The Mountains Are Always Walking

Two weeks ago, I went up into the mountains with a telemetry receiver to see if I could find F3 and M57. The trip was, in the tradition of mountain travels the world over, a pilgrimage, a small, quiet return to a source. So far 2012 has been a rough year, and also a wonderful one, and the disruptions have meant that my interactions with the wolverines who inspired this blog have been minimal. I visited F3’s den site last September, and skied into her territory in March, but between September of 2011 and April of 2012, I was only intermittently in the GYE. I had made a purportedly sensible decision to try to secure a better (read: more conventional) future for myself, despite the fact that heart, gut, and intellect warned  against the decision. Events proved instinct correct, and I had to extricate myself from a situation – in a flat, uninspiring landscape to boot – that I should have known better than to get into in the first place. At the same time, I’d put together two long-shot grant applications for dream expeditions, the kind of Indiana-Jones-inspired epic adventures that I thought only happen in movies or novels. One involved walking across the Khangai Mountains this summer. The other, in affiliation with the organization Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, proposed a 200-mile ski trip through the Sayan Range in spring of 2013.The latter was the idea of fellow wolverine-enthusiast and professional adventurer Forrest McCarthy, who called me one dark day in January and shook me out of torpor and semi-depression with his enthusiasm for the idea of a ski expedition across Mongolia in search of tracks and hair samples. I would barely have dreamed of doing something like this on my own, but with Forrest and ASC director Gregg Treinish on board, and with NRCC’s Jason Wilmot as the third partner, it suddenly seemed feasible – although still, secretly, I thought funding it seemed as impossible as funding my walk across the Khangai.

In early April, I left the relative security (and undeniable frustration) of the flat occupation in the flat place, and plunged off the edge of a cliff into a salary-less, health-insurance-less, uncertain future. In May, like a giant net thrown out by the universe, the freefall was broken by word that both of these expeditions had been funded, one by the American Alpine Club and the other by National Geographic. For several weeks, I was so giddy with excitement and disbelief that I felt like I was floating around Bozeman with my hair standing on end. I come from a New England Puritan background, long secularized but still deeply self-effacing; we are all raised to expect perfection of ourselves, without any hope of ever achieving our goals because we are, ultimately, undeserving. I had no idea what I’d done right but it seemed as if dreams I’d cherished since I was a child were being handed to me. Suddenly I was extremely busy with discussions about equipment, how many reindeer it might take to resupply a ski expedition in northern Mongolia, and whether or not we could find any Mongolians, short of the Olympic ski team, who might be able to join us. If I’d felt unmoored by my misadventures in flatland, I was unmoored in a different way by this enticing new image of myself as adventurer extraordinaire.

After a few weeks of this, however, reality reasserted itself. I am athletic by genetic default, but I am not really that badass. I do extreme things only by accident, in pursuit of wildlife. Wolverines are the point. Mountains are the point.

So I gathered a receiver and an antenna, packed minimal supplies, and set off towards one of F3’s haunts. In my quick trips to the GYE over the winter and spring, I’d heard rumors: that she might have been pregnant again this year; that she had been wearing a collar that she’d subsequently dropped; that she hadn’t in fact dropped the collar; that M57, her purported mate, had gone missing; that she might have been carrying on an affair with an interloping male. Things I’d taken for granted about F3’s life suddenly seemed as obscure and sketchy as things I’d taken for granted about my own. I wanted to find her, I wanted to find M57, and I wanted to recenter myself.

Going into the mountains is always as much a mental adventure as a physical one, a constant adjustment of one’s relationship with time and motion. First there is the speed of the highway, and then the slower speed of a winding dirt road, and then the stop and the sudden stillness at the trailhead, the bustle of securing gear, the shrug of shoulders and the motion of the pack settling across the back. And then there is the walking, seemingly so slow at first because the mind is still going so fast, and then just right, and then completely unconscious as one’s own mind seeps into the environment and dissolves.

On this particular day, my objective was thwarted by a still-raging creek, not yet spent from the first of the great summer snowmelt up high. I contemplated for a few moments, and then followed a path that led further to the east, but still in the same general direction, which was up. As far as I knew, matters stood like this: F3 was still wearing her most recent collar. Her reproductive status this year remained unknown, as did the fate of any of the kits she might have had last year. M57 hadn’t been heard from on the last flight. The genetic results of samples taken at F3’s den site last year were floating in the intellectual ether, as-yet unexamined. The likelihood of finding any of the wolverines, even via telemetry, was razor thin. The country is rough, all crags and cliffs and soaring glacial bowls that block radio signals, sometimes even from a plane, let alone on foot. To hear a wolverine, the animal has to be in the drainage with you, or else you have to be high enough that the signals aren’t suppressed by an intervening ridge or peak.

At about 8000 feet, I ran into snow deep enough to ensure an inhospitable campsite if I went any higher, so I stopped short of another goal, frustrated. I was in a narrow valley, surrounded on all sides by massive cirques, still snow-laden, brilliant in the early evening sun, and incontrovertibly solid barriers to any radio signal. I set up camp near a small lake and glassed the cirques; far up among the crags on the face opposite, a set of tracks, too far away to identify, led across a snow field and then upwards in a way that made my breath catch. I told myself not to be ridiculous, that I was seeing what I wanted to see. One does go out into the mountains looking for wolverines and then stumble across fresh tracks in a potentially 500 square mile territory.

To prove myself wrong, I pulled out the telemetry equipment and tuned it to F3’s frequency. The buzz of blank static hummed across the gathering evening. A bald eagle dove for a fish in the lake as I switched to M57’s frequency. The eagle struck water and veered upward, and as it rose, the ticking of a radio signal boomed over the receiver, so loud, so clear, that M57 had to be in the drainage with me. No signal so definite could make it through the rock walls around me.

Early the next morning, I bushwhacked up the only snow-free ridge in sight, a thousand feet in less than a mile, an ongoing struggle between the weight of my pack and the will of my legs. At the top of the ridge, perched on a narrow band of rock between two snowbound amphitheaters, I listened again. This time I heard F3 as well; both the signals were more distant, and they were coming from the same direction. The tracks that I’d seen last night looked, from this closer vantage, like a set of two-bys.

The mountains are addictive, and last Friday I went back, aiming for higher country now that a spell of hot weather had melted some of the snow. I was leaving for Mongolia in four days. I wanted one last trip into F3 and M57’s country before I left. I wanted, too, that dissolution of mind that comes in the high country.

In Mongolia a decade ago, a friend of mine had a book about Buddhist environmental ethics, and I picked it up once and flipped it open to a page where a single phrase caught my eye: “The mountains are always walking.” The sentence was some kind of Zen koan and although I usually seek out analysis and intellectual elaboration in my studies of Buddhism, I didn’t want to know anything else about this particular sentence. It was too intriguing and perfect. I closed the book and gave it back to my friend. I thought about that sentence a lot over the years, turning it over, toying with it, letting my feet guide my thoughts about it as I rambled, hiked, skied. On Friday, I let the phrase set the rhythm as I climbed up a much steeper course than I had traveled two weeks ago, through a burn and then mature forest and then out into another, much higher bowl, this one so vividly green that I felt the color on my skin. The cliffs still wore capes of snow and I skittered across these fields, occasionally in the fresh tracks of a black bear that had recently gone in the opposite direction. Fat golden marmots squealed from their burrows. Streams trickled from the snowfields and gathered force as they met, until they formed cascades down the rock faces, and then a roaring stream through the green meadow. Across the bowl, three elk lay in the summer sun, red-gold against the green, sparing an occasional glance in my direction as I made my way up towards the pass. I heard nothing from either wolverine that night, but the next morning, up above 10,000 feet, the two of them were audible again, very faint, pulsing across the landscape from miles away.

I had a series of conversations a few weeks ago about the nature of this wolverine work: whether it was a legitimate occupation, whether I would ever be able to make a living at it, or whether the quest for wolverines was a mere idea, an attempt to impose meaning on the blank space of chaos that we all sense lurking underneath our lives, the ultimate impersonal pitilessness of nature. In the Buddhist mode, it is perhaps better not to be too attached to anything, let alone a single species, the argument went. And yet there is such a tiny margin between detachment and nihilism. A long time ago now, I worked with torture victims and refugees in several post-genocide countries, very shortly after the wars had ended. I was young, naive, and unprepared. Detached compassion unraveled into a fierce encounter with meaninglessness, because meaninglessness, the absolute unpicking of all presuppositions and assumptions about the purpose and workings of the world, was the only thing that prevailed over and erased the force of having witnessed the depths of human depravity. Perhaps there is such a thing as being too attached to a quest for a species, and perhaps that quest is indeed a simple mental construction. But then again, everything we seek is a mental construction: wealth, renown, relationships, successful children – all of these, as measures of our worth in the world, are predicated on cultural constructions as finally flimsy as the worth we ascribe to getting to the top of a mountain or finding an elusive animal. I would rather have something bounded, something to which I can be attached in an impersonal and unimposing way, than fall down that black hole again. Attachment might make me a failure as a Buddhist, but it makes me a little more successful as a human being.

A decade ago, walking in the mountains restored a tenuous sense of self after the worst of that face-to-face encounter with the terrible things that people do to each other, but a few weeks ago I discovered that I still can’t discuss any of it without choking up, even though I thought that I had put these things to rest a long time ago. So I keep walking in the mountains. The mountains and the things that they contain walk too. We are in this together. And once in a while, knowing for sure that a wolverine is out there, somewhere, is enough to bring you back to yourself.

When I got back from the hike on Saturday, I looked up the phrase “the mountains are always walking.” It is from a text, the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, by the Japanese Zen poet Dogen.

It’s now 6:30 a.m. and I am in the airport, ready to leave Bozeman for Ulaanbaatar, for a much longer walk with the mountains.


5 thoughts on “The Mountains Are Always Walking

  1. Such a beautiful piece! Thank you for “the mountain are always walking,” and also your own “that dissolution of mind that comes in the high country.” Inspired by your example and eager to hear how your bold adventures go. Congratulations!

  2. Rebecca, this piece of writing was incredible. The struggle of trying to scrape a modern living together while doing conservation work, versus taking up a more routine career that doesn’t come close to satisfying that true calling we have within us, seems to haunt most people who align themselves in this field. I can certainly relate, and ultimately took the less satisfying route, with hopes that one day I can at least volunteer my efforts on a regular basis. That being said, I’m constantly struggling with my conviction that life is infinitely more fulfilling when it’s spent pursuing what really matters to the individual. I admire your courage and devotion to making wolverine conservation your defining career instead of only limiting it to an interest or hobby.

    Above all, congratulations on receiving funding for both projects. There’s something truly enlightening about being in the heart of mountains, and the presence of its wildlife. You’ve obviously captured that enlightenment in words, and from someone who’s at least temporarily stuck in North Dakota for another year, it’s refreshing to read and relive memories that span from the drive up to a trailhead, to slipping into the mountains’ tranquility and becoming just another organism on a mountainside. Enjoy your four months in Mongolia, with just the Khangai Mountains, wolverines, and perhaps some Budhhist culture to absorb!

  3. “The Blackfoot have also a strong sense of an intimate and peculiar relation obtaining between the suppliant and the animal or thing that has blest him in this fast [vision quest]… in the overwhelming majority of the experiences both in the myths and in the shamanistic biographies they conceive a man’s guardian spirit to be some animal or bird or thing seen by him in some everyday connection that for some reason stands out in consciousness Their vision-stories, therefore, describe actual and rather minor occurences without any particular formula. Medicine comes from the skunk who follows and is fed; from the eagle when one has unwittingly made camp at the foot of a particularly tall tree holding a particularly large eagle’s nest; from the swollen white wood-worm which crawls out of the decaying log as it begins to burn on the hearth.”
    Ruth Benedict, The Vision Quest in Plains Culture, American Anthropologist, 1922.

    I think relationships have a lot to do with squaring detatchment and meaninglessness…

  4. Hi Rebecca, remember me? The writer who wanted to talk to you about what you’re up to? After reading this post, I really, really want to talk to you about what you’re up to–particularly that spring 2013 ski trip. When you get back, can you please get in touch? jeffhull {at} Please? Thank you.
    -Jeff Hull

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