There is a state—a bodily, mental, and spiritual plane of existence—wherein absolution is achieved in endurance. Awareness tightens in a gyre of relentless focus. Begets a black hole, a pinprick through which all concerns must pass, reshaping themselves into essential forms: breath, thirst, longing for reprieve. In that place, there is a peace that surpasses understanding. The loosely bounded self is released to the task. Ego eclipsed by the demands of the labor, the will to go on fills the field of vision until survival is all that remains.
It occurred to me, in some remote way, that I didn’t know the name of the mountain underfoot and a sense of loss accompanied that realization. I wondered about all those who had climbed this mountain before me. I wondered about the first people to do so; were they Arapaho, Cheyenne, or belonging to another tribe altogether? Why had they made their journey, what did they see, and how did they feel? My lungs simply could not capture enough oxygen on the arduous climb upwards and despite the chilling gusts of wind, sweat drenched the straps of my pack. As I wheezed my way upward, the mountain imparted to me more elation and raw emotion than I had experienced since the pandemic began. As a result, I felt indebted to the massive witness of rock and earth. I felt connected to her and her enormous boulders, snowfields, grassy knolls, and pristine streams of flowing snow melt. My body could not contain my gratitude and so I sobbed with ineffable delight. And then actively focused on the laborious act of breathing.
That morning, I had hugged Megan goodbye outside the Fireside Inn, pulling her tightly against me and trusting that our paths would cross again in some unlikely place or by some unexpected means.
Brian and I hugged goodbye before setting off, though I felt a resounding sense of certainty that I would see him down the trail.
Walking to the grocery store to resupply on food for the next section, I felt appreciative to be on my own again. Or on my own-ish.
At the crest of the climb a few miles south of Breckenridge, I glimpsed upon Matt’s slender silhouette reclined elegantly in the boulder-strewn pass.
I staggered into the grassy palm of the saddle where the trail passed between two higher peaks. The wind mercilessly cut through my rain jacket and puffy, so I fetched out my sleeping quilt and slid it down the length of my body like a chrysalis, poking my head out of the foot box. Not particularly stylish but certainly innovative. As I sat cross legged and curled into myself on a thin foam pad, I gazed into the glorious view below and felt flushed with endorphins. A runner’s high.
When I stood up, a strong gust pulled the pad out from beneath me, whipping its flaccid gray body high overhead before the thing plummeted sharply off a cliff face and disappeared from sight.
“Noooooo!” I wailed as I dramatically scrambled after it with all my limbs still swaddled inside the quilt. I had a vague sense of how ridiculous the situation was but I was determined to save my pad. Stumbling up to the edge of the crag, I looked down to see the damned thing some hundred feet below, still dancing on intermittent gales and breezes.
Matt roared with laughter. The sort of laughter that forces you to lean back a little and clap your hand to your mouth. But he must have felt badly for me because when we set off from the pass, we walked together until we reached a grassy meadow at twilight.
We each pitched our respective shelters, the heads of our tents close together but squared off at an odd angle. I sat cross-legged inside my tent, layered up against the cold and the mosquitos, and Matt sat in the grass outside facing me so that we could converse as we ate our dinners.
The atmosphere between Matt and I felt different now that it was just me and him. As though we had suddenly become a little skittish around one another. Uncertain of each other and of ourselves. Twilight eased into total darkness as Matt and I sat speaking in low voices. Our conversation flowed in curious, meandering directions. Our words formed intricate patterns as we discussed our experiences of sadness, suffering, and how to make meaning in this life. These are the sort of questions that allow you to gather a sense of someone beyond how fast they hike and what they like to eat on trail. The sort of questions that allow you to gauge whether or not you are undertaking a similar journey.
Matt and I wordlessly fell into synchronization as we broke down our tents, filled our water bottles, and filtered beside a stream that hemmed in the meadow’s perimeter. The day was young but already uncomfortably hot. I hid in the shade beneath a footbridge as I washed my face in the flowing water.
“Maybe we should call it quits on hiking. Stay here and skinny dip instead?” I glanced at Matt with a playful smile but the look that passed between us was electric and completely devoid of humor. We both averted our gazes and bumbled around awkwardly for a second before regaining our regular banter.
Over the course of the next 15 miles, two 12,000ft passes lay ahead. Nausea and dizziness roared through my body with every step. I was undernourished and I knew it, but with so little appetite, the thought of eating was outright offensive. I sat on the side of the trail to meditate and to attempt to calm my stomach with stale goldfish. Matt pushed ahead of me and I climbed alone beneath a graying sky. Mist clung greedily to my clammy skin and yellow pack cover.
Despite my protesting lungs and faintness, I pushed until the walking became easier. I found my stride then passed a handful of other hikers and bikers walking their bikes on my way over the passes, through marshy balds still littered with snowfields. As I tried to cross a seasonal stream of snowmelt, I sank shin deep into a dense mud that coated my shoes, socks, and calves in an opaque brown paste. Annoyed but amused, I marched on.
Eventually the mud dried out, cracking and flaking and stretching my skin irritatingly. A short distance later, I attempted to remove some of the muck by rinsing off in another seasonal mountain stream. As I sat scrubbing at my shoes and socks, I looked up to see Matt approaching and likewise covered in mud from the knees down. We cut up at the sight of one another, both having followed in the same suspect set of footprints that led straight into a bog.
Despite feeling unwell, the relentless elevation profile, and the ruinous mud, I was committed to completing a punishing day. So I pulled on my sopping wet socks and shoes, then started walking once again.
Miles and hours later, the presence of other hikers, even a sense of their presence, receded into solitude. The forest felt peaceful and still. The walking was rhythmic and uncomplicated. A soft rumble sounded, quietly then more loudly, and I recognized the crash of an enormous amount of water just as I rounded a rocky bend in the trail. A footbridge led over the rushing creek which was fed by a beautiful waterfall, crashing into a pool of snowy whitecaps of breaking water.
I pulled off my pack, then my shoes, and finally my clothes. Climbed beneath the footbridge and waded into water that was frigid. Breathtaking. Steeling myself against the incredible cold, I washed my sweaty limbs, my salty face, and considered submerging my whole body. I noticed then how skinny I had become over the past week. That my arms looked less muscular and my ribs just a hint more visible. These changes were felt too in the way that I struggled to keep myself warm or energized. I was both thrilled and terrified at the prospect of standing beneath the raging force of the falling water, allowing the roaring power of water to wash over me and leave me cleansed. I knew though that if I were to plunge my whole body into the water, it would be hours before I would feel warm again.
As I turned back toward the footbridge to collect my discarded clothes, Matt came down the trail. Still shivering and wet, I climbed up onto the bridge and righted myself. I saw in his stiff jaw and pursed lips that he was deliberating something. Putting his little black pack down next to mine, he explained his inclination to keep going and I resonated with his desire to walk on, no matter what distractions presented themselves, which presently included me. Despite his admission that he wanted to keep going, Matt started shedding his shirt and his shorts followed. His long, athletic body was completely exposed, looking like a diadem of youth and vigor. I stood facing him on the bridge as rivulets of water ran down my legs and stained the wooden planks below with inky darkness. I was too wet and too cold to dress myself so I waited for the parched air and ravenous sunlight to whisk the moisture away. I had little to do but stand and watch, transfixed, as Matt climbed gracefully into the water and walked confidently into the thundering stream of the waterfall.
His calves and thighs disappeared incrementally into the choppy pool as he waded toward the freight-train of water barreling down from above. The water eddied around his waist as he reached the intractable curtain of falling water, then he disappeared momentarily, enveloped within the torrent.
Damn, I thought, feeling a bit outdone.
I had shifted to a better vantage point on the footbridge. When he emerged from the cascade dripping and shivering, I watched his gaze search for me, find me, and light up with a smile.
We sat with our legs dangling off the footbridge. Fell into characteristically easy conversation which we managed to sustain with polite nonchalance, even as I pulled off my wet clothes in order to dress and start walking again.
As dark clouds rumbled in from the south, Matt and I stopped at a handful of empty campsites pressed up against old WWII bunkers. This training site was intended to help acclimate soldiers who would be heading to the Bavarian Alps. A single row of vast concrete cells with black doorways leading to nowhere, the rudimentary rectangular structure was sorely out of place. An eerie and abrupt reminder of man’s fingerprints upon the landscape. Violence and fear entombed in the bleakest materials imaginable.
We tossed down our packs in the trees some distance away from the creepy cells, collected water from a stream, and stalled on setting up shelters in hopes that we might cowboy camp. If only the swollen gray clouds unfurling overhead would disperse.
In our attempt to wait out the clouds and assess the potential rain, we sat on two adjacent stumps, eating our respective dinners from identical cold soak jars.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
Matt’s head swung toward me, his face donning a tiny bemused smile, “No…why…why did you ask me that?”
“Oh, well…I had a dream that you told me you had a girlfriend.”
Which was true, but certainly a bizarre thing to say. Not only have I been dreaming about you but my subconscious has taken a keen interest in your love life. Especially considering that I had been withholding information about my—
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
I took a deep breath.
“Um, kind of. Yeah, I am seeing someone.”
A moment of silence passed between us, punctuated by the sound of our sporks scraping against the hard plastic of our jars.
“I think,” Matt started, “I think the reason you said that is because there’s a certain amount of chemistry between us.”
He said this in such a straightforward and uncomplicated manner that I laughed in surprise. When I didn’t say anything in response, he continued a bit more tentatively, “I mean…do you agree with that?”
I nodded, “Yeah, I do. Thank you for acknowledging that.”
I was relieved by his willingness to confront whatever was forming between us directly. Attracted to the confidence informing his words.
He went on, “And you don’t feel great about it because you feel committed to somebody else?”
I thought about that for a moment. Did I feel committed to Luke? Did Luke feel committed to me? I thought back to a conversation he and I had the last time we were together, sitting out in the severe darkness of an Arizona evening in June.
“Yeah, I guess I do feel committed. But it’s something we’ve talked about. We’re not living in the same place. We don’t know when we’re going to see each other again. There’s so much uncertainty…”
Uncertainty. Instability. Feelings of powerlessness. Feelings that were not unique to the pandemic wreaking havoc upon all our lives but feelings which were certainly intensified by it.
I went on, perhaps feeling the need to clarify things for myself as much as for Matt, “I’m committed to a new job and moving to a new place. I don’t know…I feel like we—he and I—have had many conversations about our relationship and arrived at the conclusion that we each want to do our own thing. We respect that about each other.”
I paused to think for a second. With an unreadable expression, Matt watched me wordlessly, as though he were waiting for me to continue. After a few moments of silence, he responded in a thoughtful voice, “Well I appreciate you telling me. I appreciate you bringing it up. I think you’re a really mature person, and that you would be really mature about the whole situation, but I don’t know. This hike is short and I would hate to make it more complicated—“
A low growl of thunder rang out like a whip of static cracking through the air. Fat raindrops came down on the crown of my head, anticipating the oncoming storm.
“I think,” said Matt, “I should set up my tent.”
We retreated into the shelter of several standing trees and reached into our respective packs in an effort to erect our tents before the rain started in earnest. Kicking at a bare, dusty patch of earth, I circled the tentsite in contemplation like a big cat. Looked into the sky and frowned.
“What?” Matt asked quizzically.
“Don’t set up your tent,” I suggested, “Sleep in mine instead.”
The smile lines cradling his mouth creased into a grin and he laughed.
“Like a sleepover! Don’t worry, nothing will happen,” I said through my own laughter.
He stood over his pack with his tent still crumpled in his hands, weighing my suggestion. Then met my gaze, signaling his acceptance, and walked towards me to join me in setting up my tent, discarding his own in the process.
We each arranged our things meticulously, keeping respectfully to our own sides of the tiny tent. Realistically, my Nemo didn’t allow for any arrangement other than being pressed neatly up against each other like a seam. Though both he and I were careful not to invade one another’s space and careful not to accidentally touch each other as we lay side by side on our sleeping pads. I lay beside him, speaking, laughing, but not looking at him. Instead, my face was turned upwards into the darkening sky, even as raindrops pitter-pattered the rainfly and occasionally wetted my cheeks where the tent’s vestibules remained open.
Though we weren’t touching, I could feel Matt beside me in every cell. A prickling awareness of the shape of his body, its weight and heat spread through me. I could feel his deep, even breaths and found myself easing into the soft velvet of his voice. Pensive and sweet and curling around me in the darkness, telling me about space and stars.
In one movement, at once both sudden and slow, Matt pushed himself up onto an elbow and leaned over me. His fingers brushed curiously over my cheekbone, ran through the curls behind my ear, and settled at the back of my neck. His lips, wide and warm and deliciously full, came down softly over mine.