Instead the wind brought waves of cold air, clouds, and fog that rose up, folded back upon themselves, and re-crashed into the ridge on which we'd stood. The fog obscuring anything beyond a few feet, the basalt columns guarded both sides of the saddle like volcanic sentries, appearing and disappearing with the undulations of the clouds.
HA-TAT TA TA TA HA!” Clothed in sandals, three sets of long johns, and a Baja sweater, he looked like nothing so much as a Rastafarian Druid. He shook his hiking stick at the horizon and repeated his invocation. The chant started out as the chattering of teeth, with the two of us huddled around a small fire, the heat from which was immediately snapped away by the damp, cold wind. The silent chattering soon gave way to verbalization as it often does when you want to PROVE to the person you’re with that you are cold. “Hududududu” Eric said, which slowly changed to “Hatatatatatata.”
It was at this point that Eric snapped. He started laughing as he grabbed the hiking stick I had crudely carved, and he ran to the top of the saddle that was funneling the brutal torrent of damp air directly into our campsite. He pulled the hood of his completely inadequate jacket over his head, leaving his eyes obscured but his mouth visible and open wide, "HHHHHAAAAAA -TAAAAAAAAAA-TAAAAAAAAA!!” I laughed and followed. “What the hell are you doing!?” I bellowed into the wind. “I’m calling the sun! This is my sun call!” We spent the next minutes yelling into the wind, cheering every time the sun broke through for a few moments, and reverting back to our chant anytime it faded. Eventually the clouds let up, but the wind continued and I found myself looking at a distant horizon. Tears were pulled from the corners of my eyes, but whether from the wind or from laughter I still don’t know.
Nineteen is a strange number. It’s an orphan in American society. It’s the “almost” number, the “interstitial” number. At eighteen, you’re an adult, at twenty you’re no longer a teenager, at twenty-one you can drink. Ten fingers, twenty digits. No one ascribes major significance to the nineteenth anniversary of anything.
Nineteen seems to exist only so that twenty can be reached, so at first it seemed odd that I should return to that saddle nineteen years to the month after that trip. I’d been back to the Eagle Cap Wilderness in the Wallowa Mountains a half dozen times, but I had avoided the entire north slope of the range. This time I came alone, my wife having dropped me at the trailhead, or as close as we could get in our car. The years hadn’t been kind to the road leading in. A four-wheel drive truck could have navigated the rough track, but as it was, I started my hike at a gate next to a small farm, a surly mule roaming freely and watching me with a suspicious sidelong glance. I donned my daypack and started up the road. The June weather was unusually warm, with the open road offering little shade, and the mile and a half walk had gotten me sweating. I finally reached the small turn out opposite the easily missed trailhead, some small reptilian part of my brain picking out the long overgrown rock that marked the entrance. The trail rose rapidly out of view through the thick evergreens, the shade beckoning.
I looked back at Eric climbing through the talus slope just behind me, hiking in jeans and that damned Baja sweater, the summit of Ruby Peak, our goal, hidden behind a long wall of rust colored rocks speckled with yellow and orange lichen. This was obviously out of his comfort zone, and I was still reeling from getting my ass handed to me on a guided trip up Mount Rainier. It turned out that living in Florida and training half-heartedly on the flat lands around Orlando hadn’t prepared me for 9000 vertical feet in about eight miles. It devastated my ego to find myself the slowest climber and weakest link in a group of paying clients being herded up the mountain by people who could run up and down the mountain in a day.
I'd hiked, backpacked, and done a bit of rock climbing. Eric was more comfortable behind a keyboard, either ones with letters and symbols on them or ones with 88 black and white keys. This trip was my consolation prize for buggering up the Rainier trip and a chance to perhaps rebuild my ego by showing my brother the tricks I DID know. He followed gamely as we traced goat paths that were hardly paths at all. A couple of times we had to turn around and find new ways around obstacles. You see, the problem with following goat paths is that goats can, well, jump. A path would end at a fifteen foot wide gap only to reappear on the far side. “Dammit," I’d mutter. “Again?” Eric would say through a chuckle.
I started hiking towards Murray’s Saddle, my imperfect memory attempting to impose order on parts of the trail. I should be able to remember the trail. This was that trip. Still, it wasn’t until I crossed the first talus slope with ghostly silver bones of the stunted trees on the hill that I had a true flashback: A vision of my brother sitting on the trail with a water bottle hanging from his hand, looking nearly exhausted but still game, his face showing he had no agenda other than having an adventure. It is from here that the first clear view of the saddle comes into view from the trail. Compared to much of the grandeur of the rest of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, it’s relatively mundane, a few basalt towers surrounding a low spot on a ridge comprised of a mass of rust colored rocks. To the northwest, the jumble of rocks rises slowly to a prominence called Sheep Ridge. To the southeast of the saddle, the pile of stone rises more quickly, broken occasionally by sheer smooth walls and ending at a summit just under 9000 feet called Ruby Peak.
The route my brother and I had chosen to climb wasn’t the standard one and because of it, traces of human impact were minimal. It was a bit longer than normal, but it gave us the opportunity to talk as we walked the ridge separating the flat lands to the north from the valley that drained Silver Creek to the south. The sun would come out for brief periods giving glimpses of summit, valley, and plain. One could imagine it as walking the line between civilization and wilderness, nothing but stone, snow, and conifer forest to one side and the rectilinear webbing of roads, fences, and property boundaries to the other. We walked deliberately on the uneven terrain, the wind from the north threatening to knock us off our feet. At times we had to raise our voices to be heard as we spoke about our lives. It had been three years since I had moved out of our shared apartment in Pensacola, Florida, each of us having continued our respective meandering paths not quite deciding on what we wanted to be when, if, we grew up.
Many of our friends were entrenched in career, marriage, children, and absolute adulthood. Eric had finally found a semblance of a life, a girlfriend, and a skill set in video production, editing, and 3D animation. He didn’t have a job at the moment, but the prospects were good. I, on the on the other hand, continued to be the perpetual student. After accumulating enough college credits for two degrees and a minor in fields as varied as fine art, molecular biology, and forestry, I had finally settled on graphic design and much to my surprise had found that I had a knack. We might actually have been getting our shit together, only a decade behind our peers. Both of us acknowledged the obvious metaphor of what the ridge line represented and laughed at its cliche nature. It was, after all, just a pile of rocks. A demarcation, yes, but the structure an example of stochasticity.
I reached the saddle and stopped, the sweat dripping off the tip of my nose and muddying the dust on top of my shoes. It was familiar, and like other places in the Eagle Cap, it had the distinct sense of rightness. A small bloom of blue-purple wildflowers stood out in stark contrast to the rock, an ode to tenacity. The short walk from the saddle took me to the to the campsite edge where the conifers took over. We had hung a ratty hammock here, a cheap one that was taken off the market a couple of years later because it was too easy to get caught up in like a fish in a net, entangling fingers, toes. I found the trees, and beneath one of them sat a silver white bone, probably mule deer, maybe elk. Old age? Or trapped in the jaws of a predator? Walking back to the saddle, I climbed the scree fields to one of the stone sentinels that guarded either side of the notch. Some part of me not wanting to climb to the summit of Ruby Peak. Part of it was practicality, this was a day hike and my time in the Eagle Cap was limited. I wanted to spend part of the day showing my wife other parts of the Wilderness and the places surrounding it like the Lostine River and my favorite brewpub in Enterprise, the lights of which glow beneath Ruby Peak at night on the “civilized” side. I wanted her to understand why this place was so special to me, but part of that will always be unrelatable. It’ll always be tied to a trip nineteen years prior. Another part of me didn’t want to go because...well, I still don’t know.
On the summit we found the cairn that covered the summit register where people who attain the top can sign their names and leave notes. Photos we took of each other showed the distinct difference in our personalities. Me in my Gore-Tex pants, polypropylene shirt, climbers cap, and swaggering pose. Eric huddled in his jeans and silly hoody, deep in thought as to what to write, undoubtedly a pun or self deprecating comment. I never looked to find out.
After admiring the view for a while, we decided to descend via the more traditional route down the side of Traverse Ridge which was covered in a thin sheet of snow. This gave me the opportunity to show Eric one of the neat mountaineering tricks I had recently learned, glissading. At its core glissading is just sliding down a snowy hill on your butt, but slightly more controlled. Feet are lifted high in order to keep from catching on the snow, and a tool, usually an ice ax, is drawn behind like a rudder, controlling the rate of descent. I had the good fortune of wearing nylon pants that slid very nicely. However, Eric’s blue jeans created drag at the beginning, slowing him down, but soon the snow froze on his butt into a solid sheet of ice allowing him to achieve remarkable velocity at the expense of control, the hiking stick he had borrowed from me skittering and sliding along the surface, his giggling echoing off the surrounding mountainsides. Luckily we knew that the slope of the hill gradually relents, allowing for a controlled stop. All that was left was a mile and a half hike back to the campsite where Eric could change of his frozen britches into another pair of pants. About three quarters of a mile down the trail, he looked at me and grinned, “Ha-ta-ta.”
We spent the rest of the day hiking out, packing up the Jeep, and driving the three hours back to our parents house. I don’t remember much about the conversation, it’s lost to the expectation that there are going to be many more like it to come. I went back to studying in Florida and Eric moved to North Carolina to find a job. Five months later, after coming back from class, I received the call that Eric had died in an automobile accident. Nothing could have prepared me for that. I’d played the scenario of losing friends before, imagined how I'd react if I lost my parents early, but somehow I’d never imagined losing Eric.
I’d just been nineteened.
I needed to be up high, away from the uniformity of the forest, amongst the haphazard scattering of rocks and their relentless relocation due to gravity, the stone itself a result of catastrophic upheaval and random forces. The trees seemed too orderly for this trip, even to their core, an even laying of ring upon ring. This hike wasn’t about any sort of closure. Sure, it was about remembrance and nostalgia, of wanting to hold on to some of the best memories. But it was also about embracing the chaos, the things that happen in the interstitial time, between the evenly laid strata of expectations. I spent about half an hour sitting on those rocks, the summit of Ruby in the distance, the snowfield off the side of Traverse Ridge looking steeper than I remembered from years before. The blanket of snow still looking like an enormous slide.
It hadn’t been intentional that I would be here nineteen years on. It was just a period in my life with my wife in which we had a few weeks unencumbered by obligation. For the first summer in years we had no pets to worry about, my wife had decided not to teach any summer classes, nor advise at any college sponsored camps, and I had decided to go freelance. The Eagle Cap was just one stop on an epic three week tour of the west. I stood and thought about what waited for me at the bottom of the hike out. The surly mule would be there, no doubt, the sun beating on my head, and finally my patient wife. The AC in the car blowing on high to cool me off, set to “FRESH” rather than “RECIRC” to help mitigate my hiker funk. We’d explore the road up the Lostine River, stop at the Blue Banana for coffee, and continue our adventure.
I knew I’d get nineteened again. It’s the balance of living in fear of it, preparing for it when I can, and dealing with the aftermath that seems to dominate a part of my brain. I’d lost my ability to be unfailingly optimistic, but sitting on that ridge I thought of Eric with his jeans frozen to his butt and a grin on his face. The situation was absurd, but the ability to cope with and acknowledge the absurd was something at which Eric excelled. And life was absurd.
I looked down at the saddle, this time tears instead of sweat muddying my boots. I felt a small smile on my face, stood up to begin the hike down, looked up to the summit of Ruby and said, “Ha-ta-ta” and grinned. The tears fell, this time in still air. From joy or grief I still don’t know.