Wednesday, January 14, 2009

among mountains and clouds

My attention drifts with the sights of Vancouver's skyline as I wind through the city streets. It's turning dark. Humidity drizzles from the sky. A caravan of three minivans carries a group of skiers that have converged from various outposts - Anchorage, Alaska, Wenatchee,Washington, Park City, Utah - to the capitol and most populous environ of British Columbia. The caravan snakes its way through Friday night's stop-and-go traffic. Modern towers and high-rise condominiums along the waterfront. The occasional Burberry store and clean-swept sidewalks with hedges groomed to the nines speak of the city's affluence. And its influence. In just over a year, the best sliders, skaters, skiers, hockey players and curlers will descend into Vancouver for the 2010 Olympic Games.

After passing by and taking in the eye-candy roaming around the University of British Columbia we roll through the forested grove of Stanley Park. The canopy of Western Red Cedar, Doug Fir and Western Hemlock reach heavenward, at times upwards of 250 feet.

The green, narrow-leafed Western giants remind me of my latest book, Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean. The book unravels a story about the universe's four forces at work - sky, fire, earth and young men during a fire in the Gates of the Mountains in Montana, a wilderness area just east of the Missouri River. Partway down a ridge between the Mann and Meriwether gulleys sixteen Smokejumpers descended upon the burning forest just before the it turns into a blow-up, the most deadly - and least understood - fire. Of the sixteen, thirteen would never return.

"Smokejumpers were the fastest the nation had in getting to where there was danger," wrote Maclean. "They got there by moving in the magic realm between heaven and earth. When they got to a fire, they almost made a game of it. None were surer they could not lose than the Seventh Cavalry and the Smokejumpers."

Young Men and Fire is the story of how America's best and bravest got into more than a game with fire. The crown fire helped start bundles of spot fires. These turned into firewhirls, which in turn became the worst kind of blow-up known as a Halocaust that enveloped four square miles in ten minutes. A forty-foot wall of flame raced up the 76 degree Mann Gulch slope at seven and one-half miles an hour. All but three young woodsmen would suffocate, then burn to death within sight of the ridgeline. Young Men and Fire is a terrible tale. I highly recommend it.

In time, the evergreens give way to the Lion's Gate Suspension Bridge, named after the pair of peaks that definitively end the city's northern expansion.

Inside the Dodge, Gang of Four's on heavy rotation. The Leeds, England outfit cranks out a harsh, funk/punk sound with distraught lyrics layed atop.

Ought to control what I do with my mind
Nothing in there but sunshades for the blind

Love'll get you like a case of anthrax
And that's something I don't want to catch

Listening to Gang of Four comes as a sort of baptism by fire. The guitars, the beat, the lyrics hit immediately. I can imagine Dave Allen's slap and speed bass playing influence on Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist's own style when he says, "The Gang of Four is the first rock band I could truly relate to. These limies rocked my world."

Go4 guitarist Andy Gill even left U2's Bono with a sort of superior-inferiority complex. "Hard. Angular. Bold. Andy Gill's chin is the black hole of '90s music we should have all disappeared into if we had any sense; a dimple atop the body politic, a pimple on the arse of pop. A Gang of Four metal guru, a corporation of common sense, a smart bomb of text that had me at home feeling like a typist."

After a sushi stop in Squamish, the road winds higher along the Sea2Ski Corridor to Whistler. For the next ten days - and the fourth time this year - this valley has become my home; to breathe in its maritime air, get lost and found in its fog, to slide on its various configurations of snow crystals. And dream out loud. My first chance to do this is Friday, January 16th when the World Cup makes its debut on the Whistler Olympic courses.

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