Moments of Sound
June 13, 2009
The sun was setting over the dry eastern Washington scab lands as I took a pull of Old Crow bourbon on the sly and thought about the past, the present, and the future, all at the same time. I had spent months dreaming of today. Thinking about it. Pondering it. Relishing in the delayed gratification. Life had taught me a good lesson over the last few days about desire and attachment. I knew that lesson at one point, I was sure I did, but had been overwhelmed by the thought of walking down the spine of the Continent to Mexico, about living in the wild, empty places of America without restriction or hesitation. A direct life for a while.
I took another pull on the Old Crow and ate a ham, swiss, onion, and pickle sandwich as I watched the nuclear red grow stronger on the horizon and glint off the Columbia as the Empire Builder glided into Pasco. Instead of a continuous walk, I'd have to leave the Continental Divide Trail at some point and head to Chicago to help my mother through a difficult time in her life. I didn't know when I would have to leave. I didn't know where I would get off the trail. I didn't know how I would get to Chicago. I didn't know how long I would be gone for. I didn't know if I would come back. I felt surprisingly calm about everything. Being unattached from my present and, at times, from my future, was a soothing thing, a calming thing, even if it was because all my scheming and plotting and planning had collapsed. I took a sip and watched the sun set on the desert in front of me.
Aaron and I collected our gear from the storage area of the train and hopped off the train into the warm sunshine of East Glacier Park, Montana. I had spotted Aaron in the Portland train station as an obvious hiker: Pack with ice axe on back, orange paint bucket in hand. He was a former solider and had just finished working as an independent contractor for the military. This was to be his first long distance hike and we had spent some time talking about hiking in general and what was coming up. Thanks to the internet, there was going to be a convergence of hikers in East Glacier this weekend for the first annual ADZCDTKOP, with groups of hikers setting out from the border in waves due to campsite restrictions and permit issues for the park. The calmness that I had felt on the train was gone, replaced with a heart thumping energy that felt like a million watts of power coursed through my veins. Duane and Stilts met us at the station along with ZQ, another hiker who had ridden out but had escaped my notice.
It wasn't long before the hiker gathering was in full force. We met Freefall, Chance, George, Chris, Rain Queen, and Jym Beam. I knew Freefall from the PCT, various ADZPCTKOPs, a backpacking trip through the central Oregon Cascades, and other places. Freefall has the dubious honor of having defeated me in the first, and as far as I know only, "most boring story" contest. His winning effort involved a tale about a wooden post whose paint was peeling off. I knew Chance only slightly, more by reputation than anything else. The rest were all new to me. It didn't matter, though. There is something about long distance hiking that seems to weed out the bad people and to grow the good parts of those that walk for thousands of miles at a time. It could be the willingness to suffer for long stretches of time and think of it as fun instead of as a burden. It could be the vulnerability that a long distance hiker feels, assimilates, and moves past. It could be the infinite patience that is needed to spend months on your own. Whatever it might be, it is present in the activity itself.
There was a full gang of us at Brownies, one of the two hostels in town, located conveniently enough over a bakery, but a half mile from the main strip in town. We were taking over the place, and there were more of us coming in later in the day: It was probably going to be the largest concentration of CDT hikers in history. I was going to be setting off in the first group of hikers, with Duane, Rain Queen, and Jym Beam, with only Stilts, who would be starting today, in front of us. Chris, a 2008 CDT hiker, had driven Duane to East Glacier from Spokane and was going to be doing driving chores for the weekend.The five of us piled into his small pick up truck and headed to Two Medicine, where we could pick up our permit for the park from the ranger station there. Duane, Stilts, and I were riding in the back, under the camper shell, as Chris made his way slowly out of town along Looking Glass Road. Not far out, two motorcycles approached quickly and passed us. A few seconds later I heard Rain Queen screaming.
I rolled out of the back of the pickup with a Z-rest in hand and my travel pack. I might be able to use something in it for first aid. I didn't know what I was going to find on the side of the road, which scared me. I could see the man's body, his jacket really, and his legs. A bald head was stained red with blood. His hands were bloody. I got up close to him and first heard the sound. It wasn't like the high pitched squealing sound that a hurt animal makes. That I can bear. That I can forget about. This was something infinitely worse. It was the sound of something unnatural. A deep groan of pain was blended with a cracking, spitting, and popping sound as the man tried to breathe with blood in his lungs. His exhales of pain were covered over by the sound his body was making. I checked over him, looking for gushing blood. There was a lot of blood, but it was oozing and he wasn't going to bleed out quickly. As his sound grew, I lightly checked his torso and upper legs for signs of serious internal injury or for bones coming out of his lungs. I only came up with a bit of blood that had seeped down from his head. Slowly I realized that I began to hear something other than the sound. The world had gone into sharp focus for a while and was coming out of it. I could hear Rain Queen talking on a phone excitedly. But the sound continued. The man tried to get up. I couldn't hold him down. He rose to his knees, then fell down again. I tried to get him onto the Z-rest and to stay still. I watched as blood bubbled up through his nose and mouth, growing like a child might grow a bubblegum bubble, expanding spherically slowly, slowly, until the air inside grew too strong and the bubble went pop. The man's teeth were shattered into sharp, little edges. Some where gone entirely.
A van driver for the local resorts pulled over and tried to give first aid to the rider, giving me the opportunity to talk to the emergency dispatcher that Rain Queen had managed to raise on her cell phone. I talked to the dispatcher, telling her our general location and what I could about the man's injuries. I could still hear the sound, even thirty feet away. I could hear the rasping of the man's labored breathing at he pushed air through his blood filled lungs and mouth. I could hear the groan, the sound. A nurse pulled over and took over from the driver. Faster than expected a Blackfoot police officer arrived on the scene, followed by the highway patrol and other law enforcement officers. I realized that the entire time I had been with the man, I had never looked at his face. I had seen only the blood, the shattered teeth, the bubbles. The rider was eventually carted off and we were cleared to leave. Chris drove very slowly to Two Medicine.
After securing our permits Chris, Rain Queen, and Stilts drove to the border so that Stilts could get going, leaving Jym Beam, Duane, and myself to hitch hike back to East Glacier. A Blackfoot named J-Cool and his girlfriend picked us up after fifteen minutes of waiting and deposited us back at Brownies. I went off by myself to look at gear and get organized for tomorrow. And to try to forget about the sound. I didn't get much done other than find a soft place to sit and think for a while about the rider, despite my best intentions to try to forget everything. His life had changed dramatically, in an instant, and without any confidence that it was a change for the best I could only imagine what was running through his head, if anything, as he lay in the hospital in Browning. Every moment of life is extraordinary. I pulled myself out of the couch and went downstairs, where Freefall and the others had adopted an itinerant family of musicians. We would share our food and they would share their music.
Lief, the son, played the fiddle with abandon, trying as he could to restrain himself and keep time to his father's accordion. Vin, the father, played slowly and methodically, the plaintive tune from the accordion oozing out over the front porch of Brownie's.
The mother played whatever instrument she could improvise, from beer bottles to cans to shoes. Eventually she dropped the music and began to dance. The mother and son had been living in Alaska, in Juneau, for the recent past, doing whatever it is that people do in Juneau. Vin seemed to travel mostly, without any fixed residence or purpose beyond playing music and trying to live a life without much of a safety net. They were together in East Glacier for something like a family reunion before Lief headed to Port Townsend, WA, back in my neck of the woods.
As the tempo of the music increased and people became lubricated with beer, more musical improvisations came out. Freefall started beatboxing. A few words were sung (caterwauled, more correctly). And fun times were had at the first ever kick off party for the CDT.
It was Jym Beam's birthday as well and when Rain Queen told us about it, the party intensified, with a bottle of champagne and an impromptu birthday cake put together from whatever could be found in the bakery. The pretty Lithuanian exchange students who worked at Brownies were a little unsure of what to make of all the fun being had on the porch. Occasionally they'd be caught staring at us, or smiling and laughing at something that was happening outside.
Chance, another 2003 PCT hiker, remained stoic, as is his nature.
Freefall, though, was fully into the groove.
We ate a fine hiker trash dinner of chicken breasts cooked in cream of mushroom soup with instant rice mixed in, then adjourned to the common area of the hostel to watch a CDT DVD made by Scarlet and Wildflower about their 2008 CDT hike. The celebration was to mark the start of a long period of suffering for us. A long hike is joyful, fun, intense, emotional, spiritual, exhilarating, evocative. But in order to experience the good you must be willing to suffer through physical pain, through trial by mosquitoes, gnats, horse flies, through agonizing loneliness, through fear of falling, of being lost, of hypothermia, of being wet, cold, miserable, and generally broken. That is the price of admission, the cost of doing such silly business as living in the outdoors without a permanent home, for several months. Tomorrow the first of us would leave just. I went to sleep with a smile, even with the memory of the man and the sound rattling around in my head.