Thursday, 23 August 2012

Sweetgrass Butte

I started the engine and continued the climb to Banker Pass. In the far distance the rugged peaks rounded, and a suspicion of sage on the east wind heralded the gates of the Okanogan.

As I swung around a blind bend the scene suddenly turned to Dante: an entire mountainside razed black and smouldering, heat waves dancing over its charred crust. I cranked the window against the acrid fumes and proceeded with caution. Yellow cards staked along the verge assured me this was a fire-management burn, under the theoretical control of a man behind a desk in a town twenty miles away. The Forest Service was getting a jump on wildfire season, burning the scrub and slash from this clearcut slope while the still-forested ones were fresh enough to discourage disaster.

The road caterpillared around another ridge, and Hell vanished behind me. Now I was cutting diagonally across vertical green pastures, one after another, where browsed bands of deer and cattle, and the occasional integrated society of both, amid wildflowers. The grandeur and freedom so mesmerised me that I forgot my resolve and let the hood ornament lead. By the time I came to my senses it was too late: I'd sleepwalked onto another summit feeder, trapped on a sharp, thin track jutting cloudward at something like the Ram's maximum grade. To the left, nothing but empty space; the mountain cut away so steeply from the trail's edge, just a few feet from my tires, that I couldn't see it. It was like driving up a rope.

With no hope of turning around, and nothing lying between me and the Swan Dive of Retribution, I had no choice but to push this road, steep and squirrelly as it was, to its bitter end. So I flattened the accelerator and the truck leapt gamely forward; I clung to the steering wheel, struggling to maintain maximum thrust on that sinuous ribbon of dirt. At that moment, momentum was survival; stop for any reason, and I wouldn't have the traction, on that pitched surface, to continue forward. And the thought of having to back all the way down that winding scaffold froze me in terror.

So, heart in mouth, eyes riveted on the empty stratosphere above, I Buck-Rogered that screaming Dodge into the cosmos. The g's pressed my spine into the bench beneath it, while I fervently prayed I didn't cross another Forest Service truck bent on validating Einstein on the way down.

Time dwindles to a drip at such moments, and for that instant, truth stands in bold relief. Hanging somewhere between an unremembered beginning and an unknowable end, possessed of a theoretical but functionally inoperative ability to stop, I could only rocket, as if a Saturn V were strapped to my backside, up and out. Welcome to existence.

At last the road crested, with nothing visible beyond but open sky. The Ram shot into it like a truck in a TV commercial, seeming to lift all four wheels off the earth, and then lighting, soft as a cat, on a freshly-graded plateau. I squeezed the brake and we sprayed to a stop. As the dust blew past the cab, I discovered the wherefore of this goat path to the stars: two huge, battleship-grey communication towers, their microwave drums staring implacably at the horizon, utterly indifferent to the panting insect at their feet. Lights winked red from their mastheads through linty clouds, warning jetliners not to ding their paint jobs on the bristling antennae.

I rested my forehead on the steering wheel and drew a shaky breath. The trouble you can get into with your mind in neutral. According to the atlas, I had arrived at Sweetgrass Butte, official edge of the twentieth century, and at 1860 meters, the highest point in the region.

I lifted my hat and passed a hand through my hair. The truck purred under me, as unperturbed as if we'd stopped at a city light. Aside from the sky and the clouds, and the icy gusts that bounced the truck on its shocks like a basketball, we were completely alone; if not for those antennae, we might have touched down on some distant planet.

I reseated my hat, shifted mind and motor back into drive, and etched a tight doughnut in the gravel. By standing on the brake, I was able to shinny the truck back down that skinny access road to the mainline. This time I could see the cliff dropping directly from my right front tire, down and down, to a knife-edged Road Runner gully miles below. Where, the crease being forested, I wouldn't raise so much as a dust ring, should ever that tire wander a few inches west.

When at last I reached the bottom, I found that the intersection was well-signed after all. There was no excuse for the detour, if not lack of sleep.

(Adapted from Rough Around the Edges, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia and a generous photographer.)
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