After the Giddy Plunge
How to describe the beauty and challenge of that day? How high and steep the dune, how fine and bright the sand? How the ocean—no, Lake Michigan (ha, I wrote ocean!)— spread out below us, an impossibly pure colorscape, gradations of aqua, turquoise, teal leading out to a deep true cobalt?
We were at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, in the Northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. We were traversing the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive when we stopped at #9, the Lake Michigan Overlook.
At first I tried to stop D and E from rolling down the nearly vertical dune, fearing they’d lose control, plummet over the edge and disappear. They started rolling anyway, tentatively at first, stopping and starting, looking back. I glanced uncertainly at my husband—I’ll call him H—and he, ever the cautious one, shook his head. I called, half-heartedly, Boys, come back. They ignored me, of course, and I discussed with nearby adults whether it was safe to go down. A couple with toddlers shook their heads and left. But then a man with two young kids, maybe 7 or 8 years old, appeared on the horizon as if by magic.
Did you go all the way down? I asked, and he nodded, and I said, Are people swimming down there? and he said Yep, and D and E heard and shouted, See?!
We couldn’t see them, those people swimming down there. All we could see was a line of sand and the lake far below, so took a few more steps, testing it out. I tried a couple of moon leaps, taking off and soaring a few feet before sliding in for a landing, and man, that was fun, and again I glanced back at H, who was still standing at the top shaking his head, and the boys were shouting, Why not? Emboldened by the man coming up with the kids, I mouthed to H, Why not?, and he shrugged. So I mouthed, We’re going, and E started to roll, and D started to run, and I started rolling but immediately got too dizzy, so I got up and started run/leaping down the hill, laughter erupting out of me, because nothing was ever like this, and we could see them now, the impossibly tiny people in the water so far below, and we were careening and crashing and laughing and flying, flying, flying down through the silky fine sand toward that dazzling blue water, the good sun hot on our backs.s
And then we were at the bottom, and ten-year-old E and I plunged our bodies into Lake Michigan, the water so calm and clear I could see the shape and color of the rocks below. The water was delicious, cool but not cold—I’d never in my life felt anything so divine. E and I lay back and floated, holding hands, still laughing, while fifteen-year-old D removed his shoes and socks and waded in. I looked across the lake to the dusky blue line on the horizon where water met sky and shouted How can anyone say this isn’t an ocean? and then—surprise!—H came flying down too, and he too was laughing at the wild giddy freedom of it all.
You know what comes next, right? You know that, as Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg wrote, In a dualistic universe, downhill can only mean one thing? I knew it too, of course, and standing at the top I’d said to the boys, Are you sure you want to do this? Coming back up will be hard. But my words were a feint, because as soon as I saw the man with the kids appear at the rim I knew we’d go down.
Ah well. If we don’t ignore consequences once in a while, how can we truly live? And so we basked and frolicked and lolled, and soon, too soon, it was time to go back up.
When faced with a test of physical endurance, I employ a technique I call backpacker’s mind. I first encountered this on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada mountain range when I was fourteen. We were a group of about a dozen teens and a couple of counselors. I was one of the least experienced backpackers on the trip. A few days in, my feet were blistered and raw. It was dusty and sweltering, and the switchbacks—a word I’d come to dread—were endless, zigzagging up and up, always another around the bend. I was last in line, save for the counselor, Eve, who was assigned to bring up the rear. I remember Eve as a small woman, with straight dark hair and muscular calves. She was a consummate outdoorswoman: strong, patient, and calm.
Throughout that day’s hike, whenever someone mentioned that the terrain was challenging, another camper—someone who’d made the trip before—would say, This is nothing; tomorrow’s gonna be waaaay worse.
The more I heard this, the more I freaked out I got. So as I dragged myself up the switchbacks—throat parched, calf muscles screaming, heart pounding at a rate I was sure signaled my imminent demise—I kept hearing a voice in my head saying Tomorrow’s gonna be worse, until finally, on a brief straightaway, I plonked myself down in the dust and began to cry. Eve sat down beside me and put a hand on my back.
I can’t do this, I sobbed. I’m way behind, I feel like I’m gonna die, and everyone’s saying tomorrow’s gonna be harder. I can’t make it. I have to go home.
Then Eve put her arm around me and spoke the words that would inform my mindset toward physical challenges from that day to this:
Go as slowly as you need to. Don’t worry about falling behind. Don’t think ahead- not about when you’re going to reach camp, or the top of the hill, or even the end of this switchback. Focus on each step as you take it. That’s all you have to do.
So I did. I got up, found a pace at which my heart didn’t feel like it was exploding in my chest, and placed one foot in front of the other. I forced myself not to picture arriving in camp, rolling out my sleeping bag, and flopping down. I said to myself, this, this, this, as I put down each foot. It would be many years before I’d study Buddhist meditation, but then and there, unbeknownst to me, I encountered its principles for the first time. It changed my life.
there's no other way
I knew of course that the slog up the dune would be easier me than for my kids. But I knew, too, that they would make it. On a not entirely conscious level, I suppose I thought it would be good for them. They’d heard the story of my encounter with Eve many times – in some dim corner of my mind, I guess I saw this as a chance for them to truly absorb it.
Most people ascended the dune on hands and feet. At first E scampered ahead of us like a monkey, scrambling for a stretch, then flinging himself dramatically across the sand to rest. H, who runs daily, soon surpassed him, moving strongly and steadily up. Once fifteen-year-old D and I were level with E, I suggested that the three of us move together, counting out thirty or forty steps, resting till our heart rates settled, then doing another set.
This seemed to work well for a while. I’d lost myself in the rhythm of climbing and resting, when I heard H call from above, D! You have to climb!
I looked around and noticed that D was no longer on the level with E and me, but was curled up in the sand far below us.
Come on, D! I shouted. Join us!
D has Aspergers/high-functioning autism. He’s intellectually gifted, but he faces some social challenges and can be emotionally young at times. He also has somewhat lower muscle tone and stamina than a typical fifteen-year-old. Nevertheless, he takes long dog walks with me daily without complaint. It was hot on the dunes, though, and heat makes both of my guys droopy. It wasn’t 100-degree-stultifying sweat-bath-humid hot, thankfully, but 80-degree-dry-beating-down-sun hot. But even that can feel pretty darn hot when you’re climbing the world’s steepest dune, fighting not to backslide, your feet sinking deep with every step. All of which is to say that D lay down in the sand and refused to rise.
At that moment, my best self would have walked back down to where D lay, put an arm around him, and coaxed him gently and empathetically to his feet. Unfortunately, my best self didn’t show.
Just take twenty steps, I called out. Then you can rest.
I want water, he moaned.
We all do. We’ll get some at the top.
He didn’t move.
There’s no other way, I shouted, a note of impatience creeping in. If we don’t walk, we won’t get there.
E had moved on by now, and lay spread-eagled in the sand above me. H was out of view entirely.
Panic gripped my chest. I’d learned to manage my own mental and physical state under such circumstances, but I couldn’t manage his. I couldn’t make him do this. Visions flashed through my mind: rescue teams, helicopters, the boys and me stranded on the dune as the sky grew dark.
Finally D rose and took twenty small steps. I cheered. A while later, he did it again. In this way, I wheedled, threatened, and cajoled him up the dune. It was brutal for both of us. E stayed near, always a few paces above.
About halfway up, a man with a gym-toned physique and a buzz cut, clad only in tight black boxer briefs, appeared over the crest of the dune and asked, in a Southern accent, if anyone needed help.
I need help, said D. I need water.
Gym-buff man—I’ll call him G—gave D water and offered to escort him up the hill. D raised a hand from where he lay on the sand, as though expecting G to grab it and drag him up.
You’ve gotta work with me, buddy, said G amiably. He assisted D to his feet. Soon H came coasting down from the top and placed himself on D’s other side, and together, the three of them mounted the final stretch.
Once D was out of view, E, who’d been climbing this whole time like a champ, dropped to the ground a few feet from the top and refused to go the rest of the way. It was as if, while D was struggling, E had to play the tough one, and now that D had surrendered that mantle, it was time for E to take it on. Now E lay in the sand, shouting, Don’t do it; it’s not worth it! at everyone going down. I finally lured him to the top with the promise of a cold beverage, and he groaned his way through the last few steps.
Walking toward the parking lot, I noticed a sign that read Enjoy the view from here. Don’t risk injury and rescue fees by going down – or the 2 hours it may take to climb back up! I chuckled, wondering if it we would’ve done anything differently if we’d seen it before.
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