On the Heat of the Day
During the past fifteen years, hot weather reminds me of a specific event and a landscape in which that event took place. With my family, I was making the loop between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Midsummer was searing the basins beneath the big seams of mountains and the snow encrusting the upper facets of the peaks had mostly melted, but it was still cool at high elevations. The frosty breath of the summits came down from the sky like the chill exhalation at the mouth of a cave.
With a couple of my kids, I set out early in the morning to walk up one of the canyons between the huge, sea-colored flanks of the Grand Tetons. The trail was exciting to me because I knew that with sufficient persistence and skill, one could hike the pathway up to where Mount St. John, or, perhaps, the Grand Teton itself gestured to the sky at its uttermost height, cold crescent of stone looming overhead like the blade of a scythe held against a blue throat. All paths are exciting if we know that they lead to the summit. Of course, we weren’t going more than a couple of miles at the most, but, nonetheless, it was nice to put our tennis shoes to the well-trodden path and march single-file toward the hills.
We passed a bare ridge where a river cascaded over terraces, the water magnified and minatory where it roared over the rocks to become a small, placid stream in the shadow of the hill. The spray from the water was icy cold. Then, we zigzagged up to the top of a small ridge, admired the crests and turrets of the peaks overhead, then, descending toward a lake filling a deep stony moraine. Beyond the lakeshore, the trail angled across a grassy slope toward the cleft in the mountain wall.
The path went up and down. As we were descending a high treeless slope, the trail diagonal across the sun-baked hill as a groove in the waist-high grass, we encountered another hiker climbing upward toward us. The hiker was bearded and wiry. A huge backpack hunched him forward and he made a bell-like jingling sound as he slowly ascended the slope, moving deliberately, step by step. It was now mid-morning and the sun was shining brightly, flooding the hillside with hot, bright light. I recall that the air felt a little dusty, thick with golden pollen, and that the heat made the pine-trees above and below, encircling the pond, exude a sweet resinous perfume. The scent of the pines was warm and dense, the very distillation of summer.
We stepped aside to let the hiker pass. He was wearing a stained bandana and his beard was flecked with grey. Sweat glistened on his forearms. His walking stick carefully probed the path ahead of him.
"It’s getting downright warm," the hiker said to us as he passed.
I think I agreed with him. We went down the slope and the hiker was soon lost to view. At the base of the hill, the trail curved up another steeper and more rocky slope, advancing around big outcroppings and the ascent looked a little daunting. So we turned around and walked back past the whirligigs of the cascade to the trailhead parking lot.
Since that day, every time that it is hot outside, or, even, warm in my car, during the months from April to October, I remember that path, the smell of the pine resin and the odor of the golden pollen illuminated in the sunshine, and I imagine the backpacker coming up the slope toward me, nodding just slightly beneath his sweaty bandana, and greeting us with the words: "It’s getting downright warm." This is my representation for summer heat. It is as integral to me as the foods that I like or the books that I have read and admired. Somehow, this little image, and the hiker’s words that label it, are an essential part of who I am, my personal emblem for summer.
Last night, long after midnight, lightning speared through my bedroom and woke me up. I climbed out of bed and went to the toilet. My bedroom is air-conditioned from the window, but the hall and the bathroom were humid and warm. Immediately, the warmth in the dark rooms triggered my recollection of the sunny mountainside in Wyoming and I heard a voice telling me that it was "getting downright warm."
It occurred to me, then, that this memory is a sort of inner dialogue, a speech that I recite to myself that defines me. It is a tiny aspect of an immense oration that I speak to myself, memory somehow embodied in interior discourse. This interior discourse establishes my identity.
We go through our lives hoping to find a perfect listener to this presentation of ourselves that defines us. We hope that some day, somehow, someone will listen to the voice that sounds ceaselessly in our head, always linking our past to our present through a network of memories that are articulated as the discourse ceaselessly continues. Some people are fortunate to think that God listens to them and attends to this interior dialogue – I call it a "dialogue" because there is a part of me that speaks and a part of me that listens simulating the ideal auditor for which I yearn. For such people, I suppose, their day-to-day existence is a kind of prayer. All of us desire someone to love us – and to love us not merely for our outward attributes but, also, for our secret selves, that is, the being of our being that speaks to us from our memories. Fundamentally, we want to be heard. Someone must attend to the dense, lyrical speeches that my memory makes to me to establish my place in the world.
But, as I grow older, I recognize that no one is listening. No one will ever listen. There is no friendly outsider to tell me that I have done well, that my speech made to myself is beautiful or has meaning. One day the inner dialogue will become silent and no one will have heard it. Ultimately, I will remain unknown.