By Stephen Taylor
Photo by Juli Kosolapova on Unsplash
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.”