swallowing the sun

I wedge my foot into the crack, leaning my body against the smooth boulder and lurching for the handhold that is just out of reach. My fingers make contact with the jagged edge and as I haul myself up, I throw my hip against its neighbor and hook my thigh around it, launching myself high enough to grab another handhold. My shoulder screams and screams and screams as I drag my body across the hot surface of the rock. As I crest the boulder, the sun streams down across the landscape like hands reaching for me. Rising to my feet I look up to see the summit of the pass, so close. Its so close. With a deep inhale, I will my feet into motion, thighs burning at the continued ascent, my gaze fixed on the pass ahead like an arrow from my bow careening towards a distant target, bent by air but true to my path. I have wondered about the other side of that horizon during many quiet moments over the past year, looking up at that rock face just out of reach, just yearning, yearning, yearning. The yearning to know to know to know…it devours all other thoughts in my head until all I am is a leaping heart and trudging bones. When I finally reach the top, I clamber onto the tallest boulder I can find and raise my hands skyward, feeling the sunlight kiss my fingertips and a gentle breeze stir my hair. I turn slowly to take in the panoramic view; electric blue glacial lakes, mountains of rock that stab the sky, drifts of white snow clinging to stone. The sharp, jagged edges are dulled by the swirling smoke of faraway wildfires and the radiant sunlight casting the whole landscape in an ethereal glow. The sheer vastness steals the breath from my lungs and as I try to still my fluttering heart, I suddenly feel as fleeting and fragile as the wing-beats of a butterfly. From my perch, I wait for the two companions left behind on the climb. I wait and I wait and I wait. As the hours slide by, I begin to doze off, baking in the sunlight on the cool gray stone, lulled to sleep by the peaceful heat and cool breeze. Sensing a presence I gasp awake, certain that I will open my eyes to see that they have arrived at last, but instead my legs levitate beneath me as I stare down a mountain goat that has joined me on my boulder. His eyes are full of curiosity as if he finds my behavior very strange indeed. Humans do not wait on top of the pass, not with the crystal clear lakes beckoning in the distance with the promise of more just over the next crest. I eye him and inch higher up on the boulder, shielding my eyes as I peer down the pass, willing my friends to emerge from the sea of boulders. My worry feels like one of these stones, weighting me to this spot, the shadows they cast stretch longer and longer and longer  around me until they look like tombstones and the horizon seems to drift further out of reach. It has been three hours and my mouth is dry with thirst. Balling my fists around that stone, I curse and curse and curse their absence, but finally step down from my boulder perch. With one last glance at my goat friend I reluctantly start down to the first blue lake. Its shores are lined by the softest grass and I kick off my boots to feel its embrace on my skin. The water is so cold that my head pounds with the chill as I gulp it down. My bones protest as I plunge my feet into it but I revel in the perfect rings of watery sunlight that bounce off my ankles and across the smooth surface. The bright blue frozen masses like sculptures in the center of the lake causes the seasonal transformation of this landscape to crash into me. Closing my eyes I call up images of what it might look like in winter. These lakes are frozen and buried in snow in winter. They only exist when the snow melts into rock and forms these perfect pools with names like Isolation, Sprite, and Perfection. This vast, otherworldly  landscape is defined by water, built of stone, and speckled with meager stands of gnarled trees, bent and twisted by wind and current. I peer up at the sun. It has begun its descent and I realize it is late afternoon. Where are they? The stone weighs heavily inside my heart. Checking the time, I make a very grim decision: the friends that I am waiting on may have turned back and if they haven’t then they must. They will not make it the full 18 miles we planned on trekking to get out of this wilderness today. So I slowly pull on my boots once more and as people pass me heading the other direction I begin to relay my message. Each group I speak to earnestly vows to pass it on, recognizing the seriousness of my situation. They glance at the sun diving for the horizon and wish me good luck. Some turn and look back at me as they move off as if memorizing my description for search and rescue. I give them a reassuring nod; I am not afraid. Not afraid. Not afraid. I will be like the water racing across these peaks: never-ending, relentless, indomitable, flowing forcefully across a stone world, bending rock, altering paths; the writhing moat surrounding mountains like castle towers. With one last worried glance toward the pass, I try to will two forms to appear to no avail, so I grasp that stone in my heart and plunk it down, down, down into the cool liquid depths of my being. I call up my resolve, feeding that fire that is always simmering beneath the surface. I stoke the flames with the horizon that always dances away from me, just out of reach. I move off uneasily at first but soon I find my gait matching the rhythm of the silver water rushing over stone, moving and flashing like a living thing. Great heaps of snow are melting around me, pooling into the chasms of hills and roaring across valleys. As I approach a narrow canyon filled with snow, I pause, taking in the line of meandering footprints crossing the white mass. Listening closely, I can hear the violently writhing water hidden below the smooth exterior. How much of this snow has turned to liquid under the sun’s embrace today? Cringing, I cast a glance up at the hazy afternoon sun and quickly determine that the safest route is around the snow and not across it. I take deep breaths, fanning the flames inside that will burn me up if I am not careful. The only path is a traverse along a smooth rock face that borders the drift of snow. Fearing for the two who may stubbornly follow or any others who may be on the same journey, I bend down and draw an arrow in the snow, pointing to the safety of stone. As I resignedly walk towards my chosen path, I hastily grab a few rocks and stack them neatly on a boulder before grabbing my first handhold. The rock is smooth and slick and as I peer down between the face and the melting edge of snow, I can see that it falls and falls and falls down into a dark abyss. I take a firmer hold on the rocks I cling to and move faster, anxious to be back on solid ground. When I finally reach it, I step from beyond the stone face and into the scorching sun, its rays fill me, radiating out of my skin. I am suddenly aware of my parched mouth so I clamp down on that inferno of will that is burning me up, incessantly whispering “go, go, go”. Instead I try to be still like the water. At the lake’s edge I study the cool green surface like a liquid emerald. The sun dances across the stones as I reach down to fill my water bottle. The air and water here taste like stones, earth, and minerals laced with something sweet. Maybe it is sunlight. I drink my fill, trying to quiet the hammering fire that has ceased its whispering and has begun to demand that I go, go, go. The lake is cool and calm and I pull strength from its stillness and adamant existence. The sun changes the shape of the water but not what it is made up of. So I pull my pack on and I walk and I walk and I walk. I cross stone and I pass lakes so beautiful that each one breaks my heart. I don’t know when exactly I lose my way but I can hear voices on the wind and I follow them, scrambling down a small canyon and across a snow bank. As it grows steep, I leap from rock to rock, the flames surging with the thrill in my heart, until I land in a meadow. I approach the camp and can see the trail in the distance. The three inhabitants look at me and then cast a nervous glance at the sun. I know it is lower on the horizon, hovering just above those jagged peaks. I clutch that glowing coal of determination and I meet their confused stares with quiet resolve. As I walk around their camp to the trail, they watch me pass with unasked questions written across their faces. I give them a nod and continue on my path. I can tell that I am falling in elevation when I start to see more verdant grass and less gray stone. When I reach the forest and the sun is barely an ember glowing in their midst, I pull up that weighty stone of worry to examine it. Did they heed my warning? Will they be waiting for me at the car? The stone is heavy and made up of the unknown—something that only grows as time passes and an imagination is allowed to roam. When my feet start moving again, the steps are weary, as if instead of being chased by an inferno, I am being forced to collect the fuel to feed a long-burning woodstove. My entire body radiates with heat. I do not know when I start to sing but when my thin voice is drowned out by roaring water, I notice. This water is not calm or still. It is a force spraying straight out of the ground out into the open air, over rock and brush. The trees here seem to sigh, leaning towards it, begging for the ecstasy of one last drop. The air is cooler as if the whole forest is under water. Is that steam rising from my face? I’ll never know for sure but as the cool mist brushes my skin, I close my eyes and forget where I am for a moment. There is no fire, no stone, no sun dropping from the sky. Just this, just this, just this. I breathe in greedy gulps of this air that tastes like earth and stone and trees and sunlight. When I open my eyes to the gray, dusky, woods, the trail stretches before me and I know that my feet will take me to the end of it. The moon will rise before I lay eyes on civilization but I will still walk and walk and walk. I reach the cliff that overlooks the parking lot and I squint hopefully down at it even though I am still miles away from reaching it. My Subaru is a dark speck that stands alone. The world tilts as I realize my friends are not there and I feel them swallowed by this unforgiving place, disappearing into the restless unknown. As the last glimmers of sunlight wink out and the moon alights in the sky, the energy released from that resolute fire I ignited is raging through me and even as I burn and burn and burn, my steps are as fluid as the water streaming across these mountains. I cast my gaze up to the stars, my welcome friends. They fall, burning to the earth at dazzling speeds, coming home. They fall and fall and fall, like glowing embers against the dark sky. 


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