The San Juans near sunset

Mountain time

The San Juans near sunset
The San Juans near sunset

The sun always wakes me up. The cabin faces east, and as soon as the sun slides above the high peaks around 7 o’clock, the place fills with bright mountain sunlight. I’ve hung a thick wool blanket over the bedroom doorway to block it out, but it still creeps in and nudges me awake.

I trudge to the kitchen, open the valve on the green propane canister and light the stove with a wooden kitchen match. Nothing happens in my world before coffee. Cup in hand, I turn on the ipod and head out to the deck to ease into the day. Mornings are mostly clear and cloudless up here, with a pale blue mist that cloaks the mountains and settles into their folds. This morning, a single deer is grazing at the treeline about 50 yards from the cabin, popping up her head and twirling her big ears every 10 seconds. You gotta be alert if you’re a prey item up here.

After staring at the mountains over two cups of coffee, I fill the kettle to heat up water for the shower. It’s basically a thick plastic bag with a tube and a nozzle that I hang from a nail on the side of the cabin. I pour in a couple of kettles of hot water to top off the bag, hoist it up on a rope and shower in the open air (the deer, for the record, aren’t the least interested in this). It’s a little bit of heaven. Unless the bag empties while I’m covered with suds in the chilly morning air. That kind of sucks.

I’m easing into mountain time. The first four days in Pagosa were a little chaotic thanks to the daily burst of thunderstorms, which set off dozens of little spot fires all over the mountains. It’s been so wet that wildfire isn’t a major risk, but getting struck by lightning at 8,500 feet…

The storms were bad enough that my friend Larry – a retired American-Statesman photographer who moved to Pagosa with his wife a few years back – messaged me: it’s pretty rough out there, do you want to come over here? After that first epic night in the cabin (see my previous post) I spent more time in the condo and the local coffee shops than I did on the mountain, waiting for the storms to let up.

Yesterday the weather broke. Blue skies. I packed up, exchanged a last round of texts with a friend while I still had a cell signal, hit the grocery store for supplies and drove back up the mountain.

It’s a 20-minute drive, but it feels like going back a hundred years in time. About the only thing separating the cabin from the 19th century is electricity. Electricity is good. Electricity means a fridge and a microwave and plugs for the laptop and the ipod and the cell phone.

But without indoor plumbing, routine chores like showering and washing dishes become slower, more intricate, more deliberate. I have to haul my water up here in big 5-gallon jugs, the kind you see in office water dispensers. They’re heavy as hell. Too heavy to actually use for anything but storage. So I pour water from the big jugs into my stash of gallon jugs, then use the gallon jugs to fill the shower bag, to wash dishes in a little plastic tub, to fill my drinking water bottles. It forces me to think about how I use every drop of water. And it takes time.

But time seems to expand up here. I’m not stuck in traffic twice a day, I’m not checking email every 15 minutes or scrolling through Facebook or surfing the web, there’s no TV to suck me onto the couch after dinner. There’s just the slow arc of the sun overhead, the shifting shadows of the pines, the afternoon rainclouds massing over the mountains, then a sunset that washes the peaks with golden light. A few days up here slows the heartbeat and clears the mind. Clock time loses meaning. You lose track of whether it’s Tuesday or Friday.

Because it doesn’t matter.