It is time that the stone grew accustomed to blooming,
that unrest formed a heart.
— “Corona,” Paul Celan (trans. Jerome Rothenburg)
There is a photo of Corey and me holding hands across the dining table and over the top of a board game. Matt took the photo, and the taking is itself a small wonder. Corey is holding my hand because I’ve been crying, my voice forcing itself out of the gravel in my throat. It is difficult to breathe. Ben is to my left and attentive. Gabe is asleep on the couch behind me. Corey has reached for my hand and holds it. My head is tipped forward, you can’t see my face, and the scene is still. My first thought looking at this photo is that Matt, standing off to my left, had the sense to take it—I wonder at that gesture, that capture.
The Elk River is the combined life of the North Fork Elk River and the Middle Fork Elk River. It is late July, and the water level is low enough for fly fishermen to place themselves, carefully, wherever they wish. The water itself is dark and swift, the banks lined with rubble and scrubby trees. The cabin where we’re staying is on a small rise above. You can hear the river with the windows open but you can’t see it.
It’s our first day here, late in the afternoon, and Ben has lowered his body into the water, up to his neck with his legs stretched out. He’s facing upstream. Just ahead of him, in the middle of the river, is a boulder, reddish brown. It is large relative to the stones nearby, its form turned cursive by the flow of water over centuries’ worth of movement. It holds its own movement. Today it could be clavicle, tomorrow a pelvis.
Over the next few days I’ll come down to the bank to sit with the boulder and its form, and I will transform this scene into a simple metaphor. The rock is me, say; the river something like depression, my sense of self guided by a constant flow of panic and grief. The scale of this process is a just few years compared to the centuries of forming that brought the stone its current state. Also: The river will continue its shaping gesture until the stone is no more.
The first hike is the Mica Basin Trail in Routt National Forest. Ben, Gabe, and I set out mid-morning while Matt and Corey stay at the cabin. It is on this hike that I take in the enormity of the mountain pine beetles’ destruction. Thousands of trees, thousands and thousands of them, Rocky Mountain Douglas-firs, in great swaths throughout the mountain ranges, dead.
The hike to the basin is saturated with high-elevation, cloudless light. It is extremely bright and extremely dry. We start near 9,000 ft. above sea level and we’ll turn around at about 11,000 ft. The landscape is crowded with undergrowth, trees, and boulders. My eyes stay close to the trail, which is studded with rock and root, and I feel quite close to the sequence of my feet finding their steps. When I stop for a drink of water and catch my breath, over my shoulder is a thousand-mile stretch of peaks, meadows, scrubland, and patchwork quilts of Douglas-firs, the living and the dead.
Among the former the bark is calloused and tacky with sap, their form blade-like and bristling but soft around the edges; among the latter the bark is scabbed, almost charred, their form a series of tortured arms curled in on themselves like exterminated insects. It is a gesture of pain multiplied beyond sight.
Alongside the struggle of the Douglas-firs is the ubiquity of American aspens. They grow in such a way that they seem invasive, calmly annexing the mountainside and multiplying in such a way as to crowd out much larger trees. A cluster of them surrounds one side of our cabin, as if in a year or so the small structure will be overtaken completely, choked with silver-gray bark and quaking green.
American aspens are neither invasive nor are they weeds, but they are coordinated things. Each cluster of aspens is a single organism with a single root structure. Each tree in a cluster is an exact clone of every other tree in that group. An aspen’s reach is long. The world’s heaviest living thing is a single aspen in Utah. It’s over 13 million pounds, and it’s at least 80,000 years old. Here, tall, soft grasses and gentler wildflowers fill in the aspen stands. The effect is pastoral and deciduous, soft and tender, and at odds with rock-struck angularity and coniferous stoicism that dominate the landscape.
I bring up the rear on this hike, as I will for almost every other hike. I watch Gabe and Ben move through aspen-lined stretches and it’s as if they’re leaving, or unendingly in a moment of leaving.
American aspens are also known as trembling aspens, or quaking aspens. The tremor is even in the name behind the name. Populus tremuloides. They have circular leaves, and when the wind passes through their branches the leaves shimmer like sequins, light and dark greens in a dizzyingly layered static. Tremble is the wrong word for this gesture. As is quake. Shimmer is close.
That night is the night Matt takes the picture of Corey and me and holding hands as I attempt to explain, or detail at least, how difficult it is navigating grief without death. Grief over relationships I believe are severed and relationships that are actually severed. Grief over what doesn’t happen, what can’t. Depression within root and crown.
How I want to speak to this grief. How the failing is another sapling.
I haven’t cared about my job in years, caught in a cycle of guilt, anger, and shame over how I enter into and exit from the making of money and equate that making with meaning-making. How I struggle to build and to hold onto friendships that are as deep and meaningful as the ones I have with these men, whom I’ve known since childhood. How I’m terrified over losing my relationship to and connection with these men. I am queer, my partner is queer and trans nonbinary, and we often feel alienated and angered by queer cultures and scenes and conversations. Everything is tired.
These systems of friendship, queerness, capital, belonging—they overlap and entrap, splinter and reform. The resulting lonelinesses and imposter syndromes that frame my life leave me doubting my own authenticity, my own angle of entry into the world. That angle is calloused, scabbed, angry and angered. Gathering these complex relationships, formations, and dynamics under the mantle of grief is, perhaps, easier than working through each one in its own time. Grief can cauterize anger, force it away from its natural breaking points, drape the world in a shadow of itself. How relief and grief end the same way.
Our conversation sweeps through pronouns and their humanity, then trauma, then queerness, which brings to my face the originating tremble. Corey notices. He asks if I’m OK—“Are you OK?” — and I start speaking to the anger, which is what draws me into my root system, where depression spreads into every breath and re-angles every part of me. I’m trying to speak to how it feels like I am dying, to the fact that grief underlines everything that matters to me. It’s not coherent. There is no true logic in this structure but it is true and important that I say it to them and to myself.
We’re outside in the chilled night air. I don’t remember getting up from the table and walking outside but I believe we arrived here because Corey asked me what I wanted to do. “What do you want to do?” I wanted to go outside. Matt and Ben and Corey are all standing close to me, hands on my shoulders or around my back and my face is an aquifer of snot and tears, my beard matted flat against my face. It is perfectly dark outside; there is little space between us. I speak to how I often, too often, think about death, and Corey kisses me on the lips. Then Matt. Then Ben. A spontaneous group gesture turning to ritual.
The next hike is on the Gold Creek Lake trail and all five of us go, plus Sadie the dog. This trail is in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, which is within Routt National Forest, and it takes us to Gilpin Lake. Ben and Gabe readily jump into the lake while I slowly inch my way into the freezing water, jealous of their ease, fighting the urge to get the hell out of there, wanting to want the plunge more than I do because the plunge presents itself to me as something masculine and affirming.
Ben and Gabe return to shore, the sky darkens with an incoming storm, and I dive in. It is all shock and breathlessness, confusion.
I’ve been swimming regularly at the YMCA back in Baltimore, a process of fine-tuning a sequence of movement that is as familiar to me as it is foreign. But here, in this mountain water, my muscle memories are absent. I move my arms in feeble half-arcs. Time slows, and thunder carries itself across the bowl of the lake. The muscles in the arches of my feet turn into fists.
I tread water for only a minute or two before Gabe tells me to get out. I feel foolish for even briefly exposing myself to such disaster.
On the way down we pass several firs that have been struck by lightning. Spared the slow cruelty of the beetle death. Young Douglas-firs are particularly vulnerable to fire, and after 40 years or so they develop a particularly thick bark to protect them from surface and ground fires. There is no skin to redirect this type of fire. Shorn of branches, the charred scoring spirals around the trunk, the moment of death still moving between sky and earth.
The last hike is again just Ben, Gabe, and myself, and it is on the Three Island Lake trail. I am sore all over. We set out early in the day and make good time to the lake. Gabe is ready to fly fish—he bought all the necessary gear as well as a vest that he is quite proud of—and when we reach the lake he wades out into the water till he’s up to his waist and I watch him work the forms with the rod.
Corey will later say his form is terrible, but watching him without technical context reveals something tender in the gesture, the wrist, shoulders, and hips in tandem or at odds with each other, the fly caroming across the surface. I don’t read any futility in these sequences, motion flowing into motion between clear sky and its reflection across the water.
Gabe doesn’t catch anything. It doesn’t matter.
We lay on the rocks and eat lunch and talk for awhile before we realize we’ve lingered too long. It is time to head back, and we agree we should make good time because tonight is our last night. I’m in front for the first time all trip, and I’m fighting an anxiety around having left Matt and Corey at the cabin, a fear of my own selfishness for indulging in this hike, and soon I am jogging down the trail, Ben and Gabe close behind. We’re caught up in the childish energy of moving quickly through the wilderness, adrenaline shining its over-excited shine. It’s more than a little dangerous to move like this.
When the trail dips and then rises quickly for just a step or two, like a small ramp, I jump a little, like I’m launching into the air, and I raise my arms above my head to complete the movement. To our left, the wildflowers and ferns signal when the river is close by, water tumbling down alongside us in its unending cursive.
We don’t jog for long. I eventually slow down and bring up the rear again, but we keep the pace steady and make it back to the cabin in good time.
We’re seated outside by the Elk River and Ben is back in the water, floating in the same place as before, looking upstream. I have a pair of binoculars and I am attempting to follow the swallows that dive in and out of view while hunting insects in flight. Their movements are angular and precise in a way I didn’t expect. I only knew them as romanticized agents of migration and murmuration—some of the longest and most complicated sequences in nature.
They take their prey out of the air in exacting, impossible gestures. Small graces—within the blue, then gone.