Next week I’m presenting before an audience of 1,000 people in Virginia. I rehearsed and rehearsed my speaking notes all morning – my stomach clenching, imagining myself looking out into that infinite sea of faces.
“I’ll just go for a little walk,” I thought, having recently become obsessed with my steps (or lack thereof).
I drove to the North Shore and saw the sign for Baden-Powell Trail to the Quarry Rock. 1.9 kilometres, it said. That’s not too far, I decided. (Whoever proclaimed this trail as easy in this review must be a delusional mountain goat).
The first ten minutes were straight up. Up, up, up. Up wooden stairs, up and over roots and up a narrow pebble path. I kept on going, reluctant to give up, and was passed by small dogs and children. Finally I asked some returning hikers, how much longer? thinking I must almost be there. ‘Oh about 15 minutes,’ they said breezily. I noted that they were much younger and fitter versions of me. I blinked, processed that information, and kept going.
Of course I had to pee. And I hadn’t brought any water. But as Kimmy on the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt says, anyone can do anything for ten seconds. So I kept going. Ten seconds at a time. Then another ten seconds. And so on.
To distract myself from my poor cardio, full bladder and general dehydration, I mused on the other times I’ve embarked on climbs in my life.
One was when I was about 13, up Coliseum Mountain in Nordegg. My family was with me, including my spry beautiful grandma, before peripheral neuropathy stole the nerves in her legs. I recall happening upon a lovely meadow of wildflowers, where we stopped to rest. Of course we had snacks and sandwiches, as my grandma was as prepared as a Boy Scout. The view from the top of that mountain at the end of three hours of ‘up’ was simply stunning, as was the fleeting knowledge at that young age that maybe I could do anything I put my mind to.
I climbed up and down a mountain many times in Bergen Norway with my young children. I was living there, broke and heart broken, after my divorce, with a family who had a house embedded on the side of Mount Floyen. When I didn’t have money for the funicular, I dragged my kids up and down the mountain to get groceries, soft ice cream, and to go for soup at the Zupperia. At night I’d escape and walk on the mountain paths in the dark, listening to the only song I had brought with me, U2’s Beautiful Day. Those walks helped me become strong during an exceptionally dark time in my life.
My last climb was more of a long hike, from Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach near Sydney. It was two plus hours on a cliffside in the blazing sun. I tackled this one after a conference in Australia. I had flown to Melbourne, covered in fear-sweat for the entire plane ride, to speak at a conference. I was very scared and very far from home. That beautiful sweaty walk was my reward for surviving the presentation, which actually went just fine. (All my worry was for naught, which I hope to say in about nine days in Virginia).
Today, coming down that hill was just as hard as going up. My legs were tired and shaking, and I was terrified of slipping on the wet rocks. I was grateful for any help I found along the way – the wood bannisters, the flat part of the trail, the rests on the bridges over cascading creeks, the greetings from other hikers, the pauses to pet the hiking dogs.
I needed a reminder why we climb great heights. We climb those mountains, both real and imagined, so that we remember we are alive.