Let’s Not Call It Hiking

Aerial view of Boulder. How can you not take those mountains seriously?

My writing friend, Lisa, emailed me yesterday and asked, “Would you like to go on a hike?” It evokes the same kind of response as if she asked, would you like to bike in strong winds?

(Sound of tea cup hitting a saucer.) Somebody pass me a Victorian parasol, the sun feels a little strong.

It’s something about the imagery of the word hike that immediately sets forth a grueling image of endurance. It overpowers my idea of a nice view pay-off or anything pleasant for that matter. I picture un-scalable vertical face mountains, my Polish white skin bubbling in sun blisters and muttering profanity to myself while being dusted by groups of people who appear as if their heart rate is barely above normal.

It’s not that I don’t like the outdoors. I do. I do. I lived in Maine for 10 years.  I have been on hikes, even in Alaska.  Heck I’ve even been on a 3 day trek in Thailand. I love enjoying the outdoors I just don’t like approaching it as if I have to reckon with it.

The moment it gets serious with galactic power juice, walking staffs, camel paks that hold 3 liters of water and use of the word wicking when it comes to shirt and socks, as we say in Lowell, “I’m outta here.”

In the land of Colorado, where Denver ranks high as one of the healthiest cities and professional athletes come to work out at high altitude, people take the outdoors very seriously.

Even on the city’s walking/bike path I’ve come across cyclists who zip by at Tour De France speed while I pump the pedals of my blue cruiser, at a handle bar shaking  5 miles per hour.  There are also fitness buffs that run up and down the 192 steps of Red Rocks Amphitheater (alt. 6,400 feet above sea level) for fun. I’ve never done this but you can pay an exercise group to force you.

I wrote back to my friend Lisa admitting that I was a somewhat wimpy hiker and besides, I had a blog to write.  Surely, that was enough to have her leave me behind.

She called a few minutes later.

“It’s not going to be that kind of hike.”

“Will we see mountain goats? Is oxygen necessary?”

(laughter)

“No, no. We’re not hiking a 14er.” (This I should have automatically known given our 2:45pm start time.)

“It’s Chautauqua in Boulder. We’re just getting together to go out and be physical.  Get a work out. Pretty easy trail, but you know, with some uphill. There will be places for us to rest. I’m just going to wear shorts and bring a granola bar in my pocket.”

“Oh!” I breathed in relief, “sure, that sounds great! You said all the right words. One last thing, I’m not a gear head or anything. I don’t own $500 gortex jackets. I’m going to look like I dressed at a Goodwill sale.”

“No problem. I bought my shorts at Goodwill.”

This is the kind of hiking I can handle!

Chautauqua!

The gear. The clothing. It’s all too much for my urban regulation black closet.  I once did some light hiking in Aspen in a pair of Ann Taylor office capris.

Yup, those are my Ann Taylor Capris. July 2010

I’m not sure why I didn’t pack my yoga pants. I do own those. I think it’s because I never know what to wear the yoga pants with… I can’t wear tanks (too much white skin to protect for extended outdoor time) and I don’t own that many t-shirts as I loathe crew necks.  I have closet full of clothes but nothing quite matches up right in the mountain activity department.

I get all worked up that I don’t have the right thing to wear.  I’m always realizing too late that I don’t have something.  I need long sleeves and only have short. I have a hoodie but not a wind breaker. I have yoga pants but not the perfect shirt.

It’s like when I go to the grocery store and buy spaghetti sauce but forget the pasta. The items in the grocery bag don’t always add up to the meal I was planning.  It’s the same for my hiking outfits. I try to remedy this but when the season changes, the hiking invitations stop and I forget. Until I’m asked again and find myself throwing clothes behind my shoulder as I dig through every drawer.

When I first moved to Colorado, I showed up for a hike at a friend’s house wearing black yoga pants and a black t-shirt.

“Is this what you’re wearing?” my friend asked in a quiet up-beat voice, as he assessed that I would attract every UV ray in the sky and incinerate in the field.

“Let’s trade out your shirt for this white one.”

“Oh Thanks. Boston Red Sox shirt! I would have worn white if I owned anything like that.”

I realized that I either own clothes for late night dancing in Buenos Aires, office casual, or clothes for coal mining. Missing from my wardrobe is fashion active wear.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried to shop for it but when I flip up the Patagonia price tag I say to myself, I’d rather save the money and go to Patagonia.

Coal mining outfits, you are here to stay.

I managed to pull together a decent outdoor outfit: Sneakers, black shorts, white jog bra and a light terra cotta t-shirt topped off with a Wild Horse Vineyard baseball cap and my Jackie O sunglasses. To my regret, no photo available.

We hiked for about 2 hours. I was surprised at times to find myself slightly ahead of my friends and was disappointed when the ominous clouds urged that we start heading back.

The views were great. The trees were lovely and I didn’t need NASA inspired fabric to live through my hike. I also noticed different berries and upon my friend’s prompting, asked the Park Ranger about them.

I actually like to hike when I think of it as ‘a walk through the woods’ or an adventure of seeing something new even if it was all up hill and my heart was pounding.  I quite enjoyed myself. I would do it again.

Can we just not call it hiking?

Doses of Reality

In my mind, I’m floating there right in the middle.

I miss being on the east coast right now because I’d love to be in the cold, goose pimply, scream-because-you-can’t-help-it ocean. After the heart-pumping shock, I’d like to float on my back and welcome the water to plug my ears. I’d marvel at the underwater sounds, the tiny gurgles and deep echoes. I’d work to steady my breath.  I’d remember to float, not fight. The sun would warm my face and I’d squint to catch a glimpse of the sky. I’d let the ocean offer its calm.

If only the ocean was a short car ride away from landlocked Colorado.  Instead, I roasted in the 100+ degree heat yesterday until I sought overnight refuge at a friend’s glacially chilled condo.  It got so cold in the night I actually slipped on my jeans and went back to bed. I could have turned down the Air Conditioning- that would have been logical.  But, in the wee hours of the morning, I thought putting on jeans would expend less energy than taking two steps into the hallway to turn up the thermostat. It can be said that I was sleepy. I think I was holding onto relief, not matter its extremes.

Maybe I want to float in the ocean because I need a decompression tank.  My mind’s been grappling with so many unfathomable things of late: Hearing about the innocents who lost their lives watching a movie; wondering how my friends will cope with their child’s serious illness; watching other friends deal with major health issues, grief and divorces. At the same time I’m celebrating weddings, adoptions, birthdays.    Plus, I’m setting new career and health goals for myself.  Every spectrum of emotion is being represented. It’s awesome but overwhelming to see that so much can happen at once. It can. It does. It will keep doing so.

My mind is deep in thought with all these acute doses of reality. Lately, the doses have been dispensed fast and furious, like the fires that covered a portion of Colorado. I saw photos of people’s homes burnt totally to the ground. Nothing but white ash left to touch. And yet, people rebuild with nothing.

The lingering question on my mind while all these dramatic events are happening at once is the same question people asked during the fires: when will it all be contained?

It seems impossible to imagine life being resorted back to some kind of normal as things spiral out of control and require super human effort. Yet, somehow we can bring the wildest fire back to manageable again– with the help of others.

A friend of mine from Maine recently joked with me about contemplating ‘rubbish in space’. We like saying that phrase for two reasons.

1) rubbish is a fun word to say.

2) Even though garbage is always a concerning subject, imagining it suspended, cartoon-like against the backdrop of deep black space makes for a meditative distraction.

Garbage shouldn’t be floating anywhere, nor should it be dotting the face of the Himalayas but for a few seconds at least it keeps me from thinking about what’s happening here on street level.

Maybe that’s why I want to feel suspended in the ocean right now. The heart can only handle so much before the mind goes blank.

Driving While Blind

I unexpectedly flew to New Jersey last week to be with my best friend, Denise and her husband. They received devastating news that their newborn son was diagnosed with a rare genetic  disease, Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 1. Doctors estimate 1-2 years of life at best. It doesn’t seem like the word best should be allowed in that sentence.

When Denise called to tell me, she was crying so hard I could hardly understand a word she said. When you hear a cry like that, it’s your body not your mind that processes the gravity in nanoseconds. It’s a numbness, a hollowness that spreads through your body like spider-cracking glass.  I pressed the phone to my face wanting to hug her.  I could feel the heart’s undoing.

They had just spent the fall and winter with me in Denver on a work stint. We bought ski passes together and looked forward to having an exceptional winter, despite the low snow fall. Friends together.  Reunited. Ski bunnies in the snow.

When Denise’s pregnancy progressed, she hung out in the lodge and read while her husband and I skied.  They headed back to their home in New Jersey in April to get ready for the delivery of their beautiful baby boy.  (As you may remember from a previous post, her husband was the one who encouraged me down the double black diamond.)  I hope his gentleness and fearlessness comes to serve them now in their moments of happiness and pain. During the allowing and the bracing. There is so much ahead that they are aware of but can’t see.

It reminded me of the time we drove to Winter Park. On our way up the mountain, we encountered 90+mph winds that created total white out conditions. It wasn’t a blizzard happening. It was intense wind blowing all the snow off the mountain.  “The worst my sister’s ever seen,” said a man who shared a lift with me later. “She lives here.”

There was no turning around once we started up the mountain. Break lights that once appeared 30 feet ahead of us, like a helpful beacon, disappeared completely.

We couldn’t see the winding road anymore. The windshield wipers were nearly useless, except that their movement prevented a freezing shell, inching its way up, from forming.

It was a battle between the defrost and keeping the windows open so we could crane our necks out and guide ourselves on an invisible road. Three sets of eyes focused on different aspects of our movement. We drifted to the wrong side at least twice that we noticed.

This was a kind of panic that shuts the radio off and no one speaks unless necessary. My friend’s husband, who was driving, had remarkable calm. I kept thinking, that’s good. That’s really good right now.

A quick glimpse of a patch of rock or a metal post, were our only signs that we had veered too far, and always a second within not too late.

These extremes were slowly guiding us back toward the middle. It’s a place I want my friends to keep finding.

When you’re on a mountain escarpment, there is no pulling off to the side of the road. There isn’t one. There is no stopping, for fear of surprising the vehicle behind or worse not being able to start again.

There’s an unspoken force that makes you move forward, even when you’re blinded.

Wheels threatened our journey forward with their unpredictable spins in place and fish tailed us to and fro. I realized there are so many things that can go wrong. So many things you can’t control even if you try to will it.

It’s like that.

You can go for a fun day of skiing and find yourself inching your way out of lost. You can be a new parent and be handed the task of knitting joy with grief. One lasts a half hour, the other a lifetime.

I think of my parents. Young. 30s. Living the American dream. Working multiple jobs. Struggling to learn English and making a place for themselves and their family in a new world. They were full of hopes and moved toward all the good that they could imagine. All that was meant to be theirs.  I know this because there are photo albums full of parties they went to. Balloons and cigarettes and drinks and toothy smiles.  Care free days before their dreams got shaken loose, got changed from the ways they imagined them.

Dad suddenly had mysterious symptoms. Numbness, tingling, tripping over his own feet. Blindness.  Can you imagine losing your sight for a few seconds not knowing if it will come back? For some, with MS, it doesn’t.  My parents trucked on with tears and uncertainty as close companions as my Dad became paralyzed. What does it take to embrace that?

Finding joy in the everyday. Pushing onward in the face of pain. Appreciating the time you have.

I’ve learned something from them. While inevitable, it’s best not to focus too long on why the bad luck of being in a terrible storm, instead you have to ask yourself, how the hell do I make it through?

It’s what makes navigating a road both singular and collective. Even if no one is in your car, even if you can’t see people behind you and ahead of you, even if you think you’re the only one about to go off a mountain in the quiet slip of the snow, there are people sharing the same road.

There are invisible people pushing you forward.

Love is already forming a rescue.

Memories of Wackiness and Patriotism

 

Perfect Picnic Attire

With Fourth of July approaching, I thought it would be good to do a post about the holiday. I pondered how my immigrant parents celebrated when I was younger and whether anything stood out. Nothing unusual came to mind except the way my mother pronounced Firecracker (Fire-Krah-keh) and Hot Dogs (Hot Dog-zeh). We had cookouts with all the usual American fare with some Polish Kielbasa mixed in.  Two distinct memories came to mind and while they don’t relate to the Fourth specifically, they are memories of wackiness and patriotism.

I’ll start off by saying; we’re not a bumper sticker type family.  Once in the parking lot of DeMoulas grocery store in the 1970s, someone handed me a campaign sticker. City Council? Mayor? I don’t remember.  Two things I do remember: it was a big sticker and it was free.  I begged my father to put it on the bumper. He was the kind of guy who wore French cuff links, kept a neat mustache and wore ties and colored polyester pants.

“Buhmperrr sticker! What are you crazy?”

“But Dad!”

“Why should I advertise them?”

I’unno. Just want to look cool is probably what I thought.  I learned at an early age that if you advertise something on your car, it’s serious business.

I only remember two things ever adorning my father’s car. 1.)  A big yellow ribbon dangling from the antenna in honor of the US hostages in Iran. It was replaced when the ends tattered.

2.) A vanity license plate that was so unlike my father’s personality (but not unlike his humor) that I had to confirm with my brothers that I didn’t imagine it. He bought it during one of our vacations in Cape Cod.

It was red and white. A hippie sat with a smoking joint between his fingers with the caption:

“If you’re so damn smart, why ain’t you rich?”

It graced the front of our orange Gran Torino.  I vaguely remember my Dad asking me to stand in front of it once in the church parking lot. I’m not sure if it was the joint, the damn, or the dirty hippie he was hiding.   I think my Dad intended it as a funny keepsake for the peg board in the garage but I have a memory of peeling off the shrink wrap and attaching it to the front of the car with my brothers.  Later when the joke got old, it resumed its home above the workbench.

When my mom got her license, she too kept a pristine car. Not only was her car sticker free but she also kept an afghan laid across the back seat to prevent sun damage to the upholstery.

That all changed on 9/11 when I noticed two matchbook size American Flag stickers affixed to her red Ford Taurus. Her haste with small details was evident, because not only were these permanent stickers (not decals) stuck on from the outside; the flag in the corner of the back windshield was placed upside down. The other one, the one that made my throat tighten with emotion was stuck on the driver’s side window just about a hands-width above the door lock.  She couldn’t have associated that sticker any closer to herself than if she had worn it over her own heart.