First Church of the Higher Elevations
Spend a winter alone in a mountain cabin, as this writer did, and you’ll experience cold, fear, loneliness, and, just maybe, the sacred.
By Peter Anderson
“The Dharma Bums,” Jack Kerouac’s veiled account of his travels with poet Gary Snyder in the High Sierra, was the first book I can recall reading that suggested a relationship between mountains and the life of the Spirit. And it was one that seemed especially relevant when I first came west to live in 1974.
Like Ray Smith, Jack Kerouac's narrator in “The Dharma Bums,” I was a wide-eyed easterner when I first traveled west—dazzled by the milky-wayed world I was able to walk into with a sturdy pack, a tent, and a warm sleeping bag. This wasn't the washed out suburban sky I had grown up with on the north shore of Long Island. "Out West," as my grandfather once said of a night spent in the hinterlands of Texas, "the stars were so close, you could knock 'em down with a stick." Between those stars, the dark went deep.
Under that same wide sky, carrying everything he needed on his back, Ray Smith followed a sandy wash into desert mountains west of the El Paso freight yards. A sky full of stars and a slender moon lit his way as he began to gain some elevation. Here, beyond the world of other railroad bums and the yard cops who were always on the lookout for them, he felt safe. "I got back to my camp and spread the sleeping bag," Smith said, "and thanked the Lord for all He was giving me...." Then he prayed and meditated in a silence "so intense that you could hear your own blood roar in your ears.... Louder than that by far [was] the mysterious roar...of silence itself."
I didn't know much about prayer or meditation when I first came West, but it didn't take long to catch the drift of that silence Kerouac had described. For three years I was a student at Colorado College. Pikes Peak was a dominant presence on that Front Range campus, but it was the territory on the far side of the mountain that called to me the most.
In May of 1978, I drove 24 West out of Colorado Springs, beyond Pikes Peak and over Wilkerson Pass, where the sky opened out into the windswept vistas of South Park and where distant peaks were gathering early summer snow on the Great Divide horizon; farther west and flat out down a long straight two-lane, stopping for beer and chips at the Hartsel Trading Post; farther west, riding the long curves up to Trout Creek, and coasting down the short ones on the far side of the pass; farther west, dropping into the Arkansas River Valley, rolling to a stop just past the Dinner Bell Cafe, and peering up through 6,000 feet of clear mountain air at rocks and snow and the east face of Mt. Princeton.
The road to St. Elmo ran up the gap that Chalk Creek had notched between the shoulders of Princeton and Antero, another 14,000-foot-peak a little farther to the south. It ran west from the Nathrop General Store and Post Office, following the grade of the long defunct Denver and South Park Railroad into the mouth of Chalk Creek Canyon. I drove it for the first time early one summer morning. I had just taken a job guiding trips on the Arkansas River. And I had heard talk of a cabin for rent somewhere up the canyon.
The road turned dirt as it began the steep climb along side a stretch of the Chalk Creek Cascades, a half-mile or so of tumbling creek water—nothing but white at the peak of the run-off. Above the Cascades, ponderosa territory gave way to the higher grounds of lodgepole pine. The road swerved past aspens bent low by an avalanche the previous winter, past the first stands of Englemann spruce and subalpine fir, past the concrete remains of the Pawnee Gold and Silver Mill. As the road began to level out, it rounded a curve and the forest opened out into an unexpected alpine valley.
Straddling Chalk Creek, which ran down the middle of this valley, was this remnant of a town called St. Elmo. I drove slowly past the abandoned false fronts—the Miner's Exchange, Pat Hurley's Saloon, and the Home Comfort Hotel—spun a U-turn and pulled up next to the trading post, the only building in town that appeared to be in use. Walking the remains of a wooden sidewalk, I looked through the gaps between sheets of rusted tin roofing that covered up first floor windows. Most intriguing of all was the Home Comfort Hotel, where shafts of light revealed a floor strewn with envelopes, old brown bottles, and a pile of women's lace-up shoes. Morning sun glancing off the second story, drew my eye to the lace curtains, yellowed and torn, slightly bent behind a lens of century old window glass.
Pathos lingered, as it often does in a boomtown gone bust, but St. Elmo was anything but gloomy that day. I crossed the bridge over Chalk Creek. A water ouzel dipped and bobbed on a rock below me and flew off down the creek. The current swept up flashes of sun as it ran down through the willows. I walked over to a schoolhouse that looked as though it had received a fresh coat of white paint in the not-too-distant past, and sat down on the steps.
Time, or at least my thoughts as I experienced them in time, swirled slowly here. And an inward space seemed to open that was as quiet and as welcoming as Ray Smith's camp above El Paso.
Back in the old days, if a gold field played out, there were more out yonder. For Kerouac's religious wanderers, the yondering call had more to do with a geography of the spirit. And the pay dirt had something to do with silence.
For Han Shan, a Japanese hermit and wandering monk, who preferred the slopes of a mountain to the monasteries in the valley below, "silence was the golden mountain." For Ray Smith and his mountaineering buddy Japhy Ryder, the words Han Shan left on the cliffs of Cold Mountain a thousand years ago were invitations into an openness of spirit.
Any comfort the orthodoxies of the 50s may have offered in a post-holocaust, post-atomic bomb, cold war era, were not enough for the restless seekers Kerouac wrote about in “On the Road” and “The Dharma Bums.” They hadn't given up on the holy as much as they had given up on lifeless religion. For them, vital spirituality had more to do with adventure than security. To say that "silence was the golden mountain" implied that contemplation was a worthy destination and that a mountain path might help one get there.
So Ray Smith was looking forward to his first season as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades. He was longing for the solitude that came with the job. "You're sayin' that now but you'll change your tune soon enough," said the wrangler who was packing him in and who had seen more than a few lookouts come and go. "They all talk brave. But then you get to talkin’ to yourself. That ain't so bad but don't start answerin’ yourself, son."
I too was a little naive as I entered into my first winter of solitude.
At 10,013 feet, the storms came hard and fast. The cabin was at the end of the line for the county snowplow. With the nearest neighbor a couple of miles down the mountain, knowing that the plow would eventually show up, offered some consolation when the big storms hunkered down on the Divide and the road down valley disappeared under a foot or two of snow. Still, cabin fever turned out to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated.
Back in the old days, miners had weathered out the same storms in a boarding house near timberline—at least a thousand feet higher than my perch on the edge of St. Elmo. The remains of the Mary Murphy boarding house, still visible on a mountain south of town, prompted my curiosity. Who had worked there? What did they do between those dark shifts inside of Chrysolite Mountain? How did they weather out the long winter?
G.W. McPherson, a parson from back east, was something of a misfit in the mining culture of the Mary Murphy bunkhouse. Atypical though he may have been as a minister in a gold and silver camp, his sentiments on the mining life at timberline, were likely shared by many if not most of his fellow miners. "It was lonesome as death far up on the Mary Murphy Silver mine," McPherson wrote, "the only sound being heard was the almost constant thumping of the persistent winds on the bunkhouse and shaft shed with an occasional dim, low echo of the [train] whistles...far away near the top of the mountain."
Compared to the Mary Murphy Mine and bunkhouse, downtown St. Elmo seemed downright suburban, even though I was the only full-time resident there that winter. Still, on a Sunday night in January, the silence at road's end could chill a heart as fast as it could fill one. It was often easier to stay for another draft at the Lariat Saloon down valley, than it was to follow the dark road home. At times the sky behind the stars seemed so dark and so vast as I pulled up to the cabin, that it was just plain overpowering. I'd slam the truck door just to break the silence, hustle into the cabin, throw the light on, and stoke the fire.
Reflecting on a summit experience in the Swiss Alps, an early 20th century mountaineer named Emile Javelle described the sensation of an "emptiness, terrifying in its vastness," that opened out around him. One "is struck," he said, "as in no other place, by this thought that the universe is terrible in its mystery, that no religion, no philosophy, can give us a true idea of what it is; that the further the vision of our eye extends, the greater does that mystery become.”
That experience of mountain vastness, especially for a newcomer to it as I was back then, was surely enough to get a guy talking to himself, maybe even answering his own questions. But the refuge and finitude of that one-room cabin, with the stove throwing out a little light and heat, reassured me that I could handle a temporary overload of fear and wonder—that quality of experience we used to call awe, before everything became "awesome" and the word lost its edge.
The mountain night at the end of the road was both compelling and unsettling, as were the worst of the winter storms that came down off the Continental Divide. One storm, which showed little evidence of letting up after dumping several feet of snow, taught me a lesson or two about waiting. I gave into my own restlessness and paid the price when I ran the truck off the road and into a ditch down valley. "Just cause you got four wheels spinnin' don't mean you can go anywhere," said the guy who towed me out.
With time, I got better at waiting. When the storm clouds began to lift and the plow driver had come in for coffee and gone back down the mountain, my best mountain and river buddy from Leadville would eventually come rolling up the road. After layers of wool, after boots and gaitors and the Dillards singing "What's Time to a Hog?" on the boom box, after packs were loaded up and skis were waxed, came the first kick and glide tracks on the old railroad grade to Hancock. All was quiet, save for the swish of skis on fresh powder—maybe the occasional chatter of chickadee, or a gray jay, or a squirrel. Now and then, a gust of wind would loosen a branch load of snow up top of a high spruce.
By midday, we were 10 miles up grade, slicing salami and cheese next to the remains of the last old cabin in Hancock. This had been the hermit's stomping ground. Frank Gimlett, prospector, poet, and recalcitrant recluse, had once run jack trains in this neck of the woods:
Well I remember the blizzards of the 80s when we would just get a trail shoveled out and another storm would come up the same day, and only by superhuman effort and continuous work, were we able to get the train of jackasses over Chalk Creek Pass and down to Hancock town. Then it took sledgehammers to break loose the ore sacks from saddles, while great icicles were hanging from the faithful eyebrows and whiskers of the old beasts. Many times it was already very late in the day, and to make any attempt to return and go back over the trail to Middle Fork would be just plain suicide, so we stabled the jackasses in the barn for the night, while we made up a bed of saddle-blankets in the corner and there on a couch of new hay we rested, and what I mean, slept through the night.
The Hermit of Arbor Villa, as Gimlett was later known, lingered long after the glory days of the mining era had come and gone. In his later years, he lived in a cabin ten miles or so to the south of Hancock. In the pamphlets he wrote and printed as an old man, his voice was at once ornery and sentimental. If he wasn't pining away for a lost love, or waxing nostalgic for the life of the prospector he had known working the highline between Garfield and St. Elmo, he was cursing Grover Cleveland's decision to replace gold and silver money with paper—the ruin of the mining west as he saw it. He was in love with a past that had slipped through his sluice box and run down the creek.
One day, we crossed Hancock Pass, a few miles beyond the old townsite. On the Hermit's old highline trail, we were able to walk up a low windblown saddle. On the far side, we stepped back onto our skis and scoped out the run. Later, it was almost as satisfying to retrace those long "S" turns looking up from the bottom of the pass, as it had been to make them on the way down. Though more transient than even that prospecting hermit, we were at least present enough to savor those moments that the wind would soon cover over. In the First Church of the Higher Elevations, which was something, I imagined, like Han Shan's golden mountain, the moment was the sacrament. And the double helix lines we left in the snow, like the little gratitudes that came with winter camp, were all a part of the liturgy.
Like those days in St. Elmo, Ray Smith's hitch in the North Cascades would eventually come to an end. Shortly after Smith heard on the radio that his first full season as a fire lookout would soon be over, he acknowledged days passed and vision gained: "Sixty sunsets had I seen revolve on that perpendicular hill. The vision of the freedom of eternity was mine forever."
What exactly was this vision he was talking about? What did he mean by the freedom of eternity? What he was describing, I think, were transitions from chronos, or clock time, into kairos, a time that can't be measured. To experience kairos was to experience a fullness in the moment. It was as if a two dimensional world momentarily opened out into three dimensions and then, in a flash, reverted back. One was left with the fleeting impression that there was a deeper and wider way of experiencing the world.
Hints of that experience seemed to come and go as Ray straddled the geography where his Buddhist orientation met his Christian roots. Aspiring bodhisattva that he was, I heard him reaching out in meditation: "I called Han Shan in the mountains: there was no answer. I called Han Shan in the morning fog: silence, it said…." In that silence, he learned how to fold the awareness of his own aloneness, into the warmth of the passing moment: "Mists blew by, I closed my eyes, the stove did the talking."
It was easy enough to forget such moments...to let them slide into the past without recognition or acknowledgement. And yet those moments of being present were potentially moments of opening up to Presence. Ray Smith left Desolation Peak behind, but he took something with him as well. I heard him naming a fullness of heart that had grown out of those contemplative moments: "I have fallen in love with you God," he said on the way down the mountain. "Take care of us all, one way or the other."
Though I understood the emotion underneath Ray Smith's prayer, I can't say as I had fallen in love with God after that first winter in St. Elmo. Back in those days, Saturday night was still my Sabbath. Much as I might have been drawn to silence and solitude, I wasn't about to miss Saturday night at the Lariat, the "Rope" as we called it, when the Lazy Alien Blues Band was in town. In that hot and smoky swing dance of a mountain town scene, with the boys on the horns blasting out the riffs to "Midnight Hour" or "Land of a Thousand Dances," the Lariat would be shaking. Crack a brew and fire up a smoke. Wild night was calling.
Back then, the notion of long term commitment was as abstract as prayer. Still, I had imagined that I was ready to make that kind commitment to my adopted home—that Chalk Creek and the Arkansas River were the watersheds to which I would pledge my allegiance, as Gary Snyder had suggested. For another six years or so, I cobbled together a life in St. Elmo and the Arkansas Valley—guiding river trips, banging nails, and later taking a job as reporter for the Mountain Mail (Salida’s five-day daily) covering northern Chaffee County—everything from town council meetings in Buena Vista to the crowning of the rodeo queen.
But as it turned out, my time there was only a courtship. In the early 80s, there were layoffs at the molybdenum mine in Leadville, downtown storefronts were emptied in Buena Vista and Salida, winter winds were frosting over the windows at the Lariat, and good friends were firming up their plans to move elsewhere.
Many friends had bailed out of the Arkansas River Valley. Even my best mountain and river pal, who had weathered a few booms and busts living up in Leadville, was soon to be California-bound. I found myself heading into town more often and settling in at the Lariat. "Buck up," I imagined the old Hermit saying, but I knew that I'd be leaving before the aspens turned again.
You can't store much in a one-room cabin, which is a good thing when it's time to move on. Most of what I owned—some tools, camping gear, river stuff, some skis, clothes and books—I could fit into the back of a truck that had become a kind of camper shell Conestoga. Whatever didn't fit wasn’t needed.
It was harder to leave the intangibles behind. I wasn't sure what to do with that deep welcoming, unlike any I could recall, that I'd sensed in that little valley at the head of Chalk Creek Canyon. Nor was I sure what to do with the uneasiness I'd known in the dead of that winter solitude. But I took along a pinch of dust from Ray and Japhy's golden mountain. And I would say forever thank you, for a shack and for the silence at the high end of the road.
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Peter Anderson has worked as a river guide, journalist, teacher, wilderness ranger, and editor. He has an M.Div. from the Earlham School of Religion, and is the author of several books on nature and Spirit. He lives in Southern Colorado, where he serves as editor for Pilgrimage Magazine and poetry editor for the Mountain Gazette.
Excerpted from First Church of Higher Elevations: Mountains, Prayer, and Presence by Peter Anderson. Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from Ghost Road Press.
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