There was once a village of hearty people who lived in a small alpine valley town that was constantly shrouded in mist. The citizens noticed that as they moved higher into the hills around the town that they could feel the warmth of the sun more fully. They thought they could feel the mist dissipate, just slightly. The people of this little town desperately wanted to climb to the top of the tallest possible mountain to feel the unobstructed sun on their faces and slough off the darkness that seemed to creep in everywhere. Like every little town, there was a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, and because this town was special, there were, in every generation, a few explorers. These explorers were rugged mountaineers who were never fully warmed by the fires in the village, and did not merely wish to find the highest mountain like most villagers. They set out on journeys to find it.
The bewitching thing about mountaineering in the mist is that explorers can continue to walk uphill until they reach a peak, but they have no way of knowing if that is the real peak, or a spur on a larger mountain, or the crest of a ridge that needs to be crossed before making their way to the truly tallest mountain. Some mountaineers practice stone-throwing before they go. They get to the ‘tops’ of peaks and throw stones in every direction, and wait to hear if there are echoes of inclines to be found. Because this method can be foiled by soft snow or soil, some carry large wooden clappers that are loud and sharp enough to create an echo (without creating an avalanche…they hope). Whatever the method, these tools only extend their ‘vision’ by a few hundred, or perhaps a few thousand steps. These mountains are vast and while they can simulate what heading in any direction for a short distance will do. They are totally overmatched by the magnitude of the task. Not even the strongest can throw a rock around the world.
Then there is the journey.
Some explorers never came back. The caring people of the village used to send out search parties for them believing that perhaps they had found the tallest mountain and were just so in love with it that they could not pull themselves out of the sunshine. Most explorers are, after all, less-than-in-love with village life. Unfortunately, these search parties used to find that the fate of many of the explorers was far more grim. After leaving the familiar village, and following their tracks for days, they would often become disoriented in the mist. Some perished in ravines, sinkholes, and some simply died of exposure. The citizens of the town found that it was very dangerous to follow in the footsteps of these explorers because the mountains and the mist could drive you mad. Many times explorers would take great sweeping circles that led back on themselves. Eventually the rescuers would find them or be found by them in their last, ravenous, days. The village no longer sends out search parties.
Some explorers came back and declared that they had found the highest mountain, that the mist had broken, and that they could show the way for others. Unfortunately, they reported that the journey was long and treacherous. To follow, villagers would have to fully commit themselves to the trek. It would be costly, and they would be unlikely to be able to make another trip in one lifetime, mere villagers would almost certainly never be able to come back to the village. The trouble with these explorers was that more than one came back, and all said that they found the mountain not shrouded in mist. They all said they had felt the Sun on their faces. They said that from their summit they could could not see any other mountain peaks above the mist, and theirs was the only mountain. Unfortunately, each of these explorers said their mountain was in a different direction. They invariably blamed their untanned skin on the long journey back to the ‘ungrateful’ villagers. Some villagers no longer believe that mountains break through the mist.
A few, more humble, explorers came back and said that they had indeed found peaks that were high, and where the Sun was brighter and warmer, but that they could not be certain that it was really the highest mountain because the mist was there, even on the top of tallest peaks. These explorers had climbed many peaks in between the town and the peaks that they described, and they admitted that they had no way of knowing if their peaks were the highest, or merely higher. For them, the mountains that they had climbed were better than the current place, but they admitted that it may well be in the wrong direction, and they may be moving further away from the tallest mountain. It would be better than this village, and you would probably never want to come back to this dingy place. The journey, even to these mountains was costly, far, and risk. After all, villagers would need to start their trades again, from nothing. A few villagers left on these semi-inspired journeys.
Fewer explorers still admitted that they were lost in the fog, and that they gave up and came back because they were lonely, tired, hungry, and felt like they had failed. They came back and did not want to take anyone from the village out. It was too treacherous, and the mist had just consumed them, not physically, but on the inside. More terrifying, was that there could have been people in the first two lots of returned explorers who were really in this third group, but rather than admit failure, they wanted company. How perilous that journey would be, always being told ‘the mountain is just up ahead’, and becoming further and further committed on a trail to nowhere. After years, could many villagers physically or emotionally bear to return?
So the village carries on, generation after generation, continuing to send out explorers, some coming back, some not, some with great tails, some without. Occasionally a few villagers will band together and follow someone to the ‘highest’ peak, or to a higher peak, but they never come back. Perhaps these bands reached their destination, perhaps they didn’t. Some old people in the village have said that the mist is getting thicker, that it is harder to breath now. They could be right, or they could just be old, for old people always say such things. It’s hard, even in this small village, to know who to believe.
As I sit thinking about this at a lonely table in the village pub, the door creaks and lets more mist billow inside. An old man with worn shoes walks in and sees me. He’s not looking for food. Though he just got here, I know that he’s looking to leave, and the hunger is in his eyes, not his stomach. He regards me and ambles indirectly towards my table. I hear the small hard stones in his leather pouch click together as he walks.
Before he has time to reach me, I wonder to myself what kind of explorer he is, and I wonder what kind of person I am.
Will I go with him to the ‘tallest’ mountain?