This is how it all ends, I think, doubled over and gasping for air on a sand dune in Southern Colorado, almost 9,000 feet above sea level. Although the altitude didn’t warrant Everest-sized fears, I knew that a wet cough would soon plague me, followed by frothy sputum and respiratory failure. My brother, Anthony, would drag my dead body back to the car, and it would be boxed and flown home to Seattle in cargo hold.
I’d had a good run, but I wasn’t ready for death yet – or more realistically – the pain of continuing on. Throwing off my backpack, I plop down and tell Anthony I’m not going any further.
“But look,” he says, motioning towards High Dune, still 400 feet up. It might as well have been 4,000. “You’re so close to our goal. Do you really want to turn back now?”
I glance up at the wave of sand, tracing the curve to new heights I no longer cared to reach. “Yup. I quit.”
“It’s just the altitude. Take your time, catch your breath, and let’s keep going. You’re halfway there. Summon that inner firefighter.”
“I haven’t been a firefighter in four years. I’m out of shape. I can’t do this.”
Anthony walks a few steps ahead in silence, camera in hand, and I urge him to go on without me. I’ll wait. The sand is warm in the late afternoon sun, inviting me to nap until the burning in my lungs subsides and the wind cools my forehead. I’m inclined to accept, but he won’t allow it.
After a few minutes my heart rate slows, and the hot, pounding migraine I’ve been experiencing fades into a tolerable pulse, so I stand up and trudge forward. Fifty yards later, I fling myself onto the sand again. “I can’t go on!”
“You’re a Hanson. Yes, you can.”
“I’m not you. I don’t climb all the 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado on the weekends.”
Anthony glides over the terrain like an agile Sherpa, a natural mountaineer whose effortless pace I can never hope to match, and summits the first small dune we’ve been ascending for the past hour. He calls down to me, “Come on!”
A couple in their early 50’s, tan and serene, is sitting a few yards away, holding hands and gazing over the Great Sand Dunes vista below. I am holding my new Nikon and think of capturing the view from right there, but it isn’t really the shot I want. The real view is at the top and I need it for my portfolio, but continuing seems impossible. I’d cry, except I’m sure that would just make my headache worse.
“The peak of High Dune is right there. IT’S. RIGHT. THERE. You can do this, Jolene.”
The woman looks over at me and says, “You can’t come all the way up here with a camera like that and not go to the top. Keep climbing.”
She’s right. My camera, which I’ve dubbed “Fancy” after the Iggy Azalea song (to my shock and dismay, “Nat Geo” did not stick), was purchased specifically for travel photography, and I would never be content to know that my little brother beat me to the top and was capturing my shot. I’d have to make it or die trying. So I power on, taking ten slow steps at a time. Ten steps, break. Ten steps, break.
And then, something unexpected happens. Within feet of the summit of High Dune, the ache in my lungs, legs, and head begins to disappear. I run. Passing Anthony, I think about cartwheeling across the peak, except the running makes me lightheaded.
“See, I knew you could do it!” he yells after me.
I spin around, the 360 degree view transporting me to other worlds, and I feel like I could just as easily be somewhere like Morocco. With each actuation of my camera shutter, I forget about the struggles of the past hour and a half. I’m an explorer again. A traveler. A photographer. Not some defeated middle-aged woman crawling, half dead up a mountain.
Later, as we begin our descent, the couple in their early 50’s passes us. The woman says to me, “If you can do it, I can do it. Thanks for the motivation.”
Sliding down the dunes, shoes filling with sand, I think about how important it is to surround ourselves with people who believe in us, people who push us beyond our perceived limitations, people who won’t allow us to give up. I would have given up had it not been for Anthony. I have always carried a lot of pride in my individuality, the strength in the word ONE. But, I have to concede that there are some things only accomplished by the power of two.
Thank you, Anthony.