“Is this the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” I asked Aubrey, who was slogging across loose scree with an expression of exhausted anguish.
Ahead of us was another snow field, although they’d grown less treacherous as we worked our way around the mountain.
We started that morning at 7, because we dawdled and sipped coffee and ate oatmeal while we worked up the courage to start our adventure. It was 37 degrees and snow-raining. People were walking past us with their skis. The lifts rushed up and down the mountain, disappearing into the heavy clouds that blanketed Mount Hood.
“The trail is under 3 feet of snow,” said someone at the lodge.
I wasn’t worried. I can get lost even when a trail is visible, so I was prepared with maps. I had backpacked around the mountain before, though this time we were planning on running all the way around it in a day.
But things never really quite seem to go as planned. As far as I can tell, that’s the definition of an adventure.
We were trotting down the forested slopes in those early hours, the incessant rain pummeling us but not washing away our smiles. Aubrey is one of my favorite outdoor companions, because at 30 he’s an incredible specimen of athletic ability and adventure naivety. He’ll say yes to anything. He’s also the best backcountry conversationalist I’ve ever known, a competent outdoors person, and he shares his food – essential criteria for any friend of mine.
I was just settling into the first 10 miles, basking in the glow of the endorphins I’m always chasing, enjoying the view of lush, dripping trees, when my foot did a wonky thing. I’m accustomed to my body misbehaving occasionally; however, I have learned that when it makes noise, it’s probably kind of a bad thing.
I crumpled to the forest floor and practiced my Lamaze breathing, and this rapidly morphed into labor roaring. Having babies prepares you for many things in life – most of them associated with suffering and patience.
I had never sprained my ankle, but once I left it twisted under a rock for so many hours, it since has a sort of super power of flexibility. Or it did. Now it just hurt in the kind of way that makes me mad. Running around a mountain is hard enough. Why would I want it to be any harder?
I pulled my poles from my pack and muttered something (a compilation of swear words, mostly) to an unusually quiet Aubrey. Then I hobbled onward. I could climb 10 miles back to the car or descend 5 miles toward a well-trafficked trailhead for a ride home. Or just keep running.
Not surprisingly, we somehow kept opting for the latter. Also, I carry some pretty wicked drugs in my first aid pack, which I swallowed down with a caffeinated gel pack somewhere around Mile 20.
There are times in my journeys when I am forced to introspect about the things that drive me. I am unsure of what I have to prove, if anything at all, or why misery and suffering and colder, wetter days with more pain have become some bizarre badge of survival honor.
When will I be badass enough to just sit in an arm chair and share old memories? When can I stop making them? Or when can they just be about being a gondola passenger in Venice? I wondered if the pain is what imprints the rest of the memories so deeply into my cells.
I could smell the glacial water of the rivers we crossed. I remember when I first looked up and saw a glimpse of blue skies to the west, and how the sun hit my chilled body and warmed my face and then my bones.
I remember how full of gratitude my heart felt breathing in deeply the mountain air. I would forever remember the sound of Aubrey’s feet, first light and pattering behind me, then how they slowly began to drag in the dust and rock as the day wore on. Just before the sun set, the clouds broke around the summit and we saw Her in all her glory for a moment before night fell.
“Yes, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Aubrey said.
“Congratulations!” I cheered. “Oh, how exciting to be a part of a hardest thing!”
Not everyone is as excited about this threshold as I am. I try to get there a time or two each year.
Suddenly, I understood that these journeys are not about proving anything. They are about discovering myself and some basic wisdom of the universe. Like how all things are relative. Even my lifetime is insignificant in comparison to that of a volcano’s. And how all things pass, even the suffering. And that we can experience joy, distilled from the minutiae of our environment, at the same time we are experiencing misery.
What parts we commit to memory, now that might be our choice. Maybe that’s why I keep going back. Because I already forgot the ugly parts and memories aren’t made in armchairs.
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