I wrote this on Septemer 24, 2009 for The Art and Craft of Writing (sigh with me in relief if you had that class and are still glad it’s over). I don’t have anything new to post, but I figured you might want something new to read. Emily Linberg, née Peachey, this is for you.
Verdant foliage sways in the midsummer breeze. Drops of orange sunlight weave through the deciduous leaves, fighting to reach my face and kiss my cheek. We do not speak, but inhale the Sunday afternoon and begin to climb. From bottom to top, we will raise over eleven hundred feet in elevation, ascending the side of Jacks’ Mountain, Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. Each step is individual in difficulty, and no two are remotely similar. We’ve come each Sunday we could since sometime last May, two young women with a solitary mission: reach the top of the Thousand Steps. Of course, this mission is only half as interesting as the meandering trail itself.
Slowly we begin the climb, no longer cautious as to the exact location of our feet. The steps are warmly familiar to our sneakers. Emily Peachey, a true Pennsylvanian and devoted friend, takes the lead, with myself behind. Eight inches—three inches—twelve inches, each step is its own dimension of pain in my stretching thighs. Spending an hour on a StairMaster, though it would produce the same effect, does not hold the enchantment of this obscure stairway to the skies. My eyes bob up and down with the broken segments of the constantly curving path. If you can keep oxygen flowing, you’ll be fine. Just pull it in through your nostrils and push it out through your mouth. Emily taught me this the first time up the steps, fearing my imminent hyperventilation.
The Thousand Steps hold my most feeble moments, but like Swiss clockwork, every Sunday I am there, ready to tackle her again. Even when it seems that every ounce of stamina has already drained out of my pores in salty tidal waves of perspiration, even when the blood decides my feet to be much better company than my poor head, which proceeds to lose consciousness, despite these brief moments of suffering, I am drawn to this semi-haphazard arrangement of stones and their brilliantly pure surroundings.
They were not meant for me and my friend; their purpose was never supposed to be a brief diversion from the droll monotony of Sunday afternoon. They have been here for decades, meant for and made by the vacant-eyed miners and their crude pick-axes. There were minerals in the mountain then, ones used in brick production during the 1930’s railroad boom that came sweeping across Pennsylvania. Workers were only looking to create a much easier, more facilitating travel up the mountain compared to hiking alone. With the end of the industrial era came the end of the mines, and now the steps serve to entertain pale-skinned tourists in baseball caps; obsessive health nuts breaking away from their usual StairMaster routine; history addicts interested in the railroads, and the rare local gems like Emily and I who long to reach out and touch that sapphire horizon.
Around us, we are engulfed by white pines, red maples, yellow birches, and other small samplings of Pennsylvanian trees. Their firm trunks twist toward the beating sun, curving from the deep slope of the land. From one grove to the next, the steps also cross through patches of whitish-tan rocks, large boulders like the ones of the steps themselves. We don’t linger here in the enticing warmth of the sun, for copperheads and timber rattlesnakes may be lying in wait within the crevices between stones, hidden from both sun and eye. There are short landings between certain sections of the steps, happening nearly every seventy-five to one-fifty steps. Here we breathe, slowly drink sparing sips of our precious water, and absorb the natural majesty of the Alleghenies. Hiking trails are redundantly common throughout the county; each one is lovely, but the Thousand Steps initiate creativity and instill wonder when the others do not.
The first seven hundred marker passes, then the second little seven-oh-oh, where it ought to say eight hundred. Soon the nine hundred is clearly visible beneath the bubbling spring at steps 950 to 935. The little black numbers pass like ancient tribal paintings, telling the universe’s innate story of a journey. Step 1000; only thirty-seven more to go. Once again I succeed in conquering the steps. We will rest here at the top, on what we feel is holy ground. A peregrine falcon soars past, obscuring the view of Mapleton, PA -population 437- from the overlook. From the sky, we can see our whole world spread before us, like cream cheese on a particularly fresh bagel. I taste the sweat encircling my lips, and the saltiness fills me. Standing in the silence, one with the sky, the future is limitless.
The sun is still high as we begin our descent. Emily is still in front; I am still behind. Melancholy fights itself into my heart as my calves begin to quake from the strain of downward motion. You fight gravity more going down than going up, after all. It only takes half the time to return to the bottom as it does to travel to the top, causing the end of the afternoon to come much quicker than anticipated. Nostalgia, melancholy’s own best friend, also comes to visit once in the car on the return drive. This is the last of our summer outings, and the Thousand Steps will have to wait until the new year for us. They will wait, however, in placid anticipation. The oppressive fall rain and winter snows will attempt to shift them, alter them, but the warm days of spring will reveal much the same holy trail as before, permanently fixed to the sheer mountain face.
I’m still waiting for another hike up that hill with you, babe.