In Reference

  • November 03, 2016
  • Posted by Conrad Scheid

I stand at the edge of a small fire, off the edge of a small wood cabin in a little meadow, deep among the vast expanse of steep wooded valleys, racing streams and lush alpine meadows known to our maps and politicians as the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. My crew mates have all gone to their beds. The only sounds I hear are the low murmur of my crew leaders in the cabin, the crackle of the fir log at my feet, and after a while, the strange, sad call of a bird or small mammal that I do not recognize, somewhere north off in the darkness across the creek.

The sun set a little while ago, and for the first time in the six nights we’ve camped at Cooper’s Flat, the sky above me is totally clear. The Big Dipper appears, poised to fill itself in the cool, clear waters of the horizon, a ridgeline some few hundred yards distant. The forward side of the ladle traces a line to Polaris. Upon the North Star’s other shoulder sits Casseopeia, whom I boldly and wrongly declared as Ursa Minor only a year ago, until a friend courageously corrected me. Somewhere off behind me, I suspect, Orion and his dogs stand among the trees, waiting in ambush. I imagine my tired arms as his own, straining to keep the bowstring taught as the bull draws near.

A crackle from the fire brings my attention back down to earth. Tired arms and tired feet resting beside this campfire, but not a tired mind. I love this job, for its honesty and simplicity but mostly for the fact that when the day is over my head does not feel overwhelmed with a thousand thoughts that are not really thoughts at all. This is the freedom I have been looking for. Here, I look up, see overwhelming beauty and no God at all. It is a simple thought, and it passes quickly from my mind.

The fire burns lower still, a tiny prick of heat in this cool meadow – I can scarcely feel its warmth beyond my knees. Above, it has grown dark enough for the scattered, dusty light of the Milky Way to appear. The line it traces across the night sky seems to reference the facing of the cabin standing next to me, paralleling the line of the roofed porch which has kept our packs and tools dry for the last five days. I wish that one of my crew had stayed with me beside the fire, but I know that I would have had nothing to say had any of them done so. To me, their presence will always be as much comfort as any words.

I think about Nick, who is always talking and always himself. I have learned from listening to him that I, who change like a chameleon to reflect those around me, will always find it hard to know myself. I am grateful for the lesson, as well as the many lessons all the people sleeping around me in this meadow have taught me. Keelie and Phil have taught me to look in the deep pools of clear water in order to see the huge bodies of decaying salmon working upstream in August. Nate has taught me to recognize my own weariness. Nyssa has taught me the names and shapes of the Thimbleberry, the Bunchberry, the Mock Orange. Together they have taught many lessons, subtle and innumerable. Most of the lessons, I don’t think they’ve realized they were teaching. Most of the lessons, I probably don’t realize that I’ve learned.

I want to go to bed, but I want first to see the ladle begin to fill. It’s been a long while since I’ve had the patience to mark time by the movement of stars more distant than our own. So I will wait for that ancient light to creep a little lower in the sky.

The band of the Milky Way has shifted like a clock-hand. It was never in reference to the cabin, or to anything here. Perhaps, if we are very lucky, we are in reference to it.


hi Conrad you are a good writer. I can almost see what you are looking at. sometimes I miss hiking around the Diamond Lake area when I was younger. have happy new year. love from us Neva

Posted by Neva Smith at December 26 2016

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