I was traveling in Canada. I went to Canada on retreat, to get away from my life and meditate on my coming months of war. I had already gone on pilgrimage, and it had prepared my heart for death, in the best possible sense; it was my one lifelong obligation as a Bahá’í, and, having prayed at the holiest spot on Earth, I felt a connection with Bahá’u’lláh that would not brook rivals. On the other hand, pilgrimage made me eager to teach the Faith and pursue a life of work in the service of humanity, goals which I would be able to pursue at best obliquely during the coming year in Iraq. Pilgrimage had not provided me with the jewel, but polished it and revealed its splendor; but now I needed time to figure out how to keep it safe until I could come back and begin the work of sharing it with those who were seeking it.
I went to Canada, popular destination of those seeking shelter from dubious wars. I spent a couple of days tooling around in Vancouver, then headed over the Rockies to my real destination, Banff, a resort town tucked into the east side of the range. Driving the Rockies in the middle of winter should not be undertaken lightly even on the widest and cleanest of American interstates; nonetheless, I felt sure a road called “the Trans-Canada Highway” would not be a small, steep, mostly unlit mountain pass lacking even reflectors or guard rails along the curves.
The drive was harrowing. I left on the 23rd, two days after the shortest day of the year, so no matter how early I left I would have been driving in the dark for a significant portion of the trip. But as I traveled inland and upland, British Columbia’s perpetual winter rains turned to snow, and as I passed one vehicle after another that had slid into a ditch or flipped onto its side, and as the “road” degenerated into two black ruts weaving uncertainly through slick, dirty snowpack, I began to realize I was in for a long, dangerous night.
But I had company, as my shoulders ached from keeping constant tension on the steering wheel; while I peered into the dancing darkness looking for the next place where the highway would fling itself with nihilistic abandon to the left or right, Wendy Hoopes of Daria fame was reading Sabina Murray’s A Carnivore’s Inquiry aloud to me. Ms. Hoopes, who played Jane Lane, Daria’s deadpan fellow-sufferer in high school, brought much the same sense of aloof and bitterly amused detachment to this reading, mirroring the book’s sly determination to hold back how much of the story is really a dark comedy.
It’s a story about a young woman of desperate and depressing worldview, one of those characters from Nersesian or James Salter who drift through awful, dry-rotted relationships and think deeply about art and have nothing to contribute to the world but fail to contribute in a witty, self-aware, and annoyingly charming way.
Still, she was a good companion in the high Rockies, obssessed as she was with the extreme conditions under which men have resorted to cannibalism. Of course there were shipwrecks — most famously the Essex, a partial inspiration for Moby-Dick, and the Medusa, which inspired a painting by Géricault. Katherine discusses this painting in detail, but the stories that meant the most to me, obviously, were the horror stories about foolhardy and ill-fated attempts to cross America’s forbidding range during the winter. She mentions the Donner Party, obviously, but spends more time on solitary and questionable figures like Alferd Packer. Packer took a group of prospectors out into the San Juan Mountains in 1874 to search for gold and other minerals. But the group planned poorly and the winter was harsh; supplies fell short rather rapidly. Details got murky after that, but two months later Packer emerged from the frozen and windy mountains looking surprisingly unthin and providing curious and unconvincing tales about what had happened to the others.
Both Ms. Murray and Katherine take a certain amount of joy in imagining the final interactions between Packer and his associates. And as I threaded my way through narrow, icy passes, the light of my headlamps falling away in a curtain of snow and dark, I, too, felt a grim friction of pleasure in considering the worst fates of those who had crossed this range before, on foot or in wagons, and without heaters or fleece hats. But that kind of pleasure is the above-ground, intellectual portion of a fear, an awe whose roots creep down deep into the soil of the heart. Because they are vaster, grander, and infinitely more powerful than you, the mountains in winter put you in direct contact with the ultimate, universal question: does the world — does God — care about us? If everything in nature is a reflection of some aspect of the Lord, what are we to make of the vast, harsh, unforgiving forces — the mountains, the sea — in the face of which we are made small, puny, insignificant? Is it any wonder that men, driven to extremes of survival, might be forced to eat the flesh of other men? But likewise, is it any wonder that, as Katherine observes in the novel, people once driven to such extremes might develop a taste for that kind of domination over other human beings? After being brought face to face with their utter powerlessness, some may kneel and pray, but others may seek to assert their strength over something, someone, somehow.
Banff is primarily a winter sports resort. Nearly everyone I met there asked, “Do you snowboard?” I don’t. I had gone to Banff because I heard it was beautiful, and so during my days I would go out and walk. On my first day, with little but half-remembered directions from a snowboarder to some set of steps up the side of a mountain that I never found, I set out along the main road running past the hostel, and went a couple of miles into the mountains, enjoying, now that I wasn’t driving them, the fearsome swoop of the roads through the evergreens and snow. Most signs of civilization (aside from the road itself) quickly, quietly dropped away, but a parking lot near an overlook marked, at least, something pretty to look at, and, as it turned out, a trailhead. This trail, perhaps a mile, ran the edge of a steep dropoff into a wide valley, where a river, in springtime, ran and turned and split and rejoined itself; now it was frozen. The trail itself actually split soon enough, one side running along the very edge, up a series of low, wide steps now covered with ice and snow, the other side a smoother, more conventional trail following a small ridge uphill. The trail closest to the edge afforded the best views, of course, and also access to the signs and diagrams explaining the views — if you needed such a thing. I marched swiftly up the icy path, although my boot had begun to come apart and moisture was seeping in, every now and then sending a chill through my sock.
At a certain point, I stumbled out between the trees onto the real view — the moment when you are exposed before the forbidding majesty of Mt. Rundle, when the mountain gazes across the valley at you, huge, brutal as a stone knife, unforgiving. If the sea is the mystery of God, His vast depths in which uncounted pearls are hidden, the mountain is the blunt symbol of His power, His sheer awesome grandeur. It took me back to Murray’s book, back to men driven to awful lengths by the pressure of a force so vast and yet so terrifyingly uninterested in us. I could see it easily — the desire for greatness and adventure that caused men to climb those high, treeless ridges, and the way such endless rising walls of rock and ice, one after the other, must have been too much for them. What on earth were our ancestors thinking? What kind of courage, all but unsummonable for most of us fleshy moderns who have our food delivered to us by Sysco, must it have taken to stand before that massive, brooding shoulder of unimpressed stone, or look down into that river frozen solid and unresponsive on the valley floor, and think that one could even survive here? I wanted to lie down in front of that mountain and die in the cold.
By chance, though, I looked to my right. And there, directly in the path of the river and tucked neatly into the vast cleavage of two mountains, was the Banff Springs Hotel. Built in 1886, it was explicitly meant to take advantage of the railroad that was being laid through the heart of Canada as well as the fashion for spas and getaways then exploding among mad Victorians with too much money and imaginary maladies. And there it sits, a ridiculous pimple of cheerful commercial optimism on the ass of God’s creation, absolutely ruining the effect of all that austerity — and for that reason, I find it comforting. I imagine all the people in that warm hotel who are so overly heated that they go out and play in the snow all day, paying thousands of dollars to glide very quickly downhill. Are they any weirder than I am, driving thousands of miles to walk out into the snow to ponder the intimidating awfulness of God’s creation?
But I wasn’t done yet. From the overlook point the trail stumbled away and looked around indecisively. Then it seemed to pick up some heart and made a thin, determined line into the trees. I followed it and started thinking about God’s more mundane terrors. I started wondering how far away from civilization you have to walk, in this kind of landscape, before you start to find the wildlife. Is a mile from the parking lot far enough for a mountain lion, a bear? In midwinter hungry animals are everywhere, trails crisscrossing the snowy path, birds, rabbits, small cats, coyotes, deer, and larger predators. I found spoor on the trail a couple of times and, more disturbing, the fresh tracks of something small and vulnerable and, picking them up and following, something larger and doglike.
There’s an argument to be made, vis-a-vis God and suffering, that all the terrible things that happen to us are, in some way, for our spiritual edification — presumably up to and including being eaten by Alfred Packer in the Sierras. Whatever ills we suffer in this world only strengthen our faith and our reliance on God, and our compensation in the next world will be so great as to render pain in this one a very cheap cost indeed. This is appealing, as far as it goes — and it goes a long way. It nearly removes the whole problem of theodicy, and if there were nothing in the universe but human beings, it would probably carry us across the finish line.
The trouble, as I see it, is that we are not alone. God has created a universe far vaster than our meager concerns, and it is not only human beings, with our consciousness and eternal souls, who suffer. Granted that we may derive strength and wisdom and spiritual grace from all the persecutions of this world — but what is that to the sickly deer felled by wolves or the rabbit who lives his life in a perpetual state of alert agitation, always sniffing for foxes? Or, to look at it from another perspective, what is it like to be a hungry wolf, when all the deer have fled or died of illness? The world is terrible, filled with pain and bloody death, and not just for us, but for unthinking creatures who, having no eternal part, can presumably derive no benefit from it.
When I found the first pile of spoor, I began to feel the icy trickle of alienation from the gorgeous, snow-blanketed scenery. I was out here in the woods in the most naked way possible — without the tools of either modern or ancient men, without even a pocketknife to protect myself. I picked up a small but sturdy-looking stick with one sharp end — pretty decent if I were able to make just the right strike, but what was the likelihood of that if a mountain lion came at me with claws and teeth ready? It was stupid to go on — I could see there were animals out here, some of whom might be hungry or simply irascible — but it was equally stupid to go back — I was perhaps three miles from the Banff youth hostel, after all; I was not Jeremiah Johnson. I stood frozen for a few moments, trying to figure out where reason lay, and then I went on.
I kept going for a good while, daring nature, half fearing and half hoping for that primal confrontation. But, like the Banff Springs Hotel, I had no part in the austerity of this scene; I was a silly, festive thing that clomped heavily in the woods and confused both prey and predators, half rhinoceros and half peacock. Nothing was going to attack me. I walked, unmolested, as the trail split and split again, down to the capillary level, until finally it became no more than random spaces between the trees. When I had started into the woods, the trail had been covered with bootprints as well as animal tracks. Indeed, one might have believed, at the start, that the trail was manmade, another sign of our ability to trample nature before us. But a mile or a mile and a half in, it became narrow, made by smaller and nimbler feet than ours, and began to dart unpredictably around trees. First there were fewer bootprints, and then the ones that were there were soft and shallow, deformed by recent snowfalls, and then finally there were none.
Then I succumbed to more realistic concerns that if I kept going I might miss a turn on the way back and be out here after dark. I turned around, following my own footsteps, carefully distinguishing which prints were mine where the trail forked and split. I made it easily back to the parking lot, and back to the youth hostel, where I cooked dinner and chatted with a couple from Quebec while another group made their own dinner and drank too much and called each other silly names in French until it was time to go to bed in a warm room full of people.