a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
I had threatened our lives.
Now I needed to save them.
A whimper behind me. She was stuck. Worried and pacing, eyes wide with wonder and fear, the dog wanted nothing more than to get to me. She was in danger of rushing and jumping for it. A leap of faith in the wrong spot all in the name of getting to me. It was her way. It was in her to always somehow just get to me.
I climbed over loose rocks and slippery boulders to get back to where she was perched. Nothing in this landscape could be trusted. It had been hard enough with my fifty pound backpack but now with the massive onslaught of rain the mountain’s stonework had become deadly slippery.
A loose rock gave way under my foot. It rolled then bounced then sprung into the air as if off a trampoline and silently disappeared into the milky gray blanket of cloud that enveloped us. Alive and eerie, we had been captured inside the flesh of a dense cloud, untouchable yet thick enough to take away sight. I heard the rock land below and roll away into unseen depths.
She crouched back, her eyes gauging the distance, her body readying its strength. “No, Matea! No! Stay there. Stay right there and I’ll come to you.”
She stared down to me as I climbed up, tilting her head back and forth, desperately trying to make sense of my words.
I sat beside her. She settled. The rain pounded and poured off our bodies. She was cold and shivering and was so soaked she looked half her size. We breathed. Her eyes softened. It wasn’t the best position to be in but we sat there strangely content in something. High up on the peak of a mountain, engulfed in cloud and rain, visibility down to just the giant boulders above and below, and it was bringing out just how tight our relationship was.
And the whole time I could sense something out there all around us. The great wide open. The view that changes lives. It seemed I didn’t have to see it to feel it.
Earlier that day we had reached the peak of Mount Adams in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. A land still on its own time, still connected to the ancient path set forth by the natural world. Together we sat on top of the mountain and I was happy. Matea was happy. But no more happy than she had been the whole trip.
What if I had stopped twenty feet from the top and turned back? Would I have been disappointed?
It would have bothered me. That extra twenty feet mattered.
Would it have bothered Matea though?
For her it seemed to be about the journey. The moment. Loving the beauty of it all. Seeing it all as one great experience without destinations getting in the way.
Slow down I hear in my mind.
We sat there side-by-side in the rain on the edge of a great boulder in the tough spot I had put us in. I knew these mountains. I had always thought if a hiker was in good shape, had a map, knew the weather and even had a cell phone it would be hard to get into trouble. I was in good shape, had a map and a cell phone, and the Mount Washington Weather Observatory report said no rain. Cloudy, but no rain. And I had read about the trail we were taking down. I needed it to be something Matea could do and it sounded alright. But the cliffs and boulders set forth before us had turned treacherous in the rain.
We see the wild in four ways: the earth’s surface, the weather, the animals, and in our actions. Humans have spent so much time endeavoring to tame these wilds. We have tried to make life the least wild as possible. But here were those four wilds together – the mountain and the rain and the dog and my decisions. Caught in nature’s great balance of benevolent malevolence. Nothing personal here, just a peaceful attack of rain, giant slippery boulders and the man and dog trapped in it all.
A Siberian Husky mix, Matea was smart and knew how to travel this landscape. But now there was rain, a mean rain, and the way a dog is built and how it moves did not help when moving downhill over slippery cliffs and boulders. And so it became a systematic and adaptive process of us working together. She usually led but in these battle conditions she followed. I would judge the way ahead and when we came to a tough spot I would lower myself down and then make a decision. My eyes would meet hers and I would then 1) trace the way for her to go with a walking stick I had picked up along the way. If she couldn’t do that then we would use 2) the parachute method, where she would come down on her own and just as her momentum was getting out of control I would catch her before she slipped away. The last choice was 3) the elevator, where I would lower myself over a hard spot then reach up, pick her up and lower her down to where I was. The hardest one.
She sat there scared. Her summer-bleached brown fur was now dark with soaked mountain rain. She looked at me with her one blue eye and one brown. Animals have no layers. Their eyes show the moment.
This is a tough spot.
“I know,” I said.
It’s hard for me to get down over these slippery big rocks.
“I know. Me too.”
I’m okay while I am sitting here with you though. Even if it is raining on us.
I smiled. “I’m okay too, just doing that.”
The rain set in harder upon us like it was alive with a quest to burrow through shirt and skin and fur and bone. Matea’s shivering deepened. I unzipped my jacket, eased my right arm out of the sleeve, and wrapped her in it as much as I could.
The explorer John Muir and his dog, Stickeen, were once trapped on a glacier with only a narrow ice bridge to escape by. Muir slowly made his way across and then beckoned for Stickeen to come. The dog cried and whimpered and ran back and forth looking for a different route. Finally he attempted to cross only to freeze in place.
It was then Muir said “hush your fears, my boy. No right way is easy in this rough world. We must risk our lives in order to save them.”
When I looked into Matea’s eyes I could see it clearly. The love of life and the fear of losing it. She wanted to live her life as much as I did mine. That made her my equal on the mountain.
I studied the massive field of boulders laid out below. A petrified rock waterfall disappearing into cloud and rain. I could see a few rock cairns marking what someone long ago thought was the best path. Matea and I would have to pick our own course.
It’s time. Go down there.
Slowly but surely I moved down the rocks.
I talked to her. She talked to me. She knew. She waited for me to find the way. It was slow but we were making it. Follow the Line, the Parachute, the Elevator. With my feet and hands and lowering myself down on my belly and with her carefully following we were making it.
We came to a hard spot. Too many big boulders one after the other, straight down. Not fair. I looked to either side. There was no going around. We would have to deal with it.
I lowered myself down over the boulders, took off my pack, found a strong spot to stand and turned to Matea. It had to be Parachute here.
“Okay, good girl. Now come down, slowly, and I’ll catch you.”
She studied the way, looking for something that made sense, a feeling that clicked. Her paws danced in place, wanting to move, not knowing how. She whimpered, a sound that held all it was trying to make known.
Help. I’m stuck. I want to come. How do I come?
“You’re going to have to jump, Matea, okay? And I’ll catch you, I promise.”
I stood on a boulder with my belly pressed against the boulder sitting above it and held my hands out to her. She stood ready to jump from the boulder above. Such famous positions so many have found themselves in – the one taking the leap and the one there to catch them.
“Alright, Matea,” I said. “Here we go. We can do this. You’re going to jump and I’m going to catch you.”
With the sound of my voice her body perked up and her eyes focused on me. I motioned for her to come.
“It will be okay. I promise.”
She started to dance in place, studying the rocks below for the right spot to land.
Where do I go, where do I go…
“You got this… we got this…”
It’s so slippery, I don’t know I don’t know…
“Take your time, slow down. The brave girl can do this.”
Where is it, the feel for this, where is it?
The whimpering came up from within her again and tightened around my heart like a vice.
It’s scary, the fear, it’s scary and it’s holding me back…
She looked at me square in the eye. She was so scared.
I can’t do it.
She sat down and looked away, not able to even bear looking at the challenge, resigning herself to sit there and take the onslaught of pounding rain as it hit the rock in spark-like explosions all around her.
I thought of every scary moment I had ever been in and the leap I felt I had to make. Is it just about whether or not we make it?
I looked up at Matea. I started to think of all that led to this moment. Decisions, mistakes, what ifs. But down every trail are challenges. Who’s to say there wasn’t something scarier down one of those other trails.
All of it is a challenge.
It was about the wild. Getting back to it and living in it and being in it together. All of the wilds. Being up here and following our hearts where they took us, wherever they took us, and if we did that then where we land may not truly matter.
“Matea,” I said from somewhere deep within.
Her eyes came to me.
She moved to the edge of the rock. She began to study the landing area below. Her eyes looked to mine. I smiled and tasted pure mountain rain and loved it and my arms raised and my hands opened to her and my feet anchored themselves in place.
Something in you has changed.
Extreme times come out of nowhere. What we end up relying on is what we’ve spent all our days becoming up until that moment. It then only serves to bring out how much we’ve grown to love life and each other. How ready we are to take that leap.
All was quiet.
I look to her. Loving her. Loving what this is between us. Living for it.
And I realize at that moment we had already made it.
We have saved our lives, I hear.
Chris Lombard works with people and their horses to help them to connect. He is also the author of Land of the Horses – A True Story of a Lost Soul and a Life Found, which chronicles his two year journey in the American West working with horses. He now lives with his family in New Gloucester, Maine.