Our tents grew unclean and stank. Mildew skins grew on our vinyl floors and walls. We stuck whole garlic cloves in our water bottles to keep the stink down. Knots of madness got tangled in the rushes and cold swamp mallows between the grey banks, hell breaks of rotten liquid dissolution, wrack in the leaves. Voids of grey skies rained for months, brought no summer, spawned an endless, intimate, foggy entropy.
Answers were all around but still invisible, sodden-soaked into each grain in the mile-wide of braided stream, hidden next to but dominant of the blacktop snaking to the glacier. Everywhere but invisible, god. There on the sharp hillsides, enfolding us in cold rock and grainy diluvian soil.
Damp woods, reason, beauty, stumbled prone next to the Apocalyptic Orgasm River. Love glowed and grew and shivered and freshened, raindrops on an undulating river, and rotted like a dead dog under the porch.
Apocalypse spilled all over the slopes that beheld the river. I thought I wanted the mountains, or thought the mountains wanted me.
Wrong all around.
The river carried silt.
We were three: me, Tief and Delf. After a few months, we finished up our jobs, packed our shimmelig tents, drove away, went “hiking” – which really meant we got lost and battered. Twice; first in one landscape, then at another.
Tramping over river stones in the Wyoming Hills of Denali, thinking of lost loves, Delf said he wished he had a string and could draw all his guts out now now now now, slowly, slowly. Dump them all over the river bed for the bears to eat.
I tumbled in the river, was rushed some metres downstream, lost my glasses to the grey milky flow. Moments after, we got lost in creeping bushes, head high and wet, on the western bank. Exhausted, we tented on moss, us and our food scattered amidst the red-black, pencil-thin stems of the hill creep, abandoned to whatever stupidity.
The next day, random blind ascents of smooth green hill slopes that disappeared into grey banks of clouds.
Brutality of defeat, incompetence, pride, competition. Inexorably crushed by the visible we could not see. Is that a rock? Is that a bear? Will we die here? Or is our pride so big we think this little bit of rain, this little bit of forgotten mountain, this little bit of bear, rock, stream, beach, bush, wild, will turn us into this summer’s frontpage? Is that death right there on the hill, or just pride?
Seeking the apocalyptic orgasm but afraid to get in bed with it when its glistening eye crept open where the ever steepening scree slopes met the mist. It was me who convinced us to turn back.
Couldn’t see it.
The bear in the river bed came out of the bushes and menaced us a bit from fifty metres. Showed us its side, maundered towards us, changed its mind, ramble-rumbled back into the bushes it had come from (and where, delirious from failure, we would later sleep, food strewn in the bushes like raw guts).
It was the fox that got me, though. Within moments of the bear, the fox came out of the bushes, trotted to within a few metres of us, as if saying hello, and went back into the bushes.
I was tempted to take it as a sign: elusive beast, smiling trickster.
Just a fox. Looking for undigested meat-bear-shit? Hoping we were dead but salvageable?
The bear – a warning? Shiva bone dance? Just a bear.
We were still ignoring how big it all was. All of it. Focusing on the fox. Illusion of the mystical. Thinking we were saved by the fox.
Lice, death, lameness, funk, stink, chiggers, ticks. Toiling about on the lower slopes of the Wyoming Hills, aphids on bird legs.
Afterwards, Tief and I left Delf in a town, and he dropped from my consciousness so fast he may as well have sunken into the sifted stones there on the riverbeach under Denali’s dominance on our accursed and misunderstanding trip to Denali’s most wretched and forgotten backcountry.
We left him to hitchhike out on his own, and Tief and I fled to the centre.
* * *
I dreamed of god once. Autumn in the dream, high on slope, golden bear and bamboo grass. Boiling clouds, perfect calm, sound carrying for miles.
Decaying wooden two-storied hutch whose boards crumbled in your fingers like dead skin after soaking. Upstairs in this particular hut, god, up the ladder. But I couldn’t get up. Every time I tried to climb the ladder, ball lightning, discharge, aftershock fallback.
There was a corroded rusty pipe sticking jaggedly down out of the hut’s outer wall, busted off like a broken glass bottle, blatting audio feedback spattering from it like epileptic Morse code. I knew it was the devil, but spent time listening. Not dangerous, ol’ devil. Just there.
This too all wrong, as dreams tend to be: god like a man, a saint, a withered mummy, a hermit, a presence, a mind, a thought, an intention, a will, a devil, a beauty, a holiness. None of that.
* * *
By the time I got to Alaska I wasn’t looking for god anymore. Just summer work money on fishing boats that never materialised and left us riding our bicycles to the Subway to be Sandwich Artists and vacuuming up crumbs in the Wyndsong Lodge. We would blow our profits on Denali and Wrangell.
Tief and Delf and I showered with the homeless and sailors in the port public toilet and picnicked in the fjord-side park, accepting overflow overkilled halibut from the tour boat parties that flocked the park like overgrown, stinking gulls. At the Wyndsong two other seasonal transients helped remove calcified gum from the carpets under the beds, harvested leftover sacks of bread for next day’s lunch. One: a desultory East German who told me my late twenties flesh-heap was nothing but decay from here – my body had outlived its biological usefulness and was no different from the flowering salmon in the brook. Two: Eskimo, though in her baseball cap and Wyndsong terrycloth pullover she had to tell you that for you to know. Forceful and frank, sleek yet fat, our supervisor, happy to clean a toilet, careful to tell you lots of stories about her brooding boyfriend.
Still full of the moss of the woods that the Wyndsong intruded on, she believed in the gnomblins and told their story so strongly I averted my eyes from the strip of naked, spindly pines between the road and the lodge when I passed. They were in there. We all know death is cramped and cribbled up in between the slippery rocks half-buried in the hummus of tart pine needles under these gliding grey skies, everywhere, everywhere, and so her explanation seemed as good as any that summer as we sought cash by wiping the waxen cum, piss and shit of others from the sleek formica bath units, and flirted with the apocalyptic orgasm that could rain like anvils from the twenty-three hour light in the nightless skies, or creep on us like a doughy, crinkled gnomblin, surprised at lichen-scraping amidst the rock, all its fingernails torn off and algae growing in the folds of its neck, hostile to all that is wrong because nothing is right. Crawling and scuttering by the time-pickled thousands over the rocks between us and the river. Cold beach roaches, invisible until seen.
* * *
Work done, beaten by Denali, for the end of the summer we two remaining incompetents, Tief and I, went hiking in a place called the Goat Trail. It’s a little bit of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, in the same way and at the same scale the street you live on is part of the country you’re in. Wrangell is the largest National Park in the United States, bigger all by itself than some states. For all that, it is an unknown nothing, inhabited by two tiny dot-like towns of a few citizens, connected to empty portions of paved mid-wilderness Alaskan highway by long, treacherous gravel roads that slurve between flat bog wastes and scarped riverbank abysses like an engineering dare, an impossibility of forced convenience. Connecting humanity to ashy death.
There weren’t any trails from the collection of subsiding wooden structures known as McCarthy beyond the end of one of these roads (the road slashed away by river, the town marooned on the other side, connected only by pull-cart-on-wire). Wrangell-St. Elias is not a National Park like we’re used to, with nice brown wooden signs and happy yellow-painted groove-letters cheerfully announcing “Rainbow Spring 3.4 miles.” It is a swath of country declared frightening by awed surveyors, a vast blot of natural dominance left to be that way because what else. Defeating development and enterprise. It contains an entire, dead, abandoned mining town. But no trails, no trailheads.
We looked downcast and convinced an idle bushpilot to fly us into the backcountry for half price – he knew even that money was more than we had to waste.
Boom. We were dropped off by tiny bi-plane in an area so slagged with natural destruction as to daunt the eye, bewilder expectation. Here, gravel mounded into high hill by glacier. There, glacier crumbled like hundred year old frozen cheese, sledgehammered on a cold fall evening against the slate-block of the river bed. Turbulent effluent flowed out from below, blocked all paths.
The watery plain dominated in turn to meaninglessness by the hills. “Mountain” is too dramatic a term; they were too big and split, riven, wrecked, huge, rampant to slot into the mystery and pleasant greenness of “mountain.” Too big and primeval. Call them hills, disappearing into rack of cloud that didn’t know land from sky. A stirred broil of the elements, water, earth and air, needing nothing of fire to show the natural world can destroy itself in its own making again and again.
We’d flown over glacial rivers that could swallow Manhattan in one gulp, beasts that defied my scientific understanding of them by lapping and overflow the valleys between the peaks, like dough swollen over the lip of a bowl. Aren’t they supposed to be produced by mountains, not consume them? They looked to shunt aside the peaks. They formed vast, blank white pools that filled the all. To call our plane gnat-like in the face of all this is to exaggerate: dust.
Droned loudly over all that and set down on a scar of scraped-up gravel in a convenient flat spot in the available vastness, Skolai Pass, the beginning of “The Goat Trail” we were to follow.
Mind, there was no actual trail.
Everything was wet, strangled in chill by the onrushing early-August autumn.
In our minds, Tief and I were about to dare something on this Gauguin-gone-mad canvas, but we were soon to know there was no “dare” in it, just the struggle of ants against the enormous flood of time and space. Our egos were to be stricken from us like winnowed grain. We were to be husked.
The pilot tipped us out of the plane like misshapen ball bearings carelessly discarded in a thousand-acre junk-yard of rust and fresh, torn metal.
Filings. Shavings. Blown from the palm of the hand of a giant into a waste of scrapped iron, copper and steel.
The Goat Trail is no trail, but a way, direction, or idea. In places there is a scratching of path, but it may have been made by boots, may have been made by deer, may be an illusion you’re putting together for the convenience of your preconceptions. There is no sense in making it anything more, as the hills, water and wrack of sky and earth constantly remake and erase what is, a stirring of the folds of the mother.
We set out over a lip of moraine and down the river valley – here a stream, a violent trickle – that was our “route”: “follow the river for a few days ‘til you find the other airstrip in the flats; I’ll pick you up there.” Those were the pilot’s directions, either assuming we had more skills and knowledge than we did, or inured by death of self-supposed outdoorspeople in these parts to the point of a shrug: dump off the grub-worms, see if the birds eat them. Maybe you get a caterpillar in a few days. Maybe you get bird shit. All the same to him – nice guy, the pilot – but he’d been subsumed by the all here long ago.
Within an hour or two, telling ourselves all this was okay, we’d come to our first complete erasure of human endeavor and intention. Some torrent or other minor unheard local cataclysm had torn a rent down the hillside like a drunken butcher’s cleaver on raw, open cow flank. Widish, deepish – an orange gash running up into clouds and down into can’t-see-where ripped the hillside we needed to cross into a wet mulchy crumbling sand full of trickling brine. Nearly vertical and, for any normal hiker, impassable. Meaning not that we were somehow skilled beyond “normal,” but that on any other “hike” we’d at this point have just turned around: “oh look, the trail is gone!” But we were young dudes with no cell phone, radio or anything louder or more impactful than our voices, and the only thing that was going to get us into contact with the human world again was walking across that gash and going on and on and on, a couple of days, to an imagined airstrip somewhere down and below in this infinity.
We ventured into the gash gingerly, gamely. This was probably the last point of the trip that we treated the whole thing as if it was supposed to be this way, as if the danger of the gash wasn’t as bad as it looked, as if yeah, we just weren’t used to it, and this was just like being on a boardwalk to a nice pond, being worried we’d trip on a nail or get a sliver. Yeah. We just had to do it, we thought: get in there and get through it. “It will be fine.”
It would not be fine.
In a prelude of the days to come, as we were smeared by clayey mud and tempura-battered with bits of rock and sand, and slid about in the sticky crevice, I dislodged something large and chocolatey, a “rock,” I will call the biggish chunk of crumbling butterfinger that slid out of the gash-side I was clinging to, glanced off my elbow and careened into the nothing.
There was no time to pause to be startled; I still had to finish outliving the gash. I felt fine; it didn’t hurt much. Yet. I reassured Tief, and, in that oblivious moment – “this is all perfectly normal and fine!” – we chose to ignore the fact that anything bigger, even that rock itself in different orientation, could have taken me with it and put an end to all of it right there.
We climbed out of the gash on the other side and found a spot to sit in the dead grass and patchy soil. My elbow began to hurt – a lot. It swelled up, a vast fleshy mass, instant tumor, alien invader. A pulpy cantaloupe-sized flesh-ball dangling from the back of my joint. My offended mortality had put its fingers in its ears and puffed out its cheeks – “no no no this is not happening!” – and defended my brittle bones with an amorphous, swollen version of itself. I was more bemused than afraid, but that progress through the gash was the end of our nonchalance.
We’d passed out of the realm of “hiking,” and knew it. We now were animals scrambling on a hillside – nothing more.
There are linear trips from which I can count the camps. Precise pieces of trail, discrete phases of map. This isn’t one of those.
We camped somewhere that night, left enough time for the next day to be a “day off,” wasting time we didn’t know we didn’t have. For our “rest” day we hiked up the hillside to a large plateau of a consistency unfamiliar. Soft and quaky, yet easily bearing our weight. Not bog-like, but a springy mat like poorly consolidated rubber ten feet deep, or a hundred. By turns barren and brown and dirty, by turns diseased by sprays of wispy stubborn plant. I had the uneasy feeling we should get out of there. The terra firma below our feet wasn’t firm at all, a shaky hardened pudding that felt like it could swallow us up.
We ate a picnic, ran a series of stupid arguments. It’s dirt. It’s dirt-covered ice. It’s a glacier. It’s not. It reminded me most of the time I stepped onto and stood on a dead deer’s chest outside of a hunting lodge in Minnesota without realising it until I felt the rib cage start to give under my feet.
I felt the land could consume us the same way my melonning flesh had metastasized my elbow the previous day.
We wandered about on this springy deathtrap, disputing pointlessly about whether great literature needs to have an exciting plot or not to be “great.” We both thought the other obtuse, stupid, and deliberately not listening to our point.
We were actually arguing about what it means to be friends, whether you have to talk all day to be intimate together, and why youth must cover love with noise. Hate. The shivery surface under our feet noticed us not at all.
We’d camped at a place where the once measly torrent of above had become something rather more and merged with a broad flow choked with floating ice that emerged directly out of a glacier that was, like, right there in front of us, man. We had to cross both of these top forks of the “Y” shaped confluence to get out of there. The Y-stem was too deep and wide.
We were terrified.
Our jaunt on the quaking pudding now a night behind us, we contemplated the obstacle with the morning sobriety of necessity. Our sense of the real, and of our scale in it, continued to winnow as the land humped up bigger and bigger and pissed all over us. Here, at this knupf-point between the arms of the hills, at the fight-nexus where the river and glacier beat each other up, the natural was churned into an uneasy broil.
We’d begun to see bears on the other side of the river: where we had to go. The lone, close-up bear of Denali was now replaced by multiple far, seen, real bears, plus imagined ones, roaming about in this flotsam of hungry-early-fall. They shat piles of pure jellied berries that looked like blood mass. Everywhere. As it did most days that summer in Alaska, the grey gloom in the upness spat rain on us, and the damp air we lurched through was coldish. The sunny jaunt on the hill carcass the previous day was wiped out and we faced another moment where it was just us two prideful flesh-piles getting our faces ground into the hillside of mixed slate and calcified shit.
We crossed the first river without incident, schooled into caution by my falling in Denali and losing my glasses in a stream which had looked shallower than this one (I now put in contacts each morning with dirt-rimed fingers and took them out, dry and brittle, in the soggy tent each exhausted evening).
The second fork, the one coming out of the glacier, defeated us. It was broad, braided and confusing. We pointed out various routes to each other, utilising sandbars in the middle, or not, but each time soon found a channel too deep to wade, too fast to dare, too frightening to lower ourselves into. The water was literally ice cold, fresh glacial melt, carrying mini icebergs up to the size of a dorm-room fridge. They bumped off our legs and hurt considerably. Within an hour or so of multiple failed attempts and retreats, in and out of the frigid water, we were too tired to cross, too worried about hypothermia to try.
In this state, judgment reduced but the far airstrip a terror-inducing absolute – get there or stay here – we determined to climb across the tongue-end of the glacier.
We had zero experience in glaciers between us – rather, just enough reading to be terrified of them. We had no idea of the best way of doing it.
Just as we’d gingerly lowered ourselves into the hillside-gash two days previous, we simply clambered tiredly up onto the thing. And there we were. These are our lives.
That glacier may be the least flat surface I have walked on. Imagine your jumbled tray of ice cubes in your freezer. Take it out and melt it some until needles and collapsing globular-topped spires appear. Churn up a can of broken peanuts with some spoiled sour cream and sprinkle that on top. Dump several tablespoons of feta cheese on that. Refreeze. Now, you sized perhaps as big as a no-see-um, cross it.
That is your Wrangell-St. Elias glacier tongue that day. Whether this is typical or not I don’t know; it is the first and last glacier I have crossed.
Aside from the impossible ups-and-downs and arounds-and-abouts, another unforeseen problem crops up: your view of anything but the decaying glacier itself is blocked by the spires and towers, and you get lost. The river that is flowing underneath reappears in spots internally, as the structure is rotten: the glacier does not end in a flat, neat line, but a melty, chaotic catacomb. I was acutely aware that the whole thing might collapse under as at any moment, simply break away. For the first time in my life, I experienced fear as a physical sensation: I might as well have licked copper emulsion plates for the taste on my tongue. I was jolted into a hyper-awareness of being alive, but there wasn’t much to me: just fear and this ice. Radical reduction of self, ego, time, space and life. A bit of wafted fear, plastered against riven snow.
And we were fine, and lived, and climbed off down the other side. Some might say we had a good story to tell. We felt like fools. What were we doing here? Who were we? What the fuck was going on?
We were now in the main valley, but we’d lost a sense of ourselves somewhere in the valleys above. The devil had opened the door the minute we’d stepped out of the plane – “come on in, boys!” – but it was only now that we knew we were in the room.
It was here, in this valley, that the religious experiences of my life came to a sudden end. That’s twenty years ago now. Since then? No seeking, no thinking, no wondering. I was about to get my answer. Right now.
Identities erased, tamed, embarrassed. We headed down the valley. The river to our right was soon a raging beelzebub you wouldn’t want to cross in a canoe. But the airstrip was on this side, on the left, somewhere on ahead. So all we had to do was stumble across the rocks a few more miles, picking our way between the spindly cedars and splashing through the outliers of braid. Right?
We had one more night, but we feared time now. We decided to head for the airstrip, camp there.
Not to be.
The tributaries that spilled out of the eroding hills were sometimes rivers in themselves. Better experienced now, or simply inured, we crossed some easily. Then, nearing dusk, we found one so fast we could hear rocks banging together as they rolled along the bottom. We stared at it dumbfounded, sat on the ground-round rocks.
The sky pressed down. Darkness removed light. Time bubbled and frothed. The infinite was very small, because of what was behind it. People we knew were dying. We were alive.
What is it? What is it?
Ragged, the hillsides humped up into the clouds. Immensity beyond imagination. Around us in every direction, the park stretched for hundreds of miles. Immensity of nothing. Total defeat. Time a fluid, blowing around in the wind. Fragility and finality. The claw-hammer power of the hill’s deafening hand. A triumph of the infinite so complete it does not dwarf or awe you. It eliminates you.
The tributary here was narrower than the ice-float-tray at the head of the valley, but ridiculously much deeper, faster. Patently uncrossable.
Well beyond the end of our rope, we pitched camp next to it. We despaired, we thought we would die, we hated and loved each other no less.
Braids heaps, dumps slag. Raven pelt. The unguent flow of rock glaciers, dirty like soot, rotten curd, oozing the slowest of total destruction. Scaled to kill. Crumbling, morphous, eternity’s pestle, god the mortar. Dwarfing totality. In the lowlands, weed clot in the brack under tannin pine, the egregious suck of organ-mud blacker than bitum. Chew grubs out of dead logs. In the towns, tin roofs perishing to time, gone brown with rust, not assaulted but overwhelmed by the forest. Gravel underfoot crunches, then is soaked with the brine of deterioration, churning back to mulch. Defeat of timber, bolt, screw, dirt-clogged pipes. Graves dot fields. Molten and frozen hell. Silt river teeth. A takeover not friendly or peaceful – a savage and indifferent aggressor, blind and sweeping. Death a scattering, life a brief and unnoticed taking. A decay of the eternal into dust. Threat, fragility, purity. Cauldron of shattered cement. You can fight it and it will let you, but it doesn’t know you are there.
We both saw it, knew it.
In the morning, refreshed, sane again, without god bashing us in the face, we hiked upriver far enough that we crossed the stygian headwater at a point where it didn’t reach our knees. In the bright sunlight, we pretended god hadn’t crushed us, and ambled easily to the airstrip. The drizzle began again. The pilot came and picked us up.
We acted as if nothing had happened.
The truth was we’d slept in the bosom of god, trundled across its ass like blind beggars for days.
It exists and is around us at all times, but does not care. Though we are pieces of god ourselves, we are less than nothing to it. Yes, it is easy to fall into the pathetic anthropomorphising fallacy of seeing the hills, the all, as brooding, evil, hostile. Or great, good: unforgiving but benevolent.
They, it, god, are none of these things. To god, we do not exist. No zen recognition of emptiness, this: no, it is elimination of self, annihilation of meaning. Our stay is less than temporary and transient. In the face of god, our time does not exist.
We were overmatched, helpless, pathetic, utterly uncared for. The hills were as indifferent to us as the Big Bang to space. The landscape made all other landscapes look like toys. Total indifference. Total, total indifference.