by EMILY ORTON
After 100+ days on the road, Erik and I capped off this rock-climbing trip with the first route he ever climbed as a kid, Romeo’s Ladder, in Great Falls National Park. I’ve heard Erik’s rock climbing origin story dozens of times, so being there in person was a sentimental honor.
I looked up at the route. Romeo’s Ladder is pretty straight up and down, but it has two huge vertical cracks where I could wedge my fingers, fist or even my whole arm in some places. I volunteered to go first because I thought it would be an easy climb. I was wrong. Great Falls has a completely different kind of rock, nothing like the grippy granite we’ve been climbing everywhere else. No friction. I kept slipping.
“What kind of rock is this?” I said.
“Schist.” Erik said.
“You got that right,” I said.
Erik encouraged me with suggestions of where I could put my hands or feet. I kept trying. If I gained a couple of inches, he would take in all the slack tightly so I wouldn’t lose any progress if I fell again. He’s pretty awesome like that. I did fall again. I slipped and fell all the way to the top. By the time I rappelled down I could barely break the figure-eight knot that secured my harness to the rope. All the muscles from my palms to my shoulders had simultaneously gone on strike.
“It always looks so easy before I start climbing. Then as soon as I get up there, it’s actually really hard,” I said.
It’s one thing to watch someone else climbing. From the base I can see holds. I’m relaxed. My muscles are calm. I feel no strain. It’s a completely different when I’m climbing. My helmet pushes my glasses down my nose. My fingers slide despite my death-grip pinch hold. My forearms freak out. My left big toe has a place while my right foot searches for friction. My brain says, “YOU ARE GOING TO KNOCK ALL OF YOUR TEETH OUT!” and Erik says, “That looks really good.”
Climbing gives me perspective. I can look at someone else’s life from the outside and come up with ideas about what moves they should make –how they could stabilize or gain some ground. I might even think, That looks really good. But I don’t really know what their experience is like for them as they feel the strain of their circumstances.
A few weeks ago, we spent one peaceful afternoon in the redwood forest of Muir Woods National Monument. I met a young girl with her parents and grandparents. I assumed this school-aged child traveling mid-week must be a homeschooler. Nope. This girl had Moyamoya disease—blocked arteries at the base of her brain—and would be anesthetized for brain surgery at Stanford Hospital in 48 hours. If guessing what someone else is going through were a game, I would always lose. Yet, it’s one I play unconsciously until someone actually peels back the wrapping paper and gives me a peek at their life.
My Mom recently told me that she doesn’t believe one person can ever understand another person. That’s hard to hear because we really want to understand, especially the people we love. But she’s probably right. I cannot completely understand another person. What I can do is try. I can doubt my assumptions about others. I can listen. I can ask questions. I can be grateful when someone shares their most precious possession—their story—with me. And in the same way that I made it to the top of Romeo’s Ladder, I can slip and fall towards understanding.
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