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Poetry and Medicine
December 24 2008

The Last Summit of Whitney

JAMA. 2008;300(24):2834. doi:10.1001/jama.2008.686

From your bed you step
that granite boulder of pain,
slide past the sheer declivity
of breathlessness,
catch sight of the summit
up switchbacks
worn but unfamiliar,
family strung out behind
who won't make it by dark,
a dark that will sweep up
from the salt plains of Death Valley
like that long last exhale
of winter,
never chosen
but inevitable.
Whitney's crest looms barren
despite those gone before,
step-offs in every direction—
step-offs flirted with
willing or not,
the speeding car that rushed the light
or the biopsy proved wrongly positive;
air swirls up from the chasm
sucking at the crumbled crusts of shale,
tempting you off the edge
coaxing you off
as your loved ones wave,
and you stride
with your gnarled walking stick
into the Ansel Adams Wilderness,
always north,
where the snowmelt breeze
lifts the sweet openings of lupine and lilac,
the trail slopes easily downhill
to where a campfire crackles
by a lake
azure as heaven's forget-me-nots.