Why I Never Got That Presidential Physical Fitness Award in Elementary School

One of more inexpensive things to do in Ushuaia is to climb up to the Martial Glacier that overlooks the town. Since we had not been hiking since Germany, I was concerned that my physical fitness level may have suffered during our time in Buenos Aires (I had packed on about five pounds of ass which is difficult to haul around). Of course Adam had nothing to worry about. He eats these kinds of day hikes for breakfast. I mean he seriously could have been up and down that trail before I could finish an Egg McMuffin and hash brown meal. He started up the steadily climbing trail in his usual nimble fashion, but as soon as I set foot on it, I knew that most of the gains that I had made in strength and stamina during our time in New Zealand, Australia, and Scotland, had been lost. This was an incredibly frustrating discovery, but what can you expect when you spend three months in cities doing nothing but walking over flat ground?

As I stumbled up the trail, gasping for air like a dying fish, the “Special Olympics” song by Stephen Lynch kept running through my head. You know the one: “Watch them laugh, watch them drool, watch them fall into the pool. –That’s diving– at the Special Olympics.” I added my own little verse apropos of my situation: “Watch her pant, watch her crawl, watch her trip on a rock and fall. –That’s hiking– at the Special Olympics.”

Finally after clamoring at a painfully slow pace up the steep path of loose gravel and sharp rocks that actually paralyzed me with fear a couple of times, we got close to the glacier itself, and honestly, I wasn’t that impressed. Of course the view of the Beagle Chanel and of the town was amazing and the mountains with the snow glinting off of them (in the middle of summer) were no doubt impressive, but if I had not known that the glacier was a glacier, I would have just thought it was snowfall on the mountains. I thought that where we stood was probably good enough especially since it started to snow. Not too hard, but enough to make me think that heading down rather than up was a stellar idea. But Adam wanted to get closer.

A few weeks after our mountain climbing expedition in Scotland where I freaked out at the end and refused to climb to the top, I reread The Dharma Bums and was reminded of the passage where Ray and Japhy go mountain climbing and Ray refuses to follow Japhy to the summit. The passage almost exactly replicated my feelings in Scotland, and the episode ran through my head again as I stood wondering whether I was going to follow or not. I think Kerouac does a dandy job with this. It not only illustrates his fear of falling, but also the frustration that a novice can feel when he is with a more experienced hiker:

“I now began to be afraid to go any higher from sheer fear of being to high. I began to be afraid of being blown away by the wind. All the nightmares I’d ever had about falling off mountains and precipitous buildings ran through my head with perfect clarity. Also with every twenty steps we took upward we both became completely exhausted…In five minutes of scrambling angrily upward I fell down and looked up and it was still just as far away. What I didn’t like about that peak-top was that the clouds of all the world were blowing right through it like fog. “Wouldn’t see anything up there anyway,” I muttered. “Oh why did I ever get myself into this?” Japhy was way ahead of me now…Soon he was a whole football field, a hundred yards ahead of me, getting smaller. I looked back and like Lot’s wife that did it. “This too high!” I yelled to Japhy in a panic. He didn’t hear me. I raced a few more feet up and fell exhausted on my belly, slipping back just a little. “This is too high!” I yelled. I was really scared. Supposing I started to slip back for good these screes might start sliding any time anyway. That damn mountain goat Japhy, I could see him jumping through the foggy air up ahead from rock to rock, up, up, just the flash of his boot bottoms…Finally I came to a kind of ledge where I could sit at a level angle instead of having to cling not to slip, and I nudged my whole body inside the ledge just to hold me there tight, so the wind would not dislodge me, and I looked down and around and I had had it. “I’m stayin here!” I yelled to Japhy” (81-83).

As in Scotland, I allowed Adam to go ahead while I stayed put trying not to think about the fact that I still had to get down from the spot that I had already climbed to. “Gingerly” is not the word to describe how I approached the climb down. “Sloth-like” might be a better term as I picked my way down, frantically clinging to any nearby rocks. Part of my brain, in a desperate attempt to calm my body, recalled Kerouac’s mountain climbing epiphany: “It’s impossible to fall off mountains.”

“That’s nice,” said another part of my brain, rather unhelpfully, “But what Kerouac did not consider in his beautiful but drug and alcohol addled mind, is that while it may be impossible to fall off of a mountain, it is entirely possible to fall down a mountain which is exactly what you are about to do.”

We came next to a large patch of snow that we had to walk through. Growing up in the Bay Area, snow is a fairly foreign substance to me. I do not know how to drive in it and I do not know how to walk in it. In short, I don’t instinctively understand its properties. “Dig in with your feet,” Adam instructed. I dug in with the toes of my shoes and suddenly I found myself on my ass sliding across the snow in a manner that might have been fun if I hadn’t been going alarmingly fast down the side of a mountain heading for sharp rocks. Adam’s iron grip on my arm averted disaster and the old ladies ambling down the mountain twittered amongst themselves, amused by my antics. “I meant dig in with your heels,” he clarified.

At last reached the part of the trail that promised to be relatively uneventful. As we scurried down the rest of the slope, I was so relieved to be out of certain danger that I started getting sloppy as I careened towards the end. Every time someone would look in my direction I would topple over like a startled fainting goat. No matter, though. Bruises are a continual accessory for me.

Despite my being weary from our scramble up the mountain, I agreed to walk back to town since it was all downhill anyway. As we approached the parking lot, one of the shuttle drivers asked if we needed a ride back to town. I replied that we were going to walk. He then gave us directions to get to a hiking trail that would take us back to town rather than following the road. The conversation was in Spanish, and although I was pretty sure I had it down, he didn’t seem to be so sure and so he repeated the instructions. “Yeah, yeah, I got it,” I thought. We headed down in the direction that he had indicated and found the bridge that he described. We crossed it and continued down the trail until it dead-ended into a very soupy marsh. Hmm. We doubled back and tried the trail above which abruptly ended as well. I imagined the shuttle driver giggling at us for blindly following instructions that were clearly a joke. Or did he say not to cross the bridge? Before the bridge? Apparently so, because when we returned, we found the trail he had described situated right before the bridge crossing and it did take us back to town.

The next morning as I was inching painfully across the floor, every muscle in my lower body begging for mercy, I thought one more time about Kerouac: “But let the mind beware, that though the flesh be bugged, the circumstances of existence are pretty glorious.” Amen.

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