Wheeler Peak, New Mexico. Elevation: 13,161 feet. That was our destination.
My dad manned the wheel; I leaned against the windowpane, watching the thick brown dust swirl beneath our car. My little brother and sister were asleep; my mom was reading. Like ghosts, the blue Rocky Mountains loomed in the summer haze.
I doubted that we would ever reach Red River, an old-fashioned town nestled among the peaks and aspen trees.I wasn’t in any hurry. Our family was about to climb Wheeler Peak, the tallest mountain in New Mexico, and I was scared. The round trip was over twenty miles, and we would spend the night high on the mountain.The day before the hike was filled with apprehension.
We had been in Red River for three days, acclimating to the thin mountain air. As I filled my backpack with trail mix and tuna (I can’t stand tuna!), I sighed. Why couldn’t my family just be normal and go the beach?But my family was not normal.The next day, we started our ascent.
With dread, I started up the infinite series of switchbacks. I watched my sister skipping ahead, carefree. My brother was racing her, and their laughter filled the silent woods.
I missed being that free. As a teenage girl, I felt as if I had lost touch with that sense of joy.For five long miles, we kept hiking. But finally, we reached the lake to set up camp.
There, we stopped for the ‘highlight’ of our day – tuna. I was speechless as that fishy stench wafted from the ‘Tuna Delight.’ Immediately sick, I gave the tuna to my brother. I wasn’t hungry.The next morning, we started our laborious ascent to the summit.
The deep valleys and snowy ridges were breathtaking. Vibrant flowers poured over the mountainside, and the sun illuminated them.We scaled sharp rocks, climbing towards the sky. For the first time in my life, the clouds seemed tangible.
The long trail ahead was surmountable. And each step took me closer to our destination. My feet started to feel lighter. We had hiked for over four miles, but I wasn’t tired. We were so close!I felt like a child again – completely free. Running ahead with my brother and sister, I didn’t care about what anyone else thought. Breathless, we stepped onto the summit, simultaneously reaching ‘the top of the world.’But my mom was concerned. ‘We need to get down right now,’ she ordered. Perplexed, we stared at her. She simply motioned towards my sister and to the sky above. We recoiled in shock. My sister’s hair was standing straight up. The sky was grey and foreboding; the thin air buzzed with static electricity. This was a storm. And we were not prepared. Terrified, we started to run down the mountain. If it rained, we would become hypothermic. If there was lightning – well, I tried not to think about that.
My dad gave each of us a flimsy poncho. But it didn’t rain. It hailed. It was a whiteout. There was no shelter – we were defenseless.The hail shot like bullets through out ponchos. But we had to keep going. My brother ran in front, his steps blazing a path for my unsure feet. He tossed me his baseball hat, giving up his only protection from the barrage of whipping ice. Our shredded ponchos left an orange plastic trail on the mountainside.
My sister fell waist-deep into an ice-cold mountain lake, putting her in grave danger of hypothermia.It seemed like an eternity, but we eventually reached our camp. Cold and exhausted, we collapsed for three hours. But everyone was okay. Hot chocolate revived my sister, and my brother was brought back to life by the promise of pizza that night. Even though my hair was a mess, and I was black and blue from the hail, I was renewed. As we packed up and headed to the mountain’s base, I believed in myself.That hailstorm changed me. It infused me with the sense that, even though hard times will overwhelm and ‘blind’ me, I can get through them. My loving family is there for a reason – I don’t know what I would have done on that mountain without my brother’s guidance and unselfish generosity. I have learned that you don’t always overcome hard times…sometimes you go through them. And if you are blessed with a loving family, you won’t be alone.
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