Fire in the Rain

Tavish and I set up my half dome™ under a leaning tree in a rain storm, which is an un-Tavish-like thing to do.

We think we are alone and we think we are hot stuff because the rain is pounding and there we are dry, if smelly, in the half-dome™ along Horseshoe Lake in the bosom of the Wallowa Mountain Range in Northeast Oregon.

Then I see Tavish sticking his waving outward from tent. I peer up yonder way: two cloaked Tusken Raiders descend from the mountain forest above.

They come closer: in fact they are not Tusken Raiders but human-beings in drenched cloak-like ponchos. Tavish greets them. I do not exit the tent.

Tavish returns and we pity them, for they do not have their tent set up and they are cold and they are wet. Together we stew in the fart and foot fungus juices of our small unbreathing half dome™, but at least we are dry. Ha! Ha!

We are here because Tavish, an earnest old friend from Seattle childhood, anong whose great virtues is an uncommonly open heart, was willing at my cajoling to take a chance on a mountain range that was not the Cascades or the Olympics.And so we took a trip to make a new memory.

You, reader whether visitor or lifelong dweller of the valley, might consider replicating the trip yourself, whether in raw substance or ethereal form.

 —  —

Tavish arrives and we leave at dawn into the rain and the thunder and a prospect of lingering snow inhibiting our early-season jaunt. Two hours to Joseph through approximately five distinct landscapes — wheat to low mountain-pine to rolling intermountain grasslands to curvy Minam River valleys to the final spectacular cowboy-romantic quintessence: the Wallowa valley, where fields borne of lava flows spawn rolling grass, give unexpected way — no foothill intermediary — what is this, the Cascades? — to basalt and granite mountains, stark-of-point, risen in eons past under gnashing billowing forces of the earthen core.

I’ve skied the Wallowas in winter. You should too — take an avalanche training course first — but the late spring in the Eagle Cap Wilderness is a spectacle unto its own.

There is a ranger station in Joseph just off the main drag. The rangers are kind and predictably cautious, “prophets of doom” as one hiker we would encounter would say. File their word seriously, but seek other accounts as well.

We took the Wallowa Lake trailhead onto the West-Fork Wallowa River Trail due South on a slow-rising single track, pocked with the occasional horse poop, up, up into the mountain valley.

Two miles to the turn to Ice Lake, a gem. If you are doing the one night turn here; if not do as we do, continue forth straight to Six-Mile Meadow.

Do not put your boots back on after you cross the first river because there will be a second crossing around the bend. There are scattered precarious logs that will convey you across, dry, unless you slip, but having experimented with both methodologies, I say just ford the sucker.

We ascend in the white fog and rain and we have no view but the mountains are there and we know it and it makes our trek feel epic. The switchbacks up to Horseshoe Lake render the the trail unexpectedly mild, given the terrain. Tavish recounts a route he once took in Switzerland that forsook switchbacks entirely; instead hikers marched directly up a 50-degree face. Bizarrely, he said, the trail was paved. We speculate as to what these details reveal about the spirit of the Swiss.

We wonder what our own paths reveal about ourselves.

 —  —  —

The last time I saw Tavish for a substantive period of time was the fall of 2016, on the day of the presidential election. I had hitchhiked much of the United States, first sticking the thumb at the Eastbound U.S. Highway 12 entrance on Wilbur Avenue here in Walla Walla.

After a month of travel I arrived in Boston for the big day. The weather was gorgeous. Tavish and I took a casual morning run around the Back Bay Fens park and I vomited half-way through from exhaustion and told him to go on without me.

We watched the returns from his high-rise dorm that night. I remember that there was nothing to say and I listened to the voices of defeat and victory through the airport-bound Uber radio and travelled under the Logan Airport tunnel and it turned to static and the driver shook his head in silence and occasionally said, enigmatically, “I don’t even blame him.”

A recent standout mechanical engineering graduate from Northeastern University, Tavish has become something of a woke globe-trotting cosmopolitan in recent years. He swears more; he does theatre. He is an engineer, a problem-solver, and yet these days it ever-more seems the problems in which he is most interested tend to be the essentially unsolvable ones. He is a fastidious fellow, but he is also somewhat bold and it has become difficult to say which quality is more basic. He gives lie to the dichotomy Anthony Bourdain posited in writing: “your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park.”

After a brush with contemporary Tavish, one might ask: “why can’t it be both?”

I am not an engineer and I am not problem-solver and my body is neither temple nor amusement park. As then in Boston, and here in the Wallowas, the contrasts of Tavish and I emerge best via clean juxtaposition.

For example, Tavish recently became vegan, and he is self-conscious of the meme (How do you know someone is a vegan?They’ll tell you, etc…) but I permitted him to inform me of the literature, specifically the China Study which I am told all of us should read because it will teach us How Not to Die (incidentally, the name of another recommended book), apprising us via rigorous scientific study of the strong correlations between animal-product ingestion and all the diseases that make you perish earlier than was initially foretold.

Another example is I bring a toothbrush camping only because I think Tavish will think it strange (at best) that I did not bring a toothbrush on a three-night camping trip. It is only when Tavish begins using his toothbrush that I feel obliged to use my own, for appearances sake, and although I did not bring toothpaste I pretend to rifle through my bag looking for it such that he thinks I did and then I make a motion only the periphery of which he can see which suggests that I am at that moment applying toothpaste to my dirty toothbrush — in fact I am not .

Then we start brushing in simultaneity, and after approximately thirty seconds I have brushed my teeth as much as I feel like and he has clearly just begun so I keep brushing keep brushing keep brushing, but I am getting very bored so eventually, having determined that I have brushed sufficiently long to keep basic appearances, I spit, taking care so as to obscure the discharge such that he cannot see that it is not a substantive bubbly froth of toothpaste but a mere thin spray of saliva, alone.

Anyways we are sitting there, feeling superior and pitying the Tusken Raiders when Tavish smells something and glances out.

“Is that a fire?”

The rain hammers the rain fly like marbles on a wood floor so I say no it’s not you fool how could they possibly have done that in these conditions?

Tavish tells me to look for myself— billowing smoke emerges from the campsite across the trail.

It can’t be, but it is.

The refrain of our mercurial time. This juxtaposition: us cold and tent-bound and the newcomers by-roaring fire, turns out to be somewhat emasculating. The fire is a power-move, an implicit assertion of their alpha-status.

We continue to stew as heretofore described, but now augmented by a tinge of snarling resentment and self-pity. Eventually we collect our dignity and investigate how the hell this is possible — did they bring a god-damned duraflame log?

It is a dog and it is a woman and it is a man. They are researchers, the woman and man — not sure about the dog — for NOAA in Newport, Oregon. We convene standing around the smoky wet fire.

The dog amicably attacks me. The man tells the dog, “aren’t you supposed to be dying or something” in regards to the dog’s ostensible coldness and wetness from which it has only recently received respite underneath a rainfly.

“How did you do it?” we ask. The man pulls out a little baggie filled of small marble-sized white balls. He tells us they are cotton balls that have been dipped in vaseline.

The woman offers us some extra cotton balls ourselves but the man grumbles something about how they have another night or two and she reaffirms her offer to us and there is tension and we say no no no thanks we are good but we will use the cotton ball technique in the future and preach its gospel (this article hence).

Anyways we continue up to Glacier Lake the next day. The last day we go to Ice Lake, which is spectacular as promised. Then we go to Terminal Gravity Brewery in Enterprise where I chomp a juicy burger in Tavish’s face while he eats hummus and pita bread, and now here, upon profound reflection, is a last, special-bonus takeaway just for you:

The night after the emasculating fire, the clouds temporarily broke and light shone on the distant mounts of snow and ice. In the clearing we saw where we were, which was on the shores of a glassy-clear alpine lake deep ringed by massive unworldly peaks in foreground and background both. Tavish worked for one hour to make a fire, experimenting with new strategies new techniques to turn water logged-wood into flame. No dice. He tinkered and tinkered long beyond when I lost hope and left him some pity-tinder: a few pages from Cormac MccArthy’s All the Pretty Horses and also some waxy pages from the boring beginning part of the “New Yorker” Magazine.

He orients the pages vertical via some strange bark contraption structure and tinkers and tinkers further.

And then it catches, the contraption. Traction. I am called to duty, collect with all speed, prepare and organize a clean inventory of fuel. Stat! Stat! Stat!

We feed the flame with a cautious care. Shavings, one at a time.

The flame lingers, evaporates the water, lingers still, produces thick steam through the surrounding bark. And then it grows hot.

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