Morning came early. The sun had not crept its way over the hills quite yet, and the birds had barely begun their songs. Sam’s morning had already started as he sipped hot coffee and stuffed his hiking backpack full of needed gear. Foodstuffs, check. Rain jacket, check. Medical gear, tent, cooking supplies: check, check, check. It was all there, packed and ready to go for the two day trip. He cinched up the pack as tight as the straps would let him and loaded a bloated water bladder into another pocket. As he drained the last of the black coffee in his mug, he slung the heavy bag over a shoulder and headed for the door, taking one last glance back to make sure he was prepared for today’s journey. Despite being a somewhat seasoned mountaineer, excitement and anxiousness overtook his mind. Each trip is different; each mountain is unique.
“Goodbye to everything,” he laughed, knowing full well that he’d be back later to see it all again. Satisfied and sure that he had everything he needed, Sam stepped into his car and drove away.
As the vehicle rumbled down the gravel road towards the trailhead the tall peak loomed far in the distance, still barely lit by the waxing sunrise. Sam pulled into the parking lot, opened the door, and firmly planted his boot in the rocks as he stepped out into the fresh atmosphere. Taking in a large breath of the unfamiliar, almost astral body of air, he smiled with rejuvenation as the crisp intake filled his lungs. It had been a while since he made this kind of trip to get away from it all, and with the usual load of tedious responsibilities that bogged him down during the week he needed the vacation. This was completely worth skipping his classes for the day (especially his notoriously difficult Greek Studies class) and worth not spending time with his friends for the weekend. The time for homework and chores had ended; the time for relaxation and enjoyment was now. The mouth of the gully gaped wide before him as he pulled his backpack out of the trunk of the car, beckoning him to enter and begin the journey. Pulling the shoulder straps tight and taking in another refreshing breath, Sam set foot on the path and began walking down the trail.
This mountain was infamous for him: he had attempted it a year ago, but too early in the spring. This made the trip nearly impossible without snowshoes and poles since the peak was blanketed in waist-deep snow at nine thousand feet and beyond. Having neither, Sam’s first climb was a destined failure, and he only made it so far before exhaustion and frozen extremities made him turn back. Not today.
“You’ll make it up this time,” Sam vowed to himself as he passed the one mile mark on the dirt trail, taking the glorious scenery and freshening ambiance. “This time you will lay your ghosts to rest. This time you will make it all the way to the top.”
As he progressed, he noted that the hike was much easier now that he had decided to embark in the autumn instead of the spring, though it was a little odd since the air was much colder and nature had started regressing into hibernation. Despite the differences, he trudged on down the path, enjoying every moment of the trek and eventually coming to a natural lake nearly halfway up. The lake was full of algae and sheets of biofilm, creating intriguing strata under the glassy surface. He wrinkled his brow at the surprising beauty of the microbial life. The cooling temperatures would have killed off most of the normal growth by now, leaving behind only some form of extremophile elite to overtake the water with colonies of its own. Sam stopped and gazed into the lake, overtaken by the peculiar beauty in the murky waters. He smiled as he wondered to himself how many other travelers had simply passed this sight by on their way to the apex. Suddenly he noticed how far the sun had crossed in the sky and hurried down the path, hoping to reach his planned campsite before it got too late.
As the sun set behind the western wall of the basin, Sam closed in on his place of rest. He was far more spent than he had originally thought, and the exhaustion had caused a parallax that slightly bent his vision, making concentration on setting up camp for the night all the more difficult but reminding him of how hard he had worked to get there. He quickly erected his tent and opened the black box that contained his lightweight campstove, anxious to cook dinner and finally relax. Sam gathered some small branches and started a fire to keep warm while he cooked and ate a well-deserved meal, taking time to notice the overwhelming tranquility of the deep alpine woods. The sun had faded away, leaving millions of stars and a faint band of the Milky Way to dominate the skies. He crawled into his tent and wrapped himself tightly into his sleeping bag, quickly falling deep into a restful sleep.
The next morning came later than the last as the sun poked its rays over the ridgeline and into Sam’s tent. He stirred awake and exited the tent, squinting as his eyes adjusted to the harsh light. Rapidly stuffing his gear back into the heavy bag, he tightened the pack to his back and headed off down the trail again with newfound energy, knowing that he had conquered nearly three-quarters of the journey. As he approached a clearing at the base of the summit, he stopped and admired his foe. The peak stood tall and straight, trying to intimidate the lowly hiker at its feet. Sam took a deep breath and began walking again, making his way toward the looming apex: his goal, his telos. Strange alpine flowers grew tall along the path; the fact that they still had petals was intriguing enough, and the odd figures that they created added to their mystery. Sam figured that they probably couldn’t be seen anywhere else outside of these high mountain places, and this conclusion made him smile as he guessed that few others would be able to appreciate this year’s bloom. But he knew he could not be distracted; he had to keep moving.
Sam made his way up several taxing switchbacks and eventually came upon the ridge’s saddle, pausing to catch his breath. He looked around at the panorama, slowly taking in the vivid colors of the surrounding mountains and their majestic coats of trees that contrasted the bright blue sky. Eventually his gaze came upon his home town far off in the distance, but the haze from this summer’s forest fires distorted its figure, giving it softer, murkier appearance. It still held its grandeur, however, and the melting city caught Sam’s eye for an extended time before he remembered his final goal. He glanced up the hillside towards the peak and locked his eyes on his prize, never looking away as he took step after labored step up the harsh incline.
After what felt like hours, the incline gradually eased and made way to a flat area with a lonely flag. Sam stopped and sat down, his heavy breathing the only sound beyond the chilly breeze. He had made it.
Sam removed his backpack and let it fall to the ground with a thud. He slowly made his way over to the flag where a small metal box lay next to the short, makeshift flagpole. “NFS Official Geosurvey” read imprinted letters on the box. Sam unscrewed the heavy bolt used as a makeshift lock and opened a cache of various notebooks filled with the names of other mountaineers that had also made the ascent. With overwhelming feelings of achievement and excitement, he produced a pencil and carefully signed his initials into the newest notebook. “S.F.P.,2012,” it read. He lowered the notebook and stared at his name, joining hundreds of other hikers in spirit, and reveled in the satisfaction of the journey. How anyone could not enjoy such a revitalizing sojourn was beyond him, yet at the same time he understood that this sort of thing wasn’t for anyone. They were truly missing out.
After resting on the summit for a while, Sam once again hefted his backpack and tightened the straps. Taking one last look at the panoramic horizon, he started to walk towards the steep mountainside.
“Goodbye to everything,” he quietly said, as he began the descent back down the mountain.