In memory of Carol McBrian
It's noon on an unseasonably warm January day and I am going to the Pickets, alone. The light strains to make it through the canopy of Goodell Creek—even leafless, the trees block out the sun with swarms of moss and hanging lichen. But I know that if I walk fast enough I will get some of that afternoon sun where the trail climbs toward the alp slopes. I know this trail, I remember this trail. My pack is light—even with skis it's scarcely the weight of a summer overnight pack. I've no rope, no avalanche gear. It feels good, it feels simple like the first time I came here.
In the summer after college I moved briefly to the Skagit Valley. I lived on a farm and looked up the valley each morning at Eldorado and the Marble Creek cirque. Between brief stints of work I wandered the trails of the North Cascades, short on partners and long on time. After a leisurely day climbing Forbidden I surprised a black bear on the road as Johannesberg shuttered the last orange rays of the afternoon; I was happy.
When I decided one day to hike toward the southern Pickets, I was in a hurry. My stepmother was coming up from Oregon the next day, which meant a lot to me. Neither she nor my father had come to visit since I moved to Washington, and I was grateful now. I wanted her to see this place, a place for which I had no words, a place that meant everything to me. But I also wanted to go to the top of a mountain in the Picket Range—of course I did.
On that first visit, I slowed as I neared treeline. Distances stretched out in the July sun, and the peaks seemed further and further away. As I hiked my ambition drained away, and the huckleberry meadows enticed me. I was disappointed by how easily these simple things distracted me. How was I supposed to be a great explorer if I only wanted to sit in the sunset and wait for the stars to rise above these mountains? I dragged my feet, I sang to myself. I realized I couldn't be late meeting my stepmother at the train station; I stopped. I did watch the sunset, and I did wait for the stars.
I met Carol at the train station and drove her proudly up the Skagit to the farm. I took her on a drive up the Cascade River Road. There, near the center of my world, she could look up from the side of the road at the hanging ice of Johannesberg and, maybe, understand. Carol was a serious activist and a serious christian, and her faith led her to work for an unusual cocktail of causes: hunger, poverty, old growth conservation, closing the School for the Americas, and on and on. She encouraged my love of the mountains, but she also worried after my spiritual well-being. "Forest," she said, "you need to find a place of spiritual renewal closer to home than the wilderness; someday you may not be able to go to the mountains every time you need to reconnect." She was right, and I ignored her.
My beater Volvo died halfway up the road. The view was blotted out by towering maples and nameless, wooded ridges. A tow-truck came from Marblemount to defeat me. Carol knew I wanted her to see the mountains, and she wanted to see them as well—for my sake. I was never able to share them with her.
Ten years later, a deep, hollow sound resonates through my skull as I climb toward that sunlight amid the salal and the doug fir. It's the sound of a shovelful of earth hitting the coffin lid. We buried Carol two days ago, and now I am doing the only thing I know to do.
I walk to free myself from the chill of a bone-white Oregon fog. When my father tossed in that first spray of dirt, the sound of it shook him and he convulsed with sobs. My brother and I rolled up our sleeves and with the help of the rest of the family we moved darkness into darkness. When we were done, one of the gravediggers looked at me urgently and held out a tupperware: "If you want to take some of the dirt home."
Since that first time in the Pickets I haven't become a great explorer, but I have learned to do the math and today I make it to camp. I sleep deeply beneath the last great hemlocks, then rise long before dawn. I get a kick out the ridiculous cliff bands and deceptive rolls and gullies of this place. I watch the stars wheel around and watch the half moon drag itself over the southern sky toward Triumph and Despair. I listen to the scratch of my skis as I fly toward that peak I wanted to climb all those years ago. It's easier now, but I know it means less.
Anthropologists sometimes talk about contagious magic, or magic based on the belief that once things are in contact they remain somehow permanently so, no matter how physically separated they may later become. It's the principle behind so many of our symbols and gestures: a stone from the beach that connects us to our honeymoon; a boyfriend's t-shirt; the driving cap that my friend inherited from his father; the dirt you bring home from the grave. It may also underly the feeling we get when we return to a place, or go to one that others have visited. When I travel a familiar trail to a familiar summit, I am communing with the self who walked there years ago, and with so many faceless and friendly others. The summit has been touched by so many, and when we go there we touch them as well. The whole affair, from the road to the lonely summit, is a distillery of contagious magic, of all our desperate longing for connection to one another and to something greater. And maybe it's also the principle that drives exploration—the notion of going somewhere clean of all contagion, a place waiting for our magic.
I stand on top of West McMillan spire, the most visited summit in the range, and I look at these big dark walls to the west. Maybe Carol is down in that shady cirque at my feet—maybe this is the threshold with that other world. I hold in my heart this primitive sense of magic that buoys me up, an endless need to go where so many—or so few—have gone. I hope someday I will find that place she spoke of, a place of renewal far from this wilderness. But if I should go no further, I will be grateful that she showed me how to search, and that these wild places were here for me to find.