A few years ago, after losing my grandparents, my dad, and our son, in a rapid cascade of debilitating blows, I needed to get away. Badly. I was working seventy hour weeks as a narcotics detective, a notorious and occasionally dangerous grind of surveillance and door-kicking steeped in filth, futility, and human misery. What little time I had left was devoted to sorting out the detritus of the recent dead, comforting the living, and taking on responsibility for my completely disabled uncle.
It was a tough time, with a tremendous learning curve, and I simply hadn’t been afforded the space I needed to digest the tornado of change that had suddenly ripped through our lives, let alone to properly mourn the loss of those who were giants and superheroes in my life. After one particularly difficult week, I commuted home from a demanding and dynamic surveillance operation in southern Los Angeles, grinding through the stop and go traffic of LA, the rush hour 405, in a near homicidal pique, intensely over-pressured, exhausted, juggling a police radio and two cell phones, and yearning desperately, angrily, for some other life, some other place, some permanent relief from the relentless and plugging donkeywork that had become my life. I arrived home, hours later, supercharged with attitude, the aimless distemper that inevitably results when there is simply too much demand and not enough character to meet it.
Enter: Wendy. I have made some very bad decisions in this life, and live with those consequences still. But I will go to my grave knowing that I married exactly once, and exactly right. When I came home that night, a pure and fuming pile of toxic waste, my bride, who by some undeserved but precise endowment of the cosmos is my perfect match, ordered me to get away. Now. With a long and satisfying hug, she insisted that I pack my gear and head for the mountains, ordering up the perfect cure like room service.
There is no expression of gratitude in our language expansive enough to capture my appreciation for this miracle of a woman, and I mourn for those who live without a similar gift in their own lives.
And fortunately, for me, when the order from Miss Wendy came, I knew precisely where I needed to go: the home country, the eastern high Sierras, where my own dreams of life took shape, where no flora, no fauna, no iteration of human being was entirely strange. I needed something from those jagged peaks, a private vision, a discreet and personal destination. I wanted to climb some nameless mountain, to endure designed and deliberate rigor in a type of post-modern vision quest. I would never have the stamina, or the marrow, or the from-birth cultural guidance of a Lakota Sioux sitting in a Black Hills eagle pit, but I could sweat myself to a ridgeline high above the mendacious world and create a ritual of my own, a ceremony to accommodate hard loss. What I had in mind required suffering and sacrifice, deliberation and economy, a commitment to accept the damages of loss, to purge the anguish and to emerge stronger than when I started.
I was in luck, for this place, a kind of private medicine wheel, was available.
My friend Don Berinati owns a cabin near Bridgeport, California, a place he built with his own gifted hands, considerable foresight, and a conscientious study of the strictly necessary. Don lived at the Brewing Company for many years, season after season, through violent winter storms, through wildfires, through long and cool summer nights, the sky salted with stars most people never see anymore, alone with his books, a good fire, and a good dog. By trade a builder, in winter Don would ski into and out of the cabin, braving mountain lions and bears–very real threats in that remote place–dragging a sled with his possibles and groceries. He would sometimes make this trek at night, through high winds and swirling snows, a long, dark slog and an impressive feat anywhere in the wild world.
I came to know Don in Reno, Nevada, where we both studied writing under Gailmarie Pahmeier, the famed poet and teacher. Don and I became friends, meeting for “Any Silver Coin” beer nights at the Sands Casino, and eventually I earned a rare and precious invite to the Sweetwater Brewing Company, his little alpine oasis, and in one of those strange and beautiful Faulknerian twists that life affords us, I once had a protracted street fight with Gailmarie’s deranged ex-husband, and Don married her.
It worked out well for everyone.
As luck would have it, Don was headed to the Brewing Company himself (married men almost always move to town) to salvage some firewood, to putter around the cabin and shore it up for winter. And it is a special kind of puttering, I think, when you can look at a building and draw a memory from every nail, every hinge, knowing those secret things that didn’t turn out exactly right, something out of square, or out of level, those small faults that no one else will ever see, or even suspect.
And isn’t that our lives? Those small defects we harbor about ourselves, knowing they are wrong, but finding some way to live with them anyway?
Next day, I drove out of Santa Barbara County fast, like a movie fugitive escaping a bank heist. I barreled through the desert and on through Bishop, ignoring the thought of relatives I might have visited, performed a locked-wheel skid at the store in Bridgeport to buy a fork (I’d forgotten my high-speed titanium spork), then highballed out of town again until I made the Brewery turnoff, where at last I slowed it down to a crawl, turned up the road and into the trees and the freshest air, where there is no power and cell phones are delightfully useless.
Don was already there, down from Reno, precisely puttering, an amusing spectacle when performed by older men comfortable with solitude, perhaps even an art form. He was wandering around the front porch staring at things, a chair, a length of chain, hands in his pockets. He would take two steps to the right, kick at the skein of snow on the porch, then stare at something else. This went on for a while. I watched. When he was finished we made our greetings warmly.
Old friends can do that, no matter how many years it has been, and as I stored my pack and sorted through my gear, Don fired up the hydro-generator he’d built over the creek. The Brewery came to life then, a few dim lights punching a hole in the early mountain dusk. We made rice and beans, heated tortillas, and sat at the crude window table while a small fire snapped in the stove and the cabin warmed up fast. We talked, filling in the gaps since we’d last met, hauling out laughs and memories of the old regime. After a cold beer, the night coming on and the thread of conversation fraying, I went to bed, pulled a book down from the shelf, and fell asleep with my headlamp on, reading Edward Abbey, and exactly this: “You can’t study the darkness by flooding it with light.”
The Sweetwater Brewing Company, a name that has nothing to do with craft beer, resonating instead on a higher plane, sits at the steep end of a long, narrow, and lush alpine valley, heavy snow country whose melt-off feeds a perennial creek. The creek carves a circuitous route down through stands of aspen and pine, through broad swaths of lush grass and willow, ideal grazing country, where sheepherders once summered their flocks before the government kicked them out. A remnant of those days remains in the carvings left by lonely shepherds in the bark of the trees, a gentle reminder that no matter where you may travel upon this planet, no matter how remote or difficult to reach, someone desperately horny was there before you.
The Perverted Forest is a kind of living history museum, names and dates, sexually explicit carvings of varying graphic complexity, an astonishing, funny, and occasionally frightening, journey through the mind of the mountain shepherd. After breakfast, Don and I walked through the Perverted Forest, and then down through the valley. He was mad at the bear hunters who had discovered his mountain paradise and taken to running their dogs there, trespassing, scaring off wildlife, a confrontational and arrogant lot of flatlanders and yahoos, aliens in outsized pickups and colossal egos. I couldn’t help but think, given the right set of circumstances, that it wasn’t impossible to disappear a jackass bear hunter in all that wilderness. But this day there were no fresh signs of them, so we turned back up the valley with that small victory in hand. And anyway, it was time to shoulder my pack. It was time to climb.
It is no small endeavor to race from sea-level to the mountains, throw on a heavy pack, and start climbing without a minute of real preparation or training–it’s probably stupid, in fact– but purpose is a powerful engine. I had studied the topos, conferred with Don, an accomplished mountaineer, and set my sights on a peak in the 10,000 foot range above the valley. The map is never the territory, of course, so I wasn’t under any illusions about the challenge. I expected, and wanted, a brutal climb as the necessary price of admission.
And it was, in all respects, a brutal climb. Where the road ended beyond the Brewery I fought through a manzanita forest, snagging on everything, cul de sac’ed myself twice on rock ledges, and finally, without a better line up the mountain, was forced to sidehill a sixty degree pitch of endless and dangerously loose scree, one step up, three sliding steps down.
You know how this ends. I worked, struggled, and fought my way to the top, the way we must when the payoff is so sharply calculated, and made my camp where the trees ended in boulders and deep snow. It was the top of the mountain, and I could go no further. It was getting dark too, fast, so I built a small fire, stacking rocks to reflect the heat, gathered what wood there was, and fired up my stove for tea. The wind, when it came in relentless gusts, was cold and stark, carrying in it the raw and haunting music of history, something of the age of the earth, the way that crashing waves on an abandoned beach can reach inside of you and suddenly, for a moment, the world is peeled back to its beginnings. I drank my tea, warming my hands on the canteen, and sat by the small and sawing fire as the sun dropped hard into the far peaks and the light withdrew, snaking like fire through the roiling clouds and back through the canyons until it was gone, and I was most certainly, incredibly, alone to study the darkness.
There was no sleep, of course. At that altitude, and at that time of year, in a raw camp, even the best sleeping bags aren’t enough. I tended the fire and listened to the wind in the rocks and the bristlecone, and I thought about those giants and superheroes, now lost, who had informed my life and perspectives. I thought long and hard about our son, what he might have been, and where that trail might have taken us. I thought about my wife, and our life together working behind the lines of the entirely foreign country of southern California. I thought about all of those things even as I knew that conclusions are difficult to draw, the modern fantasy of closure at best illusory, at worst not even desirable. A hard cold, the kind of cold that defies negotiation, settled in on my camp as I kept feeding the little fire and sparks burned through my jacket, and I shivered against it, mere steps from an actual physical misery and the potential of death, and exactly where I wanted to be.
And the nights wore on that way, relentless.
I can’t tell you any more about it, as much as I would like to. Don’t hold that against me. It’s a simple story, really: I went to the woods to live deliberately. More importantly, the power derived from any vision quest, it seems, is found in what those visions means to the seer. And so whatever lessons I took away from the top of that mountain can only be quietly mine, and only if I put them to work in my waking life.
It was time to move on.
And so finally, stiff, cold, and hungry, I packed my gear and started back down the mountain, for home, for my wife, for our dogs, for the warmth and welcome of the Brewery, where I knew an old friend was waiting for me, still puttering, or stacking firewood, or just staring out the broad window over a cup of coffee. And I often think of him like that — a man alone in the window of the Brewing Company — taking in the long sweep of the valley in fall, quietly drawing on the strength of visions hard-earned in the wilderness — against the world as we know it.