We Have Plastics, By: Wes Brittenham

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Wes Brittenham

We Have Plastics
It was the summer of 1979. July. Monsoon season. Back in the days when you could count on summer rains to drench the mountains and valleys with sudden storms that build up and explode quickly. The weekend was approaching and a group of us had decided to hike to South Sandia Peak and camp for the weekend. South Peak was our favorite place for camping. An arduous hike rewarded you with spectacular views from horizon to horizon in all directions.

At the eastern edge of Albuquerque, the Sandia Mountains offer numerous trails to South Peak, from the canyons of the west and south face, to the more forested trails up the eastern slopes. An amazing diversity of terrain going from five thousand to ten thousand feet, through seven of the ten climate zones. We arrange for a friend to drive us up the turquoise trail to Sandia Crest. We would leave a car at the western base of the mountain, at the trailhead of Embudito Canyon. We would hike down that canyon at journeys end.

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Sandia Mountains, ridgeline

We prepared as usual in those days, backpacks loaded with a change of clothing, a bit of food, a mess kit for cooking, a flashlight, matches, and a bandana that could be used as a headband, a sling, or a tourniquet in case of an emergency. Sleeping bags strapped at the base of the pack and canteens of drinking water on our belts. We did not have sophisticated gear in those days. No tents or camp stoves. We fashioned shelters from fallen logs and branches if we felt the need. We cooked over a camp fire in World War II era mess kits, from our dads’ army days.

As rain was in the forecast, we brought along a tarp and a couple of eight by ten foot sheets of plastic, and of course, some rope. Someone brought a bottle of tequila.

The ride up was pleasant, the curvy road carrying us from pinon juniper foothill to pine, spruce and aspen forest at the top. Loaded with our gear, we paused at the summit of Sandia Crest to watch a tramway car ascend and dock, spilling its load of sightseers out onto the wooden observation deck. As the people filed out, we hit the trail. Descending into the forest below the ridge, we were pitched into cooling shade. The trail follows the backbone of the mountain, the ridgeline where the gentle green eastern slopes meet the rapidly plunging granite face of the western edge of the mountain. The trail dips into the forest, then climbs again to the ridge.

As you descend into the trees the topography changes moment by moment. Now in a thick forest of tall trees and dense undergrowth, now suddenly amazed to find huge individual granite boulders springing up here and there, like tall and separate columns, or standing stones of Celtic myth. Like artwork from Roger Dean on a Yes album cover for those of us old enough to remember such things. Magical. At other points the trail rises upwards and marches again along the spine of the mountain, rocky and boulder strewn.

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Granite Boulders, Sunset in the Sandias

Decomposed granite crunch, crunch, crunches under Vibram soles as we march along single file. Like pumping pistons the calves of the hiker in front of you pound up and down in staccato rhythm counting the steps of the journey. Your eyes on the feet and legs of the hiker in front of you keep you focused on the condition of the trail before you.

There are six of us. We pause rarely for a water break or to take in a view. We want to make it to our destination with plenty of time to set up camp and explore before dark. Clouds are beginning to build in the east, looming large and threatening over the eastern plains. Towers of billowing brilliant whiteness on top, ominous deep gray to dark black beneath. Thunderheads.

Continuing on our way now down among the trees, now at ridgeline again, we can see the clouds building and sweeping closer as the wind begins to pick up speed. Was that thunder in the distance? The hours go by as we near our destination. Tension has been building each time we march above the tree line and see the storm’s approach. Out in a large clearing, the trail turns westward and we scramble the last hundred yards to a rocky ridge that half rings a bowl shaped meadow below us. A small forest of stunted aspens hug the rocky mini cliff as we make our way down into the meadow. South Peak looms large on the northern edge of the depression, and over the western lip is the city we are escaping.

Turning to observe the rapidly approaching storm, we speculate on the possibility of being caught in it. Perhaps it would pass, all billow and bluster, leaving us high and dry. What were the odds? The tequila was passed around. “We are civilized man” someone said in a mock British accent, “we have plastics!” At the edge of the meadow where aspen forest meets grassland, we made camp. We gather stones for a fire pit, and wood to burn. Logs and fallen branches are collected and leaned, tied, and otherwise placed to form a rectangular shape, open to the west and the campfire.

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Thunderheads Gathering, Sandia Mountains

Wind is picking up and low rumbles of thunder are sounding in the distance. The tequila makes its rounds again. It is late afternoon, but the gathering clouds bring an eerie, early darkness. A crack of distant lightening and boom of thunder portend of things to come. “We have plastics!” we tell each other as we tie our tarp and plastic sheets to our crude shelter. Some of us remember our Boy Scout knot tying skills as we lash with confidence, though the wind is beginning to tear the material from our fingertips.

More thunder, more lightening, closer now. A light drizzle is falling. We tilt our youthful faces to the darkening sky and defiantly shout in our poorly borrowed accents “WE HAVE PLASTICS!” An actual rain is falling now and we huddle under our flimsy canopy, which is being sucked rapidly up and down by the now whipping wind. Thunder and lightning increase rapidly in volume and intensity and the wind seems to blast in all directions at once. In an instant darkness descends, and with a flash and a loud crack, the storm is right on top of us. Wind howls, thunder booms and lightning flashes again and again. The clouds above are split and ravaged, illuminated with brilliant flashes that bathe us in a strobe light of chaos. Rain hammers down, and we are in awe of the power and violence on display all around us. We wonder out loud what our families and friends might be thinking as they look up at South Peak from the safety of their houses far below.

“We have plastics” we say softly, sheepishly as we face the sheer power of Mother Nature. The storm has her way with our shelter as ropes are torn loose and our plastics flap in the wind and rain pours in. We push to the back of the shelter, where things seem to be holding for the time being at least. The torrential downpour puddles on the roof as it threatens to collapse down upon us. We huddle together in a couple of corners, humbled and a bit frightened by the sound and fury raging around us. Remote and desolate, we are alone with the storm.

The scent of ozone and wet forest floor fill our nostrils. We are in the center of the storm and it is amazing. Powerful. Loud. Pitch black to blinding flash. It builds and builds as we melt into the corners. And suddenly, silence. A strange quiet calm. Clouds begin to break to the west as the storm sweeps out over the city and dissipates. A spectacular sunset is revealed slowly, first with stabs of sunlight piercing the breaking cloud cover to illuminate the mesa and valley below. As the horizon is revealed, color explodes, deep golden yellow at the lower edge, fading up into tangerine and vermilion and then darkest purple. The light is splashed and reflected on the granite face of the Sandias. It is stunning.

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Moonrise in Sandias

In minutes, the storm is past and stars begin to appear. The moon smiles down, oblivious to our experience. We survey the tattered remains of our shelter. Everything is wet. Someone tries to get the fire going again as we tug at tarp and plastic, hoping not to dump the large pools onto our already wet bedding. Some among us, cocky and arrogant in that youthful way, nod to each other having just escaped disaster and pass the tequila saying “We have plastics.”

 

 

 

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