|CLIMBING CROAGH PATRICK|
By Ellie White “Fortune Assists the Brave” – a Scottish battle cry
About halfway up the mountain, the air feels thinner. If this were another day, on another trip, it might be okay to turn around, to accept that Croagh Patrick was the wrong choice for a first mountain. But not on my 29th birthday, not with 30 looming just around the corner, and definitely not in the midst of a study abroad course I’ll be paying for till I’m 45. That kind of a cop out would never sit well with the stubborn, Scots-Irish blood pounding against my temples. As I stare up the trail, squinting to see through the thick mist, the rocky slope I’m trudging up seems to shift. I lose my balance momentarily, and begin looking for a good spot to stop for a breather. I stumble up a few more feet, the toes of my Timberlands catching on protruding stones, before deciding to just brace my feet in the mud and wait for the scenery to stop spinning. There’s a steep drop on my right. At the bottom, white-tipped waves roll across a teal blue sea.
Fortune: Chance, hap, or luck, an adventure, a mishap, a disaster, to run a risk.
Atop a rope, my seven-year-old body spins. I’m high above the gymnasium, pretending the blue mats below are a rectangular sea. I grip the well-used but still rough rope just above the red electrical tape that serves as a finish line. I’m only using my hands. I keep my legs stretched out, cartwheel-straight, below me. My pointed toes draw circles like an aerial Spirograph. My body orbits the rope. Every movement, every breath, an act of trust.
I’ve asked a few hikers on their way down how far away the top is, and the consensus is 45 minutes. It’s taking nearly all my concentration to keep from falling. The incline increases by the minute, and my quadriceps have been burning for so long the pain doesn’t register any more. My legs just feel stiff and uncooperative. I look around at some of the fitter hikers who are still obviously struggling, and realize once again the magnitude of what I’ve taken on. I haven’t set foot inside a gym for years. I consider walking to class to be aerobic. The idea that I will have to use stairs at some point tomorrow is extremely distressing. But this is no time to get caught up in worries. The rocks are slimy, the damp gravelly dirt offers zero traction, and though the landscape has finally stopped spinning, it’s starting to feel like I am.
I’m lost on Inishmaan – separated from my group – for nearly thirty minutes. I catch up with them at the ruins of a house. Seeing the outlines of my study abroad classmates against the hazy blue sky as I perched atop the rock wall of a pasture produced a relief so strong it tingled through all my limbs. Yet, it doesn’t seem anyone noticed my absence. Most of the group is standing about ten feet above me on the walls of the house. Three of the walls have flat tops, but one comes to a sharp peak. It looks like a chimney may have been there once. I scale one of the walls to join my classmates. The surface on top is about two feet wide, but it’s necessary to walk carefully because a lot of the rocks are loose. Even though I’ve seen hundreds of these walls in the last day or so that we’ve been on the island, their construction still amazes me.
One of the guys has climbed up the chimney wall. He sits on the flat stone on top posing like a king. Immediately, I know I want to go up there. I ask who else has gone up, and it seems four or five people have done it successfully. It looks dangerous, but that only increases my resolve. I’ve been taking chances like crazy on this trip, trying to scare myself into a good thrill buzz. But even when I snuck away at the Cliffs of Moher to climb onto a narrow, windy ledge and swing my feet over the sea two hundred meters below, I’d barely felt anything.
It’s my turn to ascend the throne. From the looks of it, it’s not going to be easy. Still, I tell myself if other people can do it, so can I. In retrospect, my logic here was flawed. Each of my predecessors had actually loosened the rocks on their way up and down. By the time I reach the top, I’m definitely feeling something. Even the large flat rock I saw my classmate pose on for his picture is dangerously unstable. My cheap denim leggings catch and snag on everything, making it even harder to keep my balance. After a quick photo, I ease myself off the top of the triangle to begin my descent. My arms and legs won’t stop shaking. On either side, the ground below is littered with sharp rocks. It has to be at least a fifteen foot drop. If I fell, I would probably live. But would I break my back, my ribs, a leg, an arm? What would happen to my internal organs? What if I landed on my stupid, hard head?
I try to listen to my classmates’ instructions as I slowly, slowly climb down. I know they’re scared I’m going to fall, too, and I feel bad for doing this to them. At almost 29, I should know better. I lose count of how many rocks move as I try to put a foot or hand on them. I begin to make an involuntary sound, something resembling a whimper, each time it happens. When I finally put both feet back on the relatively secure, relatively flat surface of one of the other house walls, I pretend to be fine. I know no one is buying it, but I’m not faking for them. I feel scared, stupid, and childish, and I’m trying to ignore it.
The hikers passing on their way down now say it’s only 20 minutes. It’s slow going since my legs often aren’t long enough to use the footholds I see other people using. Though there are tall people in my family, we aren’t really a long-legged bunch. At 5’2,” short legs can be a considerable inconvenience. It’s unfathomable to me how anyone could carry something heavier than my small backpack full of snacks and water, yet several of the people who’ve overtaken me on this climb have been carrying large packs. They’re the kind you would use if you were on a backpacking trip, with those padded straps that go around the front of your hips. A siren red one on the back of a young blonde man passes me. It even has straps to attach a tent on top, though he isn’t carrying one. I stare at the backpack’s shape disappearing ahead of me: a cardinal flying away. I haven’t been camping or set foot in a tent in almost six years.
It was the 4th of July. We kayaked the Elk River that day, had a marshmallow fight around the campfire, and then watched the fireworks. When we went into the tent, I thought I knew what was going to happen. I didn’t love or want him; I wanted sex. Maybe that’s why the moment he thrust his hips downward, I felt a searing pain. I was being sliced open, shredded, ripped apart. Something was eating me alive from the inside out. At twenty-three, I was far from being a virgin, but my body had never done this before. It had never rejected a man. I stared helplessly into his pale blue eyes, begging him to stop. Eventually, he did.
I think he expected me to call him the next day, but I didn’t. The clinic said the wound inside me was the size of a quarter, a blood blister of sorts. I pictured it: a plum red balloon. A week later, I heard he’d been bragging to his friends about fucking me. Still, I didn’t call. I knew he wanted retaliation, needed to know he had some kind of power over me. To prove him wrong, I threw myself into school. I don’t remember much from Philosophy or Geology, but I remember learning to convert pain into energy. I no longer think I see his old blue truck in traffic or catch his scent in grocery store aisles, but a part of me still thinks if I go into a tent, he’ll be waiting.
Assist: To stand to or by; to be present.
I’m frozen on the uneven bars. Both my hands and one foot rest on top of the lower bar, but the second foot points at the blue mat. I’m eleven and painfully aware of how awkward I look in this position. My spotter, a muscular young man with brown hair and hazel eyes, places his hand on my back. It’s okay. You can do it. I’m not going to let you fall. But I don’t believe him. Can’t believe him. I am faithless. This has never happened before, but it will happen every time from now on. In this moment, it seems all the broken promises from my short life have suddenly caught up with me.
Ten minutes from the top the mist is so thick it feels like being inside a cloud. I can see the path, but not much else. I’m not sure if the incline is steeper here or if it’s just that I’m exhausted, but I’m seriously struggling. I lose my balance for what feels like the millionth time, and catch myself making that involuntary whimpering sound I made two days ago on Inishmaan. A few of the hikers around me hear it. A middle-aged man with graying hair climbs sideways across the path to get next to me. He offers me a helping hand, but I assure him I’m all right. I’ve yet to actually fall down on this hike, though I keep coming really close. I’ve become an expert at swaying back and forth with my arms out to regain balance.
“Are you sure?” the man asks. His blue-gray eyes try to hone in on any uncertainty in my green ones. I say “Yeah. I’m fine. I’m just a clumsy hiker.” He and his companions overtake me as I continue to make my way slowly up the slippery path. It’s hard for me to accept help, even when I could clearly use it. If there’s even the slightest chance that I can do something myself, I’ll always try that first. Part of it is just that I hate being dependent on other people for stuff, but part of it is more complicated.
When I was a kid, my mom had severe depression. For her, that didn’t mean lying in bed all day watching TV; it meant unpredictable anger. My sister and I never knew what was going to set her off or how mad she would get. Sometimes spilling juice was no big deal, sometimes she was standing over one of us screaming she was to going to kill us. Dad couldn’t be counted on, either. When we were little, he was never home. When I was thirteen, he became addicted to crack. I’d like to say that I’m past all of it now, that growing up and realizing lots of other people had crappy childhoods was helpful. But the truth is I don’t trust anyone, and even something as simple as accepting a little help climbing a mountain is a thing I have to work up to.
The top is so close, probably less than five minutes. I’m beginning to wish I’d accepted that guy’s help, though. There aren’t any other hikers near me right now, and the possibility of falling is especially worrisome. It would suck to be injured and have to wait for someone to pass by. So far in my life, I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard. Despite my inability to trust other people, and my general hard-headedness, I’ve yet to find myself seriously hurt and alone.
There’s something thrilling about climbing a steep, slippery slope by yourself, knowing that the stakes are high. But there’s a funny sort of sadness about it, too. When you refuse other people’s help long enough, it stops feeling like a choice. It starts to feel like you’ve always been this way, like you were born a fortress, like there’s never been another way to exist except cut off from everyone else. I’m not sure if it’s the thin air or my emotions, but the lump forming in my throat feels about the size of the small boulder I just crawled over.
On a picnic bench in the Pieman Café, I sit confused, my loneliness disproportionate to the situation. It’s just one night in the Times Hostel in Dublin, one night in a room of strange girls who haven’t said a word to me or each other all afternoon. I’ve finished my pie and mash, and know I should leave, but U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” comes on the radio and I stay to listen to it. It reminds me of my mom’s car. Mom went through a bizarre U2 kick the year I turned fifteen. We must’ve listened to The Joshua Tree a hundred times.
Staring out the window at the narrow street which leads into Temple Bar, I feel the song’s connection to my current predicament. On this month-long trip through Scotland, Ireland, and England, it feels like I’m searching for something. I keep looking for rules to break, acting half my age, trying to terrify myself into some kind of catharsis. There’s no reason for it.
Groups of young people in every imaginable type of clothing pass by. I think about my sister, my traveling companion through Scotland, who I said goodbye to in Edinburgh two days ago. It’s not so much her as a person that I miss; I just miss not feeling alone. It’s damp and chilly outside, just like it was in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Still, it feels different here. I know I need to go back to the hostel, so I get up and pay the friendly brunette behind the counter before heading out into the light rain.
Reaching the top of Croagh Patrick was incredible. A small group of my classmates were waiting to sing “Happy Birthday” to me as I hiked the final few feet. It was unexpected and sort of silly, but exactly what I needed after my brief bout of the lonelies. There was a grave and an eerie old church up there, and hikers in red and yellow rain jackets sat eating lunch on its steps. Looking down through the mist, I saw a small island just off the coast. Gray clouds smudged across the tops of its small hills.
I’m glad the view was worth it, because getting down is proving to be even harder than climbing up. I saw a lot of hikers slipping and sliding when I was going up, and I suspected it wouldn’t be easy. Still, it’s amazing how few places there are to put my feet, and how quickly the gravel gives way. I literally can’t stand still. My heart isn’t racing and I’ve stopped sweating, but my leg muscles are cramping hard. I can feel my left knee starting to give out. I hurt it during my escapades at the Cliffs of Moher, and it hasn’t forgiven me yet. I hesitate above a particularly steep section of the descent, and another man stops to try to help me. He’s probably in his fifties or sixties, with grayish white hair and a beard. When he offers me his hand, I force myself to take it. I can do that now sometimes.
Brave: courageous, daring, intrepid, stout-hearted
We sit in his car at the beginning of a footpath into the swamp. I say, for the first time, “I’m scared.” He says quietly “I only want to hurt you how you want to be hurt.” It’s the same thing he said two months ago when we first started chatting online. We get out of the car. I follow him down the path, focusing on the rhythm of my footsteps and the throbbing blood in my ears. I think of climbing the rope in gym class as a child, try to remember what it felt like to trust my hands, to trust the air, to trust fortune. I think of the spotter in gymnastics class, how suddenly and inexplicably my faith in him had vanished, how after a while, mistrust feels like a second skin.
When we stop in a clearing, I look around nervously. A squirrel rustles in the alder trees, and I shiver. I’ve never done this outside before, never even tried it with anyone but my first boyfriend. He says “Are you ready?” and I nod and walk slowly toward him, yellow leaves crunching under my feet. I don’t remember if he said anything else, but I remember him putting his hand on my back, helping me to stay in position. The first strike lands so quickly I don’t have time to brace myself. In retrospect, I’m grateful he didn’t make me wait. I don’t think I could’ve waited. I drive home slowly, spend the afternoon rotating ice packs, hoping to be healed. Not by the pain he’s inflicted, but by the trust it took for me to let him do it, a trust he didn’t break.
After he’s helped me over a few large rocks, I assure the older man I’ll be okay, and he continues on with his group. The climbing is still extremely difficult, but the thing about going down is that, unlike going up, it’s not optional. In a way, having no alternative makes things easier. I’m getting comfortable with the idea that I’m just going to have to get through this one way or another. It’s a good thing I’m resigned to it, too, because I am anything but graceful as I painstakingly maneuver along the path.
My back is cramping now because I’m constantly leaning down. Though I know nothing about climbing, my instincts tell me that it won’t be as bad to fall if I’m already down low. Sometimes, there are large rocks along one side of the path. They’re covered in dirt and greenish stuff that looks like it was once moss, and they’re easy to scrape your knuckles on, but they help. I grab onto them whenever I can. When the large rocks aren’t there, I sometimes reach down and grab smaller ones, hoping they don’t move. It was only yesterday that I almost fell off a house on Inishmaan. The fear is still fresh. It’s not quite the rush I’ve been looking for, but there’s something to be said for getting back on the horse, especially when you understand the risks of waiting.
I wouldn’t wish the anxiety I felt in the swamp two months ago on anyone. It had been so long since I had trusted another person, and there I was trusting someone I barely knew to dominate me, to hurt me on purpose. Not because he was angry, but because he wanted to help me. All I could think about then was if he turned out to be a predator, my long-awaited catharsis would instead be real trauma. Two months later, I’m still struggling to trust him, even though he’s never done anything I didn’t ask him to, even though it’s been six years since that tent. I can’t help but think if I hadn’t waited so long to seek someone like him out, things would be way easier.
But what I do with him now, and what I’m doing on this mountain, is something I couldn’t do when I was twenty-three: I’m making myself act on the assumption that fortune isn’t cumulative. It’s random. The fact that I almost fell yesterday doesn’t increase the likelihood that I will fall today any more than the fact that a lot of people have hurt me in the past increases the likelihood that the person reaching out their hand to help me over a rock is going to betray me. Sometimes people just want to help. Though my crab-like progression down the path is laughably inefficient, the visitor’s center and café at the mountain’s base are slowly becoming clearer.
I fly down a narrow, bumpy cobblestone street in the city centre of Edinburgh, Scotland, crying hysterically. I try to remember to keep left but correct to the right to avoid scraping the curb. Cars and people keep appearing out of nowhere, and although I can’t see it, I can feel the enormous edifice that is Edinburgh Castle looming above me. I’m driving alone out of necessity. My sister left this morning, and I have to return the car, but I can’t find the Europcar office. I sob harder, becoming increasingly panicked by signs saying I’m about to go onto a major highway. I glance at the tartan coaster on the empty passenger seat, the thin red and white stripes amongst the forest green and navy, and recall the old motto, “Fortune Assists the Brave.” A few moments later, I find a side street to turn onto and a spot to pull off the road. As I collect myself and consult Google Maps, I look at the coaster again. I wonder if fortune was with me just now, wonder if the courage it takes to drive alone in a strange country cancels out the tears drying on my cheeks.
People always tell me I’m brave. They say “You’re so strong. Look at everything you’ve been through.” And I think “What’s the alternative?” Assuming you want to live, you’ve got to somehow get through whatever happens to you. Likewise, assuming you want to get off a mountain, you’ve got to stick it out through the climb down, which is what I’ve just done. It wasn’t a spectacular display of my natural abilities. I scrambled. I crawled. If need be, I sat down and scooted. I even accepted help from time to time. Now, at the end, it seems like only that last part matters.
I figured out a long time ago that there’s no shame in doing whatever’s necessary to keep yourself alive. What I’ve been learning recently is though there’s no way to erase the bad experiences that have shaped parts of who I am, those experiences don’t determine the future. The past doesn’t always or even frequently repeat: I’m just afraid it will. Understanding this doesn’t magically make me able to trust fortune or other people again, but it does help, the same way it helps to know I climbed my first mountain and never fell. About the Author:Ellie White holds an MFA from Old Dominion University. She writes poetry and nonfiction, and is the creator of the online comic strip “Uterus & Ellie.” Her work has appeared in Antiphon Poetry Magazine, Harpur Palate, Tincture and several other journals. Ellie’s chapbook, Requiem for a Doll, was released by ELJ Publications in June 2015. She is a nonfiction editor at Four Ties Literary Review, and the Social Media Editor for Muzzle Magazine. She currently lives near some big rocks and trees outside Charlottesville, Virginia. To read more of Ellie’s work, please visit her website http://elliewhitewrites.com