On the lower slopes of the mountain,
Already two kilometers above the distant sea,
The cog railway jolts through a canyon forest of aspen and pine.
The sun slants down through the soft air,
Glowing in green bars through the branches of the Ponderosas
And casting a gold wash on grassy slopes.
Huge boulders and outcroppings of red granite
Mark the stations of the journey,
Gigantic shapes half-worn to smoothness,
Stained with age and yellow lichen,
Marked with deep, rounded crevices full of shadow.
Running along the track, a narrow stream
Spills over brown and red stones,
Cutting and silting, tumbling particles of mountain
Toward the unseen plain below.
The air brims with brightness,
Softened and diffused by the green leaves.
The passengers are full of energy,
Eager for their imagined goal,
Filling the railway car with children’s excited laughter,
Conversation, and the odd camaraderie
Of strangers sharing a pilgrimage.
Further up the canyon, the train passes
Remnants of earlier enterprise.
In a glade full of fine golden sunlight, a pile of boards —
Last trace of a hotel closed fifty years ago —
Evokes images of women in full skirts and bloomers,
Men in meticulous ties and impractical hats,
Putting foot to mountain without acknowledgement of effort.
Weaker than they, tourists now ascend in railway cars
Crowded hip to hip and knee to knee on facing benches,
Protected by steel and glass from the stony trail
And thinning air.
Through an opening in the pines, over a green meadow
Full of butterflies and jays, the peak appears.
It rests lightly on the horizon,
Rough gray slopes marked with patches of snow,
Impassive and inscrutable.
Gradually, the aspens of the lower slopes thin and disappear,
Leaving the spruce in somber dominance.
The railway itself grows more exposed
As canyons open into wider mountain slopes.
Behind earthen dams,
Lakes catch the sun in deep sheets of blue.
The travelers are quieter there.
The sky is a deeper blue in the thinning air,
And the chill seeps in through closed windows.
Even the children are subdued,
Pilgrims entering some strange and mysterious landscape.
The trees grow shorter as the train ascends –
Shorter and twisted by wind and frost
Into abstract patterns of endurance,
Starved roots and furled needles
Linked by grotesque trunks.
The ground is littered with sharp-edged chunks of granite,
Smaller than the boulders below,
Higher yet, the peak looms above like a shadow.
The trees are gone; only tundra survives.
To the left of the railway,
A dirt track abandoned thirty years earlier
Shows wheel-ruts hardly softened
By the minute encroachment of the lichens.
Over the tundra, the hoarse croak of ravens
Replaces the homelier calls of finches and jays.
Lichens and moss form irregular gray-green blotches
Among the sharp-edged shards of rock
Split off by frost from the mountain-face.
Close up, the tundra resolves itself
Into minute blue-green feathers, fronds,
And tiny flowers, yellow and red and mauve.
The sky is deep blue, nearly purple;
The sharp sunlight casts deep, abrupt shadows
Outlining every gleam of granite.
Suddenly, the train makes one last turn,
Emerging on the bare summit strewn with granite rubble:
An anonymous shed; then a curved wall
And parking lot in the background;
A line of road twisting away;
Then a squat and garish refreshment stand
Overgrown with souvenirs.
Roused to movement, the travelers spill out along the track,
Dazed and dazzled by the sharp sun and thin air,
Startled by the sharper wind.
All but the hardiest take shelter in the souvenir shop,
Drinking coffee, fingering tee shirts and tawdry jewelry,
Shoving through crowded aisles to icy, spartan restrooms.
The rest, still searching,
Scatter randomly across the mountaintop.
On the bare summit, the wind probes unimpeded,
An assault of shrill cold, piercing ear and skin
Like a warrior’s mace made of shards and spikes of ice,
Wind thrusting at trunk and limbs
Like an inexorable wall of locked shields.
At this end of the world, cold is ally to the wind,
Reinforcing each assault,
Shocking, then numbing flesh and mind alike.
On the bare summit, the tundra creeps an inch in thirty years.
In two thousand years,
Lichen and moss will eradicate
The clear stripe of abandoned trail winding down to the west.
In two thousand years,
The boards of the concession stand and the railway car itself
Will have crumbled to dust under the unrelenting hammer of the frost.
Is this harsh summit, then,
Focal point of sun and wind and frost, the shrine we sought?
No saint inhabits there, among the blasted rocks and crumbling moss.
No holy sign or wonder startles, stills
The restless pilgrims wandering abroad,
Uncertain what they seek, or where to search.
To the east, the mountain falls away
Into a shallow, city-filled bowl,
Half-hidden in golden smog.
Through the haze, the familiar beckons,
The known world of city streets, city traffic,
Travel on known routes between known points.
There are no shrines there, and no assaulting wind.
Beyond the city, the long plain descends into fields and forests,
Clearly marked with known rivers, civilized, placable.
Off to the south, a darker shrine occupies Cheyenne mountain,
Looms like a shadow grown animate,
Shaking the lances of its antennae against the bright air.
NORAD spreads across the mountain,
Shrouds the somber spruce forest in darker hues.
In that relentless shadow,
The bright air dims, thickened to an unspoken threat,
Like the gush of bright blood under the spear
Already thickening, darkening, as it falls
In a rich arc to the trampled earth of the tournament field.
The mountains to the north are filled with mist,
Silver-cool and shining to the pilgrim’s eye,
But later proving black and impenetrable to the camera’s lens,
Producing a strange discontinuity between photograph and memory.
In those northern fogs, one might wander forever
Like some lost Orpheus among the Hyperboreans,
Tormented by thoughts of home and love,
Driven and despairing of return.
To the west, the grail-road rises
Through range upon range of higher peaks,
Naked granite half-shrouded in untouched snow,
Rising in ascending purity through space and time
Until the mountains vanish in the haze of distance,
Leaving only the translucent images of snow
To mark those unattainable heights.
When Zebulon Pike, pioneer, pilgrim,
After weeks among the dusty grasses of the endless plain,
First caught sight, across the rough landscape of mesquite scrub
And the dry channels of lost streams,
Of that great cone rising against the horizon,
Dominating the eye with its insistent mass,
What vision drove him forward? What wild sign
Imprinted on the broken snows of the summit
Drew his feet upward through the untracked canyon forest
Into that attenuated realm of sharp rock and creeping tundra?
As he drew near the summit, near his goal,
Did anticipation beat in his lungs with the thinning air,
Promise of endless view from the highest peak?
Did he feel the end of his quest drawing near,
Entertain thoughts of monument or shrine to mark the spot,
There at the summit of the world?
What shock, then, must have struck with the shrill wind
When, standing on those rough broken granite blocks
Where later pilgrims scuff thin dust on asphalt,
He saw that western view belying the illusion
Of world-end that had drawn him on, the goal
Floating like a mirage into the distance.
Catching sight of those bleak distances,
The pilgrim readjusts focus, goal.
Some excellence of soul, strength, intention
May yet attempt that extended goal;
Some purity may draw the searching traveler on
To a clear view of the unimaginable relic hidden in the mist;
A greater purity may lead yet further on
To immolation in that holy flame.
The spotted soul, bespattered with the dust and sweat
Of the dry plains, the smoggy city,
The bloody mud of battlefields,
Knows only rumors of that distant grail,
Sees only the ephemera of the pilgrimage.
In the murmur of those half-heard rumors,
One by one, then in pairs and groups,
The pilgrims return to the waiting train,
Claiming window seats, warming chilled hands and faces
In the glass-tamed sunlight, screened from wind.
Outside, the relentless wind tears at moss-flowers
And clothing alike, and the sun hurls ultraviolet lances,
While frost pries away at crevices in granite.
Gathered at last, ranged in rows,
The passengers are subdued, anticipation broken
In the frigid blasts of wind and sun
And the sight of those monstrous peaks ranging westward.
The saint is not at home; the shrine is an empty box,
Gauded with golden sunlight too sharp for warmth,
And amethyst skies too brittle to cut, tame to a jewel.
There is a sense of promises let slip —
Banner fled before the battle was joined.
This summit fulfills no expectations,
Answers anticipation with a cryptic handful
Of granite shards and frost-burnt moss,
Taunts the seeker with the promise of more distant grails.
The train falls down the mountain track,
Leaving behind the deserted souvenir stand and half-empty parking lot,
The parallel silver rails ending abruptly at the edge of the abyss.
Chastened by the wind and the cold, thin air,
The actinic rays of the sun and the harsh, bare landscape,
The pilgrims sink downward into warmth and softer air.
In that measured fall, repassing the stations of the journey
So eagerly observed in the upward trek, changed now with our perspective,
We finger the edges of our lives for space to fit this journey,
Connections to link this mountain to the plains of our beginnings.
The bright meadows and narrow canyons are as green,
As full of life and song as on the upward trip —
Full then of our anticipation, hope for revelation.
They have become themselves, unsigned with that expected fulfillment,
Indifferent to those passing beings encased in glass.
Did poor, flawed Lancelot, setting out for the Grail,
Have glimpses of the emptiness at journey’s end,
After long peril?
Or did he, like us at the start of our softer quest,
Believe the view would be worth the journey?
Intent on the unattainable,
That glimpse of holy fire at the vessel’s heart,
What fair companions, occasions for love, did he pass by?
Human like us, colored with sin and yearning,
How could he keep pace with unfleshed white Galahad
Or Percival, or single-spotted Bors?
Still, lost in hope, against all reason,
Lancelot pressed on to the empty chamber of dreams,
Renouncing on the way all joy of going,
Renouncing Guenever, battle-glory, world-honor, all.
In our smaller way, we moved upward,
Eyes glancing past warmth of glade and sparkle of stream,
Yearning toward a glimpse of that harsh summit,
Flat and bare as the grail-emptied chamber.
Hoping for revelation, we too passed by offered warmth.
At the foot of the mountain,
Filing out of the train in uneven groups,
Disorganized, disoriented a little in the sunshine,
Limbs stiff from the wooden seats,
Grateful for the stable earth underfoot,
We move off in our various directions,
Some to the cities of the plain,
Others to take up the black lances of NORAD,
Yet others to disappear in the silver mists.
A few, perhaps — by chance or act of will —
Descend the mountain to ascend those higher peaks
Rising in the western grail-road, ascend — perhaps —
Out of ordinary realms of being into unimaginable light —
Or (perhaps) ascend to find successive empty summits.
Full of the mountain, not yet free of thin air and vacant shrine,
We linger for a while in the garden at the mountain’s foot,
Wandering along the safe paths, level among sharp scarps and pinnacles
Of red granite thrust out of softer earth,
Returning at last to the ordinary light of evening in city streets.
This was my journey.
And you, friend, companion,
Innocent fellow-traveler to my heresy,
What was yours?
What did you see, there at the end of the world?
Going up Pike’s Peak, together on the wooden seat,
Looking out of the same window into different worlds,
We shared nothing essential but the thin air.
Like Lancelot, you seemed intent on some imagined goal,
Invisible in the crystalline air.
Were there visions, saints’ signs, battle banners
Floating in that thin air between you and the granite slopes?
At the summit, did you also see the empty shrine,
Or did you find some grail-promise to draw you onward?
What, in the end, was the point of it all —
Jolting up the mountain on railway cogs,
Enduring wind like ice under the sharp shadows of the sun?
We have conquered nothing, found nothing,
Been lifted without effort and returned without reward.
Why, then? Not merely because the mountain is there;
Surely not for the sake of the empty shrine.
Only for the joy of going,
The vistas opening out at canyon’s end,
The secret glades hidden among the pines,
The moss thrusting its determined blooms
Against the odds and the frost.
A harder question, then:
How could we travel that mountain,
Side by side on the wooden seat, separate,
Surrounded by a hundred others in pairs and groups,
Sitting alone, together on the wooden seats?
When we come to the end, like Lancelot empty-handed,
Bound in the end by vows we cannot keep,
Filled with visions not yet beginning to fade,
Let us speak to each other, then, across the distances,
Share what we can of the journey, speak of the view
And the visions we saw, there at the edge of the world.
Then, after long travel, after the peaks and the banners,
Let us sit with strangers and friends in the evening light
And recount old tales of journeys that came to an end.