A Pebble skipped along the dry rocky path, dancing its way to the cliff’s edge before tumbling through the air, disappearing into the early morning mist far below. Mark stood at the entrance to a small cave where he had spent the night. He idly tossed another pebble down the mountain path and watched it disappear over the ledge before heading back inside to pack up his things. A sleeping bag, a jacket, a canteen of water and some pork scratchings left over from the previous night. He looked out to see the sun rising through a clear sky before pulling his jacket on; the warmth from the fire and his sleeping bag had dissipated, his breath visible in the fresh mountain air.
Mark hitched his pack on his shoulders and stepped back out onto the trail, the early morning sunlight reflected off the grey flecks in his hair and beard, deep brown eyes surveyed the path he had climbed the previous day: a steep one that rose from his desert home into the mountainside. The trail was tough and it had taken years for him to prepare for the journey. Many of his forebears had attempted and failed to reach Lookout Point, and of those who had, some never returned. The men and women who had been to the trail’s end spoke only of what they chose to come back to: a home, a family, a community. They said there was nothing worth losing all that for over the mountain, but Mark wanted to see for himself. His keen eyes could pick out his small town in the distance below, where the sun would bake and the people would struggle every day for water and food. To gain the strength for his journey he had made many sacrifices: food and water did not come cheap. But he had to see for himself.
Changing his gaze to the trail ahead of him, Mark saw the path would quickly become more challenging. It narrowed significantly and twisted among the large rocks above. Holding his pack straps, he took a deep breath and let out a determined sigh, then his well-worn boots began their crunching on the gravelly earth.
The desert air was dry and unforgiving; what little moisture it had was frozen to the ground in patches of frost.
It was not even an hour before the trail turned too steep to walk. Mark scrambled on all-fours across the rocks, struggling for traction and wrestling for his life climbing steep cliff-faces before rolling and catching his breath on the occasional forgiving ledge. He would sparingly drink from his canteen, knowing the scarcity of water and being used to the dry feeling in his throat. He would look up to the rocks for his next challenge, carrying a determination to know what was out there beyond the stories he heard growing up. A simple two-day journey to the top, and a lifetime back down again if you made it.
This dry and barren land spread behind him as he climbed ever farther. He grew more fatigued and as the sun climbed overhead it offered blindness to dangerous falls, but no warmth for his back. Mark began to lose his footing more often, catching himself just short of falls that could maim and leave him for dead.
He would climb past bodies of those who had gone before, resting broken on the rocks from where they had collapsed of exhaustion, or fallen to their end.
Those that were not eaten had been preserved by the frozen dry air: mummified remnants of past determination. Mark tried not to linger on these visions, but his mind was becoming lighter as he climbed and he was having a difficult time focusing. This, combined with freezing fingers and fatigue was making the mountain trail a death trap. His strength and longing kept him moving, his determination kept him affixed to the rocks as he climbed.
By late in the afternoon he spied a wooden structure a few hundred meters above him and his strength renewed as he saw his journey’s end. Lookout Point was within his grasp and the trail began to ease again into a winding gravely path. Mark caught himself smiling with expectation. To be able to say he made it. To witness the sight that would show him how good life in the desert truly was.
Stepping tentatively onto the wooden deck, Mark made his way to the edge and looked out in wonder. A clear line across the landscape brought him to question his own vision. The desert below him spread to the distant horizon and climbed the mountain range to its very peak, and then, as if a painter had begun his work and ceased, the desert was abruptly transformed into a sea of green. Lush forest lay before him, a river snaked its way through and animal calls filled the air. The way down to this paradise was by a short and easy dirt pathway; there was no mountainous drop-off.
Mark stood in wonder and thought of those who had come before him. Why did they ever turn back? Why would they not want to live in this green land filled with life? Stunned at the beauty of it all, Mark sat still on the wooden boards and drank deep with his soul the marvel before him.
What must it be like to live in such a place? Shaded from the heat of the sun? Bathing in more water than he had seen in his lifetime? Sharing land with more life than he ever imagined existed? Such wonder and beauty to drink in every single day? What a wonderful fantasy! And why not? Now he had conquered the climb, the way to a peaceful and plentiful future lay right before him. Only a few small steps to the welcoming canopy of life.
“What a beautiful dream. To live in such a place. I should like to build a home here.”
Only…why has no-one gone there before?
“What do you mean?”
How many others have climbed before you to this place?
And how many have perished on the journey?
And of those that made it to this point, if this land is so perfect, why did they go back?
“What do you mean?”
This land looks so promising. But if it was what it appeared to be, why would anyone return? There must be a reason.
“It looks fine. It looks safe.”
In all your years living in the desert, have you ever trusted anything that looked safe?
“Of course not.”
And why is that?
“Because the desert is a dangerous place.”
And how can you know this place you see before you now is safe? Because it looks that way?
“I could go down and take a look. I could explore and find out. Maybe just to fill my water; I am so thirsty.”
You are thirsty. And you are tired. If danger happened in that place, you would not have the strength to defend yourself or to escape.
“So I should do what? Nothing? Return home? After all these years of preparation and planning, just turn my back on this wonder?”
Turn your back? No, not at all. Dream of this place. Dream of the wonder and the beauty. Dream of safety and peace. Dream of abundance and fulfillment. Dream of all the things it could be. But if you venture into it, this forest will only prove to disappoint and destroy you.
“How can you be so sure?”
Has not all of your life experience taught you this? All of your suffering? All of your struggles? The dream is the only true joy. Do not destroy it by attempting to live it.
Mark looked over the vast green canopy, then turned his gaze back to the trail he had climbed. The contrast of the two worlds broke his heart; he knew the voice was true: there is nothing more pure than a dream. And nothing more devastating than a dream broken.
“But what shall I tell them when I return? They will want to know what I saw.”
All those who came before you, what did they tell you?
“Nothing. They just said it is better to live in the desert.”
And they were right to say so. This vision and this dream is only for those who have made this journey. It is for you, not for them. It is better to live in the desert. It is better to dream.
Mark stood and paused, letting his eyes linger over what could have been. His brief hopes dashed by his own fears and weakness. It was true: if there was any danger in this place he would not know it before it was upon him. He would not have the strength to stand against it. He would not have the strength to run away. His supplies were already too thin, and he could not stay here to regain his strength. Tears welled up in his eyes as he turned to go home.
You are a wise man. It is better to live in a dream than perish in reality. Go home and be at peace.
Mark made his way back down the mountainside, slipping and sliding, clawing at rocks as his mind fell into sorrow. It was a shadow of a man that made its way back to his town, and when asked of his journey he simply said, “It is better to live in the desert. It is better to have what we have.”
The Man On The Cliff Face
A man was climbing a cliff face and, growing tired, stopped to rest. As he rested he watched others as they kept climbing. Those near made their way past him, those below came closer, and those above put more distance between them.
The man lost all motivation and desire to climb higher-it seemed like too much effort-but he grew increasingly frustrated that others were passing him. Seeing them made him feel like he wasn’t doing a good job.
He became inflamed with jealousy, and reached out to a boy climbing next to him. Grabbing an ankle, he yanked him away from the wall. Seeing the boy fall back beneath him, the man felt slightly better. Well, he felt like he was doing better than that young man.
And so he decided to do the same with any that would climb near him. Men, women, children, he would grab a hold and pull them away. He felt he was a lot higher on the cliff face, and a lot more accomplished, with so many people below him.
Eventually people stopped climbing within arms reach of the man, and he was left alone on the cliff face, with no-one to accompany him on his halted journey.
Photo by Emile Guillemot on Unsplash
The White Marble Stairway
The aged man hunched over his walking stick; hand shading his eyes and squinting up through furrowed brow, he could not see where the white marble stairs led. But he could see blue sky above.
Nervously he used his cane to test the first step. It seemed solid enough, if a little high reaching up to his knee. Intimidated but undaunted, he set the cane down on the white marble and then also leant his fragile frame over it. Using his hands he rolled onto the step and then, pushing up to his knees, he leaned against the next stair to get back on his feet.
All that effort for just one step, but the old man longed to see what was at the top. He felt the blue sky calling his heart upward.
Having conquered his first challenge he felt accomplished, and just a little bit stronger. The next step, however, was even higher than the first: reaching half way up his thigh in height. The old man grit his teeth and furrowed his impressive brow in determination. He had conquered many things in life; he wasn’t about to be outdone by a stair.
Using his cane as leverage, he swung his leg up and rolled his body onto the step. But, as he rolled, the cane was knocked from his grasp and fell to the stair beneath. He lay still, looking at it for a few moments, catching his breath and deciding what to do next.
He could try and climb back down to retreive the cane, or continue his ascent. Looking up at the next step he saw that this one seemed even higher than the last. Standing to his feet, his concerns were well merited: this stair was waist-high. He looked down to his cane and thought about having to go back down for it: would he even want to climb the stair again?
No. He decided to give the next step a shot. Besides, he was feeling stronger than he had in a long time. This challenge was invigorating.
He walked up to the stair and put his hands on top of it. Then, pushing down with all his might he was able to lift himself off the ground and once again roll onto the next platform.
Standing to his feet, the man gave a little hop of triumph: this was an excellent day, and he had already accomplished more than he had been able to achieve in decades. Even if he chose to climb back down now, he could go home proud. But the sky beckoned, and the next step waited. This time chest-high.
Approaching his next challenge slightly intimidated, the man put his elbow over the ledge and tested his strength. Impressed with himself, he gave it a try. A bit of a jump for momentum, a strong push, and a bit of a scramble landed him laughing on his back. He felt so alive!
Standing up with a spring in his step and his chest set out, the man made his way determinedly to the next challenge. Neck-high. He smiled confidently, enjoying what was set before him. Taking a bit of a run and then a jump, he found himself, with some considerable effort, conquering yet another stair.
Once again on his back with a big grin on his face, the young man paused to catch his breath. Getting closer to his goal, his heart started racing with excitement.
Knowing what to expect as he quickly got up, the young man was not surprised to see this step was higher than him. Unable to see over the top, he did not know what to expect, but assumed that since the sky was only blocked by this stair, it must be the final one.
Gathering his strength and giving a couple of warm-up hops, the young man focused his energy and sprinted to the stair. Thrusting himself into a leap he managed to grab the ledge and pull himself over once more. What a day! What an achievement! Now to see the reward for all his hard work! As he turned to look, a pang of disappointment hit his soul. Another stair.
Getting to his feet, he slowly walked over to examine it. Even higher than the last one; if he jumped he could reach his fingertips over the ledge. Feelings of defeat started crowding him. His mind doubting that there even was a view at the end of all this. Skeptically reasoning that the stairs probably carry on forever.
He sighed and looked back down from where he came. Seeing the cane in the far distance…why not just give up? He turned to the stair ahead of him and gave a small hop and a little effort, but he could not conquer it. The young man sat down with his legs over the ledge and started to shift his weight in preparation for making his way back down.
Looking back at the stair that won, he begrudgingly reasoned that he might as well give it his full effort before giving up.
Sprinting and leaping, the young man grabbed the ledge and banged his knees on the wall. Almost crying in pain he desperately wanted to give up. But he scrambled with his legs and pulled with his arms and let out a cry of desperation as he rolled over the top.
The young boy lay crying for a few minutes. That was a lot of effort he had put in and it had been a long day.
When he was done he wiped his tears on his sleeve and turned to see if he had arrived yet. Before him sat yet another stair. And this one was higher than all the rest, standing at over twice his height.
The young boy started crying again, realising he had come all this way for nothing: he would never be able to climb the step.
Peering through wet eyes, the young boy looked out at the scenery he had conquered. All that he had achieved lay beneath him, all that he desired lay beyond his reach: over a simple ledge. Turning back to the stair again he put his hands and forehead against it and wept: a heart’s cry rose from the child’s soul and he cried out, “Daddy! Daddy! Help me! Help me! Please!”
“I’m here, child. I’m here.”
Looking up, the young boy saw an arm reach down to him from over the ledge. He reached above and took a hold. His father’s grip tightened and pulled the young boy over the last stair and into his arms.
“Hello, my son. Let me show you something amazing.”
Photo by Sam Schooler on Unsplash