The car winds its way along the curving road. The wipers rhythmically tapping out a beat as they clear away the rain that falls in sleeting sheets on the windshield. I glance at the temperature display on my dash, a few degrees colder and this rain would freeze to the glass and the curves under my tires would become as slick as grease. “Please don’t let the temperature drop,” I think to myself.
I know I’m getting closer to my destination because the bends in the road are starting to widen as I travel. Almost imperceptibly the path starts to turn into an upwards climb. I don’t notice the incline much, but I watch as the lakes on either side of the car fall away into the background.
I remember these big curves from when I used to come here many years ago. I’d always wait for them, knowing as soon as we would hit the first bend that we would be there soon. This winding route was the last major stretch of road before exiting the hub of civilization and traversing into a vast expanse of uninhabited nature.
I haven’t been here in years, in all likelihood, it’s probably been about 20 years, but it feels more like an eternity. In the busyness of life, there were times when I’d almost forgotten about this place altogether. It’s somewhere that I used to come a lot when I was younger. It’s somewhere I told myself I would always stay connected to. Somewhere that I would return to often, but sadly, as time moved on and life got hectic, as it’s want to do, I never seemed to find my way back.
I know I’m driving a little too fast, especially on these wet curves. I know this is something I do more often than I should. I think to myself, “What’s the harm; it’s the back road up a mountain path. Nobody comes this way on a weekday.” It’s the truth, I’ve never seen anyone come this way, not now and not years ago. I know that there must be weekend travelers who come to this place. Why else would the advertisements in the local travel mag boast about groomed hiking trails and charcoal barbecue pits if nobody ever came to use them? I guess the others just don’t come when I’m there. I’d gotten so used to being alone up there that it became easy to think of this place as my own secret hidden paradise.
I slow down as the curves in the road start to get wider and wider, twisting in a wide left arch, followed by an even wider right arch. This pattern continues as I move on down the road. I’ll be at my destination soon enough.
I slip into a silent reverie as the leafless trees slide past my car windows. It’s gray and damp outside. It seems cold, but not as cold as it usually is this time of year. It has been raining for days. “Unusual for this area in March,” I think to myself, “It should be snowing.” I’ve never been to this place in the winter before. It was always in the thick heat of the summer when we would come. My parents, in one of the few sentimental traditions, carried on from the days of their youth, would pack a large wicker basket full of sandwiches, sliced fruit, and tiny lemon pies that my mother, not normally a baker, would make especially for this occasion. My father would load the picnic basket into the trunk of the car and littlest of the very large brood that we were, would cram into the back. My spot was always wedged between the baby seat on my left and my next youngest brother, the one who could never stay awake in a car, on the right. In a family the size of ours, it became my oldest brother’s duty to drive the second car, the bigger kids going with him. I used to imagine the fun they would be having driving together, me missing out in the backseat of my parents’ Buick. The Buick always smell faintly of baby vomit and stale cigarettes and I hated being stuck in the backseat. But on these rarest of occasions, when we would drive in convoy to this place, destined to make memories of happy family picnics, I never complained.
I think to myself again, “This rain is really coming down. That’s probably why nobody else is on this road. Who in their right mind would climb a winding mountain road in the winter, especially when pouring rain can quickly turn to ice?”
I look at my dog; he’s sitting in the passenger seat beside me. I say in my most happy-go-lucky voice, “We would, wouldn’t we?” I reach over, scratch his ear and ask, “Who’s a good boy???” His ears perk up at the sound of his most favourite praise. He is a good boy.
A few more silent moments slip by. With one final curve, we reach the top of the mountain. I pull the car into the small gravel parking lot. This area is specifically created for the hikers and nature lovers who have driven here from the nearby cities for a day on the trails. I point the car towards the far side of the lot, closest to the starting place of the walking path. Remnants of dirty snow litters the ground and my tires crunch as I drive over the small but deeply packed sandy-snow mixed banks. I pull neatly into the spot and put the car into park. I shut off the ignition, remove the keys and stick them into my jacket pocket.
My dog springs to his feet. He’s standing on the seat beside me, eagerly waiting for me to make a move. He’s ready to stretch his legs. It’s not a far drive from my home, it takes about an hour to get here, but we’re both stiff from sitting. I know the stiffness is extra pronounced because neither of us gets enough exercise these days.
Not long ago my dog was my walking buddy. Together, he and I would cover some serious landscape. He would follow me across our hobby farm as I would go about my daily chores. Now when I’m at home I rarely move from my worn in, comfy leather recliner. I’m just so tired now. He never blames me, though. His wordless eyes just look at me as he sits with his head in my lap. Many days I’m too tired to even pet him, so we just sit, his chin resting on my knees, my hand resting on his head. I often wonder, “Does he know I’m dying?” I have to believe he does. He senses when I need him. He knows that when the pain is really bad he should only touch me ever so lightly with the tip of his wet nose. He knows, instinctively, when I just need someone to hug and he waits patiently while I hold him, locked to my side in an embrace, my face buried into his white fur while I cry. He doesn’t judge me, he just sits silently and calmly and lets me go.
I open the car door and get out. I step aside and let him jump out. In one fluid movement, he springs from his side of the car across my seat and out into the soft muddy parking lot. Immediately he begins to run in wide circles around the car, through the lot, and off into the nearby treeline. I watch him on his wild, unrestrained sprint. His eyes are spirited and alive, the way they used to be when he was a puppy. He is clearly excited to be outside.
I frown, feeling guilty for not taking him more places. As if he senses my guilt and wants to absolve me of this sin, he comes bounding towards me and drops a stick at my feet. This proffered gift is supposed to make me feel better. Strangely, it does. “Where did you get that from?” I ask him. I didn’t even see him pick it up. “You want me to throw it?” I ask, leaning down to pick up the soggy branch. He bounces frantically in front of me. I take this to mean a clear “Yes.”
I feel the stick in my hand, weighing and sizing it up mentally by giving it a few light bobs up and down. I swing it through the air a couple times, he follows the stick with his eyes, watching… waiting. “Okay, get ready, it’s going to go far,” I tell him and I lob the stick in an overhand motion. It tumbles end over end through the air eventually landing with a thump in the nearby brush. He bounds off gleefully to retrieve his prize, his tongue loping out of the side of his mouth as he goes. He is happy, I am happy. I begin to walk away from the parking lot towards the trail that leads further up the mountainside.
As I walk I take in the scenery. I breathe deeply and my lungs respond with a body shuttering coughing fit where phlegm and blood mingle in the back of my throat. I pause to let the coughing subside. I gasp to catch my breath. These coughing fits are coming more frequently now. It will pass in a few minutes but each of these episodes embeds itself deep into my psyche and feels symbolically to me like I’m being robbed of a little bit of life. As I stand there coughing, my dog has time to catch up. He now stands guard beside me. I am vulnerable in this moment and he isn’t about to let anything happen to me.
After a few minutes, my lungs settle and I continue to walk. My dog pads along behind me, he’s found another stick to carry. I look around and make mental comparisons to when I was here last. The landscape has changed rather drastically. The trees are taller now. A once large clearing on this side of the mountain is now overgrown with bushes. I look up at the tall thick trees. Many of them are lush evergreens, dripping with rain. The other trees are winter bare but I think about how their summer canopy would create a welcome reprieve from the heat of the blazing sun.
I stroll through the overgrown clearing, my feet alternating between crunching through the leftover piles of snow and sticking into the thick wet mud. I weave my way around bushes and brambles. I want to be off the groomed path. I want to stand in the former clearing where I remember playing with my brothers when we were children. I remember thinking we were on top of the world as we would peer out from the lookout at the sprawling village below.
I stand nearly ankle deep in mud and look around. I know I’m ruining the springtime grass crop but I am transfixed and rooted to this spot as I take everything in. It’s beautiful but different than I remember. My much more realistic adult perspective is in direct contrast with my memories of yesteryear. I realize that this Everest of a mountain actually isn’t much bigger than a really large hill. Somehow, I got bigger and my mountain got smaller.
I smile at the memories from my youth. Back then, the world seemed so impossibly large and this mountain of mine may as well have been the Himalayas. I liked it that way. When I stood on top of this mighty mountain, my 10-year-old self felt like I could conquer the world. I felt so big. Now, I stand here on this same mountain and everything is different. I know now that I am small and the strange thing is, I actually prefer it that way. I see the beauty in being a small part of a large world.
I think about everything I have. My family, friends, dog. The more material things too, a comfortable house, a car to drive, food to eat. I know that what I have is enough. I don’t need to climb large mountains to prove that I am bigger than I am. I am okay with being the me that modestly fits into this life that I have created. I don’t need anything more than what I’ve already got. If we could each fill a bucket with the details of our lives, I am content knowing that my bucket is somewhere on a scale between a coffee can and a sand pail. I am small because this is how I best fit into the bucket that I have created, this little bucket contains my whole world. And in this bucket world, I am surrounded by nice things and amazing people who are wonderful, warm, wise and full of love. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
My impact in this world is contained largely to a very small demographic. This bucket – my bucket – contains my home, my community, my neighbourhood, and even this teeny tiny mountain that I am currently standing on. It holds all of the people I love and everything else that I decide makes my life whole, valuable, and important. I don’t need a big life or a grand exit from it. I have my little life, my little niche and that makes me happy. I don’t need to conquer the whole world. I don’t need to be remembered far and wide. I don’t need grandiose gestures and notoriety. What I need is what already fits into my bucket and with that, I already have everything in this world that matters most.
Standing on this mountain, looking up at the trees, smelling the fresh, clean air, remembering doing the same thing so many years ago reminds me that my life has been robust and rich. These experiences are packed tightly into my bucket, filling it with wealth beyond monetary value. Each of these experiences is stored safely in my bucket and will be what I will draw from to get me through the tough times ahead. Everything I already have in my bucket, and the memories that I am making now, while I still can, will be enough to carry me through until the end. Despite the fact that I am 36-years-old with only a little more time left to live, and how I wish I could have been given a little more time, I can comfortably look inside of my bucket and know without a doubt that I am very lucky. My bucket is already full.
The days are still short this time of year, especially with the cover of rain blocking the sun. I know that it will get dark soon. It is time to start making my way back to the car and head home.
There is one more thing I want to do before I leave, though. I turn and head towards the west side of the mountain where a small cut in the trees makes an ideal lookout point. I walk forward, my dog following closely behind me. Together we climb onto a flatbed of stones, our feet stable now that they are free from the mud. I look out and see that the clouds are breaking up. The rain has finally stopped. Below me is the road that I drove in on, tiny now from my perspective. I can see the small town; houses and shops scattered amongst trees and parks and other elements of nature that will be blooming to life in only a few weeks from now. I can see the two lakes either side of the road. They spread out as far as the eye can see. The ice has broken up in many spots so it is easy to see the deep blue water beneath. It’s all so beautiful that it takes my breath away.
I tell my dog to sit and walk closer to the edge of the lookout point. There is no guardrail to hold me if I slip, so I take careful sure-footed steps. I go as close to the edge as I dare. I take as deep of a breath in as I can without triggering the coughing again and I lean forward. With as much force as I can, I push the words from the pit of my stomach and they come exploding from my throat, “NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS, I AM LUCKY! YOU CAN HAVE MY LIFE BUT MY BUCKET IS ALREADY FULL!” The words echo down the side of the mountain and disappear. I turn to go.
My energy is fading fast and I know that I still have to be able to drive myself home so I don’t linger any longer. Calling for my dog, he swiftly springs to my side and we deftly trek back to the car. I look down at my dog as he trots beside me, he has found yet another stick – his third of the day. I think he feels pretty lucky too.