Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Coming to Terms

Morning on Kelly Creek in the Clearwater National Forest
"There are strange things done 'neath the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold..."
The Cremation of Sam McGee, by Robert Service, my father's favorite poet.

When Dad first asked me to sprinkle his ashes in the Bitterroot mountains of Idaho, I didn't wan't to talk about it.  Fear of death, the unapproachable subject.  It was an odd moment we two were sitting around the table; it came out of the blue, or so I thought.  Maybe he had long been working up to this request; all I remember is that the topic of his passing hadn't been broached, and he didn't even intimate that his health was failing until a few years later when it was written quite plainly on his withered frame.
     So it was that I put it quite out of my mind, and this summer, fully two years after he left his body on the floor of that house, it was with some dread that I approached this task that I had been clearly appointed to.  It's not as if I don't like hiking and camping:  I adore them, and this was clearly the reason I had been chosen.  It's just that there was something of facing up to myself; because although the concept of death was not the focus here, but rather what we make of our lives when a significant influence- in this case, a crutch for my weakness of character, I'd always felt- is suddenly removed.
     At first I must confess I felt a little threatened when all of my siblings and even their families wanted to get involved with this project.  I felt I had been singled out by him to do this, as an honor and also as the sole adjudicator of this part of his verbal will.  At that point I couldn't see all the positives in the form of support and reinforcement that such group participation would bring; I just looked at it as some form of annoying 'horning in on my thing'.
     It was the first time I had been forced to rethink the very nature of this project.  From the time after the funeral when I lifted the cardboard box of ashes - so much heavier than I had imagined - my mental picture of this adventure began to change, and evolved over the next two years as various plans hatched and faded away.
     I'm not sure what it was, but something told me that this summer had to be the one.  As a sugar coating to what by now was seeming like a bitter pill to me, I promised myself a bike trip to sandwich this experience with positive feeling.  Things began to happen almost as soon as I landed.  An older friend, and more experienced than myself with death and dying, told me I was in for a treat, that it was one of the better hiking locations in North America (which proved to be true).  Another friend who also had said goodbye to four people in the last three years reminded me to be mindful when I performed the act, not to let the act be meaningless or hollow, since it was as much for me as for the person I had promised to do it for.
     Then my brother pulled out, which actually made it a much smaller and more easily managed operation, since three less people would be involved.  Two nephews and a niece had expressed strong interest in the project, and another nephew was added around the time of my brother's cancellation, making us a merry band of five hobbits setting off into the forest.  I was a little uneasy at the last change, since I felt I didn't know this last nephew very well at all.  But so much had changed and transmogrified in just the last week that it seemed that one needed to go with the flow if one was to ever leave Bag-end at all, to paraphrase Tolkien.
My new crew: Nephews Joe, Arlen, and John Michael
     I arrived in the hometown, after a brisk drive from the Portland airport to the hometown (Pendleton) with two of the nephews, one of whom I hadn't seen since before the funeral.  The remaining nephew was mustered; the niece having been banned by her brothers for lack of a proper babysitter for her two year old; and suddenly and almost miraculously we were on the road, thankfully not forgetting the ashes behind us.
Mornings at 3500 feet tended to the chilly side
     Even from the first few hours, it was obvious that this journey would not be one of massive contemplation, solitudinous pensiveness or inner reflection.  An old hiker turned green by city living, accompanied by three young men eager for experience were setting out for the mountains, and the weight of this factor shaped our experience more than any custom or social expectation of ash ceremony could possibly have.
We did what a normal group of men would normally do in such circumstances.  We did not form a solemn procession with the ashes in a special bier.  We played Texas Holdem  and swatted tenacious horseflies off each other; we sipped rum and chuffed Cuban cigars around the campfire, which blazed away under a sky afire with starlight, the likes of which none of us had seen in quite some time.
     I did not escape completely from any meaningful contemplation, however.  It occurred to me, almost from the first step of so many along that gentle, smooth trail along the side of Kelly creek, that this 'mission' was not a mission at all- but rather a set of instructions to follow, a formula for a certain kind of experience which was guaranteed to bring about or unlock an insight.  Dad was guiding me to discover a hidden secret- in these mountains and in the experience they were sure to bring, was a side of him I had never seen.  I was rediscovering the father of his youth - not mine- and was granted a feeling of what it must have been like to be him, before fatherhood, before marriage and responsibility chained him to a desk in an unpleasant office far removed from these emerald walls of paradise.
     I could not help feeling that surely my father would have traded stories around this very campfire, would have shared the rum, would have dealt the cards and even chuffed the stogie.  None of these things, in fact, were things I had really done before with any panache, and yet they felt natural- and enjoyable- to all of us, as if we were born to do these things.  This feeling of near-possession didn't stop with our outdoorsy woodsman behavior; it also became evident when we came to the question of the remains.
     My original understanding is that I was to go to Kelly's thumb and 'sprinkle' the ashes there.  When Dad had told me about the mission in the first place, we were in the living room, where a painting of the mountain in question had hung for nearly two decades.  So it was manifest to me for many years that I had to find the place 'of the painting' or 'in the painting' and put it there.
     We carried a digital copy of the painting, and showed it to the nice lady at the reception of the Ranger Station in Orofino nearby.  She recognized the mount, and even expressed admiration for the painting (I later resolved to donate the painting to the station, since she would make sure it hung in a nice, prominent place).  When we rounded a bend in the trail two days after that, we came upon a very similar version of that viewpoint.  We stopped and began to compare our picture with the vista, and concluded that the picture must have been painted from a closer (impossible, since it would be a point in space) and higher-up point of view.  The way up the mountainside was blocked by new growth pine trees, and severely dense undergrowth.  My conclusion was that the painter must have been here when the present mountain (next to the one in the painting) was bald , perhaps during a forest fire, and that he was in that position whilst either fighting a fire , or resting at one of the lookout towers which must have dotted the landscape back then (many of them have been replaced by electronic gadgets or made obsolete by satellite, I'm guessing).
I started to see the beauty around me
     So it began that the original idea, of some special place to put the ashes, began to degrade, and while we spilled a good portion of them on that exact spot, it became really clear to me that what father actually meant by 'Kelly's Thumb' was not the peak, nor the mountain, nor even the painting, but the experience itself..the whole experience of camping in this forest was what he meant, for it was this experience was what brought us close to his 'salad days' of hiking and working these forests, these pleasant green vistas that brought a feeling of peace and beauty to any and all who were lucky enough to see them.
     We began to distribute his remains all over this park, concentrating on the experience instead of a more left-brained idea of what 'location' entails.  We sprinkled him in the beautiful, clear , Kelly creek (was I named for this? I remember he told me he had a friend that he named me for...).  We found an amazing orchard of huckleberries, a fruit so magical that surely it must be the fruit of the faeries and the forest folk...so some of the remains went to nourish the future crops.
an old fashioned campaign tent
We found, at the foot of Kelly's thumb itself, a peaceful and inviting mountain meadow, so pure and aboriginal, that we all felt surely that Grandpa (as my nephews called him) would have been at home and in his element, whether it was the settled and sedentary later-years Grandpa, or the early young-and-restless Grandpa that we never truly knew.  Near the meadows was also a seasonal camp setup, the old-timey kind with the cotton canvas tents, compleat with pot belly stove and real beds (cots, but they look like beds when you've been sleeping on the ground)...that sort of seemed like the camps of Grandpa's stories of the early days.
the meadow at confluence of Kelly Creek and Bear Cub Creek-
over the ridge is Montana and the waters that flow to the Atlantic Ocean
    This idea of Grandpa was a little bit of a new one for me, as well.  Not only was I sharing the mission I thought was mine and mine alone, I soon discovered that I had been sharing my Dad with others for whom he was Gramps- and they had a whole trove of stories of interactions with him that soon had me feeling a twinge of jealousy- in fact, my father had gone on to love an entire another generation of youngsters besides me, a fact I simply had to accept under the rubric of maturity.  Not only was I connecting with pre-me Grandpa, but also another version corresponding to the post-me after I had grown.
     At the end of the road was the realization that we had come here to this green alpine valley, not in search of a final resting place, but in search of a part of ourselves that we barely knew was there.  Guiding and helping us to get there were the last instructions of this man that we shared in common; the recipe was as simple as waking up in the morning, packing your bag, and trudging upward, ever upward, to greener and more pristine vistas, cleaner and cleaner air, less humans and more animals and plants.  If this isn't an ascent toward heaven, then I don't know what is.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Dude, what happened to your Iphone? And your arm....?

     "Dude, what happened to your I-phone screen?" "Oh, that.  It fell out of a hammock at 35 kilometers an hour..."
     This is really not a story about hammocks, or I-phones, although it does mention them.  This is a story about an insidious tree called a Mangrove.
     If you've heard of mangroves before, you are probably in one of two camps: A. you know it has something to do with river deltas or swampy things.  B. you did a post-doctorate internship in one of Costa Ricas national parks where you studied the lifecycle of saline environments, and you could write a 100 page summary of mangroves esssential role in maintaining a delicate ecosystem.
     I'm not really that interested in either, because I nearly lost my life to a Mangrove forest.  That's right; I said the trees were trying to eat me, and I'm about to prove it to you.
     It all started innocently enough when I decided to take a 'shortcut' between Buffalo Bay Beach and Ao Yai Beach in Koh Phayam, which is a lovely, almost 90's style undeveloped island looking directly across the border to the Burmese Maiek Archipelago in the Andaman sea (due east of Calcutta).  
     On the map, these two beaches are separated by a peninsula which juts out less than a kilometer, and I was at the extreme end of Buffalo Bay where it nearly, save this peninsula, stretches out to touch Ao Yai.  So on the tourist map there is a little dotted line connecting them, and itself is less than a kilometer.
     So I followed the beach path until it sort of petered out; it looked as if a new property owner was setting up his fenceline, judging by all the cement posts in a line, waiting for the rest of the fence.  I followed the property line, hoping to catch a glimpse of this legendary trail, about which I had also heard rumors.
     At the end of the very last concrete fencepost, I still hadn't located a trail.  But I could see very clearly through the mangrove forest which began just at its edge, so I was tempted to just follow a straight path into them using the sun as a compass. 
     Mangrove forests are very easy to look through, since they have very dense 'knees', or root systems which stick out like flying buttresses from their trunks, but above that, the trunk is branchless for about three or four meters.  So if you are in a mangrove forest,  at low tide, the knees come up to about waist or chest level.
     It was, in fact, low tide, and the trees were spaced about five meters apart, so that when I entered the forest, I was merely winding my way through them, stepping carefully on the oozy mudflats.  After about twenty minutes, the trees got more and more dense, so that I had to squeeze between them, and then finally really packed in tightly, so that I had to either duck under the knee roots (for really big trees) or clamber over them (for smaller ones).
It wasn't until I had been making my Indiana Jones adventure style jungle traverse for about an hour before I looked back and realized that I was now completely surrounded by a Mangrove forest; that it was just one species from here as far as I could see.  Reasoning that the one kilometer must be at least reduced to two -thirds by now, I continued on.
     It was then that I had my first realization about the nature of mangrove forests.  They grow along the shore, because they can handle the salt water; and in fact they seem to thrive where lots of streams and tidal cuts run inland from the shore.  So it was just such a stream or tidal cut that I encountered in my first hour of what was to later become an ordeal.  I decided to take off my money belt, containing cash dollars, Thai baht, my passport and watch, and sling it around my shoulders.  I was also carrying a flimsy 3rd world plastic bag into which had been heaped a hammock I just bought, the map, and by now my tank top shirt, for I was sweating from all the knee-clambering already.
     This first foray into the water proved to be something of  a small disaster.  The mudflats gave way to alluvial, two feet thick mud that was unsteady as  grounding, so I naturally had to lower myself into the actually quite steep rivulet with the aid of one of the mangrove knees.  The water was quite opaque, being brackish and the color of the mud itself.  I felt the coolness of the water on my sweaty, greasy skin and it was a relief at first.  Then I nearly fell, and grabbed underwater for stability on one of the mangrove roots.  When I raised my arm from the water, it was streaming; no- gushing- blood.
I had passed my forearm across a small colony of razor clams, which apparently were attached to the roots of the mangrove below the waterline.  I looked at the cuts; only one of which was seriously deep and would need medical attention, possibly stitches...later I realized that it missed a vein by about a centimeter and that is why I am here now to tell this story.  The cuts were numerous, however, so it made a much deeper impression on my psyche to see the blood streaming from so many sources.  I washed off the wounds by dipping my arm back in the dirty water, at the same time wondering if there were any species here that might see me as prey.  As far as I could see, the only moving things I had to worry about were crabs and possibly mosquitoes, which strangely had not been a concern up until this time.
     On the other side of the bank I determined to make a very hard push to get to the other side of the mangrove forest, where my bungalow, a fifth of Burmese rum, and sympathetic friends would all be awaiting me.  So I ignored the bleeding arm, hoping it would stop soon, and pushed on through the thicket of knees.
     Things just got worse.  I now realized that not only was this central part of the mangrove forest more thick than the outskirts had been, it was also ten times more difficult to traverse.  There was a mix of young, old, dying and half dying trees all side by side, so that now, traversing  them meant climbing up on the knees, then reaching out for the trunk of the next tree, and half-leaping across to the rickety knees of that tree.  Unfortunately this could be disastrous if the tree was old, half rotten or otherwise dying, since the trunk might be stable enough, but an old half rotten knee would give way and bring me crashing down.  More than once I reached out with my leg to test a knee, then hear it crunch and give way, while I pulled my leg back.
I should also mention that I was not at my physical peak.  Not only have I gotten older than I can ever remember being, but I also had a sports accident where both biceps tendons were ripped off the bone, and had to be stapled back on with surgery.  This was just six months prior, and the doctor had cleared me for 'normal activity ', by which I suppose he meant bathing myself, washing dishes, carrying a backpack with a few books, not lunging through a half rotten murderous mangrove forest, clinging like a monkey to the few good limbs left, my hammock by now suspended doggy style in my mouth, the map long gone, the t-shirt floated away on the stream.  No, I didn't suppose that it was normal behavior, but I was quickly approaching the point where this was just survival, to preserve the whole organism I must risk the parts, right?
     I took stock of my situation.  I had been slogging through this forest now for about two hours, though my digital watch had taken a soaking and now had this black ooze slowly eating up the time display.  My heart, however, was ticking along just fine, in fact I was keenly aware of it, as if it were beating outside of my ribcage, and it was then I realized I had a dangerously high heartbeat, somewhere in the 200 beats/minute region, a speed I had only ever achieved before with adrenaline.  I was, I realized, in the state of mind in which people grow confused and make bad decisions leading to their death.  In fact, all I needed was to fall through a rotten knee and put my eye out with a broken root, in order to be that much closer to incapacitated and doomed to die in this miserable tree-hell.
     I took time to catch my breath and let my heart slow down, trying hard to grab the reins of my runaway paranoia; If I could get control of my mind, I at least had a fighting chance of getting out of this with minor injuries, as I would surely see my still bleeding arm.  I looked down at my legs and realized that they had also miraculously escaped a break, sprain or ligamental tear, since every time I stepped on a branch that either wobbled out of the way or came crashing down, my ankles had been subjected to the worst sort of multi-stick squeezing, scraping, and thwacking, and my ankle area was now bleeding and bruised and looked even worse than the razor clam cuts.  Worst of all, it was getting dark and I would soon lose the only advantage I had; the sun was both illumination and direction finding for me.
     Considering my situation carefully I realized the folly of my original quest; that it was now time for an all-out-push to return to simply the place from which I came.  Thinking even more carefully, I realized that it was actually the waterways which presented the easiest way of moving through this impossible pick-up-sticks forest.  True, there were the deadly razor clams to contend with, but if I proceeded more slowly and carefully avoided the roots underwater, I could avoid them.
     So I realized that probably the most important thing, after my life and well being, was the functioning of my phone, so I took the iphone out, wrapped it in many layers of hammock, and slung the hammock in a high branch well above the high tide line.  If I survived this I could at least return at high tide in a boat, and hopefully there wouldn't be other conditions (a torrential rain, a human who could somehow come here to salvage it? no, it seemed impossible) that would ruin it.  I found a broken branch about three meters long, broken down to two, made a good stabilization/depth tester for the water which was now well at chest level as I eased myself into the water, hoping that blood-smelling sharks would never dream of coming so far inland...
     I headed upstream, since it was back in the general direction of whence I came. After losing my shoes several times to the nearly two feet of soft, oozy mud in some places, I came to another split in the stream, and as it veered off to the left, it looked as if possibly there might be some grass growing between the mangroves, and even enough space to easily get between the trees.  I squeezed my way up on the bank, feeling hopeful but not daring to think this was the way out until, about a meter from the bank, I glimpsed what was at the time the most beautiful thing I thought I had ever seen:  Human garbage.  All in a pile.  Think about it....human garbageSomeone had put that there.....and that someone had come by road or trail.....
     It was an unusual stroke of luck.  I had found the single best, shortest route back to where I had begun this ordeal.  I looked at the watch, whose display was now totally eaten up by the black ooze.  Useless.  I decided I had enough strength and wits to go back for the hammock and iphone, and when I got the iphone back safely on the dry garbage bank, I realized that the whole ordeal had lasted just under four hours, I had probably lost several kilos in sweat alone, and my top speed I modestly estimated at one hundred meters per hour through the forest.
     Thinking these things distracted me from all the pain my body was giving me;  ankles smarted from all the scratching and beating they had taken in their crashing journey to the mudflats criss crossed with treacherous mangrove roots, alive, dead and half rotten.  I was determined not to look at the worst gash until I reached the clinic or hospital of the island, which I prayed would be open and not subject to some perverse siesta hours.
     I passed a few foreigners on foot, and too much in shock and dazed, I continued on, thinking that I could return to the last place I had taken a Thai massage a little further on, and seek help there in reaching the clinic.  Half an hour later, there was no one there, and it was the victim of a siesta tsunami, since neither were guests visible in the guest houses below.  I used the bathroom to wash a few things with slightly cleaner water than the swamp and continued on.  Before long I reached a place where  a thai man was laying in a hammock while a fire burned nearby.  He immediately jumped up and helped me, but said he couldn't take me to the hospital, 'because he was sick' - apparently suffering a bad fever himself, he just gave me a lift to the next house, where he gave orders to take me to the hospital, and somewhat ironically having taken care of me, he ran back to his motorcycle and retreated in the direction of his hammock.
     On the road to the hospital, with my new chauffeur, I heard a terrible clattering sound, and as we both looked back, I glimpsed my iphone on the road.  I got off, ran back and retrieved it.  The plastic screen shield had kept all the glass from falling out and further penetrating the LCD screen, so weirdly, it still worked.  Maybe the phone was just being sympathetic; I had also nearly lost my eyes, my life, but for just the kind of luck that prevents a small accident from snowballing and becoming a truly large catastrophe, I had been spared.
     The doctors and nurses in the clinic couldn't understand the story I tried to relate to them.  They had seen a hundred motorcycle accidents that looked something like I did, maybe if the rider had been catapulted into the bushes, but when I drew very ridiculous and childish drawings of clams, accompanied by probably culturally inappropriate hand motions of clams opening and closing, their eyes just went wider. 
     Further drawings of mangroves and their nasty knees produced more confusion, but finally when a nurse with slightly better English came in, the word 'clam' at least got translated into something they could understand, and, unable to make any more sense of the issue, they gave up...in fact, in the following days when I returned there to change the bandages, I sensed that I had some kind of 'celebrity status', the man with the mystery accident.
 To be continued....