Five Minutes

The League of Utah Writers held its annual conference this year in Logan, Utah on August 28th and 29th.  From what I hear it was the most successful conference the league has ever presented.

I taught a class on foreign/artificial language in writing and learned from other presenters on their own topics of expertise.  Prior to the conference I’d submitted a number of pieces for their writing contest and won first place for my creative nonfiction piece “Five Minutes.”

I thought I’d share it with you.  🙂

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A big thank you to the Cache Valley Branch of the league for the honest and helpful critiques over the years.  You’ve helped me learn (and continue to learn) how to write.

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Five Minutes

With the glimpse of flowering blossoms rustling in an April breeze or the orange beams of a sunset on wispy clouds, there are times when I catch a glimmer of beauty that stays with me forever.  This is why I climb mountains.  Only where earth meets sky, can I truly feel free, if for only five minutes.

In the summer of 2008, I arrived in Japan fresh out of college and ready to show the world what I could do.  I planned to climb Mt. Fuji as a grand welcoming to the land of the rising sun.  Conquering Fuji-san was like conquering myself, proof that I could endure my years away from home.

Unlike the other mountains I’ve climbed, Mt. Fuji rises so prominently over packed cities and mountainous landscape that it dominates the skyline for more than a hundred miles.  It is the subject of countless poems, photographs and artwork, and it is the single most recognizable symbol of Japan.

The best peaks offer more than just a good view; they offer an array of life, nature, and landscape.  The trail up Mt. Naomi in Northern Utah passes through meadows thick with wildflowers that slope into an alpine wilderness.  Teewinot in the Wyoming Tetons is not for the faint of heart, with its steep trails and dangerous cliffs, rising to a pinnacle that drops a sheer three thousand feet into Cascade Canyon.

Mt. Fuji, an active volcano, offers rocks.  Big rocks, small rocks, round rocks, sharp rocks, lots and lots of boring, brown rocks.

To be fair, I only climbed the upper part of Fuji-san.  A lush landscape surrounds the lower half, but that isn’t where people usually start, and like most people, I began my ascent just below tree line at the Subaru Fifth Station on the Yoshida trail, Yoshida Subaru Gogome.

The fifth station is a tourist trap, and with the exception of a small Shinto shrine, the hotels and shops looked like a tacky alpine village.  If I didn’t know any better, I’d have sworn I was in a ski resort.

Mt. Fuji itself looms over the hotels and souvenir shops, or so I imagined, were it not for the clouds blocking the view.  Fuji-san is an extraordinarily shy mountain.  She’s so large she has her own weather patterns and gladly snatches nearby clouds to wrap around herself like a fluffy blanket.

Every good hike needs a walking stick, and with my favorites still back in the U.S., I perused the shops whose selections included a variety of staffs, each with intricately carved mountain gods or local animals.  I opted for a plain, four-foot wooden pole.  This has since become one of my best hiking sticks.

Two Japanese signs marked the trailhead on the far side of the fifth station, and a line of haggard returning hikers ambled past as I took my first steps onto the trail.  They leaned on their own walking sticks, cringing with each step.  I gulped and sped on, the path couldn’t be that difficult, could it?

Lush trees and pink flowers lined the way, and the hum of cicada song punctuated the ambience.  Miniature shrines dedicated to the mountain gods dotted the path, and one such statue stood winking at passersby with a small pile of coins at its base.  I couldn’t decide whether his expression wished good luck or was meant to encourage donation.  I still had a few pennies in my wallet, so I left them for him, hoping that American currency would bring as much luck as Japanese.

It didn’t.

The trees soon parted at the sixth station, rokugome.  From here, the land below stretched into the horizon, growing from a canopy of green.  Sadly all I saw was gray fog.  The trail widened, zigzagging into the mists as the ascent began in earnest.  Most people turned back here, satisfied with the forty-minute nature trail.

I climbed into the drifting haze above, and it dampened the sound of other hikers, leaving me isolated with my thoughts.  For the first time, I contemplated what I was doing.  Here I was, on the other side of the world, and climbing a mountain I’d only seen in pictures or film.  The thought invigorated my muscles and drove me on.  I’d worked for years to finish my degrees and move out into the world, and now I at last I was here.

There’s a saying in China, “He who does not reach the Great Wall is not a true man.”  The Japanese have a similar phrase, “Fuji-san, ichido mo noboranu baka, nido noboru baka.”  This roughly translated as, “He who has never climbed Mt. Fuji is a fool, and he who climbs it twice is a greater fool.”  In China, I passed my test into manhood, and now I would prove I was no fool.

Still, what about climbing Mt. Fuji twice made you a greater fool?

The path gradually narrowed until the switchbacks stopped at the seventh station, nanagome, a collection of mountain huts offering lodging, overpriced food, and outrageously expensive water.  Each hut also offered a special hot iron stamp for your walking stick as proof you’d made it this far.  For a price, of course.  I leaned on my pole and sighed as the man pressed an iron to my stick.

I felt like such a tourist.

Nanagome, the seventh station.  The word “nana” in Japanese means “seven,” but there’s also another word for it, shichi.  “Shi” has connotations with death, so while Shichigome means “the seventh station,” in liberal interpretation, it could also mean “the death station.”  Not a particularly pleasant thought and I wondered why my mind focused on that obscure aspect of the Japanese vernacular.

I’d passed hundreds of people on the trail, but it was those in their sixties, seventies, and dare I say eighties that impressed me the most.  They huffed, moved slowly, but kept going.  Their determination reminded me of Ulrich Inderbinen, a mountain guide who scaled the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps three-hundred and seventy times, with his last ascent being at the age of ninety.  He’d continued to climb other alpine peaks until retiring at ninety-five.

The sky cleared.  At last, I could see the top, closer than I’d anticipated.  Both my legs and feet rejoiced.  I already felt bruises on the bottom of my feet, and a blister growing under my little toe didn’t help.  I sat on one of the benches at nanagome and eased my shoes off, spilling out the tiny stones that’d fallen in.  My soles were red.  It’s amazing how much lava rock hurts, even through thick shoes.

Here and there patches of green dotted the brownish slope, and an occasional bird darted about, snatching insects.  A small cliff of rock jutted from the top and was the only feature of note.  When compared to the Idol and Worshiper on Mt. Teewinot, it wasn’t much to look at.  Still, that was my goal, and I would meet it before sundown.

The clouds reached and pulled back like wispy fingers reaching for an endless sky.  One in particular rose like a menacing shadow over the others, and for the first time, I began to question the wisdom of climbing the tallest mountain in Japan while a tropical storm hovered off the Honshu coast.

Fuji-san’s shadow reached over the clouds in a perfect cone.  It grew, moving like a stalker through the mists as the hours waned.

The higher I climbed, the more difficult it became to breathe, with each inhale harder than the last.  My muscles tingled and my head spun with the beginnings of altitude sickness.  Although sleeping in the huts at the top would help me acclimatize, this was going to be a long, headache filled night.

A sinking pit welled in my stomach as I neared the rocky outcropping.  There were ten stations, and if I was near the top, why hadn’t I come across the eighth yet?

I sighed.  Yes, this “top” was the eighth station, hachigome.  I looked back at the rocky outcropping I wrongly thought my goal.  It now sat at least two or three hundred feet below.

The sky brightened with the last shades of twilight and when the slivers of pinkish sunlight faded, the moon rose like a pale lantern, illuminating distant clouds.

I looked for the altitude marker and my heart sank.  I still had more than four hundred and thirty-six meters to go!  Fourteen hundred feet!  It was like climbing every step in the Empire State Building with another four hundred left to spare.

The man in the last hut looked with trepidation at the path ahead, and advised me to stay there for the night since I hadn’t brought a flashlight.  I looked up, this time not at a false top, but the real goal.  I shook my head.  No.  I set out to climb this mountain today, and I was going to do it.  I came to Japan for the experience, and if I stopped now I might as well turn around and go home.  I needed to prove I could do it.  If I succeeded, then perhaps I could find a place in the land of the rising sun.  I held out my staff and paid the man to stamp it, proof that I’d at least made it this far.  He sighed and gave me a knowing look, as if I’d not been the first to ignore his sound advice.

I trudged on, stubborn determination carrying my steps far above Hachigome.  I looked back at the line of headlamps and flashlights dotting the trail between the seventh and eighth stations.  None followed past that point.

I was alone on the mountain, just like I was alone in Japan.

The clouds crept back so slowly that I didn’t notice until they’d completely obscured the moon, leaving me in darkness.  The rising winds chilled my skin and the last leg of the journey sapped my stamina.  At this height, the lack of oxygen makes each step an expression of sheer will.  Altitude sickness is a little like having the flu; your skin tingles and all of your muscles lose their strength.

To keep myself going, I counted my steps.  One.  Two.  Three.  Every time I reached fifty, I’d stop to catch my breath.  Again.  One.  Two.  Three.  Ten.  Twenty.  Or was that Twenty-one?  My oxygen-deprived mind lost itself in the simplicities of basic math.

The ninth station, Kyugome, was little more than a trail marker.  No hot food, no warming huts, and no one to stamp my stick.  More rocks had collected inside of my shoes and the blister on my toe was now the throbbing size of my thumbnail.  My will to go on faded and I looked back at the “death station” far below and struggled to banish unpleasant thoughts of my own demise.

Then the rain started.

Water pelted my face in gusts that blew me about while I felt my way up the trail with my walking stick.  The mountain winds howled, and shivering, I drew my jacket around my neck.

What was I doing?  Why was I here?  Not just on Mt. Fuji, but in Japan?  I stood on the opposite side of the world, with an ocean between me and my home.  I wanted independence, freedom, but I was fresh out of college.  It was like I’d jumped into the deep end of the pool without checking whether I could swim.

One.  Two.  Three.  The winds whisked my words away.  Aching, soaked and chilled I rounded a bend and squinted to see a torii gate.  Jugome.  The last station!  Only two more switchbacks stood between me and a warm blanket.  My knees buckled under the pressure, but gasping for breath, I carried myself up and passed through the threshold.

I looked about.  Why was it dark?

I walked past the mountain shacks in confused bewilderment.  I’d taken too long to get here and they’d closed for the night.

Years ago, during a particularly cold day in Switzerland I got caught in die Bieza, a bone-chilling winter wind common in the alpine valleys.  I experienced a case of mild hypothermia where my core body temperature dropped several degrees.  I spend an hour in a warm bath, but it wasn’t until about a week later when my body completely recovered.

My frantic knocks on the doors went unheeded, and I brought my knees to my chest as I shivered and slumped against one of the buildings to huddle out of the storm.  The air prickled my skin and blew almost as cold as it had in Switzerland, only this time with a chill rain.  I’d conquered the summit of Mt. Fuji, but she wouldn’t yield a victory so easily.  Was this what it was like actually living out in the world, away from a sheltered college life?  I was woefully unprepared for this mountain, so was I likewise unprepared to live away from home?

A group of people from India who’d also braved the hike arrived thirty minutes later, and we kept each other company until someone noticed us and opened the door.

The warm perfume of kerosene rushed into my face as I stepped into the hut.  My wet clothes clung to my skin, and after paying the mandatory fee, I took my bed, bunked among dozens of others.  The heavy blankets soothed my muscles and I drifted into restless sleep.

I woke to the commotion of hundreds of people.  Stumbling from my bunk, tired and stiff, my clothes still wet, I glanced through the crowd.  Many had spent the night, but many more had climbed after the rains had died down earlier that morning.  Everywhere people slurped small bowls of soba noodles and drank green tea.

I stepped outside and scowled.  Clouds had covered the mountain again, obscuring any view of the legendary Fuji sunrise.

I walked the caldera, up above the Jugome and away from the crowds.  I wanted to be alone when the sun rose, even if I couldn’t see it.  I stared at the reddening glow, disappointed.  All of that effort and no sunrise.  Worse yet, the hike back down would probably be nothing but a dull, gray fog.

As if in answer to my disheartened inner voice, or in reward for coming this far, Fuji-san showed compassion, and she parted the vapor.

Below, the clouds rolled in a sea of violet, and above, they coalesced into a ceiling of wavy red.  The sky between opened into a narrow corridor that stretched into a horizon of shimmering gold.

Rising like a red orb, the sun peeked over the blanket like a shy child gauging an audience.  From the station below, people called to it, raising their hands three times and cheering in unison.  “Banzai!  Banzai!  Banzai!

For five minutes I stared awestruck at the halo of color.  For five minutes I was free.  Free of care, worry, or pain.  My cramped legs became a distant moan, and my headache faded into the first light of the rising sun.

Fuji-san gave me a moment of paradise that I’ll ever thank her for.  The fog soon rushed across the caldera, again obscuring the horizon and leaving me with a bright, gray haze.

It was enough.

One of the men at the tenth station, jugome, stamped my stick with bright red kanji, Japanese characters proving that I’d made it.  That stick sits in the corner of my room, and every time I look at it, that red mark serves as a reminder of Fuji-san, and the lessons she taught.

I climb mountains for those rare moments when, in the freedom offered by the high places of the world, I catch a glimpse of beauty and understand what it means to live.  Though an ocean stood between me and my home, I now knew I could face what Japan offered.  As long as she, from time to time, gave me five minutes.

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