It had been a long week.
I was running on fumes near the end of a seven day work week. My mind and muscles ached, and I could feel my spirit withering. I needed a rest more than anything.
It was on my day off that I decided to recharge out in the mountains not far from my home. A scenic drive through the Santa Monica mountains would do me well, and my nose could already smell the ocean air mixed with sage as it blew up the coast. I packed a light lunch, and made my way to the mountains.
The trail I have come to be quite fond of is known as Sandstone Peak. It is the highest point in the Santa Monica mountains, scraping the sky at just over three thousand feet. From the peak, you can see every surrounding city just beneath you, and when you turn around, you are met with the humbling might and majesty of the ocean. On cloudier days, you can see a thin veil of silver mist clouded the ocean, and the tips of the surrounding islands just poking through. Though I only discovered this place but a few months ago, it quickly became my favorite place to get away from the noise of the world.
Driving through Mulholland Highway has become part scenic driving, part therapeutic exercise for me. The winding, unkept road has a way of lulling you into the mountain, each breath soaked with the wild sage and riparian woodlands. The air is more crisp there, and I suspect the ocean is mostly responsible for that. As I make my way higher and higher into the mountains, I drive through some light cloud cover that has rolled into the mountains. It was about 3:30 in the afternoon, but the ocean has a way of affecting the surrounding land. I finally reach the trailhead. I lock up the car, throw on my pack, and head to the peak.
I have never been up to the peak around this time of year. I had only just discovered this trail around September, so I still had not seen the many faces of Sandstone. There is an enormous red boulder riddled with bright green moss that looks just like a dragon’s egg, and that is how I know I am halfway to the top. It had been a while since I had last hiked, so my body was struggling to acclimate to the incline. I could feel each breath I took empty out all of the stress and worry I had accumulated over the seven day work stretch, and it felt good to be out and away from people. The trail was physically demanding which kept a lot of people away from it’s daunting switchbacks.
There is a short part of the trail that is different from the path leading to it and away from it. At a certain point, it ceases to be dirt and rock and becomes white sand. The dead, dry sage and other bushes fade away into vibrant green bay laurels. The contrast is stark and always begs the question as to how and why it is so different. That part of the trail is only about 50 feet, but it still perplexes me.
I finally make it to the peak. Just before you reach it, there are twelve wooden railroad ties that form a wining staircase to the rock formation that creates the peak. Since there is nothing that breaks the wind, there is a salty taste in the air as it whirls about you, rustling the sagebrush to make a rainstick kind of sound. There is moderate cloud cover hiding the sun, but at that height, you can see brilliant, golden beams bursting forth from the cloud and illuminating the ocean below, creating the most fantastical reflections. I sit for about an hour, just absorbing the atmosphere and getting rid of all the negativity that I had gained. I ate my lunch, simply enjoying the taste of the walnuts and cranberries combined with the smell of sage and ocean salt. The sun sank slowly, lower and lower, until the sky caught fire with the most radiant of reds and oranges and pinks, painting a picture that no artist today could ever hope to recreate. I felt whole, in that moment. No worries. No cares. I felt free. My spirit grew.
I made my way down as the sun hit the water. It gets dark quickly, and the last thing I wanted was to be making my way down the steep incline in the dark. I came across the path with the white sand, when the most peculiar blanket of fog obstructed my path. I decided that it must be the ocean air condensing the moisture, and that it would dissipate once I got closer to the bottom. So I tightened my pack, and made my way through the fog.
After what felt like ten minutes, I noticed that I could still hear the soft crunch of sand beneath my shoes. I looked down, and I was still indeed on the path with the white sand. I stopped, confused. This path would have only been this way for about a minute, if that, I thought. I should be much further along than I am. Concerned, I walked a bit more briskly, still confounded by the fog that had not dissipated.
Five minutes later, and I still had not left the path with the white sand. I started to grow fearful. Did I make the wrong turn? No, that’s impossible. I have walked this trail enough to know where I’m going. But why is there still sand here? And what is with this fog? I could not make any sense of the situation, and, seeing a small boulder on the side of the path, decided to sit and figure out what was going on.
If I can’t get down in time, I’m going to walking in the dark, I mused. There’s no way I want to be doing that. I was just about to reach for my phone when, just across the path, I noticed a rather minuscule mote of light, drifting lazily in the air. How long has that been there, I thought, and found myself increasingly aware of just how many there actually was. These little motes of light were apparating from thin air, no smaller than a thumbtack, with no real sense of direction to their flight. I looked around, and was awestruck to find that I was surround by these miniature orbs of light.
I took a deep breath. Well, whatever these are, I cannot sense any danger from them. I’m not sure how I know that, but I do. I do not know what urged me to do so, but I reached my hand out to the nearest mote, and felt a rather delightful surge of what I could only describe as joy as it alighted on my finger. Another one landed on my arm, and then another, and another, until my entire arm was covered by the little lights. The feeling I felt was euphoric, to say the least. A laugh escaped my lips as they began to land on my head and shoulders. I took of my pack to get my phone so I could capture this incredible moment, when I heard the soft rustling of feathers behind me. I whirled around, in shock, and what I saw next I could scarce comprehend.
An immense, nine foot tall crane stepped out of the laurels, folding its massive wings to its body. An ear-piercing KEEEEEYAHHH splits the silence, and at once, the motes of light flit towards its eyes. The crane dips his head to the side, his eyes now aglow with the light of the peculiar orbs. As it looks at me, I feel an overwhelming force penetrate my mind. I feel the shadows within me shrink to nothingness. The crane spreads its snowy wings wide, and with a mighty flap, gusts me with the radiant motes. I fall to my knees in humility, and I ask it, “What is going on?”
The crane nods and answers, “Do you really not recognize me? I realize it has been some time since we last spoke, but I thought you knew me better than that, little warlock.”
“Mantle? Is that you?” I spurted out, climbing back to my feet. “What is going on?”
“One and the same, my friend. As to your second question, I suppose you could call this an intervention.”
I scoffed,” An intervention? Please. I am not some derelict on the downward spiral.”
Mantle laughed. “An intervention this is, indeed. There has been much change within you in a short span, so I have created this glen in order to reach you.”
I sat back down on the rock, puzzled. “What do you mean by reach me? I have always ordered you to come to me. You have never needed to breach our contract in this way, so why do this now? And why on earth are you a crane?”
Mantle rustled his feathers, shaking off the motes that had settled on him. “While it is true that in the past you have always summoned me, I sensed a shift in you. A change of heart. When we first met, you were in your darkest self. Do you not remember your demand? You hungered for wisdom, and your darkest self revealed me to you from the depths of the abyss you faced. Your crucible, I think you call it. I molded myself to become that which you needed most; an impenetrable ebony cloak that not even the ice from the ninth circle of Hell could penetrate. It gave you the armor you needed to combat this world and all of its wretched inhabitants.
“I know this.” I stated, still confused. “But I was under the assumption that you were assigned to me by some higher power and were to be my associate of sorts. Is this not true?”
Mantle cawed loudly. “You do not understand. You asked the higher powers for wisdom, and from that desire came myself. In essence, I am the reflection of your desire for wisdom. I am you, in the truest sense of the phrase. As for my appearance, I took on the form of the Mantle because during our time together, your heart was dark, and your view of the world darker. You roiled in agony and pain and sorrow, and it soaked deep into your spirit, which is why you saw me as the dragon of shadow. I came to represent your spirit. But you are no longer a warlock anymore, I sense.”
I roll my eyes at him. “Oh please. You know I have always preferred the term ‘thaumaturge’. So much more dramatic. And if what you say is true, why have you come to appear to me as a crane of all things?”
Mantle cocked his head to the side. “Must I explain everything to you? There has been a shift in your heart, for it is no longer burdened by that which brought me to you. There is a new desire that is welling up from the deepest depths of your spirit. A desire for peace. Surely, you have felt it? Have you not awoken feeling free of the things that used to haunt you? Free of the people that wanted to see you fall? Free of her? I appear to you as a crane because of your desire for peace and happiness. These motes of light are drawn to you because your soul is calling for them. They resonate with your heart. Could not feel the joy they emanate so freely? This is an intervention, little one. Your heart is no longer on the path of dark earth, but on the path of white sands. On the path to the Light.
He gathered the motes into his feathered breast, and stood tall, soaking in the last rays of the setting sun that pierced into the fog.
I stood in silence, in awe of his majestic form, and the light reflecting off his snowy wings.
“You are no longer a warlock,” he cried.
“No, your path now is that of the monk.”
With an incredible flap, he soared into the sky towards the red sun, letting out an uplifting KEEEYAHHH!
“Look for me in the Light. My call will guide you. The white sands will lead the way.”