[Humans] need difficulties. They are necessary for health. — Carl Jung
On a Tuesday in early December my husband and I decided to hike up Calpe. Calpe — or Calp, as it is spelled in Valenciano, is an enormous limestone rock that looms over the town of the same name. The official name of the rock itself is actually Penyal d’Ifac but most people refer to it as Calpe.
Depending on the route you take, whether over the mountain from Teulada, or around the bend from the beach road just past Moraira, suddenly, there it is: dominating the horizon like an establishment shot for a bad sci-fi movie; towering over the shore, dwarfing the line of beachfront skyscrapers. Each time we drive past, we marvel at how awesome, in the truest sense of the word, it must have looked before the built environment. From our rooftop deck, we can see the top third of it, and on the days when it is sunny and the humidity is low, it is striking in its blueish-grey sharpness. No matter how many times we see it, it never gets less surreal.
At 332 meters tall, Calpe is home to such a unique range of natural diversity that it was declared a natural park in January 1987. Only 45 hectares in size it is the smallest one in Spain, maybe in all of Europe. The Phonecians referred to it as the “Northern Rock” to distinguish it from the Rock of Gibraltar. A few months ago, Tom hiked to the top with some friends and returned home raving about the experience. So on this December morning, we decided to go, despite the below-average temperatures and extremely high winds that had gripped the Marina Alta area of Spain for the past week. But as my husband likes to say, “There’s no bad weather, only bad gear.”
The most difficult part of the hike, at least endurance-wise, is the beginning. On this stretch, which runs from the parking lot to about two-thirds of the way up the rock, the incline is steep. But the path here is wide and paved with flagstones, and its multitude of switchbacks through dense thickets of Mediterranean pines, twisted and bent from years in the wind, afforded us spectacular views of the sea and the town below.
The paved section of trail ended abruptly at the mouth of a long, dark and uphill tunnel through the rock. Due to Calpe’s odd shape, without this passage it would be impossible for most hikers, except for experienced mountain climbers, to go further. I paused, peering skeptically into the interior. Although I could barely make out daylight at the end, the inside was almost completely dark. Moreover, the rock “floor” wasn’t flat, but bumpy and uneven, worn to a slippery smoothness from almost three decades of constant foot traffic. A chain handrail attached by metal spikes on either wall provided a bit of reassurance and I grabbed on, carefully sliding my feet across the slick floor. Although I could make out the exit up ahead, the interior was dark enough and the incline steep enough to make my passage tenuous and slow going.
After about 50 meters, the tunnel ended and I was once again out into the brilliant sun. I blinked to reset my eyes, squinting against the sunlight bouncing off the sea. It was then I noticed just how narrow the trail had now become, which wound around the mountain. It wasn’t just skinny, one edge was along a cliff. Given my intense fear of heights exacerbated by the wind, I hugged the rock wall on the opposite side, forcing myself to keep going, albeit slowly, one step at a time; the entire right side of my body glued to the limestone. By now the wind gusts had increased, and Tom, who has a faster pace and far less fear, had rounded the bend and was out of sight. The wind stung my eyes and the bright sun made it hard to see. Suddenly, I was overcome by the height of the mountain and the narrowness of the trail. A wave of panic gripped me. Usually when this happens I can talk myself through it. Just the week before, I had done a far more strenuous hike: higher elevation, and places where the trail was narrower and came with a much more acute drop. It had been windy then too, enough to actually blow me over at two different points, and yet I had coped just fine, even laughing about it; proud of myself for pushing through the fear.
But for whatever reason, on this day, on the edge of Calpe, I just couldn’t do it. The lump in my throat grew bigger; the palms of my gloved hands were drenched in sweat. I could feel tears of panic bubbling behind my eyes. Slowly, I sank against the rock, terrified to take one more step even in retreat. By now a few hikers, who had been spacing themselves, mindful of social-distancing, double-checked their masks and eased around me. A woman walked by holding the hands of two small children, both of whom looked younger than 8 years old. Noticing my panicked state, she delicately averted her gaze, but the children just stared, captivated by the mini-drama unfolding before their eyes, craning their necks as they walked past. As if to add insult to injury, they were in street shoes and dress coats, as if out for a casual stroll in the park instead of on a mountainside cliff.
My embarrassment overtook my fear. Shakily, I stood up and forced myself to walk, step by careful step, to the mouth of the cave, now comforting and reassuring in its dark protectiveness.
By this point Tom returned from around the bend looking for me. Seeing my face, I could tell he had made the mental calculation against convincing me to continue, saying instead, “No problem, we’ll come again when it’s less windy.”
Back in the sun-warmed car, the wind silenced, my jacket unzipped, my gloves off, I tried to figure out why I had reacted as I did. I had slept well, I wasn’t hungry, nothing of significance had happened that week to upset me, and I’m an experienced hiker. It was then I realized my response was likely just one more instance of the cumulative effect of this past year; the enormous reality of living through a global pandemic deciding to hit me at yet another inopportune time. Or who knows? Maybe it was simply one of those days when I didn’t have it in me. After all, recognizing our fears and then trying to overcome them, even in the best of times, is often a two-steps-forward-three-steps-back kind of process.
Maybe the problem is that the more recent generations, including my own, have never known hardship. By this I mean collective hardship. Of course, we have all faced our own individual trials: divorces, job losses, poor health, deaths of friends and family members, financial crises, struggling kids. And in no way am I diminishing these — not by a long shot. But what I mean is that, somehow, these have felt like one-offs, bad luck, an aberration from the norm, something that happens to other people. 9-11 imparted fear and vulnerability, but not widespread hardship. We have not lived through World Wars or Great Depressions. We’ve never had air raid sirens sound at night throughout our city as we run for cover to basements and cellars. We never faced famine. We didn’t have to contend with Polio. We didn’t even have the draft. The 1918 Spanish Flu? Just another paragraph in one of our high school history books, as relevant — and as seemingly recent — to our lives as the Bubonic Plague.
As a result, I think we get destabilized more easily; it’s not difficult to knock us off our stride. A storm takes out some power lines and we lose electricity for a day; our air conditioning decides to die in mid-July; our car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and we JUST. CANNOT. DEAL. But these are not hardships, they are minor inconveniences. But all that has changed as a result of this past year. Now we know better. I am not, in any way, trying to diminish anyone who has lost a loved one or their job to COVID. I know the stakes have been high. But as hard as it has been, I choose to believe that collectively, we have become stronger because of it.
My friend Lee instinctively knows what to say to me when I’m spiraling. She has a knack for casually and effortlessly tossing out one-liners that instantly encapsulate the messy and half-formed thoughts swirling inside my head. Sometimes her words come with a shot of irreverence, adding a much-needed touch of levity and perspective. “Your anxiety is a lying c-word” she once said (using the actual c-word). Regardless, they never fail to hit their mark, landing in my soul, in their economy of words, with an bulls-eye precision where they become my latest mantra.
Another time, as she was hanging up the phone, she said, “You’re on a beautiful adventure.” I felt an electric jolt go straight into my psyche. And I saw a glimmer of light, a slight distance that appeared between me and all my doubts and fears from this past year. In five words she crystalized for me, on a visceral level, the entire Buddhist concept of impermanence; something I had heretofore only understood abstractly. Because really, when we can finally accept that the only constant is change, we can see that nothing is permanent, and therefore, maybe not irreparable. And the recognition of this is what gives us hope.
A Beautiful Adventure. That’s what this is, this life of ours — collectively and individually: A Beautiful Adventure. It’s in the downs as well as the ups; in the valleys as well as the peaks that beauty resides, because it is in these depths that we find the richness: the texture, the meaning, and the nuance of life. It is in the depths where we are forced to dig deep, and in doing so discover our resolve. And It is in the depths where we most need a helping hand. So instead we extend our hand to others, because they’re struggling too. But it’s also not a perfect process. We sometimes give up, turn back, succumb to our own wounds and weaknesses, fail. But much like the tunnel through Calpe, it is in these dark places when we can also see the light, and find hope and growth. And so these depths are indeed beautiful because they show us not just who we are but who we can choose to be as a result of having been there. So we choose to wake up the next day and begin again anew. Because, when you really think about it, it’s all we can do.
Yep, I bailed on Calpe. I let myself get the better of me. But who knows? Next time might be different. One thing I know for sure, I’m going to keep trying, just as you are, and the next person, and the next. We keep on keeping on as we attempt to scale our own personal Calpes, not just in this year but in all years. Because we have no other choice.
Because we’re on a beautiful adventure.
This post is dedicated to Lee Slivka. Girl, you’re my rock.