It’s worth the climb

The view from the parking lot near Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park is breathtaking, even for Coloradoans who are used to the Rocky Mountains. A lawn of alpine tundra spotted with orange flowers unfolds before the visitor’s center before rolling down into the abyss. The line of snowy peaks wraps around a huge valley of dark green temperate rainforest. The bottomless blue sky is matched in magnitude only by the Pacific Ocean just over the ridge to the west.

A half mile trail behind the parking lot gains a few hundred feet of elevation to open a slightly better view above tree line. The trail widens at times around footprinted mud from melting summer snowbanks before it climbs over rock and gravel to the summit. My wife and I refill our water bottles, retie our shoes, and lock the truck before turning that direction.

We are out of breath by the time we finish the ascent. Vancouver Island is visible across the Straight of Juan de Fuca, and the Puget Sound sits on the distant horizon to the East. We spend a little time taking pictures and letting our heart rates slow before returning the way we came.

About halfway down we stand aside while two uphill hikers, a couple, cross our paths. They are working hard to climb the steep grade. The man pauses a moment and in between labored breaths asks me, “Is it worth it?”

He’s making conversation. He’s finding an excuse to stop. It’s chitchat between strangers, to be quickly forgotten. The correct response is “You bet”, then a smile, and we’ll continue on our way.

More literally, he’s asking if the view from the summit is enough to justify the effort to get there. Will his labor be sufficiently rewarded, or was the view from the parking lot just as good?

“It depends how much you like hiking,” I say. It’s a Cheshire Cat answer. It’s a half joke, an escalation, a question for an answer. I stand smiling on slightly higher ground while he thinks about how to parry.

His question presumes that the hike itself is no more than an annoyance. It assumes that no one would suffer an uphill walk without getting something for it at the end. For me, the walk is enjoyable, though difficult. It gives me a chance to see the ground squirrels, the alpine flowers, and the small bees. By walking, I can feel the distance, the altitude, and the uneven ground in a way that isn’t possible from the truck.

I appreciate the view from the summit more because I work for it. Can you see a beach without sand between your toes? Can you see the snow without feeling the cold, or the ocean without smelling the air? Mountain views should be experienced in a state of physical breathlessness simultaneously cold from sweat and hot from the sun and the heat of the climb.

For me, the purpose of the hike is the hike, and it would be worth it even if there weren’t a view. I want the context, the immersion, and the directness of experience.

He chuckles, thinking of what to say. He looks at his girlfriend, then smiles at me and starts up the hill again, choosing not to engage. He has his own thoughts to contend with, and he doesn’t care to deal with mine.

My wife and I wordlessly continue down the slippery gravel. I play back the exchange a dozen times in my head. I’m on sabbatical. I’ve set aside this time for thinking, and every exchange restarts my stream of consciousness.

Was the road trip worth it? I’d driven about 50 hours to be there, spent a fortune on gas, and completely upended my life to make it happen. I could have just taken a week from work and flown.

No, the inconvenience of the travel was the point. I wanted to feel the physical and temporal separation from Colorado and my former identity. Without the high cost, I wouldn’t have valued the experience as I did.

Was the MBA worth it? Not if I were just there for the degree at the summit. I enjoy looking at that piece of paper hanging on my wall, but not enough to justify the late nights.

But, in the same way that the slightly better view from the mountain summit could only be fully enjoyed after the exertion of the hike, the perspective of the MBA can only be valued in context of the sacrifice.
The achievement at the end cannot be divorced from the arduous journey on the way.

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