This is a continuation of an allegorical tale begun in The Gate is Small (Pt. 1) and continuing through The Gate is Small (Pt. 2), The Gate is Small (Pt. 3), The Gate is Small (Pt. 4), The Gate is Small (Pt. 5), The Gate is Small (Pt. 6), The Gate is Small (Pt. 7), and The Gate is Small (Pt. 8). I suggest reading the full story in order, but of course, that’s only my opinion.
We had been walking for three hours having a pleasant conversation punctuated by a variety of difficult inclines and refreshing declines. It was nearing lunch time when I heard heavy breathing behind me. Jack had not yet noticed.
I turned to see a young man, possibly 20 years old, probably 19, with the muscular definition of an Olympian. He had a trendy haircut, top-of-the-line and brand new hiking equipment, complete with small gems embedded into various zippers and pockets that gave a real flash to the design. His head was down as he breathed such rapid and shallow breaths that I thought he was on the verge of collapsing. He clearly did not recognize that there were others on the path, and he was moving so quickly up the mountain that I wondered whether or not he had come from the small unobtrusive gate himself that very morning. He was pulling behind him a red wagon, in which sat a portly man, also well-dressed, with a smirk on his face and a rolling suitcase in his lap.
I cleared my throat loudly to make my presence known to him, at which point he looked up startled. His face showed his true feelings of exhaustion and dread for only a moment, because as soon as his eyes met mine a larger-than-life grin split his face, and he swept his sweat-soaked hair back into its immaculate position. He raised his eyebrows and his eyes momentarily glazed as I could almost see him erasing all the true emotions he was feeling from his mind, replaced with a comforting and cheerful gaze.
“Hello,” he said, in what sounded like a radio psychiatrists voice, “It’s good to see other hikers walking this fine trail today. Loving this gorgeous weather, aren’t we?” He was still breathing heavily through the polished sentence. At this greeting, the man in the wagon turned to see whom they had encountered. Jack’s voice came from behind me.
“Indeed it is a beautiful day, but it looks like you desperately need a break young man! Take your pack off, and wipe that silly smile off your face, there’s no need for pretense around here.” The man in the wagon spoke next. His voice sounded as though his nose were permanently plugged.
“No, no. Don’t take a break, David. We don’t know these men, and you’ve got many people to lead up this mountain. Got to keep on climbing, right up to the top!” David’s eyes briefly betrayed distress at the man’s admonition, but the plastic smile came back quickly.
“Of course, of course Seker. Of course.” He jumped slightly to heave his pack higher onto his waist, but stumbled and lost his balance, toppling to the side. I rushed over to help him up, and noticed his ankles were bloody and blistered. When I grabbed his forearm to bring him back to his feet, he was shockingly soft and weak. All of the muscles seemed to be more for show than for work.
“Careful there David. Let me help you,” I said beginning to pull on his arm.
“No, no. He needs to do it himself. How will people follow him if he’s constantly being helped along the path!?” shouted Seker.
“He’s right. I’ll get up myself,” said David quietly. The suave smile remained, but his eyes no longer obeyed his wishes, and a plea for help came screaming through them even as he lay on his side. “I’ll be right as rain once we near the summit.”
“At least have some water,” said Jack stepping forward and offering his canteen.
“He’s had plenty of water already,” said Seker indignantly, but Jack didn’t listen to Seker’s protests and forced the mouth of the canteen into David’s, who gulped it dry.
“How dare you! What do you think you’re doing?” said Seker standing up in his wagon, face red and enraged.
“I’m helping a man who clearly needs it! Who are you to deny him water?” said Jack.
“I’m his trainer! I know what’s best for him. I’m a master hiker, and I’ve had my eye on David since he was a lad. He’s going to be the next great hiker on these mountains! Going to teach millions how to make it to the summit, and do it faster and more easily than ever before! He’ll completely change how hikers hike! Just look at him!”
I looked at David, who was still trying to hold his smile and force himself back into a standing position. As most hikers know, once you sit down it’s very difficult to get back up until you’ve had the proper rest. David’s arms gave out and he resigned himself to leaning back on his elbows. Jack offered him a second canteen which he took.
“This boy is not ready to hike the whole mountain! Any skilled hiker knows that from looking at him for more than a minute. What is wrong with you?” said Jack angrily, rounding on Seker, who was obviously frightened by Jack’s size. He teetered in his wagon, but remained resolute in his voice.
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with me. And nothing’s wrong with David either. He’s right as rain. Just look at his muscles! He can handle this weight!”
“Look at his ankles! His boots clearly aren’t broken in at all! It looks like he’s been on this hike for a day at most. Why aren’t you carrying your own weight and helping him to carry his?” There was an awkward silence for a moment while Seker pondered a response.
“I know the manual that the rangers gave, and so does David. He’s completely ready,” Seker finally said.
Jack reached into the top pouch of David’s pack (which was now on the ground next to him) and extracted a pristine copy of the ranger’s manual, complete with the plastic shrink-wrap of a new copy. “You mean this manual, which has clearly never been opened?”
“He’s read other copies of it! And he knows without a doubt that it has what it says he has, and he can do what it says he can do!” Said Seker. “This kind of hard training will make him healthy. He gives a little of himself to the mountain and the mountain gives back ten-fold.”
David gasped deeply, and leaned further. His condition was worsening. Jack began administering first aid.
“I think he’s suffering from heat exhaustion along with his dehydration. You’ll be held responsible for this man’s condition, Seker.”
Terror immediately engulfed Seker, as he clambered out of his wagon and abandoned his suitcase. He started toddling down the path in the direction David had pulled him. Jack overtook him with three steps, picked him up by the collar of his sports coat and sat him on the ground next to David.
He then rummaged through his pack and extracted an old walkie-talkie and spoke into it urgently. “Mayday, mayday, injured man needs assistance. Dehydration and possible heat exhaustion.”
Gilbert’s voice came over the other end, “Jack, I read you. We’re sending life flight to your location.”
Moments later the sound of a helicopter broke through the squabbling of Jack and Seker, as the latter tried to prevent the former from giving him aid. The team disembarked and took both Seker and David away, leaving the wagon, backpack, and rolling suitcase with me and Jack. It happened in flurry, and soon it was only Jack and I standing in silence staring at the remnants of the two men.
“Was that a normal day for you?” I asked incredulously.
Jack responded, “It’s more frequently than it used to be, that’s for sure. We get these young hotshots being egged on up the mountain by people with more money and confidence than they do sense, and it yields disastrous results. No man can carry THAT much weight and expect to make it to the top of this mountain without a serious fall. But it’s even worse when a promising young man gets pressured into taking on more than he can carry at the time, but possibly could with the right coach. Seker’s type are some of the worst. Never once placing a foot down on this narrow path, but thinking they own it from top to bottom.”
“What can be done to prevent it?” I asked.
“Two good starting places would be cracking open that manual and reading what it says,” said Jack, gesturing to the plastic-wrapped book now sitting in the wagon. “These are the sorts Gilbert and I are rehabilitating and training up. They’ve got a lot of scars. Hopefully we’ll be able to help David out as well. Maybe one day he’ll be able to actually train up some people to hike this mountain.”
“Isn’t that what Seker wanted?” I said.
Jack scoffed, “That’s what he said he wanted, because he knew it sounded like the right message, but that’s as far as it went. He had no regard for that boy or the people following him. Would’ve killed him and never thought twice about it. Just wanted a free ride up the mountain to see the view.”
I thought a moment. “Sometimes I have the same desire, Jack. If someone were willing to carry me up this path instead of having to walk up those inclines we encountered this morning, I’d have a hard time turning it down.”
Jack looked at me seriously. “All men who start up this mountain want to be carried up it at some point. And the truth is, you will be in a sense. It’s not as if you found the gate by accident, and it’s not as if the people on this mountain or the rangers who tend to the hikers expect them to make it on their own. But crafting your own way of being carried up the mountain, and being carried up in the way you were meant to be carried are two different things. You wouldn’t want to reach the summit without having the hike anyway, my boy. You wouldn’t be accustomed to the air up there. It’s the hike that prepares you for the summit.”
I didn’t really understand Jack’s words. But I had learned to let his proverbs sit with me for a while before asking the meaning of them.
“What’s to be done with the wagon and this baggage?” I asked.
Jack walked toward them and hoisted all three over his shoulder with one hand. “I’ll carry them to the next rest point and leave them for the team to collect.”
I nodded and fell in line behind Jack as he strode up the narrow path, taking note of the length between each of his steps. I tried desperately to make my footsteps fall in line with his, but his stride was just too long. I wondered if I’d ever grow to that stature myself, and wondered if a stride of that length were necessary to make it to the summit. How would I do if it were so?