The eighteen flights of precipitous, stone steps soar upwards, a 5000-foot ladder into the clouds. On overcast days the effect is eerie: just yards ahead, the path is hidden in swirling mist. There is the burbling of streams, the shade of aged junipers, the sweet, damp air tinged with incense from nearby temples. Some of the veined, bare rocks support golden mountain lilies; others are rubbed to silk by the touch of hands and drip of water. One would forget this mountain lies beside the modern city of Tai’An, if not for the local women at every turn who offer their wares: luck amulets, carved walking sticks, and warm, paper-thin crepes wrapped around sprigs of green onion — a local specialty. This is China’s famed Mount Tai, and we were here to climb it.
Though veteran climbers can reach the top in only a few hours, it was a whole-day venture for us. Granted, our climbing party was a bit atypical: there was my mother, my younger brother, and I, who had traveled from Michigan to visit relatives; there was also my aunt, from nearby Jinan, and her son, my cousin, who has been blind since a childhood accident injured his brain. My father and uncle were not there, as they had to be at work.
At first, my aunt worried about the trip. She feared my cousin would fall on the climb, or that he couldn’t make it to the top. But since they live on the top floor of their apartment building and climb those steps daily, we decided that that the danger of a fall was minimal as long as we climbed carefully. So, one day last July, we took a cab to the famous Red Gate and began the climb.
We were all a bit tense at the beginning, fearing a mishap, but with each step we were reassured. The way up was easier than expected: even the harrowing-looking areas — with each ledge barely the width of my hand — weren’t so bad taken step by step. Along the way, we stopped frequently, dipping our hands in the cold streams, sampling the hearty mountain fare (boiled sweet corn, pickled eggs, hot pan bread), and running our hands across the great boulders jutting from the ground — the mountain’s bones, I thought, threaded with red veins, pale sinews.
As we climbed, I felt my concerns over summer homework, college applications, and all else, fade. All that was stuff of the real world; this here was hardly real, or perhaps too real, like living poetry. All my senses tingled. I felt the grooved stone steps, the clean sunlight, the tickling weeds, a drop of sweat tracing the line of my cheek. The sun-dried peddlers sang variations on a rhythmic theme: buy a trinket, bring home fortune, may you have a peaceful life.
At dusk, we reached the top. I looked down at the clouds in the valleys below, swirling like the ghosts of birds in the pale purple twilight. My bare legs, recently scorched in the summer heat, now prickled with cold. I stretched them; they hurt. But I was smiling, with irrepressible triumph, as I watched the golden button of a sun slip behind the dimming clouds. We had made it. We were at the top. My cousin, aunt, mom, brother, and I smiled and smiled until the night hid our mouths, and the shrill wind blew us into a sea of fog.
At dawn, we rose in the homely mountaintop inn, bundled up in enormous rented parkas, and shuffled outside to await the sunrise. Since the fog was thick, we had little hope of actually seeing the sun. But half an hour later, the sky cleared enough that we got a glimpse of an orange sun climbing through the clouds. Though my cousin cannot see, he can still sense light, and I saw him smile as he turned toward the rising sun.
I still think about our climb, and it strikes me that, like a twig to a tree, this one trip mirrors my wider life. My goal is to become a journalist and help society through my reporting, but at times — especially long nights when I choose homework over badly needed sleep — it seems like I have a long, rough climb before I can enjoy the view. However, I know that most of the harrowing climbs in my life are conquerable, and both the journey and the reward are well worth the endeavor.
Eva Dou of Grosse Pointe City, Michigan, won Honorable Mention for this essay.
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