Somewhere Between Leadville & Fairplay, Colorado, January 29, 2005
i haven't seen anyone, not a soul, in days. now, bundled up against the sub-zero temperatures, and squeezing my hands into my armpits, i'm in a world built out of very small pieces of grey. at 10,980 feet altitude, i can practically reach over my head and stuff my hand into that deadly zone known as Timberline, where it's too high; nothing can grow. it's only about five more minutes' trudge through the thigh-high snow. the small cabin where i've been staying should be.. somewhere.. down that ravine a mile or so away.
it damn well better be.
at this refined altitude of nosebleeds and short-winded expenditures (where even typing becomes a cardiovascular workout), i can't do much other than stand, crotch-deep, in the snow and think about taking my next step. so i'll get to timberline, just for shits and declarations, then head back to the cabin. i've neither seen nor spoken with anyone (other than myself in the mirror, that is) for several days, so i'm looking forward to leaving tonight. my friend, who owns the cabin, will be here to pick me up at sunset. or so he said.
but something's scaring me, something grim has happened, a change has occurred, and i pray he arrives when he said, because i'm fearing for my life at this point...
several days ago i got to the cabin in the late afternoon. it was cold and so i lit a fire before i even took my jacket off. india was still in my blood so the cabin seemed surrounded by danger, every snowflake a tiny demon, waiting to attack me with their microscopic forks of ice. they would stay outside and the fire and i would talk into the night.
once i got a little heat going i cooked a piece of grade-excellent colorado range buffalo steak. i listened to bulgarian folk music and sprinkled crumbs on the porch so that the jays and the chickadees that courageously forage through the winter could get a free lunch with me. they were companions, as well. at least then. finally i tossed the leftover meat on the porch step (it was gone in the morning, replaced by tiny undecipherable scratchings in the snow). then, when the sun fell, i lit some lamps, more companions, and sat down to work, several writing and illustration projects being due next week.
i took a nap of three hours, around 2 am, and was up to watch the sun rise peaceful and silent.
of all of my companions - the fire, the birds, the lamps, and the tiny meat-thief of the night, solitude was my best friend.
by the end of the second day, however, things began to get interesting. since i had gone up to this cabin to listen to myself think, and since i walk along that thin concrete lip of the swimming pool of schizophrenia (my grandfather spending the last 2/3 of his life in hospitals), i started to go a little bonky. not Shining-axe-murderer bonky (another story about another loopy guy in another wintertime colorado getaway), but stand-and-stare-west-and-not-notice-for-30-minutes bonky... hear-the-pulse-of-the-snow bonky... talk-to-myself-in-the-mirror-for-10-minutes bonky. you know, ye-old-timey-colorado-miner kind of bonky. then, by the end of the third day, about the fourth time that a ghost had walked through the living room (when i was sure the ceiling had collapsed, scaring me out of the lazyboy chair that i was typing in [the one you see on the right, above]), i realized that i was well-gone bonky before i'd arrived. it had been two weeks since i'd slept more than 5 hours, my clothes needed washing (my only pair of pants smelled like brie), and i'd lost all sense of a schedule, sleeping for two hours at a time, at random segments inside the great daily hoop we call the sun. but no matter, it wasn't like there was someone around i might snap at, so i hiked up my psyche and took a swan dive off the side of my schizo' swimming pool.
working on a book of fables, the writing went well. lost in the subcranial scrub i spun my tires in the mud of grey matter (because that's what a writer must do - grind the gears of the ole' intellect and drag some four-headed hydras, screaming and flapping, from the swamps of the subconscious), making a general mess of the ricefields of imagination i had so carefully weeded just last month. the writing came easy, the work was good, and the vines of madness started to grow out of my head, like the black and grey hair that grow out of the ears of old russian men.
i think these vines, words, and images nearly strangled me. one morning, around 4, i found myself tromping around naked in the snow and ice, waving a knife over my head, laughing and roaring at the sky and the gods that stared down from it. in defense of my insanity, in defense of my confession even, this was the kind of thing one does, like listening to gregorian chant in a french church, or trying on an ancient italian helmet, when you wonder about the people, a hundred years ago, that breathed this same air, and what it was like to be them, and how they might have done their days. and so, like a crazy fucking miner carrying his knife to the deer-hang to cut off a chest full of dinner, i imagined i would die there too, as he had, on the icy scalp of north america.
yes, dear reader, it is true; insanity lives in the mountains of colorado. ask alfred packer.
but this wasn't what scared me because then, after jumping into my freezing pool of madness, i found that it was nice to be out... ! ... i dried off in front of the wood stove, my feet tinkling and ringing from the ice they had broken through, my skin hot and stinging, cleaned off and warmed up. i stood there in front of the cracking fire, naked, my unintelligible work done, pleased as pie that i'd managed not to die while performing idiotic feats of historic recreation in the wilds of the state of insanity. i kept the palms of my hands just above the stove, and water dripped off, hissing as it hit the black metal.
these luxuries are worthy.
most luxuries, like cadillacs, cognacs, and cuban cigars, are fine insofar as luxuries go, but they're also designed to numb the senses, drop the pain of life to a tolerable threshold, and swat the swarm of anxiety that follows us around. this is not living. this is insulating. these luxuries are easy to separate into a big fat category called "nouns."
i prefer another category of luxuries called "verbs." the items in this category - acts - consume most of the hours of our lives, so it's a good idea to select them well, like bullets for battle, and sort them by preference and quality. this is art. these art forms of living, these luxuries, include things that are easily found in europe; things like love, food, or friends. but they exist all over the world. sitting on a porch in tennessee, listening to the sunset cicadas, and smelling the salt pork rind sizzle from the neighbor's smokehouse up the road. or laughing with the hookers and junkies under the bridge downtown, smoking cigarettes, and finding out what shit-hole shaft they tumbled down to get there. or learning how to play a new instrument. or decoding the language of the birds that come to your window for crumbs, even if they are only pigeons. or deep-kissing in the rain then sprinting inside to dry each other off before jumping in the sack with a couple of spanish pears, a kind bordeaux, some dark chocolate, and a long, sharp knife.
these are things all of us, for the most part, can do. but the extremes of these luxuries can get shoved out past reasonable limits. this is why they are luxuries. luxury, like vice, can be pushed to limits that are defined only by your physical capabilities. on the simple left we have our sip of cognac, and on the randy right we have a roll in the hay while it rains outside.
you can drink and fuck all day, but only provided you're healthy as a hero
thus, steeped in blessed luxury, i passed the better part of this january's final week.
...i'm standing on top of a snow blown hill, just below timberline, and the wind, as if i were on the bottom of an ocean of motor coolants, sucks away what little body heat i have; the heat leaps from my jacket and gloves. i used to live near here, near this altitude. but that was when i was a boy, and in the last few days i've realized i'm no longer a mountain dweller and no longer a boy.
living on a boat in the belly of los angeles does nothing to prepare your body for the wintry, towering, and parched peaks of insane colorado. let me give you an example; i woke up last night with my throat glued shut. somehow, the specifics of which i'll never understand, (an alpine combination of arid ambience, my open mouth, a sleepy slack jawed lack of spit, and steady breathing), my air intake valve, just behind my tongue, got stuck. ever woken up with drymouth? sure you have. well, this was one step past that, and two steps closer to the grave. i couldn't breathe until i got some water down there, and as soon as i swallowed and got my throat running again, i got a bloody nose. then, in putting more wood on the fire (it was 3:12 am and cold) i had to stop loading the stove and stand up just to heave a breathe. this is not a gentle land. it is murderous and mean. it is a huge walk-in dry freezer with no food to eat and a door attended by Insanity who will, if you are not quick, lock you in and snap off the handle.
i miss my boat, my sun, my girl, my rain, and my seagulls. i feel like jimmy buffet, cast naked onto the arctic ice, left to live as best he can off of raw fish and melted snow with ole nanuk of the north.
in sum, i've found the physical limits of my adaptability. i've found a new internal frontier. and i've found that, if my friend doesn't come to pick me up today, that i might well die here. i'm actually afraid of this happening right now, as i write. it's ironic, really; i hitch through ghastly killing fields, interview terrorists with eyes like underwater predators, take large doses of lethal drugs south of the border, dodge dysentery and every other disease in india, and yet, here, in a little vacation cabin in colorado i start to tremble, and fear for my life.
despite the pain it's kinda fun.
the upside is that eventually, probably tomorrow, i'll start the trek home to my boat, my sun, my girl, and my rain. and therein lies the subtle luxury of freeze-drying my ass off in a little cabin far away from humanity.
with enough deprivation, a glass of room-temp water becomes decadent. and that's pretty cool, if you think about it.
my recommendation and reason for writing this is like so: place yourself, intentionally, even stupidly, in positions of low comfort levels, adapt to them, watch, and learn. you will change a little. this is what luxury demands. it is what exploration demands. it's the getting out of it that makes the rain a pleasure. it's the drying off that makes wet fun. and the things you already know - the pillow that you carefully selected; knowing where your lover is when it's dark; falling asleep; your morning wake-up ritual; the familiar fit of a mug in your hand - these are the luxuries that make up the thing called Home.
and that, in the end, is the most important luxury of them all.