"I see a mountain at my gates." - FOALS
Headlights cut through the morning mist as Ben left his home at the usual time. He reached the regular turn, only to head left towards the freeway instead of right towards the office.
It was still a workday, and the steady stream of traffic crawled along as he drove past in the other direction. Away from the city and its sleepy, coffee-fueled ants beginning their daily grind. Ben knew their lot well. He pushed down on the gas, not bothering to look back.
A soft voice echoed in the seat to his right as his phone navigated the route to his destination. He hadn't been there before, despite it only being thirty miles away. Today though that would change. The freeway sprawled ahead of him as he sped towards it - the mountain.
Ben saw the mountain everyday from his cubicle. It loomed larger than life in the distance, blocking out the sunlight that heated half the building like the surface of Venus while the other half froze in over-cranked air conditioning. He rarely took breaks during his wordays, but every so often he would look out and gaze at the misty peaks so far from his reach.
At night, when he had worked another twelve or fourteen hour shift, the mountain seemed to grow in the moonlight. Its dark peaks towered over him as he trudged out to the parking lot, and he sometimes imagined a giant demon sitting on top watching him and laughing at his mediocre life.
Not today, though.
Today, he would make that demon eat its own laughter.
The navigator pointed out his upcoming exit and Ben slowed slightly, heading off the freeway onto the side streets of a bedroom city. The overpriced condos and apartments stood empty in the morning dew, their drones out earning more money to feed their insatiable rents and HOA dues. He drove past, stopping every now and then at a light, until the city gradually fell away and the road narrowed to one lane. The navigator directed him right, and he headed east towards into the treeline.
The mist grew thicker, and he flipped on his highbeams as the narrow road wound slowly upwards. He took the turns faster than he should, his foot feeding the gas and avoiding the brake. He passed small houses with white picket fences and stone paved lanes. A small cemetery, with its silent rows of granite tombstones, watched as he sped by. The buildings grew farther and farther apart until the faded wood sign announced his entry into the park.
Shifting into a lower gear, he took the turn past the signpost and up the side of the mountain. The turns hugged the steep curves and cliffs, with only a small concrete burm between him and oblivion. As he rose he saw the black, burned out stumps of the trees which had suffered through the last rash of wildfires. They huddled by the roadside, charred and broken, yet still standing somehow. In the distance behind them he saw the lake and its clear ripples moving in the wind. The morning sun lit its waters, its reflection turning it a warm orange that glimmered as if the fires had somehow spread from its banks. Ben kept it in the corner of his eye, still speeding up the mountain. He couldn't stop here.
As he reached the second signpost, his gas light lit up. He had forgotten to fill his tank before his journey, and the incline had drained his quarter tank. Urging his small commuter forward, he continued ever upwards, driving another seven miles until he finally reached the top.
The small ranger shack and solar-powered pay station took some of the intimidation factor out of the mountain top. He pulled into a dimly lined parking spot and let his gas-starved ride rest. Fishing his credit card out of his wallet, he paid his dues and headed out towards the trail markers past the ranger station.
Besides a handful of dedicated joggers, the mountain stood deserted as Ben approached it. He had no backpack or water, just his earbuds which he pulled from his pocket and plugged into his phone. A pre-set playlist set the background for his ascent as he walked, slow and determined, towards the apex. He breathed deep, his weary lungs gasping for breath in the thin air. Yet he pressed on, ignoring his aching gut and hamstrings.
The mountain had challenged him, and he wouldn't back down now.
After about half a mile, a side trail split off from the main loop. Ben considered it, either the dusty deer trail or the paved main path. The trail seemed to head out towards an outcropping of rocks, which looked halfway climable. He made his choice.
After another half mile, he had reached the outcropping and realized it was easily climable, even for him. Carefully, he crept out over the top and stopped. The craggy rocks formed a mound that seemed to fill the sky, gradually giving way to the clouds and earth below. A hawk rose from the mist and flew past him on the right, gliding over the green edges of the mountain as it soared downwards towards the base. He watched in awe, feeling no vertigo or fear as he had imagined. Just a heavy sense of wonder.
Below he saw the bedroom city, the freeway, the tiny office buildings - even his own, somewhere - small and insignificant beneath his feet. The green and blackened patchwork of trees and hillside surrounded them, engulfing them with their natural beauty. All Ben's daily cares - his job, his car, his house - seemed so tiny now.
So this is what you were laughing at, he thought.
Then he and the mountain sat together for awhile.