Copper Ridge ~ Pam Houston

Charlie stood on the bank of the Rio Grande looking across at the island where, most years, he collected the downed cottonwoods to round out his wood supply for the winter. It was January 6th and the river hadn’t frozen yet. If it didn’t freeze in the next several weeks, it might not freeze all winter. The water, in the patch where the river was open, was a vibrant blue, and Maggie’s eyes came to him, suddenly, with a kind of force that made him catch his breath. The first few times it happened, he thought it meant something, that she’d been in an accident, was hurt, or sick or worse, but now he understood that she was inside him, she had pushed herself into the vacated place behind his heart.

It was the strangest thing, to be in love this close to the end of the world, but he had been on the planet for more than six decades already, and he knew that in spite of the shameless president, the crazy weather, he would still probably beat the world to his end. What he hadn’t expected was Maggie, or the roaring love she’d brought down upon him. He closed his eyes for a minute and felt her naked body nestled under his arm, her hair splayed across his chest, her arm slung over his belly, her feet wrapped around his shin. She made him feel young, though she was 55 herself, 56 next Tuesday.

Charlie was terrible at presents, his ex-wife Sharon always said so. He had barely made it through Christmas unscathed and now this. He shook away the thought that it was only a matter of time before Maggie saw right through him. 

Last night, at dinner, he had told her there was only one thing she could do that would make him leave her. He was dead serious, but she had a twinkle in her eye when she asked him what it was.

“If you slept with another man.  If you slept with another man, there would be an 85% chance I would leave you.”

“Oh,” she said, “That.” She rolled her eyes a little. “I thought it was going to be something interesting.” She pushed the butternut squash pieces around her plate.  “What accounts then,” she said, “for the 15 percent?”

“I try not to be 100 percent on anything,” he said.

“I like that about you,” she said, “but you don’t have to worry. I didn’t even fuck around on the assholes.”

He traced her socked foot with his and reached for her hand across the table. “I really want to make love to you,” he said, “so let’s do the dishes,” and for some reason that he didn’t quite understand, this made Maggie laugh and laugh.

Now she was off on a plane again, California, and then Chicago and then some place in Louisiana he’d never even heard of. He’d told her the most important thing you could give a person you loved was time, and when she was home she gave him all of hers, but for every two days she was home she was gone for ten, or twenty. He wouldn’t have pictured himself being okay with that, but he and Sharon had been around each other 365 days of the year and look where that had ended.  

Maggie had worked in maximum security prisons most of her life, rehabilitating lifers, and now she trained young social workers to do the same. For two decades she’d had the best record in the Colorado State Prison System for getting guys who had served the light end of their long sentence off the block and out into the work force. The law forbade her from keeping in touch with them after they got out (Charlie had been glad to hear) but she had a network that kept her informed of their successes. She said with only a few exceptions, the men she worked with who’d had 20 or 30 years to think about who they wanted to be in the world were the finest people she’d known, that the only criminals who were beyond redemption were the ones currently running the country, the ones who would never see jail time. When bad news came, when the board tuned one of her former charges down or one of her guys fell down into the well of recidivism, she took it hard, went someplace darker than he knew how to help.

“We’ve worked hard all our lives,” Charlie had said to her only once, “don’t we deserve a little time to sit on the porch and put our feet up before we can’t lift them as high as the railing?”

“We are white people in America,” Maggie said, “by definition we deserve nothing. Or more accurately, we’ve already gotten all we deserve and more. You need to understand that I only feel good when I am actively engaged in helping. I’m never going to be okay with just taking up space.”

Charlie had been a public servant for 40 years and now mostly he wanted to go hiking. It was the one simmering bone of contention between them.

There are so many people suffering, Maggie said, just so you and I can go hiking.

“That’s not true,” he had said, though he understood the ways it was.

He missed her when she was gone, all the way down to his cells, but he would never keep her from the work she loved, nor would he get tired of their sweet reunions. 

He got in his pickup and drove to the end of Middle Creek Road. He considered his snowshoes, then his crampons, looked around at the frozen bare ground around him and left both behind—along with his pack—in the car.  It was bad practice, hiking without a pack, especially in winter, but his doctor had cut a little cancer out of his shoulder the week before and it still smarted when anything touched it. It was nearly 1:00 and it’d be dark by 4:50. He drank half a liter of water, stuck a small Ziplock of cashews in his pocket and told his truck he’d be right back.

Heading up into the West Fork burn scar, the wind was blowing hard enough that the snags were speaking their own language. It had been five years since all this country had been on fire, and now the aspen volunteers were taller than he was, so thick in places he had to part them with his hands. The spruce had started back too, but more slowly, and only a cluster every so often. When he passed one along the trail he bent down and gave it a freindly pat.

The hillsides without water, particularly the ones with Southern exposure, would turn into meadows when the dead trees fell. That would be good for the elk, maybe not so good for the birds and the smaller critters, especially with the warming and drying.

Forty years working for the US Forest Service had taught Charlie the only constant in nature was change. And hard as it was for some folks to grasp, people were part of nature. Before humans came on the scene there’d been less than one extinction per millennium. Now they were losing two species a decade, mammals, even, most recently a bat and a rat. The last mass extinction, the one that took out the dinosaurs, was caused by an asteroid. This time humans were the asteroid, poaching and fishing, dumping all manner of toxic shit into the water, the air, pumping it into the ground. And logging. He couldn’t forget logging, though as the Forest Service’s PR guy, it had been his job to be fair to the timber industry even when he didn’t want to.

After Maggie left that morning, he had watched on the internet the Swedish girl admonish the United Nations Assembly: How Dare You Deprive Me Of My Childhood? she’d said. 

How dare they indeed, and how dare he? A soil scientist, who should know better, who did know better, in a room full of scientists. They had tacitly agreed to let it slide.

The trees were already stressed from a dry summer and fall.  If they didn’t get dumped on in February and March, there would be a massive die off, the farmers would be without irrigation for a second year running, and the invasive weeds, that thrived in times of drought and damage would have a heyday.

That he could walk this trail, at 11,000 feet above sea level in January, that he could drive all the way to the trailhead, ought to put the fear of God in him. If those weren’t his own boots walking on the bare dirt, he wouldn’t have believed it was true.  

A snowshoe hare froze on the trail above him, bright white against the windblown grey of the rocks on all sides, his bi-annual color change having gone right ahead without winter ever catching up. “You’ll be easy picking for an eagle,” Charlie told it, “if you don’t take yourself back up to the snow.”

The Swedish girl had said the grown-ups were either evil, or simply not mature enough to face the crisis. He had smiled when she had said that. Not because it was charming, but because she was right.

Charlie had been climbing for twenty minutes when he broke out above tree line, scared up a little herd of elk cows and calves that looked as surprised as he was to be up that high in January.

The animals would adapt or they wouldn’t. Ditto the humans. Or rather, they would adapt as long as they could and no longer. The less well the people adapted, maybe, the better for the animals. Technology would offset greed or vice versa, or maybe they were on the same side. It wasn’t often, Charlie knew, the gentler things that endured.

Above tree line the ground was snow covered, but not deeply enough to make him regret the snowshoes. The wind made his knees ache and he knew he’d pay for this adventure tomorrow. His dentist wanted to graft synthetic bone into his jaw and his GP was pushing him toward hearing aids. There was the cancer (the good kind, the dermatologist called it) freshly removed from his shoulder. A recent thinning of his bladder wall (inconvenient, but common, the urologist said) meant he had to get up and pee four times a night. And yet somehow in the middle of this march toward decrepitude Charlie had had found the woman he had always known was out there.  He couldn’t make sense of it, but neither could he wipe the smile off his face. 

He had mentioned Sharon too many times at dinner last night. He knew because Maggie told him so.  She said, “Every time you say Sharon, I’m going to say the name of one of my exes.”

“What?” He had been cutting vegetables for the salad, had not realized he had mentioned Sharon. He’d been talking about the propane delivery guy. He’d been thinking about how many baths Sharon took, how high it made the bill in winter. Had he said the thing about her baths out loud?

“Yeah,” she said, “Like if you say, Sharon color-coded her clothes in the closet, I’m gonna say, ‘well that’s really interesting, because Gary hated all kinds of soup.’”

Maggie was too fast for him, and he liked going slow. She had memorized the words to every song from the seventies and eighties, could recite whole poems he couldn’t make heads or tails of. She was perfect for him, and he for her, and they both knew each other knew it. At least once a day, she put her hand on his leg and called him her tree. 

When he was 12 years old, Charlie had watched his father break a kitchen chair into splinters. His mother had left for the grocery store— that was what had most impressed him, that his father didn’t break the chair to threaten his mother, or to make a point or to perform his anger to a witness—he had no idea Charlie was there. His rage had to spend itself, and his father wisely made the chair its victim. Charlie knew it could be worse and he wasn’t afraid of his father, but he had felt the stirrings of anger inside his own twelve year old body. What he was afraid of, was turning out like his dad. 

It was in the waiting room of his sister’s dermatologist where he read that first article on meditation, so he went to the library and checked out some books. Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Transcendental Meditation. When he read the Tao Te Ching: success is as dangerous as failure, and he who masters others is powerful, but no one is more powerful than he who masters himself, it sounded like a lot of ideas that already lived in his head.

He’d been meditating for fifty years. He didn’t like to talk about it—he generally didn’t like the kind of people who talked about their practice—but it had gotten him through the tough times, Sharon’s exodus, the death of his mother, the year it took his broken back to heal. And even though Maggie challenged him on it: guess it works out for you to go all om mani padme hum so you don’t have to worry about those babies your government is putting into cages, he knew, somehow, his practice had gotten him her.

Now Copper Ridge rose in front of him like a big white cake, sitting on a pedestal of the browner ridge below. Thirty years ago he had married Sharon up there, and five years ago, when she told him she didn’t love him anymore, he walked out the front door and came straight back up here, his plan to stay until he could master his own emotion, until he could practice loving kindness meditation towards her. It took seven days. Which was also how long it took to run out of food, which may have contributed to his evolution.

He hadn’t said one unkind word to Sharon during the divorce proceedings. He helped her get set up in a new apartment, refinanced and bought her out of the house, the truck and the timeshare in Cabo that God knows was never his idea. From time to time he even watched her cat. Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world was a piece of the Tao he’d always tried to abide by. He figured he’d be alone the rest of his life, which was maybe what old men who smelled like the woods had coming to them. 

It took three years for the Sharon hurt to go away. When he was pretty sure it had, he’d gone back to Copper Ridge to see what it might have to say to him. It had been high summer—the wettest one since the fire. Columbine lined the path for hundreds of yards and the snowfield he had to cross just before he topped out was so rich in algae it glowed like a watermelon. His plan had been to leave behind anything that still connected his heart to Sharon’s, but when he got up there and saw the tundra palette of paintbrush, harebells, and forget-me-nots, when he breathed in the mountaintops, held his arms to the deep blue sky, all he found in his heart was peace.

Three months later, out of that same blue sky, tumbled Maggie. Today, a year and three more months later, he’d come back to Copper Ridge to say thanks.

It went without saying he’d never been on the Ridge in January. It was quite possible no one ever had. The rise was steep, but his lungs handled it easily, even in the cold. His doctor said he had the heart and lungs of a 40 year old, which he’d trade for a host of aches and pains. He told Maggie he wanted 30 years together, though 25 would probably do.

They’d been driving home from that first weekend in the desert, only a month after they met, when he’d turned to her at a red light and saw deep lines in her face and her hair turned steel grey.

That trip had been…well he still didn’t have words for it. The hike to Chessler Park and Druid Arch, the lamb stew he had cooked to perfection at home and reheated on his Svea, sex in the tent with the full moon pouring in. It shouldn’t have surprised him that they were ripe for a fight on the way back home.

The radio was reporting Trump’s cancellation of the DACA program and Maggie had breathed, racist/rapist motherfucker under her breath.

“I guess my question,” Charlie had said carefully, “is what was in Trump’s heart when he made that decision.”

“You,” Maggie said, her voice like a blade, “have got to be kidding.” She let ten seconds go by before she added, “you should maybe take care that your religious devotion to fairness doesn’t accidentally put you on the fascists’ side.”  

“I’m not religious,” he said, turning to her and getting that glimpse of the much older Maggie that made him suck in his breath. “We may as well stop fighting right now,” he blurted, “I know we’re going to get old together. I just saw you with grey hair.”

He wanted to suck the words back in as soon as they hit the aether—this was only their forth date after all. But the truth of what he’d said stunned them both into silence. After a full five minutes she reached over the console and put her hand on his leg.

Dry winter or not, the snowfield near the top of the Ridge was twice the size it was in summer, and hard as industrial plastic on the top. Now he cursed himself for rejecting his crampons. It wasn’t so much the steepness of the snowfield, as consequences if you fell that made it scary. A long increasingly steep descent into an ever narrowing avalanche chute, and then a lip, and a 700 hundred foot drop over cliffs to the bowl at the top of the Red Mountain Creek drainage.

He grabbed the willows at the edge for balance and kicked a few brittle steps into the icy surface. Across the great expanse the chute tumbled into, Red Mountain shimmered with snow. 

Poles, would have also been helpful today, not especially for crossing—it had always been a point of pride for him not to rely on poles for balance, but something he could use to self-arrest if he accidentally found himself  on the way down. 

Any sixty-two year old who claimed, as Charlie often did, that people get hurt in the wilderness because their desire for the outcome hijacks their cognitive understanding of the risk, would turn back to his truck now without hesitation. But here he was, so close to the top, on a pilgrimage of gratitude. If he turned around and things fell apart with Maggie, he’d have to live with the fact of the aborted thanks.   

He stepped onto the snowfield, stood tall in his boots and centered himself for balance. He’d go slow, double kick each step to be sure, and the walk back across would be easy. The wind lifted a light layer of snow that had settled on the crusty surface into a whirlwind, and he squinted against the sun bouncing off the ice.

That morning he’d read Iceland had lost its first major glacier, Okjokull—OK, they called it. Icelanders held a funeral for OK at the site, planted a plaque to mourn its loss, to record the date and the parts per million of Co2 in the air at the time of the ceremony. The number was 415ppm, Charlie remembered. Numbers always stuck in his head, but in this case he remembered the words as well. OK is the first Icelandic Glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path.  This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you will know if we did it.  He considered his neighbors who were always saying the democrats were coming for their guns. He wondered how they’d feel about them coming for their diesel pickups. 

Maggie drove a Prius back and forth to the Denver airport which he didn’t love because she always left before daylight, and if she smacked an elk in that little tin can…he shook his head to not thing about it. A Prius was a drop in a bucket, and the bucket, they said now, had no bottom. But didn’t they still have to try? Hope is as hollow as fear, the Tao cautioned, but Charlie had never learned how to live without it. He would hold out hope for the Earth, he decided, if not for the humans, then for the time after they were gone. 

He was a third of the way across the snowfield and making decent time when, without a moment’s pause or calculation, without any acknowledgement from his foot that it had landed incorrectly, he was on his back and sliding, no poles to stop him, no crampons to kick into the ice, just sliding, quietly, down the slope, and gaining speed.

He tried to kick one boot in, and then the other, which threatened to spin him around but didn’t come close to stopping him, and whatever he was facing, he wanted to face it feet first. He didn’t scream, or shout. There was no sound whatsoever, except the whisper of friction of the back of his jacket on the hard packed snow. It was so quiet it felt almost like it wasn’t happening.  He had always thought leaving this life would be…loud. 

The slope was steepening and he was going faster. A hundred and fifty yards below him, he noticed, rising out of the permanent snow was a rock the size of a volkswagon. If he aimed for it and hit it, it would break both his legs, but it might keep him from careening off the edge into nothing. How long would he last up here with two broken legs, and no way to get off the snowfield. Maggie wouldn’t be back till Wednesday, and no one else would wonder where he was. The leg breaks would send him into shock, which would reduce his body temperature further. It might be best to go over the edge and be done with it.

He tried to send Maggie an alarm signal with his mind. In the next second he understood there would be no decision, the deepening curve of the chute was sending him straight for the Volkswagon rock. He dragged both elbows as hard as he could trying to slow his speed as the rock got larger and closer. At the last second before impact he closed his eyes and pictured Maggie’s hair.

Just as easy as his fall began was his sudden succession of motion. He opened his eyes with his face inches from the rock. There had been a snow well on the uphill side of the rock, not visible from above but the perfect size to accommodate his body. He had landed in a standing position, feet in the snow, back nestled against the hollow snow well.  He put his hands up and touched the face of the boulder, and something like a laugh escaped his throat.

“Thank you,” he said, and waited for his breathing to slow.

Next came the strategy for getting out of the snow well, and—more difficult—getting back across the snow field to dry ground. The chute was steep, and yet, he reasoned, not quite as steep as other places, because this, after all, was where the big rock came to rest. He kicked around with his feet in case it was an even more magical snow well, one that contained crampons, or an ice axe, or even a large stick, but he found nothing. 

He decided to face the slope and double kick his steps in one at a time while clawing his fingers into the ice for extra friction.  Gloves would have been nice, but the snowfield was much narrower down here and it wouldn’t take him more than fifty toe holds to get across. The wind picked up again and the shadows were lengthening. He wasn’t sure what kind of terrain he’d be facing to get back to the trail, back to his pickup, but the most important thing was to get the hell off the ice. 

The chute got steeper the closer he got to the edge and when he finally stretched one leg off the snow into the willows and his fingers curled around their exposed roots, he thought he might cry but he didn’t. He stuck his hands in his arm pits to warm them up, then pulled the cashews out of his pocket. He eyed the slope that would take him up and out of there. There were a couple of exposed places, but nothing he couldn’t make.

He looked back at the snow field, back at the rock, back at the distance he had fallen. At least 400 yards. He wouldn’t tell Maggie about this. She’d say he was getting too old to do this sort of shit alone.

He kicked the snow off his boots as the last of the sun illuminated the aspen leaves still clinging to the young trees in the burn scar below him. He looked back up to flat top mountain he would not get to today.

He and Copper Ridge had been going round and round for decades. Of all his potential death scenarios, today’s might have been the best one possible, but he wasn’t ready yet, and maybe neither was the Ridge. The first peach of Alpenglow lit Red Mountain across the valley. He stepped over a heart shaped rock on the trail, then picked it up and put it in his pocket for Maggie’s birthday.

Being deeply loved by someone gave you strength, said the Tao, while loving someone deeply gave you courage.  Dying well, Charlie knew, would require both. So too would whatever was ahead for the Earth. When Maggie got home he’d talk to her about it. Maybe together, they could find a way to help.