13. Road Trip 2008: Day 11, Zen and the Art of Hiking

“When you get to the top of a mountain, keep climbing.”

Zen saying

Paul roused me from my slumber saying we had to get going in order to beat the weekend rush.  We quickly tore down camp and returned to the crossroads where we decided to head up the path leading to the mountain’s peak.  I struggled the first hour of hiking, plodding a distance behind Paul from the lack of both a good night’s sleep and a fresh cup of morning coffee.  When we came upon a stream, we refilled our water bottles and I splashed my face awake.  Still needing a kick in my step, I pulled out my i-Pod and put the Pennywise discography on random. There’s no point in picking one particular album with Pennywise: all their songs over the past 20 years feature the same up-tempo beat, grinding guitars, and political fervor.  The relentless tempo kept my feet moving at a pace up to Paul’s standards, and I nipped at his heels for the next hour.

“Go Straight Ahead – not a bad anthem when hiking up a mountain:

As we came around an upward curve in the path, we caught sight of a herd of elk sunning along the mountainside.  The elken flock seemed to stretch all the way down to the forest edge.  Paul pulled out his binoculars and counted 44 elk in all.  Some roamed around grazing on the mountain grass, others bathed in the sun’s rays, while others tended to their calves stumbling about on fresh legs.  I pulled out my camera and began snapping photos of the amazing mountainside scene when the “battery low” light began blinking and the camera refused to take anymore pictures.  This was a major problem with the awe-inspiring mountain top scenery still ahead.


One of my final pictures before my camera died; at least I captured this scene.

We sat down for about 20 minutes, admiring the elk at home in their natural Eden. To see such a large group of animals this high up on the mountain was truly astounding.  Paul told me he had climbed Long’s Peak many times and had never seen anything like what we saw that afternoon.

With the day quickly passing us by, we continued on our climb, eventually approaching a large rock field.  The cool wind seemed to pick up.  With the stones becoming larger, we were no longer hiking but hopping across the taller rocks.  The path disappeared and soon we were following the mini-rock totems set up to signify the right direction.  The rock field gave way to a camping area, furnished with toilets and all.  Each camping area featured a rock barricade reminding me of the snow forts my brothers and I built as kids.   I decided the barriers must be there to keep those pesky, toe eating marmot away.

"Foolish kids! Snow walls and moon boots can't keep me from feasting on your tootsies!"

When we neared the central area, Paul went to take his morning crap in the man-made stall. I sat down on a large rock and began to read more out of Dharma Bums. Just when I reached the section where Japhy and Ray (Jack) start their hike, a hippie woman sat next to me and began talking at me.

“So, you climbing the entire way?”  I tried acting like I didn’t hear her.

“How rude?” I thought. “Can’t she see that I’m reading?”

The last thing I wanted to do was chit-chat with a stranger. “Hey, are you climbing the entire way?” she reiterated. I couldn’t deny her persistence.


Seeing this as a sign someone wanted to talk to her, she began rambling about how her friends were climbing the rest of the way, but she was going to hang out here in the camp area all day until they returned.  She went on to say that the climb wasn’t worth the effort.  “The hike is straight up from here on out, and no one returns from it with a smile on their face.  Believe me, I’ve been watching painful faces coming back through here all morning.”

Paul rescued me, but the woman’s soothsayer-like tale of worn down hikers had me concerned.  Climbing the Sphinx was exhausting, but unlike her story of eminent exhaustion, we climbed back down better than we arrived.

We continued on our way, heading upward, hopping stone to stone, with the stones getting larger and larger and the leaps getting more and more difficult.  Coming over a rock mound, we discovered an archway at the top of a steep hill of boulders in the distance. I cautiously stepped from rock to rock in my worn down Nike high-tops, while Paul bounced off ahead of me like a mountain goat.  Every few minutes he would look back at me, annoyed by my dainty pace, but I didn’t care.  I twist my ankle once a week playing basketball; God knows what a careless step in a boulder field would do to me.

To add to my lumbering pace, the higher we got, the harder it became to breathe.  The closer I got to the arch, the more often I had to stop to catch my breath.  I didn’t remember having this much difficulty breathing on the Sphnix – obviously we were already at a higher altitude.  In the back of my mind, I wondered if our smoking exploits had been a bad idea on the eve of our climb into the stratosphere.  “But then again,” I thought to myself,” Carmello Anthony and Allen Iverson play in Denver’s thin air nightly, and they are the cannabis kings of the court.”

"Maybe that pregame joint wasn't such a good idea."

At one point I stopped and sat down, finishing off the remainder of my water while staring off into the wall of rocks that still lay ahead.  I could no longer see Paul, who I guessed had already reached the archway.  I imagined him sitting there in the shade while the sun continued scorching my shiny head.  The sun sat five feet above my shoulders – if I were Icarus my wings would have melted hours ago.

I decided I couldn’t keep Paul waiting longer. I had to toughen up.  I had to fight through the burning in my lungs and move beyond the sight of the searing rays.  I began leaping carelessly up the side of the rock hill, two boulders at a time, not stopping, pushing through the stitch building in my side.  When my hamstring began to act up again, I crouched and walked on all fours, having flashbacks of my high school football coach, Mr. Troug, screaming at me in his booming growl, “Bear crawl damn it!”

Eventually my upper body was doing all the work, gripping, clawing, pulling, relentlessly grasping for the next rock in my path.  I wasn’t going to let anything stall me at this point.  I could relish the pain later.  I had to reach that shady arch: dead or alive.  Higher and higher, aching, burning, heaving, closer and closer, slipping, scraping, sweating, aching…

I pulled myself over the final boulder and was almost knocked backward by both the burst of artic wind rushing through the archway and the magnitude of the enormous mountainscape before me.  The experience reminded me of the final scene in “Vanilla Sky” when Tom Cruise sprints to the edge of the building and is suddenly overwhelmed by his surroundings: the blowing wind and the cityscape below.

A cool version of the scene set to the music of  Sigur Ros:

All the pain I felt only seconds before suddenly washed away. I stood and let the mountain air wash over me for the first time since the Sphinx.

I glanced down to see Paul leaning against a ledge nearby, but I remained in that spot for several minutes staring out into the vast valley below.  Glistening lakes speckled the mountainside and evergreens swayed below, tickling the mountain’s feet.


Fortunately, my camera found the energy to take a few more pictures.

Eventually I slid down next to Paul, but we didn’t exchange words.  I could see why Paul loved this mountain so much, despite all its touristy flaws.  I was visiting his sanctuary, and for that moment, everything in the world seemed to make sense.

My solace was broken when I noticed Paul rolling a pebble between his fingers as he looked out toward the scenery.  I glanced down and realized it wasn’t a stone at all, but a small brown nugget resembling a rabbit dropping.  I didn’t say a word and contained my laugher as he continued fingering the turd.  About 30 seconds later, Paul looked down at his toy and had the sudden realization he had been caressing poop in his hands for the past few minutes.

“Fuck man! I was playing with marmot shit and I didn’t even know it!” He tossed the feces over the edge, and I watched the droplet disappear into the great unknown.

One marmot's shit is another man's treasure.

Just as I was beginning to feel relaxed, he told me he was returning to the path.  Since I didn’t feel up to it yet, I told him I’d catch up. He seemed to understand and disappeared around the mountain ledge.  I sat there for a while, wondering if continuing my climb would be worth it.  Could it get much better than what I was looking at now?  The voice of the hippie woman kept seeping into my brain. “The climb is straight up from here on out…” Feeling somewhat rejuvenated, I thought I’d give the remainder of the climb a chance.  It couldn’t get much worse.

The hike turned into a narrow mountain path: one side rock, the other a drop off.  I tiptoed carefully, trying not to look down but still attempting to find my next foothold.  Every few minutes a group of people would emerge from the rocks ahead and I’d have to climb up out of their way so they could pass.  I began to notice that every person that returned bared the same pained look. These people didn’t look enlightened by nature – they looked like they’d just had a root canal.  The voice of the hippie woman continued whispering in the wind “…no one returns from the peak with a smile on their face.”

Coming around a mass of rocks jutting out of the side of the incline I could see Paul up ahead taking a break, sitting on a rock and eating beef jerky.  When he saw me far behind, he waved.  I looked up above him to see that he was about to climb the worst incline we’d faced all day, almost straight up. It was then that I realized I didn’t want to go any further.  I felt guilty leaving the rest of the climb to Paul, but I didn’t see any point in finishing the hike.  I’d found what I was looking for, and from what I had gathered, no one returned from the top uplifted by nature’s beauty.   I yelled to him. “Paul! I’m just going to wait here!”  He nodded, although I’m not sure if he heard me. I knew he probably saw me as a quitter, but I didn’t care at the moment.

I moved up and away from the path to find some privacy. After putting on my earbuds and cueing up Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever Ago”, I pulled out Dharma Bums.  I thought about how all my middle school reading teachers used to profess the importance of finding a comfortable place to read.  Looking out onto my surroundings, I decided Mrs. Jensen would be proud of my “special reading place”.

Along with my “special reading music”:

I sat there reading for an hour or more, and when Japhy and Ray neared the top, the narrative felt eerily similar to my experiences that afternoon.

Soon Japhy was a whole football field, a hundred yards ahead of me, getting smaller.  “How can I keep up with a maniac like that?” but with nutty desperation I followed him. Finally I came to a kind of ledge where I could sit at a level angle instead of having to cling not to slip, and I nudged my whole body inside the ledge just to hold me there tight, so the wind would not dislodge me, and I looked down and around and I had had it.  “I’m staying here!” I yelled to Japhy.

No longer did I feel bad for not finishing the climb. I had already found what I was looking for on this hike, on this mountainside, on this road trip.  Everything else from this point on would just be the an added bonus.  I felt comfort in my surroundings, the natural beauty around me, reading on as Kerouac reassured me that all was right in the world:

“…when Japhy gets to the top of that crag he will keep climbing, the way the wind’s blowing.  Well this old philosopher is staying right here.  Besides, rest and be kind, you don’t have to prove anything.”


My special reading place.

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