Once, while standing on a beach near Tarifa, Spain, I was stunned with the reality that the African continent was a mere 8 miles away… south across the Straits of Gibraltar. The closeness of Africa and standing in southern Spain was a moment of weight… a moment of clarity. People see stars and are humbled… I see continents and the ease of modern travel and shiver. My stomach was full of spanish beef and wine… yet a hunger rumbled inside of me. The world may be interconnected and made small by the globalization of commerce and communications… yet the world gives off a radiance of bigness when your toes are buried in beach sand, sea water splashes your ankles, and on the southern horizon another continent looms. The sand and water may have been small things… the time and place made them large in my mind.
These moments of mental poetry don’t happen often… ah, but when they do… words fail, knees are buckled, tears flow, and the universe expands. I’ve struggled recently to form into words the thoughts that have been running races through my brain. I realize now that there are some interconnectedness to them… the everyday experiences meeting what my heart and head say are substantial… important… big… vast… stupendous.
Yesterday evening I sat on my couch and noticed that I was surrounded by technology. Immediately within hand-grasping range were my iPhone, iPod, Kindle, and iPad. Wireless technology that is totally dependent on wires for powering of supposed long-life batteries. Both their visual and tactile presence etched a burning thought into my head… it snapped up quick… I noticed that my PlayStation 3 was a few steps away… resting beneath my HD TV. My laptop sat on a desk a few steps further away. The explosive presence of technology was made even more astounding when I noticed that my XM satellite radio was playing. I was stunned at the amount of modernity involved in my life. How did I survive before these tiny pieces of plastic, metal, and wires entered into my life? I didn’t get work email until 1998, cable television had not been something I knew until 1989… my parents didn’t get any sort of cable until I left for college. Yesterday evening I was made small by the presence of these “tools” and realized that I either embrace their importance in my life or abandon all hope in the coming apocalypse… the tools of man will eventually fail… those long-life batteries will die and cause little red blinking symbols… technology will go quiet.
I am comforted in these moments of technological reliance when I think of how I ensure I stay active and maintain some sort of physical activity in my life… I don’t live in my mom’s basement… I don’t subsist on Oreos and Dr. Pepper. Physical exertions are another way to experience something bigger than self. Running a marathon was an event… marathons are not races… they are events… a mountain to climb that meant nothing to no one but me. Climbing mountains is definitely one way to feel small and significant at the same time. Climbing mountains is how I would categorize certain moments in my life when I am made small and the world’s size is projected into my soul.
Climbing a Mountain, literally
Colorado has 54 peaks that spike forth into the sky that tower above 14,000 feet. No state in the continental U.S. has more 14ers than Colorado, Mount Whitney in California is the tallest at 14,497, then Colorado begins to fill the list quickly… it has 119 ranked peaks, California 27, and Washington and Wyoming competing for third with just 2 ranked peaks apiece. The race for big mountains in the continental U.S. has been won and dominated by Colorado… the Rockies are truly magnificent in their lordly position of bigness. One summer recently I hiked… not climbed… Huron Peak, which is a meekly peak of 14,003 feet. It is ranked number 63 out of the top 150. Here is me steps away from attaining the summit of Huron Peak:
Fortunately for me… my mountain climbing skills are nonexistent… Huron Peak is a “walk-up” ascent. I had a friend, who had retired in Colorado, as a guide and teacher… his patience and entertaining banter kept me going. His mountain goat nimbleness looked so fluid next to my lumbering attempts to gain oxygen and put one foot in front of the other. The day had begun at a lowly 7,000 feet, followed by a drive that wove us up another 1,500 feet… from there we began walking UP… UP… and UP some more. The hike didn’t seem more than a stroll until we hit the end of the timberline at approximately 11,000 feet. Birches and evergreens disappeared and produced an almost lunar landscape. Mid-summer snow melt trickled by… watering nothing more than short grass… no one had informed the grass that it wasn’t supposed to be growing at this elevation. Soon the grass ended and nothing remained but different sized rocks and icy snow. It was disconcerting to be sweating profusely while snow glistened on both sides of the trail to the summit. Every step beyond 13,000 feet became a laborious attempt to breathe. One breath, two steps… rest… two steps… rest. What was assumed to be a quick morning hike was turning into an all day exercise in will power. I would not descend until I made the summit… but dying was no longer a vague concept. Finally I stumbled the last feet forward and reached the pinnacle. Other hikers were cast about… drinking water… eating calorie-laden lunches… tightening hiking gear for their descent. I signed the summit log… a protected notebook… my name was added to the list of hikers who had made the summit. I stood and removed my shirt and donned a dry one. I looked about… in that moment the significance of the elevation hike receded and I stared in awe at mountains that stretched as far as my eyes could see. Startlingly blue skies clashed against gun-metal colored peaks… roof top seating… all of creation seemed to be below me. The sky was closer than the valleys below. I was made small.
Where man has wondered about the existence of life… life lives. Deserts are places where man travels briefly… or exists with barely a toe hold on loose and sandy soil… gas stations and hamlets beaten by both sun and wind. Yet through this life exists. I have trekked a few deserts. I have hiked southern Texas with my dad… storing our gear on our backs or in the bed of my truck. A week of burning dead cacti and staring at fields of nightly stars… daylight brought forth fields of color that carpet… Big Ben’s desert in the month of April is a patchwork of color. This was a time, months actually, before 9/11… thus we crossed the Rio Grande easily for a few dollars and explored the Mexican side of this ambling river… it was like a stanza from a Robert Earl Keen song… in the shade of awning in a tiny Mexican village we sipped cold beers and wondered how to make our life as banditos. This imaginary life as some cowboy punching cattle in the dry lands of the southwest was matched in significance by a single evening… dusk… near Death Valley. I was in the military and participating in training at Fort Irwin, California. In a rare moment of stillness, I found myself reclined back against the windshield of my HMMWV and staring at canyon walls in the distance. Because of the high tempo of the training, I was fatigued… to compensate I had put a large amount of Skoal in my lower lip, lit a cigar, and poured a cup of cold coffee. I removed my helmet and stared. As the sun set behind me the canyon walls began to change colors… melting from brown to fantastically pastel pinks, reds, and oranges… some colors were indescribable… unknown hues dazzled. Truly, the desert is a colorful place. As the sun set, the canyon played a Crayola symphony, and the night’s stars began to twinkle on… I began to hum a few lines from Woody Gutherie’s “California Stars“… I knew this song from Wilco and Billy Bragg… but I know it was Woody Gutherie who I was channeling at that moment. The desert always makes me small.
Hiking a Glacier
Feeling important and powerful is easily disputed when the raw power of nature is revealed… even when the power is slow-moving… moving at glacial speed. This is a view of a glacier I hiked from the front seat of helicopter I rode. This glacier is just a few miles north of Juneau, Alaska. When planning a vacation to Alaska, I had told myself that if the opportunity arose for me to see a glacier up close and personal… I would follow through. No price was too great to place my feet on an icy wonderland. I had already seen massive glaciers calving into the sea… now I was afforded a seat aboard a helicopter to fly up and trek where the ice carved… slowly… through mountains. Thousands of years had formed this monstrosity… a quick 20 minute flight took me from airport to glacier. Outfitted in helmet, ice axes, and spikes, I stepped out of the helicopter and met my guide. Other than dirt, there is no real color in glaciers… the deep blue haze from a distance turns bright upon closer inspection… this is a result of being the only color of the spectrum that reflects out of the ice. Many think it is a color resulting from the ice being made of water… no, it is nothing more than refracting light. The blue danced out of the ice and into me. The surface from the distance, like the blue, seemed insignificant… rugged and peaked ice on the surface looked like little troughs… oh, how mistaken I was… this terrain was actually man-sized and larger. Ice towered above and below… there is no flat surface… no shit… helmet, ice axes and spikes indeed. Small and freezing streams of water skimmed along the surface that would suddenly disappear into gaping holes dotted around the surface. These holes plunged down… watered by these streams… falling away like small pieces of silver and white… no sound made as the water descended and descended. There were no safety ropes, no trails, no warnings… no shit… helmet, ice axes and spikes indeed. The National Geographic moment happened when my guide forced his ice axe into the glacier tethering it as an anchor, then he dug his spikes in… I wondered why he was preparing himself as a human anchor… he then grabbed me by the belt and told me to lean forward. At top this glacier, I leaned forward and looked into the depths of one of these deep holes and marveled at a blue and black sprinkled with falling water… a gaping hole that disappeared… the deep dark coloring of its depth bore back into my mind… I snapped a quick picture… I pissed a little on myself and let my guide know to pull me back straight… this was probably done with a small and weak yelp. I had looked down and realized I was small.
Moments such as these are never as numerous as we desire… thankfully so. Realizing the smallness of self is important but overwhelming. The monotonous routine of day-in and day-out are there to allow us to live… but these moments of being small allow us to know we are alive.