Natural Scenery

Excerpt: Nick Offerman on Climbing a Glacier With Jeff Tweedy

In Nick Offerman’s recently released book Where the Deer and the Antelope Play, America’s favorite Renaissance Man and New York Times bestselling author puts down his cell phone and explores the natural beauty of America’s great outdoors. A paean to outdoor experiences, Offerman takes us on “a rousing tour of America’s most beautiful places as well as a mission statement about loving, protecting, and experiencing the outdoors.”

In this excerpt from the book, our esteemed author travels to Montana’s Glacier National Park with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and author and fellow adventurer George Saunders. Injuries are suffered but in the end, the men live to tell their tale.

This is the big one. Everything has been leading up to this. [Our guide] Jon had planned the week so that our distances and inclines gradually increased in difficulty in order to condition us for today’s hike to the Grinnell Glacier. Covering 10.5 miles round trip, and a rise of 1,600 feet, we art boys had our work cut out for us. If that wasn’t clear already, it really hit home when Jon huddled us up in the parking lot and delivered a sedate guide speech.

“This hike is going to differ from the others in that it will put us more than two hours from definitive medical care, which means this is a backcountry hike, as opposed to a front-country hike.”

He went on to basically explain that he would establish a “sphere of acceptable risk,” as in “You kids stay near me,” and that we would all now agree to trust his guidance when it came to navigating hazards, from crossing snowy slopes, to pushing through fatigue, to possible bear encounters. We all agreed, with minimal wisecracking, and we mothered each other through an assessment of our clothing layers, since we were starting in shorts and T-shirts but would end up in the snow on a glacier (!). After double-checking our stores of water and food, we set off.

I was glad we had walked through the aspens, firstly just for the pure enjoyment of the setting — hearing the morning birdsong while ambling along with friends, admiring clear lake waters through trees. On top of that, I have this stubborn propensity for being a completist. For example, if I say to my bunkmates in a prison camp that I can “eat 50 eggs,” even if it causes me great physical distress, you best believe I’m going to eat 50 damn eggs, with no cheating either. This has proven to be extremely the case with me and hikes for which I have a map and pertinent statistics. For some reason I apparently take it as a challenge when an app tells me that such-and-such moderate route is seven miles, and it should take three hours to finish. It’s not that I want to race the suggested time, I just want to feel like I’ve consumed the entire feature, which also means that I eschew any proffered shortcuts. So if our guide takes us on a 10-and-a-half-mile hike, and we were to spend two miles sitting on our duffs in the extravagant pleasure of a boat, I would feel somehow cheated. Megan, my bride, loves this quality in me, when she says, “Can we go back now? I have a blister,” and a look of intense consternation falls upon my mug, as I have to gently talk myself out of the idea that my wife is asking me to fail.

“We came upon a section of trail that featured a tall, sheer rock wall on the right side and a pretty good drop-off to the left of the trail — an extremely dangerous fall, if not lethal.”

Once the path took us above the forest and the lakes, we entered a couple of gorgeous miles of vegetation, including cow parsnip, my beloved huckleberries, and bear grass. There was some disagreement in local opinions on whether bear grass was so called because bears like to eat it, especially the blossoms, or because bears use the leaves and stalks to line their dens. Either way, it was right pretty and quite prevalent. We did see a moose cow eating some later in the day, but I would want to collect considerably more data before suggesting we change the name to “moose grass.”

Our progress proceeded relatively unhindered as we strode higher and higher up the side of the mountain valley. We passed a cool woman standing off to one side of the trail on a rock, painting the magnificent view on a small canvas perched on a little easel. She looked a bit enchanted, like she was always there, greeting passersby with mirth and mellow vibes. Her mere appearance had me half wondering, “Why am I not doing that with my life?”

We came upon a section of trail that featured a tall, sheer rock wall on the right side and a pretty good drop-off to the left of the trail — an extremely dangerous fall, if not lethal. The path was simply a horizontal shelf of the shale and limestone bedrock, maybe eight feet wide. It felt relatively safe but would have been undoubtedly safer had it not been for the waterfall tumbling down the rock wall and splashing across the foot-path. The circumstance required carefully placed steps, especially once the ice-cold water began to heavily fall upon you. With calm focus, one at a time, we crossed to safety. I never felt particularly in danger, but a powerful exhilaration at the combination of the waterfall’s effects and the potential hazard.

Nearing the top of our hike, we were able to look down below us at a view of Lower Grinnell Lake, and it was truly exquisite. The saturated turquoise color, surrounded by conifers, slopes, and mountain peaks, all beneath a cerulean sky patched variably with puffs of cloud, imprinted itself in my memory so effectively that I am still able to recall the exact scene and the shadows of the clouds playing across the lake’s surface, rendering it endlessly fascinating to look at.

nick offerman where the deer and the antelope play

For me, this was the epitome of what John Muir was talking about in his championing of such singular natural scenery — here was a visual sensation that could only be achieved in this very anomalous and specialized location. Nature is, by definition, all around us, no matter where we are, but here was Mother Nature achieving something exceptional even for her, or so it seemed to us humans. Why is that? I wondered. What is it about this random arrangement of elements, pushed and molded into this particular configuration, that made it so much more glorious to my eye than a seemingly more mundane miracle, like watch- ing a “plain old” tomato bloom and grow into a delicious, pendulous ball of juice and flavor?

We arrived at the top of the hike — the so-called Grinnell Glacier. When the fellow for whom this once-enormous mass of ice was named, George Bird Grinnell, arrived in this valley on a hunting expedition in 1885, he looked up and gazed in wonder upon the full 710 acres of the glacier’s nineteenth-century breadth. Of course, after a century and a half of slow (and then not-so-slow) climate change, that area has shrunk to about 152 acres currently. At the end of the Little Ice Age in 1850, the area that would become Glacier National Park boasted 150 named glaciers. Today, the number of active glaciers has melted down to 25, and continues to dwindle.

No matter how bleak the overall story may be, this was our first glacier, and so we were quite taken with it once we stopped and put on our down coats. Observing the remains of the glacier itself, tracing the topographical effects of the glacier and its runoff on the vast, entire view, and then straight freaking out at the insane rock formations beneath the glacier filled an hour with wonder and excited exclamations from us, like we were a few boys let loose in the woods for the first time.

“Awesome! You guys, come here, check it out!”

“I was feeling the tax of our morning’s lengthy climb in my legs, but we took our time with the pace and did our best to land each step gently.”

It was a lot to take in, and we were glad to then sit down on a comfy rock and put away a bunch of calories. My mainstays were almond butter, beef jerky, string cheese, trail mix, PB&J, and locally baked energy bars. And as I have said, there’s nothing like a chilly spot for a thermos of coffee/tea. The warmth you maintain while hiking can quickly dissipate when you stop, but then when you pause for that needed rest, maybe the nurturing beverage warming your fingers and your belly is well worth the price of admission, and then some.

Well rested and fed, we repacked and shouldered our bags to begin the descent. We reapplied sunscreen, especially necessary when walking on/around snow, because of the reflection. The fast-moving, heavy clouds and the change in time only served to reinforce the truism that the scenery on the way back/down looks like an entirely new route every time. I was feeling the tax of our morning’s lengthy climb in my legs, but we took our time with the pace and did our best to land each step gently.

On the way up, we had crossed a couple of steeply pitched snow fields that were twenty or thirty yards across, by digging our boots into the icy snow sideways, so that the “uphill” edge of each boot dug a good grip into the stuff. Taking our time, it was easily done.

By the time we had returned to that spot, however, the sun had warmed the mountainside enough that the snow was softer and less ideal for the boot-edge-digging technique. Jon was understandably a bit nervous about sending the three of us across the slope, but we had all exhibited enough capability thus far that he decided we could go for it. Jeff went first, slowly and gingerly bedding his boot edges in the existing tracks from all the morning’s previous hikers. The steepness of the hill made it almost possible to keep your left hand, the uphill hand, on the incline as you went, with the ground slanting away drastically downhill.

Jeff, therefore, had his Yeti water bottle dangling in his right hand, which seemed like it could become a problem if Jeff should lose his balance and need that hand to stabilize himself. Jon clearly thought as much, as he rushed up after Jeff had taken his first couple of steps and said, “Give me that bottle.”

“We all froze as Jeff wobbled, ever so slightly, which was all the wet snowpack needed to fail him and allow his boots to slip out.”

I understood Jon’s anxiety, but he probably should have let him be, as it turned out that Jeff’s water bottle was actually acting as a sort of counterweight in his precarious balancing of the hazard. We all froze as Jeff wobbled, ever so slightly, which was all the wet snowpack needed to fail him and allow his boots to slip out. He slid frighteningly fast on mostly snow and some gravel, handling it coolly, spreading himself out to lower his center of gravity and increase the friction drag on his extremities. Thankfully he slid to a stop after about forty feet, and we all shouted words of shock and relief. It was goddamn scary, but for just a few seconds.

Jeff was a little shaken up but quite manageably crossed the lower slope and rejoined the trail a few dozen yards on down. We all hugged him and inspected him for injuries. Nothing broken, but his right knee and shin exhibited what we used to call “road rash” (they were well abraded and bleeding, like he had wiped out on his dirt bike on pavement). Jon produced an ample supply of hydrogen peroxide, gauze, and bandage, the immediate value of which was a great endorsement for carrying first-aid supplies when embarking upon a ramble.

Once the shock wore off and he realized that he was going to survive, it dawned on our midtempo troubadour that his defiance of death was yet further evidence that he was the absolute hero of the story of this epic trip. After we helped him wash off his leg and continue back down the trail, he insisted that his achievements, namely the rescue of George’s glasses and now this Evel Knievel–caliber action, should be celebrated. He should be lionized, he crowed. So much so that he had us wishing that maybe things had gone a different direction back up on the snow slope of death.

Soon enough we came upon the Platonic ideal of a tumbling little mountain spring, falling and splashing past us, on down the mountain. Jon was extremely proud of what he was about to announce.

“[Jeff’s] full weight fell onto the offending boulder via his right buttock, and then he toppled from that seated position off onto his side on the ground.”

“You can drink this icy-cold, crystal-clear glacial melt, as it’s literally been frozen for millennia up until today, when it melted and flowed down this valley side. Because we’re so close to the source, and the source is so pristine, you can drink from this creek without fear of giardia, and…”

We continued heading down the mountain, walking in reverential silence now, out of respect for the religious experience that had been the day’s adventure thus far, broken occasionally by Jeff’s suggesting good spots to perhaps assemble a plinth or cairn commemorating his worthy feats. The going was a bit dogged, as the path was rocky, relatively steep, and often wet. One state of affairs that had my attention was the now-and-again occurrence of small boulders situated so that they acted as uneven, descending steps, which was neat and fun, so long as they were dry. Each step down was like a mini-jump, landing one’s boot accurately and securely on each stone. When they would sometimes be wet, however, resulting from any of a number of small streams flowing onto the path and then off again, they struck me as potentially treacherous.

No sooner had I completed this thought, than right in front of me, I saw Jeff’s boot slide off of just such a boulder, causing his feet to slip right out from under him. His full weight fell onto the offending boulder via his right buttock, and then he toppled from that seated position off onto his side on the ground. It was scarier than the snow tumble, because we saw his body sustain what looked like a much more damaging blow.

Trying not to panic, we immediately gathered around Jeff. Jon, to his credit, kept a cool guide’s head and knew all the right questions to ask. Jeff maintained an impressive calm as we got his pack off him and he lay across the trail. He asked us to help position him so that his head was below the rest of his body, so we configured him thus that a slightly lower rock would act as a pillow. Breathing deeply to maintain his equanimity, Jeff explained that he suffered from a panic disorder, and to make matters worse, anxiety could cause him to simply pass out cold due to a condition known as a vasovagal response. His doctor had instructed him to keep his head lower than his body in instances like this — potentially serious injury, with a safe outcome yet to be determined — so that the quick drop in blood pressure wouldn’t exacerbate his condition, possibly causing a blackout.

“I thought this was a very healthy example of a person suffering from anxiety using his knowledge and experience to reason himself away from panic.”

Mind you, we still had a couple hours of this arduous walking in front of us. I know that Jon, George, and myself were all pretty worried about the possibility that Jeff wouldn’t be able to fully hoof it on his own power. I was already imagining methods by which we could assist him, if indeed he did need to be carried out. When Jon had given us his safety talk at the top of the day, he’d mentioned that in the case of bodily injury severe enough to require extraction, a rescue chopper could be hours away, so things were slightly tense for a few minutes.

Hang on. Everybody just take a breath. Fear not, gentle reader. Let’s not forget who it is we’re dealing with here. In what seemed like no time at all, Jeff said he felt like he was okay, like we could keep heading down the trail. We helped him to his feet; he made a few jokes at his own expense, like any true hero; and he slung his pack back upon those shoulders that now seemed like they could bear any weight whatsoever that the world might dump upon them.

He really did march all the way back down the trail without complaint, and now it was our turn to sing his praises. Our positivity was about 85 percent sincere and 15 percent that parental psych-out, wherein you tell your child, “Wow, what a big, brave boy! You walk the best of all the boys!” in the hopes that your Jeff will be convinced to press on even in the face of minor pain.

Eventually he began to wonder aloud about having any internal injuries from the jarring collision of his body and the small boulder. Jon explained that, from his observations of how Jeff hit the rock, he would most likely end up with only a “contused glute,” which is a scientific term meaning “real sore ass.” Jeff replied that he felt like he was in danger not so much physically as psychologically.

I thought this was a very healthy example of a person suffering from anxiety using his knowledge and experience to reason himself away from panic. He named his fear out loud to us, his compatriots, and asked us to help him talk himself off the ledge. I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly had mysterious symptoms upon some night in the past, and made the mistake of asking the internet to weigh in on what my condition might entail. Without fail, no matter what variegated details I offered up, the answer always came back, “You’ll soon be dead, please be sure your affairs are in order.” I have found it to be quite easy to terrify myself thus, and I don’t remotely suffer from anxiety, so I doffed my cap to Jeff for keeping his keel so even.

I have hiked a lot of trails in a lot of different places on the planet, but for the time being, when someone mentions anything like “getting out into gorgeous nature,” it is this magnificent day hiking to the Grin- nell Glacier that springs to mind. Grinnell himself and his buddies Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir knew just what they were about when they successfully advocated for the preservation and upkeep of such pristine locations (just don’t ask the Blackfeet), and while I am extremely grateful, I also wonder if there is a way for us Americans to better understand that this heavenly scenery is but a tiny part of the nature in which we live every day. Indeed, the nature of which we are an intrinsic, inseparable part.

From WHERE THE DEER AND THE ANTELOPE PLAY: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside by Nick Offerman with permission from Dutton, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.  Copyright © 2021 by Nick Offerman

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