Authors: Christopher J. Yates
On Sunday, six days after that circus ride with my daddy to the banks of the Jakobskill River, I got on my bike a little after eleven in the morning and pedaled up to the Swangums. It felt odd without Tricky, no one to race up the hill, the climb twice as hard.
I left the bike behind Split Rock, walked the short distance to the parking lot and took the red-blazed trail that led down to Lake Swangum.
When I arrived at the place we'd arranged to meet, you were already there, perched on a rock looking out over the view. Before then I'd only ever seen you in your Conservancy gear, tan slacks and green shirt, but that day you were kitted out in red corduroy shorts and a cream cable-knit sweater. You had on old leather hiking boots and gray camp socks with blue stripes at the top. I remember every detail.
I was about to say hello when you put your finger to your lips (although I couldn't really see them through your beard), and then made a gesture to close my eyes, which I did.
Listen! you whispered to me.
It took me a while to retune myself, but then, piece by piece, I started to hear the world. Lake water sloshing, the drift of the breezeâa sound similar to my breathâa woodpecker hammering somewhere far off. Then I noticed something else, an odd-seeming
sound as if rain were falling, even though I could feel sunlight on my face and was certain the sky had been scattered with nothing more than a few wisps of cloud when I closed my eyes.
What do you hear, Matthew? you said.
Sounds like raindrops, I said, opening my eyes.
You smiled and pointed over our heads. It's a cottonwood, you said.
I looked up at the tree, its leaves clattering like paddles, and then you said, Cottonwood's the only tree that makes that sound, turns the air into water. But that's trees and you're interested in rocks and glaciers, right?
I don't mind learning all sorts of stuff, I said.
Really? You must enjoy school then.
No, not much, I said.
Me neither, you said, never did. That kind of learning doesn't suit everyone.
Not me, I said.
Well, why would it? you said, starting to get animated. You sit on the same school bus every day so that you can enter through the same door into the same box. They tell you where you'll be every minute, even give you a buzzer that trains you like a dog with a dinner bell. You take the same path between the same boxes. How's that supposed to teach you anything beyond how to walk along a painted line? You think your brain enjoys that? Your brain that evolved out on the wild plains of Africa learning how to cheat death every day? Not mine, no thank you.
This all sounded like it might be true, but I didn't know what to say right away and when you saw me dumbstruck, you let out a huge laugh. Those were the only times I'd see your teeth through your beard, when you laughed, and the perfect flash of them always felt like a secret reward.
I remember your beard being mostly dark apart from a few gray hairs, and your hair was brown without showing any age at all. You were a few years older than my daddy, but anyone would have put the two of you the other way round. You had a glow to you, not just the outdoorsman tan but a wilderness energy as well.
(I have a friend, Andrew, who saw a photo of you taken when you were older and he claims you're the spit of the actor Lee Marvin. He even made me watch
Paint Your Wagon
to prove his point.)
You pulled something out of your backpack, a brown paper bag, and shook it at me. It's trail mix, you said. Homemade. You want some?
What's trail mix? I said.
You don't know what trail mix is? It's for energy. Nuts and raisins. I like to put in some dried coconut as well.
Shit no, I said. Sounds disgusting.
You let out another huge laugh. Don't worry, you said, I'll add M&M's next time.
Sure, I said, and take out all the other shit.
You gave me a look like I was as remarkable as the cottonwood tree. OK then, you said, rocks and glaciers, that's why we're here, right? Let's get started. But first, I have a question for you, Matthew. And remember, there are no wrong answers here. Now, what would you call the thing I'm sitting on here? you said, giving the rock beneath you a hard rap with your knuckles.
This felt like one of those trick questions where the obvious answer is
and by saying it I would have fallen for the trick. Well, I wasn't planning to go along with any tricks so I said, If there are no wrong answers, then that there's a motorcycle.
You actually looked pleased at my sass, I couldn't believe it. Very well, you said, let's just go with that. How about if I told you that this rock did in fact ride over here, just like a motorcycle might, from miles and miles away? I mean, look around you, how else did it get here, Matthew? We're almost at the highest point in the Swangums. There are no peaks nearby that this rock could have rolled down from. So how on earth do you think it might have traveled here?
Maybe by glacier? I said.
You gave me a look of astonishment. Hell's bells, you said, that's exactly right. And how did the glacier get it here?
Honestly, I said, I don't even know what a glacier is. But you mentioned rocks and glaciers, soÂ â¦
So you deduced it, you said, beaming at me so hard I felt like I'd performed a complicated feat of algebra. Look, you said, a glacier's just a river of ice. And twenty-one thousand years ago, during the time we call the Ice Age, there was a glacier right over our heads. Now, you said, how far from the edge of town would you say we are?
Maybe a mile, I said.
Sounds about right, you said. And that's about how high the ice would've been over your head back then. Imagine a mile-deep river of ice pressing down on you.
Sounds like sitting through math, I said.
Exactly, you said, or being made to play football.
But I don't get the bit about the river, I said. A glacier sounds more like the North Pole than a river.
Right, you said, because of ice being solid. So you'd think it doesn't move much. But oh, it was a river all right, there's just a difference in the speed of flow. See, a glacier's so heavy it can't help but move. The weight of the thing, gravity, keeps that huge pile of ice chugging alongâbut slowly, of course. Most glaciers creep forward maybe three to five feet each day, although some can move up to a hundred feet. Can you imagine living in Roseborn with a mile-high river of ice bearing down on you?
Five feet a day? I said. I think I could probably outrun it. But a river of ice does sound cool.
Pleased to hear it, you said. So let's get back to this motorcycle I'm sitting on. This here Harley-Davidson of a rock was picked up by the glacier, probably ripped clean off the edge of a mountain, and carried along until one day, about sixteen thousand years ago, all the ice that was above us finally melted and this rock was dropped, literally like a stone, right here, miles away from home. And what if I told you this rock came from somewhere yonder in that direction? you said, pointing over your shoulder where I could see the distant humps of the Catskill Mountains. How do you think I might have deduced that?
I had a quick think and couldn't work out the answer, so instead I tried out a joke I'd often heard people in town making
about the folks who lived in the Catskills. Maybe you heard it married its sister, I said. (If I'd said anything like this in school it was called mouthing off and I'd land in detention.)
You cracked a smile and said, Well, who knows, maybe it did marry its sister, although that sounds like an odd thing for a motorcycle, no? I think you might be mixing your metaphors just a little. But take a look around, Matthew, perhaps there's another clue somewhere around here. Hey, tell me, what's that down there between your legs? you said, before quickly adding, Now don't get all clever with me this time, I mean down on the ground right under your feet.
I grinned and looked down. There was a line in the rock there. It's a big crack, I said, making myself snigger.
No, look again, you said, trying not to laugh along with me.
OK, a huge scratch? I said, laughing again, although I'm not sure what was funny about that.
Exactly, you said, recovering yourself, that's a scratch. And, from where you're standing, where does that scratch point? Let's try and be serious for a moment.
The same direction you were pointing, I said.
So what if I told you that the glacier made that scratch? you said. How do you think that might have happened?
Fingernails? I said, trying to be funny again.
Well, actually that's not completely wrong, you said. The glacier did sort of have thousands and thousands of fingernails, sharp objects that made scratches like the one at your feet. And now you've seen one, you'll start noticing them everywhere up here. Some people call them scars, although personally I like footprints. But the proper name for them is striations.
And what made those striations weren't nails exactly, they were something called cobbles, which is just a fancy technical name for a size of rock. A cobble's between about this big and this big, you said. When you placed your index fingers about three inches apart, and then widened the gap to an impressive ten, I couldn't help it, I started laughing all over again.
You looked down at the space between your fingers and started to shake your head, even though I could tell you were amused. Now how am I supposed to teach you anything when you're just being lewd? you said.
Look, I said, I get it. The cobble's like a fingernail, the glacier's a hand and this rock under my feet's like a table that got all scratched up.
Couldn't have put it any better myself, you said, looking proud of me. I shrugged like it was nothing, despite the warmth spreading inside me, and then you said, See how smooth the bedrock looks down there around your feet?
The rock did look smooth, sunlight glittering from its glassy surface. Right, it's kind of shiny, I said.
Remember you told me you call this place the beach? you said. Well, that's an interesting name, because it's sand made that rock shiny. As well as hauling off boulders and dragging cobbles there's a lot of sandy stuff at the bottom of a glacier. So as it passed over this place, the glacier kept on rubbing at the rock here, like it was buffing it up with very fine grit sandpaper. That's known as glacial polishing. And this boulder I'm sitting on right here has a fancy technical name as wellâbesides Harley the Motorcycle. This rock is known as an
âthat's a boulder that's been carried from one place to someplace else by a glacier. Pretty impressive, huh? But this boulder right here is nothing. Do you want to see a properly large glacial erratic?
Shall we take the trails, you said, or would you rather go the cool way?
The cool way, I said.
You jumped down from the rock. I don't know, you said shaking your paper bag at me, I'm not sure you have enough energy in you to handle the cool way.
I rolled my eyes, took a handful of the trail mix, and popped it in my mouth.
The cool way's a rock scramble, you said, pushing up the
sleeves of your sweater. So what do you think then? you said, shaking your bag of trail mix again.
I closed one of my eyes like I was giving my answer some serious thought. Yep, I said, really does taste like shit.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
AS WE WALKED THE MILE
or so to the start of the rock scramble, you told me more stories about the glacier and asked me all about my life. When I told you I'd grown up in Queens, you got excited and told me that Long Island didn't even exist until the glacier started melting and left behind a big pile of sand and rocks at its snout endâthat pile was Long Island.
The place where you grew up, you said, is nothing more than glacial nosebleed.
Then you told me how you could see the same kind of striations down in New York City, Central Park, same glacier, same footprints. Had I ever been?
Manhattan? Hell no. My daddy had come back from Times Square one time and said it was
nothin but hookers and skin flicks
Finally we got to a cliff with a mess of rocks piled up high against its face. It must have been a hundred feet or more, the cliff cresting darkly against the pale sky, and you told me that technically it wasn't a cliff at all but an escarpment, before pointing to the summit. Now we go up, you said.
How? I asked.
That's the great thing, you said, there's no correct way. No straight lines either, you added, you have to figure it out for yourself.
I paused for just a moment, as if faced with an impossible problem, and with that you were gone, bounding up the rocks with so much vigor it looked as though someone had taken a movie of a ball bouncing down some stairs and then played the tape backward.
I followed as fast as I could, uncertainly at first, not being able to figure out the best place for my feet, but soon I started to get
the hang of it. Sometimes you pushed with your legs, sometimes you pulled with your arms, the rocks meshed together like a giant puzzle, like nature had set you a perfect challenge.
Halfway up, you were sitting on a flat-topped boulder, munching away on your trail mix. You good to keep going? you said.
I was drenched in sweat and had scraped half the skin off an elbow, but still I gave you a look like your question didn't even make sense, springing past the flank of your rock to take the lead.
That lasted about thirty seconds. Your cable-knit sweater swept past me in a blur.
When I got to the top, panting like a dog, you looked like you were ready to do the whole thing over again. You were standing by a tree, peeling the bark from a twig.
Smell that, you said, handing me the twig.
I gave it a good sniff. Smells like mint, I said.
It's black birch, you said, nodding at the tree. What you're smelling there is the same thing that gives chewing gum and Listerine their flavor.