Once, when I was nine years old, my father took me deer hunting with him. This is not something we did regularly, but he’d somehow become friends with a man named Ed Lowndes, who owned a huge stretch of pristine, undeveloped property along the upper Ashley River, near Middleton Plantation. It was lowland forest that still looked exactly the way land in that corner of the world had for tens of thousands of years, thick with loblolly pine and white-tailed deer. Ed Lowndes was unalloyed Charleston stock, an archetype of the Lowcountry good-old-boy species whose family’s history there likely stretched back to the eighteenth century arrival of French Huguenots fleeing their homeland to bring their strain of Protestantism to Colonial America. Red-faced and perenially sunburned, always on the verge of laughter, Ed Lowndes was deeply polite and gratifyingly uncouth. He spoke with a thick Geechee accent that he and others who grew up in the wilds beyond the peninsula shared with generations of black Charlestonians whose descendants had very likely been owned by his – the lilting, clipped, vowelly patois that’s a badge of authenticity among longtime natives in that part of South Carolina. Ed Lowndes, as they say, was good people. He had horses at the plantation and garrisons of bluetick and black-and-tan hound dogs, and on Saturday mornings in winter he liked to put on a deer hunt.
My father had hunted as a boy in Louisiana, but only squirrel and dove and duck, never deer. He was still a relatively new arrival in Charleston, however, and eager to make official his membership in the insular fraternity of hunters and fishermen who were to the Lowcountry in the 1970s what country clubs and golf leagues are in other, less traditionally rural, communities. Men like Ed Lowndes were good men to befriend not because they had large pieces of property in the woods and stables of horses and real estate companies in town – or at least not only because of those things – but because they could nudge open doors and lubricate opportunities that might otherwise be unavailable and unknown to a hyper-articulate, station-wagon-driving microbiologist and father of three from Baton Rouge. An invitation to join a deer hunt was a golden ticket, if only he could survive the chocolate factory.
On that particular December morning, my father and I joined a group of about 30 other men – I was the only child there – in the pre-dawn darkness at a small hunting camp on Ed Lowndes’ property. It had been an uncommonly cold night for Charleston, and on the long drive along the dirt road to the camp, the muddy potholes in the road were all iced over with a crusty brown scum. At the camp, groggy, unshaven men stood huddled around can fires, raucous clusters of camouflage and wool that cursed, smoked and farted casually, the unverbal language of men becoming comfortable with one another. Inside the ring, spokes of hands stretched toward the fire, while an equal number, mittened or gloved, grasped cans of beer, which were periodically tipped back, then crumpled and dropped into the flames as they were emptied, where they were quicky incinerated in a chemical flash of paint and aluminum.
When the sky had begun to soften from black to the gauzy deep purple of morning, Ed Lowndes and three other men cantered up on peanut butter-colored horses, who stamped in the uncharacteristically cold air and snorted in soft white jets. Behind them, a frenzy of dogs scrambled over and around each other, bursting with excitement, as curious and full of energy as schoolboys. My father and I climbed into the back of a mud-spattered pickup truck with ten other men and their shotguns, oiled and shining malignantly in the near darkness, and we rumbled off.
I’d never been on a dog hunt before, and as we rode, my father explained to me what was about to happen. We’d be dropped off with the other men in the truck in a long line. Ed Lowndes, the other horsemen and the dogs would ride to the other end of the property a few miles away and start toward us making as much of a racket as possible, thereby flushing out any deer between us as they came. Eventually, the panicked creatures would have to cross the hidden line of men and guns, at which point there would be shooting, and if we were lucky, venison to take home at the end of the day. As I thought about this dark ritual and the part I was to play in it, men began climbing out of the truck at intervals along a dirt access road that ran through the property. Every time we stopped, lost a rider, and then spend onwards, the receding figure would step into the thicket of ice-rimed brush which came right up to the road and disappear instantly from view. Eventually, the truck stopped and my father swung over the side. I followed him, carrying his gun with care and seriousness, a man for as long as they would allow me to be one. A few moments later, I watched the pickup disgorge another camouflaged passenger, and then he and it disappeared in the frigid, steely gray of dawn. My father and I walked into the woods.
Almost immediately, I stumbled as I stepped through a crust of ice up to my ankle in a small, water-filled sinkhole hidden by the dead bracken covering the ground. Waterproof boots were a luxury I’d never known (at home, we drank instant milk and clipped coupons for toilet paper), and so the sneaker I was wearing on my right foot was soaked through in an instant. As I squished along behind my father to a clearing he was aiming for ahead, I could feel my foot begin to chill. In the far distance, a hunting horn sounded, and the dogs set up a barely audible din beneath it. After a few minutes we stopped, and my father looked at me. “What’s wrong,” he asked? The nine-year-old me was crying.
On Sunday afternoon, crouching at the summit of Mt. Arashima in Japan with 1,523 meters of snow, rock, mud, beech forest and bamboo between me and the autumn-bronzed plains of central Honshu below, the memory of that morning from my distant childhood was very much on my mind. I’d spent the last exhausting four hours scrabbling up this mountain in jeans and a pair of three-year-old “hiking boots” from Target. Sixty minutes into the trek – about when we encountered our first bit of slushy ground – I’d discovered that my right boot had a gash in its bottom the size of a housekey, through which water and snow had absolutely no trouble entering – in fact, were forced through, each time I stepped down. My arch quickly became an arctic zone, my heel a refrigerated lump, my toes sub-zero sausages without volition or purpose, sensible of nothing but their own deep-frozen misery.
I’d spent the previous four hours struggling to keep up with my Australian friend Will Banff, who was outfitted in enviable watertight mountaineering boots and crampons, as I’d hauled myself up the mountain behind him through first grass, then rocks, then mud and slush, and finally through piled snow. Where the snow was packed into ice and the trail was too slippery and too steep to climb with feet alone, we hauled ourselves up using the tenacious bamboo shoots that grew along the sides and, occasionally, ropes and chains placed along the trail for that purpose. Although Will had already climbed 74 of Japan’s most notorious peaks in the five preceding months and moved like a mountain goat, the going was slower for me, partly because I was in less than ideal physical condition, partly because I spent as much energy slipping backwards on my tractionless boots as I did climbing up, and partly because instead of a functioning foot in my right boot there was an icebound mass of insensate tissue. Whenever we encountered one of the handful of Japanese hikers, outfitted like Alpinists, who’d ascended before us and were on their way down, they looked at me with bulging eyes and open mouths. “Genki!” they exclaimed, pointing. “Crazy!”
Atop Arashima-dake on Sunday, I half lay, half sat, sweating profusely with my bare right foot clenched in both hands. I kneaded and wrung it like a wet towel, trying to thaw it back into something approximating a human appendage in the 15 minutes Will and I had at the peak before we had to start down again to beat the sun to the bottom. Genki, I thought. Yes, very probably. Sane people do not leave good-paying jobs in their fields of choice in popular beachfront resort cities for at best questionable careers in utterly foreign lands where they do not speak the language. They do not have mid-life crises that carry them to places where their chances of meeting a future wife are reduced to exponential fractions of what they were before, which already weren’t so great. They don’t assuage their natural paternalism by teaching English, indulgently, to elementary school-aged Japanese kids who can’t even pronounce their teacher’s name properly. Sane people do not climb mountains, outfitted in the kind of clothing they’d wear to the mall, in a pathetic attempt to prove something to someone somewhere, probably to themselves, though they have no idea what it might be, which really just makes it that much more sad. And only a certifiably genki person would court sliding off a narrow, icy trail into 5,000 feet of empty air and oblivion because, well, why not?
Around me, in a brilliant azure circle, the roof of Japan stretched in a single, vast, cloudless horizon, broken only by the white teeth of Mount Hakusan to the north. There was nothing else up there but the snow-dusted tops of mountains far below us, the blast of wind rocketing across the flat white table of rock we stood on, and the thin ribbon of color at the far edges of the circle where the earth’s atmosphere fades from bright, electric blue to cerulean to cobalt to purple and, finally, to the quiet midnight of outer space. Will had shrugged off his pack and was strolling around the plateau, snapping photographs and kicking rocks into the void, and I wondered if they would be mistaken for meteorites hurtling from the sky on their rapid arrival 5,000 feet below. The view was heartstopping, the air was so clear and crisp it seemed the sky might crack if you struck it with a hammer, and my foot had begun to hurt, which I took to be a good sign. After a few more minutes, I tugged on a pair of dry socks I brought with me, though I knew they wouldn’t last long, and I stood up, took a few pictures, and prepared to start back down. Genki? Yes, I thought. You’re goddamned right, genki. And I’ll see you at the bottom.
In the forest that long ago, with the sun pushing up through the trees and the mist curling away in defeat, my father and I sat silently next to each other in the center of our clearing, in the middle of a string of hunters who would not see a deer that morning. Between us, my shoes steamed on the ground beside a small fire he’d built, which leaped and twisted in the newly minted air of morning, and my nine-year-old feet sang in warmth and pleasure and contentment and the inarticulate thanks that a loved son feels every living moment for his father. Our breath mingled together with the smoke that lifted and suffused the rose-colored air, and his gun lay gleaming on the ground on the other side of the fire, where it would take an eternity to reach it, or at least a lifetime.