Alan took us across the lake and dropped anchor in the middle of a triangle formed by an island, a point and a big piece of granite that jutted out of the water. There was a strong breeze blowing and we rigged up to troll so he could just motor us upwind and we’d drift back down. Hopefully we’d get some fish in there.
After he was sure that the anchor was holding, Alan looked around the boat, locked his eyes on his rod and his tacklebox, and then reached into the cooler and grabbed a beer. He leaned back and looked at James and me and then gazed around the lake.
Alan looking around the lake like that made me remember a trip he and I went on when we were younger. Twenty or twenty-one or so. We were living together in St. Paul then and he was in college and I wasn’t. We had some friends, Neal and Charlie, that had moved to Bozeman, Montana five or six months before and Alan and I drove out there the day after Christmas and stayed until a few days after New Year’s.
The first two days were spent recovering from the drive and drinking and recovering from that. Neal and Charlie were getting to know the town and we went to the bar where the college kids played pool, the bar where you could smoke grass and no one cared, the bar where the guy in the corner booth would play just about any song you asked if you bought him a drink.
Those were a good couple days. Alan had finished a hard semester at school and was enjoying the freedom of a well-deserved vacation. I had been feeling adrift, but felt okay just enjoying myself for a while.
On the third day, I woke up, made coffee and went out on the deck of the townhouse. It afforded a good view of the Bridger Range north of town. They were covered in snow and my mind began to wander over the ridge and wonder about the woods and cliffs and runs on the other side. Charlie came out on the deck after a while with a cup of coffee and said good morning. I said hi and he saw me staring at the mountains.
“Want to get up there?” Charlie asked.
“Yeah, I think we better.”
“It’s getting kind of late to do any hiking today, but should we plan on an early start tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. I was disappointed that we’d spent another day staring up at the mountains from town.
Charlie sat, he stared at the mountains, he seemed to be thinking.
“Or…” He said after a minute.
“Or we could hike up and camp up on the mountain tonight.”
“Yeah?” That sounded fun, if a little bit of a leap for me.
“And we could ski down in the morning.”
I suddenly felt awake. I looked at Charlie and he looked like he wasn’t just thinking aloud but thought this might work.
We made it to the mountain about noon. We parked in the snowy shoulder of the road and hiked up a long snowmobile trail. The four of us had big packs and snowshoes, our skis strapped to the packs. The loads were heavy and the incline steady, the air a little thin, but all of us smiled and marched on at a good pace. It was beautiful and quiet in the mountains. It was different too, the deep snow and the thick stands of pine were not what I was used to.
The snowmobile trail terminated at a small lake, there was a Forest Service campground there in the summer, now picnic tables and outhouses were being swallowed by the snow-covered ground. We shoved several feet of snow off one of the tables and sat on top of it to have a drink of water and a snack. We had hiked two or three miles. I had unzipped my jacket, removed hat and gloves. I hadn’t been stopped for more than a minute when I zipped up and put everything back on as the sweat cooled on my body. We put on our snowshoes and set off across the lake.
It was mid-afternoon when we started up the mountain proper. The face was covered in at least four feet of snow. We took turns “postholing” the way, leading the way so that the rest of us could follow in the footsteps. It made things a little easier. Most of the way we were going through thin pine forest. Occasional gullies and ridges ran down and across the mountain. We talked a little, but mostly just leaned into the slope and put one foot in front of, and above, the other.
We trudged upward for two or three hours before getting to a depression in the side of the mountain. It was surrounded by several pines. Another couple hundred yards above us we could see what must have been the summit, and it ran a long ways to our right above us along a ridge that rose slightly toward the true summit a half mile or so south. Charlie declared that we should make camp here, it was where he and Neal had camped with some other guys a month earlier.
Everyone threw their packs down into the snow and looked at the site. Except Alan. I watched him turn his back on the site and look out. I followed his gaze and saw everything he could see: miles of peaks and valleys, covered in snow, penetrating clouds, no sign of man anywhere except one thread of road in a valley far below.
It was this long gaze, knowing, appreciating, absorbing, that I saw again on the lake that windy, sunny day as he sat on the boat and looked around. While the rest of us had started setting up camp on that cold mountaintop with darkness quickly approaching, and while James and I set to digging through our tackleboxes and rigging up our lines, Alan lost himself, and seemed to find the wholeness of life and the world before his eyes.