My poles propel me down a dusty trail. I hear the slosh of my water bottle swinging on its carbiner, the chink and spring of my poles and the crunch of my boots in the pine needles. Somewhere back in the trees a stream roars faintly. Branches crisscross over my head, filtering the fading light of our first afternoon in the backcountry. I carry on my back everything I will need for two weeks, and a song of independence swells in my heart. We clear away a little patch in the fallen pinecones and fragrant duff to pitch our tent.
Then we sculpt seats out of the soft, decaying refuse of the forest floor and lean against trees to eat our dinner, becoming part of the thicket. The moon is our only light as we bundle into our fleeces and sink our fingers into the fire-warmed dishwater. The great, bright orb illuminates our little hollow, overpowering the stars. The tops of the trees are clear black cutouts fading away into shadows as they reach down to the ground.
The next morning I awake to the thrill of adventure. We push ourselves up the steep, gravelly trail in the sparkling sunshine, which glints off of water, bedewed grasses, and certain minerals in the rocks. A meadow of exquisite flowers begs me to pause, but the trail calls me insistently and the mountain urges me forward. I tromp around an enormous, sandy-colored boulder and find myself looking down at a glittering blue lake surrounded by waving green grass. I yank off my pack, letting it crash to the ground, my water bottle clunking against the rock with an air of finality.
I dig in my pack for my windbreaker and gaze up at the mountain we’ll be climbing the next day. We share dried fruit and shave off pieces of salami and cheese with our knives, as we watch the wind move like a comb across the long grasses, grazing the shimmering face of the lake. My pack digs into my shoulders and bruises my hipbones.
I puff up the last bit of the trail to the bottom of the pass. Not only is the pack again abandoned unceremoniously, but the boots and socks are also cast viciously away. We lie down across huge, flat granite boulders to rest in the last rays of sun caught in the shadow of the circ. I awake with a shiver. My rock lies in shadow, and the sun, setting over the lake basin, dazzles my eyes. I arise stiffly and go to the stream to wash.
The frigid water chills, cleanses, and invigorates me. The cliffs of Circ Peak fade to red shadows, with glimmers high up where there is snow. At first the moon is too bright for us to sleep, sheltered in a little cave formed by fallen boulders. The tarp crackles as I shift in my puffy, purple sleeping bag. I sigh and exhale the stress of the city life I have left behind me. It all seems so far away. A wave of relief washes through me, but it leaves behind the first bits of the flotsam of loneliness. I pray for my family at my home far away. A marmot calls outside our shelter. I wake in the night and wriggle out of my sleeping bag, then crawl from under the rock on my belly, trying to tug sandals on as I go. I stand up jerkily, moving quickly and awkwardly as if to fend off the cold. Suddenly I stop.
The moon has set, but it gives off light from behind the circ. Moonshine glints darkly off of the five lakes below. I look up at the sky, transfixed, and rotate slowly with the curve of the circ. Stars are sprinkled upon stars. Brighter and dimmer, larger and smaller pinpricks of light fill up the blackness with their infinite presence. I feel on top of the world, yet at the same time, I know I’m beneath the whole of the universe. The circ curves around me, and the stars wheel above me, and the wind whips through me. I feel dizzy with exultation. I have never before been filled with such awe or felt so close to God. I yearn to remain under the sky, spinning with the earth, but it is too cold, and I must rest up for the challenges another day in the Sierra’s will bring me.
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