Stairway to Heaven

Stairway to Heaven

Photographer Unknown

Restlessness
Recently, in a restless moment, I decided to dive into a challenging item on my Bucket list. Somehow restlessness = challenge in my line of thought. Maybe I just needed to have another one of those “let’s see what you are made of” adventures just to give me the courage to keep fighting the daily challenges of selling a house, parenting a middle school child, starting a new business and running a church! Believe me, each one of these is a major undertaking in itself, and lately, I feel like I am working my tail off, but not getting where I want to be. This is frustrating. Anyway, I think that’s why I decided it was time to hike the Incline in Colorado Springs.

Friendly Conversations
A week or so ago, I was chatting with co-workers and my boss and mentioned I wanted to do the Incline this summer. We left the conversation at that and moved on to more pressing matters like electrical pumps and finance committee reports and meetings, until Thursday around 4:00 pm when my boss walked in from meetings and asked “what are you doing at 7:00 am tomorrow?” Talk about a loaded question! I paused. “I don’t know, what do you want me to be doing?” I timidly threw back at him, trying to leave myself an out in case he was looking for “volunteers” for some kind of major spring cleaning activity around the church.

“How about hiking the Incline with Father Mark?” he asked.

“Whoa” I thought, “I didn’t see that one coming. Tomorrow at 7:00 am was only 15 hours away! Who is Father Mark? I have work to be doing! My daughter has no school what do I do with her? Can I really make it up to the top of the Incline? I hope this Father Mark guy is a patient kind of man!” All these thoughts raced across my mind in the next nanosecond.

“Hmmmmm, I don’t know, can I call you tonight and let you know.” I tired to leave the door just a tiny bit open in case I experienced a major panic attack.

I went home, conducted a detailed research of the Incline just to make sure I knew what I was getting into. I found some beautiful pictures online and a few really intimidating ones. My reaction was that you should almost be tied off with a rope to be on that kind of a slope, no safety net or belaying friend below to save your tail if you fell. I made my decision. I called my friend and begged her to join me in this misery fest!

Father Mark
Next came the awkward call to Father Mark. He has never met me or even seen a picture of me, he has no idea who I am, what kind of shape I am in, or how old and decrepit I am. Talk about a man of faith!

I gave him a call and started asking questions like what kind of shoes, is there snow at the top, what are the temps, how do you get down if you get to the top, do you haul water, where and when would we meet, the easy stuff. Then I tossed him the hand grenade of all questions. “How long do you think it will take a first-timer?” I realize how unfair of a question that was, I mean, he has no idea if I have ever hiked to my own mail box, much less done anything more challenging. “I would say at least an hour, more if you stop to rest,” he answered. (Heck yes, I am going to have to stop and rest, I thought) He said he has friends that he does the Incline with that are runners and they do it in 28 minutes. He however, admitted that it took him 45 minutes to do.

That was it; we struck a deal and made our arrangements. Now all I had to do was get some sleep.

Next morning Susan and I hit the road at 5:45 am and met Father Mark at the base of the trail. We grabbed our gear, Camelback, jacket, snack, toilet paper, camera, phone etc and off we went. It wasn’t until we got to the first set of steps that I realized Father Mark had hauled nothing. He was going very light. Hmmmmm. Fighting the urge to question him about his choices (I believe in the Boy Scout mantra of Always Be Prepared) we forged ahead.

As I stood at the base of the stairs and looked up, it was impossible not to be intimidated. The old cog railroad left an impressive scar on Pikes Peak Mountain from the base straight up as far as the eye could see. The top was currently cloaked in a light fog, so the stairs just sort of disappeared into the sky. It was striking. It was a Stairway to Heaven. (“Stairway to Heaven, Led Leppelin, 1971) How cool.

Next, I noticed the little bitty dots of moving people on the stairs. It was 7:00 am on a Friday morning, and I was amazed at the large number of other crazy people dreaming of overcoming the Incline.

Faced with only two choices at this time, either start going up or run for the parking lot. I took a deep breath, the last time I did so without my lungs being on fire, and put one foot in front of the other.

At this point, my dear friend Susan, mentioned to us that we would be going up 5000 steps, gaining 2000 feet elevation in just over one mile. The majority of the stairs are at a 40% incline, but there are very steep parts that hit 65%. Holy Guacamole!

Reality
As we walked on, my mind began to process my new reality. Yes, it was extremely pretty, the stairs were blanketed on each side by a veritable forest of Christmas trees. Tall Ponderosa Pines everywhere were stretching to the sky and gently swaying in the breeze. Huge boulders were randomly scatted on the hillside, adding to the amazing beauty of this place.

The people on this trail were interesting. They were all friendly and most seemed kind. Each was faced with their individual demons to face down on this journey to the sky, so most walked on in a determined, thoughtful, and consistent, paced manner. By nature of the steep percentage of grade, the people on the trail that day all had assumed the same posture. They leaned into the stairway, trying to get their equilibrium in balance with the slope of the mountain. They looked down at the trail immediately in front of them, intent on taking the next thoughtful step. The reality is that you had to do this. The steps were not created to be a nice, easy, winding stairway with beautiful curved banisters, that would allow you to stop and enjoy the sights along the way, and keep you safe at the same time.

No, this trail was engineered for a cog railroad supply train. It was created for function; it had a job to do. The steps were old, cut railroad ties, nailed into place with huge steel spikes. The amount of space between the steps was uneven at best, some required huge strides, and others equally unexpectedly short. Some of the steel spikes were uneven with the ties and presented a trip hazard. The trail was not nicely covered in cement or other smooth material; it was loose gravel and slipped easily under your feet. There were no benches on the side for peaceful meditation and reflection, offering a nice respite from the journey. The spring mountain snow melt had caused deep gouges of runoff that had seriously further scarred the trail. Volunteers had attempted to shore up the really vulnerable spots with pieces of leftover wood, but at the best it looked insecure, at the worst downright dangerous.

Anything at altitude is a challenge, and anyone who has hiked even the flattest trail can tell you it is different when the air is thin and your lungs have to work overtime to bring in and process the oxygen needed to breathe. I have even hiked a trail to the top of a 14,000 ft mountain, (we call them 14’ers) but that too, is different than the Incline. On the mountain trail, the path wanders in small S curves, picking its way through the challenges of the individual mountain terrain. This trail just went straight up.

As I slowly worked my way up the mountain, I quickly realized the ticket to success. Breathe, exhale, step, lean in to protect yourself from a fatal fall backwards, watch the step you are on, and the one coming up next. If necessary, lean down, to the point you are almost on hands and knees, use your hands to pick your way up. Don’t stand up and stop to review your progress. Your blood pools and you immediately feel as if standing upright is actually leaning back. Your balance is off, and it is really easy to loose your equilibrium. The same advice goes for standing up and looking upward. It messes with your brain and your equilibrium. You feel as if you have not made any progress at all, even though you know that you have been working hard, and putting one foot in front of the other.

Sometimes, the view from this angle is distorted anyway. It can look like you are almost there and when you experience this “fake top” it is really discouraging, as you climb over the crest, thinking you will be greeted with the beauty of the views of the summit, and instead, are faced with a second,, seemingly endless trail of stairs.

I am not trying to make this sound impossible. It isn’t impossible. I am also not trying to make it sound easy. It isn’t easy in any way.

I did not expect to be so struck by an almost surreal spiritualness on this journey. But time and time again, I was hit by the revelation that this adventure was a striking metaphor for my life as a Christian, trying to follow Jesus Christ. I am buying a Stairway to Heaven, like my favorite rock song of all time says. I don’t get to “buy” with money, my way into heaven, or anything else that truly matters, I have to earn it, all by myself, one step at a time. I am buying my stairway with thoughtful intention and the dedication I put into focusing my efforts on this path.

The Incline, to me, visually represents my own personal Stairway to Heaven. It is not impossible, but it is not easy. The journey is beautiful, but not paved in gold; it sparkles in a simple, real kind of way. I was experiencing God’s beauty and raw simplicity at the same time. In my view, free will sometimes makes it hard to follow God. God gives me the free will to make my own choices, but then I have to live with the consequences. If I had chosen to run back to the parking lot, when I first gazed up at the base of the stairway, I would never have had this experience, I would not have had this personal revelation, nor would I have experienced the knowledge, that I had traveled a difficult road and made it to the top.

Likewise, I would not have had the revelation that God does not promise a life of riches, or even a stairway made of pretty railings, and beautiful carpet beneath our feet. God promises a way to heaven. The reality, is that the way is challenging in ways we cannot expect, the progress is hard to see along the journey, there are false summits along the way. Just when you think you’ve made it God offers something a little more to overcome.

Continuing with the revelations I experienced that day, is that free will is dangerous. One of the most significant struggles I experienced was at the halfway point. The Barr trail is the safest and most logical way back down. The actual Incline is way to steep, narrow and slippery to retreat the way you came up. The problem, is that the Barr trail runs parallel to the Incline, and it only intersects at the midpoint and the summit. In other words, you can bail out at the midpoint, and go back down, knowing you had a vigorous and challenging hike, but you have only gone halfway. What you can’t do, is go on up the Incline past this point, and then give up. The only way down is up, once you’ve made the decision to keep going. That was a difficult point for me.

I struggled. I came to climb the Incline; it was harder than I thought, in ways, but easier, than I thought in others. At the midpoint, I was struggling, but I was doing it. I wanted to go to the top, but this was really hard. Maybe I should cut my losses and take the out at the mid –point? Maybe I should train for a few months, and come back and try it again when I was more prepared. Maybe, I didn’t really even want to get to the top. Did I really need to reach this summit? Maybe it wasn’t really all that important to me. Maybe I could find something easier. I seriously second-guessed myself. My mind and my heart waged an internal war. In the end, I made the commitment to continue to the top, no matter what it took, to get there. Having no other way out but to finish the goal you set for yourself is really scary.

Stairway to Heaven
At that point it was clear, I had no extra energy to continue this inner battle. If I was going to continue to the top, it was going to take every bit of physical, mental and spiritual strength I had. It was at this point, that I finally let go of all this other stuff. I only thought of the end goal, I certainly did not look back. I think this is often how life goes for me. I knew I did not have the luxury of going further and then saying “ah this was a bad idea, I need to get myself our of this situation.” Instead, I had to make the commitment to simply get to the top of my Stairway to Heaven.

Once I let go of all these doubts, I went on automatic pilot. I focused on the task at hand. I stopped trying to chat with my fellow hikers, I stopped letting my mind wander. The fact is, it was at this point the trail got really hard. It became consuming to carefully pick your way up. As I got lost in this section, I found myself surprised when I realized how far I had actually come, progress I had made with out all the internal doubt and noise. Very interesting.

In ways it was harder than I thought, but in ways it was easier. I had friends along the way, and Father Mark was very sweet. The higher we climbed the more he stayed by my side, quietly talking about this and that, keeping my mind off the struggle. He was there to place a hand behind my back, more than once, as if he was there to catch me if I fell. When I had to stop to breathe, he would provide a piece of history or other information so that I did not have to feel compelled to talk and recover at the same time.

It hit me as we finally neared the top, by breaking this journey down to single thoughtful steps, and by committing myself to this journey, I had found a peace and courage with my goals in life. One of the reasons I came on this adventure was because I was feeling restless, I had been working very hard in my everyday life, but was not feeling the success of all my efforts. I was starting to doubt myself and question myself. I was letting free will get in the way of my success. The Incline helped me get squared away mentally and spiritually, once again. It was just what I needed. I felt like it clarified, for me, why I was living my life the way I was, and God revealed to me in a very visual way that he is not only there right beside me on the journey, he is there to catch me if I fall, and if I just keep focused, on just what I have do to, at that time, I will in fact, achieve my goals.

I am confident this experience came to me on a beautiful Colorado April morning just when I needed it the most. God showed me I would always have just what I need; at the time I need it the most, on my journey.

I am glad I went. I am glad I climbed to the top of my Stairway to Heaven. It renewed my faith in my own spiritual journey.

So my friend, I ask you “what’s next on your list?”

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