Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Valley (08/10/06)
TITLE: Ascent from the Valley
By Al Boyce
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Here, temperatures rarely reached the 70s and plummeted below zero on many a winter's night. Yellow signs warned hikers of the danger of sudden blizzards -- even in the spring and fall.
To climb here in August, starting in the sweltering valley where angry motorists dimly perceived the heights, was like climbing to heaven from hell.
From the parched parking lot, through scrub pine and carefully spread mulch, you started on a well-maintained trail. At each yellow warning sign, hiking traffic waned, the trail thinned. By the time you crossed the first stream and began climbing upwards in earnest, sawgrass and tree limbs groped at your backpack from both sides.
Mosquitoes and black flies formed squadrons, attacking in waves, but falling back as you emerged from thicker vegetation into the first blessed breaths of dry, mountain wind. Sweat quickly dried into salt-stained maps of unknown continents against the blue denim of your shirt.
Drinking from an icy stream, boots temporarily silent, you could begin to hear the signature howling of the wind through swaying pines at higher elevations, beckoning to you, "Come higher."
Above the tree line, blue-green vistas erupted on all sides. One steep gorge still boasted snowbanks clinging to the shaded, northern rocks. The sky, stripped of moisture, was unnaturally dark blue. Clouds chased across the peaks too fast to retain any shape.
Without trees, you depended on yellow spray paint and piled cairns of rock to mark the continuing path upward. But the lofty goal was in sight, stabbing the heavens with a weather-station antenna.
At the top, you reflected distantly on how hard the climb had been. But it wasn't fatigue that made you long to stay there, buffeted by winds that roared like the Holy Spirit, seeking entry to your soul.
A couple hundred yards from the summit, just out of sight, you knew there was a parking lot, a gift shop full of tourists whose cars had labored the switchbacks of a gravel road to share this view. Further down, near a lake like a frigid teardrop from God's eye, there was an emergency shelter made from an old barn. You were tempted to spend the night, but instinctively you knew your were not intended to stay long.
You began the descent, noting with regret that your visit left no impact, not even a footprint, on the rock-strewn landscape.
Your return to the valley was met with joyous welcome, first by the insects, hungry for blood; eventually by friends and loved ones who never made the trip.
The next day, you have moved on, vacationing at a beach in Maine. You've forgotten the summit.
But one day, you'll remember.
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