When You Can't Breathe

Some people are “beach people”. They love the smell of salt water in the air, the sound of waves crashing against the beach and the feel of warm sand beneath their feet. After years of travel, I found the ocean scene never spoke to me because I’m a “mountain people”. I am drawn to the aroma of sweet butterscotch emitted by towering Ponderosa pines, the song of a distant wind singing to me through the leaves of aspen trees and the coziness of warm wool socks enveloping my feet. (I absolutely hate sand between my toes!)

 But there is one thing about being a “mountain people” that is difficult: The air is thin up here. Oxygen is not quite as plentiful at 7,000 to 10,00 feet as it is at our native home that is barely above sea level.  Everything from running up the stairs to a three-mile hike is much harder.  When you’re neither conditioned for the altitude or familiar with the terrain, what is categorized as a “moderate” hike can be torturous.  And so I found myself gasping for air as Steve and I hiked up Atalaya Mountain in Santa Fe, New Mexico (altitude 9,121 feet) one beautiful spring day. 

 We take to the trails regularly and I’m considered pretty fit, but regardless, I had to stop every few hundred yards to catch my breath. I thought I’d surely die as we traversed harrowing switchbacks and clamored up steep, jagged rocks. Because I’m not prone to quit— there was no way I was turning back—all I could do was move forward. So I fervently prayed without ceasing for a hedge of protection and just a wee bit more oxygen!

 As we approached the peak our path narrowed further and we could see a person descending, quickly. I clung to a rock and tried to make myself “skinny” as the hiker approached but instead of passing me, she gracefully all but danced over me! Stopping to exchange pleasantries, I learned she hiked this pass twice a week and had done so for the past twenty years. At the moment she was training for her upcoming excursion to Machu Picchu. Oh! Did I mention she was 82-years old?

 We shared a warm laugh regarding my physical distress (and her lack thereof) and she said, “Of course this is hard for you, dear.  You’re not acclimated.”  No duh.

 And so it is for those of you who are hiking up your own Atalaya today and find it hard to breathe. Today’s posting is for my young adult readers—those of you challenged for the first time by work, school or life issues or a dilemma that you find yourself utterly unprepared for.  Here is what I learned on my hike that day:

1.     Don’t try to make it on your own. God is available to you 24/7. Pray repeatedly for protection, clarity and the courage to continue to put one foot in front of the other.

2.     Don’t be ashamed that this is hard. If you’ve not passed this way before, it’s only logical that your course is difficult to maneuver.

3.     Don’t be prideful when you need a helping hand up those steep rocks. Look to an objective subject matter expert for guidance. (Note: This person should not be listed on your birth certificate. Your thrice-divorced father might be the most brilliant veterinary doctor in town but it’s not likely he can provide you the best counsel for dealing with a failing marriage as you look for a job as a programmer.  I’m just saying . . . )

4.     Don’t be concerned that you need to stop and catch your breath. In fact, sometimes a “timeout” from dealing with the challenge can provide you the renewed energy and enthusiasm you need to move forward—but know in advance how long of a break you intend to take. You can’t just sit on the side of that mountain forever.

5.     Don’t compare yourself to others. Your hike up that mountain is your journey and no one else’s. 

6.     Don’t quit. Your inspiration is most likely ahead at the next switchback.

 Was our scramble up Atalaya worth it? Oh yes! God’s glory was ours to behold for as far as the eye could see. Absolutely breath-taking. And so it will be for you when you finally arrive, as well.

 Take a deep breath, my friend. Deep breath.

Ellen Miller