Getting Lost in the American West
Leath Tonino on Death, Skiing, and Following the Sun
I took a train from Richmond, along the rim of San Pablo Bay, across the Central Valley. Egrets stood in flooded rice fields bordering the track, still and white like flags on a windless day. Friends picked me up in Rocklin and we continued by car to Lake Tahoe, then farther south. Sharp peaks. Winding roads. I dug a cave in a snowbank that evening and slept inside the hollow. It felt good to be out of the city and good to squirm into the cave’s mute darkness. I slept, quite literally, like a bear, removed from all things, even the stars.
The next morning was Sunday, sunny and golden. We went skiing. We talked and joked for hours up above the trees, on the chairlift and in the alpine bowls. I hadn’t seen my friends in a couple of months and hadn’t skied in a couple of years. I lacked skill, but that hardly mattered. By midafternoon we were exhausted, glad to be loading the car, glad for the drive out of the mountains, down to the sunset. I changed into jeans and sneakers, careful not to dirty my socks in the parking lot’s mud. We passed a single beer around, trading sips.
Upslope, a young man was just beginning to die.
We didn’t know it at the time. We only knew that there was a competition on the mountain, a huge, steep wall of stone and clinging snow opened this one day to the world’s elite freeskiers. Resting between runs, we had watched tiny specks charge the shadowed face. Cornice, couloir, cliff—the specks rode these features with apparent ease, skiing air and earth in equal measure. Crowds cheered. Crowds stared. I remember saying to my friends that these were the most impressive athletes I’d ever seen. What would it feel like to ski that way, to give oneself over so completely to gravity’s great pull?
We passed the beer, finished it off. I said something about uncertainty, something about the way those skiers up there on the shadowed face made an art and a life out of balancing control and its opposite.
Yeah, my friends said. No doubt.
Like that, we got in the car, buckled up, drove away.
My friends are old friends, childhood friends from Vermont. I’ve romped with Will since I was four and Tucker since I was five. Twenty-odd years later we’re still Vermonters, but we’re out west—working, exploring, trying in earnest to find our way through the muddle of adulthood. We call our families on Sundays and ask about the weather, what the leaves are doing, how the ice is forming on the lake. In our prolonged absence, the dogs that were our brothers and sisters grow tired and are put down. Condominiums sprout in pastures where cows once grazed. Rocks slide. Trees fall. We talk for that hour on Sunday, visit in December, maybe in the summer. Then it’s back to the Sierra Nevada or the Grand Canyon or wherever.
When I left Vermont at 18 people told me I’d never return. Sometimes it felt like a warning, sometimes more like a prophecy. The West will swallow you, as a canyon swallows stones. I assured everybody that I was just going to college, just Colorado, and I’d return shortly. The West will swallow you, and you will swallow the West, its space and sky, its ranges and their storms. Obviously, these are my words. I don’t remember exactly how they put it. Rather, I remember the mood, the intensity, and that it all seemed silly. I was young and my life held no such drama. Vermont was home. Colorado was a journey. The West is big. Its beauty and loneliness are powers you do not understand. The West has absorbed so many young men like you.
A young man like me is indeed interested in beauty and loneliness and powers he does not understand. A young man like me sleeps in a sleeping bag as often as he does a regular bed. A young man like me climbs mountains in poor weather to learn what that entails. He sleeps on summits. He rises at dawn. He sets hammocks high in trees and sleeps in swaying crowns. He sleeps in canyons, by rivers, on schist. He sleeps in snowcaves, in imitation of bears.
I won’t say they were wrong, my dentist and my friend’s dad and whoever else, but neither will I say they were correct. What I’ll say is that I’ve been wandering for nearly a decade, all through the alphabet, from AZ to CA to UT to WY, the whole time living cheap, saving up. I plan to buy some land in the East, preferably without a road to it, preferably with a stream. Beside that stream I daily build a cabin in my mind. No matter where I go, the cabin follows. It’s a small room through which the seasons flow, and with them the local animals, the winged seeds, the flowers and gusts of rain. Low clouds. Loons. I love Vermont. I love the cornfields and migrating snow geese. I love the orange newts walking slow beneath endless ferns. I intend to die there, right where I was born, though I know this is not mine to decide.
My mother lived in Tucson for two years postcollege and left when she realized she might stay. A job. A man. A desert in bloom. She figured these would become a life for her and she worried about that. Her place was New England. She needed to get back.
A neighbor from my childhood—a friend since toddler days—graduated from the same college I did in Colorado. He lives in Denver. He mentioned to me a while ago that he could never again live east of the Mississippi. He’s a skier. He’s been swallowed. He skis every weekend for a solid half of the year.
Will emailed me the article from the newspaper two days after Ryan died. Ryan was the one the paramedics crouched around and leaned over and struggled to save while I changed my pants in a muddy parking lot at the mountain’s base. He was 25. He grew up two towns north of us in Vermont. His love was freeskiing and he was talented, a natural athlete, a hard worker, an alert, generous, focused young man who smiled often. In reading of his life I was inspired. Here was a peer—a version of myself—who loved and pursued his love. He pursued it all through the West, up to that moment when it swallowed his life.
We had some of the same coaches growing up, some of the same friends.
The inspiration faded and I stared through the computer.
My sister emailed me, asking if I’d heard. My sister is a skier. She lives in Vermont and teaches at the high school we both attended. She left the state when she was 18. Stinking cows, she would say. She went to Baltimore, dated a guy from the projects who had been shot during a drive-by and who had miraculously recovered. Now she owns a house and a dog and skis two or three days a week all winter long. She skis some of the hills we skied as little kids. Her house is not a cabin, but it is small, and its windows do frame the flow of seasons and much more.How many Vermonts would this emptiness absorb before cornfields and snow geese and endless ferns overflowed the sagebrush rim?
Can you imagine that sunny day being your last on earth? She asked and she was right—it had been sunny, golden. I couldn’t respond. I tried. I couldn’t. A line from a poem by Alberto Rios came to me: “Words are our weakest hold on the world.” Of course, I couldn’t write that either. Some minutes passed. I stared through the screen’s glowing blank page and a second poem came to me, a haiku from Matsuo Bashō: “Deep as the snow is, / Let me go as far as I can / Till I stumble and fall, / Viewing the white landscape.”
Bashō was swallowed by his Zen practice, by poetry, by the world beneath and above and surrounding the two. He left his hut and belongings and friends, returned to them, left them again. He heard the call, answered the call, rambled thousands of miles across Japan with just a paper raincoat to shield him from the storms of cherry blossoms, the uncertainty of it all. He traveled the narrow road, northward, to the interior, through the mountains.
Words are our weakest hold on the world, and I’ve got nothing new to say about the West. Long hours on long roads, shirt off, windows down, wind sounds, pipe tobacco bitter on the tongue—these drives remind me of what I’ve always known, what I think we all have always known, that joy and sadness are one, as the mesa and sky are one, welded together by a molten setting sun.
I toss a plate of red sandstone into the Grand Canyon, listening for a landing that never comes. How many Vermonts would this emptiness absorb before cornfields and snow geese and endless ferns overflowed the sagebrush rim? I picture Camel’s Hump, a peak in the Green Mountains that is dear to me and has been forever. I’ve slept on its summit countless times, alone and with friends, in winter and summer, in a tent and in a snowcave. I picture a giant hand, some cartoonishly gigantic deity’s hand swooping from the unbroken blue sky, plucking up my special mountain, dropping it into the canyon. I picture my cabin, the one I’ve not yet built, disappearing.
I toss another rock and wonder. How many lives have been swallowed by this canyon? How many young men have fallen here, either in love with beauty and loneliness and powers they do not understand, or when a loose bit of ledge crumbled out from underfoot? The Grand Canyon is a killer. The statistics say that young men are the most likely to get into trouble. There are signs at trailheads warning that people like me are most likely to die. It’s the same year after year, sign after sign, rock after rock.
I throw another. I throw another. I sense my body falling with them. There is a fear in me, beside the fear of dying. It is the fear of being swallowed against my will—swallowed by a place.
We took a snaky road out of the mountains that Sunday in order to avoid the ski traffic headed for Sacramento and the Bay Area. Snowbanks 15 feet tall rose sheer from the blacktop, smooth as marble walls. The road was a hallway, a sinuous slot reminiscent of those I’d scrambled in Utah and Arizona. The blacktop had melted clean with the day’s bright hours.
I sat in the middle seat in the back, my view through the windshield framed by shoulders—Will on the left, Tucker on the right. Ponderosa pines, their branches pillowed, reached out over the road, into the frame. We were not listening to music. No one was talking. The sun was in our eyes and a happy fatigue moved among us, thick and soft like honey.
Icy peaks. Twists and turns. I was almost dozing, easing toward it, when something beyond the windshield—some motion—called me from that honeyed edge. It was one of the pines. A bird had touched it, or maybe wind, or maybe neither of these. Snow fell from a single branch. Light came through the snow, silvering each grain. The branch sprang up. I sprang up. Then it was done and we were down the road.
I have nothing new to say about the West. It swallows some of us. It swallows us in different ways. Reading the article, remembering a peer I never met, an inspired young man who loved and pursued his love, who gave himself to gravity’s great pull, who moved with power and ease on a mountain’s shadowed face, I felt something—something immense—and the feeling left me staring through the screen.
I tried to write my sister, but stumbled and fell, viewing the white landscape.
I closed my eyes.
It was the welded joy-sadness, that’s all. It was never making it home. It was the dangerous, enlivening, many-mouthed land, the notion that we are winged seeds drifting over hungry scratches of earth. It was inarticulate, an image, the branch releasing its snow, the light coming through, the grains silvering for an instant before falling to the warm black road, melting away, keeping no space.
Dropping. Darkening. Central Valley again. I didn’t know what time it was or what towns we’d passed through. I didn’t even know I’d been asleep. No music played. Nobody spoke. There were egrets out there, white birds like flags of peace. I couldn’t see them. Or perhaps I could, just barely, only if I didn’t really look, didn’t really try.
From The West Will Swallow You by Leath Tonino, courtesy Trinity University Press.