The steaming cup of crappy hotel coffee stares back at me. My backpack is full. My boots are laced up and ready to go, but it’s time to take a moment. No, I’m not craving the caffeine. Coffee has become a ritualistic drink that centers me. Maybe it’s just the practice and not the coffee at all. Pouring the water, making the coffee, mixing in the cream and slowly stirring it all together. I can’t take my eyes off of the patterns that the cream creates on the surface, swirling and turning and ever so slowly shifting. How many times have I done this? In how many different places? It’s not as reverent as prayer, but it is my ritual nonetheless.
Walking out to the patio, I find it empty and dark. I’m not sure what I expected but this place feels even more than deserted. Hallow somehow. Almost echoing with people long gone. I grab a seat and grasp at some calm to pull around me, embrace me, keep me safe. I need a moment. I need to wrap my head around what’s next.
Deeply inhaling, I check my watch. 2:45 a.m. Exhale. Closing my eyes, I can see my friends making their last minute checks. Water. Check. Food. Check. Extra clothes. Check. Other miscellany deemed necessary. Check, check, check. I imagine them asking themselves the same questions that I have asked myself. Do I have everything that I need? Do I have what it takes?
Me? My preparations are complete. I am ready. I think. Am I? Have I prepared well enough? Will I make it? I peer into my coffee cup trying to scry my future. All that I see is me staring back out of the cup. I guess that’s a good sign. If I’m not in my future, where else would I be? No, it’s too early for existential jokes.
I’ve sat long enough. I’ve prepared as much as I can. It’s time. The four of us gather in the lobby for last checks. It’s time. We pile into the van and are on our way. Each of the buildings sleeps quietly as we pass. The streets are dark and empty. It feels like we are the only ones alive out here on our own. Turning onto the road out of town, we are truly alone. Without a street light in sight, the darkness is complete. Our world shrinks to the inside of the van and several yards ahead as the headlights are only strong enough to pierce this black veil revealing short portions of road as it arrives.
Dark, so dark is the landscape with no moon that it seems like we are adrift in the darkness without even the ground beneath us. I’ve been here before, but everything outside of the headlights is gone as if stolen away or too afraid to greet us. Each of us sits quietly at this point with thoughts turned inward or maybe we’re trying to shake off the last bits of sleep. Sleep. Dreams. That’s it. This all looks so much like some darkened dreamscape without any ties to terra firma. Did we make a wrong turn not out of town but out of reality?
We see life far in the distance and rising, ever rising. We’re not alone out here. Alone. I’m with three other people, but I initially feel alone. There’s something there to understand just out of reach. Maybe it’s just too early or maybe I need more time with it. My attention grabs a hold of tiny lightning bugs buzzing around in the distance shining red or white. As we drive farther, those bugs morph into cars and trucks and vans all driving to our same destination.
I’ve brow beat my friends into using red headlamps on our trip. Now, I’m not so sure of that wisdom. I had no idea that it would be this dark. We have arrived. There are already several other small groups here in the parking lot shuffling around and strapping on their packs. Every other person turns on their white headlamps. My friends are kind. They are quiet as we unload our gear. They don’t even make one comment. We all switch on our red light headlamps that seems only to mark where we are and not illuminate our way.
It’s too late for this, but I wonder again if I’m ready. Are we ready? Are we ever really ready? It’s finally time to find out. Let’s go. And, up we climb.