The danger of an avalanche existed somewhere high up on the mountain, and it was our reason for not taking the dogs. Days passed with each window of opportunity shut out by the prediction of snow or danger whether it came or not. And down low, where we were predictably safe, a wrestling sense of affliction from lack of risk kept me staring at the ceiling.
Without a way to spend our energy, we opened our eyes to the winter darkness, gasping for air and spiritually freaking out as if we were unable to dig ourselves out of the suffocating weight. Not from an actual piling of once-individual snowflakes descending en masse but from an avalanche set off from within the confines of the house.
The torturous sound of ten bird dogs scampering about the floors without occupation, two pots of black coffee on raw nerves, and a ticking clock that circled the same 12 hours as it had every day of my life. Except on this day, it jarred at 3:48 p.m. (sunset) and, the slide into another early night was unbearable.
The coming of night in mid-afternoon is not the worst of an Alaska winter. A person can still be happy or sad with five hours and 57 minutes of daylight. The avalanche conditions or sunlight charts do not hold my fate so long as I take an extra serving of natural berry flavored vitamin D supplement and soak in the blue light emitted by electronics and energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs.
These were my tiring thoughts, anyway.
It doesn’t matter if the setters are pacing the house like caged badgers, their claws making the chaotic sound of seven cross-beat clocks, and the urge to restore tranquility comes in a desire to smash the face of the clocks with immutable fury and without harming the dear creatures making the noise. And, they must feel the same because any sudden sound from outside sends them into a fit of barking.
I laid on the couch “like a patient etherized upon a table.” The sight of the dogs all sitting politely in a row and staring at me made me laugh at myself and the situation. I momentarily forgot the snow blowing by the window in gusts and how the fractured slope of my sanity had descended with soundless expression down a chute of narrow thinking. Right then, I stopped asking the overwhelming question of whether to dare to disturb the universe or the mountain and pet the dogs.
We had driven for two hours even though we knew we were driving into the unknown. Between Christmas and New Years, two feet of snow had fallen in the pass. Winter storms had loaded an already unstable snowpack, and the avalanche advisory kept us out of the mountains. Maybe it was hope in the face of weather predictions that made us see a chance or maybe we knew better and just had to see it ourselves. We figured we could hunt the low meadows for willow ptarmigan under a clear sky as long as the wind didn’t come up and the temperature stayed low. The unexpected rain turned to snow with low visibility. Winchester slept in the backseat as I wondered if it truly was impossible to hunt or if we just hadn’t considered enough alternatives.
The mountain pass was dark with heavy snow. To see it lit by headlights gave it the same desolate appearance as the blue light from electronics I’d wanted to escape. Neither of us said anything about it, but our silence suggested we both knew the plan was going backwards on us. We pulled over to evaluate the snow, which I imagined as a new euphemism for urination. The wind blew and the wet snow sank five inches to a light crust. “What weather report said the sky was going to be clear?” I asked. But I knew the weather report didn’t matter. I didn’t know how else to acknowledge the situation. We weren’t going hunting, and Winchester wasn’t going to understand it in terms of a weather report.
When we turned the truck around and headed back Winchester fell asleep again. He was not as concerned as we were about the change in direction. Although he enjoyed stretching his legs and needed time in the field, he had the steadfastness of a dog. It was something I needed to learn from him. Things are not always what they seem. We had thought we were getting closer to what we wanted by driving for what turned out to be four hours in a snow storm. When we pulled into the driveway at home, disappointed and wasted, it was not because we’d spent a long day in the field. It was because we did not have a dog’s Zen understanding of things as they really are.
And what is real? If I had to ask Winchester, he would not have a view clouded by assumptions. He would not think we were foolish for setting out or wise for turning back. He wouldn’t fill his mind with how things seemed because he had only to notice how things are. He knew what mattered. We can’t change the weather. I didn’t mind going as far as I could – whether it was to look out the window or make the drive to the mountain or ocean – and see for myself the impossibility of certain paths if only to be certain we couldn’t take them. In the same way, I would watch a loved one walk away for as long as I had the view.
When the train, it left the station, with two lights on behind
Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind
-Robert Johnson, Love in Vain
Because, when you love something – a person, a passion, or a dog (or those things combined in the chance to hunt together), you cannot sit at home and look at a computer screen. If the weather is bad and you’ve sat near a fire for long enough and you’ve read enough books, eventually you have to get up and see what’s preventing you. You have to stand on the beach or at the base of a mountain. In those moments, it’s possible to feel that you’re in a futile chase. There’s nothing to be done about the weather except sing its blues. And, to the extent you feel the longing and the pain, you know the feelings not in vain.