by Scott Jessop
He got off the bus with the other runners, walked across the parking lot and looked up. The Incline cut straight up the hill. The Jacob’s Ladder of physical fitness challenges. A 2,000-foot elevation gain in one mile with a grade that at some points exceeds 68%. The man leaned against a nearby cottonwood tree and stretched his calves. Then he squatted, threw his leg out, and stretched his hamstring; shifted his weight, and did the other leg.
Nearby, the man’s wife did her routine. Without a word, and without waiting for him, she went to the trailhead.
At the base of mountain, he looked up at the trail. Once an old incline railroad for the Colorado Springs Water Company, it was now a giant Jenga of jumbled ties and rock. Groups of climbers stood around debating the best course of attack.
Leaving her behind, he started up the old railroad bed toward a group of rocks a third of the way up the trail. It wasn’t long before his breathing labored as hard as his legs. He looked back to the road far below and saw a gray-bearded man climbing deliberately up the trail. Turning round front, he viewed deep alpine woods and blue sky.
A dark-haired man in his mid-forties rested next to the man. His kid was climbing a few feet above them, jumping from tie to tie and looking back at his wheezing dad.
The dad smiled, gave a quick nod to the man, then headed up the hill after his son. The man placed a hand on his chest to see if his heart had stopped threatening to leap out and slap his face. It had calmed. The gray-bearded man went past with his walking stick. He would thrust the staff into the earth above him, and step up to it. It was rhythmic and constant. Before long, the gray-bearded man was a good twenty yards up the trail. The man’s wife joined him.
‘Remember when we took the train up?’ he asked.
She smiled. They had drunk too much rum the night before and vomited half-way through the trip. It was a memory of their beginnings.
‘Maybe we should’ve taken that as a sign.’
She frowned, and started up the trail.
He started again, climbing steadily and quickly up the mountain. The morning had advanced, and the sun beat down on the east-facing slope. The people on the trail started to cook in the mid-morning sun. Ahead of the man, his wife had stopped her rapid climb to take a drink.
‘Water,’ she offered.
He shook his head. ‘I’m going to keep going.’
‘Fine,’ she said and resumed her climb.
Soon he was huffing again; the weight of his legs had doubled. It took a lot of effort to lift them from one tie to the next. Sweat dripped down his forehead and into his eyes. A blister formed on the heel of his left foot. Sweat soaked his shirt. He looked up, and saw the gray-bearded man approaching the crest and his wife by the outcrop of rocks. She waited.
In her hand, she angled the water bottle just a little, so he could see it. He reached out and took it.
‘See that old man almost to the summit,’ he said. She nodded. ‘Slow and steady.’
‘Wins the race,’ she added.
‘We need a different approach,’ he said. ‘I’m thinking of Zeno’s Paradox.’
He took a slug of water and handed the bottle back to her.
‘Is this going to be another one of your lectures, doctor?’ she asked.
‘Yes, but we want to get to the top, right?’
‘That’s the goal.’
‘There’s got to be a half way point.’
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘Bail-out Point about 700 feet above us. It’s where Barr Trail passes close to the Incline.’
‘And there has to be a halfway point to the halfway point. Say that juniper hanging over the trail. And from here to the juniper, there’s a halfway point. And from here to that halfway point…’
‘I get it,’ she said. ‘A never-ending string of halfway points.’
‘So it stands to reason that if there’s an infinite number of halfway points to the halfway point, there must be an infinite number of halfway points beyond the halfway point. There’s an endless number of halfway points therefore distance, or progress toward a goal, is an illusion. You never reach your objective.’
‘Christ,’ she said. ‘It’s a fucking climb.’
He nodded. ‘That’s my point.’
‘You have one?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Instead of constantly breaking this down into small goals: getting from here to the rock to the juniper to Bail-out Point to the summit, there is only one goal – the top.’
‘Slow and steady.’
‘You said that.’
‘I might have told the story of the Tortoise and the Hare but that would’ve spared you my lecture,’ he said.
She smiled. ‘Okay, professor, let’s climb.’
One leg up, then the next, they rolled off their toes, and placed each foot squarely on the next tie. At first, it was hard to resist the urge to go faster, nevertheless they settled down into a fast, but manageable, rhythm. A fit woman in her twenties went past in similar fashion but at a faster pace. They felt a bit crestfallen when they saw that she had a mountain bike on her shoulders. The man and his wife were not the fastest or the slowest on the trail, but they passed the dad and his son just before the juniper. After Bail-out Point, the trail reached its maximum grade. The ties were tossed about like Lincoln Logs by some long ago flood. The man reached out to help his wife stretch over the titanic, rusted water pipes and tangled railroad ties. The summit was within reach.
They kept climbing.
Neither said a word. After Bail-out Point, it seemed like the top came on quickly. The ties leveled off, but they realized they had reached a false summit. Another 68% grade climb, and another 300 feet to reach the true summit. Their legs protested the resumption of scrambling, so they bent over and used their hands. Up they went.
‘Come on,’ said his wife, and with a burst of speed, she hopped up the last few ties. The man ignored the desperate emptiness in his lungs and the pain in his legs, and followed.
When he reached the top, someone gave him a high five. His wife handed him the water bottle. He took a long drink, and then handed it back to her.
They looked at the fifty or so climbers like them on the summit sun burned and dripping with sweat. Phones were out and selfies were snapped to prove to the world the accomplishment that a famous actor had recently said nearly killed him.
The man’s wife slipped her arm over his shoulder and took their picture. She uploaded it to Instagram. As they walked back to town, the man, Hank, told his wife, Tammy, they should move forward with the divorce. She smiled and nodded.
Scott Jessop lives in the 135-year old, haunted Midland Railroad station in Manitou Springs, Colorado with his daughter, Kathleen and his cat, Jack Kerouac. He is a corporate video and TV commercial producer, author, poet, and spoken word performer. Jessop’s work has appeared in more than a dozen publications including The Red Earth Review, Penduline Press, Jitter Press, Bewildering Stories – Editor’s Choice, Peaches Lit, and 300 Days of Sun. He is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominated author.