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It’s been three years. The edges of the photo are soft now, and the colors have dimmed. It has been worn thin and fragile, and there is a deepening crease down its center from the years it spent folded between my fingers. I don’t usually keep photos. But there’s something which lies beneath the scratches of this one that has settled into a spot in my soul. There’s something about the fading horizon that reminds me of what was ignited in me the day I stood with my face against the wind, hand in hand with a person who would come to reveal my own horizon.
The two of us stood tall, leaning heavily into the shoulders of each other as we combated exhaustion. She was blind. I was slowly emerging from my own darkness after eleven months of concussive recovery. And there we stood, on the summit of Mount Katahdin, having completed the most infamously grueling hike of the Appalachian Trail. Alongside us lay a red-tipped cane, and some Advil. But below us lay all of Maine, from the rivers which soared with an echoing vitality to the valleys which tumbled into spacious green expanses. The fall colors created a mosaic of orange, yellow, and red: a fire on the hills which leaked into our souls. We were a couple of deficient madmen with a passion for adventure. And we’d made our way to the top of the world.
“What’s it like,” I remember Charlotte asking. Tears ran along the wrinkles on her face, weathered by fifty summers that she had never seen. I wondered if beauty meant anything to her at all. I wondered how that fire could have reached her soul without her there to witness it. But there was a certain radiance in her eyes, one that left me wonderstruck. Then I understood.
Charlotte, in her dark abode, had learned to capture that beauty within herself. She found it not in the summit, but in the journey to the top. She found it in each of the pebbles that tripped her aging bones, and in the unforgiving wind which whipped through the creases of her skin. Most importantly, Charlotte found that beauty in her passions and the opportunities she created for herself in a world that told her she could not. With it, she accomplished feats which many of us never will.
Charlotte passed away two months ago, having lived a life of numerous colorful summits. In the short time that I knew her, Charlotte guided my wandering feet, both on the trail behind me, and on the trail before me. I understand the role of my own deficiencies not as impeding my journey, but as creating new journeys. I suppose that this is why I hold that photograph so dear. For me, it marks the beginning of a journey that I have just begun to undertake. It marks the base of a mountain of endless opportunities. And I’m glad I have a lot of time left, because I definitely have a lot of summits left to reach, a lot of beauty left to find.
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