Without a Guide

Section One of Traveling Light begins with the best of Wagoner’s nature poems written between 1956 and 1976. Since his nature poems are my personal favorite, I found it difficult to choose a single representative poem from this section. In his nature poems Wagoner usually discovers some truth about his own nature, this poems is no exception:

Do Not Proceed Beyond This Point without a Guide

The official warning, nailed to a hemlock,
Doesn’t say why. I stand with my back to it,
Afraid I’ve come as far as I can
By being stubborn, and look
Downward for miles at the hazy crags and spurs.

A rubble-covered ridge like a bombed stairway
Leads up beyond the sign. It doesn’t
Seem any worse than what I’ve climbed already.
Why should I have to take a guide along
To watch me scaring myself to death?

What was it I wanted? A chance to look around
On a high rock already named and numbered
By somebody else? A chance to shout
Over the heads of people who quit sooner?
Shout what? I can’t go tell it on the mountain.

I sit for a while, raking the dead leaves
Out of my lungs and traveling lightheaded
Downward again in my mind’s eye, till there’s nothing
Left of my feet but rags and bones
And nothing to look down on but my shoes.

The closer I come to it, the harder it is to doubt
How well this mountain can take me or leave me.
The hemlock had more sense. It stayed where it was,
Grew up and down at the same time, branch and root,
Being a guide instead of needing one.

Perhaps I like this poem because it reminds me of my nearly annual trek up Ruckle Ridge in the Columbia Gorge, a trail long ago officially abandoned by the Forest Service. Every year we take the hike we discover a new slide or another part of the trail that has eroded. As I look down the steep cliffs, I often think I’m crazy to be there. At times I also feel like I’ve gone “as far as I can by being stubborn,” though we always manage to go just a little further, usually because there’s no way back down those cliffs.

Of course, I would never be there without my hiking partner, but I’m sometimes sure that he’s only there “to watch me scaring myself to death.” This is “his” hike and I’m here only because he’s had to endure “my” hikes. Wagoner even knows we’re there so that we can look at rocks few have seen, though they’ve obviously been named by earlier pioneers. Of course, it never hurts to “shout over the heads of people who quit sooner,” though there’s little joy in shouting to someone who’s not there.

When you get to the top, your lungs are always exhausted and you’re light headed, gasping for air. And amazingly enough, going up is always the easy part. It’s coming off the mountain that eats up your feet and ankles.

While you’re there on the mountain, though, it all seems worth it. You never want to come down, wishing that you could stay there “forever,” envying the trees’ magnificent views. Year after year the mountain remains the same while it gets harder and harder to reach the top. The mountain, like nature, is forever; my stay here is at best temporary. Perhaps that’s the price we must pay for failing to put down roots in nature.