The highpoints of my two years in Denali were my Discovery Hikes. Discovery Hikes were half-day ranger-led hikes, usually cross-country since Denali has very few trails. I’d introduce people to the joy of cross-country hiking by taking them into areas I had never been and just roam in search of beauty and wonder. One day I led an enthusiastic group of 10-15 hikers up through a steep, mountain meadow on the flank of Cathedral Mountain. I had never been up there; I didn’t know what lay ahead. We got to the top to discover that “our top” was detached from the higher peaks of Cathedral. To get over to them, we would have to cross atop a hundred foot long, pointed ridge flanked with steep slopes of scree sliding a thousand feet down on either side.
Scree slopes cover the sides of mountains that are made of rock that crumble into small pieces faster than they can be carried away. These rock fragments pile up and cover the mountain slope as steeply as they can. Nothing grows on a scree slope because (a) snowmelt quickly sinks through the loose rocks to far below the reach of any roots and (b) the unstable slope slides slowly over time, shredding any roots. So a scree slope appears bare, slidey, and hostile. However, if we wanted to reach the true summit of Cathedral Mountain, we would have to cross that ridge so without hesitation I strode buoyantly out across the ridgeline. About halfway across, I looked back to check on my group. They were all huddled back before the ridge; none dared step onto it. “Oh,” I called back, “you’re afraid of falling off this mountain, aren’t you?” They nodded. Dharma Bums came flooding back to mind.
My senior year of high school, my brother left me a copy of Dharma Bums by Jack Keroauc. Most of the book was depressing urban drunkenness devoid of appeal. But in the midst of that, Japhy Ryder (an alias Kerouac uses for the poet, Gary Snyder) takes Kerouac mountaineering in the Sierras. They camp the first night on a tucked-snug granite ledge overlooking the world.
“Up out of the orange glow of our fire you could see immense systems of uncountable stars, either as individual blazers, or in low Venus droppers, or vast Milky Ways incommensurate with human understanding, all cold, blue, silver, but our food and our fire was pink and goodies.”
Snyder brews tea and later, when the stars appear, pulls out a star map and they look at the stars.
“As I came back our orange fire casting its glow on the big rock, and Japhy kneeling and peering up at the sky, and all of it ten thousand feet above the gnashing world, was a picture of peace and good sense.”
These words created a picture of an experience I wanted to have. I wanted to camp high in the mountains and look up at the constellations in the mountain-dark sky and know them. Therefore, I needed to learn my constellations. So I went down to the library and checked out a star book. I took it outside at night and there were the brighter stars outlining the major constellations of that season. I looked forward to future seasons with their constellations to see and learn. I took my first true love walking in the rhododendron gardens late one spring night after a movie and there I first saw Vega, brilliant, rising in the east.
I had always loved astronomy but it suddenly felt as accessible as the sky at night and the books on the public library shelf. I checked some out, started reading them, realized that I was reading college textbooks and that I was teaching myself; I didn’t need a teacher. That was a profound lesson; I can do much of this on my own.
At the end of my high school senior year, I registered for my freshman classes at college. English Literature and European History were required but I could chose the other two so I signed up for Calculus and German. A few weeks later, I realized I was just continuing along the same path I had been on to get into college But now I will be in college; I can make my own choice now. Am I just choosing these classes because they were the ones chosen for me all through high school? I didn’t really like German. Why should I keep taking it? “What are the choices I really have? What would I really want to learn about?” The moment I asked that, I knew one answer. Astronomy! The college had astronomy classes with real telescopes. I switched from German and calculus to astronomy and philosophy.
My enthusiasm for astronomy powered me through the introductory astronomy class and the next year, I was the professor’s teaching assistant for that course. I gave planetarium shows and supervised the night-time observations with a couple of 8” telescopes. Four years later, when I applied to the National Park Service, I got hired partly because they were looking for someone who could give star talks within Big Bend’s dark, clear skies.
The day after the star map, Kerouac and Snyder hike upward and reach the final summit slope in the evening. They are clambering up the long, final scree slope when fear of falling overcomes Kerouac . He stops and huddles against the mountain while Snyder continues on. Later, Kerouac hears Snyder’s wild yodeling from on top but continues hugging the mountain.
“Then suddenly everything was just like jazz: it happened in one insane second or so: I looked up and saw Japhy running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps, running, leaping, landing with a great drive of his booted heels, bouncing five feet or so, running, then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world and in that flash I realized it’s impossible to fall off mountains you fool and with a yodel of my own I suddenly got up and began running down the mountain after him doing exactly the same huge leaps, the same fantastic runs and jumps, and in the space of about five minutes I’d guess Japhy Ryder and I (in my sneakers, driving the heels of my sneakers right into sand, rock, boulders, I didn’t care any more I was so anxious to get down out of there) came leaping and yelling like mountain goats or I’d say like Chinese lunatics of a thousand years ago, enough to raise the hair on the head of the meditating Morally by the lake, who said he looked up and saw us flying down and couldn’t believe it.”
I remember this moment as I look at my frightened group and realize I have the opportunity to pass on this enthusiasm and be, for these people, what Snyder was for Kerouac. I joyously exclaim, “This is a scree slope. You can’t fall off a scree slope.” and I leap off the mountain as far as I can and land upright 10 yards further down with the scree sliding a foot as it absorbs my impact. “It’s fun! It’s like a big sand dune!” I shout and they all begin jumping off, scrambling back up, leaping further and further, laughing and shouting in the ecstasy of the wilderness embraced. Then we casually ramble across that totally-easy ridge, shake the scree out of our shoes, and continue to the summit above.
This passing on of experience from one generation to the next forms the heart of Axe Handles, a wonderful poem by Gary Snyder. Buy it. “How we go on.”
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