It is not common to find a perfectly good set of stairs in the clouds on the side of a mountain. Ready to assist any passersby, they stood steady and firm on the landscape.
It was raining but the day was bright and the air mild. Western Oregon is rarely a dry place. I don’t melt. I hiked into the cool, dripping coastal range, eventually climbing high enough that the trees became more scattered, more wind-beaten. The trail, slick with mud, occasionally crossed rock or split around washouts and pools.
I came upon the stairs not far from the mountain peak. Another half mile up a rock face and through twisted semi-alpine plants was the open summit, a granite bald with tortured metal-pipe railing, fully enveloped in cloud.
But the stairs? They were wooden, two by fours and four by eights. There were two sections with a landing and a turn in the middle. The upper section had a handrail on the downslope side, the lower stairs on both sides. The trail by-passed them completely, as if a displeased giant plucked them up, and set them again six feet out of line, but parallel, with the trail.
For 50 years, I was on a known path. It had mud and rocks and unexpected by-passes and washouts but it was well-worn and followed by many. I took this photo the day after my 50th birthday. Since then, I expect stairs in the clouds because they lead to the most amazing of places.
There were two signs on the front of the building. The more prominent sign did not declare 2 7/8 as the name of the bar, but, rather, said, “ZERO TOLERANCE TO FIGHTING ON 2 7/8 PREMISES.” Welcome to fracking-boomtown North Dakota. I drove by.
That evening a massive thunderstorm piled up along the horizon, clouds towering above open plains, building strength, collecting moisture. Until, in the deepest dark of a moonless night, they had enough and let loose.
The Great Plains create some pretty vivid thunderstorms; this was a beauty. Lightning exploded across town in so many consecutive flashes I could see the length of the main street clearly for several seconds. Not just the blink of an eye that leaves you blinded and wondering if the light had been there at all, these flashes lingered. Clearly jumping from cloud to cloud and ground to cloud, there was constant light. The thunder kept pace, a steady rumble in the background with skull-crushing claps in between.
Then the rain came, pounding on the roof two stories above. The parking lot under my window disappeared behind the downpour, truck tires several inches deep in standing rain, as the drains overloaded.
The storm raged for what seemed hours, eventually tapering off as it moved across the open landscape. I fell back into fitful sleep for too few hours.
Many places become entirely inaccessible after a storm like this. Dirt roads turn to what we called Gumbo in Montana. Red dust, yellow dust, brown dirt, it’s all the same after a night like that, bacon-greased ball bearings. The collective hangover of too much.
Enter, the fracking industry, with its heavily graded and graveled roads that go everywhere, and took me where I needed to go that day. I don’t recall what I was surveying, plants or birds. I remember the landscape, wet and misty from the night’s excess. And, I remember repeatedly scraping mud from the bottom of my boots as I slid through the morning’s work. I took this photo when I realized I was wearing a large chunk of North Dakota. With my newly established fashion sense, I might fit in at the 2 7/8.
This morning I watched a little girl in yellow gum-boots, a pink skirt, and bright green rain jacket joyfully hop into and through every puddle on the road. It rained all night; the puddles are epic. She was gleeful.
Stomp,stomp, stomp. Splash, splash, splash.
Her arms were waving all around and she wore a big smile. The especially perfect puddle, the biggest, splashiest puddle, she doubled back to, running up the road past her mom and several lesser puddles, to jump into it again.
As adults we see puddles as obstacles. One more thing to deal with, to work around, to manage. I resolve to see puddles, real and metaphorical, as things of joy. I still need to get through them but what fun can I have along the way?