Sunday, November 01, 2009

What the Pikas Said

The blush of sunset is fading from the sky: a pair of ravens, cut-out scraps of black paper, cross that dim orange country, that ocean of passionate air. They're all business now. There's not much that ravens are afraid of, but even they are uneasy in the half light, and they're heading straight home.

My feet are sore. But all is quiet, and I'm down in the valley land, and confident of hitting the forest road soon. I try to remember if there's going to be a moon tonight.

It's that time when hikers begin to sing, when they're in company, such scraps of old song as they have in common: old maudlin or patriotic songs that they learned in childhood, back before singing was something left strictly to professionals or karaoke exhibitionists, back when everybody sang. At ordinary times and in ordinary places they'd be embarassed to sing such songs. But the woods at twilight make even the brashest primates want to huddle together and forget their pretensions of independence. If I had someone to sing with, I'd sing. Home Sweet Home. America the Beautiful. Something like that.

Here it is. Forest Road 2143. It strikes me again as odd that big impersonal streets that mean nothing to people get names, but these little tracks in the wilderness, that can mean life or death -- or anyway a night in bed or a night shivering in the leaves -- only get numbers. Maybe the problem is that there aren't enough names to go around. Lost Road. Ten Mile Road. Home for Dinner Road. They'd all have names like that.

It's just a matter of time now. I walk steadily. I have a flashlight, but getting a better picture of the road isn't worth blasting my night vision. My feet can find their way.

I suspect that it's often this way with vision quests: it's only when you're pondering their failure that you find the message that was really left for you. Because to hear something new, first you have to set aside what you were expecting. Coming home empty handed, I suddenly hear again the whistle of the pikas, and their failure to leave their comfortable dens and show themselves becomes itself the message. It's not that you can't find your way, they tell me. It's that you're already home.

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