Walking the Haute Route 

With Accidental Tours, Incorporated

Julie and I took a hike through the Sawtooths last week, one that began as a short late-morning stroll up Fishhook Creek. It ended some seven hours later as a mad dash to catch the Redfish shuttle boat. In between we had circumnavigated Mount Heyburn. We had walked past lakes still covered with ice, climbed hand-over-hand over high cornices, glissaded down sun-cupped snowfields and rappelled from alder branch to alder branch down the steep glacier-polished canyon between Heyburn and Braxon Peak.

The day exceeded its design parameters. We kept finding fields of buckwheat and paintbrush and pride of the mountain at the top of every waterfall. We passed a pair of sandhill cranes and two chicks, and hawks circled above us as we climbed. Lunch took place atop an eight-foot cube of granite on the edge of a fast-flowing pool. The high-altitude sky was a bright dark blue unhazed by Chinese coal plants. We lay back on the rock and watched as thick white clouds flowed over the peaks to our west, paused a few thousand feet above us, and spun into clear vapor in the sunlight.

But we didn't stop for long in any one place. We needed to move and keep moving, because when you're off trail in the Sawtooths, it's best to allow time for getting lost or rim-rocked. We knew that if we missed the boat, we'd have an extra five miles to walk, and the day would exceed our own design parameters.

As it was, the next morning found us hobbling around the house, eating naproxen, complaining of aching joints and sore muscles but happy to be alive, reassured that surviving one big-ass hike meant we could survive the next.

Except it doesn't mean that at all. Somewhere--sometime--out there is my final big-ass hike, and Julie's, too. When I mentioned this thought to her, she said, "I suggest you quit using 'big-ass' to refer to our hikes. How about lithe, athletic hikes, full of cat-like moves?"

"Sure," I said. "And my lithe, cat-like move this morning is going to be a long nap on the couch."

But Julie knew what I meant. Both of us have Alzheimer's in our families. For the past seven years of her life my mother wasn't sure who she was, or who she was with. We spent a lot of time answering her questions about identity, even when we lacked answers, even after her Alzheimer's had made us realize how arbitrary and delicate identity is for all of us.

If I develop Alzheimer's, Julie has agreed to smother me with a pillow. So far I've been able to fight her off whenever she tries it.

"All I'm saying," I said, "is that if we keep up these big-ass hikes, one of them will be my last. No pillow necessary. You can pile a cairn of stones on me, and come home alone."

"That will not be a good day," she said. "That would make me sad."

"Good answer," I said.

"I was looking forward to using the pillow," she said.

"A not-so-good answer," I said. Then I said, "In the meantime, when a big-ass hike turns into a lithe and athletic one, it's like a gift from the past, a moment when the people we were 20 years ago decide to visit the future for a day, and inhabit the bodies of the old folks we've become, and look around to see what has changed."

"I suggest you quit using the term 'old folks,'" Julie said. "But I like the idea of gifts from the past. It makes you think that we're time travelers, and we get to live in the future as well as the past."

"Any more," I said, "I'm content to inhabit a long, drawn-out present. I only time travel when I'm forced to."

Which is true. If I could avoid it, I'd stay out of the future entirely. And there are moments in the past that aren't any fun to spend time in. I've heard the present described as a knife-edge, but with luck it's a knife-edge you can balance on.

"The present is a delicate and arbitrary thing," said Julie.

"That's our mantra," I said. It is our mantra. We say it a lot.

We're already planning more short, late-morning hikes into the Sawtooths, ones that will no doubt bear little resemblance to our plans. We get tempted off-trail by beauty, and we follow it into places where the air is thin. Old age isn't the only unmarked hazard.

That's the way of our hikes, and our lives. You start out thinking you're going to be back in time for the shuttle boat, and sometimes you are. Other times you find yourself with no way down. You climb back up, move laterally and start down again. You run into walls of trees piled up by avalanches. You duck under logs that snag your pack. Finally, you struggle through thorny underbrush in the darkness, feeling for a solid foothold as you hang off the edge of a big rock, saying things like, "I thought you brought the headlamp," or "What do you mean, you ate the last of the chocolate?"

That's what living in the present is like. It never lacks risk. You make plans, but they evaporate in the sunlight. It's always a delicate and arbitrary gift when you wake each day in a beautiful and terrifying world--one that, for all its faults and frailties, continues to provide love and joy in appreciable quantities. I hope it lasts for another 30 years, and of course I hope that Julie and I do, too.

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