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by Ron Wetherington

In the northernmost reaches of New Mexico, where the spine of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains separates Taos from Mora County, rise some of the more rugged wilderness areas in the country. Here at the timberline, on craggy outcrops threatening imminent collapse beneath the next winter storm, only life’s remnants survive. Grotesquely shaped bristlecone pines cling to these outcrops, stunted by cold, whipped into shape by wind, fed by nutrients seeping into cracks where stubborn roots pry. They are the oldest of our living forms, some surviving for over four millennia.

The land here is scarred and wrinkled. Born deep in crustal time, it was thrust upward and folded over in measured violence. Life crept up here grudgingly; through dynasties of struggle, it established its fragile purchase. Still, few animals survive this height. Flying insects are banished by the constant wind.

Life here is willful or forsaken, the proper adjective depending on one’s frame of mind. The reward for climbing here, for braving the elements and risking injury and resisting fatigue, is in immersing in the primeval. For the disconsolate, it is in putting things back together.

But there is meager enthusiasm in the adventure: the allure of this high country emerges after reaching it, not in getting here. There is little to commend the stretching agony of lungs seeking air, the protest of strained muscles resisting the next step, the weakening mental concentration in an oxygen-challenged brain—all the assembled tyrannies of the body. The trek upward is dodgy. At the top, the mind must reassert itself.


In a meadow near the land’s edge, I collapse on the mossy surface amid the bunchgrass. On its fringe blistered white pines hunker. Above, the sun is a blinding white in the thin blue cloudless sky. The light pitch of the stiff wind, a constant companion during the climb, is the only sound.

I lift a cooling drink from my backpack, then lie back and close my eyes. It takes time to recover from the effort. I am mindful of the slowing pulse, the receding flow through tissues, the softening tension in my limbs. I take deep breaths, hastening a wave of calmness, and begin a ritual of reflection, absorbing, releasing thoughts of near misses, of lost loves, of bungled chances. It’s reclamation I seek, not redemption.

When I trek here, I come alone, not because the world up here is fragile, but because I am. There is a decent contrast here: the arresting strength of the wilderness encountering my own weaknesses. The quiet immersion is good for me.

When I leave, somehow reaffirmed, I honor a pledge of leaving behind only my footprints. The wilderness has left in me its own. The difference, of course, is that I am the one strengthened. The mountain remains impassive and unconcerned: it has heard these stories before.

Ron Wetherington is a retired anthropologist living in Dallas, Texas. He retired from Southern Methodist University in 2017 after 52 years of research and teaching. He has a published novel, Kiva (Sunstone, 2014), creative non-fiction, including prose-poems, in The Dillydoun Review, Literary Yard, and The Ekphrastic Review, and short fiction in Words & Whispers, Adanna, Androids & Dragons, and in Flash Fiction Magazine.