“You can always turn back!”
This was not the most encouraging advice ever given to a hiker thinking about trekking up the side of a dormant volcano where the trail began at more than 8,000 feet above sea level and the difficulty rating for the two-and-a-half mile hike in the national park brochure was “strenuous.”
But then, I really hadn’t been looking for encouragement. I’d been looking for validation...or any other form of an excuse to not climb the mountain.
My younger son and I were on a week-long “mom and me” vacation on the West Coast, a trip of particular poignancy because he is the last of the brood, and his departure for college means that my nest will be empty for the first time in twenty-eight years. We had stopped at Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California at the suggestion of a middle-aged couple we met at Yosemite a couple of days earlier when I volunteered to take their picture.
I had only planned out the first three days of the trip, figuring that we would make it up as we went along, and so we let ourselves get carried to higher altitudes on the descriptive phrases of our newfound acquaintances. This was my most wing-and-a-prayer vacation since I had gone to Ireland when I was twenty-two with a backpack stocked with “instant breakfast” packets, a bicycle that required reassembly once I landed, and phone numbers for some of my Irish cousins.
This time I was (much) older, and (much more) out of shape, and without the resiliency of youth to cushion my missteps. And my left foot had been hurting like heck for the previous four months, making a reusable ice pack and a microwavable heat pack and a bottle of Advil part of my packing essentials.
My son and I had scoped out the park the evening before, after checking into our remote little motel. We picked this place on a recommendation two hundred miles before by the young man who had carved the wooden bear I bought at a gift shop. Are we finding a theme of random adventure here? We were certainly making memories!
One of the most memorable things my son said to me during the entire vacation was, in fact, at that very motel. “Mom,” he said, bursting into the room during a phone call to his sweetheart back home, “I think I just heard a cow get attacked by a bear. Do you want to come outside?”
What’s a mother to say? Of course I stepped outside for a listen. And when the porch lights went out unexpectedly behind us, you wouldn’t believe how fast we beat it back into the room!
While he was outside chatting on the phone, I had been poring over the pamphlets and maps we picked up by the park’s visitor center. And by the time I went to sleep, I was convinced that between my lifelong acrophobia, the troublesome foot, and the vivid description of altitude sickness that usually sets in at lower altitudes than we were even going to start hiking at, I was going to chicken out and insist on a more leisurely walk of half the distance to see a pretty waterfall.
All I was looking for when we pulled up to the park entrance the next morning was an excuse. I pled age, I pled infirmity, I pled forty extra pounds, I pled an appalling lack of stamina...and then I threw in the vertigo and fear of heights for good measure. The heights thing is no laughing matter for me. I get dizzy if I climb higher than the first step on a ladder, and it’s been like that for most of my life.
But the cheerful young lady in the Smokey the Bear ranger hat kept trying to steer me in the direction of optimism. Hikers of all ages and sizes were known to have made it to the summit, she said. Drink plenty of fluids to stave off altitude sickness, she advised. And remember, she said, “you can always turn back.” I didn’t even have to turn my head to know that my son was grinning at the exchange.
And so we drove on to the base of the trail that led to Lassen Peak, which topped out at 10,457 feet above sea level. We packed water bottles and granola bars and extra clothes in my son’s backpack. There were snow fields even at the trailhead.
I felt out of breath at the first switchback, which was still so close to the parking lot it didn’t even list how far we had traveled. I wasn’t going for glory here, just endurance, and so I simply kept putting one foot in front of the other, watching my son’s heels to keep from feeling dizzy. I had done the exact same thing a few years before as I navigated “Bright Angel Trail” down the side of the Grand Canyon with my daughter. Character building takes many forms.
Near the trailhead, we met a delightful pair of teachers from Florida, Pat and Jackie, who went on hiking adventures during their summers off and had decided to tackle Lassen this time. They each had a good dozen years or more on me, and were taking this adventure in stride. I didn’t want to wimp out while they were watching. We often overlapped each other’s rest stops along the way. They called out a lot of encouragement to me on the way up.
The higher we climbed, the more breathtaking the views became. The Sierra Nevadas were a distant blue under a nearly cloudless sky. Lake Helen gleamed azure in the park below us. Snow fields were striped pink and white, but the surrounding air was still warm. The forests below looked as tiny as the shrubbery on a model train display. As we scrambled over loose gravel and larger rocks and tree roots, a doe picked her way across the side of the mountain above us, twin fawns scampering quickly behind her to the cover of some brush.
Continuing in the vein of being practical instead of heroic, I took plenty of rest stops along the way, chugging water and letting the faster hikers pass us by. And sometimes even Pat and Jackie! There was usually a tree or two that I could sit under for shade, but inevitably we began to leave the tree line behind. Still, I kept going, watching my son’s feet in front of me, occasionally taking his hand to cross the rougher patches.
And then, with less than a mile to the summit, I came to one more switchback and stopped. Up to my left, I could see the trail cross back and forth upon the bare mountain face. And to my right, I could see nothing but open sky.
Right then and there, my fear of heights nailed me to the side of the mountain.
“Robert, honey,” I said, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t take one more step!” Of all the things that I thought would have shut me down long before—the extra weight, the lack of stamina, the thin air at 9,000 feet, the gimpy foot—it was such an anticlimax to call it quits because of this!
Still, there was no going forward for me, and I sure wasn’t going to go back down alone. I folded my fleece sweatshirt into a pad to sit on a nearby rock, took custody of the backpack, and settled in to wait for my son to make it to the summit and bring back some good pictures. It took him a good two hours to get back, which included the half-hour phone call to his girlfriend from the top of the mountain, a lot of picture taking, and some time spent just glorying in the achievement.
As I sat, I basked in the sun and marveled at the grandeur surrounding me, and the total serendipity that had brought us here. Who knew, when we set out on this vacation, that we would be setting out to climb a mountain to its very top? Or photograph a yellow-bellied marmot peeking out of his den near a set of volcanic vents? This was certainly an altitude on the side of a mountain that I never thought I would experience.
A very long time ago, when a friend of mine was getting ready to leave college without graduating and faced a very uncertain future, I sent him on his way with an inspirational poster that read something to the effect that if you set your sights among the heavens, even if you fail you will fall among the stars. I hadn’t thought about that in quite a long time, but I thought about it again that day while I sat on the side of the volcano.
At the tail end of our vacation, we drove the well-maintained highway to the visitor center of Mount St. Helens in Washington State. I realized that even though it looked rugged and awesome and high and imposing...we had both made it farther above sea level than this national landmark.
But for me, an even bigger victory was just in getting as far as I had.
I may not have made it to the top of the mountain as I had hoped...but I still ended up sitting high enough that I could nearly touch the stars.