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"Each season, the itch would come and not leave. Nothing made it go away. I always wondered what I was missing. What new park waited to be discovered? Should I go west to Great Basin, south to Carlsbad Caverns? The future hummed with delicious possibility. . . That familiar brown Park Service sign made my heart beat faster. This would be the one, the place that I would never leave."
-From "The Men I Left Behind"
How has this place changed me? I won’t know until I’m gone. Like a fellow seasonal said at the start of the season -- it’ll go by fast, and you won’t know what it’s done to you until you are gone. About half our staff will leave on the 15th of September. That’s what, ten days. Will we get drunk every night, the rest of us, and cling to each other? Who will I miss saying good-bye to? Who will just be gone one day? Dozens of people are leaving. It’s going to be a new experience to close out a summer of firsts. My first overnight hiking trip. My first close griz encounter, two at once! First plunge into Iceberg Lake. First moose encounter. First ram encounter, Highline Trail, stuck on the cliff together, wary species. First friend from Spain. First and second time the ferocious wind blew open my locked door in the middle of the night. First summer . . . in Montana.
. . . Three weeks later, upon leaving . . .
East Flat Top and Single Shot came into view from Amtrak pulling away from Browning headed East. Tears skidding across my soggy face and down my neck, I stared and stared as my summer nest faded. The mountains around the St. Mary valley disappeared and reappeared a few times as the train moved on. For a long while they were visible, and I looked as they became so far away they blended with the horizon and the clouds. The mountains (and the summer) began to seem like a mirage. I got to look long enough to accept my departure.
As I watched the mountains disappear, I felt comfort in the knowledge that I’ll be back in seven months. I noticed for the first time just how deeply loyal I have become to that spectacular place. I felt like I was saluting kindred spirits. I understood that those two mountains I lived beneath will be there when I return. I’ll hear all about their winter. I’ll love them again next summer.
I stared until they vanished behind the cloak of the northern prairie. We were aiming for Havre, and I switched seats to face East.
I couldn’t look forward at first. Leaving Glacier wasn’t real until the mountains vanished.
The mountains made it easier to leave. They are my friends and family as much as the SML crew has become. The mountains are not leaving to go to Colorado, California, or Illinois. They will stay. They are the true winter caretakers. Their faces will record the changes of time, and they will be there to size up my changes when I return. However I have changed with this summer, it is because of them.
I think of the writer Terry Tempest Williams and her passion as a writer and a lover of the earth.
I think of people and how different I feel, for how I romanticize seemingly simple situations. I’m thankful for writers like Williams – her honesty and sensuality make it okay for me to write the way I do.
I can’t put a stopper in my heart. It would be spiritual suicide. To embrace emotion and passion for the "small stuff" is one way I demolish the dam I had built up to protect the reservoir of my Self. I’ll never rebuild it. I don’t know where my newly released river is going, but I trust it will find the most natural route.
To live within reckless enthusiasm can be dangerous, but it is also all other superlatives at once.
I careened back East on Amtrak, wheels whistling below. The Bear Paw Mountains were to the left, to the north. “I will fight no more forever,” said Chief Joseph. I cried inside the iron horse passing through his country.
A confession: Once I snuck onto a trail without a wilderness permit. I rationalized it this way: I labored in the park as a lowly seasonal. I had put in my time picking up trash and restoring trampled campgrounds. Besides, the permit office didn't open until the forsaken hour of eight, and I had to be on the trail by then. Even so, I knew it was an unforgivable offense. If caught, the backcountry ranger would make me hike out. All eleven miles. In the dark. With bears.
I wasn't caught after all but the memory resurfaced as I embarked on the confusing and often aggravating quest for a John Muir Trail permit. In case you don't know, this roughly 220 mile trail runs between Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks. Because everyone wants to hike it, there are trail quotas. Often the requirements can drive someone insane. Fax no more than six weeks exactly, but only between 5 pm and 7 am. Put down alternate trailheads. Cross fingers. After a week of rejection we finally called and were granted a permit. It felt like we had won the lottery.
There were times during this process when I feared for my sanity. After all, I live in the mountains. Here you fill out a permit at the trailhead and just go. No quotas, no faxing. I could map out a 220 mile hike in some of the wildest country around. In the end, though, I couldn't give up on my JMT dream. There's something magical about the national parks that makes you put up with mystifying rules and camping near others. As a seasonal, that magic kept me around long after what should have been my expiration date, still wearing the flat hat.
It's a magic that isn't really definable and who would want to, anyway? The best mysteries go unsolved. All I know is that I'm heading back to the Sierra. With a permit this time.