Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Overall I guess I was a bit disgusted with my performance as a hiker. I had thought after my weeks of careful and intense training that I would at least be able to keep up with the other hikers in the group but alas, my old nemesis, asthma, reared its ugly head and even though I felt strong and fit I had to creep up the hills at a snail's pace in order to keep my lungs from squeezing shut, clenched in the familiar vise that leaves me gasping for air. Because I haven't attempted anything physically demanding for years, I haven't experienced that old humiliation since high school where years of tormented PE classes lie stuffed in the back of my memory like dirty socks that get poked under the bed and forgotten.

My high expectations, culled from weeks of excitement, planning, hiking Kamiak over and over, walking and running with the jogging stroller were all dashed during the first hour on the trail when everyone in the group set off up the hill at a brisk pace, toting their heavy packs and I was left at the end, gasping for breath, my stupid twisted back already beginning to ache. This was a mistake, I told myself, even after a couple of the women condescended to slow themselves to my snail's crawl. It wasn't the hike itself that caused the trouble. I knew I would make it to the top in fine shape. And I did. I climbed two mountains this weekend, something I have never done in my life, nor did I expect to do it now. Naively I had thought that a "medium-difficulty hike" meant a nice five- or seven-mile trek through a woodland such as we had done through the Grove of Ancient Cedars near the River Cabin. I was wrong on that account. This was a dusty, rocky trail zigzagging up the steep granite side of one of the Wallowa Mountains until we actually climbed above the treeline, above the snow fields and stood on the top gazing out across the world, or at least part of eastern Oregon.

Angry at myself for expecting anything better than the indignity of being the annoying lag-behind, I could not keep back the tears, further sinking from the strong, independent woman I wanted to be into the disappointed, frustrated child who I thought I had left behind forever. My hiking mates tried to comfort me with the awkward platitudes I had heard so many times about how it did not matter how slow I had to go and that I was "doing just great". I wanted to slap them. How many times have I been told I am "doing just great" when I am hopelessly far behind the pack? I could hear the relief in their voices when I urged them to go on, that I would catch up later.

Pace aside, the backpacking itself fit me just fine. The pack, although it did make my back ache, was bearable and the scenery stunned me at every turn. In the future I need to find a hiking partner who is willing to go at my pace, not as a charitable concession but someone who truly enjoys the speed at which one can look in minute detail at every foot of scenery and who is willing to take all day to hike a mere six miles.

With that off my chest, I have to say that this trip made me proud of myself in a number of ways. I challenged myself to face several of my biggest fears: the fear of strangers, fear of falling, fear of failure. I joined a group of nine other women I had never met and none were in my peer group. The younger group, all single women with boyfriends and burgeoning careers represented who I was eight years ago. The older set, middle aged mothers with children in college and with PhD's or full-time jobs show who I might be in fifteen years. No one in the group really clicked as a kindred spirit, yet every single one of those women were wonderful. They were full of strength and respect. They had interesting lives, lots of hobbies, and most of all they all had stories. Although not everyone did the daily writing assignments, each of those women were full of fascinating stories and they shared them freely, the funny, the grotesque, the sad, the tender. Their inhibition refreshed me; in that atmosphere of mutual respect we shared not only our tents, fire and food but we shared ourselves, our pasts, our families and the ways we hoped to impact our world. For each of these women cares deeply about those around her and hopes to leave the world a better place. We told stories of the things we had seen and the people we knew.

Getting to know this delightful circle of women was the absolute highlight of the trip, better by far than even the glorious scenery viewed from the craggy summit of a windy crest or the awesome cathedral of close-encircling forests. Hiking in ever-rotating pairs almost all of us had a chance to get hours of chat and the chance to share whatever was on her mind, whether is was the dream of ending abuse or the delight of gardening, the frustration of learning piano or the long, slow process of healing from a brain injury. We got to know each other's strengths and weaknesses. We were a diverse group, ranging in age to twenties to sixties, in occupation from teachers to writers to artists to an Olympic equestrian, we came to be a cohesive group through the shared experiences of freezing in our tents, hiking through the sun and dust and the long talks every night around a crackling campfire, the stars shining in brilliant cacophony in the silent dark overhead.

To Be Continued...


  1. Erin, I'm impressed with your accomplishment. I'm looking forward to reading the "rest" of your story.....:-)

  2. These are great, Erin! I truly enjoyed reading them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience! I'll check back later to read the "rest of the story"
    Becky Taylor