I peered over her Facebook photos and posts with cautious enthusiasm. My friend Beckett, recently getting a clean bill of health after a bout with cancer, was visiting Albuquerque, New Mexico. By chance, I would be traveling with my husband to see family there in a few days.
Two pictures especially intrigued me. One showed Beckett hiking along a relatively flat trail through lovely autumn scenery of different hues of browns and golds. The trail was covered with leaves and the green coniferous trees were highlighted against the yellowing hillside. A second photo showed her looking at the lodgepole ladder she had climbed. From the top, she saw inside the cliff dwelling of an ancient person who had once lived in this community now called Bandelier National Monument. I immediately messaged her “Do you think I could climb that?” Becket wisely responded with “It’s wonderful, so beautiful” and not with something I would say like “easy peasy, anybody can do this”. I knew I had to go there and try.
Charlie and I planned on taking the shortest hike to the cliff dwellings. It was one and a half miles round trip. Considering that one month ago I had three vertebrae fused in my neck, and I was twelve years into a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, this short hike could have been a huge challenge. I was an experienced hiker, but I wore my hiking tights for good luck. At the car, I tied up my hiking boot laces and set my trekking poles to the correct length. We headed up the trail, at a slow but decent stride. My muscles started to remember how to hike. My legs loosened to the familiar feeling and I took larger steps. The clicking of my poles on the hard surface of the path marked my pace. The sound that had always annoyed me now gave me a familiar comfort.
The trail became steeper as it switch-backed through the sandstone. Sweat rolled down my back and I took off my Davis Phinney jacket. The first ladder appeared in front of me. I glanced at it and turned to walk away. Then I heard a voice inside me say you will feel sorry if you don’t climb it. I handed my jacket and my camera to Charlie and reached for a rung with my hand and, putting my right foot on the bottom rung. Immediately I felt my foot freeze. The voice said you know what to do about this, do it. Looking up, I exchanged feet so my left foot took the weight of my first step. That darn right foot caused me problems on my bike as well as getting into our old camper. Left up, look up, I chanted under my breath until I reached the top and looked inside the tiny cave. I imagined what it would be like to sleep in here, the sandstone warm from the sun hitting it all day and the cold early winter air just outside the opening. I could have stayed but I knew I wanted to see more and started down. Again, my right foot naturally went first and froze and I had to pull it back. Left down look ahead. Looking down would have brought on a panic attack!
The trail narrowed and meandered along the cliffs. Up stairs carved in sandstone, down narrow pathways, I did it all. As darkness was coming I lead the way back to the visitor’s center. Charlie commented on my quick pace. I felt good. It was one of those moments where past meets present. Meds working with the DBS to keep me moving, muscle memory to grab and climb and balance.
Back at the car Charlie handed me his phone. “You have to see this. You have to see yourself climb.” I watched me on the tiny screen. I looked to see that with each movement I had three connections with the ladder, something I had learned who knows where, but a very sensible lesson.
I felt full of joy. I sang myself to sleep as Charlie drove the rental car west, into the sunset and back to his brother’s house. I woke up thinking about the number three, how it is important in so many things and why it was important today as I climbed the ladder.
Safety is always first and part of this equation. If I hung on the ladder with just two hands or a hand and a foot, I would be “out there”, exposed. Second, when my foot froze, especially at the top, I had to know what I would do. I don’t practice climbing on ladders, so I generalized to other situations where I had developed a solution and it worked. Finally, I looked up or ahead. If I looked down or turned to look back I would surely have panicked. I would have seen there was a distance to fall and gravity would try to pull me back to earth.
I concluded these would be the lessons I learned from the ladder.
Be on alert. Don’t let yourself lose control. Hold on so you don’t end up “out there, exposed”
Practice moving. Exercise. Keep your body in shape. Have some “workarounds” to different situations so that when you need a skill, it’s at your disposal.
Don’t look down and don’t look back. You’ve learned what there is to know from those places already. Keep moving forward.