It was open sky beyond that top step. I was on my hands and knees. If I could feel any layer of leg muscle, it burned. Everything else was dead to sensation. Gravel loosened from the mountainside crunched beneath my tennis shoes, dropped down the steps. A quick glance over my shoulders and my palms perspired like they do at the top of a rock wall.
One more step and I half-stood, kept my fingers on the next railroad tie. It was not open sky – not the blessed capstone to this cursed hike- that beckoned a few feet above me. It was another wave of steps probably followed by yet another wave.
“What am I doing here?”
Level One – Anticipation: the invitation or the pull to climb a mountain.
That day almost seven years ago, Zach’s coworkers had thoughtfully included me as one of their party on just another one of those lovely Colorado hikes. “It’s called the Incline,” they said. If you know, you know, and when I said, “yes, I’ll go,” I was clueless. A mile-long staircase up the side of a Colorado mountain sounded brilliant. I laced up and met them at the trailhead. The stairs were railroad ties.
Level Two – Trailhead: where my body locks into fight-or-flight mode.
Before taking that big first step on the uneven railroad tie, my system sensed looming physical and mental challenges. My brain asked: How long will this take? Are all the railroad ties this big and uneven? Will I find a convenient bench when my lungs and legs ache? Will I slow down the coworkers?
The coworkers, two fit girls accustomed to pushing their bodies to the limit, started the climb. I was winded before I followed suit.
Because there are no switchbacks on a mile long staircase, the third and fourth levels blend together. For these levels I will refer to the M Trail, a popular jaunt in Missoula, Montana.
Level Three – First Switchback: when all presumptions scatter like dandelion seeds at the force of reality.
The first time I took that first switchback, I learned that mountains are masters of illusion. An angle or slope or trail observed from the pavement is not the same angle or slope or trail observed from the mountainside. In fact, you must see for yourself to understand the ways of a mountain. As on many other switchbacked hikes, that first switchback of the M Trail is a deceitfully long grade of painful elevation gain. It always appears so gradual and gentle, but then again, any change in elevation is always a doozy as your body adapts to a new pace.
Level Four – The Next One-Thousand Miles: when your body accepts its fate.
Somewhere on the second, third, fourth, or fiftieth switchback of the M Trail, my body eventually acclimates. A sharp incline that felt impossible several feet below might go unnoticed as my endurance builds. In that vast in-betweenness, which is really just the hike itself, my mind wanders off the trail. I take in the views, think suddenly of bear or mountain lion, focus once more on the views and admit I’m glad for going, think suddenly of crazed lunatics crouching, waiting for me behind some oddly befallen boulder. Depending on the nature of the trail and the environment, my free-to-wonder brain flashes between the good and the bad.
On The Incline my mind flashed to the ugly and stayed there. I silently cursed The Incline, wondered how a staircase could be so cruel and why is a staircase considered hiking anyway? Doesn’t Colorado realize you need the switchbacks? What about slow and steady elevation gain? What about scenic viewpoints and those convenient benches? My lungs and legs ached and never did acclimate to the terror of the so-called trail. I was too afraid to stop and look long at the wide valley deeping behind us as we climbed.
Then I looked up and perceived open sky beyond the top-most step. “Thank you, God; thank you, God,” was all I could say.
Level Five – False Summit: a little like discovering “the man behind the curtain.”
Of all the ways of nature and the mountains, false hope is the cruelest. When that open sky was filled up with another wave of railroad ties, emotions like anger and sorrow shot through me to jack with my adrenaline. That is to say, any zest left inside fizzled out. I lost heart.
The coworkers knew it, and they sweetly did their best to rally my spirits, but to no avail. If anyone had come along to ask, “so, how would you rate your experience on The Incline today? Please use a 1-5 star scale,” I would have said, “Hell.” That’s not very nice of me, is it? But sometimes nouns speak louder than stars, and there at the False Summit, I sincerely regretted my decision to proceed with The Incline.
Level Six – The Mountaintop Experience: where the Happiness High numbs all anxiety and physical pain
In the end, it’s not a matter of whether or not I believe the pain of The Incline is worth the view. What matters is the view was killer; the grandeur of Colorado Springs is always breathtaking from any vantage point. The coworkers and I caught our breath and watched the valley below. We lingered as long as is socially acceptable before exiting the area.
Level Seven – The Descent: the gentle return to sweet normalcy
I’m sure true fanatics like to run down The Incline just as they love to run up that crazy staircase. The recommended exit is the Barr Trail: four gentle, gravelly miles through rich timber. As acute knee pain reverberated with each step, I considered it was quite a lovely day, quite amazing views, quite an experience I’d just endured. I considered, as I usually do in the home stretch, that it was kind of fun after all.
And I was ready to return to my now enlightened normal.
The Seven Levels of Hiking,
- The Trailhead
- The First Switchback
- The Next One Thousand Miles
- The False Summit
- The Mountain-top Experience
- The Descent
are applicable to any journey in life, and it’s most often level six for which we live. That new job opportunity, that new relationship, that new project – we all pine for that mountain-top experience.
Sure, not much beats anticipation, but it’s level six that reward us with all the bragging rights and perks of accomplishment. No one comes in off the trail to rave about the switchbacks; it’s the view at the end others are most interested in, and that we’re most excited to share.
Many will tell us the journey itself is far more enriching and enlightening anyway. No matter how difficult the climb, no matter how complicated and tension-filled the middle might be at times, that’s the stuff of the whole experience.
Yet, not many of us will understand that until we get to the top enough only to walk-off the Happiness High as we descend to a more normal life-pace.
Not to knock the hard-earned reward of an impressive hike, but I think we get it off-kilter most times.
I think it’s the journey that’s gold.
When have you experienced a journey that you failed to appreciate until it ended?
Cover Photo: Wikipedia