THE VIEW FROM THE RIDGE
by Uncle River
Susan Hoffman snapped the radio off and rummaged angrily through the tapes. A minute later, Cathy Brandt, who shared the house with Susan, heard the opening arpeggios of Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier."
Cathy shut down her computer and walked into the kitchen. Susan had the tuna fish sandwiches and tea ready for their lunch. She cut the last slice off a tomato and looked up.
"When all else fails, start at the beginning," Cathy said, with a smile.
Susan managed a bit of a smile too. For her, the "Well Tempered Klavier" was a demonstration of how to construct a civilization. When she felt the world was disintegrating around her, she would turn to Bach to remind her how it can be put together.
"Why'd I ever get involved in politics anyhow?" Susan said.
"You know better."
"I know better than to torment myself over things I can't change."
"Quit being catty."
"Why do we do it?
"Why? Why? Why? Take a walk. It'a a beautiful day."
"Can't. I've got a meeting."
Cathy shrugged. "Guess I'll have to do it for you. If I'm going to spend half my life behind a computer, at least I'll decide which half."
Both women put their lunch dishes in the sink on their way out.
It was a classic Southwestern summer day. Clouds were building over the nearby mountains, for the thunderstorms that would keep it from getting too hot. Birds sang. Flowers were everywhere.
Cathy turned right, towards the pinon and juniper covered mesa top. Susan turned left, to the dirt driveway where her little tan Datsun pickup waited to take her the fourteen miles to town.
"We need anything I don't know about?" Susan asked.
"Mustard. Maybe paper towels."
"Umh. Have a good walk."
Cathy did not say to have a good meeting.
The subject of Susan's meeting was almost too absurd to take seriously, except that it was serious. A group Susan was part of had gotten up a campaign to keep nuclear waste from being transported through the county. The only significant effect of their efforts was to enrage a couple dozen other people in the local community. Now some of those people were suing individual members of Susan's group, including Susan, for loss of future income because a defense contract had gone to another state.
There was absolutely no connection between the two matters. The defense contract had gone to a state with sufficient water for the project. The people who made the decision probably did not know Susan's group existed.
Susan and her friends had refused to hire a lawyer. They asked the judge to dismiss the suit as blatantly without merit. The judge, however, took their lack of a lawyer as a personal affront. Not only did he refuse to dismiss the suit, but he was doing everything in his power to make life miserable for Susan and her compatriots.
Cathy sympathized with Susan's feelings, but there was nothing she could do. There were lots of absurdities in life. Cathy's job was another. Here she lived surrounded by pristine Nature, and she made her living sorting data for mineral companies that used the data to tear up beautiful natural country — for materials her whole society needed to live. That's the way the world works, Cathy thought, when she allowed herself to think about it at all.
Cathy did not believe in beating her head against stone walls. Yet she did wonder. How does it all work? Why do things go round and round in the same crazy patterns? Is there any point to it all?
She thought of Robert. The kids had lived with Robert for almost a year now, and they were doing well. Robert did better having them too. He drank less, was tolerable company when they saw each other — except when he talked about getting back together.
Even that irritation Cathy saw as a challenge (except when she was very tired). There was some way in which she was not communicating effectively. Every time she got an idea to make something better for the kids, Robert interpreted it as an opening to him. Neither of them seemed able to break out of the pattern, but Cathy was sure it could be done.
Cathy shook her head and smiled as she wove through a juniper thicket. Nuts, she thought, as nuts as Susan's politics. So, what is the point?
Then there were the kids. They had come to her with what amounted to an ultimatum: Move to town where there is someone for us to play with, or we're moving in with our father.
She had thought it over and come to the conclusion: Why not? Robert wanted them. She could give them quality attention when she did see them. They had all talked it over. It was even working.
Cathy had a lot of self-doubts at first. Now...Now she appreciated the company of another woman and her time alone.
Cynthia was twelve. Tony was eight. Cathy was pretty sure Cynthia would want to live with her mother again when she hit her teens. That was fine. Tony...She did not know. It was strange watching your children grow up in another house, even your ex-husband's. For now, though, it suited them and her.
Cathy wondered if she would be ready to try another relationship with a man soon. She wondered if she would like to try living alone. — If the contracts kept coming she could be a real hermit if she wanted. All she needed was the electric umbilical cord for the computer.
Cathy had no answers to any of these questions. What she did have, after years of working on herself, was a capacity to wonder. She also had a beautiful pinon flat to hike across. Perhaps that was all the answer there was: Do what lies in front of you to do and enjoy what you can.
Cathy looked up. The clouds were building. She considered turning back but decided to keep on. If she got wet, she could dry off later.
It did start to rain just about the time Cathy reached the ponderosa covered ridge at the far side of the mesa, but the rain was light, and the big pines caught most of it. The air was cooler now too. The ridge sloped fairly steeply up for several hundred yards, then more gently. Cathy climbed fast, feeling exhilerated. On top, there were more pinons mixed in with the ponderosas.
The storm seemed to be blowing away, so Cathy climbed up the next ridge and down the other side to where there was a creek. By the creek there were raspberries, sparse, but tangy and delicious. She found several handfuls. Then she sat on a rock and watched the water for a while, not thinking about anything.
Another shower passed, briefly heavy. Cathy found a dense spruce tree to get under, and so did not get wet. Then the sun broke through and made everything sparkly. Cathy rinsed her face in the fresh stream and had a drink of the clear water.
After a while, she climbed back up on the ridge and found another rock to sit on. Cathy was approaching forty. There was a little grey in her hair, and her skin was no longer young. She figured she had lived half her life by now. Cathy looked out. There was a magnificent view from the ridgetop of rugged mountains and mesas, canyons and sky.
Life is such an odd thing, Cathy thought. You live by things that use you up — like the mineral companies she worked for used the land. She did not feel she understood it. She wondered if she would by the time she had finished the second half of her life. It gave her a feeling of anticipation. Further understanding was something to look forward to, something to dignify the increasing grey hair.
She thought of her children just starting out. Would it be a wonder to them, as it generally was to her — or a struggle like it was for Susan? She thought of her parents, in their seventies now. Her father seemed at peace, for all the discomforts of some serious health problems; yet he could not articulate the source of that peace. It was just the product of life for him. Cathy's mother, like Susan, still found life a struggle. She phrased her experience in personal terms rather than political ones, but the anguish was the same. Cathy wondered if that was what drew her to Susan — similar feelings to her mother and a broader world view in which to work on them.
Cathy did feel for Susan, as for her mother. In fact, she felt grateful. It was almost as if Susan took care of the worrying department. For Cathy, life seemed to be an inhuman, yet beautiful mystery.
Growing older is like remembering, Cathy thought. The body and immediate things let go a little. You see a cloud again as you did when you were a child, but you also have the added light of experience. I get tired sometimes, she thought; but the view is better.
Cathy stood up and stretched. She had been out all afternoon. Time to head down and put in a few more hours at the computer.
Another little storm passed by to the south as Cathy crossed the mesa. There was a magnificent lightning display, and a few drops of rain fell on her. It went by before she got in sight of the house. As she emerged from the trees on the last slope, she saw Susan's truck in the driveway, as well as the old blue Ford pickup that belonged to Susan's boyfriend, Jim Sallas.
Jim heard Cathy and pointed her out to Susan. Both of them waved. Cathy waved back. She saw they were both carrying twenty-two rifles. She knew they were trying to thin out the extreme overpopulation of chipmunks that were cleaning out the apricot trees as fast as they could.
Cathy smiled. Wonder what Susan's friends from town would think of that. — It was a small town; they would probably understand. Left to themselves, the chipmunks would take every last apricot before any of them even got close to ripe.
Cathy walked on down the hill. She saw the determined look on Susan's face. Well, I guess there's a need for people to fight for a better world, Cathy thought, whether it's politics or chipmunks.
A chipmunk dashed down one of the trees, a perfectly green apricot in its mouth, and started across the stone wall. Susan popped it. Cathy saw the apricot drop.
"Good shot, Sue."
"How was town?"
"Rotten. How was your walk?"
Susan turned to the single shot rifle to reload. Cathy waved to Jim, who waved back. Then she went on in the house. There was a Mozart tape on now. Susan must be feeling better.