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On climbing mountains and moving forward.

Camelback Mountain – so named because from a distance it does, indeed, look like a camel, laying down, with its hump rising up high out of the desert – sits on the edge of Phoenix, AZ.

My work takes me to Scottsdale, AZ every January, and the retreat center where we stay is just across from the land at Camelback’s base. It’s a startling, bare sort of beauty, the way the mountain emerges from darkness at dawn and returns to darkness at dusk, the dominant thing from any viewpoint, and sometimes, well into evening, stars and moon lend their light just right and you can make out an inky outline of Camelback’s peak.

Camelback rises to about 2700 feet in elevation – it does so with no graciousness, no easing in – it is straight up, no mercy, and with, along the Echo Canyon Trail at least, multiple, “This is a good time to turn back if you are already struggling,” signs. There are no gently winding paths. No shaded hills. No spots to rest, really, even. You just go. Over giant rocks and around massive boulders and outcroppings, and if heights are not your thing there’s more than one place where looking down is not advisable. There are no fences between you and the sheer, rocky side of Camelback.

This past January, looking at Camelback the first night at the retreat center, I thought, “I need to climb that mountain.” I’d done it once before – ten years and another lifetime ago. But this time felt different. I needed to know that trauma and cancer and pandemic and work challenges and anything else could not keep me from this very difficult – both physically and mentally – thing.

It’s pure stupid to attempt such a thing on your own, so thankfully, when I suggested to my coworker that we have a sort of staff retreat and climb a mountain together he did not flinch. “If we can do this, we can surely raise that extra quarter of a million we need this year, right?”

Right.

We got water. Sunscreen. Snacks. We fully charged our phones and texted our departure time to two colleagues, promising to check in along the way.

Less than 20 minutes in I remembered why Echo Canyon Trail is described as “an intense and difficult anaerobic hike.” In just 1.2 miles it ascends 1280 feet. Sure, it’s no Kilimanjaro, but if your jam is usually a tame few miles of jogging through your neighborhood on a nice morning, well, it’s a bit of shock. 

And y’all, there’s one stretch of boulder climbing where if there is any way out, you are tempted to take it. Hand over hand, legs stretched as far as they’ll go, every muscle poised to boost you from boulder to the next, and as far as you can see, just more of the same. The only way out is up. And the only way up is to just do it – focused, careful, determined, and pushing away every single bit of fatigue. 

It feels as if it will never end. As if the summit, which is less than a quarter mile away at that point, will never actually appear and you’re going to be climbing that damn mountain until the day you die. 

I may have teared up at one point. And I definitely wondered what in the holy hell I’d been thinking. 

But then–I swear to you–I thought, “If you can do chemotherapy, you can do this. If you can be an only parent, you can do this. And if you can do this, you can certainly get that massive grant report done next month, you can certainly figure out managing your kid’s schedule and finances and home projects and Every. Thing. Else.”

Every. Thing. Else.

***

Y’all.

We’ve all got everything else. It’s just really difficult to find a way forward right now. For everyone I know. And whatever else we’ve got going on in our lives, we’re also all carrying this background communal anxiety– inflation and Covid and Ukraine and worrying about our kids in the midst of all these things and…good lord. I could go on and on. So could you. 

“Everything hurts,” a friend of mine said recently in a text message, and I knew what she meant. There’s just so much so horribly wrong. 

The day I started chemotherapy, my oncologist said to me, “You’re anxious today, Julie.” I laughed, super nervously, and said, “Shouldn’t I be?” He smiled and nodded his head, but then said, “It will be okay.” As the daughter of a cancer survivor, I’ve spent just about my entire adulthood fearing its presence in my life, and here I was, a chest port newly installed and IV drugs already making their way into my system when I’d barely had time to process the diagnosis. 

“You’re anxious today,” felt like the understatement of a lifetime. But there was no way out. There was only forward. Straight through the difficulty, trusting that somewhere, ahead, was something worth getting to. 

***

When the last bit of rocky hell that is the Echo Canyon Camelback climb gives way to a relatively easy few steps that get you to the summit, there’s something that gives inside you – it’s like the last hour or so’s difficulty realizes it was kind of a jerk and eases up long enough for you to regroup, catch your breath, and then … y’all…then…there are no words for the view spread before and around you. Miles and miles stretching in every direction, the air so sharp and the vista so clear that you just sort of collapse into the raw beauty of it, able, for a moment, to rest in the truth that you just did a really hard thing and you’ve every right to bask in the moment. 

We’re capable of so much more than we ever give ourselves credit for, y’all – I’m convinced with all that I am that God breathed into us what we’d need to live the life that same God calls us to. 

Hear that again: I believe God has given us what we need. Even when we cannot see it. Even when it seems so damn hopeless. Even when our hearts are broken beyond what can be spoken. Even when nothing seems like it could ever possibly be okay again. 

God has given us what we need. And has done so with a Love that cannot be matched, moved, changed or lost. 

***

You’re exhausted, I know.

You’re terrified, I know.

You’re overwhelmed with grief, and you’ve lost whatever scrap of hope you might have been clinging to. 

Your heart has been broken, again, and you can’t see how it will ever piece itself back together. 

I know. 

The weight of the world seems impossible.

I know. 

The summit seems unreachable. 

You can do this. I promise. 

And if you can do this, there isn’t anything else, ever, that you cannot do. 

God has given you what you need. 

2 thoughts on “On climbing mountains and moving forward.

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