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Memories of India

When asked to describe India, I recall sensory overload. The colors, the flavors, the sounds, the textures, the smells all intensified. I lived in Delhi, a caldron of sensory splendor -- vibrant marigold garlands and fuchsia sarees, Aunty's to-die-for aloo gobi parathas with ghee, the ceaseless honking, the red crumbling stone of the Deer Park madrasa, the sweet jasmines in the evening -- all of it floods back to memory and I'm transported back to India.

Before I lived in Delhi, however, I worked with an NGO up north in Himachal Pradesh. On my first trip up there, the "luxury" buses were sold out so a kind gentleman managed to book me three seats on a local bus. Picture school bus-style seats for rather thin, five-foot-tall individuals. I had an entire seat to my self and, honestly, that was an unheard of luxury to locals. My mountaineering-sized backpack sat in the "aisle" seat and I took up the remaining two "seats." The kind gentleman explained to a couple ladies on the bus (I was Fresh Off The Boat or Plane, as it were, and spoke no Hindi) that I required assistance finding the toilet and procuring food along the overnight journey. They dutifully led me to the shacks with holes in the floor and even paid my toilet fee! With that business taken care of, they joyfully waved me over to join them for a spicy dal chawal (rice and lentils) dinner with their family. We pantomimed back and forth in conversation then returned to the bus. I wearily arrived at the local bus station at dawn and met my new boss, also known as the Communist who did not celebrate Gandhi's birthday but that's a story for another time.

A Celebration of Life: a short story

This story was written for a Montana Public Radio contest. Enjoy!

A Celebration of Life

As I drive closer to the mountains, my finger instinctively hits the Montana Public Radio-programmed button. Hopefully I’ll catch the weather forecast before I lose service. I checked before I left home; it’s going to be bitterly cold, -10 degrees Fahrenheit, but at least the snow should be safe to traverse. I’m hoping Eric Whitney buoys my hopes by forecasting a balmy 0 degrees. Either way, I’ve got to get outside. The mountains are calling my name so I do what any rational Montanan does and head out.
The weather report forecasts more bitter-coldness and as static overtakes the news, I switch to a folk CD. Pulling into the parking lot, I notice I’m the only vehicle here. Not surprising -- who else would be crazy enough to be out on a night like this? All of my buddies are back home, enjoying a hot beverage, reading a good book, and stoking the fire but let’s not think about those creature comforts. I’ve got miles to go before I sleep. I double check my headlamp, hoist my backpack on, and step into my skis. With my faithful retriever, Buddy, by my side, I head into the wilderness.
Dark descends and I forge through snow, making first tracks. Buddy chases ahead then falls behind, consumed by a squirrel that darted up a tree. It’s a clear evening and the moon lights my way. I reserved a little cabin nestled a few miles into the woods. I couldn’t get off work as early as I would have liked but this day has been emblazoned on my mind for the past year. Today, of all days, I need to be outside. Today would have marked my brother’s 30th birthday celebration, had he lived to see it. Instead, it’s a solitary day. I just want to be outside where he and I always felt at home.
I see the cabin up ahead and slog the final way as Buddy dashes off with boundless energy. Leaving my skis outside, I dump my pack and make a fire in the woodstove. Now we’re talking! Say goodbye to 0 degrees and dropping. I feed Buddy, prep dinner, eat, read, and say goodnight to Buddy like I have so many nights before out here. Lying down with nothing before me but sleep, the significance of the day settles over me. Grief rolls over me like waves and I sob. Buddy plods over and nuzzles his nose into my sleeping bag. Wiping the tears away, I walk to the entrance and open the door. Buddy by my side, I stare out upon the still, snow-swept landscape illumined by the moon hanging low in the sky. The magnificence of creation and my seeming insignificance sober me. Mountains rise up around me, stars fill the sky, and here am I – alive and grateful. I come out here for moments like these to refresh my perspective.
In contrast to the sobering nightscape, the daylight causes hope and joy to rise up. The sun shines like so many millions of diamonds on the snow. The birds sing among the trees. The mountains echo their morning song. We repeat similar tasks as last night, eating and cleaning, then hit the trail we blazed yesterday. Although my thermometer reads 0 degrees, the sun is shining, I’m skiing, and Buddy’s by my side. Those old words ring true that “weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning.”

We reach the truck, pack up, and head back to town. Once again, my finger instinctively hits the MTPR button as we head out of the mountains. Freeforms plays folk tunes, evoking nostalgia. I remember so many backcountry trips with my brother and smile. If he had lived to see his 30th birthday, we would have skied into a little cabin in the woods bathed in moonlight and surrounded by mountains to celebrate life.

Highwood Baldy -- another Montana Misadventure

At the outset, I'll premise this post by stating a few aims dependent upon your geography and adventure-lust. First, if you live in Montana and have a high adventure quotient, this post aims to help you steer clear of the mistakes we made as you attempt to climb Highwood Baldy from the Deer Creek Trailhead. Second, if you live in Montana and are intimately familiar with this route, you might sympathize and/or laugh at the predicament we found ourselves in. Finally, if you live outside Montana, this post aims to provide some comic relief to your day. I've coined the term "Montana Misadventure" because it characterizes so many of our outings in this great state.

Highwood Baldy is the highest landmark near our home. It calls to us as it rises out of the plains in its island range of the Highwood Mountains. We had to summit it! Last year, we tried walking up the service road then returned to our car when high winds left our 1 year old daughter wailing in her baby backpack. This year, we opted for a route up the North Side that, from reading other's posts, seemed physically challenging but straightforward. Hopefully this post will dispel that "straightforward myth."

The first challenge was finding the trailhead. Silly us, we rely on website posts and didn't bother getting a map. Thankfully, a woman out walking her dog at Thain Creek Campground had an extra map and we saw that we needed to backtrack and take Upper Highwood Rd, paralleling Highwood Creek (see photo below). Do yourself a favor and grab a map at a local ranger's station. Deer Creek Trail number 453 is clearly marked on the map and there's a large, unmistakable Deer Creek sign at the trailhead. Better yet, get a proper topo map and compass or even a GPS device. I've never been tempted to hike with GPS before this but now I'm thinking about it.

We'd read about three creek crossings from other posts. We drove a 4WD, high clearance vehicle and were able to ford the creek twice before stopping at the trailhead. We parked, laced up our boots, and then realized we had to walk across Highwood Creek for the third crossing before the trail followed the smaller Deer Creek. Off came the boots and down slipped the tape from our feet. We were off to an inauspicious start.

We laced back up, pausing to right our now 2 year old daughter who managed to tip herself over in her baby backpack while reaching for a leaf. The next challenge was finding the trail. East up a hill? No. West along the fence line? No. We checked the map and decided to walk by Deer Creek because this was, after all, the Deer Creek Trail. When I say the trail was barely perceptible, I mean I was looking beneath head-high grass for evidence of yesteryear's trail. No exaggeration. Perhaps the trail is more obvious before the grass grows. We stayed by the creek and finally made our way to a Deer Creek Trail #453 sign indicating we'd hiked 2-1/2 miles along the creek. I guess we more or less followed the trail. Did I mention our shoes and pants were soaked at this point? Not from the numerous creek crossings, mind you, but from the head-high grass still wet from the rain the day before. Waterproof pants and boots to this point would have been nice.

Now began the fun part as we forged a bush whacked path up the mountainside. There's a 3,200ft elevation gain over 3.5mi. Because the first 2.5 miles are along the creek, you could probably guess the last mile is excruciatingly steep. We headed up the grassy slope to a ridge and then steered left of some trees to remain in the meadow. Funny how finding one's way to the top is easy -- you just keep going up. Past the meadow, we bushwhacked through dense undergrowth, across talus slopes, and finally scrambled to the radio tower at the top. Oddly enough, we head voices emanating from inside the Bresnan (Charter now?) Communications building that was padlocked on the outside. We assumed there must be a continually transmitting radio locked inside.

After a snack break, we headed down and things got "interesting" in the sense that what took three hours to climb would take another three hours to descend. We're fairly conditioned hikers EXCEPT we didn't have a good map, a compass, or a GPS device and we relied on our intuition to take us down. BAD MOVE! One might even say those are the marks of novices. Laugh if you must, just be better prepared than we were. Thankfully, the sun stayed high in the sky since it's July in Montana and we shared water. Water drops or tablets might be another good, light thing to throw in your bag.

Anyway, back to the hike gone awry. The path down seemed clear enough from the top. We skirted left of a rocky knob partway down the peak and must have cut too far right after that. We totally missed the steep meadow through which we ascended and ended up on even steeper talus slopes. From a clearing on the talus nightmare, we tried figuring out which drainage was Deer Creek. Again, take a picture or select some unmistakable landmark from the top so you head back the correct direction. (Yes, this is where the GPS device or map+compass would have come in handy.) We had to backtrack and emerged at the bottom of the tree and talus debacle. After another debate about which was the Deer Creek drainage, we picked our poison and hiked down an extremely steep, grassy slope. In between slips down the mountain, the late-day golden light made for beautiful photos. I kept repeating, "this, too, shall pass," while glorying in our 2 year old who seemed thrilled with the adventure. Thankfully, we chose correctly (albeit not wisely) on the drainage and made it back to the Jeep. I hiked right through Highwood Creek in my boots since they were so water-logged and muddy.

Morals of the story? Hmm, be prepared for route finding. Convince someone who's been there before to join in (not us, though, thank you very much). Never turn down an adventure because it makes an amusing story in retrospect.