What’s the sitch with the mountain hermit?
The climb up the shale slope put my fitness to the test. I hadn’t been training, and now comforted myself with the excuse that no amount of preparation could make this ascent an easy one.
Autumn wind swept across the bare incline, churning dust, rattling carabiners I had clipped onto pack straps. I thought the metal clips would help me look the part of an experienced mountaineer. Of course, there was no one else for miles around to comment on the authenticity of my outfit.
The sun balanced along a jagged ridge above, obscuring the path with frayed beams. My head hurt from staring directly into them for the last half-mile… or maybe it hurt because of the altitude? Or the inadequate volume of water I brought? Real hikers don’t have a variety of water bottles poking out of their pack, just one stylish Nalgene and a couple Cliff Bars.
Reaching for a sharp lip of granite, I pulled myself over the small cliff I had been rising to meet. Another stone incline greeted me, indifferent to my aches and my fatigue. I turned and sat on the abandoned edge, staring down the terrain, willing myself to be in awe of its expansive beauty… but appreciating nature is easier when comfortable. I stood, hoisting my backpack onto my shoulders, trying to cling to the last of my momentum.
How much farther could the top be? Farther is generally used to denote physical distance, while further is better suited for figurative or metaphorical distances… both words were applicable in this case.
A vulture’s shadow rippled broad orbits around my path beneath a reddening sky. Did he (or she) know something I didn’t? How does one tell female vultures from male? Is that something I should know before setting out on a journey of this sort? I think we both, the ambiguous vulture and I, realized there was a chance I wasn’t making it off this mountain.
Last month, a perennially stoned palm-reader in my town had mentioned a wise man who sat atop this peak, giving brave travelers words to live by. Not exactly a reliable source. But if I didn’t believe there was someone at the top to answer my existential questions, what was I here for?
Self discovery? Too cliché. Inner peace? Too unrealistic. Connection with nature? Too vague, not to mention I wasn’t in the mood to “connect,” with this circling vulture. I was looking for the answer to a question I had yet to formulate… sort of a Jeopardy situation.
Dusk snuck in, followed shortly by a blanket of darkness. The light of day fades to night regularly, as if on a schedule, yet it still caught me off guard. I struggled to get my new REI headlamp out of its packaging, but it was encased in a plastic too thick for 21st century human teeth, which are more used to yogurt and báhn mi sandwiches than tearing desirables from fibrous husks.
Fortunately, I had also purchased a knife on my midweek trip to the outdoor equipment store, certain that I’d need a good sharp blade for the hike. At the time, I imagined using it to rend a new trail through unfavorable brush, or perhaps deliver the finishing blow in the bear combat that inevitably occurs on walks through Alpine forests. I didn’t feel much rugged excitement using the knife to cut into the flashlight’s polypropylene shell.The peak, that had seemed just out of reach for the whole afternoon, was now obscured by nightfall and yet another bulging stone ledge, one that would require confident hand-holds to scale. I resigned myself to a makeshift lean-to against the outcropping, made from a raincoat and a few sticks. The coat was another pre-trip purchase, which I had thrown in my cart toward the end of shopping to bump my total, enabling use of an expiring coupon my mom had given me: 20% off with any purchase of $150 or more. What a deal. I dined on my final Cliff Bar, which tasted like I imagine Play-Doh tastes if you are older than 12.
Earlier in the summer, my self-confidence took a major hit when my girlfriend left me because I wasn’t “buff enough.” In retrospect, she was pretty awful. During the malaise following the breakup I was let go from my job, which, honestly, I had always found dull.
I hadn’t bothered to ask if my life had meaning before the events of this summer, because I always had a girlfriend and a job and a smartphone, and that seemed like a winning combo. After two of those mediocre relationships ended, I suddenly had the urge to ask big questions. But I didn’t know who to ask, or where to find answers on my own. In a sarcastic attempt to jump-start my return to baseline, I went to the local palm-reader, who told me about the enlightened mountain hermit, whose existence I never believed in.
Yet here I was sitting on the side of his mountain in the open darkness, feeling cold and alone and, frankly, a little bit silly. I settled my head onto an extra pair of socks wrapped in an extra pair of underwear layered on some brush balanced atop a flat rock. Morning couldn't come soon enough.
A waterfall massaged rhythms on my back as plumed birds sang in the treetops of a bright jungle. Warmth spread from my lower abdomen, and I wasn’t sure if that was from me urinating into the clear pool or if my body was equilibrating with the humid surroundings… I woke with a start, unfortunately still sandwiched between my raincoat and a bare expanse of rock. I hadn’t peed on myself, but felt like it had been close.
What kind of person drinks their own urine in times of extreme dehydration? I’m not asking if it would save your life if done properly; that’s not what I’m interested in, and it seems doubtful that someone delirious with thirst would make better decisions than their own kidneys when it came to water balance and waste elimination. I am curious, though, about the defining characteristics of people who have the thought and then go through with it, peeing into their own mouth, or perhaps a cup first, if they are civilized. I was really thirsty, alone in the wilderness, and had a full bladder, so the situation couldn’t have been more primed. But I resisted the urge and emptied onto a withered bush clinging to its rocky existence. Perhaps I could save another life, even if my own was rapidly deteriorating.
I wiped sleep from my eyes and began the ascent into predawn shadow, starting with a climb over the scarp I had slept beneath. Peering over the top edge, I was relieved to see a long plateau stretching between myself and a distant peak, just visible through the grey morning light. My destination was in sight. Based on minimal experience and a track record of underestimation, I thought I’d reach the top very, very soon.
I quickly covered the remaining flat, and introduced myself to the final uphill battle, which was more steep and more thin than it had appeared from afar. Dropping my pack, I started up the ridge unencumbered. Morning mist gained color with the help of a new sun breaking across the horizon. I paused to look over the boundless territory, feeling echoes of a faded past from the worn stone of neighboring peaks. Perhaps it really is the journey and not the destination…The moment was interrupted when my wandering gaze settled on the empty space beside the sharp path where I was perched. The thought of falling in that empty space… an invisible weight brought me to my hands and knees. I crawled the rest of the way, until my knees throbbed from the stony interface. Finally, the slope began to taper, leveling out of view into what I imagined was a small, flat pinnacle.
For someone without a great grasp on pronunciation within the English language, the word “pinnacle,” could easily be mispronounced as “pee-knuckle,” which is both a card game our grandparents played (see: pinochle), and the digit used to test the depth and temperature of one’s urine. It would be wrong to equate the majestic top of a mountain with dipping a finger into fresh pee.
I rose off of my hands to a crouch and I scampered up the rest of the slope. As the ridge flattened it also broadened somewhat, and I stumbled out onto an ovular granite summit, now piercingly white next to a risen sun. It was remarkably level for the tip of a mountain, and remarkably free from small rocks or even dirt. Most remarkable was the thin, elderly man sitting in the center.
He appeared relaxed, legs splayed to his front, one knee bent allowing an uncovered sole to rest flat upon the ground. Both arms behind and locked at the elbow, supporting his slightly reclined posture.
“Hello!” I yelled through the whipping winds. He seemed to come out of a trance as his gaze moved to meet my own. Without shifting his head, he smiled gradually and replied, “Is that the question you travelled here to ask?”
This caught me off guard. He was both prepared and sarcastic. I had the impulse to ask casual questions: “So, how long have you been up here?” or “Where do you poop?” or “Do I need to tip if I ask you something? Because I don’t have any cash…”
But the providence of this mountaintop encounter compelled me to reach deep, for the questions no one else could answer. “Tell me, wise hermit, where can I find happiness?”
Tilting at the neck, he paused for a moment, and then slowly shook his head. “That is not your question either.”
Now I was a little confused. I thought he would offer an insightful answer to anything I asked. Maybe he was trying to guide me toward enlightenment through this evasive communication? Was my first question too selfish for such a selfless being to respond to?
“Tell me, oh great mystic, how can I bring happiness to those around me?”
He swept his head a full 90 degrees back in the other direction, before closing his eyes. “You know as well as I, my friend, that is not what you seek.”
I smiled through clinched teeth. After climbing and sleeping on this fucking mountain, he was making me work for it. Tell me a dumb story about your time at an ashram in Tibet and I can go home satisfied.
“Enlighten me master, what is the path to complete understanding?” I was making shit up at this point.
“My trail-wearied friend, is that really what you climbed this tallest of peaks to find?”I was done playing his game.
“Alright guy, what should I ask? What’s the right question? I can’t read minds, and if you don’t have any game-changing advice for me, I’ll be on my way.”
A silence followed, though our eye-contact never wavered. Creases in the hermit’s face were well-weathered, punctuating even subtle expressions. With a glint of mischief in his eye, he quietly responded, “What’s the sitch?”
…What’s the sitch? What’s, the, sitch. What’s the sitch? What IS, the SITCH. Of course. It all became so clear, so suddenly. What’s the sitch.
Pure vermillion sky lost remaining wisps of condensation. Radiant jets of light bathed the sitting holy man, cascading a long shadow across smooth stone. The passage of time accelerated, until one rotation of the Earth passed in the blink of an eye, a full revolution around the sun took only seconds more. I saw my birth, my death, my rebirth, and my ascension out of this life of suffering and attachment. I saw an aged version of my body, sitting in the present moment, always, on the top of a peak, waiting for nothing, forever asking, “What’s the sitch?”
I snapped back to reality. Tears welled in my eyes. “Thank you, thank you sensei. I know I don’t understand yet, but you have given me a great gift on this morning, atop this peak. Before I return from whence I came, may I ask, in your great wisdom… What is, in fact, the sitch?”
At this he turned, leaned on one knee, and with the help of a gnarled cane pulled from the depths of his robe, he stood. I stepped cautiously to him and he leaned in, to whisper in my ear:
“You can find out more at www.whatsthesitch.com.”