Voices: A Certain Silence

by Doug Thorpe

March 24, 2009

There are still areas of backcountry that have yet to feel the imprint of a human foot. A certain silence exists up there, a dry stillness in the summer months, smelling of pine and wildflowers. Aster, lupine, American bistort bloom on the slopes in the late spring sun, spring coming to some places in late July. Marmot and mule deer, white-tailed ptarmigan; forests of Western red cedar and Douglas fir; deep glaciers scored by crevasses; permanent snowfields.

There is a kind of romance to it all, especially when viewed from the distance of the city. But romance has a way of turning as a relationship becomes intimate. It’s the stillness when the sun falls—the wind dying, birdcalls suddenly expiring. And the immense dark.

I discovered this for myself a few years back when I went up into the Cascades alone, after having been away from the mountains for five years. It was mid-October, in the midst of some of the worst flooding the area had known. I was there, like Wordsworth, both fleeing and seeking. I wanted what I couldn’t have and so sought in the mountains the emptiness I’d already been given.

It rained as soon as I reached the boundary of Mount Baker National Park. It kept raining as I sat in the car at the trailhead and ate my lunch, and continued raining as I changed into my boots, got out, pulled the pack from the back seat, and hoisted it upon me. The rain grew heavy as I walked: I felt pregnant with it for five long miles.

The rain seemed endless, permanent. I knew it had preceded me and would be there after I left—would return and be there like those mountains, sister to those great cliffs, a part of that landscape which people here learn to live within and love. I had forgotten about rain, how after a while it exposes you, gets into everything you wear, everything you are. There’s no hiding from it. You toss aside the umbrella and face whatever it is that wears you down.

I reached Goat Lake in mid-afternoon, ate, looked around at the small pools of water at the campsites, at the quickly shortening day, and made a decision: throwing the pack over my shoulders, I started back down the five-mile trail.

Not far from the lake was a plateau where the path had drowned itself in large puddles. I forgot about the turn it took and walked instead straight down toward a raging Elliott Creek. When I reached it I knew I had gone wrong, and so I hiked back up the hill, only to find myself at the campsites at Goat Lake. I stopped, turned around, and went back down, searching for some sign of the way out. I looked at the puddles, which said nothing, and looked up toward the mist hovering over the cliffs. Then I looked down toward the creek, which I knew could take me back home in a hurry.

I learned that five miles could be a long way when you’ve managed to lose yourself. There was a lot of unknown space to cross. Rifts. So I walked, trying to understand what couldn’t be understood. Damp all the way through, made more vulnerable by the weather closing in on me, the fog drifting farther down the mountain, the trees utterly silent and unconcerned—I was alone, absolutely, and for the moment I could do nothing about it except to walk.

As I thought about a warm bath, a beer, music, and friends all somewhere far below, I realized that even there I would find no protection from this overawing solitude, this death I felt myself carrying down the mountain. I knew it in my bones; there is no way out.

Facing a slow death is a lot like walking in the rain with miles to go: you can curse it, fight it, try to cover yourself from it, try to ignore it—it won’t make a lot of difference, not in the long run. So you might as well greet it.

And for a time as I walked I found myself exuberantly crying. Let it come. Just let it come. Let the rain come. Let the monsters out.

I reached the car two hours later, and was home in two more. Pulled everything out again, spread the wet sleeping bag and tent on the floor by the heater, ate some of the food that belonged up on the mountain, and finally took a long, hot bath. The World Series was on the radio; Kirk Gibson homered for the Dodgers in the ninth an hour after I arrived.

We forget what mountains are like. Wordsworth wasn’t kidding when he wrote about them breathing down his neck. They do breathe. They fill immensity.

Doug Thorpe was a visiting writer on the Wabash campus in October. "A Certain Silence" is an edited excerpt from his book Rapture of the Deep, winner of the 2008 David Family Defender of the Earth Award. A longtime friend of Wabash Professor of English Marc Hudson, Thorpe teaches literature and writing at Seattle Pacific University.


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