The wind blows off Okutama reservoir, whistling through the bare lattices of the roadside trellis and bites at my cheeks. It is cold enough to bring tears to my eyes and I swing off my pack to pull out the fingerless bunting gloves from the back pocket. Sunlight, falling from high in the mid-day sky, glances off the metallic blue of the reservoir water and seems to lose strength with the meeting, so that although the afternoon is bathed in a gold luster, I can feel the wintry chill seep through my three layers of clothes. I rummage in my pack again for an extra layer, a windshirt, to cut the wind and stave off, for a while, the final dip into the end of the year, the sinking into deep winter.
Two more days and the new year begins.
I meant to take the bus further out along the reservoir, to where the mountains jut up higher into the wilds of the western sky, but buses run later and more slowly with the holidays, and something about the past year, with its disappointments and unspoken hesitations, urges me to get off early and stay low. I stand at the edge of the curb, watching the bus, now tiny along the arm of land reaching out into the reservoir, trundling away to the end of the finger of land, round the tip, and disappear. It isn’t so much a scramble I am after, but more of a confirmation that I still have that restless call to wander the hills and woods whipping about within my soul. So it is a slow stroll I start out upon, nothing too strenuous or untamed.
I had begun to doubt my own capacity to step out into the open and simply love whatever weathers and encounters I would find, just as they are. The details are unimportant, but for 48 years I had never failed to mark myself, or more accurately, “be aware of” myself, within the urgency and immediacy of a living world, a boundless feeling and way of seeing that makes it impossible to remain content with asphalt streets, parking lots, cars, and horizons choked with nothing but humankind.
Then two years ago the courage to get out there seemed to go still. I often stood by my window gazing out at the rain, and felt far away. I packed up my backpack in an empty gesture, wrote up gear lists and route itineraries, even went out and bought the ingredients for meals to be cooked over a tiny alcohol stove, only to heft my pack, reach the front door of my apartment, and stop there, staring at my shoes. I just couldn’t get myself to go.
Last November I turned 50. I had long ago promised myself that, for my birthday, I would go on a journey to a childhood dream, to Patagonia. I sat scrolling through Facebook posts instead, not really feeling anything.
I start up the trail, camera in hand, and just let the cant of the hill talk to me with its crunch of gravel and dash of old leaves. It always takes a while for my sight to focus enough that photographic images present themselves. Sometimes it comes effortlessly; I raise my eyes and patterns or juxtapositions, forebodings or delights jump out at me, fixing themselves into position and all I have to do is raise the lens and see. At other times it is like a sheet of water washes over the glass and the patina of relevance remains cold and hard as a shell.
I’ve heard people say about the places I love to wander as being empty, with nothing there, but when the sight is good, that’s not how natural places reveal themselves. There is always something going on or self-revealing in the eye of the old world. Perhaps places rely upon the kernel budding in silences, with the heart beating at the center of rootedness. Perhaps adaptation begins when you recognize why you can longer stay the way you were.
I reach the pass with the wind heaving in the brittle forest. Branches rattle against lichen-splotched statues that have long ago returned to the forest. I listen for the call of a watchful jay or the busy, skirling twittering of siskins in the brush, and they are ghosts, swept along my peripheral vision like smoke. I kneel amidst the fallen leaves and smell the sweet burning of the past summer, half praying, half asking for forgiveness. When I stand, the world tilts for a spell, as if to drain ill words and muddy expectations.
All afternoon the trail and road wind through the forests and hills and ravines in a ritual of touch and go, stepping in to lean over a trickling brook, then swinging back out to bow to the curtains of beech and maple that stand rapt in the attention of the late afternoon sunlight. The path both hides from and reaches up to the open sky, and without another person, not once, to bring the path to life, I feel as if I am slipping from memory, the further along I ramble, the deeper into the great sleep of the forest I become enveloped. The sun dips into the horizon and the world closes in with a slow, bated breath.
Okutama is not far from the city and this walk along an old logging road only takes a headlong push through the tunnel of trees to reach the end at the train station, but as the darkness descends the hills rising all about switch masks and with the grip of the cold to accentuate the loom of the trees and the holes in the visibility of the ravines that yawn to one side of the trail, seem to rise in stature until I am but this tiny creature stepping past hidden, watchful eyes. Okutama now seems like a forbidding kingdom, one whose borders I’ve inadvertently passed into and there is no turning back.
But as all tunnels go, you pass through and eventually reach the other side. Okutama is riddled with tunnels. They burrow through the folds of the landscape like threading holes in an old jacket. Somehow the trail holds together and I weave through the darkest groves with just enough light to find my way to the verges of human settlement. We always leave guideposts for unwary wanderers, perhaps to remind us that without our walls and doors and fences there really isn’t much out there to hold our tendency to drift in check. If we wait long enough eventually the trees start growing in upon our stead. The wild really has little inclination for sitting still.
I step back onto the main road closer to the end of the year and just five minutes before the last bus would pass. The wind has abated, but clouds hang on the tendrils of my breath, bowing their heads for dawn. I still have time to ride back to the trains, to bright lights and the straightness of chairs and doorways, and already imagine the hot bath that will melt the final cast of the mountains.