The wind blows off Okutama reservoir, whistling through the bare lattices of the roadside trellis and bites at my cheeks. It is cold enough to bring tears to my eyes and I swing off my pack to pull out the fingerless bunting gloves from the back pocket. Sunlight, falling from high in the mid-day sky, glances off the metallic blue of the reservoir water and seems to lose strength with the meeting, so that although the afternoon is bathed in a gold luster, I can feel the wintry chill seep through my three layers of clothes. I rummage in my pack again for an extra layer, a windshirt, to cut the wind and stave off, for a while, the final dip into the end of the year, the sinking into deep winter.
Two more days and the new year begins.
I meant to take the bus further out along the reservoir, to where the mountains jut up higher into the wilds of the western sky, but buses run later and more slowly with the holidays, and something about the past year, with its disappointments and unspoken hesitations, urges me to get off early and stay low. I stand at the edge of the curb, watching the bus, now tiny along the arm of land reaching out into the reservoir, trundling away to the end of the finger of land, round the tip, and disappear. It isn’t so much a scramble I am after, but more of a confirmation that I still have that restless call to wander the hills and woods whipping about within my soul. So it is a slow stroll I start out upon, nothing too strenuous or untamed.
I had begun to doubt my own capacity to step out into the open and simply love whatever weathers and encounters I would find, just as they are. The details are unimportant, but for 48 years I had never failed to mark myself, or more accurately, “be aware of” myself, within the urgency and immediacy of a living world, a boundless feeling and way of seeing that makes it impossible to remain content with asphalt streets, parking lots, cars, and horizons choked with nothing but humankind.
Then two years ago the courage to get out there seemed to go still. I often stood by my window gazing out at the rain, and felt far away. I packed up my backpack in an empty gesture, wrote up gear lists and route itineraries, even went out and bought the ingredients for meals to be cooked over a tiny alcohol stove, only to heft my pack, reach the front door of my apartment, and stop there, staring at my shoes. I just couldn’t get myself to go.
Last November I turned 50. I had long ago promised myself that, for my birthday, I would go on a journey to a childhood dream, to Patagonia. I sat scrolling through Facebook posts instead, not really feeling anything.
I start up the trail, camera in hand, and just let the cant of the hill talk to me with its crunch of gravel and dash of old leaves. It always takes a while for my sight to focus enough that photographic images present themselves. Sometimes it comes effortlessly; I raise my eyes and patterns or juxtapositions, forebodings or delights jump out at me, fixing themselves into position and all I have to do is raise the lens and see. At other times it is like a sheet of water washes over the glass and the patina of relevance remains cold and hard as a shell.
I’ve heard people say about the places I love to wander as being empty, with nothing there, but when the sight is good, that’s not how natural places reveal themselves. There is always something going on or self-revealing in the eye of the old world. Perhaps places rely upon the kernel budding in silences, with the heart beating at the center of rootedness. Perhaps adaptation begins when you recognize why you can longer stay the way you were.
I reach the pass with the wind heaving in the brittle forest. Branches rattle against lichen-splotched statues that have long ago returned to the forest. I listen for the call of a watchful jay or the busy, skirling twittering of siskins in the brush, and they are ghosts, swept along my peripheral vision like smoke. I kneel amidst the fallen leaves and smell the sweet burning of the past summer, half praying, half asking for forgiveness. When I stand, the world tilts for a spell, as if to drain ill words and muddy expectations.
All afternoon the trail and road wind through the forests and hills and ravines in a ritual of touch and go, stepping in to lean over a trickling brook, then swinging back out to bow to the curtains of beech and maple that stand rapt in the attention of the late afternoon sunlight. The path both hides from and reaches up to the open sky, and without another person, not once, to bring the path to life, I feel as if I am slipping from memory, the further along I ramble, the deeper into the great sleep of the forest I become enveloped. The sun dips into the horizon and the world closes in with a slow, bated breath.
Okutama is not far from the city and this walk along an old logging road only takes a headlong push through the tunnel of trees to reach the end at the train station, but as the darkness descends the hills rising all about switch masks and with the grip of the cold to accentuate the loom of the trees and the holes in the visibility of the ravines that yawn to one side of the trail, seem to rise in stature until I am but this tiny creature stepping past hidden, watchful eyes. Okutama now seems like a forbidding kingdom, one whose borders I’ve inadvertently passed into and there is no turning back.
But as all tunnels go, you pass through and eventually reach the other side. Okutama is riddled with tunnels. They burrow through the folds of the landscape like threading holes in an old jacket. Somehow the trail holds together and I weave through the darkest groves with just enough light to find my way to the verges of human settlement. We always leave guideposts for unwary wanderers, perhaps to remind us that without our walls and doors and fences there really isn’t much out there to hold our tendency to drift in check. If we wait long enough eventually the trees start growing in upon our stead. The wild really has little inclination for sitting still.
I step back onto the main road closer to the end of the year and just five minutes before the last bus would pass. The wind has abated, but clouds hang on the tendrils of my breath, bowing their heads for dawn. I still have time to ride back to the trains, to bright lights and the straightness of chairs and doorways, and already imagine the hot bath that will melt the final cast of the mountains.
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.”
I stood at the entrance to the train station staring out at the weather. The town dropped down into the grey swirl of low clouds and seemed to hold tight against the wash of cold rain. Streams ran along the street and what few people had left the warmth of their homes hunched their jackets against the chill, trotting along the sidewalks to reach the station and get out of the wetness. The freezing wind howled at the opening to the station and buffeted me, urging me back inside. None of the mountains in the distance allowed themselves to be seen and I was sorely tempted to just turn around and head right back into the heated compartment of the train. The prospect of even one night holed up in a drafty tarptent, alone in the dark of the night time winter woods while the rain pounded away all around me just wasn’t my idea of a good time. I kept remembering waking up in the puffy comfort of my bed before dawn and lying there shaking my head at the strange things that I do for kicks. Who in their right mind wakes up during the hours of the dead to go walking on some windblown ridge?
My pack was light, the lightest I’ve ever gotten it for a several-day winter hike with camping, lighter even than the pack I used in the summer Alps last year. I worried that maybe it was too light, that I might spend the night shivering while snow came drifting down to laugh at me. But I’d checked and re-checked everything to make sure I had gotten it right and, in my head at least, I knew that I should be fine. But as these things always go, it’s one thing to theorize about something, quite another to actually get out there and raise your glass to the elements and make a toast. Weather has an upsetting habit of not respecting theories. Or toasts, for that matter.
I spied the blond-haired adventurer deep in consultation with the local tourist information center lady. I knew he was an adventurer because he wore nothing but running shoes, a pair of navy blue training pants, a navy blue wind shirt and on his back a tiny backpack. Only adventurers challenge such winter weather with nothing by a thin film of nylon. He leaned over the tourist information center counter for an inordinately long time, so long I began to wonder if he was able to speak Japanese. The lady behind the counter seemed a bit piqued as she attempted to make head or tails of what he was saying. When they both looked stumped I stepped up and asked if they needed any help.
“Yes, that would really save me!” exclaimed the adventurer in a heavy French accent. “Hi my name is Eric!”
“I’m from Canada and this is my third day here. Three times I’ve tried to climb Mt. Fuji, but no luck.”
“Climb Mt. Fuji?” I stared at his outfit, from head to toe. “In winter?”
“Yes. It rained the first two days and I had to turn back. Yesterday I made it to 3,130 meters, but the snow got up to my chest and I couldn’t go any further. A Norwegian guy ahead of me was able to continue on. I only have a week left in Japan and I’m determined to climb Mt. Fuji before I leave.”
“Not to doubt your determination, Eric, but are you sure you are prepared for Mt. Fuji? It’s a very dangerous mountain in winter if you don’t know what you are doing or have the right equipment. Every year people die on it in the winter. It’s extremely cold up there, plus some people have to worry about altitude sickness at that elevation.”
Eric hugged his chest and shivered in the wind as raindrops dripped off his chin. “It’s really okay! I’m from Quebec, I’m used to the cold!”
Concerned, I indicated his clothes. “Are you climbing in those clothes?”
“Yes! I work for UPS! You like the pants?” He laughed. “I need to buy some boots before I try Fuji again. You know where I can buy some cheap boots?”
We spoke a while about prospects for a sports shop in this area. I used to live near here and knew of nothing that might get him better geared up. Eric’s shivering got worse, so I showed him into the heated waiting room inside the station. I always wonder what to do in a situation when I meet someone about to head into a dangerous situation, but who doesn’t really understand what they are getting themselves into. I don’t want to push my worries on them, but also don’t want them to do something they will regret. While we spoke a local elderly man came up to us and asked me where we were going. I pointed out into the rain, at where the West Tanzawa range was supposed to be looming. Eric hit his chest with a big smile, “Mt. Fuji!”
The man glanced out in the direction of the mountains where I was planning to go and shook his head. “All those mountains look the same after a while. Pretty boring, don’t you think?” He turned to Eric and grinned. “Fuji! Really! I used to take care of one of the mountain huts at the ninth station. Mt. Fuji, eh? In winter! You have to be careful!”
Eric hit his chest again. “Don’t worry! I’m fine! I’m from Quebec!”
“What did he say?” asked the old man.
I missed my bus while talking to the two Fuji aficionados. While they attempted to communicate with one another about Fuji conditions I went to check on the weather again. A lightness had made its way into the grey billows of the clouds and it looked as if at least the rain might let up a little. Eric had decided to head back 400 kilometers west to Osaka for the night and would attempt Mt. Fuji again the next day if the weather improved. Since he was taking the bus over the pass where I hoped to start my walk I decided to join him and talk a bit more. It was good to have company before heading out into the cold. At the very least I hoped to spark at least a bit of curiosity in Eric over my own adventure. Nothing doing; Fuji was imprinted in his Quebecois mind.
Eric had never in his life climbed a mountain before. “You said you’ve been to Montreal, yes?” he asked.
“What is the highest land form you saw there?”
“Er, Mount Royal?”
“That’s right! No mountains! I never even saw a mountain before I came to Japan!” He laughed contentedly to himself, as if that was sufficient explanation for his attempting Mt. Fuji.
“We Quebecois are really tough! Much tougher than those slouches from Montreal! When we were fighting against the British it was the Montrealers who surrendered, but not us! We stuck it out to the end!” He grinned at me and snorted. “So you see, that’s why I came to Japan, the land of the samurai!” He folded his arms and laughed effortlessly.
We parted at the junction between Lake Yamanaka and Kagosaka Pass. The rain had stopped and already signs of the sun had broken through the clouds. The west foothills of the Tanzawa range rose to the east, heading up into the still watery grey clouds.
“You’re a good luck charm, Eric,” I told him. “I wish you good luck on Mt. Fuji. Please do be careful and don’t take the mountain lightly.”
He waved from the bus, still smiling. “Don’t worry about me. I’m…”
“I know. You’re from Quebec!”
“That’s right! Don’t forget it!”
The bus pulled away and I was alone again with the weather. I started walking. With each step the clouds opened a bit more and by the early afternoon I had taken off my rain jacket and was sweating in spring sunshine. Lake Yamanaka dropped away behind me and the sky stepped back to welcome me into the folds of the ridges.
She glances down at the edge of the lake and laughs.
“Look, there’s ice along the shore! Wonder what it would feel like to dive right in?”
“It’s early April, E., the water must be freezing!” I reply.
E. looks over her shoulder and winks at me.
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid to get in?” she asks.
“Afraid? No. Just that water that cold is dangerous.”
She crosses her arms in front of her and lifts her sweater over her head. Then she unbuckles her belt and slips her jeans down.
“What are you doing?” I ask, incredulous.
“Do you need to ask?” she says.
She continues removing her clothing until she is standing stark naked beside the car, her clothes tossed into the front seat. Her white skin shines in the overcast light, her breasts large and heavy, her skin tight with goose bumps. I stare at the scut of her dark pubic hair.
She laughs, then turns and jogs down the path to the edge of the lake. I stand there like a little boy, feeling silly.
“Come on!” she shouts. “What are you waiting for?”
I think she is nuts. I know she is nuts, because no one in their right mind would take off their clothes in this weather, and even more nuts for considering going for a swim in ice water. And yet, watching her, waving her arm from beside that grey, wild looking lake, she is the most beautiful woman in the world.
She stops waving and turns toward the lake. Naked and pale, I shiver just imaging how cold the water must look to her. Then she steps forward and dives in.
The ice is paper thin and shatters with the impact of her body slipping through. I see her buttocks angle toward the sky like the back of a dolphin and then disappear in the metal grey waves. For a moment the surface of the water closes over her and a stunned silence follows, then, a few meters further out, her head breaches and she is shouting, screaming for joy, waving her arms wildly. She arches back and dives in again, a pale seal playing in the water.
I stand there hesitant, knowing a thing or two about hypothermia and just how dangerous these water are. I’m not just being cowardly. But one of the things about E., why I love her and feel such great joy with her, is that she know a thing or two about being alive. I have never met anyone who takes her daily experience with life so firmly by the horns.
“Hey! You going to let a GIRL outdo you? Water too cold for you?”
Okay, that does it! I throw off my clothes and, tiptoeing over the sharp rocks and feeling the cold wind slap my skin, dance down to the edge of the lake. A stray wave laps over my bare foot and sends me leaping back. Damn cold! E. is waving from the water, but looking decidedly less glowing.
“Hurry up! I can’t stay in here much longer!” she shouts.
Taking a deep breath and jump forward and sink up to my thighs in the freezing waves. The water is so cold it takes my breath away. I stand for a few seconds, breathing hard.
“Nice view!” E. shouts.
“Give me a sec,” I shout back.
Taking another deep breath I wade further out letting the water engulf me up to my chest. The cold hurts, like an angry hornet, gripping my naked body in an iron vise. Nothing to do but to go for it. I close my eyes and leap.
The world crashes about my ears, crushing icy fingers gripping my temples and scalp, bubbles frothing like soda, my limbs dashing through it like knives, and all the while, behind it all, I can hear the thumping of my heart. A hot drum working in the gelid darkness. Somewhere I rise and break free, gasping for air, and a wild, uncontrollable glee bursting from my lungs.
E.’s fingers and arms, then the rounded warmth of her torso and legs, find me and cling to me. Our bodies entwine, seeking communion in a cold indifference. Our lips press together, hungry, laughing, our teeth bumping, our tongues pressing together.
I can’t stop shouting, and treading the water together, we revel in the splashing and bobbing of the waves. We spy another couple strolling by and pausing for a moment to stare at us before hurrying on. We whoop with laughter after they are gone.
“I’m really getting cold, M,” says E. “Let’s get back to the car.”
We dog paddle back to shore and holding hands rush back to the car. The air feels almost warm after the lake. E.’s lips have turned blue and she is shivering. I retrieve a big towel from the trunk of the car and vigorously rub E. down. We get in the car and turn on the heater, splaying our hands in front of the vent to feel our blood tingle back to life.
“Phew!” mumbles E. “That was really crazy!”
It takes a long while for the warmth to course back into our veins, but we are feeling drugged with warmth by the time our car pulls into her apartment driveway.
“I could really use a hot shower,” I say.
E. leans over and kisses me, hard. “How about a nice, long hot bath together?”
I spent half a sleepless night reading the long-distance walking accounts of Chris Willett. There is a lot of reading, but through so much of it I felt as if I were walking with him, on much the same kinds of walks that I enjoy doing. His account of walking the Great Divide Trail especially moved me, because the experience came across as so similar to my own solo bicycle ride from Denmark to Paris in 1988. While writing my book about the experience (I’m still looking for a publisher… Anyone interested in giving it a read?) I had to face the constant memories of how much time I spent alone, and how meeting other souls along the way made all the difference in the story line of the journey.
Last year I had planned to go to Australia to walk the Larapinta Trail, but circumstances left my wallet as dry as the Outback. Reading Chris Willett, though, the fire is stoked again and I hope that this year I can actually make it out of my front door. I’ll shoot for September for a nice long walk in the desert. And with eight months to get in training I should be in top shape for even the hardest parts of the walk.
One day soon I want to try another long journey like the six-month bicycle trip my wife and I took in 1995. For anyone who has never spent such a long single stretch of time out of doors, camping each day, moving at your own pace, and feeling your body harden in ways you never knew you could, it is hard to describe the sheer immediacy and match that the human body and mind finds when living close to its original state. We were meant to live outdoors. W were meant to spend most of our time without a roof over our head or walls to block out our peripheral vision. We were meant to live with the roll of the sun and stars, the passage of clouds, and the motion capture reality of flowers and trees growing. And you can’t know it by reading a book or walking in an artificial park. You can’t really know the full presence of the earth until you actually feel yourself crawling across its surface, your muscles growing in proportion to the pull of gravity and distance.
Ever since I can remember journeying and getting outdoors into all the mess has been like a ache of joy that I had to follow. Sitting everyday at my computer now, pacing back and forth in the generic streets of Tokyo (and earlier, Boston) it is as if I am denying myself my own predisposition. Maybe other people don’t find walking alone in the mountains in a pouring rain all that exhilarating, but for me it is life itself. I am never more in my element than when walking in the woods or on a ridge or along a seashore wrack-line. If only there was a way to make it permanent, and still have my family and friends and livelihood.
I go snowshoeing tomorrow. I hear the snow in the Nikko area north of Tokyo reaches up to your hips. And more on its way tonight. It ought to be a blast!
At the other end of the year right about now the sultry Japanese summer heat invades homes like a giant, lazy, fat cat, nudging its way through the doors and windows and prostrating itself on the straw mats (tatami ) and linoleum floors with the sole purpose of draining everyone of life. That is what, traditionally, Japanese houses are designed for, to induce as much breathing throughout the house as might entice the cat to dissipate, a passive effort to encourage Cheshire-ism.
It doesn’t always work… my first floor apartment, not at all traditional except for the tatami in the living and bed rooms, acts like an isolation tank (in more ways than one!); you open the front door and an invisible wall of lugubriousness, sort of like that watery interface you see in the jump gates of the television show “Star Gate”, greets you… but the idea is sound: leave a space under the ground floor where the sun doesn’t hit and create a katabatic air space, keep the floor over this space perforated enough for the free passage of air, and create a heat sink space in the attic of the building, to which warm air is sucked. The idea is to draw the cool air out of the space beneath the house up into the attic, where it is supposed to dissipate. And it works very well in traditional, thatched roof farm houses.
The trouble arises in mid-January, when the deep freeze sets in and that cold air space beneath the house continues to crank away nice, juicy drafts through the floor and tatami, especially when my (noisy and much-disliked… I have yet to discover exactly why it is necessary to move the furniture around at 3:00 in the morning every day) upstairs neighbor cranks up his heater (which creates a racket outside my living room window with the squeaky and misaligned fan drumming away) and does a fine job of heaving all my precious warm air up into his place, and replacing it with the cold air from under the house. I didn’t realize until last week that the cold air actually streams through the tatami like spring water welling up from a sandy creek bed; I could feel the cold air pooling around my outstretched hand.
We only have one tiny electric, infrared heater to heat the spaces. Our Dutch oil heater started smoking last year when I turned it on, and we haven’t been able to afford to replace it. Normally this little heater is enough to warm up the small room it is placed in, as long as the door is kept shut. If it gets a little colder we use the spare sleeping bag and our fleece jackets. We’ve also covered the living room floor with a closed cell foam sheet and two layers of fluffy carpets. And normally that works… for when we are awake and spending time in the same room. It saves on electricity.
But when I am working in my study, the cold works its way through the floor boards and sends me running for my big, midwinter down jacket. When I breathe out white breath billows across the computer screen. Sometimes my fingers are so cold that I can barely type on the keyboard. And since infrared filament heaters are dangerous to keep on at night, the preparations for sleeping at night resemble pitching camp: dress up in fleece layers, don my fleece cap, fluff up two layers of down pillows, prop up the closed cell foam ground mat against the three layers of curtains to stop the draft, slip under a thick fleece blanket and lie on top of three layers of fleece sheets underneath, and finally pull the huge down quilt over us. If someone would walk in on us at night while we slept they would come across a huge lump on top of the bed, with no evidence whatsoever of inhabitants. Even our breathing is absorbed by the profoundness of the layers.
Waking up provides a wonderful exercise in will power. You open your eyes and wonder if it is light or dark outside because the curtains are so thick that no light passes through. You tentatively reach your hand into the world outside your cocoon of warmth, instantly recognizing this environment is hostile, not unlike that of Mars. You pat around until you locate the bed light, switch it on, and let out an experimental breath: snowfall… ice storm … whiteout … You imagine having slept all night on a block of dry ice. And that is precisely what your foot tells you when you poke it out and set it down on the floor. The temptation is to pull it right back in, like a snail’s eye stalk, but it’s time to get ready for work and you want to beat the crush of the Tokyo rush hour trains and you’d also like to get in a mug of tea and check the e-mail… so out you jump, dancing about the tatami like an Irish dancer, rush to the toilet, let out a yelp as you bare your bottom, dance back out to the shower, turn on the gushing, smoking river of heat, dash to the kitchen to set the kettle to boil, pop two slices of bread into the microwave-oven, and scamper back to the shower for a few minutes of revitalization. You turn up the water heat high enough to turn your skin blooming red before breaking the bathroom door open just long and wide enough to snatch the towel and slipping it into the sauna of the shower stall. Dried off you can safely negotiate the sub-arctic temperatures and dismiss the imaginary penguins tottering about the hallway, to do your shaving and prepare the tea.
But it doesn’t last long. Like the shadowy ghouls in the movie “Ghost”, the cold creeps back again and uses the soles of your feet to reacquaint you with the concept of stack ventilation. So back you go to mouse dancing, slapping on layers like a pancake artiste, until all contact with the outside world is reduced to the circle around your face and the inconvenience of your fingers. You stoke your core with piping hot tea and toast spread with a thin film of butter, and then you’re off, into the purveyor of all this defensiveness: the out of doors.
But of course, it is warmer outside than inside. As you march away toward the train station you unbutton your coat and let the morning sunshine take a peek in. You don’t look back; the suction itself might be too much.
I hadn’t expected to walk in the snow, but already the first flurries batted at the nylon face of my jacket when I stepped out of the train station. I had left my house in a rush, deciding on the spur of the moment to just get out and try to clear my head. I had had an argument with someone close the night before and hadn’t slept, still clenched tight with conflicting thoughts, and still resentful for all the days of arguing having eaten away the bulk of my ten-day winter vacation. Now the last few days of the vacation left me with few alternatives but jaunts into neighboring, uninspiring molehills. I didn’t expect Takao to offer much more than an exercise routine.
Few other people headed up the road toward the base of the mountain, where Takao Temple and the cable car awaited thousands of weekend daytrippers from the city. It being December 31st the whole country was in hometown migration mode, everyone getting ready for the solemn New Year’s celebration with family and friends. An old man in black tights and cross-country running shoes jogged past, just down from the mountain. Several other hikers in traditional heavy leather boots, spats, and Gore-tex rain jackets came lumbering past, looking beat. I strode past lightly in my own black tights, approach shoes, and daypack, still groggy, though, and a bit woozy in the head from lack of sleep. My digital camera was out, ready for shots, but images didn’t form in my eyes as I scanned the trail ahead. Voices continued to whisper at the verges of awareness, like birds flicking out of sight in the bushes.
And birds there were, mostly just heard, but occasionally giving themselves away when they tossed forest duff aside in their search for insects. They were hardy little fists of gray and russet feathers called Gray Buntings that forayed in hunting parties through the underbrush and dashed through old leaves like adzes. Here and there their fluting calls echoed through the ravine and the fluting mingled with the chuckle and gurgling of the creek running through the growing blanket of snow. Besides the water and bird calls the only sounds I could hear were the creaking of my shoe soles on the dry snow and the brush of snow falling against my jacket.
My eyes only held fleeting moments of potential contemplation before the thoughts slipped away again and the acuity of vision blurred into dark thoughts inside. Part of it was the hurried breakfast this morning, with too much sugar railroading through my arteries up into my eyes, the diabetic poison dulling perception of the world around me. It was like pushing through cotton and no amount of waving my hands could clear the cobwebs that stretched across my face with each step I took. Trapped in ambiguity I struggled for breath, to feel in focus with the trees and biting air and blue scent of snow. The anger nearly ripped out of me again when I tripped over a a root.
I put my hand out to stop my fall and felt dry bark. I looked up and saw the tree, a huge, heavy-footed, giant of a cedar, descending from the white sky down to the black earth in one, leathery, ponderous boot of trunk, like a pole of heaven. Without a sound it boomed down at me, a lord to a paean, admonishing without spelling out a single word of disapproval. It just simply stood there, not even swaying up there in the air. And for some reason I woke, right then and there. All the anxiety of the past few days washed away, my heartbeat slipped into the background, and it was just me and my breath, spilling unclothed into the air.
I took a deep breath and started walking again. Photographs rearranged themselves in my head and soon I couldn’t get enough out of each step, picture after picture crowding the rooms until soon I was barely crawling up the mountainside, camera in hand, and light and shadows reforming into ever more enticing compositions.
I was deep into trying to find the right angle and exposure for one picture of snow balanced on some branches when a soft, male voice greeted me from behind.
“Good afternoon! It really feels good, doesn’t it?”
I turned and faced a suntanned man about my age, smiling as if he had just conversed with the face of the sublime. I smiled back. His voice was just the timbre for this silent place and moment.
“Yes, it certainly does. It’s so quiet,” I responded.
He laughed. “Ah, yes, a rare moment on Takao. I’m so happy I came today.”
“Are you going to the top?”
“Yes.” He paused to contemplate the scene of which I was taking the photograph. â€œPlease enjoy your walk. And please take care in the snow.â€
And he was off, crunching up the trail, snow enveloping him in its veils.
Though I was out of shape the walking felt more like a distant decision between two lovers, an effortless sliding between covers. I took the stairs that I usually hated climbing so much as a simple spell of slides in a visual display. The white of the snow obscured all the familiar landmarks and muffled the usual hard edges between remnants of wilderness and human superabundance. For these few hours the edge of Tokyo was untamed and remote, a familiar world made lost and irrelevant.
As mountains go, Takao is but a pimple among rashes, and so reaching the top as I have so many times would normally elicit no fanfare, but today it was different. The trail left off on an asphalt road which came to a stop in the open stillness of the summit. The snow had discourage the crowds and now the open top lay white and pristine. A natural history museum, several restaurants, and some temporary booths set up for tomorrow’s New Year sunrise celebration all sat in silence today, waiting. I kicked through the shin deep snow cover to one of the covered sitting areas, donned one more jacket to keep in the warmth as I sat down, and prepared to eat lunch. Three other people huddled on the other benches, a Chinese couple heating up instant ramen over a cartridge stove and a lone man eating his lunch out of a thermos. I ripped open the curry rice package and, with bared fingers, shoveled the near-frozen food into my mouth. I took sips of hot milk tea from my thermos, but it was hard to hold the stainless steel cup in the frigid air. Most of the meal consisted of a series of stops and goes as I took bites of the curry then slipped my hands into my gloves to warm them up again.
In spite of this a light had gone on inside me and I kept turning around in my seat eager to look at the new things the snow was trying to show me. A bench on the windward side of the shelter had upheld a bank of snow that almost blocked the view north. The oak trees surrounding the clearing kept dumping sprays of powder snow that drifted across the open space, like smoke. The cold seemed to hold everything in a breathless trance, as if all the plants and wood and rocks were somehow surprised by this unusual display.
Eager to be off I packed away the garbage, drank a last sip of the tea, and set off through the untouched snow going south. A rope had been suspended between the trees at the head of the south trail going back to the bottom of the mountain, in an effort to control the hordes of people preparing to come tomorrow.”Danger! Be careful of the steep slope!” the sign read. I had to laugh. For someone who had walked the Takao trail twice at night because it was so easy to follow, the warning was a joke. Most people who came to Takao for New Years had never climbed alpine mountains or gone snowshoeing among the snowdrifts so the precaution made sense, but I had followed this trail more than twenty times and it certainly posed no risk, even with the low cut shoes I wore. Another set of tracks passed through the rope barrier and I followed them down the slope.
From here it was like dancing. My camera was out at every step, it seemed. Bamboograss bending under loads of snow. Cypress needles variegated with textures of snow trim. Slivers of grass slicing through the whiteness like green knives. Small icicles dripping from the biceps of beech trees. Intricate webs of snow-crusted twigs interlacing all around the trail, diverting the light like a single-hued kaleidoscope, all the while tinkling and sprinkling with a myriad of dry snowflakes. I pranced through this like a five year old boy, singing as I went along and not caring that I almost couldn’t feel my fingers as I snapped shot after shot after shot.
Halfway down the trail, after having been showered by a whole load of snow suddenly released from above, I came across a single, bright, lime green speck amidst all the white of the branches. Almost at eye level I discovered a moth’s crysalis, in which a relative of the giant American Cecropia moth slept. It’s green was like the promise of new leaves in spring and completely out of place amidst the snow. Without eyes, it seemed more like an aberrant leaf than a silk sleeping bag, but the pupa lay within, mixing primordial ingredients. I snapped pictures of this, too, holding my breath as long as I could to keep from disturbing the fragile life within.
I danced further down the mountain. What normally would take only about two hours to walk, took me over six hours as I skipped back and forth, kneeling in the snow, peering under dried out ferns, nosing into the crooks of tree trunks. And I came to the viewing point which looked out over Tokyo which, on moonlit nights, lets you gaze out over the entire vast brooch of Tokyo, its lights glistening as far as you can see. Today there was a white curtain in place, no horizon in evidence, not even the base of the mountain visible. The snow fell here as a single, slowly descending waterfall of white noise, blocking all recognition of earlier passages. I stood a long time at the lip of the cliff, brooding. The head of a foothill across the ravine kept slipping in and out of view, like woman behind a fan. I could almost hear the Snow Queen tittering.
Darkness bled the scenery of white and blue seeped into everything. Trees turned aquamarine, then indigo, holding very still as the night undressed them. It was like wandering through a backstage dressing room, frills and petticoats and white dresses falling away to reveal the black tights beneath. I passed a tiny shine protected by two stone fox deities, behind which a blonde-haired North American woman (North American because she was wearing L.L. Bean duck boots) laughed to herself as she built a life-sized snowman with long, lithe limbs. I passed another little old woman, puffing up the final steps, probably preparing for a New Year’s Eve night hike, taking a step ahead of the coming crowds.
I reached the bottom of the mountain and found a different town from the one I had ascended from earlier in the day. It was like something out of the north, old tiled roofs laden with snow, lanterns glowing under the ancient cedars, smoke from the restaurants billowing above the streets. Not like a tourist town at all. The air seemed to taste blue with evening. And the warm gold in the windows welcomed those out in the cold to step in for a cup of tea. I lingered here until the darkness swallowed all that was visible away from the lanterns. Then it was time to snap out of the spell and blink again under the fluorescent lights of the train station.
I stomped the snow off my shoes and pants and, dripping, made my way up to the waiting train. For a moment the mountains behind the town stood above the scene, indifferent. Then the train doors hissed shut and with a jerk I was carried away from what must surely have been a reverie. I held on to the trails of bitter air and light that clung to my jacket, all the way home. And I promised myself mountains for the year ahead.
I wasn’t quite sure where I was headed on Monday, but with a day off and bright, sunny weather, I threw together my day walk kit, slung the pack over my shoulders, and stepped outside. A stiff wind, smelling of blue ice and tropospheric cold, skirled into the apartment entrance area and tousled my high-strung emotions; I hadn’t slept well the night before and the noise of banging feet from the upstairs neighbor lingered upon my jangled nerves. It was like the after effects of a bout of coffee drinking, muscles tensed and eyes flicking left and right, catching in some dust mote or the twigs that hold a stray, winter leaf quivering. But luckily the street outside waited without a soul moving about, and so for a time, most of the way to the train station, it was just the sunlight and me, in silent companionship.
The evening before had been filled with too much bad news on the internet and errant reactions to yet more infuriating Bush spectaculars. The two and a half years of heightened anxiety, level orange, along with one statement and action after another of disrespect towards people in the rest of the world, drove up the acuteness of self disharmony, like an off-key counterpoint in a chorus. The outrage reared its head out of concern, but the anger burned like an over primed engine, with the waste lingering in my breath, bitter with poison. People might ask why I, living here in Japan, would bother with the vagaries of American politics, but it is the gradual chopping away at my tether that links to America that eats at me. I have ties there and more and more I can’t see myself as being welcomed to participate. America was home and now it is thinning away into a tasteless and mediocre gruel.
So I was heading toward the mountains off-balance, wound up enough to possibly snarl at a pedestrian or two and knowing that my eyes would pull the shutters over any proper seeing of the mountains. Nerves seemed to fight a war all their own.
But there I was on the train, with no real plan but that the speed take me out of the city, if just for a while. The ticket amounted to the end of the line, which happened to be Mt. Takao Trailhead. Mt. Takao is this knob on the edge of the Chichibu range, just west of Tokyo. It is the place you go when you haven’t the time to take the trains further into the countryside and where it seems all residents of Tokyo end up together, to go conveyor belting around the standard loop trail. I was a little late, though, so the trains no longer carried the morning walkers, and I could sit stewing alone in the overheated car, eyes resting on the horizon, willing the city sprawl to come to a quick end.
So many people came swarming up the Takao-san-guchi station stairs I had to step to the side and wait their passing. I proceeded out of the station and up past the trinket shops and the big, giant-cedars-surrounded temple, and past the cable car that the majority of the weekend walkers take. Putting my head down to avoid meeting the eyes of the hordes of returning walkers and thereby having to initiate the tradition of saying hello to every passer-by, I stepped onto the trail and headed up.
At first it was a hard clamber up a dusty slope, the autumn leaves now all pulverized to potpourri by the passing of thousands of boots. A thin film of dust covered the tree trunks and the leaves of the bushes at the edge of the trail, evidence of the dry winter. Hikers trudged by, most of them spent from the climb and many of them stumbling half-heartedly down the inclines. I kept my face down, not meeting their eyes, depending on the ruse that I am a foreigner and therefore don’t understand the customs and can therefore be forgiven. But the clouds of discontent continued to whirl about inside me. I attempted to peer into the trees and between the trunks out at the view of the mountains beyond, but try as I might I saw no beauty. I fingered my digital camera at my waist, scouting for photographs, but the glint on the leaves and the dull colors of the vegetation registered only as hard light in my mind. Ideas failed to flower.
A hiker in wool breeches, and a white down jacket in his right hand, showing off as he puffed along in just a white cotton t-shirt, his shreds of white breath floating past my head, dropped behind as I kept up my small, steady steps. The moment I passed him he renewed his efforts and took the rocks and footholds in long, reaching strides that soon had him wheezing for air. But he wouldn’t let up, so intent was he to prove how macho he was. I kept my steady pace for a while, hoping that eventually he would just give up, but he dogged my heels right up to the first lookout that faced Mt. Fuji, which unfortunately was lost in the afternoon haze today. I turned off the trail and took a seat on an exposed root, where I turned to watch the follower wheeze on up the trail, free to find another target.
A comfortable heat worked inside my belly. From down slope a katabatic wind rushed through the trees and chilled the sweat on my back. In response I sat facing the sunlight, letting the warm rays bathe my face and chest and folded legs. From my pack I pulled out a small thermos filled with milk tea and poured myself a small steaming cup, sipping it while gazing at the bosque at the foot of the slope. A Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos) ratcheted up along the dead branches of an old beech tree, occasionally tapping at the bark, digging for beetle larvae. The furtive chipping away at the wood settled my nerves and I began to breathe in sync with my mind, the pump slowing down, easing the pressure, a slow equilibrium between what I was looking at and the images issuing from my imagination.
The walk went well after I finished eating two rice balls. Slowing down, I took the climbs philosophically, probing ahead for each new step and evaluating how my muscles reacted, gauging the level of my fatigue. To my surprise I didn’t tire, and even the last, long bout of stairs, which stretched up ahead like the stairway to heaven, I only needed to pause once or twice. The crown of the mountain lay in filtered sunlight, the afternoon haze catching the last rays and distributing warmth throughout the open space.
In typical Japanese fashion the summit included the obligatory restaurant and trinket shop, from which the cable car riders trotted bearing their paper plates of hotdogs and grilled rice cake sticks. I took a seat on a bench and watched a hiker bend over his camp stove and cook a pot of ramen noodles. He sat with chopsticks poised and slurped up the noodles with a loud grunt of relish. On the opposite side of the bench a family of five waddled across the gravel in their ankle length down coats. The father held a chihuahua on a thin leash and it scuttled after him as he strode up to the restaurant. As he ordered some green tea, the chihuahua squatted at his heels and promptly crapped on the gravel. No one in the family noticed the mess and I sat mute as other visitors passed the spot, their hiking shoes, sneakers, and cross trainers just missing stepping into the steaming pile. I was just about to open my mouth to inform the family when a woman wearing what must have been new sneakers, so white and bright they were, stepped slap dash clean upon the mess. As her stride took her past the store counter, so did her sneakers bear away the point of contention. The mountain had exacted its toll upon the unsuspecting adventurers.
The way back down followed a less frequented trail into a ravine along which a stream flowed. It was the catchment area for the waters of the surrounding hills, so as I descended more and more rivulets joined the stream until it grew into a small, rushing river. The trail led straight through the river for a while, requiring some balancing on moss covered stones, until it stepped away from the banks and skirted the water all the way down the mountain. Here the afternoon sun did not reach and the walk sank into a cool gloom, evening settling faster here, with trees hanging heavy over my head. Calories burned beneath my jacket, flickering like a flame.
Near the end of the trail a series of tiny shrines appeared, embedded in the rock walls lining the trail. Within the shrines huddled tiny figures of boddhisatvas, the corners decorated with chrysanthemums and camelias recently picked and placed in vases. In front of each of the figurines stood lighted candles, their golden light illuminating the dark interiors of the shrines, and the constellation of flickering candlelight issuing from shrines here and there dotting the way down the growing shadows of the trail, like unmoving fireflies. Passing through this silent gauntlet of silence and light a deep peace overcame me and I took several deep breaths as I passed through.
I paused at one shrine and peered inside. The figure of the Buddha looked back at me. And it hit me why I needed to get out of the house and just take a walk, no matter where it led me; even if just for a moment, I needed to commune with something bigger than myself. I needed a sense of magic. A reminder that the importance of the mystery can still be found in a simple walk, or that the joy of just breathing and working my legs could be so much more profound and indispensable than all the earnestness of the news.
The train was waiting at the end of the trail, a metal box creaking in the oncoming evening. I sat down, closed my eyes as the burning of movement buried itself inside my closed eyes, and let the train rock me back to the city.
The sunlight is delivering peace this afternoon, alighting upon the window pane and and sifting through to the walls, where the white glare heats the chill like a silent furnace. Without a cloud in the sky, it seems as if all plants are turning toward the sun’s appropriation, reveling in the radiation, and offering their yearning in return. I can feel their expectation within myself, the rounding of the corner in the year, when the longest nights have slowly grazed past and the season begins to make its way uphill toward the pass, where renewal waits. It is almost expressible, this impatience for sunlight and the cry of mornings with windows thrown wide open.
Upon my window sill sit two sand dollars, three rounded stones picked from river beds, a small carved stone Boddhisatva, and a barrel cactus, tilted in its axis, toward the light. These items have traveled with me through the years and over uncertain distances, two long dead, three polished by time and elements, one brought alive by human intervention, and one still growing as it waits for water. They seem to resist time, but with the daily rolling of the great star across the window pane, they, too, seem to make an incremental passage from day to day. When I look at them I am reminded of the simple acuity of existence, when each is perceived in its whole, distinctly, uniquely itself.
The neighborhood has taken upon itself to hush up today, almost as if it were paying respect to the sun. All things hold still, resisting even breathing. When the wind blows, it restrains itself to quaking among remaining leaves, so gentle that their tenuous holds upon the mostly bare branches might still allow them yet a few more days as leaves, before they drop off and disintegrate into the soil. The sadness of autumn has passed, however, and midwinter stirs the pot. The awakening of blood only needs enough seasoning of sunlight before the sauce begins to bubble. It is only a matter of time before the first thaw.
For the past three days, just as Beth expressed in her New Year’s Day post, I have been filled with a mingled deep calm and radiating joy that seemed to flow in when I opened the living room window on the morning of the 1st. A shock of cold air greeted my nose, but there was also a dalliance of sunlight that glinted off everything, but most especially from the branches of the magnolia tree where lately the white-eyes gather in their frenetic rest stops. I stepped out into the garden, with its dried leaves and clenched soil, and just stood there breathing deeply for about five minutes. Then I stepped back inside and swept about the apartment, throwing open all the windows, letting the morning breeze in, with its bite, and busying myself with dusting the corners. When all was done I settled by the north window in my bedroom and sat still.
It was something new, because just days before, after creating three days of window rattling racket, the neighbor right outside had demolished his work shed and moved out of the house. For the first time in three years the north was quiet, without a soul moving in the small garden that never received full sunlight. I read a bit of Thich Nhat Hahn’s book, “Anger”, which makes you stop often to ponder and to let things sink in. A jungle crow barked from a distant rooftop, its voice echoing through the morning. I took to peering at everything there, in the runners of the window sill, in the crannies of the lattice panel I had put over the window to block some of the sudden openness to prying eyes, in the sky, and just in my room. The sky was filled with hazy cumulonimbus clouds without definite form, glowing pink from the warming sun. Dozens of star-shaped spider webs dotted the lattice panel, hiding the eggcases beneath. A sweet- bitter smell of decaying leaves wafted in through from the living room, stirring up pangs of hunger. My breath dispelled before my face in shreds of white tissue, disappearing into thin air. Dew clung to the window pane like a silver constellation in reverse, the slate in white instead of black. A male gnat, with feathered antennae, crouched in the nook of the lattice wood, pinched close to the corner, hiding, waiting for the hand of winter to pass. And my tea and buttered toast smoked with warmth, fingering the moment as I sipped and chewed, simple sustenance. I closed my eyes for a moment and just let the stillness wash through, feeling the cleanliness of a hungry stomach and a mind cleared of noise. Here I am, I thought. Here I am.
This slow burning away of anticipation and anxiety, of just smiling without rancor or expectation, is exactly how I wanted this new year to begin. And how this greeting of myself, as the mirror swivels, would allow me to nod and remember what last year wrought from my heart. It is not anger or fists that I want or even need. It is this calm acceptance. Somewhere in the great mechanism a gear has shifted. And I would walk from such a dawn into the open, to find a tree somewhere and sit, waiting. To not disturb the surface with a flurry of excuses, no hand-tossed crumbs of complaint or outrage. Sit still, waiting. And let the trees teach me a thing or two about peace.