Traversing up the side of a ridge in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania there is a trail known as the Thousand Steps. Part of an area known as Jack’s Narrows, the steps were built in 1936 so that stone miners could get to work on top of the mountain. Every 100 steps there is a marker etched in the stone–counting from 100 to 1,000.
It seemed like we were almost done with the hike when I looked at the marking in the stone a few above the one I was standing on. I was a few steps shy of 500. I glanced up the path and Annie was jogging. I thought, “shit.” Not only is my girlfriend an animal, but my legs might give out around step 800; and where the hell did all the air go? My lungs couldn’t seem to find any. I was in rough shape; I’m no hiker.
Annie, however, loves to hike–so much so that her mom nick named her the mountain goat. In 2009 she went hiking in New Hampshire and has spent countless sunny days perusing the mountain paths at Shingletown Gap–another local hiking spot. With this in mind, I planned a trip to the Thousand Steps so that we could spend the majority of her twenty-fifth birthday hiking up and on a mountain. There’s something about standing on top of a mountain that wakes you up and persuades you to take a look around–literally and figuratively. Where better to reflect on a quarter century and set your eyes on the next horizon?
We kept moving up the steps, 1,043 in all. Frequently I looked up to find a smiling face looking back at me as I stood bewildered, out of breath and already sore. Years of rugby has trained Annie to adapt to pretty much everything–physically and mentally–whereas my career as a lifter has made me better at jumping and picking up heavy things. So she’d wait, we’d find a flat spot and then we would rest until the vice grips loosened on my legs and the elephant stopped tramping on my chest.
At the top of the mountain we found our reward. We sat on rocks older than I can comprehend and drank wine that had aged for five years and been shipped to Pennsylvania from Germany. In between sips of wine and bites of beef jerky, we talked about everything in our lives and we looked out over a view only available to those willing to climb a little higher.
She sat smiling with the sun on her face and there was a lull in the conversation. I looked at Annie, took a sip of wine and thought, ‘it was worth it.’ And, for a minute, I thought about the trip up the mountain.
My legs were no longer gripped by the vice, but I remembered how they struggled during the trek. The elephant had stopped tramping, but the phlegm in my throat was a gentle reminder of the dust he’d kicked up. Neither complaint, however, felt like a big deal anymore–I remembered the trip up as fun. Of course, this could be because I was drunk on a cocktail of lactic acid and endorphins and sitting in a stupor. More likely, it was because I know the struggle got me to the top of the mountain and allowed me to give something beautiful to someone I care deeply for.
Before we descended, we each took a minute to look out over the vista to remind ourselves what the top of the mountain looks like. We knew we’d come back, but we weren’t sure when. We took it in while we could.
Through the first quarter century of my life and career I’ve found that there is beauty in struggle–that growth comes from being uncomfortable. I’ve learned that if you want to get anywhere, you’re going to have to travel up hill for a while. There will be loose rocks or a log on the path, but you’ll think through it and find a way past. Your legs will get tired and your lungs will burn and you’ll have to give more of yourself than you imagined. But if you work hard with your body, mind and heart–you’ll get to the top of the mountain.
Be true to whom and what you love and struggle to achieve what it is that you want at all costs.
Go climb a mountain.