rain chased back by a full moon
-visions of a bear in the same silver light
weaving shadow, becoming shadow
rooting in fragrant earth
lakes cold, mercurial
echoing owl calls
with sweet indifference
And suddenly we find ourselves out, sagebrush speeding beside the highway, disoriented as if waking from a dream. Lights and computer screens add to the seeming implausibility of the wind still blowing cool through the pines. At this very moment.
What else is there to say?
I didn’t know the names of many mountains or rivers then. The winding drive seemed impossibly long and cold in the darkness. The heater of dad’s Datsun 210 struggling to keep up, frozen vinyl of the seats sticking to any exposed skin. I’d stay with him on some weekends, staying up and eating Fritos and cheese dip, the occasional can of Vienna Sausages thrown in for good measure. Dad’s culinary tastes were not very sophisticated. We’d wake early with junk-food and video game hangovers, make lunch, and pack our gear. Matching fishing vests (which I still own) were pulled out of the closet, accompanied by ultralight Daiwa spinning rods that broke down to only a foot long. I remember being very proud that I carried the same rod as my dad, that I didn’t have some cheap kid’s version.
Bologna, cheese, and mustard sandwiches on white bread and cans of RC Cola tucked into our pockets, we’d come to the river in search of trout. My father could pull fish after fish out of a hole, working the current, drifting a salmon egg and tiny split-shot exactly where he wanted it. I don’t remember ever catching any fish myself, but he’d hand over his rod to let me land some of his. It took many years of fishing on my own after dad died before I realized what was happening; that he simply knew how to read things and be silent whereas I was charging through the river like a drunken buffalo and casting as if my rod were a bull whip.
Dad relished fried trout, filleted and coated in flour, crisped and finished with salt and pepper. We’d savor the day’s catch that evening before retiring to the latest chapter in our quest to beat The Legend of Zelda.
Decades later, I’m still sneaking out of the house silently at 4am, my own family asleep, making the drive up the cold mountain. Bluegrass on the radio, heater working, I can now name all the surrounding peaks, rivers, and forks…
I moved away from spinning rods to fly fishing, self-taught on the same river I fished with my dad, standing thigh deep in a cold December pool. His ghost stands at my side, reading the current with me, trying to drift our line just so, easing it into a dark undercut on the opposite side…
I know how to catch fish now, probably better than he did. But in my mind, dad remains a legendary fisherman on account of the magic I watched him work as a child.
It’s probably been over twenty five years since our last fishing trip together. I’m out in the garage today, preparing for a week in the High Sierra, piecing together an ultralight Tenkara fishing kit, selecting and putting the finishing touches on a few hand-tied flies.
The last trout I caught brought tears to my eyes, summoning back the connection to my father, our time on the river together. There’s a part of me that would rather not kill them; images of blood in the grass surrounding colorful scales haunt my dreams. But I push it down.
Because I know he would’ve loved this, finishing a beautiful day over the hiss of a fry pan beside a stream. I do it as much for him. My father was a fisherman and I’m my father’s son, roll casting to a ripple in the shade.
Loose rock, heat, thorns, and ceaseless ups and downs; I do not believe the San Gabriel mountains are given due credit for how rough the backcountry can be. Proximity to Los Angeles and its crowds likely dulls that appreciation- and yet I find myself alone, running out of water, pants shredded from seemingly endless stretches of blowdowns.
If you’ve never seen it for yourself, perhaps you’ll believe me if I quote John Muir:
In the mountains of San Gabriel, overlooking the lowland vines and fruit groves, Mother Nature is most ruggedly, thornily savage. Not even in the Sierra have I ever made the acquaintance of mountains more rigidly inaccessible. The slopes are exceptionally steep and insecure to the foot of the explorer, however great his strength or skill may be, but thorny chaparral constitutes their chief defense. With the exception of little park and garden spots not visible in comprehensive views, the entire surface is covered with it, from the highest peaks to the plain. It swoops into every hollow and swells over every ridge, gracefully complying with the varied topography, in shaggy, ungovernable exuberance, fairly dwarfing the utmost efforts of human culture out of sight and mind.
But in the very heart of this thorny wilderness, down in the dells, you may find gardens filled with the fairest flowers, that any child would love, and unapproachable linns lined with lilies and ferns, where the ousel builds its mossy hut and sings in chorus with the white falling water. Bears, also, and panthers, wolves, wildcats; wood rats, squirrels, foxes, snakes, and innumerable birds, all find grateful homes here, adding wildness to wildness in glorious profusion and variety.
It is still wild enough, apparently, to ward off the hordes below. I saw nobody.
I was lost out there for a day, not literally, at least not for long, but lost nonetheless. It was a training hike; I carried a 20# dumbell wrapped in a sleeping bag in my pack to simulate a typical backcountry load. Crawling, scraping, shimmying, sliding- this land does not go easy. Eventually coughed out by a canyon, I shuffled home by moonlight, at first on trail and then on streets, 37 miles and 15 hours later. Waiting at a streetlight with a bag of Doritos in one hand, a quart of cold Gatorade in the other, lost in a new strange world. The Saturday night malt liquor and lottery ticket crowd didn’t quite know what to think when I walked through the liquor store doors, trekking poles poking skyward from a filthy pack.
Within hours and then days and then weeks the dehydration and madness of it all gave way to nothing but memories of seemingly endless canyons stretching out in front of me, pools and tiny Edens hidden in their nooks. Writing this, I remember no pain.
Just a long day. A good day.
It’s tempting to liken distance running to asceticism, especially when temps are over 90 degrees and climbs are approaching 1000 feet per mile. The Desert Fathers parched their tongues under a Middle Eastern sun; I’m in the San Gabriel mountains with my head low, dizzy and grinding out the grade.
Somewhere beneath the heat and sweat a silence takes over, a purity of being. My body doing what it was built to do; blood pumping, muscles contracting, lungs filling and expelling air. This is right. And it’s not always a struggle; I had miles and miles of smooth, quiet running yesterday, everything clicking, everything steady. No turbulence, just a mirror-like mind reflecting the world around me. Silence and solitude and breath.
I want to see the world before I’m gone. I want fresh trails rolling out before me, new vistas around each bend.
dance in an eddy
as stones are worn
lost in a sheet of water
sliding down the rocks
by an ant exploring
my daughter asleep in the tent
lit by a crystal moon
-I’m left at the fire
searching, always searching
the woodpeckers mock
smiling at birds
whispering to a fox
in the cool skin
of a salamander
-sitting in darkness
I’m filling with light
(hands cupped together)
a gesture of gratitude
beneath twilight oaks
I heard death this morning
just beyond the amber light
-soft footsteps dampened
with bracken fern
-it will be here soon enough
walk slowly, friends
and lift your heads
put on another pot of tea
—it will be here soon enough.
2 packages of ramen,
1 bag of instant coffee.
This shit doesn’t have to be complicated.
She burns frankincense
in a bowl
as a bluebird hops and flicks
-smoke mingling with sunlight
and the stunted dreams of the dead.
I sit under a cedar
and dream about ghosts
trapped in the shadows
Glasses were raised
and the men stood to sing
about homeland and love
-the faint sounds of silverware and music
now muffled beneath roots and earth.
As if names carved in stone
and traced by the fingers
of a stranger
could ever account
for their laughter.
Whistle on, sweet deepener
of dark loneliness
I’ve been birding.
Many, many hours worth over the past few days. Alone mostly, but with my mother and my wife on separate occasions.
I have been aware of birds for a long time, obviously, with fragments of names drifting in the back of my mind, scattered remnants of field biology classes in college.
But recently, there was an epiphany:
Little forest dwellers, canyon hermits, waterfall architects, purveyors of perches and lookouts and mud nests. Colorful, raucous, solitary, bold. Singers, squealers, scratchers, and composers, sentinels and hunters, greeters of the morning light.
I credit solo trips to my hermitage with this newfound appreciation, waking in the morning to a cacophony of sound, so much it’s almost impossible, at least for this amateur, to separate one creature from another. Initially it was not their looks but their songs that drew me in. I lay there in my sleeping bag, staring at the canopy of oak and bay trees in complete mystified silence at what creatures could produce such noise.
Sometimes you realize you’ve been hearing something yet have never really heard it. In this case, it might have taken me 40 years of being outside. With classical music, it took Philip Glass. This is not to say I haven’t been deeply moved in the past, but sometimes things hit you in an entirely new way, seemingly out of nowhere.
I suppose that at times we have to be ready, have to have lived and felt certain things before we are capable of understanding others.
Progression and evolution.
I also credit my mother, an avid birder, Audubon Society member, and Huntington Library desert garden tour leader. She’s taken me out birding in the past, bought me a gift membership to the Audubon Society a few years ago, as well as membership in our local chapter. And, of course, the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. I haven’t gone on outings with the clubs (yet), instead just regularly digesting their magazine and newsletters. I suppose all of this information has been slowly sinking in, helping to catalyze this recent change in interest.
I also realized this is a perfect activity to share with her. We walked in a canyon yesterday, both of us with binoculars in hand, talking and looking and passing the morning together. Doing something while doing nothing: the best way. Together. In a moment I clearly understood that I do not how much time we will have together and that birds seem like such a good thing to meet over, something that will form a solid foundation for future memories.
I could feel it. Standing by her side, watching a pair of red tailed hawks circling the hills: I will remember this.
Today my wife and I went to one of our favorite canyons, a timeless stretch of classic California, teeming with bird life. Cliff swallows everywhere, a kestrel perched at the tip of a dead trunk, horned larks singing from rocks in the grasslands on the approach.
A perfect day with my partner. Another foundation built.
I’ve been cataloguing my sightings, listing birds and dates and locations. Meeting new birds that were likely in front of me for years, reacquainting myself with those I already know. The desire to understand who is who, who says what, and who lives where has me approaching the wilderness in a fresh way.
It’s seeing through a child’s eyes again, even after 40 years. It’s an excellent practice in being mindful.
of a canyon wren
blend with water song
and golden oaks
Fuck off, I’m birding.