Great 48: Fanfare for No Man (and Common Men)

I’ll be back on track tomorrow with catching up on our progress thus far. Currently we’re burning through the upper plains states like we’ve been doing this for two weeks (we have!). 

Late on this Independence Day weekend, I’m thinking back to my time on Mt. Whitney, the lower 48’s highest point, earlier this week.

I’d spent most of the morning trying to keep up. I’ve finally and fully deemed it a losing task to try and keep up with two world-record chasers (who have both been hiking 20% grades at over 2 miles per hour)! By noon, I was approaching Trail Camp (12,000 elevation) alone and appreciating the continuing revelations before me. 

I bridged one crest in particular and was stopped in my tracks. My chest swelled with vigor and gratefulness to be there, in that moment, alive. I held back tears.

This place was here long before me; it doesn’t exist for me or any man living or dead. I was utterly insignificant in temporality and scale, and yet I felt so lavished upon with grace to simply be able to see it. I was one of dozens of completely normal people that stood in that spot on that very day, yet at that moment, I was Here expressly to see it.

I wished beyond anything that my sister could share this place with me. It was primordial, terrible, magnificent.


Later, as I was sitting down at trail camp to change my boots and put my rain gear on for the second time, I found myself in conversation with a southerner named Don. He was slowly and surely ticking off states’ high points. He’d just summited Whitney, in fact. He had a gentle southern voice that held no pretense or pride about his recent huge achievement. He was a man of humility in face of The Mountain. 

Later that day, after I slowly completed the 99 Switchbacks and reached the Trail Crest at 13,600 feet, I was joined in conversation with another hiker, Tony. From New Zealand, he was nearly finished with a 6-week Grand Tour through the American West, taking every advantage of his National Parks pass (over 20 National Parks in the weeks he was here). He rested on his trekking pole like a cane and wore a worn, blue, short-billed baseball cap with a faded image of Ernie from Sesame Street on it. I laughed with him over exploits from his trip, from being locked out of his car to evading certain fees because of his amplified “foreignness”. I heard about his family, and he mine. His small eyes sparkled at every mention of his experience.

These two men brought my earlier experience by the glacial lake into stark relief. The wild, the old, the magnificent places in the world aren’t for us; they were here long before us. Even the men who first carved the paths ever upwards for us lesser men to follow are gone from this place’s sight without a thought. Don and Tony didn’t bring anything magnificent to the mountain, nor were they singular or unique in their climbing achievements. It seemed that they only brought their humble spirits and a willingness to be made different by their experience.

The ancient places I’ve been blessed to visit play their old and wild songs for no man. And yet I’m humbled by the common men I’ve met that so acutely hear and love the fanfare these wild places play. They don’t stand on a mountain to tame it; they stand on the mountain to be made more wild by it. It didn’t matter that they were one of thousands to do the same thing before them; it mattered that they themselves dared to attempt it. 

And that’s why I couldn’t stop thinking of Anne that day: she dared every experience to change her and enliven her. A great many of the things I dare to do—however insignificant—are on account of the influence her restless and brave spirit has on me still. To this utterly common man, my day on Whitney was for her and because of her.