Birch Leaf, along the Long Trail, Vermont, U.S.A., 1988
I wasn’t quite sure where I was headed on Monday, but with a day off and bright, sunny weather, I threw together my day walk kit, slung the pack over my shoulders, and stepped outside. A stiff wind, smelling of blue ice and tropospheric cold, skirled into the apartment entrance area and tousled my high-strung emotions; I hadn’t slept well the night before and the noise of banging feet from the upstairs neighbor lingered upon my jangled nerves. It was like the after effects of a bout of coffee drinking, muscles tensed and eyes flicking left and right, catching in some dust mote or the twigs that hold a stray, winter leaf quivering. But luckily the street outside waited without a soul moving about, and so for a time, most of the way to the train station, it was just the sunlight and me, in silent absorption.
The evening before had been filled with too much bad news on the internet and errant reactions to yet more infuriating Bush spectaculars. The two and a half years of heightened anxiety, level orange, along with one statement and action after another of disrespect towards people in the rest of the world, drove up the acuteness of self disharmony, like an off-key counterpoint in a chorus. The outrage reared its head out of concern, but the anger burned like an over primed engine, with the waste lingering in my breath, bitter with poison. People might ask why I, living here in Japan, would bother with the vagaries of American politics, but it is the gradual chopping away at my tether that links to America that eats at me. I have ties there and more and more I can’t see myself as being welcomed to participate. America was home and now it is thinning away into a tasteless and mediocre gruel.
So I was heading toward the mountains off-balance, wound up enough to possibly snarl at a pedestrian or two and knowing that my eyes would pull the shutters over any proper seeing of the mountains. Nerves seemed to fight a war all their own.
But there I was on the train, with no real plan but that the speed take me out of the city, if just for a while. The ticket amounted to the end of the line, which happened to be Mt. Takao Trailhead. Mt. Takao is this knob on the edge of the Chichibu range, just west of Tokyo. It is the place you go when you haven’t the time to take the trains further into the countryside and where it seems all residents of Tokyo end up together, to go conveyor belting around the standard loop trail. I was a little late, though, so the trains no longer carried the morning walkers, and I could sit stewing alone in the overheated car, eyes resting on the horizon, willing the city sprawl to come to a quick end.
So many people came swarming up the Takao-san-guchi station stairs I had to step to the side and wait their passing. I proceeded out of the station and up past the trinket shops and the big, giant-cedars-surrounded temple, and past the cable car that the majority of the weekend walkers take. Putting my head down to avoid meeting the eyes of the hordes of returning walkers and thereby having to initiate the tradition of saying hello to every passer-by, I stepped onto the trail and headed up.
At first it was a hard clamber up a dusty slope, the autumn leaves now all pulverized to potpourri by the passing of thousands of boots. A thin film of dust covered the tree trunks and the leaves of the bushes at the edge of the trail, evidence of the dry winter. Hikers trudged by, most of them spent from the climb and many of them stumbling half-heartedly down the inclines. I kept my face down, not meeting their eyes, depending on the ruse that I am a foreigner and therefore don’t understand the customs and can therefore be forgiven. But the clouds of discontent continued to whirl about inside me. I attempted to peer into the trees and between the trunks out at the view of the mountains beyond, but try as I might I saw no beauty. I fingered my digital camera at my waist, scouting for photographs, but the glint on the leaves and the dull colors of the vegetation registered only as hard light in my mind. Ideas failed to flower.
A hiker in wool breeches and a white down jacket in his right hand, showing off as he puffed along in just a white cotton t-shirt, his shreds of white breath floating past my head, dropped behind as I kept up my small, steady steps. The moment I passed him he renewed his efforts and took the rocks and footholds in long, reaching strides that soon had him wheezing for air. But he wouldn’t let up, so intent was he to prove how macho he was. I kept my steady pace for a while, hoping that eventually he would just give up, but he dogged my heels right up to the first lookout that faced Mt. Fuji, which unfortunately was lost in the afternoon haze today. I turned off the trail and took a seat on an exposed root, where I turned to watch the follower wheeze on up the trail, free to find another target.
A comfortable heat worked inside my belly. From down slope a katabatic wind rushed through the trees and chilled the sweat on my back. In response I sat facing the sunlight, letting the warm rays bathe my face and chest and folded legs. From my pack I pulled out a small thermos filled with milk tea and poured myself a small steaming cup, sipping it while gazing at the bosque at the foot of the slope. A Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos) ratcheted up along the dead branches of an old beech tree, occasionally tapping at the bark, digging for beetle larvae. The furtive chipping away at the wood settled my nerves and I began to breathe in sync with my mind, the pump slowing down, easing the pressure, a slow equilibrium between what I was looking at and the images issuing from my imagination.
The walk went well after I finished eating two rice balls. Slowing down, I took the climbs philosophically, probing ahead for each new step and evaluating how my muscles reacted, gauging the level of my fatigue. To my surprise I didn’t tire, and even the last, long bout of stairs, which stretched up ahead like the stairway to heaven, I only needed to pause once or twice. The crown of the mountain lay in filtered sunlight, the afternoon haze catching the last rays and distributing warmth throughout the open space.
In typical Japanese fashion the summit included the obligatory restaurant and trinket shop, from which the cable car riders trotted bearing their paper plates of hotdogs and grilled rice cake sticks. I took a seat on a bench and watched a hiker bend over his camp stove and cook a pot of ramen noodles. He sat with chopsticks poised and slurped up the noodles with a loud grunt of relish. On the opposite side of the bench a family of five waddled across the gravel in their ankle length down coats. The father held a chihuahua on a thin leash and it scuttled after him as he strode up to the restaurant. As he ordered some green tea, the chihuahua squatted at his heels and promptly crapped on the gravel. No one in the family noticed the mess and I sat mute as other visitors passed the spot, their hiking shoes, sneakers, and cross trainers just missing stepping into the steaming pile. I was just about to open my mouth to inform the family when a woman wearing what must have been new sneakers, so white and bright they were, stepped slap dash clean upon the mess. As her stride took her past the store counter, so did her sneakers bear away the point of contention. The mountain had exacted its toll upon the unsuspecting adventurers.
The way back down followed a less frequented trail into a ravine along which a stream flowed. It was the catchment area for the waters of the surrounding hills, so as I descended more and more rivulets joined the stream until it grew into a small, rushing river. The trail led straight through the river for a while, requiring some balancing on moss covered stones, until it stepped away from the banks and skirted the water all the way down the mountain. Here the afternoon sun did not reach and the walk sank into a cool gloom, evening settling faster here, with trees hanging heavy over my head. Calories burned beneath my jacket, flickering like a flame.
Near the end of the trail a series of tiny shrines appeared, embedded in the rock walls lining the trail. Within the shrines huddled tiny figures of boddhisatvas, the corners decorated with chrysanthemums and camelias recently picked and placed in vases. In front of each of the figurines stood lighted candles, their golden light illuminating the dark interiors of the shrines, and the constellation of flickering candlelight issuing from shrines here and there dotting the way down the growing shadows of the trail, like unmoving fireflies. Passing through this silent gauntlet of silence and light a deep peace overcame me and I took several deep breaths as I passed through.
I paused at one shrine and peered inside. The figure of the Buddha looked back at me. And it hit me why I needed to get out of the house and just take a walk, no matter where it led me; even if just for a moment, I needed to commune with something bigger than myself. I needed a sense of magic. A reminder that the importance of the mystery can still be found in a simple walk, or that the joy of just breathing and working my legs could be so much more profound and indispensable than all the earnestness of the news.
The train was waiting at the end of the trail, a metal box creaking in the oncoming evening. I sat down, closed my eyes as the burning of movement buried itself inside my closed eyes, and let the train rock me back to the city.