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Trekking with a Marshmallow [Nerd on a Wire]

Before I narrowly evaded the cold hand of death in the Peruvian Jungle, I spent four days walking up a steep hill and had some learnin’ laid on me by a roundish 4’10” Cambodian-American in an all white hiking ensemble.

I’d intended the Steep Hill part of the trip to be a physical challenge rigorous enough to balance out the mental/spiritual challenge of the spiritual retreat part of the trip. And so it was. The hill was, as advertised, steep. Climbing said hill at an altitude in excess of 16,000 feet was, as expected, incredibly difficult (take three steps, stop until lungs stop burning, take three more steps). But I managed with relative aplomb. Despite having lungs that, medically speaking, don’t “work right,” I kept pace with 21 year old outdoorsy types. Go me.

It was nice to learn that I can, in fact, walk up Steep Hills. But I learned much more from the Woman in White (let’s call her “S”) than from my own ability to put one foot in front of the other.

See, S failed at the walking. Spectacularly.

At the orientation meeting the night before we set off, S talked a big game. She embodied almost every single negative American stereotype. Overweight, obnoxiously loud, not curious about the country she’d come to for this, as she termed it, “spiritual journey.”

The next morning, we were supposed to get to our departure point by 5 AM. She arrived at 5:20.

We drove about three hours to the base of the Steep Hill. We set off. S, in all white, looked like a marshmallow. She trundled along for the first hour or so. And then stopped. From a vantage point about 50 feet above her, I saw the marshmallow stop walking and bend over. Then it wobbled. And then it toppled over.

One of the guides rushed up and strapped an oxygen mask to S’s face. Soon, she was draped over the back of a mule and, thus placed, continued her ascent.

Most of the group made it to our camp at about 4 PM. S arrived, mule born, at 5:30.

Now, if it had been me who toppled over (or worn all white on a hiking trip. . .the GALL!), I would have been full of apologies and self-recrimination. “Sorry guys,” I would have said, “I suck. I’m a terrible person and I hate myself for not knowing how to walk up hill.” Then I might have taken out a whip and flagellated myself mercilessly.

S did not do this. She handled it all with…grace. She made a couple of jokes, expressed appreciation for our concern and then said something along the lines of “You can only do what you can do, I guess. And I can’t walk up this hill. Gotta know your limitations. I’m here, that’s enough.”

Ends up that all the loud-talking from the orientation meeting had been concealing nervousness about the strenuous climb ahead. Ends up that S was kind of…awesome. She’d been on her own since coming to the US as a pre-teen, had recently gotten her citizenship and had depths of compassion for herself and others that blew me away. She still had regrettable choice in hiking clothes, but, you know, every book needs an ugly cover to conceal the beauty beneath.

Hopefully I’ll have the chance to fail at something as memorably as S failed at walking uphill. And when I do, I hope that move through it with the same level of grace, humility, and compassion for myself.

Speaking of humility: did I mention how I totally kept pace with pretty fit 21 year olds? No?  Well, I did. And that was awesome.

featured image credit: orangesparrow

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