Sunday, January 13, 2008


So the little intro at the top-right of the blog says this is all about "the finer points of living: travel, language, poetry, art, nature, philosophy, adventure, and random observation."

Lately, this blog has been mostly about my uncertainties about my career and the occasional entry about being in love/needing to poop.

To remedy that, here's a refreshing bit of prose I just finished... I think it fills all the above-mentioned criteria, and I hope you will find it as enjoyable to read as I did to write.

Titled "Evergreen," a 1000-word memory of the mountains.

A moment I will never forget is this: hiking the side of a mountain in Shanxi, and admiring the swaying of the pines.

We were given a four-day weekend off from class—to celebrate one or another silly Communist holiday—and I was determined to make the most of it. There are five mountains in China that are held holy by the Daoists, and I had already climbed four. The fifth—by far the least known and least impressive—was a lonely, windy bit of rock situated in northeast Shanxi, about thirty kilometers from Datong, whose reputation today has less to do with Daoism and more to do with coal.

I arrived at the mountain with that sad, loving feeling that I associate so strongly with hiking in November; it is the helpless admiration of the colors of the trees, the appreciation of morning frost, that nameless excitement of brisk motion through chilly air. It is the pure joy of hiking in the wild, tempered by the knowledge that this is the last hike of the year; the last, most magnificent display of a sunset before frozen night falls stifling across the sky.

I started climbing early, when it was still cold. I was wearing jeans, a long-sleeve tee, a sweatshirt, and gloves; in my backpack I had a windbreaker, water, and snacks. I had left my tent and sleeping bag at home, as I expected it to be too cold to camp.

I was hiking the eastern face of the mountain, and the morning sun was on my back. The landscape was swathed in gray and gold, rock and yellow grass. The mountain wore pine trees like a beard, a five o’clock shadow of green.

Temples dotted the hills, broken wood huts housing statues and yin-yangs. At the foot of the mountain there was a monastery, with monks. They droned, and it sounded like the mountains were murmuring.

I fell in hiking with an Irishman about my age. His name was Gabriel, a carpenter by trade, backpacking in China on vacation. He was quiet and friendly and shared with me the bread and jam he had packed as lunch, and the sweetness of jarred raspberries was the stuff of friendship.
We walked for hours side by side and said little.

By mid-afternoon we had reached the final ascent to the summit. This was a long sloping trail, neither steep nor rocky, that emerged from the stubbly trees and led along the bald forehead of the mountain up to the top of its shiny stone skull. Here, the wind was gusty and strong.

“Are you cold?” I asked Gabriel, intending to offer him my windbreaker.

“Not really,” he said.

We continued walking.

At the summit we clicked pictures and took in the landscape that the mountain reveals only to those that ascend it. Behind us, the long trail we had climbed sloped and drifted back towards the ground. To the south, a cliff overlooking a vast space, with a small city bustling to itself in the valley below, ignorant of the mountain above it. To the west, the trail we had been walking continued on towards a chain of smaller peaks, tracing a ridge path into the distance, just mountains and mountains, endless and beckoning mountains.

I wanted to continue.

“It will get dark soon,” Gabriel said, reasonably.

“I know. I wish I had brought my camping gear. I might try sleeping out anyway if I can find some brush to light a fire.”

He gave me a silent, skeptical look, and was kind enough to not tell me how stupid an idea it was. After sunset, the temperature would drop well below freezing.

We walked on for a while before parting ways; Gabriel turned back and headed down the way we came, I continued on along the ridge trail. It was a concise and warm-felt farewell.

As I followed the ridge west, I looked out over the horizon and considered my options. I was torn between a sensible urge to descend before nightfall and a near-spiritual desire to stay on the mountaintop and watch the sun set over the empty rolling hills.

I walked along the path, eating sunflower seeds and spitting the shells into the wind.

Oh, what an ode to late afternoons in autumn, those perfect four-thirties of fall. In this world of rainbows and diamonds and exotic and tropical fish, what could be more striking than the late-afternoon light of November slanting golden upon already yellowing grass?

If you love something, let it go. The trail forked, and I turned left and followed a small dirt path down the south face of the mountain. The trail here was well-forested; pines, my favorite, the wisest and most solemn of trees. Taking a rest for a moment, I leaned against a stone both mossy and cold, and tilted my head back to gaze at the tops of the trees; they weaved a flexible rhythm in the wind.

Rising to examine the mystery of these great trees, I ran my hand over the gray-brown bark, the spiraling cones, the sap that leaves one’s fingers sticky for days. Look at a pine needle closely enough and you can find such peace, such an eternal and deep-rooted comfort. Hold still and watch a pine tree sway, and the world is reduced to a hum.

Serenity pure and silence divine, manifest in evergreens and the wind.

When I got to the foot of the mountain, the shadows were stretching long and the air had turned from chilly to cold. With the sky a faded purple and the sun setting a bright orange coin behind my back, I put on my jacket, brought the zipper to the top, and began the long twilight walk to the city ahead.


Joanna Hoffman said...

damn thats breathtaking. i really should come visit you. ive been eating a lot of dumplings in new york but im sure theyre nothing compared to what you actually get in China.

赵晨威 said...

If you buy the ticket to China, I will pay for all your dumpling-related expenses while here.

That's a promise.