Ravens spiraled playfully on the updrafts. Thomas could almost touch them as he dangled his toes over the sheer cliff, kicking his feet into the air rising from the valley floor.
"Come play. Come play," the ravens seemed to say. One of the black birds alighted next to Thomas, stared at him sideways, then hopped to the edge of the granite and plunked over the side. When it was almost out of site, the free-falling creature spread its wings – there was a distant THUMP as the feathers caught the air – and, without a single flap, the raven swirled back up to the perch. Thomas locked eyes, with the bird. "See, can't you do this?" it seemed to ask, still circling with the others. Thomas imagined a shark trying to trick him into diving out of a lifeboat. The ravens were so friendly and playful it was hard to trust them, though he wanted to.
Before him was an ocean of rolling air that lapped against the islands of granite monoliths. The stone at his fingertips had seen ice ages, even the birth of man. And now Thomas rubbed the smooth rock that held him at its fingertip. How small his concerns appeared from this position in the sky, in this magnitude of the Earth! He was alone, but he didn't feel that way just then.
It was early October. He'd been in Yosemite for almost two months, but had never climbed the iconic Half Dome. In fact, he'd never even walked very far up the paved trailhead from Curry Village before that day.
It was noon when he parked his car in the dirt lot amid bustling tourists. Most of them were shopping or waiting for pizza. He sat in the seat with the door ajar. One leg hung out, his shoe barely touching the gravel. He stewed on his plan. Was he nuts? Was he really going to climb the 2,000-foot slab of Half Dome's west face without a rope? It was already so late, and a storm front was expected in the next 12 hours. What if it comes early? he thought.
The route he intended to climb was called Snake Dike. Many routes are much steeper and harder, but not as elegant as Snake Dike, with the clean wave of granite swelling so high above, and the dike emerging from the placid rock like a pink-black sea serpent dashing toward the sky.
He'd already made up his mind. The second thoughts were only wasting time. A small green rucksack was already packed with a set of sticky-rubber climbing shoes, a chalk bag (chalk keeps climber's hands dry in the nervous, sweaty moments), two liters of water, a jacket and some food.
Here you are. Move, he thought.
Thomas slammed the car door and attacked the trail. Passing gobs of casual hikers – particularly families in city clothes and fanny packs who bottlenecked at the steep sections – took more time than he liked. Nonetheless, it wasn't long before Thomas forgot all about his car and the life behind him as his boots crunched up the path.
He made better time than he had hoped in reaching the base of the climb. After a snack and water, he donned his climbing shoes in the setting sun. There were very few handholds in the rock, that was the scary thing. If Thomas bungled any of the friction moves – moves in which the soft, sticky rubber of a single shoe was the only thing holding him to the face of the Earth – it would be a nasty ride. It was better not to think of it. So he climbed like a machine. On and on, he followed the rosy, crystalline knobs along the arching back of the "snake." Jim Morrison sang in his head as he moved: "Ride the snake ... He's old, and his skin is cold. ...The blue bus is callin' usss..."
The angle of the rock eased off in the last thousand feet to the summit. The rock face was still a blank, cresting wave, but Thomas was able to walk up it with bare feet, only touching the rock occasionally with his hands.
And now, he sat atop Half Dome, watching the ravens dance in the air. Voices from the life he left behind returned to him. His head rang with the thrutching sobs of a lover he'd crushed over the phone just the day before.
"Forget it, I can't go back. I can't trust you anymore," he'd said.
"But I LOVE you," Amber wailed.
"I'm not going back to LA. I'm sorry," he said, hanging up the payphone.
He felt he did what he had to do, yet he felt awful, isolated from the people who mattered most. He flinched to remember the sound of his voice a week earlier as he told his mom he wouldn't see her on Thanksgiving. Even some Australian friends he met in Camp 4 had moved on to other destinations. Who did he have now? No one except the ravens, who dared him to jump into the sky. Feeling the updraft between his toes, he imagined what it would feel like to do just that.
No job. No particular talent. No purpose except a vague mission to find myself, he thought as the sun dipped below the horizon like a sinking ship. Clouds were building in the distance.
Shit, I lost track of time again! he thought. The orange glow faded from his airy throne. The call to action pulled him out of the fog. He had a purpose once more, and that was to get down safely.
Going down the standard hiking route with the cables on the eastern slab of Half Dome was freakier than expected since he hadn't been up that way before. The cables arched out of sight as the angle steepened, as if he were cresting the hill of a giant roller coaster where the tracks plunged into the abyss. Coasters used to bother him in his more conservative days, when he was living with Amber. She always pushed him into riding the things and then she finally pushed him over the side of his mental stability. He hadn't stopped falling since. He was still horrified of exposure, but now he was drawn to face his fears like a warrior on the eve of battle. There was no turning back, no other way. His forearms swelled with fatigue from gripping the cables so tight as he descended the glass-smooth mountain in the fading light. It's like I'm walking off the rounded face of the moon, he thought.
The wind picked up and was pushing huge clouds across the sky when Thomas reached firm ground with pine trees and a good trail. He smelled the nip of winter wrapping around his soul, and by the time he reached his car well after dark, it was covered in an inch of snow.
Where to now? he asked himself as he thawed his bones inside the idling car. The Australians said they were headed for the warmer climate of the desert near Las Vegas. That would be as good as any destination. He rubbed his eyes and put the car in gear.
The snowflakes grew thicker as he drove out of the valley. The flakes splattered on the windshield like a swarm of locusts and the wipers couldn't keep up. The curvy road blurred through the glass. Snow stuck to the pavement, shrinking the black surface.
I shouldn't be driving. I'm too tired. ... Yeah, but where are going to sleep around here? Give it another hour and you'll be in a warmer place.
For a moment, Thomas drifted back to the image of the swirling ravens, recalling the comfortable feeling in that place. The memory of the sun wrapped around his mind like a blanket as he drove into the heavy night. By the time he realized his back wheels were sliding out of control it was too late. He jerked the wheel and fishtailed in the other direction, but it was too far – the car spun sideways and rolled.
Thomas' world shrunk into a crumpling cave of shattered glass and flying objects as his Honda hatchback slid on its roof at 50 mph and rolled again, coming back onto the wheels as it went off the pavement and collided with a clump of trees. Just like that, the chaos ended as quickly as it began, although a new chaos was just starting to unfold, one that had yet to catch up to him.
Snowflakes fell through the broken window and landed on his jeans with a pitter-patter. The backs of his hands were bloody with bits of glass stuck in them. One of the headlights still shone straight ahead, reflecting off the falling snow. Beyond that, the light dissipated into the black woods.
Thomas tried to open the door and couldn't, so he crawled out the window. He staggered up to the road where he strained to hear a sound. Only the pitter-patter of heavy flakes striking the blacktop answered his pleading ears.