I’ve made a terrible mistake, and squirrels saw it happen. I used to think that hiking was little more than a sort of all-terrain walking. I used to think mountains were grand spires of adventure just waiting to be conquered. I was an idiot. There’s a mountain where I live called Humphrey’s because if I’m going to live near a mountain, it’s going to have a dorky name. Like a fool, I was roped into hiking to the top of this mountain–because I seemed to think this all sounded like a great idea for a morning activity. If an undead Viking rips itself from the ground at your feet and shrieks in otherworldly tones “find my cursed treasure in the bowels of the sword cave,” you would probably step cautiously away from damned creature demanding your inevitable death. Do the same with anyone who asks you to hike a mountain before 8 AM because there’s a very good reason nobody lives on mountains.
My body is broken. The hike is about 5 miles each way, which isn’t that much on a bike. I was used to thinking of distance in terms of riding there at my leisure. I forgot that walking is done with feet and knees and those other parts of me once resembled human limbs but have since transformed into tender nubs of bruised skin-substitute. I also forgot that 5 miles up a mountain is considerably different than the 5 miles I ride to campus–which is a little hilly, but overall flat. Mountains, by their nature, are not flat. 5 miles up. 5 more down. My knees feel like the jellyfish kids find stranded on the beach and poke with sticks. I’d push a puppy down a well for some painkillers, but I don’t think they would help. My pain is more than physical.
I remember their smiling, and I continue to be wounded by it. This mountain is apparently a popular trail for a few kinds of people. There are people like me who are regular type out for a hearty walk with their parents or friends. People with jobs and hobbies to go home to. Then, there are the psychopaths who jog up the mountain. These people hurl their bodies up and down the trail, joyfully passing the mere humans who struggle to walk the same path. I do not fully understand them, but I can guess that the runners are driven by some parasite that has lodged itself in their brain and is killing them in the most painful way possible: exercise. But the runners were not the worst of my peers on the trail. No.
The absolute lowest, most base life form to show its hideous features on that mountain were the power walking packs of “buddies” and the families that actually “like each other.” These pods of mostly-human garbage would stroll in groups in sizes ranging from 5 to 9. They’re always in odd numbers because they need someone to break the tie if a vote comes to a stalemate–how else would they decide who has the best white shoes or most stylish camera strung around their neck. These mannequins-given-life would stride around bends in the trail absolutely beaming, and I would try to stare into their souls and leave some of my own filth behind. I could not break them. They would roll around a corner, jaunty gait carrying them down the mountain–and they were always going down–and I would glare with all the intensity of a mountain lion trying to kill its prey with only its eyes. And they would stare right through me, happily chirp “good morning,” or “we’re on the easy part” or “good luck!” I wanted to throw them off the trail, hurl a rock at their pristine teeth, shove them into a pit of the savage squirrels that watched everything on the mountain.
I eventually made it to the top. I survived the joggers and the smiles and the squirrels whose strange, dark rituals and dead eyes will haunt me until I’ve left the earth. At the top of the mountain, I expected some grand sense of accomplishment, some rush of pride or honor or something that would justify the hard trudge. Instead, I looked and could see a lot of trees, and I thought “neat.”
Then it was time to turn around. It was a 2 and half hour walk down. It rained for 2 of those hours and hailed sporadically and the thunder sounded like some enthusiastic band kid bashing their cymbals over my head every few seconds. Life does not approve of predictable weather, and the cold slog down the mountain is exactly what anyone trying to accomplish something should expect: it will be awful, you’ll have done it, and then you’ll suffer for having done it, and you won’t feel as good about it as you expected. In that way, hiking a mountain is exactly like eating at a budget Chinese buffet: there is some joy–maybe–but mostly you will suffer and be hungry again later.