By Rachel Attias
aren’t there moments
that are better than knowing something,
I love this world,
but not for its answers.
-from A Snowy Night, Mary Oliver
We had been trekking through clouds for nearly two days when the sky finally cleared and we found the Sperry Chalet. My boyfriend and I were spending some time in Glacier National Park, in the middle of a cross-country road trip that would have us living out of his car for four months. We had chosen our route—the popular Gunsight Pass—based on the three glacial lakes along the way, the pass promising to dip down to meet their frigid shores and then climb high to achieve comprehensive vistas of the dense mass of mountain, forest, and water that dominates that landscape. But when you’re trekking through clouds you can see little more than a thick, marshmallow fog and the immediate trail beneath your feet.
I didn’t know it then, but by the time we found the Sperry Chalet I was beginning to suspect that I didn’t love him anymore. The clouds had chilled us through, and the sanctuary of the building’s rough stone walls beckoned. We had heard from other hikers that you could buy treats here, cookies and cake and coffee. We’d set up our tent at the campground about a quarter of a mile away. The late afternoon sun had burned away the cloud cover and we sat down now to warm ourselves by the blazing wood stove, and to watch the last of the light fade behind the endless, domineering mountains.
Our relationship was built around a not much more than a mutual sense of being lost; we had both been wandering through our lives when we met. I was in my early twenties and he was a few years older. He was a bartender and I worked in high school special education. We lived in our hometown, with our parents, and in hindsight it must have been this that created in me a sense of urgency to leave, and to take the first road out, even when I knew it wasn’t right.
In terms of common interests and ideals, we had few. We fought incessantly about jam music (I hate it) and radical feminism (it makes him uncomfortable), finding common ground in a love of hiking, drinking, and B-horror movies. Our relationship was not fun—I knew this. But my desperate need to get up and go away from the place I’d grown up, coupled with some bad advice from a bad therapist, was enough for me to pack a backpack and a sleeping bag and start driving at dawn.
This road trip was a lengthy and expensive means of procrastination. I knew this then. I knew that I should probably look for full time work, find a place to live that wasn’t my mother’s house, and dump my boyfriend—, but the very idea of making a decision that would propel my life one way or another was exhausting, so I opted for a sort of constant stagnancy, hoping to eliminate the urge to think beyond the present day.
If we just keep driving, if we are always in between one place and another, we will never have to think beyond this moment. If we are fine right now and it’s always now, we will never not be fine. What I didn’t know was that by the time we got to California I would barely be able to touch him, and that it would be another month from there before we made it home to New York for Thanksgiving, and ended our relationship.
The Sperry Chalet kitchen was staffed entirely by women of all ages who cooked and baked and cleaned. A woman who might have been in her early forties wore a pair of faded jeans and a rough wool sweater under her forest green apron. She knelt at the wood stove and stuck in a couple more logs. A girl who might have been my age or a bit younger—fresh out of college—was sweeping the floor. Her hair was a smoldering red, swept up into a loose braid that tumbled to the small of her back. Another woman, short and stocky with wild brown curls, pulled something out of an oven. I didn’t know then that I would think of these women often as we sped toward nothing in our rattling sedan. I would draw comfort from the mere fact of their existence.
What vague thoughts I’d permitted myself about my “future” at that point all centered on the cities of the East Coast, where I grew up. I thought about New York, Philadelphia, Boston, some place where I could find a box to live in, a job to do all day, and eventually a graduate school to study who knows what. It felt like the only viable option, until I watched the women puttering around the chalet, laughing and talking about hikes they were planning for their time off.
I wanted to stay. I pictured myself in a faded apron, hair in a loose, messy bun, flour smeared across my cheek. I disappeared and became the red headed girl with the braid. I imagined what I might do when I wasn’t sweeping the floor, how I might look when I laugh. My boyfriend had returned to the table and put his hand on my thigh; he wanted to go back to the tent before it got too cold. I flinched. I looked back at the redheaded girl as we walked out the door, not knowing if I wanted to kiss her or be her or if I wanted her to be me instead of whatever disappointing character I was en route to becoming. I felt like someone was reaching into my chest and squeezing hard. It was a good and confusing hurt.
I didn’t know it then but almost exactly a year later the Sperry Chalet would burn down in the Sprague fire. All that would be left was the stone frame, the rugged exterior that had stood sentinel over one hundred years of brutal alpine winters and flamboyant wildflower summers. I didn’t know this either, but while the fires raged I would not be in New York or Philadelphia or Boston, but living in the Rocky Mountains, in Jackson, Wyoming.
I won’t wear an apron and bake pies in a century-old chalet, but I will have a little life that I’ve made all myself. My boyfriend and I will have parted ways long ago. I will be happy. I will hike and dance and make new friends and learn to ski (which will be challenging). It will not be perfect, and will likely be a brief stop on the way to somewhere else, which will be another brief stop in an endless series of brief stops.
What I did not know in the past, and what I have since learned to do, is to consult my own road map. To pump the brakes or step on the gas as I please, and to know that if you are stuck looking for answers and can’t find them, maybe they don’t exist in the form you desire. Maybe you need to stop thinking so hard and either enjoy the drive or jump out of the car immediately. Tuck and roll. I won’t know which I should have done while we sped away from Glacier National Park, and it won’t matter anyway, because now is now and I like it this way.
We went on one last hike before ending our backpacking trip, up to the Sperry glacier, about eight miles round trip from the chalet. The stubborn early September sun had won against the clouds that morning, and we could see where we were—for a time. As we ascended past waterfalls and tiny glacial lakes, the mountains began to give off a congealing fog. We climbed upward, up a staircase that had been blasted into the rock decades before. High altitude grasses and buds held on in thinning patches. Gravel poked through the dirt, and then the ground was all red rock, slick with snow and ice. Soon we were back in a cloud, unable to tell even which direction the glacier was in, what vistas or drop-offs might loom silently around us.
The landscape was nothing short of Martian. Each step brought me deeper into a place whose rules and shape I didn’t understand. My boyfriend walked ahead; I took my time on the slick, frozen snow patches. I watched my feet as I went and when I looked up I couldn’t see him anymore. He had disappeared into the cloud. I stood there for a moment, breathing, letting the fog blur my peripheral vision. I hid like that until I heard him call my name.
We never saw the glacier, and after a while we came back down, continued on past the chalet and back to our car, which we slept in that night and for many nights after. As we left that day I took what I did not know then would be my last wistful glance at the Sperry Chalet.
Rachel Attias is from the Hudson River Valley of New York. She has a degree in English from Skidmore College. She currently lives in Jackson, Wyoming, although it is not uncommon for her to live out of a moving car. You can find previously published work online at Nailed Magazine, Cheap Pop, FIVE:2:ONE Magazine, The Raven’s Perch, and The Rumpus. She is on Twitter and Instagram at @multi_rachel, and at www.rachelattias.com.