The Mountains, one step at a time

I just turned 50, which is the same age my mother was when my father died. I also had a total hip replacement in December of 2013. These events, coupled with my own near-death experience as a child, have taught me that life is fleeting, and it’s important to spend time doing the things that matter to you when you can.

Since my son and I have always loved backpacking, I proposed a journey: We would spend 11 days hiking in the high mountains surrounding Mont Blanc in France, Italy and Switzerland. The circuit, if we could complete it, would take 108 miles of walking and more than 30,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, and we would carry all of our necessities save breakfasts and dinners.

We knew it would be a stretch. I had hiked since my total hip replacement surgery in 2013, with a pack and without, and up and down some peaks, but I live in Florida, where there are no mountains and no altitude changes. But there are long trails and stadiums and even a sinkhole with stairs descending 120 feet into the ground, so I packed my pack, donned my hiking boots and poles and trained as best I could.

The first day on the trail, the mountains looked daunting. The rocky path led straight up the hillside, zigging and zagging across the bare slope. A misstep would result in a fall that wouldn’t stop until you hit the valley 3,000 feet below. Above us, in the distance, you could occasionally see small specks moving — hikers that seemed miles above us in another world. In a word, it looked hard.

I looked up. I looked down. I looked at my boots.  Just figure out where to put your feet, I told myself. That’s how you climb a mountain; one step at a time.

And so we began. Sweat trickled down our necks. Our breath came out in short spurts. We paused occasionally to navigate a tricky set of stones or boulders. We paused again to drink water and catch our breath, only to have it taken away again by the view. One step after another up the steep mountainside, and eventually a glacier that had been far above us now appeared level to our eyes. More focused attention on the steps, then suddenly the top of the pass appeared ahead, and the trail below us fell away at a dizzying pace.

At the top of the pass, we could see for miles in every direction. Green valleys stretched out for miles far below. Small, puffy clouds appeared in the air above the valleys and beneath our feet. It felt as if we were on the rooftop of the world. Then we began our descent into the next valley, on our way to climb the next mountain.

We repeated this dance on almost every day of the trip, and although as time passed I became physically stronger and the hiking became easier, there was still that element of disciplining the mind, turning “I can’t go that far” into “I can take a step in that direction.”

The mountains teach me lessons every time I visit them.  They tell me to pay attention to what is before you. They remind me that it takes many steps to climb a mountain, but the most important one is the next one you take. They show me that even though life is short, if I put in the work, I can sometimes reap the benefits of peak experiences.

The Hike

Even at 7 a.m., it’s hot in Florida on the second of July. The rising sun cuts out patterns of dark on light through the trees. An occasional mushroom, bright white, pushes through the mud-brown leaf litter. The color green bathes the trees. An insect shouts a high-pitched, undulating hum. Birds chatter and sing, some melodious, some staccato; some chirp one after the other, others warble at random, adding to the chorus.

As you walk, you generate a slight breeze that wicks the moisture from your limbs, but when you stop, the beads of sweat return, along with every mosquito within a five-mile radius. Never mind that you bathed in insect repellent 10 minutes ago; they’ve been seeking a warm-blooded body and you’re it. When you slap them, spots of blood and insect parts begin to appear on your arms and legs.

And you may ask: What is it about all this that makes it worth being tired, sweaty, bloody and mosquito bitten? Aren’t there better ways to spend your days?

I would argue: No.

When I put on my hiking boots and strap on my backpack, I shed a lot of things. I shed my role as an employee, a colleague, a friend, a wife, a mother. I shed other people’s definitions, judgements and assumptions. I shed appearances and expectations.

I lose the distractions of modern-day electronics and advertising, the constant background rumble of technology and industry.

And once I shed these things, once I lose these things, I find myself. But I am not alone when I do; no, instead I am a part of everything.

Part of the light.
Part of the sky.
Part of the wind.
Part of the trees, birds, rocks, trails, leaf litter, moss, brush, and even the insects.

When I hike, I rapidly return to the fundamental nature of what it means to be alive.

As I move down the trail, everywhere I look, there is life; flowers unfurling, saplings growing, birds flying. Everywhere I look, there is death; decomposing leaves, felled trunks of expired trees, the occasional scent of a deceased animal. Everything is in the process of doing both, everything including me.

I hike to remind myself. I hike to remember that life is beautiful and uncomfortable and exhilarating and painful – sometimes all at the same time. That is the nature of all things. I hike to remember that I am a part of it, and I am grateful.

 

 

 

One day at a time

When I was seven, I became, for a few weeks, every loving parent’s worst nightmare. One day I was playing on the playground with the other children, and then a few days later I lay in a hospital bed, delirious and feverish, fighting for my life, and no one knew why.

This is not a story of that illness, but instead a story of recovery. The illness ravaged my body and particularly my right leg. After a month in the hospital and two months on crutches and in physical therapy, I returned to school. I wanted desperately for things to be back to normal, and I couldn’t wait to be able to walk home from school.

The way to school was on downhill, and I made it there easily with no problem. But that changed when I had to go back up the hill. I discovered to my dismay that my right leg felt “tired” – I would later come to realize it was pain. This was 1974, well before the time of cell phones and helicopter patients, so I was on my own, with what seemed like an insurmountable problem. How was I going to make it home?

And suddenly it came to me. I don’t need to make it home, I told myself. I just need to make it to the lamppost. It’s not very far, and when I get there I can rest.

I focused all my attention on that lamppost, and when I got there, I sat down on a short retaining wall to rest. I can stay as long as I need to, I told myself. And then I looked for the next lamppost.

Those lampposts got me home that day, and many days to come. But even so many years later, the technique has helped me through many crises. I’ve been on bed rest for a month, so weak at the end of it that I became breathless walking across the house. At times, anxiety overtook me – I’m an avid walker, exerciser and dancer, and I feared I might never be able to do those things again.

So I returned to the lamppost. And I realized that if I took life one lamppost at a time, or one moment at a time, I might just be able to make it through anything.

I can’t walk around the yard today, I told myself, but I can walk around the house three times. The next day: I can’t walk around the yard three times, but I can walk around the yard once today.

There are many things I’ve had to give up along the way. For instance, I used to be a long-distance runner, but I stopped at age 23.

But the lamppost technique has focused me on what I can do. Today.

In one of my favorite childhood book series, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, the lamppost lights the way between the fantasy world of Narnia and real-world England. In my life, the. lamppost has lit the way between where I am today and where I want to be tomorrow. And it has helped me get there one moment at a time. So it seems a fitting title for the beginning of this written exploration. If you are still with me, thank for starting the journey with me.

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