I couldn’t hear him breathing; not over the wind, which pushed eerie harmonics around the chimney pipe, and shoved the towers timber frame into groaning against the bolts that held it to the cables that held it to the granite ground. Nor could I hear him breathing over the flood roaring between my head and heart. If the forecast continued to be so well reflected we’d wake at dawn to a sunrise over the distant lights of our town, and strong but not excessive winds and plenty but not too much fresh snow for the walk out. But even in the light of day with the walk in and the evening and the night behind us, all flush will accomplishment, we would still be four miles from the car, and the constancy it would provide.
Four miles is a lot when that number is also your age, and Little Bear had been quite close to not making the snowshoe in yesterday, as I knew he would be. The former logging road contoured around, gaining elevation almost imperceptibly, the scenery changing at a pace it took me decades to finally find intelligible. It had been over a mile after having strapped all but one of my poles to my pack, walking hand in hand with him, before we rounded that crucial final turn and saw the tower atop the distant hill. Plainly over a mile to go, but with the injection of relevance I knew then that we would make it. And we did, making the top of the final steep climb 10 minutes before the blizzard descended as predicted.
Rental homes on summits are precious things, and those in the know will only reluctantly tell you that the depth of winter is reservation time, as most of the forest service towers are only open 3-4 months a year, with those slots going up half a year in advance and generally filling stem to stern. A few towers have more extended seasons, and fewer still are open year round. One such is not far from us, just visible in the right spot from the summit of our local ski hill, so the other week when a Saturday cancellation appeared I grabbed it with minimal thought. Most sublimity best escapes our mind that way.
Lookouts are often the subject of guarded public caretaking, the haphazard richness of the commons, and this lookout had a telescope, five battery powered lanterns, and 14 quilts on the twin bed. I snaked my hand under two quilts and inside the 5 degree sleeping bag and felt Little Bears chest rising and falling. He had slept quickly and hard an hour after dark, after his requested dinner of steak and ramen and while reading stories from a 26 year old hunting magazine found in the cabinets. As my vague panic faded I settled back into refined sleeplessness. I was awake long past not because I was worried about him being cold, or the tower falling over in the storm, or even the walk out tomorrow. If needed I could wrap him in all his clothes, my extra jacket, and carry him out on top of my pack (likely without falling over too many times in snowshoes). What I was worried about was his possible failure to not, eventually, ineffably, learn what I wanted him to learn.
Without the woods I am not sure I ever would have been able to cut through the fog of the 20th century. Never would have seen how entertainment, our own disease, was equally insulating and suffocating, and in the end only a response to the increasingly numerous and neat series of boxes into which we’ve put ourselves over the past century. Never would have understood how difficulty is at the same time a figment of our selves and the only way we know we exist. Never would have known how discomfort, be it in tired legs or the eyes of the stranger across the table, is always a reflection of us. On the one hand I don’t want him to be lost, on the other, I want him to earn this lesson well enough that its dirt can never be washed out. In the end, I hope he can perhaps do it a bit cleaner and earlier than I did.
The walk out provided valuable lessons. Most vitally, that novelty is magnified by short and developmentally appropriate attention spans. The steep walk into the woods engaged him because he was occupied with not falling over. The initial road walk through old growth occupied him with hare, fox, and marten tracks. The bulk of the logging road was monotonous, and had me straining against myself to give him space for struggle. Then we ran into the couple headed out, on skis, to spend the next night, and he figured that he could take off his snowshoes and walk in their tracks. This worked for someone 55 pounds geared up, and provided a challenge incisive in the way snow slogging will never be. Then we had the drift section, and these two things sustained their interest all the way the final (dull) mile to the car.
Big trips always leave a hangover, and I’ve been comfortable at least a decade with big not correlating well with either mileage or days afield. This was a massive one for us both, and watching his assimilation process that afternoon was a thing of curiosity. Elk and whale noises into this nalgene the whole drive down to pavement. A cheerful reunion with the tiny plastic backhoe in the car, and the toy subsequently invited in and fed pizza at the victory meal. Tired, cuddly, then cranky and inscrutable the next day. In this last, not entirely unlike an adult. If mountains are built in reverse then the rock of our personhood emerges a bit more each melt, fine ephemera gone downhill and the permanent bits left better defined. Nothing would move without periods growth and fallow, else all would stay frozen, but those high harsh times move things faster, and their remains are thus the more distinct.