Sunday, February 12, 2017

Piute Log...Leap of Faith 1991

The place where I lived for sixteen summers (1988–2003) was a choice part of an utterly spectacular landscape of National Park caliber. In fact, Yosemite Park lay on the far side of the several craggy peaks visible from the cabin, only a few miles distant. These peaks—Tower, Ehrnbeck, and Hawksbeak—are situated on a section of the Sierra crest that takes an anomalous west-to-east jog in the otherwise northwest-to-southeast trending range. This meant that the peaks along this stretch had directly north-facing walls. Winter storms from the Pacific drop large quantities of snow when they slam into the crest and it piles up on the lee side. In addition, the north sides of the precipitous granite peaks are deeply shaded and hold snow significantly longer. The net effect is that, through the millennia, accumulating snow formed glaciers that were both deeper and flowed farther than others east of the Sierra crest. The country between Bridgeport and Sonora Pass, in particular, boasted some of the deepest and longest of these valleys. ◦◦◦◦ My summer residence was located at the lower end of mile-long Upper Piute Meadows, which fills the bottom of this deeply cut glacial valley like an emerald-green lake in early summer, slopes on either side rising in excess of 2000 feet high. These slopes are themselves the flanks of towering ridgelines rimming other glacially-hewn valleys. Mostly smooth-sided, dotted with rocky outcrops, the ridges are topped with several jagged-edged peaklets that, during the last ice-age, were the only points protruding from a virtual ice-cap that almost buried the entire region. ◦◦◦◦The cabin is located on a small rise above the meadow’s outlet, where the meandering West Walker River cuts through solid bedrock before plunging down a rocky gorge. From my porch, looking up at the mountain peaks, the slope on the left (and on the river’s far side) was granitic. The right-hand side, rising directly behind the cabin, was of a slatey, metamorphic rock. Both slopes were heavily timbered but with different kinds of trees and the terrain was different based on its substrate. ◦◦◦◦ The slope behind the cabin was over a mile and a half broad, meeting the head of Tower Creek to the south. It was a wilderness within the Wilderness—a place where virtually no one ever ventured. (Aside from me and a few friends.) I called it “Piute Wilderness”. Because of the nature of the slatey rock, which was carved by glaciers along natural fracture planes, it tended to form flat benches—a joy to stumble upon unexpectedly, providing stretches of gentle strolling on the otherwise steep and rugged mountainside. These sporadic benches harbored several secret ponds and small lakelets—heavenly spots. I dearly loved exploring the nooks and crannies. ◦◦◦◦ After leaving the cabin and scrambling up several hundred vertical feet, there was a tiny valley with a lovely snowmelt-fed brook flowing down it, fed all summer by permanent snowfields higher on the mountain. It flowed through this charming little secret valley, parallel to the slope, through shaded forests of red fir, mountain hemlock, and lodgepole pine. The tumbling brook was lined with flower gardens in places, carved rock slabs in others  and it was surely one of my favorite haunts of all. It had a feeling of utter solitude and an untrammeled, primal quality that I cherished…food for my soul. ◦◦◦◦ This first entry is from an early exploration; the second tells of starting (for the first time) from where the little creek flowed into the West Walker a half-mile downriver from the cabin. It was this particular jaunt that led me to name it “Dinky Creek,” having realized that I’d be spending more time exploring this gem and wanting to make it my own. ◦◦◦◦ The Sierra Nevada has hundreds of such pockets of untouched wildlands.

7 Aug (Wed)     …needed to walk so in the afternoon I headed down the gorge, then cut up toward the snowmelt-fed brook that spills into Cranney’s meadow. ◦◦◦◦◦  Hit the little creek lower down than I have before. (Usually climb straight up from the cabin and run into it much higher.) Passed through a painfully beautiful scene: a large dike of layered, exfoliating volcanic rock runs down the mountainside through there. The creek cuts a gap through it, forming a narrow, twisting defile about 30 yards long, its entrance flanked on either side by a veritable grove of monkshood (rare around these parts) in full bloom. The  mini-gorge’s vertical walls crusted with moss and ferns, and the creek hurries through on a naked slab of tan-colored andesite. Sometimes when I catch a glimpse of genuine natural perfection in a place such as this I feel the urge to sit down and stay awhile (like…for a few days). It somehow feels wrong to just walk on by. ◦◦◦◦◦ But so much more to see so I wandered on upstream where the creek alternately disappears into the mountain and reappears when it flowed over solid rock hidden under the rubble. The display of flowers was one of the finest I’ve seen this year as I knew it would be. Corn lily and columbine being attacked by aphids. Followed it to the mouth of the tiny cirque where this creek originates and found a fine viewpoint on a rock with Piute Meadows and all down-canyon laid out. Contoured across the slope onto benches and found four beautiful tarns. Followed their drainage down steeply and hit the trail past the head of Piute Meadow. An inspiring jaunt into pure wilderness, to places where no one ever goes.

25 Aug (Sun)     OFF. ◦◦◦◦◦ …in the afternoon I took a walk. Headed across the river and down the gorge to where it bends north again near Bart’s old basecamp. I followed what I’m now calling “Dinky Creek” from where it dumps into the West Walker to its very source. (Went as far as the mouth of a little cirque a couple of weeks ago.) I’ve never done the bottom section before…usually hit it higher when hiking straight up behind the cabin. The lower part is quite steep and in a series of steps…lovely meadows almost finished blooming. Got to where I’d intersected the creek on my last hike. Then through that marvelous mini-gorge between its rock walls. Barely a trickle over the slabs now. Climbed up to the top this time to look down into it. I was standing on a tiny ledge when I decided to head back home instead of do the whole hike. But was on the wrong side of the creek—I’d have to traverse and clamber down into and back out of the thing. Then I noticed a small ledge on the other side and a bit lower than me. Hey! I could jump that! It was only about ten feet across but a sheer 25 foot drop to the slabs. Inched down to a really good take-off point and sampled the jump in my mind just to get the adrenaline going. Then I got the wild hair and my brain said, Just do it! Just because you can! And I allowed myself to be tricked (again) and leapt. It was one of those deals where you feel complete certainty but know that you can’t stop and think it over—immediate action is required. ◦◦◦◦◦  The ledge was small with a thin plate of rock on it that looked like it might possibly skate so I landed with one foot on the slate-y piece and the other on soil right on the rim. It was a good, solid leap; unfortunately, my right shin came into contact with the edge of a sharp flake above my landing pad. I came to a stop, then started to sway backwards. Was mostly conscious of a brand new pain in my leg but then noticed I was slowly starting to sway backwards. The body was in balance though so I just swung back over my feet again. Good thing. But I’d de-barked my shin pretty good and the blood ran down my leg, soaking my sock dramatically. “Only a flesh wound!” [Monty Python reference…to be read with mock-British accent.] Headed home and walked it off. [Somewhat later, added this note to the side of the page: “Days later, noticed a small piece of cartilage or bone sticking out of the scab. The thick scab didn’t fall off for a solid month.”]  

As a sort of postscript: this mildly curious incident—a sort of follow-up to my wild leap. (Which, I should explain, was not an isolated event; as a climber, I’d many times been in situations where a big jump was either necessary or preferable to a long detour. “Calculated jumps” are one of a mountaineer’s many skills, and something I happened to be good at.) This happened five years later, 1996. At the time I was in a committed relationship with a woman. She had two children and they’d all come visit. They were staying at the cabin at this time and, after lunch one day, we all walked up the mountainside directly behind the cabin to a remnant snow patch for some “glissading.” (Skiing with just your boots on; it can actually be great fun when the snow is right.) I’d been to this spot some says before and knew the kids would enjoy it. Johanna was ten; Sage, fifteen, was already a gonzo skier and went on to be something of a star, featured in many films doing truly crazy stunts on skis.

8 Jul (Mon)     ….  After lunch we tromped out to the outhouse and on up the hill toward Ranger Notch to go glissading. The place I’d been to a week ago was not as good this time (snow surface rougher plus rocks and willows now poking up in the runout zone). We had many fine runs, though. Sage going nuts of course; he and I shooting down the steepest pitches while Katie and Johanna took lesser slides. But we got them both on some steeper bits—the snow was better there—and I thoroughly enjoyed having Jo slide down into my arms, catching and whirling her around. Sage was doing airborne 360° jumps off the lip and then him and I took turns standing like a statue while the other shot past as close as possible going probably 20 miles per. Had a great time! This is something I’d never do alone…one of those things that’s better when you can share it. ◦◦◦◦◦ Jo was pooped. All of us were. We marched back down the hill. A curious incident: Got to Dinky Creek, intersecting it right at the little rock gorge in the andesite. We’d been there last year and I’d showed the kids the place where I jumped across the gorge on a complete whim, just because “I knew I could.” When I made the jump (which was downward and maybe a bit less than ten feet, onto a tiny ledge near the top of the cliff) it went as planned but my right shin met a sharp edge, which tore off a chunk of my leg, ouch. So…the “strange event” was that we crossed the creek just below this gap where I’d leapt and, doing a little hop-across from a rock in the water to the far side, I landed on a flat rock “platter” that flipped up unexpectedly and caught me on both shins. I bled very little but it hurt. It was a couple of minutes later when I realized that the very last time I’d barked my shins (which, I should note, are both covered with similar scars) was that time, probably five years ago, not fifty feet away.

     © 2017 by Tim Forsell                                                                                                                    12 Feb 2017

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Piute Log...First Goat Ascent 1994

There were a handful of folks that I’d see every season. It was one of the greater pleasures of rangering, forming genuine friendships with amazing people (who I referred to as “my best customers”). Old Rod Davis was one of the most colorful. He always traveled alone but in the presence of a small herd of…pack goats! They actually had tiny little pack-saddles, quarter-scale versions of what goes on the back of a horse or mule. They’d carry all his stuff and were boon companions as well. (And when he’d come with the grandkids, a couple of the she-goats provided the childrens’ milk as well.) Rod, who owned property near Nevada City, lived there with his son’s family and a bunch of animals. He was a real character—a depression era relict with stories of being a cowboy in the Dakotas when he was a teen…a small, wiry man, hard of hearing, who usually wore a bandana stuffed under a crumpled hat (to keep the sun off his ears), jeans, and plaid shirt. He liked climbing mountains, was always off to attempt some peak he hadn’t yet been up. But this was just Rod’s excuse to wander in the woods. I always enjoyed seeing him, loved the goats—very intelligent animals who followed like dogs. The packers, however, couldn’t stand him—goats terrify pack strings and can cause all sorts of havoc. (Horses and mules see goats as some kind of space aliens.) Then, later, I’d hear from the packers about some wreck that happened while the old man just stood there watching, ignoring their pleas to ”GET YOUR *&%#√$@ GOATS OFF THE TRAIL!” He seemed utterly clueless about this and I’d admonish him: “Rod! Whenever you see horses coming, PLEASE get off the trail, take ‘em into the woods ‘til after they pass.” It wasn’t just the pack station folk who suffered; the same thing happened with me—more than once. (I’d scream, too…and to no avail.)

30 Aug (Tue)     An “unusual” day, even for this ranger; when I was riding out yesterday I ran into Rod Davis (third time this season), back with his lovely daughter-in-law, three grandkids, dog, and seven pack-goats. This same bunch was up about six weeks ago. Then Rod returned with just the dog and two goats to climb Forsyth Peak [on the Yosemite Park/Toiyabe Forest boundary] but he didn’t make it and was up to try again. They were—all 42 legs of ‘em—going up to Helen Lake and he was going to try for the summit again. I casually commented that I might come up to visit and, after thinking about it more, thought it’d be neat to go up Forsyth with this motley bunch. My alarm got me up at five this morning and it still sounded like a good idea. ◦◦◦◦◦ So I left at 8:30 and just 100 minutes later parked Redtop right above Cora Lake. Slipped into the nearest phone booth and changed from chaps–Stetson–green pants–lace-up packer boots–spurs into nylon shorts–ball cap–Asolos [hiking boots]. Walked up to Helen but saw no one. Backtracked and searched all around, listening hard, but heard neither chattering children nor bleating goats. Oh well. I gave up on them, disappointed, and headed back toward Helen Lake. Cruising along the west shore I came around a rock bluff and saw a bunch of goats grazing. ◦◦◦◦◦ Minute or two later I was talking with Rod & Evie; they weren’t going up Forsyth today after all! Instead, they were all gonna walk to Dorothy Lake. But since I showed up, ready to go, they changed plans again and we left almost immediately for the original objective. (The two older grandkids elected to stay in camp.) Our party consisted of Rod (71), Evie (38), Will (7), Sharee the dog, and five goats (ages unknown). The goats were Johnny, Bobby, Highland, Silver, and Vulcan. This was surely the most unusual party ever assembled to make an assault on seldom-climbed Forsyth Peak. And undoubtedly the first ever ascent by goats. I was utterly charmed by each & every one of my compatriots. ◦◦◦◦◦ We slowly proceeded to the very headwaters of Cascade Creek, into a fine alpine vale with a lovely tarn I’d never been to. Stopped there for a snack & chat, goats asking for handouts. From there it was a talus-slog and I watched the nimble goats scramble through boulders and scree, often causing small landslides. After Evie gave Will a handful of M&Ms he turned into a tiny dynamo and surged ahead, chiding us adults for our slowness. An hour later we all gathered on the meager, flat summit for lunch and the goats raised clouds of dust while digging out shallow depressions to lie in. (A goat thing….) Fine views of many peaks that both Rod and I had climbed in years past. I introduced Will to the joys of trundling [rolling boulders off cliffs]. An eagle flew by to investigate the noise (I’d told them we’d see one) and I was very much impressed to see Will scrambling around on the edge of a significant precipice and not once did his ma or grandpa say things like, “Stay away from the edge, Will!” or “Be careful, Will!” Thought it was very cool of the grownups to just let a seven-year-old have a good time on a mountain-top; he was being as cautious as we were, after all. ◦◦◦◦◦ After an hour or so we departed, reversing our route. Vulcan was the slow party on the way down. Back to Helen at 5:30, Will chatting me up the whole way. ◦◦◦◦◦ Said my goodbyes and cruised back to Red, my bad ankle hurting. He’d been tied to that tree for over seven hours but hadn’t dug at all. Good boy, Red! Got back to the cabin at 7:30 after a truly memorable day. Wrote in this log ‘til it was too dark to see, took a bath in the shriveled river and built a fire. The milky way was blazing. And, by the way: this morning in the dark I saw Sirius (first time this year)  just risen over the ridge and there was the “winter triangle” of Betelgeuse, Sirius, and Procyon. A lovely sight. Autumn cometh.

→ 9 visitors         → 13½ miles

Quotes copied on the inside cover of this volume of The Piute Log:

We must keep our amazement, or own eagerness alive. And if we ever fail in our quest for insight, it is not because it cannot be found, but because we do not know how to live, or how to be aware of the minds narcissistic tendency, which cuts thought off at its roots.
Abraham Joshua Heschel

Some folks sleep on a problem but you can camp on one as well. Camping is for the mind what a high-speed run on the highway is for a car. It tends to blow out all the sludge that accumulates in the type of urban driving most of us are forced to do in order to earn a living.
  Tim Cahill, “Cosmic Camping”


     © 2015  Tim Forsell                                                                                                                 21 Dec 2015

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Piute Log...Leave-Taking, Last Days 1999

To finish up the season, two young women who worked the front desk at the ranger station in town came up to help me shut down Piute cabin. Their (thankless) job entails, in part, giving out information about the backcountry and this was an opportunity for them to see some of it in person and have a good time; they certainly deserved a little vacation. So, on the 21st of October I rode back to the cabin with Erica and Chris. These entries are from the last two days.

22 Oct (Fri)     An outstanding fall day, weather-wise and otherwise. No complaints were heard from any quarter. As promised (and expected) I made famous buttermilk pancakes but—without benefit of whole wheat flour, flaxseed, and cornmeal—they were poor substitutes for the real thing though good lookin’. ◦◦◦◦◦ After clean-up we walked my standard backyard loop to the top of “the quarry.” For subtle psychological reasons my visitors typically never leave the yard (sometimes never leave the cabin) and this is my usual ploy to get them to look about. From the top of the quarry the meadow is laid out clear and simple…a true high mountain meadow, rimmed with real-live mountains, swathed in timber. Gets ‘em every time, this encompassing view does, and nobody ever notices that I’ve slyly taken them out and dunked them in unadulterated reality. ◦◦◦◦◦ Erica had to leave by noon. So after our little walk we took down the back fence. Erica, hating to leave said, “I feel like I just got here!” and I replied, “You did just get here…I feel sorry for you.” Then we did some shit-kickin’. I instructed the ladies on the need for and technique of proper manure-scattering and they went at it with a will. Erica tapped right in to the therapeutic value; she went through a nasty break-up this spring and commented on how good this activity would’ve been for venting. ◦◦◦◦◦ Erica left. It was lunch-time (and then nap-time). Chris entertains herself well, is not the chatterbox I thought she’d be. In fact, she’s very thoughtful and insightful, a genuine article in tiny androgynous form. ◦◦◦◦◦ After the nap I brewed coffee and we went back to it. Chris and I went to opposite corners of the pasture and did “the Piute two-step.” Shit flew! In one of the old oxbows I found a tiny plant, “pearlwort” (Sagina saginoides) with microscopic little perfect flowers, a late blooming individual—a plant of still-moist silty riverbanks exposed by seasonal lowering. I’ve only seen it a couple times and am amazed by its tiny-ness and near invisibility. ◦◦◦◦◦ Chris split firewood rounds, had much fun doing so. I closed the skylights and did man-chores. BBQed chicken and gabbed. Chris unfolded a few more layers. Skipped my river bath. Last night’s was definitely the last of the season and a late one at that. Thanks for a lovely day on the mountain!

23 Oct (Sat)    Leave-taking, last day. How nice to finish my season (17th) here at the cabin. Official statistics (I counted last night, adding up past annual totals): today is the 1077th day I’ve been here. Today’s, my 169th “commute” out—which is by no means the figure for all the times I’ve traversed the trail, as in day-rides out and back…only for the trips out. [I kept track of these things each season so it was easy to tally up the totals.] If I added those long patrols I’ve probably traversed this narrow road almost 400 times, phew! ◦◦◦◦◦ But it wasn’t such a good day at the start, actually…my back was a bit tweaked yesterday either from chopping rounds or, more likely, dragging that stretch of fence across the river. I slept poor, really stiff. Got up and made a fire, got back in bed for a bit. Sun finally hit the cabin at 8:33 revealing a lovely day. ◦◦◦◦◦ Hustled. Amazing how dark and dingy the cabin is without the skylights. Especially dismal since I was in some pain and leaving home. Plus kinda overcast and stormy at first. I fried up leftovers (not even hungry…) and finished shutting down. Pretty much on top of it, having done the bulk yesterday. A trip across the creek to drop the front fence took twenty minutes. Chris is a dear soul—a tiny, homely, boyish lesbian with obvious background problems, therapists, et cet—but warm and kind, humble, open, bright, buoyant (she floats!). She loved it here and it’s so encouraging to see how she’s trying to be at peace in her world. She’s been easy to please and loved chopping firewood. ◦◦◦◦◦ We left at noon after 10,000 poignant impressions had pressed themselves into my clay. That final, final-day, last ditch clinging to the vestiges of “the life” knowing, as I do, that it may be the last of the sweet days (ya just never know) so, live it now, boy, as hard as you can. We live on such a wonderful planet and I do enjoy being part of the cast of characters. ◦◦◦◦◦ But I was in some pain with that sharp, tight thing in my ribcage. Chris was often aways behind so little talk and much looking about. Sun came back out and I was traveling in a perfect world, aspens glittering under the blue bowl (which, over the last year, has been much enhanced by my polarized sunglasses). Make no mistake: I am not ecstatic or even joyful at such times. I’m just riding along taking things in, absorbing while remaining very neutral. Little in the way of emotion. But always sensing the perfection and with mild awe at the complexity and improbability of it all. (As I say, we have a pretty darn nice planet to live on.) ◦◦◦◦◦ Last contacts with the visitors today and had two that made for striking contrast. Down Lower Piute way, at the Lily Pond: solo male with gigantic pack. When he saw us (and horses) he got off the trail to go around…clearly sullen and surly and not wishing to speak to anyone, which I understand and respect. Probably without a permit, too, which I also have no problem with (in October…) but had to at least hail him and ask where he was heading. At that point he noticed I was dressed in green and said, “You with the Forest Service? Hey, when are you guys gonna end this ‘sweet-heart deal’ with those pack station people?” (This, his way of greeting strangers.) Chris, who’d been a bit behind, rode up in time to hear all this. I unconsciously put those quote marks around “sweet-heart deal,” otherwise just a phrase in a sentence. But, hearing this and similar loaded slogans I immediately sense some sort of polarized political affiliation. And the sneering sort of tone he used. Sure ‘nuf, turns out he’s with the High Sierra Hikers Association—the anti-stock-use group that’s suing the FS. So despite my rush and being in some pain (actually, a good diversion from both) I got off my horse, removed sunglasses, and spent twenty minutes taking all this guy’s questions head-on. I didn’t expect to sway his views, nor did I attempt to. His beef is that horses (mostly via pack outfits) do most  of the resource damage in the mountains—a horse at least ten times more than a human. I immediately agreed (and told him that Bart would also agree) but the figure was more like twenty times the damage. “But there’s nothing you  can do about that if you accept stock use. They weigh a thousand pounds, have four feet and wear steel hiking boots. Do you know what a jungle looks like when the herd of elephants has passed through? I reminded him of the historical “opening” of the backcountry and initial establishment of trails by people on horses. He understand that and acquiesced on those points. I told him that so long as there were people wanting to do this sort of thing, there’d be pack stations and mule strings ripping the trails to dust. As time goes by there’ll be a natural political and economic flow that will determine future use patterns. And that he should be far more concerned by the growing political clout of the ORV [off-road vehicle] users, whose toys have generated entire industries. This news seemed to catch him off guard but then he suggested that Bart at least should be required to add $10 per head toward trail maintenance. To this I informed him that, despite what he thinks, businesses like Bart’s are typically break-even affairs subdized by outside income, winter jobs. The realities of running a small business with so much overhead is often not compatible with “how things ought to be,” on many levels. We talked long and hard. As I say, I’d never change his attitude, not to mention his mind—just wanted to address the issues fair and square. After we rode on, Chris and I agreed that this guy was not a “happy camper”. ◦◦◦◦◦ My second encounter (and season’s last) was above Lane Lake. A couple, 50s-ish, from Twain Harte and, like the other fella, had never been up here before. But quite a contrast: man says, by way of greeting, “You must be the ‘author’!” [Referring to my trailhead-sign ranger’s greeting letter.] I admitted that I was indeed. He said, “We really  liked what you wrote….” Et cetera. Glowing praise to go along with the big happy smiles. They were thoroughly enjoying their day. “Where you headed?” I ask. “We don’t know!” I congratulate them on having no plan, adding that I always applaud people who don’t have the usual rigid itinerary, the line drawn on the map. Such a nice final meeting with visitors. All of us awed by the perfect autumn day. “Well, have a good trip,” I said in fare-well. “That’s absolutely assured,” man replies. ◦◦◦◦◦ So we rolled on out. Pack station all closed up—a thing I’ve never seen before. Doc always stayed until the highway was closed, ostensibly to “keep out intruders,” no doubt, but more of an excuse to avoid the short days in the foggy flatlands. The Tiltin’ Hilton was all boarded up, so sad. I sighed. We unloaded and unsaddled by the deserted highway, aspens mostly bare but with a few orange and yellow patches here and there. ◦◦◦◦◦ To town in a daze, back screaming. Dropped off tack and horses, said ‘bye to Chris, and took a shower at Greta’s (ahhhh!). Stayed the night out at the barn, reunited with kitties…completely spent and “done.”

24 Oct (Sun)     Up in the dark, a mere 14°, and drove to Travertine [hotsprings] for a fine soak. Not a soul around! On Sunday morning! Blessed be! ◦◦◦◦◦ To Greta’s for last visit and cuppa joe, warm hug goodbye; almost like lovers—this last one—for the last several years now, with pats and rubs and soul-meeting. She’s a fine sister. Good bye! ◦◦◦◦◦ To the warehouse for final packing. Of course, Shitbird was off hiding somewhere. (Lucy safe and sound, soundly asleep in the warehouse.) Merri and Michelle stopped by—just back from climbing Mt. Whitney, two nights at my place [near Lone Pine] which, of course, they loved. They were tired, sore, victorious, and sunburned. “We did it! We’re never doing it again!” sez Mer, in Mer-like fashion. More fare-thee-wells and hugs. ◦◦◦◦◦ So I drove away…again. Bye bye Bridgeport. Aspens still splendid at Conway Summit. ◦◦◦◦◦ It was a good year. I was pretty happy, plenty glad to be back to the cabin. Lots of great experiences and moods and lights…long days, fine meals, river baths, mosquitoes…aches’n’pains aplenty as well. What a deal. I’ll take it!

  ©2016 by Tim Forsell               29 May 2016

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Tim Wrote It 1999

We all have stories to tell of bizarre events and ridiculously unlikely meetings—of practically unbelievable incidents that cause an otherwise normal day to suddenly freeze in the present. Time seems to slow to a crawl, or feels compressed. And when these things happen, on occasion you experience them as if you’ve somehow stepped aside and are watching things unfold from the sidelines. And incidents that fit this description can instantly transform a worldview based on the assumption that human lives are ruled by randomness and chance.
That’s certainly been the case for me: having long since abandoned belief in any traditional conception of a “higher power,” I’m nonetheless convinced that there’s some innately mysterious influence at work and play in our lives—orchestrating, pointing the way, or providing timely wake-up calls with a gentle nudge. But what that enigmatic influence is: truly, I don’t know. And I’m fairly sure that no one has effectively come up with an adequate explanation. My conclusion, after decades spent pondering the matter, is that we are simply part of an active, intelligent, and creative Universe acting on itself. I call it “The Grand Swirl.” This much is certain: life is one colossal, unending miracle of creation and there’s a lot going on that we don’t understand. We tend to forget.
I try not to. While I may not exactly lead a “charmed” life, I have been exceptionally lucky (not to be confused with “fortunate,” though I am that as well) and my life, at times, gracefully takes on literary qualities and things play out like some universal allegory. I’ve not had a single brush with the supernatural but seem especially prone to improbable meetings, often in out-of-the-way places. Which have had the effect of supporting my conviction that, at a deep level, everything about our world is intertwined.

Early March, 1997, at the remote hot springs in Saline Valley: one of those nondescript events that’s later revealed to be a major juncture in the time-line that defines one’s life.
Just after sunrise, Diane and I were walking up the dusty road. We’d driven over from Lone Pine the night before and, delighted to be back, eagerly anticipated our first morning soak. The low sunlight’s sumptuous radiance was quickly spreading across the desert, revealing details of terrain that would disappear as the day progressed, and subtle colors that would become dull and indistinct. Imposing mountain ranges encircled the valley…a profusion of deep silence: these somehow adding to the feeling of security and comfort bestowed by his amazing and truly unique place. It still felt like home to me; in past years I’d spent much of each winter living here on the cheap—free camping, unlimited hot water—and had made many lasting friendships.
We had two pools to choose from. The larger—known as “the Wizard pool” (after a local character who built it many years ago)—is warmer and by far the more popular. Approaching, we saw half-a-dozen soakers in the larger pool, all men, talking and laughing loudly. Diane wasn’t very enthusiastic about joining them. “I don’t know… Sounds like a buncha rowdies.” Seventy yards away, “the volcano pool” (significantly cooler) was unoccupied. Like most Saliners, I preferred the Wizard pool at this early hour and replied, “Well, let’s at least go check it out first. Could be there’s somebody we know in there with the rowdies.”
They sure enough were a jovial bunch. Most of them were a group of friends from Plumas County camping together. As we walked up to the pool, Diane spotted one man wearing a hat emblazoned with the name of a ski resort in Wyoming, on the west (less popular) side of the Tetons: GRAND TARGHEE. Before moving to Lone Pine, Diane had lived just a few miles down the road from this fairly obscure ski resort. Her earlier disdain for the potential “rowdies” vanished. She met the hat owner’s eye and asked if someone gave him the hat or he’d actually been there. He had.
“I used to live just a few miles down the road from it…skied there all the time.”
 “No kidding! Had some great powder when I was there.”
So we dropped our packs and, just like that, found ourselves in the company of new friends—not an unusual state of affairs in Saline Valley. It’s a place where common ground is sought out by total strangers and, when found, put to the plow. At the least, people quickly determine which members of the Saline-regulars tribe they both know.
The cheerful banter and laughter hardly paused during that fateful soak. I say “fateful” because meeting the owner of that Grand Targhee hat, Jim Battagin (known to his friends as “Dr. Goose” or just plain “Goose”) presaged the end of my relationship with Diane. Dr. Goose—a very pleasant, insightful man with a dry wit and a twinkle in his eye—lived outside Quincy, a small town surrounded by heavily timbered country at the northernmost end of the Sierra Nevada. His description of a quaint logging town in a picturesque valley and of his homestead at the edge of a meadow—with an off-the-grid solar-powered house he’d built there—definitely piqued our interest. We promised to visit. (This, a variety of promise that’s often little more than social formality.)
But we dropped in on our new friend only a month later at the tail end of a road-trip to the Blackrock Desert of northern Nevada. At that time, I considered myself essentially married. (Diane, a newly minted nurse, had in fact left her husband to start a brand new life with me.) But it was becoming increasingly apparent that she wasn’t all that happy living at our remote outpost—a virtual shack (with fabulous views) miles from town, at the end of a long dirt road—and working in the austere Owens Valley. The semi-desert country was foreign to her. More and more, she missed having a network of women friends and we weren’t dealing with our conflict…as people often don’t. But I had no desire whatsoever to move elsewhere.
So when we visited Jim Battagin in Quincy she instantly loved the quaint little mountain town, and all of his many kind friends. A month later Diane abruptly left Lone Pine (and me) for Plumas County’s literally greener pastures. Not to downplay my shock and dismay, but it was a fitting move for her and proved to be for the best.

The following morning, in the Wizard pool again, there was talk about going on a hike. Dr. Goose mentioned wanting to search for wildflowers. (He was, in fact, a professional botanist.) He lamented not yet having learned much about desert plants and hoped there might be someone staying at the springs who knew the local flora. Before I could say anything, Diane spoke up for me: “Tim knows the plants.” The earliest spring flowers happened to be a burgeoning prospect at this time but only in certain places. Dr. Goose turned to me with a questioning arch of eyebrow. Placing myself at his service with a little bow, we made plans for a late-morning excursion up a wash draining some nearby hills—a place I knew from past experience would have early-bloomers aplenty.
            A bunch of us ended up going: several of the Quincy contingent plus two men from Berkeley who’d been in the pool both mornings. Les knew me slightly from previous trips. Rich and I had never met. He was more animated than his somewhat dour friend; both were married but without their wives along. Rich had a gentle, soothing voice and struck me as an amiable, very kindhearted man.    
That was one fine walk. After a wet winter we found undersized, understated flowers in abundance. I was impressed by the enthusiasm all these un-macho men displayed, falling for the subtle charms of tiny desert plants. Dr. Goose and I were on our hands and knees spouting Latin names—in our element, becoming fast friends fast.
            Late afternoon found us heading back to camp. The sun had just set behind the towering Inyo Mountains and, glad to finally be out of its intense glare, we took a rest in a narrow section of our wash where it cut through basalt bluffs. We all sprawled in the sand or lounged on bedrock slabs polished smooth by thousands of flash floods. I happened to be sitting closest to Rich. He’d overheard our talk and knew Diane and I lived in Owens Valley. We began talking about what it was like actually living there. His own ties to the Eastern Sierra went deep: Rich’s grandparents were Owens Valley natives—they’d owned land near the town of Benton and had also lived in Bishop. I’m unclear on the details; Rich himself had never resided in Owens Valley but one or the other (maybe both) of his parents had. He spoke fondly, with something close to reverence, of a life-long connection to the region. I told him about my own love affair with the Eastside and the circumstances of my landing in Lone Pine in the early 1980s.
            Rich told me of his particular fondness for the little town and its spectacular surroundings and of how he’d stopped there so many times over the last twenty-plus years during trips to Saline Valley. My talk of settling there in 1983 triggered a memory that caused him to hark back to that particular time and about how there’d been a really first-rate café in town right around then that was “sort of a health-food store,” as well. Hearing this, my head snapped up and I looked at him hard. Gazing off, he continued: “It was this funky place there on Main Street, in the middle of town. I forget what it was called…it went out of business years ago. But they served great home-made food. And they had Peet’s coffee!” (This gourmet brand—an amazing commodity to find in a backward place like Lone Pine—was, in those pre-Starbuck’s days, sold only in a small chain of coffeeshops in and around Berkeley.) “I loved going there and tried to stop every time I passed through. What was it called?” (This last, to himself.) “They had amazing sandwiches and soups, with fresh-baked bread.” Rich was remembering hard. He was staring at the still-sunlit Last Chance Range but from that far-off look I could tell that what he was actually seeing was the interior of that café. Me too. Vividly.
“One time—it was early spring…right around now, in fact—I stopped in on my way here. They had a bulletin board on the wall behind the cash register with a few things posted. I noticed this little scrap of paper tacked up. It was…sort of a poem….” (Now I was rigid with attention and looked over at Diane, sitting a few feet away. She was staring at Rich’s face with wonderment, her mouth slightly open and eyes wide.) “…a poem about spring. Springtime in Owens Valley. It really moved me…just seemed to capture the true feel of the land. And I took it. It’d been there awhile already and I thought, ‘what the heck.’ I had a friend who did calligraphy and she copied it out beautifully. Then I framed this thing and gave it to my mom. She loved it…had it in her bedroom for years. But she died a couple of years ago and it’s in my office at work now.”
            Diane and I looked at each other, astonished. And she said, in a neutral, matter-of-fact tone, “Tim wrote it.” Because, well, it was a matter of fact. I was the author.

After dropping out of college I moved to Boulder, Colorado and lived there from 1979 to 1982, working several jobs to support a bad rock climbing habit. Toward the last I began working on an all-climbers window cleaning crew but got laid off in November. I was out of work, nearly broke, winter was coming, and Boulder had started to get to me. So I decided to make a break of it and head back west. The only place I knew of in California that could really feel like home was the east side of the Sierra—somewhere, anywhere along the stretch of Highway 395, with craggy peaks on the western skyline. I’d been up and down ”the Eastside” on family camping trips since childhood and loved the entire region; it had all the mountains, desert, and wilderness I’d ever need.
            I began my quest for a new life the following January after a stint in Ventura, staying with the folks and working odd jobs. My best friend from Boulder had recently moved back to California as well. Gary’s parents had stakes in a time-share up at Lake Tahoe and the two of us got together there. My plan: go east from Tahoe into Nevada, turn right on Highway 395 and begin searching for work and a place to be.
At the end of a fun week the two of us said our goodbyes. I stood there waving as Gary drove off, climbed into my car, and turned the key to begin the next phase of my big adventure. But, incredibly, my trusty ‘71 Toyota Corona failed to start: it died, there in front of the condo. It had been running fine until that moment. Maybe it was from the cold—I don’t know—but when I turned the ignition key, something deep in the engine broke, rendering my formerly reliable Japanese sedan worthless. Having it towed to a nearby auto repair shop burned most of my meager savings. The mechanic told me “the gear on your jack-shaft stripped out” and he’d have to pull out the whole engine to replace it. My twelve-year-old car wasn’t worth fixing, he said.
My father ended up driving all the way from Ventura to rescue me and my possessions. I had less than $100 to my name when it was all over. And so, instead of making a new start, ended up—at twenty-four years of age—back in my home town, living with my parents. With no money, no wheels, no job, no prospects.
            My father, taking pity on me, loaned me money to buy another car. Instead of a car, I exchanged $3000 for a used Toyota pickup—in fine shape and a great bargain. With it came a cab-high camper shell and home-made padded flooring in the truck’s bed. (The woman who owned it had recently married; she and her husband had moved into an apartment complex and couldn’t keep three vehicles there. She hated parting with her truck.) This piece of good fortune turned out to be a defining moment in my life. The flooring may have been what turned me into a pickup gypsy—there was just enough room to curl up right on the soft floor in my sleeping bag. I set up the camper to make it livable, with a wide shelf above one wheel-well running the six-foot length of the truck bed. It held plastic milk crates full of clothes, food, and cooking equipment, with more space underneath. Curtains. It was my home-on-wheels for the next decade.
For a test run I drove my new rig up the coast toward Montecito to visit an old rock climbing haunt in a canyon nearby. I hadn’t been there since before moving to Boulder and actually go lost (not unusual for me) on the maze of winding roads, ending up at a dead end that turned out to be a trailhead accessing Forest Service land.
Finding myself at a new place, I figured I might as well take a little stroll. Within minutes, two guys passed me running back down the trail. (This was some while before trail running had become a “thing.”) I’d done some mountain trail running myself in Colorado so, on a whim I hailed them—well after they’d gone past—ostensibly to ask for directions. Back then, this was something quite out of character for me; I was still a shy-person. But we struck up a conversation, talked about trail running, and it turned out that these two lived—of all places—in Lone Pine. I told them it just so happened that I was getting set to resettle somewhere on the Eastside and that their town was to be my very first stop. One of the men, Dario, told me to be sure and look them up. I could find him or get his whereabouts at a local eatery: a place called “Country Road.”
            One week later I rolled into Lone Pine—it’d hardly changed since I was a kid—and parked along the highway. I planned to walk up and down the street and look the place over for a few minutes before pressing on but, in the exact instant I stepped onto the sidewalk, Dario stepped out of a shop that my truck was parked in front of. “Oh, hey, you showed up!” We chatted for a minute before he said, “Come on over to the store and I’ll introduce you to Robert.” We angled across the highway (“Main Street” in Lone Pine) and walked into “Country Road Café and Food Store”—half café, half health food store—where I was introduced to the proprietor, one Robert Frickel. Instantly, I knew he was a kindly soul and a brother of mine. I just knew. Late 30s, former hippie-type…trim and fit and, like Dario, an avid distance runner. Briefly, I told him my story.
In my truck, in a bucket, were the window cleaning tools with which I intended to make a living. So I told Robert, “Look: if you feed me, I’ll wash your storefront windows.” Grinning, he instantly replied, “Go for it!” I quickly learned that this was how Robert operated: he’d welcome strangers, especially willing ones, with open arms and promptly begin to formulate some sort of plan involving them. My first meal at his café was a turkey sandwich made with two thick slices of Robert’s freshly baked, whole-wheat bread. Instead of iceberg lettuce it was stuffed with alfalfa sprouts and grated zucchini. I sat at the counter behind a deli-style set-up and watched him deftly prepare it with loving care. Afterwards, I fetched my tools and cleaned the big front windows.
            So: I arrived in Lone Pine and within ten minutes had two new friends and a job. Of course, I ended up working at “the store” but never made a dime. Robert always had six or eight people working for him, all part-time. Most of them got paid while others—like Dario and me—put in a few hours here and there just for the scrumptious meals and a warm, inviting place to be. In short order I was doing clean-up jobs, making baked goodies, washing dishes, or helping mop up after closing time. Within a few days I’d met people who would become some of my dearest friends. I loved every minute of being there. Robert fed people—in more ways than one. I made money by hustling odd jobs and got in with the little-old-lady crowd; there were lots of widows around town and word quickly spread among them that there was this nice young man who was happy to scrub grimy kitchen walls and fix fences as well as clean their windows.
            It was still winter when I showed up in Lone Pine on March 12th. But Spring was starting to happen in the valley. The Sierra, on the other hand, was blanketed in deep snow. (The winter of 1982-83 had been monumental.) After a reconnaissance as far north as Bridgeport—where it was most definitely still winter—and some days spent up in the Buttermilk Hills behind Bishop, I headed back to Lone Pine and camped (parked) up on picturesque Movie Flat in the Alabama Hills. It was warmer and prettier there.
It had been cold and windy when I first arrived (still was, off and on) but there were some lovely days. I’d been around for a few weeks and, while the wind often howled and the mountains were still buried in snow, life was slowly returning to the desert lowlands—on the wing, popping from holes, and sprouting from the sandy soil. I was riding the crest of a wave of good fortune, experiencing new things on a daily basis, and was falling in love with the land in a fashion not unlike the way a young man falls in love with a woman. Frequently almost penniless but brimming with energy and enthusiasm, I felt my boundless potential. Each day arrived packed full of promise and I’d awaken to a view of Mt. Whitney turning pink on the Sierra crest, start my day with an exploratory walk among the golden granite outcrops of Movie Flat. Or I’d climb on the many rock formations scattered about—my own private climbing area, with 14,000 foot peaks for a backdrop. Every week or two I’d climb one of them. This was a personal frontier, my eyes and heart open to it all. Each morning I’d wake up thrilled to be where I was. It’s impossible to fully capture the raw, unprocessed joy of those days but this was absolutely one of the most nourishing portions of my life.
            So, I was acutely aware of my surroundings, noticing daily vernal advances, and after a few weeks got an idea: I’d write brief weekly “reports” about the state of the season—sort of like weather reports—and post them on the corked bulletin board behind the cash register. Knowing Robert would approve of anything creative, I didn’t bother to even ask. So, one sunny morning, drinking a second mug of coffee in my camp out on Movie Flat, I jotted down a few recent observations and tacked it up that afternoon. Had thought to post one weekly but…I’m not sure why…never wrote another.
Just a couple of months later, I scored a “real job” (of a kind) working up north on a trail crew for the Forest Service, out of the town of Bridgeport. I’d landed it through making the acquaintance of one Lorenzo Stowell—the Wilderness Foreman there—who I’d met one day, washing dishes while he was eating at the lunch counter. We became friends and I worked for him in the High Sierra backcountry just north of Yosemite Park  for ten weeks, starting in August. Then, after the contract job ended in October, I spent that winter and all my hard earned wages traveling and climbing.
Next April I was back in Lone Pine—nearly broke again—ready to make another go at settlement. In town, I ran into one of the women who’d waitressed at the café the previous year. Chris needed a lift back to her car, parked some ways out of town. On the drive there we were getting caught up and she remembered having a message for me: “Oh—there’s a thing I was supposed to tell you! Last year, you wrote something and put it on the bulletin board. Yeah? Well, some woman came in one day for lunch and saw it. She really liked it, I guess, and copied it down. This same woman showed up again last summer while you were up in Bridgeport and asked me to tell you that what you wrote had been published in some kinda “poetry journal” or something, somewhere over in the Bay Area. I don’t remember exactly what else she said.”

For laughs, I’d told Diane this anecdote about my first (and only) published work—that’s how she knew what Rich was talking about. All of us sitting in that obscure desert wash in the middle of nowhere were flat-out amazed by the improbability of this meeting. The odds of Rich’s ever meeting the anonymous author of what he considered literature were exceedingly low…but it happened. Diane: she’s long gone from my world and I haven’t seen Rich or Dr. Goose since. A couple of months later, though, Rich sent me a Xeroxed copy of the version done by his friend, as promised. (One of them had changed the format somewhat—making it at least look more like poetry.)
Frankly, I was not impressed and actually feel slightly embarrassed by the piece; it was neither intended to be a poem nor does it read like one. I didn’t think of myself as a writer then, much less a poet. I’d scribbled this thing down on a scrap of paper in five minutes and tacked it up on a corkboard behind the register in a funky hippie restaurant that served wholesome food made with love—a place with a caliber of dining experience few would expect to find in a moth-eaten tourist town catering to fishermen. Apparently, though, more than one person liked the little snippet so it did some good.
And through twisting channels, a precise passage of time, and a nostalgic bend in a conversation with a stranger, my faux-poem flew back home.
Well, here it is:

                                              Alabama Hills Section
                                                 Lone Pine, California
                                                 As of Saturday, March 26, 1983

A few swifts and violet-green swallows have arrived.
The ravens are beginning to fly in pairs.
Lizards are coming out.
Desert sparrows, rock wrens and house finches
     are singing.
A few bees and ants are out but no flies or
     no-see-ums to speak of.
Shrubs are starting to green.
Approximately twenty varieties of flowers
     are blooming.
No butterflies yet.
Snow level at about 7000 feet.
Wave clouds beginning to form over Sierra crest.
Moon will be full in two days.

©2016 by Tim Forsell             17 Apr 1999, 24 Oct 2016