Weathering the World
By Matt Lloyd
Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2002, Vol. 17, No. 2
It's early Tuesday morning on my NOLS Instructor Course. Clear. Stars out. Three o'clock and I cannot sleep. I decide to sit up, switch on my headlamp and write.
So, here I am. Middle of the night. September eleventh, two thousand and one. Somewhere in the mountains of Wyoming. I will never forget this experience. Warm and safe in bed-sleeping bag on a cold ground. A warm mug of hot cocoa in my belly. Sore muscles. An unshaven face. Chapped lips and nose. Dirty clothes. Dirty fingernails. Dirty everything. Stars above me. Shadows of peaks in the light of the moon. This is what it is all about. How can I ever forget this? Don't ever forget this.
I am happy. I am happy for all the opportunities I have. I am happy for the fortunate skills I possess-skills needed to move me toward my goals-to be a leader in this world. Goodnight.
Late Tuesday afternoon. Another beautiful day. Another beautiful sunset. Dumped water from the stream on my head. Cold. Refreshing. Cleaner. Not clean. My tent group set up home on a grassy knoll that overlooks Wyoming's westernmost valley. Flat and barren out there, I can see to Idaho and Utah. Down there is Three Peaks Ranch, the NOLS horse ranch where our rations await. The view from up here is awe-inspiring.
"No contrails in the sky."
"Huh." I paused for a moment to shift the weight of my pack.
"Let me explain," said Sam, one of my instructors, inventing a thick English accent. "Meteorological forecasting is the gathering and interpretation of pertinent atmospheric data. I ascertain from the absence of those long wispy clouds, created by the turbines of passenger airplanes, that there is a high pressure system aloft."
"We are in for a clear evening-but who knows what tomorrow will bring."
Red sky tonight. And I am delighted. Red sky tomorrow morning? I'll take warning.
Climbing gets underway tomorrow. I look forward to the challenge. I want to use my muscles. Want to lead something on this towering granite slab.
Goodnight to another day. Day six. I'll make it, I think, if they all progress like today. And the weather.
Cloudy. I won't forget.
I was helping with the meal-a multi-colored bow tie pasta with a fancy white cheese sauce. The agenda included a dinner party. Costumes required. So, my fellow group members and I gathered in the meadow for a post climbing meal and celebration. The instructors were late. The course members, including myself, were clueless, enjoying the final rays of the set sun.
At that same moment, Glenn, the ranch cowboy from Three Peaks, rode into the instructors' camp with the news. Our instructors decided we needed to know now-costumes or no costumes. So, they climbed the meadow and joined us. I noticed their serious and somber faces. They sat, barely smiled, and looked to the ground. Darran wore his sunglasses. The sun had set.
What's wrong? What did we do? Sam spoke first. I didn't understand. This must be a joke. "This is not a joke."
Disbelief. Not knowing what is going on. We all looked into the sky. No airplanes. No contrails. But clouds. Increasing clouds. Darkening.
Four passenger planes. Collisions. World Trade Center. Panic. Buildings collapsing. Pentagon on fire. Plane down in rural Pennsylvania. My family? Black.
"If one person needs to go, we all go," said Jeffrey. I watched one of my course mates, Britton, walk to the edge of the meadow-his back to us-staring off into the plains.
"What is the point of not continuing?" I spoke up. "The ones we love know we are safe. And if they need us, they'll find us."
I felt my leadership skills intensify. I forgot the scenarios. Just did it. Stepped up when it was needed. "What good are we doing by going home?" I asked. We decided to continue, unless we heard news. And so we did.
I walked over to Britton and hugged him.
"Thanks, Matt," Britton said.
That's all I needed.
Helped load gear for a bumpy trip into the unknown.
I looked at the view from our grassy knoll this evening. Thought about how I may never see this view again.
Clearing. Day eight. Day eight out of thirty-two.
I thought it was going to storm tonight. But the stars are out. I can see the Milky Way stretching across the terrestrial dome overhead. The dark still scares me. Being out here still scares me. But it is comforting being here in this six-by-six Kiva with three others.
I try to imagine airplanes crashing into the sides of buildings. This scares me, too. My imagination distorts the images of events I do not see without a television. I wonder if I'll have nightmares. I wonder.
Soon enough, morning will rise. The sun will shine.
A helicopter swooped down from the skies today. Came right down on the other side of Island Lake, where we were practicing river crossings. I was nervous. The thing was landing for one of two reasons-either someone nearby is in pain, or one of the fifteen of us will be in pain very soon. Bad news? My family? Someone else's family? You?
I could tell my course mates were worried. But the chopper rose into the sky, about fifteen minutes later, and we resumed our outdoor lifestyle the best we knew how. I turned back to Darran's river crossing class relieved but with the heartache of still not knowing.
Not knowing. I wonder where you are right now. I'm not sure. I wonder how you are doing. I am so far away. I think about my family. I wonder about the state of the world. Are we at war? Are we under attack? I feel safe. Out here. But there is a lot I do not know.
And this place. These mountains. This place consumes much of my mind, too. I like to think that there is room for both-skyscrapers and mountains, togetherness and loneliness. Good night. Good night wherever you are.
The sun is slowly making its way toward the Wyoming Range-across the plains. Just think, three and a half weeks ago I sat in a meadow with a similar view. Thinking similar thoughts. Let us travel away and come back towards. One more day. I will remember.
I realize I packed too much for this course. The sun shines for thirty out of thirty-three days. But I am still glad to have my rain jacket stuffed in the bottom of my pack.
I realize weather is fickle. And NOLS teaches me to prepare. Airplane contrails appear in the sky; clouds form; the world darkens. There are storms to weather. I have my rain gear. I am ready. Bring it on.
I'm at the road head for the last day of my course. Sun is rising. Clear.
We hike the final four miles out in silence. No headlamp. Alone.
I listen for the step-step-crunch-crunch of others coming in from behind. This is it. I see distant lights. The headlights from a car. More darkness.
The coyotes wake me again this morning. A moose grazes by our camp. The stars shine as bright as ever. A faint breeze through the pine. The world sways.
Matt Lloyd first came to Lander, Wyoming for a NOLS internship after graduating from the University of Vermont in 2000. He took his NOLS instructor course in September, 2001.