Frozen motion

The glacier is sloughing off last winter's snow. Melt water flows fast in streams that carve all the length of the curving ice. Mottled, black boulders of the moraine pull the sun's heat to their darkness, and the warmth, held in the rock, melts holes in the cold. The hollows exactly fit the sharp- boned shapes of stone. They are sinking.

All that rests on this ice sheet is unstable. I hear the small rocks shift and fall, settling into new depressions as the ice lets go under the August sun. At night it freezes up again and pulls all things tight against itself. Next to a picture in Wyoming mountain guidebook is a caption telling me about glacier movement, but the white in the picture looks still and sterile, not like this shifting reality. I'm lying in my orange and blue tent, imperceptibly slipping across the valley floor. But I can't really tell I'm moving. The blanket of white looks calm and all the same from where I lie, and I'm small in the middle of it.

I know that deep below me under the ice a dust of rock ground by the sliding glacier washes away through cold dark tunnels, unseen. It muddies the lower valley streams dammed up behind the mountains. The gray pools are marked Milky lakesm on my topographic map. If I hadn't seen the dusty runoff I might not believe the caption in my guidebook about moving glaciers. The ice in this range has shrunk back in time and slowed its subtle carving. Only flat-bellied valleys are left behind to speak for ages of past motion. I climbed 30 miles up one valley to move onto this ice. From here I watch the cliff walls fall away in showers of stones. I can smell the sulfur of rockslides off the peak.

My body wrapped in down is not the only warmth in this wide, white cold. My dog is here too. And last night we watched a coyote trot across the white at twilight and break into a canter with his fluffed tail jerking in rhythm. He was running from us. My dog, with his eager, short-legged gait, couldn't catch up. The coyote followed the far side of the glacier and took to a couloir with a gray ice fall at its waist. He jumped a black crevasse and easily left his pursuer behind. For a moment I wished that my dog didn't have such American manners, wanting to touch noses with everything, but then he came back and leaned against me as the light was lost behind the ridge. I put my face into his thick ruff. With the coyote gone, we were alone. It was night with wind moving over the ice.

This morning I washed with melt-water. Between rinses the sun warmed my nose and cheeks so that I could splash one more time. After that I filled three cans with ice water and set them on the basalt rocks to absorb the heat. They will double in temperature before the sun is gone tonight.

Mosquitoes skimmed my wet skin while I was washing. I thought I had left them behind in the low valley, where they quiver in clouds over trout pools. And there are other insects here -- speckled moths that follow either winds or migratory paths in the air above the ice. Do the dust-winged insects train their antennae on a far-off point before they fly?

Yesterday, when I climbed a peak of split rock called The Tower, I found a moth on top. A thousand feet above the glacier and miles from woods was a moth with markings which let him cling to tree bark without being seen by hungry birds. His brown mottled color caught my eye as the wind on the summit whipped his wings. His stick legs braced his body by straddling a rough, orange lichen splotch. I wanted to trap him in my water bottle and take him down to the valley with me, and I would have if there hadn't been fruit punch sloshing around in there.

There are other moths on this glacier -- ones that have fallen on the snow. The sun has already found their dark flecks against the white, and the heat makes the cold around them shrink away so that they lie inside hollows shaped like wings.

I read once that on top of Mr. Rainier climbers found ice caves around the steaming crater, and inside were mittens and birds sealed in the clear blue of the cave ceilings. The mittens were left by mountaineers in the last century, and the birds had been caught on the peak, perhaps by storms, to be held there in the cold like my moths. They were all sinking through in a glacial progression to the end of the ice, but the caves intervened and caught them long enough in the midst of motion to freeze them again into pictures.

Tomorrow I will walk down over the edge of the ice, follow a twisting glacial river, eat trout taken from the cloudy water. But tonight I lie on the glacier with my dog near. I can put my hand on the gray softness of side. I hear him breathing and watch the cold wind combing his fur. He doesn't feel it.Our warm bodies have slightly sunk and made hollows in the ice -- molded shapes of the two of us just touching.

In my mind we are moving together through seasons of crystal. We press down to the night-black bedrock and flow across the valley floor to break out between diamonds of ice into a bright light. Behind us are two imprints in the glacier, so that suddenly I am back to being a child, falling over in the snow and moving my arms to make angel shapes.

Tomorrow morning I will get up carefully and leave a print perfect in its frozen motion.

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