River of Fire

I’m twenty one and am laying on a Ernie Tanaka surfboard just off the coast of Oahu.  I bought it off a college student at UH who didn’t know what he had.  Some of the old guys who knew me from the before-work morning set off Diamond Head alerted me to the board’s provenance.  It was around seven and a half feet long.  Not a longboard, but not a short one either.  It was unique.  I surfed on it for a few months and then passed it on when it was time to leave the islands.  A part of me wishes I’d kept it, but it almost doesn’t seem like it was mine to own.  It fit me as well as anything has ever fit me: my first bicycle – a beat up old red dirt-bike with only coasting brakes, my first car – a beat up old 81 Honda Civic held together with caulk and duct tape – my collection of 60s era fantasy and science fiction magazines – my pair of faded black Summer Solstice Triathlon swim trunks.   I don’t have any of those things any more, either.  This surfboard was comfortable

This is my only surviving image of that Tanaka board. I found this guy half-buried on the beach one day.

It’s morning and I’m on the water with my buddy Drew between waves when not much was happening.  I’m on my belly paddling somewhere when all of a sudden the heavens open and I’m in a trough of some kind and a gentle tropical breeze like a thousand little gusts grabs the water’s surface and a billion billion little wavelets catch and release yellow fire and I’m surrounded by the warmth of a deafening chorus of light.   

In my memory I can see my hands slicing into and through the cacophony around me as though in slow motion, knowing I’ll be leaving for home in a few weeks time, knowing that my future might not bring me back again, knowing instinctively that you can’t ever tread the same path twice, knowing that there could be no way to preserve the moment other than as a memory.  I concentrate with all my will to burn the moment permanently into my soul.  There it has remained for 23 years.  It is one of my most precious and personal memories.  It is a North Star for how I experience beauty.  It is a high-water mark of my mortal experience.

And rarely do I ever come close to experiencing that degree of intense, burning beauty.  I’ve been to the tops of mountains, along coral reefs, at the edge of blooming deserts, in endlessly throbbing night clubs, at the edge of vast tropical rain forests, on the precipice of ancient ruins.  I’ve seen my own children born and held their slimy squirming bodies as they take their first breaths and held the hand of a beautiful ancestor in his last moments, feeling his pulse fade away.  These experiences have been powerful and moving, and I honor them, don’t get me wrong.  But never have I come close to the kind of transcendentally transformative experience of pure simple beauty of that moment on the water in the Spring of 2000.  

Until last weekend.

In these essays I’ve been trying to eke out some kind of truth or lesson or idea from the meanderings of my middle-aged mind.  Not this week.  This week it’s just my best attempt to describe a moment of sheer, crazy-inducing beauty.  

We’re standing on a frozen lake.  My cousin and I spent the morning fording a river in pack-rafts and hiking with full packs on snowshoes, six miles into the Wilderness.  The lake creates a long valley –  more of a canyon really, running east/west for around three miles. We made it to our camp spot in the early afternoon and spent the next few hours setting up an amazing winter camp.   The sun is setting at the foot of the lake, while we’re closer to its head on the north side.  

The mountains like sentinels.

With only a few hours of light left in the day we turn to building a fire near the edge of the lake in a spot where the snow will be thin under the fire, but a few feet away it is deep.  We dig chair shapes in the snow near the fire and place our foam pads on the cold surface like the most rugged La-Z-Boys imaginable.  After the hike that day, these “chairs” feel amazing.  We have a campfire, good company, snacks of various kinds and deliciousness, and the mountains opposite rear up, gleaming like giant knights in new armor made of snow and stone.  The moon, nearly full, rises through the spears of jagged cliffs into a pristine blue sky.  This is pretty. It’s also cozy, but it’s not the moment.  

Returning to the La-Z-Boy lounge after the sun finally went to bed for the night.

Exhaustion sloughs off us and we notice after a bit that we’re in the shade.  The sun has gone around the corner of the mountain.  But there’s a line on the lake ice, clear as day, where the sun still shines while retreating.  We decide to put down bags of trail mix and jerky and go follow the sun set across the lake.  

A few steps take us to the line.  Of course, we’ve all seen the sun set before, but this line where the switch takes place – slicing from cool blues and cold to bright yellow and warm is unusually compelling.  Day and night are in a dance – retreat, advance, retreat, advance.  It hasn’t snowed in a few days, so the ice has been blown mostly free of snow.  On the shore, post-holing into 18 inches of snow is how you get from the tent to a place to pee.  On the lake, it’s scrubbed clean with a rough wind-blown texture, which makes following the sunset easy.  It’s ironic that the very most beautiful moment of a weekend that was generally characterized by struggle is also the easiest moment of the trip.

The line between day and night. Which must be followed.

If all this weren’t enough, the ice of the lake was also singing.  We figured the ice was around ten inches thick, but the day had been warm, and the ice was cracking and shifting subtly beneath our feet.  This created periodic thwommm sounds which were shaped and amplified as though in the sound chamber of an ancient Spanish guitar by the natural acoustics of the canyon.  The effect was beyond magical.

And then we stumbled on it.  The river of fire.  Some weeks or days before a single cross country skier had transected the lake.  In doing so, they compressed the snow where their track was.  Compression made that little track both smooth and resistant to the forces which eroded the snow around it.  The sun was setting, relative to us, right at the western end of where the track disappeared into perspective.  

Two thirds of the way across the lake, already soaked from head to toe in mind-numbing beauty, we discovered the track.  

It’s probably hubris to try and describe how beautiful a moment that was, and the photos are cool, but don’t do it justice.  We’d already had an amazing day, and the night would continue to impress with giant sparks of firelight wrestling with Orion for supremacy in the cold night sky.  Later we would hear the low mournful howl of wolves echoing through the canyon from far away.  We would feed my cousin’s portable wood stove in a repetition of millenia-old night fire tending rituals.  There would be stories of love and loss and The. Most. Delicious. Ramen. Ever.  But that moment, when the river of fire overtook us as the sun raced to bed, stands out in stark relief.

It took me three days to physically recover from how taxing this trip was, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.  It stands out as one of the most personally moving times of my life.  To my dear, dear cousin who put up with my smoke-stuffed up nose – he recalls my snoring in the night was, “like I was fighting with sleep itself,” my slowness on the trail, my physical ailments, and all the other things he put up with to drag my sorry ass out there, I extend my deepest gratitude.  He is a person of such quality unlike any other and I feel truly humbled and honored to know him.

And like that morning so many years ago, I have commanded my neurons to permanently record the event.  I will hold it close to my bones and seek comfort there, and may it be my last breath that ever compels me to let it go.

All that’s left of my F&SF magazine collection. It was neat.

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