Somehow, I managed to not know of poet and memoirist Mark Doty until Lighthouse Writers Workshop brought him to the Denver area over the weekend. Friends raved about him, so I attended a “Writers Studio”, a combination of poetry reading and interview on Saturday, and his craft talk on Sunday. That the first event took place at the American Mountaineering Center, in Golden, CO, home of the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC), interested me. When I first moved to Denver, more than four years ago, and before I knew Lighthouse existed, I spent many hours there building my outdoors skills in workshops. How would I feel as these two seemingly disparate worlds — mountain climbing and writing — intersected?
As an East Coast transplant in 2008, I joined the CMC to meet other hikers and go on trips. I learned that if I wanted to participate in challenging excursions to higher peaks, I’d need to complete Wilderness Trekking School, a five week seminar with classroom lectures and field days. Having summited most of New England’s tallest peaks and completed leadership training with the Appalachian Mountain Club, I balked at the time commitment and chafed at starting over. But, not being accustomed to Colorado’s altitude and extreme weather, I chose humility and enrolled instead of seeking an exemption.
On Tuesday evenings, dozens of us assembled in the auditorium. Then, I sat alone, my anxiety ratcheting skyward as seasoned instructors regaled us about back-country dangers: avalanches in winter, lightning in summer, plus the year round risks of hypothermia, altitude sickness and dehydration, not to mention wildlife (mountain lions and bears!). Later, we broke into smaller groups. My cohort’s lead teacher, a hoary man missing half a finger, had seemingly hibernated during the feminist movement. He tossed sexist and “sissy” comments around like firecrackers, even though most of our group was female, even though his co-teachers tried to quiet him. Having moved to Colorado for easier access to the mountains, I wondered if that leap of faith had been a colossal mistake. Was Colorado not just 2,000 miles away but, culturally speaking, more than two decades behind? Turning around was not an option so I sucked it up and tried to focus on the content: tying knots, navigating with map and compass, erecting temporary shelters, digging snow caves, and starting fires with just a single match. Another gal and I shocked the teacher when we succeeded, coaxing our pile of pine needles to burn on the first try, while his pet protégé, a lanky 20-something with peach fuzz for a beard, failed this exercise miserably. Luckily, the dozens of hikes I’ve done since have not called upon any of those skills, although like every other CMC member, I dutifully schlepped a backpack full of gear…just in case.
This past weekend, seeing the warm, erudite and witty Mark Doty on that same stage was a refreshing relief. Sitting among friends and fellow writers, a balm. Doty (who, if you did not know, is gay and a Manhattanite) remarked that reading poetry at a mountaineering center was, well, unusual for him. But, in a way, the venue was fitting. The following day, at his craft talk, he said that, when we write, we enter the wilderness. Or wildness? Even though we are indoors, safe from the elements, we bushwhack through our hearts and psyches. We step into murky emotional territory, where sturdy leather boots offer no protection. We arrive at dark or unfamiliar places in our interiors, where strapping on an LED headlamp is not going to help. Powerful feelings and memories might whip us like wind, but zipping up a Gore-Tex jacket will not lessen the sting. Or maybe we might write easily for a while then hit a block, as if we’ve been merrily walking a groomed trail but encounter a larger boulder or felled tree smack in the middle. Do we turn back and give up? Climb over it? Backtrack and find an alternate route?
As I keep learning, writing truthfully can feel just as frightening as being exposed above treeline in a thunder storm, and just as daunting as discovering that one has gotten lost and, although exhausted and sore, needs to turn around, head back uphill, and find one’s way again. And again. It’s unlikely that we’ll light a literary blaze on our first try. Doty offered some (weightless) tools for navigating the writing journey. The tense we use,whether we write in first, second or third person, the arrangement or order, all can lead us closer to, or further from, the truth. With writing, there are no clearly marked trails. The only certainty, really, is that writing is not for “sissies”.