The end of time will be marked by acts of unfathomable compassion.
— not Fyodor Dostoyevsky but possibly Mark Vonnegut

Sultry day, thought Sarah. No – muggy; and when the valley floors turn, as they irrevocably do every year, into ovens churning hot air masses up to higher elevations, it’ll be just plain hot. Time to get away, she concluded. She finished packing bread, cheese, and wine into the cooler and went out to the car.

It was almost a year ago when Marta, Sarah’s closest friend, had passed away.  Sarah’s original deep sense of loss had gradually and unexpectedly been replaced by a sort of certainty. Certainty that the loss was not absolute, permanent. Sometimes Sarah felt a serene calm. Unexpected, indeed. Sarah chuckled. Before moving out west to this town at the edge of the mountains, she would have been wallowing in self-pity. In her old life she thought she had icons of permanence to adhere to. The rituals of the family – the schedules of children in or out of school, setting breakfast out in the morning and dinner at night – everyone had their place and expected duties and actions. That was then. Perhaps in her new life she had re-defined “permanence. “

“This heat is getting permanent,” she laughed, wiping away the perspiration running down her face before she was able to open the car’s windows. She thought back to this same time last year, a carbon copy of today. She and Marta left work early (things were slow) – and drove further than usual for their mid-week conversation/hike. Their drive gained three- or four-hundred meters in elevation, rising above the most energy-sapping layer of heat. But it was still hot. They started up the trail slowly. Marta seemed more introspective than usual.

“Sarah,” Marta began. “I don’t think I’ll be here much longer.”

“Why did I know you were going to say something like that?”

“You’re my best friend. You better know … ” Marta slowed even more. She was barely moving. Sarah started walking backwards, keeping an eye on her. “I’ve been having old person’s dreams.”

Sarah knew about Marta’s dream-interpreting aunt. “Anything else?”

“Of course.” Marta summarized and intertwined the threads of ‘dreams about widely recognized universal symbols’, the messages from unseen powerful beings calling from just beyond the familiar world of the senses, and an increasingly powerful sense of identification “with just about everything.”


“Yes, everything. Oh, not really – but it can be so unexpected, like feeling at home and tranquil in the Wal-Mart, for god’s sake.” They both laughed. “However, it’s more likely to happen when I’m in the garden, or doing something with the kids. It’s like what I once thought was “me” doesn’t end at my skin. I am, sometimes, the room. I can be the car, and everything in it. And, though I’ve rarely seen it, often I can feel my great-great-grandfather’s trapper’s cabin.”

Marta had mentioned the Dominguez family “trapper’s cabin” before. Long before the present time, trapping was not widely perceived as the work of the devil. Great-great-grandfather Dominguez gained outright title to the property by inhabiting it for seven years. Then, abruptly, he “turned environmentalist” and insisted that the property be a sanctuary, instead of killing grounds, for all life. His descendents continued to hold title to the building and some land around it. It was, literally, an island refuge surrounded by federally-owned wilderness. From Marta’s description, Sarah had a mental picture of a sturdy log structure, an alpine lake nearby, with the trees at timberline just above.
“Marta, is there special significance about the cabin?”

Marta just smiled, and winked.

Sarah started her car. That smile and wink flashed into her mind, playing point and counter-point in a sort of symphony against the oppressive heat. She checked the fuel gauge. There was enough for the trip to the divide on the other side of Llano Altura. There would be snow, still lots of snow there. “Just what the doctor ordered,” she laughed.

Late spring down in the valley was half a season, half-a-dozen climate zones, and seemingly halfway to the temperature of the sun’s surface when compared to Llano Altura and beyond. Sarah grinned when she realized, half an hour after the fact, that she wasn’t hot anymore. And she still had thirty kilometers to drive.

Snow began to appear in patches on the shady sides of stands of trees as soon as she churned up onto the Llano itself. After having climbed steadily from one-mile elevation to two, the road would seem level until the divide. Sarah shivered in anticipation … or was it apprehension? She looked in the rearview mirror. She expected other traffic, and the sun lower in the sky. She was alone. It was mid-day.

Ahead, through the thinning forest, she saw a couple highway switchbacks. The snow had been continuous for a few kilometers now. Sarah reveled in the brisk coolness. Her jacket remained in the back seat.

A parking lot just off the highway. Sarah looked at the map sketched on the back of a yellowed envelope. She lingered over the details of Marta’s distinctive handwriting. Miscellaneous notes such as where the keys were hidden. Though the penciled script was slightly smeared, there was no denying Marta’s essence. This was the spot. ‘Wilderness Area – no motor vehicles beyond this point’ stated a sign. A smaller sign, with an arrow pointing left: “Trappers Cabin, Private Property.”

Clutching the cooler in one hand, her jacket in the other, Sarah paused, savoring a deep inhalation of the cool pine-scented air. Crunching sounds on the semi-crusted snow made by her footsteps were the only sound until she arrived at the cabin. The keys were where the map indicated. Taking care not to force the rusted lock, she slowly opened it and then the door.

It was cold inside. Sarah wriggled into her jacket. She sat a while in the dark.

She woke up with a start. Soft murmurings in both English and Spanish filled the room. A multi-generational Dominguez party was in progress. Sarah knew she was the only physical presence in the cabin. Still, she did not light a candle or lamp, quietly sitting, taking in the party.




“This sucks.”

“Yah, you said it, bud.”

Eric and Dylan begin the trudge to snow-cave camp. Required P.E. class at Lake-of-The-Woods High School. Wintertime survival. About ten years back, the enlightened majority of the school board decided that this was a good idea. The likelihood of being stuck outside in a sudden snowstorm was more than remote. Happened to some folks in the county every year. Forward-looking, proactive, that particular school board.

In a parallel universe Eric and Dylan lived in northern Minnesota. Same parents, same sense of isolation, and an affinity for the same wardrobe.

They still had access to guns, but things were different. The allure was not so bright. Guns were readily available to everyone. Most everyone hunted. Amidst the prevailing gun-toting uniformity, Eric and Dylan had to channel their mutually-felt sense of alienation into a different venue. But it certainly wasn’t snow caves.

“Be nice if we could bring some booze.”


“It’s probably just as well a coupla teachers are with us. Otherwise, we might hafta kill the jocks.”

“I’d like to kill that basketball chick.”

Laurie McGinitty, all six-feet three sinewy inches of her, had little tolerance for the likes of Eric and Dylan. They didn’t accord her the respect her position in the school warranted. “Slacker weenie losers,” she muttered to Karen Nyquist, the only other female student on this field trip.

“They told me about their website. I made the mistake of actually looking at it!” admitted Karen. “Pictures of heavy-metal band freaks with pages of their gibberish philosophy.”

They both giggled, and refocused their conversation towards the desirable males in the group.

“Hey kids!” “Campers!” “Gather around!” the instructors shouted. Ms. Nyquist (Karen’s aunt) and Mr. Pendleton addressed their troops.

“As you know, this is the final exam for ‘Winter Outdoor Survival.’ Each group of four will construct and spend a mid-winter night in a snow cave. Of course, nothing can go wrong. We’re here, with cell phones and emergency-dispatch numbers just in case.”

“Thanks for those of you who helped with the toboggans,” added Mr. Pendleton. “You’ll get extra credit.” Two toboggans with supplies had been hauled in. There was firewood and charcoal, food, camping equipment for the teachers, blankets for everyone, and a metal saucer-like fire pit.

“Okay, pick your groups,” said Ms. Nyquist. “Then each group will decide on the location for your cave. Once you’ve found a good spot, start digging.”

“When we’re all done, we’ll have dinner over a big campfire Ms. Nyquist and I will make.”

All the boys except Eric and Dylan wanted to be with the girls. Eric and Dylan stood by themselves, smirking at the jockeying and posturing of the others. The teachers decided:
“Laurie, Karen — you’re with, um, those two guys. Eric? And … Ryan?”

Everyone groaned. Laurie and Karen protested the most, but the teachers were adamant. The three boy four-somes, still muttering unhappily, shuffled out onto an open clearing. Beyond, past two stands of skinny trees, lay the grey and hazy expanse of the Lake-of-The-Woods.

Laurie initiated group interaction. “Let’s get it over with.” She turned to follow the others.

“No. We’ll build it up there.” Dylan pointed half-way up a small hill below a dense wall of trees. Laurie shrugged. She thought it best not to argue. She and Karen could sneak out and visit the others when it got dark.

Their shelter was pretty good. Eric and Dylan were survivalists at heart, and their partners were robust farm girls. Eric and Karen lay on their sides, rolling and tamping down an area of snow, while Dylan made a valiant effort to match Laurie’s trenching, digging, and then packing the inside walls and ceiling.

The teachers unrolled a tarp upon which they put a tent. “Cheaters,” muttered Eric. The other three snow caves, resembling igloo-like mounds arising from adjacent trampled snow, were nearby.

Surveying the scene below in the middle of the clearing, Dylan scoffed, “Looks like a demented Eskimo village.” True, the other shelters were arranged in a circle, in the middle of which smoke from the upcoming dinner-fire was beginning to curl upward.

Dinner in the gathering darkness. Hot chocolate, chili, hot dogs on sticks. And another of Mr. Pendleton’s failed attempts to engage the group in a guitar-accompanied sing-along.

“Nighty-night,” intoned Ms. Nyquist. “You should all be tired. Everyone has a blanket, right?”

The two girls and their cave-mates wriggled into their blankets. Laurie had made sure that there was sufficient space to separate Karen and herself from the other two. She was surprised at the care Dylan had taken to ensure that the entrance was located well below the chamber — so that their combined body heat would rise and remain trapped inside.

Nevertheless, she and Karen whisperingly plotted their escape. If word got out back at school that they had spent the night with the school’s geekiest slacker-nihilists, their prestige would suffer. Perhaps irrevocably. Dylan and Eric muttered continually at their side of the cavern. Karen was just starting to crawl toward the entrance when a loud crackling noise split the blackness. Screaming. Watery splashing sounds.

They all struggled to get outside quickly. Eric and Karen jammed together in the entrance. Laurie and Dylan pushed them out. They were in time to see the still-flickering embers of the fire pit sizzlingly extinguished. In the near-total darkness they could only imagine what was happening. Screaming and yells for help amidst the unmistakable sounds of splashing water.

“Those idiots were camped out on a bay of the lake!” exclaimed Dylan.

“The combined weight of all of them together must have broken the ice,” added Karen.

There was little they could do. The four of them made their way to the edge of the water, but by then all was quiet.

“I think we are the only ones to pass the final exam,” said Eric after a long stunned silence. Karen stopped herself from slugging him in the stomach, and, instead, giggled nervously.

Eric and Dylan and Karen and Laurie began the trudge back from snow-cave camp.


area closed2


Two men enter, one man leave.

Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome

It started innocently enough. While entertaining my sixth or seventh stout on-tap, the women at the nearest table began pelting me with popcorn. The primary attacker, an auburn-tressed Viking goddess, had caught my eye when I entered the tavern two or three hours earlier. But I decided to treat all four women equally – flicking ice cubes from my friend’s bourbon-on-rocks glass at each one in turn. The popcorn barrage escalated, and Xavier acquired more ice quickly.

My last under-handed projectile found the goddess’ cleavage. Surprised, she jumped up with a shriek. Another mystery factor in the equation – she had a boyfriend who instantaneously lunged from the shadows in a direct beeline to my position. Fortunately, the goddess’ friends, Xavier, and a waiter materialized between us.

“Sorry,” I blurted. “We were just having fun. She started it.”

That didn’t placate Mr. Seething Boyfriend. “You dissed my girl! We gotta settle this.”

Sounded like unnecessary trouble to me. I have lived here for many years and had presumed all Neanderthals were extinct. “Death slalom, buddy,” the trogdolite muttered.

Duels with swords or pistols were a thing of the distant past. I had read that in the 1950’s disenfranchised young men and teenagers faced off in vehicular duels. “Chicken” was a later day version of horse-back jousts of medieval times. I then remembered an old movie, Rebel Without A Cause, in which two guys ‘settled their differences’ by driving cars in parallel off a cliff. The winner was the last one who bailed from his car before sailing off into oblivion. Or was the winner the one who bailed with the car?

The last Deathslalom was alleged to have occurred more than 30 years ago. Quite similar to the Rebel’s gunfight at whatever corral, the duelists hurtled on skis down a steep slope in the ‘back bowl’ area of the nearby Dos Cerebros ski area. Whoever schussed the furthest, without going over the three-hundred-foot drop at the slope’s bottom “won.”

It was the stout which accepted the challenge. I certainly wouldn’t have. If my BAC had been anything less than 0.1, reason would certainly have prevailed, and Mr. Trogdolite’s challenge gone unaccepted. “See you at the Back Bowl Boundary at nine,” he growled.

According to the legends of Deathslaloms past, the ritual began at the Back Bowl parking lot. Stepping groggily out of Xavier’s car, I hoped that the other guy wouldn’t show up. I hoped no-one else would, either.

He was already there, his Kniessels jauntily over his shoulder. Maybe two dozen people standing around. The somber could be cut with the proverbial knife. I pulled out my old Head rock skis. No big loss if they made the plunge.

“We go now, buddy.” He had either done some homework or actually knew how this was done. In the past, only the slalom participants made the trek up a short slope to the ridge above the bowls. I turned, scanning the other people present. Perhaps someone would talk me, or him, or both of us, out of it. Darn. Things were pretty quiet. A woman in a green parka pushed up her sunglasses. I looked into her equally green eyes. It was the Norwegian princess. Her face betrayed no emotion.

The edge. The mid-morning updraft had already established a miniature standing rolling cirrus cloud of ice. We both deeply inhaled.

“Robert.” The cave-dweller had a name. Caught off guard, I almost fell over in grasping his extended hand.

“I don’t ski much,” I confessed. “Do we just go straight down or do we make turns?”

“We’re supposed to try to stay sorta close together. Until the bottom.”

I should have asked him where that was – the bottom. I squinted at the scraggly timberline trees along what appeared to be the bottom of the hill some fifty yards distant.

“That ain’t it,” Robert chuckled. “It’ll be four or five stretches. I don’t remember. ”

Re-assuring. He either means it or he’s stringin’ me along. He snapped on his skis, looped pole straps over his gloves, and re-positioned his sunglasses. I tried to act natural in doing the same, but felt like my motions were echoes of his actions bounced off distant peaks.

Robert turned and gave me a brief intense stare – as best as I could ascertain from beneath his opaque eye-shields. Planting his poles, he pushed off.

When I was four or five, my parents took me skiing for the first time. I could feel, at first my father, then my mother, holding my back from behind, each hand under my underarms, their skis outside mine. I wouldn’t realize it for several seconds, but from time to time they’d let go, and I’d be skiing on my own. When I realized this, I would start to fall but usually my mom or dad would catch and hold on to me again. I could feel them now.

We passed the first false precipice. The next pitch seemed twice as steep. I bent my knees, locked them, and tried to pay more attention. Robert skied upright, whistling an unrecognizable tune.

I tried whistling too, but a peak across the way told me to stop. No more echoing, it seemed to say. Mom and/or dad held on tighter.

We got a bit of air as we segued onto the next pitch. “This one’s really steep,” I marveled aloud. Any steeper than this, we, or I at least, would be in serious trouble. I managed a quick glance his way, tried to penetrate his concentration with an arrow of my focused attention. He was in his own zone now.

Twenty yards from the edge, I started to brake. If I fell, the momentum would carry me over. I dug the ends of my skis into the crust, bearing down on my heels like I had never done before. Robert seemed to accelerate. Without a sound, not even a whisper nor a whoosh, he glided over the edge.

I stared at the ski tracks to the edge of the precipice. Unseen ice crystals borne on the updraft from below cut my cheeks like tiny razors. Continued silence. I began the weary trudge back uphill.