in the plastic bags, hardened and notcooked and seeming even to condescend a starchy frown at my futile effort. You are not doing very well, I said to myself, when even the quinoa begins to take on a personality.

Jake returned, paler and soggier and lankier yet, the sleeves of his coat soaked and dangling past his hands, his lips purpling now, though it could've just been my blindness. Hey Justin, he said, as he ducked under the flap of the tarp. I think I figured out why there are so many bones of dead things all over the place

I snatched the bait; Jake is a master of all things fauna, surely there was some ecological quirk here that I could write about later.

Oh yeah? Why?

He hesitated not a second, his voice rising suddenly above the gale like a preacher declaring to all his eager parish: Because this is a barren, godless place where nothing lives ever! We're in hell and we never should have come! The freaking grouse doesn't beat its wings as a mating call or as self defense but as a warning to get the hell out and stay the hell out!

And then, though the storm howled like a beast composed of all creation, and the snow and the sleet and the hail and the rain slapped the tarpulin like bullets, and though the mountains funneled the fury of creation into our beaten valley, that sound of drumming emerged again from peak to valley floor, a steadily building resonance answering and affirming Jake's declarations.

In a way I had known all along that it was a small bird that made this noise. But that didn't really change anything.


The rest of the night was a blur. I vaguely recall marching out a mile down the trail we were constructing with a few others to retrieve our tool cache for our departure the next morning. I remember the almost funny way your shins feel, when your feet are numbed into blocks of notflesh and you are only vaguely sure they are touching the ground at all. I remember putting on muddy and frozen work gloves and glasses whose fogginess didn't matter because you couldn't see two feet in front of your face anyway. I had become stripped to my absolute self, barren even of the simplest and most innocuous of creature comforts: 20/20 vision. And I remember carrying three picks, a pulaski and a handsaw and dropping them and picking them up and dropping them again into the muddy slush. There were screams and shouts of terror or laughter or both, my ability and desire to distinguish them long since gone.

We have progressed to the sixth circle of hell, I said. I didn't know what the sixth was and I don't think I even knew if anyone was behind me. I was just talking.

I understood that just like running, the mountains do not take their toll on you by the brunt of their force. It is a long and slow accumulation, the ceaseless repetition, the endless unassailable force of a thing that refuses to diminish. It is not the 20 mile Sunday run that makes a runner a runner, it is the three-hundred and sixty four days of doing it all over again. And it is not any one storm, any one night, which forges the soul of the woodsman, it is the lingering storm that rushes like a river, ceaseless and indomitably willed, until you are callused or until you are destroyed.

All this, yet I and everyone I am with is soon to return.


Maybe I'm not old enough yet. When all was said and done and we returned to the world there was time for it all to marinate. And now when I close my eyes there is no white-out. The nickelscented air that lingers at the heart of the most wicked tempest beckons me off trail all the more powerfully for its bitterness, into the darker places, to chapels of the barren plain, synagogues amidst the flaky schist where timberline has vanished into fog, mosques at the densest and deepest forest places; not without fear, never without fear, but absolutely and without reservation.

The sun glints shapes and figures off the rugged turbulence of a dozen rivers; this is the scripture I read. For priest, rabbi, shiek, shaman, I have myself.

And so does anyone. Like Luke you go guideless into the black of the cave beneath the old willow tree and you emerge with more than you entered with. Hymnals range the spectrum of sound, the silences of the crushing dark, the tranquil songs of streams in summer, music not of praise or worship but only of being. Prayer is a matter of breathing, not kneeling. There is no distinction between the secular and the pious, between being and benediction. You could call it a sort of zen, but there is no confuddling or corrupting social history. Rituals do not stray from life necessities for they are not of a separate piece. Legends and ghosts from nations and kingdoms and oceans away and long since lost are so many Ozymandias', memories rightly lost to the natural oxidization of time. Instead of worldly luxuries, of which there are none to sacrifice, we give up sweat and blood. Instead of abject worship or prostration of self before some terrible unknowable power, I simply become a part of the thing that I used to be. The thing that I came from. We need no elegant or archaic prose to champion our cause, or martyrs to eulogize and evangelize the world to our faith. The world will recognize what is sacred for itself, if only given the chance to search.

And still I would never deny, hell could be found in a thousand places in the wild bowels of our earth. Damn me now.

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