The Mountaintop – Part V: The Back Story

Here’s part of the story that nobody knows — the start of the story of how we got to the mountaintop.

Back in December, I was badly sunburned, sitting in a bar in Santiago, Chile.  I had gone to South America to bask in the sun for about two weeks and burn off a backlog of self-doubt.


Under the influence of a bottle of local wine, I decided my 2011 goal would be: Climb Mount Whitney.  It was something that had been kicking around in my head for years.  I am not sure how seriously my friends took my announcement that this is what I wanted to do, and that, since I couldn’t do it alone, some combination of them would be doing it with me.  Maybe they were so used to my edicts that they perceived them as invitations…and so I entered all of our names in the hiking permit lottery.

Time went on; they forgot about it.  Then, in early April, I noticed a charge from the Park Service on my credit card, which meant that we had received a permit.  This was really happening.  I sent out an email entitled: Friday Inspiration, with a photo of the mountain attached.

The next day, I was hit by a car.

Two days later, I found out that the man I had been dating for some time had been cheating on me.  His betrayal was more personal than run-of-the-mills infidelity — the whole mess tugged at the ties that bound Winesday.

I didn’t realize how significant the car accident and the betrayal were to the Climb until a few days later when I was sitting at SFO with an old friend.  I was travelling between the airport and Monterey for a wedding; he was on his way home.  I was immensely grateful for the friendly face; still so shell-shocked that I couldn’t articulate what had just happened.  My friend and I were finishing our tea — I was headed out of the airport and he was heading for his flight.  He looked at my vacant face and my sling-bound arm and said something like: How are you getting down the coast?  Are you driving?  Are you sure you can drive?

It hadn’t fully occurred to me until then that I had been hit by a car a week prior.  Nor had it registered that I had a two hour drive ahead of me and I hadn’t considered whether I could actually drive with only one arm.

But I did it.  Awkwardly.

As I drove down the coast, waking up from my stupor, I stopped at an REI store off the 101.  Okay, I said, Focus.  REI will have maps and books on California mountains.  Find some information on Mount Whitney.  Organize the rest of the Spring around this. Focus on something other than what just happened.  Move on.

I gave it some more thought.  No.  Screw that.  Give it up.  You were betrayed.  You should’ve known this would happen.

I texted my brother.  His response:  How could you have known? And stop dating short guys.

I got out of the car, and wandered around REI.  As I flipped through the Mount Whitney materials with my one good arm, I started to sweat a cold, panicky sweat.

Should I forgive, forget? Should I climb this mountain anyway?  What is going to happen to this group of friends I hold so dear? 

In another life, at another time, I might have called my grandfather for advice.  But he had died six years earlier.  However, he gave me a bit of wisdom at my high school graduation when I was an hour out from speaking at the event and terrified about the coming uncertainty.  He held on to me, then held up a tissue, which I thought was for my tears.

Take off your lipstick, he commanded, And get out there. You can do this, Baby.  You’re going to do this.  There was such conviction in his encouragement, it was as if the world would make sense again if I would just take off my lipstick.

(I took off the lipstick and delivered the speech.  And my life sorted out just fine.)

I drove, then, from REI to Monterey.  I had last spent a significant amount of time in that part of California during the opening stages of my divorce; back when I had climbed Half Dome with Jade and organized my life around THAT climb in the face of uncertainty.  So I drove until I found a spot on a beach.  I parked, got out and sat on a bench, desperately missing the man who would’ve told me how to proceed.  I had hit a wall, and we hadn’t even started the journey.  But on the beach, arm throbbing, I was ready to consider whether this hike was still a good idea.  I had no clue what to do next about the permit I’d just received; the goal I’d arbitrarily set; the women with whom I was supposed to climb a goddamned mountain.

There was no reason I had to decide right then and there, but for some reason, because I had made so many significant life decisions on the shores of the Pacific, it seemed necessary.

Then my phone buzzed.  It was my friend eee, just checking in.  Which was, in that moment, kindness enough to get me over the wall.  I stood up from the bench; pulled out a tissue and wiped my lips.  I could do this; I was going to do this.

When I got back to New York the following week, I wrote the second Inspiration Mail email for our Mount Whitney climb.  I never looked back.

(To be continued…)


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