In 1968, Greg, Mike, Dave and I set off to hike to the top of a mountain west of Borrego Springs Campground. This mountain rose a thousand feet from the desert floor. We thought it would be a nice trek to the top of the hill, not really understanding just how big a hike it really was. We did not go on a trail, scrabbling instead across the hills, avoiding cactus and scrubby chaparral.
Our Mom packed us a brown paper sack lunch of soda pop, a baloney sandwich, and an apple. We had two canteens of water to share. As I look back on it, I am amazed at the things our parents let us do. The world did not seem such a scary place in those times, and our parents seemed to know that we would use our small skills and common sense to survive the day.
As we started off in the coolness of the early desert morning, goose bumps rose on my arms. We moved out of the shadows into the sunlight, and I started to warm up. We stopped and looked at a Horney Toad.
Greg said, “How awesome will it be to reach the top of the mountain? We might be the only kids to ever try this. Maybe we should make a sign, or a flag!”
I started to sweat during the second hour of our trek. The desert sun beat down on my arms and legs. I could feel my shoulders burning. We shared a drink from the first canteen. Up and up, we climbed. A pebble in my Keds bounced around, until it came to rest near my ankle.
Finally, we stopped to eat our lunch. By this time, the full heat of the sun bore down upon us. There was no shade. We were on a scrubby mountain with small chaparral, boulders, cactus, and pebbles. Our sandwiches seemed dry, the bread and baloney stiff. The apple was welcome for its moisture, more than anything. And the soda pop disappeared in two gulps.
Greg munched on his apple and spit out the seeds. In a rush, he said, “Our cub scout troop gave us badges for identifying different birds. I like the Western Bluebird and the Lesser Goldfinch. Did you see the barrel cactus? Did you know that you could get water from it? I read about it. You need a machete to open it and get inside. It’s what cowboys used to do.”
Mike chugged his soda and said, “I can burp ‘Regis Philbin’ five times in a row!” And he did.
Dave fell on the ground in a fit of giggles.
I was starting to feel sweaty, headachy, tired. As the temperature approached 100 degrees, I was beginning to regret the decision to come along. I could be sitting in the cool trailer or hiking along Palm Canyon where a lush oasis and stream lay at the end of the flat one mile long hike.
The desert landscape plays tricks on one’s vision. What looks near is actually far, what looks like water is a mirage. We would spot what looked like the peak, scramble up, arrive and find that the summit kept moving away, no matter how far we hiked. As we sucked the last bit of our first canteen dry, we were so high up that I could not see the campground anymore. It was burning hot and a blister was forming on the heel of my foot. My Keds rubbed painfully.
“Maybe we should turn back,” I suggested. “I’m tired, and hot and my foot hurts!”
John made a humph sound. His blue eyes flashing. “Lisa. Stop being such a girl. We will make it to the top of the mountain like we said we would. Daddy told us to keep our word, remember?”
“What a girl!” Mike chimed in. He shook his head in disgust, spitting into the sand for emphasis.
“G-I-R-L!” Dave teased, sticking his tongue out.
Dave and Mike and John were my best playmates. Our games often tended toward more masculine themes. I was the nurse to cowboys, Indians, combat soldiers and even Davy Crockett. I had to be tough to hang around my brothers, and I could ride a bike, climb a tree, or even a fence in a single bound. I could take teasing as well; because the target changed often, and the teasing was lighthearted.
All of this was part and parcel of our normal interaction. I did not really notice my femineity, or their masculinity. We were little children whose play was like breath, so elemental to our lives as to be invisible. But now, I was close to tears. I swallowed and looked away. The truth was this. I was an interloper in the world of boys. It was a sudden and shocking epiphany.
Greg seemed to notice the play of emotions in my face, and he softened his stance toward my essential “girl-ness.”
“Let’s drink some more water. I know we’re close. Too close to turn back. It’s just a little further. When we get to the top of the mountain, we’ll feel so good, like we have done something. We are probably the first kids to ever make it to the top. Let’s put some Chapstick on your blister,” said Greg. He grinned.
I had to find the strength to continue. It was another 45 minutes before we reached the pinnacle of the mountain. When we did, we sat down and rested for a few minutes, and as we did so, the sweat on my arms and legs cooled my body a bit. The hottest part of the day had passed. We emptied the second canteen.
The summit of the mountain was worth the climb. It was a flat expanse, free of vegetation, covered with pebbles and a few boulders just right for sitting. We were above everything else in the world, four small explorers drunk on our accomplishment. The play of light, the very air was inhabited with a shimmering purity, an absence of all but the essential, leaving something rare and simple and profound. The wind made a low moaning sound, a music that we could feel on our skin. Colors were washed out, like a watercolor with shades of pale pink and butter yellow and golden tan. In the distance, the bluest blue of the sky against the deep purple of the mountains framed the scene, providing a panoramic view that spanned a hundred miles.
“See? What do you think now?” asked Greg, grinning as he slowly turned around, arms wide like an offering.
“I get it.” I stammered. I forgot about girls and boys and breathed in the awe of the place, the mastery of our climb. The world felt like it was turning in perfect harmony.
Mike fell to the ground and made a funny face, eyes bulging, and every tooth bared in an impossibly wide smile. Dave started tickling him and singing, “Big girls don’t cry, cry-eye-eye…” I giggled at the antics of my brothers.
I savored the vista for a few minutes, but the lengthening shadows of late afternoon moved us towards camp. The descent was a rush, a reckless run towards the campground and flat ground. We were strong lean kids, and we ran down the mountain with ease. Mike sang, “Born To be Wild.” Dave skipped in time with the song. Afternoon brought a breeze, and the shadows grew longer as we shuffled down. My blister ached, but I put it out of my mind.
My feet kept moving. I found the zone where mind and body seem to go beyond the physical discomfort to a place of sheer will, and it felt strong and almost spiritual. Greg smiled at our dusty little crew. When we finally stomped into camp, it was almost 6 pm and the sun moved behind the mountain we had just climbed, turning it black.
That hike was a turning point for me. Although I now understand that being a “girl” should never have been an insult, the lesson was more about mental toughness and fortitude. I made it a point of pride to soldier on, to never give up, whether it be a hike, a task or a promise. Greg taught me this in his quiet way.
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Really well written and it was great how it came full circle at the end.
Incredible story, beautiful metaphor too about life, I love how it ended and the message lingers on. This would have been a great submission, you're a naturally great writer.
Nice story. At some point, I thought it was a coming out story. I enjoyed your description of the scenery
Very the Goonies but make it girl power. Loved the story idea and your writing style!