Of Mountains and Meritocracies Part 1
Growing up, I was involved in a boy scout group through my church (Incase I’ve not already mentioned, I’m Mormon, sort of… that is another story) I was never super into the whole boy scout thing. The achievements and merit badges seemed kind of superfluous and I can’t think of a single one that I earned that actually taught me anything that stuck. That and I saw enough eagle scouts who were complete dopes that I never felt the urge to join their ranks, or ever give members of their fraternity special deference over any other person. But, I really enjoyed the camping. To me, if scouts was nothing more than athletic activities and camping, it would be fantastic.
Though, I should clarify, during my years in scouting I only once went to official scout camp, and that was in the younger years, and I didn’t like it all that much. The rest of the camping was all hoofing it out in the wilderness, the more exposed to the elements, the more we had to judge cardinal directions with the sun and compass, the better. Every year we usually had one big week long campout, it was one of the few things I looked forward to throughout the year, like Christmas, or Halloween. I’d say I’d plan weeks in advance for it, but these days I have no clue if my adolescent brain was too obsessed by repressed sexual feelings to actually plan in advance for anything… and that is another story.
There are three years, three of these week long camping trips, that stick out in my memory more than the rest. They probably stick out more because I’ve always struggled with finding narratives in my life, and this string of three campouts conveniently has some narrative structure, and so when people ask me to tell a story from my life, this one typically gets picked. Who knows how much of it is true by now from all the times I’ve retold it. But I’ve been thinking about this story a little differently lately. In this story I see a bit of a life lesson, one that I’ve recently been struggling with how to communicate. But, I’ll get to that after the story of these three years.
These particular three years we went to the same campsite, at the base of a mountain somewhere in the rockies (I’m debating how much to tell because I still want to keep some anonymity here.) These three years weren’t all in a row, there was one or two years in between each instance of us camping at this particular campsite, the first starting when I was about 13 (I think).
Each year was similar in structure. During the week we would do various activities, go to shooting ranges to practice skeet shooting and archery, go on nature walks, and do more of that achievement junk I despised. But the crowning event of each of these three years was the mountain climb. Each of these three years we attempted to scale to the peak of the mountain we were conveniently camped at the base of.
The first of the three years no one thought I would make it up that mountain. I was fairly new both to this kind of camping (I think this was my first week long stint in the wilderness) and to an intensive hike like this, and I probably over estimated on the amount of food I should bring up the mountain, so my pack was a bit heavy for a kid my size. The thing was, I was a total shrimp. I was always a shrimp up to that point in everyone’s eyes, including my own. I was one of those cases where the doctors suggested hormone injections to compensate for an underactive thyroid. At the yearly physical checkup with the doctor I was always right at the bottom third development quartile for both weight and height. As far as anyone knew I was scrawny and I looked the part.
I remember saying aloud to my peers as I went up the mountain, “Eh, I’ll be happy if I even make it half-way up.” But at the same time, I didn’t really dwell on it, it didn’t emotionally bother me. I said these self defeating statements with a smile. It was paradoxical to a lot of the new age self help doctrines that are widely preached today, you are supposed to have self affirming, positive, encouraging thoughts. Yet, with my scrawny build, overpacked backpack, and happy yet self deprecating attitude, everyone was astonished as they gave up, slowed down, turned back, and ultimately got passed up by this goofy looking scrawny nerd kid in his ill fitting bright red tee shirt and jean shorts. And as each of my peers gave up and turned back, some of whom were years my superior and played competitive sports, by some miracle of ignorance, persistence, cheerfulness, adjusted expectations, or whatever you want to chalk it up to, I felt like I could do it, “I can climb this mountain.” And we almost made it…
As we passed the tundra line, there were only three of us left in the pack. There was the scout leader, a man who was known for his athleticism, his son who was my age, or a year younger, I can’t remember, who was definitely his father’s son, athletic and lacking any sort of non-competitive bone in his body, and me. We could see the peak. Even though realistically it was probably still two miles away, it looked incredibly close. I had no doubt in my mind at that point that we would make it… Till the scout leader’s son collapsed, short of breath. Victory felt within my grasp. For the first time in my life I saw myself as something other than the scrawny kid. I was going to take a new place among my peers. I was going to conquer this mountain and achieve something real, something only few would be able to accomplish… But the math didn’t work out. The scout leader was a responsible adult, and there was no way he was going to let our threesome split up leaving one of the boys alone. So, we turned back and trudged back down the mountain, a little dejected and defeated.
I was seen differently after that. I did achieve a new social status among my peers. I was now seen as somewhat unpredictable, I gained the quality of being more than meets the eye, a book not to be judged by its cover. My peer group stopped wondering when I’d fail, and started wondering what crazy surprise I had in store next. I reveled in the new way I was treated. But, at the same time, failing to conquer that mountain still bothered me, like a thorn stuck in my side.
I’ll leave the story here… It’s time for bed, and this post is plenty long enough.