The moon shines a hoary light upon the high alpine ridge, two thousand feet above timberline. It is mid-summer. I am naked. Is it the lack of oxygen or the head full of mushrooms that make crossing this narrow ridge sans clothing seem like a good idea? I recognize the merits of the idea. My climbing partner has reservations.
“Do what you want. It’s your life.” He sits fully clothed on a lichen-covered rock fiddling with a zipper on his jacket. He looks up at me with a tired smile. A cold wind crests the ridge. I fear the sun will never rise again.
He scans the landscape that surrounds us; an empire made of upheaved earth, rocky peaks and valleys sculpted by glaciers. Naked and high, I need to be away from him. I set across a narrow ridge at 13,200 feet above sea level that spans two peaks in the San Juan Mountains.
I keep moving to keep the chill from reaching my bones. It is totally silent but for the sound of my bare feet on granite scree. My friend Jeffery stands statue still, the moon casting a spotlight on him, as he considers his life and why stripping off his clothes may be important to it. He begins to disrobe. He is not a wild child, but a biologist, not a poet, a scientist, a military man. I leave him to contemplate his business.
Jeffery and I began climbing mountains together when we were teenagers. We’d take off into the Colorado high country hours before sunrise, looking for adventures. I’d navigate, pour coffee from a thermos and change the books on tape.
In the summer, just after he graduated from high school, we were in a valley way, way up in the Wiminuche Wilderness, filling our water bottles from a clear stream. Cotton clouds drifted over the towering peaks across the blue sky. Jeffery looked up at me as he screwed the lid back onto his water bottle. “I joined the marines,” he said softly, perhaps hoping I wouldn’t hear.
“What the fuck did you that for?” I asked. “No right thinking person joins the military, especially during wartime.”
He finished filling his water bottle. “I signed up for four years.” The stream bank was bright green with puffy mosses and cold grey granite glistening in the sun. “I leave in August.”
Until that moment I thought us similar people.
That was ten years ago. Now he is in the oil and gas business. On our long journeys up into the remote, high country he keeps me entertained with war stories. Most of them have to do with shore leave STDs and the relationships he formed with the other marines. I never asked if he killed anyone, but I imagined he did.
Back down the narrow trail I watch him take his first cautious steps onto the ridge, his naked skin reflecting the moonlight like a white shell pushed onto a black sand beach.
Jeffery is married and has three kids: two girls and a baby boy. At night, after work, he sits in his bathroom and drinks bourbon. His wife doesn’t know about this. She doesn’t know a lot about him. She doesn’t know he is deeply depressed and miserable. I didn’t know this either. Had I known, I may not have fed him his first hallucinogen that night.
Earlier, as we traversed through the low shrubs and alpine grasses, the mushrooms were starting to come on. Jeffery stopped walking--his face pinched in concentration. “I smell death,” he said, dropping to one knee. The moon was coming up over the mountains, illuminating the distant peak we were trying to summit by sunrise. He walked through the shrubs and disappeared behind a monolithic rock. The valley was totally silent. I smelled no death, just the lip balm I recently applied. The tension made me giggly.
Jeffery coursed his way through the shrubs toward the stream. He crouched, slowly stalking toward the stream. The mood was much heavier than I would have liked at the beginning of a mushroom trip. I wanted to yell, ‘Hey man! Let’s climb!’ I wanted to laugh and listen to stories about where one shits inside a humvee full of soldiers while traversing hostile territory in the Iraqi desert. Instead I waited in silence, waiting to see what he’d find.
The rising moon was a giant spotlight scanning every crevice for intruders. I did not want it to find us in this valley. We did not belong here. I feared the sun would never rise again.
Jeffery took cautious steps, his arms in front of him. He was moving toward the scent of death. From under a shrub, a cow elk leapt in front of him. She was weak and tired, but mustered the strength to bound a few hundred feet upstream before collapsing. As she crossed into the moonlight I saw the shaft of an arrow sticking out of her hindquarters. Jeffery was wearing a floppy sun hat that he bought at Knott’s Berry Farm while on vacation with his family.
“I chased her from the place she chose to die. We shouldn’t be here.” His voice was clipped, edging toward panic. “I saw the specter of death before she bounded. We shouldn’t be in this valley.”
Everything in the valley is perfect except for me. I am not the wounded elk. I am the impatient hunter who drew his bow and let loose the arrow despite knowing the shot was not a kill shot. I am bored. Everything in the valley has purpose except for me. I am not the soldier who went to war to test the morals I thought were mine only to learn they never existed. I am the one who feeds the soldier with the wounded mind hallucinogens just to prove how free I am; and more importantly to show him how trapped he is. I am an asshole.
We climb on. Jeffery follows my heels step for step. We are silent. I want to be away from him. We climb up out of the valley of the dying elk until we reach the high ridge where I begin to take off my clothes. This act is my effort to shake him, to prove just how different we really are.
Across the ridge is a scant path, no wider than a sidewalk. On either side are plummeting drops. The wind whips up from Dying Elk Valley, carrying the scent of death. I stumble and drop to my knees. I turn to see how far Jeffery has progressed across the ridge. He now is thirty paces behind me. He must not catch up to me. I unfold and quicken my step. Soon I reach the far end of the ridge and turn back to see Jeffery stopped in the middle of the narrow path. The wind is howling over the ridge. He is putting his clothes back on. It is a dangerous situation. What could be going on in his poor, sick mind to make him want to risk his life just to cover up his nudity?
I trudge upward, the last mile, my bare feet finding footing on the rough granite boulders, splattered with colorful lichen that reflect the silver light of the moon. ‘Poor Jeffery,’ I think. ‘Poor, poor Jeffery.’ Poor Jeffery. Poor, poor Jeffery. This becomes my mantra as I put one foot in front of the other. Poor Jeffery, poor, poor Jeffery. Poor Jeffery, Poor, Poor Jeffery. I think of him and what must be going through his mind as he sits on the razor’s edge of the earth, putting his clothes back on. Poor Jeffery, poor, poor Jeffery.
The summit peak is in view, a mere five hundred steps away, but each step takes an enormous effort. I feel the weight of my friend and his wounded mind following me up the path. As I draw closer, so close to the top, I stop to catch my breath. The moon casts my long shadow down the slope. Poor, Jeffery, poor, poor Jeffery.
The temperature near the top of the mountain is much colder than in the valley. The temperature must have dropped fifteen degrees. Dark clouds quickly blanket the moon. Despite the cold I want to reach the top naked. I want Poor Jeffery to see me standing on the peak in the moonlight.
The wind shifts in gusts. Sharp, gritty snow pelts into my side. In the air is the strong smell of animal, the ripe pungency of urine and hide. I look up to see a massive ten-point silver stag standing between the peak and me, glowing like Potter’s patronus. “It’s just us here,” I say to him. “Two stags on the top of the world.” He looks away, neither concerned, nor impressed. With my next step I slip on something warm and soft. My arms, stiff from the cold, react too slowly as my face slams into a protruding granite rock. The taste of rusty nails fills my mouth. I feel splintered bones of my front teeth. Blood explodes from my nose.
As if tripping up the stairs at school, I look to see if the stag witnessed my accident. He is no longer there, no trace except for his fresh excrement which is now covering my feet. I look back to see if Poor Jeffery saw me. I see his floppy hat meandering up the final approach to the peak. He is still too far away to have seen my gaff.
With numb fingers I try to open my backpack for a bandana to wipe the blood and shit from my face and feet. My broken teeth chatter uncontrollably as I fumble with the straps and zippers of my bag, which are stuck. I can’t get the fucking backpack open. I pick it up in a rage and throw it with all my might off of the mountain. “FUCK YOU!” I yell as it drops, filled with my clothes and food, down the cliff into the lake below.
Just below the peak, the moon parts the dark clouds and shines like a spotlight on my naked body. I am covered in blood and shit. I look out over the cliff to the lake below and black out.
When I come to, the sun is rising; Jeffery has wrapped me in an emergency blanket and is pouring hot coffee from the thermos he brought. “What the hell, man? What happened to you?” he said. “Where’s your backpack?” I look at him. His cheeks are rosy and his eyes clear. “W-w, w-why?” I mumble. “Why did you put your clothes back on?” He looks at me, surprised at the stupidity of my question.
He answers, “Because it got cold.”