The Long Night’s Journey Into Day: Winter Solstice Below Sawmill Pass


The north wind swept across the desert, chilled the drips of sweat that fell down the back of my neck. Under my first heavy pack of the winter, I kept a calm and focused stride as I followed the sandy trail across the face of Sawmill Point. Animals had already broken the occasional drifts across the path. I picked my head up at the pops of distant gunfire, and wondered if it was deer or elk that had been in the hunter’s sights. Across the narrow, rocky gap, the trail turned west into the canyon, gently descended to the toe of the Hogsback.

The Beast landed with a soft thunk in the shadowed snow near the creek. While I had frowned at the sun as I had plodded up the sandy slopes earlier, now I longed for its touch as it teased and lingered one hundred vertical feet above me. The pine boughs carried snow puffs; the branches sagged and swayed in the breeze. Miles to go, I thought, as I lugged the Beast back up onto my shoulders. The snow was only ankle-deep here, but steps were careful and regular.

Above the Hogsback and through the burn, the aspen of Sawmill Meadow were briefly backlit as I broke trail. I leaned back against a huge pine and watched the last rays hide behind the ridge. I could stay here, I thought. Plenty of snow to melt for water but not so deep that digging out a platform would be too much work. It was quiet, out of the wind.

But it was only 2 p.m.

Ahead, the headwall to Mule and Sawmill Lake was too much of a challenge for me to not attempt it. I knew the trail switchered through the forest, but I wasn’t totally sure where, so I headed right to the north wall, hoping that the snow was layered less thickly. Up and across the moraines I stumbled, the heavy pack pulled me back down the drainages as I fought forever upward. I found more than one bottomless hole between the boulders. Near the top I wallowed a traverse back into the trees, laughed at the steepness and knowing that a fall would cause nothing more than a bruised ego: a hapless tortoise on its back in the snow.

I admit I didn’t expect the uphill swim to take quite as much time, but the colors were fading from the above the Inyos across the valley as I finally started to search for a campsite. The purple haze of winter was chasing the pink sunset into the upper atmosphere when I spotted a small basin in which I could perch my tent. Pinecones flew in all directions as I nested. Every few minutes I would grunt as I tossed another shovel-full of snow, and I nervously glanced around the darkness, looking for eyes. Without the moon, my headlamp was a lonely beacon; my platform, a small sanctuary between creaking pines. I was glad to finally fire up my stove and go through the motions of melting snow and making dinner. If nothing else, the small rumble of the gas flame was company in the dark.

The longest night, I thought. And I remembered back to my first snow camps, to all of those who showed me just a little bit each time so that now I could confidently stride up into the hills and know I was safe.

The longest night, I thought. The darkness forced me to look inside, since I couldn’t see out. How long I had beaten myself up for one thing or another, how much energy I had spent on trying desperately to be perfect. How I had taken other’s compliments and used them as motivation to keep pushing myself, but how I had somehow morphed that into a responsibility to continue in order to make everyone else happy with pictures and stories. You must keep going, I would say. “They” are counting on you. And when I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or didn’t want to keep going, there was my excuse to berate my weakness, my weight, my slowness, anything.

The longest night, I thought. My knee injury had been an excuse to stop and drop into a perilous state of apathy. Instead of being gentle and consistent, I motored through fits and starts, pushing myself hard and burning out. It was like I was playing with the stove, cranking the gas and then killing it.  It wasn’t fair to try and sprint through life, or even to think that I could. The pace I was trying to push wasn’t sustainable, so instead I did almost nothing. I convinced myself I was content to watch the world pass by, but then I wracked myself for not pushing forward. It was a dark and lonely cycle.

The longest night, I thought. I awoke after a few hours to a glow as the half-moon soared above the forest. Long shadows creased the snowdrifts; the wind touched the treetops and breathed gently through my tent. I was warm and safe, curled up with my bag tucked snugly under my chin and around my head. The hot water bottle had wandered somewhere between my legs. I tucked my hands across my chest until they fell asleep and needed a different position. For a few minutes, after I rolled over, adjusted the stuff-sack pillow, I stared into the orange moon-glow of the tent walls and listened to the quiet.

Seven miles in and five thousand feet up, a small orange tent perched in a snowy basin between the pines. The walls shuddered from movement within, and the zipper growled as the door opened.

I greeted the sunrise with a smile, sparkling eyes, and a new sort of confidence.

Another chapter had begun.

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8 Responses to “The Long Night’s Journey Into Day: Winter Solstice Below Sawmill Pass”

  1. Desiree Zolg Says:

    Thank you Laura for a beautiful post. I have missed reading your melodic and heartfelt insights of your journeys.

  2. simply beautiful . . . thank you for sharing . . .

  3. Karen Robinson Says:

    The mountains lead us to where we must go. On this trip they provided the light and insight. I have no doubt that you will find the next fork in the trail that is meant for you. Thank you my Mountain Sister for sharing. Love you.

  4. Great work Laura.

    I think what’s most admirable of all isn’t so much your courage and determination to push yourself externally, but your courage in willing yourself to share your heart with the people around you.

    One of the more recent feelings I’ve begun to crystallize as a conviction is that the pursuit of happiness itself, as a goal, is vain. The real goal should be to situate love as the central pillar of one’s life–love in the biggest sense–and act off of that foundation. Define love as you like: family, friends, community, oneself, the mountains, open air, space, freedom, god, art, living with intention, living thoughtfully, deliberately, creatively…this is what’s been on my mind the last few weeks, and some of what you said above brings it back to mind. Forget about what people think. Just act through each day with heart and love and call it a day well lived.

    • Thanks, Pieter! But do you mean “in vain” or simply “vain”? I think I define happiness as contentment, which actually fits into your definition here of “love”. I am still working really hard on myself, reconciling years of insecurities, meanness to myself, and “getting my mojo back.” But I’m well on the road.

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