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From the Bottom to the Top: Learning to Fly

posted in: BC, Explore, Outside | 0

For years I’ve been joking that I’m going to die alone. I’ll just keel over in someone’s garden and everything will fade to black. I’ve kind of liked the idea that I might be somewhere like a garden when my time came – better than in a hospital room attached to machines.  Recently the thought of dying alone doesn’t scare me nearly as much as the idea of spending the rest of my life alone. Maybe it’s a side effect of finally accepting that sharing my life with someone might be something I want.

I’m not alone now, though – I’m with Melissa again and we are on another adventure of sorts, this time on Mount Seymour and heading for First Peak. Even though there are vista views on either side of us, I can’t help feel disappointment over the number of cars in the parking lot.  I’ve been trying to keep my sense of humor about my waning interest in popular hikes, but the truth is I’m not excited about searching for solace with strangers today.

First Peak hike on Mount Seymour
part way up Mount Seymour

Seymour mountain swells up from the end of the parking lot. A landscape laden with grey boulders and autumn hues of red and gold punch their way into a sky of moving clouds. We collect our things from the backseat of the car and make our way towards the trail head. There’s something about mountain air that stirs the frustration from within to make space for a little bit of calm.

Halfway up the first climb we are bushwhacking. We decided to take the trail less traveled and wouldn’t you know it, it basically disappeared. We both know we aren’t lost though, just sandwiched between a gravel path to our left and a ski slope to the right. The gravel path doesn’t seem to be accessible, so we scramble up some large boulders to get onto what is in effect a highway of hikers. St. Mark’s Summit is the equivalent of a ghost town in comparison!

The scenery is amazingly distracting. This mountain is littered with small, shallow bodies of water reflecting the warm colours of fall shrubbery and the texture of conifers on their glassy surface. We are not making good time, stopping at nearly every one to admire and take photos. Melissa has her camera this time and I’m looking forward to comparing her interpretation to mine. What layers has she captured that I am likely missing?

small lake on the way to First Peak
one of many small lakes on the way to First Peak

The terrain rolls steadily uphill. Before long the colossal rectangular rock known as first peak looms beyond the next valley. Hikers are tiny, moving dots along its surface. On the plateau we have arrived at, small groups of people are basking in the intermittent rays of sun slicing through the clouds. Melissa and I claw our way up and down a few short undulations before finding the perfect vista for a break. We have snacks and take photos of the mist rising from the mountain side as if by a vacuum.

I don’t think we’ll make it all the way up there. Melissa looks up at the tiny specks of people on first peak.

Oh we’re making it up there. I am maniacally intent on making it up to First Peak today and that is evident in the urgency in which I’ve spoken. I desperately want to achieve something semi-tangible today. I need to. Because I’m turning forty soon and while I’ve come to terms with the fact that children of my own won’t be part of my future, I like to think a life partner could be.  I think I deserve a partner in crime.   Ironically, down here in the rat race, it seems hard to find someone to fit together with.

view of first peak
view of first peak from below

I’ve been on my share of dates, made small talk over countless cups of coffee, pints of beer, walks on the seawall. I’ve laughed at jokes that weren’t funny, held my ground over disagreements and had my heart broken at least as many times as I’ve had to hurt others. I’m pretty certain I have the most entertaining first date story of all time.  Unless there is someone out there who can top getting hit by a speedboat while navigating the ocean in a white water kayak when you had planned on going hiking.  That story makes me smile.  As do many other tales of first dates, budding romance, friendship and even heartbreak.

Melissa and I take turns taking photos of each other posing on the on the ledge with a misty mountain as a backdrop. I practice yoga poses – first tree pose and then dancer, which is my favourite. Melissa is far more creative and I struggle with the manual focus to get a good shot of her pretending to hang from the ledge.

Melissa on First Peak
Melissa climbing to the lookout

I’m quick to become restless, though and we soon pack up our things and climb back to the trail, my insecurities in tow. The path bottlenecks in places where you have to climb through one at a time before opening into fields of grass turning gold in the cool weather. Soon, we find ourselves at the bottom of that colossal hulk of a rock that becomes First Peak. We pick our way along steep, rocky switchbacks, pausing to let hikers pass from both above and below.  I wonder if anyone of them has a similar motivation to make it to the top.

In the fall of 1996 I met a charming encyclopedia salesman in a small town outside of Melbourne, Australia.   Three weeks after we met, I ended up in the hospital and he quit his job to be with me and parked himself in a chair beside my bed.

Melissa and I stop and stare longingly at a trail splitting off to the right that no one is taking. Curiosity gets the better of us and we are both glad it did. It’s like a little hideaway with a view of mountains poking through the gnarled, drought ridden trees. We have another photo session, this one strictly business as a cluster of moody looking clouds gather above us.

Less than two months after being discharged from the hospital, I was in Brisbane  nursing that charming encyclopedia salsemen back to health after an extreme case of heat exhaustion. By May of 1997  we found ourselves picking apples in Batlow, struggling to make ends meet and fighting constantly.

A gust of wind reminds us of the gathering clouds and I wonder briefly if it we would be wise to turn back. Not even for this arbitrary ascent am I willing to sacrifice my desire to conquer. At least not today. Lucky for us the clouds don’t stay long.

view from the hideaway on First Peak trail
view from the hideaway

When we were in Batlow, I used to know without having to turn around who had walked into the room. An Irish boy with a head of curls and eyes the colour of storm clouds.

We’re having a bonfire tonight. Come. Please.

I’ll always wonder how my life would have turned out if I had said yes to that. He is still the impossible ideal by which I measure all other potential relationships. Through the years I’ve come to realize it is nothing more than an ideal… real love takes a combination of work and hardship along with laughter and joy in order to solidify.  The steady string of missed connections that have resurfaced this year has made it harder than usual to keep this particular regret from the forefront of my mind.

Melissa and I decide to push on upwards. Soon the steep switchbacks give way to an open, rocky terrace of brightly colored fauna amid granite stone, A small body of water, little more than an intrepid puddle, reflects a glassy impression of trees in the background. Beyond this opening the trail ascends towards a narrow, well worn path of tight switchbacks. We take forever to climb this section, not for the difficulty, but for the view from behind which make views we’ve been admiring earlier in the day seem ordinary in comparison.

beauty close to First Peak summit
Getting close to the summit

As much as I regret not taking that chance in Batlow, the hardest thing by far to reconcile with has been the thank you I never said. The real hero in my life was an Englishman from Bristol who was there when I needed him, when no one else was.

Don’t worry, Mariko. I’ll get back up.

And when he needed me I was with my alcoholic boyfriend, bickering about money and convincing him he had no reason to be jealous.

It’s hard to forgive yourself when you have no way to atone.

Melissa is snapping photos behind me as I set my sights on the summit. A trail to the left towards second peak dips into a valley before resurfacing on a mountain several hundred meters away. A stack of boulders rises to my left and I make my way around their perimeter before relenting that I’ll need my hands to help get me to the summit.

first peak, very close to the summit
the hike to fist peak just gets better and better

What’s the next best thing to forgiveness, then?  Acceptance? That’s one thing I’ve definitely managed to find today.

I like the look of awe Melissa’s face as she uses her hands to help propel herself up the last ten feet of elevation. It’s hard to believe that there’s a better view than the one you’ve been looking at until you take another step. The conglomerate of minerals that we are standing on offers a 360 degree view of the landscape. Vancouver seems tiny. Richmond and Surrey look distant and flat. Bridges resemble toys. The ocean seems vast and the mountains on every side arrange themselves in triumphant, rugged lines.  This is a place where anything is possible.

Melissa perches on a rock to my left, smiling as she photographs the mountain peaks behind Vancouver. There are no answers up here, only the understanding that this moment is a culmination of past, present and future. The balance of it.  The past is behind me and the future in front.  If it’s true that hope floats, then perhaps it congregates here.

View at First Peak summit
view of the city from the Summit of First Peak
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