© Copyright 2018 by Doug Sherr
Honorable Mention--2018 Biographical Nonfiction
It was the third, maybe the forth night up on the hill—ten thousand four hundred-feet up the backside of Ajax, called Aspen Mountain on maps. I had finished my late evening brandy and Swiss Miss, doused the fire, and crawled into the pup tent and the warm nest of my sleeping bag. Snug in the tent, I felt that smugness of right place—right time. Just as sleep was easing up the sound of a dozen banshees screaming exploded around the tent. The wailing, screaming seemed to be inside my skull. It went on and on—the gates of hell had opened. I think I levitated. Actually, it was coyotes. I yelled out. Off they went down the hill yipping all the way. I’m not being anthropomorphic, they were laughing. Welcome to the neighborhood.
The pup tent was on the patented Bolivia mining claim that I had acquired in a trade for two weeks of carpentry. I had wanted some serious quiet in my life so high up on a mountain seemed like the proper place for some serenity, coyotes excepted. Other than the occasional camping/fishing trip I was basically a city boy, however I had spent many of my childhood summers on my Grandfather’s farm. I was always called the “city kid.” My city knowledge hadn’t prepared me for emptying honey pots in the outhouse, clearing and setting rat traps, and hauling buckets of water to the house from the hand pump out by the pasture. I had no idea that a milk cow could be dangerous. I also got to kill and pluck chickens. That wonderful fried chicken dinner happened because I killed a chicken. Learning that there is an ultimate cost in the food chain was a good lesson for a child.
The farm was a quarter section, eighty acres, divided into a pasture and three fields that were rotated between corn, alfalfa, soybeans, and allowed to lie fallow. Everyone called my Grandfather, “Pa.” Sometimes in a moment between chores he would walk out into the pasture, pick a “chewing straw,” stick his thumbs into his belt and stare at the land in some kind of communion. Pa would pick up a bit of soil and taste it and know what was needed to replenish it for next season’s crop, but his reverence for the land went beyond just dirt as a source of food. I didn’t understand his feelings, but if Pa thought the land was important, then it was.
My newly acquired land amounted to just under six-acres instead of the normal ten for a claim, but the three hundred-foot deep shaft and the large tailing pile said that this was a productive claim. Unlike most of the old mines in the territory, the 30-foot high wooden head-frame that once held the hoisting gear was still standing over the mineshaft, although it leaned at an angle that warned gravity would soon win the battle. I rigged some lines to trees and using block and tackle managed to lower the structure without any great drama. Working on your own projects is more fun than just working for money.
In one corner of the main tailing pile a low stack of rocks defined the foundation of a cabin that had once been a miner’s home. I set up a bench in the middle of the old cabin site and that’s where I drank morning coffee and after-work beer, planning the new cabin. Slowly the realization came that this really was my land. My parents had never owned a place. Dad probably wanted to keep his options open if he was offered a good music gig in another town. I didn’t want to be tied down any more than my father, but I was beginning to feel a sense of belonging to a place that I had never felt before.
The claim was heavily timbered with aspen and Englemann spruce except for the main tailing pile and a smaller pile nearby. Several miner’s footpaths and one road crossed the claim and after the mine site was livable I went exploring the territory with all the enthusiasm of a kid on summer vacation. Down a road that curved through the trees was a six to seven-acre meadow, roughly oval, with no trees growing in it. The grass was about four inches high. To the south was a line of 13,000-and 14,000-foot snow mantled peaks. I dropped down in the grass and just looked. It was the kind of view that refreshes you. After the daily chores were finished, I came back to watch the sunset colors flood the peaks.
When I went down to town for provisions some research revealed that the meadow was the Enough claim owned by the Little Annie Ski Corporation, which was trying to get a permit to build a ski area. I also learned that the local name for the place was South Meadow. Because there was a spring nearby and it was one of the few level places on the backside of the mountain it had been a cattle-grazing pasture for years. Those must have been happy cows. The ski area developer said I could settle on the meadow because the permitting process for the ski area would take several more years and he needed an easement across my land. When I walked the site to find the best place to set up a living space it became clear that South Meadow deserved something more appropriate than a pup tent.
My friend, Dixie Reinhardt, was a Native American who manufactured Cheyenne pattern tipis. I bought a cover and liner from him and felled a set of poles stripping off the bark with a drawknife; an almost meditative exercise as the thin strips came curling off the pole. The tipi was 20-feet in diameter and 20-feet to the top of the cone. I bought Reginald and Gladys Laubin’s book, The Tipi and went to work. Most tipis are based upon a tripod. Once the tripod is up, fifteen or more poles are laid in evenly around the tripod to form the framework. The cover is attached to the last pole that is put up and then the canvas is walked around and held together in the front by wooden dowels about a foot long. Putting up a tipi is not terribly hard, but it requires preparation and a bit of patience. I managed to erect the tipi alone using some ingenuity and the necessary luck. It took two days of moving and arranging to transfer to the meadow.
The surrounding woods had many standing and fallen dead trees for firewood and some scrounging provided enough rocks for a fire-pit in front of the tipi. A few yards down the mineshaft on the Bolivia claim the summer temperature held at about 45-degrees Fahrenheit. A metal basket lowered down the shaft kept meat and milk almost as long as if it were a real refrigerator. Water came from another spring that popped up out of the ground a quarter of a mile from the site. Two five-gallon jugs would last about four days. A sheep-herders stove with the pipe sticking out the smoke flap would keep me warm while a two-burner Coleman stove, several coolers for dry and fresh food, and two buckets for cleanup handled all the meal-building chores. An hour’s work each day was all that was needed to maintain domestic bliss.
Living in a tipi is not just living in a different kind of dwelling; it is a philosophical shift in life. When you awake, the shape of the poles and cover swoops you up like the ceiling of a great cathedral. You feel that your spirit can fly out of the smoke hole and mingle with the warm rising air and all the energies of life. On a clear day, the ‘‘V” shape of the smoke opening is a cerulean accent that says a fine day is waiting for you. On a rainy day, you jump outside and fold the smoke flaps closed. Snug inside, you listen to the many-fingered drumming on the cover, sip tea and feed little sticks into the stove. It’s the perfect time to read that book you’ve been too busy to open. One morning during my ritual of sipping coffee and looking at the peaks spread across the southern horizon I held up my cup and said “Thank You.” There was no particular direction to my declaration; I just could not live there, like that, without giving thanks.
Years earlier, a local mountain man had brought an iron claw-footed bathtub up the hill. I moved it next to the spring and rammed a plastic pipe into the outflow to fill the tub. A black plastic cover let the sun warm the water and at the end of the day, a small fire under the tub brought the temperature up to one hundred and six degrees. A wooden grate covering the tub bottom kept my butt from burning. Next to the tub a little cleft in a rock provided a niche in the spring for a bottle of wine. After dinner, a hot tub and a sip of cool wine under heaven’s light show was a decent end to any day.
A glass or two of wine is an introduction to introspection. I tried to count the stars, but there were too many. The trees and rocks and individual blades of grass were too much to count. The Milky Way stretched across the sky like a current in the ocean. I thought about the atoms that made up my body; too small for me to comprehend. The size of the Milky Way was too large to grasp, but we’re all here, now. Certainly, we all belonged. Each in our place, we were all home. Really, in the cosmic context everything is small and everything belongs. We humans all belonged here as much as a galaxy. We were all home—chardonnay revelations in a hot tub. Ah, wilderness.
It didn’t rain much that summer so I often slept outside. After the evening hot tub, I would build a small fire in the outside fire-pit and bed-down on a mound of hay that was as comfortable as any mattress advertised on late-night TV. One evening, I was watching the embers last flickers before I lay down and I felt the slightest brush against the hairs at the crown of my head. The faintest black-on-black silhouette of an owl swooped up and landed in a great Englemann spruce at the edge of the meadow. I could see a fragment of its outline against the stars. It didn’t hoot and soon it took off making no sound. A hawk or eagle of that size would make a fair amount of noise as its wings moved the air.
The owl would visit every few days. When I was an infant, my mother couldn’t have touched my hair more gently than that owl; it was like a breath. I was now paying attention to every noise and I got well acquainted with the night sounds of the mountain. While I never heard the owl, my senses were being tuned. I began to “feel” when the bird was about to arrive. I would sit still and several seconds later the bird would glide by. The owl and I had a connection that I didn’t understand, but I felt it was a signal that it was OK for me to be on the meadow.
When you first inhabit a place you impose your own sensibilities on it, but eventually the place begins to inhabit you. As the weeks went by I could feel the mountain changing me. I went to town less often, spending my time alone, which is such a simple way of letting the inside bits work their way out. A mountain is like an infinitely patient friend who listens to you without commenting and lets you know in subtle ways that you’re on the right track. It also demands that you pay attention.
One day I was hopping from boulder to boulder and the thought came that if I got hurt out here I would be in big trouble. If I couldn’t crawl for help, someone might eventually find the bones and wonder who I had been. At that moment, I slipped and fell striking my kneecap directly on a boulder. Once the pain diminished and I realized that no permanent damage had been done I had a little laugh at my vulnerability and the cheap lesson just learned: if you’re not in tune with the moment, shame on you. To be safe you don’t need to concentrate on what you’re doing, you just need to not interfere with your body’s natural ability to not do something stupid.
After several months on the hill I finally got to talk to the animals, but I don’t think Dr. Seuss would have approved. Chicken and other meats were going missing from the basket hung in the mineshaft. Since no one came around to visit and very few people even knew of the meadow’s existence, I didn’t think I had a thief on two legs. One day I heard a grunting sound from the shaft. I peaked over the edge. A marten was hanging on to the wooden sides of the shaft with three legs and reaching out to grab the basket. I yelled, ”Hey!” It looked up and growled/grunted back. It wasn’t intimidated. Martens are in the weasel family, but their personality is more like a badger: Not friendly. I dropped down on all fours and growled back as menacingly as I could. The martin looked at me for a moment and growled louder. The control of that side of the mountain was at stake.
I growled with conviction and the martin responded. The volume and the nastiness of the growls increased. We kept this up for a couple of minutes. Finally, I let out a bellow that would have sent Godzilla back into the sea. The marten cocked his head and let go of the basket. I left the edge of the shaft and a few moments later the marten crawled out and waddled away, never looking back. From then on my chicken was safe. We had developed the mutual tolerance that is a requirement for a peaceful neighborhood.
As the sun drifted south the aspen leaves yellowed to gold, shivering at the slightest movement of wind. The Mountain Ute tribe said that when the Great Spirit finished crafting the world and everything in it, he called each of his creations to bow before their maker. All the animals, plants, and even the mighty mountains complied, but the aspen was so vain because of its delicate beauty that it refused. The Great Spirit set it quaking to remind it that humility before Creation is mandatory. The shimmering gold leaves set against the dark green of spruce and fir branches etched onto the blue of an autumn sky make it easy to be humble before creation and thankful that you’ve been given the chance to see it.
As the days cooled, I gathered about six-cords of wood and prepared the site for winter. The plains tribes insulated their tipis by stuffing dry grasses between the liner and the tipi cover. The modern solution is fiberglass insulation stuffed into large plastic leaf bags to contain the glass dust. A heat shield protected the cover where the stovepipe passed through the closed smoke flaps. Two used snowmobiles, several sets of skis and snowshoes stashed in various places around the hill took care of transportation. As the snow piled up, I shoveled a clear ring around the tipi because the weight of snow distorts the shape and eventually the moisture would rot the canvas cover. The snow depth that year amounted to six-feet, which actually helped by sheltering the tipi from the wind. With each storm, I would cut another step up to snow level. Even with a decent blizzard outside, the stove kept the interior shirtsleeve warm.
Up there the winter quiet is profound. Even the smallest towns create noise. The summer animals and insects make a constant, if quiet hum. In a high alpine winter when there is no wind there is no sound. Silence is as beautiful as a symphony. A symphony leads you to a place that the composer has envisioned. Silence leads you to your own place. The silence of the winter mountain is a meditation without rituals. The days flow smoothly and you become as quiet as the mountain. One morning, I stepped out of the tipi and the view stopped me. It probably wasn’t any more spectacular than any other morning, but at that moment I GOT IT! I started laughing because in that moment I finally understood Lao Tzu, that crafty old mystic: It’s the mountains, dummy. Mountains teach you reverence—a pure reverence that is not directed at anyone/anything, but a reverence for all things. The path to knowledge, gnosis, is an inward journey that is taken alone. Sit on a mountain, keep your mouth shut and listen, and the Universe might let you peak inside a little.
That spring instead of heading to someplace warm with a beach and tropical drinks, I stayed up on the hill. When the snow melted and green reclaimed the land I threw a party for my friends. I had them park at the bottom of the road up to the meadow. We all walked in and laughed and talked like any group of partiers. When we made the last curve in the road and South Meadow was revealed, everyone stopped talking and just stared at the mountains. Even this group of people who had traveled the world to ski wherever it was steep and deep was impressed. One girl said, “This is a holy place.” And it is.
The summer went along much like the first one except that now I was really at home and not just a visitor. I certainly wasn’t a real mountain man, but I was comfortable and I understood the basics of simple living. I didn’t hunt for meat because I didn’t have to. If the food chain broke down I would be just fine; like the Utes, I would thank the animal that I had bagged and butchered for keeping me alive.
Some of my childhood books described the West and the tribes that roamed so easily across the vastness. What impressed me the most was counting coup. It was an act of bravery and skill that didn’t end in the warrior committing violence. Killing another man was easy. Running towards a group of enemy warriors, unarmed, intending to touch one of them with a stick, while they did their best to kill you with arrows and spears was to my mind the ultimate challenge. If you made it and turned to run away they would honor you and not shoot you in the back. Try that in modern warfare.
Apparently, young hunters had to pass a similar test by stalking a deer and easing close enough to swat its nose with a twig. I decided to see if I could do that. The woods around the tipi were filled with deer that, it turns out, have a strange mind that is alert to motion but doesn’t correlate all their other sense information very well. It is possible to ease very slowly up to a deer by taking small, quiet steps. When the deer detects motion it looks up and stares at you. If you don’t move it usually forgets why it looked up and goes back to feeding. Another step gets you a bit closer. This is a wonderfully slow process. If you step on a downed branch and it cracks, the deer is gone. You have to watch each step and the deer; if you’re still moving when it looks up, it’s gone. You should be down wind. Your breathing must be slow and deep so you don’t run out of oxygen. The twig should be out in front so you don’t have to move it at the last step. I learned each lesson by spooking a deer.
Over the weeks my moves became smoother and it was easy to tell when the deer would look up. The fawns, however, were much more alert than mom. No matter how skilled I thought I had become, the fawns wouldn’t fall for it. I had thought that deer were silent creatures, but fawns in trouble squall like unhappy human babies. Finally, after two months of deer stalking I eased up on a doe and tapped her on the nose with a twig. She jumped vertically, rotated in the air and rapidly left for safer parts. Sometimes it is the useless things that make you feel the happiest.
The mountain was good to me for another year and then I felt that I had learned whatever I had to learn and it was time to move on to the next adventure. The mountain taught me that I could eat old bacon, if I scraped off the fuzz, and that chicken that smelled a little punky would be fine if well cooked with lots of curry powder and hot sauce. The mountain also taught me to: listen—be respectful—hear the things that aren’t quite audible—and to trust that I really did belong on this amazing planet. I finally understood Pa’s communion—the land really is everything. Each morning since living on South Meadow I raise my coffee cup and say, ”Thank you.”