When I feel I need space to reflect, I go to the mountains. It's not that I'm more perceptive or smarter in the mountains. It's actually the opposite - my quads are on fire and my throat is sore from breathing so hard and my feet are numb from hours of wallowing in slush and my eyes are fixed on this scary-looking traverse up ahead and these things fill out the entirety of my attention span. But it's in this head-spinning malaise that I occasionally look up ... at the sky, at the clouds, at the mountain, and say, "Ah, I see."
I'm looking for space to think. I pull out a map. Where can I go that will fill up the better part of an afternoon - a place secluded, and scenic, and even challenging, but not so challenging I either can't do it or succumb to blind anxiety while thinking about it? The map is a blank document to me. I don't know any of these places. They're all completely new, unknown. I feel a fluttering of excitement. I can go anywhere, but I have to make a choice. I could choose wrong. But I won't know until I go. This place looks good. At least, it looks good on a map. Bold Ridge. I load up my bike, travel to Eklutna Lake, and pedal beside the wending shoreline.
I stash the bike where the sign says "No Bikes," about five miles in. I can't believe how far summer has come since I was here last, just a week ago. Today there are baby leaves on all the trees, and the ice is gone, and the sun is burning an orange glare in my retinas. Hot day. But summer's not yet far along enough to kill off the snow, which starts about 1,000 feet up the mountain. The snow's rotten - knee to thigh-deep, and for weeks it's been churning in a melt-freeze cycle until it's no longer snow. It's shaved ice, like a snowcone, collapsing and solidifying with every knee-torturing step. I wasn't really expecting this much snow this low. I don't have much to fight it but this ice ax, which I use even on low-angle ground, driving it into the shaved ice and pulling back until the ax catches, so I can leverage myself out of my own body hole. Every step is exhausting and slow. I think often about giving up on Bold Ridge. Then I just laugh at myself. What I'm doing is ridiculous and pointless. But sometimes we have to do ridiculous and pointless things to make the rest of life more meaningful.
Finally I claw my way above treeline, still wallowing in slush, but now purpose has arrived. Time to traverse this ridge, moving forward until my fragile, clumsy body and its many limitations won't let me go any farther. And in the meantime, I'll travel through a limitless maze of thoughts.
I wonder if Bold Ridge has any insights. This place feels comforting to me, familiar, so much so that I have to keep reminding myself I'm in the Chugach, not the Southeast. "There was this ridge in Juneau I used to have conversations with," I say, not out loud, but the mountain's listening. "It's called Thunder Mountain. It's a great ridge, L-shaped, and if you stand on top of its hinge, you can see all of Juneau, all the way from the tip of Thane to the edge of the Mendenhall Valley, and all the places beyond. It's a good place to get a sense of where you are and where you've been. And the wind never seems to blow there, even if there are gales downtown. Everytime I went there, I never wanted to leave."
Bold Ridge responds in a gentle gust of wind and a the low throat-singing of a ptarmigan. There's a roar in the distance - too close to be a plane, too far to be Bold Ridge. I meander through my thoughts. "What do you think?" I ask the mountain. I listen to a thick, echoing silence. "Yeah, Thunder Mountain never answered, either."
I reach the place I'd been searching for, the point of no return. From here the ridge sharpens to an almost impossible knife before cutting a razor-edged ramp to the sky. That's Bold Peak. Not the place for walkers, and not the place for me. I sit on the tundra and let the mountain's silence surround me. It lasts only a few seconds before a thunder crack pierces the air. I jerk my neck back in time to catch a curtain of powder cascading down the face. The thin-ribbon avalanche continues to pour over the rocks like a waterfall, tumbling small boulders along the way.
I watch the avalanche for a while, small but persistent - as though the snow had been transformed to water, gushing and flowing in an unstoppable quest for gravity. Another forms along the west face. Bold Peak is angry today. I smile with new understanding. It's summer. Things are changing. They're always changing. I pick up my array of hiking weapons - my ax, my bear spray, my Kit-Kat bars, and turn around.
Sometimes, when I am uncertain which direction to go, I ask the universe to weigh in. Mountains never answer, and even if they do, they're never specific. I pull out my iPod. Like opening a book to a random page, sometimes I put my settings on "shuffle all" and wait for the wisdom of one in 1,687 songs. iPod opens with "No Cars Go," by Arcade Fire ...
We know a place no planes go
We know a place no ships go
Hey! No cars go.
I laugh. "That's true, but, I'm just not sure what you're trying to say." I hit the next button. One more try.
And then, "The World You Love" by Jimmy Eat World.
I fall asleep with my friends around me
Only place I know I feel safe
I'm gonna call this home
The open road is still miles away
Hey nothing serious
We still have our fun
Or we had it once
But windows open and close that's just how it goes.
Don't it feel like sunshine after all?
The world you love, forever gone.
We're only just as happy, as everyone else seems to think we are.
I find myself singing along. I drop back into the slush slog. I drag myself on my butt when I get tired of postholing. I'm panting and my head's spinning again. I forget all about interpreting my song, and all the other songs after that. I just want to get down, find food, something that's not a Kit Kat bar. I stumble onto dirt and descend back to bright green summer. It's evening now, and the mosquitoes are out with a vengeance. I start running, and transition to the bike without even taking the time to stick my ax back on my pack. It dangles from my hand as I hammer toward home. Then iPod hits a glitch, and even though only about a dozen songs have passed, the song comes on again - "The World You Love." I glance back at Bold Peak, washed in peach light, and there it is - the world I love.
Maybe it all really is just random.