I gotta tell ya something ... last Wednesday wasn't one of my finest hours. And I'll be the first to admit it. Just keep it to yourself.
It happened when Karen and I were on vacation, visitng New Hampshire to celebrate our anniversary.
I threw out a simple suggestion to her.
Hey, how about we go to the top of Mount Washington?
The notion of such a mind-blowing trip, which consists of a vertical gain of almost 6,000 feet, was preposterous in my mind. My wife has never been much for heights and I figured she'd turn me down flat and be spared any embarrassing moments on our way up the Auto Road as I navigated the way safely for her, peering out like a bald eagle soaring bravely amid the beauty of the White Mountain landscape.
"Let's do it!" she shot back. The sound of an exclamation point at the end of her sentence told me she was serious.
Any hope I'd have of saving her from being humiliated with her fear of heights was gone. I figured our whole trip might be ruined because of this ridiculous suggestion I'd made. I kinda felt sorry for her.
Mt. Washington is a picturesque mountain of 6,288 feet. it is the tallest peak in all of the northeast. It towers majestically over its lesser surroundings and scientists confirm that it is consistently home to the harshest weather in North America because it is positioned at the confluence of three jet streams that often converge on the mountain top creating horrific conditions. There is even a building at the top of Mount Washington that is literally chained to the ground (left). If it is not chained to the ground, the story goes, it will blow clean off the top of the mountain. The highest wind speed ever record, 231 mph, was recorded at the summit.
But we were goin' anyway.
The day we went to the top, you could see forever. To the west lie Vermont's Green Mountains and to the southeast the Atlantic and the Maine coast, which could be seen earlier in the day, but not so much by the time we started our ascent, about 2:30 p.m.
The ticket taker at base camp (who has probably never been to the top of the mountain if her self-assuredness was any indication) gave us a helpful tip: "They say the trick to making it up and back and not being bothered by the height is to just look out onto the faraway vistas and see all the beauty and avoid looking down at the mountainside just below you, which is when any fear of heights will kick in."
My wife bobbed up and down in the second seat of our four-row van like an excitable puppy trying to see out, as Rich, our driver, shifted into auto-guide using his finest mountain road commentator voice. Should he be talking and driving up a dangerous mountain road at the same time, I wondered?
I held down the third seat, snapping photographs as we gained altitude. Some of the photos contained only sky. Some of them had glimpses of a few peaks in the distance. A couple of photos were merely of blades of glass speeding by or scenes of blackened blurry asphalt (right). It's hard to focus in on a picture when you are lying prone in the backseat, holding your camera above your head, aiming at something you cannot see and hoping it will take a good picture by itself since you are too chicken to sit up and look out the window.
Karen continued to ooh and even ahh at the appropriate places in the driver's commentary. (Should he be talking and driving at the same time? I wondered. Still.) I clutched at seat backs, jackets, door handles, my wife's clothing, and finally my own throat as the world seemed to close in around me.
I was OK as long as there were trees outside my window. But when the trees disappeared, so did I. And Karen had a nice little laugh about it. Here I was, successful hiker of two of Texas' tallest peaks, unable to merely sit up and look out the window. There she was -- someone who had once been petrified to sit in the mezzanine section of the Ballpark at Arlington -- bouncing up and down like it was the most exciting trip of her life.
It's hard to explain a fear of heights to our driver Rich, someone who has been driving up and down the mountain every day for 25 years as easily as I have driven Andrews Hwy. for the last 20. What am I gonna say? I developed my profound fear of heights from riding the glass elevator to a bachelor's party on the 22nd floor of the Bank of America building a few years ago? Had I been a fighter pilot shot down in combat, I might have been able to justify the feeling that my death was certain and near.
Rich was driving 10-15 mph around hair pin curves when there was nothing out the passenger side window except the end of my life. By the time we got into his van that afternoon, it was his third trip to the top THAT DAY. Yet I was certain that after there had been no reported accidents or deaths on the mountain road since it opened in 1861, today was the day that it would finally happen. And I was the victim.
We arrived at the summit and I was astounded at just being there. Getting there was one thing. Being there was quite another. I felt alive, refreshed, renewed, as if I had just accomplished a major hurdle in my life (note the look of serenity and calm on my face at left). So what if I did it lying in the back seat whining like a baby that I was about to die and would never see my children again? I walked around the mountain top with a measure of confidence, admiring the spectacular views that the mountains provided and full of self-gratification that I had made it.
And then Rich walked up.
"Van leaves in 5 minutes, you guys ready?"
As if someone had let the air out of my knees I began to wobble like a nudged bowling pin. I began searching frantically for the nearest trail to the bottom. Karen caught me in time, poured me back into the van, and had the audacity to ask me if I wanted to ride shotgun on the way down.
"What, you want me to die a half second before you?" I asked her.
Fifteen minutes later, the evergreens and firs began popping up at the side of the road and I found I too could again sit upright.
I wiped the sweat from my brow. They said the trip up and down would be breathtaking. No one mentioned anything about lunch taking.
"You doin' OK back there, sweetheart?" Karen asked me.
"Piece a cake," I said. "Ready to go again."
But between you and me ... my palms were sweatin' a little.