Suszynski: The approaching summit
Last weekend, Nicole and I trudged up unmarked spurs and cattle trails to a mountain in the Elks. Precarious Peak reared its craggy head as we stopped on the side of the mountain to look. Seated at the base of the loping ridge we were to climb, I looked down at the tiny dot of my car and then up at the summit of Dorothy Peak.
The summit seemed mysteriously far away. The ridge a smattering of rust, glints of mica and the stubborn tundra. Taking our time, we zigzagged up, stopped to gaze out, and continued on our way.
As we continued to climb, I couldn’t tell if we were approaching the false summit or getting closer to the top. The trail marched one way and then the other and disappeared all-together.
As I recount this hike to you, the summit is even farther away. The false ends, the patches of aspen trees are obscured by not only distance, but time. I feel the strain of memory and perspective in the same way that Marco Polo attempts to recount the cities of a deteriorating empire to Kublai Khan in the book “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino.
Polo can only describe the city of Irene as if from above it and not within it: “if you saw it, standing in its midst, it would be a different city; Irene is a name for a city in the distance, and if you approach, it changes.”
Perspective is dictated by the confines of physical distance and time in such a way that both can become muddled. Possibly, depending on one’s perspective, distance and time are of the same substance.
Once we were on top of the mountain, the ridge we had climbed seemed stunted and the colors had changed. Precarious, eye level, was even more menacing and the wildfire haze moved in to obscure the distant back of the Maroon Bells. I could no longer see the point from which we started. The cows became horse flies in the valley below. The summit no longer seemed insurmountable. While one mountain shifted to eye level, the other was below my feet.
Of course, perspective, too, has a relationship to feeling, as if emotions are also mountains we must climb in order to see the other side. In the city of Zemrude, Polo says, “It is the mood of the beholder which gives the city of Zemrude its form.” Perhaps, Precarious in the distance is only precarious because it was labeled so. It takes on the form of its name. A mountain that takes on other forms, like the Shining Mountains, are then mirrors in which we can rejoice in their reflection.
When I am on top of a mountain, I never know when it is appropriate to leave. If I have time, do I spend all day there? Do I only climb to the top to glimpse the beauty, and then leave as quickly as I came?
I turned to Nicole, “If I stare at this view for longer, will it become more beautiful?” I had been thinking of this question when I couldn’t leave a patch of golden aspens the week before; afraid, that if I left, the beauty would leave me too. I convinced myself that if I stayed there longer, I would expose myself to more beauty.
She said to me, “There is always the possibility of return.”
The Khan asks Polo, “You advance always with your head turned back?” “Does your journey take place only in the past?”
Time and beauty certainly have a tenuous relationship. The golden color of fall could just as well be gone tomorrow. But in terms of beauty in increments of moments, time is less a factor. I think it would be more appropriate to say that perspective and form dictate the quantity of beauty that you gather in your arms.
As Nicole said, there is beauty in a return. A return to normal, a return to the summit of Dorothy, a return to next fall. I depend on this fact often for my own happiness. But of course, the idea of return is backward looking.
“Invisible Cities” ends with a brilliant reflection by Polo: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
Polo is talking about perspective. Certain mountains shift depending on time, mood, beauty, distance. But if we count on the return, then we forever transition the mountain to the nebulous reality of the past. To endure, we must focus on the disappearing trail beneath our feet. Its form. The way our minds cantilever out to greet the approaching summit. Whether the mountain is at eye level or below our feet.
Anna Suszynski is a staff editor at the Vail Daily. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Instagram at annasuszynski or on Twitter at anna_suszynski.
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