29 September 2013


Granite Mountain Wilderness reopened this week, nearly three months after the Doce Fire ripped through it.  Saturday morning the four of us headed there to hike to the big alligator juniper tree; the intro bass line of REM’s Pilgrimage bumbled through my head, setting the pace.  The first two miles, out to Blair Pass, were as lovely as always.  The trail winds through a riparian area and is lush with vegetation, including a unique tree I christened the ponderoak. 

As we approached Blair Pass, though, evidence of the fire was all around us.  But perhaps even more evident was the regrowth.  Scrub oak sprung from its charred selves, like hundreds of phoenixes.  Smiling wildflowers of many colors were bending with the breeze.  Bear grass shoots reached tall.  Yucca splayed out around blackened stumps just inches high.  Industrious ants scurried, preparing for what will surely be a longer winter than usual for them.  And improbably, from what was surely a dead agave, a stunted flower stalk rose in testament to Mother Nature’s resiliency. 

At the pass, though, the fire had burned incredibly hot.  The manzanita thicket that adorns the wallpaper of this page has been replaced by burnt, black sticks less than a foot tall, jutting up from the damaged soil.  It was a moonscape.  The trail junction signs erected by the Forest Service had become charcoal, brittle, black, barely legible, propped against the remains of their posts.  The shadows of what remained standing on the blackened granite cast an eerie pall.  Madeleine and I rested there while Dan and Arden went in search of a small geocache he’d placed nearby in 2010.  They found it - the roll of paper within now a fragile, black cylinder of carbon.  I know the area will recover, but it will not return to the way it was during my lifetime.  This upsets me, in spite of my awareness that my emotions mean little to the wilderness.

The trail beyond the pass deteriorated significantly.  Due to the intensity of the fire and the prolonged monsoon, erosion and run-off have effectively destroyed the trail.  It was difficult picking our way through the rocky, narrowed channels, the charred underbrush whipping and scratching our legs.  At times we had to rely upon Dan’s excellent route-finding skills.  Eventually, after we’d wound our way down from the pass, we entered an area that hadn’t burned.  At one point, the trail was littered with pieces of white quartz.  Here we searched for and found the spur that led to the tree.

The tree stood as it always had:  massive and majestic.  The area to the west of it had burned, though, close enough to have singed parts of the tree’s canopy.  A small memorial made of white quartz at the base of the tree commemorated the Granite Mountain Hot Shots who’d created a fire break credited with saving the tree just over three months ago.  There’s a fantastic photo of most of the hot shots, in pyramid formation with sooty, smiling faces, dwarfed in front of the tree.

I thought of them as we climbed in the tree, but they didn’t dominate my thoughts.   Instead, as I watched my daughters climb and rest, cradled in its colossal arms, I thought of the comfort of permanence.  The tree was still there, as it had always been.  It would surely outlive me, just as it had outlived this fire and countless other hardships in the millennium since it had sprouted.  This tree, nearly geologic compared to all other life in the Granite Mountain Wilderness, was unchanged by the personal trials of our lives, unscarred by our small community’s national tragedy.  The tree was the same:  a symbol of stability and timelessness, its sacredness mere strength in the mundane monotony of life.  We scurry about our busy lives like ants, except when we make the time to pause, and breathe, and wonder. 

Click here for photos from our hike.

(If you go:  from Iron Springs Road, turn at Granite Basin Road.  Park at Playa ($5 or use your federal lands pass).  Take Trail 261 to Blair Pass, then continue due west from the junction.  Be prepared for hazardous conditions beyond Blair Pass; experienced route-finding skills are necessary as the trail is dismal at best.  Two miles to Blair Pass, plus approximately 1.75 to the tree, approximately 7.5 miles round-trip.  Have a map, GPS (and know how to use it), plenty of food and water, first aid kit, and a flashlight.  Be sure someone knows where you are going.  This trail is not recommended for inexperienced hikers.  Know your limits.  Do not add to or disturb the memorial at the tree. Please leave no trace.)

15 September 2013

Courage Doesn't Wear a Uniform

Over the past many months I have heard the word courage again and again, to describe selfless acts of first responders, to commemorate the twelfth anniversary of 9/11 earlier this week, and even in admiration of my own choices this past winter as I faced cancer.  The word courage comes from the French, coeur, which means ‘heart.’  This etymology is apt, as it requires a truly strong heart to face the challenges that global, national and personal disasters entail. 

Last night I read this open letter to teachers about the healing powers of faith, courage, and love.  It was written by Nebla Marquez-Green, mother of two children, her daughter, who died at Sandy Hook Elementary last December, and her son, who lived.  And it struck me that our national image of courage is one of a person in uniform:  police officers, soldiers, and firefighters, mostly.  These people, by nature of their occupational choice, are courageous, no doubt.  They somehow face opponents that the rest of us gladly hand over to them.  These are the people we call when the situation we are facing is beyond the scope of our skills.    This is courage, no doubt, to head to work each morning knowing that danger lurks at the very nature of the work they do.  They are worthy of the honors bestowed upon them and the sacred days we mark in their names.  And while Mrs. Marquez-Green feels that anyone who works at schools should rightly be included in that category of courageous heroes, there’s something else, too.

Courage does not always wear a uniform.  Indeed, it is far more often cloaked in fear and darkness, hidden beneath our soft flesh, encased in a cage of brittle bones - like the very organ from which its name is derived.  Perhaps this quiet, quivering courage is the most important kind, and the type of courage that Mrs. Marquez-Green so gracefully conveys - and I do not mean the courage of teachers that she pays tribute to, but her own courage.

Certainly, heroes rose to the occasion on that December day in Newtown, on 9/11 and on other dark days in our past.  Heroes will undoubtedly be called upon again.  But what about the courage of the days, weeks, months, and years that followed the tragedies in Aurora, Tucson, Oklahoma City, and Newtown?  The parents who found the courage to take their children back to school?  Those who found the courage to show up to work at the movie theater, the grocery store, the schools, the government job?  Courage doesn’t just happen at the site and on the date of a tragedy or near-tragedy.  It sprouts from that, but in mundane locations, like living rooms and hospital beds, classrooms and carpool lanes. 

I sense courage everyday from regular people.  Students who continue to show up and persevere in spite of the odds being stacked wildly against them.  Parents who know full well the inadequacies their children are saddled with, and yet, who continue to encourage them to take that next step.  This past winter, I was told for the first time in my life that I was courageous.  It’s a huge compliment, but to be completely honest, I hope to never be in another situation where courage is required.  Courage comes from the heart, to be sure.  It requires a degree of fortitude that is exhausting and a level of focus that is exacting.  And truly, all any of the quiet courageous really want is a return to normalcy, or a new normalcy if the old one is no longer possible. 

Think of all the days following 9/11, when, slowly, the stark reality of finding a loved one in the rubble of the towers evaporated to nil.  Think of the courage required to accept that.  Because if that horrible fate is possible, then what else is?  It takes so much, sometimes, just to keep breathing.  But one breath leads us to the next, and with the distance of time, we can begin to see what might be possible.

From time to time, we catch glimpses of this quiet courage, reflected perhaps in dignified bearing of Gabby Giffords or Mrs. Marquez-Green’s grateful letter.  But more often than not, courage reveals itself in the flutter of our hearts:  a not-so-shaky voice that calls out, “I am here.  I am present.”