We start in our separate houses, in the dark, in the sleeping city. We wake and dress and sip coffee and circulate blood. The drive’s short; we’re lucky to live in a place where wildness thrives close at hand.
We strip layers in the parking lot. The air is as heavy and warm as a wet, cool day in August. The first miles are flat, the shallow depression of the trail is patterned with ice. The pace is quick, the walking nearly effortless. The talk is of revolutions. Revolutions of mountains. Revolutions of spirit. And Bernie. Of course Bernie.
The trail tilts up, the snow thickens, the push back from the earth becomes unsteady. Nick spots a hare—white and still—given away by the red dot of its eye. Miles blur past. We rise off the valley. Brian leads, he knows this mountain far better than us.
The talk turns to friends lost over time, of the morphing landscape of life. I’m grateful to be in the company of two thoughtful and compassionate men.
At 6,000 feet we pick up more snow. I lag and kick myself for forgetting snowshoes. It’s hard for me to be the one trailing behind. A central piece of my identity has always been to lead from the front with my feet. As I’ve grown, I’ve come to appreciate my multitudes. Others can lead and I can follow and when it’s time for me to take the lead, I can. But still, here, as I fall behind, I struggle to allow myself to go the pace I need to go.
I’ve heard it takes ninety seconds to move past an emotion, as long as we don’t associate or build upon it. I try to move past the negative emotions that begin to surface as I fall behind. If only I could apply the same attention to the intricacy of shadow playing on snow for ninety seconds. I might know this place more. I might know myself more.
Brian graciously offers up his snowshoes and I humbly accept. We push up the ridge through wind slabs that sink like foam cushions underfoot. Below and behind us is the valley where we live. We can see where the rivers flow in and out. The city lies silent, almost dormant, as if it were a glittering swale in the landscape, a place of convergence not consumption. This is the Missoula we can imagine.
The bounding horn of a train reaches out and reminds us of positive change: Days ago the Otter Creek coal mine was abandoned by Arch Coal. More coal trains will not roll through Missoula thanks to thousands of people who stood in front of them (sometimes literally) and asserted that the land’s health was enmeshed with ours and could no longer be compromised for the wealth of a few.
At our summit–Stuart Peak–a cloud settles around us. We lose our placement; we’re colored pixels in space. We eat curry, sandwich, bars. The wind howls and our internal temperatures cool, making us scuttle off the summit to the northeast, down a ridge that appears to plunge into bottomless white. Snow needles into cheeks and eyes and for an unmeasured amount of time our sole focus becomes navigating this slice of mountain.
We leave the wind for the Pilcher Creek drainage. Along the creek, the snow is soft and thin and we walk unsteadily—as if we were walking barefoot on river stones—unsure where our next step will land. Near the bottom of the drainage we emerge into sun-dappled pine glades with Oregon grape covering the forest floor. I wander listlessly, imagining I am somewhere close to Lothlorien.
When we reach Rattlesnake Creek it’s five miles to home. Though our legs are tired, the steps are easy to earn, and our legs–these remarkable appendages we ask so much of everyday–carry us home.