The kids and I spent five days in Colorado last month. It was our first post-divorce vacation, just the three of us. My Dad hosted us at his condo in Copper Mountain, and it was beautiful.
Life is full of lessons, of course, and I learned a few out in those wide open spaces.
1. Wherever you go, that’s where you are.
Each morning, I woke up before the children and sat on the balcony with a cup of coffee, a book and my thoughts. The inside of my head had been noisy. It gets that way every once in awhile – the negative self-talk crowding out the positive affirmations. I hoped the fresh air, blue sky and majestic mountain views might turn down the volume a bit.
While my surroundings were indeed peaceful and beautiful, I realized you can’t get a fresh start simply by changing your surroundings. Your demons and doubts travel with you, no matter where you go. Granted, it’s harder to hear the inner noise above your children’s laughter and the roaring of white water, but it’s there nonetheless.
The only way to truly be healthy is to do the hard work of, well, healing. It takes concerted effort to “own your shit” and to soften your rough edges. A change of scenery – even a flight across country – won’t do it for you. Only you can do the inner work.
2. As Patrick Swayze so eloquently put it, “Pain don’t hurt.”
The day after we arrived, we rented bikes and helmets. The kids rode them everywhere. After a few wobbly circles, I managed to get my bearings. On Wednesday, we took the bikes up the ski lift to the top, with the intent of riding back down.
My son took off on his own to explore the official mountain bike trails. My father wisely suggested that Emily and I follow him down the maintenance road, just so we could get the feel for the speed and the roughness of the ride.
Let me be clear: mountain biking is way outside my comfort zone. I really don’t enjoy going fast downhill and feeling out of control. But I promised myself that I would not spend the week sitting on the sidelines watching my children have fun. So, I hopped on the bike and started down the mountain.
My brother – an avid biker – texted me to remind me that brakes only stop the bike, not the person, so I should use them sparingly. Despite, this advice, I held on to the brakes the entire way down. I did go fast … just not super fast. I managed the curves and avoided all the rocks. When I reached the bottom, I was all smiles. I looked back up the mountain with pride. I came. I saw. I conquered!
When you decide to take up mountain biking at age 44 and you make it safely down the mountain once, you should look up at heaven, say “Thank you, Jesus,” and go find another activity. You should not go back to the bike shop, trade in your road bike for a “real” mountain bike with shocks and whatnot and head back up the ski lift.
Guess which one I did?
The second time down, we all road together. Charles stayed close to me, giving support and advice. Emily rode on ahead, stopping from time to time so we could catch up. My father brought up the rear.
I rode a little faster on the second run. I was more confident, dare I say, cocky, even. When we reached the lower half of the road, Charles bid me adieu and sped off with his sister. I kept my pace, riding the breaks ever so slightly, enjoying the wind in my hair, the sun on my face, the rock in the middle of the road ….
In retrospect, I probably could have avoided the rock with a quick swerve in either direction. But in my mind I was going too fast and a sudden swerve would have definitely caused a wreck. So, instead, I hit the rock dead on. Of course, I crashed.
I remember it vividly. I knew I was going down before I started the slide. I hit hard on my left hip, knee and elbow. I braced with my arms to make sure my head didn’t hit the ground. I skidded to a stop a few yards away, with my bike on top of me and a ton of gravel underneath.
Once I came to a complete stop, I just lay there on my side. Some hikers witnessed the spectacle and hollered, “Are you okay?” I took a full minute to assess the situation, determined I had no broken bones, and called back, “Yep! All good!”
And I really was. Sure, I was scraped and bleeding in mutliple places, but I could stand. Once I stood, I picked up my bike. Once my bike was up, I started walking with it. And then a voice inside my head said, “Don’t you dare walk that bike down this mountain. Get back on the effing thing and ride.”
And so I did. All the way down. Smiling and laughing, acutally, because what else could I do? I showed my wounds to my kids and pedaled back to the condo to bandage them up. I even ventured back to the village on my bike later that afternoon to watch Emily bungee jump and climb the rock wall one more time.
The lesson? Take risks. Feel the wind on your face. Enjoy the ride. Expect to fall. And then GET. BACK. UP. The pain won’t last forever (although my chest still hurts when I sneeze!). And scars look cool.
3. When the rapids are the roughest, you’ve got to dig deep.
On Tuesday, we went white water rafting on the Arkansas River through Brown’s Canyon. I saw some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. Our guide Elvis was strict about rafting safety, but laid back about everything else in life. He followed up every stroke command with a Wooderson-esque “Alright, alright!” You could tell that he was living the Colorado life: L.I.V.I.N.
We practiced our forward strokes and backwards strokes on some open river for a few miles before we hit any rapids. “Forward one!” Elvis would call. We’d all execute a forward row. “Forward two!” he’d yell, and we’d perform two strokes. “One more!” he’d say, and we’d dutifully pull one more time.
As we approached the first set of Class Two rapids, Elvis reminded us to listen carefully to his commands and to all stroke together. We sailed through with no problem, shrieking as the cold water splashed us and feeling rather victorious.
Then it was time for the Class Three rapids, with names like Bone Crusher and Raft Ripper. Elvis shifted his tone from groovy to serious, as he explained how we would navigate through the tight spaces and down the drops.
“Here we go! Go hard! Forward One! Forward Two! One more! One more! One more! Harder! Harder! Forward one! One more! One more! One more! Alright, alright.”
I’m not sure what I thought rafting was going to be like. I guess I thought we’d paddle when the river was calm and then just ride the rapids with gravity. Turns out, we did the exact opposite.
We paddled hard as soon as we hit the rapids, and we couldn’t let up until we were completely through them. When the water was the fastest and the rocks were the closest, Elvis would yell “Harder! One more!” There were times I didn’t think I could dig any deeper or go any harder. I wasn’t sure I had one more in me. But I always did. And before I knew it, we were out of the rough and back into the calm.
After one particularly rough rapid, Elvis laughed and said, “Well, we made it. That wasn’t Plan A or Plan B. Hell, I don’t even think it was Plan C, but no one went swimming, so that’s cool.”
Here’s the lesson: You can’t coast through the hardest, darkest days. When you think you don’t have anything left, you have to dig deeper and go harder. The waters soon will be calm again.
On the plane home, the kids and I talked about our favorite parts of the trip. We agreed rafting topped the list.
“I have no idea how we didn’t flip on The Toilet Bowl,” Charles mused. “I remember looking straight down at the water and just knowing we were going over. And then we spun around, bounced off that rock and headed out of the rapids. It was so amazing.”
That’s right, buddy. We didn’t flip. We should have, but we pulled hard together, and we didn’t. We still might flip one of these days, but we’ll climb back in the raft and keep going. Together. We got this.
Alright, alright, alright.