by rob brian
Seeing an old painting brought back memories of one of the hardest days of my life.
By Rob Brian
I drove into Oklahoma City today to see an old friend. I hadn’t been to his new house before, and I was happy to find him tucked into one of the old subdivisions of brick ranch style houses built in the seventies. I pulled up, recognized his truck, and he opened the door, “Come on in,” “make yourself comfortable.” John was dressed in shorts, and an old T -shirt with paint spatters. “Wow John this is really nice”, I said, and it was. I recognized some of his things that I had seen before, photos, lamps, and furniture. I sat down on the couch and looked up to see an old water color painting I had done quite a few years ago in Alaska, and had given him on some previous occasion, like I had done with most of my paintings from back then. Like hearing an old song you hadn’t heard in years, it brought me back to that day, and one of the hardest lessons I have ever learned…….
I am older now. I live a different life now. I remember how I was back then, and sometimes when I tell these stories it is if I am talking about someone different. But we are now, made up in part by our experiences good and bad. I don’t mind telling these stories now, as I have no pride, or reason to hold back the telling. I only want to give my children good advice, advice that they can use and think about.
Back then I would drive around in my old 66’ ford pickup truck and look for “watercolors.” I would find a view, an angle of a scene that I liked, and whatever time of day it was, would go back for however many days it took to finish the painting. That way the shadows would be the same, and the light and contrast would be roughly the same each day, or in this case, the low tide would be roughly the same. I was painting Resurrection Bay across from Seward Alaska, not a quarter mile from my house. I had driven past this particular scene a thousand times, and had put it on my mental list of scenes that I wanted to paint. So on the third morning of a day that had started out overcast and rainy, I was trying to finish the mountains in the distance, having painted the foreground with great detail.
I wasn’t consumed with going out and painting. It was one of many activities that I considered time well spent. I had been building a cabin in back of my house, and doing a lot of hiking and fishing. I had lots of friends in town, and between work and play never seemed to have enough time to finish anything. Painting watercolors was one of my favorites though. I remember that day I was having trouble getting into “the zone,” or the state of tranquility that I sought and treasured so much. It was a high, a feeling of departure; that time lost to yourself and the scene you were painting. It was a state of bliss between when you started the painting, having found the right weather, light, perspective, and that time when you awoke from your endeavors, and realized that you had gone away for a couple of delightful hours. You had explored the colors and smells, and shadow, and contrast more than any camera. Sometimes I would look at the painting in surprise, not really seeing it until afterwards. I would greedily try to get to that state and stay there as long as possible. It was better than any vacation, or any drug. After that the whole day would seem perfect, and that feeling would come back to me in smaller measure each time I would look at that painting. It is why I kept my paint and canvas behind the seat of my old truck. Sometimes I would be driving down the road and a watercolor would just pop in to view. Those were the best ones, not planned for, when color and light and you came together at just the right time. You had to be quick and you had to be ready. Even now so many years later, my lust for that feeling is strong. But that day, I just couldn’t get there. The “zone” had eluded me.
I can still smell the ocean, and the spruce trees. I can still hear the eagles and the seagulls. The tide was out, and the seagulls were wading in the tidal pools and streams. They tortured the pink salmon spawning in their death pools, breathing their last milky glacier water, and trying to swim away from the killer seagulls. The slaughter that was happening, belied the tranquil setting, and I found that interesting somehow, much like my own façade in those days. A rainsquall was obscuring the distance and making it difficult for me to finish the painting. But on my side of the bay, the sun was coming out, and promised a fine day. After a while, I decided to just give up for the day, my allotted time almost up anyway. I would just come back tomorrow or another day. So I gathered the watercolor paints and brushes strewn on the seat, and put them back in my little backpack, and put the watercolor paper behind the seat. When I drove into my driveway, the sun had come over the mountains and was burning up the low clouds, which wisped thru the blue spruce on the mountains around Resurrection Bay.
In those days I worked two weeks and two off, in the arctic up in Prudhoe Bay Alaska. Up there I would work long dark days, and sleep and eat. There were no places to go but your room in the camp, and that room you shared with another guy, so your privacy was limited. I had two precious weeks off, and given the weather there in Seward might only have a few days of good weather to roam around, or go fishing. Seward was a place that if the weather was good and clear, it was the most beautiful place on the planet. But if it was dreary and rainy you could find it the most depressing place on earth. I would get impatient, and frustrated sometimes when it would rain or snow for days on end, and ruin any plans that I might have. I remember in those days that being in the house bothered me. It made me feel more alone than I wanted to feel. There was television, but only three channels. I remember I used to really resent televisions because they seemed to kill any conversation that I valued so much. And those conversations were few and far between. So I tried to keep busy, going to town, visiting friends, or taking a drive or a hike. The sun, which disappeared almost entirely in the depth of winter, was a luxury for me, and when it came out, I usually responded with great appreciation and tried to enjoy it as much as I could. It had been a long winter. So that morning I surveyed the sky and determined that it would be a good day for a hike up Mt. Alice. She rose up just across the road from my house, and I had hiked up her skirts many times, and enjoyed the wonderful views from her heights. There was a valley that I was slowly exploring, full of game trails and wonderful quiet glens. I felt like I was the only person in the world in possession of a secret place that no one else knew about. And in those days, I’m pretty sure that I was the only one that ever went up there.
It was getting warm and spring was beginning to turn into summer. But I grabbed a wool sweater anyway, and put on my hiking boots and was soon climbing into the big spruce that dominated the bottom half of the forest on Mt. Alice. What I loved the most about the woods there was how it swallowed the sound from the ocean, and the wind. It was as if entered a holy place, a quiet church. It was truly an enchanted place. The spruces were huge. Their red thick trunks grew straight up and disappeared into the heavens. There were blueberries, and box elder that obscured the spruce needle tundra. There were prehistoric ferns that grew a luminescent green, and lit up the shadows. The rocks were splotched with motley patches of moss and algae, orange and red. The rocks were smooth grey on the lower levels worn with time and snowmelt, and then higher up, turned into black slate, sharp and dangerous.
I was breathing hard, sweating already. It was a way to punish yourself if you wished. I would purge myself of the poisons of sitting around and absorbing the acrid breath of civilization, in sweat and pain. I gained altitude quickly. My heart was pumping and my breath was reaching deep into my lungs now. I was already several hundred feet above the bay, and through the quiet shade you could see the bright waters. I would stop and rest every hundred feet or so, and catch my breath. The trail came to a fork, and to turn south or right, I would go down a path that cut across the mountain. It was the path out of the valley that I would explore on my way down. The other fork continued straight up. It was this path that I chose.
After about a thousand feet, the slope graduated a bit, and the big spruces thinned out and were replaced by hemlock and alder. The hemlocks were shorter and had a gray rough bark. Green moss hung from the dead lower branches, and the blueberry patches were thick around the base of the trees. Now it was the sound of the mountain that came to you, rockslides and wind; water falls from melting snow. You could smell the snow from the small glaciers that never melted. You could feel the cold on your sweaty neck.
Climbing up, up, I soon left the trees. It was alder now, and short stubby bushes. The grass was just turning green, and the ground was soft and spongy with the snowmelt tundra. A few hundred feet more, and I was walking around huge snow drifts still lingering in the shadows. The sun felt wonderful, and I wandered up basking between the icy breath of winter and the narcotic warmth reflected into me from the gray rock of the mountain. I would stop and let the warmth dry the sweat and suck in the beauty of Resurrection Bay. You could see the Chiswell Islands far out past the bay. You could see fishing boats coming in and sail boats going out, and the gusts of winds coming down from the mountains, and slapping the stillness in dark turbulence on the somber blue water. My white winter bleached skin begged for the sun, and I remember laying back against the warm slate, and napping for a while.
I got up refreshed and giddy having stolen the sun for an hour. It was a short nap, but a deep rest. I felt as if I had been healed, a wonderful delicious feeling like when your sore misshapen back finally pops back into place, and the pain is suddenly gone. It was as if my blood was circulating in places it hadn’t been for a while. I felt like I had awoken as no longer wholly myself, but belonging to the mountain somehow. I was feeling really good.
I meandered up to edge of a great cliff that fell down into a canyon below the face of Mt. Alice. You could look straight down a thousand feet. I had sat here before and painted a watercolor, on a previous occasion. I remembered the sound of the water down below splashing on the sharp rocks, and the crack and pops of rock falling down into the canyon. There were cracks too large to jump across and too deep to see the bottom of. You had to be careful of where you stepped now. You got the feeling up close of the violence of Mt. Alice, always changing and moving. You didn’t get that feeling looking at her from the safety of town. You found the truth of your own insignificance, and the softness and vulnerability of your flesh compared to the hard cracked face of Alice up close.
Instead of coming back down the way I came, I decided to circle south along the bottom of a cliff, forming an amphitheater, and come out and down along another path across from me, above 4th of July Canyon. That path would bring me down into the top of the valley that I had been exploring on each of my trips up Alice. As I made my way through the tumbled rock, the marmots whistled warnings, and watched me anxiously as I passed. After I crossed the amphitheater, rocks fell from up above, and crashed down behind me, and I felt the first chill of warning pass over me like the wind off the snowdrifts. I could look down into 4th of July Canyon, and see the shipyards and the prison. But the sun was still smiling down on me, and I slowly made my way down until I found the hemlocks and the quiet green life of the grass, and woods again.
I was down now amongst the friendly trees, and looked in the small streams for the glint of gold. I had always dreamed about finding a big nugget of gold, and always wanted to bring a gold pan up here and try my luck. As the slope gradually flattened I found some timbers cut and stacked on the uphill side of a hemlock, and I realized what they were. Along time ago, someone had been up here cutting railroad ties from the hemlocks. It was long ago as the ties closest to the ground were already rotten, and I knew from experience that it took a long time for hemlock to rot. The ties on top of the stack were still solid, and could have been used today. I made a mental note to find out when they had built the railroad line from Seward to Anchorage. It was probably back then when a crew had come up here in this forgotten valley and cut railroad ties for the Alaska Railroad.
It was about then that I noticed that the sun had disappeared and looking up, I could see big gray clouds spilling over Mt. Alice heavy with rain. But it wasn’t raining yet and I knew that coming down off the mountain was a lot quicker than going up. So I continued with my exploring of the little valley before me. It was my dream to build a little cabin up here, hidden from the town, but only a short hike from my house below. I wandered down and found a little lake, surrounded by deep lush grass, and landscaped forest all around. It was pretty as a postcard, and I wished I had my camera. The still waters of the pond reflected the gray sky above and soon big heavy drops of rain broke the calm surface and ended the tranquility. I decided that I had better get on down the mountain.
Walking towards the end of the lake I soon found a game trail that I thought might lead me towards the main trail that came up from my house. I put on my sweater that I had tied around my waist to warm me up as I started to get wet. The rain was falling steadily now, and I quickened my pace along the trail looking down guarding my steps as things started to get slick. There was a chain of meadows, or open spots and I walked along the edge of these in the general direction of home.
I actually smelled the bear before I saw him. It was in the third or forth meadow that I came to, and along side of me in the woods amongst a huge patch of blueberries was a brown bear. There was a rotton smell like shit and rotting flesh mixed together. And looking down I realized I had stepped in a big pile of steaming bear shit. About then he moved and caught my eye about 50 feet away ripping blue berries in big bunches from the thicket. The gray hair on the side of his mouth was stained with blueberries. He looked at me with big dark sunken eyes, and paused, looking about as surprised as I was. Somehow I wasn’t really scared, just shocked. I was really more disgusted with having stepped in a big pile of bear shit. But the realization of being that close to a brown bear shook me to the core. I think I said something aloud, and started to back up. The bear didn’t move. I guess I caught him off guard. The last I saw of him as I walked back along the trail he was still watching me intently.
I didn’t really think about the rain. I really didn’t realize how wet I was. I just knew I wasn’t going back down the way I usually went. I walked back through the meadows and started going straight down through the woods. I remember a fat raven sitting in a big white dead spruce at the edge of the meadows cawing at me as I walked underneath him. He looked at me mockingly with his black eyes as I disappeared into the dark spruce. The hair was still standing on the back of my neck and now a little fear crept into my pace. I was worried now about what I couldn’t see. In my mind I could see the bear following me along my trail snorting and sniffing. But as I continued, it was the slick rocks and slimy ferns that took my attention as I fell and stumbled through the spruce and alders, going down as the slope steepened.
The rain was really coming down now cold and hard, and the once sunny day had turned unfriendly and treacherous. I was grabbing onto alders now letting them keep me balanced as I made my way down through the wet tangle. I wanted to get further into the spruce to block some of the rain. My hands were already sore from the rough bark of the bending alders sliding through my hands. I wished that I had brought some gloves. I made myself slow down, and started looking for diagonal paths across the slope. It was getting slick and now any falls might really hurt. I chose a path cutting across a big alder thicket, and literally found it easier to climb from branch to branch than let my feet go all the way to the ground. Now I was beginning to regret my decision to come this way. But the rain drove me on. I wanted to get down off the mountain and get home to my warm comfortable house.
I came to the edge of a steep canyon and followed the edge of it, looking for a way down. Finally I found a lesser slope that promised an easier way. I was steaming now, and tired, the heat from my body steaming through my wet wool sweater. It was now soaked and heavy and torn by alder branches. It no longer was keeping me warm. I looked around and decided to try it; after all I could always come back up if it turned out to be a dead end.
The rocks were covered by dead alder leaves left over from last fall. Apparently the wind never made it up this canyon to blow them away. The wet leaves made the rocks very slick, and now I was down to a crawl as there were no alder branches to hold on to. I made my way down crawling on my back getting a good foothold before letting go to take another step down. There was one point where I stopped and looked up, thinking of going back up. But all I could see was rain coming down into my face and the clouds pouring down off Mt. Alice. It was about then that my hold on the rocks wasn’t enough, and I began to slide down uncontrollably. I flipped onto my stomach trying to slow my decent, and reached out for any rocks or roots I could grab. I finally slowed myself long enough to grab onto a sharp rock and bring myself to a stop. I moved my feet around to the side until I found a hold strong enough to hold my weight.
There comes a time in life when you wonder how you got into this situation. I was tired and wet and cold. I couldn’t go up, and I couldn’t go down. And the cold was telling me that I couldn’t stop moving either. I was beginning to get cold down in my core. My hands were bleeding and I was covered in dirt, and my legs were shaking with the effort of keeping me in this one spot. So I moved sideways. I didn’t see a way, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t stay where I was. I moved inch by inch across the rock. The biggest problem that I had was that the rock was loose slate. You could grab a hold of it, and pull, and the rock would break away and crumble. You would step on a ledge, and it would crumble underneath you.
Every move I made sideways I would slip a little, and only catch myself by grabbing desperately with everything. I couldn’t really see down too far, but what I did see fell off into space below me. I moved across the rock until I came to some dirt, which promised roots. I moved under a rock and dirt overhang and found a root. It was wonderful to hold onto that root and let my legs rest for a moment. I used my other hand to dig myself a little seat in the dirt and loose slate. Finally I could take all my weight off my feet and let go of the root and rest. The good part of where I was that the overhang sheltered me from the incessant rain. But it wasn’t long sitting there and the cold came back to me. I started shaking. I knew I wasn’t far from being hypothermic. I took off my thick sweater and rung out about a gallon of cold water. After putting it back on I felt a little warmer, and I quit shaking. It felt so good just to sit. I balled myself into the fetal position and tried to get warm again. I sat there for quite a while happy just to be out of the rain and rest. I think the sound of the rain, and my newfound warmth lulled me to sleep, because when I woke with a start, it was pitch dark. There was nothing to do but wait until I had light enough to see.
Sometime during the night the rain stopped. The clouds descended down Mt. Alice and came into my canyon and found me. It was as if I was sitting on the edge of the world with no dimensions, only white. I was between heaven and hell, between life and death. I was sitting on the edge of a cliff, and on the edge of hypothermia. I wasn’t happy to be there, but I was happy to be alive. I was too cold to do anything but wait, and too tired to be afraid. I was just waiting for light and my next move. I hadn’t really ever listened to the mountain during the night. I could hear the wind gusts above me, and then the creak and whisper of the big spruce as the gusts blew across them. The clouds were moving across the mountain, they drifted down through the big spruce, down into the canyons and found me. And now, we were all together, the white and the dark, the cold and my body heat, the spruce and Alice and I, moving and breathing, and waiting. I thought I heard a truck down below on the road to Forth of July Canyon. Then there was no sound but my thoughts. I thought about my day, the seagulls tearing the flesh of the salmon, and my nap in the sun. I thought about the marmots warning me with their whistles. I thought about the dark eyes of the bear as he looked at me, and I thought about the raven as he cawed and looked down at me, as I headed down into this disaster. After a while I quit thinking and just listened to the mountain breathe through the tall spruce and whisper her lullabies.
I must have dozed off again, because when I woke the morning light was just starting to turn the white into gray. I could see a few feet on either side of me, but that was about it. I knew I had to move. My legs were cramping, and I simply couldn’t sit there any longer. It was really probably the hardest thing I had done in a while to leave my safe seat there under the dirt bank. The white fog below me was truly menacing in its unforgiving hold on the mountain. When I moved the rocks slid off into the white and clattered far down below. I decided that my best bet was to try to find as much dirt as I could. Moving across and down the side I could kick my boots into the side of the wet mountain and make a foothold. I thanked myself for getting steel toe hiking boots with thick leather sides and a stiff bottom. The rocks were sharp slate and as I moved they fell down on me, and cut my head and face. But at this point I was too worried to feel anything but relief with every inch I moved, and every foothold I found.
There were a few times that I had to reach with my legs or my arms and the pain I felt as I made myself move through the stiffness was a pain that I hadn’t felt before. At that point I was willing to spend any limb or sacrifice anything to get off the mountain. If I made it down without a finger or a hand that was ok with me, as long as I made it down. I was moving across and down the cliff, inch by inch using every part of my body. At one point I remember grabbing hold of a root with my teeth so that I could reach across and find another hold. I remembered standing and waiting until the shaking stopped before going on. Finally, I came to an alder patch and moved more rapidly down the mountain. While it was still steep I now had good handholds, and footholds. I knew then that I was going to live. When I finally hit the bottom it was in a little creek that was flowing out of the canyon that I had descended. I was too tired to care about getting wet and I just walked down the creek holding on to the roots and alder branches that stuck out from the sides of the canyon wall.
After about ten minutes I came to the road. I walked out into the fog, and started down the road towards my house. My boots were full of water, and I was bent and bruised with effort just to walk. I was cold. I walked faster to keep away the shaking. I just kept moving towards my house, towards warmth. It was about a minute or two when I saw a truck coming up the road. It slowed down in the fog as its headlights found me, and came to a stop beside me. “Rob?” “What in the hell are you doing man?” It was John August, a buddy from town. He was on his way to work at the shipyard. I don’t think I said anything. I just opened the door and climbed in the truck. “Heater,” I said, shaking. John repeated, “Man what happened to you?” I said “Home.” John turned the truck around and drove me the mile to my house. I don’t think I said anything else on the way home. I remember stumbling out of the truck and walking into my house. I remember taking off my clothes shaking so bad I couldn’t unzip my pants. I just turned on the hot shower and stepped into the blessed warmth, pants and all. I think that was about the longest and best shower I’ve ever taken.
I slept for the whole day. That night I woke up sore. In my dreams the raven had come back to me, and was cawing and growling at me with his black eyes. My face was swollen with painful rock cuts. My hands were also swollen and sore. I looked like hell. It took me a couple days and a bottle of whiskey before I felt good enough to leave the house. John and Jenny August came by with a couple of my friends and barbequed some chicken out on the deck. They were curious to hear what had happened. They wanted to hear more about the bear. It was surprisingly hard for me to talk. I remember watching a video with them and enjoying the meal, but my mind was still on the mountain. I was looking into that white fog, and remembering my pain, and remembering my fear. I think it was a week or so before I could carry on a decent conversation.
I went up the mountain again. But I always came down the same way I went up, no matter what. I also took a rain slicker and a shotgun from then on. But after that I was more comfortable being alone in the house. I was more comfortable and happier with myself. I was happy with the knowledge that I was tougher and more stubborn than I ever thought. I was happy with my survival. I never finished the painting. After taking it out from behind the seat of the truck, I remembered that morning, and decided that I wanted to keep it just like it was, with the background vague and blurry and unfinished. Sometimes it is not the destination, or the finished product that is important, but the getting there that reveals and teaches you the most. And sometimes you just can’t improve on that. It is what it is. My memories are like that, like fading watercolors.
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