A few years ago, on a typically-humid sunny summer day in Washington DC, I motored my way over to Georgetown University to be interviewed for a teaching gig. The meeting occurred in a building on M Street called The Car Barn, a locale where the city's trolley cars were once stored that now hosts university folks delivering education.
When the chat was done, I walked out of the building on to M Street, only to realize that The Mighty Bug was parked in a lot on Prospect Street above the Car Barn. The closest access: the infamous Exorcist Stairs, made famous by William Peter Blatty in that 1973 horror film. There are 75 stairs and enough landings to make its height equivalent to a five-story building.
So I started to climb...and climb...and climb, pulling my large business-suited body and panty-hosed legs stuffed in big high-heeled lady shoes up those stairs. I was passed, about a hundred times, by three very athletic twenty-year-olds, running up and down the stairs for exercise, giggling and gossiping as I was gasping for breath. I finally made it to the top and had to lay down on one of the park benches nearby so someone would hopefully notice my newly-expired personage and call the police. I was not alone. I looked across to another set of benches. There sat a middle-aged fellow who had climbed the stairs as well. He had his business suit jacket off and he was wiping the sweat from his brow. His comment, "If I had a gun, I would shoot those kids."
Isn't it ironic that hiking has now become part of my life.
I come from a long line of people who love to eat. The Gillen coat of arms is the knife and fork. I was also spawned from two people who believed that camping meant making a reservation at the nearest Holiday Inn, and hiking involved pressing the Up button on the elevator.
Doug and I have been hiking a lot on our journey, and it has helped me lose some weight, which is good.
But this past summer, I met my hiking nemesis in northern Montana.
It is, pardner.
A ski resort, it is a place to hike along beautiful mountain trails and pick huckleberries in the off-season. And if you make it to the top, you can ride the chairlift down for free.
The top means you trot from the base of 4464 feet up trails to the summit of 6817 feet, a hike of 3.7 miles or so.
Doug has hiked Big Mountain many times. "Piece 'o cake," he told me when we got to the trailhead.
At first, it was easy. Like something out of the Sound of Music. The pretty little Alpine flowers were blooming, and around every bend you expected to see a young Julie Andrews twirling and singing about how alive the hills are.
Then, slowly, the height of the mountain turned evil. Each corner held terrain of increasing vertical horror that required so much effort that all I wanted to do was lay down on the path on my stomach, kick my arms and legs, and hold my breaf till I turned brew.
Doug tried to encourage me. "We only have to go one more mile vertical and then it levels out some."
So I simply did what every overweight middle-aged Celtic writer would do: I pouted as I trudged up that wall of hell, keeping my arms at my sides, and my head down, convinced that if I met someone as cheerful as Julie Andrews coming the other way on this path, she would get such a shove.
At that point, Doug told me later that he didn't have the heart to tell me about..."Heartbreak Hill."
"You would have turned around and run down the path so fast that it would have seemed like something out of a Three Stooges movie." he told me later.
Wooo wooo wooo wooo wooo.
Heartbreak Hill is the last 1/2 mile climb to the summit. I somehow clawed my way to its top, where Doug was waiting for me, all congratulatory and happy that I had made it. I was too busy leaning my face against a corner of a "Don't Feed the Bears" sign to answer him.
He pointed up a slight incline to a building about 100 feet away. "C'mon, Mare, let's go in there and get a cold drink."
It was like I was looking up at Mount Everest.
"No," I replied. "You will have to carry me."
"I am not going to carry you," Doug said.
"OK, then go up there and tell that building to come here," I replied, uncooperatively.
I did climb that little hill, as I realized that I really did need to go to the bathroom, a call of nature I could not ignore. I also discovered that inside that building, the restrooms were located down two flights of stairs, another height that would have to eventually be climbed once again. I went into the Ladies Room, took off my shirt, wrung it out, and looked at myself in the mirror. My hair was standing straight up. Mad woman loose on top of the mountain.
A little while later, Doug came into the ladies room to check up on me. As it was off season, there were no other ladies in there to go "eeek." He coaxed me out of that haven to again, make another climb to where a cold refreshing drink was waiting.
Yes, it was worth it. 'Cause later, we got this:
Exorcist Steps Photo: Wikimedia Commons