Friday, October 06, 2006

To speak of mountains - Part 2

Sunday, 1st October

We leave at dawn. At this time of day the sky above East Glacier is the colour of burnt copper, great ridges of rock rise above us like tawny lions and all around us the autumn woods gleam like shaken gold. Who would have thought the earth could be this burnished, this brazen? The colours of the land, pink-veined and saffron-hued, put even the sunrise to shame. From East Glacier to Many Glacier (the point inside the park where we are headed) is just a little over 40 miles, but the drive there takes us the better part of two hours, because we just have to stop at every turn-out, desperately trying to catch the dying glories of the morning sun.

Many Glacier itself is a place too beautiful to describe. It's a bowl of black rock, dozens of miles wide and thousands of feet high, a place shaped by the sadness of Gods, synagogue of a vanished presence. The unmistakable U-shaped marks of ancient glaciers on these valleys bear testament to the slow passing of ages, to the slow wearing down of Time. History itself is extinct here, and we live in a diminished present, barely able to imagine the majesty of the geological forces that once trampled upon this earth. Paz writes [1]:

Rock and precipice,
more time than stone, this
timeless matter.

Through its cicatrices
falls without moving
perpertual virgin water.

Immensity reposes here
rock on rock,
rocks over air.

The world's manifest
as it is: a sun
immobile, in the abyss.

Scale of vertigo:
the crags weigh
no more than our shadows.

The sky is as blue as water here, the day is flung stone, and we float at the bottom of a liquid awe, overwhelmed by the landscape we see around us.

MR and I are just beginning to congratulate ourselves on coming out this early, when we have our first setback of the day. The Many Glacier Hotel (a marvellous little property located at the edge of a lake) which was to be our source of breakfast, turns out to have shut for the season. A quick drive around the rest of Many Glacier confirms what we fear - there is no food to be had up here. I bear this fact with my usual suave equanimity. MR, on the other hand, rants and raves and insists that we head back to civilisation immediately and grab ourselves a bite to eat - a proposal I accede to with little more than token resistance (I'm hungry too, you see).

We've barely started back, however, before the sight of three other cars parked on the side of the road alerts us to the presence of a black speck high above, which, on closer scrutiny, proves to be a bear [2]. Much excitement. Cameras are instantly whipped out, zooms extended to their maximum in a desperate attempt to magnify what looks like a smudge of dust into a princely and ferocious beast. The end result still looks more like a fat, furry caterpillar than like Yogi, but we have now OFFICIALLY seen a bear. (A fact that MR intends to rub into all the friends who went to Alaska with her, and didn't get to see one).

Conscious of having made a phenomenal start to the day, we head down to the town of Babb, where a small diner next to the Town Supper Club supplies us with breakfast. The diner is quaintness itself - a motley collection of faux western ornaments and gimcrack earthenware, matched with some of the most slovenly service I've ever experienced. MR and I desperately look through the menu for something we can eat without suffering immediate cardiac arrest, systematically dismissing steak and 'everything' scramblers to settle for French toast. It's only after we've ordered that we realise how far this diner has taken the notion of open range - the 'kitchen' is a big old wood-burning stove right in the centre of the dining area itself, and we are treated to a step by step visual of our French toast being cooked by a skinny 18 year old in greasy jeans.

One hour later, having got through two-thirds of one plate of French Toast between us (earning us the everlasting disgust of our waitress) we're back on the road to Many Glacier, Springsteen singing Thunder Road as we zip back to the Swiftcurrent Trailhead. MR's plan for the day consists of a 11 mile hike 2,300 feet up to the Ptarmigan Tunnel. My own itinerary is more modest - a gentle 3 mile stroll along perfectly level ground to Redrock Falls seems to me the perfect way to spend a sunny day in the park. MR and I therefore part ways at the trailhead, intending to meet back in the parking lot by about 5 pm.

The hike to Redrock turns out to be delightful. It's another gorgeous day and a thin foot trail straggles its way through a thick wood, the trees parting every now and then to offer tantalising glimpses of high peaks rising on all sides. Best of all, unlike the trail yesterday, which was crowded with people, this one is deserted - on my entire four hour hike I will meet all of two people - so the sense of adventure seems all the more authentic.

The only trouble is, Glacier is bear country, and pretty soon my imagination is turning every rustling leaf or shaken branch into a charging grizzly. At one point I actually stop dead in my tracks, convinced that I just heard an animal cough close by, before realising that it was only the fabric of my coat rubbing against itself [3]. By the time I'm a mile down the trail I'm rapidly turning into a nervous wreck and wishing I hadn't actually seen Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man.

Then, just as I'm imagining what the teeth of a bear biting into my neck will feel like, I turn a corner of the trail and catch my first glimpse of Redrock Lake, a flash of blue like a kingfisher's wing, the promise of immense beauty lurking right around the corner. Five minutes later I'm standing on the shore of the lake, trying to take in one of the most amazing sights of my life. From where I stand a great expanse of shimmering blue water stretches away into the distance (I am standing at the very edge of the lake, wind-raised wavelets lapping against my shoes). Where it ends, a gentle meadow rises up to a low hill, which is resplendent with all the colours of fall - orange and gold and purple-red - and along the side of which the white ribbon of a cascade skips down to the lake. Above this colourful, idyllic scene, great stony peaks tower like dour sentinels, forming a massive U that reaches up to the sky. It's a scene out of a painting, nay, out of a dream, and I feel as though I had stumbled upon some enchanted place, some giant's garden or elvish lodge; at any rate, a place too dear for mortals.

Revived and exhilerated, all my fear and tiredness cleansed by the magnificence of this landscape, I hurry on, and a short climb later am standing at the top of Redrock Fall. Fall is a bit of a misnomer - this is more like a stumble. A sheet of frothing water falls four feet off a ledge of maroon rock, emptying itself into a green basin of stone, the water a train of white lace that slowly spreads into a still transparence, forming a pool so clear that every pebble and twig is visible at its bottom. I sit here for half an hour, splashing my fingers in the water (which is thrillingly cold!) and staring up into the high passes above me. I have brought a book with me, of course, but somehow Tacitus seems too dry a read for so magical a place, and I abandon him easily, preferring simply to loll in the greenish sunlight.

Half an hour of this and I am ready to go on. At this point, I'm still unconvinced that I have actually reached Redrock Fall. This tiny cataract seems too measly to deserve so fine an epithet, so I decide to plough on, drawn by the roar of what sounds like falling water up ahead in the distance. Half a mile further though, the path starts to get rougher, and it becomes clear to me that the roar I'm hearing is the wind howling off the mountains. I decide to return. On my way back I stop by the shore of the lake again, this time lying back on the shore and gazing up at the blue of the sky above me, listening to the steady gulp of the waves a few feet away.

When I get back to the car, it is close to 4 pm. I'm not expecting MR back till 5, so I jump into the car, lean the seat back, settle in for an hour of poetry. By the time 5.30 comes around, I'm starting to get a little annoyed. Trust this girl to be late, I think. Doesn't she realise we have an eight hour drive back, and that we need to be at the airport before 6 am in order to return the rental car and catch our flight? Oh, well, it just means we won't get too much sleep tonight. I guess it doesn't matter.

It's about 6.15 and MR still isn't back when it occurs to me that something might be wrong. Sure, we'd joked about her getting attacked by bears when she left (I made her promise that she would set my i-Pod, which she was carrying, in a safe place before the bear got to her), but I didn't think there was any actual risk of this happening. Thinking about it now I'm not so sure.

One of the hazards of being cursed with an overactive imagination combined with a pessimistic attitude to life is that it's really easy to get paranoid about the simplest things. I mean, look, you folks read this blog. You know how I can conjure up all sort of macabre scenarios out of thin air. Imagine then, if you will, what my brain can do with something as real as the possibility that some accident may have befallen a friend of mine on a lonely trail in the middle of a forest. In the next three quarters of an hour, MR dies more deaths more gruesomely than an army of cats committed to the less than tender mercies of the Marquis de Sade. She is attacked by bears, gored by stags, falls down precipices, faints of dehydration, twists her ankle and falls, spilling her brains open on a sharp stone, drops to the ground in exhaustion and slowly freezes to death, her calls for help growing fainter and fainter until they are silenced forever. My memory, now firmly in overdrive, dwells on the fact that she has only half a bottle of water, only two packets of trail mix, only one thick sweater and a jacket, no torch, no bear spray, no knife, no emergency flares, etc. Clearly, she was doomed from the very start.

Just so we're quite clear, the overall sequence of events in this hour goes like this:

6.00 pm: Falstaff wonders where MR is. Realises that she doesn't have a watch with her. Figures she probably doesn't know what time it is. Typical. Goes back to reading his book.

6.15 pm: Falstaff wonders what MR thinks she's doing, coming back so late. Promises himself that he'll give her hell when she gets back. Goes on reading his book, but looks up every two pages or so and peers down the trail to see if there's any sign of her. Every three minutes or so he imagines he sees her coming. Every three minutes and two seconds he realises that it's only a bush moving.

6.30 pm: Falstaff has abandoned his book entirely. He now divides his time between peering up the trail and checking the time on his cellphone with such regularity that fifteen minutes later his cellphone's battery is completely discharged

6:45 pm: Falstaff decides that the situation is getting ridiculous and he must do something about it. For some reason, he feels that standing out in the cold in only his shirtsleeves, slapping his arms with his hands and wandering up and down the first 20 feet of the trail like a nervous jack rabbit will speed up MR's no doubt imminent arrival. He therefore proceeds to do this, all the while nervously noticing that there are now no other cars in the parking lot and that the sun is rapidly sinking towards the horizon.

7:00 pm: Having given up all hope of ever seeing MR alive again, Falstaff calls 911.

Yup, I actually do it, I call 911. I am half expecting them to tell me to get lost and not bother them with my random paranoia (actually, I am half hoping they will do this), but after I've told them that my friend is out hiking alone and hasn't come back yet, they react with a barely controlled hysteria that almost matches my own. "Could you confirm again that your friend is out there alone" the woman on the line asks me, making it sound as though hiking alone in the park were an act of insanity roughly equivalent to playing Russian roulette with a loaded uzi. I find myself trying to defend MR. "Yes", I say, "but she's an experienced hiker and she has plenty of water and food with her...". The woman isn't interested. She wants to know what my friend is wearing (given her tone of voice as she says this, she might as well have said 'the victim'). I calmly give her all the details, secretly a little proud of myself for actually remembering. What a great witness I make, I think to myself, who knew that I had such a talent for observation? I imagine myself at the inquest, responding calmly and precisely to the coroner's questions. I admire my own self-control.

Meanwhile, the voice on the line is informing me that help is on the way. I thank her and settle down to wait, imagining what I will tell them when they arrive. I run over the whole story in my head. I fish out my camera and scroll through the old photographs until I find one of MR to show them when they ask for a description, admiring my own ingenuity in thinking of this. I imagine the long night that lies ahead, a steady procession of search parties heading out into the wilds with guns and torches while I sit waiting anxiously in the car park, a blanket draped around me, sipping coffee from a flask and waiting for the bad news. A pair of deer walk past me, barely 10 feet away, but I hardly notice, only reviving at the last minute to take a desultory picture of them, before going back to my morbid brooding.

By the time MR finally shows up (because of course she does, you didn't seriously think things would end badly, did you - this is real life, you know, not one of my stories) I'm half way through the Reader's Digest Drama in Real Life article they're going to write about us, and have just about managed to convice myself that it's all my fault for not calling for help sooner. It's 7:20 when her highness enters, nonchalant as ever, unpursued by bears. "Where the hell were you?" I ask, "do you know how worried I've been?". I sound exactly like my mother.

MR, by contrast, seems quite amused by the whole thing. She got a 'little' delayed she says, mostly because she was trying to tell the time from the sun. She doesn't know what all the fuss is about. At any rate, she's had a great hike - seen some amazing sights and yes, spotted a few more bears as well. A quick shame-voiced call to 911, a few more recriminations, and we are on our way back to Spokane.

The fact that we only start back from Many Glacier at around 8 pm means that the next seven hours are a nightmare. We manage to shave an hour off our travel time by grabbing dinner at (shudder!) Burger King, but it is still three in the morning before we get to our hotel. The fact that we manage to get lost somewhere in rural Idaho while trying to take a shortcut to the I 90 doesn't help (a connecting road we were supposed to take simply doesn't show up), nor does the fact that a highway that looked perfectly straight on the map turns out to be a winding hill road that you can't drive (at least by night) at more than 20 miles an hour, nor does the fact that the roads are simply swarming with deer - we count at least a dozen (and not just in the forest areas either - we drive through towns and there they are, standing in the middle of Main Street, staring at us with eyes ablaze). By the end of the night we've started thinking of them as pests. And of course MR, having been up for 20 hours and having completed a steep twelve mile hike isn't exactly in the best of shape either. Still, we make it, and actually manage two hours of sleep before we have to head for the airport. It's the sweetest nap of our lives.

Lying in my bed in Spokane, thinking about the day I've just had, it occurs to me that I finally understand the expression 'never a dull moment'. I'd always thought of it as just a figure of speech before. Apparently, it can actually be done.


[1] 'Landscape' from Dias Habiles. Translated by Charles Tomlinson. The original reads:

Pena y precipicio,
mas tiempo que piedra,
materia sin tiempo.

Por sus cicatrices
sin moverse cae
perpetua agua virgen.

Reposa lo inmenso
piedra sobre piedra,
piedra sobre aire.

Se despliega el mundo
tal cual es, inmovil
sol en el abismo.

Balanza del vertigo:
las rocas no pesan
mas que nuestras sombras.

[2] What species this bear belonged to remains a matter of debate. MR claims it was a grizzly. I claim it was a black bear. The bear itself is yet to voice an opinion.

[3] I wasn't totally imagining this, you know. While I didn't actually see any bears there were plenty of berry filled droppings on the way, which looked suspiciously fresh.

[4] Picture taken from the trail to Redrock. If you look very carefully in the bottom left of the picture, you'll see the Many Glacier Hotel.


ggop said...

What an exciting post! I completely relate to you on the tension you underwent waiting for MR. Hiking alone in grizzly territory is foolhardy.
I would have visualized the exact same scenarios. Glad she made it back safe!

Space Bar said...

come on! 911 must have had something to say that can be reported on a blog meant for family viewing?!

tell tell.

Arthur Quiller Couch said...

Serves you bloody well right for (a) gloating about the trip (that's all you were doing, admit it) and (b) expecting a woman to be on time.

Tabula Rasa said...

time well spent!

One of the hazards of being cursed with an overactive imagination combined with a pessimistic attitude to life is that it's really easy to get paranoid about the simplest things.

exactly. that's why one should always carry cereal bars.

orion said...

Amusing post -- enjoyed reading your stories!! I am sure it wasn't so funny when all this actually happened...

Anonymous said...

Lovely post. Photos are awesome...

Falstaff said...

ggop: Thanks.

spacebar: No, no, they were very polite and understanding at all times. Really.

aqc: Ya, ya, so I deserved it.

tr: I did. But they only took my mind of the nightmare scenarios for the one minute it took to eat them.

sb: Thanks. And no, it wasn't.

swapna: Thanks