Sunday, August 7, 2016

Lessons of the Chilkoot Trail #3

Question for my Third Third: If it’s not enjoyable, why am I doing it?

Climbing the Golden Stairs required intense focus. Mountain climbers like that feeling, they say it makes them feel really alive. I like intense focus, too; I call it “flow.” My flow comes from a creative activity: art, writing, theater, problem-solving. Not from clinging to a rock on a mountainside.

It wasn’t just the Golden Stairs. The whole Chilkoot Trail requires focus. Every footstep has to be planted, whether it’s over a shaky plank or on rocks through a creek, through rocks and scree on an eroding trail or assessing the depth of mud. You can’t just amble along, idly hiking and humming like Winnie-the-Pooh without looking at your feet. When we’d get to the rare spruce needle path, I’d shout hooray and relish the cushiony simplicity of merely walking and looking around.
What I like about hiking: the big, wide, expansiveness of Nature, how it invades your senses without any extra attention.

What bothered me about the Chilkoot: the big, wide, expansiveness of Nature was where I placed my foot. Sure I stopped frequently and looked around and marveled, but the focus was on the ground, on my next step. I had to interrupt to appreciate the Nature around me.

On the other hand, the terrain and landscape was spectacular. I look at photos I took and gasp at the beauty.
I think fondly of the people I met along the trail. By traveling from camp to camp, you meet up at the end of each day’s hike. The crowd from Sea to Sky Expeditions became special from the very first. Nathalie and Kate shared their gourmet meals, and we all shared conversation. Marty and 12-year-old Lucas were a particular delight; camp didn’t feel complete till I found them each day.

Afterwards, relaxing at the end of the Trail, at the last camp in Bennett, I looked at the photos Lee took on the Golden Stairs. (She lifted her hands to take a photo!) Joan and Barbara were on two legs, not all fours. “This must have been after the first false summit, right?”

“No, that was on the main part.” But how could they stand up??? I don’t understand. Was I just crawling when everyone else was walking? I was all alone so I had no one to observe (even if I could take my eyes off my immediate hand-holds). How real was my horror?

I emailed the National Park Service and Parks Canada to find out just how steep the Stairs are, and they told me “that the Golden Stairs hill has an average slope angle of 35 degrees with the steepest part measuring in at 45 degrees about 3/4 of the way up the Stairs.” That is VERY, VERY STEEP. I am not just a scaredy-cat.
So now we’re back at Barbara’s question: “What exactly was the point?”

Was it some bucket-list aspiration? Was it about conquering some difficult task and feeling the pride of accomplishment? Was it about stretching myself? Or was it about enjoying the company of women in the beauty of Nature?

It was all those things. But you don’t conquer the fear of heights. You stifle it, get past it, don’t let it limit your life choices, but you don’t enjoy it. I once took a behavior modification class where people learn to get over fears. We began with the intellectual: is the catastrophe you imagine realistically going to happen? The next step is doing a lot of the fear-inducing thing till you’ve minimized it. Finally, there are relaxation and calming exercises.

The only thing that worked on that mountain was brute emotional force.

And let me tell you about relying on brute emotional force: it’s not what I want for my Third Third. That’s it. I’ve earned – and learned – better. It’s no test I want to “pass”; it’s a test I don’t even want to take. I have it, I’m capable of doing it, but I don’t have to seek it out.

Would it be a terrible shame if I’d missed all the glorious aspects of Nature on the Chilkoot Trail? If I hadn’t seen all those artifacts close up? If I hadn’t met all the warm-hearted people I spent time with on the Trail, shared the camaraderie of the women? No, there are more beautiful places in the world than any of us can visit in one lifetime. Find one that fuels your soul.

I say this, and I mean it. This is the lesson I’m taking from the Chilkoot Trail. But I’m beginning to think the Chilkoot Trail is like labor and delivery. After a while, the discomfort fades and you tell jokes about it, laugh over it. It didn’t kill you, right?

If you find me laughing about being terrified on that mountain, smack me about the head.


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