Wind River Range-Finding — Field Notes from the Southern Rockies
creative nonfiction by Gordon Johnston
Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary.
~Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Black Kettle Grasslands, Oklahoma
The August stars vanish. The night comes / still and sweats. When the prairie’s distant edge /flickers, I sweep the halo of my headlamp / over the ground: rucked, lumpy, aerated /by anthills, damp nearer the small lake. / I pitch at last a minute before midnight /under two trees on a slight, level rise. / My stakes lost, I sharpen sticks to pin /my corners, cross the poles and arc them, / clip on the cloth, cast over it all the fly /like a surf net and cinch it down. My pack / wrapped, I zip in, lie sweating on my pad /in this slight shelter, floating each slow minute / closer to the sound of a river shoal, along /the marshy edge of sleep. A curtain of air / cold as a ghost drops on me, chilling the salt /on my skin. The right wall of nylon bulges in, / out, in. Rain’s paw-pads rake the roof, thunder /crumples, and all that’s outside my sheath flares / once, then sizzles. The sternum-crack of a mortar shell / detonates directly over my bed, lightning quickening / until it strobes. My capsized skin boat quakes / and shudders, straining against the swells. I keep / still inside her, chilled, certain she will founder, / accepting. Two drops tap my thigh, marking me / for some gale-dug grave. I give myself up / to the rip and the wave, to the branch / that will brain me – then open my eyes / in a rinsed yellow morning. She unzips, / water breaking from the fly: I crown /into the bright wide open, crawl beached / and blinking out to glimpse the horizon /going on without me, the soggy, sunlit scar / of the trail. I turn and bow in thanks to my taut, /whole veil, stretched over two strung bows, / bent and strong – her shape is the D in Dwell.
Note at the TrailheadHabituated bears have cutbear bag lines tied too low.Let this be a sign unto you, I go, as we walkinto the mountain's maw, slowed by heavy packs.We're snacks carrying snacks. Good to know.Bickle gives a little fake laugh: Tie it high—so? A cub with a K-bar can still climb.Do they chew the cord? Click outone claw and saw through? Wedrop the subject once we beginto descend into the nounboth our brainsare verbing:gorge.
Between firs, among aspens, stone to stone acrossa white creek, through furzy tussocks of meadowsogged with thaw, up gritty pitches by steep switch-backs of scree to a high slope of summer snowfieldwinds this ribbon of wear – a scar making a hereby flowing to a there. Take care to keep on it,though your boots dig it deeper, though for whole milesyou hump a ditch. Dry air will carry off a breathof dust each step: rock sifted to soil, thin as silt –a wear you wear, a ground-smoke to drift over a drop-offor foot-log. Grizzly, ankle-breaking hole, slab-teeter,coral snake, storm – these killers the trail abides, in the leeof boulders, over the pass, as it leads you beside still waters,lays you in a valley of shadow, as it takes you in stride.
High Falls, Shaver’s Fork of the Cheat River, Late June
Because we have backpacked from Bemisbetween the gleam of the tracks, boots on gravelall the way, I’m done in by every suppleness I witness:current rounding over a river-wide warp of stone,drift sticks licked gray and skinless by the pouruntil they’re vascular and tenderized, vulnerableas the inside of a girl’s wrist, the rhododendron thicket’ssprings and bends and green slap fight of passage that musksme up with semi-stiff rubbings. Branches bow, neitherlow nor high, but always — always— mid-thigh.Still, I passupstream, descend again down the moss boing of bankto the clear bustle of a deep hole below a shoal.The surface is a warble of cold through which brook trout,fearless, see me magnified, their fins fingering the cobbled bottom.God, the give and resistance of this old, broken whole, the flow –the easy hold of each fish in the Cheat’s ceaseless blow. I’ll not foolone, but the river has me, too – rod, soul, mind. So I throw and throwand throw.Daylight runs out. The bright rails and black ties, waveand laurel and brook and hole – they all go. Mountain and river roll intoa single shadow, still not speaking, in words I ought to know.
Gordon Johnston is author of Seven Islands of the Ocmulgee: River Stories (Mercer, 2023), Scaring the Bears (poetry), and Durable Goods (poetry chapbook), and is co-author, with Matthew Jennings, of Ocmulgee National Monument: A Brief Guide with Field Notes. Johnston also collaborates with potter Roger Jamison to fire poems onto clay pages in Jamison’s anagama kiln in Juliette, Georgia. A former journalist with work in The Georgia Review, Southern Poetry Review, Crazyhorse, Susurrus and other journals, Johnston is Professor of English at Mercer University.