Copyright 2016 by Cassondra Windwalker
Honorable Mention--2016 Travel Nonfiction
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
that long second shattered, the pieces fell into me, found a place to
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
hurry. Listen. See.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the trail again! We ain’t never gonna make it down the trail
scattered. I’m not exactly known for my fairytale princess
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.
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.
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.
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.
Windwalker earned a B.A. in Letters from the University of Oklahoma.
She parlayed this highly marketable degree into careers in
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
attempted. In spite of this, she has managed to publish a few poems,
short stories, and essays in literary journals and national
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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