Tuned In to the Mountains
ONE morning in summer I woke up hungry for change. It was one of those queer summons that comes to you in youth when you haven't much to do but "work on yourself." A little persuasive voice, slightly disgruntled with all the goodness about you, tells you to experiment or you're going to end up normal. I was working high in the mountains with only a radio to keep me company, so I decided to change myself into the most admirable person I knew at the time: my radio. I decided to change myself into a radio a ntenna.
I decided I could be "bigger" learning the unheard secrets of the river-filled static of the mountains. I figured I had the chance to become more receptive to "one impulse from a vernal wood" through erect posture, sensitivity to all around me, hard work, pure thinking, and my darling metaphor of being a radio aerial.
I was renovating the inside walls of a hut several miles above the main tourist lodge where I worked. In winter, the hut was used as a stop for guests on dog sleds, but now it stood in disuse among the wild flowers. I listened to my radio with its fine 4-ft. aerial. It brilliantly overcame the static of the magnetic fields of the copper and silver disruptive peaks.
It was the static that brought to mind my first love in radio. When I was a boy, I built my first crystal set and listened to it under the covers with a single earphone. Even a prime minister's speech, boring to me, arrived through the static. My homemade antenna above the hedge pulled his voice out of the stars and seemed to me the noblest thing on earth. It was communication with others through a storm.
The loud static of the furious creek running by the hut and the silence of a "voice" in the mountains provoked my idea that there was something to be heard besides the sound of my hammer - or the latest song bouncing in from Chicago on a magnetic fluke. Sometimes with super effort and good conditions, I'd pick up KSNO-Aspen, 11 miles away. But I wanted to hear more.
My first move to strip down for "reception" was to make myself shimmering and straight and pure as the aerial on my Magnavox; this was so I could be available to the "voice" of the mountains. I made a loincloth like the Indians of the territory. I'd let the sun and rain and breeze "transmit" to me the random signals I hungered after. I'd feel the story of the firelight on me in the dark; I'd listen, like a cat for a mouse, for the history of a log I was burning. I'd allow the tree outside with long pine- needle "antennas" to speak to me about day and night and its generations of pine cones. I'd turn on my radio only late at night for a human interpretation of things; it was a voice to keep me in touch with my people, the nobility of "communication through a storm."
Strange things began to happen. I began seeing animals who were shy of shadows or stars: mice lingering in holes, trout near the surface in a deep pool, low swooping big birds. I was "directed" to a hillside of rare lady-slipper orchids. A camp robber followed me from tree to tree, wherever I went. Although no food was outside, he seemed assigned to keep track of me. Nature was coming in to take a look at me.
When people came up to visit, like my employer with new boards or employees from the lower lodge for a picnic, I slipped into shorts and shirt, but continued my "shortwave" reception. I listened for the tone of their words, to see if I could see what they were saying. To be more receptive I concentrated on the spelling of words as they said them: Somehow the emotion got by my preconceived ideas. They would put down their work or a picnic basket. Some told me deeply satisfying long stories. I liked having
people talk to me.
As I opened up my "frequencies," I feared only one disturbance. Static and preconceived ideas were one thing. But the great electrical storms of summer bursting from my altitude were freaky. The lightning balled up up there in catastrophic booms. In the middle of any experiment, there were lurking dangers....
In the lingering ringing of my ears, after these high tension booms and the sky healed back, I would hear a voice singing "...and the sky looks like a pearl after the rain...." It was from a song by the boy-singer of the Rockies. It was known he lived across the immense valley below me. I often wondered whether those words, perfect for the clearing sky, were a repeated "epiphany" in the racing cloud and blue; whether he had heard the "voice" of the mountains; or whether he had made those words up. Were w ords just in the air, as the Psalmist says, "Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world?" Was a song just in the sky for picking up?
Did it take the colossal electrical explosions of the sky to make me hear it?
I had another hunger, far more down to earth. On Wednesdays I walked down the mountain for food. There was a fish fry for employees at the lodge. Tourists drove up from the resorts. We all helped. Rainbow trout were flown in from Montrose and, ironically, the large farm-fed fish were grilled by the brook-trout stream across the dirt road from the lodge. I never missed a fish fry in the meadow.
I forgot about my monk-of-nature discipline for becoming a living "antenna." I hurried down to look at the pretty girls and children. My employer took on heroic features, long fork in hand, telling stories about the old mining days of the area; it was a moment to socialize under the light falling between random clouds.
After the discipline of hammering all week and walking around as an "aerial," being sensitive of tiny details like the trembling antennae of a moth, I was discovering, at these fish fries, that life was pretty big. The outdoor light in evening glory, the last sun on your cheeks, the happy voices muffled in the river "static," boys and girls playing, the men and women waiting in a meadow, took on the mythological appearance of a Picasso, the ancient delicious ritual of fish smoke and charcoal going up in the middle of strangers made suddenly friends. It was macho. It was larger-than-life.
One evening I came hungry for the circle of fish-in-the-meadow. I needed praise from my employer and the welcome of faces. I noticed a short solid guy standing by the fire. I wouldn't have looked twice; he wasn't dressed too differently from anyone else. He kept rocking on his boots, with a huge smile, saying: "This is incredible. Far out. Amazing." For me it was just the normal fish fry. I felt my in-training antenna suddenly rise: "And the sky looks like a pearl after the rain...." It was the boy-singe r. He stepped forward, greeted me. I had never seen him before. "You look hungry," he said, "The best way to be."
When the Picasso-size trout were served, first plates were given to him and his wife. He brought his to me. "That's a long walk down. Here. We just drove up." Then he came and sat down by me. "Your name's.... I wish I could do what you're doing all summer. Lawyers. Label contracts - maybe I'll get a chance to come up and visit you. Far out."
It grew dark. We sat around the fire. No one asked the boy-singer to play, out of courtesy for a celebrity trying to have a time with his family. My employer, who ran dog-sleds in winter recited, his favorite poem, "Strange things are done in the midnight sun...."
A girl employee at the lodge who usually gave us guitar music was finally persuaded to carry on. It was a religious song she had written based on a favorite psalm. The boy-singer praised her heartily for it. As the evening tired and voices grew content and quiet, the boy-singer throwing twigs in the fire, someone finally burst out of "casual defense on the part of celebrities with family" and asked, "How did you get started, John?"
"Oh, I don't know. I just remember sitting on a dock with my first guitar aching for someone to sing to. I hungered after it."
"Would you play for us tonight?"
"Of course I will."
Then the true antenna of the Rockies, a man with a boy's voice still under grace, enchanted us with the small details of his life, strung together in storytelling and praise, in a driving rhythm, creating one silver "epiphany" after another.
"I'll see you," he said, as I prepared to walk up to the hut in the dark. "I promise," he said.
He hadn't come. My work was done. I was preparing to walk down for good. My faithful 4-ft. aerial was searching laden skies for weather. The thunder burst, now later in the season, with hail and snow. I stood on the hut porch, as weather cleared, fresh white linen on the ground. Voltage was still hanging in the sky, like grey and golden doves. I waited to hear, one last time, "... and the sky looks like a pearl after the rain" from the guy who had shaken my hand as if I'd always been his friend. He was t he big radio; I was the little in-training receiver. The true antenna of the Rockies.
Then the promise came. I heard bits and pieces of a new song - my experiment had worked! I heard a song, new, all by myself! My "antenna," trained all summer, was picking up an unheard song in the Rockies, after an electrical storm: "And lie there by the fire, and watch the evening tire, talk of poems and prayers...and promises...."
I dashed back into the hut, thinking I should write it down - in time to hear, fading in static, "KSNO. Aspen. A new one. That's for you out there."
The storm had jumped my radio to a long-awaited message. He'd kept his promise to come up and visit. Had he really written a song about us? He'd made our evening forever larger-than-life. A few simple details.
I was hungry again. I had waited out the storm and now was walking down. An employee's end-of-the-season meal awaited us at the lodge. I planned to eat a lot. But I was keeping in mind the advice of my soul-mate broadcaster: I had so much enjoyed taking the tiny details of summer and the vision of "larger-than-life" they had created, I planned to stay hungry. It was the best way to be. It was far out. No. Amazing. No. It made everybody a celebrity.