As we begin our ascent in the late morning sun, I take a deep, resounding breath of fresh, mountain air. It fills my lungs and leaves me with a new feeling of exhilaration – a little dizzy and staggering already from the 8500 ft. altitude.
The trail bends to the right as we encircle the peak and follow the pines. They bow forlornly toward the Nevada desert valley in the distance. Its deep reds and browns burst into the horizon – a strong contrast from the deep green of the pines, ash grey boulders, and sheets of snow on the outer peaks framing this wilderness they call Rose.
Earlier, we crossed the state line into Nevada from the cabin we settled in for the long weekend near Lake Tahoe. A short reprieve from the many fires ablaze in California. Driving away from the smoky haze of the city into the clear mountain light, our heaviness lifts, and we can breathe again and forget for a moment. The deep blue of the lake follows us as we reach the trailhead.
In the shade, the temperature drops suddenly, so I clench my hands tightly into little fists again and again to bring some heat back. C is up ahead, his city gait strong and rhythmic. At first, I try to stay in his stride but feel the heaviness of the journey and slow my pace. It’s as if a weight settles across my chest sinking into my stomach. A sudden sharpness runs through me, and I double over in pain, feeling the barrel of pressure. It must be the altitude, I answer outloud to my silent question.
As I draw in another cold breath, feeling the thin air weave into my lungs, my eyes start to sting. At first, I fight back the tears, acting as though they are just part of the cold, like my runny nose. But, then, as I wind along the tree-lined path with the plunging cliff to my right, I stop, leaning to the left and grasp hold of a large pine. It’s beginning to hurt now.
The heaviness in my chest detains me here, and I want to cry out to him, but I don’t know how. The mountains, high above closer to the clouds than the sea, is where I’m haunted. By my own memories.
How we climbed in and out of mountains just like these. The great Sierras, where M and I fell apart and, inevitably, fell back together. Clinking forks to metal bowls, when we ate our warmed rice and cheese balanced on our knees over the small camp stove in the backcountry. Then we would shrink into our down sacks, our legs touching. He would fall asleep instantly, and I would count his breaths as they became slower with the sound of sleep. I would lie there for hours with my eyes open – negotiating the heaviness of my lids.
Until the first star arrived – a pinhole in the dark blue sky. Then another, until the swift wash of ink blue spread across the sky, and the universe turned on. I would fall asleep like this, in awe. Only to wake hours later from the rustle of the wind to find the constellations had moved, angled further left or right depending on where we pitched our tent. Yet, of course, we were the ones moving.
Back in Rose Wilderness, I find my breath again, still in the shade making out the sound and shape of a waterfall in the distance. The cold, vibrant spring water tumbles over the boulders below – most of it now suspended in midair. Frozen, like me. And I’m alone again.
This time in the Mountains of Patagonia, making my way through a damp Earth-rich path creekside – more running water. I lost the trail and cried out to the empty sky. The rocks and trees, even the creek stayed constant as I fumbled my way through, great sobs echoing into the canyon below. My heart spilled out over those mountains, with bruised feet and memories I couldn’t wash away. I kept walking, because I wanted to walk him away. All of the mean parts and even the sweet ones that left me silent now in this faraway land.
“C, I need a moment,” I find myself crying out. This time to someone who holds my heart as delicately as a seedling protected from the wind. Making sure it finds its new roots and is nourished until the sun arrives. He touches my arm, a look of worry across his brow.
“I’m feeling,” I pause, “I’m feeling something here. I need a moment. The mountains bring up so much joy for me, but they are my place. This is where I healed… I need a moment to remember this.”
He stands in silence as the sound of the falls and nearby birds sing. As swiftly as it arrives, it leaves me. I am different, and he is still here by my side, as we walk the rest of the trail together. Each foot swift and dusty upon the old Earth, lighter now, and full of joy for what’s to come.