Long Weekend, Short Lives

Memento Mori

It was Sunday and I was standing by the Chama River in its sandstone canyon in northern New Mexico below Christ in the Desert Monastery waiting for the boats. My plan was to take a picture of the colorful rafts and kayaks when they floated around the bend. I did not want a picture of the red sheriff’s tape quaking on the piñon pines. That one would be about death – a news picture. But a picture of river runners, that would be about life. I had seen them enter the meander up stream before I turned off the road at the point where, a monk at the Sunday reception for guests told me, a body had been found the day before. I would take a picture of the colorful boats and leave, that was the plan.

You might think I was in a morbid state of mind, visiting a death site, but understand: this was the way the last three days had been going. They had a weird and synchronistic theme. It had been a memento mori, for whom the bell tolls kind of long weekend, beginning Friday morning at 14,080 feet on top of Challenger, as the huge elephantlike mountain is called around here. Professors of peak bagging make the case that it is not a true Colorado fourteener because Kit Carson Peak, which hides just behind it, is higher. Whatever. Challenger looms over my house, and I was happy.

At the summit — to explain the name — is a plaque that honors the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger, in these words: “Seven who died accepting the risk, expanding mankind’s horizons. January 28, 1986. Ad Astra Per Aspera.” A similar plaque on a point on the other side of Kit Carson Peak honors the crew of the Shuttle Columbia. I thought about the work of astronauts. “To the stars with difficulty.” I thought about how you honor the dead.

The summits of Kit Carson (left) and Challenger Point.

Then, as I was drinking water and eating Craisins and looking for my street in the goofy subdivision 5,300 vertical feet below, two lean young men came picking their way along the ridge and stopped at the summit. We talked for a moment about routes and other peaks and weather and the entire town that floated to the northeast like an island. Titus and Brett were firefighters from Cheyenne. Titus sat on the Challenger plaque and pulled the summit register from its waterproof tube and began going through the pages. Brett said their group had backpacked into the camp at Willow Lake about 8 the night before (I hadn’t heard them) and they had postponed their ascent for a day because, “One of the women is not ready.”

“Here it is,” Titus said, quietly.

He showed Brett a page from the register. A penciled name was cricled in black. On Sunday, June 11, time of day unknown, a solo climber named Douglas Beach of Cheyenne, Wyo., signed his name with the comment, “Awesome! Kit Carson next.”

A footnote connected to the circle reported that the man had died in a fall and the body was recovered on June 14. I had read a news story in which the climber was described as experienced, a firefighter and search and rescue member. Challenger and Kit Carson are connected by a deep saddle. Most people climb Challenger by its standard route (taking a line to the right of a long snowfield to a notch on the ridge). Many go on to climb Kit Carson from the saddle. The safest descent is to retrace the whole route. Beach instead took an apparent shortcut from the saddle down a deceptive, snow-filled gully called Kirk Couloir. Rescuers estimated he fell 250 vertical feet.

“He had five kids,” I recalled. They nodded. The summit memorial service for their fallen colleague tomorrow would include the widow, the one who was not ready today. Titus put away the register. Goodbye. They went one way, to Kit Carson Peak, I the other, home. I had a memorial service of my own to go to the next day in Taos. . . .

Jean McConnell, a classmate of mine at St. John’s College Graduate Institute, was a petite, disarmingly charming, English teacher (with a Ph D) who suddenly picked up and went to China. She taught at Chinese universities for five years. In February she contracted typhoid fever, seemed to recover, then went into a coma in an ill-equipped provincial hospital. Her university medical insurance ran out. Friends and family (she had two grown sons) believed her life depended upon air transportation to the nearest modern hospital, in Bangkok. Former students in China and friends and family here began fund drives. After a probably fatal delay of a couple of weeks a wealthy friend of the Clinton Foundation put up about $75,000, and she was flown by special plane to Albuquerque, where she died at UNM Hospital. During the ordeal the closest American consulate in China dismissed pleas for help, saying there was no money for med evac. The appropriate members of Congress were non-responsive. She was no Terri Schiavo.

I was a stranger at the gathering at her solar house on the mesa west of Taos. Neighbors expressed disbelief that she would never again drink iced tea in the yard and enjoy the view of the Taos Mountains. Descendants of her pampered egg-laying chickens clucked as her grieving left-behind boyfriend delivered a heartfelt eulogy. He recited a Buddhist prayer. He read a cloying e-mail in English from her last boyfriend, a Chinese doctor working against AIDS. The gathering tried to put together her puzzle, but there were too many pieces for one evening.

I departed at dusk, arriving at the monastery boundary before the moon came up. It was silent as always. The Milky Way was bright. I slept in the back of the Element until the 5:30 a.m. bell rang in the adobe church tower. Time for Lauds, the second of seven daily prayers that form the work, Opus Dei, of this Benedictine order. It made me happy to join the black-robed monks and nuns in their sweet chanting of Psalms, their primary liturgy.

Once a week, after Sunday Mass, there is a brief reception where the otherwise silent monks can visit with guests. I talked with Bro. Phillip, the courageous abbot who revived the failing, isolated monastery and, against some liberal opposition, began both a modern building program and a strict revival of the medieval Rule of St. Benedict. I said, “I always count on you being here in this canyon.”

“For now,” he said.

Down by the river afterwards I thought about the conversation. His meaning was not that we are all mortal but that he is often gone. Once unknown, he now travels the world to help other monasteries – the success of Christ in the Desert having been recognized by the Vatican. He regretted being taken away so often and the difficulty of refusing. I thought about the Psalms, their “joyous sound” full of thanksgiving and lamentation, praise and condemnation, hopes and fears, celebrations of righteousness, recognitions of a just God.

The boats had not yet come around the bend. Apparently the river runners had stopped at the eddy for lunch. I put away the camera. You can’t wait for life. On the way back to the car I saw the tracks of a narrow cart in the dust. They followed the line of red tape markers on the trees. Who died? How?

At home again, I checked the news. No “Body Found In Canyon” briefs. Maybe it never happened, maybe it was not interesting enough for the news. I checked a Bible. Psalm 39.4 said: “Lord, make me know mine end, and the measure of my days. . . .”