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“This is the best place on Earth,” I said,
taking a deep, cleansing breath of pine-scented air. Birds flitted from the tops
of the majestic trees that surrounded me. Through the branches, I could see the
bluer-than-blue sky. Off to my right, a brook cascaded over pebbles. Deer and
elk pranced through a meadow in the distance and squirrels chattered among the
acorns at my feet.
“I finally made it,” I said. “The top of the mountain.”
I knew I’d never have to leave this place. I’d worked so very hard to get here, grunting and sweating for who knows how long, my legs ready to give out at any moment on the long, long climb. But just this morning I’d crested the top. The feeling of relief and joy that was flooding through me was worth all the effort.
“God, I love it here,” I said.
“I know you do,” said a soft voice from behind me.
I whirled around to see the Teacher smiling at me with eyes like stars. I rushed forward and threw my arms around him. He held me in his embrace for a long moment until I pulled away.
“You made a beautiful place,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said, laughing.
“I mean, the meadows and the mountain peaks in the distance. And the skies. How can they be so blue? And the animals aren’t even afraid of me…” I went on and on like this for several minutes.
“So, you like it here,” he said after I had finally wound down.
Chuckling, I said, “I can’t believe I really made it…after all that time. I guess I’m pretty proud of myself.”
“You should be,” he said. “I’m proud of you too. You never gave up.”
I felt my chest swell. “I’m not ashamed to admit that I wanted to quit. A bunch of times.”
“That’s why it feels so good to be here. I deserve it.”
“Of course you do,” he answered.
“And you want me to enjoy this.”
There had been no hesitation in his voice, no questioning. So why did I suddenly feel so uneasy?
“Come,” he said, “I’ll show you around. Let’s take a walk in the meadow.”
We left the forest and strolled among a field of wildflowers. We came to a pond, sitting down to rest on a rough-hewn, wooden bench at the edge of the water. The Teacher produced a flask of wine and some bread from a pocket in his robe. We shared the simple meal.
“Is there something wrong?” he asked. “You’ve been quiet since we left the forest.”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I’m just feeling uneasy. Maybe I don’t know what to do with myself, now that I’m finally here.”
He smiled. “That’s the way of things, isn’t it? We strive for so long to get somewhere that when we finally make it…well…”
He got to his feet and put the flask back inside his pocket. “Follow me,” he said.
We walked to the end of the meadow and onto a rocky path. As it wound gradually upwards, the wildflowers faded away, until there were only boulders all around. At the top of the path was another bench. He sat down and motioned me to sit beside him. When I did, I glanced down and gasped. We were on the edge of a huge outcropping. Far, far below us I could see the path I had followed to the top of the mountain. I traced its winding contours and switchbacks all the way down to the bottom, just at the edge of my vision.
“Is that where I came from?” I asked.
He nodded. “That’s the Valley, the place you worked so hard to get out of.”
Even from this distance, the Valley was a seething, swirling, snake pit. People were running frantically to and fro, clutching and grabbing, fighting and clawing, even killing each other. They were barely visible through an ugly carpet of greenish-brown smog.
“It’s like a cesspool down there,” I said, dragging my eyes away and returning them to the bluer-than-blue sky above.
“Yes it is,” he answered.
My uneasiness returned and I felt butterflies in my stomach. “Why did you bring me out to this ledge?” I asked, hugging myself and gazing down at the scene below.
“Because I want you to remember,” he said.
“Remember what?” I asked.
“Where you came from.”
“Oh, I’ll never forget that,” I said. “Why do you think I’m so glad to be up here?”
“More than that,” he said.
He paused a moment. “Do you remember that day when you were about halfway up the mountain, the day when it wouldn’t stop raining?”
I grimaced. How could I ever forget? It was like getting caught in a monsoon. Desperately searching for a little bit of shelter, I was walking across a narrow ledge when suddenly it was like I was in the middle of Niagara Falls. Great sheets of water ran down the mountain all around me, stopping me in my tracks. I was sure I’d be washed off the ledge and smashed onto the rocks a thousand feet below. But it was the strangest thing. The water crashed down behind me and in front of me but the place where I was standing stayed dry.
“There must have been a large rock somewhere above the ledge, deflecting the water away from me,” I said.
“There was,” he answered.
I looked into his eyes. Chills ran up my spine as I absorbed the meaning of what he had just said.
“Remember that night in the snow?” he continued.
I shuddered. That was as dark and frigid a night as I’d ever experienced in my life. My teeth wouldn’t stop chattering and my feeble blanket might as well have been made out of rice paper. I was sure I was freezing to death. In the middle of the night I got up and began stuffing things into my backpack, ready to give up and go back down into The Valley, for as bad it was down there, at least it would be warmer. But then suddenly the wind changed direction and things began to thaw. It was eerie but it changed my mind about giving up.
“It was almost like someone had lit a fire nearby,” I mumbled.
“You already had a fire inside you,” answered the Teacher. “It just needed a little breath to flare up again.”
Another chill ran up my spine as I struggled to absorb that one.
“Remember the time you tripped as you were going across the boulder field?” he asked.
I gritted my teeth. That had been the worst moment of all. I should have died for sure. I found myself sliding down the mountain with an avalanche of stones all around me, my arms pin wheeling. At the last possible moment my hand found a branch, maybe an ancient tree root. I clutched it with both hands and it stopped my fall. In my wild rush of panic and adrenaline, it had almost felt like someone was pulling on the other end as I scrambled up to safety. But I had been alone on the…
I gaped at the Teacher. “You were on the other end of that stick,” I said.
He looked at me with shining eyes. “What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not lay hold of it, and lift it out?”
My face flushed with shame. I had been so proud of myself.
“So you were there the whole way,” I said softly.
“Lo, I am with you always,” he said.
His words didn’t comfort me like they should have. I had thought all along that it was my own striving that had gotten me here. But now I hung my head.
He put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m proud of you,” he said. “And it’s right for you to be proud of yourself. You never gave up.”
“But I thought…”
“Hush,” he said. “Let’s just enjoy the view.”
We sat there looking at the sky and the distant, snowy peaks. An eagle swooped low and glided gracefully away on the breeze. I tried my best not to look down, but finally, I couldn’t help myself. And what I saw made my stomach churn.
“The Valley is such a wretched place,” I muttered.
“It’s a needy place,” he said.
I pulled away from him. I knew what was coming next.
“No!” I shouted. “I can’t do it. I won’t do it!” I felt tears come to my eyes.
“But I didn’t say anything,” he said.
“I know what you’re going to ask. You‘re going to ask me to go back down there, aren’t you?”
“Only if you want to,” he said.
“But…why? It’s hopeless.” I pointed my finger down at the Valley. “Look at them. Most of them don’t even want to be rescued. They like it down there!”
The Teacher’s eyes flashed. “Did you like it down there?”
I was getting angry. “Of course I didn’t like it. Why do you think I came up here? I’m better than they are!”
The words had slipped out of my mouth before I’d had time to think. Now they echoed down into the Valley and onto the heads of the people I had just passed judgment upon.
The Teacher patted my hand. “You need some time,” he said gracefully. “I’m really glad you’re here.”
There had been no anger in his voice, no disappointment. But as he stood to leave, all the anger that I had been aiming at him had suddenly turned back upon myself.
I had some sleepless nights after that. But in the daytimes, I was free to explore the mountaintop. Everywhere I went the beauty was simply stunning. I had time to do all the things I’d always wanted to do - I wrote books, I hiked and fished, I camped out in the woods. But increasingly, I found myself drawn to the rocky path that led up to the outcropping.
One day, against my better judgment, I again climbed that path. I sat alone on the bench and gazed down upon the Valley. Nothing had changed. But as I sat there, I began to remember what it had been like to live down there. So many feelings came back to me, feelings that had faded away while I had been living on the mountaintop. I remembered the helplessness and despair, and most of all, the bitterness towards those who didn’t have to live in the Valley.
I came back to the outcropping the next day as well, and the day after that. And each time I stayed a little bit longer.
One crisp morning in the fall I left my cabin and found myself on the path that led down off the mountain. I took a deep breath of the sweet alpine air, wishing I could keep it in my lungs forever. But I couldn’t. Where I was going, the air would not be sweet at all.
I had gotten a vision. In my mind, I was leading a group of people out of the Valley. It wasn’t a large group, because I certainly couldn’t help them all. But I could help some. And if I stumbled, maybe the Teacher could help me again. Help us.
How long would I be away from the mountaintop? Maybe forever. But I felt like I was prepared for that. For just like long ago, when I first set out to leave the Valley, I knew I had to at least try.
I knelt down and took one last drink of clear, icy water from the brook. I whispered a soft prayer that if and when I finally did make it back up here, I wouldn’t be alone.
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