A few thoughts … On shedding an old skin

By Sandy Compton
Reader Columnist

I’m two miles from the pickup and 500 feet above where I left it parked when I find a snakeskin on a rock midstream in the East Fork. It is frail and silky, and I set it afloat toward the river, five miles downstream. Somewhere nearby, a snake is feeling shiny, smooth and clean. 

Remains of an ancient road led me to a huge slab of water-scrubbed stone, slid down its surface into the creek and disappeared completely. From there, I rock-hopped upstream 200 yards through a green tunnel of Sitka alder, vine maple, devil’s club, cedar, nettles, purple asters, hemlock, hawthorn, thimbleberry and a zillion other plants I don’t know the names of. 

It’s time to leave the creek, and I climb into a confusion of head-high devil’s club, prickly patches of hawthorn, shin-high alder boles and abandoned creek channels. Twenty-five relatively unpleasant minutes later, I step out into a rock slide that rises to the cliffs above the creek. I’m bleeding a little and sweating a lot. I clamber across tottering chunks of stone toward my next encounter with jungle, acknowledging that talus is also a name for the ankle bone; a fine example of irony in language. 

My destination is beyond the scree and tangled flora. Atop the cliffs forming the east wall of the canyon is a small meadow nestled in a cirque. It’s been a while since I ventured there; too long. 

There was a once-trail, a manway, really, but the wilderness has reclaimed it for the most part, more so than it has the old road. I am left to memory, imagination and the still small voice of Spirit to find my way. 

I am alone, and glad to be so, but I’ve accompanied a few other lucky souls through this canyon. It’s one of few approaches to Sawtooth, my favorite mountain; not an easy approach, but no approach is. Siblings, cousins, parents and grandparents have also crossed this slope, but me the most. My dad and his sons took turns hauling a sheepherder’s stove on an old pack frame through this place. It came to reside in a primitive prospector’s cabin hunkered in a patch of alder and subalpine fir at the edge of the meadow. Some used it, including me, but now it’s as flat as the cabin, which finally has given in to decades of winter. 

I’m over-packed. My thighs complain to my calves and ankles about my excess. Working my way up through the cliffs becomes an exercise in patience and determination; like an hour on a Stairmaster with 40 pounds on my back.

As it has always, the meadow surprises me when I walk in, as if I am not quite ready to get there. Or maybe it is that I have ceased to believe it exists, that I had a heart attack on that last lift and the rest of time will just be one cliff after another. But here it is, golden in the light of a lowering sun. I shed my pack, grateful to be in heaven instead of the other place.

The stillness is remarkable. That’s why I am here, for the silence. I have forgotten who I am, as we all tend to do when we are surrounded by the “real” world. The noise, the perpetual motion, the constant stimulus of modern living has sucked my brain dry. I’m here to visit with the Spirit. I haven’t come to ask any special favors but simply for refuge, where I can just be for a while; a place where I can hear myself think.  

I am a mammal who stands erect, bipedaling across the somewhat wrinkled surface of the Earth. Walking is not the single means of transportation available in our world, but it’s the only way to approach this place. It is a holy space — sanctuary. 

I would call this place subtle, but not for the way it’s folded into the geology, which is glorious. It sneaks up on you because that’s all you can let it do. The whole of it is too much to take in all at once. You might try to “do” a place like this, hiking in and out as fast as you can — which isn’t very fast — but it’s better, I believe, to let the place “do” you. I take my time and time takes me.

It’s two days later, and I have fought my way back out of heaven. My old pickup grinds up the road I parked at the other end of two days ago. Soon, I will be on the highway, bound for home, a hot shower and a real bed. I may have a good film of backpacker grunge, but I feel shiny, smooth and clean.

Sandy Compton’s latest book is 34 Poems. It is available at Vanderford’s, amazon.com or by writing to [email protected]

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