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The cloud, huge and black and shaking with fury, lowered its brows as I stepped over the finger of a ridge. It had enveloped the mountain, sending the world into a shifting grey sea of veils and doubts, daring me to pass. Arms of vapor muscled their way across the trail, now so washed out by the featureless blankets of cloud that the ground beneath me seemed to turn to gas, and only the firmness of footing reminded me of its solidity. My eyes followed the thunderhead down into the bowl of mountains where I was to spend the night, and I saw nothing but roiling soup. Lighting sang staccato within the belly of the cloud, like frenzied fireflies, and the cloud responded with a series of stentorian whiplashes, on vocal chords so heavy and pure that the mountain beneath me jumped in fright.
I hesitated. Looking back down the trail I had just climbed I could make out the thread of the stream far below, and the last of the sun’s rays pooling in the ravine. My whole body burned from the last eight hours of exertion and my knees felt about to give way. There was no going back. I turned to face the rumbling monster in the valley and started down the trail. Lightening and thunder greeted my decision, as if in exultation.
Tokyo lay sweltering in summer forgetfulness. Like a finger poked through tissue paper the train carried me out of the steam and deposited me gently along its bright, sleepy reaches, just at the edge of wheels and pavement. With my discount ticket that only allowed carriage by trains that walked, not ran, my arrival in the hot spring town was greeted, in the first store I stepped into for a can of coffee, by closing-time music over the speaker system. Most of the throngs of tourists had already retired to the inns and the parking lots waited, deserted.
I crossed the bridge over the roaring river, from the town, over a no-man’s-land of snow melt-off, to the wilderness waiting on the other side. It began abruptly: a wall of cedars that radiated a shell of cool air and hid its innards with tangles of lichen-bearded downfall and brush. The trail skirted the edge of the forest as if timid, only reluctantly entering the silence when the laps of the cliffs left no alternative. Within a hundred steps the forest and the mountain had me to themselves. I began to whistle, a sliver of sound declaring my own little territory.
I walked past kneeling grandfather spruces and Mother Earth breathing from openings in the ground. Flotillas of dragonflies, like angels wrapped in cellophane, circled my brow, the cranes of their legs and mandibles working the air of gnats and mayflies. Grasshoppers set up bandstands in the grass and zithered the blues to the accompaniment of jays screeching in the canopy. In the late blue sky tufts of clouds set sail for the peaks, marking mileposts for me to follow.
The four men, clad in rock-stomper hiking boots and nylon pants, had been friends a long time. With an ease and camaraderie borne of years of mountain walks together, they trudged up the trail in single-file, grunting at the same boulders to scramble up, and breaking out in laughter at the same old jokes and recounts of past mishaps. The fabric of their packs had faded in the sun and each wore a different, worn-out baseball cap, stained with sweat and adorned with medallions from previous walks. One of them had obviously been drinking too much and when he, red in the face, but oblivious, farted loudly while hauling himself up a steep embankment, the other three politely referred to him as “Mr. Aromatherapy”. They slapped their thighs in merriment and had to stop and let me pass while they sorted out their composure.
We did a kind of relay race, those men and me. I kept up a steady, but slow, pace, stopping to take photographs or to gaze at the mountains opening around me, while they trundled on in bursts, huffing and puffing to some next vantage point, where they would stop to take breaths and smoke cigarettes. One of them, cigarette in hand, nodded to me as we stood on an overlook with the entire valley below, and mused, “Ah, mountain air! It tastes fresh as a young woman’s kiss, no?” With that he took another drag on his cigarette and blew a plume into the afternoon breeze.
The man in the neighboring tent, who must have eaten something disagreeable, punctuated the night with various demonstrations of his bodily functions, most notably a medley of wet and dry farts, from squeaky to tuba-like, combined with more ominous interruptions of a more throaty nature. When he finally decided to proclaim his virtuosity to all the world by exiting his tent and crunching back and forth across the gravel in front of my tent I decided to battle sleeplessness with a sortie into the darkness. To my astonishment and utter delight, the Milky Way had sprayed itself across the sky with particular fervor; I could almost feel the Earth swing along the outer rim of our galaxy. Aside from the debilitated musician wandering about the campsite, no one else was awake and I had the stars to myself. The air had been inhaled by the mountain and held, so that all was still, and a kind of downy heat bloomed in the valley. I snuck away to the opposite side of the campground… and came upon a scene I will never forget. Beneath a blazing full moon wooly dollops of clouds bathed in the silverly light and splashed feathers against the great bathtub of surrounding mountains. It took my breath away. I sat on a rock, beyond which the world dropped away into darkness, and lost myself in the magic of the moment. Then I broke the spell. Thinking I could capture what I saw and felt in a photograph, I ran back to the tent and retrieved my camera. When I returned the moment had passed. All the clouds had drained away into the plumbing of the forests below.
The clouds had covered the sun. So far the talk back at the camp of a typhoon surging in hadn’t materialized into winds yet, so, cheerful in the rain that sprayed the flower meadows along this lonely side trail, I meandered along with my camera, stopping every few feet to kneel down among the fronds and flower heads, legs and hands and face wet with dew, every separate, tiny life a wonder. For the moment at least, until I reached the next mountain hut only a hour’s hurried march away and could determine whether the storm’s potential was too risky for further climbing, I could linger and not worry about time for once. Everything caught my eye, everything photogenic and new. Such moments bring out fierce joy in me, a real sense of what makes me happy and knowing who I am. I often imagine what I would have been like as a prehistoric hunter. The pleasure of immersing myself in my surroundings and learning to see would have felt complete, I think, as much of what a human being can hope to make out of life as any modern aspiration for a career.
This brings the story back to the beginning when the thunderclouds rolled in. The day’s walk had taken four hours longer than planned and I arrived in camp in a pouring deluge. Everything got wet and the campsite was a quagmire of running mud. To my dismay I discovered that the tent leaked like a sieve and to stay warm and dry I resorted to covering my sleeping bag with my rain gear. Most of the night was spent sponging up pooling water and wiping down the tent walls. In the middle of the night, with the thunder clapping right over the campsite, I felt as if I were trapped in some B-rated horror movie using Chinese water torture by dripping the water onto my head from the soaked seams. It wasn’t a matter of fearing for my life, but more of enduring the misery of nightlong discomfort and sleep deprivation. I dozed off just as the rain let up near dawn. The camp began to wake up then, everyone else well-rested from holing up in their snug, dry shelters.
The highlight of the morning was greeting Englishman Sam Short, who had arrived the same time as I the evening before. We both had a good laugh at the events of the night. Later on the trail, even though I had left two hours before him, Sam locomotivated right past me, churning up the trail like a mountain goat and leaving behind a trail of dazed hikers who down the trail later marveled to me at his speed. “Do all you foreigners have such wonderfully long legs?” an elderly woman remarked to me. “If you ask me,” grumbled a middle-aged man who had fallen far behind his wife waiting for him at the summit, “I don’t come to these mountains to go speeding along the trails like some race car driver.” Sam must have covered twice as much distance as I did that day.
I was walking along a level section of the trail when I recognized an outcropping upon which, seven years earlier, my wife and I had eaten lunch. We had laughed that whole day, even along the hardest stretches of the trail. Today the sight of that outcropping drove the feelings for my wife back up to the surface and churned in the pit of my stomach. I kept walking, each step slower than the last, until I passed into an area alight with flowers. I gazed around me, looking at nothing in particular, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere it seemed, I burst out sobbing. It came on in waves, so hard that I fell to my knees amidst the flowers. I couldn’t stop, in spite of being half conscious of the possibility of other walkers appearing along the trail. When I finally managed to pull myself to my feet I stumbled along the trail still heaving sobs, clearing some invisible clot that had lodged itself in my chest. I don’t know how long it was, perhaps fifteen minutes, when as suddenly as it had come, like clouds opening, the crying vanished. The pull of the end of the trail lost its relevance, and instead I let my feet take their own baby steps through this indifferent wilderness. And I found comfort in not worrying about the end. All I needed right now I had with me right here. It was simple, a pack, a shelter, some clothes on my back, something to eat when I got hungry, and two pairs of still-serviceable legs. I was free to go where I wanted. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.