Packing out from the winter Wallowas in Snake River Country March (III.3.2009) . . .
On the road in the American Northwest.
Walking the World: Backpack Pilgrim
The journey of the pilgrim is essentailly one of taking
away, or dropping all that is unnecessary,
each step becoming simpler and lighter
than the one that preceded it.
Today will be a day of descent.
Heading South into the Italian-speaking part of the
European Alps, for four days now I’ve been winding
my way through a labyrinthian landscape of small,
uninhabited alpine valleys. But now, I’ve reached a
major divide—the point where two vast watersheds
meet and diverge, one flowing Northwest, the other
Out of this natural articulation of the land into parts,
different cultures and languages have emerged and
flowered. But here, unlike the busy bordercrossings
used by trucks and cars, there are no signs to mark
the spot or men in uniforms asking for passports.
There’s just a clan of alpine jackdaws, all shiny
black, riding the late morning thermals in ever-
higher spirals, at home on either side of the divide.
One bird breaks away from the others, folds its
wings and dives headlong into the distance as its
body gracefully modulates into something like the
small black dot which ends a phrase.
One must prepare inwardly for these high alpine
crossings. It is not just the uncomfortable feeling of
passing through the strangely alien zone of the north-
side of a mountain, with its deep shadows and
Nor is it just the powerful sense of the world contracting
around you as the rock walls of a narrow col close
in, giving back the metallic sound of your crampons
biting into the icy firn snow of early Fall. As the pass
grows steeper and the zig-zag of ascent tightens into
a line of single steps, one above the other, I always feel
the need to compose myself before the final moment
of crossing the divide to the other side.
Every crossing is always the first, this great wave space
which suddenly rushes in. To gaze out upon the entire
breadth and width of a wild valley one has never seen
before, taking it in, as it were, in a single breath, and to
know that this is where one is headed, full of all the exciting
prospect of the new and unknown, is truly something
* * *
It’s too windy and cold up here to linger long, so
I scramble carefully, one step at a time, about three or
four hundred meters down a boulder field. Looking ahead,
I can already see terrain that is less steep, and a small,
green, inviting spot near a stream where I can sit, have
something to drink and rest a while. The granite rocks are
all about the size of small cars, balanced precariously, one
on top of the other. I can’t help thinking that, in the Spring,
this would be one long smooth glissando or glide down the
mountain over hard-packed snow. But now, with Fall, the
intense sunlight of the southern exposure has long ago
melted all the winter snow. So different— the smooth,
continuous rhythm of my ascent over northside ice, and
now the irregular, rough jerks and leaps of the more
The nearest village is still almost two vertical kilometers
below, but I can already hear the traffic of a major North /
South connecting highway. The sound rises on the same
gentle updrafts which carry the jackdaws still circling
* * *
Like so many other areas of contemporary life,
mountaineering has unfortunately fragmented into just
so many specialties with a characteristic emphasis on
outward measure: ever higher, faster or more difficult.
What used to be called “the freedom of the hills” is now
frequently traded in for a list of personal achievements,
attached to one’s name like medals on a chest. And, now
that most peaks have already been named and climbed,
the search for something new and spectacular has taken
on the air of the ridiculous, being determined mostly by
the clock— “climbed in half the normal time!” Ironically,
the clock—that prototypical artifact of city life—was the
very thing one wanted to get away from by going to
the mountains in the first place.
I must confess that I prefer the more open country of
mountaineering as pilgrimage, climbing peaks perhaps
when the views are good, but just as contented with a
pass. This is pilgrimage not just in the sense of journeying
to especially beautiful or powerful sites, but more as a
movement. one which, much like poetry itself, essentially
takes away, dropping freely what is wasteful or
The cars and trucks of the road below move in a very
different direction. The roar of a diesel grinding its way
up the sharp curves and steep grades of a mountain pass...
...If greed has a sound, then this is it.
* * *
The bells of a small flock of sheep wake me from my nap.
I need to get going. I still have to go down, get food, gas
for the cooker and climb up the other side of this valley
and find a new camp before dark.
After a good bit of cross-country rambling, I pick up the
faint trace of an old goatherd’s trail. It passes a cluster
of stone huts, the roofs having collapsed many years ago.
Evidently, the stronger vertical order of the walls only very
slowly gives itself back to the random shuffle of a natural
pile. Further down, gradually leaving the low juniper,
cranberries and kinnikinnik of the alpine tundra, I come
into the larger, more erect trees of the continuous
forest. Here, the trail becomes an ancient ox-cart path,
the work of many generations. Each stone is layed like a
well-chosen word in a carefully constructed phrase, and
worn well, like a phrase worth repeating.
It’s so remarkable, this difference between the view within
the car, and the view of the highway from the vantage
point of the forest clearing where I now stand. Clearly,
the automobile is not simply a neutral mode of
transportation; it is something more like a way of being,
a kind of metaphysics on wheels. To step into the car
and close the door is to turn the key which activates an
entire self-worldview. Comfortably seated, a gentle breeze
coming in from the half-opened window, the speakers in
the back playing one’s favorite music at just the right
volume, enough of the motor’s purr filters through to let
one know that this is all real and not a mere projection on
a screen. The foot on the pedal, the hands on the wheel:
it’s hard to think of another context which gives us such
a strong sense of power and control.
From within the car, all is order and harmony. But this,
of course, is an illusion, one which is evidently extremely
difficult to break. Seen from the wider context of the car-
plus-environment, the car is unequivocally a disorderly,
destructive instrument. This is not just because of the
toxic gases suffocating the spruce trees of the forest
through which I now pass. It’s also because cars have
driven us into a state of isolation and indifference which
at once destroys both the land and, in a far more subtle
way, the sensitivity necessary to see the destruction.
Tragically, as every environmentalist knows, as long as
we remain within the highly artificial world of cars and car
culture, everything will appear perfectly okay. “Hey! What’s
the problem? Get out of the way!”
* * *
Crossing a foot bridge over the road, I look down on the
steady flow of trucks, motorcycles, campers and cars. This
is a flow which has tremendous mechanical power behind it.
Listening to the noise it generates gives one a sense of how
difficult it will be to change. But there is also the ever-present
possibility of simply stopping, getting out of the car and venturing
up to higher ground. To pause is evidently momentarily to
dissipate the energy that is caught in the loop which sustains
the illusion. In the gap, there is the potential of new awareness,
a new understanding, a new beginning. Perhaps I’ll return
to the car, perhaps I won’t. But, as the jackdaws have always
known, from the land far above the road,
the views are always superb.
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