Moonset near Donahue Pass © Peter Essick 2010


Over the years, he had blazed a trail, tamed it, improved it. Now it carries him zigzag up the slope without difficulty, even in the darkness. Deftly sidestepping boulders, wending among the ancient trees, it asks nothing of his conscious thought. And so he can let his mind run ahead, upward to the top of the ridge and then beyond it, out into the empty air and across the shadowy valley to the lights at the limit of his vision, flickering evidence of things not seen.


Not seen and not missed, in the early days. From his lookout he used to gaze upon their campfires with revulsion. There it was, what he had fled: casual cruelty, ruthless striving, pathetic self-justification. They carried it with them like a disease. In the newness of his solitude, reveling in his escape, he sat night after night upon the high rock and drew deep into his lungs the purity of the chill air, as the black flames of the Milky Way coiled and writhed above him.


In those early days, he still woke to a fierce, immolating anger. It raged inside him, a holocaust, steadily hollowing him out. All through that time he continued to scramble and stagger up the slope behind his shelter. He was greedy for a sight of their distant lanterns, bobbing up and down as those murderous pilgrims, those missionaries of doom fed themselves and bedded down for the night. That was his sustenance, his nights of enraged watching. If they left him sour and haggard, he thought at the time, so be it. His hatred was the only thing keeping him alive.


That changed, because time passed. His heartbeat slowed to match the rhythm of his days, the desperate work of survival giving way to empty hours, during which the wind stirred the leaves of the aspens, and sunlight warmed the lichen-covered stones of his hut. He lay in wait; he drowsed in birdsong. He collected firewood; he watched snow melt over the fire. He doctored himself; he idly counted the countless shades of green in early spring. Systole, diastole, in ceaseless alternation. And so the seasons arrived and departed. The moon waxed and it waned. He slept and he waked. Only the deep-rooted mountain itself was unchanging.


Some of his minutes felt like months, and many of his years passed like seconds.


Now as he turns and turns up the switchbacks, he must tamp down the expectation that from the summit, he will glimpse a light in the distance. Headlights these days, of course, not the firelight of yore. Someone lost, he always supposed, too frightened to stop for the night, inching along a faintly visible track in this forgotten wilderness. This rugged land over which those long-ago wayfarers journeyed, whose hopes and plans he so despised and occasionally pitied. These days he feels differently, though. These days he wonders whether he had it wrong. Maybe it was never isolation he was seeking. Maybe, during all the many years of his lonesome life on this mountaintop, he was waiting. But for what? He couldn’t say.

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