Friday, August 20, 2010

Pale blue shadow of the mountain

One foot in front of another. That's how it goes when you're hiking. At first, the trail was what you might expect of a hiking trail: dirt path through dense young growth, the older trees spiking up through the lower canopy, the world all gradient browns and greens both bright and shaded.

But the path quickly becomes steep. And, to compound the challenge, what was once a dirt trail is punctuated more thickly, then consists most entirely of rocks, rock outcroppings, and tree roots so densely tangled that they look like the interwoven lettering of an Islamic mural or painting. Which I have heard, although my memory and understanding are often faulty, is because images are profane; thus, art consists of the traceries of words.

At any rate, traceries of the forest canopy allowing only filtered light down to us moving slowly up the mountain, I had forgotten that this was indeed a somewhat challenging trail. We were climbing Camel's Hump, the second highest peak in Vermont, me, Edith, my friend Karen and her two children. The three children, at intervals, insisted they were going to die, they were so tired, but they said it with such drama that it was difficult to take them seriously.

So we told them, at intervals, that, really, it was only a little further to the top. Yes, we remembered from when we were younger. Although, really, we didn't. The trail continued on impassively, and it was something like climbing a rock staircase that went up and up, a stairway to heaven, yes, sure, go ahead and think it.

Most of the way up, I thought about the fact that Robert could not do this. But that I could. I didn't feel guilty, although around the edges of my consciousness I felt vaguely guilty for not feeling guilty, the way Conrad says of Marlowe that his tale brought out the story the way a glow brings out a haze, or something like that. Something about a cracked nut and a sailor's tale and the importance of the story not being at the center, but around the edges, while some unretrieved and inaccessible meaning brings out light the way an interior glow brings out a haze.

Because I wanted to do this. I wanted to do something, well, inaccessible. Because I am always doing accessible things. I am always looking at actual mountains and wondering if I could climb them because that would seem to accomplish something I cannot accomplish while climbing all of these invisible mountains I am forced to climb daily: the unreliability of childcare, the durable medical equipment that does not work or breaks down, the power going out and Pepco sorts telling me I (yes me) should be prepared but they don't have to be, the white envelopes with the blue BCBS logo that arrive singly or in batches in our mailbox, the planning as though launching a military campaign that it takes us to get from one place to another.

So the mountain was steep? I threw a couple of windbreakers, yogurts and miscellaneous snacks (really, whatever I could lay my hands on at the last minute), wallet, phone, bottles of water--yes, just the things I thought to grab into a new REI bright yellow daypack--and off we went. That was it. Toss things in a bag and go. They didn't have to be the right combination of things, and it would have been possible to forget a few things. And I would not have had to turn back as I might have had Robert's pump needed a charge or a piece of tubing forgotten, a diaper (god forbid we are without incontinence products, the spare tires of life in this house).

Oh, the mountain was steep and it was strenuous and I would not have turned back for all the whining my daughter might have been able to muster. Had she been in the least truly serious about her whining.

We kept them going with chocolate snacks and rumors of the top. What a spectacular view it would be. How it would ruin their lives if they were to expend all this energy and not make it to the top. What is the climb for, if not to reach the summit?

On the drive to Huntington, we drove on a part of Route 2 I'd not driven in quite a while--when the road winds down a steep hill out of Williston, past the old school for the disabled whose name I forget right now, and past the other end of Thomas Chittenden Road, which is near my parents house and is closed half the year, and down across the river flats leading to the Winooski crossing and into Richmond. And when you come spinning down the hill and onto the flats, the pale blue shadow of Camel's Hump is right in the middle of the road, right in front of you, as though if you could gain speed you might sail right toward it. And I said, look, look, that's it, that's where we're going. And Edith said, wow and paused, and then, all the way up there?

Before you reach the summit, many trails converge at the "saddle," which is between the two peaks or "humps." A clearing with sloped rocks suitable for sitting and eating and waiting. A little natural stage, something the way A Midsummer Night's Dream is staged, with actors entering from sundry trails left and right, one set of players leaving just as others enter, although you know they will all cross paths by the end.

The summit is where the trees get short and windblown and the trail hugs the side of the mountain, exposed, and then there are vistas, which only made the children go faster. Because this was really beyond what they had imagined or hoped for. They have, naturally, been to the tops of various things: hillocks, piles of large rocks, perhaps a tall building. Short though they are, they know what it's like to be up higher, and, while that can be fun, it no longer impresses them. But the top of a mountain, looking across at the same height as these blue shadowy images that are pasted on the horizon everywhere you go in Vermont. Well. That was something they hadn't imagined. Narnia, through the wardrobe--as though they had stepped through the border strip images pasted near the ceilings of their lives.

The top of Camel's Hump reminds me, as macrocosm, of the top of a big rock in a field at my grandparents' old farm, the rock called Pig Rock. The boulders are large and rounded and weathered and interspersed with grasses and low-growing shrubs. Pig Rock gave sight to the main house, the yard, down to the highway and the neighbor's. Here, on the Hump, we could see forever, if forever is simply a matter of mountaintops receding evermore into the distance, one after another with the valleys scooped and shaded in between. The wind whipped our hair, as it should.

Back down the trail we were quieter, in part because we were tired, in part because we needed to pay ever more attention to our footing. Each step on the way down requires at least a passing thought to avoid tripping and falling down the cascade of boulders stippled into the trail.

And that's where I am most days--looking for my footing. Every obstacle must be stepped over, on, and up. There is no down. And this is what bothers me. That I've no idea where the summit is, or even what it might be. The trails are unmarked here, although it appears others have used them.

On the way up, Edith took to asking hikers on their way down how much further it was to the summit. Most replied, not too much longer, and, eventually, you're almost there. On the way down, she called out the same things, unbidden, to hikers on the ascent.

I don't meet hikers on the way down. Wherever the summit is with this, do people just stay there? Maybe the view is glorious. Yes. Up and over the medical bills, the doctors' appointments, the broken down car, the parts of the wheelchair that keep breaking for no reason, the endless washing of tubing, the medical supply company that starts telling me I can't have things until I finally tell them that they are not actually the insurance company, the bath chair that the company misrepresented and I forced them to take back. And, oh, I am not nice when I climb, I am far from nice--nice is the base camp of this. And I whine that I feel like I'm going to die and no one takes me seriously either. The traceries of all the words I have ever said over my head like a canopy of things I cannot take back and I hope the better words sprout leaves to cover up my impatience and my anger.

And from the summit all around down below were vestiges of my former life. Because I grew up in Richmond on Main Street in a house that is now a bed and breakfast. And afterward, Edith said, take me on the tour of your life, and we drove past the old elementary school that is now the town offices with the one-time church that was once the gym and cafeteria and now the library, always and still across the former playground from the school--and in the winter, I had always told her, we had to bundle into our coats and boots and scarves and mittens and walk across to have lunch waiting in the dim hallway to the basement level where the call would come back up the lunch line, spanish rice, and every one would make a face--and she said, that was exactly how I pictured it. And the other church that was my old kindergarten and the store at the corner that used to sell candy cigarettes and is now an office building, what once was the Cash Market, and my middle school--Camel's Hump Middle School. And then the old Victorian house out of which eaves used to fly swarms of bats in the summer dusk. But the lilac trees were gone and the maple trees out front had grown out and fallen or been sawn.

But the house remained the same color scheme it had always been--a yellow/gold and green. And I thought about how this had been my life once, when I was about Edith's age. And I couldn't get myself to knock at the Inn door and say, I grew up in this house, could I see inside? because I really didn't want to see how it had changed. I like my memories looking down and in--the distance suits me fine.

Maybe I'm close to the peak with this and maybe we can climb back down someday. What will that be like? Will the climb down be as difficult as the way up, or just a different type of difficult where we are all watching our footing, watching each other, trying to prevent a fall? Maybe when we reach the summit we will all know what we need to know and look across at where we've been and yes there will be knowledge of a sort up there.

I can't imagine it.

But I do think often, and for no reason, of the day in the mid-70s, when we lived in the old house and Andrea, our babysitter, came across Main Street from the brick house she lived in and told us, because there was no internet or 24-hour news or texting or even much TV, and she came across the street to tell us that the war was over and all the boys were coming home. And in the distance, if I had looked for it then, just over the rooflines of the houses where my friends lived, was the pale blue shadow of the mountain.


Dale said...

I don't know, either. But thank you for this.

Tania Rochelle said...

You've reminded me how grateful I should be for the relative ease of my daily life--for having so much time that is truly my own--and that I should pay more attention for opportunities to be helpful.

Of course, as always, the writing is wonderful too.