Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Demons, Part II

[Part I of Our Demons Taunt and Beckon Us is here.]

Krakauer did eventually get to the top of Devil's Thumb. It was a quest he decided would cure his ticked-off, idealistic 23-year-old ire. He literally walked off of his hated day-job in Colorado without advance notice, drove all the way to Alaska non-stop, and set up camp. Alone. Miles from civilization. With no radio. And at least a couple of times, it was only dumb luck that brought him back alive.

He had the rather fixed idea that soloing the unconquered north face of a mountain that had haunted him since youth would magically right all the overturned, broken crockery of his life. Needless to say he was wrong. But it's Krakauer's gift (when he's really on) to drag us, and himself, through each painful step of an inevitable disaster in a way that manages to be highly entertaining, personally enlightening, and frighteningly well-written.

The unspoken sub-text of the essay is, "Things Get Both Better and Worse When the Fragility Youthful Ideals is Revealed." It's a theme that always appeals to me, because I, myself, was an obstinate dreamer as a young man, and usually came to grief because of it. I moved to distant locales with no plans, hiked mountains instead of working, pursued the unattainable dream of being a decently-paid musician, and generally undertook lots of ill-advised hijinx too various to enumerate here. Through it all, I thought that if I could but achieve my current unreachable but painfully tempting goal, every piece of my achingly out-of-place life would simply and gracefully fall into place.

It's always nice to hear exactly how people I admire have failed just as spectacularly as I did at the windmill-tilting business. Also, how they've managed, as I more or less have, to pick up the pieces and surprise themselves by making something else, something pretty good, out of them.

Krakauer's heroic assaults on the north face of the Thumb sputter out in the most unspectacular and feeble ways. He hits bottom emotionally. Just when he's about to get wise and go home, he decides to make a last-ditch attempt at a more well-established route. (The self-endangering obstinacy here is painfully familiar to me.) He comes within a hair's breadth of failing to complete the route, and even dying. But he doesn't; he summits. It's anti-climactic.

Upon return to civilization, instead of being greeted as a hero by the locals for soloing a notoriously hard peak, folks either shrug it off, or just flat-out don't believe he did it.

With the accumulated wisdom of the ensuing years, Krakauer gazes thoughtfully back at this complex episode, and sums it up:
It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough it is your God-given right to have it. Less than a month after sitting on the summit of the Thumb I was back in Boulder, nailing up siding on the Spruce Street Townhouses, the same condos I'd been framing when I left for Alaska. I got a raise, to four dollars an hour, and at the end of the summer moved out of the job-site trailer to a studio apartment on West Pearl, but little else in my life seemed to change. Somehow, it didn't add up to the glorious transformation I'd imagined in April.

Climbing the Devils Thumb, however, had nudged me a little further away from the obdurate innocence of childhood. It taught me something about what mountains can and can't do, about the limits of dreams. I didn't recognize that at the time, of course, but I'm grateful for it now.
These days, I still dream big... but I'm learning, slowly and painfully, to keep the dreams more flexible and in perspective.

No comments: