Running up a big mountain is dramatic on so many levels. But, Mt. Massive sneaks up on you. The drama is given a chance to build gradually, first climbing easily out of the creek valley, then striding oh-so-comfortably contouring through the trees with the morning sunlight filtering through to occasionally warm my numb hands, and then the trail turns upward and I'm out of the trees and on the tundra and holy shit, THAT is a mountain, until suddenly there I am toiling up an impossibly steep slope, stubbornly refusing to give into the storm raging inside my skull, the world seems to be screaming so loudly that eventually it drowns out even the internal voices imploring me to walk, stop, sit, repose, rest.
Like I said, dramatic. If one could simply summon the presence of mind to objectively look at the situation, the absurdity and general calm would be obvious. However, stuck in my head, in my situational psychic reality, it feels as if the world is falling to pieces around my ears. A pleasant breeze is elevated to the level of howling gale, every simple rock step-up becomes a nearly insurmountable obstacle. If only the trail were always as consistently smooth and forgiving as this short stretch of sublime alpine singletrack I could emotionally bear the thought of continuing my cadence all the way to the summit. But it's not, it quickly turns back into the rock-strewn, ice-encrusted rut that is the norm.
But therein lies the beauty of grinding inexorably up a mountain face. Eventually, thought is forced to cease existence. It can no longer be born. It is the only way I can cope. I somehow even forget that I want to walk. Don't look up, don't look at the summit--for chrissakes don't look at the summit!--it's simply too soul-crushing to contemplate the objective, the final reprieve, whilst laboring at what feels to be the absolute zenith of effort. At what cannot possibly be a sustainable effort. But, of course, by turning off one's goal-oriented brain, it becomes sustainable.
Why? Because, all I really have to do is take one more calculated, perfectly-placed, as-efficient-as-possible footstep. Certainly I can take one more step? Of course, and, little by little, the ground is covered, the delta elevation is scaled, the absolute presence is experienced. Nothing else even exists but the here and now of inching my way up this goddamn mountain. And that, my friends (a phrase I will never look at the same way again, courtesy of John McCain), is an indescribably beautiful, important thing. It is living. In the end, it's all there really is.
And, thankfully, running (uphill, without much oxygen, it seems usually) is the one thing I've been fortunate enough in this life to find that reliably transports me to that psychic/emotional space of living, relentless, rife with effort (suffering?), but somehow, unexplainably fulfilled. Filled with life.
And then I get to the top. And my organism can't even express how ecstatic it is to be asked to do nothing else but BREATHE. Enormous, gulping, body-consuming breaths that each originate somewhere deep in my thorax, my spine, my soul. Hands on knees, elbows locked, praying to the decomposed granite between the toes of my shoes, I sway slightly, dizzily, in the ubiquitous mountaintop wind and, not so much inhale but consume the delicious, sweet, chilled air.
Finally, gradually again, on the downhill, making my way back into the valley carved by Halfmoon Creek between Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert, I re-enter the world where the mind wanders, thinking of other things than the task at hand, deftly stepping over roots and rocks, so unconsciously engrossed in something else that I forget to stop and drink from the spring that saturates the trail just after Willow Creek. But, that's okay, because for at least the next 24 hours, my psyche will be nourished by the fact that--for at least some, nontrivial amount of time--I was there, I was in it--life--and nowhere else.