The climbing rock is perhaps the most important landmark on the mountain. To child-me, and my friends from Westwood when they came along on hikes, it was a mountain of its own. With all the trappings of an ordinary mountain, but miniature, and therefore domestic. The rock was just to the side of the trail, on the right going up and on the left coming down. It was at a steep slant, at the perfect angle to be easily climbable if you knew where to put your feet, but much too steep to walk up normally. I can still picture the contours of the rock, which are like landmarks themselves (literally marks in the land, in this case).
My friends Gaiva, Lila, and Jyothi and I would have races to the top, starting with our hands almost touching the rock with our feet firmly on the trail, waiting for the signal from my dad, who would wave a scarf or a hat and send us rocketing up the slope. I usually won, because, even though my friends were a little older than me, I was a good climber and quick to make split-second decisions about what perturbation in the rock made for the best hand hold. Maybe it was growing up as a boy that made me usually win those races, or maybe it was my level of knowledge of the rock itself which allowed me to climb it so easily.
At five years old the climbing rock seemed like a mountain of its own, but a fun mountain: the difference between living in your childhood house and playing ‘house’ with your friends on the playground. You can’t race your friends up a whole mountain, at least not as a five-year-old, but you can race them up a rock face that’s only thirty or forty times your five-year-old height. Size is an important element of Play. If something is too big, it ceases to be play and becomes real life instead, whatever that means. Play is a small area inside Life, demarcated by certain rules which make the game fun, or at least make the game a game.
Pictured above are Gaiva and me at five and six years old at the rounded top of the climbing rock. I’m not sure who’s taking the picture here, I’m guessing either my dad or hers. Absolutely obsessed with how smug I look in this photo. I think that’s just how I looked in photos back then.
The top of the climbing rock is not really a top at all, it is simply where the rock stops being a rock and starts being dirt, dense with foliage, impermeable to even a determined five-year-old. The top of the climbing rock rounds off so that you can no longer see your father standing on the tiny trail below with his hand shading his eyes from the glare. There is a little island of dirt before you reach the real top, a false summit of sorts, a little barrier of rhododendron.