A vague, unsettling vibration rose up through the Earth, shaking me awake, forcing me out from my warm seclusion and into chilly space. In the aching, scraping air of unfulfilled January night, I wanted to pull my sleeping bag back up to my face, return to dreams. Instead, I somehow pushed the sleeping bag down low, exposing my warm, but aching body to raking cold air, and silenced the alarm clock.
I clambered for consciousness, distraught.
Somehow I managed to get myself dressed and found my boots. My wool cap scratched my scalp, cajoled me to re-consider the warmth of my sleeping bag, but somehow I managed to unzip the tent, get out, stand up. In the darkness I could make out vague shapes of other pained shadows struggling similarly. I forced down some water, a handful of dried fruit, knew that I’d be sorry if I didn’t make the effort.
It was 3 am. We were camped a couple of miles beneath the summit of Emory Peak in Big Bend National Park, in the middle-of-nowhere Texas.
Ten minutes later we were on the trail.
Two hours later we were on the peak.
Grey pre-dawn light spread across the sky like sadness, like heartbreak. We sat quietly on the rocky outcropping at the top, shrugging off the wind as best we could, hungry, cold, annoyed. Adventure and it’s many splendid promises seemed the stuff of decadent armchair bravado from another life, a campfire story long ago.
Then, it began.
A thin sliver of orange, like the edge-on view of a butterfly’s wing, cracked the horizon. Faint clouds teased us, flitting mischievously in front of the light, pinching it off, taunting the rising light. But, of course, the rising sun would not be deterred. Moments later, our rocks began to glow like honey as the nearest star flooded the valley with light.
There wasn’t a face in the group unmoved to smile. There were a few embraces among the team; there were a few people actually in tears.
Returning to camp, voices couldn’t help but join the chorus of early morning sounds. These were different voices than the ones who’d persevered the ascent in the grinding darkness. Where before there were hushed tones and terse interactions, the sounds descending the trail trailed like ribbons, like contrails.
Memories of the pain to break our morning inertia didn’t disappear exactly, but took on a different context after arrival at the goal. The cold, the climb, the aching muscles, and dull, sleep deprived faces who dragged their own backs up a rocky trail to face an uncaring January wind transformed into narrative notes instead of recounted challenge. In short, we knew how we did it after it had been done.
Today, years after that climb through the dark to meet The Sun, I’m hard at work at different, daunting treks. Most of the time my current steps to summit don’t require such physical exertion (although sometimes they do). But even today, as I scratch and pull seemingly unmovable masses in efforts to breath life into new creative endeavors, I remember that rocky trail, the sound of the zipper on my tent, the clatter of that cold jester of an alarm clock.
Success only comes from doing the thing that you want to say “you’ve done”, but that doesn’t always mean that you’re going to have a good time doing it. It’s easier to stay in the sleeping bag, and in the short term, much more comfortable, too. Sometimes you probably should stay in that sleeping bag—you can’t target every peak in the park. But if you don’t drag yourself outside to do the hard thing once in a while, you’ll never see the planet turn its face into the spectacular sun. If you do, it’s your story to tell. If you do, you’ve created something that didn’t exist before you did it.