I went into the Wallowas over New Years this year. Jasper was on a 3 week break from OSU, home for the holidays, which is about 2 weeks too long for a young man of his age to be idle. There were many mornings I awoke only a few hours after he had gone to sleep, and many nights I fell into slumber listening to the tapping of his country dancing boots on the kitchen floor. Jasper needed some real exercise, I needed some time away from trying to balance building a house with nesting in the one I have. We snagged an invite to the Wallowas….and we took it.
The Wallowas are a loaded place for me. My first trip up there, I was pregnant with Emerald. Less than a month later, the owner and his head guide were caught in an avalanche, and Jim scored a guiding gig for the remainder of the winter as they healed from their injuries. My second time up that 7 mile skin track, we towed Emerald in a sled and I was pregnant with Jasper. Emerald was in the middle of potty training, and pulling her out of the sled, out of her snow clothes, and trying to perch her over an outhouse was what I mostly remember. After that, hauling 2 kids up there until they were big enough to at least carry themselves was out of the question. So Jim guided over the winter school break, and I got a free trip in exchange, sometime in the Spring. I skied with more mellow folks. I learned to appreciate snow that didn’t have danger written all over it. Then Jim and I scored a solo weekend, just the 2 of us in the basin for 4 glorious bluebird days. It kept us married for quite a few more years. Finally, the kids were big enough, and we embarked on a trip that the kids will always remember for the snow that was truly rain, and dad’s quote, as the thermometer registered 40˚, “It’s not rain, it’s graupel!” The only thing to do was make anatomically correct snowpeople, sleep, and play games. Suited the kids and I just fine. We went higher in subsequent years, and never ran into groppel again. The last time up there for me, I was carrying Jim’s ashes, asking his ski buddies to help me hurl them into the basin beyond, and I was so worn out, I couldn’t climb anything for fear of falling, and never wanting to get back up. I knew when I said yes to this trip, that it was a loaded place for me.
Jasper and I headed into the Wallowas. It was very cold the morning we left, and not being of very large stature, I could not stand around. I helped one of the new kids adjust his bindings, and then I took off. I’ve always been a weak link on the climb, and figured they’d catch me, as I am slow. After a couple of miles, I realized that no one was behind me. I fretted a bit about leaving M+J with all the kids….til I realized that not a one of them was under the age of 20, and therefore, there were no kids. I slipped into a walking meditation, that lasted for 7 solid miles. Drinking water to keep it from freezing, one foot in front of the other, making yellow snow (drinking enough will do that), and eating a bite when the energy got low, I hit the yurts. This time, I fed the fire. I dug out the sleeping yurt and the outhouse and the sauna. The porters had been up before us, stashed all of our food, had set trail, broken open the ice on the creek, and collected our water. It really wasn’t that hard. I was warm and toasty when everyone else finally arrived.
We had a couple of glorious days of skiing. The snow was perfect, the pace was slow, the slopes we chose were never dangerous, and the camp time was cozy and full of chatter and music. There was no graupel, but there was also no digging of avalanche pits on slopes I could barely stand on, let alone ski down. There was no fear, only gratitude for being in one of the most beautiful mountain ranges I know, with people I love. The last night there, I went down to the creek to recover the dipper we used to collect water. I don’t haul water anymore, that is what 20 year old boys are for. The moon was out, the diamonds were dancing on the snow. I wept, and I did not know if they were tears of sadness or of joy.
Jasper and I had to leave a day before everyone else because he had a flight to catch. He could not miss the first Monday of school, that is when his dance classes are scheduled. As just the two of us descended the 9 miles back to the truck, I realized something. I thought Jim would be everywhere in those mountains for me, and he was nowhere. When Jim knew he was dying, he stated, “You will look for me everywhere, and I will be nowhere.” I am just beginning to fathom what he meant. When I finally caught up to Jasper, I tried to express this to him. He said, “Yea, it was a great trip. I learned early in life that the best part of any outdoor adventure is the camp, the cocoa, the stories and the music. AND, we had great snow without the fear and the faceplants!” I realized that Jim is the Wallowas, and the Wallowas are Jim. I don’t have to miss him, those mountains are going nowhere. And, the best parts of Jim are embodied in his son. Tears of gratefulness.