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Emily Grossman

Gaining Perspective

October 10, 2007 at 8:29 AM

As I glanced out at the expectant eyes of the hushed audience, I observed that I felt completely calm and confident for a change. Of course I would be; after all, it’s not like I was staring death in the face this evening. No, I already got that out of the way earlier today, thank goodness.

In past Octobers, my outdoor activity usually drops right about the same time as the leaves on the birches. After all, my Okie upbringing was largely devoid of subzero expeditions into formidable arctic terrain. So, come October, I’d trade in my trail shoes and running shorts for the high heels and concert black. I figured, as long as I had something to occupy my time, I wouldn’t miss seeing the light of day for a mere six months while my favorite trails lay buried beneath feet of snow. For eight years, I’d been able to get by with such a philosophy, but if you want to remain a true Alaskan and stick it out for the long haul up in this land, you can’t ignore the other half of the year that constitutes winter. Any seasoned Alaskan will tell you, winter must be embraced with the same enthusiasm as summer, or you’ll eventually crack. Either embrace it, or save up for extended Hawaiian vacations.

This September, I began hoarding gear and hyping myself up for the snow that was soon to arrive. I continually eyed the distant peaks and checked the forecast several times a day for signs of snow. Finally, the termination dust began to creep down the slopes in a white veil. I excitedly laced my new waterproof, screw-studded trail shoes and gaiters and headed to the nearest mountain, Skyline. Though the base of the trail still lay covered in golden aspen leaves, it didn’t take long to follow the trail’s straightforward course up past the tree line and into the snow. As I moved, I composed my thoughts:

I'm traipsing 'mongst the dead and dying;
crinkled corpses line the way.
Through barren bow and branch, I'm eyeing
Clouds of condescending grey.
Come, ye snow gods, send it flying!
Windblown drifts bring no dismay.
Don the gloves and Goretex linings,
Damn the winter! Hike away!

Saturday’s itinerary originally had me ascending to the peak of Skyline, traversing a twelve-mile ridge, and descending on the Fuller Lakes trail. But when the heavy skies refused to cooperate, I conceded to an abbreviated version: reach the summit of Skyline and continue along the ridge, weather permitting, until 3 ½ hours had elapsed. That would give me enough time to return and still get cleaned up for my evening Mozart performance.

As though the snow gods heard my challenge, a deceptive flurry just above tree line joined forces with a nasty north wind to make for a bit of excitement as I neared the orange tool box that sat at the summit. I signed the logbook inside the box while sitting in the lee of a small rocky protrusion, debating what to do next.

Okay, I thought, since visibility’s down to about fifty feet, it would probably be wise to hike only a bit further. I headed back out into the whiteness. After venturing over a couple of knobby knolls and losing the trail altogether, it became evident that pressing onward wasn’t a good idea at all. I turned around and headed back to the box.

Only, I couldn’t find it. I retraced my steps back to a clearing, where they suddenly vanished on the rocky, windblown terrain. Where were my tracks? Wait... Which way had I come? Where am I ? Did I walk past the box and not see it? Is it in front of me or behind me?

It wouldn’t do any good to frantically meander further and further away. The worst thing I could do at this point is panic. Panic causes people to waste energy and make senseless decisions, which ultimately leads to disaster. Most accidents in the wilderness could be avoided simply by remaining calm and logically sorting through the possibilities.

I began kicking up loose stones from the ice to pile atop a large prominent rock. As long as I knew where this marker was, I wasn’t lost. From there, I decided I would take one direction at a time for a short distance out and back. If I was methodical about it, and if I kept close note of each route to and from the landmark, I had to eventually come across the orange box, whose location couldn’t possibly be more than five minutes away.

During this time, I thought about what it would be like to miss the evening performance. At least I had a good reason for missing it: lost on mountain peak in blizzard. How did this happen to me? How foolish I was, to scoff at winter like I did when I wrote that poem. “I’m sorry,” I called to the sky, “I learned my lesson, now could you please make it stop blowing just long enough for me to see something, anything?” Patches of clear blue taunted me above while I strained my eyes into the stinging white that continued to obscure my bearings. The snowflakes fell like death sentences. Frost clung to my eyelashes. The water I'd packed began to freeze.

And so an hour passed, during which I combed a mere quarter-mile section of mountain ridge. Only once was I interrupted, by the sight of something small and orange nestled in an otherwise monochromatic rock outcropping. I’d found the box at last! I hugged that stupid orange box like a long-lost best friend. Thank God, the Box!

I’ve descended the Skyline trail perhaps fifty times, and never have I been so grateful to skirt the same old pesky tree roots and stumps. Stepping back into the reds and golds of autumn felt similar to leaving black-and-white Kansas for Oz. I couldn’t wait to see my friends again, to be safe and comfortable, and home again.

Posing with my violin in front of my audience that evening, I felt no fear whatsoever. No, I felt grateful and secure. I felt a strange high, as though my life had been amplified. I thought about the story I was about to share with my audience, an E minor tale written by Mozart. Drawing the first downbow, I almost chuckled.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 9:21 AM
"Any seasoned Alaskan will tell you, winter must be embraced with the same enthusiasm as summer, or you’ll eventually crack."

This sounds like the kind of thing Alaskans mumble to themselves in winter after they've cracked :)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 10:37 AM
This is so well-written and vivid. After living in CA for 10 years and then moving to Boston, that's how I've been feeling about the Boston winters: embrace it or die.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 11:15 AM
The first draft was exciting. Now it's mired up in details nobody cares about. Seriously. Nobody wants to read lists that include gps and north face downy vests. The orange box is just a tiny detail now. Now you're really lost!
From Tom Holzman
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 12:48 PM
Glad you finally found your way down. I sense that many of the kinds of feelings you had as you tried to find your way are feelings that we all have in other contexts as we have adventures and take risks, even risks for which we think we are prepared.
From Neil Cameron
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 12:59 PM
One of the reasons I moved from California to Ottawa was that I wanted to live somewhere where it snowed. I loved last winter, except there wasn't enough snow!

Neil

From Neil Cameron
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 1:01 PM
From Jim W. Miller
...Nobody wants to read lists that include gps and north face downy vests...

I do. :)

Neil

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 1:31 PM
Ok, you do :)

But compare the power of the original:
"At least I had a good reason for missing it: lost on mountain peak in blizzard. How did this happen to me?"

to the final version:
"At least I had a good reason for missing it: lost on mountain peak in blizzard. Ha. This is ridiculous. How did this happen to me?"

I just don't get it. I'm actually mad she changed it :) The original version was 1/3 as long and one of the most powerful things I ever read. Karen, back me up.

From E. Smith
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 3:54 PM
I didn't see the original, although is general less is more. Emily is a gifted writer and she has a way of coming at stuff from unexpected perspectives. This is a wonderful essay, but it may have been even more powerful in the first draft. (Which, I expect was not really the "first" draft.)
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 4:11 PM
I'm not sure I saw the first draft either, but Jim, I agree with the comparison you made. I think the sentence is more powerful without spelling out that the author thinks "it's ridiculous."

This piece reminded me of a type of article published in "Field and Stream" magazine. This month's was about two guys whose fishing boat flooded and capsized, and who were adrift at sea for more than a day before one of them was able to swim to an oil rig. They were pulled away from rigs twice by rip currents and the search helicopters missed them by 20 feet. Very exciting. And told in a "less is more" style.

On the other hand, this is a blog, and I think the author can and should be able to editorialize all she wants in a blog.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 5:51 PM
I'm kinda sick now, trying to finish my yogurt while reading these comments, because there never existed a "first draft". My last minor edit happened at 9:02 according to the record, and Jim's first comment was published at 9:21. His second was published after 11:00. Between those two times, nothing changed. I never changed the list of supplies, nor the "ridiculous" interjection. That's the way it originally came out of my head.

I'm sad that my nonexisting first draft was so much better!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 6:01 PM
How wierd! Well, the moral of the story is be sure not to edit anything you write on this site. And, we cannot be sure that Joachim's ghost did not show up and edit your piece.
From E. Smith
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 6:07 PM
Jim has these problems with imaginary literary conventions. Anyway, it's a gripping essay and I'm glad you're okay!
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 6:51 PM
My apologies to all. John Henry died and it's pushed me over the edge and I'm imagining things and no longer responsible for my actions.

P.S. Imaginary literary conventions, and imaginary terms some people should know!
:)

From Charles Bott
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 7:03 PM
Emily, thanks for your wonderful prose. I'm leaving for Anchorage this Sunday 10/14 and will keep some of your thoughts as I go from 80 degree weather in Southern California to the temp in Anchorage which seems to be in the mid-20's. But you do live in a very beautiful place in both summer and winter. Keep smiling!! Charles Bott
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 8:26 PM
Emily, I think you're addicted to adrenalin surges. I'm glad you remained calm and got down safely and in time for the concert.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on October 10, 2007 at 9:07 PM
There. How do you like that?
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 3:44 AM
It's never been better!
From Emily Grossman
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 4:17 AM
Oh, but I'm not done yet!
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 4:29 AM
Vonnegut said get rid of every unnecessary word, no matter how much you like that word. I go so far as to replace a three word phrase with a two word phrase that means the same thing, if I notice one. If you want, you can be as bland as him and me :)
From Emily Grossman
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 4:53 AM
You mean, not even keep a blog?
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 5:10 AM
The difference between you and most people is most people would either ignore me or delete the blog to try to make me feel like a jerk. You don't do either, therefore you're special and so I want to read your tales of the North, with you bustin whatever kind of prose you choose.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 5:38 AM
I don't know what my thoughts are really worth, but sometimes I feel like I'm not done with something, and I need to hone it until it says what I mean.

Every one of my drawings came to an awkward stage where I felt despair over how it wasn't what I wanted. Usually, the answer was to push it until it got there, however long it took, and not to give up on it.

This method usually works, as long as I've got a good idea to begin with. Every once in a while, the project should just be abandoned all together, but this is rare if I only pursue subjects that came about by their own inspiration.

From janet griffiths
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 5:34 AM
I've always said the best way to overcome stage fright is to dangle off mountains.I was once in a blizzard on Vioz in the Dolomites only it wasn't winter it was July .Fortunately we all had snow gear and made it to the Rifugio at the top where we spent the night.The following morning had to dig ourselves out but were greeted by the most wonderful panorama.The trip down was worse than the trip up for although the weather was now sunny it was impossible to see the trails and it was ice.Fortunately someone has some picks and we decended a sheer face roped together.I shall never forget my joy when four hours later we got below the snow line and the experience changed my life forever (I've now become an aggresive snarling bitch instead of the sweet timid person I was before)
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 6:03 AM
Emily, the things Roy said in the other blog stuck with me. He's in a position to have had this conversation with a lot of prominent people, or otherwise know their thoughts on the subject. The other night I listened to a recording of the Chaconne by a prominent soloist. It was in tune and all, but if it was mine, I would "despair" about it as you put it. As far as I was concerned the phrasing was messed up; none there really is more like it. Maybe the best that can be hoped for is an approximation of what you'd like, combined with technical brilliance (which is something that's achievable) so no one can point a finger at that part of it. Examine other peoples' work some from the perspective of what you'd change about it, maybe.

Janet, I took up skydiving for that reason; to become fearless. I got up to a few solo jumps and quit before I broke something (a valid fear). The effect wears off after a few years, but until then I was ready to kill lions bare handed :)

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 6:32 AM
Emily,

Everybody loves your blogs, I know, I am the Keeper of V.com Stats. :) And I do, too. So thank you for another great one. I, for one, was riveted.

Stay safe, girl!

Laurie :)

From Emily Grossman
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 7:39 AM
So Laurie, my question now is, did you read the first edition or the second? Or third... :)
From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 6:23 PM
I have no idea! I'm the same way, though, I edit my stuff a million times and often come back to it if I decide something isn't right.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on October 12, 2007 at 3:26 AM
“I edit my stuff a million times and often come back to it if I decide something isn't right.” That sounds like me, but I’m an ESL kid so this is what I’m supposed to live with. I also find my writing tend to be over-edited sometimes -- too concise to the point of being dry. Your writing, Emily, I enjoy reading it very much and I enjoy learning from it even more. Thanks for sharing it with us.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on October 12, 2007 at 8:20 AM
Hi Yixi, thanks! I always like reading what you write.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on October 13, 2007 at 12:17 AM
Janet, there is something quite symbolic in the way you descended the sheer drop -- roped together. We are all connected to and dependent on each other in some ways.

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