“Can’t help but admire peaks like these huh? What’d mean they aren’t mountains? Tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. Didn’t I tell you that already? No, you weren’t listening. I could tell by the way you were counting the mile markers heading up the road. As if you’d lose count. Simple math Claire. Numbers just go up. Or down depending on where you’re coming from. Why do you have to continue challenging me when I’m simply trying to educate you about the terrain! It’s Mt. Madison, Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson and THEN Washington. The big one. Cause he was the first president. Well how the hell was I supposed to know that you already knew that! Do you know the order of the other presidents? Am I supposed to keep track of what you know and don’t know? Think of Washington as the big one cause he’s first. Will you stop interrupting me! I saw that look, you were about to interrupt me! Look here. Down. No, the other side, away from the top. So this spur snakes over to become Mt. Jefferson, then Adams over there even though it’s hard to tell. And at the end is Madison. Where did I learn that? Is that your not so passive aggressive way of saying you don’t believe me? Don’t you trust me? Oh really? I’ve been driving whilst immersing in the local flavors, reading every damn leaflet at every damn kiosk, making sure that every inquisitive guide that approaches us for help is answered with a question right in their specific area of expertise. And all you seem to do is stare up at me while I doggedly attempt a smidgen of education. Claire - your idea of a vacation is camping out in a sanitized hotel room before a television set framed by paintings so insipid I’m forced to watch commercials for pharmaceuticals with you. It’s twenty-eighteen for God’s sake. Clearly you can watch the new episode back home and not at the Ramada - which wasn’t cheap mind you. You wanted something with a view so what did I do? I got you a nice room looking down on storied State Street and you’re really going to complain about how loud it is! I’m incredulous. In - cred - u - lous. Jesus, do I need to spell it out! Maybe if you spent some time reading a book and not moping around in your fucking pajamas all day we wouldn’t have to review the English dictionary. Wow, look at that ridge. Jesus. There’s a view. Look at those mountains. What did Shelley say again? Where woods and winds contend, something something. Now this is poetry. This is the stuff life’s made of. Au naturale. I’m not religious but definitely feel spiritual in moments like these. Never could stand that religious hocus pocus. Sure we can sit, take in this view while we can. Why are you sitting there? Come here Claire. The view’s on this side. There’s nothing up there. Clair, can you see!”
SEE!!! - Ee!! - e! The trail peters out getting lost in the rocks downhill. Nobody’s spray-painted the boulders so there’s no clear path to reach the lower levels. But scarecrow-like cairns stand only a few dozen feet apart from each other on the approaching slope to keep cloudy hikers from misdirection in the climb. So far, they’ve been led by a path of earth scraped with a century of wear and tear - boots of locals and tourists drawn to the superlative. Claire’s huffing and puffing even though the climb’s alldownhill from hereonout. She fishes in her pack for a snack and sucks through the straw of a pink camelback, tearing into a Kind bar. Up the slope she watches the family climb out of sight. It’s hard to tell if they were family or just friends from disparate age groups though. Three men, two woman. The older woman was prob forty with two men who could’ve cut the smiles off a pair of neat teens, worn with congenial assurance. It was that or the faces were, like, wedged along time’s conveyor belt, one half of the body awkwardly caught on a metal lip for Godknowshowlong when they were supposed to be already out on the sales floor, missing the truck that would have taken them from the plant in somewhere like Charleston, West Virginia to a sunny parking lot in Utah where they’d be ready for purchase, friction keeping them from proceeding but abrading the spots caught against a persistent belt.
The kids with ‘em were nice. Young guy and gal. Couldn’t tell the difference in age. Could’ve been in college or up-and-comers from the city. They were laughing up on the ridge now. The oldest of them pumping fists into the air with a mock smile and alpenstocks held aloft in victory. Claire eats a Kind bar with marshmallows and almonds staring at the space round the mountain. She smiled at all five of them. So did Sandy. He tried talking to them about the trek up, asked how hard it was. Told them his idea about climbing the mountain. Thought it’d be easier to take the train up and then hike down. Climbing the mountain he said. That way we wouldn’t have to worry about pulling muscles. When the others said going down could be just as hard sometimes, he agreed but with the caveat of finding this untrue. Going up was easier on your muscles cause it forced you to pace yourself, not apply too much pressure speeding down as you were want to do. Sure it was harder, they would say, but the speed was methodical, you wouldn’t likely injure yourself. Sandy took Claire’s bottle and spilled it onto the rocks to showcase the nature of gravity, leaving patterns of water that gathered in a concave depression in an act of scientific rebellion. When he poured his own bottle, slowly this time, the water trudged along the stone, a bead of liquid trooping on towards a nearing precipice. Still, he said, you get the picture? Y’all tumble down those rocks like a hounddog with a black cat tied around its tail when you really get going. That was how Sandy talked to normal Americans when he edified the uninitiated.
Claire’s eating a second Kind bar watching the same purple train that took them up, chugging with the same intensity but this time in reverse. Sandy hypothesized that they could just ride the breaks the whole way down to save fuel. But the steep grade’s forcing the rods to do one of those Irish jigs just to keep from riding off the rails. It’s like a lady with two huge shopping bags running up an escalator, slowly coming down. One small step forward and two leaps back.
It sounds its whistle, bursting through the open valley below and into the adjoining moraines of the mountains spurs. Inside the train the whistle sounded clownish and annoying, even frightened and cheap. But the sound’s not even the same waveform anymore. What could only be described as noise now sounds like a bell, the sound of a huge window opening up the mountains to the day outside. Now Claire watches it come to their level and everyone on board waves at the resting/rested hikers at the conductor’s bidding. Sandy nods his head with poetic severity at the three mountains he wears like a bandana. Claire waves to the passengers against the rhythm of the cogs.
“There she goes! A modern marvel to say the least. Mind-boggling how they got those suckers up that incline. 37 percent! And look at those cogs! Claire do you see the cogs! You could atomize a rod of plutonium under those bad boys. Oh Jesus, do you really have to ruin this for the two of us! Unbelievable! I bring you out to a place as perfect as this and you have the audacity to continue marginalizing my love of the world! Do you know how much this means to me Clair. Us! You told me when we were watching Xtreme Weather that you’d wanted to see Mount Washington one day. Then I had agreed and said I too had wanted to visit it my whole life, ever since I was a little boy and watched a video in my elementary school showing meteorologists who might as well have been belaying Everest with Edmund Hillary or calving ice around Shackleton's Endurance. I knew I’d probably never climb the Himalayas or spend ten grand to see the penguins but this always stood out to me. And when I heard how badly you wanted to go I thought heck, no brainer, let’s make a whole trip of it. So now, after two weeks of driving you’re going to take it out on me like this. What do you mean you never said that! That’s the only reason we’re here! I remember your words exactly, something to the effect of, that looks so interesting we should definitely go there sometime. Ok, fine. Maybe it was closer to, huh that looks interesting we should go there sometime. Still then! You said, huh that looks interesting. Maybe you shouldn’t just blather out something you don’t mean, cause you’re sure as shit not interested now. You didn’t care about the museum, you didn’t care to talk to the train conductor when he opened the floor to a Q and A and I at least queried about the originality of the cherry interiors while you asked if anyone’s ever died on this thing! As if the next stop on the train was a 7/11 where they’d outfit us with those beer-hat thingamabobs and ply us with six-packs of Coors and industrial sized bags of Cheetos. Which wasn’t nearly as bad as that rube asking if they could stop to use the bathroom. What’s the point to going on a trip if you’re just gonna check out like the rest of the cattle with fifty foot RVs and bovine bus tours. Or better yet, what’s the purpose of you flipping through your phone for three hours every night in front of a blaring episode of House Hunters. It’s pathetic Claire, really pathetic. Stress? What stress? All you do is the most menial desk work at a dentist’s office! How hard could that be! Oh I’m sorry Johnny but your appointment at 3:00 won’t be ready till 3:15. So sorry, please have a seat.
“Jesus. What about those dentists that go to school for eight years and spend hours hunched over kids and puerile wives who never thought to brush their teeth before heading off to bed to dream about getting fucked by some fictional Hercules jerk off. Does the dentist get a say! Sure, he gets a moment for a modest little rap on the knuckles, Now remember always to floss, it still makes a BIG difference, but time and time again these recidivists show up in his chair because they lack the prudence to (I don’t know) brush their fucking teeth! Imagine how painful that would be Claire! Seriously. Do you have any empathy for people that spend their lives trying to help people and then get practically laughed at by mouths of little shitty teeth that need another bridge implanted over degenerated crowns. I mean, I get it. Sometimes people randomly get cancer or they have glandular problems that make them fat or have hereditary schizophrenia or some other fucked up disease that they never choose to have. But Jesus, don’t tell me that these people are victims because they don’t know how to walk down to the corner store and pick up a toothbrush. That’s all you have to do. And then you don’t have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to simply have a sanitary mouth. I mean maybe that’s why you’re acting like this! Is that why! Is it the lowlifes that come into your office and you don’t have any way to help! Is that why I see that fucking moue on your face every night you come home. Maybe you should say something to these degenerates then, maybe that would fix things up. Give you a sense of volition in things. Will power is huge Claire. There’s this Schopenhauer quote about will that I think you’d like. I can’t remember it but I’ll look it up on the drive back to the campsite. You gotta figure out what it is you want and that you gotta fight your damndest for it. I’m always doing that at work. You’d be surprised how often people refuse to buy wood cause they think it’s bad for the environment. Maybe fifty years ago when we were cutting down whole mountain sides and swathes of pine trees like there was no tomorrow. But not anymore, we maintain it. We make sure that we have something to replace those trees. Make sure that after every season of recovering trees another harvest is growing somewhere else. We maintain you see. Afforestation we call it. Like anti-deforestation. Which is bad for business cause then where are we gonna get new trees to sell. I push that very hard on any naysayers in the lumber biz. I’ll argue with em until they say otherwise. Until I cross that line and then, well, I make it work. I adjust. But I push in different ways. Even in ways they don’t know I’m pushing. Very effective. Well are we going or not! You didn’t even look at the view! You can’t honestly expect you’re gonna get the full panorama looking over there. You’re just looking at the top! I’ve been watching you sure. Of course I looked! That side’s great too. Could do with a bit more rock but sure it’s alright. Jesus Claire, let’s get a move on, you’re starting to depress even me and you know how I get -”
The trail (which wasn’t really a trail, just slightly more manageable boulders) spilled down with man-high cairns leading the way. Claire stood with a third and fourth Kind bar in her hands as Sandy embarked down the slope, making sure to use his hands on the scramble down. He was the son of a family from Northern California who had the American River for a backyard, went skiing in the Sierra Nevadas between school semesters, and learned how to sail Lake Tahoe at thirteen. His mother taught music at the Montessori school and his father ran a conservation agency out of Sacramento. His oldest brother’s hamburger chain (Fat Fred’s) had opened up franchises up and down the coast with a new spot just off the Vegas Strip. Second oldest brother Luke was boxing his best season as a featherweight touting the moniker the California Condor. Sandy’s third oldest brother and fourth oldest brother had taken up the old man’s legacy by opening a bird sanctuary (for California Condors) in El Dorado County with a recent appearance on the Ellen Show bringing a full-grown condor out for everyone’s entertainment. His fifth oldest brother, Solomon (stage name, King Solomon) played piano in San Francisco and said he’d be playing with the San Francisco Philharmonic instead of pursuing his band’s jazz-funk-soul outfit The Loons. The sixth oldest brother was a drunk, but his seventh oldest brother was finishing his neurology doctorate in Rochester. Sandy remembered all sorts of adventures with his siblings in the mountains, even though his oldest brother was thirty when he was born and were technically his half brothers. He remembers building treehouses with one of those NO GIRLS ALLOWED signs and fishing for trout in a brook God seemed to have squeezed into the narrowest canyon in the state. He remembers one time when his third oldest brother took him to this placid little pond with this overhanging bank where you could see monkish rainbow trout meditating, just praying for a morsel to drop on the surface of the water. So all day the two of them, like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, cast line after line till they had two creels bursting full of fresh fish. He remembers the walk back, his brother patting him on the shoulder with so much pleasure, like each caught fish was as elusive as Melville’s White Whale. He could’ve swore he had a rash on his back from all that patting. He remembers the biggest meal of beef brisket to celebrate just how many fish they’d caught by the sweat of their brow.
“I said can you hear me! Well then keep up! I can’t keep stopping all the way to the damn parking lot! Don’t blame the God-damned altitude Claire! It’s your own fault you didn’t heed those laminated exercise charts I gave you on the first of the month! Yeah, I dated them so I’m sure of it! Of course there’s oxygen for trees! We’re only at five thousand feet Claire! What do you think we’re breathing in, a God-damned vacuum! No Claire, there’s no tree coverage because of the extreme weather! Wind gusts blustering over two hundred miles an hour! Did you really miss that fun fact! That was probably the most fun fact of the Mountain! That and it’s the highest mountain east of the Mississippi! That’s the only reason this place has been a destination for centuries! Oh, so you remember that one! How about this for a fact! Don’t you remember when we drove all the way to Colorado to visit your family and I took us to Rocky Mountain National Park! That was at least 11,000 feet! And sure, those trees, (not-trees) were in the alpine zone because they didn’t have enough oxygen! But this is totally different! Eli on the train told us! The plaques at the summit told us! And I even reminded you at the Tip-Top House! Where you insisted on writing my name in the guest-book instead of both! Pretty passive aggressive don’t you think! You did the same thing at the Stanley Hotel! With your family on that Colorado trip! You told me it was the same hotel from The Shining and for once I decided not to question you about! I thought Ok, I’ll trust her on this one. She’s from Colorado, her family backs her up on it, and she said she stayed there when she was a little girl with her dad. Surely she can’t fuck this up too! And lo and behold, though I can’t say I’m surprised anymore, it’s not even remotely similar to Kubrick’s movie! Do you remember that! Do you remember that! Do you know how humiliated I felt talking to the concierge! The movie was shot in Oregon and California! At Yosemite! We picked the wrong fucking national park! But I didn’t say anything! Sure I was angry for the whole trip! But I kept my God-damned mouth sealed for five whole days! Not that I got one modicum of credit for staying silent! And you know that that’s my favorite film! You knew that and you lied to me! You’re a God-damned liar! And it’s a wonder that I stay in this marriage with you! You’ve made two years feel like two lifetimes! The concierge said the movie had two different hotels, one for the interior and one the exterior! That the Stanley Hotel was just the inspiration. What the hell does that have to do with Jack Nicholson throwing a tennis ball for days on end cause these demons in his head won’t leave him alone. But you Claire, you don’t have either of those two! You’re exterior is falling to pieces which I thought a simple hike might fix. And interiority! Interiority. Claire, you’re interiority is as hollowed out as this sky, a fucking abyss with tiny figures in the distance called people that just float through your consciousness while you sink deeper in the sofa you call your soul. It’s pathetic! You must be like your patients who can’t blame anyone but other people for feeling sorry for themselves! All you have to do is decide to change things and then you won’t have to put up with it! Why don’t you start right now for once and engage with the world for once! Do something to liven up your life! This is your last chance to see the Presidential Range before we get under the treeline! Otherwise we’ll be under the cover of these firs the whole way down! I said this is your last chance to see-”
Claire was surprised how silently the fall sounded. She was sure it would begin with screams and end in a pained yelp. But no, just a falling man.
She saw the other side, three balding kings without any gifts for crestfallen messiahs. The tunneled out space between the hills gave her the vision to scatter her thoughts. It was the bowl of a valley’s belly, the either side of the trail that continued like an isthmus between holes in sight. The receding waters of time that shaped the present. Her attention followed a raven that hopped among the rocks looking at her with a crooked head, then a boulder with another rock inside of it like a giant translucent grain of salt, then the hikers that scrambled down the slope to reach the body camouflaged in the lichened boulders. Sitting quietly a flood of memory swept through her and a deepness was filled in. She thought out loud but the voice failed to echo like before and the screams attracted the attention of even the crow overhead, looking overhead.