This essay is part of a series reflecting the moments leading up to and following capturing some of the images featured on the site.
The trail to South Sister’s summit still hides beneath a dirty layer of snow though June. We are left following a maze of boot prints in the general direction of camp: up. Our midweek climb means the cold wind only carries the sound if its presence and the occasional low growl of thunder from the retreating storm. We indulge ourselves in the silence; we recognize its rarity, especially on this popular trail.
All three of us are Graduate students. Our lives and “free time” are defined by exams, papers, and presentations. Our only moments of inward contemplation happen in the shower – the only ecosystem our laptops are unable to survive. Right now, our only thought is, “where is the trail,” physically and metaphorically. After our three-hour drive and late start, it was already late afternoon by the time we left the car. The forest is winding down, so are we.
We crested the ridge onto the plateau at the base of South Sister’s 10,358’ summit alone. Still, not a soul. The golden hour was preparing to bathe the landscape in the final rays till morning. We pitched our tents on bare ground, nestled beneath a standing of trees opening towards the summits of the Sisters and Broken Top. We sautéed vegetables and sausage as the sun fell beneath the horizon. Still the only sound is the wind and the hiss of our stove.
We enjoy the conversation of close friends as we watched the sun’s warmth leave the landscape. Blue sky turned black and the pinholes of stars began to shine through the darkness. I set my alarm just before the peak of the Milky Way, put my camera batteries in the sleeping bag, and sealed my sleeping bag from the cold.
I reluctantly left the warmth of the sleeping bag behind for the stillness of night. The batteries still warmed by my chest, I grabbed the icy head of the tripod and began to walk away from my nylon bed. The wind had ceased, the moon was nowhere in sight, and the Milky Way dominated the sky. The thirty second exposures necessary to capture the depth and detail of the night sky dragged on in silence bookended by the click of the shutter.
For twenty minutes, there was absolutely no sound, no thoughts, no noise. Both internally and externally, I felt solitude. I wasn’t thinking about grad school, the cold, the summit, or how the images would turn out. For a brief moment, I was draped in gentle stillness; the clarity of my mind mirrored the clarity of the night sky.
The next morning, we drank coffee and left for the summit. The trail wanders across the plateau beneath the looming presence of South Sister’s massif before moving up a ridge to the summit’s crater rim. For most of the day, we wandered patches of snow and scree fields with a welcomed sense of solitude. We joked and discussed life, its struggles, and the future; we spoke, not with a sense of dread, but with a confident matter-of-factness intertwined with hints of uncertainty.
Packing up camp, the silence from the night before still rippled through my mind. The ambient noise usually echoing throughout my consciousness had ceased and gave way to stillness and deep contemplation – the reason I came. I was about to leave someplace therapeutic, a place I felt peace. So much effort went into facing twenty minutes of stillness, and when would I have it again? When would I find myself alone beneath the Milky Way again? Despite my reluctance to leave, the stillness traveled with me. The stillness was not attached to the place but was created in the place. This is the design, our time apart from nature is in balance with our need to escape to nature. Peace and stillness are found in the escape, not the place of escape. So rather than asking when this feeling will happen again, I take comfort in knowing it will happen again. This is The Way.