After four intense days at a writers’ conference in Denver a few years back, my friends Andrea and Heather stayed over for a day or two in Boulder with hopes of relaxing and doing a bit of hiking. I had hiked in Virginia with no problems. But Virginia is at sea level. It’s also basically a swamp.
Colorado is different – it’s high and dry. Denver is called the Mile High City because it’s roughly a mile above sea level. We traveled up into the mountains, higher than the 5,280 feet above sea level that we had spend the previous days acclimating to.
The day we decided to climb the Flatirons, we walked about a mile uphill to get to the base of the trail. I was winded and tired, but I figured I had seen the worst of it. I was wrong.
We took pictures of signs posted warning hikers what to do if they came across a bear. Heather and I pantomimed exhaustion at the base of the trail. I had no idea what was to come.
As we climbed, I became more and more winded. My chest hurt. Around me, children and their parents ran up and down the trail with no problem. This led me to a series of revelations: I was clearly overweight, out of shape, and likely dying. I kept asking Heather and Andrea to stop and rest. My muscles screamed at me.
At one point, I sat on a boulder and felt the urge to simultaneously cry and throw up. I didn’t know which was stronger until my eyes filled with tears and my sunglasses fogged. Andrea offered me trail mix, but I didn’t want trail mix. I wanted to go back down the trail. I kept thinking, I’ll wait for them at the base. I’ll quit. They won’t hate me. I’ll just tell them I can’t do it and I’ll quit.
I didn’t quit. I kept going. At one point, Andrea tried to show me the trail map.
“Look,” she said, “we’re almost to the mesa. Do you know what mesa means?”
I wiped tears away, angry at myself for crying. “No.”
“Mesa means table. Do you know why they call it the mesa?” She looked so hopeful.
“No,” I said. I didn’t speak Spanish, and I didn’t speak outdoors. I was so violently out of my element that I was ashamed.
“Because it’s flat!” I suppose I gave her no sign of recognition because she explained further. “We’re almost to flat land. And then it’s downhill.”
We reached the mesa, and when we crossed it a little ways, we came to a clearing dotted with cairns. Hikers had left their marks on the mesa with small sculptures made from rocks, sticks, pine needles, pine cones. I felt like we had stumbled upon an altar, a flat place, a reprieve where people on their way up or down had sacrificed some part of themselves to the mountains. They left nameless signatures.
Andrea and Heather suggested we make a cairn. They gathered substantial rocks. I picked up a small one to contribute, and I had to ask them put it on the statue for me because my hands were shaking too badly.
The way down was easier, as the way down usually is.
I thought about that hike last night – the hike that Heather jokingly calls “the time we climbed to the top of Colorado.” We didn’t make it even close to the top, but it felt like we did. It was that hard.
I thought of it as I told Amanda about my struggles to write my book, struggles that are compounded by the fact that I’m learning how to write a book while I’m doing it. It will never be easy to write a book just like it’s never easy to climb a mountain – but I will know what to expect on the next one.
Here’s the kicker, thought: I’m often further along and in better shape than I realize. I was closer to the mesa on that mountain than I would have hoped. When my novel feels like it’s spiraling out of control, it’s likely because it needs to. It’s progressing. I’m progressing. We’re still climbing.
So yesterday, when I got all spun up about organization and point of view and saw the whole thing unraveling for the hundredth time; as I called in guidance from my writing buddy and support from my fiancee, I remembered that moment on my way up to the top of Colorado when Andrea told me we were almost to the mesa. And mesa means table. And a table is flat.
My job is to steady my hands, build a cairn with my words and my frustrations and my fears of failure, and then keep walking to the top of this novel.