“Great things are done when men and mountains meet. This is not done by jostling in the street.”
I continued looking out of the tent, searching for some sign of Paul, but couldn’t see much. I decided I needed to do something. I knew I couldn’t just sit there in fear, hoping for his return. I would have to go on a search mission. As I began stepping out of the tent, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye next to a log. I quickly looked over to find a pair of eyes staring back at me. I squinted, and made out the face of Paul, lying against the log, cuddled up in his sleeping bag. He didn’t say a word, just looked back at me in the shadows.
I returned to the tent and zipped up the door. I knew exactly why he decided to sleep outside. He told me he would think of a solution to our bear problem, and he did: he would sleep next to the fire to keep the flame burning. He told me earlier in the evening that bears are afraid of fires (I have no verification on this claim). Nestling back into my sleeping bag, I felt kind of like a coward, letting him lay out there to face the wild beasts of the woods. I didn’t feel bad long though, returning back to sleep, feeling a little safer with a guard outside my tent. The remainder of the night, I woke up about once every hour to the piercing sound of cracking wood. It no longer scared me; in fact it comforted me. I knew it was just Paul breaking branches to feed to fire.
In the morning, I came outside to find Paul eating dried apricots next to the remaining embers of the fire. He looked up and smiled, “Man, do I have a story to tell.” He went on to describe his night. After I went to bed, he sat next to the fire and began reading “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (homo). While sitting there, he heard strange growls and rustling branches. The noises became louder, but came to an abrupt stop when they were interrupted by a loud thumping sound nearby our camp. He grabbed the flashlight and shone it into the woods.
There stood an enormous elk staring out into the woods, stomping his hoof against a rock in defiance. He seemed to be angry at something in the woods. Paul ventured to guess that some type of beast (bear, mountain lion, bobcat) had wandered into the area, which also happened to be the home of the elk and his family. After witnessing this exchange, Paul’s fear grew, and he decided he better pay up on his promise to “figure something out”. The remainder of the night, he kept our fire raging, collecting firewood whenever he saw it dwindling.
“Dude, I felt like Strider in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’. You know, the part where he stays up all night toking the fire to protect Frodo from the Black Riders…oh yeah, you never finished that book, douche.”
While we ate breakfast, he continued telling tidbits from his crazy night including a shooting star that lit up the entire night sky and a moth the size of his fist that flew into the fire and exploded. I regretted missing out on all of the excitement.
Once we had camp all packed up, I grabbed my pack and threw it onto my back. My aching body wasn’t fully prepared for another day of hiking. I desperately needed a cup of coffee and realized how serious my dependence upon the black concoction had become. I began clipping the straps, when I noticed Paul heading toward the path leading up the mountain. I figured we’d just head back down. The walk to our campsite took seven hours alone. Now we were going to go three more hours up, then come back down the same 10 hour walk, resulting in 13 hours of hiking in one day.
“Paul, where you going?”
“…up the mountain?” he answered annoyed.
“I thought we were just going to head back down. If we go up, we probably won’t be getting back to the car until like 10 at night.”
“Whatever,” he said as he turned and continued up the path. I couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t even going to be mature enough to have a conversation? As much as I wanted to reach the top, it just didn’t seem feasible with our plans to see Aimee Mann two days away in Boulder. Yet there he was, disappearing up ahead into the trees.
What choice did I have? Start climbing.
While re-treading the same path we walked the night before, I decided I couldn’t be too angry at his choice to act like a child, avoiding a discussion. I mean heck, he stayed up all night protecting me. When someone saves your life, they kind of have the right to do whatever the hell they want.
Thinking of the possibility of missing the Aimee Mann show, I threw on my ear buds and listened to “Lost in Space”. Ever since Paul’s story about the monster moth, I had Aimee’s song “The Moth” running through my head. The song talks about the careless, risk-taking life of a moth, flying straight into a flame without a concern.
The Moth don’t care when he sees The Flame.
He might get burned, but he’s in the game.
And once he’s in, he can’t go back,
He’ll beat his wings ’til he burns them black…
No, The Moth don’t care when he sees The Flame.
Dragging my feet and listening to the song, I thought about how Paul lives life much like a moth, following his instinct, even when he knows he’s probably going to get burned in the end. I looked up ahead and could see him in the far distance, walking into the great unknown, thrilled with the uncertainty that lay ahead.
We eventually passed where we gave up the night before and continued on our way. Soon we were surrounded by snow and mountain flowers. It just seemed like such a strange combination, enemies co-existing side by side. Two hours into the hike my hamstring began to hurt again, forcing me to slow down a bit. I didn’t know how I would be able to walk another eight hours.
As the morning progressed, the peak became closer and closer and my hammy pain disappeared gradually. The grass progressively changed to rocks, and the peak slowly disappeared behind the steep mountain walls. I could hardly contain my excitement: we were almost there.
Coming around a rocky curve, we came upon our first obstacle of the day: a steep wall of snow, smothering our path. To our right laid a steep incline that would take some skillful rock climbing. We couldn’t climb the mountain side with our packs on. We needed to devise yet one more plan. Paul decided he would leave his pack with me, climb up and over to assess the situation. I didn’t mind; it gave me a much needed rest, sitting on a rock and heaving in the thin mountain air. Five minutes later I heard a loud hoot coming from the West. I looked over to see Paul standing atop the snow covered ledge.
“HEY! YOU’RE NOT GOING TO BE ABLE TO CLIMB UP WITH YOUR PACK! YOU’RE JUST GOING TO HAVE TO TRY CLIMBING ACROSS THE SNOW!”
I looked at the white menace before me, noticing how it went up at a 45 degree angle. I climbed through a lot of snow as a kid, but never in my life had I attempted maneuvering across a steep snow pile atop a mountain ledge. I walked over to the snow’s edge and screamed back, “WON’T I SLIDE DOWN?”
“WITH EACH STEP KICK YOUR FOOT IN NICE AND DEEP AND PUNCH YOUR FIST INTO THE SNOW! YOU’LL BE FINE!”
I walked up a bit to a spot where the thinnest area of snow laid before me, took a deep breath, and began my first ever snow-wall climb. I stuck my left foot into the snow and it instantly slipped out from under me. Fortunately I grabbed a hold of a near by rock.
“KICK YOUR FEET IN!” Paul yelled, watching me on the verge of my demise.
I kicked my foot several times in, forming a strong foothold and made my first step. The difficult part was crossing my other leg over to form the next hole. I continued across, starting to get the hang of it, although my hands started to freeze, gripping onto the chilly snow. About half way, I felt as if my hands were going to fall off. I needed to get across, and quickly. The faster I moved, the weaker my footholds became, and soon my hastiness came back to haunt me. With only a few steps to go, my foot suddenly slipped out from under me. I grasped for snow and dragged my rampant foot, hoping to catch hold of something before falling to my death. With a pigeon-toed stance, both of my feet came to a standstill and calm returned to the mountain peak. I looked over at Paul with my eyes wide-open.
“I TOLD YOU TO PUNCH YOUR HANDS! TAKE YOUR TIME!”
The final few steps I returned to my careful ways, despite my hands losing all feeling. Once close enough, Paul grabbed my hand and helped pull me to the ledge. I looked back at my snow path, proud of my feat and glad it was over.
While rubbing my hands together, he explained his plan. “I’m going to climb back down to my pack, and try doing what you just did.” I told him good luck while rubbing my frost bit hands, and he went on his way.
I turned and took in the view, a breathtaking display of a dozen snowy mountain tops. The ancient peaks sat all around me, like I was the dealer at a poker table surrounded by the most stoic of competitors. Looking down into the green valley, I noticed another path, winding down the mountain side…the other path….the horse shit path! Maybe our climb down wouldn’t be another 10 hours, but four like we were originally told.
A few minutes later, I turned back to see Paul beginning his snow climb. Knowing about my frozen hands, he used two sticks as ice picks. He took a lower path, thinking it would be easier, but as he went along, it became apparent that he had a much longer and more difficult journey ahead of him. At one point, he seemed to be standing straight up and down.
When he finally came to the rocky ledge, he sat down, sucking in air desperately. It was the first time the entire trip I saw him fatigued. We sat down for a while, not talking, just looking around at our amazing surroundings, our composure slowly resurfacing. Finally, I turned to him and asked, “Do you want to climb up a little higher?”
He agreed, and soon we were crawling up the rocky side of the mountain, hopping from rock to rock and occasionally slipping on pebbles. I stopped when I came upon the perfect resting spot: a large pointy rock, jutting out over the valley below. I lay down and looked out on the sprawling mountainside while Paul continued climbing up.
I couldn’t believe I sat here, on this mountain, high above the world. I thought about the rest of civilization, family and friends, all down below going about their normal business. I wished they could be here with me, away from the suffocating grip of modern society. Compared to this place, blessed with the heavens of Montana, everything else seemed so miniscule and unimportant. All of the possessions, all of the worries of daily life, all of it didn’t matter. Nothing compared to where I sat at this moment. It felt like I was in a different world, different air, different smells, different sights. There were no sounds, just the cacophonous whirring of the crisp wind rushing all around me. I gazed up into the cloudless sky, listening to the wind’s drone, speaking to my soul as if it were the voice of God.
After almost an hour, we decided we’d better head back down the mountainside. Refreshed and rejuvenated, we walked to the horse shit path, and began our return trip. A little way down the path we came across a mountain stream, flowing down the valley. Neither of us had taken a shower since Nebraska, five days prior, unless you count our venture into the waterfalls in Spearfish. I took my shirt off and began splashing the icy cold water up into my stinky armpits. I grabbed the soap from my bag, and began washing my arms, then dipped my head straight into the stream, letting the water rush over my face. I lifted my head and felt the tingle rush through my head. I’ve never been so refreshed. Who needs coffee when you can dip your head into a fresh mountain stream?
Once Paul washed his hair, we returned to moving down the mountainside. Our new path seemed to descend much more swiftly, and after and hour it seemed like we were already halfway down. I found the scenery on this path to be more beautiful, although I didn’t regret taking the adventure path less traveled. It made for quite an adventure: fording rivers, fighting off grizzlies with fire, and climbing walls of snow.
With our conversation at a standstill, I pulled the i-Pod out again, in search of the perfect soundtrack for my return trip to civilization. I decided to listen to the “Into the Wild” soundtrack performed by Eddie Vedder. With all of the lyrics dealing with connecting to nature, I knew I had made the right choice (yes, I get the irony that I was one with nature while listening to my i-Pod). No song fit more perfectly as a backdrop for my day than “No Ceiling” and its lyrics:
Comes the morning when I can feel
That there’s nothing left to be concealed
Moving on a scene surreal
No, my heart will never
Will never be far from here
Sure as I am breathing
Sure as I’m sad
I’ll keep this wisdom in my flesh
I leave here believing more than I had
And there’s a reason I’ll be
A reason I’ll be back
The mountain climbing exploit had been Paul’s idea, and I originally felt lukewarm about hiking up into bear country. But now, with the beautiful valley before me and the experience of the mountaintop still alive in my soul, I knew I would return. Maybe not to this peak, maybe not even to Montana country, but I knew I had to return to the wild for another taste of real vulnerability, real adversity, real freedom.