Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Alright, we both knew I was going to do it...

At some level, I can't help myself. I'm in love with the English language, with lyrical prose, with attempting to employ those things to share the experiences I love. Perhaps that indicates only that I'm in love with myself; with my thoughts and my deeds and my words and my world view.

Stephen King (and about a zillion other successful writers) says that one should write for (to?) the ideal reader; an imaginary construct representing not only those you are writing to, but those you are trying to give the experience of joyful reading.

My ideal reader is a fuzzy, ill-defined construct at best. It might even secretly and subconsciously be me. Ah, nothing like pondering the unknowable. But I digress. 

I’ve written about this subject before.

Five years and some months ago, as weather autumn ended on an especially lovely October Saturday and winter arrived in the night with cold and snow, I shared the experience in a column in a different newspaper. The opening line of that column was, “Every season has a last, best day.”

Light and shadow cast by High Plains December sunlight
This year autumn seemed to linger here in my part of the world, the southwest corner of the Nebraska Panhandle. Oh, we’ve had a taste of winter – the sub-zero temps and snow of early December – but in the main our 2011 fall has been extended, dry and balmy.

Winter weather usually arrives here before calendar fall expires. In itself, that's little different than anywhere else in our hemisphere, at least north of the tropics. The farther north you go, the earlier winter arrives and the longer it lingers into calendar spring. Our planet’s weather doesn’t seem to care much about our calendars, though in a a lovely and ironic twist, we rely utterly on nature – the celestial mechanics of Earth’s axial tilt and it’s orbit around the sun; the moon’s orbit around our planet – to write our calendars.

On Sunday, with the shortest day of the year rapidly approaching (winter solstice will occur at 10:30 p.m. MST tomorrow, Dec. 21), one would normally expect the weather conditions to be cold and windy, with perhaps even a lot of snow on the ground.

But Sunday was absolutely gorgeous. It was warm, the sky was deeply blue with only scant, fleecy cloud cover, the ground was mostly clear of snow, and a light southerly breeze was wafting gently across the prairie. It was definitely time for a hike. Having been laid low with a month-long cold and an injury to my yet-to-be repaired starboard calcaneal Achilles insertion, I’d been gimping and wheezing around for far too long.

I prepared carefully. Hiking the prairie in December is potentially dangerous, particularly in and around the rock-strewn gullies I love to explore. Snow and ice lurk in the permanent winter shadows, and where the season’s slanting sunshine does fall, thin mud layers form atop frozen soil. A wrong step on treacherous ground can lead to a slip, fall and tumble – and potentially – a mobility reducing injury. An injured, immobile hiker will be in big trouble when the early sunset allows the true, cold character of the December prairie to reassert it’s iron grip.

For a prairie hiker, one who relies on his feet to get him in and get him out, boots and socks are of penultimate importance. I wear Ingenious socks and Danner boots. They’re top of the line and priced accordingly but, oh my, are they ever worth the cost.

I double-checked my rucksack to ensure the appropriate survival gear was there; first aid kit, fire starter, hard candy, spare water, a hand-cranked emergency cell phone charger. I added a sealed bag of dry clothing, a trio of insulating poncho liners, and extra gloves. The additions boosted the weight of my ruck to 51 lbs, a not inconsiderable load for a 50 year-old hiker.

I grabbed my rifle, pistol, GPS hand held and camera and headed out.

Why carry the shootin’ irons? There are a number of reasons. First and foremost, while the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees me the right to keep and bear arms, it does not spell out the ethical responsibility of owning and operating a lethal device. That's on me. I take it seriously. The skill set required to carry and use firearms, including the rigor of a maintaining a responsible mindset, requires practice. Every thing I do on a hike is predicated on weapon safety and discipline. Another reason is that the rifle and pistol and their ammunition, like the bulging rucksack, increase the load I carry, and that increases the exercise quality of my hike. I could carry rocks and a crowbar for exercise enhancement, but I’d have to give up the discipline of responsibility. Bad trade. Finally, I might have to employ my weapons in their lethal capacity. The chance of such a thing happening is tiny, but a weapon locked up miles away is useless should such a situation arise.

Shouldering my rucksack and taking up my rifle, I set out. Muscles and joints complained at the unaccustomed load and my foot-eye coordination was terrible. I kept stepping on small rocks and other foot-twisting features of the prairie landscape. My heart began to hammer and my ragged breath was that of a fat old man struggling up a short flight of stairs. I was anything but agile, nor were my efforts worthy of the beauty of the day or the joy of the task.

But slowly, oh so slowly, my mind and body responded to the challenge. After the first mile my tread became sure and steady, as my feet coordinated with my peripheral vision. My heart rate stayed up but my breathing became even and smooth. The cool air flowing in and out was, as always, a wonderful sensation. The slanting rays of December sunshine were warm and comforting and the sweat of exercise flowed freely. I began to revel in every moment. In my world, this was living.

High Plains December sunlight has a nearly Mediterranean quality
There was precious little green in the landscape, and what there was came mainly from fading yucca. But on closer inspection, there was still active chlorophyll at the base of many grasses and forbs. Above ground level though, the prairie wore her autumn coat; dull and whitish-brown, yet gloriously beautiful as it glowed with feathery brightness in the slanting sunlight. The air was clean and clear and devoid of any smell, the fading season having driven away the fragrances of fall – sumac and stink grass and sage. Insects were absent from the scene, as were birds of prey, though sparrows and larks abounded.

As I hiked and breathed and poured with sweat, the peaceful beauty I’d been unconsciously craving began to steal gently into my heart. The frown of human concerns vanished from my face, replaced by a giddy, happy grin. An intense joy bubbled up from deep inside. I knew with certainty how indescribably blessed I was to be there, to bear witness to the natural beauty surrounding me.

I thought about the lines I wrote five years ago. Was it indeed the last best day of the season? Who knows? Who cares? It was or it wasn't. Naming the day isn’t important, and neither is predicting the future. I was there to witness the moment, to sop up every bit of the wonder I could hold. Being part of the here and now is far more significant, far more fulfilling than self-absorbed speculation. Being in the moment, unbound by yesterday or tomorrow, is potent medicine.

And it’s amazing medicine. I walked an uneven prairie at age 50, gimpy with a painful injury but alive and kicking nonetheless. The pain was distracting but vital, a component of experience and a tool to remind me that I’m mortal and limited. I won’t always be here, but I was still there on Sunday. I breathed deeply and easily, my heart sent blood coursing through my veins, I bore the pain. I was far, far from my mortal limits, the pain a gift, and very small compared to the pain endured by others.

I stopped and slowly turned around, drinking in a complete prairie horizon and soaking up the soft autumn light. Peace. It may have been December, with the discomfort of cold winds on the near-future weather menu, but those things were not there in that moment. Re-centered, I could go in beauty. It was enough. Perhaps it was everything.

I climbed to the top of a steep hill and took in the view. To the north and south, wind turbine blades slowly rotated far away, on the edge of the world. I dropped my load and sat, leaning back against my rucksack, rifle across my knees. The breeze was cooling, evaporating moisture from my sweat-sodden clothing, causing the beginnings of a shiver. A muted growling of high bypass turbofans tumbled down from the sky. The contrails were far overhead, stark white lines across deep, towering blue.

As evening came on and the air quickly cooled, I watched clouds begin to creep in from the west. The bright, white sun went first orange, then red as it neared the horizon, painting the southwest land and sky with glowing sunset colors.

As the cold crept in it became time to go. I donned a sweatshirt and light gloves and took up my ruck and rifle. I’d come four miles and the same distance would return me to my parked pickup. As I set off, I realized the pain and swelling had increased in my right foot. Perhaps I’d overdone it a bit, but I doubt I’d caused any additional injury. As I moved and stretched muscles and joints and regained my hiking rhythm the pain receded to a dull ache. After a time I returned to my starting place and the GPS confirmed the distance traveled at just over eight miles, with a cumulative elevation change of nearly 6,000 feet over that distance. Who says Nebraska is flat?

As I drove away I murmured a prayer of thanks for the day and the experience. Without a doubt, I am profoundly blessed.

Monday morning the world had changed. It was cold and damp with fog and freezing rain in the air and ice on the ground. The horizon was close and tight and gone were the long vistas of yesterday. I shivered in the freezing damp as I fed calves and chopped ice. A light snow began to fall, and snowflakes gently dotted my face with gossamer kisses. In the still, bovine-tinged air, the crunch of chewing corn came clearly across the feedlot. Light snow began to coat the backs of the calves as they stood lined up at their breakfast table.

The prairie I hiked Sunday was hidden from view now, hushed and hunkered down, waiting. Winter is coming, bringing ice and snow and bitter cold. But right there, right then, the day was sweet.

Every season has a first best day.

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