I’m sitting in the valley as I write this, coffee steam billowing from my cup next to me, the mountains loom before me in their magnificent gentleness, my calves and feet ache. Yesterday I completed the through-hike of The Enchantments, an ~18 mile trek that careens upwards of 4800 feet through Asgaard Pass in the first few hours while daylight breaks over the summit and bathes Colchuck Lake below, enhancing the turquoise water. But our eyes are not on the lake beneath us, except to look to her to gauge our progress, but on the sunbleached rocks above.
Delirious, we stumble over the crest and onto what feels like another planet. There is no other way to describe this first glimpse of The Enchantments than otherworldly. Suffice it to say, there is a reason that I submit myself willingly to such physical and mental agony to be in that place. I have yet to find anywhere like it, and they lay hidden in the very mountains that I am now observing, the same mountains that watched over me as a child in the Leavenworth Valley. I completed my first through-hike in 2016 and have returned every year since. It’s as if I didn’t have a choice. I would beg my sister to never let me do this again while on the punishing ascent of Asgaard and be choosing which month would be best the following year by the time we were in the parking lot waiting for our uncle with melon as a treat for our struggle.
But this year was different.
We hiked mostly in silence. My sister stopped and took in views longer than normal. I was antsy, hiked ahead, waited, and looked around quickly.I just wanted to go home, to be done.
I realized that we were saying goodbye.
We dropped out of the Core Zone and started our descent, expertly navigating the trail and avoiding the accumulated mistakes of past years’ mishaps and wanderings. We plunked ourselves down for our ritual of whiskey, gummy candy, and lightening our pack of remaining snacks before the grueling plunge back to the valley floor.
“Do you want to do this again next year?” she asked in between gummys.
“You know, I’ve been thinking that I’m done,” I replied as I sipped whiskey.
We were ending.
Of course, we told each other we would return again one day, but in our silences, we had come to a mutual understanding that something was different. There are myriad of reasons why this year was the last for a while: the high amount of traffic on the trail, the familiarity of the sights, the absence of mistakes, and therefore, challenges. Personally, too, my mind was no longer challenged in the same way. The past had absolutely been a physical challenge, but also a mental one as I learned to quiet my mind through the 14 hours and get back into my body. I looked forward to this time to reset every year—I needed it. This time, though, I was just present to what was around me.I had come home to my mind.
As I sit now, I realize that I had thought that this meant the mountain had nothing left to teach me. I had learned my lessons, I had passed the test.
But this, now, is the final lesson: To leave, to end, to finish, to say goodbye.
It seems no coincidence that in the same year that I end with The Enchantments I am also ending my time as a student. I am no longer being called back to the mountain in the same way that I am no longer being called back to the red brick building. Or, if it is a calling, I am refusing to go (sorry, John Muir, but I’ll keep listening) because I know how important it is to end now.
In my final month in the building, I had written an essay about endings. I meant to submit it to the blog; it was a eulogy to my time as a student and employee at the school. I wrote about how frantic I had become at the end, trying to prepare for the future after school while missing out on what was in front of me. I was antsy, like I had been in the Enchantments, just wanting to skip to what was next and avoid the pain in front of me. The way forward, as I learned in the mountains, was to slow down and be present to the wonder around me. So then I wrote about how I would see groups of friends together around the old coffee-maker altar (how many times have we fellowshipped there?) and how I would have a jolt of awareness that this would no longer exist in a few months. It was ending. I was leaning into savoring the precious moments I had left.
We all know what happens next: COVID-19. We have all collectively had the breath knocked out of us in our particular griefs that have opened up from this pandemic. I feel speechless and gasping still, all of the words I had wanted to say feel empty and painful. The old essay is full of hope and goodness and poetry. It is not wrong, but it is no longer representative of what this particular ending means to me, to many of us.
So instead, like I do every summer, I return to the mountain which remains steadfast and faithful in a way only nature can right now. If I can summit that mountain in search of beauty despite the pain, I know I can end my time as a student and the plethora of endings and meanings that come with that simple act. And I can say: thank you. Thank you for allowing me to tread on your sacred and fragile terrain so that I may become whole again. Thank you for letting me fall in love with the world and myself again. Thank you for teaching me about my strength. Thank you for allowing me to curse you and stomp on you and still be welcomed into holy places. Thank you for being my prayer when I could no longer pray. In the words of the President of The Seattle School, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”