|My first published drawing. I did this quickly on ZenBrush software, listening to Phil and Lee talk.|
|Phil Connors, checking in and doing his job atop his mountain.|
Lee and I entered the Gila Wilderness, hiking up a ridge line in the Black Range of the Gila Wilderness to what I call “Phil’s Mountain.” [Note 1] Our friend Phil Connors, who has been the summer time National Forest Service Fire Lookout up there since 2002, had invited us to join him for two nights in his little cabin perched at 10,020 Feet above sea level. We didn’t even have to carry much in. Phil promised us a warm bed to sleep in, good food, mountain silence and great conversation. He kept his promise ten-fold.
It’s a five mile hike and an altitude gain of 2,000 from where we dropped off the car at Wheeler Pass west of the little village of Hillsboro, NM. Not so much for younger folks, but Lee and I are in our 70s. We looked forward to the journey with excitement but some trepidation. We added to our workout regimes—Lee added the steep hill in McKelligan Canyon to her morning walks with her walking buddy Martha, and I wandered up the rocky trails in the Franklin Mountains. We both wanted to be ready.
From El Paso there’s two ways to enter the Gila National Forest in which the Wilderness is nested. One way taking the I-10 to Deming and go north to Silver City. But our preferred route is to go north through Hatch, New Mexico, so we can spend an evening in the wonderful Black Range Lodge in Kingston NM, getting acclimated to the higher altitude, enjoying a good night’s sleep and having a wonderful hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, hash browns and homemade bread. Then we began our journey into the deep and complicated geography those extraordinary mountains. With all our fooling around, it wasn't until 10am when we shouldered our very light packs and headed up the trail.
Our journey was to take us through the burnt trees and stubble left behind by the ferocious Silver Fire of 2013, a fire that required a helicopter to pluck Phil from his outpost. We walked through the rebirth the forest being, all sorts of plants and habitat sprouting from the stubble and ashes of the monstrous fire. We were late. We pushed ahead. The first couple of hours, except for a couple of bumps, the trail is pretty easy—a gradual incline, damp earth, wonderful views on either side of the Black Range Ridge the trail followed. Lee was proud. She even said something like, “I think Phil was fooling us. This is easy!” She soon learned that the mountain gods have ears. A few minutes later the drum rolls of thunder started tracking us up the mountain, herding along dark and darker clouds like obedient cattle. Then the rains came. Drizzling at first, holding off long enough for us to put on our raincoats. The storm began to pound us. The trail, of course, turned rocky, and the waters transformed it into a small creek, the two of us wading upstream. Weird. The rain kept coming, we kept walking.
Halfway up, we met two women―a mother and daughter―coming down. They hadn't made it to the top. The rain pushed them back. We quickly compared notes in the rain, then moved on. A minute or so later the trail crossed over a massive rock slide, but thanks to the 1930s CCC and wilderness ingenuity, a stone wall carved into the mountain made the crossing easy for the old folks. No concrete, just stone one on top another, ten feet high, leaning in against the mountain, all these years. To build it, the workers had to first pull away stones to clear away for the path and to make space for the wall, then using the same stone, build the wall. It’s wilderness, so it’s all done without machine, just picks and shovels, hands and arms, muscle and bones. And here it is, 80 or so years later, still doing its job. I wanted to take a photo, but Lee wanted to push on. She was right. It was raining and we were getting cold. We stuffed a peanut sandwich in our mouths and kept walking, sloshing along the trail—one step after the other, one step after the other. The next breath, and the next breath. It’s the only way to walk a straight line up a crooked mountain. That’s what the ancient mountain monks of China always said, drunk and laughing at fools like us.
Another 45 minutes or so, walking across a saddle, the Gila Wilderness to the west, the valley of the Rio Grande to the east, the rain clouds above, the mountain beneath, the rain coming down, I heard something behind me. I couldn’t figure out where the sound was coming from, cocooned inside my raincoat. Something was close behind me. I turned fully around. Shit, it was Lee, passing me. “You’re walking too slow,” she said, as she passed me. Up she went, and for the rest of the journey, there she was in front of me, maybe 20 yards or so, pulling me along by her very presence. I was proud. She was my guide up the mountain.
Later she would say, “I was cold, I was tired, and I knew Phil was up there warm and dry in a cabin with a fire going. That’s all I needed to know.”
Phil’s Mountain is like every mountain, the last part is the most difficult. The climb is steeper, switchbacks carrying us back and forth through the tall and very wet grasses of summer. Now the forest was huge around us, the trees untouched by the Silver Fire. Wild raspberry bushes grabbing at my hands. The rain washes the red blood down into the ground. I’m counting my breaths, counting my steps. Breathing in, breathing out, heart pounding. I have to stop every hundred steps or so. Catch my breath. Then it’s every 50 steps. Every 10 breaths. I know we’re close to the top. But the top never seems to come.
Have we gone too far? We keep going. Lee’s up ahead, looking around. I look around too. Something blue coming down the mountain. It’s Phil in his blue raincoat. Bearded, a big smile on his bearded face. He came down looking for us. Yes, we had missed the first trail up to the top. It was back there, wrapped around a thick tree. “Not to worry. There’s another trail a bit further.” And soon after a hundred yards or so, we open up to the big meadow of his little cabin and the presence of the tower standing like a skeleton in the drizzling foggy daylight above us.
We were home atop Phil’s Mountain.
His is a little house, truly a casita, maybe 14’ by 24’, the living space with a small bedroom tucked into the corner—Phil’s home, truly, the way he knows every nook and cranny of it, like the captain of a small sailboat where space is precious. For those two nights, he made it our home. That’s how we felt. Phil had the fire going, a clothes line ready so we could begin drying out clothes and our shoes and socks. Coffee was brewing, welcoming conversation, good stories, laughter.
When we got warmer, we climbed the steel staircase up the tower, through a hatch door, and into a small room of windows 50 feet above the ground. It was spectacular. Phil pulled down a map pinned to a piece of plywood, showed the tools of his trade for triangulating the position of a fire, and pointed out the mountains and landmarks in the great vistas around us, all of it huddled in clouds and fog.
The light slipping away, we came back down and Phil cooked us a wonderful hot dinner, talking while he chopped and diced, measured and simmered, all the while swapping stories, laughing—high country performance art at its best. The dinner was delicious. And the encore was homemade peanut butter cookies and a shot of whisky poured over a cube of ice. We were roughing it, baby. I giggle now, writing this, even to think about it.
The words and cadences of Gary Snyder’s poem “Rip Rap” drifted through my brain.
Lay down these wordsWe were exhausted. Aching bones. Sore muscles. It was early for us but we were ready for bed. Phil was kind enough to give up his cozy bed for the two old people. He put a five gallon “piss bucket” beside us in the little room so Lee wouldn’t have to make nighttime treks through the cold to the outhouse. I am no fool. I likewise took advantage of the excellent facilities. Three times, in fact. Phil, for his own lodging, decided to set up his tent within a circle of stones and beneath a canopy of giant ponderosas. A friend of his had built the stone circle a few years before, but now the space looks ancient and sacred. I envied Phil the freedom of mind and heart to move outside under the stars, but at the same time, after that rain-soaked hike, I was so happy to be warm under the covers of his little bed, sleeping next to the animal warmth of my wife. Yes, yes, we were home atop Phil’s Mountain, his casita a little boat tethered to its lookout tower and bobbing in the waves of the cosmos.
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf or wall
riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
These poems, people,
lost ponies with
Dragging saddles --
and rocky sure-foot trails.
The worlds like an endless
Game of Go.
ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word
a creek-washed stone
with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
all change, in thoughts,
As well as things.
July 2018, Saturday the 14th.
I slept well, even with Lee and me doing our little domestic dance, one climbing over the other, to pee in the bucket, the other sleepyhead moving up against the wall. I should have gone outside to look at the stars, but not that night. My job was to sleep and pee when that time came. Waking in the early morning, it took me a bit to remember where I was. The bed was different, the morning light was different, the air we breathed was different. Clean. Pure. Early I heard the cluster of hummingbirds outside the window sucking up the sugar water.
Oh, yeah, oh yeah!
Before Lee got up and Phil fiddling with the daily habits of life in the kitchen, the rain climbing up the mountains from the south, I went wandering in the wet meadow to pee. I also carried along a pillow, I found a good rock, just the right height, and I sat meditation for 20 minutes. Perfect. High country meditation is easy. You just sit there. Actually, it’s a lot like lowland meditation. You just sit there. It’s different but really is the same. Sitting there. I did hear the hermit thrush, a timid bird, Phil tells me. This summer he saw one for the first time, all these 16 years walking around and listening to the song.
Yes, the little guy loves to talk, explaining the secrets of the universe, especially in the morning, when that new guy, the old white man, is listening!
|Lee was up too. |
Her first job
was to empty the piss bucket.
Saturday was an old-school Sabbath kind of day. A day of rest. An off and on drizzly day, splotches blue sky every once in a while, a little bit of wind. Great conversation. Lee was still asleep, so Phil and I read poems to each other. I read a poem from Africa, a little librito I had packed up the mountain. Then Phil read me a Wendell Berry poem. I cannot remember the poem’s title now. A wonderful poem about the terrible consequences of so-called civilization encroaching on places like the very place we were sitting that very minute, 10020 feet above it the. Thanks to Phil, Wendell Berry shadowed us the whole day, his poems, his ideas, his beliefs in the old ways.
I announced my purpose as we finished our delicious pancakes and wild raspberries. Phil was glad. He said he knew the perfect place. After he finished cleaning up the dishes, we followed him through the wet morning grasses to the southeast, not even a hundred yards from the cabin. There atop the mountain is a hueco, a depression in the stone and earth that gathers water after a rain. Sometimes, if there’s a big rain for a good period of time, the hueco becomes a small shallow pond and little frogs burst into the world. The rain Lee and I had walked through was not enough to fill the hueco, but it was enough to leave a small basin in the center of the hueco, maybe two feet wide and a foot or so deep. The water was cool and clear, truly mountain water. This is where, Phil said, where he scattered ashes of his friend John. A fellow lookout way across to the other side of the Gila Wilderness, John had been like a brother, even father, to Phil all these years. One day, before the 2013 Silver Fire, John and his old horse tumbled off the mountain to their death. Nobody knows how it happened. Maybe the horse had a heart attack. Who knows? Phil tells this story in A Song for the River. All he wanted me to know was that this place was a holy spot to him, and he was honoring our friend and his friend John by leading us here to scatter Bob’s ashes.
I took out a small handful of the white-grey ashes, full of tiny bone shards, and dropped them into the clear cold water. As the ashes sank to the bottom, I stirred the water with my hand and it became milky, dissolving once again into the earth. I had meant to bring several prayers to read, but I had forgotten them in the hubbub of leaving. I mumbled a few words to myself in almost silence as the ashes dissolved. The three of us all were confused by what to say or not to say. Each of has our own understanding of death and the ritual of death, so each of us said something quietly, hesitantly. That was okay. It didn’t change the moment, the ashes clouding the water. Here’s Bob’s evening prayer from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, I’m sure modified for his own voice:
I pray to you from the bottom of my heartBob practiced old school Tibetan Buddhism, all the bells and whistles, the long chanting, and he enjoyed contemplating rebirth. Not me. That has always seemed sort of silly. Like Gotama said, if you haven’t done it, don’t talk about it. But these were not my ashes, not my bones. So I happily, I type and repeat his death prayer. Don’t know to what or to whom he was praying. I should have asked him while he was alive, but I’m down with Walt Whitman, thinking it muddies the water of compassion and friendship to argue about God or spiritual practice. But since I was the last guy standing in our friendship, at the memorial gathering for my friend, I read his prayer and followed it with one given to me by a Zen buddy:
Please regard me with compassion from afar
In this life and the next life, as well as in the intermediate state
I make you my haven of hope
Just now while I am alive in the human realm
Is an opportune moment to grant your blessing.
Because of the ceaseless action of cause and effect,
reality appears in all its many forms.
To know this fully liberates all who suffer.
All beings appear just as we do from the one,
and pass away as we all do,
After a few flickering moments or years of life
Back to our original unborn nature.
Truly our lives are waves
on the vast ocean of true nature
Which is not born and does not pass away.
That was not hard. Phil had showed me a spot beneath a tree and up against some rocks where over the years he had placed Anazazi pot shards he collected walking around the mountain. Perfect. I scattered another handful of ashes for los ancianos of the mountaintop. Then I walked down the trail and found bunches of low lying flowers, yellows and pinks, the latter like Indian Paintbrush. Bob loved flowers, so the remaining ashes and bone shards went among the wild flowers, little mountain flowers enjoying a drizzly day at 10,000 above the seas girdling the ancient crust of the earth. I kept mumbling prayers to myself and talking to Bob. It was a fun journey. I went back to the casita and took a nap.
That was the kind of day it was. I was at peace. Not much to write about. Just wandering around on the top of the mountain. Drinking coffee at the table. Talking with Lee and Phil. Poems and ideas. Wendell Berry. Gary Snyder. Memories of growing up. Fathers. Mothers. Brothers. Sisters. The lives and deaths of Phil’s friend John and the remarkable young woman Ella Jazz who died tragically. The mountains and the fires in the mountains. All the ghosts that follow each of us around in memories. Splotches of sunlight. Drizzle coming and going. Damp rocky earth. Grasses. A halo of pine trees surrounding us. Ponderosas. White pine. Black rock with splotches of lichen.
“Look here,” Phil said on one of our little walk-abouts. Under a rock he pulled a ornamental but weathered tin box. Inside was a Ziploc bag and inside the bag was a very short note. A woman’s writing announcing the ceremony of a man and a woman, a couple, who had brought the ashes of their dog Pooh to the top of this mountain. This was one of their favorite hikes—a woman, a man and their dog. Nothing else in the note. Just the tin box, the Ziploc bag and the note hidden very privately under a rock. The hiding place was at the foot of an outcropping of black stone, bench-like, a wonderful place to sit, looking out to the west over the Gila Wilderness with all its complexity of mountains, creeks and the Gila River which drained it all. They must have scattered the ashes in the wind, then talked about their dog, held hands, maybe said a prayer. Maybe 10 years later Phil sat on that same bench of black stone and reached down and found this remarkable artifact. Now he showed it to Lee and me. We placed it carefully back into its mountain cache.
Good people, good dog, good mountain.
Two weeks ago, he said, he’d packed 25lbs of sugar up the mountain. Surely, a labor of hummingbird love. Today would be the last day of sugar water. It had been a wet summer, wetter than most, and no fires to speak of in the Gila. Yes, fires were raging in northern New Mexico and northern California, yes, but Phil’s mountain was in little or no danger. The Forest Service would soon give Phil his summer’s notice. Maybe two weeks, maybe more. They would ask him to walk and survey the mountain trails, a job Phil loved dearly, backpacking from one site to the next. Around 4pm that afternoon, he filled the feeders one last time. A recipe of 6 parts water, 1 part sugar, a weak concoction for these fat little guys. But oh well, they didn’t seem to mind. They didn’t know that the next day would not bring more sugar water.
Really, there’s not much else to write. We sat in a meadow and looked at rocks. We wandered some, but not too far. The huge sky kept changing, clouds coming and disappearing, splotches of blue and sunlight. Lee and I were happy just being there, being bone tired and happy. Oh, yeah, we watched the hummingbirds. That was our excitement. Mountains are made for haiku, not long journal pieces like this. Not to worry. I didn’t want to forget this one journey in my 76th year.
That night Phil made meat balls and spaghetti. I had packed an orange up for a special treat—Phil concocted a special drink with orange and bourbon. We made jokes and laughed. That night, when we were going to bed, Lee said had been worried. With the continual uncertainty of rain, it’s constant drizzling, we would only have conversation to spread our time across the day. She worried it might be boring for Phil and for us. But not so. Conversation came and went, like the clouds and the sun, the rain and the blue sky. And that night I discovered a great secret. I didn’t need to sit on the bucket to pee. I just picked it up. I giggled as I climbed back into bed, crawling over Lee. It would be her turn next, but, ha, she’d have to squat.
The next morning was going-down-the-mountain day. I woke up as the sunlight began filtering over the Sangre de Cristos, way across the wide Rio Grande Valley. Way over there too are the Sacramentos. A huge magnificent vista. Again, splotched with clouds. A few hummingbirds came looking for sugar water but there was none to be had. They were not happy nor sad. It was just the way it was. Or like the kids say, “It is what it is.” But I was sad without the buzz of hummingbirds flitting around the feeders. Still, the coming silence of the hummingbirds made the day more special, a little ritual of going away, a necessary dance.
Phil made us oatmeal and we continued our human chattering. Saying goodbyes. Abrazos. And we packed up and left, taking a few more photos, remembering the skies, remembering the casita. Down we went, step by step, breath by breath, an animal rhythm to be sure, in our own heads and hearts, but together in the big world—Big Mind, as Suzuki says. We stopped here and there for a water break, talking a little big, chewing over our visit, like cows with their cud, such a pleasure. But over us we could see the dark clouds coming again. Been there, done that, and of course we didn’t want to do that again. We pushed ahead, and lucky us, as soon as we got to the car, the rains and thunder came tumbling down, reminding us again that we are human beings on a mountainside swirling around on the planet earth.
|Editor and Author, A Song for the River|
"It's like magic," Shadow said,
"a path into the Nowhere."
"No better place to be," Wednesday said.
We arrived at our car just as the clouds opened up with a huge downpour. Perfect, we thought, giggling at our good luck. We stuffed our gear into the car and Lee scrambled inside, while I like a fool stood in the rain and quickly read all the historic markers the Forest Service had erected. The feds had re-written to give a Native American perspective. Folks had been hammering on doors to make that happen, and there it was. That made me happy. Then we were weaving our way through the mountains again. Being creatures of habit, we headed east the way we came. It’s a longer drive, but we’re not in the mountains every day. Besides, we had our hearts and bellies set on the comfort food served at the Hillsboro Café. Yes, yes, we stuffed ourselves with hamburgers and fries and the white noise of meaningless restaurant conversations. Then we took the quiet drive home on the old #27 road from Hillsboro to Hatch curling around Gila Mountains foothills and crossing just-now flooded low-water fords scrabbled with rock. The landscape is a very unpopulated ranching topography, such a pleasure to be in its quietness after our mountain journey. And then, still 30 miles north of Hatch, is the ghost town of Lake View, it’s abandoned but refurbished school house perched atop a barren hilltop. Somehow that solitary building with all its lost memories and human histories marked the end of our little journey into the thunder of so much silence.
And the end of this journal entry.
[Note 2] Forgive me. I've been listening to Neil Gaimon's fantasy American Gods. This is NOT a quote from the novel, but it should be. Besides, it fit, what with Lee and Phil standing next to a sign that says nothing.
Begun 16 July 2016
and finished 12 November 2018