Colorado has over 50 peaks that are over 14,000 feet in elevation – otherwise known as “fourteeners.” I’ve been at this altitude many times via car or train or some other mode of non-self-motivated transportation, but I’d never climbed one on my own. When I had a day to myself last weekend I thought I’d give it a try.
Mt. Bierstadt is located in Clear Creek county, which is not too far from where I live. And, an extra added bonus: Mt. Bierstadt is considered to be the easiest 14-er to climb in the entire state. So, off I went. I left fairly early because it was supposed to storm in the afternoon and to get stuck above tree line with nowhere to hide from lightning didn’t sound like fun to me. When I arrived at the trailhead, it appeared that many others had the same idea. It was packed. Hiking is usually a quiet endeavor for me. When I used to hike all the time in Summit County, I’d go with a friend in case one of us got hurt or something of the sort, but we were usually pretty quiet. And there weren’t gazillions of people doing the same thing on the exact same trail. I sucked it up, though, and figured that since I was hiking alone (something I generally don’t do) then there’d be gazillions of people to help me if I fell and broke my leg or something.
I haven’t truly hiked in a long time. I’m no longer in my prime physical state but I’m not too bad off. And, if it got to be too much, I knew how to turn 180 degrees and head back down. The first section was really peaceful despite the crowds. As the elevation began to increase, I focused on regulating my breathing and listened to conversations other hikers were having as I passed them. Most people, surprisingly enough, were talking about their jobs. I guess that is a major focus of people’s lives – what they do for a living – and it’s hard to not have that define who you are. It kinda stressed me out to listen to everything these people had on their plate… managing multiple people, in charge of a five-state region, heading up a major marketing campaign, merging with other companies, competing for a promotion, hanging on through another layoff… I guess I’m ultimately glad I don’t have to mess with any of that nonsense at this point of my life – although I would welcome the steady paycheck and security of health insurance.
But what I really enjoyed more than listening to other’s conversations was watching the hikers. I was amused by the young couple who were clearly just getting to know each other. Flirting while hiking can be tough… it’s hard enough to breathe at higher elevations let alone try to look your best and toss compliments back and forth. Ah, young love. But choosing a super-strenuous activity is as bad of a choice as eating corn-on-the-cob on a first date. That’s just my opinion.
My next people-watching gig happened to be a young family of five. The father was dressed head to toe in very expensive gear and was so full of adrenaline that he could barely keep still. Meanwhile, his tired wife was herding three children – my estimate is that they were ages 5-9 – up a pretty steep incline. The dad was getting frustrated with the multiple stops. The kids weren’t really complaining about the hike, but they were hungry or too hot or too cold or had something in their shoe – any number of complaints. The mom was very empathetic while the dad stood with his engine idling at too high a speed, his irritation palpable. “What a turd,” I judged as I puffed past them. Maybe he’ll explode? Those images kept me entertained through the next strenuous stretch of trail. I don’t know their story and I shouldn’t judge at all, but out of all the people I came across that day, he’d be my last choice of someone to share a beer with.
I relayed with a group of three for a while. They’d pass me, then I’d pass them. That went on for about an hour. And as we got closer to the top and the grassy landscape turned to treacherous rocks, the weather turned colder. And colder. My layers proved to be insufficient and my hands were completely frozen. I didn’t bring gloves. It was about 1 PM and the ice fields on the mountain had just turned to pools of sludgy water. I stood for a while, admiring the view and contemplating my next move. I could hike another hour to stand on the summit or I could turn around and head back down. I chose the latter. I was slightly disappointed with my decision because I was so close. But I knew it was just going to get colder and the whole point was to ENJOY my day. I wasn’t going to enjoy it any less if I didn’t make it to the top. I could see for miles from where I was. I found I was sincerely appreciating my life despite the obstacles. I was in a good place. I picked up two pretty rocks, one for Ben and one for Madeline, and headed back down.
I forgot that the hike down is often more difficult than going up. While your lungs might not be screaming for air, your knees and feet are taking a lot of punishment, especially over the rocks. Slowing down gave me time to listen in to more conversations and get out of my head own head for a while. Once the path leveled out, I found a good cadence and my breathing pattern became hypnotic. I prayed for a while; about a friend, about my son’s health, about my daughter’s self-esteem – until an older gentleman came up beside me and asked, “What do you think?” I said, “I think it’s a beautiful day.” He agreed. We kept our eyes downcast on the trail as our strides easily conformed to one another. He told me he was there hiking with his grandchildren. I told him I was on my own. He asked a few questions and I answered. Then he unloaded on me that his brand new granddaughter was fighting for her life. She was born very premature. I listened as he explained the pain of watching his daughter struggling with the unknown. I slowed down and said, “Thank you for telling me that,” because at that moment I realized that Ben’s illness wasn’t just affecting me. Logically I know that. Emotionally, though, I am Ben’s mother and outside of Ben struggling through the horrible chemo, surgeries, radiation, etc, I believed that I was fighting this alone. I’m probably not going to explain it correctly, but I just didn’t see the extent of how Ben’s illness affected my parents. Or my family. Or my friends. I only saw that it affected my son. And me.
I briefly explained to my new friend about Ben’s fight over the last nine-and-a-half years. He hugged me as we walked, nearly taking us both down as we awkwardly stumbled into one another. He said, “God has a plan.” And while that sort of statement generally sends me through the roof with irritation, I continued to listen. Then he said, “God loves you, you know.” And I told him that I didn’t know, but for whatever reason, I believed what this nice man was telling me. He hugged me again and said “I need to catch up with my grandchildren. Plus, I’m getting ready to cry.” And off he went, leaving me a little teary eyed in the process. And with that, I understood that I had turned around at exactly the right time.
I used to feel God’s love all the time. I used to believe with all my heart. Until this happened and that happened and none of it made any sense any longer.
I don’t know where I am on this journey to the summit of my life. Am I almost there? Is it too cold to the point where turning around is the best option? What other heart breaks and tragedies are going to set me back another 1,000 feet? I have no way of knowing. But it’s the beautiful surprises of a kind gentleman wrapping his arm around me and explaining that I’m loved no matter what. Or that Ben passed his counts and can start on this next study. Or that Madeline sang her heart out in front of a crowd of adults during her play, breaking through the layer of scared that was obviously surrounding her. The small victories keep me going.
I’m chipping away at my layer of scared, too. I’ve cleared a tiny spot on the windshield and now I’m just waiting for the warmth to melt the rest of the obstruction. It might take a while but, if nothing else, I know I’m patient. It will come.
Soon I will know. Soon I’ll be able to see more clearly. I’ll finally “get” what this journey to the top of my 14-er has been all about.
And what a view it will be.