Sunday, October 10, 2010

Lima Peak

The squelch of soft mud beneath my shoes was suddenly eclipsed by a loud "humph."

I stopped in my tracks and strained to see through misty curtains of rain. "Humph," the grunt increased in volume as a moose emerged from the brush less than 10 yards in front of me. My breathing stopped and my eyes froze open as the moose lowered its ears and took a couple of steps toward me. Instinctively I took several quick steps backward and stopped near a tree. I couldn't take my eyes off the moose long enough to observe the tree, but I contemplated the possibility of climbing it.

"Humph," the moose grunted again, and out of the woods stepped its nearly full-grown calf. I thought the moose must be a female, but she confused me because she had one antler, only one, twisted and deformed on the right side of her brow. On the left was a crazy eye, cloudy and bright at the same time, and it struck me that I was actually close enough to see the eye of an angry moose.

"Humph." She took another step toward me. "I'm sorry moose," I said in a strange, calm voice that didn't sound like my own. "I don't want any trouble, really I don't."

The moose seemed to glower at me, one normal eye and one crazy eye fixated on my pale face. I couldn't remember if eye and voice contact was a good thing or not with moose. I took one more step back and quickly glanced at the tree. Its branches were high and surrounded in thick needles. I would need adrenaline to climb this particular tree, probably lots of it. I looked back at the one-antlered, crazy-eyed cow moose and waited for her to force my hand. She huffed one more time, turned, and galloped back into the brush. Heart racing, I reached in my pocket and pulled out my camera. I took one shot when she was already far away, still retreating, still looking back at me. There was nothing left to say, if there even was anything said to begin with. But in the lingering electricity of our short interaction, I felt a real communication had taken place. The moose said, "This is my property," and I said, "I agree with you, but may I ask your permission to trespass, just this once?"

I am weary of I-15. Five times since July, I've made the drive between Missoula and Salt Lake City, and three of those times were a rushed effort into emotionally charged, difficult weekends. I had to drive down this weekend to bury another grandfather, my mother's father. There was much about the prospect I was not yet ready to face, and the drive was first on the list. Several people who have become my good friends in Missoula were throwing a goodbye party for Dave on Thursday night. I had planned to attend, but at the last minute decided I needed to drive instead. When I told my friend Bill - who I have confided a lot in recently - that I would have to miss the party, he said, "It seems like you have been dealing with a lot of stuff lately, and so far it appears that you're doing it on your own. Just let me know if you ever need anything."

I felt gratitude for Bill and the way he reached out, and it was difficult to explain that spending a little time on my own was an important part of my grieving process. There was just something I needed to do. I couldn't quite explain it, even to myself. But I had to visit the mountains. The mountains of I-15. The mountains that rose like a fortress above the sagebrush desert of southern Montana, broad pillars of rock so distinct and forceful that they demanded attention from even the most road-weary drivers. I had passed them four times in the last three months and vowed to climb them every time. On my fifth drive, I was going to try.

I veered off the Interstate just north of Lima and camped on the bank of Little Sheep Creek. I awoke, later than I planned, to heavy rain and a thick gray veil over the mountains. My fleece pullover soaked quickly and lead-like layers of mud stuck to my feet as I slogged up a faint two-track mining road. The two-track dipped into a creek and faded to nearly nothing, so I followed the creek drainage, pushing through the cold mist and drenched tree branches. It was there I met the moose, and when she retreated down the drainage I decided continuing forward was the best course of action. The raindrops became thick, then turned to slush, and then snow. White flakes clung to my saturated fleece and polyester pants, but still I continued forward because I was not cold and not yet out of time.

I climbed out of the drainage to a bench already white with fresh powder. My heart was still thumping, my head still quiet after the encounter with the moose, and I felt no emotion as I looked at Lima Peak, now looming in startlingly close proximity. I climbed up a grassy ramp and crawled onto the face, which was less like a solid mountain and more like crumbling rockfall of basketball-size boulders. My gloves became soaked as I scrambled up the slope like an awkward quadruped, trying to balance my body over the loose, slippery stones.

As I climbed, the fog sank in until visibility was just about gone. I crawled until the boulders started to slope downward, and, remembering that this peak was shaped like a triangle when I had seen it from the saddle, decided I was at the top. I sat down and pulled off my soaked glove to eat a Honey Stinger Bar, and then I remembered that I had planned to write a note to my grandpa. I had done so on Lone Peak a week before my father's father died, on September 4, and it was a comforting ritual. When my Grandpa Johnson died on October 4, I couldn't help but think about what I would write to him in a note at the top of a mountain. It found it was difficult to form meaningful words. The death of my other grandfather had been a surprise, and I missed him terribly. But the death of my mother's father was more difficult to reconcile. I loved my Grandpa Johnson, but during the last decade of his life, much of his existence was marked with pain and anger, and he had a fair share of struggles. I think most of my family viewed his death as a merciful release for him. It was time.

But he was my grandfather, and my mother's father. His blood pumped through his veins and his memory filled my life, from the Easter eggs he hid for us as children to the shelter he provided me when I was training for the Tour Divide. The night I spent at his house in Saint George in May 2009 stands as one of my favorite memories of him, because by then he was so weak and frail that just getting dressed and eating breakfast was a huge struggle, but so stubborn that he still lived alone and took care of himself. It was the first time I had spent more than a hour with him in six or seven years, so it was eye-opening to see just how difficult simple day-to-day living had become. During the day, I took off on my mountain bike, riding a loop that turned out to be a lot harder and longer than I had planned. I called him from the top of a ridge and said, "Grandpa, I'm sorry, but I'm going to be home late." When I finally came back to his house, he was still awake, more than an hour past his bedtime, waiting up for me. I felt worse than horrible about this and tried to apologize, but he just interrupted me and said, in his usual gruff grumpy voice, "It's OK. I always stay up late. I don't mind." But I saw a hint of sparkle in his eyes, and understood that he really did care.

On the fog-shrouded summit of Lima Peak, elevation 10,700, I pulled out the pen and paper that I had carried for the task and wrote the note that I had planned to write. Because it was so difficult to put sincere emotions into words, I wrote a variation of a lyric by Iron and Wine, from "Upward Over the Mountain:"

"So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten;
(Grandpas) are like birds, flying always over the mountain."

For my Grandpa Johnson, Love Jill. I will see you tonight. October 8, 2010.

I stuffed the paper between two rocks, covered them in snow, and stood up. A specter of the round silver sun began to show through the fog. I thought from its placement in the sky, I could discern the direction west, so I turned to face it. The ridgeline of the Lima Peaks is also the Continental Divide, the border of Montana and Idaho. I have a special affinity for the apex of the Divide, because it feels like a great beginning to me, the place where flakes of snow join droplets of water, which join trickles, which join streams, then creeks, then rivers, then great rivers, until everything flows into the bewildering expanse of the ocean. I thought of my friend in California, far away on that ocean, and felt a sudden urge to send him a text from the snow-flecked spine of the Divide. I turned on my phone. It said the time was 11:19 a.m., and my heart nearly stopped.

11:19? How did three and a half hours pass since I left? How? It was baffling, but when I thought about it, I had to admit it made sense. I had climbed 4,000 feet, and the last 1,000 were severely slow and technical, but I didn't notice the passing of time, didn't realize it. My grandpa's viewing began at 6 p.m. I had hoped to arrive in Ogden at 5:30, and it was still a four-hour drive from Lima, at least, and that was before my planned shower stop. My car was at least 30 minutes out from Lima, and my body was 4,000 vertical feet and five or six miles from my car. The math didn't leave much time for my body, and I was hit with a rush of remorse that felt worse than the time I came home late from my bike ride. I would rather be stomped by a moose than miss my grandpa's viewing. My mother would be so disappointed. So that wasn't an option. I was guilty of overshooting my turnaround time by more than an hour, but I sensed that with enough adrenaline and a little bit of luck, the descent could be done in an hour or so.

Bright streaks of sunlight broke through the clouds until the fog had cleared up entirely. Suddenly I could see the whole colorful spread of the valley before me - the sagebrush desert, the golden foothills, the snow-dusted peaks, the tiny oasis of Lima, the thin vein of I-15. I started down the rocks but frequently lost my balance on the slippery, uneven surface. I rolled my ankle twice and decided that breaking it was a real possibility, and a broken ankle would really put me in a bind. I dropped to my butt and started skittering down the mountain on my hands, butt and feet, sliding down the tumble of the sharp stones like a deranged crab.

My hands and butt were bruised and tingling by the time I reached the saddle, but there was no time to slow down. I tightened my backpack straps and started running. I ran as fast as I thought I could run and not lose my footing on the rocks and grass clumps that covered the trailless mountainside. The sky opened wider with bright patches of blue, and my legs carried me down the slope like tiny wings, light and free. In smiled at the rush of freedom and the ways I am falling in love with running - learning that a good run feels every bit as fun and freeing as riding a bike down perfect singletrack, except for running isn't limited the way bikes are, bound to wheels and trails. Feet can go anywhere they want, any time they want, even when they are attached to relatively skilless runners.

I sprinted past the point where I saw the moose and slowed, but heard nothing. I picked up the pace again and arrived back at the car with the bottom of my right foot absolutely throbbing, but my phone said it was 12:42. Yes! I ripped down my tent, climbed in my car and gunned the gas all the way down the narrow gravel road. I arrived in Lima just after 1, in time to call my dad and tell him I was still going to make it to the viewing on time.


I merged onto I-15, my head still spinning with the dynamics of the morning - the moose, the rain, the snow, the fog and emerging sunlight, the slippery rocks and the running. The pavement rushed beside me and the majestic Lima Peaks faded into my rear-view mirror, and above it all was the memory of my grandpa, flying upward over the mountain.