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. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

two truths and a lie

The dreaded word "icebreaker" was uttered at my last meeting.  I glumly filed over to my group with visions of trust falls and the telephone game.

Instead, we were playing Two Truths and a Lie.  If you've never played this, each person comes up with three statements about him or herself.  One is a lie and the others are true. The group must then guess which is the lie.  The intention is to "get to know each other better." I silently debated whether I really wanted to know them better  tried to come up with something interesting, which is hard to do on the spot. 

Luckily, some other people went first.  We learned that Rob's favorite food was broccoli (we thought that was the lie) and that Todd raised sheep and goats.  When it was my turn I came up with:

1.  I've climbed to Camp 1 on Mt. Everest.
2.  I have a twin sister.
3.  I grew up in Michigan.

The group bought the Everest story easily.  "You don't have a twin sister," a woman I'd never met before stated.  "You didn't grow up in Michigan!" the rest declared.

My conclusion was this: if people easily believe that you've been to Camp 1 on Mt. Everest over growing up in the Midwest, you are leading a pretty interesting life.

You have to go through the Icefall to get to Camp 1.  Nope, nope, nope.  Photo from AFP.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Rules for work meetings

First, someone is always late.  This prompts a flurry of comments.  "He said he would be here."  "I'll just text her."  "I'll go check his office." Someone sets off to find the missing person, at which point he strolls in, holding the cup of coffee that made him late.  "Sorry I'm late," he says (he's not really sorry).  "Bob went to find you!" somebody says.  "I'll go look for Bob..." somebody volunteers.

Remember when people used to say that computers were going to make us a paperless society? Um, there's more paper than ever, especially at meetings! Copies of the agenda, spreadsheets, memos...they all make the rounds.

Somebody likes to hear him or herself talk.  She goes on and on, until you zone out.  Then at the worst possible time, she suddenly asks, "What's your opinion on that (insert your name here)?" Uh-oh, what was she talking about?

At some point in the meeting you will end up on a committee, in charge of organizing something, or tasked with some sort of research.  You have a choice here.  You can accept the inevitable, or you can volunteer your assistant for it.  If your assistant isn't there, the choice is easy.

The question will come up: should we power through until 1:00 and be done, or take a lunch break? Usually a lone, hungry dissenter opts for the break, which means that the meeting will go on even longer; hunger will no longer motivate an earlier ending, and people will think of more topics over lunch.

Somebody will have to leave early, claiming to have a conference call or another meeting more important than this one.  The rest will watch their retreating form enviously.  Maybe they can be volunteered for something.

There will be an elephant in the room.  Not a real one, that would be pretty cool.  This one is a topic that everyone knows needs to be dealt with but nobody wants to bring up.  It's 4:59 and you think you've dodged the bullet, until someone takes a deep breath.  "What about..." he begins. OH NO HE DIDN'T, everyone thinks.  But yes, he did, and you might as well put your stuff back down, because you're going to be there for awhile.

Finally the meeting is over.  But really, is it?  "When should we have our next meeting?" the facilitator asks.  Everyone pulls out their phones or planners and picks a date.  Oh look, good news! It appears you can't go, but your assistant is available!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The "secret" waterfall

Some states haven't had much of a winter. I have employees out in some of these places fighting fire.  However, I don't currently live in one of those states.

There's more snow in the high country than I've seen in the seven years I've lived here. Roads have been closed, and communities cut off from the rest of civilization by huge snowdrifts. And the snow keeps falling.

I decided to snowshoe to a waterfall that I hike to frequently. The trailhead was inaccessible, the road closed by wind driven snow. I climbed through the forest, following a snowshoe track. Most years you don't need snowshoes or skis on this part of the trail. This year you do.

The spur trail to the waterfall isn't marked. It's a social trail, easy to miss unless you know where it is. You follow a creek, climbing over downed trees and up cliffs. Nobody had taken the route in a long time. Despite being on snowshoes, I sank almost to my knees. Even in summer, you have to watch your footing closely. It would be easy to slip and fall into the creek if you weren't careful. I checked the snow ahead of each step with a trekking pole. Sometimes it disappeared into a large hole, a hidden gap between rocks or downed trees.

Finally the waterfall appeared. Usually a tall column of ice, it was mostly snow covered. But at its base some water flowed, signifying that spring was coming someday.

I picked my way back towards the main trail, encountering another hiker taking advantage of the route I had created. The snow sparkled in the sun. Nobody else was around.

The next time I hike to the waterfall there probably won't be any ice. I might be wearing shorts. I will be able to move faster. But there's something about getting to a place like this in deep winter. It feels like a secret, hidden place, as if I'm the only one who knows it's there.