Baden-Powell: The Glider, Parts 1, 2, and 3

[We hiked from Little Jimmy to the peak of Mt. Baden-Powell and back again in early September. Drive north out of La Canada on the Angeles Crest Highway (2) past Red Box Ranger Station, Waterman ski area, and Buckhorn Campground. Park at Islip Saddle, about 46 miles out of LCF. Round trip to and from the peak is 16.2 miles. I usually try to keep these things short so you can easily read them in one sitting; consider this one an extra-long holiday special!]

I.

When we got to Little Jimmy, The Husband and I divided up the tasks, the way husbands and wives do. He put the Whisperlite stove together and got dinner started while I set up the tarp and sleeping bags. On a trek only a few weekends before, I’d prioritized shelter from the wind over flatness when I’d chosen where to bed down, and we had barely slept. This time, I was especially sensitive, even proleptically defensive, about my decision on where to put the sleeping bags. Just to make things more complicated, I had been reading articles about drought-stressed trees in Yosemite dropping branches on sleepers and, in one case, killing them. After much deliberation, I decided that the best spot was a flattish hollow at the base of a Jeffrey pine a few rods from the picnic tables, but I checked with The Husband before unfurling the tarp. Beset by his own duties, he expressed gruff and perfunctory approval. Vindicated, I unstuffed the sleeping bags and laid out the long underwear and flashlights.

It turns out that being married is hard. “You can’t change another person,” my brother and sister-in-law counseled over beers in my parents’ basement. I nodded like I knew what they were talking about, like I even knew my husband-to-be or myself well enough to be cognizant of the ways in which I was going to want to change him and the cleverness with which I was going to disguise that wanting to myself. Since many of you know The Husband and me personally, there are only so many details I can go into here. Suffice it to say that for many of the early years of our marriage, The Husband and I fought a lot (things have improved remarkably since we both began meditating seriously and since the kids both passed the age of five). Like many long-married couples, we had well-rehearsed scripts, bits of deeply-encoded resentments that can sink us into the depths of rage or sanctimony on a moment’s notice. I threw my share of kitchenware. We both stormed off into Riverside or Morningside Park in the wee hours. We’ve lobbed the d-word, but more as a weapon than a serious option.

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Marriage is also weird.

All of this is a roundabout way of introducing the microfight The Husband and I had the next morning. No one slept very well, and as we were breaking camp The Husband said that the spot hadn’t been particularly flat. I was all ready for that one, quickly pointing out all the other even less flat spots I had rejected and the fact that I had explicitly gotten his approval for the spot in question. So, the logic went, the choice was his fault and not mine. I think we bickered for a few minutes and got on with the hike, but it struck me in retrospect that this deflection of responsibility is a deep-seated and sneaking impulse of mine. I used to avoid picking the restaurant when going out with friends in New York for fear that someone would end up hating it, even though I wasn’t above trying to get someone else to suggest or lobby for the place I in fact wanted. But it’s an insidious habit, trying to manipulate circumstances or other people into bringing about the outcomes you want in your life without looking like you’re the one who wanted or authored them. It’s a habit I’m trying to come out of, despite my poor performance at Little Jimmy. I often have a hard time even knowing what it is that I really want, and having imbibed some mad passive-aggressive skills in my childhood, find it even harder to express what I want in a clear and reasonable way.

I feel like an example is in order. The biggest and most obvious one is my decision to give up remunerative work and go back to graduate school. There are many voices in my head that are almost constantly telling me that this is a crazy, indulgent, selfish, and foolish thing to do. I don’t carry my weight financially anymore. I spend all day at a desk behind a book or in front of a computer writing things that either I’ll throw out or that a very few people will read, and even that with varying levels of satisfaction. It is not highly likely that I’ll see a lot of professional success or stability as a result of having taken six years of my late thirties to get a PhD in English. But at the same time, I want to do it. I’ve always wanted to do it, it just took me fifteen years to turn the volume down on those naysaying voices far enough to get the upper hand.

So this is what I do: I read. I think. I write. It’s what I need to do, and I have a right to it. I try not to feel guilty about its utility and the demands it puts on my time. When I can look at my own choices and legitimate them, accept them calmly and without qualms, then I can ask The Husband for what I want without getting shrill, defensive, or passive-aggressive. Recently we had the two-household discussion, in which I said I wanted to do a national job search and for the family to be open to moving to accommodate opportunities that might arise for me, just as we had accommodated a post-doc in Los Angeles when it came up for him, even though it meant my leaving a job and city I loved while I had a two-year-old clinging to my knees and a puling babe in arms. In that conversation, it took a lot of courage for me to ask for that consideration, partly because I know how scanty and poor opportunities are for newcomers in my field right now, but also because it meant taking ownership of the choices I’ve made and insisting that they matter. The passive-aggressive manipulator in me – the woman who constantly feels guilty for wanting things, including career parity with a better-paid husband – wants the effects but without the asking or the responsibility.

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Trying to keep moving into the sweaty, dirty, twisted truth.

Going back to school has allowed me to develop in the practice of openly asking for what I want in my relationships as well. It’s scary though, because asking for what I want means making it public. Saying to other people, I want to be a professor. I want to write a book. I want to write poetry, and here is some of it! Which is scary, because somewhere in the outer reaches of my consciousness, I’m expecting someone to say, Oh her, she’s too stupid to get a PhD, or too feckless to publish an article or a collection of poems. Someone to say, Oh, that’s her short story/poem/dissertation? Wow, she’s sheltered/callow/naïve/clumsy/wrong. She doesn’t have anything to say that matters to other people. So to ask for what I want, to write what I think means saying, Here it is – this is me – this is what I’ve got. Shit on it if you want to, that doesn’t change the fact that I did it.

II.

We hiked to the spring in a pleasant cove flanked by a couple of fire-hollowed redwoods. The Boy Scouts had put some work into improving it, building a stone holding tank into which the spring flowed and a couple of smooth-planed benches for sitting and enjoying the shade and the sound of water. This trail over Baden-Powell turns out to be an important one to Boy Scouts: it is part of the Silver Moccasin Trail, a 53-mile trek in the San Gabriels the completion of which entitles a hiker to a special badge. The mountain itself is named for the man who invented Scouting, a baron and a lieutenant-general with the British Army who fought in the Second Boer War.

We used our friends’ squeeze filter to top off our water bottles and bladders and set off. We hiked through the appropriately-named Windy Gap, which opened out onto the Crystal Lake Recreation Area, and began a steady, switchbacky ascent up the flank of Mt. Hawkins (which would clock in at 8850 feet, an 1100 foot elevation gain from Little Jimmy). The plateaus were open, covered with low scrub and plumes of golden flowers, the sky a crystalline Southern California blue, the air cold and sweet with sage and the fragrance of the windswept rock. A trail runner carrying nothing but a bottle of water in each hand overtook us. We snacked Clif bars, The Husband’s and mine ingeniously infused with caffeine.

Shortly after we passed the turnoff to the peak of Mt. Hawkins, we broke for lunch. We’d crossed onto a high, thin fin that connected Mt. Hawkins to Throop Peak (9138 feet, so more climbing to do), and the view and the wind were formidable. Peaks and ridges of the San Gabriels lay spread before us, and far beyond them the low and dirty city stretched across the basin to the ghostly blue Santa Ana Mountains in the south. I was starting to enter a pain-haze by this point, and getting sunburned to boot, despite my conscientious application of thick zinc oxide sunblock. When we passed Mr. Burnham, we had to descend down its side a considerable distance, adding hundreds of feet to our final climb up Mt. Baden-Powell. The boys entered a parallel Pokemon world, making and deflecting imaginary moves with their speculative stables of fantastical warlike creatures. I just kept trudging.

Finally we topped the ridge. We could see down the far side to Vincent Gap, and a clear golden fin of granite slanted up to the broad, rounded bald peak. To the north, the Antelope Valley and Mojave Desert stretched out, feathered with olive-green shadows. We strained to see Mt. Whitney, a jagged form in the haze to the northeast. There was one tree, a limber pine which according to my guidebook is part of a grove of 2000-year-old trees and named Waldron after the bushy-tailed and upright Boy Scout who left a monument on the top of Baden-Powell. The Husband posed for a picture by its straggled roots polished to a high gloss by butts and shoes without number.

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The view west from the top of Baden-Powell

We trooped up the incline to the peak proper, marked by a large American flag, a log book on a metal stand, and the aforementioned monument, square with a plaque on each face: Self, Others, Country, and God (someone had taken a knife or coin to God and good and scratched him the heck out). Cypress trees sprawled over the shelving rock. A plant with leathery silver leather leaves sprouted in crevasses. High-altitude bees lazed above their miniscule pale blossoms. We chatted with other hikers and enjoyed the views of the brilliant mountains on one side and the flat gold haze that opened out onto a distant blue sky to the north. Eventually we settled down to rest in the complex roots of a cypress tree, swallowing gummi Coke bottles and fancy jelly beans. I covered my face with my hat.

III.

I sat up suddenly because of the glider. There was an airfield in nearby Palmdale, and someone was up for a ride. I’m not sure how I knew it was there, since gliders have no engines and therefore make almost no sound. I think I could hear the whispering of their long, fiberglass wings when the wind lulled. Gliders, or sailplanes, are small (usually one- or two-seated) aeronautical craft that get hauled up to the sky’s ceiling by a Cessna. Once you hit five thousand feet, you pull a knob that releases the tow rope with a stomach-sinking sproing. From there, you can stay aloft for hours (or even days, as cross-country sailplaners do) by capitalizing on “lift,” columns of warm air that furnace up from mountain ridges or sun-warmed patches of ground. If you can’t find any lift, you coast down gradually, supported by the craft’s overall aerodynamicality, always keeping an eye on the altimeter and your position vis a vis the airport from which you debarked, because once you hit a thousand feet, you’ve got a limited amount of time to land.

I know this because The Husband used to fly sailplanes, and in the early days of our courtship took me up several times. There happened to be a flight school/soaring academy near his parents’ suburban home in Chicago. I had just come back to Illinois after two years in Mongolia, motivated in part by romantic if nearly illegible letters from him and a phone call he placed to my school that nearly sent my director into fits (we had limited phone access in Mongolia, and an international call placed directly to my school was virtually unheard of). For our first real date, we ate take out Chinese food on a picnic blanket at Ravinia while Kathy Battle sang Schubert lieder. It seemed like a lush and theatrical way to start a courtship, so going up in a sailplane seemed like a perfectly reasonable second date. I wore a brown print circle skirt and a sleeveless rayon top edged with eyelet lace. I tied a broad-brimmed straw hat to my head with an ivory chiffon scarf which my grandma used to wrap her wispy, china-white permanent wave on church days. I got to sit in the front, and I pretended that this was okay. I think I kept my hat on, which can’t have been polite or advisable. The cockpit was made of that strong but light asbestosy plastic they used to make school cafeteria chairs. I snapped the seatbelt harness, a wingrunner closed the cockpit bubble and flipped the metal latch into place. It was all disconcertingly simple.

Someone gave the Cessna pilot the thumbs-up, and we jerked forward. Halfway down the runway, we were aloft while the Cessna was still on the ground. By the time we reached the wall of corn on the far end, the Cessna was grinding its way up into the sky. We remained above it, sailing back on the tow line like a kid’s balloon. I’d been in a small plane before, but being in a light and engineless craft was uncanny. I didn’t want to let my new beau think I was a chickenshit girl, so I bit my tongue and pulled back the big red knob when we were at 5000 feet. We curved up and away from the Cessna, the tow rope fluttering a goodbye behind it. I looked out over the Midwestern landscape, quilted into fields of different naps and colors. I watched a train barrel in an inhumanly straight line to the west, throwing back the midday sun. When The Husband asked if I wanted to see what the plane could do, I gritted my teeth as he stalled the plane, tilting the nose at a steeper and steeper angle until it seemed we would tumble ass over teakettle and pancake into a farmhouse or pigpen four thousand feet down. Next he did “lazy eights,” turning the wings at ninety degrees to the ground. As interested as I was in seeing the plowed field directly below us, my attention was fixed by that bolt holding the cockpit bubble in place.

There was no lift, so we had to prepare for landing before too long, and somehow we sped and rattled and fishtailed our way to a stop by the slender cornstalks. The Husband unfastened the bolt and I knock-kneed my way out, glad for the circle skirt and the big hat. As I took his hand, I knew that this was the guy for me, one who could and actually would do just about anything. That sailplane in Palmdale had been riding the ridge lift, but eventually turned towards the airfield. We tracked it as it sank to the brown valley floor below us. In the empty quiet, the wind blew suddenly cold on our sweaty clothes. It was the perfect answer to the morning’s trivial conflict: a reminder of where we’d started, how high we’d been sure we’d fly. And look, we’d made it there, only we had to hike our stubborn gristly asses up there one step at a time.

Seeing the glider brought me back to those early days on the airfield in Hinckley, Illinois, when it seemed like anything and everything amazing could, should, and would happen to us. I accepted The Husband’s proposal of marriage in the full flower of youthful ignorance and narcissism. But it turns out to have been a good choice; our marriage has been a bulwark against the many things mediocre, mundane, bad, and outright shitty have actually happened to us. I am learning that I can trust him to listen and take what I want seriously, but that first of all I have to take what I want seriously. I actually can change him, but only by changing myself.

Our camp that night was nearly level, a shelf jam-packed with blowdown. We wedged our tarp between trunks in varying states of decay and burrowed into our sleeping bags in the waning light just to get out of the wind. Our feet pointed towards the Los Angeles basin, and it felt like we had to wedge them in to stop ourselves from tumbling down into it. We fell asleep counting shooting stars. The moon and the wind nudged me awake a few times, but before I knew it the cold sky was gleaming. Just as the day’s first sun spilled gold over the eastern ridge, we spotted a family of hawks gliding amongst the jagged treetops. They might have been hunting, but they seemed to be out for a joyride, coasting over the windstreams, diving for vertigo’s thrill. And the four of us lay agog on our ridged camp-pads, coasting through space on the planet’s thin rocky surface, warm-blooded, nestled together, and for that short silent interval alive to each other and to all that was unfolding before our eyes.IMG_6261

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