I almost died today. Several times.
I had recently landed at the airport in Colorado Springs. Only able to take a week’s vacation, I joined my family who had already been there for a while. As we drove away from the terminal, my daughter tapped a finger on her tablet, pointing to a photo where she and her aunt had summited the Manitou Springs Incline a day earlier.
“We made it to the top in forty-one minutes,” she said, smiling. Then her eyes lifted. “Will you hike it with me?”
Let’s see. I’d just stepped off a plane after a full day of travel. At home, I’d delivered pets to sitters, watered plants, and filled hummingbird feeders with enough juice to ensure a constant supply while gone. By the time we return it will have fermented and all our hummingbirds will be passed out on the lawn with little birdy hangovers. At work, I’d been staying late to avoid headaches popping up while out, and several issues were still simmering in my mind. Truthfully, a vigorous hike was not an activity I’d been hoping for. Instead, my introvert personality was looking forward to no responsibilities, no customer questions, and the strong possibility of a full eight hours of sleep.
I don’t know what demon possessed me, but when I opened my mouth, “I’d love to hike it with you,” shot out like a squirrel bolting from a cage.
Bewildered, I Googled Manitou Incline later that evening. The webpage opened and as I scanned the reports, I realized my mistake. Difficulty: Extreme were the first words I read. The trailhead is 6,500 feet above sea level. For you art majors, that means it starts one and a quarter miles in the air. And since I’d lived the last nine years of my life at sea level, the increase in altitude alone would be difficult. The slope curves like a playground slide, shallow near the bottom, but then shooting vertically over two thousand feet. A StairMaster from hell.
But I keep myself in reasonable shape, I figured. I’m not a fitness fanatic, nor do I possess the desire. But I press myself with mild workouts most days. I assured myself I’d be fine.
The next morning I stood on dusty, dry gravel at the bottom of the Incline with my daughter. The steps before us were railroad ties and landscape timbers, anchored into the earth by rebar pounded through their center. Each appeared to be well-spaced, allowing comfortable strides. Craning my neck to gaze upwards, the trail became a wooden Jacob’s Ladder looming overhead, disappearing into clouds.
Placing a foot on the first log, I started us up. The cool Colorado morning blew a chill breeze against our backs, as if nature itself was wooing us upward. “Don’t let her out of your sight,” my wife had warned. I’d be sure to take it slow so she could keep up.
To commemorate the occasion, and in an attempt to embarrass my daughter, I was sporting argyle socks pulled over my calves with my hiking sandals. I think she was trying not to let on because she displayed no reaction to my too-obvious attempt at humor.
As we passed through the vertical transition, the gap between us began to stretch. But since it was a Saturday morning and the trail was teeming with schools of hikers, I didn’t worry about her getting too far ahead. Plus, at that point I became preoccupied with something that for most of my life had rarely required much thought.
I sounded like an asthmatic chain smoker sucking air through a megaphone. Sweat beads ran down my cheeks and forehead, burning my eyes. They dripped onto my sunglasses as my head hung limp, pooling in the cup of the lenses. I stepped aside beneath the shade of a short blue spruce, inhaling orange dust as a group of hikers chugged skyward, sucking on my dwindling oxygen supply. A seven-year-old girl with black pony tail and pink Barbie tights followed them, thumbing an iPhone playing Angry Birds. I peered upwards, trying to spot the tie-dyed shirt my daughter had been wearing. No luck. Already too far gone. But no way was I going to be beaten by a girl in Barbie.
I pushed out again and stepped up, passing the youngster in short order. After that point my recollection becomes a bit uncertain. Scenes blur. Entire blocks of time are simply missing from my memory.
Once, I drew into consciousness and found myself squatting on haunches at the edge of the trail, head between knees, palms steadying myself against pink granite boulders. I stood and the trees swayed, though the wind was no longer blowing. Dust stirred by other hikers clogged my throat. And a playful melody hummed by Barbie swelled from below. Glancing down, her pony tail swung in rhythm as she stared at her phone screen and ambled up the steps, barely breaking a sweat.
I pressed fingers to my wrist to check my pulse. I couldn’t count that fast. I needed to slow down. But Barbie giggled above me now, still fingering the screen.
I gathered what remnants of manhood I could muster from my cloudy consciousness and stepped out once more. This time, I paced myself, pausing after each step. Climbing past a gaggle of hikers gathered on the side of the trail, I glimpsed one of them providing chest compressions on a fallen comrade. My daughter must’ve been at the top by that time, and here I was with the damned and dying.
A cheer arose from above. Young voices, I could tell from their inflection, encouraging one of their own. Was that the top? I dared to hope. That’s when I glanced around and realized most other hikers still climbing, that hadn’t taken the bailout trail halfway up, were young. The men were lean with calves of knotted rope and the women were the same, with bare mid-riffs and pre-motherhood stomachs stretched taunt.
I was way outside my fitness league.
I wiped stinging sweat from my eyes and my daughter suddenly appeared beside me. “I was worried about you,” she said, lifting an eyebrow. “Thought I’d come down and make sure you were OK.” I chuckled at the irony.
We strode upwards and even sprinted the last twenty timbers. The top was dotted with pines and green scrub oak, crowded with kids giving high-fives and chest-bumps. Some gymnast lady was holding herself in a handstand on a boulder. Their cheers and calls swelled as others joined them, crossing the final steps.
It only took a half-hour for my wheezing to subside. I passed my phone to a hiker and she snapped a photo of me with my daughter. I brushed orange dust from my argyle socks and made sure they were pulled all the way up for the picture. But I was the one out of place. The crowd would be more aptly described as peers of my daughter’s generation rather than my own.
I smiled at the thought, wondering if this to be a foreshadow of times to come, then started after her again, following her own swinging blond ponytail as she jogged down the return trail.