Vignettes From A Summer of Life (Part II)

The Mountain Quest

Our circle of friends is constantly rotating as people come and go, to have their places taken by others who leave in their turn. It’s a complicated and unpredictable dance as some return from journeys just at the moment when others depart. Every six or seven months our group dynamic shifts again and we stumble over our two left feet to keep in step with our private corner of the universe.

Some of our circle are technically visitors here. In the last couple months we bid goodbye to a few of them as they set off for varied destinations; Hannah for her native England, Kelsey back to Toronto for paramedic school. We decided—or rather, someone in our group thought up the idea and the rest of us ran with it—that it would be appropriate to not let them leave without having done one or two “Vancouver things.” Best to go away thinking of the city fondly.

So, naturally, we left it. A weekend camping trip up to Squamish before “everyone” left. On Saturday, just before lunch, James proposed going on a little hiking trip that afternoon up The Chief. Many of us voiced the affirmative, including me. I thought it would be nice, a walk through the woods with friends.

Talk about blindly jumping in.

I had heard about The Chief, or at least the name. I pictured it being like some of the low-grade hikes I had done when I was younger, a few places to clamber over rocks here and there, but mostly a gentle slope up to the top. When we got to the foot of the trail and I stood there, staring up at an almost vertical stairway, I began to wonder just what was wrong with me; living in Vancouver for eighteen years and how could I not know that The Chief of Squamish would be like this? I may not have an interest in climbing or hiking, but so many of my friends do that I should have picked up on this, one of the most famous blocks of solid granite in the world.

Ten minutes in and my lungs were ready to mutiny on the rest of my body. They pushed against my ribs with every inhale, greedily sucking in as much air as they possibly could, trying to steal it from everyone else in the world. With every exhale they shrivelled to total emptiness, and in my mind’s eye I could see them crumpled up like garbage bags. That only made it hurt worse. Strangely, my legs took it all in stride, so to speak; they didn’t seem to mind lifting up almost to their limit to reach each wooden step. We came to a place to stop and watch a waterfall tumble down underneath a narrow wooden bridge. My lungs may have been grateful for the rest, but my throat hated being reminded that I had no water bottle. By now, the others could see how I was holding up—or more correctly, how I was not holding up—and Daniel graciously offered me his own bottle. I still feel terrible about drinking the whole thing over the course of the next few hours, but that’s what it took to keep me on my feet. That, and Kelsey’s tips about how to keep from fainting. Not to mention the pats on the back, the little encouragements along the path from the people I was closest to.

In the last fifteen minutes or so, we emerged from the trees and the dirt paths to climb over the sloping grey head of the granite mountain. The sky was only half-clouded over. I saw James waving from up ahead—he had already reached the top and was holding his arms out to the side like some welcoming angel, calling out, “Don’t look back or down! Save the view for the very top!” He got closer and closer. In those last arduous moments, my brain (possibly from lack of a proper oxygen intake and moisture) began remembering The Lord of the Rings; for a fleeting instant I saw myself in the Fellowship, climbing over the Misty Mountains, desperately seeking the path to Mordor and the achievement of their quest, the destruction of the Ring. The notion started to blow away like a leaf on the wind, but I grabbed it and held it tight before it was lost. This is what they went through, I thought, what they fought through and struggled through. Between slaying orcs and dodging Ringwraiths it was cold, hard trudging through mountains and rocks and wilderness for days on end. I felt a sense of kinship with them, as surely as if my nose was at that moment buried deep in the pages of the book itself.

And then the slope ended, I could walk standing straight, and James was there to grasp my hand and smile and say, “You’re here.” I was there indeed. And the view was better than any cinematic magic (however wonderful) or landscape painting (however masterful). I looked down on the tiny town of Squamish, on the grey ribbon of the highway stretched out lazily below, all perched on the edge of muddy Howe Sound. I was tired and thirsty, but for the first time all day, I didn’t care.

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