In May of 2004, I traveled to Anchorage, Alaska and went hiking on Flattop Mountain. Something happened on that hike that I still don’t quite know how to resolve. It has been many years now now that I was there, that this happened, and I am finally mustering the courage to tell about it here.
First, I must let you know that I am not superstitious. I don’t believe in karma or in life after death. I believe in life right now. Yet here I am, telling you a story that has me thinking about karma, and I am wondering what it all means, and particularly, I marvel about why I am telling the story in public.
The hike up Flattop is a rugged hike. The bottom half of the hike consists of a well-worn trail. But the higher you get up the mountain, the less of a trail there is. This is the most hiked mountain in Alaska, most likely because of its prominent position, close to Anchorage. Whatever this means, there was not one other person there that day that I saw. I was alone on the busiest hiking mountain in Alaska in the middle of the day in May.
When you get toward the top, the trail seems to dissolve entirely and you actually need to be comfortable with Class 4 climbing. For the uninitiated, Class 4 means you can’t walk anymore, scrambling with arms and legs is necessary to navigate over steep boulders, cross over cracks and pull yourself up slippery rock faces. Walking is no longer possible. Climbing starts. It’s scary, since you never know what you end up climbing into and whether you can climb out again. It’s unnerving, particularly when you are completely alone and nobody really knows where you are.
Disclaimer: Don’t try this at home.
The wind was fierce as this picture of me at the top illustrates. You see me leaning at an angle. This is not a crooked picture. I actually stood that way, the camera was level, and the wind held me in that angled position. Hiking, or rather scrambling under that heavy a wind does something to your brain, and you get a bit high, almost like I imagine laughing gas at the dentist would affect you. I can’t blame it on the altitude. Flattop is in the arctic, it seems like you are very high up, but it’s less than 4,000 feet at the peak. That’s nothing compared to the leisurely strolls I take on San Diego County peaks at around 6,000 feet or in San Bernardino at over 10,000. And there was loneliness. I didn’t see another soul on that mountain.
My thinking was definitely not clear during this hike. I found myself lumbering up, breathing hard, fully bundled up in my down jacket, trying to keep the back of the hood facing the wind, so it didn’t blow into my neck and chill me any more than I already was. The trail was faint.
I looked up and saw something metallic shining a few feet away from me. I stopped, looked, went over and saw a metallic egg shaped object. I picked it up and it was cold and heavy. It was indeed the shape and rough size of an egg. I weighed it in my hand and it felt solid, heavy, precious. It was adorned with markings, etchings in the metal, blue figures on silver metallic background. It almost looked like something alien. Here is a picture:
I put it in my pocket and forgot about it as I continued to scramble to the top of the mountain, took some pictures, slowly made my way back down, eventually got back to my car and then my hotel. I dropped the egg into my suitcase and didn’t think about it anymore.
When I got back home to San Diego and I unpacked, I was sober minded. The exhilaration of the arctic mountain air was no longer there. The buzz of the altitude, the rush of adrenaline, the loneliness and scariness of the hike, all gone. Sunshine in Southern California grounds a person. I looked at the egg and realized it had a top that would unscrew. I opened it carefully, and there was sand in it, or rather, fine gravel.
I closed the egg. This was an urn. I had brought somebody’s ashes back home to San Diego with me. Panic washed over me. What had I done? What could I do to fix it?
I resolved that I would have to go back to Alaska, climb Flattop Mountain again, take the Egg to the very top and find a nice, secluded spot of honor for it. In the meantime, it has a secret place in our house in San Diego, and it is waiting to be taken back to its final resting place.
I have not been haunted. I have not had bad luck and disaster happen to me. But I have also not been blessed with good results that come from some happy spirit or genie, grateful for having been transplanted from the arctic, where it’s dark half of the time, to sunny Southern California, at least for a while. The spirit has been neutral to me, forgiving, and I hope it stays that way, at least until I can take it back to where it belongs, to the great border between Alaskan civilization and the endless back country. I will make sure it stays there, where no other delirious hiker finds it, hidden for a long time, maybe forever.