Sunday, March 25, 2018

The spaces we leave behind

A small plane flew into a snowstorm over a place called Berners Bay in Alaska, between Haines and Juneau.  The pilot radioed that there was zero visibility and he was turning back.  The plane was never seen again.

A lot of people knew Scott better than I did.  We worked together for a couple of seasons in the North Cascades, a hiker and climber paradise, part of a gypsy seasonal tribe.  Scott was a backcountry ranger, living for the summer in a floating cabin at Lightning Creek, far up the lake, while I was mostly stuck at the visitor center or the campgrounds in the front country, leading nature walks and answering questions.

I saw him often, though.  He would bring the park boat to the foot of the lake to pick me up when I wanted to spend the night at Desolation Lookout, a fire watcher's cabin once home to Jack Kerouac, where the writer suffered through a season missing women and whiskey and wrote a book called Desolation Angels.  If I joined Scott on lake patrol, I was able to skip 18 miles of the trail and instead only tackle the five mile, five thousand foot push to the summit.  Once, coming down to meet his boat, I met Scott hiking up the trail holding a flower guidebook.  He smiled at me and the sun lit up his face.  I was fascinated.  I never told him.

We went on our first fire together.  It was 21 days of dirty, monotonous work punctuated by moments of sheer terror as we were chased off a peak by the fire front, then two days "R&R" in a dusty state park before we went back for more.  I loved it, but Scott didn't.  He wanted to get back to his mountains.  I didn't blame him.  He and his climbing partner were already pioneering big routes back then; I only had inquisitive park visitors and noisy roommates to go back to.

Scott and I went backpacking together, spending the night sleeping under the stars at another fire lookout.  "It's cold; we should zip our sleeping bags together," he said.  Young and shy, I laughed awkwardly, treating it as a joke.  Maybe it was; I'll never know.  The next morning I had to hike back to my car and he had already planned to take a different route out.  I lent him my stove and watched him walk away down the trail.

I joined a fire crew and then left the park for a hotshot crew.  We lost touch.  Nobody had cell phones back then.  We would exchange addresses, usually those of our parents', because we moved every six months and mail often didn't follow. I knew he was out there still: reading a magazine, I saw his picture in a Patagonia ad.  I would sometimes run into people who knew him.  Like everyone else in our roaming group, I thought I would eventually see him again.

But I didn't.  Years later I read the news in the park service morning report.   Aerial searches went on for days, but Scott, the pilot, and the plane were never found.

I look at pictures of the place where Scott has probably been for almost twenty years.  It is beautiful and lonely, with isolated beaches, forests, and the mountains he loved.

If I could tell him something, I would say that people still miss him.  His climbing partner still mourns.  I would tell him about that day, the one only I am alive to remember now, what it was like to walk alone down the mountain and meet him coming up from the shore.  And what it felt like to see him look up and smile at me.  It was like the sun coming out on a cloudy day, a perfect moment that is now frozen in time and memory.  I can still see him.
Scott as I remember him.  Climb on, Scott.  Photo by John Dittli. 

7 comments:

  1. Ohhh...so sad and also beautiful. I still have the poem. As a parent, I know that almost twenty years gone, it matters that someone still remembers Scott. He has stayed in your thoughts and images...as he has in those of his family. Any way to contact them?

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    1. I know his mom isn't living anymore and his dad is in Tucsom but doesn't appear to be on social media.

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  2. Sorry to hear about your friend. A lovely tribute.

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    1. Thanks. I've been thinking about him a lot lately for some reason.

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  3. AWeller, if you come back, blogger ate your comment while I was replying to it! Thanks for reading.

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