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To each his own. Call me Scott. When the shit hits the fan, and it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge (Boulder, Colorado) I head for the high country, the terrible high places, the high and lonesome, the mountains. The mere mention of those words invoke joy, pain, loneliness, contentment and the anticipation of adventure -- the stuff of life.
I finished fourth at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Marathon trials: all those 140 mile weeks, all the lung-searing interval sessions, only to come up short. I was a reservoir of pent-up anger, frustration and energy with no outlet. Mr. Jack Daniels and I were becoming good friends, and my days were spent aimlessly wandering the streets and trails of Boulder. Time to leave, but where? Pouring over an atlas of the west: Wheeler Peak 13,063 Ft, located in Great Basin National Park caught my eye and imagination. I was transported back to the Larson family vacations. My dad, mom, sister, uncle, aunt, and two cousins rambling through the barren Nevada landscape jammed into a '77 green VW van on our way to San Diego. Me listening to Duran Duran on my Trapper Keeper-sized Walkman amidst the chaos…she’s hungry like the wolf…fixated on the snow covered peaks in the not so far distance. Thinking: someday I’ll come back and ski here.
I decide first to go to the Ruby mountains near Elko, Nevada, then work my way south. I worry that the national park will be crowded with pork rind-eating, RV (repulsive vehicles) driving tourists. If I had it my way, these voyagers would be banished to Lubbock Texas, never to be seen again. I want to come as close as possible to a solitary wilderness experience, while still covering a large territory. Skiing-wise nothing interests me, so I backpack five miles to Favre Lake. The parking lot is crowded, but no one ventures past the first snow field; I’m happy the masses are content with the view from the asphalt. I spend the night reading The Call of the Wild, and munch on salami, cheese and crackers. When I return from my night under the stars, I stop at O'Carroll's & The Grill. in Lamoille, Nevada. Shortly after I arrive at 10:30 am, a group of ranchers walk through the door and order a round of Budweisers. Some wear caps, others don cowboy hats, some have a gut, and others are wiry, but all are strong, have weather-beaten tan faces and the hands of men who earn an honest living. CNBC blares on the TV over the bar, the NASDAQ is down, and combined with the ranchers’ conversation it makes for a surreal scene. I order a ham and cheese omelet with hashbrowns, toast, and coffee from a sweet, petite blond who flashes a genuine smile, and listen to the men discuss the days events.
The following quotes are as accurate as my short- term memory, the time it takes me to scarf down breakfast.
I roll down Highway 93 at eighty miles an hour, listening to my Bob Marley tape for what must be the tenth time. The wind kicks up a swirling ball of dust to my right, while my left hand makes like a dolphin and slices through the hot air. I turn east at Ely, Nevada, and travel on Highway 50, touted as the loneliest road in America, for a short time before reaching my destination.
The Great Basin extends from the Sierra Nevada of California to the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, an approximately 200,000 square mile area. Scientists prize the region because it is regarded as a closed hydrological system; none of its waters reach the ocean. This makes the Great Basin an ideal place to study biological diversity and human impact on our environment, such as global warming.
With the rest of the lemmings I hike the 4.3 mile, 2,900 vertical feet trail to the summit of Wheeler Peak. I blaze past flatlanders who are busy sucking air (one of the side benefits of six months self imposed suffering). From the top it is easy to see why the area is geologically known as basin and range. For as far as the eye can see, the land resembles an accordion. Mountains run north-south and are separated by dry valleys of sagebrush. Each oasis in the desert contains a variety of plant and wildlife. Pinyon-juniper woodlands, Englemann spruce and Douglas fir forests, aspen groves and in some cases bristlecone pine thrive. Cutthroat trout, golden eagles, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and mountain lion all make their home here.
Enough of the science lecture; I’m done playing tourist. The snow is lacking and it seems my skis will not be needed on this trip.
Headed for home, I drive east on I-70, wanting something more. The trip's been a general success, but I haven’t had that one unforgettable experience for which I’ve searched. I’m in Utah passing through scrub country, plateaus with rocks the color of rusting iron stretch to eternity: maybe I’ve been trying too hard to create a lasting memory, those moments usually come when you give yourself up to the journey, and take things as they come. I stop at a roadside rest area and buy a pinyon pine-nut necklace from a beautiful Navajo girl with large dark eyes. For a moment I contemplate stopping in Moab to join the spandex-clad fat-tire fanatics in their spinning revelry, but it’s too hot and crowded. Been there, done that.
I stare at the snow-capped La Sal Mountains -- a sight for sore eyes after driving through so much inspiring, yet desolate, country -- and decide to ski Mount Tukuhnikivats. The same mountain Edward Abbey climbed to escape the oppressive heat in his classic book, Desert Solitaire. My mind races as I try to remember his description of the mountain, and his two-night excursion. I remember he drove up a rutted four-wheel drive road, camped in a grove of aspen, and stated that Mount Tukuhnikivats is not the highest of the surrounding mountains. Not much to go on, so I hightail it skyward and find a quiet place to pitch my tent. After over an hour and a half of driving, most of it on rough dirt roads, I stop at a meadow surrounded by quaking aspen and dotted with yellow and blue wildflowers. While I set up my tent, two deer come bounding through the trees running free and easy. I still have over an hour of daylight to burn. I’m rejuvenated by the cool mountain air, and am anxious to climb above the trees to see if a ski descent is possible. I hop on my bike with frayed tires and ride hard for forty minutes, keeping an eye out for the carved initials "EA" in the white bark of an aspen. The road finally begins to level, and as I reach the top a snow-filled couloir looms over the next pine-covered ridge. The date on my watch reads 6/9, but it may as well be Christmas. Less than fifteen minutes of eye-watering fun has me back at camp, where I devour a dinner of steak and beer while the sun bows and the temperature dips.
I wake at five a.m.: dress, inhale a Pop-Tart, wash it down with cranberry juice, and stuff my pack with ski boots, extra clothes and water. After my scarred 185cm Rossignol skis are cinched to the side of my pack, I toss it in the back of the truck and grind to the section in the road where a fallen tree blocks further progress. Exchanging four wheels for two, I labor upward, the heavy pack making travel difficult and awkward. Reaching the end of the road, I stash my bike and make tracks over the dense pine slope observed yesterday. I make great time, not hurrying, simply enjoying physical exertion in the midst of grandeur, and arrive at the base of the peak in a couple hours. A quarter of a mile up I’m forced to kick steps in the firm snow; kick, kick, step…kick, kick, step…The sun is intense at this altitude and there are no clouds to shield me from its rays. Sweat rolls down my face, falling to the surface. Lying in the snow is a small thin piece of paper. I bend down to pick it up, careful to keep my balance as the load on my back shifts. It’s a page out of a Bible. I want to stop and read, but I’m in the flow and decide to put the scripture in my pocket and continue. Near the top the angle steepens, and I feel vulnerable and humbled by my insignificance in this vast landscape. A fall wouldn’t be fatal, but the slope's fall line runs diagonal to the bottom, and I would end up crashing into the granite boulders that flank the couloir.
The view from the top is a study in contrast. The red rocks of the Canyonlands, the peaks of the La Sal, and the flatlands to the east fill my senses. I look for a metal benchmark that would betray the identity of the mountain, but find none. Resting in the sun I converse with the local pica.
“I’m not certain, but I think I must be on Mount Peale or Mount Mellanthin.”
“Squeak, squeak. “
“I’m glad I’m up here and not baking down there.”
“The snow looks like perfect corn, it should be a great ski!”
After a week of silence it’s nice to chat. He is in complete agreement with everything I’ve said.
I click in and fly down the mountain, free falling for a fraction of a second as I unweight to make my next turn. My skis carve big sweeping turns in the soft snow despite my worn edges. It’s all over too soon; I head back to the car exhausted and satisfied. Suddenly I remember the abandoned prose and search my pocket, but it’s not there. Later at home I scour the Bible for a passage I would like to think was on that lost page.
Praise the lord from the earth
The journey is complete and I’m content and at peace; but like an aspen, my soul quakes, and is easily stirred by the wind, rivers, people, and mountains of the American west.
©2008 by Scott Larson
Scott Larson’s work has appeared online at Runner’s World and Men’s Racing. Some of his poems can be found in the spring issue of Yamabushi Quarterly. He lives in Colorado and is currently at work on a novel.
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