Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Catching a chill is not the same as catching a bullet.

Sam poses in front of a pedestrian turnstile atop the North Hills levee. A part
of the neighborhood park can be seen just below the levee in the background.
(Heavens! Is that cross behind Sam's nose a sign I didn't notice? Sam for president!)

To celebrate MLK's birthday holiday yesterday, Sam and I decided to go for a walk. But first we had to drive to walk.

It was a bright, cloudless day in the upper 50's as we were leaving the house. After Sam got in the car, I became aware of the very steady and strong wind racing at us out of the west. It's coolness gave me second thoughts about wearing only shorts and a tee shirt and, knowing it would be even windier where we were going, I decided to go back in the house for something warmer. But half way there I changed my mind.

"Oh, hell with it," I thought. After all, I love a good breeze. Wearing light clothing in such conditions serves to remind me I'm alive and these days, in this America, a little stinging chill of reality on our psychic numbing* is something to which we've all become accustomed.

The area Sam and I decided to hike is about two and one half miles from the house in a neighborhood called North Hills. It sprung up in the late 80's - early 90's. It succeeded our neighborhood of the 70's as the 'new kid on the block.'

North Hills is a nice suburban area of homes made possible by cheap oil and the two income households requisite to maintain them as one income did in the 1950's.

In the late 90's, a freeway reached out to the new suburb and in turn was embraced by residents seeing it as the culmination of their American Dream: a couple cars in front of a suburban home with easy freeway access for work and other parts of the city until the cheap oil runs out (which may be much sooner than later). It's the kind of neighborhood where they could have filmed "E.T." were it it California.

North Hills is at the base of the Franklin Mountain foothills. It is built up tightly against a flood control levee several miles long and about 25 feet high. The levee is broad enough for a car/truck to drive on but metal turnstiles just wide enough to allow hikers and prevent vehicles are spaced regularly on its top.

As expected, once atop the earthen berm, the chill of the wind was of a persistence sufficient to continuously poke and prod our psychic numbness, yet not enough to inspire our retreat.

Looking in opposite direction from first photo, this shows the levee top winding
from right to left and back again with North Hills' neighborhood resuming where
the park ends below the levee (on the right). To the left is the area designed to hold
water back from the houses should it ever rain again in El Paso.

After walking a mile and a half on top of the wind raked levee, Sam and I discovered a ramp off of it. We decided to return to the car on the desert side of the berm. Back on the ground, the winds were much gentler as we returned to the parking lot, the car, then home.

Later that afternoon, I described to Mrs. Dada the invigorating feeling of the biting winds Sam and I had experienced during our. I had actually enjoyed it!

It was then she reminded me that some of our most pleasant experiences in nature had occurred during some of its most unpleasant conditions, i.e., while leaning into strong frigid winds bracing us up on a narrow trail in the Franklin Mountains above us one autumn day as light snow flurries swirled about us.

Or there was the ascension of the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian rockies where, over-enthused and under dressed, we plunged forward until all signs of humanity had vanished beyond the arc of the glacier's lower horizon . As bitter winds raced down from the blue ice above us caressing our cheeks, hands, our feet, and souls, the glacier pleaded relentlessly for us to continue our defiance of its challenges. Safely back in the confines of our inn's lounge that evening, we recounted with renewed energy our accomplishments of that day.

It was while remembering this I had a sudden flashback to a book by James Hillman, A Terrible of Love of War, in which he explains why soldiers in the fiercest of combat situations often embrace those moments as the highest level of meaning achieved during their lives.

While my intention here is not to minimize the horrors of combat in a comparison of it to a chilling walk with a dog on a windy day, the thought struck me perhaps there is an element therein to explain a certain exhilaration felt as a result.

Granted, catching a chill is not the same as catching a bullet, but as Hillman explains in his book there is a love a soldier feels in combat that surpasses any he could feel for a lover. It's called kameradschadt, a feeling one French soldier described from his experience in the trenches of World War I as "the most tender human experience I have ever enjoyed." It is derived, Hillman explains, "by solidarity with buddies...by the impossible impossibility of dying together." And it probably goes a long way to explaining the guilt felt by wounded hospitalized soldiers for deserting their comrades.

To describe it, J. Glenn Gray calls it communal ecstasy. In some small way, I sincerely think the exhilaration Sam and I felt after our walk yesterday in the strong winds was the result a communal ecstasy with Nature. The significance of the holiday was certainly enhanced by the way we spent a part of it. My only regret is such re-energizations can't be attained in this way rather than the communal ectasy derived through soldiers at death's door in wars with their enemies.

* psychic numbing, Robert J. Lifton's designation for our "paralysis of mind and blunted feelings in everyday life."


enigma4ever said...

so wonderful that you have such a good hiking partner in Sam...he is a handsome devil...in that dashing red collar..and I love your descritpions and story that go with this tale...you are quite a story teller...

D.K. Raed said...

1) Excellent description of those moments when a soldier must feel he has tapped into something divine. I could almost (but not quite) grasp it & feel fortunate I've never been called upon to so test myself, because I'm sure I'd be found wanting.

2) I do know what you mean about those exhilerating winds. We once braved Mt Washington in NH, where the winds were the worst I've ever been exposed to. There is a traveler's lodge at the top, kind a tourist place with restaurant & kitchy consumer items. The winds there were even worse than on the way up, where we'd almost been blown off the winding hwy several times. EK decided to make the trek round the outside of the lodge (which is probably beautiful on a calm day). My last sight of him was his coat blowing open & him stumbling to catch his footing in the snow piling up against the railing. Then he disappered for 15 agonizing minutes. When he came back in, there was frost all over his face, his fingers couldn't even bend, as he loudly announced, "I did it!" ... I reached out to grab his hand & thought I'd reached into a pkg of dry ice. Later we found out at least 6 people have been literally blown to their deaths from the top of Mt Washington!

3) Sam for President! He will kick Huck's ass back to church.

dada said...

enigma: Thanks for the kind words. Indeed, I have far more incentive to get out in Nature and walk with a companion like Sam around. Yesterday we walked to the neighborhood park, but it seemed so tame in comparison to the desert.

d.k., I don't remember what class I had in college where it was I learned second hand what you and e.k. experienced first hand, i.e., the highest wind speed ever recorded on Earth was on Mt. Washington. (231 mhp in 1934 - thankfully, you missed that day!)

But wasn't the day you were there exhilarating (after e.k. returned safely, ending your fears he had blown away.)

Another great wind experience Mrs. Dada and I had was in the park just below the levee in the pictures back in the 90's.

We were flying a couple of kites we had brought back with us from the Oregon coast when we saw a heavy, black storm on the NW horizon bearing down on us very, very rapidly. Fighting to get our kites down before it struck and ended up fried Ben Franklins was exciting as we yelled back and forth at other, laughing as the rains began. Exhilarating!