mountain trout jumping
while my son cooks noodles in silence.
-a bright moon, sweetness in the air,
and nowhere else to be.
Sometimes there are perfect days, days that render any grievance trivial. Days that confirm you are in the right place. I surfed a favorite spot in the morning, my family playing on the beach and waving at me between waves. After a ride I was entangled head to toe in kelp so thick it almost held me down for the remainder of the set. But nothing fearful remains, only a pleasant memory of the weight of the thick leaves and stalks enveloping me. Bodysurfing with my son in the shorebreak, his grinning and disoriented face popping out of the whitewash after a pounding. The morning’s images are burned clearly into my mind. Perfect days.
Some days seem to come and go with no lasting effect, filler days that are nothing but bridges easily burned, merely linking the days you’ll remember. Others become the building blocks of images upon which you’ll erect the memory you’ll call your life.
The same afternoon and night were spent wandering Angeles high country canyons with Michael, sleeping beside a waterfall and giant cedars, woodstove illuminating faces animated with conversation.
Remember: There can be no digital substitute for looking a friend in the eye and saying “How goes it man?” and feeling the hint of a tear and relief that someone is finally asking.
The canyons seemed to attract the coolest, sweetest air I’ve tasted in some time, an unseen river coursing their curves. Late afternoon sunlight in treetops, pools surrounded by vines and moss covered boulders, the obviousness of building a lean-to dawns on me, leaving with it some cookpots, books, and a tarp and lantern. We grin about what a good idea it is, the perfection of the mood and the mountains drawing out boyish fantasies of creating a retreat so we can own small piece of it. To disappear into the shade would be good enough.
I’ve no desire to let the light of the child inside die.
Sipping coffee in the backyard now, musing about where my fort in the woods could stand so that nobody would ever find it.
In many ways this trip began over a year ago, or at least it did in my imagination. I could see myself there, walking amongst the cliffs and sitting in waterside grasses. During sleepless nights and hospital stays and endless tests and scans, visions of the rocks and streams of the Upper Kern Basin provided a beacon, something comforting towards which I would direct my mind. The trout-filled pools and granite peaks of Milestone Basin filled my dreams and I felt the water and smelled the wind and I was transported, if only temporarily, away from charts and surgeons and fluorescent lights.
Over a year ago I landed in the emergency room with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, a wild and irregular heart rhythm that came on suddenly and lasted two straight weeks before coming and going intermittently. I was left exhausted, my heart not working in sync with my body’s demands, racing and sputtering when at rest and failing to keep up when working. I was on powerful blood thinners to reduce stroke risks as well as other drugs to keep the rate and rhythm low. Many anxiety and fear-filled months passed before I blankly walked down a hall to surgery. I woke up eight hours later to begin a recovery that proved more difficult than I anticipated.
It was the first time in my life that there was ever reason to fear and question whether or not I would continue spending time outdoors, and if so, what sort of activities I would still be able to do. There was the possibility of not getting my heart back under control and having to remain on blood thinners and other drugs indefinitely, leaving me too vulnerable to be out far from help. Hiking in remote places, for a period of time, looked highly doubtful. These uncertainties proved to be a tremendous blow to my identity and so much of what I envisioned about my future.
Two summers ago I wandered the Upper Kern for my first time with Tom Kirchner and Adan Lopez, a beautiful exploratory trip that also branched into Milestone and Thunder Basins, as well as taking us through the high country surrounding Lake South America. I fell in love with this part of the Sierra immediately. Having been the last trip in the Sierra prior to my heart issues, naturally these were many of the places I imagined, places I could not help but wonder if I would see again. “If I can just make it back there…” became part of the many mantras and promises I found myself reciting in those dark days.
Tom understood well what I was going through, providing great support and doing his best to ease my fears without dismissing them. We communicated regularly through email and I always anxiously awaited his next letter, knowing it would bring some calm and balance. We immediately planned to get back into the Upper Kern together. Tom booked the permits and the Sierra soon became a post surgery goal, an important mental and physical benchmark. Recovery proved full of many false starts, but nine months later, I found myself standing beside Tom in the Upper Kern. Tears came to my eyes at many times, particularly on the first night hiking in when I got my first dose of the cool, thin air. So much weight was being shed by being back. I’m grateful to have shared it with such a good friend. For varying reasons, this trip proved to be somewhat profound for both of us, which I believe led to heightened sense of appreciation for everything we would witness. We settled into a fine, slow rhythm, making a base camp and taking day hikes in different directions from there, wandering the twists and turns of the Kern, hiking into Milestone for the day, simply going wherever it felt right. I was reenacting the dreams of the previous months. We couldn’t get anywhere without stopping every twenty minutes to just sit in the lazy shade and stare off contentedly.
This has become an emotional region of the Sierra for both of us, Tom with his own deep connections to this place, and it seemed we were preoccupied with cycles, the passing of time and life weighing heavily on our minds, contemplating our respective places amongst things. There is a certain indifference in the wilderness that I have always taken comfort in, primarily through witnessing the life that just goes on and on, endlessly morphing and repeating itself, never truly ending. Catching and cooking trout for lunch, something neither of us had done in years, seemed to tap directly into this cycle, confirming our connection to this land. As I cleaned one trout, bright amber eggs erupted from her body; we ate them raw, smiling and giving thanks, licking our fingers in the sun.
Impermanence and change are forces that are easy to believe you understand until you face a world turned suddenly askew, unsure if or when it will be righted. To be able to return to the Sierra, to a place that has always been a refuge, and to do so in such good company, was truly a rediscovered blessing. To walk there slowly, completely dismissing mileage and routes and itineraries was exactly what I needed. I find that for now, I have little interest in going far or fast. I want to savor it.
We speak of going into the wilderness to get a sense of perspective and renewal; this season I found I truly needed it, and sure enough, it was there for me, helping usher in a new cycle. Perhaps these mountains reflect something inside of us and renewal is given in proportion to what is needed.
10 million people.
Fighting through them on a Friday freeway,
cussing, shifting, swerving, seeking sanity and silence.
That we are alone on a ridge now seems preposterous
given what we left behind.
Hiking by moonlight,
stirring to sunrise, puffy eyes and tea-
I remembered what I’d forgotten,
got home before the coffee was done.
I often daydream and hope that there are limitless creatures on this planet that will never be found by a human, hiding in the ocean depths or thick jungle canopies. And I hope that there is a bear that will never be witnessed, living quietly in the forest that is so familiar to me. While seeing them will always feel special, I tend to prefer the unseen bear, the one leaving tracks, scat, causing the rustling in the night, producing low groans drifting from the forest at dawn. I savor the mystery, a beast floating through the darkness, hovering somewhere between reality and the mythical. I’m not sure the paths of people and bears are supposed to cross; it’s better for the bear to remain a ghost.
We found fresh prints encircling our camp in the morning, wandering up and down the creek and around the remains of our fire and kitchen area. I vaguely remember hearing it, stirring around in our site, the sound of its large pads creeping through pine needles mixing with the sound of wind in the trees.
It’s good to know we are not alone. I would find this world unlivable if surrounded by nothing but humanity and our monuments. That something exists, a creature large and dangerous and uncontrollable, serves to keep my sense of self-importance in check. I can see it in my son as he witnesses the signs; the mix of wonder, fear, and respect as he kneels and places his hand within the large footprint, tracing the claws with a finger. We saw many tracks coming in; I didn’t dwell on the topic, but I know it was on his mind as night fell and we retired to our sleeping bags. I suppose it’s been on the minds of people since the beginning. There may be trails and roads within a day’s walk from here, but evidence of the bear ushers in a feeling of wildness.
I’m increasingly finding that the beauty of hiking with my children lies in the fact that we are family, and as such, we know how and when to leave each other alone. There is no such thing as uncomfortable silence, I am content merely watching, they are content simply being. My son leaves the fire to go read in his sleeping bag and I’m left alone with a pencil and poetry. There is no pressure to entertain or be good company, we intuitively understand each other’s moods and needs. That the trips with my children are slower in nature and require a different sort of work and pace on my part, I’m finding this matters less and less relative to the quality of being out with my kin. There can be no better partners.
He’s getting more confident in the water, following effortlessly through the breakers and into the outer kelp beds, dive buoy in tow. I believe he’s losing his fear. To the uninitiated it’s a big, unfamiliar world, the mind constantly conjuring specters out of dark shapes and emptiness. Fish worth shooting were sparse today, though there were plenty of schools of baitfish circling and darting. Liquid silver clouds, morphing, dispersing, multiple organisms seeming to create a single larger one. I found a new area, thick kelp forests bordering a deep trench in the reef about a meter wide. I timed a dive with the surge and went rocketing through this miniature canyon, walls rising 15 to 20 feet on either side, short calicos fleeing as I glide through. It likely would’ve been a good place to look for octopus. The kelp is back and thick and healthy, finally reattached after winter storms and large waves. That there were no fish to shoot- I left the opaleye alone- this was fine with me. I passed on them, simply enjoying the sights with my son beside me. I feel the urge to spend more time out there without a speargun, simply blending amongst the life.
It calls me, underwater. A powerful refuge. Cold, silent, shaded…my daydreams constantly return me to the outer edges of a bending kelp bed, darkness overhead, pulling myself through by the stalks…
The current was strong, kelp laid sideways, particles flowing past the lens of my mask. It took considerable effort to stay in place, constantly kicking against a river. Visibility wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t exactly good, at least by islands standards, maxing out at roughly 25 feet.
I swam beside my son, a loaded speargun in his hands. Today would be his day. I never took a shot, instead guiding him, teaching him how to stalk fish.
I spot a very large fish on the bottom in ~25 feet of water, facing away from me. It doesn’t see or hear us yet. Abruptly snatching the gun from my son I surface and tell him to be as still and quite as he can. I dive and reach the fish in seconds. It turns slowly to face me as I approach shooting range. It’s a giant cabezon, the largest I’ve ever seen at possibly over four feet long, the large flat head almost a foot thick. As I raise my gun fearing it will bolt at any second, it just stares at me, giant lips in a perpetual frown. We make eye contact and I lower the gun and wish the old beast a good day. I unconsciously speak the word “truce”. We stare at each other for a few more seconds and I begin to ascend, its primordial eyes following me to the surface. My son watched the encounter and asks why I didn’t shoot.
“He was too amazing” is all I can reply.
It would’ve been the largest fish I’d ever shot. But not today. Today I was content simply meeting him.
The rest of our dives were marked by a similar tone; I was content simply watching my son hunt perch and watching the seals do their underwater dance. I snatched the gun to chase a sizable sheepshead and yet again, as I closed into shooting range, instead of letting a spear fly, something shifted and I was content just watching it swim and disappear into the kelp.
Perhaps the biggest and the best are not all they’re cracked up to be, perhaps shooting enough of the more abundant perch for a few dinners is sufficient. Perhaps I like the idea of the large, older beasts swimming our reefs too much to kill them.
On the ride home, my son asked me more about why I didn’t shoot the cabezon. It’s hard to articulate but I believe he understands. I do not want to raise a hunter that shoots anything and everything simply because he can.