The cool, crisp mountain air refreshed me, a Texas boy. An aura of adventure emanated from the lush green slopes, beckoning for the climb, for someone to conquer its legendary path of stone. An hour by bus outside Beijing, the Great Wall has stood for thousands of years as a testament to the iron will of Chinese people both past and present: masons sweating blood to construct it, and their progeny craving to experience its magnificent history.
The path stretched before us, an ostensibly gentle climb, higher and higher into mountain mist. At first the stairs were easygoing and my mom, grandma, brother and I, sauntered leisurely up the steps, enjoying the ambience of the infinitely expansive verdant peaks cradling around us, veiled mysteriously in fog. We passed the first tower, aspiring for the fourth, Beibalou, the highest point of this portion of the wall. Although the steps gradually became more aggressive, we eventually planted our flag at the second tower as well. Only a fraction of climbers were said to reach the top, but heck, we were already halfway there.
Somewhere along the way, the Texas sun found me halfway across the globe, radiating its fierce blaze relentlessly upon us from the cloudless sky. The shield of early air had completely dissipated, penetrated by the adamant pounding of midday heat. I stood alone with my grandma at the door of the third tower with only one stretch left to climb, abandoned by my brother ,who had regrettably succumbed to blistering heat and feet, and mother who accompanied him down. The wall had surprised us, enraged by the scorching sun, and begun to steepen its path, heighten its stairs, rebuffing those who had not the stamina and stalwart resolve to continue. But I didn’t cower so easily, a vivacious spud of sixteen, and neither did my grandmother. Seventy-five years of arduous fieldwork, seventy-five years of travail in the wheat fields had imbued in this stout woman a determination and pride as inexorable as the time biting at her body. Raising five children in a squalid rural existence had been a life’s climb in itself, so there wasn’t any worldly thing she believed insurmountable. She started up, and I found myself having to catch up.
Hardy as my grandmother’s spirit was, she eventually required help and support to make it up the steps. I became a human walking cane, slowly lifting her up, carefully securing each step as we climbed against the slope. The wall was no longer just a path of stone, but a thrashing behemoth. It undulated up and down as the back of a sea monster, and the possibility of slipping down the precipitous down-slopes required as much diligence in movement as the climbs. We were both soaked through in sweats of labor, but not once did my grandma complain or wish to rest; we plowed ahead incessantly, taming whatever grade was ahead. Eventually, the beast shed its scales and became smooth, stepless. We clung to the handrails, boosting and straining. Beibalou was as close as an arm’s reach, but if I reached, I might have fallen.
As Grandma rested and enjoyed the panorama, I couldn’t help but think of the trials she had faced throughout her life. She lived through world wars, revolutions, and motherhood, but was still hungry to face the next challenge. I realized a newfound respect not only for my grandma, but also the tenacious plebian society of China she epitomized. I felt much privilege in being grandson of strength and vigor itself, and confident that our descent would only be our next adventure.
Notes on pictures-my brother is in the red shirt, mom in the blue, grandma in black, me in gray. The last shot is the bus parking lot for tourists.
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