Peter Shelton

Take Your Medicine

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on March 24, 2020

Pull into a spot near the trailhead. Get skis and poles out of the back and stand them up against the car, bases facing away from the sun, which feels warm already at 9 a.m. on March 21, Coronavirus Day 58.

Open passenger door to get skate boots. Oh, wait. Stretch calves first. Heel on the ground, ball of the foot up against tire, hands on roof rack, stretching, stretching.

Stork-balance on one leg. Remove cotton sock. Pull wool ski sock over instep. Lose balance. Catch self (since hands are occupied) with head and elbow leaning against inside of door. Finish unfurling sock. Slide foot into snug, familiar plastic shell. Ah, the connector, the link between me, the ski, and the snow.

The title of this essay was going to be “Routine in a Time of Cholera.” Cholera being a metaphor for our current plague. The reference is to “Love in a Time of Cholera,” everyone’s second-choice novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez after his classic, “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” a title we literally do not want to see happen.

Routines. Mark Twain said, “My habits protect me; they might assassinate you.” He was referring to his cigar smoking and whiskey drinking. My habits, the ones I’m focusing on today, all have to do with the need to ski.

Walk out to a patch of level snow near the Meissner Hut, which is locked because…of course. But the Virginia Meissner Nordic Club groomers have kept grooming, every night, across a web of old logging roads, laying down smooth lanes for skate and classic skiing, and snowshoeing, and walkers with dogs. Bless their snowcat-driving hearts. Even as Mt. Bachelor farther up the hill has “suspended” operations.

Settle water bottle in carrier around waist. Fit gloved hands into pole straps. Cinch the Velcro. Click toes into bindings. Stand up straight. Shoulder blades down. Eyes up. Go.

These days, especially as the lockdown takes its toll, ski ritual provides a needed reassurance, if only temporarily. The world is still spinning beneath the clouds. Gravity still works – both uphill (pant, pant) and downhill (Whoa! Acceleration!). Rituals order time, settle the mind. This makes me think of Hemingway’s Nick Adams, a young man who comes home to Michigan from the trenches of World War I. We learn, reading between the lines, that he is shell-shocked, early 20th century speak for PTSD. His mind is opaque to us, as if still in the fog of war. But the rituals, the deeply understood routines of camping, wrap him in a vital calm. Minutiae save him: setting up camp, gathering wood, building a fire, eating a can of beans, rolling out his blanket, rigging his fly rod, tying on a fly. As the story ends (as I remember it), Nick is standing in the river watching overlapping circles on the glossy surface as trout by the score rise to an evening hatch.

“Exercise is medicine, and movement is life.” My dear Ellen found that quote serendipitously while searching for a Gerry Lopez video to send a friend. Lopez is Bend’s resident surfing legend, now snowboarder, yogi, and philosopher of calm. In the film, he was quoting a Waikiki friend, John Zapotocky, but he owns the mantra himself, too. Ellen thought I’d like it. I do. Exercise is medicine, and movement is life.

I think of little else on the skate out Paintbrush trail, all the way to the Cinder Pit, five miles out. The morning snow is fast. As are my skis, which I waxed last night, scraped and polished to a black base sheen. Forest ecosystems fly by. Ponderosa (the big ones left standing by the loggers) with their brown-sugar bark and cathedral-column spacing. Darker, denser Grand fir, with their billions of blue-green needles right down to snow level. Lodgepole pine, slim and straight, perfect for tipi poles. Pockets of old-growth hemlock, the deepest darkest shadows of all.

The road ends at the Pit, a scarred lava-rock hillside. Smiling fellow skier, practicing safe social distancing, points out the cowbell hanging on a young ponderosa. Aim ski pole tip. Jangle the tin bell. Hup! Hup! Turn and start back.

The shade. The sun. The crunchy underfoot. The silken. The ski’s easy glide when hips stay over feet. The uphill search for efficiency, for flow. All of the aerobic machinery working to not work too hard. Trying to keep from tipping into anaerobic purgatory.

Some skiers never need to stop. Their technique and/or fitness is that solid. When I have to, it can seem like a failure. But no. Step off to the side. Reach back for the water bottle. Let the arms hang. Tune into the silence. Which is so vast it has volume, filling space, both uncaring and vastly comforting at the same time.

Back in the parking lot I’m sitting in my front seat scribbling notes. Three people – they sound like old friends – chat nearby. They’re appropriately spaced, cooling down from their ski. One says, “Everything’s bizarre. There’s no irony anymore. You can’t make light of anything.” Another chimes in, “My friend heard about this person in the supermarket who started coughing, and two guys in hazmat suits rushed in and grabbed her…!” The third has a more heartening tale: “Did you hear about the dolphins returning to the canals in Venice? The earth is bouncing back!”

Then, unaware that I was in my car with the window down, one of them coughs, several times, in my direction. “Oh my god,” she says. “I didn’t see you there! It’s just an allergy, I swear!”

A Rock with Wings

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on March 16, 2020

I rode on four commercial airliners last week. Back when I made the reservations COVID-19 was barely a news blip. As the virus – and the viral news – spread, I considered canceling. But no, the big Wall Street meltdown and Trump’s declaration of a national emergency were still not visible on the horizon (though they were only a couple of days away), and I really wanted to see my daughter Cecily, in Colorado.

It had been too long. Grandson Boden, who is nine, was eager to show me his 180s off the freestyle jumps. Son-in-law Mike was newly home from six weeks of fighting fire in Australia, and I wanted to give him a hug, too.

On my outbound flights – Redmond to Phoenix to Durango – I was the only passenger wiping down his armrests and tray table. No big shift of consciousness had yet arrived in Durango, either, everyone still in a place of not quite knowing. People were self-conscious about shaking hands, but they did it anyway, furtively, or with smiles and sudden apologies. Cecily and I ran into an old teacher friend on a walk along the river trail. She joined us for a bit and on parting gave us big hugs, saying, “I think hugs are better for the immune system.” Cecily made Boden wash his hands after every session on the climbing wall.

I expected these things, hoped for them, hoped others were taking the pandemic seriously as I looked out my right-side window on the flight from Phoenix to Durango. The sun was setting behind me, on the other side of the plane, and there seemed to be a lot of haze/smog/murk in the air; I was disappointed I couldn’t make out identifiable landmarks below. Maybe I spotted a section of the Mogollon Rim – yellow sandstone cliffs highlighted by the low sun.

I thought I might see the White Mountains and the Sunrise Ski Area, owned by the White Mountain Apache Tribe. I’d skied there once, ages ago, on soft snow in stands of old-growth ponderosa. An Apache ski patroller we met declined when I offered my hand, explaining that he and many natives considered this unthinking white-man behavior. He understood where I was coming from, but said Apaches see physical contact with strangers as an invasion of their space.

The Whites remained hidden but then I did see snow on forested high ground and guessed we were passing over the Chuska Mountains, a landscape I knew primarily from Tony Hillerman novels. One of Hillerman’s two Diné detectives, Jim Chee, travels up into the Chuskas to gather firewood, and to learn a healing ceremony from his mother’s brother, his little father.

With the Chuskas receding I wondered if our flight path might take us over Shiprock, that dramatic, 27 million-year-old volcanic remnant sailing across the Four Corners desert floor.

And there it was! Just below us, glowing golden in the last rays of the day. Just as dramatic was the inky black shadow cast by what pioneer Americans thought of as an enormous clipper ship. I estimated it at three miles long, the top edge of the shadow drawing two elongate sails on the landscape.

I couldn’t help but think of my Uncle John, a geologist and pilot whose photograph of Shiprock – etched sharp in arrestingly clear 1950s air – was featured in my Geology 101 textbook. It’s an iconic image in our family and one of a score of John’s aerial photographs hailed as unreproducible – that is because pollution from jet exhaust, and myriad other sources, has rendered the views of these places permanently compromised.

My airplane had descended so that Shiprock’s 7,000-foot crest seemed clear and close enough to touch. It looked less like a ship than like the Diné description, “rock with wings,” referring to the legend of the great bird that brought the Navajo from the north to their present lands.

And then, as we drew away and my neck twisted as far as it would go to see out the porthole, a miracle occurred. In the final 60 seconds of direct sunlight, a ray found its way between the rock wings to spotlight a much smaller formation, a mini Shiprock a mile or more away in the center of the black shadow. This couldn’t have happened on many other nights – maybe not on any other night of the year – for the sun and the gap in the wings and the distant rock to line up just so.

For that minute it shone like a glowing coal, piñon most likely, in a campfire long after the others have gone to sleep, and the weight of the world, my viral worries, vanished.