Friday, February 18, 2011

Adventures At Sheep Camp: Shutting It Down

Maggie's physical therapy was progressing. She could flap her hand through about a third of her normal range of motion, and it didn't point so far to the side any more. She got a new splint - less angulated laterally - and more exercises from the physiotherapists.

I, in contrast, was getting stronger leg muscles, but my knees were starting to be a problem. In the main they don't trouble me much, but the constant up-and-down of hiking the Mesa - and the hard, shaley surface - was beginning to tell. The downhills were the worst, with the constant pounding, and I went down any number of steep grades on my rump, sacrificing the seat of my Levi's to spare my joints. This worked well enough, although it was a dusty option; however, even the mighty Maggie resorted to it sometimes. It made for some interesting pictures; there was one, taken with the camera timer, of Maggie and I leaning against a fence rail, both our seats completely crusted in dirt. Oh, well; it was expedient, if undignified.

One day when Maggie was busy with the doctors, I farmed out to another researcher, one out of Rifle district that was doing stream-flow analysis. This seemed like an interesting enough diversion; something I hadn't done before, at any rate. We drove out to a high mountain meadow that was hammocked between two saddle-back ridges. It was a lovely spot. The ridges were crested with the rough red rock of the area, the ridge-flanks were clothed in deep green pinyon and the silver-green shimmer of aspen. We swished through thigh-high grasses scattered with wildflowers. Hummingbirds and butterflies darted across our path, and the sky was a deep, rich turquoise overhead.

Our stream wound down a rocky bed, heavily thicketed with aspen and cottonwood and the dense, springy canes of willow and Russian olive - invasives to that part of the world. We bushwhacked through the tough, resilient undergrowth to the stream-bed - which was completely dry.

"Well, this ought to be easy," I muttered. No water equals zero flow rate. Never the less, my fearless leader handed me the tape measure and took the end of it, tromping upstream the required 50 feet, and marked her spot. Normally she would drop a marker and I'd count off the time it took to reach me, thus determining the flow rate of the stream. In this case, there was nothing to measure - except the distance between the two researchers. We bouldered up the stream bed a little way, marked off our 50 feet again, observed the zero flow rate, and recorded it. I gathered that normally there would be three observations made and those three averaged to get the overall rate of the stream, but strangely, we called it good after two. Go figure.

Oh, well. It was a pretty walk on a lovely sunny day in the Rockies. What could be better than that?

Well, one thing: I could have had hiking boots that did not feel like they were made expressly for me by Torquemada as a torture device. The footwear, I will admit, was my fault. I'd noticed, in all my hiking on the Mesa, my lightweight hikers were not really equal to the terrain. They lacked any sort of shank in the foot-bed, which is great for light trail hiking: Such hikers are lightweight, comfortable, and cool. However, in the steep, loose-shale terrain of the Mesa, they offered too little in the way of ankle and sole support, could not be kicked toe-in to the shale for better footing, and did not provide any sort of platform to step up on, should you get an adequate toe-hold.

Consequently, I'd phoned my mother and asked her to ship me my heavy duty, steel-shanked hiking boots. Dutifully, she'd sent them, and I'd donned them that very morning for our foray into stream-flow analysis. It turns out, however, that somewhere between the ages of 18 and 28 my feet had made a few changes of which they had not bothered to inform me. As a result, my perfectly-broken-in, uber-comfy heavy hikers were now keeping company with items like the iron maiden and thumb-screws, in terms of their physical comfort.

Ah, well. It was easy hiking, and ultimately not that big a deal. I'd just have to get another pair of heavy hiking boots and break them in, that's all.

We bushwhacked back out of the stream bed thickets and into the hot sunny day, swishing through the tall grasses on our way to the rig, thence to drive to another stream. I was watching brilliant blue darning needles darting over the grasses when a sudden breath of wind lifted the hair away from my neck. I glanced up; the breeze was cool and soft-edged, sweet with the scent of rain. As often happens in the mountains, there was an abrupt darkening of the sky as a sudden storm materialized over the saddlebacks.

No worries. I like rain just fine, and I dearly love the smell of it on the wind.

A flash of lightning flickered inside the slatey belly of the clouds. Automatically, I counted: eight seconds, then the sullen roll of thunder. I made that as being a bit over a mile away. I glanced at my fearless leader, currently crouched at half-height, waiting tensely for the rumbling to die.

Hmm. We are in the lowest part of the saddle, with high, treed ridges on either side, and occasional large ponderosas and cottonwoods scattered here and there about our meadow, even the smallest of which is easily twice our height. I'll grant you it's not impossible that we might be hit by lightning, but given that the storm is a good mile distant and we are only about 300 yards from the rig - and also far the shortest things in the meadow, except for the wildflowers - I kind of think we're reasonably safe. None the less, I dutifully pause behind my companion twice more as she crouches with each dull flash from within the clouds. These aren't ground strikes, and I can see the clouds being borne left to right before us; the storm is no closer to us, and we're a lot closer to the truck. I'd be more concerned if there were ground strikes - the electricity of a grounds strike can travel through the earth and up into your body - but my feet are insulated by my rubber soles, and as yet not a drop of rain has fallen on us. About round three my companion looks at me like I must be crazy. I smile at her. This does not seem to reassure her.

Unsurprisingly we make it to the truck without incident. I glance over; my companion does seem sincerely relived, blowing out a tense breath when she slams the door of the rig. She glances at me; she looks slightly rattled. I keep a poker face; I'm not sure if she's excessively nervous, or if I'm excessively foolhardy. Either way, I figure neither of us is going to convince the other to her point of view.

"We're going to bail on the other stream today," she says. "I'm not going to hike around in a lightning storm."

"Okay," I agree with equanimity, settling into the bench seat and gazing out at the day, now sharp with contrast in the changed light. Everything seems razor-edged, vivid, somehow more three-dimensional than it was an hour ago. I love that; I wish I knew how it is that a simple change of light can make it so.

We trundle along the dirt road, throwing up plumes of dust in our wake, despite the dampening humidity that is beginning to settle the air. After a few minutes scattered drops of rain begin to strike our windshield. The scent of rain on the dusty road is rich and intoxicating. I crank my window open a few inches, inhale deeply, and relax with a sigh.

"Sorry to waste your day," apologizes my companion.

"Not a waste," I smile, letting the beauty of the day fill my senses, buoy my spirits, saturate me to my soul.

I had one last adventure waiting for me out in Western Colorado. There was a mountain goat census scheduled while I was on Maggie's project. This involved driving to the site, some way distant, and then up the mountain to ten thousand feet. From there we hiked up a little higher, then struck out into the craggy granite fields along the steep sides of the mountain. We went in pairs, with binoculars and field notebooks, our only goal to spot and count goats. I paired up with a slightly grizzled DOW veteran, a sturdy, calm-tempered fellow who looked like he could reasonably scale a fourteener before lunch every day. His easy temper was restful, and I hiked out in his wake in a cheerful frame of mind.

It was cold up on the mountain; a faint drizzle fell intermittently, and a low chill haze hung over us, only twenty or thirty feet over our heads: The belly of a cloud settled on the flank of the mountain. Every so often a thin veil of fog would shred off the bottom of the foggy grey ceiling hanging above us, drifting by above our heads, hinting at invisible air currents. The terrain was composed partly of narrow game trails winding between sharp granite outcrops and mats of small, tenacious alpine plants; these were luxurious compared to what I was used to on the Mesa, in part because stepping on them did not cause them to shift downhill. Less luxurious were the long stretches where the trails disappeared entirely, and we found ourselves traversing large rocky seas of broken granite, lichened and sharp-edged tumbles of stone stacked haphazardly wherever gravity dictated. The footing wasn't really all that bad - the stone was rough, so traction was good - but sometimes a rock would shift unexpectedly underfoot. Furthermore, my leader was longer-legged than I, and the size of the boulders was challenging for my shorter stride and sore knees. Still, I would catch up when he paused to glass, and would spend a few minutes glassing as well, covering slopes he wasn't.

That strategy worked pretty well until I stepped on a bit of rock that tilted abruptly under my boot, twisting my right knee. I caught myself with one hand, and the granite rocked back into place with a sharp, echoing clack that made my leader pause and look back.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Yes," I said automatically, taking a step. Shit. "No," I amended, leaning down to rub at my knee. I tried another step. My knee sent a sharp, lancing pain up my leg and I winced, grimacing.

"There's a great glassing spot just around the side of the mountain. What do you think?" asked my companion.

I looked ahead at the terrain ahead, trying to judge it with my eyes. I might make it around the bend... but then I'd have to make it back again. I looked back the way we'd come.

"Doubtful," I said at last, meeting his eyes. He nodded philosophically.

"Think you can make it back on your own from here?" he asked.

"Sure," I nodded. "I'll just go slow. You okay on your own?"

"No problem," he said.

"Sorry," I told him. He shrugged, smiled.

"Happens," he said, and watched as I turned gingerly around, sorting out my balance on the tumbled stone and taking baby steps. "You'll do," he said, and I heard the muffled clicks of the rocks as he began making his surefooted way over them.

It was impossible to get lost; far below me I could see the gravelly stripe of the road, the matchbox shapes of the vehicles parked along the side of it. I had only to traverse back across the rocks, pick up the serpentine of the game trail again, and follow it to the main trail. From there I could walk back down to where the vehicles were parked a half mile or so below.

By the time I made it to the main trail, it was raining in earnest. I had my DOW ball cap fending the rain off my face, the hood of my Gore-tex jacket pulled up over the top of it to keep the rain off my neck. Under my jacket I had a polar fleece pullover, and I'd zipped my Gore-tex up when it started to rain, so I wasn't really cold; still, I could feel the chill pressing down against my shoulders, nibbling experimentally at my skin, seeing if it could get a deeper bite. My hair spilled out from under my hood, hanging in spiralled rat-tails over the zipper of my coat. My nose was cold and my knee ached, sending me small sharp stabs of irritation at every step, but my main problem was that I felt bad about bailing off the mountain. I hate letting people down. On the other hand, I was pretty sure that not bailing would have meant that the other researcher would have had to babysit me, and maybe help rescue me off the mountain. Of the two, that was the worse option, so I'd just have to live with the guilt.

By the time I made it back to the vehicles, most of the other goat scouts were arriving as well, driven off the mountain by worsening visibility. Several - including my companion - had spotted goats. This he informed me of when he caught up to me.

"There were four of them, two nannies and two kids, right around the bend," he said.

"Dang it!" I exclaimed. He smiled.

"There'll be other goats," he said. "No sense pushing it and breaking your neck trying to be a hero."

Well, no. But still: It would've been really really cool to see them in the wild.

On the other hand: I could've been shades of Maggie falling off a cliff, big concussion, broken bones, luxations, lacerations, death, destruction, war, devastation and horror. Or something like that.

It wasn't long after that that I needed to go back to the U and pick up the reins of my own project. Maggie still needed some help in the field for another three weeks or so, but she tag-teamed out a few more volunteers to bridge the transition. My own transition back to civilization took nearly that long; I had the worst time adjusting to sleeping indoors after that. It seemed dreadfully confined and claustrophobic. On my way back to the Front Range I stopped for two nights at a friend's place in Denver.

Me: D'you think it'd be okay for me to roll out my sleeping bag and sleep in your back yard?

Him: It's central Denver. The fence is only four feet high. There was a major drug bust two blocks over last night. What do you think?

Me: Ummm... maybe?

Him: You're an idiot.

Okay, I guess that'd be a "no".

Oh, well. I did eventually regain my ability to sleep indoors - a lucky thing, considering the weather in Alaska. I'll never lose the pleasure in sleeping out, though - that's something that either lodges deep in your being, or else exists there already - and once awakened, never really goes completely back to sleep. An unexpected discovery, but not an unwelcome one. There were a lot of little discoveries like that: Little atavistic reminders that for all our civilization we are at the heart of it not completely tame. It may take a few days, but our brains are all too willing to shift from navigation by street sigh to navigation by terrain, from schedules on clocks to ones on daylight, from searching for what we expect to seeing what is really there, right in front of our eyes, undetected because we have not yet learned the search image for it. Because we have not yet learned to relax our gaze and let our brains make sense of it for us without us forcing it, controlling it, leading it into being.

I wonder, now, thinking about this, if that is not where I learned some of the skills that stand me in such good stead as a vet: The willingness to see what the animal is telling me, rather than forcing it to conform to what I expect the diagnosis to be; the willingness to subordinate my expectations to the truth, to follow where the case leads me instead of letting my intellect try to lead it where I think it's going to go. Maybe I had those skills before, in some form, and I just noticed them on the Mesa.

Either way, I owe Maggie some thanks for letting me join her in her adventures at sheep camp.


Anonymous said...

Glad you made it down without further injuring yourself! Love this saga...Do you still keep in touch with Maggie today?

I'm with you on sleeping outside. I was a tour kid for a company called Trek America and almost every night for the entire summer I slept on top of my van from West coast to East coast. I even had a tarp to sleep under when it rained...I do prefer sleeping out in the desert to the blackflies and mosquitoes on the east cost! Thanks for updating so much lately!!

Dragon43 said...

Well done wrapping this up. Maggie today?

Have your knees given any problems recently? Do You compensate even today?

The mind trick is also a gift in other areas for me but I do not do so well in the wild as I have always been in brush and not the mountains. I envy you that.

I like the parts you expand on and your ability to make even what could be boring into something interesting & fun. Nice tight writing and not more adjectives than I can stand ... LOL


AKPonyGirl said...

Excellent story from beginning to end. I'm so glad that you told me about your blog.

I have week old lambs here. If you need a lamb fix, come on by.

AKDD said...

@Everyone: Glad you liked sheep camp! It wasn't anything earth-shattering, but it *was* a series of small, excellent adventures, the impacts of which still echo down the years. I lost touch with Maggie about a year after I started vet school; our lives diverged, as lives do. Maybe I should look her up on FB or something...!

@Beth: that coast-to-coast trip sounds like a kick! And I've just had a little non-revision, non-editing, non-query-letter-revising time lately, so it goes to the blog - as much as I can manage, anyway.

@Dragon: No, the knees aren't much trouble these days, although I DID hyperextend one of them several years ago, which took probably three years to revocer. I've mostly just learned better ways to use them. ANd thx for the review on the writing (srsly, I'm not kidding... it's useful to know when I'm losing people, and I *do* like hearing that I make the story interesting. Not everyone tells a good story, and a bad story-teller can make the most fascinating subject dull, so that's a useful observation.)

@AKPonyGirl: Doesn't EVERYONE need a lamb fix, AT ALL TIMES? :D And I'm really glad you're enjoying the blog!

MaskedMan said...

One of the toughest calls to make is 'turn around and go back.' Failure to correctly make that call kills people every year - Heck, every *month.* The ability to make that call and stick to it is one of the marks of a professional - Even if you're not *yet* a professional, you've got what it takes to become one.

You took what might have become an 'OMG, we've got a disater!' situation and tunred it into a mild disapointment for one person, whilst everyone else got the job done without hassle.

Bravo Zulu.