Through misty green mountains a traveller treads, exhausted. He stumbles on a weather-worn inn, clearly one strong gust away from caving in, and enters in hopes of finding some rest. Inside he finds a sparsely-furnished room, lit by a solitary candle. He sees a handsome, old bearded man- perhaps even older than the inn itself- sitting behind the front desk, reading a large, leather-bound book. He approaches the man hesitantly, and asks,
“Excuse me sir, may I have a room?”
The old man smiles, his eyes crinkling at the corners, as he puts down his book and replies, “You can’t have one, but you may stay in one.”
Puzzled by this, the traveller is silent. The old man grins wide and continues.
“Tell me son, do you know where you are?”
The traveller ponders for a moment, then shakes his head.
“Tell me something else, do you know where you’re going?”
Here the traveller nods, as if awoken from a dream.
“I was looking for the tallest mountain.”
The old man laughs, stroking his beard.
“Ah, I remember being young like you. Were you planning on climbing to the top?”
The traveller nods and smiles weakly.
“Well, you’ll certainly be needing your rest then.”
The old man reaches under the desk and retrieves a ring of keys.
“You’re welcome to stay here tonight, son. But first, let me tell you something. When I was a young man, I built this inn with my own bare hands. It took me weeks to gather the wood, and months to put it together. By the time I was done, I was tired and sore but I looked at what I had built and I felt satisfied.”
Here the old man stops, looking the traveller straight in the eyes and asks, “Tell me son, why do you want to climb that mountain?”
The traveller lowers his eyes to the floor, breathes deeply and says, “My father left home a long time ago to climb that mountain and never came back. I want to do it for him, to follow his footsteps.”
The old man smiles, his blue eyes shining like gems in the dimly-lit room.
“Well that’s a very noble venture, son. Perhaps you can help me with something.”
The old man once again reaches under the desk and brings out three items: a map, a compass and a notebook full of pencil drawings.
“Tell me son, which of these items would be the most useful to you right now?”
Without hesitation, the traveller picks up the map and examines it closely. After a moment, his eyes widen and he points at the map.
“This is where we are! I know how to get to the mountain now.”
The old man smiles, a knowing smile.
“So, the map is the most useful item to you right now?”
The traveller looks at the map, then at the compass on the desk. He draws a line on the map with his finger, then puts the map down in favour of the compass.
“What made you change your mind?” the old man asks.
“Now that I know where I am, I only need to know where I’m heading. The compass is more useful now,” the traveller replies.
The old man just looks at the traveller, expectant. Then, he takes the compass back and carefully removes the needle. He then rips a portion of the map off, only a small corner. He places it on the table and hides the rest under the desk.
“Now son, which of these items is the most useful to you?”
Confused, the traveller looks at the map fragment, the broken compass and the notebook and frowns.
“Well, none of these are of any use to me now!” he exclaims.
“Ah, are they not?” the old man asks, his knowing smile growing wider.
The traveller looks again, still puzzled, and shrugs.
“Well, let me tell you something. I’ve travelled all over the world son and, believe me, there is far too much for any one man to see. Far too many people to meet and far too many lessons to be learned. That being said, the one lesson that I learned everywhere I went is that a beautiful life does not reside somewhere far away. The most vivid and pleasant experiences I’ve had happened right here on this hillside. I’ve watched the sun rise over the mountains far away in the distance every morning for years. I’ve had the most extraordinary conversations with wanderers just like yourself at this very same desk. Most importantly, I met the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on here. The love of my life walked through those doors some thirty years ago, and I would relive that day a million times over before I would ever leave this inn behind again.”
The old man stops, still smiling but his eyes have turned dim. His gaze falls somewhere far away, perhaps not even in this world. Then, he comes back into himself and continues.
“Son, what I’m trying to tell you is that there’s no use in knowing where you are or where you’re going. These factors change from day to day and they are not as important as we might believe sometimes. What really matters is the beauty that surrounds you every single day. Stop fretting so much about destinations and open your eyes to where you already are.”
Here he picks up the sketchbook, flips through a few pages then closes it once more. He fixes the compass, retrieves the map and hands all three to the traveller along with a room key.
“Here, take these with you. I hope that you find your way, son.”
Bewildered, the traveller takes the items and looks at the old man in silence. After a moment of silent understanding, he leaves towards his room. Once the door has closed and he knows that he is all alone, the old man wipes a single tear from his eye and continues reading his book.
After the sun has risen, the traveller emerges from the room well-rested. He looks towards the desk and sees that the old man is not there. He leaves the money for the room on the desk then, gathering his things, leaves on his way. As he walks, the seed of what the old man had told him grows in his mind until eventually, after walking for quite some time, he can’t think of anything else. He retrieves the sketchbook from his pack and leafs through the pages. There are drawings of all sorts; trees, rivers, animals, mountains and then one that is not like the rest.
The traveller rubs his eyes, sure that he is still weary from sleep, but he knows that what he sees is true: a drawing of his mother, many years ago, sitting in the sunlight. Panicked, he flips to the front cover and finds an inscription in faded blue ink.
“For Jonathan, I hope that you find your way. Love, your father.”
Jonathan runs as fast as his legs can carry him back towards the inn. He always found that running downhill made him feel like he was about to take off into flight, and now he felt sure he would lift off into the sky. He runs for miles, his heart straining to meet his mind’s demands, until he comes up to the place where the inn is. As he does, it starts raining; a light drizzle at first, then suddenly a downpour. The weathered building seems to be straining under the weight of the water.
As he approaches it, he notices from a distance that someone is coming out. He immediately recognizes who it is, and stops in his tracks. His father smiles wide; neither man moves, despite the heavy wind and rain.
“Did you ever climb the mountain?” Jonathan calls, the sound of rain pelting the ground loud in his ears.
“I never had to,” his father replies.