Night is the first to arrive. She pulls from her wool coat a loaf of rosemary bread wrapped in a linen towel. Still warm. Window frost and fever bring curried pumpkin soup. Soon we all have transgressed this early winter’s ration of gin and hallelujah. We thread constellations with story until we believe we can mend earth. Night will be the last to leave, her hair still humming with flour.
On the path to the communal sauna, a red knit hat pulses in the snow. Further on, a pair of jeans, a grey wool sweater, and a blue turtleneck steam and stiffen. Two wool socks beside the door hold the shape of feet. I think of the man whose wool and flannel I trailed through Wyoming in my twenties. One winter I knit him socks without measuring his feet, just kept enlarging the pattern to make sure they wouldn’t be too small. Picture red wool hip waders. Chimney smoke confirms a fire, but I follow the path away. I had imagined that memory long gone, like smoke loosening across gray sky.
Every morning I scoop homemade granola into one coffee cup, pour black coffee into another, and alternate crunching and sipping. I’m here to hike the tundra surrounding Denali, where I’ll learn plant names, count trees above an old tree line stain, and grieve the melting permafrost. At night, I stare for hours at the narrow frame of light between the shade and window, homesick for darkness. I think about morning light and lichen. Another day’s search for rare sweetroot, arnica, moonwort, and sedge. Words seep into me like ice melting into moss. Before breakfast on my last day in the park, I go to the kitchen to thank the cook for the granola. We say the goodbye of strangers who are suddenly more than strangers. About twenty minutes later, he comes into the dining room and hands me a piece of paper, one edge torn uneven. It’s his secret recipe. Oatmeal, peanut butter, honey. I’m still murmuring ingredients on the bus ride out of the park when the driver stops to point out a grizzly feeding in the meadow. Pecans. Raisins. Molasses. Everyone crowds toward one side of the bus for a better view. I wait, wondering how long this bear will wander the shrinking tundra in search of winter sleep.
Medicine Bow Peak
Cairn. A heap of rocks. Trail marker. Monument. On this trail, cairns sit like weights to keep open ground from blowing away. I add a stone the size of a bird’s egg to a knee-high pile at a fork. Homage to impermanence. To pica screams loosening rock. To the lake always east of the peak. To a dropped glove. To the light spectrum spanning scree and snow and sun. The further I walk, the more a stone is no longer a stone. Perhaps I meant to light a candle of remembrance or place a bean seed in the sun to dry. Perhaps my pebble is vestigial shame that will draw lightning and combust. A stone to mark years of making things with strangers. Our collective urge and temporary salvation.