One of my earliest memories is of hiking on Cadillac Mountain in Maine which for roughly five months each year is the first place in the United States to view the sunset. My family was living in Granby, Massachusetts and took the opportunity to visit places of interest around New England. I was a fidgety four-year-old with a short attention span. Likely my energy started out strong and waned quickly as the hike dragged on. My clever parents came up with a way to engage me and keep me moving. They made me the leader. I was given the job of spotting rock cairns that marked the trail. This focused my skittish energy with something important to do. I became useful to my family’s expedition. As useful as a four-year-old can be. In my memory I see myself leading the way up the mountain, reaching the top, and with a flourish pointing to a rock cairn marking the summit. My sister tells me we were just traipsing through the forest gathering fire wood. But from that small expedition to the present, rock cairns have been meaningful to me: markers that give a sense of direction, a sense of perspective, a way to mark progress toward a goal. We may not actually have hiked to the top of Cadillac Mountain that day but from my four-year-old point-of-view, whatever our destination; it might as well have been Everest.
Everest: a metaphor for the ultimate personal challenge, obsession, and achievement. A cliché too often used considering the awful price people pay in pain and treasure for the Everest experience. A year ago I read “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer about his tragic experience on Everest. He reached the summit but found himself caught up in one of the worst Everest disasters on record. Five of his climbing companions, including two experienced guides, died in a freak storm. Everything on Everest is freakish and unpredictable. In the death zone even the most seasoned mountaineers crumble suddenly and fatally. Climbers are at the limits of human endurance and there is little energy, time, or resources left to come to the aid of faltering companions. I am just finishing Michael Kodas’ book “High Crimes” about corruption, greed, and criminal behavior in the rush to cash in on the Everest experience. It is shocking what humans are willing to do to summit Everest and then peddle that experience to fame and fortune. My reading sparked an Everest movie night at home. We watched a video about the first blind climber to summit Everest. Erik Weihenmayer’s achievements which include climbing the “Seven Summits” got me thinking about my own resolutions and hopes for what I would like to achieve in 2012.
Like many of the difficult challenges in my life, a number of my 2011 experiences were not of my own choosing. The way I see it our most character revealing and defining experiences come not from events we plan for and choose to bring into our lives, but the ones that are thrust upon us. Suddenly, no matter what else we were planning; we are required to summon enough grit, and gumption, and positive attitude to face and overcome opportunities we would rather not. It is one thing to scrape together $65,000 and a good guide to fulfill a long-held aspiration to get to the top of Everest. It is quite another to find out that you must fight cancer, or suffer alongside a child who is critically ill, or endure the sudden death of a loved one and not let it destroy you. Actually, these kinds of experiences will destroy you. The secret is not to just survive but be born again from the ashes to a new life. Crushing challenges demand that we humbly accept that we are being formed by forces beyond our control and not be bitter about it.
This year I’ve chosen Denali as my symbol. It is the mountain of my adopted home, Alaska. It looms large in the Alaskan mind and heart and can be seen on a clear day from Anchorage to Fairbanks. I will never climb Denali and that doesn’t bother me an ounce. I realize that the idea of conquering Denali’s slopes is sufficient. Denali symbolizes the confidence that I can do hard things, I will do hard things, and I will in the process, become a better person.
For some of us the smallest steps forward can be extraordinarily difficult. But as long as we insist on pressing forward to a better version of ourselves and never stop that forward motion, we have conquered the mountain. Every person’s life journey can be a sacred journey to sacred knowledge and sacred space.
My goals are simple this year:
1. Take good care of my body. I need all the energy I can muster to do all the wonderful things that are ahead for me. Being a cancer survivor gives me additional impetus because I have already beaten the odds and should gratefully nurture the precious gift of extra years that I have been given. I will gently take care of my health.
2. Yoga. I discovered that yoga is as much about my peace of mind as it is about having a healthy body. I am a person that moves fast and crams every day with more than I should. Yoga slows me down and helps me to clear my mind. It works hand in hand with meditation and prayer.
3. Write every day. The need to write is like a spring coiling up inside of me tighter and tighter. The tension must be sprung regularly or I start turning blue. 2011 was a sparse year for writing. Blue is not a good color on me. 2012 will be a year of disciplined effort in the writing department.
4. Take lots of pictures and learn how to you use my fabulous new Canon 60D DSLR camera. Photography snuck up on me. Before the advent of digital photography, I never supposed that I would come to enjoy it so much. It is too close to the physics department and I have little confidence when it comes to math and physics. However, I discovered that I do have a talent, small as it may be, for creating a nice photograph now and then.
I’ve climbed Cadillac Mountain (at least in my imagination), a mountain in Lambs Canyon above Salt Lake City, Timpanogas peak in the Wasatch Mountains, Rendezvous Peak and Wolverine Peak in the Chugach mountains above Anchorage, Alaska. But these were all just cairns along the trail of my life, not the actual summits that allowed me larger views of where I’ve been, what I am becoming, and what I want to be. The summits and the views they give are brief. It is the climb that matters most. And so I will climb.