The 26,968 steps to the summit of Mt. Jiaozi were grueling. It wasn’t altitude sickness or the ripping sensation in the back of my calves, but the memories I packed in my backpack. I trekked to the top of this holy mountain once before to make a wish, one that rusted in the wind.
Like many mountain tops in Southeast Asia, Jiaozi Snow Moutain, or Mount Yi is holy ground, a window to the next world, where if the gods glanced at their feet, they might see a prayer float up. Many make pilgrimages to these places to say prayers. Others? They go just for the beauty.
In 2016, I trekked to the lake near the top of Mt. Jiaozi. I didn’t make the trip alone, but with a jovial guy named Happy Seal. He smoked cigarettes while I locked my wish on a fence guarded by dogs, next to a holy lake.
The wish I made in 2016 was just that. A wish.
The wish was to have the gods ignore starving children, plagues, war, polio, even the confused polar bears at the melting Arctic to repair my marriage, requesting a made-for-TV relationship like Rob and Laura Petri, Carol and Bob Brady, or even Archie and Edith Bunker with a side of fries.
The gods were to listen to my stupid wish along with those about granting good parking spots, passing algebra tests, find lost keys, and sinking twenty-two foot puts. Maybe that’s why we have Covid. The gods were busy answering stupid prayers.
The painful lesson I learned in 2016 was that there is a difference between a wish and faith. A holy mountain isn’t a drive thru window for miracles to fix your personal Humpty Dumpty.
That is a wish.
Faith is the substance that slaps you in the face each morning egging you to go on.
This time, I wasn’t going with a wish but with a prayer. On Jiaozi Mountain, you can attach a prayer to a Buddhist prayer ribbon and leave it on the mountain. There were prayer ribbons scattered everywhere on the trail.
I didn’t leave my prayer ribbon on a pine or near the lake with the guard dogs. Instead, I wanted to leave it at the place with where the world disappeared. Where it’s just you, your thoughts, and a biting wind.
I trekked to the summit.
On the summit, there were prayer ribbons faded with time.
The prayer I brought to the summit was for a friend dealing with the grief of losing a child. I prayed that each day, one of her heavy tears would be replace by a smile-filled memory. Just one.
The prayer was easy to say, but having the courage to live it? Squeezing toothpaste back in a tube would be easier. Grief doesn’t go away by reading hallmark cards. It doesn’t magically disappear by tying prayer ribbons on the top of a holy mountain.
Grief never disappears.
So instead of praying for the burden to disappear, I prayed for courage.
Do not pray for lighter burdens, but stronger backs.
I tied my friend’s prayer ribbon alone in a corner, thinking to myself, this is what it must feel like to be a parent who has lost a child. Your world is missing, it’s just you in a fog, alone.
As I tied the ribbon, I hoped this would make her stronger or keep one less tear from falling.
On the way down, the fog lifted. We could see the world again. We passed the guard dogs and the forgotten wishes, my rusty wish still blowing in the wind.
We gave our calves a work-out in the treacherous Threading of the Needle. This is not the place to drop a phone, which one of us did, name withheld.
Many of trees on the path had turned red. I wondered if the trees were absorbing red tears from the prayer ribbons.
“No,” replied Washington, a flower grower from Ecuador. “The red is a fungus.”
I like my explanation better.
We stayed for the sunset and missed the last cable car off the mountain. We waited for a bus with a few other stragglers, with sore calves and lighter hearts.
Famished, we devoured beef hotpot in a small village, the meat tender to the bone, the broth a flavorful blend of anise and beef.
Mt Jiaozi Is about a two -three-hour car trek from Kunming, depending on who’s driving. The summit? About twenty-seven thousand endless steps.