Once upon a time there was a woman of a certain age, gray-haired and a little thick through the middle who asked a much younger, positively lithe national park guide …well, she asked her a question she didn’t really want answered. At least not the way the guide answered. The park was, by the way, Great Basin National Park in far eastern Nevada, just over the Utah state line. It is located in a huge geographic basin–spanning from the Wasatch Mountains in Utah to the Sierra Nevada in California, which, according to the National Park Service,
…is a 200,000 square mile area that drains internally. All precipitation in the region evaporates, sinks underground or flows into lakes (mostly saline). Creeks, streams, or rivers find no outlet to either the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean.
As an aside, the woman was nearly overwhelmed with the remarkably remote beauty of the region, and would like to encourage everyone to visit. Places to stay are few and far between but if you go check out the wonderful Hidden Canyon Ranch–where hummingbirds gathered around nectar feeders in greater numbers than the woman had ever before seen in her life.
Anyway, the question the older woman asked of the younger woman was this: “Do you think I can do the Wheeler Peak hike?” And the answer she got was, without hesitation, “No.”
“is it technical? Is that why? Is it very long?” the older woman asked.
“No, it’s not technical or very long but but there’s the altitude. It’s 3,000 feet of elevation gained in 4 miles–most of the gain at the end. No, I just don’t think you could.”
Wheeler Peak summits at something over 13,000 feet. The only reason the older woman would even consider it possible is that she and her husband would drive up to the trailhead at 10,000 feet. “Did you tell her you bike 50-60 miles a week?” the husband asked, firmly in the wife’s camp. But by now the woman was miffed, feeling subject to ageism and determined to prove the guide wrong. The next morning, after picking up lunch and driving up to the start of the hike, she and her husband imagined coming back to the ranger station later in the day with tales of summiting the great Wheeler Peak.
The trail started out in a slight descent, which when you think of it is not a good thing. Then for two miles it climbed pretty gradually, through alpine meadows and past pristine lakes.
Because her husband is a wonderful man, they followed a scheme for summiting success: ten minutes hike, five minutes rest, even when the hiking was easy. Good thinking! What couldn’t be accomplished with ten minutes of walking and five minutes of resting? Although when they rested flies buzzed about and their drone reminded the woman they forgot the epi-pen her husband uses for bee stings.
And the map.
As they approached tree line they encountered their first patch of rock trail–pretty big stones making up the whole pathway. “Scree!” the woman shouted with glee. By contrast, on the way down, when it seemed they’d never return to a trail that was not pure, continuous rock underfoot, they’d navigated yet another switchback corner when her husband, somewhat uncharacteristically, muttered, “More goddamn rocks.”
In fact, on several occasions on the way up the woman considered how this was all going to go coming down. The last time she descended such a steep, rocky trail she’d made good use of some hiking sticks. Which she hadn’t brought along. But they were still going up, right?
At one point the woman swore she heard a rattlesnake.
A few hikers passed them, coming down as they ascended–one before the trees disappeared telling them they’d completed just short of half of the hike, and another when the trail had turned entirely to rock and the summit was intermittently visible. “All you’ve got left is this bunch of rocks here–oh, and the next one too, but then there’s only one more hump to the top.”
They went a couple more feet–in the woman’s case, literally on hands and knees, and now resting every five minutes because good Lord it was hard to breathe–before she came to a kind of epiphany. “I don’t think I can do it,” she said. It absolutely surprised her: at a certain point in time that day, she really thought she could. “Last fifteen minutes kind of rough?” her husband asked, more than kindly. In truth, he was breathing hard, too. “Try hour,” she said. An hour in which she more or less constantly imagined precipitous falls, sprained ankles, heart attacks. Emergency rescues. Pain. It was actually a variety of pure terror, overall.
“How about lunch?” said the fine man who was her husband. “Good idea,” she said. So they sat, and stared up for a while. But then, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, they looked down, and around.
It’s not always necessary, is it, to reach the imagined goal? Doesn’t failure, in some respects, increase possibility?
After lunch the woman patted the rocks in acquiescent defeat and she and her husband started down. It took nearly as long to descend as ascend. When they got back to the ranch and looked over the map, the woman’s husband proclaimed they’d made it to within about a half-mile of the summit–only an eighth of the distance of the whole hike!–but a distance in which they’d have to have ascended perhaps a quarter of the mountain’s elevation gain.
And, no, they didn’t go back and tell the park guide she’d been correct. Instead they had dinner and sat in the hot tub, imagining a next time. A next time they were quite certain would never happen. A next time that, even so, was forever and irrefutably possible.