After a month in New York, I promised myself I would avail myself of everything I could, whenever I could. The month has not cooperated. I am beside myself, calm, deranged, fine, forward-looking excited, and stuck, but I haven’t forgotten. Now there is nothing more to be done. The sun has been shining down, shining like space hugs the Earth and its presence is even more tenuous. I go out into the sunlight, unsure where, but I stop to get a map. There are so many places I haven’t been.
It would be easy to disappoint myself. If I were the old me, the historical me from a couple years ago, this would be one more failure in my catalog, something else to litanize not having done. Now I don’t feel that old self returned so much as a new, deep hole. I don’t know what to do with it. Sky and mountain could fill it, at least for an afternoon. After meeting the former workmates for lunch and talking to the therapist I have the sense to buy a map and a guidebook. August a year ago I planned to hike the North Cascades, having never been in the whole time I’ve lived here. That time I was taking the cat to the vet (for something routine), getting the car fixed, fearing my imposition on the friend who had lent us his guest room and futon. Between the job starting up and buying a house I never made it. Now it’s a year later and there’s no reason not to go.
I feel it here, or a little farther on where the trees crowd the road in a green tunnel. I’ll fail in describing it: some confluence of light, how the sky was so blue, clear and distant, the warmth tinged with coolness in its center, the long straight road and the trees and brown grass that all spell The West. I had it once before that I can remember, after dropping out of grad school the first time, driving through Idaho or Wyoming where the rivers run. Everything was free, everything was released. All the fear, dread, confusion, presumed loss, assumed failure, immobility, uselessness and isolation had left, as ghosts do. The sun was here and everything was solid in the only present. I could breathe as if into the last few days of summer itself, as if the light would always be this clear and always be falling, everything so solid and immutable a glass jar could be held out to it, the lid screwed on, and this essence indefinitely preserved. I don’t know how to name feeling like that.
The only reason I end up at the top of Mt. Sauk is accidental, deciding on it after seeing it highlighted on this state park information board. Rockport State Park is all but closed, but the sign explains the trees have never been logged. A typical specimen dwarfs the dump truck above. The road up is just to the left and describes something I don’t remember but leads me to want to go. I don’t get the sense I can go wrong.
The road up is a long, winding gravel snake of switchbacks and drops like any forest road, the occasional shotgun-blasted sign announcing my leaving or entering some land management’s purview. Light beams like a solar eclipse has just passed. Even with the smoke it feels like only a few thousand feet up is the edge of space.
A broad parking area opens up at the road’s end. It’s full of sedans and voices calling, people wandering. A group of college kids pours into the gold sedan behind me, then tears off. The whole hillside rumbles down almost in unison and I am left alone even before I get my boots on. It takes a while to find everything with the duffelbag of clothes, the pack, the six gallon blue water container, pillows, blankets. I plan to sleep in the car, having no tent and not being sure now is a time I want to ask to borrow one. I don’t think I’ve slept in the car–deliberately, as part of the plan–since college, when I drove from Texas to Pennsylvania and Boston, to see grandparents as an excuse for seeing Boston friends, met my one semester at school there. There is something about the light, and time, and remembering a trip like that, in this same car probably twenty years ago, that has me between worlds.
Pine posts hold up a corkboard with announcements of bear warnings, burn bans, and a description of this very popular trail. You can start your journey right with an empty bowel spring in your step with the inimitable National Park privy john experience:
Then a long series of gentle switchbacks seesawing through trees and sun. I have a moment of freak-out when I can’t see my camera display before realizing it’s the polarizing sunglasses. Funny.
Dust walked to a fine powder wafts up to mix with the thin smoke from fires raging across the mountains. I pass two couples headed down. Is it worth it? Oh, have you never been? Yes, of course. They are older, retirees, the women in their white golf outfits.
The way is hard, but not that hard. I stop and get my breath and drink. I remember what it was like in Hawaii: much harder, but I seemed more driven, propelled by anxious energy. None of that here: heat, clear air, muscle fatigue. I realize my sides haven’t hurt since middle school–that sharp pinch that stopped you from running, jumping. Just work through it, the butch or edge-of-roid-rage coach said, but it felt like hot solder burning from the inside out. Pinch it, they said, their Texan warping pinch into something like payeench. It never helped. I wonder what it was. Some things are gratefully left in childhood.
Quiet comes near the top. Stillness and snow. An atmosphere of it, the perfect round silence, like a jewel that can be breathed. Maybe it’s the temperature, or the shade, or facing the Cascades and Canada.
It’s cold enough that snow stays. Sun breaks hard across the shadow. The silence is its own world here, facing the sky and not the Earth. Standing still it is total, the ringing in my ears deafening. On this side the silence can be cupped in your hands, so still and deep it can almost be seen.
The path wanders around uncertainly, thousands of walkers veering off to see this angle, what’s over there. It’s not clear how to get all the way up, wherever that ultimate up may be, and my legs are shaky enough I don’t want to look for all of them. It’s not that long to get up here but longer than I thought. Or I am more tired than I thought, from everything.
This is the top, facing east. The little square hat of rock to the right is the toppest top, but I don’t go up there. Another dozen feet won’t make much difference. Silence collides with sounds from the south and west now able to come up: a truck’s backup beeper, a chainsaw. The sound is startlingly clear and present from all the way across the valley and all the way up. Vertigo is the primary sensation. The only meaningful direction is down and the mountain knows.
No direction is up or start from the top. Standing on a lump of concrete from an old firewatch tower I turn in a slow circle as the camera records the panorama Photoshop will stitch together later. Mount Sauk is not a tall mountain, not exceptional in any way, a “more difficult” climb that old ladies in Keds can get to, but this takes nothing away. No one is here but me.
Describing this summit is no easier than that moment on the drive when everything was clear, or released, or something. Clear light pours down and turns glassine in the countless valleys, muddied by smoke, but it is no less beautiful. I am not thinking or cataloging; I am not sure what mental process this is. No clocks are here. There is no money. The mountain stands beyond these things and remembers the million years ago when everything now in view was gas and fire. The mountain doesn’t forget and will never know the bugs or I were here.
It’s very clear–in my head, I mean. The interior monologue has stopped, or more likely been directed elsewhere. I feel what I think I would have felt if I’d had hikes like these to go on in middle school, when billions was first entering the common tongue, when everything was huge in the unknowable way of innocence. I sit on the old tower foundation and look out, the shadow eastern side cool, the western sun side warm, both pleasant as if fresh-caught, fresh-picked.
Ray Bradbury has an early short story where the inhabitants of Mercury, descended long ago from a crashed Earth ship, live such accelerated lives they never think to find the old Earth ship in the few hours they live. One couple stumbles upon it and get inside, collapsing into the still-functioning artificial cool. They slow down. Looking out, they see only burning rocks and a thin, flitting foam. They punch some buttons and roar away from burned-over Mercury. Mount Sauk has that same permanence, a root to the center of unchanging things. I can barely look out at all the peaks. It is like looking into another dimension humans can’t really see. My eyes are always drawn down to the rocks I sit among, the profusion of bugs parading across them.
I make myself sit there and look as much as I can stand. This is important, even as the concept of importance does not apply. It’s like being on the Moon. You would not want to squander any timeless moment, standing on the Moon.
This must be clarity and stillness, why wise men go to mountaintops. In the desert, Christ was assaulted by demons. People go to the desert to go crazy. I prefer green mountains.
I head down. Down is as difficult as up but reversed: now gravity wants you to fall. Protein bars helped some shakiness but not all of it. Descending I see the wildflowers and hear bees. Summer isn’t here for very long this high. The light is golden like out of a fuzzy 16mm nature film we saw in science class, or on rainy Sunday afternoons when UHF stations offered the Million Dollar Movie: lots of long shots of flowers and mountains, music by Joan Baez with lots of flute.
If you zoom in to this picture, to the little grey spot between the foreground trees, you can see the blue dot of my car. When I get to it, I am alone. There is a wooden picnic table with a bronze plaque. The woman lived from 1954 to 2008. She was 54. This is only a little younger, adjusted across species, than my cat was. I wonder what she was like, this woman. What her friends must have felt.
All the blankets and sleeping bag and pillows will wait. I want to be home, in my own bed clean after a shower. The idea of that present and that place–home–has no connection to this place. The mountaintop looks nothing like what it did. Roads seem automatic like your legs feel after hours of walking. Everything directs itself, everything somehow clearer and flushed away.