Mesa Means Table

Oh look. We’re *pretending* to be exhausted. Before the climb.

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.


41 thoughts on “Mesa Means Table

  1. I love the analogy of the hike and writing! I got altitude sick once on a ski trip to CO (going from sea level to 10000 feel in one day and then getting dehydrated). The air is sure different up there. Glad you reached the mesa – you’ll get to the next one too 😉

  2. “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.”

    I love this line. So happy for you that you reached the flat. Good luck with the rest of your climb. No doubt that you will reach your next mesa soon.

  3. I agree with Stacie – such a great analogy between climbing and writing. I feel the same about blogging. I’m learning as I go and it will be the same if I write a book. The learning as you go is part of the climb.

  4. Nice how you combined writing and hiking – the analogy worked for me. And, love Boulder. . .lived there for a summer in college. It was cool to see a pic of the flatirons again. Thanks for that. . . 🙂

  5. This is a great piece and a great meta-analogy (can I use meta as a prefix and not sound pretentious? Let’s pretend I can…). A long time ago I was living in Boston and in good shape. I went to Denver for a week and the first time I ran on the hotel treadmill I thought I was going to die. Like it crossed my 23 year old mind that I might be having a heart attack. Which in hindsight is of course ridiculous. But you’ve got to power through the hard stuff to get to hindsight.

    1. Meta: do it. 🙂
      I’m always glad when I hear it’s not just me. I was definitely in the worst shape of my life – too much coffee, too much alcohol, too much junk, no exercise – but I thought, wow, I can walk, and this is killing me. Colorado is the place that breaks us down and shows us what we’re made of. But you’re so right: “you’ve got to power through the hard stuff to get to hindsight.”
      Thanks!

  6. Like all the others, I like how you compared writing to hiking. When it comes to hiking, however, I would have freaked out if I saw a rock sculpture. I would have assumed it was a memorial for someone who died during the attempt and that I would likely be next…

  7. I loved this post — I love the analogy and the idea that it is worth all of the effort to get to the mesa, always. Great job on the hike, the post and the book. You go girl!

  8. Oh my god, I don’t speak outdoors either. This post is such a funny and witty piece of joy and triumph. I love it. I love that you kept on and that you reached the table. also, you are so damn funny in the best way. Smart funny.

  9. I used to live in Colorado (at almost 9,000 feet) and altitude is a killer if you’re not used to it. I always felt sorry for the tourists who had spent their money to come to our town and hike and were just puffing miserably along. You made a wonderful story out of it, though!

    1. Thank you, Louise! I have been told a number of times that the altitude and not my inferiority as a human being was to blame, so I’ll accept that. But dang…. that was hard!

  10. Dana, I like how you turned your mountain-climbing experience into a metaphor about writing your novel. Writing a novel really is an uphill climb. It’s a test of endurance and stamina. But you’ve got the right attitude. Just get it down on the page and worrying about POV and all that mucky stuff on the way back down. Seriously, you will drive yourself crazy trying to write and edit at the same time. Your job right now is to get the story out, because that’s what it wants. 🙂

    1. Stephanie, you should write a writing book, because this is one of the best things I’ve read to truly nail this problem: “you will drive yourself crazy trying to write and edit at the same time.” So, so true! Thanks for the kind words!

      1. Thank you, Dana. I’m so glad it helped. Perhaps I will one day, but I must get my second novel edited and my third novel written first. 🙂 Feel free to drop me a line if you need some guidance … it’s all based on 10 years of blood, sweet and buckets of tears!

  11. I’m surprised you didn’t punch me in the face when I asked you if you knew what mesa meant. But I was really trying to help. 🙂 Anyway, I agree with all the other commenters that I love how you have turned that hike into a metaphor for writing. It absolutely works.

  12. ha! “I didn’t speak spanish, and i didn’t speak outdoors.” AMEN, sister. amen. 🙂
    this was a great post; part of it made me a little teary (mostly about the wanting to cry and barf and being so mad at yourself; i get like that) and also it made me laugh (same part) and then smile (because you’re doing it! you are a writer, and you are writing.)

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