Monday, November 30, 2015

365 True Things: 246/Walking

I love to walk. I could walk all day, every day—from here to . . . wherever. Walk across the country? Well, that might get boring, in some parts of this great land. But something about the challenge is intriguing.

I'm not sure I'm up for doing a long-distance trail, like the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail, though. Not anymore. Not carrying my home on my back. If I were to do a long walk today, I'd want to go from motel to motel, or even better, B&B to B&B.

Landscape near Kinlochewe
We did that in Scotland a number of years ago, walking the West Highland Way. Carried just the clothes we needed. Or thought we needed: as it was, we packed for any inclement weather you could imagine—sleet, snow, hail, rain for sure—but instead got treated to a warm, dry spell: the single t-shirt each of us packed was well seasoned by the time we were done. And the one day of rain happened to be a day my hip was acting up and the only time on the trek when the train joined the path at two crucial points. So we skipped the rain and I was able to give my hip a rest. The next day, it was fine. Thank goodness, because we still had quite a distance to go.

I walked around Mont Blanc, from France into Italy into Switzerland and back to France. That was a glorious ramble.

Nomads' yurt, Ladakh
I walked across a bit of the Himalaya in Ladakh.

And fortunately, there are lots of great places right around here to walk, or hike, as well. I don't need to travel to farflung places.

I've been a bit lazy lately, though. These days I'll go for a short walk to give the dog a chance to do his business, but the longer hikes have become fewer and farther between.

Yesterday, however, I decided to change that, and I dusted off my "Jawbone UP band," a fitness tracker, my goal being to get back to walking 10,000 steps a day. Either that, or do some serious cycling or floor workouts. I can't afford to just let my body go, not at my age.

Yesterday, my UP band told me I'd walked 9,146 steps, after a good hike in our favorite park. I figure I must have walked a thousand steps just around the house in addition, before I put the band on, so there: 10,000 steps! Off to a good start.

Today, I put the band on and set off to the Frog Pond with the dog, three times around, then marched down the street to the local church—to create an Ingress field, but that's another story: the point here is, I walked a good distance this afternoon. Ten thousand steps for sure.

But when I got home and plugged my UP band in: zilch. The band was "seen," but it couldn't sync. I troubleshot, but again: no fix. I set about contacting customer service via their website, but without a serial number, which I no longer had access to after reinstalling the app, I couldn't complete all the necessary fields. So I scribbled down the 800 number, thinking I'd call tomorrow.

In the meantime, I decided to have a peek at the Jawbone "store." And saw that they're having a holiday sale: $50 off on a brand-new band with a heart rate monitor, which I reckon will be useful for cycling (and maybe for running again if my knee gets better . . . gonna see the doctor about that on Thursday, though I fear it may just be age at work and my knee is simply what it's going to be). So, yeah, I ordered a new one: indigo blue, by mistake (I had and liked black), but indigo—I like indigo. I can live with indigo.

And that saves me a phone call. Always happy to avoid the phone. At whatever price.

So, wish me luck as, finally, I embark on a physical fitness revamp. As soon as my new UP band arrives.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

365 True Things: 245/Fear

I'm starting work on an essay about fear—real and imagined, reasonable and not. Me, I'm not afraid of too much. Certainly not the usual things: snakes (ophidiophobia), spiders (arachnophobia), blood (hemophobia), tight places (claustrophobia), ghosts (phasmophobia).

Of course, I've never actually encountered a ghost; perhaps if I were to, I'd develop a healthy fear of them. Unless, of course, my ghost was friendly, a possibility I don't discount.

Curiously, many people are afraid of clowns (coulrophobia). Well, maybe not so curiously: there are some very scary-looking clowns out there.

Public speaking (glossophobia)? Okay, that gets my nerves going, but I'm in good company: one in four in a recent poll cited a fear of public speaking.

That fear among the general populace is followed closely by a fear of heights (acrophobia), but that just makes sense: fall from a great height, and you die. Though I recall only one time in my rock-climbing career when I was petrified by a move I had to make, stepping out over several thousand feet of nothing on Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite ☜ (despite the fact that I was securely attached to a rope and etriers). I eventually did it, after quite some coaxing. It wasn't like I had a choice . . .

Fear of flying (aviophobia), nah.

Fear of drowning (aquaphobia), maybe a little bit: I thoroughly respect the power of water. I do not undertake water sports lightly.

Fear of the dark (nycto-, achluo-, lygo-, scotophobia, take your pick): depending on where I am, yes, the dark can be scary, full of things that go bump in the night.

You'd think I'd have cynophobia—fear of dogs—given that I was bitten in the face by a collie when I was a child, but these days the only fear I have is for my dog when another dog is looking a tad too rambunctious, or large. My dog was bitten himself, by a German shepherd, and he does have cynophobia—or GSDophobia, at any rate.

The list of phobias is long, and many of them strike me as just plain weird: fear of the color yellow, blue, or green? fear of balloons? fear of buttons? fear of crosses? fear of love play?

Meanwhile, I do have one strong fear, these days, and that's of politicians. There is a term, politicophobia, but that's for an abnormal fear or dislike of politicians. I think we all have very good reason to be afraid of them in the current political climate.

But that's a subject for another day.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

365 True Things: 244/Winning

I never win anything. Well, once, back in 1982, in a walnut-paneled Hong Kong pub on a rainy night, I won a glass Carlsbad beer mug in a drawing, which we dutifully shlepped all through Japan for the next two and a half months. It eventually broke.

I'm sure I must have won other things over the years, in similar drawings or raffles, but nothing noteworthy. At least nothing that I remember as noteworthy. Just that Carlsbad beer mug. (And truth be told, it might have been David who actually had the winning ticket.)

David, in contrast, keeps winning things, and good things to boot: he won tickets to see the Rolling Stones in an NRDC give-away; he won a nice motorcycle jacket and a watch in silent auctions; he won ballroom dance lessons, which we still haven't used. In fact, I think I cleverly lost that piece of paper while we were packing for our move. Surely it's expired by now.

But today, my luck turned! I received notice from a Canadian wildlife photographer, Colleen Gara, that I am the lucky winner of a beautiful print of hers called Raven Love. All I did for the honor was share her FB page announcing the giveaway, plus I commented: "Gorgeous. Ravens are magnificent." I was one of 105 who shared, and 63 who commented, so yes, there was some competition. I didn't think I'd win because, you know, I never win anything. I just really admired the photo.

So I'm pleased as punch. Do you think this is a sign? Should I start buying scratchers?

Or should I just be glad that I will soon have a beautiful image to hang on the wall? I already know the spot: above my writing desk, where I can look up and see it often.

I do love ravens. They really are magnificent birds.

Friday, November 27, 2015

365 True Things: 243/Poetry

The other week I was fortunate enough to participate in a workshop with National Book Award–winning poet, essayist, and memoirist Mark Doty. He was generous and inspiring, and a wonderful listener. I think we all came away from working with him with a few new tools in our quiver.

I'd read his book in the Graywolf "Art of . . ." series, Art of Description: World into Word, and loved it. I've owned Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy since my MFA days, but still haven't read it. I've picked it up, read in it, but sitting down and giving it my slow attention remains something for the future. I don't believe I have the book that won the award, Fire to Fire, but it's on my list.

At the workshop, I picked up his newest book of poems, Deep Lane. He autographed it for me: For Anne, all my best for you and your beautifully evocative writing. Nice, huh? Like I said: generous.

The past few days, for my morning read before meditating, I've been dipping into it. It's gorgeous. Sometimes hard, but redeeming, sustaining. "Poems of grace and nobility," as the jacket blurb puts it.

Here's one I especially like. If Mark comes after me for infringing copyright, I'll refer you to the page in the book.

Oh, what the heck: it's 19. Go get the book. It's poetry at its best.

Deep Lane

June 23rd, evening of the first fireflies,
we're walking in the cemetery down the road,
and I look up from my distracted study of whatever,

an unfocused gaze somewhere a few feet in front of my shoes,

and see that Ned has run on ahead
with the champagne plume of his tail held especially high,
his head erect,

which is often a sign that he has something he believes he is not allowed to have,

and in the gathering twilight (what is it that is gathered,
who is doing the harvesting?) I can make out that the long horizontal
between his lovely jaws is one of the four stakes planted on the slope

to indicate where the backhoe will dig a new grave.

Of course my impulse is to run after him, to replace the marker,
out of respect for the rule that we won't desecrate the tombs,
or at least for those who knew the woman

whose name inks a placard in the rectangle claimed by the four poles

of vanishing—three poles now—and how it's within their recollection,
their gathering, she'll live. Evening of memory. Spark-lamps in the grass.
I stand and watch him go in his wild figure eights,

I say, You run, darling, you tear up that hill.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

365 True Things: 242/Order

The other day I decided to spend a little time every day putting some order and/or cleanliness in my life. It doesn't have to be much time —whatever is available between meditating and howling, was my decision. Which means I don't need to clean an entire closet or unpack all the boxes of books in the garage in one go. Whatever gets done in whatever time I have will be a step forward.

This decision was spurred in part by the disappearance of my housecleaner, Kathy. She's come every other week for the last year and a half or so and done a fine job of meeting my minimal expectations: clean floors and counters, scrubbed shower and toilets. But the last time I saw her was two months ago. She was heading to Texas to visit her boyfriend, and I expected her back in a couple of weeks (I'm not sure why: I don't think she ever actually said when, or even if, she was coming back).

But then she stayed away. I tried to call, but her phone was disconnected. 

Reluctant to give up hope that she would, eventually, return, I put very little effort into upkeep myself. One good vacuuming a couple of weeks ago, a half-hearted effort or two in the master bath.

But I've now accepted reality.

My belief about myself is that I don't like to clean. But in fact, as long as I allow time, I rather enjoy restoring order and shine. Today, for example, I tackled the kitchen counters, which had accumulated all sorts of stuff: plants, water bottles, cookbooks, small appliances, random pieces of mail and magazines, scattered bits of cat kibble (because until today, the cats ate on the counter, to keep their food safe from the dog, who would much rather eat cat food than his food, go figure). I tossed stuff; I trimmed and watered the plants; I stowed things in the garage or the pantry. Bit by bit, the counter was unearthed. And then it got a good scrubbing, until it gleamed! Same for the stove.

I know, this isn't a big deal. Most people are good about keeping their kitchens clean and orderly. And from now on—now that I won't be expecting the miracle of a housecleaner to do it for me—I'll be better too. I swear.

Meanwhile, it's Thanksgiving! As I type, a very small turkey is roasting, and I hear the clank of pans as David sorts out the vegetables. Soon I'll make the stuffing I mentioned yesterday.

This morning I woke up thinking I'd take pictures of all the things I'm thankful for, and I got off to a good start: my full refrigerator, a lovely oak tree we visited on a short hike (graced by a glass mushroom), a steaming cup of coffee. But of course, there's so much I can't take pictures of, like my friends scattered far and wide, my good health, and other abstractions that I'm most grateful for. But back to concrete—here are four things I'm especially grateful for, because they fill my life in all sorts of good ways (and yes, these shots are from today):

David commented, "So I'm just one of the animals,"
when he saw this. I told him, no, I put you in the
place of honor. Saving best for last.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

365 True Things: 241/Food

A little over a week ago, we embarked on the Whole30 Diet, which is akin to the paleo diet. In fact, today marks day 10 (of 30), which according to the "timeline" in the book is, together with day 11, one of the hardest days. "By this point the newness of the program has worn off. You've already experienced most of the unpleasant physical milestones, but you've yet to see any of the 'magic' the program promises. You're still struggling to establish a new routine (you are so tired of eggs), and while you've been trying really hard to have a good attitude, today you are incredibly aware of all the foods you're 'choosing not to eat right now.' "

Well, maybe for others, but I've experienced none of the difficulties outlined in the book. No hangover; no urge to Kill All Things; no lethargy (except for that day out hiking). On the contrary: I've been feeling great. I've been getting a pretty good night's sleep, getting up early, and getting a lot accomplished during the day. Today, for example, not only did I meditate (see yesterday's post), but I cleared a shelf in my office, I edited the bibliography of a book I just started work on, I started writing a short story, I got tomorrow's turkey brining (a Whole30 recipe), I hacked a few Ingress portals while walking the dog, and I made no-bean chili ☟, which was really yummy. (Ours was sans squash and avocado, though it does look good, doesn't it? Maybe next time.)

not my photo
I did, I confess, yearn a little bit for some grated cheddar cheese to throw on top, and some cornbread to go with. But the green salad added some variety, and now I'm pleasantly full.

Yes, I miss tortilla chips (a salty snack), ice cream, granola with yogurt and blueberries, and I wouldn't mind being able to meet a friend at R.G. Burger for a bacon–blue cheese burger (I suppose I could order a plain patty and some salad without dressing, but I think I'll just wait until this month is over). But I'm not yearning for food I can't have. Not even wine.

And I'm rather enjoying the food I can have. It's an unusual diet for me, and very tasty, all round. Lots of good veggies, and although I've never been much into fruit salads, I certainly am now. Kiwi fruit, pears, grapes, apples, bananas, blueberries, raspberries, oranges—what's not to like?

The hardest part of this diet is all the cooking! Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, conceivably, could involve a cooked meal.

We've figured out that leftovers are one basic way to survive this diet happily. Today for lunch, for example, I had leftover chicken sausage, leftover chard, and leftover fruit salad. Easy!

Tomorrow's meal will include mashed cauliflower (instead of potatoes, though potatoes are allowed—this just sounded healthier), green beans, and "creamed" spinach (the cream supplied by coconuts), as well as the brined turkey stuffed with apples and a separate paleo stuffing. Here's the recipe. It looks pretty good.

Paleo Sausage, Apple & Cranberry Stuffing

  • 1 lb Italian sausage
  • 1 cup onion, finely chopped
  • 1 cup celery, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, pressed or minced
  • 2 Tb olive oil
  • 1 Tb Italian seasoning
  • 2 apples, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine (optional)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350°F

1. Brown sausage in skillet with olive oil and garlic. Set aside.
2. Sauté chopped celergy and onion in 1–2 Tb olive oil until tender, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle parsley into mixture during final minute of cooking.
3. Toss apples, raisins, cranberries, sausage, onion and celery together. Sprinkle with Italian seasoning and salt and pepper to taste.
4. Add the chicken broth and wine and mix together.
5. Pour into a 9" x 12" baking dish.
6. Bake covered 30–35 minutes, then uncovered for 15 minutes.
7. Remove from over, toss, and serve hot.

My current enthusiasm aside, though, I'll say: ask me in another week. I may just be on very different schedule with this diet than everyone else. Maybe days 14 and 15 will be my days to wonder why the heck I was ever crazy enough to do this. But by then, I'll be halfway through, so . . . might as well carry on to the bitter end. No?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

365 True Things: 240/Schedule

Back in May, I wrote about Ben Franklin's schedule, which I adore for its simplicity. And then in August I explored Kurt Vonnegut's and Henry Miller's schedules, which I find more amusing than anything else. But also, yeah, instructive. Pretty much anyone who finds solutions to the nebulousness of time and the challenge of getting things done has something to teach me, I reckon.

So, I'm back thinking about schedules again today, as winter sets in, and hopefully lots of rainy days come along, and I stick more closely to my studio and try to get good solid work done.

I've been doing pretty well lately. For one thing, I've been getting up relatively early. Not Ben Franklin early, or even Kurt Vonnegut early, but Anne Canright early for sure. After feeding the critters and making coffee, I've succeeded in tackling my "15" right away, which, as I mentioned the other day, is one of two things I promise myself I must get done each day.

But here's what I realized today: if it's something I must do (and something that, in fact, is a pleasure to do), it will get done. I don't need to tackle it first thing. In fact, if I do my 15 later in the day, after a morning of creative work (or struggle, as the case may be), I might have more to say, or ruminate on, than if I do it first thing.

So that opens up a whole new first-thing-in-the-morning slot! And I've been trying to think what to slip in there.

For some reason, meditation, though I keep saying I'd like to do it regularly, eludes me. So . . . maybe I'll try that first thing.

And I have plenty of culling, straightening, unpacking, simplifying, and, alas, even cleaning that I need to do, generally speaking, so after meditation (and breakfast), I'll give that my attention—tackle my office and get it organized, or perhaps clean a room in the house, or unpack some boxes in the garage, or arrange a shelf in the gear room—for however long I have before my 9:30 howler. At which point, I will be ready to get a couple hours of work done. After the howler (which I am free to extend beyond the official hour and a half)—that's when I'll do my 15.

Then some exercise. Which also eludes me. So there may be a bit of experimentation with that first-thing slot. Because arguably, exercise is more important than meditation, if only by a hair.

And for the afternoon: work-work. Until no work-work is left in my life, which should be, oh, early February. At which point I'll need to address my schedule all over again, because my free time will virtually double.

But for now? I'm going to try this schedule on for size. Tweak it as needed. I will no doubt be reporting back in a month or two. If not sooner. My schedule, my time, my creative life: a work in progress.

Monday, November 23, 2015

365 True Things: 239/Roost

Back in 2008, I got myself a little place out in Carmel Valley: my home away from home, my bolt-hole, my refuge. It was officially called the Roost, so that's what I called it too. It's where the title of this blog comes from, because my intention was to write regularly from out there.

Well, that didn't happen, but I did keep that place until the end of 2012, a good four years. There were periods when I spent hardly any time there at all. There were periods when I used it more or less daily as my office. There were periods when I worked there during the day and then spent the night. And there was pretty much all of 2012, when I lived there with the dog and cat while we were rebuilding our house "in town."

David sometimes was invited to spend the night, but mostly the Roost was mine all mine.

Strictly speaking, it was a studio apartment built over a garage. Val lived in the "big house," sporadically together with her twenty-something son. We didn't interact much more than to say hi, though one time David and I did rescue her from a rattler that had crawled into her house via the ductwork.

It was super simple: one big room, a bathroom with shower, a kitchen with a sink and small fridge (I remedied the lack of a range with a two-burner hotplate, toaster oven, and microwave), and the loft, accessed via a crude redwood ladder—not even enough room to sit up in, much less stand. It was strictly for sleeping. The kitty quickly learned to climb the ladder, so she'd join me up there, where it was usually nice and warm. Or we'd sit snuggly on the futon couch, wrapped in a mohair blanket. It was a very cozy place. I loved it on rainy days.

When we designed the new house, I wanted to duplicate it (or, better, improve on it). Unfortunately—or in the end, fortunately—a loft like that one was strictly out of code, so my new "loft" became a lovely room, which now serves as our guest room. But I got my upstairs perch, my own permanent roost.

Here are some photos of the Roost. The very first one I took out there, it seems, was on November 6, 2008, when I watched The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I "presented" my new abode via Flickr a few days later, so I must have moved in right around then. My first "Roost Musing" was posted on April 12, 2009.

Priscilla closing scene
My street, Calle de los Ositos, and my gate into the property
The Roost is on the right; the fluffy white dog is Bronco
My workplace (and TV)
Walk out the front door and this was the view
Bathroom on the left, kitchen on the right,
bedroom straight up that ladder
View out the back windows
Kitchen-blind art
Arachnid pal
The neighbor's backyard; sometimes the turkeys would fly
onto my roof and stomp about
Front threshold
Front door (note sign)
The Roost was also my photography workshop (note printer)
Jolie-Kitty longing to go out (eventually I let her)
View from the side: one I discovered only a couple of years in
when I wasn't so much "exploring" as searching for the kitty who
had escaped—but I was glad to have this view, albeit belatedly
Helping me clean up (not)
Milo meets Bronco
The oak tree overlooking my front deck
Waiting for some fun, as usual
Fully inhabited

Sunday, November 22, 2015

365 True Things: 238/Taiwan

David and I had two honeymoons. The first one was in 1981, the traditional sort where we took off right after getting married: a driving trip through the western states, camping and backpacking. The next year, though, we did the long overseas one that, you know, a lot of people think one is supposed to do, if one has the cash. We were poor grad students, but David had saved up some money during the two years he worked full time as a computer programmer in San Diego. And my mom, bless her, helped us out by springing for the airfare and a (luxury) hotel in each of our first stops: Taipei, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. She believed in travel.

We spent a week each in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and two and a half months in Japan. It was a fabulous trip, honeymoon or no.

In Taiwan, our most memorable undertaking was a trek across Lion's Head Mountain (Shitoushan). Now that I look it up on the Web, it appears to be a relatively modest walk, but we must have been carrying all our stuff (we had travel backpacks), and I do remember that it was hot and humid as hell (literally). When we arrived by bus from Taipei in the nearby town where we had to catch another bus to the trailhead, a friendly Taiwanese pointed us to the correct conveyance (our ability to read Chinese being nonexistent, though once I saw the name, I did recognize the character for "mountain"). He also suggested that if we were planning on spending the night on the trail, we should shoot for the farthest temple: they had the best food.

I don't remember the walk, aside from the sweat. (That walk convinced me to cut my waist-length hair short for the first time since I was a kid, once we arrived in Tokyo.) I do remember the temple—possibly Quanhua Temple, which today, according to The Rough Guide, serves "superb vegetarian meals."

We arrived in late afternoon and were met by a small, lithe man dressed in loose black trousers and tunic. He spoke no English, we spoke no Chinese, but he was adept at miming: he showed us our ultra-simple room, the outhouse, and indicated that dinner was served at 6, breakfast at 6, and pointed in the direction of the dining hall. We paid, and he left us to our own devices. I recall that the views were spectacular and it was still hot, and that's about it.

I do remember dinner, though. It was a communal affair, with a couple, few big bowls of vegetables in the middle of the table and of course plenty of rice. Each place was decorated with a couple of Danish butter cookies and lychees: dessert. We all ate silently. The food was, as promised, delicious. As the monks got up to leave, singly or in pairs, they came to our table and each dropped a cookie and a lychee by our plates, with a nod and a smile.

After dinner, we went out and sat on a low wall overlooking the valley below, and we ate every last one of those lychees. Ambrosia! We probably polished off all the cookies as well, though that part, again, I don't remember. (Fickle memory.)

The next morning, deep tones from a gong or bell woke us at 4:30. After breakfast, we were on our way, off the mountain and back to Taipei.

Somewhere, I still have some slides from that trip (I posted one from Shenzhen, China—a day trip out of HK—in a previous post). I should find them and see if there are any of Lion's Head Mountain. If so, I'll replace the ones above, which I pirated from the Web. Maybe there'll even be one of all those lychees. They were that special.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

365 True Things: 237/Denali

I'm going to cop out again today and post an essay I wrote a while back about climbing Denali. It was an exquisite experience for me: my first (and last) big mountain; real mountaineering. (Sorry, it's long.)

Windy Corner

It is late May, and I am trudging up an endless snowfield. I count as I breathe through each step—one, pause . . . two, pause . . . three—up to two hundred. The words reverberate in my head, punctuated only by the slow, rasping crunch of my boots in the snow. I look up at our destination—Windy Corner, 13,300 feet high on Mt. McKinley—and back down at where we’ve come from, the crest of Motorcycle Hill, perched above the camp at 11,000. I see that, in fact, we have made progress, even though the snowfield ahead of me seems still to ascend forever, up, up, up, etching a sharp line against the impossibly blue sky. Recognizing that a count of two hundred is insufficient, I raise my mantra to five hundred and, wearily, trudge on.

I have never been happier.

7,000 feet, where we start and end
Two months ago, I could not have anticipated this state of bliss. Two months ago, even two weeks ago, I was an anxious wreck, beset by a thousand fears. My rock climbing partner of four years, Mike, a man with twenty-odd years of experience in high, inhospitable places, had been hit with a “Big Mac Attack” and had more or less begged me to give the mountain a try. Reluctantly, I agreed. His enthusiasm (and his beseeching) baited me, as did his description of huge vastnesses of pristine ice, snow, glacier, and rock that, he said, “make a six-seat Cessna flying through the gap toward base camp at 7,000 feet look and sound like a tiny, insignificant midge.”

I wanted to experience those vastnesses. But I was far from sure about the mountaineering aspect of things. 

11,000-foot camp
I am a climber, yes, but of moderate rock (dry, sunny; beer at the end of the day), not of mountains (minus 60 degrees potentially; weeks without a shower). The only other mountain I’d climbed was the Breithorn, next door to the Matterhorn—and to summit that, you take a ski lift to within a few hundred feet of the top; it’s an afternoon romp. McKinley—or Denali, as many prefer [now its official name]—is different. At 20,320 feet, it is the highest mountain in North America. It flows with vast rivers of ice, is faceted by several-thousand-foot rock precipices. Its weather can be brutally severe, and the effects of elevation are exacerbated by its high latitude. My mind, as I considered what I had gotten myself into, was besieged by yawning crevasses, thundering avalanches, debilitating cold, incapacitation by pulmonary or cerebral edema. And what about basic necessities, like eating or going to the bathroom? What about staying amused out in that snowy wasteland? Would Mike and I get along, being tied together—and I don’t mean that metaphorically—for three weeks straight?

Many use skis; we used snowshoes
To soothe my fears, I bought two books: Denali’s West Buttress, so I could memorize every crevasse, dropoff, and pee hole on the route—never mind that those things are constantly changing; and Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue, my “practical guide” to keeping life and limb intact. And then I did, indeed, practice rescue techniques. Granted, my “crevasse” was a heel-dragged line in the coarse desert sand of a friend’s driveway in Joshua Tree, California, where Mike and I were spending a springtime week rock climbing. But still: I could kinesthetically work on boot-ax belays, Z-system pulley-hauling, and ice-ax self-arrest—all means of extricating one’s partner from an unexpected crevasse. So what if my ax didn’t actually penetrate the decomposed quartz monzonite dust of the desert, and if the “body” I rescued was not hauled up, hand over hand, from a deep gap in the ice but dragged effortlessly across the plate-flat driveway? I was etching line diagrams and step-by-step instructions into my brain as I went through the motions; that was enough. At least, it was all I could do.

Windy Corner on a windless day
Mike, who had summited McKinley three times already, assured me that climbing the mountain was “basically snow-camping your way to the top.” I had snow-camped before—once—and survived, so his pronouncement eased my fears. I knew one key to snow-camping comfort was equipment, starting with layers of clothing: Capilene, Gore-Tex, Windstopper, fleece, down, wool. I had all that. What I didn’t have for the mountain was boots, so I plunked down a large sum on shocking-yellow plastic boots with space-age silver liners, and on purple Neoprene overboots for when the temperatures grew extreme. Finding these things in coastal California in April proved challenging at best, so I resorted to the Internet—ordering the boots in two sizes, just in case. (Fortunately, one pair fit perfectly.) Specialized tools such as crampons and my desert-scarred ice ax joined my growing pile of stuff, along with a minus-30 down sleeping bag and two sleeping pads to insulate me from the snow but a tent floor away.

I also busied myself with arrangements: booking flights, shuttles, and hotels, reserving our climbing permit with the National Park Service. In the end, there was little time for anxiety. I was too busy doing to think a whole lot.

Home sweet home
Most of my friends greeted my plan to climb McKinley with bemused horror. Several said they would pray for me; one strung up multicolored Tibetan prayer flags in her backyard. The best support I got was from my friend Tony, who gave me a big hug and said simply, “Stay in your body—and don’t forget to breathe.”

Then things started to happen: flying out of San Francisco and meeting Mike in the Salt Lake City airport; spending a day in Anchorage food shopping (could I really survive on a granola breakfast for three weeks?); shuttling up to Talkeetna, the jumping-off point for trips to the mountain. We spent an afternoon at the National Park office viewing videos warning us of all the bone-chilling dangers we might meet and instructing us in great detail on blue-bag human waste disposal. That evening, we lived it up with moose burgers and a bottle of Cabernet, followed the next morning by the largest blueberry pancakes I’d ever seen—our last civilized meals.

Overlooking Mt. Foraker
And at last, there we were, flying in a tiny red and white Cessna, piloted by a gruff, bespectacled man in his mid-fifties named Randy. He wore an insanely gay green and pink Hawaiian shirt—a sort of amulet, I figured, to ward off any chance of getting caught on that mountain overnight. Beneath us, immense rivers, mountains, and glaciers began to fill my field of view, until soon they seemed to be overtaking us. I looked at Mike, who, though a burly six-footer, was dwarfed by our duffels and skis and backpacks in the back of the noisy plane. I pointed at the sheer rock looming not far beyond the small window, made a “what the heck are we doing here?” gesture. His mouth opened wide in laughter: he was coming into his element, the mountains. I laughed too, as I felt myself being swept away. Out of mind . . . and into something far bigger than I had ever imagined.

Looking down from 17,000 feet
on the camp at 14,000
When I reach five hundred in my trudge-count, I suggest to Mike that we take a break. He stops and coils the rope as I catch up, then we plop down on our packs and he pulls out some weak Kool-Aid, a Zip-Loc bag of gorp, and a big bar of 85-percent dark Swiss chocolate.

Now, in my normal life, I detest Kool-Aid, I pick only the cashews and hazelnuts out of gorp, and chocolate comes in a weak fourth to rhubarb pie, rice pudding, and crème brulée. On the mountain, though, everything is different. The Kool-Aid—raspberry or orange, depending on which little Twisty-tied baggie Mike dumped at random into his Camel-Bak this morning—is ambrosial, the gorp like manna, and the chocolate is something I find I cannot live without.

Sitting here on my pack, leaning on my ski poles, crampon-clad feet kicked straight out before me, I am seized with a feeling of contentment edged by soul-satisfying weariness. I feel whole, utterly and totally complete. The words sound trite, insubstantial, but sometimes words can’t do justice to the feeling that there really is no more to life than this. The day—our eighth on the mountain—is splendid, fresh and brilliantly clear, not a hint of wind; you can see well over a hundred miles to the south, out over the Alaska Range as it devolves into foothills and then into flat plain, silver twists of braided river glinting and flashing in the distance.

I look up and realize that we’ve made progress. I can now see tiny people resting at Windy Corner—it looks like a thousand-count away, maybe less. I groan to my feet, heave on my backpack, and wait while Mike heads off, the rope unfurling behind him. As the line becomes taut, I follow: one, pause . . . two, pause . . . three.

*     *     *     *

That day ascending to Windy Corner, a good 6,000-plus feet below the summit of Mt. McKinley, was when it all came together for me on that mountain. On that day, more than any other of the twenty-odd days I spent on the mountain, I fully inhabited my body. I had had a week already to forget my focused, “real world” concerns and to grow used to the slow pace of travel: moving one day up the mountain to bury supplies six feet deep in the snow (a deterrence to marauding ravens) and mark the spot with a long bamboo wand flagged with our expedition name; returning to camp for the night; then the next day heading back up to the cache with the rest of our goods and constructing a new camp in the snow—the climb-high, sleep-low siege-style approach to big-mountain acclimatization. There were simple routines to which I became accustomed: cooking routines, washing routines, packing and unpacking routines, even entertaining-ourselves routines. (Like, if I lost too many times at gin rummy, there was the fling-the-cards-across-the-tent routine.) I gradually realized that my needs had shrunk to very, very few: hot food, sufficient drink, warm sleeping bag, a nearby privy, ample layers of clothing, dry socks.

On the climb to Windy Corner, though, even the routines and my few needs vanished from my mind. A sort of diffuseness overtook me, a larger-than-life sense of being-in-place. Tony’s advice was guiding me as I remained keenly aware of my trudging steps, the glorious clean air filling my lungs. I was fully in that moment, tasting, smelling, sensing in every way each nanosecond.  I was in my body, shlepping everything I needed to survive, and a good measure of communal supplies besides. The load was heavy, it was a burden, but it would keep us going. There was partnership. There was daring. There was adventure. It all added up to a sort of ecstasy.

Cooking dinner
The eleven days beyond Windy Corner—going up to camp at 14,000 feet, where we would acclimate in preparation for the summit push, then, eventually, coming back down to 7,000 feet to radio for our Cessna ride out—brought me various lessons as well. For one thing, I found I was wrong about the granola—and Mike refused to share his instant cinnamon-apple oatmeal, so I learned a thing or two about partnership also. Schlocky novels, my journal and a sharp pencil (I would risk no frozen ink), CDs through headphones, and endless games of cards in the warm yellow space of our snowbound tent were, I found, all I really needed to pass the time.

The 14,000-foot base camp did, however, open up our entertainment options. Here we found ourselves in society: a small community dignified by some sixty colorful nylon tents, hunkered down within walls of firm snow cut into blocks and stacked three or four high, and the climbing rangers’ two quonset-hut-style canvas tents. There were people to talk to, and I struck up a friendship of sorts with one of the very few women on the mountain, part of a trio from Summit County, Colorado, who happened to be camped next door at both 14,000 and 11,000 feet. “Well, look what the cat dragged in,” I heard as I stumbled, exhausted, into our empty tent spot and let gravity claim my pack. Funny how such a clichéd greeting can be so buoying.

During an extended snowstorm, an improvised boarding competition got going, lasting several days at sporadic intervals. Occasionally we would venture out to watch as the contestants bumped and bounced over the hand-built course on what looked like miniature snowboards sans bindings, or overgrown skateboards sans wheels, to the accompaniment of cheers, hoots, and much laughter. Even in horizontally blowing snow, silliness won out. It may be too strong to call such pastimes “needs,” but they sure did make life a lot more pleasant.

For the most part, though, beyond a quick hello or exchange of information after the daily weather report (six o’clock on channel 19), we all tended to stick to ourselves—trying to ignore, perhaps, that we weren’t really alone in the wilderness. At least once a day, Mike and I would go for a hike—roped up, of course. A favorite “stroll” of camp denizens takes one along a well-packed trail through two-foot-deep snow to a plunging dropoff aptly named “Edge of the World,” with Mounts Hunter and Foraker (the second highest peak in the Alaska Range, sixth highest in North America) forming a dazzling backdrop. We took in that view a couple of times. And one day, we ventured up to an overlook where we could see out and around a corner of the mountain into a whole new system of glaciers, valleys, and peaks.

In the medical tent
We ended up not making it to the top. The reasons were various: a mild case of food poisoning (rich dehydrated soup, incorrectly prepared) that confined Mike to the medical tent for a day, and took a few more days to recover fully from; a blizzard; ultimately, a plane to catch. We did get as high as 17,100 feet—twice, as practice forays following Mike’s incapacitation. On one glorious day we climbed with light packs onto the West Buttress of Denali, part of the “regular route” to the summit—and, according to my book, the most beautiful part of the entire climb. We were feeling strong and optimistic, and that evening over dinner talked excitedly about attempting the 6,000-foot summit push the next day. However, within hours bad weather blew in, and it stayed with us, dumping two feet of snow over the next three windy days. When the skies cleared, we watched with amusement as some fifty climbers kick-stepped their way up to the fixed ropes on the headwall, eager to shake the torpor of being tentbound out of their limbs. Then we turned and snowshoed in the opposite direction: off the mountain.

I wasn’t disappointed to reach “only” 17,100 feet. We did so on perfect days: cloudless cobalt-blue skies, blazing white snow, and exquisite views out and over and beyond. And the journey overall proved—dare I say—enjoyable. Splendid, even. Crevasses were easily surmountable, dropoffs breathtakingly beautiful. Ice fall occurred at a safe remove, awesomely majestic. And there was not a single avalanche. We felt resilient and able, ready to take on any mountain, any challenge. Putting one foot before the other, not letting thoughts take over but relying on the simple strength, balance, and coordination of body: I first experienced that aching, powerful pleasure on the long slog up to Windy Corner, and I cherished being able to experience it again higher up. To be physically so present, ungripped by my ever-wheeling mind, was a blessing. Windy Corner taught me what could be, if I just let myself relax into the moment and breathe deeply.

*     *     *     *

I’ve been back home from the mountain several months now. I look at pictures and have that familiar post-vacation sense of viewing episodes from a dream: Mike drying his freshly washed hair on a bright, sunny day, grinning wide ➚ ; the two of us sitting at the Edge of the World, Foraker and Hunter behind us; Mike cooking ramen on his wind-blocked MSR stove; the view from Windy Corner out over the great land of Alaska. Photographs never add up to anything approaching a whole, but they’re nice mementos.

And then I have the memories of what it felt like to be in that place—which are also like a dream, but it is a dream that will always reside in my body, a dream that has, ever so slightly, changed the way I am in the world.

The prayer flags are still up in my friend’s yard, though they’re faded and have been joined by a new set, this one for the health of a baby on the way, my friend’s youngest daughter’s first child. Oh, the challenges we take on, each of us. Life is full of passages, prayers, and promises. I’ve had my share, and Denali was all three.