I may be spontaneous but I am not foolish. I research things. Important things. Like what is the best backpack and what is the lightest sleeping bag. And most importantly what are the
best hiking boots to buy when you haven’t hiked in ten years and only have a week to wear them in
Spoiler alert. There are none
But in all my research, which by the way required only “a positive mental attitude and not necessarily good physical condition,” I never checked out the details of our peak climb. If I had, I would have encountered this factoid:
This entire trail is 100% relentless uphill. For comparison, hiking from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the rim via Bright Angel is 5000ft of elevation change over 10 miles. Desolation Peak is 4500ft of elevation change over 4.7 miles.
No amount of positive mental attitude could compensate for this reality.
However, I was unencumbered with the burden of this knowledge, and as the sun rose casting rays across the lake, I remembered the night before, when alone with one of our guides, I had confessed that I didn’t know what I was supposed to be learning on the journey up the mountain. She looked at me directly and quietly said,
The mountain will teach you what you need to know.
Eager to learn that lesson, when we broke camp I announced I wanted to take leadership for this part of the journey, at least for a little while, so I could practice being a turtle. This was a mountain I would conquer at a slow and steady peace and not burn out before the top. Turning to the trail from the East Bank, I was shocked at the steepness of the trail’s beginning. After a scant ten yards or so, I was already winded.
Less than a half hour in, She Who Needed to Be First called a team meeting. She announced right from the start, “My needs are not being met,” and then launched into an attack of my leadership style. Surprised at the drama, which involved convoluted explanations and further attacks, I simply said, “The lead is yours.” No big deal. I had had my moment in the sun.
Turtle was tired.
Again, I will spare you the nitty gritty of this trek, but about 200 yards from the top, I hit “The Wall,” which I had read about but never experienced. As I painfully took each step, I was flooded with memories of my brother Will’s unsuccessful battle with cancer in his forties. I thought of how every breath he took was so laborious. I thought of his courage and his determination.
If he could fight that battle with so much grace, I could do this.
Not sure of how I could keep going, I took my sight off the trail and gazed upward towards the summit. I was not alone. Another teammate was working her way down the trail after summiting. She looked me over with great compassion and no judgement,
You look tired. Let me take your pack.
It was a statement of commitment and not a request. For once, I did not have the energy to brush off the offer as I would have done in the past, simply to prove I was competent and could do it alone.
I simply thanked her and began to weep.
I wept with every step of those last few hundred yards. I wept when I summited and gazed over the expanse of beauty too wide and too deep to fathom. And then I collapsed on a rocky point and wept again until I thought not a single tear remained.
I missed my brother.
Over the years my childhood tormentor had become an encourager, a fellow explorer of ideas, and, in the end, a friend. The image of him lying on his deathbed in the middle of the night begging me to “Get him out of here,” and calling me by my childhood name had haunted me all these years.
Oh, how I missed him.
One of the instructors came over and quietly asked me if I needed anything.
No. I just need to weep.
And I did. For most of the way down. Every step of the journey down was as excruciating as the journey up. Somewhere about half way down, my knees gave out and my feet lost feeling. And still we journeyed down.
When we arrived exhausted back at camp, the leaders told us not to bother about cooking meals or setting up our tents. First to collapse was She Who Needs to Be First. Several other younger women joined her.
But not the elders. We had all been taking care of the young for years. In our exhaustion and yearning for rest, we did what all mothers do…
We took care of the young.
Several women set up the tents while a few of us started a fire and made dinner. Two of the elders took bandanas and made makeshift napkins and set what would be considered a formal table in the flickering light.
And when it was all done, the younger women hobbled over for our makeshift feast and one of the elders said a prayer of thanksgiving over the meal. I sang a song. Such a tribal feat required a celebration. The elders knew this. And they knew something else as well:
There is no rest until the work of love is complete,
and love, real love, requires community.
All of my life, I had valued my solitary competence above all other attributes. Like a two year old insisting on putting on her own shoes, I had lived a personal mantra of “I can do this all by myself, thank you. No assistance required.”
But self-sufficiency is an illusion.
And what I learned that day on the mountain was that being “self” sufficient does not mean doing it alone. It requires a tribe of encouragers, in this realm and in the next, who see your unspoken needs and extend the right amount of help at just the right time to get you through.
That night it seemed even the stars shone brighter. On my back, choosing to sleep underneath those flickering star lights, my body felt heavy as stone, incapable of the slightest movement.
The Turtle had survived. Slow and steady. One step at a time. Tomorrow would be another day, and fears of what damage had been done to my body this day started to crowd my brain.
But then, as the sky deepened, the Milky Way began to appear once again across the entirety of the sky. Choosing sleep over worry, I remembered,
Tomorrow will bring enough trouble of its own.
And that trouble would not discriminate between the turtle and the hare, the leader and the follower, the plan and the unexpected journey.