And the way-farer must not weep. So courage! my heart,John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress
don’t faint, don’t fear
Though the rough rock makes the way slow,
The easy track only leads me back,
Up and on is the way I must go.
A priest, who biannually directs the pilgrims on the 40 km hike from Ballinrobe to then climb Croagh Patrick, offers them an introductory word of advice. “First”, he tells them as retold to us by the manager of the hotel where we stayed in Westport, “take a rock and put in your pocket and keep it there for the entire journey. Once you are atop the Reek, take the rock out of your pocket and throw it off the mountain as hard as you can. Then pick up another rock at your feet from the top of the mountain itself and put it in your pocket to take back. Once home, place this rock upon the mantle in your living room. Then whenever you are having a back day, go bad and look at that rock, and say to yourself, ‘At least this day isn’t as hard as the one I had when I climbed up that blasted mountain!'”
I wish I had known this story prior to my day upon the Reek. It may have helped motivate my decision to press on. Ahead of me was only fog, hundreds of thousands of dangerous rocks and a very steep incline into the nothingness of the clouds above. And I was worried about time. It had taken longer than expected already. I knew Donna was waiting below. If she was not worried by now, then certainly she would be by whatever time it would take to finish and return back.
I made a deal with myself. I will try and go just a little bit more and if I find it too difficult, without guilt or hesitation, I will start back down. I put the rosary back around my neck and made my way. It wasn’t long before my lungs were aching and it was time to take another break.
Just above me was a young woman perched uncomfortably upon a larger stone. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied. “I’m waiting for my sister who is going a little slower. Plus, I have recently torn my ACL and don’t have my brace with me and am trying to be careful.” “Oh, I’ve had knee issues myself.” Her eyes widen with surprise. “You must be the guy from Kentucky with the nice wife we met on the way up.”
Sure enough, Donna had engaged a few hikers on her way back down, including this woman, her sister and their friend. She asked them to be on the lookout for me. Two of them must of blown right past me during my inner deliberations upon the flats. They were from Cleveland, Ohio and had been traveling throughout Ireland, visiting the land of their great-grandparents for the past two weeks. On a whim, they had decided to tackle the Croagh on their last day on the island with little forethought or awareness of its challenge.
I looked down to see the lagging behind sister. Soon, she had joined us and we fell into pace together for a while. “I hope you know CPR,” I joked. “Not to worry,” she said reassuringly, “I do and you’ll be fine.” It wasn’t long before they were too quick for my slow pace. I was making it, even if inch by inch, but they were gone.
When Christian began to climb the hill, he sang:John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress
I must climb up to the mountain top;
Never mind if the path is steep,
For I know that through strife lies the way to life.
After another hour of careful climbing, observing some almost glide forward while others resorted to climbing on all fours, I found myself gutting it out. “I’ve come too far to quit now.” “When will I ever have this opportunity again?” “I don’t want to give up.” “I can do it.” “I hope I can do it.”
I had to get out of my own head, so I went back to the basics of counting. My mantra: “ONE! (big step), two, three, four (smaller steps).” “ONE!, two, three, four.” “ONE!, two three, four.” After I tired of this method, I remembered the mystery rosary still hanging on my neck. “Hail Mary, full of grace……pray for us sinners, now!” My shortened Protestant version of this beloved prayer had never seemed more relevant.
Other encouraging words were coming from those descending as I was ascending. “Almost there.” “Don’t give up.” “Just 15 minutes or so more.” In reality it would take me another 30 minutes of painful management. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t graceful. But I was becoming more and more aware that it could be done, it would be done, it was getting done.
Earlier in the day, Donna said she had seen two coffee cups in a storefront window. One said, “I climbed Croagh Patrick!” The other said, “I almost climbed Croagh Patrick.” With gratitude, I was growing in the certitude that I would be able to claim the first slogan and join the ranks of pilgrims who have shared this special experience.
When I was within sight of the last horizon before the final summit, I noticed one of my Cleveland friends had been watching for me. “Come on, Mark! You’re almost done!” They were half -right. The way up was terrible. The way down still promised plenty of trouble. The legs were wobbly and gravity was going to cram your toes into the front of your shoes for 2 long hours. But those were worries for later. I had finished a goal of physical and mental determination and it felt great.
Some have been luckier with a final view at the top of Croagh Patrick. I’m including a picture below I discovered on facebook from someone else just a few short days later when the skies were clear. My time was masked by an opaque midst that hid such beauty. Again, the mountain is teaching a spiritual lesson for the faithful. Wonderful things don’t cease to exist just because you cannot perceive or experience them. Everyday requires commitment, patience and faith. And there is always something good to see, for those with faith enough to find it.
I fell into step with the Cleveland girls on the descent. We shared stories and filled in the pieces of our personal backgrounds. The sister who had told me she knew CPR admitted she had lied. She was afraid I was serious and wondered what my reaction might had been if she had revealed the truth. With sore bodies and relieved spirits, we laughed.
Then, near the place where I had said goodbye to Donna, she slipped. I watched her ankle turn and her arm and back hit hard against the rocky ground. I thought she had hit her head too, and braced myself for the appearance of blood. But, if she wasn’t lying again, she said she was overall okay, just a little shaken. Life can change that quick. We took a few moments and I carried her backpack the rest of the way down. I had needed them. Now, they needed me.
We started waving our sticks in the air when we could see the St. Patrick statue in the distance and Donna waiting patiently next to it. I said a quick goodbye to these unexpected angels. It was past 6 and they still needed to drive the 3 plus hours back to Dublin that evening. I envied their youth, but not their schedule.
Donna and I collected our 4 Euros for returning the walking sticks and limped our way to the car. “I’m proud of you,” she said and I was overwhelmed with gratitude; humbled by the opportunity, thankful for the result and joyful through its completion. Who knows? Maybe someday, with a new knee and a day promising clear skies, I’ll return and discover what the mountain can teach me again.