In climbing and hiking parlance, “turn around time” is the point that travelers set in advance to mark the time they have to turn around on the climb or the trail in order to get back to safety before the onset of thunderstorms in the afternoon, before an increase in avalanche danger with the warming of the day, or before the arrival of nightfall. In his latest book, Turn Around Time, David Guterson applies the concept as a metaphor for life. As Guterson writes in the Seattle Times, the term isn’t just something used in mountaineering. “[Turn around time] acknowledges an unstoppable coming darkness and the prospect of tragic outcomes spurred by hubris,” he says. “It mitigates against both; it commits to the prudent; it speaks against enticement; it wells up in the pit of the stomach when a summit makes its siren call.” This shows how broadly the concept can be applied beyond alpinism.
A book-length series of prose poems, Turn Around Time covers the themes of youth, aging and compassion for the elderly. It also investigates the boundaries between reality and myth, and common sense and imagination in the outdoors. Illustrations by Justin Gibbens enhance the whimsical nature of the book. For example, an illustration for a line that compares jumping squirrels to performers in a vaudeville act depicts a squirrel decked out in an acorn hat and using branch as a walking stick.
Guterson divides the book into three sections: an introductory essay, a series of 12 poems called “Out” and another series of 12 poems called “Back.” Unlike with other books of poetry, where a reader might skip around between poems, Turn Around Time is best read from front to back. In the introductory essay, Guterson notes that the book is an ode to the adventurers, many of whom he knows, who frequent the Olympic Peninsula. Guterson also reminisces about backpacking with his uncle Henry, who persisted in hiking and backpacking to the age of 76 (though he stopped climbing before then).
The first series of poems, “Out,” follows fictionalized versions of Guterson and his uncle as they hike toward their evening camp. On the trail, the hikers leapfrog each other and argue about equipment–for example, whether or not to use a tumpline (a strap that anchors around your forehead to stabilize your backpack). The Guterson character tires of listening to his companion talk about the surrounding environment, but when his uncle falls asleep at a rest stop, Guterson feels lonely.
[…]This is the time to revisit our trip description.
Neither of us mentions current elevation
Moods and caprice hold sway in this bend
Where soon you snore beneath your hat brim,
leaving me to swallow my loneliness[…]
Maybe you and I had better keep walking
with your shaky knees and my vinegar.
With our copious planning and ample gear,
our rain pants and water filters.
The world of the poems begins to shift from geographies of reality to the realm of the mythical when the hikers encounter a mysterious wild mushroom man, who brings out an array of mushrooms for them to admire. He appears as “a phlegm infected geezer” who “lets go with a goodly blob of snot/ aimed in a blast past your head.” He has no time to hear about any lofty books the hikers have read; he is more interested in the experience of being outdoors–the smell and texture of wild food such as mushrooms.
Once they’ve evaded the mushroom man and are finally ensconced in their tent, the hikers hear unfamiliar noises outside. In the poem “Who Goes There?”, the river sounds “scary,” and the companions worry about cougars, bears and wolves attacking them in the night (things that I also worry about when I hear strange noises outside my tent). Bridging the unknown world of the night with the fantastical creatures they meet during the day, the poem suggests that the barrier between fantasy and reality is thin in the backcountry.
The second set of poems, “Back,” follow the characters of Guterson and his uncle as they hike back to the trailhead the next day. With the repetition of words such as “dispense,” “embrace” and “move,” the prose re-creates the gait-like rhythm of a person out walking.
On their way out, the barrier between fantasy and reality disintegrates again when they encounter Pan, the half-goat, half-human Greek god of wild nature. Farther down the trail, they meet “The Madonna of the Bogachiel,” a water nymph. As the narrator’s companion imagines the raucous intercourse between these mythical creatures–and the reproductive acts of wild animals in general–the tone of the book begins to shift. The backpackers begin to realize that neither of them is as young as he once was: they are not only feeling the bodily pains of backpacking, but they are feeling overlooked because of their age. The discomfort of fighting their way through a stand of devil’s club, like the sensation of wearing a monk’s hair shirt, soon stops their thoughts on such matters.
The theme of aging continues in the poem, “We Step Aside for Uphill Travellers,” as the Guterson character promises to help the uncle as he ages:
You say that no one sees you;
you wonder at your prospects […]
I’ll tell you what, friend: I’ll go with you.
I have a lot to do but none of it important.
Whatever happens happens to me, too;
I get that notion.
And in “Crossing the Slide,” the speaker describes the concessions he’ll make for his hiking partner:
I’ll walk your walk if you want me to.
I’ll break trail when gloom’s too much for us.
I’ll shoulder our lot in life […]
I’ll kick a branch from your path […]
whatever it takes, although I’m tired.
I’ll stub a toe so you don’t have to…
As Turn Around Time confronts the effect of aging on one’s ability to travel in the backcountry, it also makes a strong argument for extending compassion to the older denizens of the trails. There is also a side reference to time passing in the poem “Old Snow,” in which Guterson talks about old snow patches hanging on for as long as possible before they melt away. Beneath the surface, the poems allude to the inevitability of mortality and change. The mountaineers hike and climb as long as they’re able, and as they desire to postpone the coming dark, they also recognized the need to confront it, not with hubris, but with grace.
People who are well-traveled in the Olympic Peninsula may get the most out of the book. In “We Step Aside for Uphill Travellers,” for example, Guterson references several landscape formations by name: The Brothers, Constance, Crystal Pass, Tunnel Creek and Monk’s Camp. Being unfamiliar with these sites, I found it hard to imagine the setting for some of the poems. More generic site descriptions do help put the hikers in context, as Guterson writes:
Tumble down this rock face, ride on scree,
rock pick, boulder hop, take it by degrees.
We’ll find the line elk take conserving energy,
we’ll mine the time by sun’s long reach
and find that time is distance.
Ultimately, this is a book to be read several times–not just at home, but on the trail as well (it’s small enough to take on your next backcountry adventure). The poems will lead you to look more carefully at the nature around you, heightening your sense of the magic inherent in the wild.
[Passages of poetry excerpted with permission from Turn Around Time: A Walking Poem for the Pacific Northwest (Mountaineers Books, September 2019) by David Guterson.–Ed.]