Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Hand Hold Between Summer and Winter

“…highs in the high 70’s to low 80’s, with no rain in sight, right on through the weekend and into next week!”
The words came chuddering through the speaker, intelligible above the static that haunts the predawn radio waves during this time of seasonal indecision.  It was dark as my truck and I hurtled through the cool dark air.  The dying night racing away to the west, to the east the dark blue sky was shading to dark gray at the horizon.  The first hint of a rosy glow backlighting the line of mountains that separate, or connect the farm and forest land with the cosmos.  Mt Rainier was nothing more than a black, out of scale silhouette. 
It was a weather forecast for southern California, or Phoenix, or maybe west Texas.  But I could tell it was directed at us here in the Pacific Northwest just by the tone of the weather girls’ voice.  Not exactly shock or amazement, but a tone of restrained giddiness at being able to be the bearer of such unseasonably good news. It had rained during the night a few days earlier, which just kept us from setting a new record for consecutive days of no rain.  But it had been just one night, and just enough to knock the dust off the cars and dampen the low spots in the rural gravel roads.
Weather wise these kinds of day time temps are not unheard of, but when balanced with cool clear nights the effect is reminiscent of the good news that comes in fortune cookies:  “You will achieve your goal today”.  A vague sense of some impending good news.  Locals know that September is one of the best months.  That this kind of weather, while not assured for extended periods such as we are experiencing this year, almost always makes an appearance sometime in September.
All the things that combine to make this kind of September always have a profound effect on me.  As if the clear glass globe that seals our fantasy world is cracked and some alternative reality seeps in, with different weights for atmosphere, different molecular structure, and different roles for carnivores and ungulates.   The shorter days, those cool clear nights that seem to magnify the brightness of the stars, the feel of warm morning sun on your face while your back still feels the cool air of the receding night.  The musk of ripe blackberries on the heavy afternoon air.   The first few yellow leaves in the ditch from the poplars or willows, the maples and oaks hoarding their leaves, unwilling to give them up without the fight that will inevitably come blowing in off the north Pacific.
These things combine to make me see past the tasks that must be finished before the day is done.  I look not only ahead, but now, as an old man, I inevitably look back.  I cannot help but do so, knowing that there is more of my life behind me than ahead of me.  In past years I would be readying my weapons for hunting season, I would be frantically cutting a winters worth of fire wood to keep my family warm, I’d be out with the kids gathering Italian prunes, splitting them open to fill the food dryer, the house reeking for days with the intense smells of whatever fruit was on sale or gleaned from old pioneer fruit trees in the far corners of dry pastures: apple slices (with cinnamon!) cantaloupe, plums, all stuffed into wide mouth gallon pickle jars.
I think too of my more recent past.  The pleasure that comes from meeting the challenge of riding through the North Cascades on a bike with a few select friends.  Men and women I might not know very well at the start, but who, in the span of a few long days in the saddle become fast friends, with whom I have shared beauty, pain, suffering, conquest, and Bag Balm.  We’ll always gather in small groups at the start of future rides to reminisce about climbing up to Liberty Bell through the haze of acrid smoke from a smoldering late summer forest fire.  The occasional thwack –thwack - thwack of a helicopter ferrying buckets of water to the fire line. The way the crows dance along the side of the road, half on the ground and half in the air, cocking their heads to get a better look at some shiny bit that has been carelessly tossed from a passing car. They give us riders a bit of room, and possibly scold us away from their bit of new found treasure, the booming caw, caw bouncing off the mountain walls.  But we plod along with no sudden movements, radiating weariness and single-mindedness of purpose “These riders are no threat” or some similar dismissive thought.
Peddling down the west side of Rainy Pass, so cruel to have climbed so relentlessly only to find that you have to continue pedaling for most of the 20 mile descent, into a head wind. Ross Lake looking like a deep reservoir of cerulean blue ink, tucked away in the dry mountains. Brings back memories of fishing trips there twenty years ago, and then 10 years before that.  So much has changed in the world, but not here in the mountains. Well I can remember living in Concrete before there was a highway to ride across the North Cascades, but not a lot has changed since.  You can imagine Jack Kerouac, up on a lookout high above the lake, struggling mightily to avoid coming face to face with himself.  Like Mr Natural said "The only Karma you find up on the mountain is the karma you take up there with you."
It is not easy being alone, in the same way that it is not easy to ride 1200 kilometers on a bike, slowly.  But if you get the hang of it, you meet a person you might be satisfied to be, you see the world from a crows eye view, and you create a set of memories that you will love looking back on when you are old.  If you are lucky, you’ll have a chance from time to time to share the memories of those old times with old friends.  And being old won’t be so much a burden as a gift.

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