I had looked at the peak nearly every day of my almost forty years, but this day felt different. Most concrete, the peak was out of vision. I could only see the rocks underneath my feet and the sign indicating it would be 12.6 miles to the top. The majority of the mountain was blocked by immediate trees and boulders, but even if I could somehow see past them, it was 5:00am. My spectrum of visible colors would remain in the blacks and grays for at least another hour.
I had fantasized about climbing Pikes Peak since the first time I reached its’ summit as a little girl. No, I am not some climbing savant who started summiting mountains before I was out of diapers. My sister and her high school boyfriend had taken me out with them for the afternoon. It was a treat for me, but I think it was also a sort of game for them- what it would like to be older, married with a child. We toured a small toy museum, and played games at the penny arcade. On a whim, the boyfriend purchased tickets for us to ride the Cog Railway, a train that provides a round trip to the top of Pikes Peak.
I was raised in the shadow of the mountain from the time I was born in Colorado Springs. But I didn’t know anything about it. It just looked like a pile of purple rocks with white on top. When I hopped off the train, I was astounded to discover the white was snow. It was mid May, and I was wearing only a thin sundress. Unprepared for the climate, a kind stranger offered me her sweater to keep warm.
To say I fantasized about the climbing the mountain is a bit of a falsehood. Growing up near the Rockies, I didn’t understand that not every place has mountains- something that took me an almost unnatural amount of time to discover. Colorado Springs is surrounded by multiple military bases, and most of the girls I knew dated servicemen at some point or another. For a period of about four weeks, I was in love with an Airman from San Antonio. Upon signing up for military service, men and women make a wish list of places they would like to be stationed. For my boyfriend, the top of his list was Colorado. This perplexed me. Why not New York or California or someplace exciting? His answer was the mountains. He wanted to see boring old, every day mountains. I started to look at them differently. Maybe they were special.
My husband is the one who got me hiking. An outdoorsy guy, he spent most of his weekends hiking, mountain biking, climbing or camping. I started to tag along. What started out as an obligation became a passion. I guess I was the outdoorsy type too. I hiked a few smaller fourteeners, earning my right to call myself a Colorado native. But I never hiked Pikes Peak. Thirteen miles with a 7300 feet in elevation gain just seemed too daunting.
My will was changed by an encounter with a book. Like millions of other people, I blazed through the memoir Wild by Cheryl Strayed . I’m sure most of those readers started daydreaming about big adventure. The Pacific Coast Trail has probably increased its traffic by a hundred fold since the book’s release.
I’m a stay at home mom for two young boys. While I might love to daydream about living life out of a backpack, my adventures need to leave me free to pick up my son from preschool. I wanted the trip of a lifetime, but I needed to get it done before eight o’clock bedtime.
What about Pikes Peak? I no longer live in Colorado, but I return frequently to visit family. My brother and his wife could watch the boys. I had been training for a half marathon, so the distance was doable even if I wasn’t sure about the elevation gain. Maybe this was the time to make this dream a reality.
I confirmed plans and set the date. But I was unprepared for a curveball that was thrown my way. My fourteen year old niece, Kaile, wanted to hike with me.
At first, I tried to talk her out of it, scared she would get halfway up and not be able to finish the climb. I’d love to say I was concerned for her well being, but the truth is I was worried I would have to escort her down the mountain and not make my way to the top. I know this sounds selfish and it is. But parents rarely have the circumstances to make their dreams the sole priority. I didn’t want to lose my opportunity.
My brother assured me Kaile could do it. His family was moving to Florida a few weeks later. I think he wanted to give her Pikes Peak as a going away gift, a trip to emblazon Colorado in her memory.
I loved my niece, but I knew her in passing, spending only small snippets of time with her over the years. I took pride in being the cool aunt. We went to movies together. I doted on her artwork and dutifully watched her dance routines. But I didn’t really know her, the way you grow with someone when you spend time with them on a daily basis.
As we hiked the first few miles, I felt the distance between us. When she was a kid, I would have questioned her about the latest Miley Cyrus song or what was happening with Zach and Cody. But she wasn’t a little girl. She was fourteen. How did she become fourteen?
I broached subjects carefully. As a teenager, I recalled adults asking me questions and then betraying my trust by teasing me with my responses. I didn’t want to be that person. How did she feel about moving to Florida? Was she leaving anyone behind? She confided in me that she had a boyfriend, but that she was young and a long distance relationship wouldn’t work. She had broken it off. Her maturity dumbfounded me.
Like any adult conversing with a teenager, I brought up college. I waited for some dreamy response about her plans for the future- becoming a marine biologist or a veterinarian. Isn’t that what all little girls want to be? She laid out her plan for becoming a lawyer, down to the type of law she wished to practice. She vocalized options- going into the military academy, knowing the prestige behind the institution, or opting for university with more personal freedom.
Who was this girl? When I was her age, all I thought about were boys and hairstyles. I congratulated and worried for her equally. Applauding her forethought, I also wondered about her childhood. She had the rest of her life to be a grownup, but only a short time to be a girl. Was I reluctant to let go of the niece I once knew, the one who played with Barbies and obsessed over Justin Bieber?
We came to the last few miles of the hike, and we were both ready for it to be over. The steps became agonizing as the elevation climbed. Out of breath, we stopped talking and plugged in to our headphones, looking for music to provide the extra enthusiasm to get us through the climb. What music was she listening too? Would I even recognize the names of the bands? I shouldn’t have worried about her making the climb. She marched ahead of me tired but resilient, stopping every few hundred yards to ensure I wasn’t in trouble.
She made it to the top about ten minutes before I did, waiting patiently by the summit sign to take a victory photograph with me. We ate some terrible high elevation donuts at the gift shop by the railway and made our way down the mountain, this time in a van.
That night, I rested my tired legs on the patio. Kaile and another niece, Allie, performed dance routines and songs for me, just as she had done dozens of times before. She was still the girl I knew, but also a young woman. I silently thanked whoever controls the universe for the opportunity, not to climb a mountain, but to know Kaile before she grew into an adult I might not recognize.