Copyright notice

All content copyright 2010 by Chelsea Biondolillo. Seriously.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

more on the glacier hike

it's taking every ounce of will not to go back and edit that last one. but this is FREE WRITING. It is supposed to have typos and verb tense issues and repeated words. these things get weeded later. when the good stuff is winnowed away from the chaff. too many "alone"s are definitely chaff.

that day at the ice field it started temperate. I had on a jacket, hiking pants. it was still the first half of the trip so we didn't stink yet... two showers in 10 days and only one chance to do laundry... the cold air saved us from a true funk, but still. luckily we weren't hiking with our gear, so we could over pack. but by the laundry day, over packing or not, we needed it.

exit glacier, where the trail starts, is a very popular tourist spot--only part of Kenai fjords natl park that is car accessible. the glacier spills out on to the land in huge fingers of ice. braided rivulets stream out from under its weight, they weave into larger streams and finally spill into the Resurrection River. a short mile paved trail takes even those in wheel chairs to view one of the edges of the ice field face to face. the hike up to view the ice field is considered an all day "strenuous" affair. it is a trail that is usually closed in winter, and can be closed for storms the rest of the year. it was completely ok that i was afraid. i should have been more compassionate with myself. every one was afraid, just some of the folks that went uo that day enjoy being afraid and some transferred that fear into blind faith in our guide.

jay was a jerk. i have since experienced other "guides" with his same issues. god issues, really. these guides think that because they know the mountain and the plants and the animals and how to splint a leg... somehow everything they know must be a) right; and b) important. I know a lot of shit that is neither. and i am willing to use the words, "in my experience" and "you might consider" liberally when I am teaching or leading anything. these guides instead use "you probably think" (always said condescendingly, like the next words will be "that the tooth fairy really brings dollars through your window"). Jay, though he was leading what was called a "multi-sport" eco tour, thought any sport other than hiking fast uphill was dumb. when we wanted to go white water rafting, he explained that the water was SO low in August, we would most likely just be scrapping the river bottom the whole way. when we wanted to go horseback riding, we got lectured on how horses were not native to alaska, that anyone wanting to ride them on an alaskan tour was just blowing their whole experience, and if you wanted to ride horses you should have spent your money and gone to a dude ranch or arabia or something. likewise, a helicopter ride was "ok, I guess, if you want to blow a ton of money seeing something from half a mile away that we can see close up on FOOT. FOR FREE." so we hiked. and hiked and hiked. in ten days, i did the math, we hiked 41 miles with Jay. We got one day off, to go on a bay cruise to see glaciers from the water. as Jay said, "it's what most of you guys always want to spend your money on, and it's probably worth it."

the hikes were beautiful. we saw wildlife and got many lectures from Jay on such topics as bear safety, the importance of wildfires, and most importantly, on how cool Jay was. he led tours all year all over the world, had no home. He kept some things back at tour headquarters in the soon to become famous, town of Wasilla, AK. but you might find Jay leading sea kayak tours in Indonesia, or mountain biking tours in Europe. He was waiting on word from an outfitter that drove tour busses in Antarctica. he had applied for that gig. even though it was "just driving" it would be in Antarctica, so it would be awesome (we didn't argue the point). he got the word that he didn't get the job half way through our trip. right after the exit glacier hike. he was sullen, snappy, and bitchy the rest of the trip. we were too slow, not interested in just the right way, not excited about HIKING, moping about stupid horses, of all things.

so this is the dude that my fellow hikers are blindly trusting to get them through their fear and to the view of the ice field. for the first half of the hike, he let me fall so far behind that i couldn't see or hear the rest of the group, and that said enough to me.

weird how i have so much more to say about the frame of the day than the actual day, today. let me try to refocus.

the harding ice field is one of only four remaining ice fields in the US (and the only one entirely within US borders). just the ice field itself covers over 300 square miles, but if you add in its 40 or so glaciers, the number jumps up to over 1000 square miles. the trail heads at exit glacier are right off of the seward highway, and the shorter trails recieve a ton of foot traffic.

the day we headed up the trail, the sky was a cool gray, with a few streaky clouds, but bright. the air held the rumor of coming cold. the first mile was the hardest. Jay would never tell us when a trail was going to be easier or harder, in fact, he chastised us as being pussies for even asking, so we tended to assume the worst. we gained a mile scrambling up wet stone, rounded by the crushing force of all that ice to our left. our feet occassionally slipping out from under us, knees cracking into black rock. our knuckles were at turns white, grabbing hard in that surge of slipping-adrenaline, then red in the damp, cold air.

the second mile, when the cottonwoods and alders framed the dirt trail that wound temporarily away from the stark edge of the glacier, was spent on my own. i snuffled and bemoaned. i should have been catching my breath, gathering my composure. but i had no guide, and no idea what to expect. when Jay finally did come back to check on me, as the trees were giving way to large shrubs and the dirt trail was turning red with clay, long steep switchbacks with steeps drops to the right.

we climbed that third and a half mile together. Jay psychoanalyzed my fears from the vantage point of his all-knowingness. he told me what all of my problems were and to just get over them. then he said it wasn't fair of me to monopolize his time, when everyone else was trying harder. they didn't deserve to miss out on his wisdom. i was so pissed at him, that i stomped the next mile and a half. Up out of the tree line. into the colder needly air that smelled like rain. the glacier was further to the left and the mounded dirt stretched up to my right in great swells. like a blanket being whipped over a bed you're making. the clay had been changing back to rock. scree--small pebbles... like aquarium or desert rocks. time tumbled by wind and ice and not large enough to roll down to the bottom of the hill. the trail begain a long slow ascent. the last two miles stretched out almost completely visible. the group were black bustling dots laboring about a mile ahead. i saw jay separate for a moment to peer in my direction. i waved, hoping it would keep him from coming back, also hoping he would come back. so much of my life is an exercise in disproving the adage that sometimes terrible company is better than none. yet I return to it, again and again, like a dog returning to the hand that beats him.

they didn't slow down. didn't turn back to catch up with me. there was nothing about my attitude or behavior (grumpy, standoffish--see also, how I was pissed about the lack of multi-sports) that made me particularly un-do-without-able, but still I thought that since I would do it for anyone of them -- and in fact, on a later hike, I just stopped with one of the two Swiss brothers who was tired of the death marches, and we both dozed on the trail, not speaking for two hours until everyone else came back. he had implored his brother and Jay both for empathy and validation. to say that it would be ok for him to just stop for a bit. Jay said only that he was going to be missing out on some really amazing stuff, but if he was willing to live with that, he could do whatever he wanted. his brother expressed his feelings in a conversation in the private brotherly language of fingertip inflection, shoulder shrugging, head tilting, and eyebrow raising that seemed noncommital. i told him it was cool, i would stay behind with him. Everything about Jay's expression and body language said "it figures" and he left with everyone else. the husband in the mid-western wine loving couple said later, conspiratorily, that it was a nice hike, but we didn't miss much and he wished he had taken a nap in the warm alpine sun and wildflowers as well.

but they all followed Jay, who said hike on, I would be fine, and was in fact wallowing and deserved to be left alone to do it. I inferred all this from the unwavering forward movement of ten small dots (it would later be confirmed, obliquely, by my tentmate, an older lonely woman. she was the CEO of a large company, but through our few conversations, it seemed she had lost friends and lovers with each rung of the ladder she climbed, until she was left with nothing but admiration and distance from all those around her). that's when the water works started back up. an alpine marmot actually came out of its burrow for a moment to see what the racket was all about. the rain had started. i snuffled and heaved as i took off my day pack to fish out my rain pants and jacket. i struggled to pull the pants on over my boots. with no handhold, i wobbled and suddenly got sick from vertigo as i pictured very clearly the long slide down the mountain if i fell off the trail. it was a gradual slope, but with no handholds and nothing but small round rocks just waiting for a reason to tumble, it would have been a long and harrowing setback. the rain had gone from a steady mist to drops, ice cold and moving in curtains that blew first across then down at the hillside. the black dots had disappeared into the sheets of rain. I began to bawl louder. more angrily. i started shouting at the mountain, all of my disappointments. I cried about the jerk I was living with, the one who couldn't be bothered to leave the house for dinner, let alone an Alaskan adventure. I cried about the job I had become trapped in, that drained all of my creative energy and gave me back zero fulfillment. I cried about all of the things I was afraid of, the dumb stuff and the real stuff: down escalators, driving a car, going out by myself, cleaning an empty house, missing a flight, riding a bike, getting in a fight of any kind, putting my hand down inside the garbage disposal--even though it is most definitely off... I knew how much some of these fears were keeping me from happiness. and I cried about the happiness that was eluding me. the wind howled with me. and for just a moment, i fell to my knees and just sobbed as loudly and freely as i ever have as an adult. the wind and rain served as shield and muffler. there was literally no one for miles. the marmot remained non-judgemental. i cried with my whole body, shoulders heaving, my head bobbing and arms shaking. my mouth was wide, and snot and spit and whatever else hanging like man o war tentacles from my chin. it was all so unfair, a travesty, everything. the kind of moment that is as cathartic as it is humiliating. I never told anyone how much i cried. I mentioned that I was freaked out. Later tales would include "some crying" or ... with a close friend or lover, I might say "I sort of lost my shit up there." but never how much shit was lost. the sobs that turn into hoarse barks when your voice gives out. the cry that rushes up and out like puke after a night of doing jaeger and or goldschlager shots and smoking cloves. It came up and out and kept coming. it seemed like hours, but it was really probably about 6 minutes. the force of emotion slowed. the sobs became silent pantomimes of hopelessness. I wiped away the snot and stood back up. my legs were wobbly, but the reality of the hike was there. regardless of how shitty I felt or the world felt or how all the things I thought I deserved but didn't have felt, the trail still stretched forward. impassive in its windy gravelyness. the rain still fell, the marmot went back into his bush and i started back to hiking. leaning into the now substantial wind gusts and sheets of rain. the water washed the grit and tears off of my face. and as the tears had slowed to hiccuping little gasps, i saw dark shapes coming toward me through the curtains of gray on gray on gray. the rest of the group--not coming back for me, as I had briefly hoped, but giving up on the hike in the increasingly bad weather. I was still about a mile from the overlook, and my heartbrokeness briefly flared up at the reality of my not making the whole hike. but then Jay explained that they hadn't gotten to the trail end either. the weather was too bad for them to have seen anything even if they had. a silent accusation hung in the air on the way down: if they hadn't been held up... the quiet japanese girl from san francisco who was on the trip with her equally quiet aspiring trader boyfriend tried to get Jay to admit that the storm would have beaten them even if everyone had practically run up the mountain, but all he wold agree was that it HAD come on suddenly, and there was no way to plan ahead for it. Despite singing much of the way down, usually with Jay and often with several other members of the group, I would be treated carefully for the rest of the trip, like a sandmine, that could be triggered easily. I was the one who "might not be able to make it" or the one who had to be watched for signs of breakdown.


No comments: