A toast to the slow and average

I’m not gonna lie…I’m slightlyhugely addicted to my hiking and running tracking aps. I love logging my treks on MapMyRun and MapMyHike, I love trying to figure out my pace, and I love seeing what my (few) friends on the aps are up to. It gives me that little jolt of competitiveness: “oh, look, he/she ran/walked/hiked…I need to get out there and do it too!”

However, this also happens on a regular basis:

I finish a 2.5 mile run or maybe a 4 mile hike. I’m feeling good and proud of myself. And then my phone buzzes, and I see it:

So-and-so ran 5 miles at an 8 minute pace. 

Another so-and-so hiked 12 miles in 4 hours. 

Or Alex Honnold free-solos El Capitan.

And ugh, cue the wha-wha of a deflated-sounding trumpet. Because damn, I am SLOW!

When I first got into running in Boston, about 3 years ago, I figured it would be fun to find a running group. I stumbled on one right in my ‘hood, and I was excited, because they said on their facebook page “all levels welcome!” Then I started getting notices about runs with descriptions like “We’ll do an easy run on Tuesday. 5 miles, about a 9-mile pace.” A friend who was running a 10k said casually to me once: “Just train for an hour and you’ll be fine.” That’s basically a 10 minute mile, FYI.

I have been “running” for 3 years and the fastest mile I’ve ever run was 10:30, and I wouldn’t have minded getting some oxygen after I was done.

I am a slow runner.

The same can be said of hiking. I admit to being slightly terrified of joining a hiking group, because I’m pretty sure that their “moderate” pace would leave me gasping for breath within a few strides. It’s one of the reasons I like hiking alone, even as I’m lapped by children, dogs, and those incredible lean-legged mountain men/women.

I might be called an average hiker, whatever that means.

I don’t look like a runner. I don’t look like a hiker. And frankly, it’s easy to let such comparisons get you down. But to that, I’ve gotta call bulls#!%.

I don’t know the stats (and Google didn’t give them to me in 10 seconds of searching, so I gave up), but I do know that those of us who are out there hiking and running are NOT in the majority. We are a small percentage of the population. And again, I’m guessing, but I bet the slow/average folks outnumber the super fast folks. It’s just that the fast folks will win the races and get to the top first and generally be more visible (and usually less red of face and less out of breath).

And there is only one Alex Honnold.

So to my fellow 11, 12, 13 (or more) minute-milers…you go, friends! You are awesome and you should be proud of yourself.

To my fellow bringing-up-the rear/stopping-to-catch-your-breath hikers…keep on with your bad selves. You will get there eventually, and don’t let anyone ever make you feel less than proud of yourself for doing it in the first place.

To the slow and average among us, I salute you with my Nalgene bottle, and wish you happy trekking. I’ll be happy to high-five you as we are lapped by the gazelles at our next 5K, or stop to “admire the view” with you on our next hike. Anytime.

Zion 2017 Day 2 (20 of 32)

Off the beaten path: Vermillion Cliffs National Monument

So, who knew that National Monuments were such a big deal on our national political stage? You may have forgotten amid the daily…er…activity coming out of the White House, but a while back, President Trump ordered a “review” of 25 National Monuments, as designated by Presidents (via the 1906 Antiquities Act) going back to 1996, amid talk of “giving control of the land back to the people.” Much as I’d like to, I’m not going to get into the political argument here, because, well, I am an unabashed lover of national parks and monuments and that’s that.

Instead, let me introduce you one of the monuments on the list, which I had the good fortune to visit on my trip out to Southwest Utah a couple of months ago.

I’ve already written about exploring a tiny part of the unbelievably vast and wonderful Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (which is also on Trump’s list). But this visit was unique in that I didn’t know I was heading into a National Monument. In fact, I didn’t really know where I was heading, period.

After quite a few days of planning our own itineraries, this part of our trip was surrendered entirely to a tour company (Dreamland Safari Tours –  I highly recommend them), which made me unreasonably happy. For a day, someone else was going to drive us; I didn’t have to worry about navigating or finding a good place to eat or what activity we were going to do next. We just got in our suburban and let our guide, Steve, drive us out to the middle of nowhere.

Now, it turns out that we were heading south and east from our base in Kanab, Utah, into the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona. Apparently, somewhere near this part of the country, there is a famous place called The Wave; it’s so popular the lottery to get permits resembles that of Hamilton on Broadway. We, however, were heading in a different direction, to explore South Coyote Buttes and White Pocket. Those words meant nothing to me, honestly – I really didn’t know what we were about to see, but I had faith that it would be awesome, like most things we encountered on this trip.

So anyway, 6 of us piled into our monster vehicle and settled in for a 2 hour drive on a chilly, misty, cloudy day. We headed far, far out onto a dirt road, and when we stopped to let the air out of our tires in anticipation of a bumpier ride, we got to view these gorgeous red cliffs, that it turns out, are the Vermillion Cliffs for which this monument is named. Supposedly you could see endangered condors here sometimes; we didn’t.

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Photo by Shawn Bagci

This was our last chance for an outhouse, and then we headed deeper into the Monument, the road becoming more and more rutted, and the terrain more and more remote. We passed farms scratched out of the desert, saw jackrabbits, and even had to slow down for some horses that were sharing our road.

Eventually, we arrived at the trailhead for South Coyote Buttes, which was unremarkable – just a path through red sand with various shrubs and bushes surrounding us. We had about a mile to hike in, all flat, and still, I really didn’t understand what were about to encounter.

Then…this came in to view:

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Photo by Shawn Bagci

As we got closer, I realized the formations were all some variation of this incredibleness:

South Coyote Butte (3 of 30)

I don’t even have a frame of reference to describe these formations; they’re unlike anything I’ve seen before. We could tell they were shaped by water – sometimes it felt like we were walking on the ocean floor – and we could only imagine what the colors would look like on a clear day. But on this day, the peaks and swirls and lines were shrouded in fog that moved in and out around us, hiding and revealing a magical landscape that we could wander mostly at will. The light changed constantly; sometimes the base color was red, sometimes orange, sometime lavender. There were no trails; we just wandered and took pictures and slid down the sand and scrambled up the sandstone and generally had a blast. Here are just a few of my favorite shots:

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This was the entrance to a section called Hogwarts:

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When is saw this one, I immediately exclaimed – that’s the Sorting Hat! Which was not as big a deal to my fellow travelers, who apparently were not Harry Potter fans:

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I was completely enchanted by this little arch:

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Our guide said this section didn’t have a name, so we dubbed it The Kremlin:

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This is the Yellow Wave. A smaller version than the more famous one, apparently, but clearly the best:

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We eventually and reluctantly had to head back so we could get to our 2nd destination and have lunch. Which we did, bouncing on more rutted dirt roads as snow began to fall.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that we were expecting rain, but snow? Not on the itinerary. So, when we got to the parking area for White Pocket, our plans for a picnic were scuttled by a wet, slushy mess coming down. So we ate in the car – a sandwich buffet that, like always happens when you’re hiking, tasted divine. And then we set out to explore White Pocket.

It was snowing so hard that it wasn’t easy to get a sense of the entirety of this area, and full confession; I was really cold during this part of the trip, so I wasn’t paying as much attention. But my memory is of a large, ocean-liner like formation on the right, and a lumpy, brain-matter-like formation to the left. The place must be utterly stunning with a blue sky and sunshine, but did I mention we were basically in the middle of a snowstorm? Yup.

But intrepid folks that we were, we weren’t going to let a little snow slow us down. Except when it got all slushy and slippery on the gray rock…that definitely made us step more carefully. My favorite moment of this trek was when Shawn, my hiking partner, decided to go scramble up one of the tougher parts to get up out of a canyon, and the rest of us took a slightly easier route. I’m usually a follower when we’re out on hikes – it’s just my nature. But I was ahead of the group, and our guide basically waved me on and told me to find my own way out of the canyon while he waited for the others. “Just go right at that waterfall and you’ll be fine!” So up I went. There really was a waterfall pouring down the rock (it’s not there normally, but the snow/rain changed the entire nature of the place) making it really slippery. It took me a while, but I got myself up there and stood all alone, turning a slow, awed circle amid the silence until Shawn appeared on the ridge far above me.

I mentioned it was cold – I put my camera away for most of White Pocket, so the following cool photos are all by Shawn:

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Then it was back to the car and the blessed heater, and a long drive back to Kanab through a pretty serious snowstorm.

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As we drove, I couldn’t help but think about the math of this little trip. See, a permit is required to visit South Coyote Buttes, and according to our guide, the Bureau of Land Management issues about 40 of those a day. So, just for fun, if each group has 6 people in it, that’s 240 people a day who get to see what we saw. When you think about the volume of tourists that make their way through national parks and other attractions in our country, it’s a pretty elite club we joined that day. I found myself feeling incredibly grateful to know that such remote, amazing, unusual places exist, and that they are being protected. And that somehow, I got to see them.

Someday, I hope I get to go back, and maybe bring my niece along with me. Hopefully these magical places will still be protected when that day comes.

You should hike this*: Angels Landing

One lazy Sunday, a week or so before I left for a hiking/exploring vacation in Utah/Arizona (see previous posts here and here), I typed “Angels Landing images” into Google.

See, I’d heard things about this hike. My hiking partner was excited about it, but he’s of a more adventurous bent than I am, so I decided to read more.

For the next hour, I perused blog post after blog post about the Angels Landing hike. I read articles about people who’d fallen and died on this hike. I read posts that said “it’s not a hard hike at all!” and others that said they’d watched “hardened rock climbers weep and hug the path in fear.”

Clearly, the interwebs were not of the same mind on this one.

But hey, it’s the era of fake news, so I’m getting pretty good at cobbling together some truth out of all the hyperbole. At least, I think I am. You’ll have to fact check me on that.

When I set my computer down and pondered what I’d just read, I realized that I had every intention of doing this hike – that I really wanted to be able to say I’d done it. I noticed a real, honest-to-goodness flutter of butterflies in my stomach at the thought. And to be honest, I welcomed the flutter. There’s not much that gets my blood flowing (in a good way) these days.

Fast forward a week or so, and I’m nursing a sprained ankle, acquired the night before, and it’s a gorgeous sunny morning, and it’s Angels Landing day. I remembered all the images, all the warnings. I waffled. I hemmed and hawed, and finally, knowing we needed good weather to do it, said “Fine. Let’s go for it.” And off we went.

As we hopped off the Zion bus, this is what we saw.

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Photo credit: Shawn Bagci

“We’re going up that,” my hiking buddy said delightedly, and I probably said some variation of “Are you #^%ing kidding me?”

The first section is relatively low-key, consisting of long, fairly steady uphill switchbacks; the path is wide and almost paved, for lack of a better term, and there are stunning views around every turn. As long as you can trudge uphill, you can do this part of the hike. Just wear sunscreen and a hat and bring water – there’s not a lot of shade.

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Next you’ll come to a lovely little section called Refrigerator Canyon, where temperatures drop and the terrain rolls a bit more rather than just heading up.

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Then you’ll come to Walter’s Wiggles, a series of 20 or so switchbacks that take you up the cliff, in a hurry. Again, the path is wide and obstacle free, so really, most hikers can do this. Just stop and take pretty pictures/breathe whenever you need to.

Zion 2017 Day 2 (6 of 32)After about 2 miles, you’ll arrive at Scout’s Landing, which has lovely views and provides a nice place to pause and ponder if you’ll continue on to Angels landing.

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If you don’t, head back down and pat yourself on the back for your sensibleness. Because the next part of the hike is nothing to joke about.

For the final .5 of this hike, you’ll be climbing up a fin of rock with sheer 800-1000 foot drops on both sides (stop reading here, Mom & Dad).

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There are chains and steps in the rock, which help, but you are exposed in many places; *if you fear heights or get vertigo or are hiking with kids I don’t recommend this. You may also have to navigate around other hikers, as there’s only 1 way up/down and the hike is popular.

While there are a few places that made those butterflies come back, and might take your breath if you look over the edge…

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…in most cases, the path is wider than the fearful bloggers would have had me believe. And unless you’re climbing really early, you’ll be taking it slow as your fellow hikers make their way up and down.

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Photo credit: Shawn Bagci

After you’ve scrambled and hauled yourself up the ridge, the views at the top are just…worth it.

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Zion 2017 Day 2 (17 of 32)It’s worth pointing out that this is a hike you should avoid in rain, snow, lightening, or high winds. We knew a storm was coming, so we headed back down a little sooner than I’d have liked (plus, it gets crowded up there around midday). As you head back down the way you came, I recommend giving thanks for those who installed the chains, and then enjoying Walter’s Wiggles on the downhill.

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Before you know it, 5 miles will have passed and you’ll have conquered Angels Landing.

So here’s the bottom line if you’re considering this hike; I’m not an amazing hiker. I’m slow, cautious, and prone to sucking wind on extended uphills. And I loved this hike…the challenge of it, the variety, the incredible views. It does have risk, but so do most things in life. So if you’re in decent shape, careful, but still open to a little adrenaline rush, I recommend it.

I hope I get to do it again someday, so I can look up from watching my feet a few more times.

 

 

 

You must go here: Lower Antelope Canyon

For those who don’t know, I recently returned from 8 days of exploring the southern parts of Utah (with a few side trips to Arizona). Blog posts about the adventures will trickle out over time, because, well, writing them helps me cling to shards of that vacation buzz…you know…the buzz that real life tends to squash pretty darn quick. Here’s the first one, about squeezing through slot canyons in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

For the second one, I’m going to show you a place that, if you are anywhere near it at any point in your life, and you are physically able, you MUST visit. It’s that cool. I mean it. It’s called Lower Antelope Canyon, and it’s located in Page, Arizona. Here’s a teaser photo just to keep you reading:

The night before our scheduled tour of Lower Antelope Canyon, we bunked in Kanab, Utah. Kanab is a tiny border town with perhaps 4 decent restaurants (the one we ate at, the Rocking V Cafe, was wonderful and I highly recommend it). Kanab’s proximity to all the cool things in Utah and Arizona make it a good place to base a trip out of.

We had a few hours to kill, so I tried to find a movie theater within shouting distance; there was a one-screen old-style theater and after that, you’d have to drive 90 minutes to find the next one. I mention this because I gave fleeting thought to chucking it all and just moving there, but yeah, I find I like a bit more civilization.

Anyway, the next morning, we hopped in the car and headed east toward Page. The drive is a bit over an hour. Page is right on the edge of the Glen Canyon Recreation Area, which is full of vacation-y activities. It really does feel like the middle of nowhere out there in the desert.

Lower Antelope Canyon is on Navajo Land. There are two tour companies within shouting distance of each other. We used Dixie Ellis. Ken’s Tours is also nearby.

Fair warning – if you don’t like crowds, this might not be for you, but honestly, I’d recommend you suck it up and do it regardless. The place is that magical. At any rate, this is not a rugged hike like you’ll find in other parts of Utah and Arizona. If you’re able to climb up and down a ladder, you can do these tours.

You’ll be assigned to a group of about 15 and then you’ll take an easy walk through sandy rock to the entrance to the canyon. There, a bunch of metal ladders will drop you down probably about 25-30 feet into the earth. And then, just like that, you’re in the canyon.

Slot canyons are cracks in the earth that have been carved into canyons by water and time. This photo, taken after we climbed out of the canyon, gives you a sense of the scale.

Looking at a Slot Canyon from above

Lower Antelope Canyon has been made “famous” by a photo that appeared on Microsoft desktops at some point. Because of the way the light falls through the cracks in the rock down to the canyon floor, the photos you will be able to take down there, even if all you have is a smart phone, are nothing short of incredible. Our guide, an aspiring photographer, was eager to show us tricks on how to play with the light. His biggest bit of advice for those of us with DSLRs was to play with our white balance. In the photos that will follow you’ll see two color palettes, orange and purple. The orange was achieved by shooting in Daylight mode, and is most true to what it actually looked like.

The purple/pink is achieved by shooting in Fluorescent mode. The first time I did this, I laughed out loud because the result was so unbelievably beautiful.

The shot below is closer to what it actually looked like down there. The magic of the place comes from seeing the light beaming down from above – you can see the sky but you’re deep in the earth, and it’s breathtaking. Our guide told us not to photograph the sky because it would screw up the exposure, but I couldn’t resist.

The canyon is wide and the floor is sandy; the walking is easy. You have to watch your head occasionally, but really, the hardest part is not bumping into your fellow explorers because you’re gaping at the beauty and taking a million pictures. Here are a few of my favorites:

Below is the exact same photo taken with the two different white balance settings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can you see the lady with her hair blowing back?

It looks like fabric, doesn’t it? I promise, it’s solid rock.

I suspect this might be the place where the Microsoft Desktop shot was taken. Minus the bird poop.

What I find most cool about these photos is that many of them don’t actually look like what I saw down there. I have to use my memory for that. Which is why you shouldn’t just rely on my photos to show this place to you. You need to go. If you are at Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Glen Canyon Recreation Area, even the Grand Canyon…this place is worth the drive.

Do it. You won’t regret it.

A Spooky lesson in confidence

There’s a thing that happens to fat kids. Or at least, it happened to me.

Let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge how hard it is for me to write the words “fat kids,” because they are so incredibly fraught with anxiety and shame. They carry – literally – a lifetime of doubt, of fighting to believe that one is still worthy of joy, love, happiness, even when one is overweight. I never, never, never, want any kid to feel any of what I felt as someone who’s struggled with weight my entire life, so it’s hard to even say the words.

For fat kids, everything active that “normal” kids do is harder. At least, it was for me. Pull ups. Situps. Learning to waterski. Playing soccer. Running. All of it.

Don’t get me wrong, in many cases, fat kids are as strong as other kids. But what they aren’t, or at least what I wasn’t, is as confident in their bodies.

It’s taken a great deal of self-analysis and deliberate, almost dogmatic self-encouragement, for me to accept my non-skinny body and still demand a great deal of it. I ask it to play volleyball, to run, to hike mountains, and in most cases, it obliges, albeit with the occasional protest.

But sometimes I am faced with a situation where – even though I KNOW I am a strong and confident 40+ woman who can do anything I set my mind to – I suddenly become that fat, timid kid who couldn’t climb the rope for the Presidential Physical Fitness test.

It happened to me this past week, on the tail end of a marvelous vacation. I’d hiked my way through Southern Utah, up “strenuous” climbs in Zion National Park and even up one trail in the pitch black of night. I’d done most of the trip pushing through a minor ankle injury that made every step a little more precarious. I wasn’t as fast as my hiking buddy, but I’d finished nearly everything he’d done. I felt good…happy, strong, confident.

And we were heading for the famous slot canyons of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. For those who are wondering, a “Slot Canyon” is a narrow path that’s been carved into sandstone by flash floods and water flow over time. I’m sure they aren’t meant for man and woman to traverse. But because they are so magical, traverse them we do. Here’s a picture of a very wide and accessible one that we visited earlier in the trip.

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Now, I won’t lie, when I heard “Slot Canyon”, my knee-jerk reaction was to wonder if I’d fit; that’s the lifetime of being just a bit too big for comfort kicking in. Rationality indicated that I would, as did the eagerness of my hiking buddy to add this to our trip, so I set that foolishness aside and prepared to enjoy myself.

And for a while, I did. I had to suck it in and make sure I found the right contours in the rock to accommodate my, ahem, curves, but it was a riot. I was laughing and having a blast.

Then, we came to the first of two sections that required some climbing. I took one look at the height, did the math, and was instantly despondent. In the space of a moment, I was reduced to a trembling child, fearing, above all else, that I wouldn’t be able to do what the other kids could do, and that I would look foolish trying.

If you want to get to know Spooky Gulch and its tiny crevices, here’s a good description, but keep in mind that, on the advice of our shuttle guide, we were going the opposite way from what’s described in the article. This would wind up being a good thing in the end, but at that moment, it was a crisis for me. I was certain I wouldn’t be able to get up that first section. Certain of it.

My hiking buddy, who loves to climb and has complete confidence in his own body to get him where he wants to go, scrambled up like a monkey and then looked down at me with a grin. But I was flummoxed.

In the end, it took him hauling me from the top and a stranger down below giving me a boost, and then basically just planting his hands on my butt and shoving, for me to clear the obstacle. And all my mojo was gone. Shaky, embarrassed, filled with adrenaline of the not-good kind, I slogged forward. Then the 2nd obstacle appeared, and I heard myself, to my chagrin, whimper “I don’t know if I can do it” in a tiny voice that I hated to hear coming from my mouth.

With little choice, and his own brand of confidence, my hiking partner blithely assured me I that could, told me he’d help by anchoring my foot, and basically forced me up. Surprisingly, I popped through this one pretty quickly; I even heard another stranger exclaim in pleasant surprise when my head cleared the top.

After that, it was easier, but the residual fear of being weak – and all the scars of fat kid embarrassment – followed me through the rest of the canyon, so that I don’t remember much of it. I’m sure I missed some amazing pictures because I was so far gone into my head that I couldn’t even look beyond my feet.

As we cleared the slot and sat to have lunch, I fought the shake in my hands and the welling tears in my eyes. I was so freaked out that I couldn’t even figure out how to turn the water valve on my water bladder. We faced another slot canyon and I honestly gave thought to bailing, right then and there.

But my hiking buddy just tossed me a bagel and told me how to switch the water valve without making me feel even more stupid than I already did. We talked a bit about technique, and he offered me his gloves, and then we set off for the 2nd slot, known as Peek-A-Boo. I discovered, to my joy, that we were going to go DOWN this slot, rather than up, and for some reason that seemed better, even though Peek-A-Boo was supposedly full of water, which had a lot of our fellow hikers freaked out. My hiking buddy was determined to stay dry, and I was pretty much resigned to getting wet. But I felt like I could handle downhill. I’m always on friendlier terms with downhill.

And then something wonderful happened. As we entered the slot, we tramped along a bit, and then came to a big pool of water ringed with sandstone. Ah well, I thought, it’s time for me to get wet. My hiking partner did this nifty thing where he basically plank-walked his way over the puddle, inching his way in a spread-eagled fashion. He made it look easy and quite impressive. As I looked at the pool and prepared to step into it, he suggested that I try it his way. No way, I said, laughing. I can’t do that.

Sure you can, he said back. Give it a try. Just don’t fall in.

So I did, and by God if I didn’t make it across. At one point, I was what felt like completely parallel to the pool (I suspect it wasn’t quite as bad-ass as that, but it felt like it) staring at the water, thinking “Man, this will suck if I fall in. ” But I didn’t, and with a whoop, I cleared the pool and stood up, laughing in relief. My hiking buddy was laughing too, regretting that he’d been too busy watching me (and hoping I wouldn’t fall in) to snap a picture.

And on we went. Eventually, I had to get my feet wet, though he managed to pull off some Spider-Man worthy moves and stay dry.

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It was a riot, and I was soaked and giddy when we finished.

Later that afternoon, we met up with the strangers who’d helped shove me over the first obstacle, and they were smiling and chatting with us and no, they didn’t laugh at me or or make fun of me for my struggles. When I thanked them for their help (again) they seemed surprised that I felt I needed to, even though they’d literately had to shove my butt up a rock crevice.

So, here’s the marvelous thing to learn from all of this. It’s nothing new or revolutionary. It’s that we are often our own worst enemies in situations like this. Everyone ELSE in that canyon figured I’d make it up eventually. Sure, maybe they felt a little embarrassed for my flailing attempts, but odds are, they were more worried about themselves than me. Even after watching me struggle, my hiking buddy kept pushing me to try stuff beyond my comfort zone, because he figured I could do it.

Sure, it’s a little annoying that I needed the external affirmation before I could get over myself. But how great that it was there when I needed it?

And how lucky that we did the downhill portion of the hike last. 🙂

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