Sunday, I went hiking with Jeff and hated almost every minute of it. I’ve been bugging Jeff to take me hiking because I have some sense that it is an essential part of this whole outdoor experience of living in the Northwest. So, we set out to reach the top of Mount Pickett, which sounds like we’re heading into a Shel Silverstein poem. It did not turn out to be a very long trip because Jeff wisely realized that we would need to start small. However, during the initial climb when my legs hurt, my heart raced and my lungs constricted, it seemed like we might be out there forever and that I would certainly die before we reached the end of the trip. But I kept trucking through the tunnel vision that was tucking itself into my brain because that is what one is supposed to do. Every story about the girl with 14 toes who finished the race 13 hours behind everyone else tells us that. Plus, I knew a little secret. I wouldn’t actually die.
When I was sixteen, I hiked into Canyon DeChelly (pronounced DeShay) with my youth group. I did not die then when I had to hike back out in New Mexican arid heat, wearing nothing on my feet but wigwam socks and yellow Converse with red laces. That time, my father and my brother Daniel talked me through the tougher moments to make sure that I did not die. Needless to say, all the pictures of that trip were taken at the beginning of the trip on the way DOWN.
Also, I did not die the one time I tried to swim across John’s Lake with the rest of my extended family. They did it every night of the week that we would spend at the Johansen’s lake house in Wisconsin. I don’t know how I ended up in a family of athletes. Two of my dad’s sisters maintain ridiculously high metabolisms and their children have inherited it. Once, when tubing down a lazy river (an activity that, by it’s very definition, requires relaxation) we ended up at the take-out point over an hour early because they got bored and decided to swim and run the muddy bottom instead of dawdling at the Turkey Run river’s speed, the speed of nature. At one point, Jake, the four-year-old, was pulling at least three adults, including my mother and I. So, when I foolhardily joined them in the swim across the lake, still, I did not die when that now familiar tunnel vision eliminated everything from my field of vision but the Boston Terrier, Dinkens, and my parents encouraging me and piloting the rescue boat behind me while I did the backstroke. I did, however, require a ride back to the other side of the lake. Although I did reach the far side of the lake rather than giving up in the middle, I think that rather than having been inspired by the 14 digits of the aforementioned little girl, I was more daunted by the idea of getting my body up into the boat without something from which to push off.
So, even when I started to cry on the middle of the trail up, I had a legacy of not dying behind me to keep me going.
Luckily, Jeff heard that my heaving intakes of breath had changed rhythm and become ragged. He’s so good. He stopped and held me and didn’t ask me to explain myself, even though the only way I could verbalize my despair was to wail, “I want to go home!” before I dissolved into weeping. I’m not sure why my sense of imminent death prompted my homesickness to surface. I think my emotion logic went a little like this:
- I’m going to die while hiking.
- OK, I’m not actually going to die while hiking.
- So, it must be that I’m not actually enjoying myself while hiking.
- If I’m not enjoying myself while hiking, then I must not be cut out for life in the Northwest.
- If I’m not cut out for life in the Northwest, what in the hell else am I supposed to do?
- I don’t know.
- I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I have no purpose to fulfill yet.
- So, if I'm not here to fulfill my life's purpose, I might as well be where people love me.
- I want to go home!
Of course, I know that life at home in Chicago where people know me and like me anyway is less likely to reveal a long-term plan that will ultimately satisfy me. I know that the challenge of a different culture is the water that I waded into so God could trouble my water. That is why I moved out here after all. So, I knew that my little scene was inspired by the stress created whenever one is faced with the potential of meeting Death (without the chess game).
So, after the tears and snot slowed to simple seepage, I removed a layer of fleece to cool down, drank some water and walked in front for a little while so Jeff could keep an eye on me. It was still hard, but we rested more often and it got a little better. I actually began ignoring my physical heart as Jeff suggested and started looking around me. Here is what I saw:
- Two pine trees that looked like something out of The X-Files. Sap ran down the outside like icicles from lots of little holes. Each stream was a separate color, from shades of whites to different ambers. The overall effect looked a little like the stalagmites in caves. I did touch one and had sticky fingers for the rest of the hike that Jeff dodged successfully.
- A fallen log looked like it had tiny little holes drilled into it and then someone put tiny twigs that were smaller than the holes into the empty space like flowers in a vase with that absorbent foam at the bottom to keep the flowers from leaning against the sides.
- A stream coming down the mountain that disappeared. We went off the trail to investigate and it seemed to just sink into the ground at some point and then come out later on down the way. It was like the Red Line as it goes under State Street.
- Another stream that was so lovely that I drank out of it, so I could say that I had drunk straight from a mountain stream, just like the characters in my books. This was despite Jeff’s warnings of Djardia, which seemed to me grossly unfounded.
Then, of course, just as everyone expected, I was taken aback (literally, I stepped back) when we broke out of the forest to a clearing near the top and I could see what seemed to be all of that side of the island, with little farms and the quilt of their lands plus the ocean and Cypress Island and the Peapods, which are all islands that I see when we go kayaking. We sat and ate some apples and it was beautiful. This is where I learned my lesson. This is the moment like the Mysteries of the ancient Greeks when I came out of the tunnel into light and attained understanding of why people hike. Because it IS hard and there IS a pay-off. One does not find much more satisfying than that, especially when you don't die in the process.
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