Connor White

Image of desert sky
Pink Matter by Leah Urrutia

The Light in Mountains and Deserts

At that moment, after hiking up switchback after switchback for three hours, hiking with a thirty-pound backpack for two days straight, feeling as if my body would have broken down and dried in the desert; I was bathed in sunlight. The sun, hidden behind the Sierra Nevada mountain range, was now visible hanging over the Great Basin Desert like a light above a mirror. I didn’t want to sit down. I stood because I was the tallest thing in the Continuous United States, towering over all, for I did it. After preparing for this hike in a time span of three months, hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail (AT) to build up strength, and to do it; I let my triumph settle in my core for thirty minutes. I had summitted Mt. Whitney.

* * *

It was hard to sleep. New bed, different sounds, uncomfortable textures, foreign home. The flight to Las Vegas was on my mind. Nicky, a friend of mine, said that there is nothing special about that city. I didn’t believe him for Las Vegas was an oasis in a desert. As Nicky told me, “When you are in the plane, looking out of the window, there is only desert, then, out of nowhere, city.” I turned around in the bed. It was bigger than my bed back at home. More sheets. Not cotton, or I think it wasn’t. I was down in the basement. Footsteps were upstairs, so I looked up. Black, pitch black. The clock’s red numbers burned my eyes.

* * *

I’m used to an environment, way back home, that has tall grass plains, and littered with running deer. It was the same here. The breeze. I was calm. My book’s pages fluttered, the smell of pepper came under my nose, and water was rushing down rocks. After I filtered some water for my hiking crew, the group all tasted it. It was clearer than what was back home, more refreshing. Rivers at home had clay colored dirt in the rivers, bare with fish, polluted with uprooted trees. Here, their water was so clear that you could see the cracks in the rocks below the rushing water, watch the schools of fish swim by, and possibly, drink the water without a filter. I felt that it was a better home here. More safe. More calming.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if people settled here? Just think of it; waking up from the sun coming over the mountains, to the sound of the herds of deer, and the rush of clean water.”

“We would ruin it,” Nicky said. I looked at him. He looked back. “We always do.”

* * *

Meeting was my salvation. Silence was salvation. Every Sunday, every morning on Sunday, if I could make it, I would sit next to my father on a two-hundred-year-old bench in silence with fellow Friends. It was known as Meeting for Worship. People sitting down in complete silence for an hour. No one looked at something besides whoever they faced in the circle of benches, or whatever one Friend bought. There are no religious figures in the room we worship in. No crosses, no portraits, no sign of anything religious or symbolic, just fellow man.

In the silence one can think. In the silence you can feel God’s light in your soul. In the light you can swim through the sea of darkness to reach the sea of light. Meeting could be anything to anyone if they so care. And it, in the end, could be nothing at all, because what is silence really? Nothing. Nothing at all. That’s why, in my opinion, I find it to be my salvation, because it, in the end, is nothing.

* * *

Every day, every step, every waking moment when I belonged to the trail, I barely ate five hundred calories.  All the food we had was carried on our backs. My pack was thirty pounds, a weight that I wasn’t used to even when I had to throw away half my food before we went on the trail. Every hiker had to a have a small personal bear box with them, and store all food, toothpaste, deodorant, or anything that a bear would smell, to be kept away. My box was a clear blue cylinder, about the width of a small frisbee and was six inches tall. It too was heavy. It itself was probably two to three pounds, minus everything that was in it. When I packed at home I didn’t think about it. Every time the Peppers and I hiked parts of the AT, we never needed a bear box.

My pack laid in the gravel parking lot. I opened my bag of food, each had a number labeling what day it was for. I threw away my strawberry pop tarts, two bags of trail mix, all my Quaker Oat bars, and one meat stick. Every day now was one chocolate chip CLIF bar for breakfast, bagged chicken pieces for lunch, and one tuna pack for the start and end of the hike, with a bag of dehydrated lemon chicken on our third and fourth day. Everything else was for when I felt like my body would have collapsed. Five hundred calories a day. Whole days where I walked and walked with barely any food in my stomach. I don’t know how I didn’t collapse or starve.

* * *

After summitting Whitney, and getting off the trail, we all decided that we should get some actual real food that was cooked on a grill, made from meat that wasn’t freeze-dried, all paired with thin sticks of deep-fried potatoes. Burgers. The only place that seemed to have decent food was along the other side of the Sierra Nevada, where the harder trail for climbing Mt. Whitney, the Whitney portal, was located.

The place was packed as if it was Black Friday. Parking was a nightmare, with no spots to be found while on the side of a mountain, so densely confined that every car around you could so easily be hit. Thankfully, we stalked one spot in the swarm of cars long enough that one car left, and we took its spot.

The restaurant was basically a Whitney gift shop, with stickers, t-shirts, hoodies, and last-minute hiking gear like food or winter jackets. Behind the cashier, who was a mean-looking woman that probably would spit at you if you got too close, the menu was drawn on a giant chalkboard. There weren’t that many options. A burger, a cheeseburger, or just fries.

“A cheeseburger with just lettuce,” I said when she asked me what I wanted. She wrote it down and said they’ll yell out my name when my order was ready.

It didn’t take long, so I grabbed it, only to find a burger that had melted cheese, wrapped in a big piece of lettuce. No bun. I did eat it, though still confused. I just wanted my burger to have no onion or tomato, but still have a bun to hold it together. Nicky, Mr. Pepper, and the Smiths all looked at me.

“I didn’t know you liked your burgers wrapped in lettuce,” Mr. Pepper, Nicky’s father, told me.

“I don’t. But for some reason I got this,” I said.

“What did you order?” Mr. Pepper asked.

“A cheeseburger with lettuce only,” I said.

Apparently, lettuce-wrapped burgers was common in the West and when I said, “Lettuce only,” she thought I meant the bun too.

“Well that’s what you get from saying that,” Mr. Smith growled. He then took a bite out of his burger.

* * *

One of the main teachings of George Fox, one of the main founders of Quakerism, was that the light of God, the light, was in every person no matter of gender, race, sexuality, social status, or anything else we invited to divide us. Every person has the same amount of the light in them, so, in the end, we are all equal under the eyes of God. That was the founding belief in the faith.

During meeting, sitting in the silence, anyone has the right to speak or sing. If someone feels moved by the light, as though they have to stand up and speak, they can. This is unlike most churches. Can an everyday Sunday Catholic speak up about their opinion on God during Mass? No. They can’t. Only the Priest can speak during Mass. Quakers don’t believe nor practice that, because everyone’s voice, opinion, thoughts, matter equally. We all have the light evenly.

* * *

At the start of the hike, on the second day, Nicky and I were always together. Mr. Pepper and Mr. Smith (a family that was hiking with us) were way up front, and Zach, Mr. Smith’s son, was in the way back. The trail was mostly made up of loose sand on the edge of the mountain range, looking over California as if a high rise looking over a city. Nicky and I took many breaks along the trail to capture the scenery. Most of the time though we just looked out, leaning against our hiking poles to just rest, enjoy, and breathe. We would always walk after.

This one time, I kept looking at this one tree; all its branches blown to one side, frozen to that one side. It was burnt up along the trunk. No bark. It was alone without any trees around it. I had to know the story of that tree. I just had to. In the end Nicky pushed me away, but I still see that tree in my dreams.

* * *

We just finished driving through Death Valley from Las Vegas. Most of the ride … was a haze of different scenes of the same red, dry, chalky desert that resided in the natural park. My body slept most of the way. We were in a small town, mostly there just for the purpose to be a sort of trading post for hikers who want to hike up Mt. Whitney.

“When will we get the chance to fill up our water bottles?” I asked.

The car was in a small parking lot for a trading post that sold hiking gear, plus some ice cream. My throat was dry. As we drove through Death Valley, I drank all the water I had on me, which was one bottle. My other bottles, four Smart Waterbottles, were in the back of the car.

“Are you telling me that you didn’t fill up your bottles before the flight!” Mr. Smith roared.

I looked to Nicky. He looked to me. Both our bottles were dry.

“Great, now you got to have to pay for someone to pump up water for you,” Mr. Smith said. Later, he told us he was just messing with us. It didn’t seem like it.

* * *

Going up Mt. Whitney, there are only two things present in your mind. First is reaching the top, a place where you know you can finally let your body completely rest. The second is where you are going to place your next step, then the next step after that. That’s all what I could think of going up switchback after switchback. Looking up did no good because you couldn’t see the end, so I looked to my feet. Same for Nick.

Switchbacks are a type of trail. They zigzag up, if going up, or zigzag down, if going down. Each one is like climbing up a hill, only that you have another one right when you turn your direction when you reach the top. Left, straight, right, straight, up, then up again, then dizzy. When Nicky and I looked up, Mr. Pepper was like a small speck of dust, probably who knows how many switchbacks up. When we looked down, you could make out the Smiths. Father with son. We hiked two thousand feet of switchbacks.

* * *

It was common for the adults, Mr. Pepper and Mr. Smith, to stop along the trail and for Nicky and I to join them. We did this to wait for Zach. He was the slowest in the group. Just watching him hike from a distance, you could see how his feet dragged along the trail, instead of him picking his feet up. Mr. Pepper, Nicky, and I would always find some place to sit while Mr. Smith stood up, face tense. After every time Zach passed us, while we sat, we would always pass him again. He was just too slow to be ahead. Mr. Smith always looked angry when we waited.

* * *

Our group woke up along the waters of Guitar Lake. We were collected on a hill made up of big and small gray rocks that looked over a field of small green blades of grass. When you looked to the water it was a Caribbean blue, and if you let your eyes circle around the edges of the lake, you’d recognize the shape of a guitar.

Making sure our tents didn’t collapse at night was difficult, since we had no places to put our tent stakes into anything. What we did was take our strings on the tents, put a bunch of loose rocks on it, and then hope for the best. But now it was morning, and the only tent to fall down was Mr. Pepper’s, so in the end all was well as I looked over both the field and the lake.

I saw the Smiths, more below where the Peppers and I camped, were packing up already; well mostly Mr. Smith, while Zach was sluggishly moving around. Mr. Pepper was sitting on a rock, just across from me, but he seemed to be taking in the scenery just like I. I watched him, waiting for him to say something to Nicky and I that we had to pack up, but he didn’t until the sun fully came up.

Later, when the sky was blue, the Smiths said that they were going to get a head start for the day, so they left. Mr. Pepper, still looking at them as they hiked through the grassy field, asked Nick, “Nick, do you know what’s happening with Mr. Smith?”

Nicky paused for a moment, but answered, “I think he’s embarrassed.”

* * *

To hike Mt. Whitney, you need to get a permit to do so, though it’s not hard.

There was this one woman, heavy, pink-faced, wearing a white baseball cap. She talked to Mr. Pepper. I walked over slowly to his side.

“They’re not giving out any permits no more,” she said.

“Are you sure?” Mr. Pepper said.

“Yeah, I’m sure. They’ve stopped and won’t give any more until tomorrow.”

I walked away.

After she left, and Mr. Pepper talked to the park rangers, we got the permit.

As we camped by the field of tall grass that had running deer and fresh water a second time, I asked Mr. Pepper about that moment when we were trying to get our permits.

“I don’t know what that woman was talking about,” he said, “But at least I’m glad that Mr. Smith didn’t catch any wind of her. We didn’t need him to be freaking out before we even started the hike.”

* * *

We were driving through Death Valley again. Red, desert. Hot. One hundred twenty-four degrees Fahrenheit hot. We were parked in a parking lot that looked over a field of … something. Salt, over flowing with salt. It looked like the sun was hanging over the salt field like a light above a mirror.

“Look at these people,” Mr. Smith said. “They practically take two steps before they walk back to their cars.” He huffed. “I’ll show them something.” He got out of the car and started to run to the trail that went through the salt field. Everyone in the car thought he was crazy. I thought he was crazy. But then, I imagined that I was standing behind him, watching him on the salt trail.

He was running, running towards a destination that can’t be seen, but yet, he ran. He kept running. Even if he was completely different from me, I still saw him just as a man—a man racing towards the light. He was bathed in the light, just like I. We are the light in mountains and deserts.

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