Legion. An amalgamated journal.

On the ridge

Gray rocks mimic gray skies mimic gray spirits, but the day is nice just the same, and it is difficult to be too unhappy just below treeline on Mt. Jefferson. This is the common effect of the scrub: it gives the feeling that you are just about to come up for air.

The United States Forest Service, a capitalized and henceforth entitled arm of the the nation’s federal muscle, takes its job seriously as a paranoiac. Enough ill-prepared hikers have wandered up to the alpine zone with supermarket bags full of Doritos and Aquafina to warrant this hysterical behavior. To remind humanity of its insignificance, the linemen of Smokey the Bear have attached the following warning to one of the penultimate trees: Hikers have died on this ridge—and then to close the loophole—even in summer. The calm rotogravure of the sign is unalarmed and friendly in its uniform Forest Service way. It is in a family with signs reading Viewshed 0.25 mile or Pit toilets only.

Three brothers have taken in the sign’s suggestion with equal parts amusement and sobriety. They know that the thirty feet of parachute cord in their backpack indicate that this sign was not meant to scare people like them, and also that the nasty part—the dying part—is true. Passing the sign and arriving at the beginning of the ridge, they hear the sepulchral moaning of the variable wind across the crest. Laden down with dampness, it seems old: furious at its own sluggish weight. It will pause for a second to take a wheezing breath and then wail down vengefully on the mountain which is forcing it upwards.

The oldest brother, the architect of this trip but otherwise fairly simple, has suggested a pause behind one of the last rocky shelters. He is not clever enough to carry out the dual heist of deciding accurately what to do and convincing the other two of it simultaneously, and knows it. Nutella-and-peanut-butter sandwiches are the way out of this (as they are the way out of so many things). The younger brothers, whose independence has been reigned in by the cold and damp, acquiesce, and the three settle down to add clothes and calories to themselves.

“I can hardly feel my fingers,” says the youngest, blowing into a Ziploc bag that has become a makeshift glove.

The middle brother quietly munches on some apricots and suggests: “It’d be better if we go back. You shouldn’t go above treeline in this weather.”

The oldest is just bright enough to realize the value of this suggestion, but not enough to beat down his prior instinct to make it to the summit. You achieve the summit or attain the peak in the guidebooks, he thought. They leave out any suggestive verb for people who only make it to the bottom of the ridge.

After struggling with this incompatibility for a few seconds, he offers: “Why don’t you two head back to the car, and dry off. I’ll just run to the top and then meet you back there. I can do it quick. I have better gear, anyhow.”

This is a third-rate suggestion at best, and they all know it, but it is a forty-degree August day and in those conditions third-rate suggestions flourish. The younger two take their warm clothes out of the pack and head down into the forest. An offhand “Be careful!” is exchanged between the three before they part.

Alone, now, the oldest moves faster, his thoughts dull away, and his focus sharpens on his steps. Rock to rock to root to mud-pit to rock. Each foot of elevation infuriates the soggy wind even more, and it tears mercilessly at the bare ridge. Rock to rock to crevice to rock. There is something holy about being on a mountain alone like this, visiting with something so permanent. Rock to puddle to rock. He is moving quickly now, his backpack a forgotten triviality, the wind an encouragement. Rock to rock to a long jump to another rock. He checks his watch quickly to see how long he has been gone, and in the distraction rock to rock to—

There is a curious absence of shock in putting your hand to your forehead and finding it absorbed in blood. It is a part of the environment, this blood this moment. It drips into the moss and makes a pleasant color in the union. Next to the gray sky its color is a welcome bit of arrogance.

And as that blood drips life out of the boy and into Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Mitten looks on from across the valley, saddened that it has never had such an experience.

Garrett Dash Nelson

February 14th, 2008 at 4:04 am

But perhaps you disagree

No responses so far

The room is, as yet, filled with smoke and apprehension.