The beam of my headlamp bobs over the undergrowth as the toe of my boots dig for traction in the hillside. My breaths come closer together as I break the crest of the incline. On level ground, I pause in the middle of camp to listen for a faint whistle in the night. My students are nestled among the pines, the first of two nights they will spend in solitude. There’s a scattering of leaves followed by claws on bark. My Co-Sherpa’s jacket skimming the under side of the tarp, the clicking of buckles. Nalgene bottles litter the ground, my lamp freezes over several aluminum fuel bottles and I rattle them 100 feet out from camp.
I move towards the red glow leaking through the tarp. Crouching under the three-foot tall structure suspended by Paracord, I find Joel's face in my own light. He throws up a hand over his eyes indicating temporary blindness. This may be the 18th time I’ve done that this trip and with nervous hands fumble the device into night vision.
The two of us slump cross-legged on inflated mats spread several feet apart. I fidget with a lump of clothing, only stopping when I develop something similar to the shape of a pillow. I extend my wrist to him. He dials my alarm in for 5:45 a.m. Nine days into the trip and I still can’t figure it out. I slip around on my nylon bedding until I find the mouth of the mummy and crawl in. I release the band from my head and the red haze fizzles to black. My muscles ache against the rigid ground, shoulders drawn close to my body in knots.
The darkness is total and I find myself staring at what I know is Joel's back, but visually, nothing at all. Plastic crackles, whipping in the wind. The night air seeping along the ground, visiting the brim of my sleeping bag. Words sit jammed up against the back of my teeth. Waiting for the brain to send the right signals, to open the jaw, to speak.
Two lights blink back to life, holding off the night. I sit up and turn away from him, shoulders rolled forward. He works his thumbprints into wound neck muscles, palpating down the structure of my spine. And I fight the release of falling back, of collapsing the space between us. If only to rid bones of damp mountain air.
I awake to a humming static in the distance that swiftly builds into a full roaring wind. Suddenly, I’m hit. Head rushing as if taken by an ocean’s wave. I’m towed under. Caught in my trespassing. Only drawn to the surface by the aching of wood, the giving way, and the crash. The book says He is not in the wind. But the most honest me knows that lately, it’s all I’ve been able to place my faith in. With each returning, I succumb to this presence. This is wilderness: To hear power and wonder how long it must run before it’s crashing into your own breath. To be lost and found in an environment relentless and unkept.