“Sooo, all we have to do is get right up there,” I said, pointing my camera towards the mountain looming in the distance.
“Easy,” Stefanie replied, grinning.
I was already breathing heavily from the first two miles. This central Oregon trail clearly had no intention of showing any mercy.
While the trailhead sign passively proclaimed the summit was six miles away, it didn’t specify the elevation gain during those six miles: 4,900 feet. 490 flights of stairs. Half of which was loose sand and lava rock, meaning you took at least two steps for every one step forward.
Thankfully, I had had several experienced friends and candid AllTrails reviewers warn me:
As Stefanie and I slogged up South Sister mountain this past Saturday, pausing often to catch our breath, I started singing Gnarls Barkley. After that, Maroon 5.
“Songs keep popping in my head,” I explained, realizing that this always happened when I wanted to separate my body from my mind.
Eventually I fell silent, but there was one song that just wouldn’t quit, even after we summited: Justin Timberlake’s “The Hard Stuff.”
Anybody can be in love on a sunny day
Anybody can turn and run when it starts to rain
And everybody wishes all the skies were blue
But that ain’t the kind of love I’m lookin’ to have with you
So give me the hard stuff
The kind that makes you real
I’ll be there when the storm comes
‘Cause I want the hard stuff
When they’re throwin’ sticks and stones
We can cut each other to the bone
I’m never gonna give you up
‘Cause I want the hard stuff (hard stuff)
Yeah I want the hard stuff (hard stuff, yeah)“
Sure, my big toenails were currently undergoing a messy divorce with my feet, but you know what was really hard? Actual divorce. Sure, that celebratory beer was now looking to make an encore performance, but you know what was more nauseating? Telling everyone I loved in New Jersey that I was moving 3,000 miles away. Sure, my head was throbbing thanks to a faulty alarm and zero caffeine that morning, but you know what was even more painful? Losing my first real mentor to cancer.
I welcomed pain complemented by sweat, jokes, and lukewarm water. The kind of pain whose reward was almost always immediately apparent.
“I feel so lucky that I have strong enough legs to carry me up a mountain,” Stefanie mused, as if she could hear my thoughts.
I immediately recalled something The Byronic Man had said during last summer’s three day yoga and running retreat (you know, the one with the no clothes or cell service or booze).
“I know it sounds morbid,” he had begun, “But sometimes during a hard run, I’ll think about what it would be like if I couldn’t do this.”
As Stefanie and I slipped and stumbled our way back down the mountain, we gave a breathless hello to a handsome, wiry man perched on a dusty boulder. He, like everyone else, was taking a much-needed break during the final, grueling ascent.
“Not bad for a 45-year-old with two broken hips,” he grimaced.
“Wow,” I replied. I hope he doesn’t mean they’re broken right now. “Yeah, this is probably the hardest hike I’ve ever done!”
“I’ve done harder,” he said.
“Don’t say that!” I teased. “We were feeling really good about ourselves!”
As we continued downward, I thought again about the subjectivity of “hard.” As the above AllTrails reviewer so aptly put it, “Super hard for one person might be pretty doable for another.”
“Stef, do you know I’m closer to that guy’s age than I am to yours?”
Stefanie looked confused for a moment.
“Yeah,” I went on. “You’re 30, I’m 38, he’s 45.”
And it doesn’t matter at all, I thought.
Even on a trail notoriously described as, “THE HARDEST F@^*#*@% THING I’VE EVER DONE IN MY LIFE,” there were people of all ages passing us, including mountain goat-like runners shouting gleefully as they slid on piles of lava rock, “This is actually better than if it were all sand!”
So what really makes something hard? Is it simply a matter of perspective?
And once we achieve that higher perspective, do we always maintain it? Does scaling one mountain mean you’ve, in essence, scaled them all?
Or do we simply return home to a newer, hopefully slightly improved version of ourselves, now ready to find a taller mountain to climb?
What’s the “hardest” thing you’ve ever done? Would you do it again?