Merrily The Mount Snow Flies
This work was originally published by Jacki Othon on the site Radically Enlightened, a webspace dedicated to conscious exploration of spiritual and secular philosophies, and application of those philosophies through critical analysis of current events in politics, pop culture, social justice, art, environmental awareness, spiritual communities, and any other area of interest to the global community.
January 21st, 2012.
I remember the date because Hollie said it was her six-month birthday. Neither of us thought we would end it on snow-covered mountain passes that seemed to slope up at damn-near-90-degree angles in whiteout conditions with a severely depleted gas supply and the cold truth of the matter, that we weren’t exactly where we were supposed to be, and didn’t know how far from supposed-to-be we exactly were. But the day had started out pleasantly enough.
We had arrived at the yurt of Sacred Hoop Ministries in Woodland Park, Colorado at promptly 9 o’clock in the morning. This was unusual, because Hollie was never on time for anything, and she was the one driving. We gathered with the others in a semi-circle around the wood burning stove, nesting in our blankets and pillows as we prepared for the day-long Introduction to Shamanic Journeying class. Mostly I stared up at the sky through the circular opening at the center of the yurt while Hollie and the others absorbed the information about the lower world and power animals, and the upper world and spirit guides. I had heard it all before, but I was politely attentive, all the same.
I missed my mother, who had recently moved cross-country, and that was perhaps my main reason for being there. The gold-brown animal skins and orange-turquoise-red indigenous ornaments reminded me of her. That, and the fact that I never passed up a chance to be alone with Hollie, away from everyone else who wanted her attention.
We ate lunch in a little graveyard nestled in the mountain pines. I remember wispy green grasses and delicate wildflowers that weren’t in bloom that time of year. The truth was probably closer to snow remnants—the crusty grayish kind that are dirty beyond beauty, but still cling to the frosty air in the pockets of shade where the sun can’t shine. Strange, the kinds of tricks the memory plays.
I don’t remember what else we talked about—I mean, we were telling each other secrets, but after a while all the secrets blend into each other, and it’s hard to remember which ones are the deepest, most intimate secrets; there’s just the secret of the other’s soul, now known only to you—but at one point Hollie told me, “I feel like your soul is special. And I know, yeah, everyone’s unique, everyone’s special. But no, that’s not what I mean. I feel like you’rereally special.” And we didn’t make eye contact but I really glowed then. She probably doesn’t remember saying it. But I think about it almost every day. Yes, funny the way the memory plays.
We spent the afternoon dancing in and out of the spirit world, taking whichever openings our imaginations could find. I met my power animal again, and I told everyone. Hollie met hers too, but she kept it to herself. I met my spirit guide again, and I said so to the entire room. Hollie met hers too, but she kept it to herself. She had a way of not saying a word, but telling everything. Typical Cancer.
At 5 o’clock we took our leave and stopped for dinner at a small Italian-ish restaurant before continuing up the mountain toward Cottonwood Hot Springs in Buena Vista, where we had a double room booked. Somewhere between dinner and getting back in the car, Hollie finally broke down and started talking about Jimmy, her best friend who had just died unexpectedly. I was surprised that she had made it that far before she needed to talk about him, and I did my best to comfort her while I listened to the sad tale of failed romance and a friendship of unrequited love, for which Hollie felt not-quite-guilty but less-than-good about. With both of our attentions fixed on Hollie’s emotional outpouring, she pulled her Jeep onto the highway and drove into the starry alpine night.
We were looking for a T-intersection, she said, and then we would have to turn left. We would be there in an hour and a half, by about 8:30 P.M. Puffing on a chillum as I observed the scenery from the passenger seat, I absently reflected on how much the road resembled one from a past aimless mountain drive, when an ex-boyfriend and I had pulled over in the wilderness to turn back home and heard ghostly screaming echoing through the forest. I tried to focus on Hollie’s voice, but found my eyes picking out movements between the darkened trees, where all was still.
We came to a T-intersection and dutifully turned left, pausing at a convenience store a few miles after the turn. Hollie wanted to look at a map; she said the intersection hadn’t looked the way she remembered it, but could make no sense of the obscure lines and numbers that people were meant to navigate by, in days long past. I was in the cruise-control mental state of not-knowing-the-way to where-we-were-going, so I spent my time scoffing at the fine snowflakes misting the air. There had been no reports for snow that night, down in the valley (and I should know, because I checked), so with my lowland technological superiority I tossed my head at the frozen water, telling it to get its kicks in while it could. Soon, I said, it would amount to nothing.
The road had just begun to slope at an angle that was the stuff of nightmares when the storm stopped playing coy.
The first sign of trouble was the extended pauses between Hollie’s words as she began to focus her energy on her driving. The second came when we could actually hear the Radiohead album that was playing. The third was when the musical silence was interrupted only by Hollie’s occasional, “This is bad. This is really bad.”
And really bad, it was. The low beams illuminated only the most immediate small circle of road, which was quickly disappearing beneath a fresh layer of vanilla frosting, slathered thick on our deathday cake. The high beams were less help, only serving to brighten the whitewall of hyperspace light-speed snowflake galaxies, so that one couldn’t be truly sure she hadn’t been stricken by a sudden case of Saramago white blindness.
Tap, tap, tap, whispered the snowflakes to our windshield, a secret they couldn’t keep to themselves. Tap, tap, tap, Death tips his cap, the call of the quiet banshee bird. Death’s invitation is so often a chaotic, cacophonous thing, yet this gentle fall of frozen cherry blossoms made a lovesick song out of even his shrillest cry.
I don’t know why I was so maddeningly calm. I think mostly I was just happy not to be Hollie. Hers was the unenviable task of keeping the Jeep, and us along with it, from plunging over the mountainside down toward an indistinguishable whitish death. My job was only to tell her where the road ended on the passenger side, so she could stay on it. The simplicity of my role gave me a peace of mind granted only to the most singularly-focused of organisms on this big, blue Earth, and I was happy to partake in it.
Of course, if I stopped to think about it, given the thickness of the snow on the road and the sheer angle of the ground beneath our tires, exacerbated by the laws of physics and the forces of gravity, multiplied by how little faith I had in the Jeep brand, a sort of all-consuming slow panic would begin to envelop my brain. Somewhere in an especially evil part of my mind was contained the knowledge that we were defying fate by driving up the deck of the sinking Titanic in a bloody blizzard with only our sheer-brazen-gall keeping us alive.
And when combined with the fact that there was nowhere to turn around on this inconceivable hellspawn of a narrow highway, and that we had no choice but to continue climbing, because stopping would provoke a precarious stuckness at best, and a deadly backwards end-over-end plummet at worst—and despite the fact that once on the other side of this accursed rocky protrusion we would have no choice but to descend, whether our tires maintained contact with the road or not, just because Sir Isaac Newton said it must be so…then yes, I suppose there was something like fear presented to me in those moments.
But it was Hollie’s job to worry about that, so I preferred not to think about it, and I focused only on keeping a lookout for the road to end and oblivion to begin.
And anyway, I wasn’t really leaving all the work to Hollie—I’m not that goddamn selfish. My true task was to help her stay calm in a fucking-stupid-intense situation so that she could continue to maintain a high level of fucking-stupid-intense concentration on her driving, and the best way to keep someone else calm is to stay calm yourself. And staying calm in the face of fucking-stupid-intense death requires one to be essentially intensely fucking stupid, at least for a time.
I began to chatter away in a tone of such carefree optimism that Hollie probably would have been well within her rights to punch me in the face. Luckily for me, she was too frightened to be annoyed. I chit-chit-chattered over the squeak-squelch-crunch of tire snow. Chit-chit-chattered over every quick-caught breath and half-muttered curse escaping pursed red lips. Chit-chit-chatter over the sticky grind of white knuckles against a black leather steering wheel cover. A merry laugh at the sight of vertical headlights sliding down toward us, imagining a mirror image of merriment and fright as the approaching vehicle began to pass. My right foot was the only sign of my body’s worry, pressing against the floor as it willed the Jeep over every slope and mountain crest.
At last the road leveled out somewhat, and the snow did not pack itself on the pavement with such insistent thickness, but was content to merely dance before the Jeep’s headlights in the hypnotic shapes of snow snakes. This optic spectacle posed a particular danger to our sleep-deprived driver, whose resilience was now well worn by the crash of a post-adrenaline episode. Luckily for her, the journey was ready to provide more incentives to keep our nervous systems on high alert.
“We’re almost out of gas,” Hollie said, “and I don’t know where we are. I filled up my tank before we left the Springs. I should’ve been able to make it all the way to Buena Vista and back on only a quarter of a tank, but now we’ve used more than three quarters and I don’t know where we are. None of this looks familiar. It shouldn’t be taking us this long to get there, even with the snow.”
We hadn’t passed a gas station in over an hour. Neither of us could get a cell signal, and even if we could, the highway seemed reluctant to either reveal its name or give an indication of where we were on it. Silently I began to prepare myself for a long, cold night in the Jeep on the side of the highway in the middle of a mountain winter storm. A little panic started to peck away at the cloud of my calm. We didn’t have any blankets, or any food.
Not that we were in much danger of freezing or starving to death, from only one night of strandedness—but we would have been very uncomfortable, and the hassle of resuming a state of normalcy the next day would have beenterribly inconvenient. Of course, the voice of reason is never an especially loud one in moments like this, and we had just sort-of-almost-died. Still, somewhere on the outskirts of my awareness, I felt my primal ancestors roll their eyes in disgust.
Within a few miles a spark of life came to our mobile phones, and we handled the devices delicately, as though the slightest breeze would snuff the precious singular bars of signal. Hollie immediately called the desk clerk at the inn, who had been expecting us. She quickly explained the situation to him. He wasn’t much help—not that we could have expected him to be, and we weren’t much at helping him help us.
“What did he say?”
“He said to follow the highway until we came to the T-intersection, then take a left.”
“We did that.”
“Yeah, that’s what I told him. He didn’t know what else to tell us. He just said he’ll wait until midnight, and if we’re not there by then, he’ll leave the key to our room.”
We rode on in silence for several minutes. Hollie was beginning to grow tense, and at long last, so was I. The whole situation was just fucking stupid—the snow, the road, the gas, the phone—and with the sequence of simultaneous brands of perfect-storm-bad-luck, it seemed to be building itself up to some stupid horrible horror-movie-climax.
The wheel of fate turns, finds your name, and aligns your life with a river of karma trickling down from the cosmic peach pit of the known juicy universe. A shiver of life runs deep red up the spine, activating an electrical-rush-of-adrenaline spike. After such a swelling build, the only thing that would have been worse than a climax of awful-meets-sublime elemental death would have been no climax at all.
The Jeep’s headlights caught a flash of green; after miles of black and white the sign caught our attention easily. COLO SPGS: code for homeward, at the next left. We passed it. The highway fell from the middle of the mountain to hug against the side of its slope when I glimpsed a faint orange glow in the sky somewhere ahead of us. Growing up in the city taught me that that was the unmistakable sign of civilization—but there was no telling how far away the lights were. A glimmer of hope jumped up inside of me. Before I could communicate my optimism, Hollie slowly applied the brake and brought the Jeep to a halt, her head tossed back like a horse that was spooked—a very tired horse.
“I think we should turn back,” she said. “None of this looks familiar, and I’m really worried we’re going to run out of gas if we keep going. If we head back towards the Springs, we might have enough gas to get us to the next gas station.”
My heart sank a bit.
“I think if we keep going a little further, we might run into a town,” I offered.
“Yeah, but these mountain towns are so small, and even if we run into some houses, there might not be a gas station that we could find. I’d rather not waste the gas and just head back to where we know we have a chance of finding something.”
I sighed quietly, but knew that Hollie’s logic was right. Yet what a disappointment, to have driven so hard out of the gaping-jaws-of-death, only to return home in defeat, with nothing to show for our trouble other than the money lost on the fuel. Hollie found a safe place to turn the Jeep around, and we doubled back until we found the sign that pointed the way home. My heart yearned uncomfortably for the fulfillment of journey’s end, the anticipation of a moment lost, an experiential craving unsatisfied—like reaching out for your lover in the dark, and finding only a cold, vacant pillow. Hollie must have known the same dull ache. As we turned right off the highway, she slowed the vehicle again.
“This would probably be a good place to call the guy at the inn,” she said. “Maybe he can tell where we are from here.”
We sat in the middle of the road—we hadn’t seen anyone for hours, so fuck it—while I called the desk clerk. I didn’t see the use, now that the decision had been made; but Hollie and I were both growing frustrated, so I went along, just to appease her. When the clerk answered, I gave him an awkward description of where we roughly were. We came to a sign, I explained lamely, and turned right.
“No, no, you should have turned left,” he said, though he sounded uncertain. “Did you come to the T-intersection?”
“We did that already,” I said.
“What did he say?”
“He said we should’ve come to the T and taken a left.”
“We did that already.”
“That’s what I just told him.”
“Let me talk to him.” Hollie reached for the phone. I listened as she repeated a description of our recent navigational maneuvers and subsequent vague location. “We passed a sign and then we turned right.” A pause while she listened. “No, we did that already.” After a couple more minutes of discourse, Hollie uttered a few defeated “okays” and hung up the phone.
“What did he say?” I ventured pessimistically, mostly for conversational purposes.
“He said we should’ve gotten there thirty minutes after we turned left at the T. But it’s been hours. He has no idea where we are. He just said he’ll wait a little longer in case we figure it out.”
She let out a frustrated sigh and buried her face in her hands. Even her curls looked tired and defeated. An irrational part of me was uncomfortable with the fact that we were still parked in the middle of the road. I looked out the window at the blackness around us, at a loss for ways to make the situation better. I lit a cigarette. Hollie did the same. We puffed in silence for a few moments, tapping our cigarettes on the edges of the cracked windows to drop the ashes as the CD ended and restarted for the third or fourth time since we started ignoring it.
“Let’s turn around and keep following the highway for a few more minutes,” Hollie finally said. I shrugged, completely indifferent. I just wanted this night to be over already.
Hollie pulled the Jeep around and the headlights illuminated a green sign at the top of the T-intersection: BUENA VISTA 16, with an arrow pointing to the left.
In all my days of living, I’ve never seen an arrow so resemble a middle finger, neither before nor since. But if that sign had a face, I would have kissed it.
“Ooohhhhhh,” we both sang. Face palm. The goddamn T-intersection. Three guesses on which direction we turned.
I used to gauge the time spent with Hollie by how raw my throat was after so-many-hours-of-talking and so-many-American-Spirit-cigarettes-chain-smoked to replace the meals missed by the stomach while the mouth was preoccupied with words and laughter. By the time the Jeep limped into the parking lot of the Cottonwood Hot Springs Inn & Spa, we had exceeded our vocal limits three times over. It was 12:30 A.M.—five and a half hours after we left Woodland Park.
The desk clerk was still at his post when we rolled in. Apparently, he had been worried about us. Before he left, he pulled out his map to help us figure out what the hell had just happened to us. The sign at the T-intersection had pointed towards Buena Vista, to the left, and Fairplay, to the right, en-route to Deckers, a hundred-something miles away—the way we had come from. As it turned out, Hollie had turned onto the wrong highway when we pulled out of the restaurant parking lot, and neither of us had any clue that we were taking the extensive scenic route through a treacherous Jeep-eating mountain pass. Lucky for us, the detour looped us around to where we were supposed-to-be, rather than taking us away to somewhere-else-entirely. We all roared with laughter at the epic fail of our navigational skills, the laugh of those who have narrowly avoided disaster and come out of it a little crazy. Well, Hollie and I laughed, anyway. The desk clerk chuckled quietly to himself and shook his head.
Up in our room, we sat on our beds staring at the Himalayan rock salt lamp and digesting our experience. My body was tired but my brain was wired.
“I bet you’re exhausted,” I said to Hollie. “Did you just want to go to sleep?” Despite my prior hot springs yearn, I wasn’t too reluctant to retire to the warmth and comfort of a cozy bed—the soaking pools were outdoors and there was still a blizzard on, after all.
“Fuck no,” Hollie said. “After all that, we are getting in those damn hot springs! I don’t care how cold it is.”
“Me neither!” I said, and started to dig in my bag for my swimsuit. “But still…it is going to suck.”
“Yeah…” Hollie conceded.
And it did. But only as long as we were running through blowing snow and frozen air that packed a wind chill well-below-zero in naught but our bathing suits. Once we were in the water, it wasn’t so bad, and we quickly migrated from the coolest of the pools to the hottest. Besides a young make-out couple, we had the place almost completely to ourselves, and we soon ran them off. Up at the top pool, I floated on my back and looked up at the sky. The wind was still blowing snow, but the clouds had cleared and the stars were out. Mountain stars—among the brightest in the world. I didn’t have to wait too long before I saw a shooting one. Hollie saw a few herself. She said she had asked Jimmy to send her shooting stars, to let her know he was doing alright, wherever he was.
I let the hot mineral water cradle me, and I did my best to hug it back. Snowflakes crashed into my face, tap, tap, tap, and were pulverized instantly by my superior body temperature. It was the most peaceful violent death in all of existence, and it tickled. I remembered my mother giving me round-cheeked butterfly kisses when I was a child.
As I floated, weightless, I reflected on how serene I felt, at the end of a long, life-affirming survival struggle and the chaos-of-winter still blowing all around me,
colliding with my skin as I
demurely lifted a limb
to cool when the comfort
of the heat was too much.
Perhaps I invited the danger, I mused, to disrupt the flatline of pacification.
And in the end, I’ll die
just to validate my aliveness.
But that’s life, I thought, ever brushing shoulders with destruction, so that we only live to flirt with death, and dance the lifelong courtship dance;
from one moment to the next, and yet all at once,
tranquil and torrential, sublime and mundane, pleasure inseparable from pain.
And it’s all terrible, and it’s all beautiful.
I could feel it all at once—the indefinable IT—
the despair and the rapture,
desperation and reverence,
mortal and eternal,
without and within.
It felt perfect.
This work was originally published by Jacki Othon on the site, Radically Enlightened, a webspace dedicated to conscious exploration of spiritual and secular philosophies, and application of those philosophies through critical analysis of current events in politics, pop culture, social justice, art, environmental awareness, spiritual communities, and any other area of interest to the global community. Visit the site in upcoming weeks to see more of Jacki’s work.
About the Author:
Jacquelyn Othon hates writing about herself in the third person, but when she absolutely has to, she likes people to know that she is a freelance writer/editor and artist-poet-musician who is reluctant to commit to self-confining labels. She graduated from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a Creative Writing minor. She currently resides on Planet Earth, and therefore has a vested interest in the goings-on and goings-to-be around the place. She’s also really friendly, so feel free to drop a line: Jacquelyn@radicallyenlightened.com.