I was, for all practical purposes, airborne.
The moment my toes discovered the underside of a hitherto unknown tree root lurking deviously beneath a sheath of leaves, I knew the introduction was not going to be favorable. You see, the tree root was not only wily but stubborn, and while the rest of my body continued an eight-minute pace down the trail, my right foot was inconveniently detained. And because my right foot is connected to my right leg, which in turn is connected to the rest of me, I soon found myself experiencing the dubious privilege of unassisted flight.
One of the great wonders in life is the extraordinary number of thoughts our minds can process when we are in a situation that has the potential to end very badly. We’ve all used the phrase, “My life flashed before my eyes.” Such an occurrence is an impressive phenomenon when you consider that, usually, such flashbacks take place in a very short amount of time—such as the time it takes to exceed the rocking capacity of a rocking chair after a particularly aggressive push to prove that the chair won’t, in fact, flip over.
Not that I’ve ever done that.
At any rate, as I soared through the air, I rifled through the customary litany of “I’m falling” mental transactions. I made a quick peripheral survey to see if anyone was around to witness the impending pileup. There was not, and I was momentarily overcome with relief and gratitude, despite the fact that I was still parallel with the ground. I then proceeded to a self-congratulatory list of possible damages I was about to sustain—like one of those choose-your-ending books, only slightly more macabre. Puncture wounds, broken bones, lacerations, muscle contusions, and head trauma with resultant memory loss all marched through my brain as sufficiently sympathy-inducing injuries. I even had time to imagine a doctor inspecting one of my wounds only to find a more noxious condition, like appendicitis or botulism. I envisioned myself relating my fate to concerned friends and family members, and before I hit the ground, the story had blossomed into a historic defeat that involved barbed-wire fencing, a torrential downpour, and a mountain lion.
Alas, when I finally reunited with the earth, the impact was less dramatic than I had anticipated. That weird half-hope that I was going to have some spectacular story to tell and an equally impressive injury to show for it (strangely morbid, I know) was unceremoniously squashed. Instead, something much more boring happened.
There was no fanfare; there were no gasps of horror or cries of despair from worried onlookers. I didn’t suffer some great injury that required a pilgrimage to the emergency room. In fact, other than a few scrapes and bruises, I didn’t suffer any real injuries at all. The simple truth was I had fallen, and it had hurt—a lot. I was still several miles from my car, and I was alone. I stood up and started running again. I was in pain. Everything hurt. But that fact of the matter was that I could keep going. And so, carrying my silent and invisible wounds, I did.
Everybody talks about the mountaintop experience in life. And most of us have heard the caveat that you have to walk through the valley before you can stand on the summit. I get it. Our low times are the metaphorical valley. Our high times are the metaphorical mountaintop.
But what about the metaphorical climb from the one to the other?
I think literal mountain climbing must be slightly more enjoyable than metaphorical mountain climbing. Have you ever seen those people in the Patagonia catalogs and National Geographic? They look so happy scaling the most harrowing of obstacles, from glaciers to mountains to gravity-defying rock formations, and each of their photos is tagged with a gratuitously quotidian caption, like “A Day in the Dolomites” or “What to Wear When Trekking in Nepal.”
Do most people go trekking in Nepal? I find myself wondering as I flip the pages of an REI catalog, scanning the prices of everything from sub-zero sleeping bags to a keychain that features both a spatula and a titanium axe. When do they do this? Before work? When do I get to trek in Nepal? If I buy the North Face jacket on page 18, can I go?
Metaphorical mountain climbing is slow going and littered with unseen obstacles ready to send us tumbling head over heels when we least expect it. Just when we think we’ve found a steady rhythm of ascent, our toes get caught in a root, and our world is brought to a screeching halt. Instead of moving forward, we find ourselves sitting on the ground, alone, with not much to show for our suffering. Our body aches from the impact; our muscles are sore from being twisted and strained. We’re still miles from our destination, and we have no other choice but to get up and keep climbing.
There was no glory in our fall. We didn’t conquer anything. We had no great battle wounds to warrant sympathy. The scrapes were cleaned and the dirt brushed off before anyone came around. On the outside, we looked fine. On the outside, we had simply tripped and fallen. But it had hurt. A lot.
That’s the thing about metaphorical mountain climbing. It’s not very glamorous. And most of the time, it just hurts. But we do it because we have served our time in the valley, and we are determined to ascend from the shadows to the heights. Day by day, we climb in our decisions, driven by the belief that what we are doing is right. Day by day, we climb in our thoughts, knowing that what we are doing is necessary. Day by day, we climb in our words and in our silence, refusing to settle. Day by day, we climb in our actions, propelled by the confidence that something greater is waiting for us at the top.
Day by day, driven by conviction, we take our upward steps.
Far from being award-winning documentary material, metaphorical mountain climbing is often long and difficult, slow and painful, tiring and terrifying. Occasionally, it is very, very lonely. Often we will take one step without knowing what the next will look like. Rarely will we know how much it will hurt or when it will end. But ironic though it may seem, sometimes it is a mercy that we can’t see the entire trail laid out before us. The steepness and distance can be overwhelming. Instead of anticipating the challenges ahead, we must focus on the path immediately before us and live in the moment we’re in. In metaphorical mountain climbing, the only certainty is that we must keep going up.
Because, as the saying goes, even the tallest mountain is climbed one step at a time.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014.