Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Modern Romance, part three

My ongoing conversation with Thunder Mountain ...
Modern Romance, part one
Modern Romance, part two

Wake up to a new day, the fifth straight of sun. I roll out of bed in the same slumping way I have for days, bracing for painful impact on my tender body. Despite four hard and physical days, my legs spring back with surprising elasticity. My back straightens and my shoulders relax. I rub my eyes; the tear salt burns in dozens of tiny cuts in my hands. The stinging sensation jolts me fully awake, with eyes open to the bright new day, and I realize that not only do I feel healthy again — I feel strong. I wasn't expecting to feel this way on the fifth straight day of sun. Bodies, like lives, can be amazingly adaptable. And, like lives, only through struggle can they really grow.

I take my newly formed muscle fibers and return to Thunder Mountain. I've been wanting to go back here, and I knew the fifth day of clear weather may well be the last. A climb on Thunder Mountain is a true climb, up something only faintly resembling a route thinly notched into the steep mountainside. Hands must be applied before most steps, with fingers grasping roots and stumps to leverage a bottom-heavy body better adapted to turning pedals than swinging from trees. I press my hands into cold earth, wincing as tiny slivers of ice pierce my cuts. But through my fingers I feel a comforting softness — pillows of moss, tender leaves and spongy, decaying wood. I hoist my body up another step; the soft earth holds me like a bridge over a precipice.

Winter hasn't been kind to Thunder Mountain, and the mountain is littered in landslides and deadfalls. I hoist myself over the toppled trunks and wade through a morass of branches and needles. All of this decay — none of it was here four months ago. Avalanche debris is nowhere to be seen; this is simply a matter of the mountain slowly falling apart. It's a subtle reminder that one day Thunder Mountain won't be a mountain. It will be a desert, or a prairie, or the bottom of the sea. This is universal truth — entropy. Nothing stays the same. I feel this way about my life. I feel this way about my body. My molecules, my atoms, water and carbon, someday it will dissolve and it won't be me anymore. It will be a rock, or a fish, or a branch of a blueberry bush on Thunder Mountain.

But for now, I am me, and the blueberry bushes are prematurely reaching for new life. It is Feb. 22 and fresh green growth is everywhere. Days on end of sun preceded by weeks on end of temperatures that hardly drop below freezing will do that. But this time, it's at least two months early. I fear for the blueberry bushes, that winter's deep freeze will return and kill them all. Or maybe it won't. Maybe, in this ever-changing world, spring sometimes comes to Juneau, Alaska, in February.

I claw up another thousand feet of slush until I reach the sun-scoured summit of Thunder Mountain. Large patches of tundra have emerged from the snow and the mountain has already put on its springtime face, which, more than any other time of year, looks like old age and decay. I am not tired and sore anymore, but neither am I elated to be here, smug and prideful at having "bagged" another mountain. I am, simply, where I am supposed to be, where I need to be, at 11:45 a.m. Feb. 22. I am forever trying to explain why I do what I do, to myself as much as anyone, to try to gain a grasp on the reasons for this unconventional lifestyle, this frivolous hobby, this roadblock to the "real" life that my culture tells me I should be living. But I can't explain it. It's just something I feel, feel as strongly as the urge to wake up in the morning or eat dinner in the evening. So you see what I do — I go to the mountains.

I settle down on a rock, lingering for the few moments I have before my conventional work schedule dictates that I start back down. I don't mind this side of life — in fact, I, like anyone, thrive on the perception of structure and purpose. But I do feel that it's all perception. Our work is only as good as we believe it is. I am good at what I do, but I am easily forced into a corner. Dozens of decisions made from a distance, by people who aren't watching, slowly erode away at creativity and purpose, until we become drones, something like machines, and if we taste a little freedom, release ourselves from necessity, we are always going to ask ourselves, "why?"

So you see what I do — I go to the mountains. I am not trying to lift myself above it all, or escape the fog-drenched world below. I know I will always go back. But more than structure and purpose, I am in love with life, and everything life has to offer, even the pain and fatigue, the sunburns and the cuts, the anxiety and the fear. I love life with a voraciousness and hunger that can never be contained, even as I grow older, even as the spark that is me fades from my body, even as my molecules decay and disperse, even as the mountains erode and disappear, even as the sun engulfs the Earth, and the universe becomes something else entirely, this love will continue.

I won't apologize for loving life. I will struggle and I will contribute and I will do the best I can, but I won't apologize. I will hunt life. I will embrace it, and I will cling to it in all of its ever-changing elusiveness, even if it slips away from me forever, even if I know it will slip away from me forever. I love life all the more because it changes. And I will recognize when I need to change, too.

I know the mountains will be here. Long after I am gone, they will be here. But they won't always be here.