Writing Award -
in the 2004 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary
Contest in the Adult Article/Essay/Short Memoir
Mayflies belong to the
Lacking mouth parts,
adults are unable to feed and the mayfly will emerge from
its juvenile state, reproduce and die within a single day.
Copulation occurs in flight.
Males fly in undulating swarms that hover 15-20 feet above the
ground. Females will fly into the swarm where they are quickly
grabbed by a male. Following copulation, the female lays her
clutch of eggs within minutes or hours.
Males die shortly after mating.
A female normally dies soon after laying her eggs.
copyright 2009, all rights reserved
A whirlpool of mayflies spirals
into the morning. They shine, back lit by a rising sun.
Swirling. Cast about this way and that by competing winds -
upcanyon, downcanyon. They are male looking for female, female
waiting for male. With no mouth to eat with, mayflies are made
for one purpose only.
The sky is an amazing shade of
blue today. Michael and I are walking up the Tablelands, a
cirque of granite two miles wide. Itís the first time we have
seen other since the tenth grade. This trip was my idea and
Michael agreed it was a good idea. I believe it is possible for
friendships to go around in circles, like a Mandela or a
Granite is white with chunks of
black feldspar, shining flecks of mica and translucent quartz.
The Tablelands are more reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum than
the rest of where we are in the glacial Sierra Nevada. Rings of
what could be risers gather and pull us up to the cheap seats.
So, up we go, climbing over granite benches and through rivulets
of soil clogged by sedge, aster and alpine willow.
We stop, admire the scenery and
catch out breath. Weíre doing pretty well. My body still aches
from the fall. The muscles work but the bones and spirit
complain. Michaelís huffing and puffing attest to the fact that
he hasnít hiked in years, if he ever hiked at all. He isnít fat
as in high school but neither is he a rail. But heís game. Our
backpacks arenít too heavy - weíll be out for three, maybe four
days by the time weíre finished. The air is thin at eleven
thousand feet but thatís OK too.
The closest trees are a
thousand feet below. Foxtail pine or lodgepole pine. I canít say
which because I forgot to check when I passed them. In
university I learned a game called, "Freeway Botany," where the
object is to identify woody plants from sixty-five miles per
hour. You get good at it with practice. Iíve had none; and now,
stationary or moving, trees all look the same to me unless Iím
standing right under them.
Neither of us have spoken since
leaving camp at the lake. If Michael is like me, he is thinking
about the aluminum jar we carry. Every hour or so, since leaving
the trail head, we have exchanged the honor of carrying the
burden. At this rest break itís my turn. I take the jar and
tenderly stuff it into my pack. It is good of him to share.
The breeze this morning is an
autumnal breeze and I let it wash over me. Itís the kind of
breeze that lingers, surges forward a bit, retreats until you
think itís gone, but then returns for a final embrace - always
with a hint of something else. An eddy swirls around my ear and
I hallucinate, "Hello."
On cue, we shoulder our packs
and walk. A cloud of grasshoppers rises from dried grass and
rolls on ahead, their wings crackling and cackling like
rattlesnakes. They settle and then rise again when we catch up.
We chase them up to our destination - a hard pillar of rock
skirted by decomposing granite, little different than a thick,
sawed-off flagpole rising out of a sand dune.
The breeze has caught up to us
and dances around, in and out. This is Ginger Rogers. I am Fred
Astaire. Our last waltz.
We arrive at the place. To the
east, Mount Whitney and the Sierra crest. South, the Kaweah
Peaks group. North, the Kings-Kern Divide. Below, the Tablelands
drop to unnamed lakes. Such a landscape! Country so wild, still,
that no road can ever cross it.
Packs on the ground, Michael
takes the urn from my hand. He hands me a small brass plaque and
a package of epoxy. I mix the two tubes, apply a big glob to the
rock pillar and an equal-size glob to the plaque and stick the
I take a step back and quickly
straighten the plaque - silently reading, Camilla Barker, 1950 -
1977, and then aloud the inscription, "She will always be in
"OK," I say.
"OK," Michael says. He opens
his sisterís urn, waiting for the dancing breeze. Here it comes.
He turns slowly, then faster -faster, the ash spiraling out. It
flies, flies, flies, flies...
"She would like it here," I
"I keep thinking of things to
say to her," Michael whispers to the breeze.
"Too late," the breeze replies.
I pull a quaich and a hip flask
of fine, single malt scotch whisky from a pocket in my pack.
Michaelís eyes open a notch or
two and he quickly says, "A toast to Camilla? She would like
I fill the quaich and offer it
Michael raises the friendship
cup to the mountains and to the space where his sisterís ashes
have flown. "My father said that only sissies cry," he murmurs.
He drinks the scotch, tears running down his cheeks.
A mayfly crests the ridge,
followed by another. Then another. Flying west to east - east to
west with the wind. The wind. The wind. There is freedom and
quiet in the wind.
I want to listen to the quiet.
Raising my own moist eyes to
track the mayflies, all I can see is sky.