Saturday, August 1, 1981

Puck Goat, Mt. Olympus, Lunasa (photos)

Mt.Olympus from Hurricane Ridge. From an old slide—early 1970s, or  1981?

On the northern slopes of Mount Olympus: the ancestral sweep of the mountain, shadows are suspended across entire valleys. Talus and wildflowers in blue are the only signs of life in this severe landscape.

I am taller than the subalpine spruce forest at my feet. Like Gulliver in a Liliputian landscape. I must be way above treeline. I can almost touch the sky.  Small juniper trees hug the ground, they spread out mat like, a living carpet at my feet. The trees may be diminutive, but their berries are full-size.

A melting cornice of of snow slides off the razorback ridge and makes a second ledge of snow, well on its way to becoming a glacier. Below me, a string of glacial melt pools in aquamarine and teal, decorated with chunks of snow, icebergs in the making. 

I had to take off my telephoto lens because the animals here have no fear. Marmots shuffle up to investigate my feet and they size me up. I guess they don't get too many hikers on this steep slope. Or I look like a big marmot to them.

The only way to escape these droves of flies, is to keep on walking, or stand against the wind. I keep on walking.

I've lost count of the miles. I've come farther on one day that most round trip hikes. I keep reminding myself I have to walk the same distance back again, that each step forward is the half-way mark back to the trailhead.

But a part of me never wants to return to that place I came from. So I keep on walking. I have run out of trail. Literally. I am half-way to Marathon. My race against my pain is still not won. So I push ever on. The talus rings like fine crystal in someone else's bed as I stumble over compacted shale.

I take in alpine roses, lupine, larkspur, rock cress, a veritable Turkish carpet. Wallflowers, cinquefoil, buckwheat, Indian paintbrush, sky pilot, phlox, stonecrop—it's a carpet bazaar. A concuspiance of flowers stands taller than the tallest juniper.

In this dainty landscape, butterflies soar like hawks, and birds are the size of bears. A complex mosaic of lichen and moss grows on the ground, black lettuce-like leaves with frothy petticoats of pale green, dresses the rocks.

I want to get down on my hands and knees to worship the tiny Japanese gardeners who live here. My hand orchestrates a symphony of striated scree alternated with grand sweeping swaths of flower gardens. Beauty before me as I walk.

A hummingbird hovers, checks me out, then dives off the edge of the cliff. He takes my breath away. I lay down and peer down into a pocket valley, blue pimpernel and sky pilot and sky are one thing.

Sometimes the junipers achieve enough height for a mouse to hide beneath them. They eye me curiously, and rotate seeds in their paws as they nibble at the edges of pine nuts. Dark mauve phalacea is like bruised skin, amid the pearly everlasting.

A talus crest is black with lichen and weathered varnish. Mount Olympus? I am lost traversing range after range, I am deep in the heart of these mountains, trying to escape my own depths.

A fresh rockslide area glows coppery pink against all that dark scree. A golden mantled marmot stand up to salute his allegiance to the wilderness. With his back to me, he whistles, then screams to the valley below. I am not the enemy. Friend of your friend.

Deer graze on the subalpine spruces, they devour this fragile landscape. I drowse in the warm sunlight. Pink and white pine heather bells shudder and nod in the breeze coming in from the west. Harbinger of sunset. 

I awaken with a start. Another deer appears, a buck, two-pronged with velvet, he eyes me, sniffs the air. Drops his head to pluck tender pine shoots. I was sleeping where the deer come to feed.

These steep talus slopes are held in place by the roots of flowers, no grass or moss or soil.

On Hurricane Ridge, and here, deep in the mountains, the Rocky Mountain goats eat the precious patches of soil. They're looking for salt, someone said. They paw at soil pockets, they eat the soil, they lick the stones, they lick the hiking path—searching for traces of lost salt. They are not a native species. My traitorous tears are made of salt. Perhaps displaced mountain goat will eat them.

The bleached bones of juniper, a skeleton hugs the rock outcropping. Patches of stonecrop form light cream-colored oases on the hillside. Life and death are one thing.

The intense purple of lupine, and the yellow of wallflower takes my breath away. The papery leaves of the pasqueflower tremble on the slightest breeze. I watch the antics of a furry jumping spider dressed in black and rust.

The sizzling heat rising up from the talus creates a shimmering horizonline. The edge of the ridge drops off from sight and all the flowers keep nodding their heads in the breeze, as if in agreement. There are so many flowers that I leave bruised footprints behind me. I keep walking up the path that follows the top of the ridge, hoping it will go on forever. It does not disappoint.

The path cuts along the side of a slope, so steep, it's like walking on the edge of a box. It drops a long way down, it's little more than a goat trail and it veers off to the left to the lake camp, set in shadows. To the right, are the valleys and ridges that lead up to Mount Olympus and to the Elwah River Valley.

The track is no longer a human path. I begin free-climbing towards the summit, inching closer to that elusive spine of ridge. I tell myself to be careful, don't trust the rotten rock.

Another hand grasp and toehold: I'm almost to the summit. Hair-raising. I've gone way past my limits. But still I push forward. I'm thinking this stuff is for the goats. What am I doing here, alone, so far from civilization? No one know where I am. But, having come this far, I want to look at the face of Mt. Olympus.

Silently, white. Above me a jagged shape looms. I take it in at eye level, powerful forelegs, and I look up to a white fur chest. Black horns and yellow eyes appear. Am I hallucinating?

His beard, and breath tells me he's real. Uh-oh. This Rocky Mountain goat coming down from Mt. Olympus has right-of-way. Cars going uphill may have right away, but then I'm not a car, and he has sharp black horns and the surefootedness of hooves.

The rules of right-of-way on a precipice is not to stop in a dangerous place. He has no hesitation as he advances toward me. There's literally no place to go. I back down the crevice, the small of my back tucked into the base of cliff that arcs down 2000 feet of scree. The angle of declination will not stop my descent into space. The angel of declination.

The goat hesitates, he looks at me. We make eye contact and we each make a silent pact. He has to pass right by my feet. There is nowhere else to go. I drop my gaze, and look down at my boots. I present no challenge, i make no eye contact. I empty my mind and I become wind, rock and sky. I come and go in peace, at will. We are one thing.

He does not challenge me to a duel. He carefully passes me, his fur is silken snow. He is a young ram, ousted from the herd. So I know there will not be others following him.

So I follow him down the spine, back to where I came from. I am shaking, adrenalin, fear, a rite of passage. I'm taking photographs of his back. They're not as good as the one I got as he appeared over the horizon. I took photos first then realized the potential danger I was in. The camera is an extension of arm, an automatic reflex.

The goat is eating his dinner, he is pawing up the plants to get at the minuscule pockets of soil hoarded there. He eats the earth, craving salt. I smell of salt and tears. He is not afraid of me as long as I move slowly.

We stay like this, entranced for an hour or more, in the evening light, the goat and I, before I descend back down the mountain at twilight. Northern lights dancing in the distance.

Something truly memorable has happened. A wordless quest, answered. A heart mended. I return back down the mountain a different person than that grieving woman who left behind her sorrow in the fog shrouded dawn.

August 1, 1981
October 11, 2015
(Found in a journal, most of it is verbatim, I added the context when I retyped it.)

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