Try Orion

Spoon Mountain or Bust

A short story

by John Nichols

Published in the July/August 2007 issue of Orion magazine



OKAY. LET’S GO. Carpe diem. My twenty-minute R & R after the easy ninety-minute hike from the wilderness parking lot to Gallegos Lake at eleven thousand feet was over, Rover. It looked as if my obnoxious children, Miranda and Ben, were not hustling up to search for me: their tough love had called my bluff. So no more shilly-shallying. Standing, I muttered “Cheerio” to a dozen obedient tourists at the lake and retreated into spruce trees behind me, my heart fluttering from guilt. Out of sight, out of bounds. A bright red sign said: CLOSED DUE TO EXTREME FIRE DANGER—NO TRAVEL BEYOND THIS POINT. Screw the sign. Up against the wall, Smokey, black power’s gonna get your momma! Of course, already I was regretting my arrogance. Why didn’t Pfizer make some kind of Viagra that could be used for scaling heights?

“Look at you,” Miranda had said when she was trying to dissuade me from my suicidal folly. “You have an annuloplasty ring in your mitral valve, you fluctuate in and out of serious atrial fibrillation on a daily basis despite all the Lanoxin and Coumadin you ingest, you can’t walk straight because of the Ménière’s disease, and when was the last asthma attack that floored you—six weeks ago? I feel as if I’m listening to a quadriplegic inform me he’s planning to dance the lambada all night with Charo.”

I ignored her; maybe I shouldn’t have. Sick from fear, from the heat, from too much exercise already, I hobbled off through the evergreen shadows, hunched over, inspecting my folded geological survey map. Layers of crisp needles covered the floor of the dark glade interspersed by islands of moss and withered leaflets so parched my every step crackled. I flinched at the noise, wishing a wind would rise to cover my tracks. It’s not going to happen, Dad, I could hear Miranda saying. You made this bed, now lie in it. I drew in deep breaths to calm myself as I zigzagged among the trees, my temperature rising. Raggedy tufts of pastel-green lichen beards dangled off all the branches.

Beyond the initial zone of verboten forest, out in the open, ferocious sunshine magnified by the smoggy sky mugged me. Jesus. I stopped, reeling. Today was my sixtieth birthday. Whoopee. An occasion for celebration. Ben and Miranda thought I was crazy, but I didn’t care. All of a sudden you hit sixty, you realize that time is running out. And what we all need, yours truly included, is a totally different attitude toward the biology that sustains us. But first you have to be able to go there, as Yogi Berra once said, in order to reunderstand our own evolution again. So why not start by getting in shape?

I’m coming home to the Pleistocene, bubba.

Facing me was a wide boulder field where some monster rocks were three to five feet tall and harsh rays glaring off them stung my eyes. Why didn’t I bring sunglasses? Those obstacles were ominous and without a trail through them. There were no trees, no other vegetation, only heaps and heaps of busted stone craving an opportunity to brutalize my rinky-dink limbs. I’m on my own. I’m alone. And at that thought sweat spurted off my forehead like rats leaving a sinking ship.

For at least fifty yards while traversing the talus I was exposed to the gazes of snoopy hikers and government snipers a quarter mile below. All I could do by way of subterfuge was hunch over to make myself a smaller target. I had not actually seen any gun-toting feds at the lake enforcing the wilderness closure, yet they may have been camouflaged as ordinary citizens sporting dirndls and lederhosen with MAC-10s stashed in their olive-green fanny packs. Breathing hard, I lumbered along at a hesitant pace, expecting a fatal bullet at any moment—it was impossible to climb faster. Talk about sitting ducks. Diverted by dire presentiments, I miscalculated and banged a shin and squealed.

Nobody shot me, though, and in due course, halting to catch my breath, I finally mustered enough courage to glance up at the surroundings whereupon the true nature of my folly boggled my fruitcake brain.

Oh. My. God. To the east Engelmann spruce trees ringed Gallegos Lake and above the trees Gavilán Peak loomed at over thirteen thousand feet, a resplendent grassy cone rising to massive cliff walls and escarpments cleft by narrow chutes on top. I developed a crick in my neck from gaping at the summit. Daunting slides of scree under the highest promontories reflected a dramatic light that made me sway, alarmed by the overwhelming grandeur. I hadn’t remembered that these mountains were so big and imposing. From Gavilán Peak a jagged ridge circled west, bleeding avalanches of boulders and featuring large granite teeth and rocky crags leading to Needle Mountain’s crest. After that, another rim of turrets, shale spills, and metamorphic spurs bent farther west, interrupted by three impregnable defiles until it reached Sentinel Tower, a protuberance with crooked chimneys and slanted blocks striating its face that was pure primeval anatomy. To the right of this intimidating configuration rose Cabrito Peak, bald on its pinnacle, with three avalanche gullies littered by dead trees dropping off the north side. Beyond skulked my destination, Spoon Mountain, which for the moment was hidden from view. I could pinpoint it on my map, however, eager to crush me and spit on my mangled corpse if I dared to penetrate its sphere of influence.

How high was the Spoon summit? Exactly 12,791 feet. No, that’s not a very tall peak for this neck of the woods. And, to be honest, Spoon Mountain was no Jack Kennedy. In fact, back when I was a youthful lad full of testosterone I used to climb it in my sleep, blindfolded, with both hands tied behind my back. But that was twenty-five years ago, before I was sidetracked by quintuple bypass surgery, four bankruptcies, three divorces, two heart attacks, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Besides, depending on your age and physical condition, all mountains are relative. An anthill would be like Mount Everest to that quadriplegic astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking; Spoon Mountain would be like an anthill to the immortal Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. I was a lot closer to Hawking, I’m afraid. And don’t snigger, I’m not talking about brains.

The basin offered unimpeded space on a heroic scale that might have struck me as magnificent if I hadn’t been all alone, wallowing in second thoughts, and scared to death. It ain’t easy trying to become human again. Dismayed, I wondered aloud, “How can I navigate through all those bleak muddles of fractured granite without breaking both legs or suffering another heart attack?”

The realization sank in that I had chewed off far more than I could handle. Duh. The world reeks of bad bright ideas concocted by manic oafs one inch shy of Alzheimer’s. Back to nature at sixty? Paul Shepard or bust? Come on, get a grip, grandpa. Yes, it’s a delusional pipedream of a society down below racing toward Armageddon, but please wake up and smell the coffee. You can’t save the planet by succumbing to cardiac infarctions while schtupping a middling peak, even if you’re doing it to fulfill the long suppressed expectations of your genes.

Yet after a few stutter steps in the wrong direction caused by my dim prospects I reversed myself and pushed forward because there was no other choice, was there? I had called my own bluff by initiating this enterprise in the first place. Hey: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or else what’s a mountain for?” And anyway, consider the alternative: “Oh,” my caustic daughter Miranda would say, buffing her nails with an emery board. “After all your big talk, Dad, freaking everybody out, you decided not to climb Spoon Mountain on your sixtieth birthday?”

AS I PLODDED TOWARD HIGHER CLIMES I rested often. The lack of a man-made path to follow was not only disconcerting, it was wrong. I’d been here often long ago but recognized nothing today. Talus moves around; my lungs had shrunk; I was twenty-eight pounds heavier. My baseball cap was soaked from perspiration, so were my shirt, pants, and knapsack. I guzzled water while leaning against a boulder as pitiless sunshine ate me alive. I tried taking my own pulse and gave up because it was racing way too fast. If I fainted now or kicked into ventricular fib—

Turn back, pilgrim, warned my brain.

Forge on, troubadour, urged my unstable heart.

Grimacing, I progressed at a sluggish gait through a brief vein of spruce trees, a welcome relief of shadow that too soon gave way to the open again. I wanted badly to cry uncle but didn’t. Limping along a barren slope, I arrived at a flat shelf and canvassed the panorama as I grappled for breath and emptied a second water bottle. Boulder slides tumbled from my feet in three directions; the perspective gave me vertigo. What perverted deity lacking intelligence had designed such bullying old-fashioned geography? My heart hiccupped and thumped so loudly that with my mouth open I could hear the erratic beats squish-squashing in my throat. I’m exaggerating, I realized. To a younger person this outing would be a stroll through a summer meadow. A healthier mountaineer would have enjoyed the modest challenge. Tally-ho, boys. Yodel-ay-hee-hoo. But what if I faint and choke to death on my own vomit while writhing in a rock pile?

I peered down with binoculars, hoping that forest rangers led by a brace of federal bloodhounds had discovered my trail yet no such luck. Maybe by now Miranda and Ben had had second thoughts and were hastening to save me, but I couldn’t locate them either, which did not come as an unexpected revelation. It would’ve been so simple to have followed Miranda’s advice. “Papa-san, if you want to climb that mountain, fine,” she had said. “Only first get back into shape for two months, go on a diet, lose twenty pounds, and then we’ll talk turkey after you do a treadmill that says you’re game to go, fair enough?”

But have I ever listened to reason in my life? Not hardly. Especially not with a bug up my butt and time running out. The Doomsday Clock said three minutes to midnight. Al Gore said the Arctic was melting. So it was now or never, I figured. Humanity’s nature-hatred is suicide, and I simply didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.

I fiddled with my camera and clicked off a few pictures to be remembered by. Twenty years hence when they locate my cryonically preserved remains embedded in the last remnants of a pathetic glacier abutting Spoon Mountain’s summit, the photographs might still be viable for my heirs to marvel over. Closing the f-stop to 16, I held the Nikon at arm’s length in front of myself, pointed back toward my own face, and composed a giddy self-portrait of my grotesque features, right hand raised in a V sign with Gavilán Peak dominating the background. Come that future day my son Ben would kneel beside my half-exposed skull on which bleached tufts of ancient pelage were fluttering while Miranda rustled through my weathered knapsack: “Hey Ben, look! Here’s a camera with a snapshot inside of our dad on his sixtieth birthday when he perished of heatstroke, a heart attack, and lethal stupidity combined.”

I TRUDGED HIGHER, HEAD BOWED, PANTING noisily. I was so stiff all my joints creaked. I groaned, I swore. Sometimes I teetered, disoriented, studying my map, glancing aloft, returning to the map, then assessing the harsh landscape above. The hankering to desist, tuck tail, and escape gnawed more insistently than a ravenous beaver. No matter, I continued marching toward Spoon Mountain, whose summit remained out of sight.

What did I expect to find on that summit? Well, for starters, a magnificent perch surrounded by bald peaks and beautiful cirques and alpine vistas stretching to all horizons. A rare plot of earth untrammeled by human ingenuity where sparrow hawks hovered above the ridgeline, motionless despite insistent gales. Playful exhibitionist ravens would be doing their circus-style aerobatics over a band of bighorn rams posed heroically, frozen in place, casting their shadows across alpine primroses and lavender sky pilots. And there’d be no other people of course, God forbid—only me, the chosen one: Mr. Eco-dipshit . . . a Johnny Muir on Thorazine belatedly launching his biocentric rebirth, if you get my drift. You might pooh-pooh it as merely a symbolic destination, but to humans symbols are important.

I forged one step, another step, and trundled upward to the next talus spill where the jumbled stones were brown and gray and decorated by green lichens. They ridiculed me with a sheer indifference that I sneered at with phony swagger. I picked my way on tiptoes through the eerie terrain. Then I pooched around a cliff peppered by stunted spruce trees clinging to fissures in the rock walls and ascended to a fallow ridge where I essayed four feeble steps at a time, pause . . . four more steps, and pause again . . . my progress measured in nanocentimeters. It was agonizing. Did you bring your ice ax and your pitons? Ben giggled. He always thought he was funny. Miranda thought she was funny, too. They inherited that irritating trait from me.

I shouted, “Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau!”

Time ticked away as I advanced above treeline. The sun was now located a trifle west of overhead, its UV rays creating cancer cells by the score throughout my vulnerable body. At three-minute intervals I bent over, hands on my knees, relaxing until my heart subsided to a more tepid beat. How much more a fiction could that fatigued muscle absorb before going haywire? Surrounding me—surprise!—lay another demolition derby of rugged boulders. Fuck the boulders. I drank from one of my three remaining plastic bottles, imbibing a bizarre type of water that exited from all my pores simultaneously an instant after I swallowed it.

My arms ached. My face ached. My brain ached—what was left of it, which wasn’t much. I had a cramp in my nose. My hemorrhoids were also cramping, an unpleasant sensation akin to having a Louisville Slugger inserted up my rectum. Top to bottom my flesh was consumed by pain. I was light-headed, mumble-tongued, wooden-footed. I can’t go any farther. My watch indicated that, all told, starting at the wilderness parking lot, I had been en route for three hours and nineteen minutes.

Too bad. Tough luck. Fighting nausea I designed an X on my map and wrote the hour and date and snapped another picture. I’ll admit that I missed the company of Miranda and Ben with a nagging, uncomfortable intensity. If I weaseled out of the adventure alive would they ever speak to me again? Yet I rallied and walked on, a very small boat against a very big current. What kind of loser traveled this far simply in order to fail? What our planet needed now was for yours truly, and the rest of my floundering species, to jump-start our cognitive ecology before globalization scragged us in our bloody, self-centered tracks.

Yes, I was inside a modest alpine bowl creeping against all odds and against all wisdom up its western slope toward the rim. Nobody sheds their anthropocentric hubris without a tussle. Though I still wanted to chicken out and retreat to the “safety” of human endeavors, perverse longings prodded me from rock to rock to a shrunken pink-tinted snowfield, ten feet wide, twenty long, the last talisman of a shortened winter season. A couple of juncos hopped across the snow, plucking tasty flecks from the ice. From a book called Land Above the Trees I had learned that pink snow was caused by green algae “encased in a tough gelatinous rose-red coat.” The air was busy with small flying critters backlit by harsh sunshine.

“Don’t eat that rosy snow, kids,” I counseled my absent children sotto voce, “it’ll give you diarrhea.”

I focused on a sharp incline of tundra grasses dotted by several dozen shrubby cinquefoil bushes barely two feet high, rising to a saddle on a difficult ridgeline aiming toward the top of Spoon Mountain, which I still could not see hidden just south of the curving landform above. On either side was the usual disconcerting cacophony of boulders poised to dislodge and bound downhill, crushing me to a pulp. I cast my gimlet eye at the route, pondering how the noted mountaineer/journalist Jon Krakauer would have described my predicament: Then the tiny little man adjusted his oxygen mask, double-checked the carabiner knots on his belay ropes, extended an aluminum ladder over the first crevasse, and jubilantly carried on toward the craggy, wind-blasted summit of Spoon Mountain, the last of the planet’s seven tallest peaks that he needed to bag in order to complete his alpine “grand slam,” the reward for a lifetime of climbing adventures.

I balked. Then I squawked, “Where is the feasible line of ascent?”

Ben said, There is no feasible line of ascent, you moron.

At any moment a Forest Service SWAT team might clatter over the ridge spewing hot lead at me from one of those menacing Blackhawk whirlybirds that occupied the news reports of late annihilating Arab insurgents. Or maybe the chopper would land on a ledge disembarking a clutch of brave, thrifty, courteous, clean, homophobic Boy Scouts who’d skip over to rescue me, performing CPR, inserting IV lines to rehydrate my shriveled body, packing my neck and upper torso in bags of crushed ice.

My baseball cap was wetter than saturated; my crotch was scraped raw from sweat. Had my watch stopped? No it had not. How long had it taken Lindbergh to reach Paris? When would the hallucinations commence?

At the base of the steep slope I was surrounded by vivid flower blossoms, few much larger than my thumbnail. To distract myself as I groveled higher I named them aloud: “Alpine avens . . . harebells . . . penstemon . . . yellow paintbrush.” How could such a variety hold so tenaciously to this desiccated ground, exposed to gale-force winds and the sun’s harsh radiation? Despite the drought, butterflies were also prolific—little yellow and blue ones and a small fritillary plus a handful of orange and black beauties called Milbert’s tortoiseshells. Pea-sized grasshoppers popped like popcorn against me, irritating buggers, very frenetic. And a marmot basking on a dusty outcrop whistled, announcing to its neighbors that a maladroit ape from the civilized world was invading their sacred space.

THE ASCENT TOWARD THE SADDLE eighty yards above was a nightmare, what did you expect? By now I could scarcely recall my motivations for launching this ordeal in the first place. Back to nature? Fat chance, Jack. Why don’t you climb Mount Everest in your sleep, blindfolded, with both hands tied behind your back?

Lungs burning, heart pumping out of sync, I advanced on constant traverse, five baby steps left, eight baby steps right, back and forth, slowly gaining altitude, resting every five yards, rattled by the extreme effort required to maintain balance on the sharp incline. I had a migraine. I was so baked my tongue had swelled. Needing to pee, I was too tired to make the effort. I could scarcely walk, waving my arms, often inching along on all fours, grabbing handfuls of grass to steady myself. It was psychotic hard work in an ever-thinning atmosphere where not a single cloud marked the polluted sky and the sun kept scorching the world. On the left more bare cliffs rose straight up; to the right chunks of rusty-colored rock were strewn from the ridgeline like landslides of jumbo barnacles. Dead ahead lay my only route . . . where the contour lines on my map actually grazed each other.

So call a cab or take an elevator, chortled Ben.

Miranda hooted, You forgot your electric wheelchair!

If I could have sobbed I would have. I gathered myself to proceed, the spitting image of Rocky Balboa in the fourteenth round. Did Rocky ever throw in a towel no matter how severe his beating? No he did not. Once you’re committed you must remain committed even if it kills you. My legs were weary, my feet sore, yet I dragged myself uphill, tussling against the heavy tug of gravity. Though The Saddle was not far I might take forever to reach it. The pink snowfield diminished to a remote blotch and the air was dead calm. My eyes throbbed, and my ears were loudly ringing.

“Hello, Ben and Miranda,” I murmured, eager to hear a human voice. “Be reverent, kids.” My clamorous heart muffled my own words. “You’re in nature’s provenance now.”

A stone’s throw below The Saddle I plopped to earth facing east toward Gavilán Peak across the basin. No more, I’m finished. I removed my cap, put it back on, swigged water, and chewed on a handful of raisins then spit them out because they made me sicker. My ribs hurt, my calves quivered, my throat was constricted. My heart boomed rapidly—buh-boom, buh-boom—and I was bloated from fatigue. Gallegos Lake had become a small turquoise jewel at the bottom of the alpine bowl. I glassed its shoreline for any tree cops peering aloft. Everyone had left the lake; it was deserted. Nobody cared. That was an understatement. I was off their radar screens and could no longer count on an eleventh-hour collar to deliver me from my own worst instincts. And of course Miranda and Ben were nowhere in sight, striving aloft to rescue me and proclaim their eternal devotion as they ferried their retarded dad homeward strapped to a deerskin litter with a fringed sunshade over it.

Then I noticed a small pile of brown pellets from a wild sheep at my feet and retrained my binoculars on the nearby ridges, searching, hoping—but I could find no bighorns. Annoying hamster-sized pikas chirped at me from an adjacent rock pile.

Turn off the oven, Myrtle, I’m cooked.

ONLY TWO WATER BOTTLES REMAINED. Ten more minutes passed while I sat stupefied, waiting for dribbles of energy to resurrect my purpose in life. Then, wincing from the effort, puzzled by my own deranged perseverance, I stood up, my joints grating audibly as I shuffled a final twenty yards to The Saddle, passing through the gap to a nubbin of shade where unexpected cold wind gusts flailed at my damp clothing causing a chill. I fumbled tugging on my jacket. I lost my balance and fell down and pushed upright again. Gasping, I gazed at the western panorama which included the Los Pinos watershed and North Fork Peak and—oops!—many fierce flat-bottomed cumulonimbus clouds ranging in hue from very dark blue and purple to black suspended over the summit of Spoon Mountain only a short distance above me.

No way.

To be charitable, I was astonished. What kind of bad joke—?

I swiveled around one degree at a time to face east where not an errant puff of white marred the dirty azure expanse that had been overhead during my entire trip to The Saddle. Worse than exhausted I whimpered, “Oh dear.” Not another challenge.

I was standing at 12,600 feet, a regular Natty Bumppo prepared to summit Spoon Mountain. A half mile to the south skeins of mist were already falling toward Cabrito Peak. Beyond lay the twin heights of Sierra del Pueblo, forested almost to the top. The valley floor was blurred by haze below the thunderheads and I could not delineate Boulder Peak or Reliz Mesa fifty miles west near La Barranca. The Jemez Mountains were a faint silhouette. Even close-by Cerro Azul, located mid-mesa, appeared insubstantial through the smog.

I asked myself, “Do you think this is a life-threatening situation?”

Yes it was—Get out of here!—but I hesitated, calculating my chances of reaching the crest of Spoon Mountain alive. At this point a pragmatic person, a cogent human being, would have demurred. I could retreat with honor, escaping blame, satisfied to have given it my best effort, and nobody would call me a failure. Why? Because every year in the United States a hundred unfortunate yo-yos were dispatched by lightning either while ambling across golf courses or hiking ridgetops above treeline. The brainpans of another hundred and fifty “survivors” were toasted for life by the bolts. It was preposterous to continue.

Yet I had vowed to summit Spoon Mountain on my sixtieth birthday and I was within striking distance. One small step for a human, one giant leap for humankind. I had labored so hard on this cockamamie excursion hoping to renew my ecological contract before my testicles shrank to the size of pomegranate seeds. What is an ecological contract? How about a promise to reconnect with all of creation instead of choosing to extirpate it for jolly fun and profit.

And anyway, come on, get serious: Not in this drought would it rain. It couldn’t rain. After months of watching the landscape shrivel and die moisture made no sense. I mean, what about the greenhouse effect, global warming, ozone holes? And if I withdrew now I would regret that cowardly decision for the rest of my days.

“Those clouds are harmless,” I concluded aloud. “Let’s do it.”

I BUSHWHACKED THROUGH FELLFIELDS and sparse hair grasses toward the tantalizingly near summit, hunched over, pressed earthward by the weight of the cloudy sky. Between steps I counted to five, then forced another step, then counted to five anew. The air was heavy, not a current stirring, yet oxygen molecules crackled within the threatening ozone. Without trees or buildings to provide human-scale reference I was way overexposed. I circled around bees feeding at indigo-colored forget-me-nots. My body trembled, I had the shakes; I was also excited, adrenaline stabilizing my heart for a change, making my legs function and igniting spurts of reserve energy. I’m almost there. Just don’t glance up, and try not to imagine what could happen if Mother Nature chooses to open her colossal black mouth and swallow this reckless human speck struggling along a barren spine toward a bald knob not even high enough to be mentioned in a guide book or difficult enough for a real mountain man to disdain.

I tromped past a few innocent alpine daisies. There were additional sheep droppings but no bighorns visible anywhere. If only Ben and Miranda could be here now. During another pause I noticed a cluster of what I believed were arctic gentians at my feet, delicate white tubes displaying thin lavender streaks on their sides. “According to my sources they bloom later in the summer,” I explained to my absent kids. “But because of the drought these gentians must be emerging early—”

ZAP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

A ferocious electrical streak slashed from an anvil-shaped cumulonimbus formation smiting the top of Spoon Mountain and thunder boomed which caused me to exclaim, “Yikes!” and then, “Run for your life!” And I finally abandoned ship and fled as pinkie-sized hail pelted my head and shoulders driven by a frenzied garble of wind and rain as lightning and another rumbleburst of thunder knocked me flat. Before I could scramble erect I was smashed to earth again by a huge gush of water spilling from the angry clouds. Our Lord irrigates his creation from a very big reservoir! Before I could catch my breath or don a poncho the temperature had dropped thirty degrees and I was drenched. Freezing and nearly hypothermal, I raced down the steep pitch, skidding on hail pellets, duck-waddling, crab-walking, lobster-scuttling belly-up on all fours while lightning lit the sizzling atmosphere and icy projectiles caromed off my body and jounced from the ground as wind smacked me over to my side, then forward onto my face, then back on my ass again.

Jesus! I cartwheeled into the shrubby cinquefoil bushes, almost dislocating my left arm by grabbing branches as I careened past them in muddy goop and more hailstones, yelping at every electrical burst. The ground came up and clubbed me, the sky spun around my head, I clutched at the earth as it rollercoastered past me, too slippery to handle. Thunder and the clatter of raindrops and hail were totally unnerving as I plummeted downhill at the mercy of the berserk elements . . . and by the time I landed at the boulder pile two hundred feet below me I had wrenched my left knee and both ankles, banged my arms many times, lacerated several fingers, and uttered numerous panicked blasphemies. But there was no letup from the loud detonations and countless volts of electricity going postal, the convulsions of turbulent air. My hair was plastered across my forehead and waterfalls poured off my nose and down my neck as the bombardment intensified. When had anyone ever been so manhandled by the weather? Ben and Miranda were right, I’m a fool, I deserve to croak! But I kept moving because not to move was not an option. Desperate to reach the shelter of treeline, I staggered forward, avoiding boulders that wallowed across my path, drunken and dangerous. My calves were on fire; both shoulders felt separated. Water splattered against those shoulders driven hard by furious blasts of air.

I fell, bashing my knee. Ouch! Bludgeoned into submission I hunkered beside a large stone expecting a heart attack, wheezing from asthma as I strained to see through the ice balls, the rain, and the lightning. Oh what a wet world it was, dumbstruck by inundation! And when thunder clapped directly overhead I pissed in my britches, discharging the urine so emphatically I thought it was the heart attack. Then I clasped my hands over my head, expecting that the next blow would annihilate me, leaving only a small puddle of excrement and miscellaneous gory organ bits on the stone beneath my feet.

Instead—gunshot sudden—a miracle took place. The hail ceased, slamming on its brakes inches in front of me, and the rain also quit; thunder muttered once more only half as threatening and then evaporated; the lightning ended—zip!—and a final wave of icy water mixed with graupel sloshed against my feet as it drained into the boulders and disappeared, leaving behind a truly fantastic silence. Oh my goodness. It had been six minutes of deluge, start to finish, almost as fast as whiplash. I cringed, awaiting the next onslaught, but the tempest had stopped . . . short . . . never to go again. Icy wind swirled around my damp body setting my teeth a-chatter. All the parts of my exposed flesh that weren’t muddy had turned cobalt blue.

A thousand clouds evaporated justlikethat, revealing a clear sky so blue it was inane. Warm sunlight fell against heaven and earth. The highest third of Gavilán Peak across the way was brightly silvered by hail and the entire basin gleamed with spectacular brilliance, trees steaming, cliffs shimmering. A pika chirped. And a dozen curious pipits alighted on the nearby rocks, bobbing their narrow tails.

I’m sure at that moment, somewhere far below, a cell phone rang and Miranda answered it: “No, Ben, Dad never called, he never apologized. I bet right now he’s lying in a rock pile with his feet up in the air, trying to get out of atrial fib by doing the Valsalva maneuver, splashing his face with snow, or praying to a God he’s never believed in. He’s probably blue all over, inflated like a balloon, and his features are unrecognizable. Well, it serves him right. He’s a jerk. I know why he wanted to climb Spoon Mountain today and I sympathize with his desire, but frankly I don’t give a rat’s ass because he’s in no condition to succeed and he won’t listen to reason. Let Ralph Nader speak at the funeral, I went fishin’.”

But I heard none of this, of course, because I was in another country far above it all gawking at two ravens that had appeared overhead doing a dance. The big corvids zoomed and twisted side-by-side through the cleansed atmosphere, diving down and zigzagging together only inches apart, perfectly synchronized like a pair of Olympic figure skaters except much swifter: a wild fey exuberance highlighted their shenanigans. Next, they looped upward until they stalled and tumbled end-over-end toward the ground once more in freefall, their wingtips and talons touching, until they bottomed out and swooped westward, gliding quickly over the top of Spoon Mountain out of sight—adios!—leaving the air behind them immaculate.

I held my breath, wondering: What next?

And then, by God, I started uphill again.

 

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John Nichols is the author of The Milagro Beanfield War. His latest novel, The Empanada Brotherhood, will be published in September. He lives in Taos.

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