We just got back from spending a few days away from our home away from home. It’s only a two-hour drive into the heart of the Alps from where we are, so we decided to take advantage of our rental car and check out the mountains.
I should mention that we are big fans of professional cycling. And every year we sit glued to the television to watch coverage of the Tour de France which always includes a few days of climbing in the Alps.
I’m not sure why I agreed to that plan. Not only is it a long, grueling climb up the mountain, but then you have to descend the narrow road again - alongside cars and trucks and lots of other cyclists. I was slightly intimidated.
As we drove into the valley of the town where we planned to stay, we were surrounded by tall mountains, jutting out of the ground like giant-sized boulders on all sides. I found looking up at the sheer rock overhangs and cliffs dizzying.
We were in a new environment and a new place - we had to figure out where everything was, where we needed to go. The landscape seemed foreign and the streets were teaming with cycling enthusiasts. They were easy to pick out in their bike shorts - and they all looked in much better shape for climbing a mountain than me!
I felt anxious about going to the bike store and having to speak in French about cycling - something my degree in French literature didn’t prepare me for.
I felt nervous about driving the car up Alpe d’Huez to meet my husband at the summit after his morning run up the mountain. What if we couldn’t find each other? What if I had trouble with the standard transmission with all those switchbacks?
I was dreading taking my eleven year old up a notorious mountain climb. I didn’t think our rides through the Worcester hills were really the training we needed; I was afraid of all the vehicular traffic and the tight switchbacks. And then we’d have to descend.
What if one of us got a flat tire, and I wasn’t able to swap out the tube? What if we only made it up the first two switchbacks before having to turn around? What if the descent was more than we could handle?
Lots of those “what if” questions were circling in my head. As we sat at an outdoor cafe for dinner that first night, I wanted to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings. Instead, the mountains felt hard and impenetrable, like unmovable, rigid boulders waiting to trip me up.
And I noticed that my body kind of felt that way, too - like an impenetrable boulder, all hard edges.
I was embodying those mountain peaks. And attributing them only with qualities such as impenetrable and rigid. I suspect it was my mind more than those mountains that was being rigid...
The second day of the trip, I relaxed a little as I made it safely through my trip to the bike store, got to know my way around the town a bit and figured out where the public restrooms were.
We hiked up to a waterfall in the afternoon - it was amazing. I began to think of the mountains as wild and beautiful. The tension in my body eased a little more. But I wasn’t totally settled - I was still anticipating that bike ride, scheduled for the following morning.
As we were hiking back down from the waterfall, I heard my daughter asking when we’d be down - she didn’t like the jarring descent and her legs were tired. My husband gently reminded her, “Don’t try to fight it. Just keep going down - there’s nothing else to do right now.”
A lightbulb went off in my head. Don’t try to fight it.
I had been fighting my nerves for two days - that was the problem. I could allow myself to be nervous about taking my son up Alpe d’Huez on a bike; I didn’t need to fight it.
And suddenly, it became easier.
I wasn’t exactly excited when we set out the next morning, but I was settled in the awareness that we were heading out to have a unique experience - whether we managed one switchback or a dozen.
It was definitely the hardest ride I’ve ever done. And while I climbed away, feeling my legs protest and hoping I could just make it to the next switchback, I reminded myself, “Don’t try to fight it. There’s nothing else to do right now but pedal.”
We made it halfway up the mountain - completing eleven switchbacks and climbing almost 2500 feet. It felt like an accomplishment. I even found myself enjoying the speed a little on the way down.
Once I stopped fighting the experience, whether it was nerves or aching quads, the experience stopped having power over me. By letting go of the label of bad (or dangerous or negative), I allowed myself to be free from the suffering.
There have been plenty of opportunities to stretch out of my comfort zones while we have been away from home. This week was a lesson in the mountains. Next week, we return home to Massachusetts. I’m sure there will be many lessons to learn about transitioning back to life at home.
Where do you notice discomfort or disquiet in your life? What experience are you currently fighting? What are the negative labels you have assigned to that experience? Which labels are you ready to let go of?
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