Farewell Symphony

In high school I was pretty close to the last desk of the viola section (which takes some doing) of the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra. It was a fine way to keep me out of the pool hall, I suppose, but what’s particularly fun and absurd about it in retrospect is that our conductor was overly ambitious and had us play things we had no business playing. Once we played the Ives Camp Meeting Symphony, which is supposed to go in several directions at once but maybe not as many as we took it in. I think there was a joke we were going to do A Survivor from Warsaw or maybe I’m making that up now. I did a lot of air-bowing because I was afraid I’d manage to play my wrong notes during a rest or something. What actually was rather sweet, though, was that most people would be in the orchestra throughout high school and the last concert of the year would end with the last movement of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. The parts thin out as the movement goes on, and it’s traditional for the musicians to pick up their instruments when their part ends and leave the stage, ideally with a little sadness, until there are two musicians left onstage, and then none. I don’t know, it was poignant in its way.

Walking in the Wallowas, part 2

Trip report day 2: The next morning it was evident that temperatures had gotten down to freezing or a bit below, at least the air right over the lake: the previously unfrozen edge of the lake was covered with a thin layer of new ice, and there was a spot where meltwater feeding the lake had pushed this thin ice layer into concentric rounds of smashed ice ravines, some kind of Arctic tectonics in miniature.

For me, part of the impetus for this trip was to regain a feeling of competence in backpacking. I did a moderate amount of backpacking in my teens and early 20s — I was very much not an expert, but I could generally make things work, knew what to pack and what not to. I quit doing it when I moved to the East Coast, and really didn’t do much hiking at all for 15 years or so. When I moved to California, I bought a pack on clearance, but it still took me a couple of years before I arranged things to get out on the trail. Two years ago I did a three-day solo trip in the Trinity Alps, my first significant backpacking in about 20 years. It was beautiful and bliss-inducing, but I was clearly out of practice on a bunch of the little things. I was also out of shape. And I ended up with blisters due to not taking enough care of my feet.

Last year I got into better walking shape and refined my kit somewhat, and I planned a four-day hike in the High Sierra in mid-September. Unfortunately, my sleeping bag wasn’t warm enough, even with a liner–something I suspected would be true. That plus a bunch of other little mishaps on the first day out led me to turn back early, only spending two days on the trail I’d planned. And I got blisters again, even worse, despite trying to keep my feet happy. I did some other nice hikes that trip, including limping around the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, but it wasn’t the solid block of time in the wilderness that I’d planned.

So this trip, I made sure the route was easy. I had some new equipment, including a new tent and a really warm sleeping quilt. And going with people helped — things were just much more relaxing.

The second day, J and E decided to stick with me and T, because the passes they had wanted to hike over looked completely snowed in and unfun. We hiked down the Lake Basin from lake to lake. The next lake down from Mirror was Mocassin, which was only half frozen:

The crew:

Moi, with Eagle Cap in the background:

Down another few hundred feet to Douglas Lake. Not frozen at all. Then to Lee and Horseshoe Lakes. Total of about five miles for the day, probably. We camped by Lee. E and J fished in Horseshoe for a bit. The mosquitoes came out but were really just moderate.

I had brought along a field guid to trees but at the last minute left it in the car to save weight. Immediately on the trail, everyone started trying to identify trees. They all knew a lot more than I did, and illustrated the differences between a spruce and a fir for me:

But there was a common pine up there that even J couldn’t quite identify, and I wished I had my book:

The scenery was amazing. Here’s Lee Lake with a tumbling waterfall above it:

The lake was cold and clear, with a big drop-off just away from the shore:

Here’s J fly fishing on the far side of Lee. The fish were biting but stayed out of reach of his line:

In the evening, the moon was in the west.

Trip report, day 3: Our last day presented a simple task: get down from the Lake Basin to Wallowa Lake, where we had left a car. This was a hike of about another 8 miles, all downhill. But not before enjoying a beautiful morning on Lee, where the water had grown completely calm.

Here’s Horseshoe:

After Horseshoe, the trail drops a lot, down some switchbacks into the West Fork Wallowa River valley. Here’s a waterfall that didn’t photograph well but sounded great:

When we got to the river itself, after descending almost 1,000 feet, there were no bridges and two separate strands of the stream to ford. The water was quick and felt colder than the lake water had been. We then got to Six Mile Meadow, which wasn’t six miles long but instead was about six miles from Wallowa Lake, our destination.

The rest of the hike followed the river down to Wallowa Lake. No more snow on the trail, and the jumble of new plants and wildflowers felt like summer instead of the winter to early spring of higher elevations.

When we got to the trailhead, I had no blisters! And felt like I could have walked another five miles, although I was just as happy to sit down. After ferrying everyone back to the Two Pan trailhead to pick up the other vehicles, I was even happier to have a couple of beers at Terminal Gravity in Enterprise.

In all, the trip was a total success. The mountains were unrelentingly beautiful and the weather was good. I felt like I made the right equipment choices and had finally regained some outdoor competence. And the company was excellent. I’ll definitely hike the Wallowas again, but next time later in the season and a different part of the range for variety and also for the road less traveled.

Walking in the Wallowas, part 1

Wallowa hike trip report, day 1 (July 7):

I wanted a short, easy, but pretty backpacking trip, and things lined up to spend three days in the Wallowas with friends. Midday on the first day, we drove up the Lostine River to Two Pan trailhead. The plan for the day was to hike about 8 miles up to Mirror Lake, the highest of the lakes in the popular Lakes Basin. We wondered how much snow there would be higher up, but J and E are “environmental scientists” and told us they’d checked some satellite imagery and we should be okay.

The group was me, T, J, and J’s brother E, visiting from the East Coast. J and E intended to hike with us the first day, then go off on their own to climb a peak or two, do some fishing, and spend more time up there than T and I wanted to do. Here are the three others viewing the East Fork of the Lostine River.

The first two miles of the trail had most of the elevation gain for the whole trip, about 1,000 feet, and included amazing views of the river, including this great waterfall.

After the elevation gain, including some moderately taxing switchbacks, we hiked up a glacier-formed valley, which included this peculiar little morain-backed lake/pond thingy.

Eagle Cap, the tallest peak in the Wallowas, watched over us as we made our way up the valley.

The farther along we got, the more we encountered big patches of snow covering stretches of the trail. Some hikers we met coming down told us they had lost the trail before getting to Mirror Lake, our destination. Sure enough, a half mile or so before the lake, the trail rose above the valley floor and was entirely covered in snow. We kept going–we could see the little rise where we thought the trail had to go, and we had a couple of phones with detailed maps and GPS that showed us when we got too far from the trail. The snow was compact and wet but quite deep and also sculpted into little moguls that were exhausting to walk on. We were sort of right about the rise–when we got there we could see where the lake had to be, although it was another bit of walking to get there. Mirror Lake, elevation 7,600 feet, was almost completely frozen over, and the banks were covered with snow.

We found a few bare patches to pitch tents and set up cook stoves. My new tent worked well, although since it’s not freestanding it was a bit tricky figuring out where to sink the stakes in the rocky ground. (Next time I’ll try tying the lines to rocks, etc., something I didn’t think of at the time.) (Also, I figured out the next day I’d staked one wrong place on the tent, which made it look a bit lopsided. My brain must have been adjusting to the altitude.)

The air was pretty warm when the sun was up but cooled off at night, down to about freezing. My toes were not cold when I put on sandals. (This picture reminds me of the best part of the whole trip, which was that my recent switch from hiking boots to lightweight trail runners worked–no blisters!)

The lake was beautiful, and we were the only people up there. It felt more remote than it was, like an expedition to farthest Greenland or something.

I had lugged a can of wine in my pack, and we enjoyed it that evening and also built a little fire for cheer. (Canned wine people: I am available for product endorsements, sponsorships, and spokesmodeling.)

I woke up in the middle of the night needing to step out of my tent for a minute. By then, the moon had set, and the sky was as full of stars as I’ve ever seen it. The starry sky curved above, the vault of heaven, echoed by the ice-covered lake and its basin curving below, catching the starlight.

A funny thing happened at BYU graduation

Let’s take our rays of hope where we can get ’em, people. Today, that means BYU. From this Washington Post article:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints considers same-sex marriage to be a “serious transgression” — and, until this spring, treated Mormons involved in these unions as apostates, subject to church disciplinary hearings that could result in their excommunication.

So a commencement ceremony on Friday at Brigham Young University, the flagship academic institution of the Mormon Church, was an unlikely occasion for this pronouncement: “I stand before my family, friends and graduating class today to say that I am proud to be a gay son of God.”

The affirmation came from Matthew Easton, 24, who was being celebrated as the valedictorian in the political science department — and the graduating senior chosen to deliver remarks at the ceremony for the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences.

Take six minutes to watch young Mr. Easton speak his truth. It will make your day.


It must be sometime in the last year I gave in to facebook’s bid for just an extra little bit of narcissism and started reading the “On This Day” feature, the one that tells you what you thought your friends would find clever on this day stretching back only to that dark era before you were on social media, of course. I’m surprised how often I posted about very similar things a year or two apart. Everyone talks about anniversaries being meaningful in an inescapable and often half-conscious way, and being especially tough when it comes to traumatic events. They’re usually referring to the anniversary of someone’s death. (Yiddish has a word for just that: yahrzeit.)

I’ve noticed in the last year that everyone I know is doing a lot of maintaining. We’re going through our days and doing our jobs and seeing friends, of course, but I would venture to say that for everyone I know, not a day goes by without moments or hours of genuine dread. It’s worse than the W era, though I was also conscious then of the constant reality of living with your fate under the broad control of someone shameful and terrifying. I wasn’t as scared then, though. So for the last week, I dreaded waking up today and compulsively grabbing for the phone and seeing what I posted at 9:31 pm a year ago, though I remembered the sentence anyway. “I have no idea what to do or say.”

This is me, in the quiet space of a largely unused blog, doing what everyone did the year after 9/11/01: putting down where I was. If you still sometimes come here, you can do that, too.

I voted early. I made a confident, joking post that day about well, if she doesn’t win, see you in Mexico. (Tomorrow, I will see the “On This Day” where I spliced together a photo of my great grandfather who came here expecting more and my newly printed passport photo. Jews are never supposed to not have a passport but I’m not a traveler. When I put the two photos together, I had a loud, undignified cry.) Then a few days went by during which I did not seriously consider, beyond the lip service that I superstitiously give to any bad thing happening, that this bad thing would happen.

Dave had a fiddle lesson on election night. I have spent election nights alone and with others, and felt some horror of being alone, just in case. Swells and I exchanged texts during the day but she was naturally going to San Francisco, her Tiffany’s (the place where nothing very bad can ever happen) and it’s not my Tiffany’s, so I hesitated. I watched the very early states come in at a mostly empty gay bar a mile from our house in downtown Oakland. I had a gin and tonic, but not an urgent one. Kentucky always comes in first, and always brings me shame insofar as it’s anything to me. Swells and I finally made a plan. I took BART to the Mission, where she picked me up and took me to…actually I don’t know the name of the neighborhood.

We spent what seemed like an hour in a grocery store trying to find a bottle of wine whose name and label art suggested victory and femininity but not enough overconfidence to warrant jinxfear. And then we spent the next few hours at the home of her old friends, among kind people. It was temporarily fine to swear in front of children, I found, and call a motherfucker a motherfucker, as long as you were laughing. And then one person looked worried, and then several people. I saw Swells weeping before I had fully taken in what had happened.

I called a car. Dave was at home, alone, which was a horrible thought. BART was deadly quiet. I remembered 2008 when I had come out of the New York subway after riotous celebration in Midtown Manhattan and a stranger and I had looked at each other in the doorway to the 190th Street station and simultaneously, quietly said “yay!” I wondered if there would be consolation or reassurance among strangers.

Sometimes you have a strange and inappropriate thought and are unable not to act on it, so I stopped at Whole Foods and bought maraschino cherries, but the good kind–not the bright red kind, because I thought: the drinking we are about to do is drinking we will remember for a long while.

I walked up the stairs and Dave and I cried on each other’s shoulders. I was still figuring out how scared to be. I think I texted Swells “I’m not sure if this is 2000 bad or 1933 bad.” Dave had put on Bach as a reminder that some good things will be here forever, and we had Manhattans because small comforts and anaesthetics are important to remember when it looks like you may be well and truly fucked. At some point we went to bed and slept uneasily.

I am rawer insider, having written this, but I wanted to write it. It’s hard to find the right tone that acknowledges the genuine distress I’ve felt in the year since without feeling like a giant drama queen. There have been much harder times than this, but I nonetheless have often thought of Akhmatova, who in 1961, with some distance on things, wrote, in the prelude to her crushing “Requiem”:

Я была тогда с моим народом,
Там, где мой народ, к несчастью, был.

I was with my people then,
Where we, to our misfortune, were.