The water flowed smoothly over the rocks, with only the infrequent glint of light off the surface betraying its movement. The rock was near-perfect smooth, with subtle streaks of deeper crags carved over time. A strange blue tint emanated from the water, not from the water itself, or the sky above or the rock below, but seemingly from between the water itself. The tint of light blue was the remnant of the water's origins: a glacier somewhere far away. Once melted the water breaks free from a season-long bondage and plunges downward imbued with its origin. After a day or so, maybe longer, the water flows into a larger body: a lake, ocean, larger river, and the glacier essence evaporates and the water takes on a new aura: lake water, now tinted a dark brownish-green. The water sits there for a long time, then evaporates and all auras depart, and the water may go anywhere, perhaps back to the glacier or--
A sound behind her broke her thoughts. She turned around and faced a deer, its large pointed ears swiveling mechanically to face her. They both stared at each other, silent and still as the rocks and trees around them. Her: not wanting to spook the deer so that she may enjoy its splendor. The deer: observing the creature for signs of aggression. After a calm blissful silence the deer swiveled its ears once more, perhaps to a new sound , and each animal lost interest and went about their way.
What was she thinking about? The thought, poem, memory, something she had forgotten back home, was gone, retreating back to her subconscious. The sun was still high and there were many hours to hike before she could stop in good conscience. The trail was well maintained and not too steep or windy, just long and rolling. All of the trees looked the same, except for the occasion oddball who was unlucky enough to be struck by lightning. Those were her favorite trees because of the sheer results of power on display. She had already grown accustomed to the homogeneous landscape and her mind easily wandered. It was easy to walk and think at the same time. Her body seemed to operate independently of her consciousness. Her pack swayed back and forth as she stepped up and around obstacles.
“I won the lottery!” she said, coming through the front door.
“What? No way,” her boyfriend said, looking up quickly from his work. “How much did you win?”
“No, the hiking lottery, the one I've been talking about for a couple weeks now, remember?”
“Yeah, I guess,” he said. “So what does that mean again?”
“It means I'm one of the few that gets to hike up the mountain and camp overnight. I can't wait!”
“Whoa whoa--when are we going to do this? We haven't planned this at all.”
“I can only go by myself. They only allow a certain amount of people on the trail at a time. It'd be too crowded if they let everyone go on it. It's very popular.”
“You shouldn't go alone though. What if you get lost or hurt? Are you even in shape to climb a mountain that high?”
“I’ve been reading a lot about hiking, plus I've been working out and walking the local trails with my pack. I'm learning how to use a map and compass, all sorts of stuff. I'll be okay.”
“Babe, I went hiking a lot as a kid and there are serious dangers: bugs, cliffs, snakes, bears. What if a bear attacks you?”
“You don't think I can scare away a bear?”
“No, I'm just saying that when you're in the situation it's a lot different than reading about it in a book. The wilderness is no place for a girl to go alone. If you're dead set on going though I'll go with you and we can split the load evenly among us.”
“No! Like I said, the pass is just for me, I can't bring anyone else, and I can carry all of the stuff myself. It’s not that heavy.”
The argument ended uneasily, as they always did. For the next few days, whenever they saw each other they remembered the argument, and a quick scenario ran through their heads as to how to win the next part of the argument. Naturally the person imagining the scenario came out the victor.
The ground beneath her feet suddenly changed to a rubbery feel. A bed of woodchips was spread out on the trail, all coming from a log that looked like it had ripped to shreds. She read that bears ripped open fallen logs to get at the grubs underneath. There they sat exposed to the elements, where fungus and other bottom feeders-slowly ate the refuse, forming a nice thin layer of spongy material. She welcomed the chips for the pressure taken off her knees. The feeling reminded her of walking barefoot on the cool carpet of her apartment early in the morning. The trail turned back into the familiar hard-packed sand peppered with exposed rocks and jutting roots. Her hiking boots crunched over-top, an old pair she received from an aunt one birthday long ago once she finished puberty. They were hardly used.
For a few days she was proud of the boots and wore them to school every day. She would grab the straps of her backpack tightly and stroll down the hallways imagining walking on the ridge of a tall dune in the middle of a vast desert. She wanted to talk about them and brag about the adventures she would go on in the future. The only people who ever talked were her peers, and they were whispered conversations behind her back. It didn’t matter to her that she looked un-ladylike, or that her shoes didn’t match the uncomfortable bright shoes of the rest of her classmates; it was the whispering and the sideways glances that broke her down. After a particularly hard day she took them off and threw them deep into her closet. Oftentimes she wanted to sell them or just throw them away, but she always harbored a wish that she would put them back on and fulfill her childhood dreams. It was several years later until she mustered the courage to put them back on.
The sun was slowly going down, and the dark red light lit up whiffs of clouds suspended lazily high in the sky, a welcome and pleasant contrast to the blooming spring green and the constant cold gray of the boulders. She would have to set up camp soon, in an hour or less, but she was determined to get as many miles down as she could, hoping to lessen the distance of the next day's portion.
Up ahead she heard footsteps and something metal stabbing into the dirt. A local park ranger appeared from around the corner, dressed in the requisite brown dungarees, a cloth patch on each shoulder and a few water bottles and other tools on a tight belt around his waist. He had on a backpack with a compass hanging from one of the shoulder straps and a radio from the other. The radio squawked, a conversation from two other unknown rangers. He was middle-aged, wrinkly around the eyes, a few gray hairs poking out of the bottom of a floppy wide-brim cloth hat. His job served him well as not an inch of body fat could be seen on is frame.
He flashed a forced smile. Two metal poles were gripped tightly in his hands, an accessory she could never understand. Were they for balance, self-defense, a fashion item for the well-to-do dilettante hiker? Letting go of the sticks he let them dangle from his wrists, swaying alien-like with every movement of his arms.
“Hello miss! Do you happen to have our park permit on you, by chance?” he said.
“Yes, of course,” she had put the permit in her fleece, directly over her heart. Since the beginning of the hike she had shown it to two other park rangers. Regardless she pulled it out with a hurry as if she were a child desperate to show her father a new piece of artwork or high grade. The ranger took the pass from her and looked idly at it, barely focusing his eyes enough to read any of the filled portions. She promised one day to forge a pass and use that next trip to see if they would catch on.
“Is your boyfriend around?” he asked with a smile on his face.
“No,” she said, grinning and lowering her eyes.
“Husband? Girlfriends? Invisible friend?”
“No, it’s just me on this trip.”
“My... You're awfully far from the trailhead this late. Do you plan on turning around soon? The sun's going to set any time now.”
“I don't plan on turning back. I'm going to camp tonight and plan on reaching the peak early in the morning and returning the same day.”
“All the way to the top, huh? Well, the first three quarters are easy, but tomorrow I guarantee it'll get rough. You might want to drop your pack off at tree line, maybe keep it with me or another ranger until you get back.”
“Do other people do that? It seems like a pretty selfish and irresponsible thing to do.”
“Well, it’s not conventional but I think it's understandable in your case. Once it gets rough you won't have anyone to help you out. I hope you understand that.”
“I've known that since the beginning. My pack isn't too heavy and I'm pretty sure I can carry it to the top without any help.”
The ranger stared at her. He looked back down at her pass and studied it with a little more scrutiny. Then he looked back at her with the same blank stare. “Yes, I'm sure you can, sweetheart. Just don't sue us if you fall over and break your ankle.” He thrust her pass back to her and grabbed up his walking sticks and trudged off. She put it back in her fleece with less than the gentle excitement than before and walked away quickly with a slight grimace on her face.
Safely away from the trail she found a relatively soft surface to pitch camp. She tried her hardest to clear away the accumulated brush and rocks, but every year the dense trees shed layers of leaves, and the occasional tumbling rock mixes in to form a thick soup of decaying, near noxious organic waste. After it became clear there would be no flat ground that night she gave up. She did not pack a mat to save weight, so the only thing between her and the ground was a thin sleeping bag and an even thinner tent. The tent was small and skinny, suitable for one person, two if they didn't mind being uncomfortable. There was no room to stand, or even kneel; the tent rose to her waist. Outside she found a large rock to sit on and ate her meal of falafel she had fried up the day before, crunchy on the outside and soft and delicious inside. Her dessert was a vacuum-dried peach paste flattened down to resemble a piece of thick pink paper, incredibly tart but sweet enough.
Just before she slid feet-first into the tent for the night she looked up at the sky visible between the trees and was glad to see Sirius shining bright, long before much dimmer stars began their slow awakening. Taking off her boots added a great deal of relief to her swollen feet. Her legs had a dull burn running through them from the constant stomp of hiking. Her body was struggling to adapt to the extra weight of her pack, but she was driven by an energy she had never felt before.
She thought of the park ranger. He was right, the next day's portion was going to be much harder than today's. Soon she would leave the comfort of the trees, the shade protecting her skin from the sun, also the ever-present and soothing scenery. The endless switchbacks frightened her, merely because of the boredom that would soon set in as she turned left, then turned right, then left again, every rock the same general size, shape and consistency, the monotony only broken by the sparse lichen and the small rodents brave enough to scurry around the rocks eating this seemingly inadequate food.
A rock poked in her back, then she rolled over and found another rock. Her legs ached, her stomach wasn't full, and there was a constant lingering fear of failure. Her eyes were opened wide despite their lethargy as all of the small annoying things added up to a great discomfort. Now out of view of all rangers, peers, and tiny animals, she allowed herself to be afraid, and to question her reason for being there. A sense of misguided chivalry? Was she trying to get back at someone for some forgotten wrong? She crept closer to depression before she returned to reality: she was a healthy young woman who decided to climb a mountain and suffered a comparatively small amount of discomfort. How does this compare to her daily troubles? Where were the car alarms blaring in the night? The agitation of her hands after a day of typing, sitting comfortably in a padded chair? Where were the advertisements telling her to buy this because she was like that, and reminding her she had an inadequate cheek-bone structure? Where were the awkward glances from people she thought she knew but was too timid to muster a conversation? They were gone, hidden hundreds of miles away and thousands of feet below. Replacing them were the simpler, almost wholesome troubles: legs sore after a long day of hiking; back and hips sore from her pack. She had no right to complain as the water she drank was clean and plentiful. At home she had a loving family, a loving boyfriend, all of the creature comforts any sane person could ever want. She did this to herself willingly and could not complain.
She wrapped up tightly into her sleeping bag, avoiding the slight spring night chill. She had brought along a book but reading became a serious test of will when sleep was only a head drop away. After struggling through a few paragraphs she relented and put the book down and was asleep shortly after.
Dreams came quickly, as they always do for her after a particularly strenuous day. She was hiking a mountain much higher than the one she was on now. All around her were lightning strikes, falling boulders and other overtly dramatic devices. There was no trail, only a straight path leading to the top. She struggled on her hands and knees crawling over grinding rocks, barely making any headway. On the top she could see an anonymous group of people, vaguely familiar, all calling her to the top waving their arms and pleading her to move faster. The sight motivated her a bit but her progress was constant and lethargic. After feeling too much like Sisyphus she suddenly found herself on top. Surprised, she looked around for the group of people who urged her to the top, but they were gone. Finally she saw them back down at the bottom of the mountain, now suddenly shrunk to the size of insignificance. They had on blank faces and did not cheer her accomplishment.
The dream faded into another one and became irrelevant. Early in the morning the sun poked through the walls of her tent and roused her. The dream became hazy and all she remembered was the mountain. Disgusted that she would dream of the very activity while on break from that activity, she pushed it out of her mind and the dream was forgotten.
The allure of the tent and the comforting embrace of her sleeping bag made her hesitant to move. She forced herself to pack up, stuffing all of the items neatly back into their bags and packing them just as she had before. She forced down a few more dry falafel cakes and as much peach paste as she could handle before her lips puckered up from the tartness. Along the trails the trees slowly started to shrink. Moisture and air became more scarce near the top and the trees suffered because of it. Soon they would shrink to the size of a bush and disappear altogether.
As the vegetation slowly slipped away with every labored step, the realities of the rest of the day loomed. A giant granite monolith curved ever so slightly upwards obscuring the prize of the summit. Her legs ached slightly more than the night before, although somehow different, and her pack was just as heavy as yesterday. Her lungs sucked in a paltry amount of oxygen. It's easy to train by throwing on a pack and going on a hike, but the unique lack or air which defined this trip was impossible to reproduce near sea level. Her lungs were strong but were not used to this. For a moment she looked at the trees and understood why they never bothered to live up at such a height.
In front of an enchanted child a tree stretched up, maybe forever, a few branches hung down just at the perfect height. Her arms reached up and grasped the branches and her young muscles pulled up her body with ease. Finding a foothold was difficult, as it was her first time. She succeeded in standing up on the first branch and was grasping for the next in earnest, quickly learning with every tug. Down below an older woman's scream:
“Get down from there right now!” the woman cried, “You'll fall and break your neck and we'll have to pay for a coffin and headstone for you!”
The girl paused with a sullen look on her face, squatting solidly on a branch only a few feet up the tree. If she stayed the woman would keep screeching and the climb would no longer be fun, if she climbed down she would never get to see what was at the top.
“I said get down from there! That is no place for a girl like you! You should be ashamed.”
Tears welled up in her eyes as she descended from her lofty perch, but she did not cry. At the bottom the woman grabber her hand and she was sped away from the death trap. She had no idea what to say or do.
The car door opened and she was pushed inside, then locked down by a seatbelt. Only then did she cry. The woman feigned sadness and picked up a doll on the floor of the car and gave it to the child.
“Tree climbing in no activity for a girl. I'm only glad I was able to get you down before the wrong person saw. Now play with your doll and please stop crying.”
The girl looked at the the doll hoping it would bring her happiness, but nothing came from the plastic, shiny pale skin. She lowered her head and continued to cry.
A small sign with familiar orderly printing, black and geometric against the scraggly back-drop, roused her from a dream. Twelve switchbacks to the summit it read. No distances. Distances do not matter here because a foot is an abstract and arbitrary concept, only the definite sharp whip-turns have any meaning to a hiker. Small piles of rocks reminded any delirious hiker where the trail was.
Her lungs burned more with every step. The height difference became readily apparent every time she strayed her eyes from the trail. The surrounding landscape stood still while the ground underneath her shifted with every step. Her brain--despite knowing it was just an illusion--still reeled from vertigo. She wanted so much to drop her pack and turn around and not even bother with the top. But then she thought, what if she ran into that ranger down the trail? How big of a smile would he have knowing that she gave up? It would be his ultimate vindication and she did not want to give it to him.
In front of her was the mountain itself; behind, an endless jagged expanse, the trees she had emerged from became a dark-green swath with only a tiny cut at the edge betraying the trail fading into the brush. Small ponds could be seen in the distance, tucked in between two competing mountains. No little fishes swam inside and the tell-tale dull green of algae was absent, forced to find solidarity with the trees at lower altitudes. Straight up only a few whiffs of clouds ambled by, surrounded by a brilliant blue unfettered by smog, gradually shading white as it stretched down to meet the ground at infinity.
The summit was in view. The sight didn't encourage her to go any faster, only to keep trudging along at her slow but constant pace. The altitude and strain ceased to be a novelty. every ache and pain had now become a part of her.
As she rounded the lip a strong gust of wind hit her straight on, the last little obstacle laughing as it impeded her. There was nothing special on top, no banner with her name on it or a victory tape stretched tight to run through, or any other human soul in sight. She loosened the straps on her backpack and let it slide to the ground, thankful for the moment's reprieve. A brass disc drilled into a large rock welcomed her to the top and listed the elevation, a number she memorized. Tucked into the rocks was a plastic water-tight tube holding a logbook where any climber could put their name down and any message they could manage to think of. She used the pen provided--barely usable after years of neglect and multiple seasons of freezing and thawing--to scrawl her name and the date but left the message blank.
She now commanded a full view of the landscape. Everywhere there was mountains, some barren, some with residual snow. A small smile appeared slowly crept to her face. There are higher mountains, longer trails, steeper slopes and more challenging terrain, but for just this moment this mountain was hers. The smile grew larger and more confidant as the full experience slowly seeped in. It wasn't the view, however glorious, or the crispness of the air, or the solid foundation below her. The smile was not because of her senses, but from an old barrier deep inside slowly deteriorating, letting loose a flood of emotions.
A couple scrambled quickly to the top, out of breath and wobbly but jubilant. The male punched the air and let out a mighty roar. The couple hugged each other and stumbled forward in exultation. She smiled, sharing in their joy. She would go down the mountain with a new piece added to her life. Her actions would not change much, only imperceptibly, but her walk would be different, the way she held her shoulders, her facial expressions would be a little cockier and upturned, everything about her would be infinitesimally different in a way only she could understand. On top of the mountain she could see her old self staring up, see the way she once was and how she had improved just today, just this very moment. She hoisted up her pack and with a tug and little jump yanked the straps down, then set out. Only the first half of her hike was finished, but rest was downhill, into the lush forests and alongside the sparkling stream.