Familiarity

"Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity" -David Whyte



I've not been saying much lately.
I'm in a new place, and I'm practicing my listening. 
How can I say true things without first listening? 



I joked to a friend the other day that I could write multitudes more words about Ox Bow park than Olympic National Park, though it's not even one one-thousandth the size. That comes as no surprise to anyone who's ever truly known some place or thing or person. Familiarity doesn't expose beauty—I think it illuminates it. Familiarity sees where a place shines, it doesn't shine a light on. 



I've been at a loss for words in this new place to me. I'm slowly learning some of its spirit. 



Olympic is a place where the intimate continuum between life and death is easily seen. In death, old life enriches life emergent.



The Olympic Peninsula, in its dizzying abundance of biomass and water, evades simplification. It's hard to pick out habit, routine, pattern, or simplicity out of the wholeness of it all.



I'll be sharing more soon. We had a great snow today, and the same places that have slowly familiarizing themselves to me took on a brand new tone today.


Mouth of the Hoh River



 

Mouth of the Hoh; voice in the dark.
The mighty Pacific—twice daily—reaches into you.
Tide pushing towards your mountain source.

Otter, eagle, seal, harlequin duck—
circling your edges, surfing in your threshold,
washing face and feather, congregants & witnesses.

I heard you, relentless river, like a drone,
as I approached through fir, hemlock, spruce.
Their feet, too, tip-toe at your doorstep.

 
 

 
 

I noted cloven stones, large and small,
the forests’ worth of worn-smooth wood;
the behemoth flares of root, folded aside by your flood.

I stand where your glacial blue meets the ocean’s green.
You fold each crashing wave into your current,
your edges swell as a chest. 

Emergent moon through gossamer cloud,
beckoning the tide into retreat.
The edges of your banks deepen, darken. 



Above the marine layer,
last light reflects on highest clouds,
a softly rung bell.

The moon flowers,
the tide blooms with it,
the sun sets with a pledge before our nightly spin through shadow.

And on the iced slopes above your headwaters,
all the weather the sun and moon can conjure crests.
But under the crashing rhythms, your voice, tireless, speaks.

Your breath on my nape,
I retreat through the trees from your threshold,
You, easement of wild deeps, Mouth of the Hoh. 

 


Halfway | Glacier National Park

How many gallons have washed over these stones?
How many sunrises have thrown their pastel light off the water's surface?

 


 

How many years have these lichens seen?
How many coming-and-going animals have nicked their blooming texture?
How many generations of trees have filtered the light that washes down from over the mountain?
And when was it that this violet boulder, this lichen home, tumbled down off of the mountain, through the trees, and into this place?



How many moths have arced over the trees and mountains,
kissing over the river's surface, flung and flitting on the wind?

How many have died here?

Just out of reach of river and light, damp wings narrowly missed by the dappled sun's heat?

 


 

A proclamation: this is her spot, and hers alone. As found; as left.

Midway between rock pool and torrent: exactly where her wings—surely colluding with the wind—set her leaf-light body down for the last time. 



 

 

Last Light on the Elwha | Olympic National Park

I am sitting along the bank of the Elwha River on the north end of the Olympic Peninsula, feet in the frigid glacial water. My tripod & camera are low over the water, pointed downstream towards the setting sun. Sunset light barely skirts the bottoms of the low clouds, which reflect in blue and silver in the quick water. 

I am learning this new place; I am learning a new routine; I am learning myself. 

A passing comment from a friend months ago turned into an inquiry, then an opportunity. The opportunity turned into a decision, a hurried preparation. Many farewells.

I’ll be living for the near future here, on the Olympic Peninsula, on the north shore of Lake Crescent, as a photographer for Olympic National Park. I didn’t need to move 2,401 miles away (as my trip odometer showed) to take more photographs, or hone skills I wanted to hone. But I ached to throw my days at something that is so closely (riskily, perhaps) intertwined with my own feelings of worth and alive-ness. A life’s work of creativity—of making—means enough to me to warrant such a commitment. I’ve enlisted my energy and days in its service, reprioritizing how my resources are spent. What course it takes is as-yet unknown.



The Elwha River is legendary for its rich salmon spawning ground. Chinooks were once reported over 100 pounds, and up to a quarter of a million fish used the waterway for annual spawning runs. Eager to harness the powerful river for electricity, the river was dammed in two locations for a good portion of the last century, severely stunting the natural fishery. 

After the world’s largest dam removal earlier this decade, the Elwha now runs from mountains to ocean, unhindered. Its reservoirs are drained and spawning grounds are well on their way to restoration. 

Returning now to the courses and bounds of old, unhindered, the “new” Elwha is a yearling, testing its banks and limits—at times, violently, jarringly. This spring, a tributary undercut the main roadway into the Elwha valley, washing it out. Newly-unearthed metal debris from the early-20th-century construction project is occasionally dislodged from old dam sites, crashing through the valley. River banks are still volatile and shifting. Revegetation projects are ongoing. However, the river is returning to what it does best: flowing, and cradling in its forceful waters, one of the richest spawning grounds in the world.

I will be returning to the spot in a few weeks, not minutes from my new home, to see the salmon run this course.



Red Feathers, Ox Bow County Park

“And you play your part, not withdrawing from the world when you realize how horrible it is, but seeing that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder" - Joseph Campbell

Was the changing of seasons responsible for this pile of red feathers? Did I stumble into some wild evidence of a cardinal marking one more year survived?

Or are they dinner crumbs?

In that case, they're the wild evidence of a hawk, marking one more day survived (or one more fledgling fed). It's a hawk being as hawk as he can. 

Plants get to be fully plant without getting blood on their chin, in most every case. However, they are no less party to the cycle of death and life as animals are. They're just a bit slower and quieter, I think. 

Cracked Ice

I walked through my favorite and closest park today for a good bit of the afternoon. I was drawn to the liminal, emerging spaces by the marshes and streams and rivers that cracked through the park like a partially-split log.

I saw trees with tiny, fetal buds on them, still brown and cold but ever greening. The waterways were graduated from frozen to flowing. More than once I stepped through wet snow and into thawed mud beneath. I nearly slipped into the nearly-frozen, nearly-thawed water above when the wet-mud bank gave way beneath frozen leaves. I yelped. I tried to cover it up as a strange laugh, which seemed necessary to do in case the three deer that stood, staring and stamping at my passing, heard me and wondered. Wondered what? Whatever deer wonder. My noise echoed once back at me. 

I know that in weeks I'll look up and realize that the majority of trees around me will have popped, small green flecks of leaves blurring the graphite-exact lines of their bare branches. 

What happens in between? Ruptures of life, loud crunches through snow and into wet mud, inappropriately-placed laughs, cracking ice echoing across a pond, or a fallen branch, clipped by warm wind, push and pound against the slow thaw. 

Winter at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

"This is the real world, not the world gilded and pearled. I stand under wiped skies directly, naked, without intercessors. Frost winds have lofted my body’s bones with all their restless sprints to an airborne raven’s glide. I am buoyed by a calm and effortless longing, an angled pitch of the will, like the set of the wings of the monarch which climbed a hill by falling still.” 
-Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

In the thick of winter, the Great Lakes become an icy, open air temple. The resident holy spirit is a wind that springs from the water with soul-seeking vigor and an icy, below-zero bite. 

When I ache to feel my smallness and creature-hood, when I ache to sit in my proper place in the universal seating chart (with the dogs), when I ache to un-forget (and I too-often conveniently forget) how intertwined beginnings and endings and life and death are, it only makes sense to head north and sit before that terrible, spirited wind.

Open before the cold, like Ms. Dillard, my body & bones—properly placed in the order of things—become grounded & still. I'm freed and en-spirited to be a creature, and freed from striving to be more.

My day was cut short by another pointed reminder of my smallness—a quick slip and spill on the ice and a mild shoulder separation. Some yawping and rolling got things in place again, and I dizzily made one last photograph before heading for hot coffee and an ice pack.

New Zealand Road Trip | Franz Josef & Lake Matheson

We crossed over the Haast Pass and down into a wholly different New Zealand. The rainforest and Southern Alps cleaved tightly to the ocean shore, and none of them really seemed to fit together, at least to my midwestern eyes. Because the mountains rise so suddenly off of the shore, all of the prevailing weather runs head-long into the altitude change and dumps all of its moisture as rain and snow. This gives New Zealand the honor of being one of the only locations where glacier meets rainforest. Two days in a row we were rained out of our helicopter glacier treks, so we enjoyed the terrible scale of the mountains and glaciers from the bottom. 

The next day was spent on a slow tramp through, up, down, and around the beautiful small landscapes of Lake Matheson's surrounding rainforest area. Intimate streams and valleys—tiny worlds formed by tree roots and trunks and obscured by massive ferns—were beautiful and compelling to explore and photograph.




New Zealand Road Trip | Queenstown

Queenstown, the self-described adrenaline capital of the world, is a bustling alpine village. My aunt and I thoroughly enjoyed our steam-ship trip across the lake aboard the HMS Earnslaw for an incredible meal and sheep shearing demonstration. 

The next morning I woke early for a sunrise shoot in Glenorchy, up and around the lake. As light slowly washed over the surrounding mountains, I realized that a sunrise photograph of the Remarkables range of mountains was unlikely to happen. Low clouds veiled more than half of the surrounding mountain ranges. 

As I pulled into Glenorchy, an unknown peak came into view, wreathed in pink light, and completely halo-ed in cloud.

Then it was gone. 

What intrigues me most about photography as an art form, and about the photographers and artists I admire most, is the appreciation and cultivation of presence. 

While some go in search of "the shot" like big game hunters, I appreciate those art-makers that make directly out of a sense of appreciation and presence-in-time that will never repeat itself. Instead of attempting to freeze time, it appreciates its constant turnover. 

It's a quieter endeavor, and perhaps less dramatic, but to me, infinitely more rewarding to attempt. The photograph (or missed photograph) becomes an act of gratitude and appreciation for being in that place, in that time. 

The docks around Glenorchy and Queenstown provided some small wonders to appreciate in light of the clouds, and afterwards my aunt and I explored an old mining town and managed to find my one-sought-after souvenir—a New Zealand-made wool cable-knit sweater!

New Zealand Road Trip | Haast Pass & Blue Pools

The road from Queenstown to Franz Josef winds up, through, and down the Southern Alps to the West Coast. Around every corner (and there were many!) was a new vista, with large lakes and peaks withholding no wonders.

We pulled over (along with many others) along the way at Blue Pools, a series of deep ultramarine glacial pools in Mount Aspiring National Park. Swinging bridges, beautiful water, and the lush rainforest all proved fruitful for photographs and mere enjoyment!

New Zealand Road Trip | Milford Sound and Fjordland

The road to Milford Sound reminded me of the road to Zion National Park in the states. Like a Mingus Band blues riff, the visuals slowly built in scale and volume until we turn a corner, emerging from the tunnel, to find that all voices are in full shout.  

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Every corner uncovered new wonders. Unlike the night before, I shared most views with dozens. The park was a polyglot of a pilgrimage, speaking the same awe and wonder to us Midwesterners as each camper van renter, tour bus ride-along, and hill-weary cyclist.

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The cruise through Milford Sound was gravy to what we'd witnessed en route, and the salty sea spray in the face on that gusty day, a savored bit of seasoning.

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New Zealand Road Trip | Key Summit

This past week we carried on from Christchurch by way of Dunedin and Invercargill, and that carrying on was accomplished in proper road trip manner: lots of detours, cafe stops, perusing postcard racks, and pulling off on roadside overlooks. I'll put together a post of some of the travel-related findings once I've got a nice set.

We arrived at the doorstep of the Fjordland region on Wednesday and after a big dinner, I set out towards Milford Sound, stopping at the pull of for Key Summit. The guidebook approximated a 3 hour round trip journey and I started up the trail about 8:45 pm. I made it to the top in a bit more than an hour, fueled by hints and glimmers of the valley view awash in deepening sunset light. Above the tree line, euphoria (or "viewphoria"?) provided the last bit of adrenaline. 

 

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I stood on a little alpine meadow with thick, wet moss on every surface, a small, clear pond directly at my feet, and 360-degree views of snow capped mountains passing clouds between their peaks. 

 

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On the flight here, I read Alan Watts' "The Wisdom of Insecurity," in which he quotes Goethe on the second to last page: 

 "The highest a man can attain is wonder, and when the primordial phenomenon makes him wonder he should be content; it can give him nothing higher, and he should not look for anything beyond it; here is the limit."

 

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I was alone in a foreign place, watching something unfold me that occurs everyday, but not once identically.

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I watched the crescent moon crystallize out of the clearing haze, and saw the first, brightest stars emerge on the dark way down. I whistled my way back through the dark.

New Zealand Road Trip | Arthur's Pass National Park


"We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world." -Jack Gilbert

Flying into Christchurch to cloudy and windy conditions, I made the choice to head inland in hopes of a great sunrise at Arthur's Pass NP. I left around 3:30am and made the drive to inland South Island quickly (it was nice to have empty roads for some more left-side driving practice! My first choice location, Turkey Flats, looked to be clouded in once light started opening things up before me so I headed up the road to Bealey Chasm and beyond. The mix of expected (alpine streams and climate) and unexpected (rainforest/jungle-like flora and completely foreign bird sounds) was nice and the quick but invigorating hike in relative solitude was even nicer. 

 

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The trip back in early and mid-morning light provided some great cloud chasing across the river valley plains. Such an incredible land packed so densely with diversity of landscape. I was forty minutes on the road before I was back in a land with perfectly-squared and hedged pastures full of sheep, on straight as an arrow county roads not any different than Indiana's. 

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I feel so blessed and glad at the start of this new year. I'm grateful for friendships deepened and new ones begun, for the yield of hard work, and for upcoming challenges. My friend Jake shared Jack Gilbert's poetry with me a few months ago and it's been a timely read and a reminder to delight, give thanks, and enjoy. 

Great 48: Arizona

Straight off of Whitney, we had an 11-hour drive to Arizona's high point, Humphreys Peak. I dropped the crew off at the trailhead and headed into Flagstaff to refuel, do laundry, and pick up other supplies. I ached for some stillness, and the providentially-placed laundromat next to a bakery & coffee shop provided exactly that. Our dirty laundry (stowed in black plastic in our car-top carrier) had become a self-perpetuating energy source that, given a few more days, may have sprouted its own gravity field, sucking bugs, socks, coffee cups, and Clif Bars into a careering orbit. I picked up a coffee and four asteroid-sized peanut butter croissants for our long drive from here to Texas.

It was there, on my short drive back to the trailhead, that I felt most like my Midwestern photographer-self. Short on time, I scanned the trees off the road for patterns, bits of light shuttling here or there, making sense and simplicity of the forest. My eyes didn’t search for expanses, but minutiae. It was no different than the way I drive my county roads to work each morning. I was happy to find these aspens evenly lit by the encroaching storm. No peak this time, but I was content with the small mercy of beautiful and even light on a restful afternoon. We had another long, long drive to start within minutes of their return. 

Great 48: Clamoring through the Southwest

We were fully out of the upper West, out of high meadows and glaciers. Now we careened through vast, arid, and silent places in the Southwest's great interconnected desert, over-stretched and thin like dough, punctured with oases of casinos, developments, reservations, or small, blisteringly-bright truck stops. Nevada pre-empted the high, lush, and egregious Whitney, but it wholly belonged with our experience of its nearby desert states. 

We approached Nevada's Boundary Peak not 8 hours before we had to be present for a Whitney Day Permit lottery a good 2 hours away in Lone Pine. We coaxed our minivan's road tires as far as we could up the old mining road, finally setting Josh and Lindsay loose a full mile and half down the road from the trailhead. Dave and I set to turning the van around on the thin mountain-side dirt road. My hatchet and our small shovel (both last minute additions to our outfit), hacked a small turnaround through tough and dry undergrowth. 

30 minutes of hacking and an 18-point turn accomplished our task. We settled in for four hours of sleep before Josh and Lindsay returned. 

We woke to dawn light, tapping on the window, and a low tire-pressure warning flashing on the dash. We had one completely flat tire, fully punctured through. 

With our deadline in mind, we all moved quickly past any emotional frustration or outburst and got the tire changed in a quick 15 minutes. Any one of us could have quickly scuttled the morning with an outburst of frustration, and thankfully, none of our under-slept, over-driven, over-hiked bodies opened that door. 

We pulled into the Lone Pine Ranger station at 7:55, just in time for the permit lottery. 

Through that feverish drive to Lone Pine, I thought about the massive hubbub we must have been on that quiet desert mountainside. Surely not even violent thunderstorms were as explosive, bright, and clamoring as our minivan, high-beams, headlamps, hatchet, and shovel. Did the small and terrified creatures that we didn't see ever witness anything louder than that? That their small memories could recollect, at least?

What did our terrible caravan miss because we blistered our way up and down that mine road? Surely our white-hot-bright meteor's trajectory up that mountain obscured more than it illuminated. I wondered how long it took for the small things to crawl back out; how long it took for our meteor's tail to fade and our echoes to run their full reverberating course. How long did that mountain bounce ESPN radio, our voices, and hatchet-butt-on-tire-iron around its rocks?

I'd love to float silent over our wake and watch things settle again, to see how loudly a mountain lion—a locust—a thunderstorm—runs over that mountain. Just to see. 

Great 48: The Nevada Desert

We're thousands of miles away from the Nevada desert now, in the middle of a 24-hour sprint up the busy, busy Eastern Seaboard, but my mind often returns to the spaces of Nevada and the California Sierras. 

In a world full of products and places and experiences that promise satisfaction, the desert promises nothing. Indeed, in me it most often succeeds in simply provoking more thirst. 

I'm reminded of a dear friend's last words about his mother who succumbed to a cancer she lived with and fought for nearly two decades. She was a woman who served and ministered to so many in her life. And to her son, my friend, she was a woman wholly "fueled by hope, hope, hope."

She wasn't fueled by a string of satisfying experiences, but fueled by a hope and a thirst for something more Holy, Real, Beautiful being made manifest in and through her. 

It's refreshing to be in a physical space that reflects interior reality: unfulfilled by the many promises-of-satisfaction. From new fast-food taco amalgamations to big-production church services to any amount and type of self-medication, they're all temporary fill-ups. The desert reminds me that man's best attempts at being filled aren't that effective.

Man's great teachers all seem to agree that complete satisfaction is unlikely. The angels and great examples in my life concur. 

It's like a blues solo with a resolution we may never hear. But we keep following the chord changes. What's the next measure, and the next, and the next? It seems absurd to give up the solo just because we don't know when we'll finally arrive back at the head.

I'm working on being fueled rather than filled, and I'm thankful for the desert for making me more thirsty.




Great 48: Fanfare for No Man (and Common Men)

I’ll be back on track tomorrow with catching up on our progress thus far. Currently we’re burning through the upper plains states like we’ve been doing this for two weeks (we have!). 

Late on this Independence Day weekend, I’m thinking back to my time on Mt. Whitney, the lower 48’s highest point, earlier this week.

I’d spent most of the morning trying to keep up. I’ve finally and fully deemed it a losing task to try and keep up with two world-record chasers (who have both been hiking 20% grades at over 2 miles per hour)! By noon, I was approaching Trail Camp (12,000 elevation) alone and appreciating the continuing revelations before me. 

I bridged one crest in particular and was stopped in my tracks. My chest swelled with vigor and gratefulness to be there, in that moment, alive. I held back tears.

This place was here long before me; it doesn’t exist for me or any man living or dead. I was utterly insignificant in temporality and scale, and yet I felt so lavished upon with grace to simply be able to see it. I was one of dozens of completely normal people that stood in that spot on that very day, yet at that moment, I was Here expressly to see it.

I wished beyond anything that my sister could share this place with me. It was primordial, terrible, magnificent.

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Later, as I was sitting down at trail camp to change my boots and put my rain gear on for the second time, I found myself in conversation with a southerner named Don. He was slowly and surely ticking off states’ high points. He’d just summited Whitney, in fact. He had a gentle southern voice that held no pretense or pride about his recent huge achievement. He was a man of humility in face of The Mountain. 

Later that day, after I slowly completed the 99 Switchbacks and reached the Trail Crest at 13,600 feet, I was joined in conversation with another hiker, Tony. From New Zealand, he was nearly finished with a 6-week Grand Tour through the American West, taking every advantage of his National Parks pass (over 20 National Parks in the weeks he was here). He rested on his trekking pole like a cane and wore a worn, blue, short-billed baseball cap with a faded image of Ernie from Sesame Street on it. I laughed with him over exploits from his trip, from being locked out of his car to evading certain fees because of his amplified “foreignness”. I heard about his family, and he mine. His small eyes sparkled at every mention of his experience.

These two men brought my earlier experience by the glacial lake into stark relief. The wild, the old, the magnificent places in the world aren’t for us; they were here long before us. Even the men who first carved the paths ever upwards for us lesser men to follow are gone from this place’s sight without a thought. Don and Tony didn’t bring anything magnificent to the mountain, nor were they singular or unique in their climbing achievements. It seemed that they only brought their humble spirits and a willingness to be made different by their experience.

The ancient places I’ve been blessed to visit play their old and wild songs for no man. And yet I’m humbled by the common men I’ve met that so acutely hear and love the fanfare these wild places play. They don’t stand on a mountain to tame it; they stand on the mountain to be made more wild by it. It didn’t matter that they were one of thousands to do the same thing before them; it mattered that they themselves dared to attempt it. 

And that’s why I couldn’t stop thinking of Anne that day: she dared every experience to change her and enliven her. A great many of the things I dare to do—however insignificant—are on account of the influence her restless and brave spirit has on me still. To this utterly common man, my day on Whitney was for her and because of her. 

Great 48: Utah

Our hike into Utah’s Uinta Mountains for King’s Peak began at 10:30 pm. I hiked with Lindsay and Josh while Dave slept (we had long drives the very next day as well). Smoothly uphill alongside the roaring Henry’s Fork River, we maintained a steady 2-3 mile-an-hour pace. A nearly-full and very bright moon almost made our headlamps unnecessary. We crossed the river over logs and stones multiple times, zig-zagging up and into the backcountry at around 10,000 feet elevation. Forest gave way to small glens, which in turn gave way to a massive, mountain-lined meadow dotted with lakes and clusters of massive pines. 

We came within 2 miles of the mountain base by 2:45 am, and having made such good time, we all laid down in the meadow for a brief nap underneath the emerging milky way. 

When we woke, the moon had receded behind the mountains, obscuring our path and outlining the stars above us even more starkly. 

I hiked with them into the 4 o’clock hour, and then turned around to head back to one of the mountain lakes for sunrise. 

I slept for another hour under a pine grove, waking in time to see a dawn glow in the East. 

Slowly, the sun illuminated the mountains, hills, trees, lakes, and wildflower-filled meadow we hiked through by moonlight. 

It was a show put on for no one—I only happened to be there to witness it. I took my time through the morning exploring the area, my mind stilled by the slow revelation of what I woke up to. I encountered two moose and dozens of centuries-old bristlecone stumps that birds and flowers both perched upon. 

We were all back to the car, summit having been successfully reached (again, in record time) by early afternoon. King's peak was on the far east side of Utah, Nevada’s highest peak was on California’s border. We'd have a 10-hour or more drive to our next destination.

Great 48: Wyoming

Wyoming’s Gannett Peak was the last of the technical climbs that concerned Josh. A 40 mile round-trip hike into the remote Wind River Range, up and over the 1500-foot Bonney Pass both ways, Gannett Peak makes you pay even to get to its base. Josh and Lindsay hiked out a bit after noon on Friday and arrived back on Sunday morning, 42 hours later.

I had 2 days to explore this corner of Wyoming. Like it’s more popular (and populous) neighboring mountain range, the Grand Tetons, the Wind River Range’s peaks and stark, sharp, and grey. Full of high-altitude lakes and streams, high meadows and beautiful valleys, it’s a truly wild place. It’s also completely saturated with mosquitos during June. Pausing on the trail for more than 5 seconds resulted in a swarm of at least 100 mosquitos attacking any skin (covered or un-). 95% DEET spray applied every 30 minutes even did nothing to help. 

More and more on this trip I’ve come to realize and recognize the vast amount of wild places that live under the National Forests, state-run areas, and elsewhere. The National Parks are the US’s great treasures, and they should be seen by many and preserved with assiduity, but it’s exciting in a very different way to pull up to an un-assuming trailhead and hike deep into largely un-peopled and un-developed areas. Hiking back into the Wind River area for an extended multi-night stay to explore and photograph is certainly at the top of my growing “return to” list.

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After Josh & Lindsay’s 7am return on Sunday, we had nearly a full day to regroup and rest before leaving for Utah’s high peak just across the border late Sunday evening. Showers, pizza, and naps were had by all.

Great 48: Idaho & Montana

After the late and nerve-wracking return of Josh & Lindsay from Mt. Hood and our harried ground-beef-juice cooler contamination conundrum, we were all situated and in the car for our first night on the road. It would be almost 10 hours to Idaho’s pinnacle: Mount Borah. 

Dave and I took turns driving through Eastern Oregon and into Idaho to our destination for Borah: the small town of Mackay. Along the way I made my first “stop the van!” proclamation for a photo opportunity. I’m trying to be conservative in these sudden pull-offs, and also, make them fruitful.

Mackay had the one thing we needed—a gas station with water. The trailhead for Mount Borah lies on shared public land, so we navigated the cattle guards (and cattle themselves). Josh and Lindsay suited up in light packs, water, and running shoes: Borah is no volcanic or glaciated peak. Realizing that Dave and I have been running on paltry sleep (we were needed to be or wanted to be awake at each peak, and obviously needed to be awake on the road), we both took a good chunk of the afternoon to be ready to drive yet another 6 hours to Montana later that night. Because we have no time to spare between climbing and driving (and Josh and Lindsay have been masterfully climbing at a breakneck-pace), Dave and I needed to sleep, organize, and plan when we both wished to be “out there” more.

While we kept the ship in shape at the trailhead, the only person we ran into happened to be another high-pointing enthusiast, Roger, from Virginia. In a mundane afternoon, his quick friendship and generous spirit was such a blessing.

He and Dave stretched their legs on the mountain trails (Roger planned to summit early Thursday morning) while I napped and went back into Mackay for an on-the-road dinner once everyone returned. Amy-Jo’s Steakhouse was our only choice. Bacon BBQ Burgers it is. 

On my way out to the van, a spry man on a golf cart with a long grey beard hummed by. He stopped and said, “Just last week all of those mountains were covered in snow!”

I could only think to reply with,”That’s amazing!”

And he said, “You’re damned right it is!”

Josh and Lindsay were back in time to meet Roger (we hope to see you on Mt. Rogers in Virginia, Roger!)… and then we were on the road. 

The trip to Montana was mostly in the dark, through the twisted roads of Yellowstone and out the other side into the Beartooth Wilderness adjacent to the park. 

I longed to see the hills and valleys of Yellowstone in daytime; I longed to see the springs we smelled, to catch a glimpse of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. Indeed, I longed to make it a ways up Borah. And I longed for a more spectacular view from foot of the mountain. Borah was largely shrouded from view by other mountains, and I saw not one inch of Granite Mountain in Montana.

It was only two days into the world record clock and I was feverish with longing. More than the spectacles before me, and in the ways they were. It was somehow inadequate to have my feet on the feet of millenia-old ranges, not mediated by a screen or a frame or a narrator. Indeed, the only barriers anywhere are barely-visible barbed-wire fences and my own will to seeing what’s over, around, or on-top-of. 

In that very lack of mediation—it’s imminentness—The West holds in one hand an unmatched power to create longing for discovery and revelation, and in the other, a keen ability to remind me of my limitations and smallness. It’s an ever-present challenge to one’s will, determination, and ability to put one boot in from of the other. 

But, the same longing and hope that brought homesteaders and prospectors west—the same promise of freedom and Milk and Honey that Bierstadt and Moran painted—easily rots into a ruining and inconsolable discontent. And the same humility that properly reminds of our existential state—our creature-hood and mortality—can easily turn into despair that quits looking for the soul of things.

So, while I didn’t set eyes on Granite Mountain, I was the only human witness to sunrise over a quintessentially-Montana lake in the heart of bear country. It was rugged and primordial: buggy, muddy, ungroomed and overgrown. It existed, exists, and will exist for no one’s gaze. The ancient moss and lichen that covered the granite hills mocked my shortness of life just as completely as any mountain could. And just as any mountain can slap us silly with its grandeur just to get us to marvel for a mere moment, a skinny & bearded man on a golf cart can accomplish the very same task.

On to Wyoming from Montana, with many more mosquito bites (and many more to come). On to the next mountain with hope for more clouds at sunset, more spectacle, more time to hike: yes, all of those things. But also, hopefully a well-tempered hope to be surprised in however small, strange, or personal ways.