It is about a mile to the top of the mountain. The trail is rocky and narrow, so narrow that two people cannot walk side-by-side. In late summer the thick canopy of trees offers little in the way of shelter from the fleece-like heat, but a few of the trees have already started dropping leaves, most of them red, like paper napkins blown off a picnic table.
I'm climbing this mountain not because it's beautiful and not because it's wonderful exercise, though it is both of those things. I'm climbing this mountain because Katherine asked me to climb it with her.
It was 35 years ago this month that Katherine and I met — she a naive freshman, me an experienced sophomore. Only it wasn't really anything like that. Katherine was then, and still is, the daredevil, the risk-taker. I was, and still am, the planner, the caution light, the holder of the safety net. It was an unlikely friendship, but all these years later very easy to explain — Katherine has always made sure that I didn't take life too seriously while my job was to make sure that she took it seriously enough. Two sides of the scale perfectly balanced.
Like most people who have maintained a close relationship for that long, we bear scars — some self-inflicted, some inflicted by other people, and, the hardest to admit, some inflicted by each other. Both of us have lines at the corners of our eyes that were not there when we faced off against each other on the soccer field. Both of us have hearts marked by disappointment and discontent. Our stories are, simultaneously, different and the same as the years have overlapped at odd and interesting angles.
Where they have overlapped on this particular Sunday morning is the mountain just down the road from where Katherine has recently moved to take a new job. We've undertaken more than one physical adventure together (including the white water rafting trip in which three of us — Katherine, myself and our girlfriend, Robbie — navigated an eight-person raft through a hydraulic in Class 3 rapids to our guide's cries of "Textbook! Simply textbook!", but it's been a while. Still, it is easy to fall into a rhythm of walking and talking that I have experienced with few others.
"Keep your eyes on the ground," Katherine warns me as we cross the short bridge that lies near the bottom of the trail. She's been doing the mountain every day for several weeks now and knows the terrain. "It's rocky and it will be easy to turn an ankle if you're not careful." I don't like this idea; I want to see the trees and whatever birds might be around. And it feels odd to have Katherine be the cautious one — she who climbed the water tower at Wesleyan in the dark, she who stopped her car in the rain and pulled a bleeding truck driver from his vehicle and stayed with him until the ambulance came, she who knows no fear except that of a mother.
At the summit we rest for a few minutes, make friends with the dogs — a boxer and a golden retriever — of a couple of other hikers and then start back down. Katherine reminds me to keep my eyes on my feet and I squelch the protest that rises in my throat. She is, after all, only trying to protect me and it's not as though I've never seen a tree.
About halfway down the mountain Katherine stops to point out something at her feet. A handful of nuts, dark and shaped like tiny figs, lie atop a cushion of fallen leaves. Nearby are a scattering of chartreuse-colored acorns, longer and bigger than any we've ever seen. A careful examination of my Audubon book will later reveal that the acorns come from a chinkapin oak and that the nuts are chestnuts.
Only when my visit is over, when I am driving myself down the interstate toward home does it occur to me that we never would have found the treasures had we not been looking down. Had we not been moving slowly. Had we not been being careful. What an unexpected lesson for me to learn from Katherine.
Thirty-five years is a long time, but not nearly long enough. I get the distinct feeling that there are more mountains to climb, more treasures to find and more lessons to learn.