Her words still ring in my ears as I step off the ropeway onto the freezing, windswept plateau of the Pilatus terminal at the northern end of the Yatsugatake range. “I LOVE YOU, Miguel!” It is a confirmation of all I had been looking for and waiting for over the last few months, a statement that stills my stormy heart and promises to wait for me when I descend back to the world of trains and schedules and meetings and sullen students. We have overcome the woes of distance and newly immersed intimacy, at last announcing that we are truly together.
I lower my pack and survey the trails. Skiers up from the ropeway wait in line for head of the trail, to fly down the artificially-made snow to the snowless plain below. Though the thermometer reads -15ÂºC and it is early January, hardly any snow covers these alpine heights. The snowpack is so hard that walking in my running shoes is as easy as jogging along a beach. I remove my mittens from my pack, but leave the overboots inside and the snowshoes lashed to the front. I glance up at the balding white pate of the hill overlooking the plateau. A sharp, icy blue wind sweeps down from heights and fingers my collar. I laugh. Those old feisty fingers, ready to strip me bare and rush away with my shelter and food!
A voice calls out from behind me, naming me. “Miguel? Miguel from BPL?”
I shoot my head around, completely not expecting that. Two Japanese walkers, donned in ultra-lightweight gear stand there grinning. I have no idea who they are.
“You don’t know us, but we know you from the Backpacking Light site. Miguel, right?”
I nod in confusion. “How do you know me?”
“You’re famous in Japan! Everyone who does ultralight hiking in Japan knows you.”
“Really?” I pause. “Really???”
We introduce ourselves and talk about Mr. Terasawa and Mr. Tsuchiya, two people all three of us know who have done a lot to introduce ultralight concepts to Japan. They laugh and point at my pack, a specialized harness with waterproof drysack, instead of a traditional backpack: “Is that the BPL Arctic Pack?”
One of them shakes his head and approaches with his camera. “May I take a picture of it? I’ve never seen one in person before.”
I laugh in turn. “We UL enthusiasts really are crazy about lightweight gear, aren’t we!” I spy his own pack and laugh again. “Just as I thought. How did you sleep last night? Tent or tarp? Or bivy?”
“We used a tarp coupled with a bivy. It went down to about -20 last night and I was worried that our lightweight gear wouldn’t be enough, but I was surprised that by using my clothing system with the layered bedding system I was actually very warm.” He eyes my pack again, “What about you? How are you camping?”
I shake my head in embarrassment, “I’m not camping. I’m staying at a mountain hut.”
Both their eyes pop. “You’re kidding!”
“I know, I know. Now my reputation in Japan is shot.”
“No, not that bad. At least you’re wearing running shoes!” They point at my light hikers. “No one but an ultralighter would do that on a winter mountain!” They laugh and nod to each other.
We shake hands, take a group shot, and promise to contact one another and get a whole band of UL people together in Tokyo some time, perhaps to go for a camp out here or in Okutama, west Tokyo. They head north towards Futago Ike (Twin Ponds) and I watch their silhouettes climb the through the rock garden and disappear at the crest.
The sun is already lowering toward the west and day walkers and skiers have begun to thin out. I have about three hours until sundown.
Only a few hundred meters out of earshot of the ropeway the forest settles into a deep hush. My shoes creak through the dry snow and my breath sounds loud amidst the snow laden fronds of the larches that line the path. Footprints from walkers who had passed all day break through the snow along the trail and tell stories of where they were going or how they were feeling. One set of snowshoe tracks breaks away from the main trail and wanders for a bit amidst the dark trunks of the larch forest before being forced back to the main trail by the thickness of the brush. Crisscrossing the human tracks I can make out hare tracks, ermine tracks, Japanese marten tracks, and another one that I can’t identify. Nothing seems to be happening as I plow through the landscape, but the tracks tell a different story. Life goes on all around and beings live out their family stories.
The light begins to fail and the shadows clench me in the gathering cold. With the light going so flees my daytime euphoria and the concerns about reaching the hut take over. My thoughts return to Y. and all the trials we’ve been through over the last few months. While it is true that she had told me that our relationship was sound, she had said the same thing only three weeks earlier, before her bout of silence. Just the fact that she cannot join me on this walk, like on almost every endeavor we talked to doing together, ensures that doubts begin to creep in again. I stop in a clearing and watch the fiery orange alpenglow touch the last brow of peak to the east, while standing down here in this blue forgetfulness. I feel small and vulnerable, totally alien to this snowy world. And Y., far away, doing holiday part-time work and not getting enough sleep, and feeling cold and frustrated as the wind blows through the station where she works, and losing confidence in her ability to keep a relationship going… Why was I not there, beside her, keeping her warm? Why all this distance? Why the vagaries of chance, that we would fall in love, only to encounter a minefield of responsibilities and lingering effects of past relationships?
I long to call her, hear her voice, counterbalance the silence and cold of these woods, but there is no reception. And I begin to wonder what that, “I love you” meant. It sounds like an echo, a sublime way of saying good bye.
The trail takes me up a ridge and drops into a bowl of rocks where it seems the shortened trees gather for a motionless conference. When I enter the space I almost feel like an intruder and a vague anxiety stirs somewhere in the center. I don my snowshoes when the trail begins to get icy so as to get the traction of the snowshoe crampons. Halfway down the descent the straps of the old snowshoes snap and render them useless. The light continues to fall and I scramble through the rises and falls, trying to keep from taking a spill on every descent and rise. It is not a long way, thank goodness, and I finally make it to the access road that heads up to the hut. I abandon the trail and huff it through the gloom until the familiar pointed roof comes into view above the treetops.
The owner of the hut, a soft-voiced man in his forties, stokes the stove for me and offers me a cup of hot barley tea. I gratefully accept and cup it in my palms. He hangs my gear on the rack over the stove and puts my broken snowshoes into the corner. He pulls up a stool and sits across the table from me, sipping his own cup of tea.
“Is this your first time here?” he asks.
“No, I’ve been here many times, even in winter, but this is my first time to stay.”
“It’s a good place. Quiet and friendly. That’s why I stayed,” he said. “You just missed the crowds, though. Yesterday there were more than fifty people here and it was full of music and laughter. I think there will only be eight of you tonight, though.”
I sip my tea, pensive. Then after I while I say, “The mountains are so beautiful, but without people you really can’t live here, can you?”
He shakes his head. “We have to work together to survive here. The high mountains can be really hard if you’re not careful.”
“Like relationships,” I murmur. He raises his eyebrows, confused. I shake my head. “I’ve recently gotten involved with someone and it is rocky and often so easy to lose our way. Here I am with someone and supposed to feel like I belong and full of hope for the future, but instead I feel lonely most of the time. When I try harder to reach out, she draws away, unwilling to set the path together. The harder I try to get closer the further away she seems to draw. I don’t know what to do.”
He nods and smiles, not knowing what to say.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Shouldn’t be talking about things like that. We’ve never even met before.”
He leans forward and points at my cup. “Another cup of tea?” He gets up and bustles about in the kitchen. He returns with big kettle and sets it down on the table. “Don’t think,” he says. “Have another cup of tea.” He pours more tea into my cup and smiles. “The fire is warm, no?” He nods and smiles again.
I wake from a deep sleep to the sound of laughter outside in the subzero night. Foggy-brained, I sit up and remember that three of the lodgers had decided to get up at four in the morning to look for a comet that only comes up on January 3rd. I pull back the curtain, but the window pane is covered in a thick layer of ice. I can make put a blurry wisp of light waving in the blackness of the window. Laughter again. And the sound of a door rolling shut.
I lie in the darkness of the room for a long time, debating whether to face the freeze of the room or stay here under the blankets, warm. I reason that life is about getting up and getting out there, but that it is also about lying a bit longer under the covers and getting some proper sleep. But then I figure that comets don’t come about very often and I really should get up and see one. So I haul the blanket off me and throw on my down jacket and march out of my room, down the dark hallway, and down to the warm glow of the stove room. I pull on my running shoes and, making the same racket with the door as the person earlier, I step out into the night.
First the cold. Hard and bitter and right down from the stars. I have forgotten my gloves so I stick my hands deep into my down jacket pockets. The air, when I look up, seems gelid, like a still lake, and beyond it shine the stars. Thousands of them. All spilt across the velvet dress, so distant and impersonal that the cold seems perfectly suited to their needs. Below them, on the dark hillside, stands an almost insignificant little group of people, pointing their pinprick of a flashlight up at the heavens and remarking on the constellations. I shuffle through the snow and climb up to their lookout. Their flashlight swings down to identify me then back up at the stars. I see shadowy arms reach up and point. Voices murmur at close hand, punctuated by bursts of quiet laughter.
They never find the comet. We stand looking up until the cold finally penetrates our defenses and we all decide to head back to the stove room to warm up. We position ourselves around the fire, putting our hands out to flames to receive the benediction of heat. The hut owner brings out a tray of coffee and biscuits and we sit around for hours, until dawn, discussing Japanese youth, the effects of the recession, how to make a firebrand, even the way to read a star map. At one point, not having an answer to a question, one of the hut helpers takes out her cell phone and connects it to a specialized antenna, where she consults the internet. I ask if I might use the antenna to check for any messages I have gotten. They say sure.
I connect my cell phone and let the feelers scan the invisible voiceways for word from Y. Nothing. The receptacle remains empty. Feeling like the man on the moon, I write a short message and send it out to her, casting it into the dawn darkness, “I love you.” Letting it resound like an echo where no sound reverberates.
“I love you,” the message says. The words that draws together the strings of the universe and can make a measured difference in the strength of even the tiniest beating heart, if only it is heard.
The comet group stays awake until breakfast is ready and, still bleary-eyed, but full of laughter, we sit over our bowls of miso soup and diced cabbage and omelette and continue our lively discussion on all topics from the four corners of the world. We get onto the topic of children, since one of the women there has only just recently started getting outdoors and the other members wonder how she manages to take care of her children while she’s out here. “Well, they’re older now and can more or less take care of themselves,” she says. “But, I figure it’s time my husband stay home sometimes and give me the chance to do some of the things I love doing. I’ve always wanted to go hiking in the mountains. I don’t want to get old and feel I haven’t done anything I wanted to do.” She beams. “Who would have thought I’d get up at 4:00 in the morning in the mountains to go outside to look for comets!”
I ask about children and if she thinks that when they are young it is impossible to do all these things together. She thinks a moment and shakes her head. “In fact, I think their lives are richer for the experiences and the chance to learn what the world is about. Learning how to mentally deal with climbing a mountain or riding a bicycle long-distance or even put up a tent and survive a storm all helps make you stronger and more confident. My family did a lot of that when the kids were younger and I think the kids grew up with an appreciation for what their abilities are. Not all of them like being outdoors, but none of them is afraid of being out there.”
The dishes are quickly cleared off the table and with a whisk of a towel the crumbs are wiped away and the company disperses. Five minutes after the room was filled with the banter of people whose eyes were bright with stars, the room returns to being empty. I stumble upstairs to the bedroom to pack and get ready for the walk out of the mountains.
While jogging along the trail in the late morning sun, the heat reflecting off the snow, my cell phone suddenly vibrates in my shoulder strap pocket. I stop and pull it out. I press the open button and check the message. One. From Y.
“If you have time, meet me at Kofu station around 1:50. Can’t wait to see you. I love you.”