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Cumulus - A Story by Alan C. Baird
Cabin fever was setting in. El Niño's first tentative rainstorms were not very impressive, but they had kept me indoors for too long; I was in danger of going stir crazy. Stepping outside, I could see that the clouds were far from gone, but they didn't cover the entire sky, except in the west. It looked a little worrisome over there, but I decided to drive up into the mountains anyway. I wanted to hike the San Gabriels, and desperately needed to be outdoors, so it didn't really matter that the sky was barely visible beyond the small hills of Griffith Park. In my mind, it appeared worthwhile to at least attempt an outing, come hell or high water.

Running injuries were nagging me, but I could walk, so an easy expedition to the top of Mt. Lowe seemed possible. Driving through the front ranges of the San Gabriels was a relaxing, contemplative experience. I didn't know it at the time, but listening to the powerful spirituality in the music of Arvo Pärt was opening an imperceptible crack in the door to my soul.

As I parked and got out of the car, the weather prospects did not seem positive. Many clouds were closing in, although it looked like there might be a break in the west. The conditions lurking just past the mountaintops were difficult to see. My pilot's instincts were focused on the sky; I knew it would play an important part in my enjoyment of the day. I didn't relish the thought of returning to my car, dripping from a sudden rainstorm.

The air at this altitude was cold; I could see my breath for the first time in eight or nine months. The buzzing of insects was absent, and that was a nice change from the last time I'd hiked in this area. The recent wet weather had released the high-desert vegetation's hidden scents. Ordinarily, one would not expect to smell anything except hot dust on this trail. But now, everything was alive with odors - intoxicating odors! It was a completely different world, unlike anything I could have imagined. The new scents were distracting, but I tried to relax and stretch my other senses - to touch with my eyes, feel with my tongue, smell with my hands, taste with my ears, absorb with my nose, see with my heart, and listen with my soul.

The low-hovering cumulus moved closer to the top of the mountain, and I felt the distinct sensation of walking up into the clouds. It was a magical moment, and I was extremely aware of all the beauty around me. However, I could not resist trying to create a story out of the unusual conditions. My brain was busy chattering away: "Walking into the clouds - that will be a good word-image. Try to remember it!" I was forcing the conditions to fit my preconceived notion of what might be fun to read. A small ray of sunshine struggled to emerge from the sky, and I hurried to meet it. I wanted to be on top of the mountain when the heavens smiled, because it would make a nice addition to my little tale.

However, even after reaching the summit, the break in the overcast had not yet arrived. I felt a little disappointed, but I was already rewriting the story in my head. Looking west, I noticed a certain cloud moving closer. The bottom edge was lower than my feet, and facing its inexorable approach felt like standing in front of a slow-moving freight train. I became more and more excited, as I watched the almost-mystical transformations in the cloud's shape. At such a close distance, I could see the effect of tiny updrafts, swirling and rearranging the massive, billowing form. The ever-changing patterns, of the ethereal moisture folding in upon itself, suggested the idea of a celestial dance. More good words to remember!

But the soft cloud was not going to hit me. It approached the peak and moved up over my head, almost as if refusing to yield to my growing excitement. I gradually became deeply disappointed; I discovered that I very much wanted to touch this transitory shape. As I looked around, I could see delicate wisps of vapor trailing lazily past the sides of the peak. I could not run to catch them; it would be too much stress on my injured leg. For some reason, I desperately yearned to caress that unworldly mist. After the anticipation, the buildup of tension, I almost felt as if I might be able to touch the very machinery of the universe. My eyes filled up with burning tears of frustration. It seemed like the cloud was intentionally avoiding me.

Then I looked around. In all directions, the summit was surrounded by a canopy of cumulus. Visibility was completely clear down all sides of the mountain from where I was standing, but I couldn't see the nearby peaks at all. A powerful shiver ran up through my spine; I was smack in the middle of an ephemeral cathedral of clouds. I no longer needed to touch them; a protected space was being provided for me alone. I could see that I had unwittingly entered a holy place, although it would not last for very long. However, while it covered this area, everything seemed consecrated. And I was being blessed, too. My eyes were uniquely privileged to witness this sacred space. All thoughts of writing a story went completely out of my head, because I knew that I could not create a scene as wondrous as this. It seemed appropriate to be quiet, to simply behold what my Creator was showing me, and to hope that I could remember enough of it to give a decent account of what I had observed.

My tears dried, and my craving to touch the mechanics of the firmament disappeared with them. I felt foolish. Anyone could see that I'd been granted a much greater gift; I was being allowed to meditate upon the mysteries of existence in a private house of worship.

My feet were getting cold. I hesitated, wondering if I was supposed to stay and see what happened next. I wanted to do the right thing, but it seemed reasonable that my mind could not appreciate very much more, if it became too concerned with the issue of warmth. So I stumbled down off the mountain, in a daze. I could not believe that my little outing had turned into such a momentous encounter. At every turn in the trail, I stopped to look up at the cloud cathedral, and murmured my gratitude. I felt protected, as if I were being cradled in a warm, benevolent hand. I walked around one corner, and a tendril of cloud caressed my cheek. I cracked a very wide grin, and a sunbeam sliced through the clouds, returning my joy.

As I walked further, the clouds came down to embrace me, until I could barely see the path. Every now and then, across an enormous chasm, a small portion of the adjoining cliff would appear, like a living portion of some Japanese watercolor scroll. I laughed out loud at the wonderful images which were being revealed. I fancied that my host was showing off for me! That thought seemed almost sacrilegious, until I realized that such private spectacles are being created for all of us, all the time, if we can only turn off our chattering brains long enough to see them.

The End

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