The Shoulder of Orion

Orions-BeltOrion stood in pinpoint brilliance in the southern sky. The rim of the valley was capped with a wall of dense fog that fairly glowed an eerie silver in the starlight. The moon, almost full, had just set in the west, and the east gave no hint of the rosy dawn that was still a couple of hours away. Solitary and huge, the hunter, the archer, stood silently poised to loose his arrow, to loose himself, a mythic symbol of the season and the quest. The object of this quest lay two days of hard driving to the east, though I planned to take longer. For the journey from this coastal valley to the Ragged Mountains was for more than just miles. The changes in geography suggested changes in psyche, transcending time , or rather changing the scale of time and entering a world that was at once foreign and familiar. The destination is the high country. There is a strange delineation between the world as we know it and the "High Country". I don't live there anymore and it always feels like coming home when I finally get there. You know it by the crisp lightness of the air, the peculiar intensity of the sunlight and the incredible speed of the weather. There is a hardiness and vitality in the life that surrounds you, and an abrupt suddenness at the edge of that life. All of it somehow weaves itself into the invisible membrane of atmosphere that is the boundary between our usual, day to day world and this other. It is only apparent after it has been penetrated. The long road between the coast and the hunting ground would pass many times through that high frontier and I planned to linger whenever I could. Preparation for this hunt began several years ago as I listened longingly to stories of encounters with wild elk in wild country. Stories of spectacular sights and sounds that I might not have believed had the raconteur been someone other than my older brother. While it is true that my brother had rendered other stories which, with the clarity of hindsight , should not have been believed, we are older now and I know more about hunting and about snipe now and he is much less inclined to enjoy laughs at my direct expense. So when he suggested that there may be room for me on this adventure I quickly accepted. The fact that we would be hunting with bows and arrows for one of the largest, fastest, wariest creatures on the North American continent was only slightly daunting because in fact I had been shooting a bow since I was a child. I had even purchased a hunting bow that I remembered as being fairly powerful. At least in it's day it was fairly powerful. It was at that precise moment that I realized just how long ago that day had been. Over the many years and many moves to and from many different states I had carried this bow with me as a reminder of the happy days of my childhood on the farm in Montana. It had been for me a link back through time to a simpler life. The experiences of predawn cold and the crunch of new snow and the smell of autumn leaves were somehow uncovered in the deep recesses of my brain. When I held this bow I could vividly recall the faint sounds and fleeting images that hung suspended at the furthest edges of perception and I remembered the deep satisfaction of believing that I was engaged in the most elemental of endeavors. This bow was also a badge of wildness to my city friends. I sometimes took it down from it's place of honor, hanging out of childrens' reach high on the wall, to show it off to them and their children. It was beautiful and lyrical in it's line and a wonderful organic color of hardwood and it bore the nicks and scars of time spent in primal pursuits. But no one could ignore the primary function of this elegant machine. It was, no matter how beautiful and simple, a lethal weapon. The act of stringing it always infused the room with the tension and power of the taut bow. It made me feel different somehow. As if I had accomplished some mystical act and transformed us all back into the creatures from which we had descended. Now, after talking to my brother, I yearned for the connection to the old days and old ways. So I took the bow down from it's place high on the wall where it had lived for so many years out of the reach of small hands, where it must be looked up to, aspired to. There was a romance in the recurve beauty resting so lightly in my hands. I carefully placed my leg between the string and the limbs of the bow and began to flex it. The more pressure I loaded onto it the more it resisted, until suddenly, stunningly, everything let go. There was a terrible, snapping, splintering crack followed by a dumbfounded silence. Seldom is there such a clear delineation between eras. Just moments before I had been a stubborn adherent to the romance of recurve beauty and the elegant simplicity of ancient technology. Now I was forced to reevaluate my position and found myself thrust into the new world of the modern compound bow. There is no doubt that this new bow is more suited to the rigors of elk hunting as I do it. It is mostly metal and therefore less susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity. It is also a great deal more powerful and faster and easier to hold at full draw than my old bow. In addition, with the new technology of sights and arrow rests I can shoot more accurately at greater distances. The arrows are lighter, stronger, faster and more consistently made. But I still have a nostalgia for the romance of my old recurve and the instinctive shooting of my youth. Nevertheless, we are hunting elk and any tool that will yield a small improvement in the odds is welcome. The car was already loaded, fueled and fluids checked as I stood there in the darkness staring at Orion. The cool dampness of the dew laden air felt heavy and thick and reminded me that I stood less than 100 feet above sea level. I had intended that by the time this morning rolled around I would be an Iron man. I had planned a regimen of rope jumping, running (I'm not talking jogging here, I mean running), weight machines, hiking with a loaded pack, shooting the bow, wall climbing and carefully monitoring my caloric intake. I had plenty of time to plan this reshaping of myself, and I took all the time I had planning it, instead of doing it. Now the fateful day of departure had come and I had not executed my plan. It seemed that crises arose with uncanny regularity whenever I thought I had time to exercise. Which is not to say I was totally unprepared. I had been faithful about shooting the bow and I had cut back a few beers. I had jumped the rope for several minutes at a time, albeit infrequently, and had jogged (not run) a few times. It wasn't much, certainly not what had been planned, but I had taken the slovenly edge off and now the time had come. I had to go with the bady i had, not the body i wanted. The drive away from the coast into the rising sun was exhilarating. It was early enough that I was avoiding the commuter traffic and except for a few patches of morning fog the sky was clear. As the dawn grew brighter I traveled across the huge central valley and began climbing the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. As I gained elevation toward the summit of Donner Pass it felt as if I were ascending the mythical stairway to the sun god. The greater the altitude, the brighter the sky became until right near the very top the sun seemed to leap from the horizon and sit right in the middle of the road. Aside from the fact that I was completely blinded by the light I felt as if the universe was unfolding in a beautiful, magnificent and entirely benevolent way. Then there was that noise from the engine....... but that's another story. All day long I traveled east. New snow had fallen at the top of Donner pass and everything was fresh and crisp in the fall air. But once over the top the landscape was dominated by sun, wind and sagebrush, with a smattering of alkali flats and dry lakes thrown in for variety. This is the Great Basin. A land of huge dry valleys divided by mountain ranges that stand above the vast dryness like islands in a sea of dust. Evening found me on one of these islands in a cool camp near a small stream beneath aspen trees. They were just beginning to show signs of the brilliant colors which already clothed their kind higher up the mountain. A cold wind blew down the canyon from the glacier hanging in a cirque near the top of Wheeler peak. The damp air of the canyon bottom carried the scents of pine and spruce from above. Tomorrow I will climb up there, but for tonight, the warmth of a small fire and watching the full moon rise over the huge expanse of the Great Basin fills me up. Aside from the 11,000 ft. altitude, the hike up is not difficult. My destination is the grove of bristlecone pines that lives here at the upper extreme of vegetative life. The plan is to acclimate myself to high altitude somewhat by spending the day wandering aimlessly about the mountainside above timberline. But along the way I was distrsacted by a beautiful little lake and a hidden spring that feeds it. The lake has receded from the obvious high water mark of earlier in the season and left a ring of bare rock around it. No dirt, no silt, no moss or algae, just brilliantly colored, clean. shining stones. it seemed like a necklace of semi-precious stones accentuating the beauty of the water. And the water! Colors of the deepest emerald and cobalt distilled to crystalline clarity with thousands on pinpoint lights on the surface dancing to the choreography of the breeze. At the far end of the lake, close to the base of a cliff that is the face of the summit peak, a small stream tumbles across the stones and into the body of the lake. Tracing the stream to its source is not a long journey. A couple of hundred yards from the lake is a tiny spring that flows gently, quietly upward and out of the ground from a small opening beneath a fir tree. I'm suddenly flooded with images of my father, who had passed away. When I was a wee lad, experiencing nightmares of various sorts, my father told me in his gentle, soothing voice of a place in the mountains. A place beside a beautiful lake, with trees and a small stream babbling and gurgling as it made its way into the lake. A place so peaceful and gentle and safe that nothing could ever hurt me or scare me there. He told me that whenever I got scared at night or awakened from a bad dream I should try to think of this place and look out over the lake in my mind. I should try to hear the birds and smell the grasses and the trees, and feel the warm breezes on my face. I should just stay there by the lake. Take as much time as I wanted to explore this wonderful sanctuary. It worked very well for me as a child and in fact I still use the meditation to deal with the occassional random anxiety attacks that interrupt my slumber. It became such a part of me that I forgot to ask him where it came from, so I never knew if the lake that he described was from his memory or his imagination. But I had found a lake that was very much like the one in my childhood imagination. The odd thing I never would have imagined was that it was in Nevada. So, I stayed and explored the lake for a while. I drank deeply from the spring. Clear, cold, sweet water that was immensely satisfying. It seemed quite proper that in order to drink from this fountain one must prostrate oneself as the devout do. It was a eucharist of the pagan persuasion and a very appropriate entrance to the land of the grandmother trees. Imagine sitting on a mountainside in the shade of a windblown tree. There are other trees around you but almost nothing uphill except bare rock. Well OK, there is some moss and some lichen on the rocks, but there are no trees or bushes. Then imagine that this tree has always been here. When the Pony Express passed this way, when whatsisname surrendered at Yorktown, when Columbus landed, when Leif and his bunch landed this tree was here. You know the big redwood slabs that have pins in the growth rings that indicate significant historical events? Like when Jesus was a baby? Well, when the seed that became that redwood tree fell from its cone, the tree under which you are sitting was an OLD tree. When the pyramids in Egypt were built, this tree, this exact tree, was here. There is a parallax of historical perspective here in the shade of this tree. The ravens still hurl insults at eagles and the jays still squabble and the big black ants still march relentlessly up and down the amazing living being that is this tree, just as they always have. But sitting here, alone on a mountainside, time seems to have a huge wrinkle. The perceived importance of our human endeavors shrinks and the continuum of life flows more slowly. The age of these trees wasn't discovered until the 1950's when some forest service researchers, studying dendrochronology, hit the tree ring motherlode. The popular legend has it that one guy, while studying tree rings, got his expensive core drill stuck in the trunk of one of these trees. The wood is so dense and resinous that it resists penetration of all sorts, so it is completely believable that it seized the drill. Again, the legend has it that the researcher had a permit to "harvest" one tree, so he chose the tree that ate his drill. After cutting it down and retrieving his bit, it was discovered to be the oldest known living tree on the planet. Old Methuselah, some 5000 years old, had given up the secret of his kind. And now, people like me show up and wander through the bristlecone grove marvelling at their tenacity and the unusual nature of their environment. Much of what is known of the story of the trees is told by the didactic plaques provided by the forest service along the path (from which you are admonished not to depart). But it is told in such a stupid way as to be almost impalatable. They are pompous pronouncements hidden behind a thin veil of the most powerful religion of our times; "science". Whoever wrote the text for those plaques has a very strange view of existence. The bristlecones are constantly being described as "reluctanct to die". Well, duh! Is that a scientific observation? Why not "eager to live'? Why should they be anything else when they're in the prime of their lives? The environment in which they live is described as being "harsh" and "adverse". Which is quite true for humans, but it's the only place they live and they seem perfectly suited to it. I don't see the necessity in portraying their lives as miserable when they seem to thrive. Anyway, I get a whole different feeling from being amongst the old tress than do the rangers or whoever wrote that crap. I don't see them as specimens in a jar, I see them as certainly among the oldest, if not THE oldest citizens of the Earth who have a very different view of this world. I can't really explain the feeling of sitting on the roots of a tree and leaning back against the trunk of a living being that has stood in that spot since Athens was just a tiny village. I'm sure I wouldn't feel that way if I didn't know they were that old, but now I do know it. It makes me contemplate what other wonders await discovery.

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