Meredith C. Carroll: You can win for losing, or not even trying
The journey into Montana’s Beartooth Wilderness is neither quick nor easy, although that’s kind of the point. Home to the largest stretch of unbroken land outside Alaska, the landscape is rugged, teeming with canyons and plateaus providing an idyllic platform that all but promises to never let you find exactly what you seek all while pledging you’ll relish the search anyway.
Yet despite the physical distance separating the Beartooth Wilderness from the real world, when you’re standing backward on the edge of a cliff more than 40 feet from the ground, it still gets real really quickly.
Heights aren’t my thing. I didn’t discover this in the Beartooth Wilderness, but I was reminded of it during my time there on an Outward Bound course. Outward Bound had proven life-changing for me twice before, once in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota in high school and then again in college in Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park. Outward Bound programs — designed to strengthen character via challenging experiences in unfamiliar situations — filled holes in me that had been excavated during pubescence.
On the first one, I flop-sweated out teen angst while portaging canoes for, like, 97 hours each day. Thanks to the raw, angry blisters from the climbing shoes I’d avoided breaking-in the second time, I more closely resembled collateral damage in a Mark Wahlberg summer-action flick than an actual girl scrambling to keep up with a group of spider-men (and women). By the third round, when I was a bit older, I devoted my backcountry spell to worrying less about keeping up with the Joneses and more to remembering exactly how to fight off a Grizzly bear should I be awoken by one attempting to maul me for its midnight snack.
The bulk of the course in the Beartooth Wilderness was spent hiking, with only one day set aside for rock climbing. I didn’t recall the ground ever seeming as far away in Joshua Tree as it did on that day in Montana. Even though the ascent didn’t unleash an army of terror-soaked prickles throughout my body, the prospective descent more than made up for it. I peeked over the cliff’s edge too many times to count, all while attempting to ignore the moisture creeping out of my pores as the dam holding back my torrent of tears broke into smithereens.
I made a mental list of all the probable reasons the rappel would not result in my immediate death, including how everyone before me survived and Outward Bound probably led hundreds of others down this exact same route successfully. If someone died doing it, I’d have heard about it. You know, probably.
Words of encouragement were shouted at me, even if they seemed better suited for coffee mugs or motivational posters illustrated with kittens hanging from tree branches.
“Trust the ropes!”
“Be one with the rock!”
“You only fail if you don’t try!”
“If you can do this, imagine what else is possible!”
One of my patient instructors smiled kindly and pressed his forehead against mine.
“You’re stronger than this rappel,” he whispered. “It’ll be over before you blink. I promise you’ll have no regrets.”
I wanted to make him proud. I wanted the rappel to mark the first step toward my future filled with symbolic cliff dives where I’d make bold choices and land stronger, not to mention with life and limbs in tact; anything less would be an acute malfunction forever branded on my self-esteem.
After roughly 90 minutes of taking 2 inches forward and 5 back, the time had come. The good will of the group faded as the late-summer sun rose higher in the sky. It was go time, except my body refused to let me voluntarily walk backward over the side of a cliff. I imagined my dad, from whom I inherited my allergy to elevations, saying, “Who in God’s name would choose to fall off a mountain?” and I couldn’t think of a single answer. The only thing going over that edge was the few remaining shards of my courage.
That’s when my beloved instructor took off his Outward Bound face and put on his real-life one.
“You know what?” he said. “It’s a dumb rappel. It doesn’t mean anything. Just walk down.”
He didn’t have to ask twice. I shimmied off the harness and skipped to the bottom without looking back.
A friend posted a silly quote on Facebook the other day: “When life shuts a door, open it again. It’s just a door. That’s how it works.” It took me back to that moment in Montana and the back-pocket souvenir I received afterward, which was different than the one I wanted but has likely proven even more useful.
Sometimes what you gain from losing, or not even trying, can be more valuable. Because sometimes what you think means the most, in fact, means nothing at all.
Follow Meredith Carroll on Twitter @MCCarroll. More at MeredithCarroll.com.