The sideways glance of sun on a sandstone wall deep within a Utah slot canyon, the beam staring at the grooves that striped the lip of the rock face, evidence of ropes being pulled over the stone. When I leaned back onto the lip to test the rappel anchor the sun had looked away, and I, too, tried not to look at the scars. Flash flood will polish away, I thought, and didn’t have the nerve to ask the clouds above to wait.
The expectant look of the habituated mountain goat who followed me from saddle to summit and back on Pyramid Peak in Colorado. He wanted to lick up the sodium in my urine, and he knew if he followed me long enough, I would give him what he wanted. When I stopped to pee, I did so with a sharp rock clutched in my hand, unsure if he would wait for me to finish before claiming his mineral prize. It’s said mountaineers make their peace with death, but squatting on a ledge, pants around my ankles, I brandished my pointy rock and swore to the goat this is not how I would die.
The skitter and dart of a juvenile red fox through green aspens as she followed me up a mountain trail. Her asphalt-black nose worked the air searching for the food handouts she’d come to expect from humans. She moved in concentric circles, coming in close then retreating, and once even offered me an inquisitive play bow. When I reciprocated her gesture, she jumped back as if I had nipped at her. She was marvelous, and I let her come too close, crawling in the leaves so we could look each other in the eyes.
The cast iron eye screw that I used as a climbing hold on a ridge at 13,000 feet. The screw was thick as my thumb and weathered, its eye dilated with sky as I balanced beneath it. This eye once surveyed the Boston Mining Settlement, sprung up in 1845 and abandoned only a few years later. The ruins still rot in the valley below, and here and there the land sinks into shallow pits like the heavy thumbprints of young giants.
The white-eyed terror of an adolescent hare I took from my dog’s mouth near Native Lake. I tucked it into the cover of brush, but it just lay there panting, its eyes round and glassy as marbles. Die, I thought, please just die.
My own summit gaze: clear, electric blue sky pulled taut between sharp peaks, and the ache that comes from seeing so far. Once, the sky was partitioned by three Blackhawk helicopters doing flyovers of Mount Massive across the valley from my summit perch. This sight, too, ached.
The come-at-me-stare of a black cow standing in the middle of the singletrack. “Hey cow! Hey cow!” I chanted and clapped my hands, and received as reaction only an absent-minded flick of her cow tail. “I’m going to eat you!” I yelled, and pedaled towards her in a mock charge, but she just stared on, figuratively and literally unmoved.
The empty socket of a young doe charred to bone by wildfire, her eyes melted out of her skull, the delicate tongs of her front teeth splayed open in a final gasp for air that brought ash. The space where her eyes should’ve been held the terrible dread of burning alive.
The unblinking gaze of aspen eyes, the palatable tender greens of early summer growth beneath and above. I leaned against a trunk wider than my back and read my field guide: aspens grow rapidly in burned areas, and can adapt to a wide variety of environmental conditions. Disaster species, they’re called. Good, I thought, and stared into the black whorls of their eyes, their pupils of mirrored charcoal.
The eyeshine of a mountain lion in my headlamp that didn’t retreat or look away. It sat just outside the reach of my light in the dark before dawn, only its eyes visible. I yelled, threw stones, clacked my hiking poles together, leveled the great cathedral of silence, all to hide my astonishment at being looked upon as a member of the web of living things.
© Rebecca Young
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Rebecca’s interview]