A Fresh End
It is important to find the right place for an ending. Places we pass through are easily forgotten; whether the right place at the right time or not, we move on. Beginnings and endings, however, are anchors. Where we are born, for example, is an identifier we carry with us all our lives. Where we are married is also an important beginning (or ending). Where we die should be no less important.
Endings are, of course, also beginnings. You go out past human limits until there’s no going back.
For tonight, I choose Mount Sanitos—more for the familiar view of town than any belated sense of religious fervor. This is also close enough to my apartment to walk to, and after dark it still provides a seclusion impossible within a theater or other urban enclave. People who are quick to please are easily alarmed, are always wanting to interfere.
I should mention what I have with me. I’m traveling light. In the chest pocket of my best leather jacket there’s a pint of blackberry brandy and in the hand-warmer pocket a brand new box of pills. This is the first time I’ve come here without a water bottle, because dehydrating certainly won’t be a concern. Nevertheless, I stop to drink from the creek beside the trailhead. This I do simply because I’m not supposed to.
There is a trash can into which I toss the excess packaging from the pills and the paper sack around the brandy. I then swallow one of the pills, noticing a “Z” impressed into it, with some more creek water, and I’m ready to start up the trail.
It’s a wonder how some people prepare themselves in non-sensical ways, for example getting their hair done or making sure all their shoes are shined. As though anyone else is going to wear them. This shows that they’re not totally committed and subtly in denial. I’m not going to be silly like that. My drinking from a Giardia-infested stream demonstrates how serious I am. I’m not going to risk a week of stomach pains and diarrhea; I’ll follow through.
With some fortitude I take another pill and wash it down with brandy. I do hate alcohol, but the brandy is passable in small doses. My face scrunches only a little.
The trail up this mount has no compromising switchbacks. It gets right down to business without subterfuge. Thus, it is my favorite trail. Of course it is only a “higher than most” foothill and not at all like climbing a fourteener.
There are some leveler spots. Each time I reach one of these I punch out another sleeping bullet from its silver pouch and wash it down with more brandy. This way, the process becomes automatic and I can think about how nicely the trees are thinning and how balefully the raccoons stare at me with their reflective eyes.
“Sanitos,” I notice, sounds a lot like “sanity,” but I like to think it is named for a saint. People who live austere and disciplined lives get locations named after them to make up for all they did without. It’s a symbolic compensation akin to being buried at the cathedral. Personally, I think burial is a waste. Why tie up good land so that your corpse has somewhere to rot? The irony here is that probably no one knows who this Sanitos is or even who named this place. People read up on pariahs. We slobber over scandals, not saints.
My watch says ten past ten. I don’t know why I bother to look. It’s dark, and the granola health nuts have all gone to bed. Few hike at night, though it is easily as beautiful and definitely safe.
There was a woman with two dogs earlier on. She didn’t have to travel far up the trail for the dogs to do what they came to do. She looked me over carefully, but since her dogs ignored me, she decided I’m not a threat. Secretly, I considered for a moment that there wouldn’t be any consequences that could reach me—except for what her small dogs might do—but just for a moment. I have much more important matters to attend to.
As I pop another ‘Z’ pill, I consider how important what I’m doing is. This isn’t a selfish act—it needs doing before someone else gets hurt. Necessary and common, there’s no reason to make a big deal out of it. People do this everyday, though perhaps less consciously. They also worry about not being alone. For me, this is a private affair, and not just because they’d arrest me. I believe we should give ourselves back to the animals, to nature. No fanfare.
There’s a break in the trees where I can still hear the creek below. Unless you come up here, you don’t notice it, even take it for granted. The same water never passes by twice, they say. I guess this is supposed to mean that each of us is unique and precious, but I’m going to take it to mean that we pick our end only once. The exact time and place will never be the same again.
As the air cools, the pine scent becomes more pungent. I fill my lungs with piney air and feel comforted, though I’m a little worried that my jacket won’t be warm enough when I stop exerting myself. Hypothermia could be distressing, and I want this to be easy and painless.
I’m at least halfway up now, and the pills aren’t yet affecting me. Even the brandy seems to be sweating out. Or maybe I’m already in an altered state of mind and not noticing the effects. I’ve heard of people getting drunk in bars without realizing how intoxicated they are. My only experience with alcohol is a single binge in college which culminated in an embarrassing display of vomit. So if a regular bar fly can be fooled, I certainly can be. I hope I don’t vomit now.
The trail snakes through some scrub. I’m making good time and am sure to reach the peak. My legs are just beginning to get heavy, mostly because I’d spent the afternoon riding my mountain bike around town, closing my bank account, dropping off my recycling, buying the brandy and pills, and dropping off my car at a friend’s house hoping they find the note I left with the registration slip. “It’s all yours” was meant to include the books, lamp, and CDs in the trunk. I could have, of course, driven the car to run these errands, but they can run your plates anytime. On a bicycle, I’m anonymous.
The trail now drops into a cut dug out by runoff. It recovers its altitude on the far side by angling up even steeper. I swallow another pill. Halfway there with a dozen left.
The slope inclines steeper than stairs. I press my hands down on my lead knee with each step. I may not be getting sleepy, but it’s been a long day and I’m wearing down. Finally, I break over the top onto a false peak. On the right, a ridge drops down to the streetlights below, where I imagine everyone performing their duties like robots, programmed into routines they don’t question. Where is it all leading us? And they’ll punish anyone like me who doesn’t want to follow along anymore. They’ve got me outnumbered. I can’t live within all that resistance. My last semblance of control will be in taking this final act.
I’m so tired of risk and dependence, and running from responsibility. The wolves scent out every one who runs, and each coward they can take down makes them feel more justified. They winnow out the loners and strays, those who want to live outside the herd. This is the only way to escape them.
I stop for another pill where the trail squeezes between two rocks. The peak is below the tree line, but it gets so rocky, there are few trees that can take root. Climbers like to play here during the day. Too dangerous to climb at night. I consider it. There’s a person or two who might like to think this is an accident.
I don’t want the deliberateness of this to be bleached out as a possible accident. Unfortunately, the more deliberate I am, the more others will presume some blame because they don’t understand how there is only one door left to me. And I’m not going to help them by leaving a note of explanation. Such things are good only for books that collect suicide notes, a morbid entertainment lacking in answers.
I take another pill, then lift the brandy bottle to the moonlight. There is still half a bottle. I brace myself before taking a deep swig. There is a syrupy burn my stomach wants to refuse. I allow a few coughs in exchange for keeping it down. The peak is close; time to press on.
At the top there’s no canister with a registry; there’s no flag. The trail just drops for the back side and my momentum welcomes its invitation. Tonight, however crisp and pastoral, I can’t give in. Four pills left. I place them all on my flaccid tongue and work the rest of the brandy down my throat.
I throw the empty bottle as far away from me as I can and bury the pill sheet off-trail. It will probably take a thousand years to decompose, but everything is ultimately impermanent. Even me. I’m going to change for the better, tonight.
I have to admit that at this point I’ve pretty much exhausted my plan. I’m worried that it hasn’t been drastic enough. Still, I’ve gotten myself all the way up Mount Sanitos. There’s nothing else to do besides moving away from the trail so that the first person up here in the morning won’t be shocked by the sight of a corpse. Rather than shocked, any animal will be curious and delighted—except a dog. I better go far enough to not be discovered by an unleashed dog.
It’s rocky at the summit, with shoulder-high outcroppings. Though I’ve moved well off the trail, I’m now staggering to clamber over slick limestone. I feel like a puppet whose strings have been cut. I slip and bang my head.
To be both angry and scared seems unreasonable considering the circumstances. The most sensible thing for me to do is to drop off the highest ridge I can find. That would be quick and sure. But if it’s not far enough, certainly not painless. People have fallen from airplanes and lived. And those insidious doctors will patch you up, with or without your legs. I can’t be a cripple.
After half an hour of bouldering, I can’t see the trail. I palm a flat-topped rock beside me, a nice place to sit. My hand slips and I fall. There’s a flash of light, then a shift, like someone hit the reset on my brain.
On the far side of my fall, things are… strange. For one thing, there are shapes of people around. I cower, but they can sense my being there. One spots me wedged between two rocks and calmly declares, “He’s here.” Now I’m sure this is some kind of vision. It’s still night, no one is looking for me, and rescuers would be a lot more excited. For a moment I panic that these could be police, until I realize no one is reading me my “rights.”
The others—I’ll call them Guardians—crowd around, passing on “he’s here” to each new arrival. I can’t get away. My ankle is jammed into a crevice and possibly broken. My arm won’t take any weight either. Blood is caked on my forehead—I must have been blacked out.
The Guardians stay with me until dawn, none of them touching me. I catch glimpses of their conversation, mostly about how they can’t leave yet. None of them talk to me.
When the east finally begins to warm, I manage to pull my foot loose by abandoning the boot and yelping loudly. There’s definitely a bone or two broken. The Guardians are gone. I have no idea where the trail is. Everything looks different. I crawl around until I see a stone cabin, and then drag myself towards it by pulling myself backwards with my one good arm. My other arm tucks itself against my chest like a broken wing. When I get up in front of the cabin, I turn to look. It’s just a stone.
I’m disappointed until I see the trail a little to my right. I lay myself right over the middle of it like a damsel tied to the railroad tracks by a silent film villain, and the first person to come along is a doctor on his day off.
Apparently, my inebriated condition kept me from being hurt worse than I was. For the first time, fighting for my life, knowing that if I hadn’t seen the imaginary cabin that I would have given up, proved to be a profound experience. Limbs relaxed, my skull had remained hard, giving the insides the rattling they needed.
I think of myself as having happily died that night. That was my break-even point. Everything after is pure profit. I’m free to do whatever good I can without worrying about what I get. I’ve been to zero, and it’s doable. I also, despite obvious hallucination theories, know that I’m never alone.
“A Fresh End” received third place in the memoir category of the 2009 PEN Prison Writing Awards.