Eve of the Ascent
……….. —Yosemite National Park.
Neither level nor inhospitable.
near the summit the ridgeline gentles,
the bald rock ringed (unevenly) with pines.
We’re gathered by two campstoves
in the lee of giant boulders, our faces
sun-beatified gold-violet. We look up.
Half Dome steepens while we gaze
and seems farther away for how night-hikers
avoiding fees, spider through the trees
then disappear. Our day-sore muscles
ache against the stones—we’d sleep anywhere
and dream we were ascending.
For three days, our guides have warned us
if we slip outside the cables we will plummet
down the sheer rock face and die.
Alpine scalpel. Stilled bell. The campsite’s
eerie as a theater, the air is thin, and when
they tell us to set intentions, my demons
rise out of the valley in the massive,
granite forms to which I’ve fixed them—
the friends I’ve lost to wordless anger
crowd the switchbacks like anti-song,
pointing me back to the circuit path
that since I wanted it resolved leads
dully nowhere. I still want to believe
I acted justly. In Dante’s Purgatory, the wrathful
make their paces through a veil of smoke
they somehow need to see, then see through.
Pretty, bird-blue, iris-stinging smoke—
a thing that blocks the light you cannot cling to.
Behind gnarly junipers our white tent flaps
in wind that would lift it a mile over the valley
had we not weighed it down with heavy stones.
And what if what’s beyond this is no feeling?
We watch the midnight hikers’ headlamps
light the woods like water-ripple haloes.
Their voices echo as if across a lake, and I think
of swimming in late summer, late at night,
when I’d join my friends in the black waves naked,
and like I used to do on nights like this, I want to smoke,
or like the time twenty years ago when Carol and I
drove back from a summer in Seattle
and camped in Big Sky Country, trying to light
the bong we’d made from an empty can
of Country Time Lemonade. I took my contacts
out too soon, and couldn’t see the stars.
The miracle is friends who know you’re flawed
and love you anyway, like pilgrim Dante
who opened his arms to every penitent Italian
on the mountain. And while our fellow hikers
fall asleep in the shelter of our temporary city,
Carol imitates her Granny Ray, who like an angel
born in the state known from premium tobacco
suddenly appears, making us laugh so hard
we cannot breathe. Michael Wilson snores
three tents away, but we’re awake under gray stars
and the Dome looms, amplified in moonlight,
to the shape of what we cannot keep impossible.
by Katy Didden
from 32 Poems, Fall/Winter 2014