It’s been a long couple of weeks. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m feeling a bit shell shocked. Death has been making his rounds lately, and his greed for the best and the brightest has left many of us feeling bewildered and lost.
In need of guidance, and in search of joy, a few of us took to the highlands on Sunday to reconnect with the mountains, the streams, the forests, cliffs, and wildflowers of the Middle Fork of the Cimarron. I’ve led Outward Bound courses up there in the past, I’ve done a solo backpacking mission there that changed my life. It’s only since then, when I finally read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, that I realized Rivendell, the mythic stronghold of the elves, was right here in our own backyard. I don’t exaggerate.
Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn peaks form the highest points in the vicinity, though the lesser summits – Matterhorn, Heisshorn, Coxcomb, and the rest – are no less worthy goals, and several rate more difficult technically. The range of mountains drained by the three forks of the Cimarron are marked by wide open parks of wildflowers and native grasses, and healthy stands of conifer forest. Natural medicines are abundant, the most powerful of which aren’t found in many other places in the world.
The mountains spread their arms wide to welcome many visitors, and waterfalls cascade from towering cliffs that reach to touch the sky. The place is federally designated wilderness, defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964 as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” It is a last refuge for those seeking peace and quiet from the madding crowds, a last bastion of the wild America that the first Europeans found when they arrived on these shores and to which they subsequently laid waste with their gunpowder and their plowshares.
Imagine our horror when we set foot upon the trail and our first steps landed squarely in big wet piles of cow manure. In the past the trail has wound through boggy mountain meadows before reaching the drier slopes up high, where the arnica grew thick beneath Doug fir and subalpine spruce. That was not the case on Sunday. The entire place was overrun with cows, and with fresh sign of them. Everywhere. We waded through it. Every time the dogs ran by they splashed us with it. It was on my backpack and getting in my hair. The smell was nauseating. The flowers, the ones that had managed to bloom, were trammeled. I have no idea how far up the trail we got. It felt like battle.
Like I said, this was not my first time up the Middle Fork. Same with my hiking partners. We’d never seen it like that before; none of us could believe what we were seeing. The San Juans are known to Outward Bounders as the sheep-and-jeep range. I’ve seen sign of both and cattle as well, and I’ve heard and seen horror stories of the devastation laid in their wake, but nothing like the destruction that I saw Sunday. It looked like the cows were literally tearing the forest down.
As soon as we got to a relatively clean spot where the trail met the river and the forest wasn’t completely wet with cow manure, I took a moment to clean off in the sand next to the main stream (I couldn’t bring myself to wash in the little stream of water flowing down the valley) and to sit for a minute and take a few deep breaths of clean air. When I caught up to my friends it was with a sigh of relief. Until we looked down at the dog and saw the blood.
In her rampage through the forest, my friend’s dog took a large stick to the abdomen. Large. Abdomen. She probably didn’t even notice it. We sure did. It was a gaper. And there was a lot of blood. There wasn’t even a second thought. We turned around immediately, back into the battle zone.
Leave it to a mortally-wounded dog to chase cows. It was all we could do to keep our wits about us, and to keep a positive outlook. Poor Donyele, it was her 46th birthday. We did get the dog to safety in time, and she’s recovering nicely at home, lampshade and all.
On the way down, the conversation turned to The Lord of the Rings and the fact that the picture that Tolkien drew for us is not even a metaphor. It’s happening right before our very eyes. Middle Earth is being laid to waste by the darkness of Mordor. The throngs are at our doorstep. The only problem: there is no evil enemy to rally against. The enemy is us. Too many people. Too many beefeaters. Too many ATVers, campers, Front-Range dwellers, families, children, women, dads, hikers, wilderness advocates, all reaching farther and farther into the last refuges of pristine wilderness, looking for succor. We’ve laid waste to everything else. The low country is becoming a hot, dry, stormy place overrun with too many people. The mountain wilderness isn’t far behind. We can’t let it happen here too. Not on our watch.
Also on my mind this whole time was the fact that I had to go home and write an obituary for Brian Peters, a man who, in the words of one friend, stood simply for justice. How can I do right by him, and at the same time hold in mind the death of another pillar of the community, George Gardner who, similarly, embodied something that resembled the grace of God itself.
We’re all wondering the same thing. Why the best and the brightest, two of them in one week?
We know that things are coming to a head environmentally, politically, karmically. We know that there will be many deaths to come. A young Peruvian shaman named Herbert counseled me one time, as I wept for the impending death of my beloved grandmother, that we North Americans simply need to learn to accept death as part of the natural cycle. The Buddhists also teach us that we should spend life preparing for death, that we must learn not to fear it but to embrace it. Death is not the end of life but a transformation of energy, and right now the whole world, and all of us on it, are headed for a maelstrom of transformation. Time to let go and learn to spin.
On one hand I feel that George and Brian, and the other guiding lights who have gone before them, are, through death, calling even greater attention to the ideals they stood for in life. But even more accurately, the lessons that they have taught us are like the dried seeds of a flower that are broadcast by the very sickle-blow that brings the flower down. The energy that was coalesced into each of them has been released for the rest of us to take home, and to hold as dear reminders of what we are being called on to become in this time of transformation, with all its dangers and darkness and opportunities for brilliance.
Shine on, everyone.