Stars at this altitude are palpable, touchable almost. One star even seems to grow as I labor in the cold night at eleven thousand feet, one slow step after another with many stops to catch what little breath there is to catch up here. While that star grows larger still.
And closer. More
I turn over for what must be the tenth time in as many minutes. The ground here is uneven and greets every attempt at comfort with a new root, or a small rock, or a pebble, or a hollow. I cannot fall asleep; I cannot find the position that might allow me to. Or perhaps I have slept, perhaps I have stretched my legs a little on sleep’s surface, I don’t know, but I do know that now I am very much awake.
So, back to the drawing board. I ease my way around again, slowly, aware of Rick not quite snoring but definitely—and happily, I gather—asleep only a foot from me. He must be used to this mountainous treatment. Even so, I don’t want to wake him. The sleeping bag rustles as I maneuver onto my back only to find the ground true to its mission.
There’s no way. I give up and open my eyes onto dark, cold air.
We’re two to a tent and there are three tents in our little camp. Rick and I in this one. Linda and Jeff in another. Jim and Eva in a third. It is very still. The earlier winds asleep, too. I listen to this stillness. There is not a sound from either of the other tents. It seems they are all asleep, all but me used to these rugged.
I can hear the soft gurgle of a brook about twenty feet away, awake just like me. And a sigh through the pines and the tall grass surrounding the camp, barely strong enough to gently flap the side of the tent.
It’s cold this high up. I imagine I would see my breath were it a little lighter, but all I see even though I strain with eyes wide open is black tinged with only a suggestion of a light, black eased by whatever starlight seeps through canvas. Not enough to see my breath though, and now something hard has crept in and settled under my left shoulder and I ease over onto my side to escape it. Not successfully.
A question crosses my mind, or more like one of those shadows that questions cast. Have I dreamed this? Recently? I close my eyes to sink again in hope of finding out, but I am too awake to sink and I remain all aware on the surface, like a bobber, and a frustrated one at that. The ground is too hard, too hostile, too there, and I can find neither dream nor sleep. So I give up on sleep all the way and slowly unzip the bag and ease my way out of it. Out into the cold, into the very cold now.
I rummage around as silently as I can—keeping an eye Rick to make sure I’m not waking him—and I find my jeans and sweater and boots and parka, and I manage to dress and leave the tent reasonably quietly. Quietly enough, as it happens for Rick only stirs and mumbles something as I re-zip the entrance flap but he doesn’t wake up.
Once outside, I stand all the way up and stretch. Here I can see my breath. There’s no moon, but at nine thousand some feet the stars are bright and things are quite visible.
I look up. They are everywhere, the stars, and as palpable as the ground I stand on. Suns, I think, they’re every one of them a distant sun.
I’m not sure what I’m doing here, dead in the middle of the night, alone, awake. I listen again: just the brook now, the trees and grass all done sighing, or perhaps holding their breath wondering what I’m about.
I’m not sure what I’m about either, so I look around. Three tents, five sleeping humans. And up again at the stars, the brilliant, uncountable star.
At the edge of the camp, not far from the brook, I spot my walking stick leaning against a boulder. I walk over to it, pick it up, and then I know what I’m doing. I head out of camp.
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