Anna, looks up into the azure Spanish sky, pointing at a barely visible spot just above the horizon. “There,” she says, “That’s our destination.”
Peering up at tall, handsome fir trees sprinkled between jutting precipices of dull, lumpy limestone, a line of young women prepares to ascend Grazelema’s highest peak, a symbol of the natural beauty of Spain. Shantelle and I rock back and forth on our heels, our stomachs churning in anticipation of the hike. Some of the women look at the forbidding jagged stones with narrowed eyes, while others smile at the inviting greenery. With Anna as our guide, we set off for the summit.
A slight breeze carries Shantelle’s voice to my ears as she addresses the hiker beside her. “So, Caitlyn, what do you want to do with your English major?”
In many societies, the question on everybody’s mind is “What family do you come from?” That the answer would be paramount to a Spaniard’s or a Moroccan’s identity shows the high value they place on birthright. It is not so in America. Americans are proud of their ability to transform their lives, to control as they can their destiny beyond the will and wishes of their family and society. We ask, “What do you do? (Or, for students, what do you want to do?”) Because we are mostly Americans on this hike, we twenty-somethings quickly fall into discussing our individual dreams, future career plans, and how (or if) family life fits into the picture.
Caitlyn plans to be engaged soon, although she can’t see herself marrying her current boyfriend. “Family is everything to me,” she declares. “I have the utmost admiration for mothers. My goal is to adopt six or seven kids who really need it, and raise them with the love and discipline my Mom raised me with.”
Ari is in the middle of applying to join the Peace Corps. “Then,” she trills, “it’s off to become a diplomat and travel the world! I think it would be nice to have a family, but only if it doesn’t conflict with my career.”
Mariana, soon joins the conversation. She has decided not to date until after graduate school and holds forth on the benefits of riding solo. “A man would have needs, expectations. I’m not about to tailor my life and my dreams to fit the wishes of someone else. More likely than not, that would mean huge cuts in my plans. There is SO much to do—I can’t let myself be distracted from all that I know I can accomplish. I don’t want to die with my music still inside of me!” she pronounces.
Suddenly, Mariana catches her ankle in a crevice, and her legs shoot straight out from underneath her. She comes down hard, bottom landing with a resounding smack on the offending boulder. She laughs a bit self-consciously, breaking the serious demeanor of her speech. “I guess I spoke too soon, huh?” She turns to the laughing girl behind her. “Watch out for that spot, honey, this area’s a tricky one!”
The cheery chatter of their voices in the background, I strike up a conversation with Anna. “Have you ever been in love?” I probe. The relaxed, rugged German beauty seemed like someone who would welcome such questions rather than take offense at them.
“Yes, definitely,” she grins. “Up until a few years ago I was married.”
A few years ago? I was shocked. “How old are you?” I blurted out, already feeling comfortable by her non-reaction to my first query.
“I’m 28, actually. When I was 23 I married a handsome Brazilian man I met while studying abroad. He moved to Germany with me, but never adjusted to the culture, never learned the language.” She goes on to tell me how he quickly became depressed, and began taking drugs and abusing alcohol as a way to self-medicate. Eventually it got to a point where she realized it was not doing either of them any good to stay together. “I think we had made a promise before we knew what we were getting into. But I certainly don’t regret it.” She pauses briefly to smile at me. “It’s helped me learn so much, and made me who I am. In the end, I can never regret that, as hard as it’s been to deal with at times.”
We both rest a moment, savoring the sweet scent of the sun-warmed pine needles coating the trail. The freshness of the air reminds me of the feeling at the beginning of anything new—a romance, an adventure, a new chapter in your life. It’s clear and sharp with the intensity of sensory impressions.
The girls behind us catch up to our resting place, and we continue on as a group, stumbling more now over the inevitable obstacles in our path. Rocks big and small trip up our unsuspecting or sometimes just plain foolish feet. Out of all of us, Anna climbs with the most ease, but it’s no wonder: She’s been hiking this trail for years. She shouts back warnings, gives us a steadying hand when we need it, and cheers us on when we are out of breath. Taking her example, we decide to do the same for those behind us…Careful, sister, don’t be deceived by this rock’s smooth appearance—that bastard’s a slippery one! Put your foot over here, where the ground is more level. In this linked fashion we make our way closer and closer to our goal.
Hiking this path together, we learn to hold ourselves separate, completely in the moment, concentrating solely on taking one step at a time. We exult in taking deep, full breaths, stopping along the way whenever our laboring muscles feel the need for a rest. Regardless of its potential for causing us injury, we are grateful for the chance to take this hike. None have made it this far without scratches or bruises of some sort, outward signs of the struggle involved on all such journeys. Some have cuts that run deeper or are more numerous than others. Still, not a one of us turns back. We are in this collectively and individually, and no force on earth can stop us from reaching this summit.