I had said the trip up was harder on my lungs, struggling to adjust to the altitude, the pack, the ten or so extra pounds that I disparagingly refer to as the Turpin Ten, and the trip down was harder on my body, knees that ache from the constant constraint. Before me, I could see the serpentine trail of switchbacks, first right to left and then the reverse until they disappeared somewhere in the distance farther down the mountain. The sun was three hours past crossing the meridian, three hours past high noon, what they used to call the ninth hour, 3 p.m., the hour of Mercy. The shadows, where there were shadows, were beginning to lengthen. Gone was the shade of the early morning eastern path where we could hide from the sun behind sandstone cliffs as we ascended the 2100 feet to the lookout. On our return the unrelenting sun, still not far enough across the sky, had not paled in its intensity, the clear cloudless blue announcing there would be no unexpected shower today, no break from the heat that emanated from the smooth rock surrounding us
Conversely, there would be no flash flood waters rushing past us like the pounding torrents we experienced yesterday as we made our way to this valley. I pull tighter the waist belt on my pack, asking my hips to bear more of the burden than my shoulders, weary of the load at this late hour, and while I have pulled long and often on the water bladder, the pack still seems as heavy as when I enthusiastically strapped it on at dawn. It is mercifully time for a rest, for sitting in the shade of a tree, away from the radiating heat of the merciless sun.
Exiting the apex of the switchback, I zig along the straightaway before the next turn, where I zag, taking in the sculptural stone walls that surround me. Midway, down on the right, a tree clings to the side of the mountain, and a breeze is blowing up through the canyon, the leaves fluttering invitingly. The shade from the tree crosses the path on the eastern side, and there are just enough branches for me to hang my two cameras, my walking stick and my hat. Beneath it, just off the path is a flat rock. It begs my pack to lean against it in a manner that creates the perfect backrest. The very lowest accessible branches are like a footstool, elevated just enough to provide comfort to my tired and swollen feet.
Purposefully, I approach and begin the arduous process of unraveling pole, camera, and pack straps, hanging them safely in plain view away from the trail action and safe from oncoming disturbances like the coterie of office mates that can't help but take up space and quiet to reveal the mundane details of their office step competitions. Slowly, I lower myself in the loamy soil and lean back against my pack, marveling at the near perfection of it all. It is then that I realize placing the hat over my face would shield me from the sun's rays that flicker between the leaves that rustle on this gentle slope. It is the one missing ingredient, and so I pull it from its branch on the tree and settle back into place. My weary bones seem to exhale synchronously with the breath that leaves my lungs, and my heavy lids slowly slide shut. I drift from this spot, in the shade, under the tree, into contentedness, happy in the company of friends, satisfied by the toil of a good day's climb, rewarded by the majestic beauty and wonder the universe has delivered on this day and comforted by the peace of the valley. Instants become seconds that become minutes, and before too long, reality sets in and I acknowledge that without care, I could lose the last of the afternoon sun that illuminates the path and my way home, and I am inspired to rise and dress for the final push to the valley floor.
That's when I see it. Close to the rock, where my pack rests, lies a penny in the dusty sandstone soil of the path, face up. This cent, this copper currency, monetarily insignificant, an unlikely sight on this dusty trail.
I never fail to pick up a penny if I happen to see one. My mother tucked lucky pennies like she did Kleenex, in lunchboxes and pockets, to be found later like armor safeguarding me against the unimaginable. The gleaming copper coin conjuring memories of penny loafers and days in that small southern women's college where ponytails, polo shirts, and add-a-bead necklaces were the uniform of choice. Boys in pink colored oxford cloth shirts and khaki pants tailored to the perfect length, wearing belts decorated with frogs and turtles, skipped classes and shuffled to and from parties where they served grain alcohol punch. A penny was first in what became a collection of lucky talismans collected from travels and friends through the years, which now resides in a small linen bag that is never far from me. These amulets imbued with belief, inanimate and influential, of protection, fortune and safe passage on this human journey.
Before slipping it into the zippered compartment of my hiking shorts, I look for the year of its minting. Two thousand. Y2k. The new millennium. The turn of the century and the year I moved west to California, a move of providence and luck that set in motion all the future eventualities that made me the woman I am in this place that I love, made my life.
Slowly, I descend the treacherous zigzags of the steep terrain, step after step navigating the sharp turns and loose gravel of the path. I have only recently discovered that switchbacks are indigenous to the west, deeply rooted in the mountains and valleys of this part of the world. The switchback is an ascent of pace, patterning as it does the steep inclines of the titanic west, so different from the east where the horizontal hand over hand climes affect the discipline and efficiency of my Puritan ancestors. This ethic, this frugality, reverberated deeply within me, rewarding speed and destination over the journey. I no longer feel this way, my beloved California broke me of this type of productivity. Like I said, Providence and luck.
Switchbacks have taught me much about conquering the peaks and hollows of my own life. I prefer steady steps at a comfortable pace with companions of similar sensibility, taking frequent breaks along the way when the path is straightforward and shaded, reveling in the natural beauty borne of some more magnificent design. I am meant to wander these canyons and narrows and relish the majestic grandeur of each moment along the trail, rather than merely see it as a means to an end.