The garage smells of sheetrock, the way it has always smelled, and the overhead light that shines on his ropes and his bare legs, his damn bad legs, is harsh. The garage is tidy. He always hangs his tools. The detritus of his field research—redundant grouse skins, the yellow teeth of starved elk—is stored in labeled containers he has stacked on plywood shelves. Linda has never had any reason to complain about how he keeps things. Linda’s complaints are more spiritual, or that is what he tells himself. And he won’t be responsible for his wife’s spirit.
Tonight, he is responsible only for the rack.
Retired from the Department of Game and Fish after twenty-seven years. Father of one son and one daughter, the daughter a theater major and a known tweaker of meth. His son went rotc at the university, mostly for the money, and he’s just back from eleven months in Iraq with his National Guard unit. Safe. And sound. And maybe that’s what this black mood is all about, sitting on a cold, fiercely swept concrete floor, flaking a hundred meters of nine millimeter rope into a perfect coil again and again. He shot trap with his son, Bridger, just that afternoon; the kid’s gotten pretty good, but there was no pleasure in it. The fault’s not Bridger’s. It’s his. He let the damn weakness in his left leg get to him. It affected his lift, his pivot. He let it ruin his aim. All the things he says he loves—his son, good competition, the meticulous cleaning of shotguns—went to ruin because he allowed it.
He hasn’t decided if he’ll fight the disease or not. He hates that set up: illness as battle. For now it’s more important to refine his thinking just as he did during his heyday in the field. Bighorn sheep. The black-footed ferret. Sage grouse. Managing those species required some serious song and dance. He took his share of hits, even from the governor, but he never quit. The new game warden out of Saratoga, a bristle-haired kid named Jack who wears his red uniform shirt like it’s a long-awaited wedding gown, calls him “the wise man.” He has that reputation. Patient. A good planner. He was once the dean of state field biologists. Now he’s nothing he wants to recognize.
His climbing harness is splayed on the floor between his knees, a blue cradle of nylon and memories. The rack of gear he’ll use on the rock lies at his side. Organizing the rack was like threading sweet pearls on a string. His old hexes and tapers are good, always good. He’s examined their wires for kinks. The wires are as straight and smooth as needles. He hasn’t done a solo climb on The Tusk in a long time, but there are some things you never forget. Flaking the rope has shaken most of the dust from its bright red strands. He can’t wait to feel the hot, unforgiving bite of granite against his knuckles. He can’t wait to ask his body to do more than it should.
He’ll leave before dawn.
Nelson sings to welcome the dawn, though he is shy about it, out of practice. Some of the words are like lazy sparrows in his throat. They refuse to fly. The night has been good, not too cold for the boy, so he kept them both out under the stars that now sink like bright pebbles beneath the surface of the warming sky. The boy is hidden in his sleeping bag. His hands and knees are tucked against his belly for heat. Nelson continues to sing, humming through the parts of the morning song that don’t come to him. He keeps his grandfather’s wavery, smoke-cured voice within his ears, as well as he can remember it.
The boy, his nephew, has slept well. Nelson has not, but he tries not to struggle with the restlessness that flutters inside him like a damaged wing. He has fed the boy, the middle son of his sister, and he made a fire with the boy, and he tended that fire while the moon scratched its white claw across the sky and coyote hunted nearby. Nelson’s uncle, a veteran of Vietnam and the white man’s college in Laramie, says Nelson is too often the nervous bull in the herd. Uncle says Nelson needs to shed some of his nerves with his shaggy winter coat. And so he has on this night. Or almost. He has prayed a kind of prayer. He has smoked many of his cigarettes, their hot ash red against the blue-black of the pines that ring the clearing. He has spent hours thinking of Trina and hours trying not to think of her. He has spent some time thinking about his wife, who no longer has eyes like Trina’s. This has led him to believe he and his wife are no longer meant to be married.
As the night wind sowed voices among the pines, he also thought about his sister Donette. Donette is glass-eyed and drifty with drugs now, living with a Mexican hombre who deals his poisons right out of her house. Brandon is her son, one of four children she leaves mostly in the care of their mother. Nelson has kids of his own, daughters he worries about. This time with Brandon, a slow walk to a sacred place, is not about worry. Or any kind of big decision. It’s about learning what he, and what the boy, can make of an old story.
We aren’t supposed to be here. The Tusk and all the headwalls and the whole fucking recreation area have been closed by the Forest Service for three weeks or a month, some scheme like that. It’s a special decree with the Indians. But the weather is so good—it’s never this clear early in June, Wyoming weather sucks way too much of the time—and who’s going to see us? Who’s going to know? Nobody hangs on the western routes, not even during high season. The rock is rotten in places up there, tricky to handle. And there’s much better climbing north of Lander.
Henshaw has parked the truck in a righteous place, east of some ranch house on a pullout above the creek so it looks like we’re fishing. Damn Henshaw even put fly rod cases in the back of the truck in case anybody comes poking around. He’s a joker, Henshaw is. And we’re not gonna mess with the rock. No pitons, no fixed bolts. Hell, Henshaw even bought some of that colored chalk that matches the cliff faces up here. We’ll be quiet. We’ll save the beer and bullshit for later, back at the truck. There’s just this one route—one route, maybe two variations on it—we want to make a run at. Nobody’s ever bagged it as far as we can tell. It’s not in the books, not on the websites. But it’s there, looking prime with its wicked pitches and angles. Henshaw really wants to post the sucker. And Henshaw is a hellion. So we’re in, divvying up the ropes and anchors and water and everything else we need to mule over the hills. Free spirited, just the way we like it. Free.
It’s a great day to be outside, it truly is. The predawn sky is as still and unreachable as a distant alpine lake. The foothills east of the house are gray with the beard of a heavy midnight frost. It’s a great day to be outside. He used to say that each and every morning to Linda when he was on the job, and he meant it. No matter how cold it was, or how stupid the mistake he was supposed to fix, he never disliked leaving the shelter of a roof and four walls. When he was a Ph.D. student trying to radio collar bighorn ewes, he camped for long, gorgeous, difficult weeks at a time. He had to stand off an old sow grizzly and her cubs—twice—when he was living in that drainage above the Greybull River. The bear had a goddamn insane desire for peanut butter. He swore back then that old age would never tame him. But it has. He lays his pack and ropes in the back of his Dodge pickup in a way that keeps him conscious of the ceremonial nature of the task. Otherwise, the rage sluicing along the veins of his forearms will overwhelm his good thoughts, his tempered attitude. He can’t have that.
At the last minute he decides to take Angler, the old Labrador retriever, with him. She was a fine pheasant dog in her day. Her hips are shot and so are her eyes, but she’ll enjoy the trip, and there’s a chance she’ll keep him from thinking too much about Tryon, the collie that used to go with him on climbs when rock was still something he had to conquer.
He helps Angler onto the front seat of the truck. There’s a tidal curve of sunlight spreading above the mountains where he first taught Bridger to hunt deer. A six-point buck, he’ll never forget the smile on his boy’s face. Morning is rolling on its rim. The dog swats her thick tail against the truck’s dusty dashboard. It’s a good day. She knows no other kind. He rests a hand on the thick, flat bones of her skull as her failing eyes, round and expectant, reflect a tarnished light into his own.
Brandon wants bacon for breakfast. Or pancakes from McDonald’s. Nelson reminds him that they won’t eat for a long time, not until they’ve walked to the place they’ve heard about. I don’t want to go, says Brandon, pushing out his lips until he’s made his whole face into a stubborn scowl. Nelson knows how to handle that attitude because he tried the same thing on his father when he was a sleepy-eyed boy.
He says nothing. He bows his head and draws the scents of frost and sagebrush and pine duff into his body until they make a kind of map for him. They will find their way. And there won’t be a whole bunch of formalities. Or not too many. He’s not going to chant this part—not out loud, anyway. Many of their people will be here later in the month to make pilgrimages or cultural statements or whatever they choose to call their journeys. They will come for the solstice, to witness the sun as it begins to shrink beneath the robe of night once again. But this is Brandon’s first time. He won’t overwhelm the boy.
They set off to the west, up a gentle slope that is thick with red willow, both of them zippered tight into their jackets. The boy doesn’t talk now. But he is jittery on his toes, watchful and assertive. He pretends to dribble a basketball past Nelson. He bumps against his uncle’s hip, hard. He spins. Then he mimes the action of a three-point shot aimed at the basket of a bird’s nest cupped among the willows. He throws both arms high into the air as he scores.
We start late. Holly’s hard to roust out of bed sometimes, but what the hell? It’s a Tuesday. There’s only one ranger assigned to this part of the forest, and she’s not looking for us. She’s got atvs and dirt bikes to worry about. We don’t see any trucks or vans parked at the trailhead, but Henshaw has us leave the road and traverse a low ridge until we get way back in the woods, just in case. We don’t hear much of anything. Somebody’s flying a plane on the other side of The Tusk. I joke that the pilot is scouting for Henshaw’s ganja, which Henshaw doesn’t think is funny. Some kind of bird is tweeting in the brush. And we all hear the crashing sounds made by deer moving away from us as fast as they can.
We do see one weird thing. Holly finds a ribbon tied to a bush about ten yards off the trail. It looks like a surveyor’s mark, only it’s not. The ribbon is a piece of red cloth and there’s a pack of cigarettes lying at the bottom of the bush, Winston, and a braid woven out of some kind of green hay. Henshaw says it’s sweet grass maybe. The Indians use it. He’s seen it before. Holly gets a little tip-toey and hushed when she thinks about what that might mean. She says she’d hate to intrude on some guy who’s starving his way into a vision quest or whatever they do up here, it would be a black mark on her karma. Henshaw tells her it’s cool. We’re cool. It’s full daylight. Even the squirrels are obnoxious and loud by now. The important parts of religion are all about dusk and dawn, Henshaw says, the ghosty hours of the day. There’s nothing holy about brunch hour. We aren’t bothering anything. We’re respectful of the earth. It’s not like we’re littering all over everything or firing guns like some of the local shitheads do. We’re just here to climb.
He knows Marian Vargas, the seasonal ranger, pretty well, so he’s not going to leave his truck somewhere that will make her curious or piss her off. He takes the forest road at Biscuit Ridge, drives right around the barrier that’s supposed to seal off access to the site of the Mule Tail fire that burned a thousand acres two summers before, and parks at the head of a dry wash that has no name he’s ever heard. The Tusk is less than two miles north as the crow flies.
The sky is now the gentle color of his daughter’s eyes, or that’s the connection he chooses to make. Cara was a beautiful baby. She was slow to walk, so slow that Linda worried that something was wrong. He never worried. Cara was just stubborn. He saw that in her from the start. Just as stubborn as her old man. He can only hope she knows what the hell she’s doing with herself in Las Vegas or wherever she is right now. Cara has a way of underestimating the ruin a person can inflict upon herself.
Small cumulus clouds roost on the western horizon. It may rain later. There’s no fixed trail, so he’ll have to go easy for Angler’s sake, and that’s all right. He shakes the morning stiffness out of his arms and legs. They feel good, obedient and strong. The thing that galls him most about the disease is the cruel and comic way it affects his limbs. Some days he’s normal. Some days he has no more body control than a foul-hooked trout.
Water. Harness. Ropes. Chalk. Climbing shoes knotted to the top of his pack. No helmet. He’s not going to wear one. He figures it would be damn good luck if he managed to crack his skull open doing something he loves so much.
The air still smells of ash from the old fire. Small yellow butterflies rise from the ground cover that’s regenerating on the forest floor. He can see what looks like a goshawk resting on the blackened spar of a scorched lodgepole pine. He files away his thoughts about the climbing ban that’s been negotiated with the local tribes just as he filed away the details of a hundred other well-intentioned projects when he collected his golden belt buckle from the current governor. It’s no longer his business. His business isn’t property rights or politics or the varieties of human respect he was once paid to recognize. He’s not going to think about the gripping vise of his own vanities, either. Not right now. His business is leaving the ground.
The boy is thirsty. Nelson can see the lurking shadow of want in his brown eyes, though he asks for nothing. Except singing. He likes it when Nelson mouths a soft tune—something that makes them both a little larger—as they grow hot and tired crossing the dry meadows and steep fingers of forest. It is a long way yet. They can see the rocks, as still as wary animals in the spreading sun, and they can see the purple crown of the adjoining hills and the butte that is honored by their people. They cannot see the caves, or the great height of rock that was split in half by the man who came before them all.
Nelson stops when they reach a cool circle of shade. He strips off his jacket and ties it with Brandon’s jacket around his waist. His socks are full of nettles. So are the boy’s. He smoothes a place for the boy on the ground and shows him how to push the sharp seeds through the fabric of his socks in order to get rid of them. The boy laughs when he tries to brush the nettles off his hands. They don’t want to let go. Then Nelson tells a little part of the story. It’s familiar to the boy. Most of the children hear the stories—in English and the tribal tongue—at school. But the story is nothing without the attention of the people. And it is nothing without the dark barrier of the hills and the sun’s great heat and the towering rocks that can never be taken away. Just a little part of the story, that’s all he tells. How Thunder came. And Lightning. The Great Storm.
The boy shows him a place where ground squirrels have gathered a neat pile of pine cones. It’s like their grocery store, he says to Nelson. Nelson shows the boy how to find the squirrels’ homes—front entrance and back. Then they begin to walk again. The boy fills his cheeks with the fat spirits of the winds. The boy fills his lungs with tornadoes and rains.
He sees them just as he’s stepping into his harness, off balance, too much in a hurry. He has one leg up and bent at the knee like a guy getting into his underwear after a quick shower. He knows he looks silly and vulnerable. The base of The Tusk is behind him. The rock is the color of a good chestnut horse. Crystals of mica embedded in the granite wink like jewels in the full-on sun. He’s afraid he recognizes the man—the stocky build, the neat braid of hair, the dimpled chin. A nephew of Alfred White Clay? It doesn’t matter. He’s not supposed to be here. There will be hell to pay, and he’d better get ready to pay it.
Except the man doesn’t move. He acts like he doesn’t really see a lone white guy rigging up for a climb. He just stands there in the dappled shadows of the crowded aspen grove, his hands hanging lightly by his side. There’s a boy with him, a chunky kid with flushed cheeks and crew-cut hair who’s about elbow height to the man. The kid is frozen in position, his arms straight ahead of him like a superhero in flight, and it’s clear even from this distance that he’s trying not to laugh.
Peekaboo. I see you. To the kid, it’s some kind of game.
Christ, what to do? He’ll just have to own up, same as he ever has—in bureaucratic quarrels and marriage. It’s not his style to make excuses. He fights to dull the pangs of disappointment that spear into his chest. He drops his harness around his ankles. The rack of bolts and anchors rattles like a length of hurled chain. No damn excuses.
Yet when he squints into the striated light of the aspens, everyone is gone. The boy. The man. Vanished. He begins to call out, but stops himself. He’s almost willing to believe it was all a hallucination. His brain, as sprinkled with lesions as it is, might be able to put on a made-up show like that. But he doubts it. The kid seemed all too real. His bright, conspiratorial eyes. The laughter.
He looks over his shoulder at Angler, who is sprawled, panting, in a golden quadrangle of sun. She hasn’t heard or smelled a thing.
It’s a game, sure enough. So he’ll play until something stops him. He steps back into his harness. He wraps some tape around his trembling fingers. Makes a nice, careful survey of the first and second pitches of his route up The Tusk. Oh, the stories those rock faces could tell. Pete Davidson slipped and split a kneecap trying to solo up the east side. And that turd of a lawyer, Frosty McNamair, once tore a hole in his pants so big people had their binoculars out just so they could watch his white butt cheeks hang in the breeze while he finished his climb. It’s coming back to him like the chorus of a rowdy song—the camaraderie, the balance among partners, the bloody scrapes and falls. That was a life, the whole unplanned rush of it. That was a self no larger than its body. He lifts his chin until the back of his head rests against the swell of his shoulders. It’s all up there. Up. History and chance in his muscles one more time.
Spider. Jumping Frog. Brandon does his imitation of those creatures once they have turned back from the place where the stories say the first of their people met Lightning on the great red rock. Crane, Brandon whispers, his dirty fingers cupped around his mouth. That man looked like he was dancing Crane.
Funny crane, Nelson says, grinning a little.
Not too good, Brandon says, the way he does it.
And they both laugh.
Nelson does not know who the man was or why neither of them wanted to talk or explain anything. He knows only that for him the man disappeared. The man did not even leave a true shadow against the rock. It was nothing for him and the boy to bend their path a little. They have left the man to find his shadow. They want to see the caves.
There are others here, knocking against the ancient stones like pellets of frozen rain. Other climbers are here. Nelson knows that, and restlessness flaps against his ribs once again. He closes his eyes. He listens to the tot-tot-tock of the bird white men call the flicker. It is drumming for fat insects beneath the bark of a tree. And the wind, it hisses against his skin. The wind can be capricious and unruly when it is close to the holy places. He fingers the bits of red cloth he has stuffed into the front pocket of his jeans. He will show Brandon how to leave tobacco and other offerings in honor of the spirits. And he will make a silent prayer for the boy’s mother, just a small one. He remembers Donette’s stories of how the women, their aunts and grandmothers and many cousins, walked the old trails up this way when she was a girl, how strange it was, that walking, how surprising. He hopes Donette still holds some of that surprise in her heart.
Spider. Frog. He shows Brandon a few steps of a dance he learned when he was a young one, six or seven hops from watchful Crow. Then they resume their silent journey toward the caves. It has been a very long time since he has visited them, black mouths to another world. The caves frightened him when he was small. He does not think the boy will be frightened. The boy will understand.
We suck. Holly pulls a bad, bad sprain on her wrist when she’s got Henshaw on belay, and she’s no good for the rest of the morning, and neither is Henshaw or anybody else. Henshaw climbs like his hands have been soaked in motor oil. He rushes everything. He screams at us when he can’t snap his hips over the crux at the end of the third pitch. He gets a little wild. The weather is okay—windy but warm—and that’s all you can say for the hours of sweat and cussing we put in. It’s like we’re being graded by some asshole judge. It’s like we’re being watched from somewhere in the woods. There’s nothing relaxing about the assault.
Some days you just don’t have your shit together, that’s what Holly says. She’s got an oozy looking raspberry on her thigh. And she tells us about a big goddamn raven that flew down and stole the carabiner she had laid out with one of her anchors, stole it right under her very own eyes. Holly doesn’t mince words. She mentions a couple of things about karma when Henshaw can’t hear her.
But even that guy knows you’re an ass to red-point a route when you don’t have the proper mojo. It’s a fucking mistake to want it too bad. We finally pack it in. And we never see another soul the whole time we’re there. Nice surprise when you think about it, all that virgin rock in a no-hype piece of wilderness, so we start talking about how we’ll flash the goddamn route when we get our next chance. Henshaw wants us to shut up and swear to some kind of secrecy. He’s afraid somebody will make the grade before he does. He wants that rock written down under his name. Typical Henshaw. He thinks somebody is listening.
A cry cuts through the breeze that wraps The Tusk like a warrior’s cloak. The boy who hears it might think the red-tailed hawk is teaching her young to glide the updrafts that will launch them into the sky. Ker, keeeeeer. The boy has seen such hawks many times. Or the boy might think it is a man who has cried out. Not First Man, founder of his people. First Man disappeared long ago, many years before the bison and the great chiefs left this land. No, this would be the voice of a humble person, someone like his own uncle—a man who wishes to sing about how high his wings have taken him.