Look down. Do not look for the top. Count breaths. Slow steps, steady progress. Shift hands at the landing, right to left. Ignore the crowds. Ignore everything else except the feel of the weight of the bag, balanced, placing a lovely strain on the lats and pecs and the forearm muscles. Up one step, the next, never stop until the long corridor to the next terminal opens up like a well-lit cavern.
I am climbing stairs at Denver International Airport, at 5200 feet of altitude, Santa Fe and 7300 feet is coming this afternoon, but I want to walk off the flight from the Midwest, the weight of the previous day, the dread and surprise and sadness. I want to feel the vein in my temple throb. I want to gulp air. I want my muscles to pulse with blood.
Two days later, south of Santa Fe, in Pecos, a cool wind is blowing steadily from the west. It feels wonderful. The slight ridge on which the old Pueblo and church had been built bears me as well, walking the trail around the ruins under an immense sky. I have not felt such peace in months … longer, much longer. The sun is hot on my face.
Two more days, now at a higher elevation, climbing under pines, talking to my friend of 52 years — every time the trail curves along an edge and the valley opens up to our sight, I can see that we are leaving the old world below.
The traverse. Lake Peak across the ridge line.
We crossover to the range above timberline; a glimpse of black wedges riding the thermal over the top. We stop for water and apple and nuts at Deception Peak at 12,200 feet. All I want to do is turn, turn and look at the miles unfurling into haze and at the clouds building in the west. A delicate, complicated traverse comes in the final quarter mile and 200 feet of altitude we must climb. Stitching ourselves carefully along ledges, slipping down faces, scrambling up, always mindful of the loosened rock, the next hold, the next footfall, we pass lavender columbine and yellow hawksbeard and dead pines, bleached into sculpture. On top of Lake Peak, two ravens, the black wedges, glide before us over a blue void.
We meet another man at the top who speaks in broken English, and when he tells us that he is visiting his sister and lives in Poland, Tony begins speaking to him in fluent Polish; Anton’s face glows as if he has unearthed a gold coin.
Thunderstorms are common in July in New Mexico. The clouds are massing – cumulus nimbus, precursors of thunderheads. I do not want to leave, but we must. It is death itself to remain at such a pinnacle when lightning arrives. All of the metal we wear, belt buckles, stays on our boots, a money clip, all become a beacon for a strike.
Long ago and 1000 miles to the north, our grad class struggled to the summit of Granite Peak, and one deep valley away lightning speared cliffs and mountains. I remember the hair on my arms and neck standing in the static electricity that wrapped around us.
Someday, again, maybe, but not this day. We have dinner tonight with Tony’s family. There is beer to drink and fresh Alaskan salmon to eat. There is so much yet to do, and those Anvil clouds are closer than ever, and that I cannot forget.