by Sean McCleary
A map can save your life. Say you’re lost midway in the gulf between two known tracks, miles of wilderness around you on all sides. You spot a landmark, you pull out your map and compass, and you can make a bee line for salvation.
My friend Jim has hiked and skied all through the Bridger, Crazy, Madison, and Gallatin ranges—often venturing where people may or may not have ever stepped before—and yet it was a map of his wife that saved him. Let me explain.
I’ve known Jim since high school. We were on the ski team, and we were the two guys who were always lagging, giving us time and opportunity to strike up a friendship. Our slacking was for very different reasons, though: I knew I couldn’t compete with the best, and I wanted the excuse that I didn’t try as hard. Jim just couldn’t focus on something so simple and artificial as a running drill.
But then once it was his turn to ski, I loved how skillful he was without seeming to think about it—quick from edge to edge, unflappable balance. His body—compact, almost small—didn’t look powerful, but I knew he could squat as much as most of the linemen on the football team.
We hiked together in the summers and fished and watched movies on my folks’ VCR, but I always felt that we were heading in different directions. I would go to a university and Jim to who-knows-what—he didn’t seem to think about it much.
I went to college in Chicago, then law school. I lived there for nine years in all, but I saw Jim most times I was home. For a few years, he worked odd jobs all summer—road paving crews, telephone line repair—and took a few months in the winter just to ski. I remember one time when I was home on a break he told me that he was never going to take another ski lift, he’d hike for all his turns. And he’s done it.
I heard about Jim even while I was away through my mother. My father died my third year in college (he was old already when my parents had me), and Jim would do yard work and fix things around the house for my mom. My mother told me she tried to pay him once but he wouldn’t take it.
Jim met a girl who was at Montana State, Lisa. I went home one summer, and they were living together. They had an obvious and immediate camaraderie. She would hike and ski with him. She studied biology, and he would carry stuff into the woods for her experiments or stay in a tent with her for however long she needed to observe some species of rodent. For them, this whole love thing seemed so simple and so natural. My mother immediately wanted to adopt Lisa when she noticed Jim wearing clean shirts while he shopped at the food co-op or sat at the picnic benches in the park.
Jim and Lisa got married without telling anyone until it was over. My mother had to celebrate, though, and we all went out to dinner. I remember steak and red wine and chocolate cake and laughter. Lisa got a job teaching science in an elementary school. Jim got a paramedic certification and started driving an ambulance on the evening shift, which left him all morning and afternoon to be outside. It wasn’t unusual for him to start a hike before dawn, say at four in the morning, in order to get to the peak he wanted just as the snow conditions became ideal.
I swear that Jim and Lisa never squabbled. She not only let him do his thing, but she loved him more when he came home shining with excitement from what he’d found. And he was so obviously at peace when she was near.
I met the girl I would marry a few years later, and I decided to move back home as soon as I could get a job with a firm there. It took about a year, but then my wife and I drove our city apartment’s worth of furniture to a house on the edge of town. Jim helped us unload, often running, carrying twice as much as I could.
A few days later, I went out on a hike with Jim. The open sky, the dirt: this was why I had left the city and come back home. Jim drove to an unmarked trailhead, bumping over a dirt track that had been a stream earlier in the year. We left the recognizable trail quickly enough, and Jim navigated by compass, map, and calculation. We got near the summit of Chestnut Mountain, but were stopped by a cap of ice and snow. I was happy with the view and the exercise, but Jim had brought crampons and ice axe, and while I waited, he deftly scaled the final ridge to stand on the peak.
On the way down, Jim told me about other routes he had taken to this peak and what the mountain was like in other seasons—from the dangers of winter, when whole fields of snow could break loose, to the glories of spring, bright sun and a solid snow pack. He pointed out other mountains and other routes as we got glimpses of them across the valley—all of which he had climbed.
Impressive as Jim’s climbing was, I learned that he was the worst person in the world to get directions from. His detail of observation would get a normal mind lost. By the time you obeyed his direction to “follow the right banking turn up a slight incline, until you have a good view of the southwest face of Baldy Mountain on your left (there’s a little line up there I keep thinking might be skiable in a big snow year; you’ll see what I mean),” you forgot whether to turn right or left on Willow Road.
My wife and Lisa became friends, and not just because their husbands knew each other, but real woman-style, share-all-secrets, talk-about-every-problem friends. So, from this point forward, my understanding of Jim has two sources: my own friendship and reports from his wife through my wife. Jim and I would hike or ski together, but only when he wanted a really easy day and I was up for an adventure. Far more often, Jim would call me at work when he finished an outing. I always tried to take those calls, because he would still be high from adrenaline and would recount at least the crux of the trip in such relentless detail that I would find myself twisting in my chair to try to make the first turn into an icy couloir or keep my balance on a knife-edge ridge.
I heard him describe some of the same trips to Lisa, and then it was just a “good” trip and “no problems along the way.”
My wife told me that Jim and Lisa were trying to have kids a long time before he said anything about it.
After my wife and I had our first, Jim asked me, “After you have kids, that’s really it, right? You have to do what’s best for them?” Given that my son was about four weeks old—meaning I hadn’t slept in four weeks—I said yes and meant it.
After a few years they found out that Lisa had some problem that made it impossible to have kids. Jim didn’t talk about it, though he was always affectionate with my kids when he and Lisa visited, so that my wife would mutter to me, “They’d be such great parents.”
One day I picked up our local paper, and there was a picture of my old friend Jim on the first page. He had his usual Peruvian flap-eared hat on and his ineradicable brown beard. The article was headlined “The Stash Master” and the first line was something like, “Want to know the best line to ski down Saddle Peak? Jim knows but he won’t tell you. It’s the same with most of the mountains around here.” It said that he had more first descent routes in our mountains than anyone else the reporter could find, and it described his routine of hiking and skiing every day. There was also a quote from Lisa about how Jim wouldn’t be Jim without the mountains.
My wife and I would have dinner with Jim and Lisa whenever we could—though in recent years it’s gotten more and more complicated because we’ve had to find a sitter or drop the kids with my mother. Usually, the women talked over the simmering pots, while Jim and I went down to his basement. He had tacked large topographic maps on all the walls, and he would show me recent routes. Then he would talk about routes that he wanted to try next, always one step higher, a little bit more technical, further from civilization.
“It’s 1,000 feet from here to the summit,” he told me one time, pointing at one of the maps. “You can go around and up the ridge, here. But I also want to try going up a little seam in the face, about here. It looks like it’s obstructed by some cliffs, but I’ll see if I can find a way through, and if I can get up, I can ski down, and that’ll be a first. Even if it involves a small downclimb. Either way, from the top I’ll survey this face.” He spread his fingers to cover a new area.
It wasn’t long after that dinner that I heard from my wife that Lisa wasn’t happy. “She says she barely knows Jim now. He’s away all the time.” I defended him some, but she added, “It’s not that he spends his time doing it, it’s that he doesn’t care about anything else.” I had to admit that that seemed true. Age exerts slow but imperturbable force, and I thought that Jim had been caught by that advancing glacier. You should remember that this is just my take, but it seemed that he had made adventure skiing the most important part of himself. And because he wanted to excel, wanted to be worth something more than the average bear, he put more and more into that part of himself. Then, after some years, it was the only thing about him that was exceptional, his only chance. He kind of hardened around this pursuit, and all else was extraneous.
But he had so much expertise, so much skill, so much knowledge, that I still thought it was beautiful. The thought of him out there somewhere in the fields of white would cheer me when I was stuck in the world of meetings, grabby clients, and whiny kids.
After hearing about it from my wife, I saw the estrangement between Jim and Lisa. They had gone from always sitting together when they were in the same room to maintaining an immeasurable but certain separation. Their hands used to involuntarily go to each other—the way plants grow toward the sun—but now they were stunted and alone. It made me sad. I know it’s silly, but I had always seen them as purer than the rest of us. I didn’t know if Jim realized what was happening with him and Lisa, and I didn’t ask.
For some time I worried about this, though really I had a lot else in my life to keep me busy. But sometimes at work, when my secretary said Jim was calling, I wondered if he’d be asking my advice about divorce, not recounting the day’s adventure. I would meet Jim out more often than I saw him at home with Lisa. I didn’t see them both in the same place for months, I think.
Then last Wednesday I passed them walking up Main Street, their hands twined and an unconscious happiness on their faces, exactly as they’d looked fifteen years before. The snow had mostly melted in town, leaving a coating of grit and sand on everything. Jim just wore a sweater and his hat, but Lisa was wearing one of his down parkas, part of his climbing gear. I spotted them from across the street and didn’t approach but just watched them move past the new café’s plate window.
They came over to our house over the weekend, and the four of us sat together for longer than we had in a while. My kids ran through the room and out into the yard and back. Sammy, the older one, enjoys reading to people from his books, and Jim and Lisa sat through a recitation of some of the most dramatic scenes in Where the Wild Things Are. They held each other the whole time.
That night my wife told me what had happened: Jim had made a map of Lisa.
Lisa suggested it. It was brilliant.
Jim spent a long few hours measuring his wife as she lay on her back, arms at her sides, legs slightly spread, then converted all his observations into lines on paper, as if she were a glacier-shaped oddity rising out of the Great Plains. His habit of thought, so focused around routes, elevations, travel time, now sent exploratory lines out over her. I’m sure in his imagination he calculated that if one inch equaled 500 feet, Lisa became a playground of topography. And at some ratio she became the most spectacular adventure in the world.
Today Jim called me earlier than I was used to getting calls from him. He hadn’t been out skiing. He asked if I knew anything about adoption, what kinds of laws there were, what the process was. I told him I would do everything I could to help.