Monday, November 23, 2009

Up and Down the Mountain: An Atheistic Vision Quest

Dear the internet,
I tried to write fiction today, I really did, but this came out instead. Enjoy!
Give away the stone
Let the waters kiss
And transmutate
These leaden grudges into gold
- Tool,
The Grudge

My alarm goes off. I slap the snooze bar. I roll over, then remember where I am.

I'm in Colorado.

I sit up in bed. Ten feet away, my step-brother A inhales sharply. I tell him I'm awake, and he can go back to sleep. My brother JD rolls over, and I can't tell if he's just turning in his sleep or trying to ignore everything. We're a family of light sleepers, except for my father and me. He has an internal alarm clock, though - I like to stay up late and sleep late, wrapped in warm blankets until I damn well feel like getting up.

But not today. I'm here in Colorado to climb a mountain.

Long's Peak is the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Over fourteen-thousand feet in the air, there are many ways to approach it. The most popular path is a fifteen-mile round-trip hike through forest, tundra, over boulders, and finally up a section of slick rock ironically called the "home stretch." I have been up this path a couple times, going all the way only once with my brothers, my father, and my grandfather. I'm going at it from another angle today.

Our cabin is rented from the Meeker Park Lodge at the base of Mount Meeker, a neighboring peak. My plan is to take the regular path up to Lookout Mountain, then bushwhack back down below the treeline and up Meeker's spine, then cross over the saddle to the summit of Long's Peak, and then come down and hitch a ride back to the cabin (or walk, if I can't hitch). My father offered to drive me to the Long's Peak trailhead so I wouldn't have to walk along the highway, but I declined. I wanted to go up Meeker, not just see the sights from its summit. He hears out my plan, makes sure I know how to recognize altitude sickness, and is satisfied that I'm adequately prepared for a solo trek. He doesn't think I'll make it to the Peak, but I have to try - I'm going camping in Michigan with my friends tomorrow, with the rest of the family staying in Colorado. I only have one week of vacation, but plenty of money since I work for The Man.

It's only my third day in Colorado, so he's right to be concerned, of course. Day one, I just walked around in the woods, stretching my legs and getting used to moving around all day. Day two, I hiked up to Lookout Mountain, a small bit of rock just barely jutting up out of the trees, and sighted a route the rest of the way up Meeker. Now it's three in the morning, my bag is packed, I've pulled on the clothes I set out last night, and I'm off. I have a bag of peanuts and raisins, a large sausage, two sandwiches, and three liters of water. I eat a bowl of raisin bran and a banana, then head out.

I light a black clove cigarette and hit the road, nothing to see but the jewelled sky above me, nothing to hear but my feet crunching on gravel. Gradually, the cold air wakes me up. This is better than coffee, and soon I can hear the defeaning silence all around me, see the deeper dark between the shadows. I need no flashlight, only my food, and a knife on my belt in case I have to defend myself. I remember being in the second or third grade, pretending to run away in the middle of the night, but just going out to parks and climbing and hiding in trees. Somehow, my father always managed to find me. My mother never came to look for me, but she always had something to say about it. Suddenly, someone shrieks, "you asshole," I am struck across the face, and I hear the sounds of flesh squealing against linoleum as I slide across the kitchen floor. I am too small to fight back, but I refuse to show weakness. We lock eyes for too long. She loses. She comes at me again, and...

...darkness.

I shake my head, as if the unbidden memory is a bug on my nose. I'm back in Colorado now, still walking along the road. My cigarette is done, and off to the right I can see the sign for a closed trail. I'm making good time. I keep moving.

The road ends, I take the spent butt out of my pocket and place it in the very last trashcan, and now I'm really in the woods. I can hear the mountain stream off in the distance - I must have spaced out the first time I crossed over it. Out here, I feel really alive: there's nothing to distract from the grandeur of nature, nothing to tell you where to go or what to do, and so many different-and-similar things that I can't stop looking around. There's so much to take in, out here away from all of the "everything" that I'm used to, I almost have no time to get lost in my thoughts. Almost.

I reach the stream again and prepare for a ritual. I set down my bag, an Air Force surplus dealie that I use as combination purse and backpack, depending on how I arrange the various straps and buckles. I roll up my pants, take off my boots and socks, and stand barefoot in the stream as long as I can. I'm walking up to my front door now. It's the middle of winter, and the snow is thick on the ground. We've just moved here from California, where winter is an option, not a season - we'd spend a week up at Big Bear, most years, but this is my first year coming home from school to snow. I want to be inside, but I don't dare anticipate warmth. I turn the front doorknob.

Locked.

I check the garage, the back porch, the windows - there's no way in, and nobody's home. I find a lump in the snow, brush off the window well cover and lift it up, then hop in with my backpack. I hunker down inside the window well, pulling the cover shut against the cold, and then darkness settles in. Next thing I know, I'm playing with a radar gun in a police cruiser.

Back in Colorado, I can't feel my feet any more, so I twist and fall onto my sitting rock in one smooth motion. Well, I hope it's smooth - my friend DJ says that I'm always a collection of straight lines, never curves - my martial arts training didn't make me graceful, only efficient. I pull up my legs and rub my feet until I get circulation back. Then I put my socks and boots back on and hit the trail again.

The path gets much steeper. Drop-offs and switchbacks have replaced the gentle, steady incline. Off in the distance, I hear coyotes. Maybe wolves? I don't know. I consider howling along, but now they're just yipping. Maybe they're hunting something. Maybe it's me, I think. I grin and finger the snap on my knife's sheath. The way to be unafraid in the dark is to be the scariest motherfucker out there. I fondly remember junior high, the boy who kept tackling me on the playground. I learned to listen for his approach, and one day I planted my feet, dropped my weight, and shoved my elbow back at exactly the right time, all at once. Lucky me. Half his face was green for a week.

Now I'm thirteen, staring at a photograph. A very young boy, maybe in kindergarten or first grade, shirt pulled up and pants pulled down with green and yellow egg-shaped bruises from ribs to thighs. I feel sorry for him, but there's nothing I can do to help the poor child now. I set the photograph down next to one of myself in the early fourth grade, same position, same markings; I keep pawing through the box of police reports and court transcripts from the second-longest divorce proceedings in state history.

Back in Colorado, I light another cigarette. Goddammit, I thought your life was only supposed to flash before your eyes when you're right about to die. Why won't this stop? I want to kill this, bury it, forget it - but then I'll forget the lessons, and the lessons make me strong. So which is it? Do I want to be strong, or happy? I can't choose, and that's why I'm here. I'm here to stop the insanity. Mountains are metaphors, and I need the biggest goddamned metaphor I can get right now to bury this nonsense. I need to put this all away.

Soft soil gives way to lichen-covered rocks. I'm nearing the treeline. I can see the sky when I take my eyes from the trail and look ahead. Very close now. I reach Lookout Mountain and settle down for second breakfast: a handful of peanuts and raisins, half a sandwich, and a couple slices of sausage. I wash it down with water and take out another cigarette, but stop before lighting up. Nobody should be out here at this hour, unless they plan on breaking the law like me. I see the sky lightening in the East. Serendipity strikes, spontaneous and stupid and beautiful.

I strip. I don't just want to be nude, I want to be naked, so the knife also has to go. I light my cigarette, stand tall, and watch as the Sun rises. The Earth's tilt and my position are exactly perfect, and the life-giving star is born anew from a gap right between two peaks. Beautiful. No trail guide on the planet will tell you to look for that - I may be the first person to ever see this sight.

The cold, the vulnerability, the scenery, everything is perfect. I could die right now and be happy. This is all I need on Earth: my body, ground to stand on, and my shining star. My life, for these glorious ten minutes, is complete.

I dress and remind myself of my chosen route from yesterday. I re-shoulder my pack and I keep moving. There's no path any longer, and I have to stop every few dozen paces, reorient myself with the Sun, then pick a landmark a few dozen paces on. I feel refreshed, renewed, reborn. I'm doing something for the first time, the hard way. No map, no compass, no signal flares, nothing to build a fire. I could get lost out here. That wouldn't be so bad, but I need to see from the top of the mountain first. Then maybe I can get lost.

I reach a nigh-impassable bramble. It stretches off in both directions, a tangled border between forest and tundra. I stare for a moment, feeling like a deer in headlights. I'm staring into a police spotlight now, laying down behind a tree - my mother told me I couldn't get into the car until I apologized to JD for a fight he started, so I said Fine and ran off. The spotlight is freezing at every tree, though, so I keep still. After a few seconds it moves on, and I keep running - but now I'm back in Colorado and I'm through running. I've tried to disturb nothing, I know how delicate things can be when you get near the treeline, but now there's no other way up. I pull out my leather gloves, toss my bag to the other side as gently as I can manage, then plunge my arms into the heart of the tangle. Grabbing, pulling, climbing, I nearly lose my hat in my clambering contortions. I grab it with one hand, feeling like Indiana Jones for a moment - it's an Indiana Jones hat, so this is appropriate - then toss it to the other side. One last push, then I roll over to the bare rock and start to pick out the dry gnarls that want to come with me. My hat is back on, and I keep moving.

This is where the scenery gets really interesting. I'm right on Meeker's spine, one side bathed in golden sunlight, the other blanketed in purple shadow. It's like the dark side of the Moon or something. I've seen this once before, as I crossed through the Keyhole at the top of the Boulder Field on my way up Long's Peak. This is new, different-and-similar, exactly where I want to be. I marvel at the same mountains I've seen for many summers, now from a different angle, a different viewpoint. Nothing like a new twist on an old favorite.

The rocks get bigger and bigger. Mount Meeker is notorious for crushing unwary hikers as it sheds the odd boulder (or sixty), and this is why I walk up the spine instead of doing switchbacks up the trough. That, and I feel like I'm walking a razor's edge between light and darkness. I feel balanced up here.

I pass through what l can only call a meadow. Patches of snow dot the landscape, and I see small lavender flowers growing here and there. I want to take a little piece of this beauty with me. I put one in an empty water bottle, one in my hat, and another in my jacket. There. I feel pretty as a princess, now. I'm back in California, in my parents' bedroom, rifling through my mother's things. I want to dress up like my favorite princess, She-Ra. She's just the best - a beautiful noble, adored by all, until the shit hits the fan and she turns into a fearsome warrior. I want to be her when I grow up, and that starts with dressing the part right now. Boots, jewelry, whatever I can find that looks like her, I put it on and arrange it with meticulous care, then trundle on down the hallway to go show off to daddy. He turns around as I approach the kitchen, and then...

...darkness.

What? Why can't I remember that? What happens next? I can see my father's smiling face, I can hear the boots thumping along the floor as I hobble along, I can feel the bracelets and rings rattle as I try to hold them all in place - it's so vivid, but I can't remember what happens right after that moment. I don't even know what's supposed to come next. Usually, darkness is my friend, the cover-up for memories I don't want any more, leaving cold facts in their place. My head hurts. My mouth is dry. I'm back on the mountain, staring stupidly off into space. No - I'm staring away from the Sun. Am I dehydrating? I drink more water, and I keep moving.

I keep my second liter of water out, and drink as much as I am able without making myself feel water-logged. It doesn't help. Higher and higher, straight up the spine, the Sun rising with me, I keep moving. I see the top up ahead, but as I near it, I realize that it's just a little ridge I was approaching. I look back. I've come a long way from the treeline, and I can barely see Lookout Mountain any more. I think I can see the real summit now, but I'm not sure. Either way, it's a long fuckin' way off. Every step hurts my brain now. I feel weak. The Sun is beating down on me, my everything is on fire. I take out my other half sandwich - no. Trail mix? Hell no. Sausage! No way. The thought of eating makes me nauseous. It's hard to think straight. I realize that this is altitude sickness.

A steely voice at the back of my head says, "Good." I keep moving.

Something shifts in my heart. I don't need to hide any longer. This is the end of my story. It doesn't matter what happens any more. I know the warning signs of suicide, I have studied them, and I have scrupulously avoided broadcasting my intentions - there is no note, there have been no discussions of death, and there was no giving away of possessions, no break in my sunny disposition. This will be seen as a foolhardy mistake, and that will be better for the survivors. My shoulders slump and I stumble onward. I've been removing layers all day, and now I'm down to my t-shirt. I can't tell what temperature it is. I keep my eyes on the ground beneath my feet, I take it one agonizing step at a time, and I keep moving.

My water runs out. It doesn't matter. I eat snow. I pack snow on my forehead, but nothing helps. My breathing is labored, and my senses are slipping away. For some damn reason, I start breathing into my hat, but I get dizzy when I can't see. The light hurts too much, though. I fight through the pain and I keep moving. I feel like I'm being dragged, kicking and screaming, by my backpack through a McDonald's parking lot. It's fifth grade, and my mother always rifles through our bags during our scheduled visits. But I have a limited edition foil cover first issue of X-Men: Age of Apocalypse. I used to like Rogue, because she couldn't touch anybody without hurting them - but in this storyline, Magneto can magically shut down her powers, and that makes her uninteresting. Blink is my favorite now, so austere and distinct. And she moves through portals, so nothing can confine her. Comics are the Devil, though, since they take glory away from God - and if a story doesn't glorify God, then it glorifies Satan by default. She won't let me have it, but I won't let her take it - I can't get another one like it, not this long after it came out, not for any price I can afford with my chore allowance. I should have left it in my locker at school, but I forgot. Boy, I wish I could move through portals now! But my mother drags me, screaming at the top of her lungs, crying, putting on such a show, just begging me to get involved. I refuse. I set my jaw, I steel my heart, I stare at her face and I dig my heels in. She looks everywhere except back into my eyes, but she's bigger than me, so things go her way for now.

Inside, she shrieks for someone to call the police, says I'm attacking her, the same thing she'd pull on my father: put on a show, yell and scream and holler until help comes running. She's always crying wolf, and the story is a common one, so everyone believes her - her friends, her second husband, my own fucking brother. She drags me around the corner into the restroom, starts kicking the door shut on me. I can't take much of this, but I'm smarter, so I make a plan. I start to go along with her show just a little, I let her build up a rhythm of pull and kick, pull and kick, I let her think it's her idea - then I break rhythm, I let go of the bag, she goes off balance and I charge into the door, knocking her to the floor. I pounce, and then...

...darkness.

The inside of a police station is fascinating, the first time. I'm used to them by now, and just bored. Evidence happens. Discussions ensue. Conclusions are reached. Courtroom drama bullshit that I wish I could turn off, like the soap opera it is. But there's a happy ending, days and days later: I don't have to go on visits any more. I win. I'm standing at the summit of Mount Meeker now, a freight train thundering behind my eyes, my whole body feeling hollow and insubstantial. I look around. Enough. I don't feel like crossing the saddle and going even higher. This is as good a place as any to lie down and die. I'm so fucking tired, and sleep seems like the best idea in the world. My shirts are my pillow, my jacket is my blanket, the very mountain is my bed, and my hat shields my head from the cruel Sun. My head finally stops yelling at me as I drift off into a dreamless sleep.

But then I wake up. I don't move, I'm just aware of having lost time, and that I'm baking in the sunlight on top of a mountain, waiting to die.

Maybe I didn't go high enough. Maybe I need to keep going. I'm not tired any more, I just feel - nothing. I feel nothing. In my mind's eye, I see darkness, his eyes aflame, the cold blue jewel of reason shining in his forehead. He tells me that I am being weak, that I am letting my mother rule my life all over again. No, I say, I am ending the insanity with me.

"How does this break the cycle? How does this help?"

"I can't pass it on to anyone else this way. I can't hurt anyone if I'm gone."

"OK, so you die. Then what?"

"Then, life goes on without me."

"Whose life? Your father's, knowing that his firstborn climbed a mountain, only to lay down and die? Your brothers, perhaps, who look up to you as the trailblazer through life, learning from your mistakes and passing on the lessons to make their paths easier? Or maybe your youngest siblings, who you have practically raised as a third parent? Your friends, who see you as the iconoclastic weirdo who always has something interesting to say?"

"I get the point."

"No, you don't. You fix nothing by dying here. You leave only questions. They will seek answers, and you will not be around to make sure that they find the right ones."

"Not my problem."

"No, it's not your problem. You'll be creating a new one. You end one cycle, you start another. And then what?"

"I don't fucking know!"

"Then fucking be there to make sure things work out!"

"As if the world rests on my shoulders."

"It does not. It will go on without skipping a beat. But everyone else's burden will be a little bit heavier without you."

"Well, I don't care any more."

"Yes, you do." Dammit. He's right.

"OK, fine. Now what?"

"On your feet, princess. March. You have no water, you can't eat food, and you're talking to a figment of your imagination. You are broken. You need to get off this goddamned mountain and put yourself together again, one piece at a time."

"And how do I do that?"

"You quit this job you're faking, you go back to school, and you learn. Figure it out as you go."

"How can I know that I'm doing the right thing?"

"You can't. Deal with it. You can walk in doubt, or in self-deception. There is no third option. Now on your feet and get moving." How did Candide end? Something about foolish optimism being foolish, and always having work to do. I'll have to look that up when I get back to my life.

I pull off my hat. The Sun still hurts, but I can breathe better now. I see a fox staring at me - shit, I've got open sausage in my bag! I'm lucky that's not a fucking cougar! I sit up, and the headache comes back. I need to drink some - ahh, shit. No water. Peanuts are salty, bread is dry, sausage is unappetizing. I cut a piece off and toss it towards the fox. It looks at the sausage and then looks back at me.

"What are you, my spirit guide or something?" It keeps staring at me. I see RJ staring at me from across the playground - he hit me, knocked me down, but gave me power by letting me be below him. I grab his leg and yank; he pulls back, so I push him up and over, and he goes down. Now I'm on top of him, clawing at his face until superior numbers drag me off. I sit through a lecture, I walk back out to the playground, and there's RJ: alone, doing nothing, his face a mess. No permanent damage done, but he'll be ugly for weeks. I realize that I'm turning into my mother, a rotten tangle of horror and violence and lies. I vow that the insanity stops with me. I stand to my feet, and the altitude sickness is back in full force now. I'm delirious. Out of my goddamned mind. How am I going to get down from here without triggering a rockslide?

The fox wanders off down the trough. After a few yards, it stops and looks back at me. Am I hallucinating? Is it really leading me down the mountain? Doesn't matter, a voice in my head says it's time to follow the fox, so I do.

I pick my way carefully from boulder to boulder. I come to the head of the mountain stream that runs all the way down to the highway. The fox scampers off faster than I can follow, but there are some rather large crows now. I head towards one, and it flies up into the air, then lands on a farther rock. I reach its old rock, then head for the second crow, and follow them like this back down below the treeline. There's soil here now, and forgotten paths half-swallowed by the woods. My senses are coming back to me, my time at the summit fading, seeming more surreal and dream-like by the minute. I remember the fox, but I can't remember if it was really there or not - same thing with the crows.

It doesn't matter. I nearly did something very silly, and managed to talk myself out of it at the last minute with a little help from the darkness in my soul. He's my knight in shining armor, who had his heart ripped out by the Dragon Queen - she gave it to me, thinking I would play with it until I broke it, but instead I kept it safe, and so she had no power over him. Now he walks with me, my shadow given life, whatever I need him to be for me. My Other. My Adversary. My Doubt. My darkness.

Wait a minute. That wasn't part of the story. But it fits - it has always fit. It's a new understanding, a new facet of my particular craziness, a new footnote in the story of my life. I come upon a sign saying that the path I've just come down is closed. I'm back on the road I started on, having come full circle. I never made it to Long's Peak, but that's just as well - my feet are really starting to hurt now. I'm back at the cabin - the men are out, and my step-mom is giving the tykes a bath.

"How was your hike?"

"Beautiful!"

"Great! I'm glad you could get a serious hike in, you were gone all day." I remember the flowers, but the ones in my jacket and hat have fallen out. There's still one in my bottle, though, and it's in perfect condition.

"Hey, I got something for you while I was up there."

"Oh, yeah?" I lower the bottle in front of her face from behind. She shouts, "Oh! My! Gawd! Do you know what this is?"

"Umm, a pretty flower? There's a fuckin' million of 'em growing up there."

"This is a Colorado columbine! You can't pick these!" She takes the bottle from my hand and leaves the bathroom. "I'm going to press this right away! Thank you so much!"

Well, then. Things are looking up already. Life goes on.

4 comments:

Ebonmuse said...

That was wonderful. The way your narrative glides back and forth between the present and the past gave the whole thing an eerie feel, like a lucid dream.

I know you said at the beginning that you tried to write fiction and this came out instead, but I just have to ask: Did all of this really happen?

D said...

Well, I'm glad I could make something beautiful out of something not-so-beautiful. Thanks! I didn't have those memories in exactly the order I describe during my hike, but I did try to surreptitiously kill myself during a family vacation years ago, and every event I describe was an actual event from my childhood (and I do remember following a fox and some crows off the mountain - and I can't say for sure whether they were real or not). It's why I don't usually write about my past - 'cuz it's screwed up. But so is everybody's in some way or another (have you read A Child Called It? That guy had it way worse than me.).

I noticed that personal details were creeping into my comments on other sites, so I decided to just say everything that was on my mind by telling it like a story on my own damn soapbox. Oh, and yes, I do deliberately anthropomorphize all my craziness onto a character in my head. It's been the main way I deal with my crazy: a dialogue with darkness. It's not a voice in my head or another personality or anything actually crazy like that, just a story I tell myself to help me frame things (and I know it's just a story, too). It's why my father gave me his ring of Quoklo, the storyteller.

Ebonmuse said...

Well, speaking on behalf of everyone, D, let me say we're glad you're still with us. Whatever is in your past, I hope you've come through it safely and left it well and truly behind. Whether the fox and the crows were real or not, we owe them a debt of gratitude.

I like the idea of a dialogue with darkness - it's something I've dabbled in writing myself, on occasion. Everyone has thoughts like that from time to time, but when you personify them and treat them as something separate from yourself, I think it's easier to recognize them for what they are (and to resist them, too).

D said...

Thank you again for your kind words. And hooray for internalized externalization!