The car climbed and climbed and climbed. Up we went, our weight pressed against the seatbacks. The engine shifted down with a low whir, stirring beneath the hood to meet the rising pitch of the road. Russ pressed his foot firmly against the pedal, urging the car not to fall behind.
The road was quintessential Virginia, a long labyrinth of gentle curves, crossing a pastoral landscape. As we ascended the peak, the trees thickened on either side, joining ranks, loyal foot-soldiers called to order. Saluting us, they stood tall and proud, robust with spring coursing through their veins, enfolding us into the comfort of the forest’s bosom as we drove past.
The branches, heavy with leaves, formed a canopy, shading the road and cradling the blue sky above it. Long rays of sunshine pierced the gaps in between, like shiny swords electrified all the way down to the tips of their blades. Slivers of homes, beautifully crafted to complement the surrounding landscape, emerged amidst the sweeping canvas of green. Looking at them whooshing past, I wondered if they weren’t bolted to the hillside, in order not to slide off the edge.
We were halfway up the mountain, still climbing, when the forest bowed to the sky. Like the center of a clear blue diamond, it exploded across the horizon, dipping into the valley, unabashedly naked and free, a brazen display of its prowess. I reached out the window, my hand parting the drag as it rushed past the hood of the car. We were closer to Heaven’s door than not.
After another mile, Russ slowed the car, braking before turning right onto a gravel road. It pulled the headlights down hard, as if its fingers were clenched around our throats. Small grey stones were embedded flat, the rough edges fitting around each other gracefully like a mosaic, full of hope. Rolling out from under our wheels, the road beckoned to us, like a treasure hunt waiting to be discovered.
I couldn’t wait to get outside.
In anticipation, I said to Russ, “We should just hike up the road when we get to the bottom.”
“Jenn,” he said, “We are here to go hiking, not do a work-out.”
I rolled my eyes and made a mental note to put this location on our list for further exploration at a later date.
“We could bring our bikes back here,” I said. “This would be a great place to ride.”
This time Russ rolled his eyes.
“Why? So you can ride your handbrake all the way to the bottom?”
I twisted my face in disapproval.
We parked along the gravel off to the side, along with several other cars. The trail invited us in, starting gently, before it turned, heading straight up. It didn’t take long to shake our cobwebs loose. We picked up the rhythm, despite the terrain, swinging our limbs in newfound freedom. A brook babbled close by, the only sound to counter the scuff of our treads against the dirt, hard as bone, what is left after a lifetime of erosion.
As we dug into the climb, I reminded myself it would be easier on the way back. This was an empty consolation I fed my inner critic to supplicate its whine. It was a cheap incentive, but somehow stretching the truth always provides the necessary comfort, when facing a formidable challenge.
Sweating now, we looked down, watching our feet. Russ and I wound ourselves between the patches of rocks and over the roots; long, thick bands of muscle that crisscrossed the trail. The sound of the bubbling water faded into the distance, overshadowed by the swirling air pressed from our lungs. We climbed and turned, digging our toes in and leaning back when the trail changed tack, descending into the belly of the valley. After an hour and a half of a good clip, not convinced we were making a loop, but straying further from the start, we decided to turn around.
I ripped open a bag of trail mix, grabbing a fistful. The local bakery calls it “Magic Bus.” It’s a favorite treat of mine. Throwing my head back on the trail, I filled my gullet. As I chewed the crunchy peanuts, tempered by the dark chocolate chips, it dawned on me why I loved hiking so much.
It’s not just the amazing scenery. I love hiking because it requires a certain level of concentration to do it well, in addition to the physical toll it takes. Picking up each foot, holding it a fraction longer at the top of its arc, before considering where to place each step, lures my thoughts closer to my chest. Hiking creates a protective cocoon from distracting thoughts, a flickering space on the move, almost sacred. Moments like these, strung together, are like shells on a rope necklace, when footfalls and thoughts are aligned, long-lost best friends who have finally found each other’s hand.
I wanted to keep going forever.
After we finished hiking, Russ and I returned to DC. I picked up a book I’ve been reading for a while, We Were the Mulvaneys, by Joyce Carol Oats. Taking this long to get through a book is usually a sign there is no love affair between us. I’ve read a lot of other books in the meantime, putting this one on the back burner again and again.
In an effort to finish, I hatched a new plan. I started skimming. I justified this tactic looking at my growing pile of books, each its own racehorse boxed in its stall, waiting patiently to be led to the gate next. This is breaking a cardinal rule for me, like combing against the grain, or cutting the proverbial corner. Besides, I have a sweet tooth and like to fall into a story, savoring every word, as if it’s dessert.
But I’m reading We Were the Mulvaneys with as much depth as a lawn mower, flying along, trimming the edges off, not cutting into the shaggy locks below. Despite this, the book has become more interesting. I’ve skated over thick passages of details and description, grabbing only the nuts and bolts, where the real movement of the story lies. In essence, I’ve sped the story up to my liking.
It seems novels, like people, contain kinetic energy. Some are best approached as leisurely walks through the garden. Savoring the sweet fragrance of the honeysuckle, appreciating the vibrant blooms of the tulips, or being inspired by the flames of the setting sun, is more important than where the journey goes, or where it ends. Other books thrive when sprinted, such as anything by Stephen King, where the adventure always leaves the reader sweaty and wide-eyed. Then there are those, such as No Country for Old Men (C. McCarthy), The Emissary (Y. Tawada), or The Friend (S. Nunez) . Stories like these are best tackled with a “hiking” mindset, as the words lean into the story, pushing back against it, not unlike a trail’s cascade of rocks and intricate web of roots to a hiker’s foot. These skillfully crafted stories are my favorite, their prose succulent and nourishing, a banquet for the soul.
Consummate readers understand the phenomena of “reading the right book at the right time.” How does a book find us, when we most need to read it, when it is likely to leave the greatest impression, acting as a key and opening the door to possibility, like a talisman, hidden?
I don’t know how, but it does. They do. Bending back the cover with my hands, the “right” story inhales as if waking from its sleep, the characters coming alive off the page, hands outstretched.
I don’t want the story to end.
It’s too good to be over any time soon.
Just like a great hike…
“…when footfalls and thoughts are aligned, long-lost best friends who have finally found each other’s hand.”
I want it to last forever.
“Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope…”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.