October 10, 2007 at 8:29 AMAs 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.
This sounds like the kind of thing Alaskans mumble to themselves in winter after they've cracked :)
I 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.
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.
I'm sad that my nonexisting first draft was so much better!
P.S. Imaginary literary conventions, and imaginary terms some people should know!
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.
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 :)
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!
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