In a room as large as a one-car garage I find myself one of thirty? thirty-two, all stuffed together like matchsticks, trying to sleep and I’m ready to ignite. It is 11:45 p.m. and I can’t help it so I think of fifth grade and the stories they told me of the slave ships, human trafficking, people stacked into the hull lengthwise like lumber for days and I think well, at least I’m sleeping just on tatami instead of human feces, and I could get off the floor if I had the juice about me. But it it must be a realistic enough simulation, at elevation 3600m, tough to breathe the thin air, vastly underfed, exhausted in all senses, a pair of Superman tall-building-in-a-single-bounds from the summit of The Fooj, Fuji-san, Mount Fuji, the highest place in all of Japan except must have been my head when I agreed to this trip a week ago. My toes are freezing, and I don’t take off the socks, or even touch them. I decide I won’t take them off until I get home to save us all the trouble, cause god knows what’s in there.
They are early-onset, still, my conditions: the sunburn, all the more exacting and brutal above the clouds, ignoring sunblock like a lucky D&D roll, has just begun to make itself known as the backs of my ears brush against the bag-of-Lays-sized pillow I’ve been issued. For sanitary reasons, and certainly not comfort, it has been conveniently wrapped in a handtowel, the texture of which may not be misleadingly described in promotional materials as “abrasive.” As I have been for the last dozen hours, I pull air in fruitlessly, lungshot gasping for a dying breath, my heart occasionally switching to half-time for a moment and back, tossing me into vertigo for a second and a quarter every so often. Underneath me I command roughly fifteen inches of space from side to side excluding arms. They go nowhere, unless I flip over on my side, which is arguably less comfortable than just not sleeping, a promising candidate which I elect to office. After four hours of rolling about between restless Jessy and a Japanese stranger, I leave the sleeping room with my Nintendo and sit cross-legged in the entry, surrounded at midnight by happily dozing climbers, the sounds only of drawn breath and my occasional plastic button clicks. I am the tiredest I’ve ever been, and I know I won’t be off of this rock for a while.
There is nobody to complain to, of course, out here, not that I would say anything anyway. Some of them, in eager pursuit of the best places from which to watch the legendary sunrise, have already begun their roust, assembling their obviously careful-planned gear in tandem: headlamps, thick boots and goggles, windbreaking garments, dressed for the alpine, dressed for starting their car on an Iowa winter morning, dressed completely unlike I am. I am wearing all I brought. A t-shirt under a turtleneck under a zip-up fleece with a scarf and gloves. I have jeans on and my street shoes hang in a plastic bag. The shoes already look like week-old roadkill, surface the texture of a block of grating parmesan, crusted by air, crusted by Volcanic Ash, who would have known. My hiking pack is just Jessy’s bookbag, emptied of flashcards and pictures of animals and stuffed with too few snacks and an empty plastic 1.5 liter C.C. Lemon bottle that was filled with water when the day began. These mother fuckers got campstoves and Cup Noodle, holy mary mother of god I have two beef sticks and CalorieMate. According to Wikipedia, CalorieMate comes in several forms, including Block, Jelly, and Can. I have only Block, a hundred-calorie powdery chocolate bar. I wonder for a second if I should have gone with Jelly or Can but then remember that I am a professional why-noterator: do you think you can climb the tallest mountain in Japan without purchasing anything special? Why not.
Hours later at about four in the morning comes the last push on up, stabbed by wind and leg fatigue. It feels like bounding forward in anticipation of my own death, oh please baby drive the knife on in. But I ache for it, not because of what awaits (“the end”) but because I’ve been going at it for so goddamned long, I just have to finish, get up there, and then there is no more path, just rocks and wind and people.
And oh, that sunrise. Looking down on my newest home is like looking down on bowls of cloud yogurt, reined in by mountains and all slamming up so far away that I can’t even place it all as shit that’s usually not stuff I gotta look down to see. I look up and there is nothing, no powerlines, no cicada calls, not a distant apartment building or a tree or rail line, just the sky, just up up there, and suddenly it ain’t so bad. Then some dust hits me in the eyes, probably.
Imagine watching six hours of the home shopping network, getting punched in the face when you are finished, and then being told in order to watch anything else on your TV ever again or even leave the room you have to watch two more hours of the home shopping network in reverse at 3x speed with a vicegrip clamped on your head and tightening with every minute, and that is what going back down is like.
When we pull into our home train station I convince Jessy that she should run ahead to the grocery store and buy us some fucking hamburgers cause we are going to have a feast tonight. While I am alone I start the shower and take my socks off. Underneath is where I’ve been and what it’s done to me, and next to my square tub I scrub the mountain down the drain.