We meet at the crossroads to go to the mountains. I see them every day from my house, but today we are going to them.
We’re a big group. Most of us have a backpack full of the items we just know we need for a seven hour hike: water, food, camera, sunscreen, those little chocolate candies, and one crazy person even lugs a tripod along with him.
When everyone finally arrives, some later than the agreed upon time of 8:30, we strike out south across the fields. The first portion is along a dirt road, a well tread path. There are sporadic trees that offer shade from the ascending sun. But already the day is hot and sweat stains show through the back of the men’s shirts. Early on in the hike the sun lends us strength, invigorating our resolve. A crackling determined energy is in my smile and the smiles of the other trainees; we are going on our first hike.
After an hour the road turns away from the mountain, so we find a small track between the knee high fields to walk along. It is narrow and only allows for single file trooping, so I have to talk to the person behind me out of the side of my mouth. From above we look like ants or some odd segmented snake slithering along. From the side we’re ripe for a picture: Sixteen trainees with their packs, strung out single file with green earth and blue sky behind…but I’d forgotten to charge my camera the night before, so I stay put and continue talking and walking.
From my house you can see two layers of mountains. The farther range is white capped, the closer green and sharp. The only indication one is farther from us than the other is a certain haziness in the outline of the white caps. As we walk the snow caps disappear and the sharp green ones grow taller to blot them out.
The green fields and rolling hills stop abruptly, frighteningly. We are not eased into the climb with gentle repartee and wine fine. The mountains rear up and kick us in the face. We fight our way vertically through ankle high grass that is somehow sharp upon my ankles. Luckily the shrubs are far enough apart that they’re easy to navigate. All the while the sun washes everything in the same high wattage light. No shade. No break.
I look back and our group, only ten minutes before cohesive and garrulous, is strung out along the incline, blasted apart by the mountain. Some of my comrades are already resting on the crest above, red faced and sweaty. I envy them, they’re sitting down.
I reach the first crest and am higher, much higher. Hundreds of feet higher. The back side of the mountain is too steep for vegetation. Instead, there’s bone colored dirt that puff’s out under our feet like a mummy’s cough and cakes our sweaty legs. We wait for the straggler’s to join us. They do. We rest. And we begin again.
The next incline is worse. It’s just as steep, but with stranger plants that cling to me and fight my advance. The mountain side fills my vision top to bottom, left to right, and leaves no room for rumination. You cannot meditate on the beauty of nature when it’s trying to trip and roll you down a 500 foot incline.
We reach the next ridge and decide to break for lunch. Liz brought banana’s. Juliann brought trail-mix from the States. Skip brought some meat and pastry type snack. I brought an orange. Everyone brought bread.
We rest, but the there’s no shade, the dust still rises and the spiders still crawl. We gab.
“This is what I came to Kyrgyzstan for.”
“Fucking beautiful isn’t it.”
“Can I steal some water Dana?”
“How high up you think we are?”
Some of us want to continue, others want to stay put. I don’t blame them. From town the mountains looked painted on, unreal. But as soon as you begin to climb them you realize how steep the grade is, how hot the day is, and how shitty your shoes are.
About 3/4 of us rise and steel ourselves for the next slope. We are determined. Determined to reach the next ridge. Determined to see just a little bit farther. It’s the primal human impulse to know what’s around the next corner. So we forge on. Desiccated plant stalks with burrs catch at my shirt and between them hang spider webs so big they could catch a fish. Nettles scratch my ankles and bloody my socks. The bone dirt slips out from under my feet and makes the going more treacherous than I think it strictly needs to be. But I am determined.
Every third step I crane my neck to see how far I’ve gone. And every third step I’m fucking incredulous. How much bigger do these mountains need to be before they feel good about themselves? I get it, you’re a mountain, stop rubbing it in.
Finally, I reach the top, second only to Shaun. He begins to say something dripping with pathos. I fart. He shakes his head and says “You ruined the moment.”
I feel let down. Not because of a lack of beauty. The mountains undulate away to the East and the West in a millennia old dance of tectonic shifting and grinding and growing. My village lies far and away; I could crush it with my thumb. The breeze blows cool across my neck and I stick my arms out to each side, taking it all in.
What’s disappointing is…there’s the next ridge.
It’s easy on the mountain to know when to stop. You have no more water and half your group is waiting for you hundreds of feet below. But look…there’s the next ridge only a hop, skip, and a jump away. If you stronger, better prepared, a better person maybe you could make it.
In the far distance the snow capped peaks taunt me. From town the mountain I stood upon and the snow caps looked as one. I knew this wasn’t true, but now I could see the true severity of my error. Many valleys and many miles, both miles away and miles up, separate me from them. A whole different level of dedication and preparation is necessary to summit those peaks.
So we turn back, give one last look at the view, and plunge downhill towards our compatriots, who are so small it’s like I’m looking at them through the wrong end of a telescope.
Going downhill is faster, but more dangerous. If you fall forward, you fall all the way. The desire to be done mounts higher and higher. We had conquered the mountain, shouldn’t it now yield to our whim? But no. Life does not work that way.
We tumble off the mountain and all the way back to town. At the crossroads we part, slapping each other’s backs and saying so long. We smile and feel the kinship of those who’ve struggled and triumphed together, but afterwards I walk alone to my house.
The sun is still blazing at its zenith so my mother places a stool in the only slice of shade in the courtyard. She gives me a bucket of water and a scoop. I can’t tell if I’m burnt or tan beneath the layer of grime on my legs, but I am definitely scratched and scuffed. I slough off the day’s sweat and the water drips and pools on the concrete, trickling into the light. In sun like this there is no gray, only knife edged shadows and hard, bright geometric figures. I imagine I can hear the water sizzle as it crosses the border from dark to day.
I splash my face with the cool water. After three times I get all the salt off and my eyes stop burning. My beard drips onto my shorts. My neck is burnt, but not badly. I drink some. The water is cool and good.
My mom makes me eat and afterwards I take a nap. When I wake up I’m sweaty and disorientated.
That evening, after dinner, I leave my door open to the cool dusk air. A swallow swoops in through my open door. The only sound is its wings, like paper rustling, as it circles my room and lands on my dresser, then my curtain rod.
After a few minutes I stop smiling and shoo it out the door to where it belongs, the free air. When I tell Chengiz he pauses, looks a word up on his smartphone and then says, “That is a good omen Daniel. You are lucky.”