Climbing Mountains and Conquering Fear


Let me take you back a few years. It was Christmas 1989. Mike was working at George Mason University in sports information and the basketball team was playing a Christmas tournament in Hawaii. Baby Michael was 14 months old.. The three of us flew with the team from Atlanta to Honolulu, non-stop. It was a miserable flight. Michael was perfectly well-behaved. Alternating between playing with the few things I'd brought along and nursing and sleeping, he was so content that people went out of their ways to tell us how good he was. But I was miserable. As we flew, I felt more and more swollen and my chest felt leaden, as if something were bearing down and suffocating me. I was glad to land, collect my floral lei, and put air travel behind me until the return trip a week later. 

Mike worked a lot that week and Michael and I toddled around explored the island on our own as best as we could. We saved a hike up Diamondhead for Christmas day when Mike could join us. The hike is an impressive one, up the volcano at a decent incline, until nearly the top and then up a steep flight of stairs the last 1/10 of the way. I struggled almost from the beginning. Early on, we transferred Michael from my back to Mike's. Still, I felt heavy. I tried to keep up and I tried not to let on how hard it was, but when we got to the base of the stairs, I told Mike to leave Michael with me and go up alone--I just could not do it. I absolutely could not climb those stairs. He was rather incredulous. He didn't go up to the top either. There was a bit of a stony silence coming down.

We had hiked together before--during college in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia--and I loved to hike. A one car family, I was home with a baby and Michael and I walked all over the place all the time. What was this and why couldn't I just muscle through?

Three months later, we discovered a formidable tumor in my chest. I had cancer. Mystery solved.  I didn't fly again for 15 years. And I didn't climb mountains, either. The memory of that feeling of suffocating kept me from trails with inclines for a very long time.

Last summer, when I was doing my marathon walking, I stumbled upon a picture of a friend of Patrick's on Instagram. Aimee had just hiked Humpback Rocks, a perfectly gorgeous and very steep trail on the Blue Ridge, between University of Virginia and James Madison University. Seeing her picture brought back flood of memories--not the Diamondback memories, but the ones that precede it. I remembered climbing to Humpback Rocks with Mike when he was at JMU and and I was at UVa. It was before we were engaged and I remembered him telling me we would bring our kids on that hike one day. I texted Aimee right there on the spot and asked her if she'd want to hike to Humpback Rocks with me in the fall. She agreed, and that hike became my fitness goal for 450 miles of summer walking.

Our first visit in August, Aimee wasn't able to make it. I was disappointed, but my stepmother, Barbara, suggested that when we returned three weeks later, we all make a trip of it. I remembered that the Humpback Rocks hike was harder than the Diamondhead hike, assuming one was healthy. It's just a mile to the top, but it's very steep and there's a good bit of scrambling over rocks--it's not a pristine trail all the way. Barbara said she'd done it a few years earlier and she'd seen kids handling it fine. So, we set a date.

My dad set up camp at the base of the trail, book in hand, and phone at the the ready should we need anything. Mike, Barbara, Sarah, Karoline, and I headed up the mountain. The girls whined bitterly. I kept telling them that they were strong and they'd be so glad they did this hike because the view at the top was unlike any they'd ever seen. Mike encouraged me to go ahead and said he'd keep the girls moving along. They didn't lag for long at all though and we stayed together the whole way. Once we got past the easier gravel path onto trickier natural "steps" and lots of rocks, the little girls actually perked up. They soaked in the beauty around them and thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of the terrain. It wasn't long before they started whooping and singing as they scrambled. And when they started singing "10,000 Reasons," known around these parts as "Shawn's song," the whole mountain seemed to glow that much brighter in the glory of the day. (To understand Shawn, read this, by "baby" Michael, now all grown up.)

My stepmother was nothing short of amazing. It's not an easy hike and she was right there with us to the top. I'm inspired by her health and vigor and the way she has embraced an active lifestyle in her 70s. She's been such an encouragement to me and it was special to have her with us.

A little more than halfway there, we faced a set of stairs. At first, standing there looking at the flight, I felt a familiar sense of panic. Tears filled my eyes and memories flooded my mind--memories that had been carefully, firmly shoved aside for 24 years. Mike was behind me. He came close enough that I could turn just slightly and tell him softly, "I'm going to run those stairs." 

And I did.

It wasn't even hard. 

I'm pretty sure Mike has video of it.

I was fairly jubilant the rest of the way and the girls were unbounded in their excitement. The top was everything we'd promised them and Sarah didn't want to ever come down. They begged Barbara to let them come every weekend to do the hike again and again. We took lots of pictures and they sent them back to their siblings and tried to convey the sense of accomplishment they felt  and the astonishing beauty of the place. But we all knew that, really, you had to be there in order to understand.

Going down, I fairly skipped the whole way. I had to mind my step, but I didn't feel the descent was hard at all. I  know that lots of people think descending is harder that climbing up, but not me. I floated down that mountain. 

Later that night, we went to Paddy's soccer game and then drove two hours home, arriving just before midnight. After all that fresh air and exercise, I still couldn't sleep. My mind whirred with the memories of the day--the rocks, the trees, the happy little girls, the strong man always walking behind us all, making sure that this time we'd get to the top. I was so grateful that Barbara had kept insisting we could do this hike and that she'd quietly propelled us all towards it (and made sure we had a fabulous picnic to enjoy after it). My dad had nearly stayed home, but I was grateful he'd come along and was waiting to share the afterglow. 

In the dark, well past midnight, I didn't want to let go of the day. 

I am healthy and strong. I ran those stairs.

And this time, I saw the view at the very top.