Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Climb Every Mountain

I've been thinking a lot lately about the time I accidentally climbed a mountain.
It was an unusually warm late February afternoon my senior year in college. I was in Gatlinburg for the weekend chaperoning and judging a high-school speech and drama tournament. That was my part-time job that year: working as an assistant coach for a high-school Forensics team (not the criminal kind) for not a lot of money but a whole lot of teaching experience. The season was winding to a close, as was my college career, and I had a "take life by the horns" attitude that weekend. The world was my oyster, and I was ready to put some hot sauce on that sucker and throw it down.

I had bonded with the other female chaperone and judge, a coed a year behind me and in a completely different social caste. We had a Breakfast Club kind of weekend together full of gut-spilling and heart-to-heart bonding moments in a locked-in environment, which was followed by us barely nodding at each other the rest of the year when we crossed paths on campus. Ah, the power of cliques.

The last day of the competition saw us with 4 hours to kill before the awards ceremony and the long drive back to Centre. We decided to hit a nature trail. Neither of us were wearing the right shoes, and we had a half a bottle of water each, but we were in our early twenties and wanted to get some sun. The skin cancer rates as our generation ages are going to be epic.

"Maybe one of the shorter trails," I said, looking at the brochure I had picked up.

"This one is only a couple of miles," she said. "Chimneytops. We can do that easily in four hours."

What we didn't know is that it was 2 miles straight up. Chimneytops trail isn't so much a nature hike as it is a climb to the top of a mountain. It's a subtle difference.

The first part of the trail was easy. Kids were doing it. We got to a marker showing that the short, beginner's part of the trail was over. We were told to proceed with the rest of the trail at our own risk, or to turn down a path that would take us back down to the parking lot and a lovely vending area. We weren't remotely tired or tan. We were having fun. So despite everyone on the trail ahead of us wearing hiking boots, carrying backpacks, and walking with big sticks, we kept going.

"If it gets too tough, we'll just turn around," I said. "Let's give it a shot."

The terrain changed. We found ourselves sometimes having to crawl up steep inclines and rocky spots in the trail. The air grew thin and cold. My blue suede Converse All-Stars, brand new until that trip, rubbed blisters on the backs of both heels that bled through the socks and through the shoes themselves. We stopped for a moment. This was not the peaceful, sun-soaked nature walk we had in mind. It seemed we may have reached our stopping point.

"Just half an hour more, girls," an older lady told us as she passed us from her way down the mountain. "The view's worth it."

I looked at my fellow coach. She looked at me.

"Well, we've come this far, we might as well see the view," she said.

And we did. We were dirty, tired, short of breath, low on water and food. My feet hurt. My temporary friend had needed to pee for about a half-mile. (We each eventually crept off the trail for a mutual first: going in the woods, hoping you know how to spot poison ivy.) But when we made the last climb, up a scary bald place in the mountain where you could surely die if you weren't careful, we got to see a view of the Smokies that was literally breathtaking.

Someone at the top shared their granola bars with us and passed us a bottle of water to share. No one spoke. It was, to that moment, the most empowering moment of my life. I had never before been proud of myself for endurance or physical strength. But I had just climbed a freakin' mountain. A mountain. And I hadn't even meant to do it.

The walk down hurt my heels and my knees so badly I would feel the pain with every step for a week after. But it went so much quicker than the trip up. We were soon back at the car. We realized we were going to be late for awards and sped back to the hotel, where we walked in just as the kids were taking their seats.

Our head coach looked at us and his jaw dropped open.

"What happened to you two?" We were covered in dust, our hair ratty, and our skin burned red by sun and wind.

"We climbed a mountain." And with that we collapsed into our seats and laughed.

My fellow assistant coach's words to me, at that moment when we were trying to decide whether or not to go on when things started getting tough, have come back to me this week. Until a few days ago, we weren't locked into the home we were buying. There was a question of getting some needed repairs made and some back-and-forth about some issues the home inspection found. We ran into our own issues trying to get some of our repairs on our "old" house completed. There was a moment where I was in tears in our kitchen wondering why the hell we ever started down this road, when suddenly Jason said,

"Well, we've come this far..."

We might as well see the view.

I've been tempted to turn back. To just stop packing and go, "Screw it. This is hard. We're staying." But then I won't get the opportunity to take this new house and make it the way I want it and spend the rest of my life looking around, feeling good that I pushed on even when all signs pointed to staying put and taking the easy road.

So I'm changing my shoes, grabbing some water, and continuing my climb. It isn't easy, but the end of the trail is in sight.

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