There were a few things I learned about myself on this trip that were as important to me as all the research I did. Perhaps even more important.
Limits were something I never thought about before. Whatever I wanted to do, I did. It never occurred to me I couldn’t do something. Now, I’m old, and for the first time I realized there are things that might be beyond my capability. Like climbing a mountain.
I learned I can walk for almost eight hours a day, and on dicey terrain. There was a price to be paid the next day in pain: hips, back, a bit in the knees. But I couldn’t climb to the top of a mountain.
My traveling buddy, Melinda, and I took off on what we thought, according to the guide book, was a thirty minute walk to visit a prehistoric site in the mountains. A walk was specified. We were dressed accordingly. Melinda had on flat pumps from Clark’s; I had on a pair of slip-on sneaker type shoes. We were bejeweled, decorative scarves flung jauntily around our necks, wore raincoats and handbags were slung across our chests. I had a hat. We didn’t have hiking boots, walking sticks for balance, ropes, pitons, water…whatever.
I parked the car where indicated and we, in our fractured French, asked two workmen where the Neolithic sites were. They pointed over their shoulders. An hour later we were still far from the top of the mountain. The track went straight up over roughly carved boulders, washed out gullys, scrub roots pushing out of the soil in odd places. It drizzled for a few minutes and then stopped. My lovely looking and stylish raincoat that called to me enticingly in Marshalls turned out to be so polyester rich it was akin to wearing a plastic leaf bags. When I took it off, the inside of the coat dripped water.
Melinda stopped to humor me. I stopped to catch my breath and gain enough strength in my knees to continue. And we did. Up. And up some more. I turned to look back and nothing was recognizable below other than a sea of green bushes and shrubs. We were way up there. I looked up the track. We were finally past mid mountain. I sat down for a minute or two and wiped the sweat off my neck. I could do this, couldn’t I?
The track continued up in a straight line. Don’t these bloody Corsicans know about winding around the mountain to get to the top?
Another twenty minutes and we were at the putative top. There was a fairly level spot we traversed and then, damn, there was another peak. Melinda took off and I was behind her, for a while. Then I knew with a certainty. I was not making it to the top. We were really close, but it was not my Everest to conquer. Melinda wanted to attempt the top. I sat on a rock. Off she went. I contemplated the fact that I was old, less mobile than I had once been. And I looked down. Damn, I’d climbed a helluva distance!
Melinda was still up there and the sounds of her climbing stopped. I took off my coat, hat, handbag and scarf, bright red, mind you, and piled them on a rock next to me. The drizzle had given way to bright sun. I rolled up my raincoat and hat, put them in the center of the large scarf with my handbag and rolled them all up into a neat package that looked like a red boa constrictor trying to digest a medium sized pig. Then I slung the scarf over one shoulder with the pig part in the back and tied a knot in the center of my chest. A few shakes and adjustments and I was off to continue climbing without the hat causing sweat to run into my eyes, the raincoat cum plastic bag collecting water, and the handbag flapping against my hip or falling to the front to trip me when I bent over.
Fifteen minutes more of straight up, the track became narrower. Melinda was nowhere in sight. And there it was in front of me. A shear rock face. The only way up was using both hands and feet to scale that pink rock. It beckoned. I quailed. I sat and contemplated it. The smell of the maquis was strong, the immortelle was drowning out the sweet jasmine. There was no way around. And then I learned a second thing. I learned fear. What if I fell? What if I broke my hip there on the mountain? How on earth would I get down? There was no one on the mountain other than Melinda and me. The only people who knew we were there were the two workmen at the bottom. They had probably already forgotten about the two crazy women with the bad English-accented French.
And then I made a plan. I could do that very well. If need be, I could rescue Melinda. I would go down the mountain, hanging on to the brush and the stone wall meandering alongside the track. It would take me a while and I would go very slow so as not to fall. Every rock would be tested for balance so it wouldn’t pitch me over. I could find the local gendarmerie and have them send out a search party equipped with something to bring her down off the mountain if she was injured. I knew I could rescue my friend if I had to, not by muscling her down on my back, but by brainpower and perseverance. Those skills weren’t marred by old age and lack of mobility.
A little while later I heard scuffling sounds and small rocks falling down the track. I yelled. Melinda answered. I breathed. A few minutes later she appeared. She had made it to the top of the mountain and was triumphant on her return with photos of the ancient village perched at the top of the crest. It was all there on her camera – walls, entryways, room demarcations. It had been waiting for her to capture it with modern digital media. She knew I wanted the photos to write about and she didn’t want to let me down. I was grateful and shared her joy in her conquest of the mountain.
On our slow and careful way down, I kept remembering my skiing days and the skier’s mantra “you always get hurt on the last run down the mountain.” It’s the one where you say to yourself, this is my last run, it’s the end of the day and I’m going to quit after this one. I had paid attention to the old lesson and quit while I was ahead.
As we reached the bottom of the mountain and wound our way through the backyards on the path to our car, I found thanks along the way. I was thankful for doing Tai Chi three hours a week that allowed me to climb as far as I did. I was thankful Melinda not only made it to the top but also that she came down safely. I thought for a moment I would have liked to see the village myself, but then I was thankful I had a good friend who had been able to see it, bring me back photos, and do it with no harm. But most of all I was thankful for being alive and able to do as much as I did.
The next day we walked almost eight hard hours to see four different prehistoric sites. The terrain was more or less level, especially considering the adventure of the day before. What we saw was astounding, hundreds of the stantari of Corsica and one of the huge burial dolmens. I put my hand on an 8000 year old carved figure and felt a shiver and a thrill. We think of all the accomplishments of modern man, but will they survive 8000 years?
So I realized I was also thankful for never giving up, good genes, taking my vitamins and exercising regularly, quiting smoking, and all those myriad decisions I made in the course of my life that coalesced to permit me to touch this ancient man’s accomplishment.
Thank you Alice.