I did not reach the summit of Mount Diablo today. The reason: I am weak. Weak! I lack stamina and drive, gumption. There is a hole in my soul the size and shape of competitive instinct. I let the mountain best me. I am the Joe Lieberman of hiking.
Also, it was 104 degrees in Back Creek Canyon. The trail I took climbed twelve hundred feet in a mile. I took three or four rest stops within that mile, a couple of them spent laying on my back in mid-trail. There is a point at which the sweat cannot possibly coat you any more completely, a point at which it does not matter that thistles line the path and that the ticks that live in them are eyeing you and licking whatever they have in place of lips. Chelicerae, I suppose. I pulled a couple of them off me, before they had imbedded their heads in my flesh but not before they had grabbed hold of my skin with the above-mentioned chelicerae: I felt a bit of me come off with them, to sail with them over the edge of a little cliff.
I carry six pints of water with me, enough (on a day when the temperature is a safe and sane 85 Fahrenheit) to get me to the summit and back down. I drained it by the time I got to Murchio Gap, the high point of today’s hike, the point where the mountain declared victory. It is a fortunate thing that some forward-thinking person had put an extra six-pint bladder in my pack, or the hike back to the truck might have been a trifle arid.
The canyon was full of wild grape, and I lay down between a vine and a monkeyflower in full bloom and watched the turquoise dome above for a time, humid thoughts accompanying a rapid, fluttering heartbeat. Back Creek gurgled a hundred feet below me. I was comfortable, aside from the stream of salt water coursing down my neck. I dozed, a little. California Sisters and Lorquin’s Admirals fluttered above, and I can never remember without looking it up which one’s orange patches meet the margins of the wings and which one’s white bars form a U rather than a V, but I saw dozens of butterflies of both species for sure and a hundred yellow swallowtails. And blues leapt up from the path ahead of me like kicked pebbles.
And an odd roar from the chaparral above me, up on the declivitous slopes of Eagle Peak, where the only possible trail follows the knife-edged summit and a wrong step brings a thousand-foot stumble. Puma? or feral pig? The voice lacked the classic decrescendo of the puma’s holler, but was not at all pig-like. Chupacabra? Wrong time of day. It may have been nothing more than an externalized desire, a wish brewing in me for the mountain to distill some mystery, something wild to fill my heart with something besides heat-thickened, insufficiently oxygenated blood. A paltry seven miles hiked today, a weak seven miles, and 2130 feet ascended, more or less, and that’s 243 miles and 56,000 feet ascended for the year, and more than 600 miles worn into my bootsoles now.