“Which way to the bottom of the mountain?” I asked the first hiker I passed. He was red faced, out of breath, pushing himself up the grade with his hands on his knees.
“Just go downhill,” he panted. “You can’t miss it.”
All the rest I went by were nicer.
“This is the Barr Trail,” said one leather-faced woman, about my age. She had taken better care of herself than I have; except for her skin. I take great care of my skin. I don’t expose it to dangerous substances, like the sun.
She studied me in a way that only people who take great care of themselves study me. “Are you sure to want to do this?” she asked. “It’s more than twelve miles.”
A little further on, another said, “You can take the train down, you know.” Her skin was just fine. It was young, pink, and moist. She spoke for a group of bare-limbed college aged girls with her. “That’s what we’re doing. We’re climbing up and going down on the cog railroad.”
I didn’t tell them I thought their plan was a little backwards. Why go through all the work of climbing a mountain when a train can do it for you? If you want to go for a walk, it’s easier to walk downhill.
“I’m counting on gravity to help me get to the bottom,” I said to everyone, thinking it was a clever thing to say. “I have a lot to spare.”
People offered me stuff.
“Have you got water? Here take my bottle.”
Maybe they just wanted to lighten their load.
“You’ll need a hat. This isn’t much, but you can have it.”
The hat said, Denver Broncos.
“You don’t have a staff. You can have mine.”
Like I said, they were very kind. Although, I suspect, if you take these same people and put them in cars, they will likely lay on the horn when the light turns green, fail to signal, weave in and out of traffic, and throw you the finger.
“Do you got a map? I don’t need this anymore.”
Not one of them said to me, you must weigh, like four hundred freaking pounds. You have no business climbing a mountain.
If they had said it, I would’ve corrected them. I was three hundred and fiftyish the last I checked. That was a few years ago and I’ve put on some weight since then, but four hundred? C’mon. And I’m not a mountain climber, I’m a mountain descender.
No one asked, what did you do to your hair? No one asked it, but they all thought it. The one who gave me the hat did something about it.
I took all the items offered, even the map, which I didn’t want. I left it under a stone as soon as the person was out of sight.
There were two items that I wanted, but no one offered. I started asking, but it took awhile before I got them.
“Do you have a pen and paper? A pencil will do.”
Many had cameras. Most had cell phones. There may have been an Ipad or two tucked in a knapsack. One even carried a dachshund that had tired of walking; but most people don’t climb mountains carrying paper and writing implements. They have no use for them, apparently.
After being on a mountain once, I would not be without them.
“I have this pencil and a map,” said one. I took the pencil, it was one of those small ones they give out on the golf course, but I let him keep the map. If I had it, I’d be afraid that I would’ve looked at it.
Finally, someone came along with a two toned composition book. She tore half the pages out, her private thoughts, and gave me the other half. I offered her a blank page or two back in case she had any more thoughts.
“No thanks, right now the only thing I can think about is reaching the top.”
I needed the writing tools because, already, after walking not even a mile down that mountain, I had a lot of thoughts. Original ones, too; the kind that you just have to jot down because you might never have them again; the kind that you would have only in a particular place, at a particular time; precious thoughts, worth keeping.
Based on my little bit of experience with mountains, I believe walking down them is more conducive to having thoughts than climbing up them, or even being on top of them. When you are climbing, all you can see is the mountain in front of you; you’re gassed, and you’re checking your map all the time to see how much further you have to go. When you are descending, you are facing the whole world and the mountain is to your back. What we call mountaintop experiences are probably really mountain descending experiences. I’ve found the only thing on a mountaintop is a lot of wind, thin air that makes you dizzy, and a view that, on most days, is too clouded over to be any good. When you do have a spiritual experience on a mountaintop, it’s the kind that is beyond words, beyond even remembering, probably, and not much use to anyone in its raw form.
The Bible says that Moses hung out with God on the top of Mt Sinai for forty days and forty nights. God engraved the two stone tablets that Moses schlepped up there. Tradition claims that God dictated the entire Torah for Moses to commit to memory while they were on top of that mountain. Well, maybe Moses could do it, but, if it were me up there chatting with God, I’d be too stunned to remember a thing He said. On my way back down, I’d be going, like, What was that? What did He say? What am I going to tell everyone? I’d be devising the 613 Mitzvah as I returned to my stiff necked people, thinking about what would get through to them. Maybe that’s what really happened. Maybe Moses wrote the whole Torah coming down off the mountain. Maybe that’s where he had his Sinai experience, leaving Sinai.
That’s where I had mine. All of a sudden, carefully picking my way through the boulders, descending that slope, fully equipped with the discards of gracious people, everything, for once, made sense. Wait till I tell you what I came up with. Just wait.