Postcard — October 4, 2017, 1:52 pm

Dark Side of the Mountain

“I met the Dark Lord and his masters at the trailhead to upper Twin Lake, far from the bright center of the universe.”

Photograph by the author

On an uncharacteristically warm Sunday in June, Darth Vader stood on some fallen logs at the edge of an alpine lake in central Washington State. He struggled to find his balance; the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Forces prefers flat surfaces.

“Hope he doesn’t fall in,” said thirty-three-year-old Melody Saltzgiver as she carefully adjusted the position of her approximately four-foot plastic doll.

“Yeah,” said her husband, Paul Moore. “That’s happened a few times.”

Once Darth Vader steadied himself, Saltzgiver stepped a few paces away, crouched down with her Sony point-and-shoot camera, and snapped a photograph. In the picture, Darth Vader looks pensively over the mountain peaks. The distant mounds of granite—some still capped with a blanket of snow—were reflected perfectly in the stillness of upper Twin Lake. The lake basin was otherwise lined with pine and maple trees, all basking in the sun.

I first learned that Darth Vader was going hiking around Washington in early May, when I was researching destinations for an early-season backpacking trip. For trail-seekers in Washington State, the Washington Trails Association’s webpage Trip Reports is an indispensable resource. Community members write posts to give others snapshots of trail conditions: whether a route has snow or signs of wildlife—such as bears—or whether hikers will be ravaged by blood-sucking mosquitos that have no regard for DEET. When I went on the site, I was greeted with a new blog post titled “A Pig, T-Rex and Darth Thaddeus Go Hiking.”

The photos W.T.A. user Darth Thaddeus posted had me fooled; I thought someone had dressed up in a Darth Vader costume and hit the trails. As it turns out, perspective is everything for Saltzgiver.

“I try to make it not show how small he actually is in photos,” she said as we hiked to upper Twin Lake.

Darth Vader became a mainstay in Moore and Saltzgiver’s lives two Christmases ago, when they first moved to Entiat, a small town in central Washington, from Detroit. The large Star Wars “battle buddies” were one of the popular Christmas toys that year.

“I told my mom, ‘I WANT THIS!’” said Saltzgiver.

“It was kind of a joke, but we still got it,” Moore added. “So here we are.”

Both of them unabashedly confess to being “pretty big nerds” when it comes to Star Wars, although they wouldn’t say they’re “psycho fans.”

Star Wars is just a space soap opera,” said Saltzgiver. “It’s hard not to love it.”

Moore and Saltzgiver met in Iowa in their high-school years. They went to see Star Wars: Episode II in theaters on their second date. Saltzgiver dressed up as Padmé Amidala, queen of the planet Naboo, complete with red freckles on her face. Moore, however, didn’t dress up. “I was lame back then,” he said. “I was all goth with black hair.”

Darth Vader occupied a small nook between the laundry and the television in the couple’s living room throughout the winter, but after the snow started melting and spring came around, Saltzgiver decided to bring him along for a hike. She and a friend went to Ingalls Lake, a blue lake nestled among the craggy granite peaks of Ingalls Peak and Mount Stuart. Once they reached the lake, she perched Darth at the edge and snapped a photo. At first, Saltzgiver thought it was slightly odd to be taking photos of a large Darth Vader toy out and about in nature. But when other hikers on the trail were enthusiastic to do the same, she was inspired to continue bringing the battle buddy along on hikes and photographing it. Over the course of the following year, Darth Vader has, more or less, become his owners’ main day-hiking companion.

And Darth Vader has inspired Moore and Saltzgiver to be more active. During the week, Moore is an English professor, teaching online composition courses and writing short stories; Saltzgiver works as a plant geneticist. But on weekends, they’re out exploring the diverse landscape of Washington—waterfalls situated in old-growth forests, glacially carved alpine lakes with sawtooth ridges and granite spires in the backdrop, cave formations within basalt coulees, and more.

After a year of hiking with their battle buddy, Saltzgiver realized she had accrued so many photographs of Darth Vader from her hikes that she should, perhaps, do something with them.

Moore and Saltzgiver decided on the W.T.A. handle “Darth Thaddeus” in honor of what Saltzgiver would have been named, had she been born a boy. When Saltzgiver’s mother was pregnant, there were no sonogram machines, and doctors determined gender using cardiograms. “The doctor told my mom, ‘you’re obviously having a boy,’ since my heart rate was apparently so slow. My mom was going to name me Thaddeus Bartholomew. When I heard that name, I was like, ‘hell no.’” Instead, Saltzgiver repurposed the name for her hiking buddy and occasionally calls him Thaddeus.

I met the Dark Lord and his masters at the trailhead to upper Twin Lake, far from the bright center of the universe. Saltzgiver is partial to hikes with lakes and waterfalls, and this particular trail to the lake seemed to be relatively less visited.

Their main objective for embarking on this hike was to post about it on Trip Reports. Many of the trails they explore on aren’t extremely popular and don’t have much written about them. The directions to the upper Twin Lake trailhead said drivers would pass a campground, but when Moore and Saltzgiver pulled into the parking spot next to me, they were a little confused. “It said that the trailhead started after the campground, but driving in, I was like, ‘Where the heck’s the campground?’ I want to write that up,” said Saltzgiver.

To carry a four-foot-tall plastic Darth Vader toy, Moore and Saltzgiver had to get a little creative. They cut holes out of the bottom of a canvas backpack bag to accommodate the toy’s legs. Riding in a backpack is much less efficient than the T.I.E. fighter in which he usually travels in Star Wars. “This thing really isn’t meant to go out and about,” said Moore while struggling with Saltzgiver to force the fallen Jedi into the backpack—one of them holding the toy, the other shimmying the bag up his legs. When Darth Vader was secured in the bag, he appeared to be wearing a pair of canvas shorts.

We got our bearings and followed a wide dirt road lined with red and orange Indian paintbrushes, lupine, and yarrow for approximately two miles. Finally, we reached the trailhead and after zigzagging through a short, shady trail, arrived at the lake.

It was just the four of us on the trail that day, but on more popular hikes, other folks take notice of the hulking plastic toy strapped in a backpack. Some kids ask if they can take a selfie. “Sometimes people think we have a kid in the backpack, inside the Darth Vader,” said Saltzgiver.

Darth Vader can’t really move. At least, his legs don’t, but his wrists and arms do. And he talks, when either the green or red button on his suit of armor gets pressed.

At the lake, I stood by the shore and took everything in: the sunshine dancing through the trees to my right, the reflection of the mountains in the lakes directly ahead, and the Darth Vader photo shoot happening close by. As Saltzgiver picked up the toy to move it, she pressed a button by mistake. I heard him speak, in his deep, mechanical voice: “Impressive. Most impressive.”

Share
Single Page

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Americans evacuated from Wuhan did Zumba.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today