Monday, November 19, 2012

Hole to the Sky, Door to Forty Years

          The climb up here was  spooky. No rock climber would call it technical, but it was steep and high and you had to hold on. When I'd first looked up and seen the arch I'd thought, a hole to the sky.
          Why would two old endurance guys seventy-plus-years-old be climbing on rocks? The short answer of course is we'd climbed up to get a closer look at the arch, one of no particular distinction, at that, one lacking even a picturesque name - not Rainbow Arch, Landscape Arch, or Delicate Arch, just plain Natural Arch. A longer and better answer, however, stretches back some forty years.
          Joel Bennett and I had been good friends while we were studying for our graduate degrees at Virginia Tech some forty years earlier. In that long-ago time we'd shared a lot of adventures, roaming the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains around Blacksburg, Virginia. Some were humorous, some funny, some hard, some even dangerous. In the intervening years we'd gone down separate roads - Los Alamos for him, Tennessee Tech for me. The years spayed out, the strings frayed and broke: we lost contact.
          Then his e-mail arrived. The subject line read "SOB," which stands for "Say, Ol' Buddy," following the expression of a common friend who used it was when he wanted something. Like, "Say Ol' Buddy, do you have a cigarette," or maybe, "Hey, Ol; Buddy, have you done that continuum homework?" The saying became our ironic greeting. The letter's salutation read simply "DG," as it was our habit to use each other's given initials. His signature read "best wishes, your old buddy, Joel Bennett." I call him JG.
          Retired from Los Alamos now, he and his wife Jackie wanted me to come visit them at their new home in the mountains of Colorado. He said they'd pick me up at the Alamosa Airport at any time. The tone of the message seemed like it came from the guy I used to know. I first had some travel scheduled to Spain and Morocco. Once that was over, I was on the ground at home just five days before heading to Colorado.

          And so here we are, standing in Natural Arch, looking down on Joel's truck looking small as a green pea at the base of the cliff far below, two guys just like before, at home with each other, at home with the wilderness. We'd climbed this cliff like we'd done a lot of things - no big plans, just started walking, then climbing, without even knowing who exactly had made the decision - if anybody had.
          In our VT days, we shared many misadventures. We went bow hunting once, camping in the woods beside a clear river, sleeping in Joel's old Ford station wagon. We meant to get up early, but the night before we sat in his car drinking George Dickel and listening to the radio until we nearly ran the car battery down. Peggy Lee was singing Is That All There Is? The song grabbed us. It expressed the tragic pointlessness of life in a way that seemed perfect. "Let's break out the booze and have a ball," she sang. We worked hard in those days, trying to pass courses, qualifying exams, language requirements, leaving our cubicles only late at night. I don't think we knew why. We slogged on, thinking, "that's all there is."
          On the hunt next morning we didn't get up until long after daylight. We where standing drinking coffee when a bow hunter actually walked through our camp. We though it was funny. Here's a guy actively hunting. It seemed futile and pointless. Is that all there is?
          We tried to walk through a mountain at Eggleston, Virginia on an abandoned railroad tunnel. We wanted to get to a fishing hole just below the slow bend in New River where the state-record smallmouth bass had been caught. It got dark in the tunnel, then still darker. Finally it was black as a cave. We stopped to let our eyes adjust. Gradually we realized we were surrounded by skinny, shiny things.
          "What is that?" Joel said.
          "Looks like snakes," I said.
          The next interval of ours lives held no sound at all - save one: the sound of sneakers pounding the ground. Joel's feet raced for the light. I was left standing alone; he posted a respectable time for the 100-yard dash. The shiny things turned out to be strips of aluminum-colored metal. Their purpose and presence there was not learned. We never reached that fishing hole.  
          Now, forty years later we climbed back down from Natural Arch, which is scarier than climbing up. I started a run at the base of the cliff. Joel's plan was to drive his truck down the single-track some six miles, park on Old Woman Road and ride back to meet me on his mountain bike. It was a cool day and getting lost in the wilderness wearing running shorts was a bad idea. Since I'd never been to this place before, prior to leaving he decided to give me some advice. 
          "Remember, when you come to the tee, go left."
          "Right! When you come to a fork in the road take it."
          "Right," he said.
          Left, it was. We still understood each other perfectly. 
          It was as perfect a place to run as you will find. The single-track offered a smooth surface, unlike the boulder-filled wash-out of a trail, and yet, like a trail, it kept me immersed in the immediate environment, running right by the piƱon pines, boulders and bluffs that could offer cover to a stalking lion or hungry bear. On one of his bike rides, Joel told me about being stalked by a lion, which was finally run off by his dog. On another occasion he had to fight a bear, using his mountain bike as a two-handed club to hold it off, until, again, his exploring dog returned, together with another dog this time, and the three of them finally beat the bear off.
          Jackie and Joel live at an elevation of some 9,300 feet in the mountains bordering the San Luis Valley, near a town named Del Norte. The Rio Grande, clear and ripply and loaded with browns and rainbows, runs through town. Locals pronounce the town's name like it rhythms with "Del Snort," denying its Spanish heritage. It's their town; they can call it whatever they want to.  Joel reminds me, the Spanish were in this part of the country a long time before the settlements back east that mark the onset of our country's history for most people. It's a good point.
          The high elevation seemed hardly noticeable in my running. In a race, I'm sure, that would change, and I'd get out of breath. Running down Old Woman Road, I didn't notice it. Maybe you'd describe this location as high plains. The mountains and cliffs sit scattered all around me, big ranges like Sangre de Cristo loom in the distance. But Old Woman Road threads through it all, rising and falling in gentle rollers. I ran past a cliff Joel said was called Eagle Rock, which rises like a broad monolith a mile off the road. It's the habit of eagles to perch there. A couple of ranch houses snuggled against the cliff's base, a protected location.
          After a few miles, I saw Joel approaching on his bike in the distance. Bikes figure large in the part of Joel's history that I missed. It connects us in a surprising way, and colors the parallel paths of our similar stories.
          Before this visit, I'd had some concern. Although we'd been good friend, we'd had no contact at all in nearly forty years. I had changed and figured he had, too. Suppose he's totally different now, suppose, for example, he's become a political right wing nut, believer of wild conspiracy theories, a survivalist holed up in the mountains, fearful and anti-social - or any number of similar world views. Politics loomed, given that the presidential election followed my arrival by only four days. I didn't know what turn conversation might take.
          Turns out, Joel and Jackie had been concerned about the same thing. Better avoid talk of current events that could inevitably lead to presidential politics, seemed to be our tacit agreement. My first morning there, though, Joel brushed away all the pussyfooting with characteristic directness:
          "I don't know what you think about politics," he said. "I've heard that a Democrat says 'I've got mine and I'll share;' a Republican says, 'I've got mine and I'll get yours, too.'"
          Perfect - a political view based on generosity and charity, not hate and fear.We'd changed alright, both in the same direction. From then on we knew we'd be in agreement, able to talk about any damned thing we wanted to. Joel's politics isolates him in his family and neighborhood the same way mine does.

          We've led parallel lives. Joel had advised and taught graduate and undergraduate students at Los Alamos and carried out research projects. I'd done the same, except at Tennessee Tech and at the Army Missile Command. Maybe that's not too surprising. By earning PhD. degrees, we'd both prepared, intentionally or not, for a life in academe and research.
          But it went much further. Joel had taken up endurance sports (which we scarcely knew existed in our VT days), running and biking, specializing in biking. He'd won the New Mexico state championship on his road bike. After taking up running and triathlon, I'd achieved similar results in running.
          Small similarities were eerie. Once before a meal Joel pulled out a bottle of glucosamine and chondroitin. I started laughing. I've taken the same over-the-counter pill for a dozen years, same brand. A day later, when I absently held a gum brush in my had, a tiny brush that can go between teeth, it was his and Jackie's turn to laugh. Joel showed me his. These events kept happening. 
          Joel showed me his cowboy hat, hauled out its box and removed it from the plastic wrapper. It was a 3X beaver Stetson, seventies vintage, dark brown with a corrugated leather band and a JBS hat pin shaped like a branding iron on the buckle. Of all the models styles and colors of Stetson hats, the only one I'd ever seen like it is the one on my closet shelf back in Cookeville! 
          "Twin brothers of different mothers," Jackie said.
          We met up on Old Woman Road, JG and I this day. Joel turned, and we ran and rode on toward the truck. Once there, I decided to run on a bit further to round out my run. Joel loaded up and stopped for me on down the road. We drove back across Rio Grande, through Del Norte past the cemetery and fifteen miles up the dirt county road to where Joel  and Jackie Bennett have build their mountain home. It backs up to Horse Shoe Mountain, foothill of the 13,203-feet-peak named appropriately Bennett's Peak. 
          It took forty years. But it was what anyone would have to call a good day.