A Pleasant Scent from a Torturous Mountain
A few weeks ago, I was invited by my friend Wu Jia for a leisurely hike into the mountains surrounding Shaanxi province. The conversation went something like this:
Jia: Yes. Nothing too strenuous (her English is excellent)
Me: I mean, my knees…my age…
Jia: Oh, stop. You’ll be fine, but if you have a walking stick or knee braces, you know…
Me: How far are we going?
Jia: Oh, maybe five, ten miles.
Perhaps it’s easy to see where this is going.
The Saturday of the hike, I met Jia outside the university gate and we walked to a bus stop where other hikers had gathered. There were about eighty of us. Organizers counted heads and queued us up to board two private buses. (By the way, I hate waiting in lines. However, it seems that most Chinese people wait patiently and don’t complain.) I looked at my fellow hikers. I saw huge, light-aluminum-framed back packs outfitted with camping stoves, hiking poles, and double water bottles, everything covered in rain gear. The hikers wore heavy, water-proofed boots and all-weather hiking pants with all-weather parkas, hats and scarves. They looked serious…and thin, and fit, and I was clearly twenty-five to thirty years older than the oldest one.
A few of them glanced my way. I felt self-conscious. I wore jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and running shoes. I carried a small back pack, enough to hold a change of clothes, one water bottle, an apple, and cashews for lunch. On the ride to the trail head—about fifty miles away—Jia translated instructions from two of the organizers. One organizer turned to Jia and told her that she and I were on the green team. Team? What team? There was to be a competition between teams of ten hiking up to the midpoint for some prizes and then first, second, and third prizes after the descent. All of it sponsored by Gortex (a company that makes water-resistant clothing). The leader of our team told Jia that he didn’t expect much from us because she was the only woman (other than one organizer) and I was, well…not exactly outfitted for this adventure.
We started at around a rather late 10 a.m., and approximately from 1500 feet. Our first goal was the midpoint, supposedly 5000 feet. Once on our way up the mountain, Jia and I were determined so we encouraged each other not to bring up the rear. The trail became hardened clay and stones while mist began to surround us, but it cleared at certain points—enough to stop for a moment and take a photo of a gorgeous mountain lake. Magpies flew in and out of tall brush, a crow cawed in the distance, and some sort of eagle (or buzzard?) circled far above our heads. Then the trail began to narrow and take on about a 4% grade. I looked back at the lake one more time and said to myself, “You know who would love this? Betty Sawin. Betty would like this very much.”
As we continued, Jia and I chatted about the scenery but also how we would show them that a woman and an old American can hang with the young men. I hitched up my backpack, Jia did the same with hers, and we quickened our pace as we sensed the grade beginning to increase. “You all right, Dana?” “Sure, Jia. How’s by you?” And we passed a few other hikers, leaving them behind. The trail became narrower and the scent of the air cleaner as we got higher in elevation. Then Jia and I realized we were pretty much alone as we came across an open area with brown corn stalks and planted vegetables—a clay and straw farm house sat next to the trail—an old woman worked her garden. I said hello and she smiled and waved. We took a few photos, and continued on.
The trail narrowed again and the grade seemed to increase more. I became somewhat winded, but knew I was fine. We hiked another hour, with it getting just past noon. That’s when Jia broke the news to me that she thought we had probably only hiked about five miles, weren’t yet at the midway point, and was told on the bus that the total hike would be close to twenty miles. I started to calculate.
After a bit longer, the trail opened up, became hardened clay, and we heard voices in the distance. Jia said we’d be stopping for lunch, which was good news. As the voices became clearer, Jia urged me onward, telling me we had to mark a time of arrival for the competition, so I went ahead. She was about twenty yards behind, when the leader of our team came down the trail and wanted me to hurry. I turned back toward Jia and she explained that we were the last two to arrive—that she would be the last one for our team—so I stopped. I figured it didn’t make any difference if I marked a few seconds of time before she did. I let her go ahead. She joined our team and then they all looked back at me, some of them pointing, some shaking their heads in dismay. I asked Jia what it meant. She explained that I let a woman beat me. And I thought, “What would Betty Sawin say about that?”
This midway point was another farm house where an old woman and her son live. They were kind enough to allow eighty hikers to sit around their place, use their latrine (and it was a latrine) and clean up after us once we’d left. So I chose a concrete step to sit upon and rummaged through my back pack for lunch. I looked around and many of the other hikers removed their knee braces, collapsed their aluminum hiking poles, and set up butane camping stoves. They cooked re-hydrated noodles with vegetables, boiled water for tea, and warmed their hands with the flames. While they ate their lunches with chopsticks, I cut up my apple and savored every cashew nut. A few of the more friendly members of our team gathered around me and asked questions. They wanted to practice their English, mostly. But one guy mentioned that I was last. I said I wasn’t last, but he insisted I was. Jia explained that he was ribbing me, yet they wanted us to step it up. We had come in third place for the midway point and it was unacceptable. I laughed. I mean, who gives a shit?
I finished my lunch and watched as others made more food and chatted; lunch is the biggest meal of the day in China. Yet, it was getting close to two o’clock in the afternoon. I thought we were burning daylight, as a trail boss might say.
Me: When do you think we’ll get moving again?
Jia: After lunch.
Me: I know that, but we have about fifteen more miles. (Downhill, I’d hoped.)
Jia: Yeah, but some are still eating and others are taking a nap.
And as interesting, and eastern, and now-moment-ish, and endearing, and prevalent as that attitude is here in China, well, it can be rather frustrating for a western person. I wanted to know if the organizers and other hikers really thought we’d all be able to cover fifteen trail miles in less than three hours—before it got dark. So I asked Jia to ask a lead hiker.
Me: When will we start up again?
Leader: (through Jia) After lunch.
Me: Yes, I know that, but isn’t it getting a bit late?
Leader: (through Jia) You can go on ahead, if you would like.
Of course I didn’t know the trails or where we were headed. I said thank you, but realized that I had questioned his abilities in front of Jia. Perceived insult aside, I smiled, put my hands together in the Buddhist way and bowed with a nod of my head. After another fifteen or twenty minutes, everyone was packed up, napped up, and began to rise to their feet. More instructions were given. Jia and I got to the front of the crowd. As we started, she told me we had about another hour until we’d reach the midway point (I thought that was where we’d just had lunch, but no). Yet, I followed along. What else could I do? The buses were going to meet us at the final destination, so going back down the way we came was not an option.
As the trail became narrower—many places not much wider than a game trail—the brush became thicker and the footing less sure. We rose in altitude, the grade increasing, and the mist thickened to the point of a light sprinkle of rain. My running shoes were clearly a liability and I often had to grab hold of tree branches to steady myself to climb over wet rocks and through the mud. But Jia and I were right there with everyone. No one was going to pass us (in fairness no one could pass anyone because it was a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other path). About forty-five minutes into our ascent, the train of hikers came to a halt. Looking up and ahead, the trail leaders were turning around. Word was passed down that even though we’d reached the midway point, there wasn’t enough time for us to make it down the mountain before it got dark. So we had to go back.
I was relieved because the trail we’d come up was often wider and drier and my knees were beginning to bother me. I thought that I’d about had enough anyway and even though this wasn’t exactly leisurely, I’d burned calories and had taken in some beautiful scenery. Plus, I felt a bit vindicated.
Instead of the path we’d already traveled (many feet had trodden black), the same leader who’d suggested I go on alone stood at a fork in the trail to direct us along a different way. I stopped for a second and said in English, “I don’t wanna say I told you so, but…I told you so.” He looked away, perhaps a bit embarrassed, which wasn’t really my intent. After a hundred yards or so, it was clear we had entered a ravine. A creek flowed to our left and brush, granite, and trees seemed to shoot upward like a fortress wall on each side of us. Although we were clearly descending, we often had to jump down from boulders and ledges and hurdle fallen moss-covered logs. It was very slow going. The ravine and the trail became deeper and darker. In fact, the sun—what there had been of it—was nowhere. This trail was clearly more difficult, wetter, steeper, muddier, and full of thorny brush cutting our faces and hands as we moved through it.
And then I fell. I lost my footing on wet granite and fell. I tumbled and rolled and tried to grab anything I could. I heard shouts of other hikers and a few reached out as I passed them. One guy grabbed my little back pack and I stopped only a few feet from a sheer drop of ten to fifteen feet. He said something to me that I didn’t understand. I whispered “xièxiè,” and then I sprang to my feet with arms in the air and shouted, “I’m all right! I’m all right!” in my best Mel Brooks voice.
We came to a dammed part of the creek, nothing big, just a small pond, and stepped along slippery rocks to the opposite side. It got darker and we got deeper. The creek moved faster, water tumbling over boulders and rocks and rotting logs. Someone ahead picked up the trail—which became narrower, with more thorny brush and thicker mud. But then the mud gave way to an expanse of green. And as we hiked along, it became very apparent that the green was all peppermint. The mountain air came alive with the gorgeous scent of mint. It was slippery, though, and much of it covered rocks and the mud underneath. My shoes were soaked and unstable and I fell…and then fell again…and fell some more. Each time I did so, the man who had saved me from the previous nasty fall was right behind me, helping me to my feet and smiling as I said thank you. He wouldn’t leave my side.
I looked up ahead and most of the hikers were having some difficulty with the trail. Except, except that Jia was being helped over boulders and across the creek by another hiker holding her hand to make sure she was safe. I called out to her. How much farther? She asked her helper.
“He’s not sure. Maybe another hour. Maybe more.”
And I groaned. I was not in good shape, really. My knees ached, my ass was bruised, my hands and face were bleeding from cuts suffered by the brush, and I was soaked in sweat and rain. Yet, I took a deep breath of the minty air and thought, “You know who would really love this?”
Soon, though, it was dark. No one said much. It was obvious that everyone—not just me—everyone was tired and wet and bleeding and looking forward to the comfort the bus would offer. So we trudged along. After a little while, the trail opened up to hard clay and as we rounded a bend it seemed we had emerged from the ravine. The sky became lighter, a bright three-quarter moon shone about thirty degrees above the horizon, and my spirits lifted.
My guardian angel, the young man who had saved me from my fall, came up beside me. Jia translated:
Young Man: How are you doing?
Me: Me? Oh, terrific. Never better.
Young Man: How’s your ass?
Me: Sore. But that’s not really what hurts.
Young Man: Oh? What have you hurt?
Me: My dignity, my friend, my dignity.
He laughed, clapped me on the shoulder, and told me it was the shoes. If I’d had proper shoes, he had no doubt I’d have fared much better. And at that moment, the world seemed right. After all the ribbing about being last in our group, after all the doubts of whether an American would be able to cut it, after my numerous falls and all the looks of frustration from those behind me because I had held up their progress, this one young man was smiling and warm and encouraging and genuine. “Besides,” he said, “you’re not as old as you think you are.” And he quickened his pace, moving ahead to be the last one to board the first bus.
I have yet to see him again.