There were many on the mountain that late summer day. We left the bustle of North Conway like people setting their bundles down, and drove to the trailhead in quiet expectation. As the car climbed, late-season green canopied over us. Ravines thick with the lyric of waterfalls fell to moss-covered hollows. If it wasn’t Eden (the sound of distant bikers saw to that), it was a place where we hoped to shed our city burdens, open what in us so easily shuts down, and begin a different conversation, wordless and healing.

No sooner had we started than we ran into a skipping four-year-old in an orange tutu. Then, a family from the United Emirates, and a foursome from Elderhostel. A couple from northern Germany followed remnants of a local summer camp; a contingent of new parents carried their young. It began to feel as if the whole world had come to the mountain that day, in blue jeans and dancing skirts and full-scale hiking gear, babies in carryalls and athletes about to head off to college and older folks with their well-worn walking sticks – all of us hungry for silence in a place unmoved by human visitors.

There are many reasons to climb a mountain. To triumph. To remember. For the views. None of us, I’d wager, was thinking about the personal crosses that we bear; not the picking of them up nor the laying of them down — nor that one day we would die. Nor even that before this, we may well suffer unimaginable injustice, and still ascend that final mountain. It was, as I say, a beautiful day.

The final third was steep. Giant boulders demanded careful footwork. At the top, I heard a woman of about 60 say, “This isn’t for beginners.” The view was magnificent – mountains ringing mountains as far as the eye could see. Strangers were proud to call out the names of distant peaks, deeply respectful of where they were and of the knowledge they had earned over time; grateful to be perched on top of the world in a sweet singing wind. We were sweaty and winded, happy to eat cherry tomatoes and consider ourselves “arrived.”

Halfway down, my knees called for it to be over. I slipped on loose silt, and cursed my worn sneakers. I’d pushed myself and now felt the rising edge of self-pity.

Just then a little girl came dancing up the root-buckled path, blonde and happy in pink-laced sneakers and a sundress.

From a distance back, I heard her mother call out, “Wait for us!”

Clouds had begun to pile above. This family was starting late. I glanced up and saw a man coming towards me in a Boston Strong T-shirt. He was lurching like a rag doll. His feet dangled so sharply away from one another, so out of control, that if it weren’t for the aluminum crutches he heaved one at a time ahead of himself he would have fallen on his face.

Each step was a tremulous effort to set palsied limbs down in a choreography of balance and coordination. His head wagged side to side. His wife, in a bright pink top that matched her daughter’s laces, waited behind him with infinite patience, smiling. Not a word of urging escaped her. His daughter sat quietly looking backwards from a large root up ahead. He took one more step, then another.

The man was buoyant as a keen-eyed crow. His eyes gauged the terrain, far less concerned with his disabilities than with the early autumn glory around him, the rank smell of trodden leaves, the quick-winged moths. I watched him pause in his labors to drink in the corridor of filtering aspens and pines, the moss-riven trunks, without fanfare or self-pity, just matter-of-fact acceptance and dogged courage — the kind that brings tears to your eyes and a humility that makes dust of the lesser gods.

Slowly, the small family progressed, the little human angel who was his daughter, running so joyfully ahead, the glad-voiced wife, the man with his crippled body. What did it matter whether, or what, he would achieve before fatigue or surrender stopped him? What mattered so clearly was the spider’s web of cross-bearing, no-holds-barred love that enabled him to look past mere endurance to something the likes of which the rest of us hadn’t even come close to that day – even though we, unlike them, had actually made it to the top.

It wasn’t what we’d seen at the top that mattered after all. It was what had revealed itself at the bottom. This walking icon was the mercy we are so rarely granted in this life; we, who can be too small, too self-absorbed to see the holy when it passes us on the trail.

Back at the car, we took a swig from our water bottles in silence. Then we turned back one more time, as he picked up his crutches and began to climb.