Curiosity piqued at the mountain’s peak

John Pepin

“Losin’ wouldn’t be so bad at all but I’m always on a mountain when I fall.”

– Merle Haggard

From down here, I can see a ridgeline high above me.

It sits across a river valley and then almost straight up about five hundred feet through steep and aggressive terrain.

The ridge is covered with wide-trunked pine trees growing up out of less-than-ideal soils. The dark, Sacramento-green color of these trees contrasts beautifully against the berry-blue sunshiny skies.

I have often stood at this place here, leaning on a rail where a battered wooden-plank bridge once graced the scene with its simple beauty, form and function.

I have stood wondering if I could ever get up to that ridgeline to have a look around. There seems to be a landing or a plateau where I could sit.

So far, I’ve only tried it in my mind.

I have wondered whether there is a way to approach the ridge from the top.

Maybe there is an old gravel or two-track road winding up there from the forest floor -a road not likely appearing on any maps.

From the valley side here, it seems like it’s too steep a climb.

I can see from where I’m standing that there are also places up there where nothing is growing.

These are places where the rock and soil footing for the trees, even with their mighty root systems, has proved insufficient to keep some of these giant pine sentinels from toppling or slipping before crashing down with what must certainly be a tremendous noise into the valley below.

I know that if I was still a kid, I’d be bold and foolish enough to try to climb right up that mountain face. My heart tells me even now that I can do it, but time and past experience has taught me to think at least twice before trying.

Finding a road to make an ascent to the top, even if I were to walk all the way up, is one thing. Directly engaging the cliff slope is quite a bit different.

The loose rocks and amount of sand and gravel visible from even down here tell me it would likely be a harrowing experience.

But I also think that if I could make it, it would be worth it.

I don’t know if anyone has ever been up there before or not.

It seems like climbing up to an eagle’s aerie or something just as treacherous.

But the experience of being able to see the view from up there, as well as the rush of personal accomplishment I think I would feel, has kept the idea swirling around in my head for years now.

I’ve stood here and looked up to that ridge in every season of the year, on snowy and rainy days and clear days like today. No matter the conditions, no matter the time of year, I always stop to look up there and wonder.

Could I make it?

Should I really decide to try to do this?

When I think I might physically be up to the challenge, my brain is quick to remind me of falls I’ve taken before, times I’ve been hurt taking only one ill-advised step or lost my balance and tumbled.

I also know that most of making the climb successfully is in my mind.

I would need to overcome any doubts, fears and any misgivings about myself and my abilities.

Having said that, I am not afraid.

Love is but a song we sing, fear’s the way we die.

I would be smart to also employ some tools, like a topographic map to help me best understand the terrain and the nature of the incline over the distance from the bottom to the top.

Of course, I would need to wear my fire boots or some other rugged footwear that would make it easier for me to make my way over loose ground while also not slipping on flat rock surfaces.

I’d also wear long sleeves and maybe a jacket or another shirt to help protect my arms if I were to fall. Some gloves would be a good idea too.

I guess my approach would be to climb the slope like I’d climb a ladder, somewhat hesitantly and one step at a time.

For me, it wouldn’t be a hurried event.

I’d savor each footstep and I’d stop several times to enjoy my new surroundings.

Out west, I’ve done some things like this before, and I have kept those mental pictures of the climbs and the stops on the way up and down close to my heart for decades now.

The colors and the smells and the light all seem to become more vivid the higher the climb, the more progress that is made.

In a climb like this, to a place that few if any have been, I can imagine the birds being surprised to see a human this far up off the valley floor.

I presume they are accustomed to seeing us looking small like ants stopping at the bridge to stare up in their general direction.

I am not entirely clear what the attraction is to this site for me.

I think it just looks like a beautiful spot that must be even more tremendous at that height. It also bears an air of the unattainable that I would like to acquire.

Or maybe it really is just “because it’s there” and it piques my curiosity and sense of adventure. I remember adventure from my childhood. We used to have those kinds of experiences almost every day on some level.

If I were to make it all the way up there, I know I would sit there for a long time just listening to what the universe had to say to me.

I wonder what it would mean to be in that place on a spiritual and psychological level.

I sometimes think about whether I am supposed to be a grounded creature or one that climbs and flies and soars. The heights humankind has reached would suggest we were born to fly.

But I have a feeling that maybe we weren’t meant to colonize the moon or Mars or put up a damned McDonalds on Venus. There’s a lot of people who are trying to find a way to escape our ravaged planet to the heavens above.

I’m not one of them.

I have no desire to visit the moon or planets besides ours within or without our solar system. But I would like to reach the top of that ridgeline someday.

As I think about doing that in writing this column, I feel that I will make an attempt to reach that high place at some point soon.

Depending on what happens on the climb, perhaps there will be other attempts. It might take me a few tries before I make it, or I might find a road and be there in no time. But to me, that would be a bit disappointing.

I want the effort to in some way reconcile with the reward.

I happy to pay my way, my dues and my respects.

I know the place will feel like hallowed ground to me and I will treat it as such. There are countless places I have walked before and done my best to leave no footprints.

There’s a reverence that I feel nature is due.

For me, that’s why I feel uncomfortable being loud or destructive in any way.

I go to nature in awe.

I kneel among the bracken ferns to soak in the healing and comforting elements all around me. I take in tremendous landscapes, mesmerizing night skies and the songs of brooks and streams.

I speak to the animals, the trees and the flowers and the rocks and more importantly, I listen to what they have to say to me.

Before I leave, I give thanks.

I leave like I came, with respect and honor for the experience I’ve been granted, walking slowly and soaking in all that I can to help me back in the “socialized” and “civilized” world in the rusty old mining towns and the concrete, blacktop and cement of the cities.

The warm sun feels heavenly on my face, hands and arms up to my rolled-up shirt sleeves. There is a light breeze that moves with a sweet fragrance, back and forth.

A bald eagle soars silently overhead, occupying a space in the sky between me here at the bridge and the top of the ridgeline.

I wonder why it’s good enough for him to drift only halfway up the side of the slope and my focus is there at the ridge peak.

I suspect he knows something that I don’t, but I couldn’t say what that is.

Maybe I’ll discover it along my way up the slope – one step at a time.

Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.


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