The Famous Golden Larch

I don’t know what it is about me and hats, but I keep losing mine. There was the green Irish cap I got in a small, West Cork town: I wrote the name inside the rim (SKIBBEREEN 12-15) to mark the memory of that Christmas Eve with my mom visiting from Germany, the shops closed on Christmas and St. Stephen’s Day, us loading up on supplies in town. That hat went missing in the cracks of my mom’s old German house. And the pillbox hat I got in the hills of southern France at a festival, this one hand-spun with yarn from a woman and rickety wooden loom: it was brown/copper with flecks of different color from the yarns she used, and they were still on the French Franc then, and though I was always leaving it at a bar or somewhere it always came back, until one day it didn’t.

I thought about those two hats climbing up the trail to Ingalls Pass, realizing I’d left the new one I bought behind, now only had the balaclava that was thin and funny looking. I had that, and a sombrero and bandana I could cobble together if it got too cold. They said the snow-line started at the pass and I’d camp down at the basin, this time with just my bivy sack and tarp (no tent): I’d left the shovel behind too, assuming the snow wouldn’t be so deep, though I didn’t have much to go on, to assume that.

Every time I go backpacking it’s an excuse to buy new stuff at REI, and this time it was a good, wool hat: dark gray, that seemed to suit the color of a new era I’d stepped into (middle aged), that was functional but had some style too.

I thought of all the times I’d gone up to Ingalls Lake, to camp in a nearby basin with great views of Mount Stuart, and in mid-autumn, the larch trees that lose their needles, but turn gold before they do. Brad said he’d bring his good camera and come meet me; the larch look good against the snow and blue skies, and the colors of the nearby peaks all run pink at dusk.

I thought of the times I’d come in late October: once, when I organized a trip with some colleagues but had to back out and they went anyway, and one of the guys left a small rock on my desk with a note that made me sad I didn’t go—I saved it for a while but then it got taken home and confused with all the other rocks we’d saved from our outings, the pieces of driftwood shaped like faces or wands: all of it mixed in a jar of memories, of spare coins and baubles: things that only meant something to us, that ceased to exist once forgotten.

There were times with Brad and his girlfriend Ann, it seemed the light fell so fast with the sun disappearing below the ridges, late afternoon. And the last time I’d come with Lily: she said the lake was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen, we sat on some rocks by the shore sharing a snack with my pocket knife. I looked at those rocks when I came this time and there were just a few other parties in the sun, stretching: and I left before getting wistful.

I made it to camp in the morning and kicked out a space for my bivy sack, using my boots that were heavy enough they worked like a shovel blade to clear the snow. And then I put down the weed barrier I used for my footprint, tied the tarp to a couple trees, anchored it on the corners, sat on my bear canister and checked the time: only 12-noon, plenty of time to walk to the lake. Apart from gathering water, there wasn’t much else to do.

I thought about my trips with the Mountaineer club, so full of ego then: I’d huff and puff and blow myself up the mountain through sheer force of pride, thick enough to cover the gaps in my skill and experience like a cloud, a fog I put out. And how I’d do this deep, yogic breathing exercise as I marched uphill, that couldn’t have been nice for anyone.

It was being outdoors that triggered memories of those times and made me feel young and strong again: like some crux part of me flickered outside of myself and returned, to reanimate me.

There were the climbing tights I had with so many holes from me falling or bushwhacking, I bought these ’60s-style patches to cover them: a pink flower on my butt, a VW bug on my thigh.

And before I’d left for Ingalls this time in the kitchen, there was the smell of something so bad I had to take the garbage out: it was like something rotting, the dank smell of piss: and I realized with horror it was me, my shirt, the same shirt I’d worn since 2009 or before—and it was time to just throw that shirt out I decided, all sentiment aside.

We’d been through Scotland this time two years ago, and didn’t expect any kind of Peter Pan heavy aspect to anything, not at all: but there it started in Arbroath, when the Pan film was playing at a new theater and we were the only ones watching it…and the next day Dawn said this is where the author grew up, we’re passing through his town (J.M. Barrie)…and I didn’t know, didn’t care, there was this whole heavy thing to the Pan story: the author coping with his mom’s sense of loss over a sibling, the feeling he didn’t really exist…it went on and on. And for the first time, seeing a theater production of it in Stratford a month later, I identified with Hook, his aging, the desire to be young again…and the cast came out to give a talk, and one wore a T-shirt that said something like, The story of your life is happening right now.

I talked to my hair stylist Donnie about these things, these seeming coincidences, and he called bullshit, quoted Carl Jung, said the problem is this type of thing is always happening, we’re just not aware. There is no coincidence, it’s only the times we notice it that make it seem that way, and they’re few and far between.

There was the dead horse along the shoulder when I pulled off the road for the trail head, I’d never seen such a thing, I had to shake it off: a lot of it had been eaten already. And I picked my way up the trail thinking about nature, how it takes care of itself, it wants for nothing more: was that where we diverged, where we’d gone wrong? And now, Donnie saying we’ve become a virus that’s destroying the earth, that the only way to rescue it was through intervention, through some secret rites of the Amazon jungle that involved mind-blowing hallucinations, hours of getting sick and shitting oneself and reportedly, aliens.

And as the sun crested a ridge behind me there was a line between the shade and light I passed through with one step, and there was my shadow on the trail in front of me large and formidable looking: the shadow that could be whomever I wanted it to be.

At the pass I dropped into the basin, set my camp, walked to the lake and back again: drank a beer, thought about how I’d mark my site so Brad knew where to find me…and then he was there at 6…the sun dropped below the ridge, it gave the impression of dusk, made a shadow on the face of Mount Stuart that slowly rose up as the sun went down, a candle going out in reverse, the bottom up…and at night, once it was all dark the moon made everything indigo-bright and played off the snow, made shadows of its own, Tim Burton trees, arthritic wrists…and for a time, made us mad.

When the wind stopped all there was was quiet. Waking after a night of camping on the snow is always hard, stiff, cold, wet: Brad, warming himself on the rocks in the morning sun with a coffee, a cigarette: the two of us climbing in the snow to the privy, taking turns, restored by natural things, saying goodbye with a hug, going home to dry things out, upload our pictures, to see how much of it we could remember, for how long: to not call it coincidence, all the beauty that comes in such a small burst, when things go gold or pink right before they go out.



Categories: identity, Memoir, musings

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

16 replies

  1. It’s why we hike and backpack and get out there into the world.


  2. A real wealth of images and wonderful language — packed a lot into two pages. The barber quoting Jung and hoping to summon an alien intervention, loved the scene where you realize, like the characters in Walking Dead, that the horrible odor in the kitchen means time to let go of a sentimental favorite, shadows of Tim Burton and arthritic wrists, and now I’m imagining Smee as a Sherpa trying to get Hook up a mountain. I always worry complimenting a writer, will come across as backhanded or trite, and actually I’m at a loss for adjectives this morning — I read a lot of 18th-19th c. history, so pensive and even melancholy probably connote something a bit different in 2017, so I’ll just say, you wrote a very effective piece, bang-up ending, worth re-reading.


    • Don’t ever worry about complimenting a writer (at least not me!). Doesn’t matter what words you use, truly (and yours are super!). It doesn’t take more than a couple attentive readers like you to serve as inspiration, so it works both ways. I was going for that dense, ‘packing a lot in,’ so it’s nice to hear it landed with you. If you can, share what you’re going to be doing in Boston! Not sure I saw that on your blog yet. Bill

      Liked by 1 person

      • Moving in on Sunday, and starting Monday morning. I’ll be working for a wonderful firm that designs and supports study abroad programs and academic internships.
        I spent a semester at the U of Hull, in Yorkshire, and another a Lingnan U. in Hong Kong, and am a huge believer in the benefits of studying overseas, so pretty excited right now to start working in the field.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ha, that’s super Robert: thanks for sharing and good luck. My wife has been wanting to design programs for kids/families to do travel-related education. That’s great for you, very exciting!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. You know I love these backpacking posts of yours. I’ll never own a bivy sack or a bear canister, but I always feel like I was out there.

    I saw an interview recently with Roger Waters (maybe it was Gilmour), who said it dawned on him one day in the early ’70’s, “Wait a minute … this is life. This is it. Better start paying attention.” Too easy to float along waiting for something to happen.


    • Never say never Kevin! I used to think that about the bivy bag, but well, once you try it…I like what you say about “THIS is life…pay attention.” That’s good. Enjoy the day! Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That memoir class you took is showing it’s effect – another nice piece.


  5. those bursts are what make us remember why life is worth living –


  6. Peter P and Middle A. Sigh.
    Wonder what the story of the horse was?


    • I don’t know about the horse, would rather not think about it anymore. One of those things you see and then can’t un-see. It’s by a big ranch and a series of small farms that lead down a long road to this wilderness area I like called “Teanaway,” by one of our mountain ranges called the Cascades. We had a lot of wildfires in the area this past summer, and have the past couple years, so it’s cut off my ability to see some of my favorite wilderness. But with it late October and some snow now (and controlled burns) it’s obviously okay. Weird about the Peter Pan though. Never thought I’d connect with that story, the themes about aging et cetera. Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  7. You had me at shitting yourself and aliens.


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