sleeping elephant mountain
Back home, weeks later, the yard browned off—so little rain at the end of a dry summer, red birches in the swale shedding leaves early. But butterflies, too. Like the ones, sulfur butterflies—Caleb saw them first—that lifted, see-sawing the air with their wings (then I saw) coming up, off the gravel, lifting, bright, at 10,000 feet, like pages, torn from the book of daylight off Long Draw Reservoir. Intervals of motion. During which our separate attentions meshed.
Outward attention—timberline midsummer morning meshed in the flicked, swoopy, stumbly gate-swing of their flying—and inward attention—the breath and, farther in, sadness.
On the crawl at the bottom of the hotel TV screen: …Flashflood Warning…Until 10:30pm…El Paso County…Rainfall 3-4 inches Per Hour… Severe Thunderstorm Warning…Kiowa County…
Caleb opens his book. We had stepped off Arthur's Rock trail the last afternoon of our trip west as the first of that storm's rain began falling.
An hour earlier, Caleb had turned us around. A quarter mile, maybe fifteen minutes from the top, Caleb said stop, let's go back.
At the Gas-n-Go on Mulberry, on the way out of town, I had looked at the clouds as they darkened and saw coming out of them a man, he looked like an Indian man, striding purposefully forward, asking directions of another driver. "Hey, friend," he had called as he crossed the apron toward pump #9. "Which way is it north? Up to north Fort Collins?" he'd asked.
Headed for Denver, we drove south, toward blackout clouds.
They call some summer rains "monsoons." You can see why. In a four-hour period one evening in 1976, the monsoon storm that flooded the Big Thompson Canyon dropped a foot of rain. They called the resulting flood a millennial event. Survivors described seeing headlights of occupied cars flash, spinning inside the bore of floodwater. At least four of the victims have never been found.
The storms to the south as we head toward Denver grow so dense they blot the foothills, and as we walked to our room, #313, at the Country Garden Inn, the world outside is slick, wet, deep, and black.
To his page, Caleb returned, began reading again.
I felt restless, interested in the rain, how attention swerves, pivoting on degrees of possibility. Around us on the trip, possibility alighting from outside our lives, touching us to attention, tiny footprints ghost-marking the actualities, our lived surfaces. Our lives, our real lives: ones we lead back home, family, a house, a state called "Ohio."
The breath of possibilities, a flow of electrons rushing the skin.
Subjects and predicates falling in the storm, rearranging themselves, sentences the wind pronounces, that the rain runs out, beyond hearing. The feel of space, the chemistry of air.
On the outside of our lives, let's say, the life of that man. That Indian man, asking directions out of town.
Or the girl.
The drowned girl lost in the rock jumbles, deep down in whitewater in a canyon, deep in high-voltage rapids down the Arkansas, a whitewater river down in Chaffee County.
About a week before we'd headed west, she'd slid off or got flipped from the raft.
About a week before we'd headed west, she'd slid off or got flipped from the raft.
On the dream-crawl at the bottom of the screen of our lives, I see her ...when she climbed—why did she?...Into the rented Hyundai's back seat...Which the Indian—why did he?...Only moments before had left…
Climbing in, would she have reached for this t-shirt?
I am at that moment holding a t-shirt, it smells of sweat, hot pavement sun, smoke and fresh air, dusk over Ponderosa foothills. All those smells together draw forth this fragment, as though someone else's chemistry were mixing your memory into the elsewhere of a "yes."
The elsewhere of a "yes" swam back through the night from the branching Rugosa roses that pressed open their blooms like a current breaking white across the wrist-thick vines winding over a fence up in Steamboat Springs—a dream town, like someone else's memory of home, the name printed on a row of bright t-shirts hanging on a rack outside a souvenir store.
On the crawl at the bottom of the screen: Los Angeles-bound flight from Washington, D.C., emergency landing, DIA. Injuries. Some serious…
We had sped past the huge rolls of newly cut hay in North Park.
On Colorado 14, 70 miles-an-hour, 80 miles-an-hour, we reached Walden near sundown. There, we had climbed a long sloping grade up a bench in the shelter of which a shantytown of camper shells, fiberboard lean-tos with blankets for doors, straggled back from the road. Name brand signs in the Quick Mart windows in Spanish in Walden. Victorian homes along the main street, spearing the road with pointy shadows.
In the pre-dawn, Caleb finally had pulled on his fleece. Then he slept soundly another hour. The first call came. A robin's. The second was an I-don't-know-what bird. The third voice, the final call, that woke us, finally up, was a raven's.
If its mate disappears, a raven will reproduce the call of its partner, to encourage the one who has left to return. Calling the call of its partner, the raven that woke us called the sun all the way up. Our campsite still deep in shadow, I looked and found no cell phone reception up here.
I would have wanted, I thought, to hand the shirt to the girl, and then to watch what she would do after she took it. Watch her other hand toward the open sunroof rise—lifting, it would look like, like she wanted to ask a question.
I imagined asking the Indian his name, and that he told me, only in Cheyenne, or Arapaho, so I can't know what it was.
By half-light of a round moon in the mosquito-mesh tent window: midnight angel-wing moonbeams: the Republican filibuster blocking unemployment benefits ended: news up in smoke under the heavy iron grate in the campsite fire ring: angel-wing moonbeams: Caleb, by flashlight, reading to me.
I see as we drive through North Park thousands of Angus cows. And the grass! Like eelgrass in the green sea, electrical, shimmering, deep snows from winter heavy in all of its cells, its stems bowed heavy with the abundant rains this summer in its greens. So deep. Water, turning into money, in the stomachs of cows under ranch gates along the North Park road, ranch roads that seemed endless, like dream roads that fled into distance.
We took a walk. I looked at Caleb and thought of us as we would appear from above, crawling along the bottom of the mountain sky along Long Draw Reservoir.
On the wheel of attention, circling, a hawk winged over, crossing to the opposite shore.
Snow-creviced ridge tops.
After our campfire last night, after we had rolled out our sleeping bags, when Caleb had suspended over us from shock cords looped to the tent's ceiling two little flashlights dangling, lenses down, when Caleb had been about to begin to read to me, he had looked at me and asked, "Do you love Mom?"
We had packed up camp, so then we drove down Poudre Canyon to Sleeping Elephant Mountain campground to eat (we thought) a picnic lunch, but a sign greeted us: "NO PICNICING" it read in all caps, and we laughed, because the world, it seemed, kept shouting things like this at us. Bursting with intention, the world began talking—shouting—at us. Stupid Forest Service rules.
We laughed because we weren't sure anyway which mountain actually was Sleeping Elephant Mountain. The one with the sign in front of it that said SLEEPING ELEPHANT MOUNTAIN, or the one next to that one, that looked actually like a sleeping elephant, or a dreaming elephant, actually, partly dematerialized, deeply other, far away inside its own, vast, elephantine slumber. We laughed because our lives in that moment might have been the news crawl scrolling by the feet of Sleeping Elephant Mountain. We felt like the sleeping elephant's dream.
We felt like the sleeping elephant's dream.
We were laughing because the space of the U.S. Forest Service is administered space, and in its "woods" and "wilds" we remain "the public," "visitors," would-be picnickers succinctly and effectively "smothered," as Gramsci, himself a slumbering giant, reminds us, "in an ever-expanding network of management and control.
At Glen Echo, the cashier had ID'ed me when I'd handed her my debit card. (I'm getting to the bear.) We had partied here one night in 1982. In a sleeping loft under the deep V ceiling of an A-frame, zoomy and flushed after a communal soak in the hot tub out back, we got stoked, and went out for a starlight walk. Up the gullied side road from the gas pump we staggered, laddering ourselves towards the edge of the canyon with shouts and laughter.
Had we managed somehow to keep climbing, out over the last switchback, high above the faint whoosh of the river, dizzy along the canyon rim, we'd have found the road aimed north through ranges of stars. We'd have found, moving forward through time, the future versions of some of us, passing through Livermore, and Red Feather Lakes, into Cherokee Park. Around noon the following day, we might have walked up to George and Mary Ann's place. We might have knocked on the screen. We might have stood, speechless, uncomprehending, as they opened it, staring through us from across the next century.
The cashier studied my out-of-state license. I studied the Polaroids of the bear. Two photographs. Taped onto the pine paneling next to the window by the register. Pretty huge bear, I thought. Though any bear in your parking lot tipping over a trash bin probably looks pretty huge. In daylight, just out the window. Pretty huge bear, the sun on its back. Here in the Glen Echo parking lot.
"Nice bear," I said.
"Oh. Yeah," she says. I can't figure out what she's looking for on my license.
"This year?" I ask her.
"Oh," I say.
"We have one now," she says. "Every day."
"My golly," I say, trying at once to sound exactly like the clueless flatlander her interrogation of my driver's my license says that I am, while still mostly wondering about the meth I had read about, and the weed for sale—or so it had said, in someone's review of this place on Trip Advisor—here in the bathrooms at Glen Echo.
Our guide on the raft trip had the story. Every riffle and pool, a name. It was late-season for him. He knew as much as he wanted to know, reading the surface, reading the clouds. The faces, the bodies, the languages of the clients who paid to paddle in his boat. He was bored, almost, with all of it. He was thinking, it seemed, about his future. Except for some wrinkles, it seemed like smooth riding ahead. Just the one off-note of emotion upwelling, a ruffle in the cadence, when something underneath the surface pressed some obstruction that directed it up from under. A boil. An eddy swirl.
"She's missing," said the guide. "Since Sunday."
From the opposite bluff, a golden eagle took off, diving up. The guide whipped a glance. "Hawk," he stated.
Of my memories of Sleeping Elephant Mountain, elevation 9,200 feet, most are inaccurate. When in memory I picture it, what I see is not Sleeping Elephant Mountain but another mountain, the one next to Sleeping Elephant Mountain. The other mountain has a name or if not, it ought to have one, a name connoting the contents of, and the beauty of, a misplaced life. Misplaced, as in placed elsewhere. Among the faulty transparencies of words, elusive, a misplaced life, ribbed with swerves of desire and commitment. Next to the humped mass and closed eyes of Sleeping Elephant Mountain, the loosening form of this other mountain, shifting shape.
"Do you love Mom?"
What was the beginning of that ecstasy? That feeling, like you are so close to something so good, that you have moved in so close, and it so good, that being near it is enough? Being near it makes you happy, being near it makes you glow, and you become a filament of its happiness?
Our campfire Monday night up in Long Draw Reservoir campground had started easily. Two sheets from Sunday's Times. Handfuls of spruce needles. Twigs that Caleb gathered. We'd minced across a marshy swale, stomped shags of wood from a fallen log fluffed with dry rot. From adjacent campsites, we pinched leftover billets, though in the end we did not use any. The mosquitos that had so fiercely bitten us as we began setting camp stopped biting and went away. The smoke from our fire, when Caleb blew into it, he made holes in it with his breath.
Highway 40 from Kremmling north to Steamboat Springs, back to Kremmling, the raft trip, north again, to the junction with Colorado 14, south of Muddy Pass, under the shadow of Rabbit Ears Peak.
Heading east on Colorado 14, Caleb spoke by cell phone with Izzy back home in Ohio. Then we lost the signal in the mountains. Then regained it, eventually, late the next afternoon, at the top of Rist Canyon Road.
In between, Verizon provided us a "searching for signal" message.
What was the source of that joy? That high feeling? Supreme happiness?
Across the valley, as Highway 40 bends from Kremmling north toward Rabbit Ears Peak, from any rise, you can see, spread out, float-tripping on the bottom of the sky, distant ridgelines and flat-bottom-boat shapes of clouds which bulge, rimmed with sunlight, and curl on spoke wheels of tinted shadows.
The space of it, opening between the roadside sweep and the rimmed layers of clouds, is also space opening inside. Happy there, I believe, I believe.
In Steamboat Springs we'd walked for provisions through the old section. In the alleys, the backyard fences held up mongrel, slow-vining Rosa rugosas—old beach roses, natives of northeast China, Japan, the Korean peninsula—which, in evening cloud-duff twilight, bloomed flying-saucer-shaped blossoms of blood-colored light.
We walk up from the national forest campground to the edge of Long Draw Reservoir. Add chapters to a story we've been making about thieves. The Indian at the Gas-n-Go was asking directions. He was on foot. We could have driven him where he wanted to go.
He was on foot. We could have driven him where he wanted to go.
After our campfire Monday night, Caleb and I rolled out our bags and then Caleb read to me. When we turned finally into the Sleeping Elephant Mountain campground, to eat, we thought, our picnic lunch, when the sign greeted us: "NO PICNICING," we laughed. When we stopped laughing, we started laughing all over again. We couldn't stop laughing, and we couldn't breathe.
Then it became awfully hard to get out of the campground. We pointed the car up the little two-track lanes here and there until finally at the top end-most campsite, we got things turned around. Unobstructed by low-growing brush and the signage, the view from up there, of the sleeping elephant, was picture perfect.
So we laughed some more. And I would say that in our laughter we were happiness the elephant dreamed.
Then we left.
The Indian walked over. "Hey, friend," he called.
I said, "We'll give you a ride."
Caleb beside me stares ahead and seems to shrink an inch. We stop at the junction of Colorado 14. The man sits behind Caleb. Caleb looks over at me. I look up the road. Highway 287 winds over the rise past Owl Canyon toward Laramie.
The man walks away as we turn the car south. "What goes around, comes around," I say to Caleb. "Your act of generosity comes back." We accelerate. "The Creator may be generous to you. More likely, though, the Creator will be generous to someone you know."
A big-rig truck shoots past, the long climbing grade and the load on the trailer making its engine roar.
"Even more likely, though, to someone you don't even know. Whoever really needs it. That's just how it works."
Caleb calls. I step into the hotel bathroom where he has just finished his shower. "My nose is bleeding," he says, turning to show me. He pulled his hands from his nose. Gobs of blood, down his chin. At the Country Garden Inn, with steam on the mirror and blood in the shower pan, I hand him tissues. The bleeding stops. When he's cleaned up and dressed, I rinse the blood speckles—rose-petal-shapes, from the shower curtain.
For breakfast we'd eaten an apple and a handful of peanuts. Coco. And instant coffee. Mixed together.
"That was a great book," our guide said, and he's not talking about Antonio Gramsci.
What he had meant by the remark was not at first completely clear. In relation to our float trip. In relation to the girl who around 6pm on that particular day a week earlier had slid or flipped off the raft into the river and who had not yet been found. "They say she's 'missing,'" our guide said. "But."
We had beached under a pinnacle, which tourists like us are encouraged to climb and to try to jump from, 10 meters, into water we can't see into. Rocks? A bottom? "Jump! Jump!" the boaters cry. A guide from another raft, a young woman, steps out on the edge then turns, facing backward. She lifts her arms and, like a competition diver, bends her knees and leaps up and back, off the rock. At the top of her arc, she flips and falls, knifing feet first into the river. Whoops and hollers when she pops up again, swift current swinging her already nearly too far downstream.
The book he means is the one about Chris McCandless, the boy who walked into the woods in Alaska and did not survive it, and why, and why, and why.
I replay the dive in my mind and it looks like this: The girl—the young woman, she was 23—in the rocks in the Arkansas River climbs into the car, taking the seat the Indian has left. I'm holding his t-shirt. It smells of sweat and hot sun and the fragrance of summer mountains. I hand it to the girl, who holds it in her lap. Her other hand lifts toward the ceiling of the car, like she wants to ask a question.
We slept at 10,000 feet.
That's why we couldn't stop laughing.
In the morning we had walked up Long Draw Reservoir Road to the water.
A huge impoundment, behind a massive earthen dam. A berm of tens of thousands of cubic yards of boulders and cobbles and soil, at the top of the south branch of the Cache La Poudre River. Flakey from altitude.
I play back the dive. The drowned girl shifts and sighs, the sun in her skin. She glows in the car like a trout in a pool. But her eyes keep walking. Farther away, farther away.
Her lifted hand, like an aspen tree turned silver-sided by upslope wind.
I see, finally, she is waving.
From the window of the Country Garden Inn, room #313, which as the darkness outside deepens, sinks deeper into a darkness compounded of encroaching enormous, lead-bellied storm clouds, under which sparks up the neon signage from the Chili's and the Applebee's across the abyss of the Country Garden Inn's parking lot where, glowing faintly, the dome lights of other rental cars of late-arriving guests flick off. She waves. To the Indian.
Caleb and I ate cereal for dinner. From irrationally bright bowls made of inorganic molded polystyrene. Breakfast cereal and chocolate milk to wash it down. Polystyrene cups. Heaven.
Next morning, Caleb navigates us deep into Denver International Airport, leading us, one signboard at a time, out to our gate.
For a semi-arid region, there's a lethal entanglement with water on the Rocky Mountain Front Range. The hogbacks reel out like coral reefs and the clouds like waves crash over them, flooding the gulches. In the Big Thompson deluge it rained so hard you couldn't see. You couldn't breathe it rained so hard. You couldn't hear yourself speaking.
What shook me was the line our guide said: "She was part of our group in training." He'd known her. That shook me. It shook me that it could as easily have been him, lost. Missing. He was about the age I was when I used to live out here, and because of that, he hadn't seen, yet, that it could as easily have been him.
I imagine her father, standing at the put-in, a facility resembling the ramps we shoved off at a BLM campground called Pump Shack. He tries to see her on the water, to feel her presence, as they'd pushed off—late—and a little before 6pm when they got to Frog Rock, which is rated as a Class III rapid. Swift, with bumpy waves, but not especially risky.
Indeed, the rating industry in Colorado considers Class III rapids like Frog Rock relatively safe to run, even for inexperienced boaters. All of us out for a nice ride. Some scenery. A little excitement. Nothing too dangerous. Even for children, such as my ten-year-old son.
At summer seasonal water levels, Frog Rock offers a straight, river-left run, that is, a direct path down the channel along the left bank of the river. But Frog Rock Rapid is known for a huge boulder—Frog Rock—which has been compared to a tank, or a school bus, and which thrusts across from the right bank, forcing the current on the right side into a 90-degree left turn. Coming into the rapid on this river-right run, the girl's boat struck this boulder. It tipped and slid, the crew tumbling as the raft skidded sideways.
One witness stated he saw several rafters fall or almost fall in, and one—the girl—trying to swim to the right side of the rapid, commenting that that was a bad place to swim. Other accounts suggest that as their raft plunged toward the boulder, as the other rafter scrambled, shouting, “High side! High side!” the girl rolled out, off the back. Swept under, she disappeared.
Later, in October, when her body is recovered, they will find it lodged in an underwater grotto, a semi-cavern formed where the river surges through a slot below the undercut boulder. 10 feet by 10 feet, as the rescue divers describe it, the underwater chamber that trapped her sounds room-like, large enough to crawl into, to sit up in, I imagine, although I do not think that this is true.
Among which of the moments that preceded the one when she slid at the end underwater had she known?
I imagine her father wondering this. The moment, compiled of all the moments preceding, when she knew that this was not a place she'd wanted to go at all? Not this group. Not this trip. Not this river. But to belong. Yes. To be someone, to someone. Yes. To have this life. Yes.
Back home, weeks later, the yard, browned off. But butterflies, too.
The flick of their mounting. Flower to flower.
She was 23.
He looked a little older.
They swoop through these hours, findings from outside this life. Caleb and I, at the bottom of the sky, beside Long Draw Reservoir, in a lengthening daze, had felt the tallness entering us. The stranger-ness, at the edges of our range of who we believe ourselves to be.
The way that the surface, when water moves, elongates the shapes of the faces it holds in reflection.
The sky from the snow-creviced ridge tops, and the raven back in camp, and all the stuff we are, our insides, our outsides, elongated, lifting out of true.
We wore out two pairs of eyes trying to see it—something huge, in us.
We wore out two pairs of eyes trying to see it, hanging on to it—something huge, in us, and around us; we could barely probe its dimensions, sizing each other to a mutually felt sense of wonder. The elephant was sleeping everywhere we looked.
At The Flats, we rested on a bench, our backs to the river, which, behind us, went on, fully competently doing whatever it was doing.
In front of us, the south facing slopes of the north wall of Poudre Canyon. "MOUNTAIN GOAT HABITAT," a Forest Service sign spoke up.
We scanned left. Scanned right. No goats.
Upon waking we had eaten peanuts and two apples. From the leftover Starbucks cup, sharing, we had drunk instant coco mixed with instant coffee stirred into water we had heated on the fire till it steamed, pinpoint bubbles jiggling in place along the sides of the pan. Still hungry. And flakey. From the altitude. Not much sleep.
Staring into the habitat, acres of south facing, steeply pitched terrain. I yell for goats. "Come out! Show yourselves!"
In the clefs and scales of canyon space, the sound of my voice, extremely small already, instantly erased itself. Whitewater whooshing in the background.
The whitewater pitched high then she slid off the raft.
He wasn't an Arapaho ghost dancer or, probably, any kind of holy man. He was a little lost: he was asking directions. In the failing light north of Fort Collins, he turned and, I suppose, walked into the future. Under some trees up there, scrubbing the ground with his boot for a place to flop, he is part of the future right now. As she is. Terry Lake, a reservoir banked by a ½-mile long earthen berm, shivers behind him, part of the future, too, spilling, a few cubic feet-per-second, through the headgate into the present.
One time back home nearly ten inches of rain in the span of one storm fell, saturated clouds letting loose until an earthwork levee softened and collapsed and all of that impounded water, saved up for all of those seasons, flooded into the night.
Miles from the breached dam, farmers were awakened by the lap of wavelets runneling the siding of their houses. The dreamswirl of their lives. Some people say we can travel in time and we do. It's just that, not knowing ourselves in the future or past, we don't recognize anything, anyone we see.
On our way south on I-25, we passed an RV sales lot. Acres and acres of RVs. Caleb groaned at it. His vision is 20/20 RV. With RV vision he travels out into possible lives on possible journeys, flecks of which begin to strike home now, the first fat raindrops that slide up our windshield. Traffic in Denver. Everything slowing down, then stopping.
Caleb's mom says some people aren't open. They can't feel that danger. They can't feel that loss. When I tell her about the guide and the girl and the Indian. When I tell her about Caleb and the raven and the bear. They can't feel that grief, she says. They don't mind the anger that claws at the bottom their days. They don't mind the grief that runs deep currents channeling through rocks that mostly stay submerged.
In another week the Indian back home I guess in the Wind River country will unroll a handkerchief from his backpack, and from it, a barest flicker, like a wingbeat at the edge of vision, something will fall. That will be Caleb and me, our glances intersecting his at the Gas-n-Go on Mulberry, back in Fort Collins, as we pulled slowly forward, then joined the south-flowing traffic as it rolled through the light.
"If I'd said to him, 'I like your shirt,'" I'd told Caleb, "he probably would feel he should give it to me." Or I'd have handed him the ten dollars. When we would have driven him north, out of Fort Collins, to the junction of Highway 14. "It's the way," I'd said. We were stopped in Denver traffic. Behind us, at the mouth of Poudre Canyon, Ted's Place had burned down a long time ago, like the Rustic Inn had burned down, and like George and Mary Ann's house burned down in the High Park fire, like Colorado burns, and love burns, and how the moment now, into each successive moment, burns and is gone.
And now comes back. A Conoco station. A convenience store.
Back where it used to be, the same place, but different.
"That place," I'd told Caleb. "You could get huge fresh slices there, homemade Colorado peach pie. Mouthwatering! And, once, this one time, I almost did. I almost got some."
Ted Lardner's writing has appeared or is forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Bird's Thumb, Blue Fifth Review, Moon City Review, and other journals. His chapbook, "We Practice For It," was selected by Mark Doty as the winner of the Sunken Garden Poetry Award and published by Tupelo Press in 2014. Ted teaches writing at Cleveland State University.