Disclaimer...What follows isn't much; just a few of my thoughts and memories that I've put down over the past year. If you're looking for detail, specifications or even a reference to a discrete point somewhere on this earth, this isn't for you. It may not be your reason for climbing or hiking, but it is what I've come to take away from the experience. Perhaps it will resonate with you. Perhaps not.
And so it goes...A night like this is always the worst. It seems that, no matter what I do, the mind never really shuts up and leaves me alone. Unfortunately, it’s one of those nights that is strikingly similar to just about every single other one these last couple of years. I sip my drink and watch the strains of vodka swirl richly with the meltwater from the ice. The invisible ribbons reappear with every draw I take. But this story isn’t about alcohol or finding some sort of refuge from this thing called life in the form of a bottle. No, this is just a cold drink to hopefully dull the incessant blade of my thoughts. In all reality, I do not know what this story is about—I write only because it is something different that I haven’t done much of (not just lately, but ever). If nothing else, this story is about mountains. Not mountains in the sense of your geology text book. I don’t particularly care to recite details of the Laramide revolution and various ice ages. No, this is about mountains, and humanity, and happiness, and capitalism, and god.
The great majority of my conscious life, I’ve wished I was somewhere else, with someone else, or even a different person entirely. I know, we all have the fantasy of another life, but I’m talking about something more tangible than that. I’ve wished not for millions of dollars and unencumbered leisure, but a vastly simpler life. Long ago as a child, I went walking in the mountains and I left my thoughts behind. The only way to find myself, to get above my mind and the cruel tricks it plays is to return and climb higher and higher. This has been the only place where I am genuinely happy. If nothing else, it must be perspective; gazing at an immutable gray wall of granite laced with the dying snow of winter reminds me of the absurdity of it all. Regardless of how much I toil or worry, the sun will rise, and it will continue to rise long after I leave this world. The snow melts and the wall remains. And that’s exactly how it should be, so I try not to mourn it. No one’s gonna play the harp when you die, and that’s just fine by me.
This is easily the most punishing trail I’ve ever been on. The peaks are 15 miles in, and it’s steeper than you could ever believe. An inch of altitude is never given; it is earned through pain, sweat and the fire in my lungs that never really goes away. It is a cruel mistress, but today is just the day for it. I need to be ripped open and raked over the coals. Today, I’m walking to forget you. But I’ve got bigger things to worry about. All I want right now is a picture. A suitable photograph that opens the mountains’ secret to me, laying bare their high, solitary beauty. A vindication that this widow-maker of a trail was really worth it. It doesn’t come today. I’m five miles in and I don’t have the light or the energy to make a push for it. It’s whipped me today; I can feel the raw skin scream with every step and I’ll spend the next week bleeding out of the backs of my heels. Talk about your sisyphusian adventures. I don’t regret it. It makes more sense this way.
After playing some foosball, we decide to go off and be social again. It isn’t that either of us really wants to go back, but that that is what is expected of us. I’m happiest a lot of the time when I can be alone, or just with one or two people in particular. I have never understood this compelling force to socialize, and meet new people, or act congenial to people I really couldn’t give a fuck about. Then again, I’ve never really been able to believe that human affairs were serious matters, to paraphrase someone that I wish I knew.
“Who’s all here?”
“Uh, looks like most everyone still…” (noticing a particular automobile)… “and her too.”
“Shall we find a different scene?”
“Yea, I don’t want to deal with her when she’s drunk. Where do you want to go?”
“Let’s go out on the top.”
We throw some gas in the tank and head out west of town, towards the range. A near-full moon shines down through light blankets of mist, illuminating the entire valley. The nearby mountains jut from the mist like the prow of some proud ship, ghost vessels sailing to nothing. Some people live to meet as many new, interesting people as they can. Some live to see the world’s cities and cultures. Some live for cheap material thrills. Others live only to fuck others over. But either way, you really haven’t lived until you’ve seen the mountains by moonlight. There’s no other experience that’s quite like it. We pull over on the overlook and park. Here’s how you know a true friend—they’re willing to risk death by deer and gas prices to drive forty miles, at three in the morning, for a view.
And it’s a view, all right. Up here, the mist has thinned out, rendering the granite peaks clear. Sitting on the hood of the car, we try to fathom the immensity of the granite wall sitting right in our faces. It’s difficult to tell what’s real; all there is in front of you is a black and gray bas-relief that is wider than the universe. I think people often forget that there are things that are truly more immense than themselves. The peaks remind me that there is such a world that exists outside of life. There’s a perspective here like there is nowhere else.
“It’s a small and select few that I’ll bring with me to the mountains…I honestly don’t think any of them get it. ‘Oh it’s beautiful’ and ‘how gorgeous’ and all that shit they say, but do they really get it? I don’t know.”
He agrees with me, and I wonder if he gets it, but I’ll settle with knowing that he at least gets that I get it, as stupid as that sounds. If you can understand the quiet intimacy of being right up against a canopy of granite and white, snowflakes swirling down silently against the glassy reflections of the water, and how great is to be alone in all of that, then I guess you understand. If you can understand that the life all around you came from the soil, which came from the rock, which came from the ice and wind, which came from the mountain, then maybe you understand.
“Well, shall we head back down?”
Just like that, it’s back in the car, engine gunned, and speeding back from whence we came. Somewhere though, no matter where I’m at, I know there’s a moment of perfection, of silence, somewhere on this earth. I’ll only be happy when I can live in that perfection forever.
Cruising across some obscure corner of New Mexico, we’re chasing the last lights of the day across the border into Texas. I remember a movie where the narrator said ‘every man, woman, and child alive should see the desert one time before they die,’ and it’s a fact. Coarse black cinders rise around us, remnants of something so fiery and fierce that it could never be a part of this world, a volcanic age of long ago. When not punctuated with abrupt cliffs or mesas, the flat sands and scrub-brush stretch on until land and sky become different only in name.
Eventually, the dusk gives way to darkness and my universe closes in around two circles of white thrown forward by the headlights. Up ahead, the faint pulse of lightening lights up the backs of the clouds. Soon, we’re right in the middle of the storm. The entire sky shines purple as bolts crash down on every side. The wind-shield wipers beat incessantly against the sheets of water, marking time with the Johnny Cash that’s playing on the radio. It only lasts about twenty minutes before we’re out of it, with only the purple glow steadily flashing in the rearview to hint at what just happened, but that twenty minutes is the only time on this earth that I’ve believed there was a god.
I pull the car to the gate and park it. Even though serious snow has yet to fly, they’ve already closed down the road up to the trailhead. It’s not a problem; just two more steep miles to gain by foot instead of by automobile. Somehow, it’s steeper than it was in June, and the biting wind doesn’t improve matters. I can feel it carve up my lungs with each laboring breath. Soon, the coppery taste of pennies fills my head; I can taste the blood in my lungs. Chronically weak ever since a childhood bout of pneumonia, I’d wish on anything for a different set of fucking lungs. Call it redemptive suffering or what-have-you, but either way I press on and reach the trailhead. Today’s not the day to make a push for the lake just a mile further up the trail, though. The sun is rapidly diving behind a smaller peak and the wind is picking up.
Four months ago, things were different. But also the same. We made the hike up the road with no problem, and then ventured up the trail to the lake. I knew there would be snow, but this was something else entirely. The switchbacks that criss-crossed the mountain were buried in drifts well over ten feet deep. There comes a time when following the beaten path isn’t worth the trouble, and this was certainly that time. We kick-stepped footholds into the snow and climbed straight up, forsaking the trail for a direct confrontation with gravity.
Cresting the top, we walked though a small stand of trees and found we had arrived. Nothing I had previously experienced prepared me for this. From the black, glassy depths of a partially frozen lake soared the cold, talus-strewn walls of three peaks, ringing all of the way around us. Just emerging from the depths of winter, the air was electrified with potential; streams fat with the spring run-off raced off to the valley below and small alpine flowers had just began turning towards the sun. Here, above the whispering silence of the wind, we could hear the ice plates on the lake brush and expand against each other. This brittle, crystalline sound of needles breaking against each other was the only sound in the universe at that moment. More than anything, it sounded the promise of a different day.
Welcome back to now. The burbling stream that once ran over the road is a dry gravel bed. The grasses in the meadow are dead and laying prone, broken by a herd of animals on their way to warmer places that stopped for the night. Snow dusts all of the peaks, with the highest spires gleaming shock-white in the sun, already blanketed until next year’s summer. Nothing has changed here except for the retreat of life from its short existence on these high granite reaches.
Against the constancy of the peaks, the supreme allegory of the mountains emerges. Already born into death, the snows of winter surround us from the day we emerge and never really fade, not even in the warmest of summer’s months. No sooner do we turn our faces to the sky then do we see the sun retreat low in the south as the snows begin again. Alive for the first time, we are also alive for a very short time, and the last time as well.
It’s getting cold and the car is a couple of miles down in the valley. I turn back.
It’s a hot night and my week in Philadelphia is beginning to get long. There’s only so much interest a city can hold for me before I begin to get anxious and looking to move on. The hotel room has become stale, reminding us that we’ve been here for nearly ten days. She invites me down for a cigarette on the street and I oblige her.
“So how’ve you liked it?” she asks, taking a long drag.
“It’s getting to me,” I confess, “I honestly can’t take it.”
“A city can never be home. It’s always been, and probably only can be, just a place you visit. It can be a different change of pace and scenery, but never a home. Think about it. When’s the last time you were conscious of the sky? There’s no horizon here. It’s suffocating. All this gray and concrete. Lifeless.”
She nods, and I also wonder if she gets it. I take a few more drags, cash out my cigarette, and head inside.
This winter has grown long and there’s only so much hibernating one can do before a kind of madness begins to set in. It is these long months that age me the most. I spend the days sleepwalking and it leaves me profoundly tired. But the snows are retreating and the grasses are pushing their way forward for a short, brilliant time on this earth.