Photo: Randall Runtsch/Shutterstock

Field Notes From the World's Meanest Terrain

by Mary Sojourner Aug 30, 2013

I’ve stepped onto a trail I hadn’t expected to encounter. Nobody’s doing maintenance on this washed out, rocky ribbon of red earth that winds between a cliff face and a 300-foot dropoff. There will be no turning back. And no end-of-trail orgasm.

My g-g-g-generation warned, “Never trust anybody over 30.” I’m 43 years past that point of mistrust. Most of my friends are 55 and older. They are climbers, trail crew grunts, hikers, river rats, and road trip addicts. Scorp’s shoulder went out 15 years ago. He threw his climbing shoes out five years ago. Everett (code name Ruess — if you don’t know who Everett Ruess was, you’re probably not limping the mean terrain with us) had knee surgery a week ago. A torn meniscus — not from a Rim to Rim hike, but because as he park-rangered at Roaring Spring, he bent down and felt the muscle rip.

Me? A frozen shoulder from a hiking fall, squashed lumbar disc from another fall, ghost arthritis from stepping on a wobbly boulder near Gray Tanks in the Kofa Desert and slamming down on damn near every joint in my body. The road still calls but sleeping on the ground doesn’t.

My range has shrunk from solo hikes up to an ancient Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains to trails near my single-wide in Flagstaff; from sandstone-scrambles on the shores of Lake Foul (Powell) in Northern Arizona to making my tentative way down to O’Neill Spring ten minutes from my front porch; from coming up under the raft in 24 1/2 in the Colorado River to sitting on the big log at the Pariah Riffle, breathing in river mist and remembering sitting there with Dead Bill 20 years earlier, yowling Judy Collins’ “Someday Soon” at a quarter moon.

My neighborhood becomes a mystery.

I figure about now you’re muttering, “Get over it. Everybody gets old — except me.” Keep reading. The same way the hardest hikes and paddles most often bring us to the greatest beauty, getting old opens out a new way to see. There’s no Lonely Planet guide to this world; no way to use a GPS; no way to text out for rescue. We walk it as we once went off-trail. We climb it without protection. We run these fucking rapids without scouting — on this shore, there’s no way to look ahead.

My neighborhood becomes a mystery. One day I walk out and see a blood-orange sun glittering through the branches of the dark pine, its light splintering on the dirt road in front of me. Another evening a kid rides up to me on a bike and says, “Is Freddy Krueger real?” One morning I go to my mailbox and find a letter. There is no return address.

I sit on the porch to read. Manly hummingbirds strafe each other, “Mothuhfuckuh, get outta my face.” A woodpecker hangs on the bird feeder, crams sunflower seeds in its mouth, flops to the nearest pine and stashes the seeds in cracks in the bark. I open the letter. There is one sheet of paper, the handwriting shaky. It is signed, Love, Barbara Vil Mcondra aka Eskimo Nell.

I barely know Eskimo Nell. We met at a gem and mineral show in the Little America hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona two decades ago. I have not seen her since then.

I bought a raw opal from her. She gave me two more for free — a brown opal and a sun fire. She had dug them from her little claim in Australia.

The brown opal was the size of the nail on my fourth finger. It was a tiny puddle of glint, green and pale blue against the rough brown of its matrix.

The sun fire opal was a matte-surfaced blue cylinder no bigger than the first joint of my little finger. Nell had chipped off a sliver so the gleaming interior was visible. “Put it in water,” she said, “and set it in a window in natural light. That way you’ll see the fire.”

I can’t remember the nature of the third opal. I think I gave it to someone — a gift beyond measure. The brown opal is also gone — stolen, I suspect, by an unfortunate visitor to my cabin in the Mojave. The sun fire opal is here with me in a little glass dish on my bathroom windowsill.

I begin to read:

Mary, I am sad to tell you of what is the speeding up of the beginning of the final journey we all must take. I was rushed from Australia in dire straits…inoperable pancreatic cancer stage iv so am here in Texas with my two sons and all my grandkids. We are in a large 3500 square foot house…rents are cheap in Texas. and am laughing with them daily and resting some from chemo…a light chemo…hoping to give me a few more months.

I ate a magnificent grape popsicle the other night in the dark hospital room, with curtain drawn wide open so as to catch the thunder lightning show and the sheets of poring rain cascading over the glass as the grape juice cascaded over my sore throat instantly soothed by the wonder of it all. I am wishing you well in your new start. I am so glad you own the black opal nobbies that I mined so many years ago. May it be your companion on many new adventures ole gypsy girl you.

Love, Barbara Vil Mcondra aka Eskimo Nell

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