The snow was packed in icy slabs at 7,000 feet, and as I tracked the cat I saw where she had slipped, spread her paws wide, and extended her claws to grip the ice.
Cats don’t usually show their claws in their tracks, preferring to keep them retracted—and therefore protected and sharp. But she needed them here, in areas where powder had been blown aside to reveal periwinkle ice. I took extra care; I have only two legs, not four, and no crampons or ice axe, let alone claws.
Her tracks led up the penultimate rise on the mountain I had been climbing these past hours, then meandered along the base of the summit cliffs. Snow gathered against the folded, lichen-crusted stone rampart rising dozens of feet above me. I followed her tracks as they climbed to the crest of the bergschrund at the base of the cliff. I slipped once, and caught myself, then slipped again and lost my footing completely, sliding 30 feet down the hill to where the angle flattened. I clambered back to my feet and set out again.
The lion’s tracks continued. She had not slid, ungracefully, like me. Instead, her tracks showed that she had padded almost noiselessly, ears swiveling, surveying her mountaintop home.
The bulwark of cliffs seemed impassible. The sun was already setting. Temperature around 10 degrees. An arctic wind scoured more snow from the ice and stone, and siphoned more heat from my body.
I continued into the wind, along the bergschrund, looking for passage. Cracks and fissures rose in the stone, but none seemed climbable. Not today, with winter boots and snow on every ledge; not alone, with no cell phone signal; not now, with frigid darkness rapidly approaching.
Finally, I see a path to the top. A few airy moves later, wiping snow off rock ledges, stepping high—not a moment to fall, I tell myself—I scrabble onto the south rim of Thacker Pass.
Below me, the land extends in every direction. Arroyos carve the broad saddle of the pass into a filagree of water’s four dimensional passage. The sun’s rays, nearly horizontal, reveal their texture. They point east, their pattern an echo of the veins trying and failing to warm my bone-chilled hands.
The last light colors the Santa Rosa mountains lilac where they rise, eastwards, to nearly 10,000 feet. They are busy, motionless, gathering snow to feed the springs at their feet during the next long, hot summer. Mountains, behemoths, wrinkles on the nearly uniform surface of the Earth, water carriers. They willingly give so much, but it is not enough for some.
Finally, I turn north. Sagebrush carpets the land, a miniature old-growth forest spread across thousands of acres, protecting the soil that has been eroded into the deep arroyos below me. Most of the sage on this side burned years ago. They are not returning; the seeds fail to germinate, year after year. And the soil has paid for it. Every ridge and canyon is so familiar now, after more than 13 months fighting to defend this place from a vast proposed open-pit lithium mine.
And then the inevitable vision comes to me: in my mind, I see an open pit mine, perched on the western shoulder of the pass, a massive wound carved into the flesh of the planet. Next to it, a new heap of waste rock rises, a toxic mimic of a natural mountain, perverting the essence of this 16 million-year-old elder beneath my feet. Pristine springs are replaced by toxic seeps and mountain lion tracks are replaced by the torn earth behind a bulldozer.
In my nightmare, power lines carry energy to the machines and a factory along the road wages chemical warfare. Dozens of semi-trucks roar up and down the small mountain pass, delivering millions of tons of acrid yellow sulfur, fresh from the vast stockpiles outside oil refineries, into the furnaces. From here, the trucks look small, but the tang of diesel fumes reaches even this high summit.
Engines rattle; machinery grumbles; explosions zipper the mountainside. The Earth is shattered. The stillness is gone. In its place, a cathedral of destruction, a chaotic industrial cacophony, a dead monument to necrophilic consumerism. And a place that has seen two massacres already becomes the site of a third.
I take a breath.
Back in the present, darkness is coming fast. I must descend. A night stuck on this mountain would leave me with frostbite, or worse.
I begin to descend, banishing the nightmare for the moment, reversing the tenuous path down the summit cliffs, stopping and rethinking whenever something feels too dangerous, backtracking along the lion’s path atop the bergschrund.
Then comes the second danger: a section of snow-covered scree. I move on all fours, crab-like, as fast as feels safe. It’s getting harder and harder to see, and I worry I won’t make it back to camp before it becomes so dark I can’t navigate. I come to a clear section of snow and glissade, covering a quarter mile in less than a minute, saving precious moments of twilight.
Thirty minutes later, I’m certain I’m close, but now full dark has arrived. Am I lost? I don’t think so. I’ve been lost enough times to usually know when I am. But I’m not really sure until my tent looms out of the blackness, 10 yards ahead of me. All will be well.
Or perhaps not.
Later that evening, sitting around the campfire, tears wander down the arroyos wrinkling my checks. Anger, disgust, sadness, fear, confusion. Feelings swirl inside me, and a torrent of words bursts forth. I rant and curse. I scream. I rage—at the mining company, at opponents and betrayers, at cowards and government bureaucrats, at people carried along by their unquestioned assumptions, what Neil Evernden called “the real authorities in any culture.”
I wail into the night. The wind fans the flames and they flare brightly. The Milky Way wheels overhead, listening patiently, blessing me. Eventually, all the words have come out, and I fall silent.
Despair, that old friend, is with me. But it doesn’t have much of a foothold. My love for this land is simply too strong. Just as I would never turn away from my mother or father or sister in a crisis, I will not turn away from this place, no matter what.
Tonight, I am honoring Thacker Pass, and honoring the emotions I feel defending this place. My grief is a mark of my service. Anyone who cares will feel the same emotions, and this, perhaps, is one reason why so many people choose not to care. It’s been more than a year now of fighting for Thacker Pass, and I’ve experienced a great deal: fines, physical threats, fear, betrayal, exhaustion, incompetence, and the slow grind of a brutal bureaucracy hell-bent on turning a living mountain into dead numbers on a bank ledger.
I have not suffered alone. The struggle and the rewards alike do not belong to me. They are ours, we who stand up for this place and places like it. They are our shared legacy of compassion; the wages of having a heart.
The air is frigid on my back now. Temperatures drop to zero, and as the fire begins to die down, the cold slips under my coat and caresses my spine.
Tonight, put aside the static of a culture that specializes in distractions. Instead, sit in silence. Open your heart and allow the world in. I promise; it will not kill you. Or maybe it will. Maybe it will kill the parts of you that need to die. And if tears come, honor them. Ask them what they are saying. My tears tell stories of betrayal. Of land destroyers, of men and women with machine minds and empty souls. Of lions stalking high cliffs, and lilac mountains, and cold, pristine springs, and the possibility that it all may be lost.
What do your tears say? And, are you listening to them? Are you listening to the land?