An epic climb becomes a source of familial pride and connection
It’s June 2013. I’ve just arrived in Falcon, Colorado from Alabama via a stop home in Maryland. I’m relieved, enthusiastic, and stunned by the beauty of still-snow-capped Pikes Peak to the west. I begin to unpack my household goods, stupidly hydrating on Fat Tire and iced espresso. Not a pro move. Things take a dramatic turn for the worse. Headaches. Dizziness. Breathlessness. Beyond that, when I smile my lips crack to the point of bleeding. Then, within two days of unpacking, I discover I’ve moved to a combustible state. The Black Forest, about five miles from my home, is burning and plumes of smoke are drifting towards our neighborhood just as I have hope my new house can start feeling like home.
I fantasize about getting in my car and driving 26 hours back to Maryland. I hate Colorado. I hate it even more when the floods hit a few months later. Then, I experience my first polar vortex, temps of 17 below that transform my town into a cryo-chamber.
Gradually, I find a lot to love about Colorado. A year at altitude and I still feel winded walking around, but I am acclimated enough to enjoy the scenery that impressed me so much as I drove across the plains and arrived at the Front Range.
I’m also acclimated enough to attempt the Manitou Incline, the remnants of an old cog railway, destroyed in 1990 by a rock slide and subsequently closed. Hikers began to ascend the damaged railway by foot, using the old railroad ties as steps. The trail starts at 6,600 feet and features an 1800-foot elevation gain in under a mile, some of which is at a 68% grade. Parts are more like a ladder than a trail or steps.
The Incline becomes my main source of exercise, and self-care. While I’m on the Incline, I curse, mutter, and swear that I will stick to leisurely walks in my almost-flat subdivision, but when I get to the top, the pain and misery dissipate, and I spend the descent down the switchback Barr trail stumbling back to my car looking forward to my next visit.
School is out for my kids, my stepkids have arrived for the summer from Kansas, and I realize my morning field trips to the Incline might have to come to an end. After a few weeks of Incline-withdrawal, I suggest a mom-and-sons outing to my son nine-year-old son Ben and almost-eight-year-old stepson Doug. Our five-mile roundtrip excursion to Sonic was a success. I remind Doug that back in Kansas his superwoman mom is probably busy running ultramarathons on a trail somewhere in the Midwest. The boys still consider Minecraft, Legos and Nerf guns preferable to an outing. I’m persistent. Finally, a bribe of Swirly Cow frozen yogurt afterwards convinces them to join me on the Incline.
We three get in my car and drive the thirty minutes to the quirky town of Manitou Springs. After we walk the near-mile to the trailhead, Doug declares, “Oh, man! I’m so glad we’re done. It wasn’t even that bad.” He celebrates this triumph by dumping his water bottle on his head at the foot of the Incline, while I reach out and scream “nooooo” in classic slow-mo film style. Too late, water cascades over his head and lands all over the asphalt. It occurs to me that he might end up in therapy decades from now, talking about the day his stepmother-from-hell dragged him on an interminable hike up the side of the mountain. I consider bailing. After all Ben is one of the slowest walkers I’ve ever encountered, and I begin to second-guess my plan. I decide this is a good time to be a maternal hero to the boys, source of encouragement and motivator. I break the news that we’ve only arrived at the trailhead and need to press on. The boys are intrigued by the “Danger, Danger, Bears Here” sign and decide it’s worth continuing our adventure.
Ben immediately barrages me with questions. When did they build it? (1907.) Why did they build it? (To support the hydroelectric plant construction; then tourists used it.) Could they build a big slide next to it to get down? (Now that’s a good idea!) What did they use to build it? (Burros, shovels, lots of workers, picks.) How many steps are there? (Ben counted up to around 2,000 and then lost track.) What’s that? Is that a deer? (Yes.) Do people get hurt doing this? (Once a guy got impaled on rebar.)
I had two questions for Ben:
- How in the world are you able to talk? (With his mouth.)
- Would you like to go on ahead? (The answer to that second question was an enthusiastic “yes.”)
Doug and I watched him scramble on ahead. Ben and Doug are usually inseparable and with four other children in the house for the summer, I realize it is the first time I’ve done something alone with my stepson. It is also the first time we’ve been together without talking- we’re both fairly glib, a commonality we cannot chalk up to environment or genetics.
Doug and I share water and take many breathless breaks as Ben becomes a red speck in the distance. I hear reports from slower hikers that he has been busy chatting everyone up. So much for my advice to use available air for breathing, not talking. And, so much for my fantasy of being Ben’s guide and source of maternal encouragement. He is the one leading the way.
We near the summit. Ben, who’s been waiting for us for nearly a half hour, cheers and congratulates us as we make it up. Doug says, “It’s like heaven up here!” completely unaware of his unintentional Led Zeppelin reference. Ben was ready to do it again immediately, and even Doug and I—who mere minutes before had been cursing (in child-friendly fashion) the excursion– looked out over the panoramic view and forgot our pain. Trotting down the Barr trail back to the car, we enthusiastically planned our next trip.
That ends up being our only ascent that summer, but the Incline becomes a constant source of familial pride. When we drive into the Springs and see the Incline carved into the side of the mountain off in the distance, without fail, the boys exclaim, “We did that! We’ve been up there!” With Doug back in Kansas, and Ben busy with school, I often think the same thoughts when I drive into work alone.