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California Adventures: Alone on the Mountain

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“…Turn around…”

Searching for Rachel’s voice, I stopped several yards up the hill and looked back.  My gaze lifted to what was before us: A flaming red sun peaking through hazy blue-grey clouds that gave its flare an almost anamorphic quality as it split the sky.

“…we have to hurry…”

“We’ll make it.  Just keep going.”

The plan had seemed simple enough.  Get up at 4, 4:30, eat a quick breakfast, and huff it up Ryan Mountain as quick as we could to catch the sunrise.

“It’ll be 107 today, but as long as we’re coming back down the mountain by the time it starts to really heat up, we’ll be okay,” we reasoned.

It was the beginning of our first day out of Los Angeles, itself wracked by heat waves strong enough to cook eggs on the sidewalk.  The evening before, we had fought rush hour traffic out of the city, the whole time flanked with spectacular views of the fires that had started in the hills beyond.

We were on the first leg of our journey through many of the beautiful National Parks that California is home to.  The smoke still wafted high in the air as we approached Twentynine Palms, and the sunset at Joshua Tree National Park the evening prior had been amazing.

Our sleep had not been.

Between attempting to figure out our bedding in the cramped quarters of our rented campervan and the dreadful, relentless heat that baked us into the wee hours of the morning, Rachel and I barely slept.

Using flashlights to cut through the desert blackness, we sat at the picnic table in front of our camp stove and ate a delicious PaleoMealsToGo breakfast.  As I fired the stove back up to heat the water for our pourover coffee, Rachel asked, “Why don’t we fill up a Klean Kanteen with hot water and make our pourover at the top?”

“I could really go for some coffee now,” I said wearily, “but that sounds pretty awesome.  Let’s do it!”

We stuffed all of the necessary equipment in our bags and set off.

Forty five minutes later as we rounded the bend coming up the mountain, we noticed the sun beginning to rise, blearily peeking out from its billowy cloud cover like an under-rested traveler catching a red eye.

I sympathized.

It felt like we had gone straight up.  The switchbacks were almost maddening, and I was feeling every ounce of extra water and steel on my back.  But even though our legs burned in the race with the sun, seeing the sky when we did gave us our second wind.

By the time we reached the summit, sunrise was coming into full swing.  We sat at the base of a massive rock pile on the peak, slowly pouring hot water through our Snow Peak pourover cone and enjoying the show.  For an hour, we sipped our coffee and talked and watched the world awaken.  The Joshua trees cast their crooked shadows as golden light streaked across the sweeping slopes of the mountains all around us.  Photographs formed themselves before me as I stood behind my tripod, and all I could think was, “We were the lords of all creation…”

It was glorious.

Around 7am, we reasoned it was probably time to start heading back down.  As we were packing up to leave, fate stepped in and brought another couple from Germany to the summit.  We got to chatting, and exchanged “we were here” photos with them before we began the downward trek.  The way back was far easier on our cardiovascular systems, but much more strenuous on our out-of-practice, minimally-shod feet.  As we rounded the sweepers, we encountered two more groups of folks, totaling about two dozen, and smiled to ourselves as we realized just how utterly divine it had been to be given so much time alone to breathe.

By the simple act of walking, by communing with nature in such a rare and awe-inspiring place, by taking the time to stop our hurrying and settling down to have coffee with the morning light and the weathered, pockmarked face of the land around us and listen to the stories it had to tell us…my mind began to calm for the first time in a long time.

I had planned out our route fairly well.  I had known this trip was going to be a long one—1600 miles plus.  We had flown from one place of urban sprawl to another, valiantly fought our way through, and found a campsite in this quiet place of refuge—a place that we had worried about finding.

But until that sunrise, until that cup of coffee, I had seen it as something to stress about.  Something to plan.  Something to attempt to be ready for.  It was not until we reached the top of Ryan Mountain that I realized that none of the stressing or planning or worrying mattered.  That the best thing I could do was quiet myself, and listen to what was around me.  That I would learn more about existence by existing than thinking about existing.  That being in that moment with Rachel was what it was all about.

So this morning, when you wake up and make your coffee, I implore you to take a moment.  Open your window, breathe in the morning, and ask, “What do you have in store for me today?”

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