High Attitude

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The Wallowa Mountains

After working a 15-hour day on Wednesday, I decided to spend Thursday morning taking a gondola to the top of Mt. Howard to get a better look at the Wallowa Mountains.

I usually see the range from my hotel room in Enterprise, and the jagged peaks known as the Oregon Alps always remind me of growing up in the little East-Austrian town of Richenau an der Rax.

Having been raised in an alpine town, I’m always intrigued by them. People living life at unforgiving altitudes yet surrounded by immense beauty that constantly makes you lift your head up to behold.

Yours truly just before my first negative encounters with the non-native wildlife

I’d prefer to hike up into the mountains, as I often did when I was a child. But with limited time and a six-hour drive home that same day, it was more efficient to take the Mt. Howard Tramway to the top of 8,100-foot Mt. Howard.

Just over 2-miles of hiking trails provided a nice workout for the lungs and legs before the long drive home. I didn’t think I would be alone on the mountain, although I would’ve preferred it.

I know Oregon’s beautiful outdoor recreation spaces have been invaded by hordes of people seeking to escape outdoors when so much is still shutdown or limited due to the worldwide corona virus pandemic.

I don’t blame them either, but nothing, and I mean nothing, is worse than a bunch of house-bound and stir-crazy people getting out for the first time in awhile and forgetting some of the most basic aspects of being around other people.

A wind sock provides some guidance for para-glider pilots

I exited the gondola and headed straight for the highest point of Mt. Howard, which is always my inclination whether hiking or riding up a mountain. A short detour later, I was climbing up some stairs and following about 10-feet behind an older couple, when a father, mother and four children ended up right behind me.

As we bunched together at the base of the stairs and slowed to allow the older couple some space, the father nearly ran into me, while the mom and children careened into him like an accordion pressed together.

I heard him huff in frustration, while my inner monologue kicked in, “this isn’t a freaking race, dude!”

A Clark’s nutcracker at rest

We plodded up the stairs slowly, and I could feel the dad’s breath on my neck. My inner monologue finally escaped before I could suppress it. “Come on, man, I’m trying to follow the six-foot rule at least, but I can feel you breathing on me.”

He looked at me like I had kicked him right in the American flag shorts, while his kids immediately shot around me to the false summit to get a better view.

The mom started to open her mouth, but there were a dozen people staring at us now, and they knew they were in the wrong.

He mumbled sorry, and I said it was all right, I just wanted to protect the people around me and myself as much as possible. And it should be possible. We’re 8,100 feet up a mountain in fresh air with lots of space to spread out.

Rocky Mountain Parnassian – high altitude butterfly

As I hiked around and stopped to take pictures of rare butterflies only seen at elevations like this, little kids tromped off of pathways, because coloring in the lines isn’t cool.

One child picked wild flowers from an area with a sign that explicitly said rare vegetation restoration, please stay on the path. His mother finally stopped taking selfies for Instagram and told him that he probably shouldn’t be picking the flowers, to which he shrugged his little shoulders. No lessons learned.

At some point I’m moving around into a big meadow with a narrow pathway and twenty people are coming at me the opposite way. No way to social distance, so I put on my mask and turn to the side so they can pass me.

A Clark’s nutcracker begs a snack

And I hear: “Nice mask, pussy!” “Wow, afraid of the virus up here?” “Nice try, buddy, I don’t feel guilty,” among a bunch of other mumbled taunts or comments.

I shook my head and moved down the pathway to an overlook that included the Wallowa Valley, the lake, the Seven Devils over in Idaho and the Zumwalt Prairie.

And a woman who took a small bag of peanuts from her backpack and who casually started to feed a number of Clark’s nutcrackers, Columbia ground squirrels and golden-mantled ground squirrels, which run through my legs and actually stretch up to my knee looking for handouts from me.

I so badly want to tell her how bad this is for wildlife, but she’s wearing a strap on her ankle with a formidable knife on it and has the look and appearance that can only be described as IDGAF.

Columbia ground squirrel

I’m both elated at the high-altitude views I’m afforded up here and deflated by humanity. I see problems that could be fixed but which won’t be fixed, and that’s worse than knowing something cannot be fixed.

At the top of the Mt. Howard summit, I stopped to take a picture of a gorgeous Rocky Mountain Parnassian butterfly that was ovipositing eggs onto a Sedum plant, when a blustery old man walked up and commented about my camera’s lens.

And it’s a big, unforgiving lens. It’s heavy. It gets in the way of everything. But it lets me see the world up close, and I love it.

“Bet that’s better than my camera lens,” he started off with. I smile and said, “Well, it’s not a terrible way to look at nature.” He doesn’t move, just stands there in the path watching me shoot.

“You know, we once saw two Asian guys hauling around cameras like that in the woods, expect bigger, and they looked so stupid out there with big cameras, and we just laughed and laughed and laughed at them,” he says, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why.

Why would you tell a story like that? What purpose could it possibly serve? Nothing that is happening is remotely related to the fact that he once made fun of some Asian men who were carrying large camera lenses with them.

Male Callippe Frit (Speyeria callippe)

His story echoes a little in the strange silence that followed. I cringed. Some kids just up the hill stopped goofing off. A hipster couple just below me both exhaled loudly, and I shook my head as he studied my reaction.

Most likely satisfied that I’m a sensitive, liberal snowflake afraid of my own shadow, he chuckled at himself and moved on down the hill.

“Asshole,” the hipster hiker behind me said casually as he walked by me.

At this point, I have no idea if he’s referring to me or the old man with the stupid, out-of-place story.

I arrived at the top and closed my eyes and imagined being up there completely alone. Nobody walking up towards me and nobody on the pathway below me.

What could I hear and see without the insulting sounds of humanity pressing in from every direction?

I don’t mean for this to sound achingly depressing, but it was sad. I know how to mind my business and not allow others to bring me down. And for the most part, I did just that.

But there is something about interacting with people right now in an atmosphere where everything is so grossly politically charged that just steps on your heart and grinds it into the dirt like a discarded cigarette butt.

After crossing paths with some of the most ill-behaved, racist, unfriendly, nasty people you could ever want to meet in the woods, I realized that maybe I was just hangry, and a sandwich would make me feel better. It’s said that if you meet one asshole during your day, it’s probably them. If you meet multiple assholes throughout the day, it’s probably you.

I made my way to the little restaurant attached to the gondola station and was seated at a big four-top table in the middle of an open-air dining area. I removed my mask and watched as several families piled in behind me to form a line while waiting for tables in the rapidly filling restaurant.

I felt bad taking up the entire table by myself, but the waitress was not interested in my offer to give up the table for a larger party. And so there were whispers from the door.

“Is he by himself?” one woman wondered casually. “Nice of him to take that big table,” another woman said as her family walks up and is informed it will be a short wait.

I’m often intensely aware of any situation where I might be standing out in a crowd. I don’t like to be perceived to be acting rudely or unaware of the situation or perceptions of others. It’s something I was raised with, and other than not caring, I don’t know how to solve this within myself.

I peer out at the gondolas arriving and going and notice that a small bird keeps flying up to the first tower.

Sneaky little bugger, I exclaim to myself while casually grabbing my camera off the table.

Sure enough, the bird flies off the tower, but this time it swoops around cables and flies directly toward a stand of gnarled-old pines, where it alights atop a branch.

Behind it, the Wallowa Mountains stretch away a blur of granite grays, dirty white snow fields and green, tree-studded flanks.

I grabbed the camera and started shooting from where I was seated at the table. One elbow perched on the black, cast-iron surface. All eyes in the restaurant darted to me and then to the front to see what I was trying to shoot.

A Mountain bluebird perches on a branch just outside a small restaurant at the top of Mt. Howard

Most eyes quickly learned that it was nothing of concern or interest, and they dropped back to their beers and burgers.

The bird stayed on the branch, and I got up and walked up to a support pole to steady my shot and get a little closer to the bird. It held. I shot.

And shot. And shot.

Someone from the table next to me asked what the bird was. I looked over my shoulder to see who had asked me the question. I looked back to the bird. It was gone.

I quickly scanned the skies and nearby trees. No sign of it.

“That was a Mountain bluebird, I said with confidence. Earlier I had told someone a small gray bird was a Canada jay, when in fact it was a Clark’s nutcracker. But being far more familiar with Canada jays, and never having seen a Clark’s nutcracker before, I just blurted it out because hubris.

With the Mountain bluebird, there was no hesitation.

They asked if they could see the shot in the camera’s viewing screen. I quickly found one with nice focus on the feathers and zoomed in so they could see it clearly.

They were shocked. “That’s beautiful!” a woman said as I passed the camera under her nose. Nobody cared that I wore my mask at this moment, they were fixated on the bird.

The two tables behind me, filled with one entire family, asked to see the bird. I passed the camera in front of their eyes and explained that I had never had a chance to photograph a Mountain bluebird before and that I was sorry to have caused so much excitement over a bird that was probably pretty common up here at 8,100-feet up Mt. Howard.

As I prepared to sit down, one teenager asked me if I had an Instagram that I post pictures from that big camera to. I thought for a moment about saying no. But then I said yes.

I told them it was my name and spelled it for them. Someone at the table next to me asked what my Instagram was. I told them too.

Finally I sat down and transferred the bluebird photos to my phone and quickly processed a shot, which I posted on Instagram right then and there. As I set my phone down, it started blowing up with notifications of new followers.

I ate my sandwich while answering questions about my work, the camera I was using and birds, suddenly forgetting my distaste for humans in the limelight.

When we’re out there bumping up against the ugliness of individual humans acting in an individual capacity, it’s tough to have a view past the bad behavior. We feel above it and therefore disdain it.

But we’re looking in a mirror right back at ourselves, which produces feelings of guilt and complicity. This is my species, these are my humans, and we are gross.

Somewhere in a shared moment, I lost those feelings and felt closer to them somehow. In their innocence all unaware of how they are trampling the very things they find beautiful when seen through a viewing screen on the back of a camera.

I made my way to the gondola and decided to use the restroom before the 15-minute ride down.

As I finished and turned to the sink to wash my hands, a man blocks the way and dried his hands and pulled a comb from his pocket, with which he proceeded to comb through his thinning hair in long, practiced pulls.

I feel he was keenly aware that I was standing there, and yet he stood there for a full five minutes combing his hair. Eventually he left without ever acknowledging me, and I stepped up to the sink and washed my hands of the entire morning.

I washed the humanity right out of them, wringing out the behaviors of my species that make me wish I was some other short-lived species experiencing life as the surving-est member of a long line of survivors.

Real life, not life with the possibility of life-saving drugs and hospitals just a few miles away. The kind of life where it’s eat or be eaten. Kill or be killed. That ruthless biology that drives all things on this planet except humans.

Fed up

I rode the gondola down the mountainside looking at the lake carved out by a glacier many thousands of years earlier, a lake filled with motor boats and humans cooling themselves in the shallow waters near shore.

I wondered how we’ll move past this moment in time where we’ve forgotten so much about ourselves that all we can focus on is our differences.

Political. Racial. Economic.

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