Every November I find myself engaging in year-end “housekeeping.” Looking back on the previous months, I make lists of people and things I’m grateful for. I also try to gauge, or at least get a glimpse at, things I’ve accomplished personally and professionally and how those things measure up to my original objectives. I make note of things I’d like to do or improve on in the future, too.
Sometimes my accomplishments are the product of goals I set for myself and worked hard to achieve. Other times they result from good luck or some other type of serendipity, or are the consequence of (thankfully good) choices I made in the past. Most of the time my achievements, as well as my flops, are fairly predictable, as they tend to be similar every year.
This year, though, I managed to surprise myself. Although it wasn’t really something we had been planning to do, my husband, Rob, and I decided several months ago to pull ourselves away from our desks and start climbing mountains, something we now do two or three days a week. This has dramatically changed our health and fitness levels, not to mention our physical appearances, and has transformed the way I think about and view the world, from the tiniest woodland plants to the problems with our health care system.
Mountain climbing, and hiking in general, has given Rob and me the opportunity to experience places we never would have visited. This year, we traveled to several locations in New England for the first time. We climbed a mountain in Quebec on Labor Day weekend. And this fall we flew to Norway, where we hiked several breathtaking mountain trails overlooking waterfalls and fjords.
We’ve also learned a lot about geology, history, forestry, edible and poisonous plants, migrating birds, weather patterns, nutrition, outdoor clothing, and the importance of advanced planning. The great amount of time we have spent in the woods has given us a new appreciation for the changing seasons and a deep respect for the power of nature. Our relationship has also been strengthened by spending so much quality time together.
If someone had told me a year ago that we would be getting up before 5 a.m. on weekends to drive to remote locations and spend several hours scrambling over boulders and navigating miles of steep, sometimes treacherous, trails, I wouldn’t have believed it. But now we do it almost every week.
Like many journeys, this one started almost by accident. It began last January, when Rob broke his hand and experienced a painful and difficult recovery. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer in early spring, we both decided we needed to take our health more seriously.
Because we had always enjoyed being outdoors, we began taking short hikes at Great Brook Farm State Park in Carlisle on our lunch breaks and on weekends. Soon we were hiking more challenging hills at Ward Reservation in Andover, and by late spring we had made it to the summit of Mount Wachusett in Princeton. We haven’t stopped climbing since.
It hasn’t always been easy. I suffered severe heat exhaustion and dehydration back in July after hiking more than 6 miles on a 100-degree day without enough water. We’ve fallen on ice, been bitten by all manner of insects, spent fraught moments searching for deer ticks (and finding them), and have endured countless blisters, painful sunburns, and a variety of cuts and bruises. In August, I lost a few toenails as the result of a harrowing descent down Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. And I’ve spent a surprising amount of money on equipment and doctor’s visits in an attempt to quiet excruciating problems with the tendons in my feet.
But it’s been worth it. Perhaps because I was never athletic growing up, climbing mountains has changed how I think about myself in a way that nothing else ever has. I have found out that if I put my mind to it, I can do things I never believed possible, even things that are really, really hard.
There are goals I’d still like to meet; climbing bigger mountains, for example. And although there are many things I’m grateful for this year, mountains are high on the list. Knowing what we have been able to achieve, especially as middle-aged adults, makes me optimistic about what I might be able to accomplish in the years to come.