The eastern horizon began to glow as I finally crested the rocky summit of Mt. Massive (14,429′) at 6:00am Friday morning. The full moon, still sitting high above the western horizon behind me, had guided my steps for the past four hours as I hiked through the trees and over high alpine tundra to my solitary summit.
Working as a night shift nurse these past two years, I have embraced the oddness of living as a creature of the night. To me it made sense to jump at the opportunity for a night hike between shifts at the hospital.
Stepping onto the Mt. Massive southeastern trail at 2am sharp, the cold fall air nipped at my nose and cheeks as I warmed up with my usual brisk pace up through the trees. I was prepared with a headlamp, but found myself comfortably navigating the rocky and rooted trail in the speckled light of the full moon behind me.
Working – and hiking for that matter – nights isn’t for everyone; I’m thankful that the long hours and weird sleep schedule has suited me. I enjoy nights at the hospital which come with close coworker relationships, a sense of calm as the doctors, family, and other staff empty from the halls, and the always present knowledge that you have to be prepared for the unexpected. A similar feel to the dark quiet trail.
Weaving through the moon shadows, I new there was opportunity for fear to saturate this hiking experience. I’ve hiked in the dark before, often with friends, often with the strong beam of white light to expose the path, often just for long enough to give the sun time to rise, and often with a keen sense of anxiety lurking behind each dark tree. The mind does impressively scary things with the aid of a murky forest and an unchecked imagination.
For this hike, as I walked alone with my headlamp off, I found an intentional calm. The rhythm of my feet and breath kept me focused on being present and mindful. The couple times I did resort to my little LED beam to guide me over creeks or through especially dark patches of trail, I noticed an anxiety that was not present in the dim moon light. When the light was off, I was impressed with my natural inclination to feel the trail and allow my feet to find their own way amongst the rocks and roots. With my headlamp off, I felt in the woods, almost a part of them, rather than feeling like an intruder wielding an unfeeling spotlight. I felt relaxed and confident. If there was something that required fear, I would feel that spike of adrenaline and respond accordingly. But until something alerted me to that need, there was no point worrying about every shadow and glint of moon light. A startled deer was the only lively shadow I encountered.
So I carried on up through the trees toward timberline. Glad to step out into the open rocky tundra that paved the final 2,000ft to the summit. Here the moon hung bright just above the ridge I was destined for. Taking on a pace only fast enough to keep warm, but not to sweat, I wound my way into the moonlight. I stopped frequently to take in the silence that held me to the mountain side. Silence only broken by my footfalls and breath, the occasional breeze, and far off elk bugle.
The serene silence of my hike provided vivid juxtaposition to my busy life. I often find myself ruled by agendas, self imposed and otherwise. My long nights at the hospital are occupied with routines and policies and care for the human condition. My free time is often budgeted between responsibilities and adventures. Even when I hike, I find myself focusing on an agenda: getting to the summit by a certain time, keeping pace, taking nice photos, staying safe. All great things, but the silent presence of the mountain as the night stretched on reminded me that the earth slowly passing under my feet and rocks perched high above me had no agenda. The mountain simply was. And would continue on after I summited and descended.
The postpartum work will continue on each night now that I have completed my employment. Beth-El will continue on following Christ in community now that my leadership responsibilities are bestowed upon another. My family will continue on living the Colorado life after I jump on a plane for Africa. My friends will continue going on adventures after I pursue my own overseas.
It’s a tough pill to swallow at times.
Having reached the summit well before sunrise, I sought refuge from the chilling breeze. I welcomed the now slowly illuminating view while saying goodbye to the full moon that had led me to my perch. Just as the sun crested and the alpine glow brushed the peaks of the mountains around me, I started down the southern face of Mt. Massive. A quick descent brought me into a new day, and I was welcomed into the valley with glittering golden aspens that perfectly respected my bright mood and satisfaction with a night well spent.
Now, I mentally return to that silent moonlit mountain side, remembering the stillness and deliberate focus of each step in the journey. I’m reminded to appreciate and experience each relationship, activity, and breath as it comes and goes.
This final week before I fly to Tanzania, I have many loose ends to tie up. Tasks to be completed and “see ya later’s” to be said. I am enjoying every second of it, but also preparing myself for the unknowns to come. Though I am excited for a trip I’ve been planning for years, I’m also morning the loss of life as I know it. I hope to carry that feeling of the mountainside with me. Breathing deep and moving forward into Tanzanian life without too much agenda predisposed assumption. I am opening myself up to walk the often dimly lit path of international travel, speckled with the moon shadows of culture and language.