Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Epiphany ≠ Ecstasy

I was on the chairlift by 9:45 a.m.--early, for me--and for the next couple of hours, I felt glum, tired, suffering from a Zanax hangover (I take 1 mg. at night for sleep, but if I don't skip it every third night or so, it sticks with me), and lonely. Having worked out in the gym only the evening before, my legs and back felt stiff and sore. It was colder than I thought it'd be. The snow had hardened over the night and I found the conditions bone-jarring. After a couple of runs, I realized I didn't want to be there.

After an hour of this, I went into the lodge and sulked over a cup of coffee and protein bar for a half hour. Man, I was so close to talking myself into driving home. But, I'd driven all that way.... So, I hauled my middle-aged ass out of the seat, found a men's room, took a leak, bundled myself back up, resaddled, and got on the chairlift. Fuck.

That next run, I hit my favorite trail: the bowl at Lower Heather Canyon (when I was a kid, what they call "double black diamonds," now-a-days, were plain "black diamonds," grade inflation, everywhere.) The snow had softened, but I had to work harder than I should have, jumping into my turns too aggressively, moving my legs faster than I needed--as if I were barreling between moguls five times the size of these--and breathing too hard. I felt awkward and out-of-balance. But, I also love this trail--both the terrain and the vista--so, at the bottom, I hauled my ass back to the top to do it again.

This time, I told myself not to work so hard, which is my mantra in everything, nowadays. I let my turns arc more, taking them almost uphill (Heather Canyon is reasonably steep) to slow my speed, and trusting the inherent responsiveness of the shaped skis I was on to do more of the labor. The sun came out. I began to feel like myself--if tired, still.

Again, up the lift.

The sun stayed out. I took my hat off and unzipped the side vents on my shell. I relaxed into the turns. When I stopped for breath, I let myself look around. The bowl on which I stood is one, steep wall of a large, high valley. The peak of Mt. Hood seems to be just in reach, tucked into the partial cloud cover, some cloud fingering and curling visibly upward as it was pushed by the shifting wind and changing temperatures up there. Looking down from the face I stood on, the trees below me and to the far sides looked dark-more black than green--against the white snow. Then I did something I haven't done in a while during a ski run. I sat down in the snow and took things in. I've spent a lot of time on ski slopes in my life, mostly alone, and I not only take it for granted, but can get bored by it, unless I stop completely for a few moments. Looking up at the peak of Mt. Hood, I remembered the long car trip I took across country in 1988. I took the ferry from Prince Edward's (name is wrong... port in Canada, logging center) up through southeast Alaska's inside passage, and then drove from Haines (?) up to the Alaska-Canada Highway for a muddy, wild three day ride. Just north of Haines, I four-wheeled a couple of miles up to a high lake, where I camped for a couple of nights. I did some hiking. It was my first time in this kind of large, alpine terrain, since I spent my youth in Vermont, a more intimate landscape. Hiking, I found myself completely above tree line, in a high alpine meadow. The mountain range south of me looked small, until I realized that I was at eight or ten thousand feet, looking up. They were not small. The sky was also huge. At one point, I reached an interesting slope that looked like a fun scramble. All small, grey rocks, jumbled up. I got about half way up when I realized the whole slope wanted to slide, and would, if it realized I was there. I had to move slowly enough not to disturb it, or... I was fucked (later, I'd come to know the term for this would be a "scree slope," which you stay away from, but I was green as you can get, in those days.) When I got to the top--after slipping dangerously many times and seeing soft bits of shale come off in my hands--and caught my breath, and looked around at the mountains that were no closer than they'd been a thousand feet below, I was hit by an epiphany. Or rather, I was engulfed in it, gently but completely. I've had this experience two or three times--tops--in my life. Standing in nature, alone, far from the crowds, I felt utterly connected to the whole world and everything in it. Everything felt completely one--all Parmenides, no Heraclitas. The sensation was so heart-breaking and refreshing--I felt so in love with the world I saw around me--that I wanted to absorb myself into it. That is, I wanted to die, not be separate anymore. I felt the intensity of a religious ecstasy (and in fact, suicide-by-ecstasy is a catalogued risk of solo travel in the wilderness! I'd have to go digging to find the essay in which I read that--Annie Dillard?--but it's around here, somewhere.) Of course, I didn't kill myself, but I did come down from my own little Mt. Sinai with a renewed sense of being... 'close' to something, which other people would not hesitate to call God.

It was a full emotion. I did not feel alone. The world seemed utterly animate to me. Buzzing. Always whispering. And, yesterday, on Mt. Hood, I realized that this is no longer true. The natural world does not whisper to me as it did then. I do not feel overwhelmed by its intimacy (of course, since my trek down the Alcan, I've also sailed in open ocean, which is not so much intimate as indifferent, or better, ruthless.) Now, the alpine vista remains 'beautiful' but, in its way, small, and unstable--all Heraclitus, no Parmenides. I don't find any secret meaning out there as I once did. I don't need it so much. I want to say I feel lonelier without it, but that's not true. I just feel less coddled, less mothered. And that's okay, given that I resisted, for too long, leaving my mother.

Yesterday, after thinking all these thoughts while sitting in the snow, I got up, and still tired--the Zanax hang-over not quite lifting--made a few more runs before the clouds thickened and it got cold again. Then, I went home.

The skiing never fully satisfied me this day but I at least sat on my ass in the snow for a while, just noticing, like you'd do in yoga, taking stock, not judging, feeling okay about not having names for everything, feeling okay about not needing "God," feeling okay about my own maturity. Later, in the evening, I spent a couple of hours reading about human anatomy, to help me understand better what I'm trying to find through Alexander Technique. Looking at pictures of the human body seemed appropriate.

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