Monday, February 13, 2012

The Long Path

 I posted this when I started this blog, but I thought some of you might like to read the inspiration for this blog.

When I started this blog, I named it Paths to Learning because I love to take walks, especially ones that are off the beaten path. Raising 5 kids, being a stay at home mom and homeschooling besides, was another “off the beaten path” hike I took and I saw many similarities between the two.

I started to think about the hardest [non-metaphorical] path I ever took and my mind went back over 35 years to a time when my sister Gail and I were camping in Rocky Mountain National Park.

We had driven out from Michigan in her VW bug for a week’s vacation. We surveyed the topographical maps and took short hikes to accustom ourselves to the thin air and higher altitude. I always get altitude sick, so for the first few days we did the regular tourist hikes around Bear Lake, up to Emerald Lake and a few others. We took a hike up to Twin Sisters and got in a hail storm attempting Flat Top. Then, two days before we were to go back to Michigan, we went to a ranger talk in the park.

It was the old days, where the ranger built a nice fire, got out his slide projector and then proceeded to talk about the night’s theme. That night it was “Long’s Peak.” Long's Peak is the highest peak in the park—towering over the other peaks at over 14,000 feet. The East face is bleak and threatening and only skilled mountain climbers can make the peak that way; but, if you go around the back, there is an easier way.

The ranger showed flora and fauna, talked about seasons and so forth, but when he said that if you wanted to make the peak in one day you had to leave the base station at 3:00 am—Gail and I looked at each other and smiled. We have always been kindred spirits of sort, and we knew.

We were going to try it.

We actually left the fire-side program, and smelling of wood smoke and bug spray, we made our way back to our tent. Gail said, “Well?” and I nodded. We set the alarm for 2:30, packed our day packs and lay down to sleep. Morning was going to come way too soon. By 3:00 am we were parked at the trail head, dressed in layers, flashlights in hand. We signed in the trail registry, and were off.

It was dark and very lonely. I don’t know if Gail was scared, but I was. I mean, what were we doing? Two girls on a path in the mountains in the middle of the night—what were we thinking?

We started up. And up. And up. There was only one way to get there, and that was up. It was dark. Very dark. There was a low cloud ceiling so not a star, not a ray of moonlight, nothing but our feeble flashlights to show us the next step. We couldn’t see the whole trail, just the next step. I kept thinking of bears but I nearly had myself convinced they were not nocturnal, so they were probably sleeping.

The trail was rocky—I mean we were in the Rocky Mountains-what did we expect? I can’t remember who tripped first, but before long, both of us had fallen more than once and we had scratched up our hands and I think I was crying. It was awful and so dark and so hard and uphill and the air was so thin. We must be crazy. I think our flashlight broke, but maybe not.

At any rate, we were about ready to give up. I wanted to; Gail said why didn’t we try just a few more minutes. But, it was too hard for flat-landers like us. Just too hard.

Then it happened! If I live to be one hundred I will always remember this image. We came to the end of a switchback, kind of hovering over the valley below, and the sun broke through the cloud cover. The clouds were swirling around just below our feet—like waves on the beach except the sun broke over them and turned them gold and orange and red! It was like heaven itself, all shiny and glowing. The radiance was unimaginable and the whole side of the mountain leapt to life under the rays. We knew, without saying a word, that giving up was not an option.

We were going up.

After that, the going was still steep but at least we could see where we were going. We knew it was overcast and cloudy for those poor campers below, but we were above the clouds and all was right with the world. We continued on—over the boulder field [just like the ranger’s slides], through the key hole where it is so windy that on some days hikers can’t go past it because they will get blown off the mountain, and then we scrambled up the back side of Long’s Peak following the “fried egg” symbols on the rocks. There isn’t a path there, it is too rocky, so the rangers or naturalists many years ago spray painted fried egg symbols on the rocks so hikers will know where it is safe to climb.

I don’t think I mentioned why we had to leave so early in the morning. The reason is that you have to leave the summit at 11:00am to get far enough down the mountain so that when the usual afternoon storms come in you don’t get hit by lightening. I mean, you are the tallest thing in the park when you are up there, and unless you want to get fried like the egg symbols, you better be leaving the summit at 11:00 am.

We arrived at the summit, panting and exuberant! The air was so thin. We signed the register which is kept in a screw tight metal container, each ate an orange and some granola and just soaked in the view and the knowledge that we did it! We couldn’t have done it alone—no way. We needed each other. We encouraged each other. We helped each other up when we fell. Together we did it!

Then, before we knew it, it was time to head back down to our camp. Down the fried egg trail, through the key hole and across the boulder field where we picked up the path again and we were on our way down.

I can’t remember how long it took to get down, but I know we were gone about 11 hours or so altogether. What an experience! After that, no matter where we went in the park we could see Long’s Peak and we knew we had been there, we had been at the top. We could do anything!
I am not going to make analogies to parenting or homeschooling or setting goals or anything. I think you can make them yourself. I just wanted to recount this adventure so you could see the significance of my blog title, Paths to Learning.

[ Also, as a note, the total distance was 15 miles round trip, elevation 14,259 feet with a gain of 4,259 feet, difficulty rating: strenous.I found this great blog with really awesome pictures and way more description of how difficult the trail to Long's Peak really is.]

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