We decided to work in one last camping trip for the year. Our destination was the end of a logging road on Bunchgrass Mountain. When we arrived, the sky was clear, the weather warm. Within minutes, chilly clouds had descended to just above our heads, hiding Fuji, Diamond, Verdun, Wolf, Judd, and David Douglas. Then the sky cleared, and we were warm again. Then clouds rolled up from below and surrounded us completely. Then we went to bed. Baxter and I aren’t half the men Peggy and Bonnie are, so we slept in our coats while they passed the night au naturel.
Fourteen hours later it was light enough—and, we hoped, warm enough—to get out of bed. Then it snowed, and the wind came up. Peggy set out to climb Fuji (7,144’) while I biked some nearby roads. My hands and feet were cold even with chemical warmers, so I soon went back to bed and read, alternating the hand that was holding the book while I warmed the other against my legs. Peggy returned triumphant with photos of clouds two feet from her face and hoar frost on shrubbery. “Fuji fed my soul,” she exclaimed, and I remembered that the one in Japan is also said to do that.
Later, we biked together in the little warmth that splotches of afternoon sun provided. Skeleton trees from a forest long since destroyed by fire stood ghostly white against writhing gray clouds. Vine maples consoled glacier-scarred andesite with leaves of red, yellow, orange, and purple. A coyote crossed the road in search of a chipmunk. A red-tailed hawk hung motionless on an updraft. Pinnacles too steep to hold snow pierced high clouds. Sunbeams illuminated patches of trees in a u-shaped valley that rose thousands of feet above the rapids of Black Creek. Purple asters, yellow St. John’s wort, and white pearly everlastings gladdened the roadside. Thickets of snowbrush made the air heavenly with honey-flavored balm.
I grieved that twinflower, prince’s pine, and vanilla leaf, are about to go underground for more months than I can well endure. The star-burst sprays of mountain hemlock made my heart leap for joy, and the haughty limbs of young noble firs reminded me of Bonnie when she was a cocky pup and thought it would be great sport to attack a city bus. I ate a choke cherry from one of numerous fragrant groves, choked, and ate another so as to hold tight to that which God has spared from pruning snips and selective-breeding.
God. Three weeks ago, we camped near Windy Pass. I had been there twice but only knew it as a warm and sunny place where five logging roads converge. It is not high (3,800’), not barren, not surrounded by precipices, and not the least bit windy. Mediocre Pass, Nothing-Much-Happening Pass, You’ll Not Remember Being Here Pass; such names as these seemed more fitting.
The wind came up that night. It did not touch the van, but I could hear it overhead, waxing and waning as it flung itself out of Winberry Canyon and vaulted far into the sky. I imagined it as a great beast that was inhaling and exhaling, and gaining strength with every breath. It continued for hours under the clear sky, maybe all night. I don’t know because I drifted in and out. I just know that when I awakened, Windy Pass was warm, and sunny, and still, and not at all imposing.
During the night an interesting thing happened. The wind stopped waning. It reached a very high speed—there above the van—and it never slowed. Bonnie became so frightened that she did something she would never presume to do in ordinary times, she got into bed with us. I have camped above timberline when winds rocked the van as if it were a boat on a lake, but this wind was greater than that. To be so close to something that vast, powerful, and unwavering, and yet to be untouched by it! I felt as though I could have spread a map on the ground without it being disturbed, yet there, just a little way above me, the sound was such that God might have been passing by.
I think that to die in such a place would not be death at all. I would hope to lie in a snowbrush thicket and become a feast for the hungry. No crematory flames would waste my substance or formaldehyde poison my tissues. I would feed the earth that has so generously fed me, and I would count it as a worthy end to the narrow life that I have known thus far, for it is without excuse that I have lived nearly three score years, yet required a mighty wind to awaken me to the majesty of a mountain pass.
“The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper…. And it said, ‘Why are you here?’”
1 Kings 19:11-13
Why indeed, except it be to praise that which created me and sustains me, yet which has no awareness of me and no desire for anything I might offer. This I call God.