this is the excursion cesar and I save for last and I am so glad when we do… besides being a physical challenge, the experience presses my emotional buttons- it is an exercise in pushing boundaries with the mountain, with myself and with my walking partner, my companion. on a personal level, it turns out to be an exploration of the role that fear and indecision plays in my life when i find myself out of my comfort zone. with cesar, it marks the end of something and the beginning of something else. closure.
….on the first day we meet in quito, before joining up with the rest of the group, and, after aimlessly wandering a church or two, a market or two, a street or two ~as one does~ it occurs to us to get ourselves to the funicular and go up so we can view quito from above. with a mutually shared spirit of abandon, we enact this plan without too much thinking or discussion, and once at the top we continue to follow this intuitive thread by veering off the beaten path so that we can continue to enjoy the pleasures of aimless wandering, but this time out on the mountain, away from people, towards pichincha. once we get going and are established in the lazy rhythm of walking through the landscape, we talk about walking the whole way to the volcano, but, having foreseen a day of city wandering, i am wearing havaianas, not exactly apt footwear for such an excursion. that day, we follow misted trails that take us into a mountain church, past wildflowers, underneath buzzing electricity poles, near flocks of tiny air-dancing birds, and finally into ourselves and the prospect of the trip we are about to go on…..all of this happens in the past, before the group, delfin, before sebastian, before the road trips, the sandflies, the ayahuasca, the tsentsak, before this time in quito….while we walk, a tentative agreement emerges between us to come back here afterwards and finish the job. it feels right to do this ~ circular, symmetrical ~we already understand, before the end comes, the importance of going back to the start, and this is what we do, what we must all do, at countless points throughout our lives, ending at the beginning ~opening the door to new cycles, new thinking……….
once more, it is an early start. we leave the house, get a trolleybus a little way and then walk for a while to the place where we can catch the bus that will leave us at the funicular. we take a different route to the one that we took on that first day. we walk past the ‘sylvana te quiero’ graffiti featuring a blue bird love heart, up and down the hill, past the place where the horses are kept, and before we know it, we are into the hike and i am moving into a type of trance as i walk…
….we are climbing the peak of the mountain, very high up, and I am so close to the edge that if I take a wrong step i will fall and surely die- the understanding of this paralyses me with fear. at that moment, cesar comes close to me, embracing me, then pushes me over the edge…i fall, long and hard, waking up from the dream before i hit the bottom, in the darkness of the bedroom, to find that it is early in the morning….cesar senses me awake and asks me if everything is ok. half asleep, filter all the way down, i tell him about my dream…..
that day, trudging up impossibly steep slopes, i begin to gain a sense of the difficulty that may be in store for me. i see my dream from the night before reflected in the faces of those coming down in the opposite direction, in each footstep that takes us higher and higher up the mountain and closer and closer to my fear of falling. i see it in the greyish tinge that is cast across the landscape from the lack of sunlight, and in the rolling mist, once so beautifully mysterious, now ushering in a deep sense of foreboding as it envelopes us.
we spend much of the day walking separately and enjoying sporadic conversation. cesar walks ahead, waiting patiently for me at certain points, which adds tension because each time he stops i fear that i am somehow holding him back. i imagine that he is doing a delicate dance between not wanting to abandon his “colega”, wanting to respect my space and also respect his own pace and rhythm.….as we move, my thoughts flit between the three lines of thought that are constructing my reality at that moment. the beauty of the place where we are walking, the physical challenges of walking through it, and my walking partner. as he wanders ahead of me i contemplate this creature. a smart, highly respectful, singing, tai-chiing, caring, sun-dancing, ayahuasca devotee who at the same time as being a social creature gives you the sense that there is something hidden, tucked away from view. a person who understands the meaning of silence. a person who demands respect without demanding respect. not backwards in coming forwards. brutally so. this creature fascinates me as I watch him from behind, and like the best of my friends, i want to get under his skin and explore him, understand the nuances. at the same time that i am wandering through these thoughts, we are walking and walking and walking, passing by strange plants that to me seem to feed off the deep mountain silence, transforming it into brightly coloured mountain flowers and green, carpet-like growths that look like martian brains…..as we walk up and up, the altitude makes my heart pound in my chest, pushing the breath out of my lungs ~ I have to keep stopping to catch it so i can try to keep it in.
….it’s 2003, i am walking up mt fuji with hiro. the mountain is overcoming me. i know that to climb mt fuji is supposed to be an exercise in simply being in the moment, concentrating only on taking the next step, but it is late afternoon, i’ve been at it for a few hours and it is dominating me in brutal ways. each step feels like i’m walking in quicksand, a sadistic headache has burrowed into my skull and decided to squat there, belligerently pounding on the doors of my consciousness, robbing me of my peace. hello!!!!!???? is anybody home?????!!!!!!! you can’t ignore me forever!!!!!???? helloooooooooooooooo!!!!! i am tired. but more than any of these things is the inescapable reality that mt fuji is a bloody depressing mountain to climb. gorgeous and majestic from a distance but a nasty piece of work up close. on the day we walk, persistent mists mean that you can’t see where you are going or where you’ve been. each step is on hard, black, rocky ground. there are no crumbs of pleasure to feed your soul and help you on your way. it is you, what is in your mind, and the ground. she gives you nothing else. people trudge past, lines of zombies like me and the occasional nutter, sprinting up or down the slope ~mad hatters on acid. that day, despite my best efforts, i can’t help myself, i begin to spiral down into negativity and complaints, and as we all know, once you start on that path, it’s difficult to pull yourself back psychologically, towards a state of optimism. battling up the mountain, whinging all the way, hiro and i are stopped, taking a rest, when i see something that i cannot believe. it is a man, no legs, dragging himself up the mountain using only his arms and a long piece of cardboard. i stand there, flabbergasted. lemming tears swan dive out of my eyes. the image of that man forms a bubble around me, amplifying every complaint, every negative thought ~ refracting it back to me, deconstructed, sharp and painful……the word “limit” takes on new meanings…….
as expected, that experience on mt fuji ripples back through time, popping its head in to the present to check on me as I walk pichincha ~did I learn anything at all from the japanese man with no legs??? anything at all???? cesar and i have reached a point in the path where, it seems to me, realistic options for bipeds have ceased to exist. in its place there is now a trail for suicidal mountain goats. i freeze, paralysed by the sinking feeling that i am not going to be able to do it. and i’m not alone. there will be no luxury of anonymously slinking away and giving up. i can literally see myself slipping, tumbling…..into nothingness……into the thing i fear most. my dire analysis of the “path” is not shared by cesar, who merrily skips across to the other side, while i watch, consumed by impotence and embarrassment. what ensues is a back and forth between us where he very artfully attempts to convince me that it isn’t that bad. he does this by prancing back and forth across the non-existent path, an evil-skinny-snake-leprechaun. i want to punch him. why am I so afraid? pathetic? where did this fear come from?
...i am hiking the 17km trail at springbrook in australia with my mother. it has been a long, gorgeous walk down the mountain, past waterfalls, across the valley, and we are now making our way up again, navigating a zig-zag trail that has now narrowed as it hugs the side of the mountain. in the middle of the trail, impossible to walk around, lies a big snake, curled up in the sun, probably digesting. there is a sinking sensation as i connect this reality with another reality, which is that my mother is mortally frightened of snakes. as we appraise the situation, we stand around for a while to see if the snake moves. it is very still. i suggest that we just jump over it, there’s no other choice. or we turn around and go back. i jump over and wait for my mother to do the same. but i underestimate the depth of her fear. she is really freaking out, in her mind probably imagining that at the exact moment she jumps the snake will rear up, poison dripping from fangs, and sink them into her legs. watching her, i feel such love and compassion and desire for her to just jump, to not worry. it takes a while, but she does it. i am so proud of her. i wonder if she ever remembers that day?
as if to run a yellow highlighter across this apparently illogical fear, a man suddenly appears behind cesar. He is coming back the other way, having already walked to the peak. i would put him at 60. he is large and moving with the assistance of two walking sticks~ in short, this guy isn’t going to win any olympic gold medals for athletics anytime soon. panting and with hands on possibly arthritic hips, he stands there, silently appraising the situation. and off he goes. steadfastly picking his way across the rocks, ignoring the chasm. i stand there thinking. the japanese man with no legs has reappeared, he is in a different form, but it is him nevertheless. I once again marvel at the intertextuality of life, this time from the perspective of experiences that ripple across time, manifesting differently, yet always the same in essence, carrying the same message.
cesar, bless him, persists patiently, and after some time i make the decision to confront this fear. what exactly is the problem here? i realise that when I put my feet on the ground ~when i walk~ i have learned to rely on the surface for stability and security. i draw on external manifestations (or illusions?) of safety to give myself confidence when I walk. and this determines where, when and how I walk, how I move in the world. this is a reflection of a general reliance on the external to provide a sense of safety. this is a flawed process because the ways that I perceive stability and security, even purely from a visual perspective, are absolutely conditioned by shadows from the past.
……..i think i’m six. at the playground with my father. i’m on the seesaw with another kid, up, down, up, down, we go…..i’m having fun, my beloved father is there protecting me….. suddenly, when i’m at the top and the other kid is at the bottom, he inexplicably decides to jump off. i come slamming down, in the process, doing some damage to my arm……don’t worry dad is there, he takes me to the hospital. i’m begging him the whole way to please not take me to the hospital, but he takes me anyway, i’m scared…..my arm feels strange, a deep broken feeling, a raw ache that seeps out, flowing all the way up and down my arm……….
is it that these experiences, amongst others, of falling, of thinking that i’m safe but then finding out that i’m not, were early lessons to not trust myself? to not place the full weight of my own confidence behind every move that i make in the physical world? i realise that day on the mountain that stability and security has to come from within. how else do you explain people who scale sheer rockfaces without ropes? it has to manifest in every footstep from within, through concentration, flowing outwards and into space, not the other way around. with this thought in mind, i channel the mountain goat and give the finger to my fear and start to work my way across. placing concentration and weight behind my footsteps. and so it is that I get across and we are able to continue. as we progress, the so-called “path” becomes increasingly difficult. i am knackered and with every step upwards, every scramble over rocks, i can only reflect on the fact that what goes up must come down. how am I going to get down? at that moment, i wish i could just sprout wings from my back and fly out of there. hot on the heels of this thought is the realisation that whatever it takes, I will get down by placing the weight of my confidence in every step.
suddenly, we can hear voices up and to the left, voices that sound suspiciously jubilant- people who have reached the top perhaps? this, along with the sight of people dirtboarding on their feet down the mountain, eggs me on. but the absence of path is starting to creep inside my mind, i am starting to feel irrational. at that moment, a fox appears in front of us. cesar spots it, it’s standing there looking fixedly at us. at this stage, the path has completely disappeared and we only have the voices and an approximation of the general direction from whence the dirtboarders came, to guide us. strangley, wonderfully, incredibly, the fox continues to look at us, and when we walk towards it it takes a few steps, then stops, looking around at us again. we follow the fox, in part because it looks like it knows this mountain better than we do, and also so that we can enjoy the connection with our gorgeous new patron. finally, we approach the voices and through the mist a number of people emerge, all at various stages of coming and going. we receive specific directions and approximations of how much time it will take us. I look to where it is we have to go. a craggy rockface that needs to be scaled. going up feels ok, but coming down? it is steep. if i fall, i’m fucked. emboldened by the glaring memory of the old guy with two walking sticks (how did he do it?), i go for it. cesar stays behind me, offering me the illusion of security. a few minutes later we are at the top. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe myself, I can’t believe him.
….yes, he threw me over the edge, metaphorically. walking the mountain with him pushed me into a space where I had to think very seriously about indecision, about fear. the falling wasn’t falling into nothing, it was falling into understanding……
i really enjoy the time at the top. we eat some fruit and pat ourselves on the back. i place a stone on the pile there to symbolise my gratitude at having arrived. aaaaaaahhhhhhhh, limits and indecision. the two themes of the day. doing a phd is, of course, an exploration of superseding one’s limits, but intellectual limits or limits relating to hard work or lack of sleep etc, well, these are limits up in my head, and because they are in my head, I know that they can be pushed. nobody ever died from doing a phd (or?). this is my comfort zone. today I realise that physical limits present a whole other challenge. it is about confidence in how you move in the world, how you take care of yourself in the world through your body, through consciousness, not evasion. It is about being present in the world with each and every step. life or death.
coming down is hard. i spend a great deal of time on my arse, but of course it is an opportunity to put these realisations into action and going down is a good start. coming down i can feel every single muscle in my legs, and by the time we get back to the “sylvana te quiero” sign, we are both feeling a little fragile. cesar is experiencing the mother of all headaches and then it is my turn to take care of him as best i can. we head down the mountain on the funicular, both of us in pain in different ways, but intensely satisfied at how the day has turned out. it has been a day that has given much more than anticipated, a perfect day.