At the beginning of the week, we climbed halfway up a mountain. Now we’re climbing to the top.
This is my favourite kind of day, warm and sunny with a near-constant breeze. I’m at the head of the group with my nose in the wind. The higher we get, the drier the ground is, leaves crackling like popcorn under my feet. My shoes are back down at our campsite. It’s far too gorgeous outside to bring them along. I’ve already seen three trees bent in ways I’ve never seen trees bent before, and there’s a smile that won’t stop pulling at the corners of my mouth.
The wind’s whipped my hair up into some kind of mess and I keep turning to the left, looking out over the mountains and hunting for a cloud in the sky. There’s a forecast for thunderstorms this afternoon, and up on top of the mountain I’m positive there’ll be near to no shelter. Behind me, the rest of our eightfold group has three backpacks among us, none of which hold anything more protective than a plastic tortilla bag.
Nevertheless, I only walk faster whenever the wind picks up.
The sun is warm on my back, and when I glance back over my shoulder and take in how far we’ve come up the mountain I’m surprised at how much energy is still flooding out in the length of my steps. Right now, my back’s bare, but I’m sure I’ll get a turn when our packs trade hands again.
The path isn’t all that steep, but every once in a while it dips sharply down and then back up again. It feels a bit like we’re not climbing at all, but we definitely are. It’s when we come out on a tiny flat clearing that this finally clicks, and I take someone’s backpack for myself and fall to the back of the group.
We turn right with the path, which has suddenly narrowed from the width of a one-lane road to a sidewalk. It winds up a nearly vertical hill for six feet and suddenly flattens out, and I pause at the top of the slope and look around.
Apparently, there’s supposed to be a clearing with knee-high trees and a stunning view on top of this mountain. Right now, it just kind of looks like a dry, yellow-brown forest.
“Are we here yet?” someone asks, and there’s a mumble of noncommittal mild confusion from the rest of the group. We keep walking, and come out on a real clearing this time. The forest is mostly deciduous and surprisingly leafless, studded with the occasional stunted cedar. It’s not particularly exceptional, and then the wind kicks up again and sweeps my hair out of my face, and I drop my bag and step to the edge of the clearing.
At my toes is a slope straight down through thick, progressively greener forest, and sprawling out before me are the Green Mountains. The smile is tugging at the corners of my mouth again. I breathe in the view and kick off from the ground, half-dashing farther along the ridge.
This is, indeed, the top of the mountain. We sit in a circle in the clearing, on a crackly carpet of early autumn leaves and surrounded by sweeps of warm, breathtaking wind, and go around, giving thanks before passing around the food we’ve carried with us.
Lunch is actually delicious, all talking and laughing and enjoying the sun, tossing food back and forth to each other across the circle as requested. When it’s done and packed away, two backpacks get dumped in the middle of our little group. A pile of lightweight cedar blocks, myriad sizes but none bigger than the length of my forearm, clatter to the ground. Spoon blanks―flat pieces of wood ready to be carved.
We pick our favourites from the heap and are handed a variety of tools, ranging from hook knives to things resembling scalpels to sandpaper. I’ve made spoons before, coal-burning and carving my way to a usable utensil, but we haven’t carried a single way to make fire with us up the mountain. The only option is to use a blade.
It’s tough on my hands, leaving them tender and indented with the shape of the blunt edge of the hook knife I’ve chosen. Being left-handed amidst a group of right-handed people with right-handed tools isn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done, but the extra challenge isn’t unwelcome and I figure it out.
There’s a lot of talk. We all, especially the natives of the East Coast, have been playing word games their entire lives during lunch and craft time, and even as teenagers the old riddles haven’t left the times when we can let our mouths run as much as we want.
Eventually, though, the talking-talking-talking without cease gets old and Monique, our instructor, stops us. “Let’s have five minutes of silence,” she says. We agree. I’m reluctant, I’m having fun, but I don’t fight it. I learned a long time ago that when Monique says something concerning the group’s behavior, it’s got solid reasoning and years of experience behind it. Usually, it’ll do us nothing but good.
That request of silence? It stretches into a period closer in length to forty-five minutes, and it doesn’t feel any longer than the first five. It’s gorgeously temperate, and I’ve long since stopped brushing my hair out of my face, and my spoon is finished by the time someone speaks up again.
Clouds are rolling in. Turns out those thunderstorms hadn’t actually decided to leave. They were just a little late. Before we leave the mountaintop, we take a moment to admire each other’s work. My spoon’s final result is clumsy and asymmetrical and far from finished perfectly, but I’m ridiculously proud. This kind of hard work, the kind that passes easy and contentedly, is my favourite.
Our packs are on our back. The wind is picking up again, and it’s chilly. I can taste the oncoming rain, but instead of getting started on our trek down the mountain, we stand in a line on the edge of the drop-off, overlooking the entirety of the mountainside, and sing.
The constant wind whips our voices away, but we sing louder, shouting almost, and we clap until my hands are stinging, and when the song thunders to a close we let out a coyote howl. This year, coyote howls are our battle-cry.
We get half of the way to our campsite, which itself is halfway up the entire mountain, and someone suggests that we run. I’m a bit worn out and it’s starting to drizzle and I don’t have any shoes, but I pass my pack to a girl who doesn’t want to sprint and catch up with the rest of the group. At some point we galumph down a rocky hill and I stub my toe viciously enough to make it bleed, but I keep running. It’s worth it, tearing through the fog and barely-there rain and gulping in great lungfuls of mountain air and―
“Stop!” someone whisper-yells and I slam into the back of the apparently stopped group. Our little huddle, five of the six teenaged girls, are staring off into the distance, frozen like deer in a massive headlight.
There’s a blue tarp just in sight down the hill, and now that I’m still, the sounds of people swarming through the woods―about fifty feet from our shelter, out of all the places on an entire mountain range―collecting firewood and generally being exceedingly loud.
We exchange a set of looks. Scared. Excited. Apprehensive. Nervous. Angry.
“Well, this is convenient,” someone whispers finally, and someone else replies with “I guess today isn’t over yet.”