Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Life, Death and iPhones

I slept a few hours, then came home to the mountains after my usual stint in the trenches- seventy five hours over six nights, in a hectically busy emergency department. After dropping my bags in the kitchen, I fought the urge to turn on Netflix, instead throwing on shorts and lacing up running shoes. The dirt road unfurled to the southeast and gained elevation steadily. Autumn colors burned in the trees and stippled the roadside.

I’d broken a sweat by the time I crested the hill and the trees thinned. I stopped short at the sight of the sunset- electric clouds, crisp and scalloped in a neon sky, floated above the undulating skyline of rugged mountains to the west, a thin slice of lake shimmering in the dark forest below. My first thought was, “I wish I had my phone,” which immediately struck me as absurd. The desire to capture and preserve the moment was instantaneous and so strong. But to what end? So I could remember it? Put it on Facebook to show friends, family, acquaintances what I had seen? No matter the camera or the composition, no image could recreate the feeling I had the moment I emerged from the trees and saw that vista, before the desire to capture it leapt in.

I ran on, trying to name that feeling. Struck by beauty, I felt… happiness, peace, gratitude. Love? I turned my attention to the clips and images from my work week in the ER, unspooling like a tickertape at the margin of my thought-stream. I had interacted with so many people struck by catastrophe. Touched bodies betrayed by cancer and drug addiction, tried to soothe minds tormented by mental illness. Worked with utmost urgency to save a young boy’s life. Listened to a mother wail as she learned of that sweet child’s devastating injuries. Told graying children that their mother would never wake up, blood filling her brain.

It occurred to me that the impulse to take a picture was the desire to make permanent something- that beautiful sight, that feeling- that could only ever be fleeting. I could have taken that picture, looked at it again and again, and seen only a pale imitation of what was there before me in that moment past. It is so hard not to cling to the illusion of permanence. Our desires, our minds fool us: I am alive now, so I will always be alive. I am unhappy now, so I will always be unhappy. I have this roof over my head now, so it will always be there. To lose a young, flawless child is to be reminded of mortality in the cruelest of ways. But even those graying children had such a hard time accepting the impermanence of their nonagenarian mother. They clung to her tightly.

It is a contrast of my profession, and my mind, that I am never more alive and engaged than when thrust into a crisis, working in a team to save a life, acting and reacting in the din of the trauma rooms, blood and wrappers on the floor. I step away from these events reminded of the preciousness and fleetingness of life. But it is so hard to stay in the gratitude that arises. Away from crises and stunning sunsets, I return to self-absorption. I muddle through, I struggle with the mundane vagaries of life. I fail to marvel at the gifts that each day provides. I forget that each day, each hour is a precious thing, never to return, never to be held or preserved.

These thoughts occupied my mind as I ground my way up Watson Hill. Dirt, then pavement, then dirt again. At the top, for some reason, I ran a few yards past the end of the road, into a meadow. In so doing I saw a small, walled cemetery set into the forest. There were a dozen or so gravestones, some cracked and leaning. Most were from the 1800s. I felt no chill, just curiosity and a quiet respect, before I turned and ran for home. Thoughts arose: “How will I be remembered? Will I have made the world a better place? Haven’t done much so far, Flanders, and you’re about to turn forty, so you better get cracking…” No good thinking such thoughts, though.

As I ran through the deepening twilight, I tried to bring it back to the present, and the ever-important gratitude. I am thankful that my loved ones are healthy today. I am thankful to have had the love of those that are gone. I am thankful for my health, and so very thankful that my son is strong, and healthy, and whole. I felt myself return to a running mantra, one that first arose when I left the landmine-strewn conflict area of the Thailand-Burma border, many years ago. I am thankful for my life. I am thankful for my legs. I am thankful for my feet. I am thankful I can run. And just like that, I put one foot in front of the other, running into darkness.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

An Alpine Endeavor

Yesterday circumstances conspired to thwart my climbing plans- My friend Joe and I had planned a springtime double of both the Pinnacle Gully ice climb and the adjacent Pinnacle Buttress rock climb. A missing hiker required Joe to put on his Mountain Rescue hat, so I pondered an alternative.

With the sun shining, and the Mount Washington Road Race less than two months away, I decided to head toward the road and see where my heart and the trail conditions took me. The Old Jackson "Road" provided a long, gradual ascent through the woods, with plenty of rocks and roots to hold one's attention and occasional sections of snow and mud. All along was the sound of rushing water and the sweet smell of evergreens.

At two miles I intersected the Auto Road at one of its very few flat sections. Relatively low on the mountain, there was nary a breeze and I contemplated a nap in the sun. After pulling a snack and more water from my pack, though, I psyched up and headed uphill, eager to test myself against this vaunted grade for the first time.

At every point, spring proclaimed itself with a voice of a hundred streams. The pavement stayed pretty dry, though, as I chugged up toward treeline. The magnificent cirque of the Northern Presidentials dominated the view. Looking into the vast Great Gulf, I imagined where search teams might be struggling through deep snow, and hoped they were shepherding a tired, hungry 17 year-old boy back to his parents.

As the road swung southward, the pavement gave way to soft earth and gravel. Several snowcats sat by the roadside, their season at an end. Nearing 4,000 feet of elevation, I came upon work crews clearing snow from the road. I ran alongside an eight-foot wall of snow, its surface scalloped by the sun.

My legs and lungs complained ever more loudly as we steadily climbed, but I reminded them that this very act of running was an expression of joy. Finally a chorus of glucose-starved cells successfully called a halt. Squatting in a tilted field of snow and slush, I gazed at alpine splendor and devoured a mix of almonds, raisins and salt. Hallelujah! As a dear friend says, hunger is the best condiment.

The summit towers came into view. Don't get excited, it's still a long way off, I muttered. Ghosts of runners past and future bobbed around me as I thought ahead to the road race. How will I feel when I get here? Will I have gone out too fast at the start? Will the competitive instinct help me or hurt me?

Sheer effort and the need to control my breathing brought me back to the present moment. Closer, closer, until I rounded a corner and came upon the daunting final incline, which brought me to a walk. A weary trot brought me to the summit, where I raised my arms and whooped in the style of Rocky. What a blessing to be there! Warm layers, food and drink, and the restless wind brought me to a state of near-bliss. Or stupor, maybe.

Finally I roused myself, threw on dry socks and rock-hopped down the summit cone. I ran into one of the snow rangers above the lip of Tuckerman Ravine, and he told me of the still-missing teen's ambitious itinerary, a huge loop over the Northern Presidentials which I'd traveled myself in warmer, drier weather.

I agreed to report to the search directors at Pinkham, then headed down Boott Spur, the massive ridge that forms the southern wall of Tuckerman Ravine. A good half-mile of the trail was a rushing stream. Socks have no business being dry in the springtime, so I threw myself right down the middle.

By the time I began to negotiate the steep, crusty post-holing of Boott Spur Link, a multitude of organs were complaining, especially my stomach. After another rest at Hermit Lakes, gravity brought me quickly down to Pinkham. I reported my travels and observations to the "fish cops" (NH Fish and Game officers) directing the search, all of whom were former EMT students of mine. Out front, I passed the missing boy's father, speaking before a TV camera. Best of luck to them

A day later, I am still tired.. but grateful, and blessed. I look forward to running the road again before I have to share it with cars!