Of Mountains, Beauty, Affliction, and the Steak Dinner

“Jagged Mountain Reflection”, Todd Caudle

My family grew up with regular steak dinners on Sunday evenings. It all began on Sunday afternoons when I (and my siblings) would go with Dad to Duba’s Restaurant, completely empty on Sunday, the one day each week it was closed. He’d take the meat out of the cooling units to get it ready for a new week of dining when, on Monday afternoon, the restaurant’s doors would reopen to its patrons. While Dad made preparations in the kitchen, we kids would make our way to the bar area, fumble for the lights, and help ourselves to the “soda gun.” Ah, the soda gun: you are a puzzle to be solved with your cryptic letters, and you are cooler (in some ways) than a cap gun because of your ability to shoot carbonated candy (like Coke and Ginger Ale). But–be careful–by pressing the “Q” button, you’d get tonic water. Life is a severe–even bitter–teacher, but what other seven year old knew about quinine or could tell you that it is (or was) an ingredient in tonic water (and apparently used to treat malaria)? And so, after downing a Collins glass of soda (we call it “pop” in Michigan), we were ready to take command of the restaurant’s intercom system. High jinx ensued until Dad was ready to take us home, and we’d usually tote home steaks for Sunday dinner. Yes, for our family, a steak dinner was about as normal and routine as any other family’s chicken dinner. My rather ho hum attitude toward the steak dinner all changed for me in the summer of 2001 when I realized just what a steak dinner could be.

It was July or August, and the Colorado sun was indeed intense. It was hot, but it’s always a dry heat at such elevations. There were maybe 15 to 20 of us guys, and we gathered at a Park n Ride in Colorado Springs on a Saturday afternoon, many of us meeting for the first time. We were to spend a week together as part of a backpacking expedition high in the mountains of the Weminuche Wilderness in southwest Colorado. Forming a caravan, we headed south and then west–passing, at times, through sporadic afternoon thunderstorms, common this time of year–until we reached Bootjack Ranch, near Pagosa Springs. After spending the night at this rustic (but opulent) mountain retreat to acclimate and gather our strength, we loaded up the SUVs and drove a couple hours more to the trail head. While we encountered some hikers there, it would be the last we would see of anyone else for about five days.

Toward the beginning of expedition, we enjoyed warm hikes in the sun, passing through woodlands and near mountain streams, but as the week neared its midpoint we were visiting alpine lakes in the late afternoon and cresting mountain passes above treeline, buffeted by colder air and splattered by rain. And there’s something in the heart of a guy that just loves this kind of thing as he summons the grit to endure the elements. Did it remind me of the Scottish highlands from my travels there a few years ago? Yes, it did. It, too, was a terrain of a mythic cut. After hiking all day, we’d come around the campfire at night. Some had caught fish in the ice cold streams and cooked them over the crackling fire.  We sipped Scotch at a campsite at an altitude of 10,000 feet while our food stores, hung high in trees and away from bear, swayed in the mountain breezes. We told stories. We sat at the feet of our mentors and guides on this odyssey, seasoned men, to soak up their wisdom and to be guided by them into new frontiers of thinking,  feeling, and perceiving. They enlarged our world and made us aware of a Larger Story enfolding around us…

The week, however, was not an easy one, for every story involves conflict. And, as any high school English student knows, conflict runs along three lines: man v. nature, man v. man, or man v. himself. The week was an instance of the latter.  But, still, it was an ordeal endured in the wilderness, in majestic and rustic beauty, which itself speaks into the ordeal. To explain, here’s Simone Weil, the French philosopher: “There are only two things [that] pierce the human heart. Beauty and affliction.” And here are the mountains: shaped, formed, and chiseled long ago by tumultuous forces to become masterpieces of untamed, rustic beauty, reminders that in times of affliction man himself may be shaped, formed, and given character by unseen forces to become a thing of splendor.  And so I would add this, building off of Weil’s insight: that from affliction may issue a beauty as strong and majestic as the foundations of the earth. And one then begins to regard those afflictions with both respect and sweetness for what they are able to accomplish.

At the end of that week, we company of mountaineers returned once again to Bootjack Ranch where we had a chance to shower, shave, and change into a fresh pair of clothes. Then we assembled in the great lodge of the Ranch: it was time for a dinner in the evening twilight, our appetites and senses heightened after a week of strenuous activity and rationed food supplies. Outside on the back patio (an area ensconced in slate rock), the Ranch’s chef had kindled a hot grill and was searing rib-eye steaks. As the meat sizzled in the mountain air the chef  added hickory chips to the glowing coals, imparting a certain smokiness to the meat. She used seasoning sparingly, allowing the character of the meat to stand on its own merits. Before retrieving our steaks grill-side, the chef engaged us in conversation. I pumped her for the secrets of cooking a great steak (make sure to get the grill nice and hot so as to quickly sear the steak and lock in the juices; also, only turn the steak once).  She plated my rib-eye, and I returned to the lodge, sat down, and bit in: tender, juicy, rich, full of flavor, earthy. It seems I greedily ate even the plump portions of fat. More than a sensual delight, it was a meal that palpably renewed one’s vigor and vitality. You’ll forgive me for saying, but no eggplant casserole can compare to the potential of the steak dinner.

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