Peter Shelton

Celebrate, come on!

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on February 15, 2021

A mini speaker near the lift shack played “Celebration” by Kool and The Gang. We stood in line, masks up, faces obscured, socially and maybe emotionally and even a little suspiciously distanced from the skiers and riders around us. 

And Nicholas danced. 

He looked to be in his early 20s, couldn’t have been born yet in 1981 when that funky dance groove hit Number 1. Though he, too, was masked up, and it was hard to tell his age. 

Nicholas – so his name tag read – was in charge of the lift line, calling out “Front row!” when it was time for the next wave to shuffle forward toward the turnstiles. In his sky blue Mt. Bachelor lift-op jacket he might have been indistinguishable from the other blue jackets raking snow, loading chairs. But he set himself apart with a floppy brimmed hat ala Bill Murray in “Caddyshack” and – and this is the important part – he could really dance. Not just bop along in place but really move, shoulders and hands, hips and feet, in seamless, swiveling, perfect time to the music. 

“Celebrate good times, come on!” Up and down the maze he pranced, pointing to the singles to slide on out (“Two singles!”), never putting a foot wrong, back straight, staying within himself, never quite inviting the crowd to join him. 

But we couldn’t help ourselves. People behind me started singing: “…we gonna celebrate and have a good time!” Other voices chimed in: “Let’s all celebrate and have a good time.” I found myself tapping my poles and bouncing up and down. 

I couldn’t take my eyes off Nicholas. I’ve never been a good dancer. Maybe it was a reaction against mandatory cotillion in junior high. Maybe I’m just a white guy without rhythm. I envied Nicholas his body ease, his unselfconsciousness. But standing there waiting my turn, involuntarily grinning (unseen, of course), fully infected by this man’s contagious expression, I felt the sun on my back (after days of stormy weather), felt the gratefulness that should flow on a day on a mountain of snow, and marveled that one guy, in a position of power no less (and Lord knows, there are enough grim-faced ones), had the ability to make scores of people feel that there was a party going on.

La Comédie Humaine

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on August 26, 2020

Elk Lake is beautiful, but it is no wilderness outpost. I got there early enough on Sunday to be the fourth or fifth car in the parking lot. But by the time I’d completed two stand-up laps not only was the parking lot full, cars were jammed in on both sides of the entrance road all the way out to the Cascades Lakes Highway. And more vehicles, sprouting kayaks and paddleboards and floaties, were stacking up to make the turn.

There was smoke in the air. Wildfires north and south fouled the sky a sickly yellow. But there was no wind, not a breath. So, as I dipped my paddle blade each stroke brought glass-smooth gliding and clear views of trout and rock and sand bottom zipping by beneath my feet.

Mid-lake splashing indicated distance swimmers, their windmilling arms like osprey hitting the water, over and over again. One swimmer, done already, stood dripping on a private dock. Goggles on forehead, hands on Speedo-ed hips, he was high from the effort, talking with a friend. He was no longer a young man but clearly a life-long swimmer. He had the broad shoulders, the long arms and big chest of a Michael Phelps. Still glistening, Mr. Drip Dry wouldn’t stop grinning.

On my second lap, the lake and lakeshore began to fill. I heard a resort employee say to a disappointed family, “Sorry, all of our rental boards are out.” I heard the metronome beat of pumps (and pumpers breathing hard) filling inflatables on nearly every sandy beach. Colors not found in nature – shocking-pink bikinis, white unicorn float tubes, Egyptian-blue shade structures – popped, like pointillist daubs of paint, against the forest green.

My line took me past a permanently moored float, a giant rubber bagel with trampoline mesh stretched across the top. It had been unoccupied my first time around, but now there were two people on board, a woman and her toddler. The child was tethered so it couldn’t topple off the edge, and the woman was bouncing. Not as high as a land-based trampoline would fling her, but high enough.

“Look at the wake you’re creating,” I called. I couldn’t help but notice the circular waves her pulsing doughnut sent out.

“Oh. Sorry!” she said, apologetic.

“No, no. It’s beautiful!” All the other wakes now forming and weaving together on the water were as straight as contrails. Pontoon party boats, kayaks, even paddleboards left straight-line waves in their wake. She was the dropped pebble at the center of ever-widening concentric ripples.

Most of my fellow stand-up boarders were dippers – passive rather than active paddlers. In the rising heat they were content to stand straight, knees locked, their dogs and picnic coolers on the deck in front, each stroke imbued with limited intent. Followed by a languid crossover, left to right, port to starboard, as if merely changing hands on a cell-phone call.

There was one guy, though, who was out to obliterate his own, or anybody else’s, personal record. I heard him coming up behind me, pumping hard, high turnover rate, body lunging, hinging at the waist with each deep stroke.

I get pleasure from an efficient paddle stroke. I love the feeling of grabbing a “handful” of water and pulling it straight back past my hips. The challenge of transferring that force to my feet, which, in turn, push the board forward. It’s a beautiful thing, to make the board hum with momentum. But the guy going by me was on a different kind of mission. His board bounded as he pulled, leaving a wake almost as big as a motorboat’s. He completed three laps to my two and beached finally at one of the cabins on the west shore.

Back at the car I barely had room to hoist my board onto the rack. Vehicles had squeezed in everywhere, ignoring the orange cones put out by the resort to keep walking paths clear. On my right a new arrival (having driven right over one cone) disgorged a middle-aged couple, with masks around their necks but not covering their faces. Bumping up against my passenger-side door, they began taking their kayaks down.

“I see an empty picnic table down there. Should I go claim it?”


“Down there.”

Back to the kayaks, she had the bow end, walking backward down the steep slope. He had the easy end, moving forward, but he was the one saying, “Whoa! Whoa! Hold on! Geez, slow down!” A loaded pickup waited to claim my spot.

As I pulled onto the highway I wondered about the human crush. Is it just the virus? Locals, out of work or not, jonesing to blast out and away? Or is it bigger than that? Overpopulation. Vacation madness. Late-stage capitalism churning out plastic toys and leisure time. Our intentions may be good. But are we, more or less helplessly (as my friend Lito Tejada-Flores has said), “riding this cultural wave all the way to the beach”?

Crane Prairie

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on June 29, 2020

Crane Prairie is an odd name for a lake, a shallow impoundment actually, on the upper Deschutes River. Apparently it was a kind of high-mountain marshland before the river was dammed, in 1922. And there were cranes there. Maybe there still are, at certain times of year. I haven’t seen any from my paddleboard. But I have seen birds. Lots and lots of birds. Sesame Street sized birds. Really big birds.

Some people come to watch the birds. Most come to fish. Crane Prairie rainbows (“cranebows”) get huge. The lake must be rich in rainbow food. The biggest one taken so far weighed 19 pounds. Crane Prairie Resort and Marina (“Established 1952”), where I put in, sports two signs on either side of its rustic front door: “Crane Prairie, Where the Fish Are” and “Shallow Water, Big Fish.”

The only other birdwatchers I see are in kayaks, well off shore, a man and a woman with binoculars glued to their faces. I may have pissed them off. My line, slow and splashless, takes me closer to the reed islands where the geese and pelicans are sheltering. I am between the kayakers and what they want to watch. And I am standing up, a tall drifting alien. Wearing a floppy hat and with a seven-foot-long paddle in his hands.

The kayakers are so far out, being so careful not to disturb the birds, I can’t see their faces to see if I am indeed pissing them off. Something in their body language tells me I am. But, in any case, the birds remain unconcerned: goldeneye ducks, Canada goose married couples, great blue herons like Giacometti bronzes, and blinding white gatherings of American white pelicans. Some of the pelicans are sleeping, balanced on downed snags, their tremendous bills tucked in under their back feathers. In the air, they are spectacular gliders. The first time I saw one, in flight, from a distance, I thought it was a white sports car racing along the lakeside highway. Fully unfurled, their wingspans measure nine feet.

Last time I was here I asked the woman behind the resort desk why the trees had been left standing when the reservoir filled. She didn’t know. Just that they were. And here they are. What’s left of them. Some parts of the lake look like miles-long, long-abandoned piers, with just the ghost-grey pilings standing above water level. Where the drowned pines, lodgepoles mostly, broke off, or were upended and floated away, there are now crazy bays filled with piled-up timber, like giant pick-up sticks. In shallower sections, bleached pine logs have become freshwater atolls, with electric-blue damselflies and beaver lodges and wildflowers taking root, along with the loafing pelicans.

The scene is so rich with life, it fills me up, shoves me along, like a sail. I just have to keep an eye out for submerged stumps. Snag one of those babies with my board’s fin, and I’d be careening off the nose like Wile E. Coyote.

Somewhere between the Deschutes River inlet and the Cultus River inlet, in shallow water between stands of bulrushes, a bunch of pelicans are feeding together in a group so precisely choreographed I can only think: Busby Berkeley! Like the Hollywood musical director’s geometric showgirl designs, these 20 pelicans swim in perfect white-feathered sync, gliding one way together then diving, all at once, beaks first, rumps up, bobbing for what must be schools of small fish below. Then, all together again, they lift their enormous bills to the sky and jiggle their orange gullets until the food slithers down. Who is leading? Who is making the decisions? Go left. Go right. Dive now! I have no idea. There must be some kind of tightly packed group genius at work.

Humans, on the other hand, rely on individual cunning. Two fly fisherman, buddies in float tubes, casting the surface, hoping to match a damselfly hatch. A trout takes one man’s fly with a splash. The other man doesn’t see the hit but says to his buddy, “That sounded like a good size one.” The man with the fish on grunts, his rod bent like a question mark.

I slow my paddling to watch. The man with the fish on pivots his float tube to follow the trout’s underwater struggle. His buddy wants in on the action and whips his line back and forth overhead. But there’s a tangle. The line doesn’t shoot out. He curses and drops the reel end of his rig into the water while reaching for the tippet. His friend is pivoting, reaching – too soon – with his net, as the silvery fish darts away. Tangled Man is growing more frustrated. Cursing under his breath. Working at the knot. Making it worse. I drift away, my looking having become too intimate.

Up in the protected mouth of the Cultus River. No fishermen here. Just me. Water barely moving. Surface like a clean glass window. I can see every fish from bank to bank. And there are scores of them, rainbows and brook trout. The window works both ways. They can see me, too, the shadow of my board, the shadow of this monstrous stick insect with a carbon-fiber paddle. More likely, I’m a cruising osprey.

These are not the huge ones, the football-shaped “cranebows.” But they are sizable, sleek 16-inch torpedoes, hyper alert, hanging in the eddies, holding in the ruins of yet another toppled pine. I whisper to them that I gave up hooking fish a long time ago. But they speed away anyway. Not too far, to their next holding water, where I’ll sneak up on them again.

Antifa Boy, Antifa Man

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on June 16, 2020

I was a boy of 20 when I transferred from the cloistered halls of Pomona College up to the University of California, Berkeley. This was 1969. Nobody had yet invented the term “antifa” – for anti-fascist. But that’s what we were: anti-war, anti-discrimination, anti-fascists.

I was not there for the People’s Park demonstrations of the previous spring, when, during a march down Telegraph Avenue, police shot and killed a student, James Rector, who was watching from the roof of the Telegraph Repertory Cinema.

But I was there the next April, when colleges and universities across the country – from Harvard to Stanford to Kent State – exploded in protest following news of President Nixon’s secret invasion of Cambodia. Governor Ronald Reagan ordered the National Guard into Berkeley. He made no secret of the distain (or maybe it was fear?) he felt for the freedom to assemble and speak. He had earlier described Berkeley as “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants.” He publically denounced UC administrators for allowing students to hold demonstrations on campus.

Helicopters buzzed Sproul Plaza spraying tear gas. For a day or two before the University shut down, I sprinted from class to class with eyes fogged and streaming, throat raw to the point of gagging. Berkeley was like an occupied state. Reagan’s fascist instincts surfaced memorably in the line: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.”

But none of this, not even the massive anti-war march across the bay in San Francisco – an ecstatic, miles-long human sea – radicalized the boy like an incident later that spring, during the shutdown. With no school to attend, people in my apartment building heard about an eviction set to take place in another Berkeley neighborhood. Evictions were carried out by the Alameda County Sheriffs, dubbed the Blue Meanies for their blue jumpsuit “riot gear” uniforms. (And in mocking reference to the buffoonish, music-hating beings in “Yellow Submarine,” the Beatles cartoon film of 1968.) It was a sheriff’s deputy who fired the buckshot into James Rector.

This eviction had a set date and time. The idea was to go there and try to prevent the woman from being thrown out of her home. A friend and I walked together and found, when we got to the address, that the eviction wasn’t happening. The sheriffs had anticipated a protest and backed down, or decided to call it off.

About a hundred of us milled about in the residential street. It was a sunny day. There were a few Berkeley city cops there encouraging people to leave. Which we did, slowly. Until we reached the intersection at the end of the block. Then, in a coordinated move, squad cars swept in from each of the four directions and blocked any escape. Car doors slammed and cops with batons moved in, yelling at us to leave, all the while tightening a circle around us.

People tried to run, but there was nowhere to go. The cops were yelling and swinging at random heads and shoulders. I watched them grab one would-be escapee and throw him over a wall onto somebody’s concrete driveway, where he lay bleeding from the head. I took my friend’s hand and pulled her, running directly at what might have been a gap in the police line. It was that or wait to be clubbed.

As the nearest cop raised his baton I pushed my friend to the ground and leapt at the same time as high as I could, as if hurdling a barrier. I was a pretty good leaper in those days and hoped he might swing under me. But no, at shoulder height his baton caught me square on both shins and I went to pavement like a shot bird.

I couldn’t move. My legs buzzed, paralyzed. My friend had crawled through untouched, and she and a couple of strangers dragged me to the curb.

I don’t remember much of what happened after that. The feeling in my legs came back slowly. We saw people carry off the kid with the bleeding head. And eventually we walked home ourselves.

It is the senselessness of it that is so lasting. The mindless, inchoate brutality. The realization that power is its own justification. Protesters today, facing state-sanctioned violence against citizens legitimately seeking redress, will be radicalized, too. They will not forget the blood, the gas, the stupidity. They will become antifa. Because when confronted so viscerally with fascism’s blunt stick, that is the only rational response.

Watching the River Flow

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on May 19, 2020

I was following the eddy line, paddling upstream. He was in the middle of the river hardly paddling at all, drifting downstream.

“You’re going the wrong way,” he said as we passed, a winking smile sealing the connection.

“I know,” I replied in kind. “But you’ve gotta go up before you can come down.”

We were both grateful, I believe, for the human contact. Plenty of social distance. No masks needed. Two mid-pandemic middle-aged men, balanced on our boards, riding currents that were utterly outside the news.

I saw him again a few days later, about to exit the river at what looked like a family compound, two cabins side-by-side on the grassy bank.

“You’re going the wrong way,” he said in greeting.

“You said that to me a couple of days ago.”

“I did. And you’re still wrong.”

The cabins were neatly tended, with dark wood siding and matching river-rock chimneys. The chimneys indicated old fashioned, open-hearth fireplaces, but the rounded gray stones didn’t come from the Deschutes River. Not from this upstream part of it anyway. The rock here is all black basaltic lava. Jagged. Young. Some of it only a few thousand years old, standing broken-block cliffs stopped in their tracks, mid-tumble, as the lava cracked and cooled.

A wonderfully informative sign at the Benham Falls trailhead, where I put in, tells the story. Beginning about 7,000 years ago a line of fissures erupted in sequence along the east side of the Deschutes River, moving north and culminating in what is now called Lava Butte. The last of these flows dammed the river creating a lake 17 miles long. Everything from Benham up to Sunriver and all the way up to La Pine State Park was underwater. Eventually the water broke through, at Benham Falls, and the lake drained, leaving Sunriver’s lush, flat meadows.

My “wrong way” friend’s cabin is not really old. Nothing in Sunriver is. Ranching families, led by the Vanderverts and the Shonquests, claimed the meadow in the years following the 1862 Homestead Act. The Army Corps of Engineers took over much of it in 1942 to train combat engineers who would replace wounded and killed soldiers in the European theater. The engineers practiced building bridges, and blowing up bridges. After the war ranching returned. But only until the mid-1960s, when Sunriver Resort was born, with its planned residential communities, bike paths, and golf courses.

If any remnants of the old homesteads are there, Steve Stenkamp would likely know. He’s a retired fireman with an archeologist’s soul who runs a website called Lost Oregon Ski Areas. I met him at a now on-hold weekly gathering of old timers at a Bend watering hole, a place they fondly refer to as the TFZ, the Tourist Free Zone. Most of the participants aren’t in fact all that old. But they do go back. Storytelling slides easily between early cross-country ski races and tales of the very first mountain bike trails. Many of them were there in May 1976, when the PPP, Bend’s signature Pole, Pedal, Paddle race, began its run, come snow or high water. This year, though, thanks to the virus, the PPP has had to go virtual, another casualty of the lockdown.

Back on the river, youth busied itself everywhere I looked. A whispering goose couple, worried about this strange, tall, approaching creature, kept their seven goslings tucked in close. An osprey screeched overhead and made for its nest with a fish wriggling in its grasp. I communed silently with an American mink on the bank. While I worked the paddle to keep the board hovering in place, he darted in and out of a lava-rock den, more curious than concerned, his black eyes and rich chestnut coat shining. We connected, but only so far. We don’t share words. And yet our crossing paths – same place on the planet, same moment in time – seemed intimate.

I knew it wasn’t possible – strangers these days dare only passing verbal contact – but I found myself wishing the man going downriver would invite me up onto his porch. We could sit in his bentwood chairs and drink a beer and talk about the times: lava, Lake Benham, mink coats. Paddling the wrong way.

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.

Flying By

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on February 12, 2020

I can see time flying.

7:14 a.m. February 12. How much of the ski season is past already? How much is left?

Coffee on the couch. Reading a short story in The New Yorker about Khmer immigrants in California, survivors of Pol Pot’s camps. Listening, absently, to the clicking of studded tires on snowless pavement out front.

7:15 a.m. A pinkish dawn on the upper branches of the spruce across the street. And there is the moon. Waning, two or three days past full, moving down and west behind those high spruce branches.

There used to be a second spruce, taller even and bigger around than this one, growing near the sidewalk in this neighbor’s yard. Closer to where I sit on the couch. Able to catch the first sun rays even earlier. This tree blew down in a terrific windstorm a couple of Februarys ago not long after Ellen and I moved here. I’d been astonished to learn from the neighbor, Anna, that her spruce were planted (they are not native to the east side of the Cascades) after her house was built, in the nineteen teens. So these trees were just 90-some years old and already four feet across the base and 100 feet tall. In Colorado, where Ellen and I raised our girls, spruce this big were extremely rare, and would have been growing for 400 years probably. It is that much wetter here in Oregon. That and the well-drained volcanic soil, I guess.

Anyway, that morning five years ago as I was eating breakfast my eyes ran back and forth from my cereal bowl to the trees across the street, which were swaying violently in the wind. I thought of John Muir who wrote with rapture about climbing a 100-foot spruce in a Sierra windstorm, how the tree and he, clinging to its topmost branches, traveled back and forth in big arcs, around and around through space, how thrilling it was and how contrary to the staid notion that trees, rooted as they are, don’t go anywhere during their often long lives.

Anna’s spruce was tracing big parabolas in the sky as I loaded skis and drove to the mountain. Some time mid-morning Ellen called with a subsiding panic in her voice.

“Anna’s tree blew down! The big one on the corner. I heard the crash. Maybe I felt it too. Shake the house. The house is fine. But it came pretty close. It’s so huge!”

Her heart was still racing. The spruce came down on a diagonal across the street and sheared some branches off an old mountain ash in our front yard, missing our place by a scant 20 feet. When I got home the massive trunk filled the view from west to east. Power lines were down, still live. A rental car parked on the street near the upturned root ball was engulfed in greenery, spared miraculously by thick lower branches, like Doric columns supporting the now horizontal trunk; otherwise the car would have been crushed.

Anna has planted a new baby evergreen, a pine, in the spruce’s place. It’s already 15 feet tall. The old spruce behind it towers over the immediate neighborhood, first to catch the morning sun. Anna’s house, a lovely, gabled Craftsman, built at the height of the logging boom, when mills on the Deschutes River produced more pine lumber than anywhere else in America, waits below for the sunlight to reach it. Our smaller, hip-roofed house, built three decades later, in 1950, as the ponderosa were logged out and the mills began to close, will feel the light a few minutes later still.

Meanwhile the moon, this morning’s moon, is moving so fast I can see it fly by. There isn’t a breath of wind. So the still, upturned branches of Anna’s spruce are a perfect marker of the moon’s progress. I take a sip of coffee and a bright white edge slips behind the needles. Another sip and more of the fulsome curve is gone, the day racing into being.

There’s No Place Like Home

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on January 4, 2020

Mt. Bachelor January 4, 2020

When I walked into the West Village Lodge, done for the day, I stopped a couple of paces inside the doors and clicked my boots together to remove at least some of the fine powder snow caught in the buckles and packed onto boot soles after the short, powdery trek from the ski rack.

As is my habit, I rocked back on my heels to click the toes together, then tilted onto my toes to click the heels. Mid-ritual, one of the volunteer host guys behind the desk called out, “You gotta click your heels!” I was too slow-witted, too besotted by the spectacular morning to grasp his deeper meaning, and so replied, dumbly, “I do both.”

Sitting back, enjoying a coffee, it came to me that he was referring to ruby slippers and “The Wizard of Oz.” So, on my way back out, I stopped, caught his eye, and clicked my heels together. Without further prompting the two of us quoted, simultaneously, “There’s no place like home.”

That’s what it felt like out there on the mountain today after weeks of a meager snowpack and day-after-day no new snow. A series of small storms to start 2020 and the six inches of blown-cold, mid-density snow that came in last night changed everything. It was like coming home.

Adding to the euphoria was the fact that I finally felt better, after two weeks with a tenacious cold. The virus and the un-Oregon like weather kept me on the couch through the holidays.

I’m a terrible sickie. I feel so sorry for myself. Nothing will ever be good again. My brain will never again find pleasure in the moment. This clogged-ears, snot-stuffed headache is one and the same with lurking depression. Life has no meaning. It’s not snowing. The world is going to hell in a hand basket. I’m not skiing. Woe is me.

So, the contrast from the low-so-low to the high-so-high, was even greater than it might have been had I been in the pink of health.

It was one of those days when everything worked: The boots fit like a glove, the skis felt light and floaty and practically friction free, a serendipitous match of wax to snow temperature and texture. It felt, in fact, like those things attached at the ends of my legs had disappeared. Disappeared into pure action. Eyes see a line – slice between those two mini treetops, bank right through that gravy-boat hollow… The brain judges what might be needed to achieve the line and signals the muscles, the soles of the feet, the balancing hands, the centering hips. And then somehow, alchemy: muscle memory, imagination, faith. The skis bend and arc; the snow pushes back sweetly, like cake flour. And the eyes are out front again, scouting next curves. While inside, in the same way that a whole person, body and brain, merges with campfire flames, or a special piece of music, the only thing to do is melt.

You can go home again. I’d been wandering in the wilderness, but today I rediscovered that seat of ecstatic movement, drawing lines down a mountain of rock transformed, made accessible, cathartic, made sexy by a blanket of new snow.


Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on September 9, 2019

The water underneath the paddleboard was so clear I couldn’t tell how deep it was. Were those lava boulders close enough to snag my fiberglass fin, stop the board dead, and send me flailing off the bow? Was that sandy bottom five feet down? Ten? Twenty? I learned after a while, paddling along the eastern shore of Crescent Lake – water surface like old, rippled window glass – that sunlight refracting off that sand bottom made a golden chain-link pattern. And the deeper the water, the bigger the shimmying links.

It was so clear Crescent Lake leapt immediately onto my clear-water Top Ten list. Heading that list has to be the appropriately named Clear Lake, on the McKenzie River just west of the Cascade Divide. That one is spooky clear. You can see the bottom 60 feet down, clear as gin. It’s disorienting, as if there is nothing of substance floating you; I have to put the paddle blade in the water, like a third leg, for balance.

There’s a 3,000-year-old forest still standing on the bottom there, preserved these millennia following the sudden volcanic flow that dammed the river and created the lake. The last time I paddled Clear Lake scuba divers were making a movie (maybe it was an ad crew up from Portland?) weaving among the submerged fir trunks in the 42-degree spring water. At one point a diver surfaced and moaned to his support boat, “I can’t feel my feet!”

Hydrologists call these clear lakes oligotrophic. Lakes with higher concentrations of chlorophyll and phosphorus, higher levels of biological productivity, are mesoeutrophic. And lakes with the most plant and animal life, including algae blooms, are eutrophic or hypereutrophic. My most frequent destinations, Lava and Little Lava Lakes, high in the shadow of Mt. Bachelor, have trended from oligotrophic to mesoeutrophic. There’s a ton of life: marshes rich with insect life, bird life, emergent macrophytes like water lilies and bulrushes. And there have been thick algae blooms that restricted visibility at times to a Secchi disk depth of just 4-5 feet. (Named in 1865 for Angelo Secchi, who lowered an 8-inch diameter white disk into lake water until it disappeared from view.)

Lake Tahoe was once considered the clearest lake in the world with a Secchi disk depth of over 100 feet. When Mark Twain visited in the 1880s, estimates pegged it at 120 feet. Now visibility is down to half that, thanks to pollution from shoreline development and the misguided introduction, in the 1960s, of a voracious shrimp.

As a kid snorkeling in the clear green waters off Catalina Island, I never thought about these things. Of course not. The world was what it was, what it always had been and, presumably, always would be. Dad and I anchored the boat fore and aft close in to Hen Rock. With little turbidity – and on the lee side of the island, there wasn’t much swell – I could lean over the rail and dangle a baited hook right on the noses of calico bass 20 feet down. Out on the point I swam through kelp forests as clear as an aquarium. Abalone and starfish clung to the rock. Lobsters waved their feelers from hidey-holes.

We didn’t have onboard tanks for wastewater then. Nobody did. I thought it was funny, at age 11, to pump the contents of the head through the seacock valve straight into those emerald waters and watch the button-back perch nibble at it. We also dumped our garbage in the middle of the Catalina Channel, on the Sunday afternoon trip home, riding a following sea. Gulls wheeled and dove for scraps.

What were we thinking?! Clearly, we weren’t. But then, in the early 1960s, few were. In the Navy during the war Dad had sailed from San Francisco to Hawaii, through the Coral Sea to the Philippines, on to occupied Japan, and back. The ocean was just too vast, too devouring to be affected by our puny insults. The Northwest forests would go on delivering board feet forever. The air, the infinite, perpetual air… And so on.

That kind of clarity is much harder to come by these days. We know now about microplastics and plummeting fish stocks and bleached corals. We know we are changing the climate, fouling the nest. The 60s seem like ancient history.

Moral clarity, too, seems muddied to the point of hypereutrophia, as if by a massive algae bloom. Religion isn’t helping. Societal norms are daily blown out of the water. Leaders punt. Journalism founders.

You pay attention. You march. You vote. And still you get a malignant narcissist in the White House who uses “alternative” facts and the fog of chaos to… to what? To whose benefit? Toward what end?

You go to the supermarket, you inevitably buy plastic. You drive your car, you take your hot showers. You try to live lightly. You search the Web for wise voices, hopeful direction. Some days it’s impossible to see anything through the murk.

On Crescent Lake I was drawn onward, happily lost in the purity of the board’s movement across the water, the sudden trout darting below me for a deeper blue. I’d paddled about five miles when the light morning breeze turned quickly from riffles to whitecaps. I wasn’t going to make it all the way around. I’d have to head back directly north, with the wind off my port quarter, along the lake’s centerline.

The wind chop soon brought me to my knees. And directly the chop grew into serious waves, with sets that broke overtop the deck. I shortened my paddle and dug in, riding the bigger swells, angling into the troughs where possible and trying to keep the nose from pearling when the board cut back on its own, shoved into the hollows.

This was more adventure than I would normally choose. The kind of adventure Yvon Chouinard has defined as requiring the uncontrollable – being lost, or in real, unexpected danger. I ping-ponged between two mental states. In one, I was the intrepid Polynesian voyager, navigating by feel, confident in an island destination. In the other, I couldn’t not remember that Chouinard’s friend Doug Tompkins (The North Face founder) had been blown out of his kayak on a Patagonian lake by a sudden williwaw and died hours later of hypothermia.

By the time I made it, finally, to the boat ramp I was exhausted and exhilarated, mind wiped clean by a different kind of clarity – the binary option to keep going, stay upright, and survive. Or… not.