Saturday, September 2, 2017

Piute Log...Every Day, Something 1999

20 Sep (Mon)     35° on the porch. A soggy, cold, but frost-free meadow. Lovely scenes outside when the sun rose shining through the vapors, casting a muted, hazy light—one that makes for bad photos but is sheer delight to witness. Caught the horses easy with a bucketful of horsey-heroin. [e.g., grain.] Cats were both out there and Shitbird chased Lucy across the yard…got her extremely irritated. Now that I think about it, this is right around the time Shitbird was born last year. He was the last gift my father gave me so he’s kinda special in that regard. But, aside from that, he’s certainly one of my best-ever kitties in terms of good nature, intelligence, and fine looks. ◦◦◦◦◦ Rode Woody to Bill’s Creek. Cleaned waterbreaks and rocked trail along the West Fork as far as the metal bridge. Nary a soul did I see. After reaching the bridge, went exploring. Crossed the creek and climbed up on ledges on the other side. Took out an old firefit I’d never seen, climbed up to a high-point and gradually descended past some neat old trees and little sand flats back to the river, following its west side back to the bridge. Some nice views of green pools and ivory slickrock. A quiet afternoon, low waters murmuring. Walked back to my horse and home we went. Wet tread so no dust. Looking stormish again. ◦◦◦◦◦ Back to Piute: at the ford, Lucy was there on the cabin side of the river, hiding in the willows. I spotted her watching us but acted as if I hadn’t seen her. (Didn’t know she came all the way over here; figured she stayed closer to home during daylight hours.) Tom was there, too—he’d heard us coming and dashed over. He fell in behind as we crossed and I abruptly wheeled Woody around so that we were both looking right down on Lucy, huddled there in the bushes all nervous. “Flushed” her by riding right into the thicket. When she bolted for the cabin I spurred Woody up and we went in hot pursuit of my fluffy cat who sprinted full speed across the meadow, all stretched out with paws a-flyin’. Pretty hilarious from my point of view…and I don’t think she was really, truly scared. I pulled Woody up short before heading up to the hitchrail and ran him (against his will) to the back fence, just to mess with his head. Tom came after, obviously glad to have his pal back, ready for a romp, kicking his heels and tossing his neck in equine delight. Then let Woody go home for real which he did most eagerly at subsonic speed, me hanging on for dear life, hooo-wee! Tom met us at the rail, all of us breathing hard, very much alive. Got Woody unsaddled, turned him loose, and just as I stepped onto the porch the sky cut loose. Hailed, then rained for awhile as the sun shined on. ◦◦◦◦◦ After it quit I climbed up into my (slightly damp) hammock to write. Fine views and lights. Saw Shitbird in the meadow hunting for voles—out beyond the back fence! That’s fine…until the coyote shows up. “Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.” I do hope he survives. Strange to be up in my tree, see a tiny dark speck in the meadow about 500 feet away, and realize that I know this meadow so well I could tell that minute speck was my yearling Abyssinian mini-lion. Whistled a few times and he started for home but got waylaid. ◦◦◦◦◦ Took a river bath after the rain stopped. ◦◦◦◦◦ Oh, and I forgot this curious item: awhile back, Greta packed some Fish&Game folk up here while I was gone. When she came out, mentioned to me that she’d lost her radio antenna. (These things screw on and apparently can come loose and unscrew themselves. Hasn’t happened to me—yet). Anyway: right after that, riding back into Piute, I found her antenna beside the trail. Next time out, dropped it off at Greta’s house and, later still, I visited her there and saw the antenna—still on her table, right where I’d left it. Commented on it and she answered back, “Oh…you put that there! Where’d it come from? I’ve been wondering.”——“I found the thing by the trail right after you told me you lost it.”——“Well, it’s not mine. We don’t have any antennas like that.”——“Not yours? So where’d it come from? Did the Fish&Game people lose one, maybe?”——“I don’t know!” Pretty weird; it’s not as if I find radio parts by the trail every day, ‘specially not after just having one reported missing.  

21 Sep (Tue)     Up at 6:00. 33° on the porch. Got into this log and found that the “Piute Fire” [lightning-caused fire, given an official name as per standard procedure] started on August 10th—that day it rained all day. I believe I heard the blast that lit it. It’s still smoldering, apparently. Let the thing burn, say I! (Anybody who works in Wilderness has a bit of anarchist in them…a love of chaos.) ◦◦◦◦◦ Fed the stove and read the Jüng bio, Lucy sleeping on a folded towel I put on the open stove door right beside me—one happy kitty. A word about living with cats: ◦◦◦◦◦ These two are both loaded with personality. Lucy sleeps probably 16 hours a day. She has genuine feline charisma, loves attention (a real hedonist) and is a delight to pet and rub because she enjoys it so much, and shows it. She looks me straight in the eye sometimes, with a calm openness that’s utterly endearing. She responds to my moods; when she’s “been bad” and I growl at her she cowers and appears abashed—a common reaction to disapproval in dogs but rare with cats. We have a wonderful, fellow wild-animal rapport. Then, Shitbird: a stunning beauty and I often gaze at his leonine form, marveling at the subtle Abyssinian coloration. He’s full of life and himself, is active probably ten hours a day (quite a lot for a cat). He’s willful and impatient, resents intrusion, purrs loudly when in his affectionate state. ◦◦◦◦◦ Both cats sleep with me in the loft and nap there all day after about 11:00. My sleeping bag is filthy, inside and out, but I can’t see it very well in the eternally dim light up there and don’t really care to think about it, thank you. The point of this sidebar is that I have thoroughly enjoyed the company of cats as long as I can remember. There have been times in my life where my best friend was a cat. (That implies bad times….) They make solitude so much easier to bear. Next to women, they’re the finest of sleeping partners. It’s a great comfort for me to wake in the night and feel a warm Lucy curled by my shoulder. A quick pet and a purr in the dark and I’m asleep again. When it’s cold I’ll drag her under the covers. (When it’s really cold she crawls in on he own.) All I know is that I dearly love to sleep with something soft and warm and alive by my side—truly one of life’s finest offerings. My life would not be nearly so rich without the kitties. They’ve educated me, shown me lots of things, and especially have tried to teach me how to live gracefully. ◦◦◦◦◦ Had leftover dinner for breakfast. Washed dishes, hauled water, swept the floor, wiped counters, filled lanterns, split kindling. All the little chores that make my days unfold so slowly. The morning rhythm here is very pleasant. ◦◦◦◦◦ Walked up the Kirkwood trail to clean waterbreaks. The trail was scoured by the recent storms—lotsa loose rock to move—and, as always, sad to see the trail tread being washed away. Truly, these brief summer thunderstorms are far and away the greatest erosive agent. Fortunately, almost all the breaks and dips had been working. Still, a lot of wet sand to dig and I worked like a dog, sweating from the humidity. Nonetheless, a fine quiet latest-summer day in the mountains. I really enjoyed being out working and I’m so fit I can take this back-wrecking labor in stride. ◦◦◦◦◦ KING BOLETES all over the place! Perfect weather for ‘em: relatively warm with the repeated light soakings. Definitely “mushroom weather.” ◦◦◦◦◦ At one point a couple miles up the trail I spotted a funny little rock “overhang” 50 feet above the trail, something I’d never noticed before. It just caught my eye, a little chunk of rock with a shady bit of ledge below it. I hesitated but thought, “Hey: go check it out. Ya never know what you might find.” So I scrambled up there and, along the way, found an old blaze on a lodgepole. I recognized the still-visible part as an over-grown, stylized “R,” part of a common carving hereabouts that I’ve seen in a dozen locations, some of them with dates from the early 1890s. (I never would have spotted this from the trail but it’s barely visible there from, now that I know.) I continued on up the slope and found a stunning little spring that slid over a graceful polished slab. Lovely feature with a nice view through a window in the trees. The little overhang turned out to be nothing but I sure was glad it pulled me off the trail. ◦◦◦◦◦ Surprise! Hu-man by the trail! First of four, first people I’ve seen in three days. Others strolled up and we had a nice visit. I sent them over the hill into Rainbow, then Thompson Canyon to Peeler Lake as a more adventurous route back to Twin Lakes. They were game and very appreciative of the hot tip. As they’d come up the trail these guys were seeing my work all fresh, clearly done after last evening’s storm and they were glad to meet the worker. One fella, when he walked up said, “There’s the man with the shovel.” ◦◦◦◦◦ Walked back home on the old trail along the river. First time in a few years. Admired the flood’s ravages in the meadows. ◦◦◦◦◦ To the hammock again. Sure enough, a little storm has moved in as I write this and I see drops dimpling the surface of the river but the tree’s canopy is protecting me for the time being. Solitaires calling and the odd thunder-rumble; fine sunlight glowing up the mountains. More rain: down I go. ◦◦◦◦◦ A bit later, almost dark. I’m in the cabin. It’s raining vigorously outside but just lightly in, thanks to the leaky skylights. I have my dishpans laid out in a familiar pattern. (They have to be moved several times as the storm progresses and the drips shift.) A half hour ago I was languidly reclined in my aerie until it started dripping on me. I was writing…mostly trivial stuff because not much happened today. Truth is, as I went up the trail with shovel this morning I was reflecting that I’ve bragged to people that “every day it’s something new, something amazing happens every day, bla bla blah.” Was noting that this was a truly outstanding late-summer day, no bugs, perfect temp, charming clouds. But I was just cleaning w-breaks—that most mundane rangerly activity. Not much chance of human interaction; barring some unforeseen nature display or a meteorite plowing a furrow to my feet this was panning out to be a pretty boring day. But I started packing up to climb down the tree when all hell broke loose. ◦◦◦◦◦ First off: I’m putting my shoes back on, getting ready to head down, happen to glance out across the meadow. And there’s a coyote just beyond the back fence. I don’t know where Shitbird is and I get a wave of paternal anxiety. (He’s been hunting right where the coyote is.) So I do my cat whistle real loud and Shitbird bursts out of deep sedges on this side of the fence—only 30 yards from the coyote—and Mr. Coyote simultaneously breaks into a run but he’s making a beeline for the forest. I see two brown animals making for nearest cover, heading in opposite directions. I get a full adrenaline rush—it looked like the ‘yote was stalking my cat and I spotted it at just the right moment and broke up the action. I descend my tree post-haste. Cat comes into the yard and I scold him like a parent. It’s the “golden light” and raining hard. Just then the sound of a helicopter intrudes and here it comes—looks to be buzzing that little Piute Fire but it swings around over the meadow and I see it’s one of those bright-orange rescue helicopters. It veers back toward the smoke and zooms out of sight—lightning strikes going off in the clouds above—and I’m getting amped. “What the…!?!” Then it’s here, suddenly right overhead, and I’m out in the meadow getting pelted by hail, gazing up as it wheels 250 feet overhead. I can clearly read NAVY and RESCUE on its sides. As the beast turns I see a guy hanging in the open door, see his helmet and goggles and flight suit and him looking straight at me and I do an exaggerated shrug, the universal sign for “WHAT THE FORK!?!” They scream off and I wave a goodbye. Then run for the radio, call Minden Dispatch to see what’s going on. Not surprisingly, they know nothing. Meanwhile the ship is buzzing around down-canyon, doesn’t come in close again but hovers in the vicinity of the smoke. Minden comes back saying Pickel Meadows [the nearby Marine Corps base] knows nothing about a flight. And it’s raining hard with lightning going off all around and this incessant chopper noise coming loud then soft. Last sun on peak tips…a dramatic evening storm which I normally would’ve enjoyed quietly from my porch. Instead, I’m running around in the rain, anxious for my cat’s life, dashing for the radio, multiple helicopter attacks. Life of a ranger, I guess. ◦◦◦◦◦ It got dark. The helicopter disappeared like a hallucination. But it kept raining into the black, lightning too. Very unusual to have storms hang around this late into the evening. But just fine for a cozy night in the cabin by the stove. Except it postponed my steak barbeque.

The next day I got a call from the radio dispatch center letting me know that the helicopter was searching for a missing airplane and, from a distance, spotted the smoke from my little wildfire and came in for a look. They had no business being there (flying over designated Wilderness—one of the prohibitions), especially without contacting someone first. I never heard anything further about a missing aircraft.

©2017 by Tim Forsell               24 May 2016, 20 August 2017

Saturday, August 19, 2017

These Things Happen...Conclusion

There’s another type of synchronicity whose impact is accentuated by not only being extraordinarily improbable but possessing a quality of strangeness that can alter one’s entire worldview. Experiences of this kind have led many people, myself included, to believe that the phenomenon demonstrates unequivocally that there is some sort of “organizing principle”—an integral feature of the universe—demonstrating explicitly that everything is interconnected. Whether or not such events (or our lives) ultimately have meaning or purpose, something is at work and that “something” is not random.
The following story recounts a very unlikely meeting. Most people, at some time in their life, have a comparable experience. This is a shining example of such an event.
In August, 2013, I took time off from my job in the White Mountains (where I’m the cook, maintenance man, and den mother at Crooked Creek Station, a University of California-owned research facility located at over a little over 10,000 feet in this high desert mountain range east of the Sierra Nevada). There was a rare week-long break with no users so this offered an opportunity to visit my ailing mother down in Ventura. She has numerous health problems and is no longer able to walk so needs continual assistance. My brother, who cares for her full time, was stretched thin. The  chief purpose of the visit was to give Steve a slight break. Dylan lives at Crooked Creek with me during my work season and she came too. We did the long drive in one push: down the mountain over miles of rough dirt road followed by the sweltering stretch down Owens Valley and through the Mojave Desert, finally reaching Ventura shortly before sunset.
I had told Steve not to expect us in time for dinner but we ended up arriving earlier than expected so opted to eat at our favorite Thai restaurant. We were seated in a booth near the entrance. I was facing the doorway. It was flanked by big windows and curtains had already been drawn against the low sun but a narrow gap let blinding light through and it shone right in my face. By shifting in my seat I could get the harsh light out of my eyes but glare was unavoidable. A woman in the booth behind us was clearly a non-stop loud talker with an insufferable voice. This unfortunate combination led me to hail a passing waitress and ask for a different booth. She led us to a much quieter spot in the rear where we sat in road-weary silence, eagerly awaiting the arrival of our meals. Seated directly behind me were two women having a sedate conversation.
Our meals finally came and we got down to business. But after only a few bites of my curry, out of the generalized chaos of restaurant sounds, four words seemed to materialize out of a silence. Instantly my attention was riveted. I glanced at Dylan; her eyes were wide (she’d heard the words, too). Half turning in my seat, I could just see over the top of our booth. I said, “Umm…excuse me. Did I just hear one of you say ‘White Mountain Research Station’?” Our neighbors, two middle-aged women, looked at one another and spontaneously began to laugh—a reaction to realizing, instantly, that four total strangers were about to have a very interesting exchange.
The younger of the woman, facing me across their table, replied, “Uhh…yyyes. I did. Why do you ask?”
“Well…I…work there.” More laughter from them. My heart was pounding. “Can I ask what your connection is with the research station? Oh, excuse me—I’m Tim. And this is my wife, Dylan. We’ve actually just driven from the Whites…left there this morning, in fact. We came down to visit my family. I grew up in Ventura.”
“This is amazing! Hi, hi! I’m Stephanie—so glad to meet you both!—and this is my friend, Barbara. I was just telling her about a trip I’m going on this coming weekend. Have you ever heard of Clem Nelson? He was a well-known geologist who did a lot of work in that area.”
“Of course! But, sorry to say, I never got to meet him; he died a few months after I’d started working at the research station. Everyone says he was a wonderful man.” (Clem Nelson was a beloved geologist, paleontologist, and geology professor at UCLA.)
Stephanie went on, “He was a wonderful man. Hey, we’ve just finished eating. Do you mind if we come over and sit with you?” Dylan pushed her plate across and moved to my side while the two women sat down opposite us. Stephanie continued her story: “My husband and I are driving up there this weekend—we’re leaving tomorrow evening—to climb a mountain. Have you by any chance heard of ‘Clem Nelson Peak’?”
I paused for dramatic effect. “Uhh…not only have I heard of Clem Nelson Peak, but I’ve been up it twice. And the second time I was with one of the people responsible for getting it officially named after Clem. Do you know who Allen Glazner is?”
“Oh, sure! He was one of Clem’s grad students.”
“Yes…well, he and his partner, Drew Coleman, were staying at Crooked Creek (that’s where I work) and wanted to visit the peak. They hadn’t been up there since it was officially named.”
“Wow. This is really amazing! A group of us—all students of Clem’s—are going to climb his peak in honor of him. He was a great man. In fact, my husband, Mike—he’s a geologist, I’m not—we met in 1973 on one of Clem’s field trips. When I told Clem we’d gotten married he said, ‘Well, you can’t blame me for it!’ and he laughed. He was so funny! Have you ever noticed the memorial plaque for him at the Bishop station?”
“Yeah, sure.” (At the White Mountain Research Station headquarters in Bishop, on the porch of the main building there’s a wooden bench with a brass placard reading, “CLEM NELSON  1918–2004,” and underneath that, “Holy mackerel! We’ll miss you!” I’d wondered what the reference was.)
“Well, do you know what the ‘holy mackerel’ refers to? No? Well, it’s from the punch line of his favorite joke. It’s kind of off-color, but…do you want to hear it?” Of course we did. So Stephanie told us the longish joke-story and I won’t even attempt to summarize the thing but it concerned George Custer (of Little Big Horn fame) and his last words. The punch line was, “Holy mackerel! Look at all those f---king Indians!”
Of course, we were all staggered by having met under such circumstances. There was the additional element of unlikelihood courtesy of my having asked to be moved to a different booth and the chance of its being right next to theirs. (Had there been a separation of just one booth we almost certainly wouldn’t have overheard Stephanie’s soft voice over the general noise.) Our meeting would have been remarkable enough without the added feature of a nondescript, virtually unknown little bump of a mountain and its role in our connection. It was awkward saying goodbye and watching Stephanie and her friend walk away. She didn’t even turn and smile at the door. There had been no trading of phone numbers or email addresses; I believe we each realized this was a unique meeting. And that there was no reason to debase our singular encounter with the triviality of that tiresome social convention: the exchange of contact information between people who have no intention of ever seeing one another again.
Just two weeks later a friend from Santa Cruz came up to the Whites for a visit and the three of us walked up Clem Nelson Peak. Formerly nameless, it was marked on the topographic map simply as a survey point with an elevation of 11,373 feet. Though only a mile from the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Visitor Center (which all the tourists visit) there’s really no reason anyone would bother going there. Its spectacular view of the Sierra Nevada eastern front is essentially the same as the one to be had at the signed viewpoint just down the road. Strictly speaking, the obscure little mountain is more of a large hill, with higher points nearby, and is visited by a handful of peak baggers (mountain climbers who obsessively “collect” peaks) and a few dedicated local explorers.
A small rock cairn marked the flat summit of Clem Nelson Peak with a little register to sign (the likes of which are to be found on most mountains, regardless of popularity). Checking this summit register was the reason we were there. This one, typical of seldom-climbed mountains, consisted of a cheap pocket notebook in a glass jar hidden under a few rocks beside the cairn. It actually held a surprising number of entries, most of them being people who’d come up expressly to honor Clem following the naming. Students and family members had written brief but moving testimonials for a man who clearly lived on in many people’s hearts. And there, signed in with the others in the last dated entry: “Stephanie  Tiffany—Ventura.”

I’ve written a number of accounts of synchronous events and have formed an impression—which may be completely unwarranted—that these kinds of things befall me more often than they do others and have actually compiled a list of specific instances. From what I’ve read, those who report an unusual number of synchronous events in their lives tend to be naturally observant. And they are people who see themselves living in a world filled with meaning. They also tend toward the superstitious or number among those drawn to new-age spiritualism. They are credulous as opposed to skeptical.
I would describe myself as a seemingly incompatible mingling of these character traits: a natural-born skeptic and questioner-of-all-things, essentially of a scientific bent but also with an affinity for the mystical side of nature. Which is to say, I acknowledge a hidden side to reality, inaccessible to scientific exploration, and believe that our world, to paraphrase an old Christian maxim, moves in mysterious ways. Regarding almost all these concerns I remain agnostic. The conclusions I’ve reached are grounded in personal experience and observation, with a careful weighing of evidence with the aim of approaching a truth that is assumed to be beyond human capacity to fully grasp (one of the few things I am certain of). I find mysterious things utterly compelling. Looking into such matters, for me, is an aesthetic—pleasurable to the point that it could be called a form of titillation. And that admission might reveal more about me than I realize.
            I’ve read any number of articles and several rather unsatisfying books about synchronicity. None offered any compelling explanations. Even Jüng’s famous monograph was a distinct letdown. For me, the entire subject has retained an aura of mystery and I have long since given up hope of receiving any concrete, rational answers.
Nevertheless, the occasional synchronistic experience lends a sense of reassurance that there is an interconnectedness that’s a attribute of the universe. This one conviction is shared by all those who believe in synchronicity. One can grant the phenomenon credence without attributing deep meaning to individual incidents, without a powerful conviction that something may be a “sign” or confirmation or harbinger-of-whatever. For myself, if the observable facts have anything one could call  “meaning,” it’s the same as all the other hints the natural world provides us—clues that allow one to attempt to apprehend the character of reality. I’m convinced that, whatever its meaning (or lack thereof), synchronicity is real…a genuine “thing.” And to be clear: the entire matter’s importance lies in its being a graphic demonstration of the true nature of nature—a form of creative intelligence…a self-organizing agency that is inventive, delicately balanced, and inscrutable.

Finally, there’s one aspect of this whole subject that seems to have been largely ignored. That remains unacknowledged. Which is this: for every synchrony we experience there may be dozens, scores, many, that we simply miss or never notice. One last story:
During my ranger phase, each summer I’d run into several different school groups on Outward Bound-style backpack trips. One such group, from a Bay Area high school, had an exceptional outdoor education program. These trips can be life-changing experiences for teenagers; I always enjoyed running into this bunch on the trail and hearing their stories. There were two trip leaders—one male one female, mid-20s—both glowingly healthy and good-looking to the point of being virtual parodies of hyper-fit, gorgeous young white people. I’d have lengthy and enjoyable conversations with them. Early on, I learned that a woman named Arlene was originator and head of the program and had formerly led many of the trips herself. From what I heard she sounded quite impressive. I would never see the trip leaders again but I’d ask them to greet Arlene for me and tell her that I hoped we’d meet some day. As time went by, whenever I’d run into one of these groups the leaders would inform me that Arlene had said they’d likely meet the ranger and to pass on a hello. The two of us had a sort of vicarious friendship.
            During the summer of 1999, Arlene accompanied one of these two-week outings but I missed seeing them. However, they did run into another of our rangers (whose bailiwick was a few canyons over from me). Colin was a tall, handsome, charismatic man in his fifties and their chance meeting in the wilderness resulted in he and Arlene having a romantic liaison. And it was through this channel that I finally got to meet Arlene one early autumn morning. I was staying at a Forest Service bunkhouse on days off. She had come over for the weekend to see Colin and the two stopped by to say hello. Arlene was much as I’d imagined her: petite, fit, attractive…a strong-willed powerhouse pushing sixty (though she looked a full decade younger). We finally got to have that nice, long chat after years of having looked forward to meeting one another.
            At the time, I was in a relationship with a woman whose work required her to shuttle between Phoenix and the Bay Area. For a time, Kristi was renting a little guesthouse in the little Marin County town of San Anselmo. Her brother, Steven, lived with his wife Sandra just a few miles away. That November I visited Kristi and the two of us would often have dinner at their place. Sandra was a very talented pianist and one evening she mentioned going to a piano recital in San Francisco in a few days; a pianist of international renown was performing at the venerable Herbst Theater in the city. (I’d never heard of the place.) Sandra asked if I’d like to come with her. Well…that’s a yes!
            The recital had already sold out so I was ticket-less but, when we arrived, city-wise Sandra promptly located someone on the sidewalk outside the theater who had one to sell. So I made it through the door but, unfortunately, my seat was far in the rear. However, Sandra came and collected me at intermission; someone hadn’t shown up (there was an empty seat right near her—third row center) so for the recital’s second half I had a great view of the stage.
            After two encores and a lengthy ovation, the lights came up and the audience stood to go. People down front were milling about, talking, waiting for the aisles to clear. Sandra was chatting with friends so I stood there gaping at the opulence of this cathedral-like edifice, in that semi-exalted state that comes with hearing music in such a place. And then, a woman who’d been seated in the row in front of me, just a few seats down, turned toward me.
Our eyes met. It was Arlene.
            Naturally, we were…flabbersmacked! Dumbgasted, gobfounded! Reflexively, we introduced one another to our companions and made some painfully inane small-talk. Then we all left. And I never saw Arlene again. But thanks to having met only a few months prior, we’d recognized one another.
The thing I took away from this chance meeting was the realization that we—all of us—cross paths with people with whom we share deep connections…and never know. We have near-encounters with potential lovers, dear friends, or collaborators—sometimes in highly unlikely places—but these crucial meetings don’t quite take place. Or we’ve spoken to one another on the phone or texted but haven’t seen the other’s face. The connection falls short of manifesting. These non-happenings don’t occur all around us, constantly.

In each person’s life: how many times does one sit in a room with another person, a stranger—someone with whom they share deep ties but simply never end up talking to? Or maybe the two did talk, maybe at length, but never made that crucial connection. Without a doubt, each of us have been acquainted with any number of individuals (in many cases, no doubt, having known them for ages) without ever discovering that we were related somehow—maybe even by blood—or have mutual friends in common. All that’s needed would be that chance reference, a slight bend in a wandering conversation. None of us will ever know how many times we’ve failed to spot or barely missed running into that person we were fondly remembering just minutes before.
Here’s a gloomy thought: How many lonely people miss meeting their one true love, their best friend by mere seconds or a few yards? Perhaps the two pass one another on a busy street but some momentary distraction thwarts a meeting of eyes. So they didn’t feel the powerful, beguiling spark that, unaccountably, would have stopped them in their tracks, leading to a struck up conversation that could have really got going over a cup of coffee. And that wonderful talk in the coffee shop coffee would have led to a date that changed two lives. The net result could have been a happy marriage of fifty-two years and the birth of amazing children and grandchildren.
Such things must happen—or rather, they don’t happen—constantly. We’ll never know either way. But this has to be true. What might it mean that we live in a world whose lines of connection are far more entangled than we can even imagine them to be? The idea casts a long shadow. Many would say it’s best not to think about such things. I’m reminded of that childhood game I played, standing in front of the bathroom mirror with mom’s hand mirror beside my face…holding it just so and suddenly seeing an apparently endless series of reflections of my own face, endlessly regressing into a sort of tunnel—something I would later know to name infinity. I didn’t play that “game” very often because it was somehow deeply disturbing. But every so often I’d do it, feeling an impulse to revisit a mysterious and frightening place that held some deep and compelling meaning.

    ©2017 by Tim Forsell                       draft                         2 May 2017          

Saturday, August 5, 2017

These Things Happen...Part II

Another kind of synchronicity includes related events that take place over time, in stages as it were. Again, the events may have significance only to the person(s) involved; whatever they consist of might seem inconsequential and trivial or even silly to others. Such is most definitely the case with this fundamentally ridiculous story.
Phase One: For the better part of a month I’d been camping at the hot springs in Saline Valley. In those years I spent much of each winter at this remote oasis near Death Valley, a place that provides the basic needs of an itinerant community of nomadic types—like unemployed rangers—during the non-summer months. It was New Years Eve day, 1994.  I’d thoroughly enjoyed my previous Saline New Years celebrations (which might involve well over a hundred people) but this year the group of friends I’d been camping with wanted to avoid the crowds that come just for the festivities. They decided to leave the valley and I elected to follow them out, resupply in town, and then head back to the springs for more. Some other folks who wanted to skip the revelry as well decided do the same and we invited them to join us in a convoy to make sure everyone made it safely over the snow-covered pass. We all made it over the icy pass but, due to our late start, ended up making camp nearby on a Joshua tree-covered plain.
It was not only cold—the “camp” was a wide pullout at 6000 feet elevation—but very windy so we parked our rigs in a tight circle. There was a fire ring so I built a little fire (we had some wood with us) and had our own improvised celebration. A dozen souls gamely huddled around the struggling fire, everyone wearing heavy coats and warm hats. There were several drums, one saxophone and—yes—alcohol was consumed. Despite the harsh conditions we actually created a rather festive, celebratory ambiance. The drumming and wild wind lent our impromptu celebration a sort of pagan lunacy…a wintry madness. Somebody had firecrackers and set a few off.
Then I did a thing that seemed innocent enough at the time but which, nonetheless, resulted in the birth of a minor legend. In Saline Valley, where people are often known only by first names, the long-time visitors end up with epithets bestowed on them by others. I was “Ranger Tim” to most folks but, for some time after this episode, a few people took to calling me “Mad Bomber.” (This included some who were not among the few eye-witnesses who returned to the springs afterward.)
Once the fire was laid, I attempted to get the wood to catch but my disposable Bic ran out of fuel. Somebody handed me another lighter and without thinking I slipped the empty one into a pocket.
After the firecrackers, I was apparently feeling a little of the pagan zaniness and did something that, in retrospect, was downright foolhardy. I found the dead Bic in my coat pocket and, without deliberation, flipped it into the fire. This was a total whim intended, I suppose, to “spice things up.” Having performed this experiment on a previous occasion (to see what would happen) I knew that the lighter wouldn’t explode in a ball of flame, spewing molten plastic and shrapnel. All of us were huddled close to the fire. I made some show of tossing the thing into the pit but not everyone saw this—including, ahem, a mother holding her infant. Those that did, however, scattered.
Part of this deal was that I felt lucky right at that moment so I  didn’t even bother to move away, knowing I was safe from harm. I realize this doesn’t make much sense but this is a “thing” with me: an feeling of complete immunity from disaster at very specific times…a certainty that I can pull something off and have nothing to fear. (This non-rational sensation was a consequence of years of solo rock-climbing—an activity that relies in part on an intuitive certitude as regards positive outcomes, e.g., not falling and dying.) My companions, however, weren’t aware that they were perfectly safe.
As designated fire-tender I was seated right next to the flames in a low-slung folding camp chair. The fire-pit was surrounded by piled stones. Some seconds after my impetuous act, there was a POP! (not even close to being as loud as the firecrackers) and a shower of glowing coals. The lighter flew out of the pit, landing a few yards away. I hadn’t moved a muscle and no hot coals landed in my lap. No one was burned, no hair was singed. Some people “got” the weird devil-may-care humor of it and laughed—no harm done!—but a few thought I’d been stupid and reckless. The woman with the infant, who I hardly knew, was genuinely incensed. It wasn’t until later that I found out just how incensed. I heard about it from others and ended up apologizing to the mother, who took the opportunity to give me a real dressing-down. But the story got spread far and wide and gathered some momentum, no doubt getting embellished along the way. In part, it was intended as a rebuke for my having done something that people thought so out of character for a ranger. Others, those who knew me, felt I’d been irresponsible and could easily have injured someone. But I should point out that at the remote desert outpost of Saline Valley hot springs there’s a sort of loose-knit transient community. And within every small community—always—there is ceaseless, unfiltered gossiping.
For a couple of years I’d occasionally be ribbed about that night. Some of it was good-humored mockery though a few acquaintances would call me “Mad Bomber” just to provoke me. Others (including the mother, of course) kept my censure alive.
Phase Two: Several years later, once more in Saline Valley at the hotsprings. New Years eve again, as well, with friends around a cheery fire in my camp after a lovely dinner. Libations and laughter. My pal Gabriel’s mother, Ariella, took the opportunity to recall that semi-infamous event’s anniversary. She had done this on other occasions. So people who hadn’t even been there got to hear (again) about the ball of fire, the blazing coals winging through the air, the molten projectile that whizzed past someone’s ear. (For a few, this was a first telling.) In the past, close friends had kidded me but apparently there were some who still believed that I’d heedlessly endangered innocent people and they still carried some residual indignation. And maybe this was justified.
Still, being reminded of the affair most definitely annoyed me. But: it just so happened that I had in my possession a spent Bic disposable lighter that had run out of gas the day before and was right there in my trash bag. To finally lay this matter to rest, I went and fished the thing out and carried it over to the fire. After a brief preliminary statement I tossed it into the coals. Everybody quickly backed off but I stood directly in front of the fire, three yards from the flames. Some people actually crouched behind cars or bushes. There was a fair amount of anticipation in the air. After several long seconds there was an insipid little pop! and a few small coals fell onto the surrounding sand. There was some disappointment-tinged laughter at the manifest anticlimax and folks ambled back to the campfire while I just stood there, stunned. Because:
In the darkness, beyond the circle of fire-light, no one had seen what happened (me included). But that lighter had sailed out of the firepit, hitting me in the chest. In fact, it struck directly over my heart. There was no pain, none, but I’d just taken a straight shot to the heart. I plucked the slightly melted lighter out of the sand at my feet and began babbling, holding it up to show everyone. No one seemed particularly impressed or even interested. But I sure thought it was, well…something. And still do.
Phase Three: November 2015. Back in Saline Valley for the first time in several years, specifically to attend the wedding of my friends Gabriel and Loretta.
The evening before the ceremony: a big dinner in their camp attended by at least thirty people, most of whom I’d never met. Dylan and I are fairly antisocial, especially when it comes to mingling with groups of virtual strangers. So we skipped the dinner but ambled over later to at least make a polite appearance. (Our hosts had plenty on their plates so we hadn’t expected to spend much time with them on this trip.) It was breezy on top of the autumn chill and Dylan ended up sitting in front of one crowded campfire. I wandered around and chatted with some old acquaintances.
Gabriel had been brand-new to “desert camping” when he first started coming to Saline in the late 90s but has since become expert when it comes to the many subtle details involved with camping out in the desert—camping with small children, in particular. Saline Valley can quickly turn vicious when the wind blows or if it rains. (On rare occasions it even snows). This year he’d brought a new and practical item: the interior works of an old washing machine—the critical “tub” part that spins during the spin cycle. Its purpose was to serve as a “fire-pan,” something you can build a small campfire in to keep the fire “contained” without having to build a fire-ring out of stones. (Now that Saline Valley is part of Death Valley National Park, the Park Service has outlawed the building of fire-rings.) This wasn’t the first time I’d seen one of these; they’re lined with drain-holes that let out some light and they radiate heat—good in the wind.
I was becoming chilled so joined a couple of folks around the washing machine tub fire. One of them was Gabriel’s mom, Ariella—the woman fond of teasing me about the lighter debacle. I’ve known her as long as her son; they often come out at the same times, particularly for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Ariella is one of my oldest Saline friends and we get along well but she does have a way of getting on my nerves at times. 
It may have been because we were sitting around a campfire on a cold, windy night but for some reason Ariella chose to (one more time!) dredge up the lighter incident. She’s likely one of the few people who even remembers and is certainly the only one who would still bring it up. I found it positively annoying that she felt compelled to rehash an embarrassing incident in front of total strangers. But I went along, downplaying her customary exaggerations. “Uh…there was no ‘ball of flames,’ Ariella.” But she was obviously taking perverse pleasure in my clearly telegraphed discomfort. Not one minute later I got up and walked away from the fire, feeling fairly irritated.
I took a step or two before hearing a faint pop! followed by a hissing sound and cries of distress from Ariella. The washing machine tub fire-pan had sort of “exploded,” spraying her—and only her—with some mystery-fluid. Ariella was fine, but rattled.
It so happened that the washer tub was double walled and held some fluid in its internal space—hopefully just water—which I later realized was a way of helping balance an uneven load of clothes during the spin cycle. (When a load is unbalanced, the fluid rushes to the opposite side of the tub to compensate, helping stabilize the machine. Clever.) The fire had boiled the fluid and apparently there was some kind of a fill-cap that had popped off. The fill-hole just happened to be pointed Ariella’s way so she got sprayed with steam and hot mystery-liquid. Thanks to the multiple layers of warm clothes she was wearing, Gabriel’s mom was unhurt but flustered and confused. He heard the commotion, came over, and we gradually figured out what had happened. I seriously doubt Ariella made the connection between this bizarre incident and the story she’d just shared. Me: I found the irony delicious.
This final episode occurred after I’d written an early draft of this story. I wasn’t anticipating an additional material and don’t attribute any more meaning to it than the rest (which is to say, none). But, I must say, this final chapter is a curious and fortuitous postscript—one that neatly tidies up a tale’s loose ends and closes a circle.

   ©2017 by Tim Forsell      draft         2 May 2017