The Blind Man and the Mountain

28 Aug

My view from rock face perch most of the way up White Cross Trail (as far as I know).

Sweating profusely only 20 minutes into my ascent of Mt. Monadnock, I forced my way up the steep White Cross Trail – so crowded with rock and root in one stretch, there was no place where my feet could find three consecutive strides of level dirt. Plus, the altitude was getting to me – and it was about to get worse, given that the summit was 3,165 feet, about six times the altitude of Worcester.

Early on, a sign had warned me that most hiking accidents happen on the trip back down – but as I sat and wheezed on a trail-side boulder, I decided most heart attacks must happen on the way up.

As I took a swig of water and unfolded the map – a lame attempt to appear as if I were stopping for some reason other than abject physical humiliation – I couldn’t help but compare myself to the other hikers. The 12-year-olds with miraculously low centers of gravity, the college age guy who absent-mindedly jumped down from one rock to the next even as he was texting, the group of young people who tried to fix a peeling sole by chewing and applying gum to the girl’s shoe, wildly applauding when, for at least a few minutes, it worked. I delighted in their youthful exuberance even as I sensed the limitations of my own 54-year-old body, felt the worry that I’m losing a race against time.

Then, as I slid on my backpack and stood up to assess the obstacle course that led up to the next ridge, I saw the three men. Scores of hikers had already passed on their way down, many of them in waves, seeming to splash down through the rocks like a stream of water, branching off individually through every gap in the rocks, only to rejoin somewhere downstream. But these men moved differently. They stuck in a tighter formation, conferring as they went about what lay ahead – unusual for their twenty-something age, as was the telescopic walking stick, usually a staple of older folk trying to spare their knees.

A minute passed before I realized it wasn’t a normal hiking stick – it was the red and white cane of a blind man.

Which the middle one – stocky, with thick dark hair – obviously was. On either side, his companions were lightly touching one arm or the other, letting him know what was coming with each succeeding step downward. I had been told the ascent could take almost two hours and the descent about half that, on trails that force most to keep their eyes mostly on the ground. Assuming they made the summit, who knows how long it took to arrive on the clear rocky top, take in the view that one of them wouldn’t even see? What happened then? What went on within the mind, heart and soul of the blind mountain climber? Was he once sighted, so he could reconstruct a shadowy memory of what the country might look like? Did he feel heart and lungs expand in the thinner air, spirits lift with his altitude, wind on his skin? Did his pride dwarf his regrets? Or, in my most mind-blowing thought, maybe this wasn’t even a first for him – maybe they did this on a monthly basis. Even then, it had to be a far more intense experience than my own.

Only a minute ago I was trying to cover for my exhaustion, but now I have to conceal my fascination instead. For the sake of subtlety, I continued my hike toward them, then stepped aside to let them pass. There was no meeting of eyes, no small talk, no reassurances about how I too, would make it to the top. No one on the trail wanted to divert the trio’s attention from the task at hand.

I wish I could say that their achievement inspired me to the summit that day, but I wasn’t just working against gravity – there was the additional resistance of a work-related party awaiting back in Worcester. I did hike until I got the satisfaction of a grand view; as I perched atop a rock face, I thought again of the blind climber; but as much as I urgently wanted him to see what I was seeing, but I still felt much more awe than pity. And as I descended, I thought of his companions – of the love, devotion and patience of their service, the ways that, in helping their friend test his limits, they might also have been testing their own. My own path downward was so much easier than their own. Responsible only for myself, both hands free, I could grab a tree trunk here or a boulder there, my only real job was to think of myself and my own path down. Of course, this is one reason hikers take to the woods – to escape communal obligation, recharging in the solitude for a return to community. But this particularly hike, I found less individualism than community in the woods – the example of the three men, the blind mountain climber and his friends, seemed more daunting than the peak itself.

I know I’ll finish climbing Mt. Monadnock – but would I ever climb it the way they climbed it? I can think of a half-dozen reasons why not, all manner of excuses about lack of capabilities and/or confidence. But these men could’ve made similar excuses – and didn’t.  I was still mulling their example later when, looking up from studying a tricky hop, I found I was catching up to them.

I dared not interrupt, but neither did I pass. At least not right away. Instead I hung a few steps behind them, hoping that through some miracle, my strides would fall into rhythm with their own.

One of the easier stretches.

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