The Way Down

Inspirational documentaries are the stories that hold gravity in my mind. These woven tales of triumph take underdogs, downtrodden by the callous parts of life, and prove that they can do hard things. They are stories of daring feats by unlikely heroes – individuals who accomplish the unprecedented and the monumental.

Their accomplishments make the headlines. Soon after these exhausted champions pump their fists in triumph, the closing credits indicate their story is over. The viewers are queued to cheer. They celebrate. I contemplate:

“Can I do that?”

I have always chased the endpoint. The arrival. The top of the heap. The pinnacle of existence. If it’s challenging, I want in – and I want in right now.

To achieve it.

To live in it unapologetically and out loud.

To stand in complete awe at the beauty surrounding me and the complete humbleness for the war-torn path I took to get there.

To soak in the ecstasy of higher ground and taste the sun on my lips, feeling the hot burn of NOW.

To see and feel everything – all at once.

To exhale the forces that tell me no.

To inhale the deep knowing of being exactly where I’m meant to be, at the exact moment I’m meant to be there.

The challenge always sends me searching. With a heavy pack of ambition and no navigational guide, I trudge the road to happy destiny.

My MO is to figure it out as I go along. I am a survivalist by nature and a planner only by force.

I like traveling alone. Those who join me are distractions to a higher connection I seek within myself and the sunlight of the spirit that surrounds me.

But this journey is different. This time, I let my guard down and reach across the path, meeting eyes with a journeyman headed in the same direction. When I let go of the control and the desire for solitude, I am met with power and strength and a deep understanding of shared triumphs, griefs, and dreams.

And so it begins. With every labored step, I shed my skin – the layers of dust and grime from former selves that no longer serve me. They become ashes of past lives that swirl around my feet. I kick at the dust they create, thanking them for the shelter they once offered when I was weaker. I know I can’t retreat inside them. Not again. There is no place to go but forward.

I pull out my insides to show the strength that’s hiding there – the true grit – and also the rawness to my companion who is willing to do the same. With my vulnerability laid bare, my stepping stones of openness chart my course.

For the first time, I lead with my heart, I trust the process, and I lean in when every past experience warns me of the dangers.

After days on the trail, I finally reach the mountaintop. And what a spectacular view it is!

And how it changes me

And everything to follow.

The air I breathe is different. I see the world in a new light. The stars are brighter and clearer and reach down so close I can almost touch them with my fingertips. 

I lift the once hidden parts of me towards the sky and yell,

“Look! How beautiful! How very alive you are now. And how very alive this world is, too!”

I look across the sweat-spattered trail we took – its jagged edges, the steep inclines, the jutted cliffs reaching down to the perilous, crashing waves. I threw every ounce of energy I had into those worn-down soles of my Salomon trail runners. I dreamed about this moment – formed the edges of my story like soft, red clay pressed into the beaten paths that got us here. I have arrived with my own woven story of survival.

And so, it is. My film-worthy, incredulous feat to share with the world. My documentary now reaching that climax that will soon cut to the closing credits. But this doesn’t feel like an ending. Not like in the movies.

I didn’t pack the right gear to stay on the mountain forever. And like all things, the longer I stay, the more lackluster the pinnacle becomes. The air gets thin. The wind cuts into my skin. Reality sinks in and the mountaintop demands departure or soon enough, penance.  

So . . . now what?

Unfortunately, these documentaries rarely include a guidebook on how to descend.

How to survive the normal.

The afterward.

How to breathe the stagnant air when you return with new lungs.

I look across to the other side of the mountain. I notice a tiny footpath, haphazard and winding and much less worn than the path we took to get here. But looking out across the horizon is an uncharted, breathtaking land. Though some of the valley is shrouded in shadow, the parts touched by sunlight are the greenest of greens and are being kissed by a starburst-pink sky resting its head ever so gently above.

As the sun sets, the moon scatters thousands of projectile lights to point the way towards a new freedom and a new happiness. But what lies in the shadows along the way?

I have a choice to make: Do I return to what I know – the safety of the familiar – or do I descend to the other side? It is in this moment I realize the journey to the top is not what the universe is preparing me to reach.

My past proves standing still is a slow, leaking death. But the pinnacle I now stand upon can take me faster. I must choose before the mountain chooses for me.

My fellow journeyman contemplates the other side, but the shadows overtake his confidence and he retreats down the familiar path.

I am now left alone.

I look down at my left arm and remember who I am. A phoenix tattoo burns into my flesh and reminds me there is no returning.

Not when returning means to sit upon the ashes and wait for redemption.

The faces, the places, the habits, the rituals – everything looks different now.

And me.

I look different too.

Returning would not be returning.

It would be visiting as an alien, unfamiliar and looking for solace in a world no longer meant for me.

I am on the mountaintop.

I now see what’s on the other side.

And I can never go back with new eyes to tell the same story.

I inhale deeply and embrace the unknown.

This is my survival story.

Not of returning as a hero, but of soaring as a phoenix no longer sifting through the ashes to find a home.