Bellows. Pistons. Reduced to an Engine.

I had the pleasure of taking a few trips this past summer into the Rockies.  I tend to philosophize when I am out of breath – especially if I don’t have enough breath to speak aloud my philosophy.  I took these notes and wrestled with the following concepts this past July.  Perhaps it would be more poignant had I published right after these trips, but I didn’t.  Here, then, is why I turned into an engine.

Physical effort. The harder I work, the less awareness I have of the world around me.  When I sit in a leather chair, I am free to read books, play computer games, watch TV, debate politics, eat beef jerky, drink coffee.  When I ride my bike, a lot of those things are put on hold for later.  When I hike up a jeep road with a 40 pound pack on my back, I only lust for water, electrolytes, and the cessation of breathlessness.  When I climb a 14,064 foot mountain in Colorado, my world shrinks to the next steps, and finding the next cairn that marks the route.  I do not want to hear how many vertical feet we have left.  I do not want to look up and see the summit – because what if that is not really the top?  This is a question of mental toughness.  In ME.  I am afraid, always have been, that I am not tough enough to finish the task.

Ever since AAU track, way back in grade school, which was way back in the ’70’s, I have worried that the workout would be too tough.  I remember fearing high school cross country because the workouts might make me puke.  I remember puking during the swim season – Docker Hartfield (the coach) had us swim 100 yd repeaters.  As a freshman, I was all in and wanted to make a good impression.  So I swam until I puked.  He came into the locker room, noticed, and said, “good job”.  I readily concede that in subsequent years of swim practice, I metered my effort more carefully so I would not get sick.  Probably better.  But in many ways, I miss that innocent, determined, driven, total commitment of my new athletic field.  A true 100 % effort, with no thought left for “after”.

Dad and I rode mountain bikes in Colorado recently.  We started up a part of the Colorado Trail, which follows the Continental Divide.  The first mile includes a brutal switchback portion to gain a ridge, which then leads to the actual Divide.  We found out later that this section is called “Vomit Hill”.  Neither of us could ride the whole section; we both walked and pushed our bikes.  I panted in astonishment (Was I THAT out of shape??? Was ALL of Colorado biking this hard??? Could ALL the Colorado bikers ride up this???)

It was on Vomit Hill that my body turned into a primal bellows-fueled piston engine.  I stayed aware, in the sense that I knew I was on my bike riding uphill.  But my focus dialed down to a mere urgency to keep churning my legs – like the mighty pistons that drove the Titanic when they called for “all ahead full”.  A mindless – I had no brain space for philosophy, food, drink, people, birds, money – automaton driving full throttle into the breach.  Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs was clearly demonstrated in this instance.  All I could process was whether my legs could keep churning and whether I could steer straight up the trail.

On a different trip, with my backpack on and accompanied by Dad, brother-in-law, nephew, son, and son’s fiancee, I strode forward, my boots heavy on the ground. Declaratively taking possession of the next step on the trail (I know for SURE I have gotten THIS far), and just as quickly ceding control of the ground behind me as a conquered land (I don’t want to turn around and see how far I’ve come; what if we’ve barely started?).  My spirit turns peevish.  It refuses the offer of progress made, miles accomplished.  It only urges forward – knowing only that there IS an end, and we are not THERE yet.  When we are THERE my spirit can take a recuperative breath and seek safety in the surroundings.  Could it be like primitive man pushing through foreign forest, fearing danger? Primitive man reduced to instinct and searching for a marginally safer place to rest for the night? 

God-formed bellows; my chest heaves relentlessly.  God-shaped pistons; my legs drive endlessly.  My vision tunnels; it needs to see nothing but the path ahead.

I am prepared to repeat as long as is necessary to gain the ridge, the campsite, the peak, the checkpoint.  After the fact, I realize the reality of my effort does not match the hyperbole created by my mind.  In my mind, I have conquered worlds as Alexander the Great did.  In my mind, I rolled the rock back up the hill like Sisyphus did.  In my mind, I have gained Mt Doom in Mordor and thrown the One Ring into the fire like Frodo did.  I WAS Reinhold Messner, climbing Everest without oxygen.  I WAS the fastest cyclist up Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France.  

But hey – even if my effort did NOT measure up to those feats of strength, is it so bad to dream of, to believe in, or to revel in a day fully lived? 

I say no.

Test yourself. Take on your world. Raise your arms in triumph when you finish.

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