Rising mist an hour after a huge rain storm hit my campsite near the summit of Mt. Kinpu during the night.
For more than three months it’s been pouring rain nearly every day throughout Japan. What I had promised myself would be a summer of copious walking along ridges, turned into days in my tent waiting out downpours and a summer washed away with thundering rivers and mountain sides giving way. During my climb of Mt. Kinpu in Chichibu, west of Tokyo, with a precious two-weeks of vacation lined up, I thought perhaps that surely the gods were frowning upon me, seeing that every single weekend since the first green blush of spring brought me up square against a wall of rain. It was as if someone was trying to tell me that there were things left unfinished back home and I had better sort them out before taking the leisure to go traipsing around in the hills.
The Kinpu walk was the first venture out of doors since my big design project ended, and being out of shape from too much computer worship gravity played havoc with my knees and wind. I ended up thirty minutes from the summit in a small clearing of larches and huge, rounded boulders. Most of the larches had been blown clean of their lives so that when darkness fell and no one disturbed the spooky stillness, the skeletons of the trees seemed to close in around me like goblins. I was using my homemade camping hammock set up with a tarp, and though the system worked as I had hoped, personally I just didn’t seem to fit in very well with the cloth wrapped around me like a taco. I ended up lowering everything to the ground and sleeping with my eye cocked up at the voluminous sail of the tarp breathing over me.
Just when I was beginning to relax with the tiny noises, like dripping leaves and creaking branches, and to drift off into slumber, the tarp flexed, then stretched as a wind barreled into camp, followed by a volley of raindrops. Within fifteen minutes the storm was howling overhead among the fingers of the dead trees and the naked rocks outside the copse of trees. Luckily I had picked a good site, with only tendrils of the storm swirling among the tree trunks and a brace of rhododendrons blocking the brunt of the wind. I dragged myself out of the sleeping bag, switched on the white arm of my headlight, and found myself staring into a soup of fog.
The roar of the storm and the ominous swaying of the trees kept me awake the rest of the night. I lay reading Tim Cahill’s “A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg” and stopping to ponder the mentality of those who willfully venture out into such predicaments as the one I was presently engaged in. I mean, there I was, the storm and the dark forest beating down on my courage like a hammer, loneliness enveloping my earlier smirking at the self-sufficiency of my backpack, and worries about the exposed ledges I had to scramble past in the morning nagging at my confidence, and I had to ask myself, “Exactly what pleasure am I getting out of packets of freeze-dried food, a flimsy skin of nylon between me and the gods, and shoes sopping with dew?” As the dawn gradually enlightened me to the true nature of the storm, I huddled in my rain jacket on the log beside my tarp, brewing cafe latte and spooning through cold granola with milk. When a warbler flickered onto a rhododendron branch right beside the tarp, looking for all the world as if I had plundered his backyard, I raised my spoon in greeting, only to be cold-shouldered by a warber’s equivalent of a huff, with which he flitted off into the fog.
I had five days ahead of me, but the storm didn’t let up, rain was pelting down, and the wind was engaged in a wrestling match with the boulders. I broke camp and started heading toward the summit of Mt. Kinpu, but halted in my tracks. I must have stood there for fifteen minutes, undecided, occasionally peering ahead and then glancing back. I took in the grey trees, the ankle deep mud in the path, the tips of the trees bending in the wind, and something inside me drooped. Not today, I told myself. Not while I had doubts.
So I turned back and started down the mountain. The first part had me bracing against the punches of the storm, leaning on my trekking pole as I negotiated the slippery boulders and tangle of tree roots. My rain jacket and windshirt were off by the time I reached the lap of the mountain where I could relax a bit and make a steady descent. I stopped beside a hoary old larch to pack away the rainwear when, like opening a package, sunlight sliced through the clouds and inundated the forest with the first bright light in days. It was like steaming gold. I stood transfixed, as if a tight shirt had popped open, before I could gather my wits and fumble my camera out of its bag. Streams of sunlight cast through the branches. And I was breathing with each breach in the clouds.
Five hours later I was walking along a logging road sweating from the sun, the sleeves of my t-shirt rolled up, and late summer insects singing beside the road. I looked back and saw Mt. Kinpu lazing away among the summer clouds. Maybe the mountain god, like me, just needed some relief. Whatever the reason, even a short walk like this would prove to remain with me a long, long time.