I am awake, but just barely. The inside of my tent is covered in the typical morning condensation, I notice, as I struggle to untwist my body from the sleeping bag. Inside the bag I am covered in sweat. My feet, protruding as always out the zipper at the base, are white as ghosts and half frozen. It’s my way of maintaining some balance.
I stretch and shimmy out of the bag careful to keep any bare skin on the warm cloth parts and away from the vinyl tent floor which might or might not be soaked through with ground water. The air is crisp still, so I’m quick in throwing on a shirt and pants. I pull a pair of socks from deep in the sleeping bag. For the last few trips I’ve learned to keep them there so they’ll be warm in the morning. Morning warmth is rare.
I tell people I’m always hot, and it’s true for the most part. My body does run warm, especially at night. Its difficult to find a comfortable position in a bed with sheets, let alone a constrictive sleeping bag. But somewhere in the night, or perhaps the early morning, that heat seeps out of me. When I wake up in those first moments I am cold. With the exception of being sick, its the only time I ever really feel cold.
I unzip the flap to the tent and reach out for my boots which have hopefully stayed dry beneath the rain fly. Its awkward positioning myself to step up into them, but my bladder cannot be ignored. I don’t bother tightening the laces yet; that can wait for later. I shuffle in too few layers over to the woods to relieve myself, all the while shivering with the cold, sticky feeling of morning dew. It’s too early to wash up even if there were a stream nearby so I do what I can and wipe my face on the inside of my shirt, trying to rub off the feeling of night. It never works.
The fire is out. Not even coals are left. We’ll use our stoves for breakfast. Putting the fire back out would take too long and we have a lot of distance to cover today. Still, the fire would force away the chill. The smoke would offer a welcome change to the smell of mildew and unwashed bodies. Nearby, someone coughs in their tent.
I wander around the camp a bit, avoiding breaking down the tent just yet. My hands are numb and not functioning well just yet. They’ll need time to wake. So I stretch my legs and look around.
The camp isn’t in a valley, per se, but more of a saddle before the next peak. Our trail hit a moraine late in the day so we decided to hike around. I didn’t really like the spot we chose, but it was late and I was out voted. The wood here is mostly ponderosa and apache pine which smell like old root beer to me. They tell me it smells like vanilla. Perhaps it’s just too early to tell.
Everything is cast in a pale, gray light that seems less like dawn and more like the night got bored and floated away. We eat breakfast in that shell of light. No one speaks. Slowly we break camp. The condensation on my tent pools as I roll it and strap it to my pack. It will be dank tonight. Finally I kneel to tighten my laces and feel every hot spot on my foot ache with the knowledge of what is about to come. With a great heave, my pack slides onto my shoulders. Someone decides to hike along the side of the mountain until we catch the trail again. I’m a slow hiker, so they put me on point to keep us together.
The ground is all wet needles and shrub grass. We hold saplings for support and hop from tree to tree. Every few hundred feet someone loses their footing and glissades down below. It isn’t long before we have two rows marching together. I keep my footing this day and stay with the high group. Still no one speaks.
The time stretches on like it can only do in the wilderness. It has been only, perhaps, thirty minutes, but it might have been days. My body, still sticky with cold and soot and grime, is in autopilot. My mind is back in the tent struggling between the heat and the chill. We are all lost in our heads. Then it comes.
Without a hint of gradation, without any preface at all, the sun is in my eyes. A great wave of warmth slams against my face and the chill that seemed to creep from my bones is banished in an instant. The high line stops hiking. We soak in the light and open our eyes for the first time. Here, off the trail, halfway up the mountain I can see everything. The light shines across the landscape with a flood of color and vibrancy that reveals the hidden treasures we’ve been moving through. Everything is alive, pulsating, breathing with the wind. Everything is aflame with the sun.
But there, below us not 20 feet away is the low line, still shambling along half asleep. No one speaks. I look to our line and they look to me. No one speaks.