To Unknowable Heights

On the last day of finals week last semester, a friend and I, to celebrate the end of the school year, drove to North Bend and hiked Rattlesnake Ridge. We got there early, before the morning fog had lifted, and so, for the most part, we hiked in a cloud. Though the sun was out by the time we’d reached the ridge’s 3,500-foot peak, the fog covered the surrounding areas so that, where we should have seen the forest and Rattlesnake Lake below, we saw only gray. There were others at the peak, taking pictures, sitting on lawn chairs, and watching the rodents scramble across the rocks. My friend and I found a ledge near the edge of the peak and sat, as wisps of fog passed around us. I pulled out a couple of granola bars and we ate.

I wish the fog would go away, my friend says. The view is incredible. And it puts how high we are in perspective.

A part of me wishes that I could see the view, too. But the sensation of being a kilometer above ground doesn’t abandon me. I gaze into the impenetrable fog from my perch.

I don’t know, I say. The not being able to see is kind of cool. In a sense, it makes me feel that we’re even higher. Too high to see the ground.

My friend unlatches his camera bag. He points to a chipmunk, nibbling a nut on a pedestal-like rock. For an instant, the chipmunk looks at us, long enough for my friend to take a picture, then it darts over the ledge and slips into the fog.

I stand and peer over the ledge. There’s no trace of the chipmunk. Then I notice a man, walking on a thin outcropping of rock on the side of the cliff.

Check this out, I say.

My friend stands and looks in the direction of the man.

That guy’s insane, I say.

He must not be afraid of heights.

The man lowers himself and sits with his back against the mountain-face. He hugs his knees to his chest and leans forward. As he cranes his neck to see the trees below, a thick cloud of fog envelops and shrouds him from view.

We watch. The fog thickens around the mountainside. Then we hear a scream, muted by the cloud, as if from a distance, and it echoes down the mountain, into the valley, and ripples over the lake. I think the worst. I think, This man has fallen to his death.

The people turn. They inch their way to the edge of the peak, as if afraid to see what awaits their eyes below.

The cloud of fog passes. The man still sits on the narrow strip of rock on the side of the mountain. The people let out sighs of relief. He shivers. There’s sweat, or dew, on his forehead, but he’s there. I sit back down and lean against the rock. I realize that what I thought was a scream was a shout, or a cheer, his thrill at sitting blindly in a cloud, at knowing but not seeing, and seeing what we don’t know.

We watch the fog pass beneath us like a slowly moving stream and imagine that we’re on an island, floating in the sky.