About a week ago, I woke up at the crack of dawn. Hurried here and there, assembled oranges and water bottles, nearly forgot my parking pass. The mountains whispered in the dark. Across two hundred miles came their voices on the winds that nipped my ears as I stepped outside. Key, ignition, gas. The ocean met the rising sun in ruddy amber, I noted softly with eyes drifting from the sparse traffic. She was well up and white-gold when the first flashes of snow appeared on the roadside, smearing by at 80 miles per hour.
We are not of the snow, my stark white car and I. She slipped and shuddered over the snow and ice, and I licked my lips and sucked my teeth. At last the parking brake was in place. I nibbled a mandarin and set out. The bridge, the gateway crossed a tiny stream still frozen in the shadow (high hills hid it from prying beams), though some distant trickling reached me. I was otherwise alone, in the curious absence of wind or crickets. Onward.
I am a knower. I must know things. I must know exactly how long this path is and what landmarks to look for and what wild plants can be foraged in July. If I know, I can do. If I know from various warnings that I must be prepared for a very strenuous seven-hour hike that even sufficiently prepared hikers should not attempt this in wet or icy conditions, I can do it. I can do it. I am fit enough. I am prepared. I have water. I have gloves. I have spikes. I am speaking aloud. I stop short, the next words fading on my lips when the leafless forest around me creaks in its stillness. The hills have broken, and the snow nearby twinkles, inviting me to lose my footing in its powdery depths. Can I do it? Am I fit enoguh? Am I prepared? With difficulty, I wrest a water bottle from my silly little fanny pack and swig. I pat my pocket, where my gloves form a soft lump. I kick a rock lightly and watch a little snowfall descend from my boots, clad in cheap spiky crampons. I huff. My chest hurts. I go on.
It becomes nearly unbearable very soon after I find two branches — makeshift walking poles, a gift from some other visitor — leaning against a trunk. My elation quickly turns to despair. Even with these gifts, the thought of several more hours makes me balk. A tear forms against a gust. I nearly turn around. And then I do.
"Right on, good morning!"
Behind me, seemingly out of nowhere, comes a small swarthy man with thin, grey hair and a faded rainbow mask. There is only one path. He is slower than I am. Where did he come from? He must, I concluded, be a spirit. I am hallucinating. Or else he's a sorely misguided serial killer, because even in my weary state I could defend myself. But no. He is clearly, I concluded immediately, a spirit of this mountain. His voice is muffled but kind, pleasant, lilting with some accent — if he were human, I'd guess Iranian? Iraqi? If I kept my distance, he said with a good-natured twinkle in his eye, I could follow him. Oh, thank you.
As we spoke, I realized he was, in fact, human, although there lingered an air of ease about him. I quickly learnt why: he had hiked this mountain path twice weekly since 1979. I decided then that one can be both a human and a spirit at the same time. He had immigrated from Iran earlier in the decade to study physics at a prestigious university despite having a vocational background. Mountaineering is his hobby; he has hiked every fourteener (mountains whose peaks top 14,000 feet) in the contiguous United States. Some months ago, at the age of 69, he took a holiday to New Hampshire, where he camped and hiked five mountains in four days. He had originally planned to hike Montblanc in France, which he does every year. A spirit of this mountain, then, but kin to every other. He walked me through his gear, of which he was very proud; they were all of high quality and would keep him safe and warm for many years. The boots he wore were one of ten identical pairs that he rotated out every hike. His coat was of the sort worn by Mounties on patrol in harsh conditions. His crampons had lasted him 25 years and thousands of miles. We spoke of religion and spirituality; his grandfather was a Sufi, and he thought spirituality was interesting but considered himself a nontheist. The (non)existence is irrelevant to his worldview. But he made clear his distaste for organized religion as the opium of the masses. A tool to gain power, to suppress knowledge and science, to oppress dissidents, to justify injustice. I thought briefly of my experiences, positive and negative, growing up in the Mid-South. My thoughts turned to the Iranian Revolution. I listened in an appreciative silence, nodding and agreeing while thoughts still churned inside me.
Throughout, he asked me of my background, which I was willing to share but much less interested in putting into the air. He asked if I had been before (no), if I had prepared (I read online and I'm pretty fit), if I was afraid of heights (I love heights!), and was relieved when he saw I was determined to make it to the top. We had been walking together for nearly an hour when we reached the most challenging portion of the ascent and he paused to put on his crampons. I realized I did not know his name. I asked him, and he told me. Mr. M. We shared a morpheme, I noted, a powerful affricate at the front half of my name and the back half of his. My name forces itself into a space before the tongue withdraws, the voice drops. His name begins gently on the lips but ends evenly, not with force but with intention. I reflected on this as I went ahead of him, per his instructions. Mr. M caught up to me, the tortoise to the hare, the mountain to the visitor.
His humorous and thoughtful words carried me when my feet stumbled over each other and my knees nearly touched the snow. At each turn, he laid a hand on a rock and glanced around it to the way he usually goes — but today, we'll go this way, since it's safer. Usually he climbs right over this rock. If you go around this one, there's a little outcrop where you can sit and eat if you aren't afraid of heights. His sister comes with him sometimes, and she usually likes to climb through this hole — can I get through? Oh, right on! Mr. M made us stop at a few scenic points and took photos of me posing or pointing or just smiling, slick with sweat; I took some of him, although he joked that he has so many thousands already. One of my crampons (cheap thing it was) got lost — I should put the other one in my pack, because I'll definitely need it on the way down. My phone, too, was nearly lost, but a couple found it and caught up to us. Mr. M guided them, too, through the next icy section of the scramble. He was telling me about this boy he'd brought here to train in 1980, and you know he ended up climbing Everest? No oxygen! The couple seemed less rapt by his stories than I, but that was all right. Mr. M was happy to share and to show them the best footholds. I heard him comment to them about how young I was and how well I was doing. I was glad I was a bit ahead, so nobody could see me grow pink.
At the summit, he let me go first out of tradition: every time he brings someone who has never seen it before, they get a minute alone. My legs, weak and wobbly, couldn't get me the last hundred meters to the peak in time, and he again caught up to me. But I was grateful. Somehow I would not enjoy seeing the summit if he weren't there. By this point, my shoes and socks were soaked through. Prepared, right... I shed them and sat barefoot in the brisk wind, overlooking the valley of fallen snow and bare trees that reminded me of a balding man's head. I asked Mr. M how long he usually stays at the summit. Not long. Maybe ten or fifteen minutes, just enough to eat and get some water. I pulled a fruit-nut bar from my pack and chewed thoughtfully, contemplating what he'd said about this peak being nearly 2 billion years old. How Abrahamic religions claim the planet is only 6,000 years old despite the evidence. My wet shoes soaked into the stone next to me, darkening ancient mineral with perhaps more ancient water, all of which would evaporate or wash away and go on out of sight forever. Mr. M offered me half of his avocado sandwich, saying he usually shared with his sister or ate the other half later. I thanked him profusely and accepted the gift. I decided I'm a nontheist too.
On the descent, we spoke more of religion and physics. Mr. M does particle physics and studies radiation. The slit experiment, quantum, all that. I giggled quietly, thinking of Hitchhiker's Guide. A quiet part of my mind mused whether we were quantum linked, now, by the food we had shared. If the food in my stomach turned, would something in him turn too? He greeted everyone on the descent with an, "Oh yeah, you made it!" or a "Right on, man!" and a gloved thumbs-up. I smiled wanly at those we passed, and smiled crookedly when Mr. M complained good-naturedly about trail runners not appreciating the trees and the stone. In mountaineering, he told me, there is a slogan, or a phrase, I suppose: the mountain will always be there — will you be there to climb it? We must respect the mountain. It is so much bigger and older than we are. If it is too much, we can turn back. We can return another day to climb it. Yes, I thought. He is most certainly a spirit, despite how anchored he is in reality, in the grey Honda Civic in the parking lot, in the email address he gives me with his surname before we part. I drive home with pruny feet and numb hips and a heart full of light at having met a real spirit. Maybe I'm a step closer to being a spirit, too.