On This Mountain
“Deed, now you listen,” Granny warned, “You’d break your neck and ain’t nobody could find you up ‘ere.”
But at nine years old, after surviving all manner of previously predicted calamity, curiosity and youthful confidence compelled me to climb the rocky peak looming over our farm, where arrow deer-paths threaded a forest that smoldered from lightning strikes and came alive with violent torrents. Shot through with quartzite, it sparkled in sunlight, and yet, so eminent was Dunkard Ridge that it shortened our days with a creeping shadow, until night fell and the lonesome shrieks and ululations of prowling nocturnal beasts joined the ceaseless chanting whip-poor-wills.
No one lives on the mountain. At one end of its base, about a mile from our house, the hard road turns into a rutted logging spur that winds up the lower tree-line in a series of switchbacks, ending at a wall of stone. At the other end, the mountain shears to form a cliff-topped gap, beyond which live Haggertys, Thorns, and other members of our congregation. Our dirt drive meanders along Macks Run, except where the bottom forty softens to marsh and the road carves across the flanks of a sun-splashed hill. Uncle Dale lives up there, with his wife and sons, but the rest is entirely forested. We hunt the hills, cut firewood on them, forage them, and ride flexible flyers down their slate-strewn sides. They sustain us, and they lack mystery, but when you stand atop any of them, Dunkard Ridge rises sharply in the west, lording over the narrow sky like a giant plunging wave poised to drown the haphazard houses, sheds, and barns of our hardscrabble farm.
On this Sunday—a national holiday that doubles as my father’s birthday—my immediate family prepared for a visit from these aunts and uncles. With Mom and Granny rolling out pie crusts, Dad moving tables, and legless Pap snoring in his threadbare chair, I schemed to sneak across the creek and climb into the clouds torn to tufts by wind and sharp rocks. After my secret expedition, relatives would compliment covered dishes and lean back in aluminum lawn chairs to brag about getting fat, trade farm tips, and learn baby names—until the night culminated with Dad launching bottle-rockets out of our yard, toward Dunkard Ridge, while I guarded my secret.
After grabbing my fishing pole and tackle from behind the wood bin, I climbed over the barbed fence beyond the willow and cut across the creek. Behind the fat trunk of an old bent sycamore, I ditched the gear. Then I ran, arms pumping, across the marshy floodplain fringed with reeds—through the sweet flag, milkweed, and mallow—and after standing a moment beneath the steep mountain, I snuck undetected onto the lowest slope. I fought nettles and grappled scrub pine against thin, yielding soil—scrambling toward the obscured summit—and each time I caught a switchback, I paused to catch my breath and look back upon our farm.
Absent the reverb of the ridge, the axe my father swung was reduced to a weightless flash, the crack of split wood deadened to a thud, and as he stacked fuel for tonight’s bonfire, I wondered should I descend. Instead, I resolved to clamber up, though my thighs burned, sweat dripped down my brow, and my lungs ached. A thousand feet above our farm—away from the timber, the orchards, and constant chores—panting where no one had breathed in fifty years, I pushed past the moldering exposed roots of trees torn loose from the soil, until I came to a leveled stretch of large boulders—sheared from the peak aeons ago—sunk into the damp earth around an earthen mound.
Enthralled, I tripped the root of a fallen yew and sprawled into moss; and as I stood to brush myself, I noticed a trickle of water coming from a rub of clay beyond the next boulder and, following it, found a shallow spring where I cleaned scratched arms and soothed thirst. Catching my reflection in the pool of the spring, I wondered if by disobeying my family I had sinned against the forest, and whether, as a punishment, I would fall into a rocky chasm, or worse, be bitten by a rattlesnake.
Still, I did not stop. I hiked over fern and lichen-softened stone, into the arched beech-n-maple—so unlike the timbered mountains with their shorn tops. The wildwood so engulfed me that I inevitably imagined how above this forested face would emerge a pristine crest crafted not by the hammer of the carpenter; nor the chainsaw of the woodsman; but by the inscrutable gnaw of time, which when confined to the only ideal we truly possess: the instant—is beatific.
And when I reached the narrow spine of this reclining behemoth—four thousand feet above distant seas I’d never seen—I climbed upon a peak of immense flat stones stacked one upon another and broken only by the occasional flag spruce bent from constant wind, so that traversing these heights required hopping from stone to stone.
Careful of crevasses and jutting roots, I surveyed the adjoining valley. The mountain here was gently sloped—declining into a hilly vale—though beyond this rose Knobley Mountain, and behind it, the massive Allegheny Front, thrust violently from the earth. Knobley’s stoney slopes birthed a tree-lined trickle that eventually wound around the northern side and back to our hollow; the same clear creek—Macks Run—which I crossed before climbing.
I wiped the sweat around on my face with a soaked shirttail and stood panting, my lips salty, skin glistening, watching the shadows of small clouds move across the valley, until my breath stopped at the sound of an animal rustling through blooming rhododendron. As the creature neared, I imagined my family finding me devoured upon the altar of these cliffs—but came the dark blue of a handkerchief and the face of a lithe redhead looking cautiously down at her path, her cheeks pink with exertion, her faded jeans covered in burrs, her basket filled with berries.
Coming up to my right, to the bottom edge of the cliff, she shuddered at my silhouette against the sky, but she made out my features—a boy her age with his jaw agape—she climbed onto the capstone, stepped into sunlight, and smiled.
“Would you like some blackberries?”
Touching my shoulder to steady her step, she set her basket down and untied her hair.
“Here, wipe your face first. You’re sweating something awful!”
Liberated, her hair coiled across her freckled shoulders like the spiraling skin of a peeled orange pippin. I daubed her spangled handkerchief against my forehead.
“It’s already wet,” I said, “but thanks.”
She smiled with green eyes glinting, and our surroundings, from the moonscape cliffs beneath our feet to the panorama of distant mountains, receded.
“I live down the mountain,” I offered, accepting a handful of her berries.
“I figured you don’t live under these rocks. You come from those little houses? I been seeing ‘em down there.”
“Yep,” I said, dribbling berry juice onto my t-shirt and wondering what kind of sign she implied. After all, she didn’t attend my school, reunions, or church.
“We’re having revival at Knobley Church next month. You and yours should come.”
“Well, that sure is kind of you.”
I turned on the cliffs to point out our farm, but a big blue fly landed on my forearm and as I swatted, I stepped back from the edge, to which she clapped her hands and hollered, “Be careful!”
“Here’s your handkerchief back. I almost lost it.”
“I’m just glad you didn’t fall.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Pops is the new undertaker down at Valley Funeral and yes, we are looking for a church. My name is Lily. Do you go to New Creek School?”
“I’m going into sixth grade.”
“I’ll see you in first period, first day.”
“Probably see you on the bus. I’m Ted. Everyone calls me Tater.”
As I extended a hand, red hair blew across her face; and when she took my hand, a shadow stepped out of her body. The girl—Lily—hopped off the capstone and went tromping down the gentler side of the mountain, but her shadow—having the complexion of a photographic negative—stood naked, devouring sunlight—reeking of turned loam and spent matches.
The shadow, a living smudge, leapt recklessly off the capstone and streaked down my side of Dunkard Ridge, leaving a scent in the air as she went. I scrambled after, dodging and careening over fallen logs, gasping as I slid down mud banks, rushing through crackling branches, with my thighs numb from sprinting down slope, until finally, as the inclined leveled, I hurtled into the reedy meadow where grasshoppers scattered, and caught her as she dashed madly into Macks Run and we slogged across the shallow stream, climbed over the barbed-wire fence, and collapsed on the other side, embracing.
When I regained my breath, a big blue fly buzzed around my head and the smell of smoke hung in the air, but I did not find a specter in my arms. I lay alone on my back beneath a willow whose leaves fed caterpillars crawling from their silken tents. My father sauntered down the yard towards me, so I sat up, wiped the sweat from my forehead, and—wet to the knees with creek water— I knocked some of the grit and dirt from my pants. Dad’d brown hair lay over his ears and sideburns, and while he had not dressed up for his birthday party— he wore a white t-shirt and jeans—when he pulled me up by my shoulders, the smell of cheap aftershave obliterated any sign of the girl.
“Y’all there, Tater?”
“I see a green and yellow light,” I said, wobbly as a fawn.
“You've been knocked silly, boy. I looked out the window and you were a’laying on the ground. Get up here in the house and let mom have a look at you."
When I tried describing the girl I'd seen, it sounded fantastic.
“She was the most beautiful girl in the whole entire world, but when I went to touch her, this other girl came out like a ghost!” I exclaimed.
“She was just a dream,” Dad replied, “like if you were sleeping in your bed. Now, let's get you where your mother can look at you and get those muddy clothes changed. We’ll be lighting the grill here in about an hour or so,” Dad said.
I didn't say any more, nor did I repeat the tale to my mother, for at ten years old I humored my parents in the same way I mouthed hymns or echoed amens. But, after Mom put the mercurochrome away and set out a change of clothes, she kissed me on the forehead and asked, “So, little man, what were you doing out there?”
“You’re not supposed to get in the water with them.”
“I know, Mom, but—"
“But nothing! A boy who won’t wait for the fish to bite is a boy gonna run off after the first girl that catches his eye. Just mind you don’t get in trouble. Wet pants is one thing. A pregnant girl is another thing entirely.”
“I said my piece. Now calm down and get changed before your kin gets here.”
In dry clothes, I sat on a wooden chair on our back porch, staring up at Dunkard Ridge. I would retrieve my fishing gear tomorrow morning, as light played off the ridge, while over the mountain, Lily would see the ridge in shadow—the perfect compliment to a boy of ten.
Camp lore said the second Boy Scout passing a coiled snake would be the one bitten. The first Scout’s footfalls would alert the lethargic creature, the next Scout’s provoke a strike.
Rick and I were hiking on our own, angling up a pine-shaded trail a mile or two behind our Troop’s Serra Nevada campsite. This was a Sunday afternoon over summer vacation with no woodland talks scheduled, no organized activities. We were simply out for a walk. Then Rick spun, planted both hands against my chest and shoved me backwards.
The snake was a three-foot timber rattler, invisible to me until it uncoiled and swept downhill across our path. We were dressed in hiking shorts and low-cut boots. My calf would have passed inches from of the snake’s loose, deadfall-colored coils.
I was 14 that year, Rick 15; I was a little taller; he was a little stronger. We stood in suspended time a moment, watching the snake disappear into the dark beneath a boulder. Then we scrambled after it.
“Had it rattled?”
“It rattled when Rick jammed a dead tree limb under the boulder.”
“What did it sound like?
“Dry peas shaken in a jar.”
“Were you scared?”
“Rick and I were two of the oldest boys in our Troop, volunteer conservators of California’s highest mountains. We’d cleared undergrowth five yards back all around our Troop’s tent walls; we'd dug fire pits and circled them with stones, insurance against any whipping flame. We’d laid a stone dam across Strawberry Creek, so trout could bask instead of fighting white water currents…”
“And the snake?”
“We riled each other over it, shouting from one side of the boulder to the other, Rick levering, me brandishing a flat rock. We play-acted. We pretended it would sweep downhill after dark and attack a camp full of eleven year-olds.”
“Melodrama. Rick levered the boulder up six inches and the snake broke past me for the stream. I crushed its head. Spasmodically, over and over it rolled, over and over, ending white belly up while we stood staring. Then Rick cut its rattles off and we walked back to camp to prove what we’d done.”
“Want to say what you’d done?”
Through the Doctor’s office windows, between louvers, I saw the light outside as a dusty orange, the color of a blood moon or solar eclipse. I didn’t look at her.
“A snake is God’s own simple animal. They can’t strike racing away from you. I killed something easy to kill.”
“You mention God…”
“Its rattle had four distinct pieces, and a button where a fifth had begun to grow.”
“Okay. Looking back from here, here today, what do you see?”
“I see Rick and me upsetting the simple balance of the wilderness. I see us injecting a human choice onto a mountainside that didn’t need it. It’s easy to kill.”
“Are you altering our subject, Mr. Baden?”
“Same subject. Same summer. There were girls camped across the lake. After dark that night, after taps, Rick and I snuck away from the Troop tents. We unchained a canoe and paddled over to meet them at a soda joint. We spent fifty cents on a jukebox and danced. I bragged to one girl, a thin, older girl about killing the snake. I claimed the rattles were in our canoe, down at the docks. If she wanted, she could walk back with me and handle them. She could hear what they sounded like. She wasn’t talkative; she was smoky blond and kind of strangely resigned to me, accepting whatever I said.”
“What did you say?”
“I told here there were no rattles in the canoe, and the lake was too cold to swim. We kissed. She let me touch her. This is where the nightmare starts.”
“I dream—I keep dreaming—that a snake rears knee-high out of timber colored coils. There’s no girl. Rick has vanished, the rattles lost long since. The snake’s body is thick as my forearm, its brown, triangular head in easy striking distance. I wake up frightened, shaking, knowing I’m poisoned.”
“So the rattler bites you?”
“No. And there's no sound. I wake before the snake's fangs ever touch skin, before its venom ever hits blood. I just wake up shaking, knowing I’m poisoned.”
Screw my doctor.
"I beg to differ," I told Brian, except that I didn't, because what was the point? He was taking me on this trip with an explicit and very obvious reason. A proposal. This wasn't exposure therapy. This was a romantic gesture.
Screw romantic gestures.
Brian and I had history. Two years of it. And six weeks of dating before that, if it counts. "Meeting through an online dating website does not a forever make," my mother told me when, in my honeymoon phase glee, called to tell her that I finally had a boyfriend.
Screw my mom too. Except she was right. At least in my case. Still, screw her. Screw her for being right. Screw her for planting that seed of doubt that's now grown into a weeping willow that I can hide inside and feel safe in.
And then this mountain business.
Brian pulled our backpacks out of the back seats of his SUV, which he called his truck even though it wasn't, and gave me one. It was lighter than his, almost for sure, but it was heavy enough to reset the disaster reel in my mind. Falling down backwards down the trail, falling sideways off the train and into a chasm, slipping and breaking a leg or an arm or a rib or my head, being attacked by a wild boar or a black bear or a snake or---
I followed him towards the base of the trail. I watched his boots thunk down and tried to match his pace. I had always been a devout shoe-watcher. My mom always told me to put my chin up, to be proud, to let others stare at my skin if they had to but to know that I was beautiful. I didn't know how to explain her that looking down had nothing to do with any of that. Nobody knew where to place me, so everyone put me in a comfortable box and didn't see me as a thug, because I wasn't big or a man or dark enough to be a thug. I knew thugs, real ones and ones who just looked it, and they didn't think I belonged to them either. Mom thought I belonged everywhere. That I was some free-spirited sprite like her, able to jump through environments and homes and societies like an acrobat. Instead, I put my head down and found things that were interesting and similar everywhere. It was easier to move around when I knew that no matter where we went, I'd have shoes to look at. Almost everyone wore shoes. The ones who didn't, I knew, were even more on the outside than I was.
Brian's shoes were sturdy yellow Timberlands. I'll say this for him - they were broken in, not shiny and new. He really was a hiker. He said he was many other things that he wasn't (tender, intelligent, original) but this one thing was true. He loved the mountains. I used to love that about him.
On the trail, Brian made me go in front of him and kept up a running commentary, so I could never forget where we were.
"Careful of that rock, babe. There's a tree branch coming up on your left. We're going to curve here, so don't look down to the left, okay? It's not that far but I know it freaks you out so just don't look. There you go. Good girl."
Idiot. I wasn't afraid of heights. I lived in cities all my life. I was afraid of nature. Of this mountain we were on. Of what would happen at its summit.
It was beautiful, I was big enough to admit that, even with my sulky silence. The air smelled different, tasted like cold water when I breathed it in. The trail itself was nothing special, but the views of other mountains was more impressive than the view I was used to: a bunch of identical high rises in what was called, in every city I'd been to, the ghetto.
I was still scared of the mountains. Man made disasters I could understand. I grew up seeing people get into fights that left them bloody. I knew gunshots when I heard them. Sirens were a constant, and the sound of pounding meat as cops beat up on other people was more familiar than any tree. I had no idea what trees were around us. I didn't know more than a handful of names for tree: birches, furs, weeping willows, regular willows. Apple trees. I knew there were more, but it's not necessary knowledge for a city-dweller.
An hour in, when Brian told me we were halfway there, I stopped. He bumped into me. We fell. I screamed, even though we were nowhere near an edge. We were firmly in between large rocky bits, on a trail that made a little valley between them. There was dirt in my mouth and Brian was cursing, and he got up and tried to help me, but I only turned over off my stomach and sat there, spitting out dirt and taking swigs from my water bottle and spitting them out too.
"You're wasting our water," Brian said.
"I thought you said we had enough for four treks like this," I told him with a thick tongue, still trying to expel the feeling of dirt from my mouth.
"That still doesn't mean you should be wasting any. What if something happened?"
"You said nothing could happen."
He shut up, knowing it was better not to argue with me when I was like this. I would win. My logic was as curving and twisted as a Möbius strip. Those I knew about. I was one of the ones who paid attention at school. Every school I went to, the math or science teacher (sometimes both) did the Möbius strip trick for us, trying to show us how cool it was, how it defied logic or didn't or something. Once it was an art teacher who showed us how to make one.
Brian wouldn't sit. He stayed standing, bouncing on his toes. Everything was going wrong, as far as he was concerned. I wasn't having fun. It was getting colder than he'd meant it to get. And we weren't moving, which meant he wouldn't be able to time his proposal with the pre-sunset colors.
"I want to go back down," I said. He kicked a pebble around with his foot.
"After all this way?"
"We're only halfway. You said."
He didn't say anything. A gust of wind blew through our clothes and hair. It smelled delicious. I wanted to grab it in handfuls and put it in my pocket and breathe it in every time I had to pass the garbage room and the hallway of my apartment building which smelled like piss.
"I'm going to say no, Brian," I finally said.
"Then why did--"
"I thought the mountain might change your mind."
I snorted. "And you say you're barely Indian."
He was a half blood like me. No one knew where to place him either. It had been part of what drew us together originally. There was a lot of ground to cover when it came to identity. We had an endless supply of conversational material. Not a day passed when we wouldn't call or text each other with the latest slur, awkward question, or odd look directed at us.
"Yeah, well." He was quiet, a shoe-watcher, looking down at his Timberlands and moving them around, back and forth, a tiny dance of discomfort.
"I still love you," I said.
"I just don't know how much yet. I don't know if it's a forever love."
"I do," he said.
"I know you do."
"Okay, come on, get up," he said, helping me to my feet.
We began walking down, him in front this time. Either he didn't want to look at me or he trusted me to walk well enough on my own now. Maybe both. I followed him, keeping an eye on where he placed his feet, and tried to put mine in the same spots he did. His stride was wider than mine. I had to stretch to match it sometimes. I was a game. I was having more fun now. I pointed out birds I'd never seen before, and the shapes I saw in the shadows of trees. Brian answered when I spoke, and I could hear a smile in his voice. Maybe even relief. Maybe I just wanted that part.
We unloaded our backpacks into the backseat of the truck that wasn't and got into the front. I reached over to kiss him, and he kissed me back. I could feel the lump of a box in the pocket of his flannel shirt when he leaned against me. I put my hand on it.
"Keep it," I whispered in his ear. "Let's wait and see."
He drew away and started the car. "Maybe next time," he said as he drove us out of the parking lot, which felt more familiar to me than the mountain dust clinging to my clothes and hair. "Maybe we'll make it to the top, next time."