These nine trail crew members & one trail boss [me] will spend months building trail across the Mountain West, learning primitive. These teens, paid by the hour, slump in the row seats of our van, painted white by the Northwest Youth Corps—sheening hope. Apathetic faces gaze out past the blur of firs. In the rearview, I scan eyes, trying to tease out stories. Today, I can only guess & hope. Tomorrow & all the days ahead, I might learn in the ways rock learns about erosion from wind, from rain, from snow, from ice. But for now, we have blue highways that lead to some trailhead, our tools [which one day might become something resembling hands or fingers], tents longing to become homes, & our twenty arms that must carry what they may. Before us, pavement then dirt roads then trails. Before us, a first campsite among many, a first campfire to light back the night, to cook upon. Before us, a building storm, clouds roiling, more than a threat of rain. Before us, months to sling dirt, to birth trail, to conjure family out of individuals & trees & mountains & this murky sky.
In the rearview mirror I gaze at crew members—dirty & worn & dreaming upon each other’s shoulders—& remember those moons ago when I barely knew their stories that they’ve since told into the quiet folds of our many fire nights. James—who dreams maybe to a soft bed in a house with a family of love—curls into Cori who flickers open her eyes whenever I hit a pothole before dozing back into Silas who hasn’t slept this deeply since tasting drugs. In the other rows, Kevin, Kasja, Nick, Brooks, & Justin fall into various slumbers, which carry them to various worlds. In the rearview, I scan placid faces of my almost-children & adjust the dial to some late night a.m. station mourning some country song. Asleep, this crew so peaceful that I long to live within their dreams. Dear moon & stars, dear lonely mountains, dear quiet meandering creek, dear great expanse of night, allow us to forever drive this empty, nowhere road.
On Islet Mountain
Rooted down on Islet Mountain, I wonder about that other world of pavement & stoplights. Though that tangled web seems perfectly far away, it metastasizes just eight miles from camp. How is that sprawl so close to girdling us in layers? First pavement. Then scattered houses. Then subdivisions of repetition. Then urban cores that fail to imitate mountains. On Islet Mountain, night air is as still as a paused breath. Our days become the spaces between the beating of a heart & the beating again. But that other world out there—of highways abuzz with static, strip malls selling empty clothes, neon lights pulsating strip clubs & bars, TVs clattering against the night, & ATM machines preaching us to buy our way from sorrow & loneliness—you can have that world. You can have it all.
Aspen Guard Station
Twelve years after sculpting trail through wildernesses, after scattering like seed to wind [Where have we all rooted?], I return to our mountains as a writer-in-residence [not as bull of the woods]. These dozen years have stretched a lifetime [maybe two]. When these mountains last cradled me, I was seasonally [un]employed, living as often as not, in a minivan, tent, or on a porch. Now [so strangely] I return as a professor, a writer who gazes upon his hands [shining as pale as last week’s fat-bellied moon], soft as if they’ve never loved a tool—other than a damned computer mouse, never learned the song of trail labor, never called the yellow cedars & ponderosas home, never ripped steel heads into mineral soil, never severed crosscut rakers through to heartwood.
These old Westco loggers are bruised from rain, gouged by the bite of an axe dinging the toe box. The heel sloped from walking those rippling hillsides, slash, & rock strewn trails. The leather, no matter the times my fingers massage beeswax in [now for no needed reason] remains a crooked spine, stiff from working too many frigid mountain creeks. Now, twelve years later [a life moved far from mountains], I cannot remember the creek names or what bodies they whispered into. I suppose always & forever the Pacific.
I shutter the cabin door behind me & climb into my pickup. Today—really every day—I dream this truck is a dinged-up van tool-heavy & crew-loaded, bound for distant wilderness. But these early morning hopes are ghosts.
I grind the truck into 1st & within moments [as a gentle blessing or a final goodbye] a view of Hesperus Mountain offers itself to the bruise-blue dawn. I wave a lonely hand out an open window.
I pass Transfer Campground & search for a trail crew stealing a ribboning trail into wilderness, but nothing lasts forever & memories are only wild memories. Or maybe memories are a heavy chain weighing us down.
The world behind me transforms into clouds of whirling road-dust that obscures Hesperus Peak & Transfer Camp, stealing every view. Except those sights & lives which wait ahead.
It must be the road dust, I tell myself [& not memory’s heavy weight, nor this river of tears flowing like the West Mancos River] that prevents me from seeing anything behind me at all.
The Road to Happiness
“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” Confucius
During those more perfect moments when our sun, now knotted low on a June evening, shoots rays across this lake-world, Sarah and I retreat to the dock, beers in hands. We speak of our today, the color of water, the stretch of cobalt sky, burgeoning. Within this quiet, we notice the sun unfurling itself upon the lake—the sun wending a shimmered silver trail so spangled that I nearly ask Sarah to step from dock to sparkled water, hand in hand, to see where this sun-upon-water might lead us. This phenomenon of water-light laid across our breeze-tussled cove was named by a Soviet scientist: the road to happiness. Does the naming of a thing make it more or less magical, more or less mysterious? What might we lose if the two of us forgot all names, definitions, taxonomies, all the lessons of Linnaeus, and instead just walked upon water?
Straight Line to Oblivion
The color of late summer is golden rod’s yellow—a diluted sun—and aster’s dulled purple, somnolent after summer’s race. The color of late summer is sensitive ferns browning. Each stripe brittle and russet, each blade tinged with closure. The color of late summer is jewelweeds flowering. Orange-red slippers, havens for hummingbirds, a nectar half sugar, some wild sweetness. The color of late summer is an explosion, of milkweed, cracked pods, whited pappus toward flight. The color of late summer is a dream toward dying, a world faded toward accepting its fate, and it should and it must because the color of winter is white and gray and a sun leaking a weak light upon land. The coming color of spring, some salvation of green of trees, green of plants, verdant dreams. These wild colors are a rotation, a revolution, so what is there to mourn? There is nothing for these seasons to mourn. But I am colored by forty-four, forever beyond spring. My life this evening lost to late summer, wearying, leaves grayed toward autumn. To live this circle time and again, to spiral through these colors of seasons. Instead this human life is one straight line to oblivion.
Broad-winged hawks abandon perches in aged birches and strike free to travel today’s cold front. A kettle now soars upon tranquil wings toward the blaze of a sun, going thermal on rising columns of air. With barely a beat, these raptors travel seventy miles a day on their long journey. Barely a beat, they venture from our little Vermont lake to South America. Surfing weather and wind, following no path, leaving no trails.
Trees Once Were Songs
One morning in late spring we woke to song. We, still wrapped within blankets and dawn, listened till Sarah whispered, White throated sparrow. Their song a soooo seeee dididi dididi sung from red maples and birches. Or, some later morning, sitting now up in bed, Sarah whispered, Hermit thrush, as if the word itself—thrush—was a blessing. Off in the woods, a fluting weaved its way through morning. Then wood warblers offered high pitched notes to an open sky above trees. Ovenbirds, hugging earth, noted deep and low calls of teacher-teacher-teacher. Soon our trees were song. A rising skirl blending within a trilled whistle from the passerines, the perchers. A world—a woods—of song sung dawn and dusk, to expanding day, increasing sun. Now September mornings wake quietly. Some might say emptily. As if we are trying to find something that was once here forever. But dropping temperature, rising barometer, carry songbirds to sky as they begin their long migration to South American, leaving behind empty nests and waves of silence in our trees.
A Rafting of Loons
After a summer with only three loons on this lake—mother, father, and one surviving twin—after a territorial summer of only their howls, yodels, wails to dance across the lake, Come late summer the rafting of loons begins. Communal gluttony replaces territorialness. It is better to feed all the mouths, lake by lake, because the long flight soon begins from these freshwater ponds where mating occurs and where chicks are born to faraway oceans many regions away. These rafts of loons—five or six or more loons fishing as an assemblage, plundering as much as they can, recognizing that to fly far they must feast fast, so they join together—an armada to empty our waters. In threes and fours, these birds try to take to flight, but with the smallest proportional wingspan of any bird, taking flight is never easy. So these loons run-fly across water, sometimes a quarter of a mile, before erupting onto air, where they sprint—sixty miles per hour—to winter ocean homes. And we, those who remain on the cove through winter, are left with so little. Just an empty loon nest, leaves tumbling off maple trees, and one final ghost call as the raft of loons flies off into autumn’s night.
The Origin of Migration
“And above the bridge a skyway of air the birds could take if they wanted another world.”
Maybe this phenomenon was birthed during the last two million years from those six ice ages that covered and uncovered the earth (maybe like a bed made and unmade again). A southward assault of ice forcing birds to fly farther toward the round equator, then a northward recession inviting those birds home again. A stealing and returning of ice. A stealing and returning of birth grounds and nesting sites. Till now here in our hardwood forests half the birds that sing of their birth here, leave their original homes for the seas of Florida, for Central America and the Caribbean, for the end of the other world, southern South America. They search, like they did on our lake and in our gardens, for worms and insects to fuel their flights. All this song of flight is sung by an internal clock telling our birds to store fat, to molt, to grow new feathers, till they take to air, a graceful jump of faith from tree branches to beating wings. They navigate homeward by studying stars or felling the tug of earth’s magnetic pull or reading mountain ridges and rivers. Navigating those great flyways even after so much fallout from raging storms and predation, in search of an ancestral nest, in search of this season’s home.
Sean Prentiss is the award winning author of Finding Abbey: a Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, a memoir about Edward Abbey and the search for home. Finding Abbey won the 2015 National Outdoor Book Award for History/Biography and the Utah Book Award for Nonfiction, is a finalist for the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Biography, and was a Vermont Book Award and Colorado Book Award finalist. He is the co-author of the forthcoming environmental writing textbook, Environmental and Nature Writing: A Craft Guide and Anthology, and the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction, a creative nonfiction craft anthology. He and his family lives on a small lake in northern Vermont and he teaches at Norwich University and in the M.F.A. program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.