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Spring 2004 Issue
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The Way It Was…
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by Stephanie Stucker

I want to write about what it was like to push my body two miles above the green valley where we camped. The morning was thick with mist and chill when we collapsed our tents and, one by one, coaxed our packs onto our shoulders. I want to tell you about how I flexed my legs slowly and then urged muscle to repeat the old process of gradual ascent. That morning, time seemed to bed itself into our slow, deep breaths.

I remember the grey rocks I let my eyes slide over and the dull green lichen growing on their surfaces. My pulse was a slow pound inside my chest and head, a heavy weight in my heels and the palms of my hands. Like a thin second skin, the sweat running down my neck and forehead rippled and cooled when a slight breeze slid down upon us from the summit.

My thumbs were hooked under the sternum-strap of my pack, my fingers became interlaced as if in prayer. The pack on my back rose almost a foot above my head and swayed gently back and forth with every step and heave I made below. As slow and as steady as the fabled tortoise, I carried the both of us up the steep, treeless slope.

Without so much as a peek at the summit somewhere above, hidden for a moment behind a gauzy cloud cover, I was able to accept the notion of walking forever. On the occasion when I found the need to glance ahead, I saw the green and red packs of my companions fall forward in a steady line, snaking their way up the slope along some invisible, winding route. The backs of their legs first bent and then straightened as each inch of rock and moss was passed. Their shins were wrapped in blue and black gaiters against the mischievous, thorny bushes that grew at our ankles.

The night before we had sat in our tents, flashlights clamped between teeth, rain smattering the tents over our heads, and we had studied our route. We knew the way by heart; we knew that we had to make the ascent early to avoid lightening storms, and had to push on an extra ten miles to make it to our food re-ration location on time.

Sustained by a familiar breakfast of cheesy hash browns, I was soon able to see our summit – a ridge crusted with black, sharp-edged rocks and bursts of tiny blue flowers. One by one, we planted both feet onto that rock outcropping. I remember pushing my hand against my knee for the final bit of leverage that would thrust my body onto the ridge, and beyond the edge of giving up.

Forgetting the deep valley that tumbled away behind out backs, we convened as a group behind a monumental slab of rock that blocked the jubilant wind. Possessing a smile that sang of silent joy, I absorbed the view as tears gathered at the corners of my eyes, and watched the white flashes of smiles grow across the browned, dirty faces of my companions. I shed my pack and embraced the wind rushing in from the south.

Opening my eyes wide to the view surrounding me, I was humbled by the sight of soft green giants of earth piled in every direction and sleeping in the sharp sunlight. They seemed not to notice or mind the hundreds of cloud shadows that played across their smooth backs. To our north, mountains were tan and bald on top, with a crescent of dark, piney forests skirting their lower slopes; to our south a blue river laced on for miles through a valley hugged by trees. Under our feet ran the Continental Divide, a line from which water runs to the Pacific on the western side and the Atlantic on the eastern side. As tradition calls for, we spit down each side of the divide, hoping to feel even more joined with the forces of nature than we were in that moment.

All too soon, I eased my silent passenger onto my back and walked away from the ridge, down a gently descending fold that would lead us to a deep gash of a valley. Among my few thoughts and occasional pauses to pivot and glance behind me, I realized that I would have been content to have lived forever on that summit, so beside myself was I for being a part of something so timeless.

In that one morning, I learned more than I will ever learn in four years in a classroom. On that morning I had a glimpse of what it might feel like to believe in God, to feel connected to all living things around me. As the distance grew between my body and that ridge, I felt a slow releasing of the way it felt to stand up there. Somehow I knew that the way I felt on that ridge was no more owned by the ridge that it was by the wind, the view, or even by me. The existence of this power appeared unexpectedly before me, somewhat like that action of a river wearing through a crack in a dam and the thinnest rivulet finding a way through. For that instant, up there in the sun and air of the Absaroka mountains, I felt the wetness of that rivulet soak into my dry self, and I was no one.

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