The Pilgrimage (Part 2)

By Gabriel Palmer


Heraclitus once said that “you can never step into the same river twice.” Heraclitus clearly never met me. To say that I am slightly prone to making the same stupid mistakes would be an understatement equivalent to saying that Michael Jackson got slightly stranger as he got older (a tremendous disappointment to be sure since the Thriller soundtrack was a defining element of my youth, along with garbage pail kids, super Mario brothers, and Saved by the Bell – I was really cool as a kid). I like to think that my inability to learn from previous experiences is a kind of enlightened consciousness that refuses to impose past experiences on the future, thereby allowing for a true presence with and full encounter of the world in all of its particularity. Yes, I am aware that this is little more than an intellectual justification for my utter lack of temporal awareness, but I guess this is what a degree in philosophy gets you.

Most people would have taken the previous day’s journey to Tai’an as a clear message, that the goddess of the mountain, or Confucius, or Buddha, or whichever divine entity you prefer, did not want me to complete my pilgrimage, but I’m not most people. Nope, instead of thoughtfully resigning myself to not completing the journey, I just drank a bottle of some indiscernible bootleg Chinese liquor, went to sleep, and woke up with little memory of the previous day, a throbbing headache, and a childlike excitement to start the day.

As I went outside, my exuberance turned to hesitation when I realized that it was a bit overcast and drizzly, recognizing that climbing a 6,000 foot high mountain in the rain might not be the best choice. Not a problem I thought, I will simply go get my rain jacket and head on my way. I mean how bad could it really be? I had travelled through India during the monsoons and walked through fetid, garbage filled water up to my hips – I figured that after that nothing can be as bad (or as infectious). And, in fact, the beginning of the walk was quite pleasant. The clouds and breeze made for perfect hiking weather, and the light drizzle even began to disappear.

I should probably mention here that I had in no idea how long the hike was supposed to take, the nature of the ascent, or how difficult it might be. My only information was obtained from a one paragraph blurb in a tour book that mentioned that this was one of the most scared mountains in China and to quote “offers a somewhat strenuous but very rewarding walk to the top.” I was in good shape and had all day, so I figured everything should be fine (because tour books never lie, and I always use good judgment).

The initial part of the hike was pastoral and calm, filled with flowing streams, beautiful trees, flowers, and pretty much every other image that you might imagine when you think of perfect mountain scenery. Sure, it had started to rain a bit again and the temperature was dropping but I just put my rain jacket on and kept on trucking. Oh, and it was also a bit curious that I seemed to be the only one on the path.

Another ten minutes on and the rain had intensified and the slope of the path had gone from gentle to strenuous. Realizing that I might not be perfectly equipped for this excursion I stopped under a small covering where a woman was selling tea in order to reconsider my options (how she got there, why she was selling tea when there were no other people, and whether she was actually selling tea or she was just homeless and making herself tea under this covering which I had just invaded, were all questions that for some reason did not cross my mind). As I stood there in this woman’s tea stall / possible dwelling I noticed some clean plastic trash bags, and realized that I could use these as make shift rain covers.

“Can I buy one of these bags.”

Blank stare, obviously. I’m not sure why I thought that a random woman on the side of a mountain would speak English when the people at the information desk at an airport didn’t, but that’s neither here nor there.

So instead I held up a bag along with some yen.

Blank stare.

I just took the bag put down some yen (I am pretty sure I accidently gave her $10 for a garbage bag) and started walking away.

Blank stare.

I took out my handy Swiss army knife and cut a hole for my head and two for my arms and then adorned myself with my designer creation, at which point I look far more homeless than the woman from whom I had just stolen / bought the bag. As crazy as I may have looked, my decision to increase my rain protection was a good one since it began to pour with the ferocity of a biblical deluge (arc building was under consideration, but I couldn’t find any gopher wood). Accompanying the rain were wind gusts strong enough to carry Dorothy back to Oz, but I continued on anyway.

The trail went steeply upward for another 30 minutes before I began to approach what looked like a summit. Assuming that I had conquered the strenuous part mentioned in the tour book, and feeling quite good about myself for having done so in a rain storm (I was overly praised as a child for even the smallest of accomplishments, which in turn led to an inflated sense of achievement – “Oh, you did such a good job cutting in a straight line, and pasting! We’re so proud of you!”), I was somehow completely unaware of the fact that I had only ascended 1,000 out of the 6,000 feet to the top of the mountain.

The summit was not a summit at all, but rather the top of the first hill on the way to the top of the mountain. And the part I had perceived as the strenuous part was like comparing a stroll around Central Park with running an ultra-marathon through the Sahara desert in the middle of summer while wearing a snow jacket. As I crossed to the top of the hill, I saw laid out in front of me enough stairs to put the emergency exits to Burj Khalifa to shame. Standing there in the pouring rain dumbfounded by both my own lack of awareness of altitude and by the sight in front of me, I considered carefully what to do next. Actually that’s not true. I should have considered carefully what to do next, but instead just thought to myself  “eh, I’ve come this far so I might as well keep going.”

For those of you who have never tried to climb 17,364 stone stairs in the rain with gale force winds, allow me to explain approximately how it goes. Take two steps up, slide back three steps and grab on to something to keep from falling further down the mountain. Take three more steps, fall, slide down seven steps, lay there in a puddle while the water soaks through your underpants. Take 5 steps, trip, nearly hit your head against the ground, but somehow land ass first into the exact same puddle from before. Continue this same pattern for another hour and half.

After what seemed like days I could finally see the top of the stairs. As I climbed the final bit, legs shaking like Jello and heart throbbing out of my chest, I saw a small building that had a sign outside that said restaurant. Being far too exhausted to even question how there could be a restaurant here, where the food came from, or how many customers they could possibly get in a day, I entered and began taking off my layers of clothes that had been soaked through not only by the rain but also the gallons of sweat I produced from climbing a mountain in a hermetically sealed plastic bubble.

When the waitress approached, I pointed at a tea cup on the table and she scurried off to the kitchen. I didn’t really care what she brought, and was fairly sure it wouldn’t be tea, but at this point simply sitting was good enough. She returned with a bowl of soup. After 30 minutes of sitting in a mild coma in the restaurant (and not eating the soup which smelled like pickled wet dog hair), I decided to put my gear back on and explore the top of the mountain.

As I walked over the next ridge to look around I came to two important realizations: 1. I hate tour books, and 2. I was not alone on the mountain after all. In fact, I was not only not alone, there were hundreds of people going into souvenir shops and tea stalls, taking pictures, and enjoying what seemed like a nice family day out. I was admittedly confused by the crowds (and souvenir stores, since sacred mountains and cheesy t-shirts don’t necessarily fit together for me) until I saw the bus stops and parking lots on the far side of the summit. What I also noticed on the other side of the “summit” were more stairs and a sign reading that this was the half-way point. After screaming a long series of expletives while kicking an array on inanimate objects (much to the confusion and amusement of the people around me who then began to take photos of the homeless looking white man throwing a tantrum), I took a deep breath collected myself, and vowed to continue.

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