Wednesday, October 04, 2006

To speak of mountains - Part 1


To speak of mountains
is to lend wings to vertigo,
take a stand against the sky.

Is to imagine ourselves
as both hardened and broken,
both breathless and at peace.

To speak of mountains
is to think how far we could climb
if only Time were stone –

our hope a high pass,
finally reached –
the world opening below us.

To speak of mountains
is to escape, by so little,
the gravity of the everyday;

to find a way to turn
the earth to gesture,
the emptiness to breathing space.

To speak of mountains
is to fling pebbles into a valley
and listen for a sound that never comes.

To know we cannot fill
the immensity that lies before us,
but still to measure ourselves against it.

- October 2006
Friday, September 29th

Friday morning at the Philadelphia Airport, standing in the 'C' line for our Southwest flight. Our itinerary today takes us from Philadelphia to Seattle via Chicago and then on to Spokane. The flight from Chicago is full, but MR sits in the aisle seat wolfing down a plateful of chips and looking so feral that no one dares to ask if the place next to her is empty, so we get the row to ourselves [1]. I read Nietzsche. MR works, or pretends to. By the time we get to Seattle, after six and a half hours of sitting on the plane (we might as well have flown to Europe), we're both exhausted and binge on Mocha Light Frappucinos, firmly establishing ourselves as tourists by ordering Starbucks in Seattle.

Then on to Spokane. Coming off the runway the sky is stainless, the air lucid. Away to our right, Mt. Rainier rises white and glorious, not so much mountain as a fist of gathered might, a regal and majestic figure. Before it, the surrounding hills bow like courtiers in the presence of their king, and far away in the distance, its smoky and mysterious mistress, Mt. St. Helens, watches this display of naked pride with amusement. Then the plains of Eastern Washington stretch away into a haze of horizons, and before we know it we are beginning our descent into Spokane, and the first leg of our journey is over.

Spokane Airport turns out to be a lot smaller than I expected. It reminds me of Vizag - there's the same atmosphere of wannabe big city-ness, the feel of a small town putting on airs. The 'International' in the airport's name seems out of place. The good thing is that the rental car lots are actually part of the main airport building so I sit in the lounge listening to Norwegian Wood being piped through the PA system while MR picks up our rental car - a white Jeep. By the time we get out of the airport it's already 9:00 pm back in Philadelphia, but we still have a 250 mile drive ahead of us, all the way to Kalispell, MT. As we head out of Spokane on the I-90, the dying light of the day makes the lake around Coeur D'Alene seem dreamlike and ghostly, like a reluctant mirror. A perfect half moon haunts the air, like a gleaming silver coin snapped in two, and as we cross the border into Idaho and into night, a raging forest fire high up in the mountains opposes its fiery glow to the fading crimson of the western sky.

We stop for dinner at the Silver Spoon diner in Kellogg, Idaho. The service is terrible, the food adequate though unimpressive, but the fact that we're surrounded by tableloads of people who all look like they weigh over 300 pounds makes MR and me feel thin and happy. I order a chicken breast sandwich and am dismayed to find that in Kellogg this means a tiny sliver of chicken meat bathed in about 6 inches of batter and fried till it has soaked up the oil from half a dozen groundnut fields, placed between two slices of thick bread and smothered in mayo. MR orders meatloaf and is still gawking at the plateful of flesh and hunk of bread the size of George Foreman's fists that this implies, when the waitress comes over, apologises for the confusion, confesses to having brought MR the small portion by mistake and proceeds to make up for it by adding another pound of meatloaf to MR's already aghast plate. By the time we finish, there's still enough food on the table to make up a doggy bag for your average Great Dane, but we no no the waitress's kind suggestion that we take it home with us, and escape while we still have our waistlines.

One hour later we've turned off the I-90 and are making our way North on a deserted state highway. And I mean deserted. Thick forest stretches on either side of us, and silheouttes of mountains rise into the night sky, cutting off our view of the stars. Now and then a lake betrays itself by glimmering in the moonlight, taunting us with the promise of a beauty we will never get to see. There is no human habitation here, and only the occassional passing car, and even the darkness seems thicker, more desolate, as if the wilderness were slowly trying to reclaim the highway. Roadkill punctuates the margins of the road, and its asphalt surface is splashed with blotches of congealed blood, mute reminders of the deaths of deer on these treacherous crossings. I am reminded of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, of that scene with the bloodstained room. Every inch, every mile of this road is an intersection between the busy traffic of civilisation and the untamable instinct of nature. The deer die and the headlights that slaughter them move on, but there can be no doubt about who is the intruder here, who is the barbarian. The sad spirits of killed animals hang over this road like a haze, so that MR brakes again and again, swerving to avoid some tiny movement that her imagination converts into a deer. Not that it is all imagination though - we do see animals by the roadside, once narrowly escape running over what looks like a raccoon.

Finally, a little past midnight local time, we are in Kalispell. It is now almost 3 am back on the East Coast. It has been a long day.

Saturday September 30th

By the time MR wakes up this morning, I have got ready, written a poem, storyboarded a presentation I need to make on Tuesday, made a to-do list for the week ahead, jotted down some notes for this post (you don't think I actually remember all this stuff, do you?), twiddled my thumbs till the joints hurt and considered (and discarded) two ideas for my dissertation. When we finally leave our motel room, the sun is high in the sky, the snail's fallen off the thorn, the lark's taking a coffee break and God has stepped out of heaven to go buy groceries. Sigh.

Driving out of Kalispell, we are overjoyed to spot an I-HOP. Visions of chocolate chip pancakes float before my eyes. This is beginning to seem like a real vacation at last. Unfortunately, half the population of Western Montana seems to have decided that this is a good day [2] to stop by the I-HOP for breakfast, so after standing in line for ten minutes just to get our name on the list of people waiting, we decide to give up on breakfast and head over to Glacier National Park, our destination for the trip (that is, I decide to give up - MR has to be dragged out of the place kicking and screaming). The western entrance to the park is just half an hour's drive from Kalispell, and pretty soon we are standing on the shores of Lake McDonald, watching the mountains fade away blue in the distance.

From here, we drive up the famed Going to the Sun Road, stopping at the Lake McDonald Lodge for breakfast (where MR sits fidgeting with her laptop while I try to explain to the waiter, that no, it's okay, we're not offended that they serve non-vegetarian dishes, in fact, we may want to have some ourselves). It's from the lodge onward that the drive really becomes fascinating. At first the road runs along a tiny stream, while massive formations of chiselled rock tower above us, but before long we're climbing way up into the mountains, valleys falling away all aroud us, the trees aflame with the autumn gold. I am reminded of Li Po's description of the Road to Shu [3] :

The Road to Shu is steep, steep as climbing to the Sky!
It ashens those who only hear tell of it!

From its peaks to the sky can hardly be a foot:

The withered pines there have to leave over canyons

Filled with the contending dins of waterfalls,
Gullies thundering a thousand rolling stones!

...The Road to Shu is steep, steep as climbing to the Sky!

I half turn, but gaze West; with a long, long sigh!
Everywhere we look, mountains rise above us - mohawk ridges of striated rock, like spines of some giant iguana, or obsidian peaks lifting their lonely heads into the sun. We are surrounded by these grey guardians of the Earth's age, their faces chiselled to a mythic sadness, jaws of clenched stone sharing a silence too old for us to disturb with our presumption. It is the end of summer here, and the beginning of autumn, so the peaks bear only the faintest traces of snow, but in its absence their shapes are starker, more precise. What I see opening before me is a landscape of precipices, as the light divides each separate rockface into a dozen different planes, turning bare stone into unpolished diamond, discovering beauty in the coincidence of angles, making the mountains new with every glimpse. I feel as though I'm lost in a Picasso painting, something from his cubist period, a geometry of shattered lines, thousands of feet high, a black Xanadu.

And yet there is also this incredible sense of distance, of vistas unmeasurable to the human eye. Space, under these skies, is immense and empty, as though the air itself had expanded in proportion to the mountains, creating a world fit for giants to walk in. Driving up to Logan's Pass (the point beyond which the road has been blocked for repairs), we stop at every turn-out, jump out of the car to take pictures: staring at them in dismay afterwards, wondering why the camera cannot capture the sense of scale that is so immediately apparent to us, the door to our car left gaping open in excitement, Dylan singing Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands on the stereo.

Staring out towards the horizon from Logan's Pass, it occurs to me that the incredible thing about this view is how evenly matched the mountains are. There are no prima donnas here, no solitary peaks towering over all the others, grabbing everyone's attention. Instead there is the confederacy of high places, the mountains casual, almost collegial with each other, like true aristocrats oblivious to their own greatness.

Stunning as the view from Logan's Pass is, the best is yet to come. From here a one and a half mile trail winds up into the mountains, past yellowing heather pastures, thin trickles of streams and the occasional mountain goat, to where the gods of the mountains, deciding that you have earned the right, grant you the sight of Glacier's most precious gem - the Hidden Lake.

The Hidden Lake is, as its name suggests, hidden - it lies folded away in a secret cranny of the hills, invisible right upto the point where you come up to that final ridge and see its azure waters spreading below you, their surface shirred by the wind. High hills rise on all sides of it, and a single snow capped peak looks down upon it from a great height. This is a scene that no photographs can do justice to, it would take the canvas of a Bierstadt or a Sargent to capture the beauty of this view. From high up here the trembling surface of the lake seems palpable with excitement, and I am reminded of Yeats: "Like a laughing string / where on mad fingers play / amid a place of stone / be secret and exult". There is a sense of achievement in being here, a sense of discovery that even the two dozen tourists milling about cannot quite erase. As the person standing next to me at the overlook says, "This is so beautiful, I could stay here forever." I agree completely.

But of course, we don't stay there forever. Eventually we make our way back down to Logan's Pass, drive back to the Lake McDonald Lodge. MR, not content with a measly 3 mile hike, sets off on a longer trail to Fish Lake. I, being less adventurous and less fit, elect to spend the late afternoon lying lazily by Lake McDonald, reading Wallace Stevens and watching the water slowly turn from a brilliant blue to a disappointed cobalt. It is a testament to how peaceful the atmosphere here is that even the presence of other people does not disturb me, and I watch with bemusement as a man slowly assembles a kayak, a dog leaps into the water to rescue a stick thrown by his owner, two little children go about the solemn business of throwing stones in the lake and a pair of young couples, probably just out of high school and clearly on their first weekend away together, hold hands awkwardly and look for someone to take their picture. I can't help feeling that the mountains share my amusement as they stand watching over us, patient as parents, their faces giving nothing away.

When MR gets back, I'm at the payphone, desperately trying to find us a room for the night. Our plan now is to drive to the East side of the park, stopping at a hotel in East Glacier or thereabouts, ready to get an early start on the day tomorrow. Except that every hotel chain I call informs me that they have no properties in that area. Pretty soon, I can recite the names of towns around East Glacier like a rosary - Browning, St. Mary, Essex. But everyone I call acts like they don't exist.

By the time we get through dinner [4] it's already half past eight and we still don't have a place to stay. Unfazed, we decide to head out to East Glacier anyway - we figure there'll be some local motel that we can spend the night in. The road this time is even lonelier than the one last night. The towns of Essex and Pinnacle and Summit marked on our map turn out to be little more than a collection of houses, and the only other sign of civilisation is the sight of a train, ghostly with lights, gliding out of the darkness ahead of us - the railway track here running parallel to the road.

When we finally get to East Glacier, I offer a silent apology to all the call centre operators I'd been arguing with. East Glacier really doesn't have any Best Westerns, Day's Inns or Motel 6's. Instead, MR and I get to choose between The Dancing Bears, Circle R and The Whistling Swan. Memories of reading Oliver Strange come back to me. I wonder if the hardcases from Circle R are rustling cattle from the Dancing Bears, I try to imagine what it would take to convert the Circle R brand to a Whistling Swan with a straight iron. I wonder whose side that tall eyed laconic stranger called James Green would be on.

While I'm wondering all this, MR has decided that we're staying at the Whistling Swan, having determined, through some occult method of weighing the pros and cons of different neon signs, that the Whistling Swan is much the nicest of the lot. Five minutes later a sleepy looking manager is assuring us that yes, he does have a room for us. He looks like a nice, clean cut young man. I consider asking him whether he's got his mother's corpse stowed away in the basement, but decide against it. I don't much fancy the look of that Circle R place.

The room we finally get turns out to be quaint beyond cliche. It's wood panelled and low roofed and seems to have been designed for Goldilocks (I make a mental note to check under the bed for bears - hey, this is grizzly country). Instead of curtains there are little folding windows with strips of cloth pasted across them. The roof of the bathroom is about four feet high, so that taking a shower involves bumping your arm against the ceiling some 362 times. Still, it has character, this room, a sense of authenticity that comes as a welcome contrast to the ubiquity of hotel rooms elsewhere, and it might even have proved cosy if either MR or I had thought of turning on the heating before we went to sleep, instead of waking up at four in the morning with our teeth chattering. [5]

[End of Part One. Part Two to follow featuring, among other things, cinammon pancakes, a picture postcard walk, a frantic call to 911, the joys of driving through rural Montana at two am and the poetry of Octavio Paz]


1. This expansionist view of life is one that MR espouses more generally. In Seattle Airport for example, she single-handedly managed to occupy four seats in the waiting area, placing in them, in sequence, her suitcase, her laptop, her Blackberry and purse and her coffee cup. And all this while she herself was off somewhere having a conversation on her cellphone.

2. It WAS a good day. Daytime temperatures in the mid-70s, bright sunshine, visibility for miles, not the slightest hint of a cloud in the sky. Gorgeous.

3. Translation by Arthur Cooper

4. I ordered pasta and proceeded to regret it almost immediately. When I asked the waiter what kind of pasta it was he gave me a stern look and said "It's pasta, sir." as though that closed the matter. When I explained to him that there are many different kinds of pasta - spaghetti, penne, etc. - and I simply wanted to know which one, he gave me a deeply disapproving look, as though secretly convinced that I was making fun of him and assured me that it was just pasta, nothing more nothing less. When MR then proceeded to ask him what kind of sauce it came in (the menu said 'sauce of the day') he informed her that it came in 'penne sauce'. The actual pasta, when it came, wasn't all that bad, except that it had been bathed in more oil than a blonde body builder on a nude beach.

5. To be fair, the real reason we woke up at 4 was that MR, being the seasoned traveller she is, set the alarm on her Blackberry for 6 am, without bothering to account for the fact that her Blackberry was set to East Coast time.


Szerelem said...

By the time MR wakes up this morning, I have got ready, written a poem, storyboarded a presentation I need to make on Tuesday, made a to-do list for the week ahead, jotted down some notes for this post (you don't think I actually remember all this stuff, do you?), twiddled my thumbs till the joints hurt and considered (and discarded) two ideas for my dissertation.


Veena said...

I am so insanely jealous now. I want to go to Glacier too. This isn't fair at all.

And just heard abt 911 call - can't wait to hear more abt adventures of Reckless MR and Anxious Falstaff!

Space Bar said...

loved your poem (is it yours?) and deeply envious of all else.

and, because of the dismay caused by cameras that can't quite see eye to eye with you,

and especially,

mk said...

Like the Billy Collins pictures better. But thought these pictures are not quite as bad as you make them out to be. Whats more, we have those words for accompaniment:) I'm jealous too! Now I go re-read Collins and anyways often simulation is tonnes better than the real thing for me. I mean who would really want to GO anywhere? Certainly not me! bah! *sulk sulk*

Purush said...

Wonderful writing...
Just a little quibble: Shouldn't the peak be Mt. St. Helens, that you mention earlier in the post, in Eastern Washington state?
It really is lovely country out there...

Anonymous said...

Aarrrgh!! No fair! Now I want to go on driving/trekking holiday too.
*sulk sulk sulk*


Falstaff said...

szerelem: What? You mean everyone doesn't do this?

veena: Hmmm...I seem to remember MR trying to convince someone to go to Glacier this July and not succeeding. To be fair, you should probably check with MR before you get too envious - I've been told that my posts often end up making the trip seem far more exciting than they actually are, so that the people I travel with get home and then read my post to find out how much fun they had.

And ya, ya, will post about the 911 call shortly. Sheesh!

space bar: Thanks. Yes, the poem is mine. And thanks for the links

mk: What? Not GO anywhere? And miss out on the joys of air travel - complete with interminable security lines, long waits in deathly dull lounges and endless quantities of Diet Sprite as part of the airline refreshment service? You've got to be kidding.

purush: Thanks. And you're right about Mt. St. Helens, of course - my bad. All corrected now.

Anonymous said...

Be-eautifully written! And gorgeous pictures - the first one & the last two.


Anonymous said...

Flastaff, you have a girlfriend?!! When did that happen? Congratulations and all, but do you realize you've broken a few hearts?


Falstaff said...

N: Thanks

Anon: Errr...actually, no, I DON'T have a girlfriend. MR and I are not dating (perish the thought!) - she's a friend. So no need for broken hearts.

Supremus said...

"I consider asking him whether he's got his mother's corpse stowed away in the basement, but decide against it. I don't much fancy the look of that Circle R place."

-- Priceless. Sigh, if only that motel guy was watching a certain movie right when u checked in, maybe Circle R might have sounded attractive hehe!

Beautiful writeup - makes me wanna visit such places... hopefully in daylight :D


Szerelem said...

Are you suggesting that I am the one who is a freak??

Anonymous said...

Ah, OK ... the mention of a single motel room had me confused about your status. Thanks for clarifying!

The Man Who Wasnt There said...

Amazing pics d00d! Especially the last two! you wouldnt have a bigger size of the picture would you? and naive as I might sound...could one go boating in those river/lake?