Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Alone on a Mountain


I was invited to stay at a house in the mountains, by a man I do not know well, but I like him. And, because I am in need of a break from the hustle and bustle of my New Orleans life, I accepted the offer.

The timing was perfect. Barely a year ago I left behind in Alaska a legal career, replete with hostile colleagues and bosses, for a softer, gentler nonprofit sector in the South, with kinder, less adversarial colleagues and bosses. Yet not even a year in my new job and already I am falling into old habits of overcommitment, unreasonable expectations of myself and others, and working on weekends, ultimately setting myself up for disappointment.

And though I gladly moved to New Orleans from Alaska, I missed the mountains and all the wisdom it has to offer in times of distress.

Six years in Alaska has endowed me with a respect of vastness, the breadth of the mountains, and the clarity that can result from challenging myself with an expanse of primordial rock. The sublime that is experienced at altitude was something I had learned to cherish in those years living in the great land. So, while I was hesitant to strand myself in a new place, relying on the kindness of a virtual stranger, I was confident that the elevation would do me some good and accepted the invitation to stay in the Appalachians.

But I know that the sublime is not always kind. The last time I slept in the woods, I was also with a man, M, my boyfriend at the time. It was in Alaska in November. We had hiked for an hour and a half with 30 lbs packs on our backs and a sled full of firewood which would serve as our only source of heat in the yurt, which was little more than a walled tent we had rented from the state parks recreation system. It was about 10 degrees F, and with every footstep, we collapsed one foot deep into partially packed snow. I was cold and tired and M was restless and impatient as was his modus operandi. As a pretense to go on ahead of me, he told me he would build a fire at the yurt so that I could warm up immediately. I was left alone on the trail, the light fading fast into the dark Alaskan sky. Guided by my piss-poor sense of direction, I missed the fork in the trail. My heart was pounding, the dark and merciless Alaskan cold weighing heavily on my mind. Every muscle in my body ached with pain, yet somehow still operational, running on fumes of fear-laden adrenaline. By the time I finally found the yurt, I added 40 minutes onto my hike and I was exhausted. Upon explaining my misdirection, M laughs at my stupidity. Tears stream down my face and I end the night shivering under three layers of clothing and wrapped in a sleeping bag, curled up on the plywood floor, my head inches away from the wood-burning stove. M is holding me tightly that evening, finally realizing just how far away I was at that moment, after all the countless hikes of being left behind by him. Barely a month later, it was I who left him.

Comparatively, the risks of this Appalachian mountain excursion were minimal. Neither hypothermia nor eternal darkness would be accompanying this late-Spring sojourn to the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. Instead of a primitive yurt in the woods, I would be staying in the family vacation getaway of a doctor, a librarian and their three over-educated adult sons. And instead of being addled with a dysfunctional relationship that had long exhausted its formerly convenient nature, for a male companion I had A, a quirky academic with urban sensibilities who lived in a different city from me.

When I asked in half-jest whether I would need iodine pills, a sleeping bag, or an emergency camping stove, my companion's email read, "Dear former Alaskan, meet Jewish vacationer." We spent most of the first 24 hours cooking in a kitchen with two sinks and corian countertops, listening to LP's on the record player, or watching movies on the flatscreen, with our feet propped on a glass coffee table as we sipped wine. Instead of the jagged, harsh beauty of the empty Alaskan wilderness, we had a stunning view of rolling hills, blue in color, dotted every so often with homes such as the one we were sitting in.

But by day two, the itch for a good blood-pumping hike finally called. I was flexible, grateful for any amount of elevation after almost of year of living in New Orleans. But it was A who set the agenda for Calloway Peak on Grandfather Mountain, the tallest of the Blue Ridge at almost 6000 feet elevation. From trailhead to peak, we were looking at 2000 feet elevation gain over the span of 4 miles. I knew I would be fine, as would A, with his wide set shoulders, muscular pecs, and tree-trunk legs. But Calloway Peak would be a first for both of us.

I found the hills beautiful. Our stepping stone-laden trail was shaded in conifers and rhodedendrons almost the entire way, and in the air was the unmistakable fragrance of lush foliage, the kind I have only experienced on a mountain. As a surprise to both of us, I was setting the pace, steadily soaking in as much of the perfumed air as my lungs could absorb. There is a smile on my face and after an hour, I stop to enjoy the vista, expecting to find the same smile on my companion.

But his wide-set chest is panting and his face is drenched in sweat. Knowing that he suffered from an aneurism at the age of 27 just months earlier, I silently chastise myself for such a frivolous excursion. I assure A that I have no qualms about turning around, but by now, peak-induced stubbornness has set in and he grumpily refuses.

For another hour and a half, we continue, him in quiet determination, our lungs pulling us to the top. I move no further ahead of him than the sound of his panting. At one point he touches my arm gently and I slow down. We stop for water and snacks, and I place a kiss on his forehead, slippery with perspiration. I know he is frustrated with his body and the situation at hand. I know that if I could, I would carry him to the top of the hill. I know I won't be able to convince him to turn around. And I know, personally, that there's nothing quite as lonely as climbing a mountain when you're not sure if your body will allow you to get to the top. At the end of the day, I know that all I can do to make the journey easier is what M never really could: be kind, be patient, stay close by. But ultimately, it is up to A to get to the yurt.

At the top, we eat our lunch of homemade pizza and cookie leftovers, drink our well-deserved water, and split a can of light beer. By now we are joking around and he is laughing at himself. We take pictures and eventually head back, relieved that it would be all downhill from there. We reach the car in less than half the time it took to get to the top.

Two days later, I am back in New Orleans, doing laundry, cleaning my apartment, preparing my headspace to go back to work. I think about issue 1 and issue 2 and the familiar swell of work-induced anxiety wells up inside of me, so I make plans with a friend to have a drink of wine, and look at my pictures of the blue hills of North Carolina. My calves are a little sore, as are my quads. The pain reminds me that all we can do to help us finish the journey is surround ourselves with people who are patient, kind, and close by, but that ultimately, it is our own calves and our own quads that get us where we need to go.

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