bites of life

small bites

From the Mountaintop

The hike was beautiful; acres of evergreens opening to brindled rock outcroppings, bluebird skies, and a horizon lined with soft grey thunderclouds and sharp angled saw-tooth mountains. I was seven and I hated it so much.

I strained to keep up with my adolescent brother as he bounded ahead. I counted switchbacks, lost track, decided we must be almost there. I started counting again, but gave up, discouraged. We still had miles to go. I resigned myself to the pain in my legs, the boredom, the relentless feeling of being inadequate as my family waited around each identical bend. Eventually, mercifully, the forest began to thin and looking up revealed more sky than trees. I recognized a pseudo-summit before the final push up a slippery shale field to a cabin at the top of the world, sitting over a sheer cliff falling into a riot of wilderness and a towering mountain range in the distance. A boulder offered the perfect seat to sit and look back at the valley behind us. Here, we stopped for peanut butter-honey sandwiches and red licorice. This respite of fast-digesting sugar and spongy supermarket bread crusted with crystallized honey fortified me to make it up the mountain. It was the only part of the journey I enjoyed.

Twenty years later, I’m overlooking the city of Montreal. The trail up this peak is more stairs than switchbacks. I no longer beleaguer every step. I enjoy the soft burn of my legs, the effort it takes to carry my body up the mountain face. My bag is filled with smoked meats, sharp cheeses, a baguette, and even a tiny bottle of wine. I greedily unwrap a rainbow of carefully selected macaroons as my reward at the summit. I lay in the sunshine of the mountaintop park, bees playing around the oozing honeycomb on my makeshift butcher paper place mat, and gaze sleepily up at the summer sky as I snack before making my way down through the dreamy woods hidden inside this foreign city.

Montreal picnic

Montreal picnic

A week passes, and I stand at the highest point in Massachusetts. From there, I can see the green rolling hills of five states. The wind is chilly, making me thankful for the sweatshirt tied around my waist, despite the sweat I felt ringing my hips the entire climb. This trail jumps straight up the mountain, foregoing switchbacks in favor of steep, rocky scars cut at punishing angles across fields of yellow wildflowers with bleeding orange centers. With my companions, I lunge and scramble my way through incoherently named sections of the path, thinking after each trail sign, “This must be it! We’re almost there.” Which, of course, is the lie all hikers tell themselves to will forward motion in the worst of times.

After the requisite pictures and view-gazing at the top, we find an outcropping on which to sit and unwrap deli sandwiches from our backpack. I inhale the slightly soggy cheese and vegetable wrap I so diligently picked out that morning; a very adult choice of sandwich my seven-year-old self would have snubbed. I cannot help but wish — just a little bit — that I had simply treated myself a jar of creamy peanut butter and slathered honey to crystallize in the pores of some supermarket bread. My body’s exertion, which carried me to the top of the world once again, feels incomplete without the simple sugars, the small delight of red-dyed sugar rope and easy fuel.

I look back at my seven-year-old self, willing her to see what she was missing while she counted her steps, trying in hindsight to look up, smell the pines, and marvel at the sunbeams floating through the branches. I ache for her embarrassment as I push myself confidently up this trail. I yearn for her to realize how lucky she was to see the world from above, where the air is thin and clear, even though it burned her lungs as she breathed heavily. I reach deeper into the backpack, pull out the cookie I have stashed for the way down, and wish I could share it with her.

Mount Greylock

Mount Greylock

Ariel KnoebelComment