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On Climbing Mountains

March 1, 2020

It is early spring where I live, still winter technically, but with enough of the enticing glimmer of warm golden sun to beckon us out of our homes wearing a little less than the heavy sweaters and jackets we have become accustomed to over the last few months, chilly in the early air but unwilling to admit defeat and pile on the layers again. It is an early Monday morning, and I am standing at the base of a trail with a group of friends, which is unusual in and of itself as I am more the type to stroll leisurely through the neighborhood than to sweat my way up the side of the mountains that encircle the valley where I live. But I have put on my workout clothes, and tightened the laces on my second best tennis shoes, and am now standing in the cold air, watching as the sun begins to peek over the rim of the ridge above us, gilding everything in a clear golden light. My neighbor is a dedicated hiker, one who thrills in day-long climbs up the sides of peaks that make me dizzy to think about, but she is recovering from knee surgery and has assured me that it is an easy climb, one that is well within reach of my amateur hiker status. So we face uphill, and set off, my neighbor and I, along with a group of friends and one of their daughters, a group that spans all ages and stages of life, from a teenager to mothers with small babies to mothers with young adults who are still mostly teenagers to grandmothers. We have the usual discussion of our children—their eating habits, their dating habits, their cleaning habits, their language—and as usual there is teasing and laughing and remembering and even a few tears, and reassurances that they will eventually grow out of this stage or that stage, that they will, someday, appreciate their mothers, that they will have children just like themselves and won’t that be the very best kind of revenge. We have the usual breaks in our hike as the leaders wait for the slow ones to catch up, air frosty as they breathe in and out, and I am always one of the slow ones, and out of breath no matter how hard I try to pretend otherwise, and by the time we reach the place where everyone else is waiting they are off again, like mountain goats, like women with places to be, like my children as they ran ahead of me everywhere we went when they were younger, and I wonder if I will ever be in the lead instead of following behind, although I am content at a more sedate pace, bringing up the rear, watching for streaks of color across the gradually lightening sky, listening to the chatter around me, reveling in this brief moment of peace in the cold morning air. We have the usual questions about school and work and spouses and in-laws, commiserating and rejoicing and comforting and mourning, there is no topic that is off limits and it strikes me how very much this hike and others like it are like therapy, the free kind with fresh air and wildlife, how the act of walking and talking lowers the barriers that sometimes keep us separated, that convince us no one will understand the frustrations and sorrows and joys of our lives, but suddenly we are walking side by side and just as suddenly it all comes spilling out, a torrent of words spilling down the mountain like the mud from the rain last week, frozen into rivulets of moving earth that will thaw and soften and be green with the growth of grass in a few short weeks. And too soon we reach the summit, a rolling field covered in a fine white frost, bronze colored grass frozen stiff in an absent breeze and we pause and look around and take a picture, and wonder why we don’t do this more often, and resolve that it will be a more regular thing, despite our schedules, and our children’s schedules, and the many other distractions that keep us from lacing up our second-best tennis shoes and heading into the mountains with good friends; and in this moment, frozen on the top of a large hill that can almost be called a mountain, despite my neighbor’s assurances of an easy walk, I resolve to be a better friend—to listen more, to stop by without being invited, to invite people into my home, to share the details of my life, to remember all the things that come so easily on the side of a mountain in the light of a winter’s dawn.