SOMEWHERE IN IDAHO
I am writing these words on a bus, as we flee the big forest fires in the Bitterroot Mountains. The epic annual Lewis and Clark cultural tour I have been leading for the past ten days has survived the Missouri River, a series of strenuous hikes, including the fabled Wendover Death March (nine miles straight up), some heat prostration and a few trail "incidents," only to be turned back near the Idaho-Montana border by the Travelers Rest fire that has shut US highway 12.
We stayed again last night at my favorite inn in the American West, Lochsa Lodge, and had our farewell dinner outside on the deck under a magnificent nearly full moon. The electric power was entirely off at the lodge, thanks to the fires, so we groped around in the dark with flashlights. A few took cold showers and the rest of us just waded into the Lochsa River fully clothed to cool off and clean up. A dozen of us sat around the fire pit until after midnight. The lodge folks wouldn't let us start a fire, of course, but we put a bunch of electric candles in a wheel and spoke pattern, and the effect was romantic if not very warm once the night chill came off the river.
Everyone missed their flights today. At the moment we are moving towards Lewiston, ID, where some will pick up commuter flights for a late return home tomorrow, and others will rent cars and drive all the way to Seattle. So far no panic, but you could see two days ago that most folks had reached the spiritual end of the journey and wanted to resume the comfortable routines of their home lives: showers, the Wall Street Journal, meals that did not involve a slab of meat and a glop of fried potatoes, flush toilets.
Like all crises, this one will soon pass. My guess is that everyone will live, everyone will get home, nobody will lose a job over this, and this little last minute travel blip will become a favorite part of the narrative each participant tells about the big Lewis & Clark adventure of 2013. If the 1804-1806 journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark is about anything, it represents resourcefulness and perseverance. The Bitterroot Mountains gave them fits, too, though not by way of fire. They had a rough, cold, wet, hungry, bewildered, and even dreadful transit through the northern Rockies in September 1805. At one point Clark wrote, "I have been wet and as cold in every part as I ever was in my life, indeed I was at one time fearfull my feet would freeze in the thin Mockirsons which I wore" (September 16, 1805).
On the return journey, the expedition reached the western base of the Bitterroots way too soon. Their friends the Nez Perce told them that they could not possibly punch through what Lewis called "those tremendous mountains" for another month, not really until mid-July, that the snow was still far too deep, that it would be impossible to stay on the trail or find fodder for their horses. The always impatient, high-strung Lewis ignored the advice of the locals and tried to press the expedition through the dense labyrinth of the Bitterroots—and then retreated when he realized that the Nez Perce knew more about their home country than he did.
I'm doing pretty well considering. I have a moderately serious blister on my left foot. I'm gimpy and stiff, sunburned to the point of peeling, and I'd rather burn my camp clothes than wash them. I'd rather shave than bathe. I'd rather keep exploring the West than walk into my pent up home in Bismarck. After ten days in some of the best country in America, my soul is refreshed and rejuvenated, and some things I thought were devastatingly important back in civilization turn out—in the face of the raw transactions of life in the wild—to be, well, less devastating.
The Wendover Death March was as good a midlife wake-up call as you could ever ask. I hiked up the mountain for the eighth time in ten years—we all made it, and I very much enjoyed my gin and tonic at Lewis & Clark's Snow Camp at the end of the ordeal, er hike. But I cramped up in the quadriceps of both legs at mile seven or so, and on the really steep grades (appalling, really) I had to double over and gasp and hack and blow, hands on knees, sometimes every fifty yards. Ever since the death march I have been coughing up the stuff that sits in the lower crevices of our lungs during the sedentary months: hairballs, toothpaste caps, old coins, paper clips. You know, the stuff you find under the couch cushions.
I finished the hike with the first group in about four hours, but I have been ashamed of myself ever since. My athletic friend and mentor Melanie Carvell (the famous triathlete!) always tells me that you have to limit the variables. The higher altitude (7000 feet) is just one issue, and there's no preparing for that in North Dakota. The cardiovascular system is a second; lung strength a third; the status of your leg and back muscles a fourth; etc. If I had done five fifteen-mile hikes in the last month things would have gone substantially better. Six days after the DM, I'm still coughing up old buttons.
Face it: at 58, I've reached the point in life where I will either grow old and become a creature of the Barcalounger, or I am going to have to suck it up and move my body more, and stretch, and lay off the fleischkuekle. Given modern medicine, it is now possible for most folks to live well into their eighties, and even beyond, but given this longevity we bear a new responsibility to keep ourselves as young and healthy and physically vibrant as possible. The great Melanie assures us that anybody can be fit, anybody can make the most of what their DNA and body type and family history deal to them, but apparently you cannot do this sitting down.
There was a time when I could have skipped up Wendover Ridge, and there will be a time when my body simply won't be able to take the strain anymore. But there is about a twenty-year interval now in which it's all up to me, and this year's DM was a clarion call for greater commitment to health and exercise. Life is mostly about choice. That's what makes freedom so burdensome.
Each of us has a number of selves, and each of us has a most authentic self. The philosopher William James spoke of "hot spots in the soul." I know that my time sleeping under the stars in the American West, sitting on the banks of rivers (or in them), talking in low tones around a log fire, and waiting for the miracle of meteorites or Northern Lights, is where my soul is most alive, and where I feel that all is right with the world.
Next year I am going to stride up Wendover Ridge. That will require as much dedication as reading through Shakespeare or learning to play the ukulele. But the alternative is not even a slightly pretty picture.