A friend poked her head into the bunkhouse, letting yellow light spill through the door and into the night. I stuffed a few extra snacks into my backpack and pulled my coat over a spare sweatshirt. Even summer nights in Colorado turn frigid at 10,000 feet in elevation. I hurried from the bunkhouse, strangely eager for this cold hike up a mountain in the dark.
Dusky outlines of friends stood poised against a dirt road like paper doll shadows on a gray, two-dimensional plane. The forms talked to one another and began moving ahead of me, setting a quick pace up the road that ran through the high-mountain ranch before plunging into miles of national forest. Trotting to keep up, my feet scuffed the road, kicking up dust. A stout smell rose from the iron-rich dirt and melted into the cool scent of pine trees that clung to the breeze.
My lungs strained for air, grumpy about my choice of a late-night workout instead of steady bedtime breathing. My muscles ached from a long day of ranch work, but I ignored them. Slanting upward, the road wound through aspen groves and open meadows. It curved and bent like a living thing. Before long, the dark figures ahead veered off the road, cut through a wide meadow, and aimed for the face of a bald mountain that rose from the surrounding country like a swollen knot on a giant’s head. I felt the ground beneath me sloping upward, rising toward the sky and its thick splay of stars.
The steep incline, combined with the brisk pace, sent my muscles screaming. Every step hurt. Eager to see the world from the top of the mountain, I continued to climb, step after step, commanding my knees to bend. My calves burned, and my lungs begged for oxygen. Sagebrush snagged my sneakers and weaved dead bits of debris into my shoelaces.
At last I stopped on the hillside and looked ahead at the remaining one hundred yards of struggle. Sweat trickled down my neck despite the dropping temperature of night in the Rockies.
Chest heaving for air, I tried to calm the rasp of my own breath and ignore the heat of my cheeks as my friends, barely winded, waited for me a few short steps away. Ahead I could see where the rim of the earth met the dome of the sky. I flicked off my flashlight and stared at the flecks of stars sparkling overhead before looking down to see lights like warm, yellow map tacks, marking the presence of homes in the valley.
“Ready?” a friend asked, hearing my greedy gasps subside to whiffles.
“Yeah,” I said, not entirely meaning it.
Half of me didn’t want to move another step on that torturous hike. I wanted the view to come to me, to reach down and show me its beauty without one more jar to my weary bones. The other half of me wanted to reach the top on my own two feet. Gritting my teeth, I willed myself forward, ready to spin 360 degrees and see the sky spreading above and around me, the Milky Way crossing overhead like a clouded current in a boundless sea.
As I neared the crest of the hill, I stopped for breath, once…twice…three times. My pulse thundered in my ears. I felt dizzy as blood rushed to my head. Finally, I collapsed into a cross-legged heap at the top. With the curve of the dark hillside beneath me, I tilted my head to see the blue-black velvet of the night sky uncrowded by trees or buildings or city lights. Tired, weak, and arriving dead last, I made the climb in the dark, up a mountain, to what felt like the top of the world.
Later, sitting in a classroom, I studied a picture of the Milky Way projected on a PowerPoint. Wearing black pants, a white collared shirt, and suspenders, my professor tilted in his office chair at the front of the room as though he were simulating the tilt of the earth’s axis. As he mapped out assignments and deadlines, my breath tightened in my chest. Being an English major in a science class could feel like observing space from two opposite poles—with some stars never rising above the other horizon. Simply finding the right classroom within the labyrinth called the Science Building had been a struggle; the thought of identifying pinpricks of light against the vast expanse of sky made my muscles tense.
Life itself felt like a struggle after resigning the open spaces of a Colorado summer to the cramped quarters of dorm life and deadlines. A full class load of labs, homework, quizzes, papers, and tests towered above me like a mountain to climb.
“Okay, let’s look at the globes.”
At my professor’s words, I jerked to attention. On the table in front of me sat a model of the celestial globe, constellations sketched on its fiberglass sphere. I turned the plastic screw at the sphere’s base, making the earth rotate—Australia, Antarctica, Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas twirling beneath my fingers. The screw made a screeching noise against the glass, but I barely noticed. I looked past the constellations, past the yellow orb of sun stuck to its ecliptic wire. I stopped the earth at North America and gauged the western states with my eyes. Staring further, I imagined a dirt road that led through a high-mountain ranch and plunged into miles of national forest. I imagined a mountain—just a steep hill, really—that offered a wider view of the world.
Maybe that’s what this college life was about, too. Maybe beyond the stress and the casual friendships and the empty incentive of a high GPA, there was a wider view from which I could better see the world. The bell rang, snapping me back to the present need to place one foot in front of the other. As I packed my books to leave class and shouldered my backpack to continue the climb, I could only hope that the view from the top would be worth it.