I have no tattoos. That story is one of lazy summer days, friendship, and happenstance. But it is not for here. Here is where I tell you what tattoos the future might hold.
I walked up Mount Washington–Wabanaki and Abenaki territories–when I was six, maybe eight. The wooded hills that kept Lost Nation lost provided the soil in which being out-of-doors took root. We could see the Percy Peaks with their distinctive twin humps, we could see Sugarloaf and Victor Head and Cape Horn. Roaring Brook babbled as we gathered and moved the rocks for the fireplace and chimney and dammed the flow for a swimming hole. The poplar trees allowed Josh and I to play house, with the spindly saplings and sturdy trunks delineating rooms and hallways. Then we moved. The backyard became Devil’s Slide, the Kilkenny, and Nash Stream. The Mahoosucs, not far away were also a stomping ground. Day hikes turned to overnights, overnights to weekends, weekends to weeks. Backpacker magazines took over and baseball posters on the wall were replaced by AMC hiking and trail maps. It wasn’t long before journals filled with didactic writing told the story of mountains, hikes, shelters, storms, and views.
Through it all Percy Peaks was the constant; in Northern New Hampshire, if you could see them, you could identify them. With the move to Stark, Devil’s Slide obscured our view of them, but we were closer. We weren’t supposed to, but we camped up there once or twice. Blueberries in autumn, hot summer escapes, and snow laced spring time adventures, we saw them in their many moods. The bald North Percy was always the target, but occasionally we would foray up the other if time permitted, the blueberries and views being less appealing over there. Here, in Lander, 25 years later, a picture hangs of me on the broad snow drift formed one winter. Driving back from Groveton in the brown Cherokee after an afternoon baseball practice, Victor pointed it out. Do you want to go up there and check it out, he asked. Later that weekend we walked down the closed for mud season Nash Stream road, then up the trail. Snowshoes propelled us over the drift. Sunglasses protected our eyes from the bright, snow reflected, light. Wicker baskets carried our supplies and cotton kept us warm.
Percy Peaks defines my coming of age in the out-of-doors.
In the tidy Mormon hamlets of Wayne County–Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) and Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) territories–deep in a neglected part of Utah, I sought a paycheck and wintering ground in the emptiness of a place so forgotten, it never had a name. From that job, a decade was born, a new me was written. The desert became home. My contract was for six months; I wanted nothing more. I stayed for six years. Six years of gloaming hours that painted the Henry’s lacolithic slopes purple and red and pink. Six years of making fire by friction in the red caked dirt with kids too young for the problems they had. Six years of off-weeks that left me dusty, scabbed, stronger, and more alive. Six years of eating beans and rice cooked on a fire in #10 tin cans.
I went to the desert looking for a paycheck, instead I found a home. I found the serenity prayer and lived its meaning day in and day out. Uncertainty was certain. I found out that one can’t work wilderness therapy for six years without some of the therapy rubbing off. I didn’t seek healing in that stark and desolate land but I found it anyway. Years of detachment, arm’s length relationships, and constant movement were slowly lain to rest. It wasn’t the climbing of the harsh, jagged cliff lines or the pungently sweet scent of burning juniper or the aching beauty of fresh snow on red rock and juniper that started that process, it was the humanity with whom I shared those moments. Understanding spheres of influence allowed empathy and curiosity to grow. Conversations and vulnerability became assets and learning to love again became possible, if only on my terms–a decade plus later there is still work to do…
The desert defined my twenties; in it I proudly wore the label “desert rat.”
“It is alright Don Jared” Matt texted, “if you hurry, we can still make Chalten.” With those words, grey and granular, on a tiny, green screen, a decade was launched, a new me was written. In his own way, Matt was offering comfort and care. The relationship hadn’t worked out (it was, like the others, too much on my terms); Patagonia’s El Chaltén–traditional lands of the Aónikenk (Tehuelche)–with Matt would be the consolation prize. This Patagonia trip though, gave me a story to tell and a loss of innocence in the alpine arena. We went competent, nervous, and uncertain; we left with the thousand yard stare of those who have kicked too long at the darkness. And we kept going back. Patagonia became the love I courted, it became the question people asked, it became an identity I wore. Twelve years saw nine trips to the windswept pampas, leech infested jungles, and storm lashed mountains at the far end of South America. And now, even four years after the last true expedition, the itch is never far away.
My highly privileged lifestyle allowed me to chase mountains professionally and personally all over the globe, from New Zealand to the Garwahal to the Wind Rivers to East Africa. Mostly though I craved the competence, reflection, and escapism that came from running it out on the sharp end of the rope into an oncoming storm, feet and hands jammed numbly in cold, frozen, sheets of stone, only to back off again, rappelling into jacket tearing winds and eye piercing snow and drink litros outside the minimercado while making plans to try again. It was escapism, it was, at times, stupid, and like no other space on earth, gave me the impetus to write. It made me feel alive. It still does.
The alpine, Patagonia in particular, defined my thirties.
Through most, the Wind River’s (Cheyenne, Eastern Shoshone, Crow, and Shoshone-Bannock Territories) kept me stoked and fueled the fire while at home. Today, I sit in a small house just east of the range and can look out at the full moon setting over their foothills. I contemplate the setting of a moon mixed with the beginning of a day. It feels appropriate that the place that galvanized any alpine ambitions I had has seen them through to maturity.
I have written about the Wind River’s a lot, here and here and here just to start. I guided my first multi-pitch in the heart of Wind Rivers; I learn, refine, and continue to practice my horse skills there; I ran my last ultra across their spine. The range was a proving ground when my ego spoke louder than it should. It was a healing ground when my heart broke harder than I wanted. It provided quality time when love needed to be strengthened and it was the place to do it when love needed to be expressed and honored. It was a paycheck when the bills needed to be paid. They weren’t the first mountains I climbed and their rock didn’t draw me in as did the snow and ice of Alaska or the North Cascades; in my eyes they were old, boring, and not flashy. But I stayed and even as they washed to the sea, they grew on me. The last years have seen the packs and cams traded for saddlebags and horses and the place has been seen from a new angle. The jagged peaks of the southern cirques gave way to the elongated skyline over Pinedale’s rodeo grounds and the rolling sage foothills and pastures of the western flank. But the climbing is still there; bailing after one pitch on Sundance Pinnacle due to a new addition that sat and barked speaks to changing priorities. The walk out didn’t feel like a let down; we had tried and Cora had won. The Winds have seen me happy and sad, lonely and loved, scared and confident, thoughtful and insensitive. From 30 day courses that meandered their tops to day missions delivering groceries or nabbing an ascent, it feels like they have seen me in many of the ways that I can be. And for that I am grateful. I want to grow old with these mountains
Someday soon, or maybe not, with some new found cash, I will walk into a parlor with four distinct designs, all simple and all etched into my being. Four line drawings. Four simple skylines: the Bridger Jacks (the desert), Fitz Roy Massif (Patagonia), Percy Peaks (my youth), and the Northern Wind Rivers (my home–for now.)
Featured Image: Wind River Range from the northwest