Coming back from a long ride, I shouldered into the wind, crouched down in the handlebar drops, eyes and nose streaming, zipped up, head turned. That’s when I glimpsed a pile of feathers over in the ditch. I had to stop, turn around to see what it was.
A beautiful Great Horned Owl was wrapped in her own wings, intact, still, big yellow eyes closed forever. I guessed it had been swept up in the powerful draft of a fast truck not long before. All around, very quiet now. Wind tossing the trees but I didn’t feel it. I told her I was sorry. She must have been out hunting, flying low on silent feathers. What should I do, I wondered. I couldn’t just leave her there. I closed my eyes. What would I want? What a gift to share with kids.
So I unzipped my jacket, lifted her carefully, leaned over, laid her on my back, and zipped the jacket back up. I thought she’d be light, but she was really big, maybe five pounds. Slowly I rode down the shoulder toward home, crying for all of us. But I was warm, her feathers a thick downy layer. I felt like I was flying, like she was carrying me.
I laid her on a blanket on the cool garage floor. Her wingspan was at least four and a half feet. My grandchildren came over but wouldn’t go close, instinctively sensing the powerful difference that death is from life, standing so close together.
I told them that I was going to take the owl out in the foothills to a cottonwood I knew, one by a creek on a curve I often passed. Did they want to come, too? No. That was a definite no. But they helped carry her out to the car in the blanket. I would find a cavity in the old tree, just her size, and lay her to rest.
Great Horned Owl Duet
Got the skins ready to go on the skis. Boots, poles, extra clothes, food, the 10 essentials, ibuprofen, food, headlamp, snacks, back issues of The New Yorker, backpack, and my old sleeping bag. That’s the problem. It’s warm but bulky. How will I ever get it and everything else I absolutely need into the pack? I feel my heart racing. I’m going out to spend three winter nights in a 10th Mt. Division hut at 10,360’ with seven people I don’t know. How will I carry everything I need.
Another trip to REI. Dave, there, knows me by now. There is the perfect sleeping bag, light as its feathers, good to 35°. I’ve heard that the woodstove keeps the hut warm all night. But any sleeping bag takes up space. I explain the conundrum, and Dave does not roll his eyes. He leads me over to the compression sacks. There’s even a waterproof one so I can strap the bag outside on top. Perfect. Does it come in red? Dave rolls his eyes.
I go home and practice. With the help of a 5-year-old can-do-all-lego-kits consultant who untangles the straps and hooks it up right, wow, it sure works.
Under the wondrous Colorado blue sky, skinning up and down with a group of experienced (more than me) mountain hut-trippers, 16” of new snow on a deep base, slip-sliding along in the high altitude, I wonder. What was the big deal about “compression”? Why was I worried anyway? Everything’s in. Compressing my new sleeping bag so it didn’t take up too much space? Not exactly a piece of cake, but close. I think about how good it’ll feel to climb in later when we’re all there, the woodstove’s cranking, and the loft is warm.
I notice clouds roaring in over the Continental Divide. I’m chilly. Feel anxiety grinding in my guts. Where’s the hut? It’s taking us a long time to get to there. Carol pulls out her topo’ map. Greg huddles with her. OK, we stay left, close to the trees. Two miles to go. I can do that. Gorp, water, a little piece of chocolate, tighten my boots. But what if the wood’s wet when we get there? What if we don’t know the combination lock code to get in? I don’t.
Now the group is anxious and everyone moves faster. It’s snowing for real. I’m in the back, behind. Narrow kicker skins don’t traction as well on uneven terrain. My heart rate is doing zone 4 intervals. Mountain lion tracks. Increasing snow and gusts, must be 50 mph. No fooling around. This is more like Philip Glass music, not John Williams.
We huddle. “Have you seen a blaze?” “Do you see one? I don’t.” “Should we head down to the creek? We could follow it up the draw. The hut’s at the top.” “Have to take care we don’t ‘cliff out’.” “Check the map.”
Wind-layer pants aren’t extra now. I dig out my hat with the earflaps. I do a mental check: bivvy bag, fire starter, down layer, shovel, bars and gorp, compass. Remind myself: I have family. I have friends at home. We head north-westerly. We must be close. Oh, please! A snowshoe hare darts into a tree well. Getting dark. My car’s back at the trailhead. Full tank of gas. OK. Snow tires. OK. Keys in left, zippered hipbelt pocket. Full thermos of tea. Check my cellphone. No bars. OK. OK. ok…ok.
I remember my ski coach, Siga: “You’ve got the spring! Long moments of good weight shift. Getting this down is a journey of finesse, and it can take you a lifetime. Put THAT down your shirt.” I’m trying. We take turns breaking trail in the heavy snow. We see the hut. I’m drenched in sweat. We’ve all got jobs. Besides shoveling off the porch and carrying 24 buckets of snow in to melt, I’m going to shake out that sleeping bag. All this compressed into five hours.
For someone who lives in Boulder, CO at 5430’, skiing into the 12,000’ mountains with a small group of unfamiliar people was a challenge. My equipment wasn’t as hardcore as theirs; they live at 7907’ where we started; they know these mountains like the backs of their hands; and they share stories of adventures and heroes and heroines I’ve never heard of. Almost right away I was wet and exhausted from herring-boning when they were walking up hills on full-on ski skins compared to my shorter, narrower ones.
What’s wrong with me? I’m usually a leader. I’m usually strong and confident. Instead, I’m holding back, totally disabled on the icy dipsy-doodles in the dark woods and the terrain plunging out of sight. Mountains over 14,000’ rise on both sides of the ridge. Snowfields hang at angles I cannot fathom. But the sky is blue. What is wrong with me? I am tight, anxious, scared, and alone. They’re sorry I came. They don’t want to be around me. They think I shouldn’t be on this trip. I don’t belong. They don’t like me.
Oh my gosh! Hello, Shadow!
Carl Jung wrote:
By shadow I mean the ‘negative’ side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide…The shadow is one example of an ‘unconscious personality’ which possesses a certain measure of autonomy. The shadow is often projected on to others (Collected Works 7, par. 103n).
I don’t want to know or acknowledge that I can be weak, that I’m aging, not-as-well-equipped, not as strong and confident as the other skiers. What I’m feeling is not about “them”. This is about me.
So I re-group. Eat some gorp I mixed back at home, drink the electrolyte mix I made, the one that has sustained me on many really long bike rides. I think. I see what’s going on with my Self. “They” are great companions and teach me how to really use my ski skins. Marianne shows me how to dig in with each uphill step. Greg offers me his skin wax and shows me how to apply it. I’d never heard of that before. That and their interest and encouragement and fun and the indescribable beauty completely change my darkness.
This is not about “them” and “me”. This is “us”. They care. So do I. I see Carol behind me, gritting it out as her heavy pack grinds into her sore shoulder. What can each of us carry? I see how heavy each step with the AT gear has become, as Susan slows down and strips off a layer. Barb takes her skis off and walks down a steep, icy hill. I join her on that one. They are experienced, as am I. I’m OK. We are OK.
I love this air. I love this planet. We are only blue dots. I breathe. I keep up now when I walk and keep up when I ski. We get to the hut. I have carried dinner and homemade raspberry oatbars to share. I share my stories.
Federico Garcia Lorca knew, too:
“Every step he climbs in the tower of his perfection is at the expense of the struggle that he undergoes with his duende…The arrival of the duende brings totally unknown and fresh sensations…loves the edge, the wound…Through the empty archway of a wind the spirit enters.” And another quote: “These dark sounds are the mystery, the roots thrusting into the fertile loam known to all of us, ignored by all of us, but from which we get what is real in art.”
Isn’t this wondrous?