Even having left home at 4 a.m. and climbed without stopping, I’m only just turning the key in my bike lock when the first other people show up at the summit of Mt. Tam. They are an older couple, possibly with a head start from the West Point Inn. As we all cross the dark lot toward the start of the trail that leads to fire lookout, I think I hear the woman suggest that they let me go ahead.
Whether I imagine this or not, it’s the excuse I need to speed-walk ahead and, once I make the first turn out of sight, start a breathless, clumsy sprint to the top. I’m stumbling over the stone staircase in my cleats and the weak glow of a bad headlamp, sweating into the chill, but I make it: I see the sun edge over the horizon, watch it wash light into the water for eight crystalline minutes in perfect solitude.
In my head I thank the sun. I thank the mountain. I thank my bike and my wobbly knee. I thank the woman from the parking lot, several times.
The crowds arrive and thicken behind me with the morning until the sky is bright and the base of the lookout hums with happy chatter. Having already gotten what I came for I’m unbothered, clasping a thermos on top of a boulder, when a man appears below and directly in front of me.
He’s wearing $500 Arc’teryx and a poorly knit cap with bears’ ears, the sort of thing you’d put on a baby. Like any quirky sartorial choice by a conventionally attractive person, I hate this hat and by extension this man, who is now beaming up at me with eyes sparkling out of a weathered face. “Lovely morning! Happy new year! Are you having a good day?”
“Uh huh.” I stare straight ahead and past him. I want to kick his teeth in, and from this unnecessarily small distance probably could.
“Can you guess what all this white stuff is?” He’s gesturing at the rocks where he stands beneath me, but I’m not looking, only wondering: What the fuck? What compels them? What animates a man to step off the trail, pick his way slowly across the slope through a mat of chaparral, and stand right here rather than anywhere else for a hundred yards? What about me—sitting alone and apart from a crowd drinking tea in a duct-tape-patched parka—suggests that I want to talk to him?
Nothing, John Cheever reminds me; it’s not about me. I must forgive them—these tall, old, white, wealthy, handsome men—it’s simply that no one has ever suggested anything else.
He had never before felt unwanted. It had never been said. He had been wanted as a baby, wanted as a young man, wanted as a lover, a husband and father, wanted as a scriptwriter, a raconteur and companion. He had, if anything, been wanted excessively, and his only worry had been to spare himself, to spread his sought-after charms with prudence and discretion, so that they would do the most good. He had been wanted for golf, for tennis, for bridge, for charades, for cocktails, for boards of management—and yet this ancient wall addressed him as if he were a pariah, a nameless beggar, an outcast. He was deeply wounded.
“Ashes,” the man announces, knowingly. “People come here to spread ashes. It’s not allowed but they do it anyway. Now you know!”
In this moment I see the crux very clearly. This is what it will be about now, this year and every year until I am dust myself—an arms race against my own waning energy to get up earlier, drive farther, search longer, try harder to find space. The world closes in and I will need to do more and more ridiculous things to get away.
Little do I know!
I do not look forward to anything. I consider it dangerous. Nobody taught me this, nothing happened, but it’s the way I’m wired—to believe anticipation tempts the gods. Even absent force majeure, our earthly bodies fail in the face of even the surest thing.
But when five of my friends agree to take a week-long mountain bike trip with me in the summer, I can’t help it: I’m excited. I put it on my calendar with only a fingers-crossed emoji to mitigate the exclamation point. This, I dare think for a moment, is going to be good.
We’re driving to the South Bay, three of us in one car—the idea of it now—debating the new plague. Jacob is worried, but Jacob is always worried. I say, I distinctly remember: “I don’t see how it’s any different than flu.”
Later I will forgive myself this declaration and further argue that although my friend was right, he was right for no good reason, whereas I was wrong correctly, given all the information I or any average citizen had at the time. I see your eyes roll, and I stand by myself, but also I remember the morning of 9/11—
—sophomore year chemistry, lesson plan abandoned. Kids are hugging with their sweatshirt hoods tied closed, boys grandiosely consoling girls. “Why are they crying?” I hiss. “This stuff happens all the time.”
“Not here,” someone wails back at me, and of course she’s completely and profoundly correct without either of us knowing it. It will be decades before I fully grasp that the difference between what may go on here and there is what makes the whole world.
Four days later the big companies have already shuttered, but Sean and I are still due in at work. Our offices in Oakland will be among the last to close. We ride in together, take a long detour through the park, and have a sense it may be the last time for a long while.