Towards the mountain top, inch by inch.

Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.
— W.B. Yeats, The Land of Heart's Desire

Even if you have never stepped one foot on a mountain, you are a mountain climber.  I love that a mountain is such an iconic representation of a life challenge that everybody, even if you’ve never gone for a hike, understands the metaphor.  I fell in love with mountains at a young age – they seemed so tranquil, so peaceful and idealistic.  It wasn’t until I actually started climbing mountains that I realized the reality was shockingly different.  Mountains are dirty.  Mountains are dangerous, smelly and unforgiving.  Mountains are steep, jagged and terrifying.  But what I’ve learned is this - mountains crumble and ice melts.  And somehow, seemingly frail (by comparison) humans, climb them.  We stand on the summit and proclaim victory – we exalt in our triumph over the challenge. 

Me, circa 2014 on the summit of Glacier Peak, Washington State.

Me, circa 2014 on the summit of Glacier Peak, Washington State.

I’m not sure why I climb, but as close as I can tell, it’s because I want something more.  I have an insatiable desire to explore and experience the world around me.  I don’t want my life to be ordinary – I want it to be extraordinary.  I want the challenge and the exhilaration of conquering something much greater than myself.  And, perhaps, I have a secret hope that climbing a real mountain will give me the courage to encourage breakthroughs in my own life.   In some ways, even with the all the dangers present on a real mountain, life can seem much more challenging.

Summit of Wind River Peak, Wyoming.

Summit of Wind River Peak, Wyoming.

I feel like I had a breakthrough moment this past weekend.  I attended a nutrition conference, not really knowing what to expect.  Honestly, I would have been happy if I left feeling a tiny bit more knowledgeable.  What I did not expect is that by the last day of the event, I would be the girl sitting in the back of the room trying to hide the fact that tears were streaming down her face.  For so long I have felt like a round peg in a square hole – I am sure that most people know the feeling – that feeling that you don’t fit into the pre-determined “mold” that the world has designated for your life path.  The feeling that you need to connect with others.  The feeling that you could be doing so much more.  The feeling that you are missing out on something amazing.  The feeling that your life doesn’t match the person that you know you are.  The feeling that you are lost inside yourself and don’t know where to turn. 

Off trail travel towards Tayo Lakes, Wind River Range, Wyoming.

Off trail travel towards Tayo Lakes, Wind River Range, Wyoming.

I truly believe that we all know what that feels like to be lost on a mountain.  As a seasoned wilderness explorer, I’m never without my trusty map and compass (and let’s not kid ourselves – I have a GPS too), so I’ve literally never been lost in the wilderness.  I even have a SPOT satellite messenger, so I can send messages from the backcountry in the event of an emergency.  I always know where I am and where I’m going – I have a plan to get there.  Sometimes the route might be difficult or I might run into unexpected challenges, but I always know where I’m going.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t been like that in my life all the time.  I stumble around, sometimes taking wrong turn after wrong turn – trying to do the best I can, but without any real sense of meaning or purpose – I often find myself wondering, “What the heck am I doing and why don’t I feel fulfilled?”   And here’s the crazy thing - by society’s “standards”, I am doing everything right.  I've checked all the boxes - job, pay bills on time, eat healthy, exercise, repeat. But doing the status quo - just showing up to life everyday doesn't always feel satisfying.  I am a person who thrives on inspiration.  I thrive on excitement.  I thrive on a genuine desire to serve others.  I thrive on a genuine desire for freedom and adventure in my life.  I thrive on the relationships that I have with my husband and family and friends.  I can’t explain it all - It’s just a feeling that I know in my heart... and I know I'm not alone. 

Campsite perched at the head of the Fisher Valley, North Cascades National Park. 

Campsite perched at the head of the Fisher Valley, North Cascades National Park. 

When I think about my heart, sometimes I envision a small ember inside.  It’s always there, but sometimes it is very nearly being snuffed out.  Each time I get knocked down … each time I feel under appreciated…each time I feel like I don’t belong – my heart starts to ache.  And yet, each time I make a meaningful connection with somebody, each time I have a positive impact on a person’s life, or each time somebody has an impact on my life, I imagine a tiny little bellows blowing a little puff of air at my ember.  The more people that I connect with, the more air my ember receives.  Gradually, my ember becomes a little flame with a wisp of smoke.  With enough genuine connection, the fire in my heart is set ablaze – but not only that, it’s hungry for more – because every bonfire needs to be fueled so that it can keep burning.  And that leads me to even deeper, more meaningful connections with people – from a place of absolute gratitude for their existence and their role in my life.  When a fire to starts burn from within – the people around you are drawn to its warmth and comfort. 

Park Butte Lookout, Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest. 

Park Butte Lookout, Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest. 

I learned so much more than “nutrition information” this past weekend.  To call it a nutrition event is really a disservice.  I sat in a room near two of my close friends – I wrote the words “trust” and “gratitude” on my hand, and I nearly melted into a puddle when I thought of the word forgiveness.  Trust in myself and others.  Gratitude for absolutely everything in my life. I expressed forgiveness to others, and most importantly, I expressed forgiveness to myself.  As natural as it can seem to be kind to other people, it is perhaps the most difficult thing of all to be kind to oneself.  Feeling lost in our own personal wilderness, we tend to forget that everybody is climbing their own mountain – and that in being kind to ourselves, we can start to encourage others on their own journey. 

My mom and I, Alpine Lakes Wilderness. 

My mom and I, Alpine Lakes Wilderness. 

Years ago, my mom gave me a small painting – it is a simple image of a plant in a vase on a window sill with Mt. Fuji looming above the landscape in the background.  On the leaf of the plant is a tiny snail, creeping upwards, and the text under the image reads, “Towards the mountaintop inch by inch.”  The snail will never reach the summit of Mt. Fuji – but he keeps climbing.    When I received that painting, I immediately felt that it was a perfect metaphor for life – for my life.  Always climbing, always trying, and always moving higher and higher – aiming for something bigger.  The problem is that I never knew what that meant, until now.  One thing about a mountain is that when you make it to the top, you have to climb back down, but this is a mountain that I want to keep climbing. I still can’t see the top – and I don’t want to.   I know it’s up there, but for now, it’s shrouded in clouds and looming so high above that it almost touches the stars.  But the rumble of that mountain – the crumbling rock, the precipitous cliffs, the ancient glaciers - has reached the deepest parts my soul.   I have my map and compass, and the light of the blazing fire in my heart will show me the way. 

Glacier Peak environs. 

Glacier Peak environs.