Sunday, August 9, 2009

26 Hours in the Boston Basin

We have been ascending for hours. Glances back to the north face of Johannesburg mountain, once towering above us and now at eye level, are a consolation. Now we need to stop and put on our harnesses. We gain a notch beside a decaying tower of rock and sit down. It is mid-morning, warm and windless. The sun makes me sleepy. I drift off for a few minutes before Mike, clinking hardware, draws me unwillingly back into consciousness. I glance at the route description and artfully offer to lead the first pitch to avoid leading the crux.

A few hours and a few pitches later, I am leading again. The ridge narrows to a sharp edge. I gingerly traverse, stick in a cam, and pause with a sinking feeling as I eye the next fin ahead. It is nearly vertical, six or seven feet long, and doesn't have even so much as the edge of a dime to step on. I look down, horrified at the abyss yawning beneath. I glance over to the north side, and see a rubble-strewn ledge system running four or five feet below the crest. Shit, that doesn't look enticing, either. I dither for a few more minutes and fantasize about large birds plucking me from my airy, unwilling perch and gliding with me to flat ground. I order my freaked-out brain to commit. It is much easier than it looked, but I'm gripped by the time I make my way across some sloping ledges a bit below the crest. I think I want my mom.

The next few pitches go slowly and it is now late afternoon. We come to the edge of an abrupt tower and rappel into a notch stacked with blocks of dark, lichen-covered rock. Above us, another stark tower of rock, variegated with water stains, guards passage to the summit. From the looks of it, this is the crux. Mike leads out, takes a few minutes to arrange a couple cams and suss out the moves, and then disappears over the top of the bulge. I feed out rope steadily for a while, then in fits and spurts, then stop.

I look down. Far below me, to my right, the immense Boston Glacier is now in shadow. Its crevasses are now black, the snow, blue. On my left, some final-looking rays of sunlight color the basin. The only human presence I see is a tent, three thousand feet below, in a stunted stand of avalanche-flagged pines. It is hopelessly removed and impossibly small.

I feel impossibly small, a trespasser sitting on this broken ridge. I shiver a bit and turn more of my body into the sun as a chill settles on the evening. At my feet, a clump of cobalt flowers flutters in the breeze, also seeming to shiver. The sun gets me drowsy and through the slits of my eyelids I see a fat bumblebee settle on one of the flowers at my feet. The bee doesn't care that it's on an inhospitable fin of rock thousands of feet above the nearest tree, just as the rock doesn't care that two humans are scrabbling across its spine. It seems inhuman, but beautiful. It makes me want to cry. A tug on the end of the rope startles me out of my existential reverie and I break down the anchor and start climbing.

It's a while still before we are standing on the summit. By now it is obvious that we will be chasing twilight off the mountain. Mike arrives, and we flee for our packs. Rappelling off of the north side of the mountain, further away from any road, only deepens the feeling of isolation. As the dusk deepens, we make our way along grassy ledges and look for passages across rocky ribs. It's dark by the time we find the gully that leads back to the civilized side of the ridge and up to our packs.

Back at our packs we exchange relieved high-fives. We descend by headlamp into the dark. A yellow moon is creeping above the horizon, but it is still hard to make out the buttress that guided us up this morning. We stand above an unfamiliar gully: noisy, with water pouring over drop-offs. I eye it dubiously and follow Mike. This is not the one we want. I dislodge a pile of rocks onto Mike as I claw my way back up to the flat spot above the gully. Hearts racing, we sit in the darkness, which is just as warm and windless as it was 12 hours before.

We try several variations on this theme before we locate the correct gully and slowly follow it back to the lower basin. By now the moon is diving towards the hazy western horizon. Some stumbling around in the dark later, we find the trail and follow it back towards the trees. The forest moths are startled by the strange blue orbs our headlamps cast, and flutter dizzily around our faces. Slippery roots blend into the dusty forest debris that conceals the tread. An hour later, I bid Mike goodnight and crawl off the trail. A man-shaped depression between two trees cradles me. I turn off my headlamp. The darkness is complete. I do not dream.

It's light out when the chill wakes me. I continue down the trail. Back at the car, Johannesburg once again towers above, its hanging glaciers cast blue by the diffuse light of dawn. Another team is preparing to head up.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

That Old, Sweet Song

I land in the South with a sore neck and red eyes. After a few hours of dodging cars that never use blinkers for merging, I finally turn onto the dirt road that takes me home. Out the window, the main garden is in full bloom: heads of corn reaching for the sun, beans sagging off of fixed poles, peppers and tomatoes shining red in the mid-morning sun. I stop the car and pick the makings for my all-time favorite lunch (BLT with garden-fresh tomatoes, corn-on-the-cob, and a cold glass of milk). Past the garden, boards fresh from the lumber mill are stacked high. I can smell the sawdust, potent after a recent thundershower. I walk to my house, which is surprisingly unsheltered after losing the familiar oaks out front last winter. I think about how strange it feels to mourn the loss of a tree, but it had the best foot holds for climbing.

Inside, little has changed. My room still is decorated with failed attempts at art created in high school and a Walt Whitman poem I haphazardly, yet passionately, painted on the wall one late night. A few books I couldn't bear to give away line the bookshelves. My mom has tried to make it seem more inviting by filling the empty picture frames on my desk and putting new sheets on the bed. I go wake up my brother, and get a leave-me-alone grunt. So I do as I'm told and leave him alone with his sleep palsy from a late night at work. Mom is cooking food for the wedding. She apologizes for the smell, remembering that I would leave the house for hours at a time when I was a kid because I hated the smell of chicken boiling. It doesn't bother me now. We talk. She leaves to go help bake cakes, and I decide to take the new puppy for a walk. We go explore the creek, which is barely a quarter of the size I expected. Years of drought have left a listless trickle, the waterfall dried to bare rocks. Obie (the pup) doesn't notice how lackluster the stream is, and we both leave wet, dirty, and smelling like dog. He finds a wild turkey in the bushes, and some of the most horrible noises I have ever heard ensue. I might have let him continue the pursuit if it had been Thanksgiving, but we've already got one bird on the burner.

After spraying my clothes down in a vain attempt at red clay removal, I roam some more. I walk over to my great-grandparents' homestead. In the yard, Grandaddy is installing an aisle and chairs are being sowed in rows in anticipation for the ceremony. The place has been cleaned up, but the dilapidated barns are still pretty magical to explore. They hold old doll heads (I don't know where the bodies went), random garden tools, pieces of furniture and cars, horse tack, the old rusted tractor, and hundreds of mason jars that most certainly contain botulism by now. I sit on the tractor for awhile, and listen to sounds begin. Afternoon brings a cacophony of katydids, crickets, and frogs. Much different, but perhaps louder, than the traffic I hear out of my bedroom window every night in the city.

From Ansley's Wedding

From Ansley's Wedding

Daddy Jim and Ma Mamie, my great-grandparents, lived here and worked the land, sustaining themselves and making money with what they could sell at the farmer's market. Signs of this past are still around. After the winter loses its bitterness, the ground is blanketed with blooming jonquils. These were planted in order to have something to sell in the early spring, when few vegetables were ready for harvest. Ma Mamie scavenged asparagus, baked cakes and cut jonquils to sell at the market.

All this she would load in the buggy every weekend. The work horse that drew the buggy outlived my great-grandparents long enough for me to vaguely remember it. I don't remember his name, but I remember (fondly) that he had a flatulence problem. When that horse hit a gallop, you could hear it coming. It's too late for the jonquils to be in bloom, but I make a mental note to come home in the spring next time.

From Ansley's Wedding

There is a yellowed newspaper cutting, framed and hung in my grandmother's basement, that tells of how people would travel for miles to buy Ma Mamie's cakes. Coconut, caramel, pistachio. The recipes have been handed down, via first-hand kitchen experience, through the generations. My grandmother is busy baking the same cakes for the wedding tomorrow. All I can say is the newspaper was right, they are fucking delicious.

From my tractor perch, I can see the sky turning gray. It looks as if there will be another afternoon thundershower: the kind of Georgia summer storm that soaks the land and makes a lot of noise, and then leaves as fast as it came. I head back home to get ready for the rehearsal dinner. I pass the second garden which has been taken over by hundreds of sunflowers, Ansley's favorite.

From Ansley's Wedding

From Ansley's Wedding