[Spring’s first green beans, from the Fillmore market, May 2008.]
May, you fickle thing, I don’t think I like this cold spell. For some reason, you’ve decided to burst onto the scene with chilly mornings and even chillier afternoons, never mind that summer is just over a month away, and by now we should be enjoying warmer weather. Some early evenings, in fact, when I’m leaving work, I’ve caught myself thinking Shoot, I should have brought a scarf, because the way the wind whips around the corners of the brick buildings here in my neighborhood recalls certain days in, oh, November. But it’s not November. It’s May — it’s supposed to be spring, full of flowers and things. What gives?
The other night I woke up around 4 a.m. to the sound of the wind rattling the windows in their casings and whooshing about the breezeway of my apartment building. Except for the gusting wind it was very quiet — but that wind was loud. As I listened to it, drifting in and out of sleep, I started thinking about the first backpacking trip I ever took, in Yosemite, when I was about 14 years old. This may seem a strange thought process — what does listening to the wind howl around San Francisco from my cozy bed have to do with the back country of the Sierras? — but really it does make sense, because that summer, one of the nights we camped above the tree line, and it was extremely windy. I remember feeling as though our little tent might blow off the edge of the mountain and tumble us into the valley below.
[Yosemite Valley, September 2006.]
What an adventure that was. I’d never done any serious hiking before, and suddenly I was lugging a heavy pack up and down switchbacks for 10 miles a day and cooling my blistered heels each night in nearby streams. (The water — snow melt — was frigid, and I experienced for the first time that breathlessness that comes when you submerge yourself and then swim in very cold water). I didn’t see a bathroom for a week, and hardly minded it; when we finally got down to the valley we were instructed by our YMCA guides that we couldn’t take a shower until we’d climbed Half Dome — all 17 miles of it — the next day, so that brought the lack of showering to a whole week (however, we did swim nearly ever day in that freezing water so it wasn’t too bad.) When we finally were done, legs aching from all that exertion (and after our showers), we stuffed ourselves with pizza and sodas — the first ‘real’ food we’d had in days.
Mostly what we ate on the trail was dehydrated camp food, such as granola with powdered milk, to which we’d add water we’d carefully filtered as the sun came up over the peaks. There was probably macaroni and cheese (easy to make, easy to carry) for dinner, and so much trail mix I couldn’t stand the sight of the stuff for weeks afterward. One night, maybe the last night on the trail, we made a fire and roasted potatoes in the coals, barely waiting until they were cooked to devour them (you get hungry, hiking all those miles). Looking back, if I’d liked asparagus then, it might have been a good idea to bring some along, as it would have been light to pack, quick to cook, and very nourishing.
[Early asparagus, May 2008.]
That night, before the wind threatened to blow us away, we ate our rehydrated dinners, hung our food bags as high as we could, and then sat up on the cool rocks watching the stars fall. They were closer than they’d ever been, and I knew I could touch them if I but reached up a little higher. The wind rushed through the trees and by the time we went to sleep in our tents it had picked up enough so that the flimsy nylon rattled all night. When morning dawned, of course, the sky was swept clean of clouds and the breeze was mild.
The other early morning reminded me a bit of that long-ago night in the mountains, because when the wind banged around the walls of my apartment they seemed a little flimsy, too, and I pulled up the covers a little higher to compensate.
The last time I went backpacking in Yosemite was so long ago now — nearly five years. It was in August, and I went with my brother; we hiked 35 miles in four days, which perhaps was not the wisest decision. The meadow on the last morning we hiked out was aptly named ‘Long Meadow,’ empty and shimmering with flowers and damp grass. A coyote darted by with something large in its mouth and I felt like I was ‘away’ and breathed deeply of that good air. We rose and slept with the sun, and my body adapted, finally, to the altitude after a wretched night of noodle soup and fever, and felt good doing it.
When you are slogging along, exhausted, uphill for seven miles at 10,000 feet, you wonder why you do it. Then you turn around and see the snow on the mountains and Half Dome a glimmer in the distance, and you know.
[Half Dome from Glacier Point, September 2006.]
The only thing to do when you’re longing for warmer temperatures, and a trip to the high country — where, John Muir claimed, God himself seems to be always doing his best — is to eat your vegetables, and then make some sort of comfort food. In these chilly May days, I want something hot to warm me up (but not soup, because I filled myself to the brim this winter and need a break!); for me, this means a tangle of spaghetti twirled in melted butter, laced liberally with black pepper, and sprinkled with a bit of parmesan cheese.
What you do is: boil up as much spaghetti as you’d like. While that’s going, melt a few tablespoons of salted butter in a pot. When the spaghetti is done, drain it, and then add to the pot with the butter. Swirl it all around so the pasta is well coated, and sprinkle liberally with black pepper. Add a dash of salt if you like. Just before eating, add a couple of teaspoons of the cheese (or more; c’mon, it’s meant to be comforting) and eat, preferably while under a warm blanket.
Healthy it may not be, but it sure helps ease that winter — err, spring — sting a little bit, especially on a windy night when it does feel (yes) appropriate to eat comforting dishes for the season.
And I, tiny being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss.
I wheeled with the stars.
– Pablo Neruda, describing what he felt upon writing his first line of poetry