Updated: Jul 20, 2019
“Did you get to the top?” asks another enthusiastic hiker, trekking poles clanking while striding up Ben Hope mountain. This question has begun to seriously grate me. The meaning of this phrase becomes visceral, as I imagine the irritated feeling a carrot gets after several strokes on the grater, becoming fragmented, splintered, and irritated. What does it mean to get to the top, and why is that always the quest? I have been to the top of enough summits to know it’s not always the best view, nor the best spot for that celebratory lunch or rest. Making it, completing the task, does come with a feeling of accomplishment, a sense of distinction. You can say ‘I did this’, and there is universal understanding. You can add it to your list, whether that’s of mountains climbed, tasks completed, or adding to the amorphous sense of doing that needs constant tending. Done. Does the unfinished goal leave a crack in the sense of self, a need to count up all that has not gone according to plan, or all that has been left untied, unfinished, unchecked? No, it does not. Did I get to the top of Ben Hope? No, I did not.
Did I leave graduate school with a Master’s Degree, start a successful business and spend my time making 1, 5, or 10 year plans? No, I did not. Did I build my 401k, or lay out a logical path to a flourishing career in which I would accomplish an impressive list of achievements appropriate to my field? No, I did not. Have I ever followed the path of logical progression? No, that’s certainly not what I have done. Have I made it to the top? I'd have to say, yes.
What does getting to the top mean? When is the top ever the end of anything? How much time do we spend at the top enjoying our success, our completion, our sense of accomplishment, before moving on? One’s top is another’s stepping stone. The cycle of striving and completion continues. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld might say.
On route to Ben Hope, the weather has been a little labile. The day started off warm, with a lovely mix of clouds and sun, starting to dry up the muddy trail. The top of Ben Hope, shrouded in mist, peeked in and out of view, but mostly remaining cloaked in grey rain shadows. The trail ascends assertively beside a stream that cascades periodically into small waterfalls, providing a soothing soundtrack of rushing water harmonizing with quartz stone. The surrounding mountains and rivers around Ben Hope are stunning, a mix of searing blues, sienna tones, bright green and creamy whites of exposed cliffs accenting at the edges. I’m typically like a goat, bounding up hills until there’s a slight plateau into which to gaze out upon my surroundings. This trail, however, begs me to keep looking behind, stopping frequently to take in the beauty that quickly overwhelms the senses. Small sips are advisable for optimum consumption of beauty here.
Like goats, my wife and I typically feed frequently, and our bellies call out to us at a logical resting spot. There’s a patch of fluffy ground cover, on a lush green plateau that rolls out in all directions, with ascending trails winging out on the periphery. The view is luxurious, it feels altering to the sense, like a painting that comes alive. I could reach out and stroke the velvet hills in front of me, or dip my cup into the river on my left.
We decide that this is the top for us. We start the descent back down, after looking toward the wind-whipped trail going up toward the summit, a dark blue cloud still perched overhead. Turning away from the top nags at me, a sense of frustration brewing in the pit of my stomach. Then the grating question begins popping up a regular intervals, ‘Did you get to the top?’ from strangers we pass. A steady stream flows through my busy mind: a list of all plans gone astray, things unaccomplished, which feasts on rigid standards that don’t feel like mine. When I stop the thought cycle, the mind trying to cling to unfounded stories about self to feed its own suffering, I find they are not about me. The stories do not matter. I have never lived by the standards of the “American Dream”. I have not been spent my life on a quest to the top, as typically defined standards of success go.
I conjure up all I am grateful for, and this day has been filled with fodder for that! Why would I need to get to the top when I had all I needed: a deeply satisfied body that had pumped its lungs, brought new life to strong legs, drunk in soul stirring imagery, a heart that was always filled with love from my penguin who walks by my side. (No, I did not take mushrooms, that’s in reference to my wife, my penguin mate for life). The reality was I was exactly where I wanted to be, I felt complete, despite not reaching the top. I remembered that when I take in life wholly and completely, without conditions or through a lens of lacking, there is no top. Or, I could say, then I live at the top, wrapped in a feeling of contentment and peace. Not to say it isn’t work to stay in that place, not to say that the narratives of societal success don’t try to nose their way into my psyche. Everyday is an experiment. Everyday is a chance to continue to live my best life.