Scree Fields

Cassondra Windwalker

© Copyright 2016 by Cassondra Windwalker

Honorable Mention--2016 Travel Nonfiction 
Photo by Dimitar Donovski on Unsplash
Photo by Dimitar Donovski on Unsplash

Intimacy between fathers and daughters is a strange, trackless landscape. Where words would define borders and conversations build bridges, there are instead vast, open spaces which can only be traversed by experiences. Here and there are the dotted lines left by the secrets Mom told him when they were lying in bed, the wavy elevations marked out by all the subjects carefully skirted over the years. But as any explorer will tell you, the bonds forged by those who trek a rugged world together are far stronger than mere words can express.

I’d developed a fascination with high points, with climbing to the highest point in every state. So far I’d bagged pretty embarrassing states: Kansas, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas. Not exactly the sort of daunting heights that would challenge the spirit and test the body. I’d been reading about Mount Wheeler, the highest point in New Mexico. It seemed to have all the characteristics I was looking for: an uncrowded trail that was still comfortably close to civilization, a rugged hike that rivalled that of high points with much greater elevations, incredible views from the top, and most importantly – no technical climbing to showcase my terror of actual rock-climbing.
It was about that time, anyway. Every few months, I loaded up the kids into the minivan and drove the thousand or so miles from Indiana back to Oklahoma. Back home. Back to where I could breathe. It would be another year before Indiana became truly dangerous for me, but already, I was finding trip-wires and mines buried by my husband every day. Escaping that house for even a few days would give me the strength to get through the next few months.

It wasn’t just the house. It was the air there, the heavy weight of corn fields and pollution mingled with the exhalations of people who had lived there for generations, people who had never left, never longed to see another horizon beyond their own. And in Indiana, there was no horizon. Huge, dense trees whose roots had sunk into the earth decades ago filled the sky in every direction. I missed the sunrises and sunsets of my childhood, the bleak, open skies over the Oklahoma plains. I was suffocating.

But this would be even better. Dad and I would leave Brynn and Connor with my mom. At ages ten and five, respectively, they would be far happier hanging out with grandma and their neighborhood friends than making the grueling hike to the summit of Wheeler Peak. Dad and I would drive to the village of Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico. I imagined that for him, caught in his own suburban trap of the office and the church services and the unending honey-do lists, escape was almost as desperate a proposition as it was for me.

The drive was comfortably quiet most of the way. When Dad and I do talk, it tends to be about topics much bigger than us. We’ll talk about the age of the universe, the latest political rhetoric, the value of art versus science. The closest we’ll get to a personal topic is when Dad tries to convince me that I really do need to learn how to change a tire by myself. Even back in the days when I was living at home, a humiliated teenager pregnant with my daughter, my dad didn’t speak a sentence in my hearing that included the word “pregnant” or “belly.” But he bought me ice cream whenever I was beset by mad hormonal cravings, and when I went into labor, he was right there at the hospital the whole time. So I guess we don’t need to talk about these things.

I wouldn’t have told him how things were in Indiana, anyway. I don’t say how things were at home, because I wasn’t home there. Growing up, I’d never felt at home in Oklahoma, either. I was shiftless, adrift, broken on the waters. I knew that there was nothing he could do to help me, so why weigh him down with knowledge he couldn’t put down? Besides, for these brief days, I belonged to no-one, no-where. I wouldn’t give my husband’s presence the form of words.

We were delighted by the Columbine Inn when we arrived. The great thing about booking a room at a ski resort in July is that the place is deserted. The inn was less of a hotel and more of a lodge. The owner was laid-back and generous, warning my dad that he was definitely going to need to borrow some ski poles for our hiking in the area when he heard that Dad hadn’t brought any trekking poles. The owner lived right there in the inn, down at the opposite end from our suite of rooms. That made us the only three people in the entire place.

The river ran down the mountain just across the road from our rooms. I stood at the window and held my breath, caught in the echo of its ceaseless splashing and burbling. The trees were flush with birds, flying here and there and mingling their varied songs with the melody of the river. I hardly felt as if we were indoors.

Tender, fragile, the moment spun in the failing sunlight and held me fast. In that space, I was no-one’s wife, no-one’s mother, no-one’s daughter. I was the sigh of the mountain, the voice of the river, the wild intention of the wind. I was free.

When that long second shattered, the pieces fell into me, found a place to stay.

My bed was in a little loft above Dad’s, and our beds faced a huge triangle window that formed the western wall of the inn. Some sullen, silent storm was brewing over the peaks that I watched as I lay there on the cool sheets. The night lit up from ridge to ridge, huge sheets of lightning ripping across the sky. There was no thunder, only the sonorous song of the wind and the river. The trees huddled near the hotel like ghostly white giants, looming in fierce defense against the darker woods pressing in behind them. Earlier Dad and I had sat out on the patio to watch the lightning. It had been an eerie hour, the whole world so calm and silent while the wild fires of the sky illuminated the black, lowering faces of the clouds that bore down upon the mountains and obscured the stars. We took our flashlights but saw no bears. Dad did catch a little grey mouse in his beam. I slept easy that night, electricity humming along my veins and keeping me close to the earth.

Flatlanders that we were, we had decided to arrive a day before our big explore to give ourselves time to acclimate to the elevation. So the next morning, we embarked on a training hike – the Gavilan Trail. We figured it would be just a warm-up, a nice, leisurely introduction to the mountains.

Well, that didn’t play out so well. That trail was much more brutal than we were prepared for. Dad showed me up with embarrassing predictability. Twenty-five years older than me, and he out-hiked me every time. And when I said we didn’t talk about personal stuff much, that excluded any trash-talking. There was plenty of mockery and head-shaking and general contempt. The day was worth all the humiliation, though.

We were the only people on the trail. The steep, rocky path turned our ankles and stole our breath, but ultimately led us into a series of magnificent high mountain meadows. Worlds apart unto themselves, the solitude and ridiculous wealth of color was intoxicating. Wildflowers reigned here in this quiet kingdom, blooming purple, blue, red, and yellow in self-indulgent excess. Butterflies glided and soared in drunken content. In the distance, we could see tomorrow’s destination, looking remote and unreachable.

We congratulated ourselves effusively on our return to the trailhead, neither of us wanting to voice aloud any consternation about our next attempt. Instead, we headed into town and perused the tourist traps in search of souvenirs for my kids. I bought Dad and me t-shirts that proudly proclaimed, “I Hiked Wheeler Peak!” Now we had no choice but to make it to the top. Not that Dad would ever turn back, anyway. Some people call it determination; some of us call it plain old obstinacy, but it gets you to the same place.

Six a.m. the next morning found us at the trailhead. I can still feel that cold, exhilarating breath of mountain dawn on my cheeks, tinged with the scent of the pine trees. We’d decided to take what we thought would be the hard way up and the easy way down. Our first stop was at Williams Lake. It was a little discouraging to get passed right away by an old man who cheerfully told us that he made this hike every day. Dad tried to reassure me by saying that since the guy lived out here, he was probably half mountain goat anyway, but I wasn’t convinced.

Williams Lake was a pristine pool, a graceful slice of sky lying in a meadow framed by flowers, but it was hard to focus on the beauty with the scree fields looming just beyond. This was the part of the hike that all the reviews I’d read online had warned me about. A nearly vertical slope to the summit seemed to laugh at our simple human audacity. Loose, jagged rocks that would gleefully pull your feet right out from under you and send you rolling down the few yards you’d just managed to climb piled in grey heaps that daunted and dared by turns.

It looked impossible, but the only way up an impossible slope is to take a step. And another. Just one more will always get you there.

We planted our poles, tested each step against the stones to be certain they would hold. I’m pretty sure that Dad would have made it to the top without a single stop without me, but every few steps, I had to catch my breath. I’m not sure if that was because the climb was so strenuous, or because I was hardly breathing for fear of dislodging myself and rattling down the hill. I tried to take a few photos down between my ankles to capture the ridiculous steepness of the slope, but my little dummy camera’s sense of perspective was no match for the angle. I just wound up scaring myself. So I set my eyes on the peak and took another step. And another.

It’s funny how when you are within a few yards of the peak, exhilaration swells in your throat and pushes you to hurry, hurry. As if having stood there for thousands of years, the mountain may shift and steal the summit from you. An understanding that the moment your foot lays flat on the mountaintop is a singular moment, inimitable by any other footstep. What you find in this moment is entirely new and different from what you will find in any other moment. What the mountain says to you is not what the mountain says to the hiker behind or before you.

Hurry, hurry. Listen. See.

There was no hurry left in my legs by this time: my knees were trembling and my calves burning, but the anxiety beat against my heart until I reached flat ground. Dad was waiting for me there, of course.

Sweet relief surged through me, a strange adrenaline that washed me clean of all the effort and ache that brought me here. I was suddenly convicted that I could have made that journey ten times over to be able to cast my eyes across these peaks. There were a couple of other hikers on the summit, but their presence could not touch the solitude that sang here. Each of us stood alone in this place. We had each fought our way up a separate path, each of saw a new earth laid out beneath us. I wanted a fresh peak to climb, another sky to touch. Blood arced along my veins, mortality mingled with the certainty of invincibility that fed my heart. This invincibility would not be borne out by the state of my feet and joints later that night.

We ate our lunch up there, beef jerky and granola bars. A pika, nearly invisible in the rocks and bright play of sunshine and shadow, darted up to me. He was gone again before Dad could see him, gone before I could pull my camera out of my pocket. A couple of mountain goats clambered over the scree below us, confident in their clattering hooves. The wind battered at us, offended that we dared to hold our place in this world that gave us no quarter.

We had started so early, and struggled so hard, but we didn’t even remain half an hour. We were eager for our next leg and anxious to avoid any of the lightning storms we had seen last night. We were taking the Bull-Of-The-Mountain trail back down. We’d read that though much longer, it was also a much more scenic trail than the scree route up. We quickly learned that Bull-Of-The-Mountain was not a poetic term. We saw no deer or elk, but plenty of cows roaming free through the pines and aspens. I kept an nervous eye peeled for the namesake bull, but the cattle only munched lazily and turned an occasional disinterested eye our way.

Switchback after switchback. Bucolic and divine, the trail wound through tree stands and grassy, flower-filled meadows. The unrelentingly downhill course left our knees and ankles screaming for relief. I missed the harsh, defiant opposition of the scree fields, the promise of a hard-fought conquest that would slip out of our hands the moment we gained it. Tromping through hours of grim retreat, however alluring the surroundings, offered no such enticement. Despairing of ever reaching the bottom, I began singing made-up lyrics to country songs at the top of my lungs.

“Down the trail again! We ain’t never gonna make it down the trail again!”

Birds scattered. I’m not exactly known for my fairytale princess voice.

I tried to get Dad to join in, but he resisted. So I was forced to make up every verse myself. I rose to the occasion.

It took us at least twice as long to get down as it had to get up, but we did make it in the end. When we had set out that morning, we had thought that the fact that one trail ended nowhere near where the other began was no great obstacle. Now the prospect of dragging our aching feet the additional mile or so to the car seemed terribly cruel. So Dad played hitchhiker and caught a ride back to the car with some other hikers. I sat unashamedly there at the trail’s end and waited for his return. The real agony came when we attempted to unfold ourselves out of the car to hobble into Tim’s Stray Dog Cantina for a much-earned dinner of burgers and fries.

That night, we dosed ourselves with ibuprofen and about an hour of just sitting in the hotel hot tub, bemoaning our aches and pains and recounting the tale of our glory with appropriate embellishments. We limped back out to the patio in the black mountain night, watching the rain-barren lightning storm fight its way across the sky. After a bit, the clouds cleared and the sky emerged, the dark outlines of the mountains and pines and aspens stretching out against the star-heavy folds. We lingered, reluctant to surrender our last night on the mountain to the mediocrity of sleep.

Driving back the next morning to the definitions we had to reassume, we chose to ignore the solemnity that dogged our course. We wore our t-shirts like trophies, argued with talk radio and rolled down the windows to taste the hot prairie air as we crossed the Oklahoma border. We watched tractors roll across fields and counted broken-down storefronts in tiny, dusty towns. We drove past the Oklahoma high point. We even got out of the car and gave it a hard look. It wasn’t worth our effort, great mountain climbers that we were, so we scrambled back into the air conditioning and drove on. Barely two years later, I would stand at the foot of another impossible ascent and take that first step. And another. And I would find myself and my children at the summit, free and alone in another new world that no-one could share or rob from us.

Cassondra Windwalker earned a B.A. in Letters from the University of Oklahoma.  She parlayed this highly marketable degree into careers in the fields of bookselling and law enforcement.  She recently resigned her post as deputy sheriff and moved to the plains of Colorado to focus full-time on her collection of rejection letters.  So far, her success has been unmatched by anything else she has attempted. In spite of this, she has managed to publish a few poems, short stories, and essays in literary journals and national magazines.

Contact Cassondra

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher