(The End is actually the first chapter of Hunga Dunga!)
As we touched down in a spray of fine snow, I saw no one on my left or right. The plane came to a jerky halt. I collected what was left of my brain and nerves and fiddled anxiously with the door handle. I swung my left foot onto the tiny step beneath the door and immediately lost my footing on its ice and tumbled to the ground.
The pilot laughed as he threw down my gear and laughed again when he saw the deformed ice angel I’d made in the snow. He waited impatiently as I snailed my body and belongings out of the way and I caught a blast full of icy crystals that hurt my face as he pushed the throttle forward and took off.
The runway next to the river was as slick as snot, but the single engine Cessna took off with far fewer problems than I had just trying to walk to the edge of the landing strip. Pushing some gear in front of me and dragging a duffel bag behind me, I spent more time sliding in place than I did actually covering any ground. The Cessna circled me once and as it dipped a wing, I could see the pilot crack a smile.
So here I was. Alone. Twenty below with no wind chill. Alone never quite had so much meaning. Alone in Twisp meant Cascade-country post card views and the assurance that your double-barrel wood stove would put out all the heat you’d need to keep you toasty warm forever.
Then there was that kind of sweet alone I used to feel as a kid back in New Jersey, when I’d move the little lever on the thermostat to the right and hide next to the living room heating vent that was between the curved back of the sofa and the wall. A little skinny cave that only I could fit into. The whoosh of the heat going on would immediately make me feel good all over. The forced air blowing out of the vent would muffle even the sound of my father’s voice, most always loud and angry, usually at himself, but always with a threat for me in it.
And everything would be just fine until Dad started screaming in Italian about how damned hot it was and start throwing open all the doors and windows. Mom’s shoes would appear at the opening of my cave so I knew she was lowering the heat. She’d bend down, stick her face in, and give me one of those why-are-you-always-instigating-trouble? looks. Maybe even mouth the word scutch, which in our house, was Sicilian slang for “troublemaker.” So I’d belly-shuffle backwards deeper into the recesses of the cave where I could be even more alone.
Later there would be Hunga Dunga and alone at Hunga Dunga meant sitting in a circle of anywhere between eight and twenty people around a table of straw mats rolled out on the floor, holding hands, emulating Quaker quiet time before the evening meal. Who knows what each of us was thinking to ourselves. “Everything was needless to say.” And to say anything was only an admission of not being in the here and now.
But with our eyes closed, and everyone agreeing to be quiet for at least 30 seconds before diving into the food, this was as alone as you could get and some of us took advantage of it, while others may have been worrying someone knew something they didn’t about the meaning of life.
Nevertheless, here I was now, wondering why no one had come to greet me. I did a slow 360-degree turn. The moon was rising even before the sun had set. And when it did, the blackness arrived quickly. A more brilliant star-filled sky I had never seen. I could just make out the cabins of Alatna across the river. The light coming through their windows looked warm and soothing and the bonfire on the bank of the river so aboriginal.
Allakaket was hidden from view by a bend in the river and a rise in its bank. From behind the rise about a quarter mile away appeared a sight, small as it was, that brought more romance to the already spectacular picture. Crossing the frozen Koyukuk was a sled pulled by a team of dogs. I could make out the silhouette of the driver, his body rocking forwards and backwards, urging them on toward the light of the bonfire on the other side. It was an inviting scene. An understatement considering it was the only picture playing in town.
I left my gear on the bank. I was wearing new grey itchy wool one-piece longjohns, brown wool ski pants, a forest green flannel shirt, a turtleneck sweater, felt lined boots, and white wool gloves inside oversized black leather mittens. Joel’s old air force flight suit was my outermost defense against the cold, along with a scarf to wrap around my face.
I guess you could say it was foolish of me to try to cross the river. Say stupid, perhaps, but don’t be completely unsympathetic. It’s just that, well, this was Alaska! I was standing on the Arctic Circle! Everyone knows the rivers freeze two stories thick! Besides that, a sled with dogs and a man just did it. I’m sure everyone did it.
Suddenly it became exquisitely beautiful, standing there halfway to the other side. So quiet and still. So white and black with accents of blue. Glistening. Every crystal of snow distinct from another as they fall from the pile I pick up in one hand and pour into the other like sand. It’s so very dry, so very cold, the individual flakes remain unique, and the warmth of my hand inside its two gloves can’t begin to reach the flakes to make them want to melt together. So they remain apart and I feel like I’ve never really seen a snowflake before, the details of one so clear and different from the one next to it. I’m seeing them with the microscopic clarity you get sometimes with mescaline and I am amazed.
I look up and the full moon is halfway to the enormous stars above me. The moment she catches my eye I feel the whole earth move toward her with such a force I hear a huge creaking sound. Like some old, big, rusty, many-bearinged motor suddenly set into gear.
I’m looking up, but I’m falling through. Faster and faster. The speed is dizzying and I feel the water rushing past my body. My elbows catch on the edge of the ice. Water is up to my armpits. The rest of me is sucked at an angle not too far from parallel to the ice itself. The current is strong and enraged. For a long time it seems inevitable that I’ll surrender. But I’m not panicking, much to my surprise. I know I should be very concerned. However, my concern seems to be preempted by an overpowering sense of timelessness. Like the extreme slow motion of a car accident.
I look up and see myself looking down at me. “There’s no hurry,” I am saying. “Make no appointments and there’ll be no disappointments.” That’s what Swami Satchitananda always used to say. “No mind, never matter. No matter, never mind.” That’s what Swami Guaribala always used to say.
So I take the time to notice me noticing how the water is starting to fill up my flight suit. How I am getting heavier. I wonder how much a gallon of water weighs. I am impressed by the power of the current. It reminds me of a Chinese finger puzzle, the kind where the more you try to pull your finger out, the tighter a hold it gets on you.
The current is the puzzle. My body is one of the fingers. The other finger must belong to the Goddess. I figure it must be her middle finger because she’s really trying to screw me over. She’s pulling just as hard, twisting, turning, and flinging me from one side of the hole to the other.
The puzzle is the current. I know the secret is to relax. To struggle is hell. To relax is divine. So I relax under the most dazzling sky I’ve ever seen. I am flying toward the moon. I am spinning into the current. I am alone in a sofa cave with no one to hear me or see me.
“It just doesn’t get any better than this!” That’s what I heard Swami JonPon saying as I prepared to go for the long swim.
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