Metal ladder stepping into chill,
mossy wooden ladder into warm,
mist enwreathing treetops on the hill,
valley heat and desert thunderstorm;
crouching poison oak,
avenues of gravelly dirt and brush,
scavenged resined wood that sent up smoke
instead of light,
eye-tiring in the hush;
dripping fog on ancient redwood trees,
pickup trucks and boots and tractor caps;
and half a dozen road and topo maps
together fill a reticule for me
to reference when I weave this memory.
I brought a little camera in my gear,
but fifteen pictures cannot capture all
the colors or the contours that appear
before my waking eyes. For look how small
the window is that’s meant to find a view,
and see how it confines within its frame
a thin selected sliver of the true,
an image barely worthy of the name.
My camera obscura is a tool
that limits and diminishes my sight,
reforms my memory, and shows a fool
who recollects the photo’s captured light
instead of what I saw. My film’s a trace
deceptive. It dissects the desert’s face.
He volunteered five days and then returned
to me, my irritant and nightly bore,
and three more passed before my husband learned
how much the trip fatigued him to the core.
“I’m getting old,” he said. “I didn’t know
a camping trip would be so hard on me.”
The ground for bed, four dozen kids: how slow,
nostalgic or delusional is he?
Of course he was exhausted – anyone
would bend beneath the stress of seventh grade.
The video shows episodes of fun,
but noise and lack of insulation made
his perspiration drain him in the sun,
and shot apart the silence in the shade.
We sliced through icing water on the bay,
and anchored under snowfall as the night
began. The flakes by lantern streamed our way
like orange galaxies at speed of light
until we stopped, and then the snowfall seemed
to freeze and we to rise unpausing high,
explorers on a ship an eagle dreamed,
our gantry mounting mutely to the sky.
It seemed we sailed enchanted then, as if
by special licenses: the harbor seals
admitted us, the sea agreed, the skiff
obeyed. We offered wine and fishing reels –
the ocean took our frets instead – we spent
fatigue, and in the wake our worries went.
We stepped within a labyrinth of grays
beside a granite wall in mosses draped,
except our path was no constructed maze
but rather by the Parks Department shaped.
Instead of winding clues, the challenge put
before us was a steep and weeping wall;
through growing mist we labored foot by foot
to find the birthplace of a waterfall.
It seemed we climbed a passage cut in rock
and paved in cubes of rock, while all around
were domes and caps of granite planet stock
that pushed the sky and echoed water sound.
We walked the labyrinth, and for our prize
we took a trophy from the exercise.
The lacy metal steps are ladder-steep
and chillier with each descending tread
that lowers us to lightless chambers deep
and still – the ice caves laid in lava bed.
A wooden ladder, slick with moss and ribbed
by soft erosion, penetrates a bowl
of grass-surrounded water, shadow-webbed
and warm: the hot spring made a swimming hole.
From fog to valley glare and then to mist,
from icy bannisters to liquid heat,
we went away a week and nature kissed
our eyes, and bit our skin, and chafed our feet,
and showed to us a slice of the sublime:
the shifting sympathy of place and time.
My father carved a walking stick for me.
He chose a sturdy branch and trimmed it free
of shoots, and then he whittled carefully
my name and figures of geometry.
They sat the summer afternoons away,
two fathers tall and old three score of years
ago, but young they seem for me today,
the Pabst Blue Ribbon beers
they drank – their postures sitting, straight and strong,
with patterned walking sticks between their knees –
are pictures no one’s camera took. As long
as life I’ll let them room in memory,
for clearer than the image of their craft,
I recollect how frequently they laughed.