Sunday, August 9, 2009

Not Just a Mountain, Not Just a Walk

When I lived in Illinois, or The Shire as I like to call it, all that flatness and rolling green monotony tended to unnerve me after awhile. I'd been born and raised in The West, where the landscape can be desolate and magnificent, where mountain ranges offer shelter and safety, and the people, for all their crazy religious and political faults, are wild and dangerous, but somehow beautiful in their purity. After months in Chicago's suburbs, nothing brought me more joy or peace of mind than returning home to Idaho, driving up to my special spot in the mountains that surround Pocatello and sitting or walking in silence while a summer breeze played with the bumblebees and wildflowers, or a winter wind ravished the junipers and the sandstone cliffs. Mountain Therapy, I called it, and it was so precious to me that only a few hours of it could sustain my mental health for months, or even a year.

When Ken and I moved to Denver ten years ago we spent our weekends exploring the area, driving up to Lyons and Estes Park where we sipped Bloody Mary's at the Stanley Hotel, or visiting Keystone and Steamboat, venturing south to Pikes Peak and Colorado Springs, where the crazies live, driving through the San Juan Mountains and over Wolf Creek Pass, feeling as though the car was flying and not touching the ground at all. Ken had grown up in the Midwest and there was something magical about watching his face each time we rounded a curve in the road and entirely new vistas opened up before us, jutting mountains, treacherous valleys, an endless expanse of desert, sage and antelope.

And then I got sick. I couldn't conceive of visiting the mountains let alone leaving the safety of my home. The anxiety robbed me of much of my ability to enjoy the things which were at the core of who I was. For an entire summer I laid on my couch unable to read a book or watch television or listen to music. Duncan stayed with me, though, and looked after me, offering his weight as a brace when I was so dizzy I could only crawl to the bathroom. When the panic attacks got bad, when my chest felt as though it would explode and my brain throbbed and raced as though it already had, when I couldn't breathe and began doubting my strength and how much more I could endure, he would climb onto the couch, step softly onto my chest and look directly into my eyes, matching his breathing to my own and then slowly, almost imperceptibly take longer and deeper breaths, soothing me and bringing the calm I thought would elude me forever. When I had no faith in myself or my doctors, Duncan stepped forward and reminded me that magic still exists in the world and that not all of it could, or should, be explained.

There have been a hundred small triumphs in the four years since, almost all of them things that most people don't even have to think about, like driving to work, going to a movie, standing with pride in a crowd of two-hundred thousand people at an Obama rally, traveling to and from Idaho in severe weather with only Duncan and my magic feathers to keep me sane. But yesterday, quite unexpectedly, The Universe offered me another chance to reclaim a part of myself I felt had been lost.

Duncan, Olive, Winnie, Pip and I had hunkered down on the couch, pulling the blinds, turning on the AC, trying our best to avoid the heat which raged outside. It was a bright day, hot and dry. The dew had burned off the grass early and I didn't really want to go outside, but after Duncan, sprawled beside me, sighed with boredom and turned to rest his chin on my hip––unsettling poor Winnie, who only barely tolerates him––I decided we needed to try something new. A walk through the park just wouldn't cut it, so before I knew quite what I was doing, I'd started packing water bottles and doggy bags, sunscreen and everything else we'd need for a nice afternoon walk in the mountains. It was time for a little Mountain Therapy.

Moments after making the decision, we were in my car and on the road to Chautauaqua Park in Boulder. I've been there several times, once to see my friend Marc graduate from Naropa, once with Rick on a day when the mountainside was taken over by a mother bear and her two cubs, and once two years ago when Traci had paid me a visit. We had taken Duncan and attempted to climb the trail to the Royal Arch, but Traci is an asthmatic from Chicago (elevation 500 feet) and I was a smoker and the trail was a lot more strenuous than we'd anticipated for a leisurely Autumn walk. We made it halfway, which was a good place to turn around, especially since neither of us was serious about the climb. We simply wanted to be outside where the air was crisp and smelled of pine.

Yesterday was much warmer, which made the shade that much sweeter. The climb through the meadow to the base of the Flatirons was tough in the heavy sunlight, but once we reached the treeline and began the ascent, the air cooled and the breeze coming down the canyons was sweet and gentle. The rocks and eroded trail, however, were not, and as the switchbacks became steeper and more frequent my anxiety began to increase. I poured Duncan water into his fold-up travel bowl and took sips from the bottle, watching as our supply began to dwindle. Halfway up my inner conversation amped up and I began to doubt we'd make it at all. I know my limits––have become well acquainted with them over the course of the past four years--and took no shame in the thought of turning back. But we didn't. We pressed on, taking frequent breaks to rest against the sides of enormous boulders and listen to the silence of the mountains, the call of the hawks and the scurrying of the chipmunks playing tag in the wild berry bushes along the edge of the trail. People often passed us, but once we resumed our march we'd pass them as they rested in their own spots.

It was grueling and at times frightening. As the doubt and panic increased I started worrying not about reaching the goal, but the return hike and the subsequent drive back to Denver in heavy afternoon traffic. Each step up that occasionally nearly-vertical trail became more and more difficult. I began to judge myself based on the ease with which our fellow hikers marched along unaware of the difficulty I was facing, not just physically, but emotionally as well. Their mountain was not my mountain. We were on two completely different journeys, two different paths.

And then, after nearly two hours of marching up steep canyons and back down through winding valleys, we neared the end. The blood was pumping in my ears. The back of my neck was constricted and ached. My heart raced in my chest. Duncan was panting and kept looking at me questioningly, as though unsure of my safety. But we marched on, a small group of people in front of us and a couple out for a leisurely afternoon behind us. Dizzy and on the verge of utter panic, my despair and self-loathing at their peak, I collapsed on a rock and sat taking huge gulps of air as a million thoughts raced through my mind: Why had I done this? Why had I done it alone? Why had I left the cell phone in the car? Why had I not brought more water? Who did I think I was that I could accomplish something like this? Who would help us if something happened? What would happen to Duncan if I was carried down the mountain a raving lunatic?

I shook my head and heard that part of my brain I know too well rise up and speak to me. You don't have to go on. You can turn around. It's not a big deal.

And then, as if in answer, the woman in front of us, the self-proclaimed leader of her group, turned back and saw me. She hopped down a few rock outcroppings toward us and yelled at me. "Come on, man. Get up. You can do it. You've only got three minutes and you're there."

I felt my body collapsing inside itself and shook my head again. "I don't have three minutes in me," I gasped.

She came closer. "Turn around," she yelled at me. "Turn around and look. You're there! Forty-five seconds! Get up now!"

I looked over my shoulder and saw it, the Royal Arch, an enormous stone bridge crossing from one side of the trail over the other. I could not calm myself enough to think, so Duncan, sitting at my feet, panting and watching me, thought for me. His leash was around my wrist and curled tightly in my hand. He jumped to his feet and scrambled up the last few boulders, his feet nimbly catching on each rock and propelling him forward. I had no choice but to follow. I stumbled after him, leaving the water bottle where I'd been sitting. I crawled on all fours up the boulders under the arch, and then suddenly we were at the top looking out on forever. And with my good dog, my amazing best friend at my side, everything stopped as I caught my breath and let it all go.

There we stood at the top of the mountain, the city of Boulder spread out before us, and Denver beyond that, and an eternity of green plains vanishing into a horizon I suspect was Kansas and Nebraska. The silence was loud and unmistakable, even over the soft conversation of the others who'd gathered to sit and marvel at the size of the world. Duncan perched on a rock and licked my calf as I scratched the top of his head and felt my chest fill with air and relief.

While the others whispered and looked out on their well-earned reward, I sat with Duncan and hugged him, actually teared up as I pressed my face into his chest and whispered over and over again, thank you, thank you, thank you. Once again, Duncan had known me better than I knew myself, had faith in me where I had none, had literally dragged me to my own salvation. My climb meant something different––not more or less––than the climb the others had made. I hadn't conquered the trail or the mountain, I'd beat my fear, which has been great and terrible but now seems a little more transparent, something not quite so permanent.

Eventually I was able to compose myself and made small talk with the others gathered beneath the arch. I took a picture of the couple who'd followed us up and promised to email it to them. The man, Jim, gave me his email address, which he was sure I would forget, but have not. That moment is sealed in my memory, every part of it––the shaking of my legs, the burning of my lungs, the sound of the air at that altitude, the colors of the world. They will be a part of my body forever. That climb is now built into me, a piece of my fabric, something which can never be undone.

After a good long while we began our descent, Duncan leading the way sniffing for chipmunks while I smiled into the sunshine. I repeated the stranger's email address like a mantra and before I knew it we found ourselves back in the broad meadow at the base of the Flatirons, the ache gone from my legs and my spirit a thousand pounds lighter. A storm was gathering over the mountains but the thunder, gray and heavy, and echoing off the rocks, sounded like triumph and glory in my ears. I was practically dancing by the time we reached the car, where Duncan and I shared a bottle of water as the first small, hot raindrops spattered against the asphalt and our skin. The earth smelled, like grass and late Spring and I could not contain the emotion inside me.

I am getting better, one small but significant step at a time.

There are much worse things than anxiety in this world, like the loss of loved ones to terrible diseases, or unjustifiable wars, poverty and hatred. My story isn't much, but I'm glad it's mine. Getting sick and then getting better has taught me that no task is too small, that everything has significance and worth, that the destination, however beautiful and rewarding is not nearly as remarkable as the journey.

And that there is nothing--nothing!--better than traveling through this life with a good friend at your side.


Charlie said...

Way to go, Curt and Duncan!

Greg said...

Congratulations, my friend! What a grand and delightful accomplishment this was...a magic feather to keep in your heart. Just about anything's possible with a good pal at your side.

Miley said...

Wow, what a great post!!! Those pics are beautiful!!! And you sure did sum it all up with your last sentence!!!Have a wonderful day!!!


Lori said...

Wonderful, wonderful story! The wilderness gives me peace, and I haven't been in it for too long. How wonderful that you and Duncan, and the people you met along the way, got to share such a glorious experience.

CJ/Rick said...

Beautiful story Curt. Oh and beautiful pictures as well. You and Duncan make a goodlooking pair of mountain climbers.

Marty said...

Congratulations, Curt. And, Duncan, Thank you so much for being the incredibly loyal and devoted friend you are.

Ruth said...

Again you've moved me to tears. That. Was. Beautiful. I don't even have words. I just need to tell you that I heard you and I GET how big of a deal that was for you and I am over the moon that you did it.

Anonymous said...

BEAUTIFUL...just beautiful. I too have anxiety. have a hard time leaving my home, driving in the, meeting new people, going into new places. You beautifully said what i feel in your last sentence. i'm in tears!

Anonymous said...

It is a big deal to look anxiety in the face and conquer it. Those of us who also suffer with anxiety know this story all too well.

Congrats on the beautiful achievement.

fireopal66 said...

Hi Curt,
I just looked through your blog and am so happy to see it and to know you. You are an amazing writer!! I love Duncan, and your descriptions and your feelings totally had me in tears. I loved seeing you at your reunion and am thrilled to see you here and know you a bit better. Great Job on the climb. Have a wonderful day!! Wendy

Traci said...

What a beautiful post, Curt! I know how amazing it must have felt to reach that summit. Wish I could have been back there to make it all the way to the arch with you.

Marie said...

Your dad posted your blog address on facebook. I used to work at RFM with him and think he is an amazing man. I still see him every now and then. I was reading your blog, and it turns out that we have much in common. I am a dog nut, and own 2 large, happy golden retrievers. I also suffer from anxiety, depression and panic attacks, but have been, and am still going through therapy (long story), although I'm healing slowly. I am so impressed with your trek up the mountain. Right now,I can't get on the freeway, but am working on it. I have a love for the outdoors and the simple things in life. I loved your comment on the look of your partner's face when he discovered the beauty of new territory.

On that note, I do hope that you will allow me to put a link on my blog to yours. You can find me at

You are an amazing writer and I look forward to your entries. Thanks for sharing. . .


Scout 'n Freyja said...

What we can endure and accomplish when we think we cannot go another step is astounding. When we have a good friend by our side, our soul rises up to conquer fears and to take on challenges that had been frightening but in the end...become precious memories.

Cheryl said...

You've accomplished much this year. Keep on climbin! I can't wait for the book (you tell it and I'm there with you feeling it all). I'm very proud of you.XO

J Lowe said...

That photo of Duncan looking back at the camera, tongue out, is my all-time favorite to date.
Wish I could be part of your world.
I have been through a lot of this. My love and positive thoughts go out to you regularly.

caboval said...

Curt, I just love you! That was so inspirational!!! Duncan is a Godsend and such a special guy! I could almost feel the pressure in my chest as you were making it up the hill and relief when you made it to the arch! Thank you for such a great post! Hugs and kisses, Valerie Joey and Kealani

Lori said...

Curt, I left you a present over at FF!

Kevi said...


I was going through my cell phone's messages last night. I still have your message from that day. Your voice was exuberant and free. The photo of you and Dunc with the arch behind you made my stomach flip as if I were on a rollercoaster.

I am proud to have you as a friend.

I am simply proud of you.