The Sun Also Rises. A short story of a Wednesday morning, a mountain, and a life so far.
I step out of the truck. I had lingered longer than usual in the heat and comfort of the Tacoma’s cab. Slowly sipping coffee, and listening to the last few words of the book on tape I had been enjoying over the last week, Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” The crisp March air fills my lungs, and the pre dance ritual begins. It was cold. But then it was always cold on Teton Pass at 6:30 AM. I turned my headlamp on, and laced up my boots outside, as I always found the confined nature of the trucks cab never quite sufficient for getting them fitted properly. I was still thinking about the last line of the book when I grabbed my worn pack out of the back of the truck, and strapped on my battered snowboard.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
What an end. Not shocking, or even touching really, but real. Memories, I suppose, are what we make them. Truth and memories are not always the same. I know that now.
I finish adjusting my poles, and don my gloves. As I cross the parking lot, another headlamp emerges from a Subaru. I nod. No need for words this early, they too know the dance. Maybe I’ll see them on the trail. Maybe I wont. I stare at the stars above Jackson. I cross the road to the bootpack. My mind wanders.
The Rhythm Begins.
Left, right, left, right. One foot in front of the other is how it goes. It’s the dance. The slog. I’ve danced this dance before, many times. In many ways, I learned this dance in Oklahoma, under the cruel tutelage of Drill Sergeants Foley, and Gonzales. The Fort Sill Shuffle, it was named, as I recall now. With that foundation, I was invited to attend exhibitions all over the world, and did for a short time. Korea, Virginia, Montana, Texas, and Iraq, to name a few. It was in Iraq that the music finally dimmed for me, and I thought little of dancing for a time afterward. I thought of my partners in movement often, and it is of them I am thinking of now. Men like Fred, Murph, Harp, Bailey, and the others. We were brilliant together, we moved like clockwork, we were swift, we were silent, we were deadly. We were men to be feared. We danced silently in the dark, and reigned down destruction at need. It was a dance of danger, a dance of discomfort. We talked of what would happen when the music stopped. I was not ready, I know that now.
“‘Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters.’”
I reached the first ridge, and looked to my right to see a sliver of golden orange sun reaching what seemed to be no more than inches above, and silhouetting the Hobacks. I force a sip of tea. My mind wanders.
The Rhythm Continues.
If the sound of boots crunching up the fresh snow covering the trail was the drum beat, the wind now added into the hum. Left, right, left, right. Still dancing. It was a different dance now though, in my mind. One that had changed over the years. A dance that was now on my terms.
It was a dance I had slowly learned to enjoy again. A dance I had put on in places like West Virginia, the Pacific Northwest, the Wind River Range, Alaska, and the Tetons. This dance had different rules, different moves, different partners. I was a student again, and eager to learn. Alpine starts, horrible weather, and long days that left you shivering yourself to sleep in the middle of nowhere. These are the new cover charges. The chattering of teeth, rather than machine guns now adds to the percussion.
My partners in this new dance have, for the most part, what Hemingway describes as afición. Passion. It’s a prerequisite. For this too is a dance of discomfort, a dance fraught with certain danger. It is apparently, the style of movement that suits me best. This dance is more artistic, more bold than before. No longer confined to the shadows. Deeds done in the light, for all to see. Even if that is just a line in the snow, or photos from the summit.
I do my best to spread this passion to all who are interested, but afición is a personal choice. I can take you out, but I can’t make you love it. Passion. You have it or you don’t. Game recognize game. I have plenty of friends here in the Tetons that have it. Giles, Jordan, Tyler, Julia, Mark, Patrick and all the others I meet here often. None are with me today. They will be out on their own dances soon enough, if they are not already. I wish them good hunting. I will see them soon. I think of Ken, pack rafting Alaska with his dog, and smirk to myself quietly.
“For one who had afición he could forgive anything. At once he forgave me all my friends. Without his ever saying anything they were simply a little something shameful between us, like the spilling open of the horses in bull-fighting.”
I reach the steeps. I pause for a moment, and look back. My truck now a speck in the parking lot, I see the long stretch of commuters headed to Jackson, and smile. That will be me soon, but not just yet. I see the Snake River Range basking aglow in orange as the sun rises higher. I turn off my headlamp. I take a breath. My mind wanders.
Onward and upward, I think to myself. Left, right, pole, step, pole, step. There are others on Mt Glory this morning to be sure, but at the moment, I am alone. My own private Wyoming. Not unusual for this hour. I prefer it that way. I wonder if all with real afición do. No one to look after, no one to consult, no one to impress. Is that true freedom, or just romantic bullshit? On my journey onward, and ever upward, who has been left along the way?
My thoughts turn towards family. Jeff, Maripat, Vance, Julie, and Meg. They have always supported me. They have chosen different dances, dances I may never fully understand. I respect that. I pray they understand. And what of my nieces and nephews. Will I be the fun uncle who takes them camping and skiing, or just the stranger they see over the holidays sometimes. I pray the former. How is a man ever sure of his legacy. I have this crazy uncle in Wyoming. He doesn’t talk much. I should call more.
Two skiers are descending Twin Slides, obviously a couple. I nod to them silently, they do the same. No need for conversation, they too have afición. They are dancing. Pointless, and unnecessary to interrupt.
It’s getting steeper, I collapse my poles a bit, and carry on. My mind wanders.
There have been several failed relationships in my life I regret. Most of them have been my fault. Dancing with women has always been difficult for me, it would seem. The moves are awkwardly different, slightly strange. The beat too quick. I am too stingy with my emotions. Things don’t have to be rosy all the time, in fact, they shouldn’t be. I understand that now. Shades of grey in a mind of black and white.
I think back to the relationships that mattered most. The women that saw me at my best, and ultimately, at my worst. Lauren, Emily, and the others. They know who they are. Most of these partnerships were ended by me. That’s interesting to think about. Whatever reason I gave at the time, it probably wasn’t the real, underlying one. I know that now. I needed adventure. I needed the cold, the dark, the discomfort, the unknown. I needed to dance.
That some of these women still suffer me as a friend, I am grateful. It is a testament to their high caliber, giving nature. Proof of good in the world. Part of me wants to call, to write, to catch up over drinks. To thank you for being a part of my story, however long or brief the chapter. The other part doesn’t want to pry. It’s none of my damn business anymore. I’ve lost that privilege. I’ve chosen a life of chasing storms. I haven’t earned it. I can only honestly wish you happiness.
“I thought I had paid for everything. Not like the woman pays and pays and pays. No idea of retribution or punishment. Just exchange of values. You gave something up and got something else. Or you worked for something. You paid some way for everything that was any good.”
I crest the ridge above the radio tower. The sky is light. The thin strip of orange is now stretching past the Gros Ventres. I put on my sunglasses, and forge on. My mind wanders.
Over The Top.
From here on, the going is easy. The beat lessens, and my pace slows to keep in time. The panoramic views engulf me, and entire mountain ranges engulfed in the flame of the morning wash over my vision. A pause in the dance. A drink break for the band. The Tetons, the Gros Ventres, the Hobacks, the Snake River Range, and the Big Holes. These names mean nothing to most, but everything to some. No matter how many times I explore them, there’s always more. Each foray only succeeds in wetting the appetite for further exploration. It’s a drug. An addictive one. I crave the alpine. I need it, more than anything.
I think back to other memorable sunrises, and the band plays on. I think of the first rays of dawn filtering through the trees in West Virginia with some of the best friends I’ve ever had. I think of the calm solace, and awestruck colors of the sunsets in Hawaii with Lauren and my family. I think of being warmed by the first rays of dawn whilst bivouacked on peak 11,300 with Ken in Alaska. I think of watching the sun rise over the Gros Vetres, while huddling for warmth on the lower saddle of the Grand Teton, so many times, with so many friends. I think of the endless sun rises with Fred and the boys in the desert, punctuated by the morning call of the mosque, and the nagging feeling that it might just be our last.
“‘This wine is too good for toast-drinking, my dear. You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that. You lose the taste.’”
Would this particular sunrise make the top 10 list in my mind? Probably not. The solo ones never do it seems. You never bring up dancing by yourself. You never remember as vividly. I suppose it doesn’t make them any less important though. Memories are people. Driven by friends. Driven by family. Driven by emotion. Never by truth.
I stride past the ramshackle disco hut on top. No time today. Need to get to work. I set my pack down, and begin the time honored, and well practiced ritual of preparing to ride. The wind cuts through the sweat soaked spot on my back that was formerly occupied by 15 pounds of gear. It is not something one even really thinks about anymore I suppose. Belay jacket, unstrap board, helmet, goggles, gloves, stow poles, don pack, strap in. Ski to kill.
The click, click, click of my ratchet straps add another instrument to the now full band. I stand up, and look around. Not a bad start to Wednesday. Certainly not the worst. Enough rest, The sun is up, time to get back out on the floor. I point the chipped and beaten nose downhill. I pick up speed. My mind clears.