25 July 2011

Nothing Ever Sounds So Profound in Words As It is in Reality.

I've climbed a few metaphorical mountains in my life.

On July 23rd I climbed a literal mountain, Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak East of something.

A week before the trip, I started packing. The day before the trip, I thought about quitting. Not because of the mountain, but because of the social experience.

Climbing mountains is supposed to be about facing fears and mental strength. While I tried to deflect my fear of humans onto things such as black bears, snakes, and ticks, my greatest anxiety was always about hanging out in a cabin with 5 other women. Even more daunting, was the idea of walking 5.6 miles into sky through the thick forest with other people who might talk. I was so hoping that I would resist the urge to push someone over the edge.

Three of the girls drove together from Charleston, I drove myself. It took me 6 + hours to get there, but I didn't mind. Alone with my head, I listened to lectures from former Princeton Professor Robert Solomon, The Passions: Philosophy, and the Intelligence of Emotions. Not the stuff of small talk with Jim Beam and a campfire. I also listened to the Foo Fighters "Walk" on repeat for a windy drive to the cabin.

A combination of excitement, fear, anxiety, and racy anticipation raged in my stomach, my throat, my eyes, and my crown chakra, Sahasrara.

My strategy was simple. I'd be a listener, not a talker. And by listener, I meant that I would appear to be listening and contemplatively hike my mountain.

When I arrived at the cabin, the girls immediately walked me across the street to the mountain stream. We crossed the cold creek in flip flops. My only thought, "step on the rock to see if it's loose - there may be snakes under it." Every rock was wobbly.

Thirty feet or so on the other side of the water, was a 3 sided shanty, fairly well kept, with a Guns n Roses T-shirt hanging from the roof, a few porn magazines rolled in the rafters, a bench, random camping gear, and most impressive a chimney made of trash cans on the outside attached to a homemade oven and cooktop on the inside. Who built this? His or her shack became a focal point for much story telling. Something about a message left on the answering machine at our cabin and a warrant for Seth.

notice the trash can chimney

I chose the sofa to not get any sleep on. The other girls shared the bedrooms. They didn't sleep much either.

Flip flop heard me coughing and came out offering to "bang on my back or punch me in the chest."

I respectfully declined.

At 4:00 am, Lightning woke up, used the bathroom and chatted a few moments with me about worries and prayers. I enjoyed the company and the commonality of sleeplessness.

By 5 am I decided to shower and get ready. We agreed to leave around 6:15. Lightning feared the pending afternoon storms. We started on the mile walk to the trailhead around 6:30.

As we crossed the bridge at the campground, some creepy dude had his eye on us. Click Click Clock (think African tribal clicking language) and I both noticed and agreed to keep an eye on him. I had bear mace, and I was ready to use it.

In my research about my faux fear of bears I learned that 5 was the magic number of hikers. No reports of bear attacks in North Carolina for groups of 5 in the last hundred years. As a matter of fact, the number of fatal black bear attacks in North Carolina in the last hundred years was zero.

Lightning lead the pack; trip leader, trail leader, she exuded confidence. She sprint hiked the first 30 minutes straight up. All I could think was 'I am never going to be able to do this for 4 hours.'

I underestimated the real meaning of extremely strenuous as described in the Mt. Mitchell literature. The beginning was hard core, straight up, fast for an hour.

Click Click Clock lead for a while, still setting a strong pace. Yay Yay (short for Hell - to the - Yay) kept track of altitude on her GPS, while Lightning kept track of time on her watch. I kept track of my legs and feet. When Yay said we had climbed only 800 ft, I thought 'seriously, I'm never going to be able to do this for 4 hours.' Then Lightning said, 30 minutes had passed.

I needed to do something about the mind game this mountain was already playing with me. I knew it was just being a bully, standing there for all these thousands of years, indestructible, even acid rain hadn't defeated it. So I decided, whatever crazy thought jumped into my head about distance, time, or space, I would ignore it like a girl in the cabin. I would flip it around to it's opposite. For instance, if I was thinking, "only 800 feet?" I would say, "damn, we just scaled 800 feet in record time." Or if it was, "30 minutes passed," I'd say, "only 3 hours left, cause 4 hours is the average time, and we are making record time." So this is exactly how the next 3 1/2 hours went. As the mountain tried to intimidate me, I puffed up my chest (after coughing and spitting), and said, "Hell Yeah!" So much for my vow of silence and listening skills.

Believing that we must have just conquered the hardest part, I continued to encourage every small accomplishment, spinning every obstacle into a moment of greatness.

These things factored into every step:
1. I focused on each place on the ground that I put my foot.
2. I spent a lot of time looking down and directly in front of me.
3. When I wanted to stop, but everyone else was still moving, I stopped thinking about it, looked up, noticed the terrain, and cheered, "Hell yeah!" which morphed via Flip Flop's East Side slang into "Hell - to the - yeah!"

Almost unbelievably, not only did this mind game work for me, it seemed to encourage the rest of the group.

Occasionally, I wanted to say bad words, sit down right on the tree stump that probably had a family of ticks living in it and pet the snakes hiding under the rocks, but I stopped instead, gave the mountain credit for messing with my mind, and confidently declared, today I will conquer you.

I didn't really need to tune anyone out like I had planned for two reasons:
#1 - no one was talking much, and when Click Click Clock spoke it was typically hilarious.
and #2 - I was at the back. I found it easier to keep up than be pushed. I also had the meditative bear bell keeping my mind in the zen zone.

We didn't see much wildlife, an orange salamander and some wild mushrooms (not gonna lie, I thought about eating one, a mushroom, not a salamander.)

One of the natural highlights was definitely the bear footprint. We actually saw 2. The first one was much bigger than the second, so we decided it must certainly be Sasquatch. The 2nd was definitely the footprint of a bear. I figured the bears and cougars, coyotes and snakes were all watching us, but they had no interest in interacting either. My fear of wildlife was conquered when I realized we had similar desires to be socially distal.

Around this time, Click Click Clock hurt her groin. She spent the next 1,000 feet grabbing and shifting her shorts. We decided then that the sound of her name must translate to Crotch. We vowed never to publicly tell anyone her trail name translation.

We kept moving, and fast, Click Click Clock leading the way. A few times we stopped to look at the map, take a picture, catch our breath. Yay Yay told us we had climbed 2200 feet; our goal was 6684 - the top.

We started at about 2200' so we were about 1/2 way there. We found a clearing, which was bad, because we could see the mountains across the way tormenting us. The view deflated me; we had a long way to go. So I said, "Ladies, do you see how far we've come? I love my life!"

Lightning reminded us we'd been hiking for about an hour and a half. "Record time I reminded them."

As each switchback rounded to another rocky, rooty, steep trail up, I celebrated what we were about to scale with a "hell to the yeah."

After the Higgins Bald Split, we found a mountain stream, a watery flow, over and under some large rocks. We stopped. Click Click Clock and Lightning frolicked in a thin layer of fresh water sliding down the stones large flat surface.

I reminded everyone the well known fact that we must be getting close to the top because we were seeing more rocks.

In the distance we heard voices.

We yelled, "Hello! Hello!"

Two men and a boy about 13 approached, yelling back, "are you bathing?"

"You wish" I replied.

"No," came the voice, "I was just hoping you weren't getting the fresh water supply dirty."

They were thru hikers on their way down the mountain, average in every way. The oldest of the 3 had a beer gut, which is fine, except his bright blue athletic shirt had a zipper split up the middle, and it was open so his hairy belly poked through. He informed us this was one of two fresh water supplies. There was another near the top. The other adult, asked when we started, we told him 6:30. He said we were making good time. Then he continued, maybe a little patronizing , "the last 1.6 is a doozey."

I couldn't listen to this discouraging chatter, so I replied, "maybe a doozey for you, but obviously you don't realize what we've just climbed."

To which Flip Flop gently informed me, "Uh, yes they do, they just told us they climbed up yesterday, weren't you listening?"

I muttered something about 'just because 2 middle age men and a boy think it's hard doesn't mean it is. None of them has ever given birth, we all have."

Before leaving I asked if they had trail names. The fellow in the blue shirt said he liked all things blue so they called him Bluesman.

Not long after we left them, I reminded everyone about perception. Those men made assumptions about us through men's eyes. They made subconscious decisions about our capabilities. I will not be defined by a man's perception of me. Blah, blah, blah, more positive smack talk.

Every hill we traversed, I echoed, "well maybe that was a doozey."

Then we arrived at the Commissary trail. We paused to read the large sign, which in great detail spelled out the possible courses. "Mt. Mitchell summit" it said, "1.6 miles, 1600 feet, approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes to the top."

'Devastating,' I thought. We haven't even done the doozey yet. Lightning told us it was 10:00 now. "Remember," I reminded them, "that's for average hikers, we are kicking this mountain's ass. We will be at the top in like 20 minutes."

It was also here that I realized I was out of water. 100 ounces of Camelbak water, gone. Lightning gave me another 20 ounces. I thanked her for carrying it up the mountain for me.

Two more day hikers appeared here, Sketch and his buddy. They left the base @ 6:15. We were 30 minutes behind them, (we actually walked 15 minutes to the base to begin), and we caught them. Record time.

We told them to go on ahead of us. They hollered back that my bear bell sounded like a dinner bell. The bears would know where I was. They didn't realize the bears and I had an understanding, we really didn't want to interact with people.

Click Click Clock rounded the next switchback and said, "Let's stomp this out."

I declared, "that I liked these girls, all of them, and that was no small thing."

Flip Flop assured them it was rare.

Yay Yay kept the altitude countdown going. When I didn't like the distance, I declared that the GPS was having trouble locating us.

Lightning said, "6 minutes and we'll stop, that will be 4 hours exactly."

All I could think was 'can't we climb 3 minutes and stop for 3, that would be 4 hours exactly too.'

Then we passed Sketch and his companion. See you at the summit. Again, I reminded Lightning and the gang, "we are not your average hikers." Again Sketch's companion made some comment about my bear bell. I continued to meditate.

We kept on, and at 10:30 we were less than 500 ft from the top.

I wasn't as focused now. Anticipation was colliding with numbness in my legs. I was following a perfect line carved out by Flip Flop in front of me, when I thought a fall into existence.

The trail was indeed a doozey, slick, slanted, moss covered rocks, roots, and mud; barely a single track lane was my next obstacle. Instead of following Folly Girl's tracks at the edge through the mud, I thought I might step on the slanted slick rock, playing out the possibility of slipping and falling in my mind. And before thinking another thought, I did just that.

I caught myself with my right knee and chin, leaving a drop of blood instead of a flag near the top of this mountain.

Flip Flop shared her cold wet cloth. I dusted myself off, embarrassed that my mind was that weak, and walked on.

Just ahead, we could hear the voices of tourists and see the tops of trees.

Since the earliest planning of this trip, I expressed that I had no desire to hike back down the mountain like my four companions. I did not need the t-shirt that said "I went both ways on Mt. Mitchell."

I arranged for Compass to meet me at the top in my car. She and I would go skip along some paths to swimming holes and waterfalls while the others hiked down, hurrying to avoid a thunderstorm.

The end of the trail was a wildflower nature walk.

Compass wasn't at the top, and we quickly learned that the restaurant we agreed to meet her at wasn't either.

We ran into Sketch when they made it to the top, and he declared we were his heroes.

After buying a souvenir hat, we walked out to find Compass waiting for us. Compass and I decided to drive the mile down to the restaurant, while the others began hiking the descent. The clouds overhead were brewing and Lightning wanted to hurry.

Compass ordered some appetizers in the scenic restaurant while we waited for the others. After thirty minutes, they arrived, with a new set of tales to tell.

Lightning, being the meteorologist in the group, knew the dangers of this storm.
We called the park ranger over to our table to ask about the radar. He said, this wasn't his mountain, but 8 people were struck by lightning on his mountain this year.

We decided to drive to the ranger station to check out the radar. Lightning and the gang made the call; hiking down was too dangerous in the storm.

We piled in the Escape, set the GPS for Seth's shanty, and started our scenic 15 mile drive down the mountain. Compass was navigating and told me to turn on a gravel road. The GPS recalculated and Click Click Clock noticed. "Hey," she said, "the GPS just went from 3 miles left to 30!" Compass assured us that this was the road. Again, I reminded everyone that the GPS was just having trouble finding us. There would be no turning around. The gas tank was full. We were all together. And I didn't want to drive anyone off a cliff. I don't believe there is such a thing as going the wrong way in the mountains. We're just going a different way. Two hours later, and a scenic drive around the entire mountain, we declared, "we circled it, we own it."

Flip Flop invited me on this trip. We trained in hiking boots on the beach, walking to Morris Island and back, and took two at a time on the stairs at the Washout. We kayaked in 20 mph winds to test our will to survive. Our feet feel better in flip flops.

I don't know if I overcame my issue with social situations on Mt. Mitchell, but I found five people I don't mind hiking a mountain with.

If I could describe climbing Mt. Mitchell in one word, I would steal Click Click Clock's word: Cleansing.
from Foo Fighters "Walk"

For the very first time
Don't you pay no mind
Set me free again
You keep alive a moment at a time
But still inside a whisper to a liar
To sacrifice but knowing to survive
The first to find another state of mind
I'm on my knees, I'm waiting for a sign
Forever, whenever...
I'm dancing on my grave
I'm Running through the fire
Forever, whatever
I Never wanna die

18 July 2011


It must have been 24 years ago now, maybe 25, my first summer of real adventure. My brother Jim was stationed in Texas, and his girlfriend Kristin and I were going to visit. He came home to Pittsburgh for a few weeks, and we rode back with him in his 1968 red International Scout. We drove 1400 miles with no air conditioner, but we had a tape deck, and Bruce Springsteen blaring above the open windows and the loud engine, Pittsburgh to Ohio, Missouri to Oklahoma, (I vaguely recall those arches) and our destination: Kileen, Texas average July temperature 95.

It was there that I met him. Trip, we called him, Charles Robert Reincke, the third. We became instant friends, hangout partners. He taught me how to laugh. He said kind things to me and made me feel pretty. He told me I was perky. He represented a freedom, until Texas, unknown to me. And I loved him. He was smart, witty, and very laid back. He was learning how to windsurf, so we went to a lake near Austin for his training test. I remember him not knowing the answers very well, but coercing another adventurer, a pretty young girl to help him on this test. We spent most of our time in Texas laughing.

Leaving was difficult, both emotionally and physically. We booked the cheapest flight we could find out of Texas, and it left from Houston. The only problem was we were 250 miles away, in Kileen, much closer to Dallas. Our adventure ended with a 4 and ½ hour early morning car ride, in Trip’s Toyota Celica (9 hours for them including the return drive). Trip drove very fast, making record time, until we were pulled over by the police. Then the cost of the speeding ticket solidified that we should have paid the extra money to fly out of Dallas.

That ride in the Toyota Celica was my first time in a sports car, maybe my first time in a car with an air conditioner. That flight out of Texas was my first time flying. I remember exactly what I said as I heard that whirring sound of progressive energy building and the plane lifting off the ground into the air, “oh, shit.” Not so profound, I know, but I was inexperienced, uncultured and ending the first amazing adventure I would ever take. I was 16, and these were all new things: being unsupervised, being 1500 miles from home, staying in a hotel, flying in an airplane, and being with a young man that made me feel worthwhile, that made me feel alive, that made me smile in a summer, more than I had in my lifetime.

We kept in touch, Trip and me. He sent me cheesy one-liners on the back of envelopes filled with letters that made me laugh and feel valued. He said, “if girls were cars you’d be a jaguar.” And “if girls were rocks, you’d be a sapphire.” He was so close to right; I’m really an Escape with a roof rack and a skipping stone.

One year he came to Pittsburgh. We were still kids. I didn’t have a Toyota Celica to show him around North Huntington in, but my sister did sport an old brown Plymouth Fury police car with missing back door handles on the inside. The three of us raced up Route 30, only long enough to again get pulled over. In our fear and panic, we listened as he concocted the plan. He did all the talking and convinced the policeman that he had actually been driving the car and while traveling at unsafe speeds, with the blue lights behind us, he switched seats. He declared he knew he was wrong and it was foolish, but he couldn’t let my sister take the fall for his recklessness. Recollection of the exact way this event unfolded escapes me, but I remember this: in a moment that ordinarily would cause a complete panic attack, his absurdity handled it, and once again, we laughed.

I could write about the sporadic and unpredictable other times we crossed paths, but none matter as much as the summer of 1986 when my world opened up to sunshine, laughter, independence, and joy. When I think of the web of events that shape the independent Missy, the girl who couldn’t get out of the box quickly enough, they really begin here.

Two weeks ago, through a friend, Trip contacted me. He wanted to talk. I called. He was happy, though weak. I listened. He talked about souls, connections, experiences, living, loving and dying. There is an overwhelming sadness in this: 24 years later, when my friend was letting go of his earthly existence, he contacted me.

Grieving is not something that I get better with the more I do it. Quite the opposite actually, it's harder every time. Is this my selfishness? Is it my desire to no longer know the things I once thought I might want to understand?

Today, I grieve the loss of my first real sweetheart, a friend, a smile, a time of innocence and loss of innocence and a life that changed me for the better. In 24 years I may have only seen Trip Reincke a dozen times, but I felt his presence in every one liner, in every slapstick comedy, in every silly adventure. I’m simply not sure if anything was ever funny before I met him.

07 July 2011

I wonder what else I'll teach them...

A few years ago I learned how to hit a speed bag and installed one in my garage. I use it regularly, as exercise, as a release of energy, and as a meditation zone. Jake and Abbey never pay much attention to me and my speed bag. Until yesterday, Jake asked if he could try.

When my son grows up, he's going to say, "oh that... my mom taught me."