I can’t handle the future, I can’t look too far ahead, there’s too much of the same thing, too much effort, too much danger, too much difficulty, too much pain. I close the guidebook, turn away from the pages that detail km per section, metres of ascent and descent.
It’s so simple to look at numbers on a page, but in reality up here they mean hours of effort, looking at a thin track at your feet that winds upwards into a jumble of boulders, where the grass grows thin and rocks protrude until the shape of the turf changes to lumpy and circular, with gaps to trap an ankle, and you know there is just a thin layer of earth now, the places where the seeds have blown and the mulch has only gently built up, the early stages of earth colonising rock.
It’s a hard route, too hard to take in all at once, too much to think about, all that’s coming ahead, all the days of rucksack rations, all the gaps between village amenities, all the high peaks and precarious descents.
I can only do THIS. The ‘this’ which is right in front of me. The ‘this’ which is today, here, now, this moment. The ‘this’ which is a night camped by a lake, faintly damp from the showers that hit me in the last hour of walking up, peeking out of the tent door to watch lightning flashing in the faraway sky, admiring the perfect stillness of the lake surface as the light fades, watching the water for signs of tiny fish darting away from the ripples they’ve created as they break the surface.
The ‘this’ which is each step on an extremely steep slope, cups of bare earth worn in the slippery wiry grass that could be from humans or goats, it’s uncertain which. Hold weight on your walking poles, like a human tripod these wooden crutches are extensions of your body now, carefully choose each foothold, don’t look ahead you’ll get dizzy at the steepness of the drop, you’ll get dispirited at how much there is still to go, at how slowly you’re inching your way down this unbelievably steep path. Back and forth, back and forth, wind your way down, concentrate on each step, don’t mind the rain, don’t mind the time, don’t pay attention to the tiny voice of fear that will shout loudly if you let it, that will constrict your lungs and release a rush of trembling throughout your body. This has to be everything, this step, this rock, will it wobble or will it stay put, can you balance a forefoot upon it or should you shuffle your weight and twist to allow the other foot forward. Yes better then other foot can take another step downwards. Focus. Falling is serious injury. Focus.
The ‘this’ can be a day, get one more day forward, decide your stopping place, whether a small cabane or refuge, or perhaps a flat looking place on the map which is full of contour swoops and curves, then walk towards it, through all the challenges that present themselves. The ‘this’ can be a moment, the gasp as I reach a pass and see the new set of peaks that present themselves for the first time, the jagged background of mountains further off. Sit down on the ground, palm a handful of peanuts into your mouth, take a gulp of fresh water, look at the map, then heave upwards and set off again.
This blog, of course, could be a pandemic analogy, a climate change analogy, a state of the world analogy, in all the tumult and disarray that we are experiencing right now. Just focus on your immediate surroundings and carry on, don’t feel defeated by all the hardship on the horizon.
Except mountains are pleasurable, in the midst of all the suffering. There’s nothing pleasurable about a judge’s personal politics being able to sway the legal direction of a nation; or about impossible promises being made in the goals of nationalism and division which, once achieved, become inextricably mired in the administrative delivery. There’s nothing pleasurable about lies, obfuscation, cheating, rule bending, about feeling powerless in the face of global change and equal refusal of the powers to change.
I see all these awful sad things reflected through my smartphone glass screen. World news comes to me at a remove, as if I am a cave dweller, where the storytellers of Twitter come in from strange lands and share ghost stories, their exaggerated gestures thrown up in shadows on the wall as the firelight flickers, mimicking boogeymen and danger and awful things. I cower a little, in my comforting safe space of mountain life, not wanting to go back, to burst this lovely bubble.
Because lovely it is, for all the hardship. The pure joy and exhilaration of life outside, up there in the places where the marks of man are faint and few. The peaks are blaring into the sky, each one an organ pipe delivering the vibrations of deep earth up and outwards to the air, where the breeze blows it through me, this nourishment I didn’t know I was hungry for. I gain the sensation of being fed without ever knowing I was in need of feeding, like a small baby who only feels, never analyses.
I am nourished, at the same time as I struggle for nourishment. My soul fills as my legs are emptying. I have never been so tired.
Small frogs scramblejump away from my steps, folding legs back under themselves from clumsy emergency landings, so perfectly suited to their cold wet homeland.
There is a vulture feather pushed behind the map pinned to the wall of an open cabin. It’s longer than my forearm, the quill as thick as my little finger. I think about the glory of this bird, swooping and spying all day, turning slow circles of surveillance above miles of mountain.
I go to sleep that night in the comfortable dark bed of my sleeping bag and a plastic covered gym mat; there are mice in the cabin, first I hear them scuffling within the walls, out of the nests they’ve nibbled in the insulation, then they’re all over the stove, the kitchen area where a battered biscuit tin contains only playing cards and someone has left an incongruous bottle of pink lambrusco. They don’t get my food, I hung it up. They don’t come to my corner and so I sleep sweetly. Outside, the fresh mountain water runs from a plastic pipe into the carved wooden trough and out again, unsullied. The mist gathers and a deer barks in the far distance, come to the plateau for a nighttime bilberry harvest.
It is enough. I am satisfied.