Listening to the Hills.

My first-hand experience of not being able to draw a proper breath came to me compliments of a bike ride through the stoutest hills Missouri has to offer.  Like a gargantuan water snake sprung from the Mississippi River, old Route 79 connects the river towns of Hannibal at its tail with Louisiana at its head.  I rode the contours of its serpentine spine as it climbed up and up and up and out of the Mississippi River for two-and-a-half miles, where it proceeded to plunge just as abruptly back down to its watery origins, only to begin another equidistant ascent up and up and up.   I’m not sure if it was the third, fourth, or fifth round of this reptilian rodeo when I felt it turn on me.  Squeezing coils encircled my chest…choking the breath from my wearied windpipes and baggy bellows of my lungs.

“Billygoat,” had been the cycling nom de guerre assigned to me by my riding colleagues of three decades.  I have taken pride over the years when I would hear the contrails of their voices fall away,  “There he goes!” they would say as I passed them on a difficult ascent.  Not this time.  This time, Paul, then Joe, then Pete each queried as they passed me, “Are you okay?”  “Sort of…!” I choked, while doubled over between gulps of air that refused to remain in my lungs long enough to benefit me.

Paul kindly offered the SAG services of his wife to take me off of the ride.  Those benevolent words landed on me like hot coals.  I noted the pangs of humiliation like the virginal experience of being offered a senior citizen’s discount for the very first time.  “I don’t know, Paul.  Maybe,” I dejectedly responded.  Up until that time, I had never needed to throw in the towel on a ride.  

Over the years, I have learned that the most important riding skill to master has nothing to do with balance, or breaking, pedaling, or positioning.  The most important riding skill is spiritual, not physical.  It has to do with the attitude that a rider brings to a hill. 

Kindergarten Wisdom

Eighteen years ago, I was riding with the kindergarten version of my son.  His eyes widened in fear as we approached an oncoming stout hill.  “I’m not sure I can make it up that thing!” he exclaimed.  I asked him to stop a minute.  Now was my chance to pass along a hard won piece of cycling wisdom.  “Son, hills are our friends,” I said.  “Each and every hill that you will ever ride up, will speak to you if you will listen.”  I continued.  “Each and every hill is placed here to teach you something.  So when you come to a hill, always ask it what its lesson is for you.”  I concluded my soliloquy with the kind of knowing silence that a tribal elder displays while instructing a young brave just before his vision quest. 

At the tender age of five years, my precocious son executed a perfect adolescent eye-roll, “Dad, hills can’t talk!”  Slightly deflated, but still unwilling to concede the point, I responded, “Just listen son!  See if you don’t hear something!”

We darted downhill together.  “That’s right John Harry, get as much speed as you can!”  “Keep going!  That’s it!  One-two-three, one-two-three…”  “You’re doing it!  Just a little more!”  My son made the summit and exclaimed in amazement that the hill, in fact, had told him something after all:  “I’m more powerful than I thought.”

Until I entered the autumn of my life (55-plus), each and every time I have pedaled my bike up a significant incline, I have listened to the lesson of the hill, and always heard a voice echoing back, “You are much more powerful than you thought.”

Climbing Hills in the Second Half of Life

On a humid summer’s afternoon, just after I crossed the 55-year-old threshold, I listened as the mother of all hills spoke to me in a different voice than I had expected, with a different lesson than what I had been hearing for the last ten years.  As I waited for the humbling ride home with Ellen, I drank the water she had brought for the riders.  I ate alongside my colleagues who were replenishing their stores of carbohydrates for the rest of their demanding ride.  In the silence of my heart, just before stepping into the van for my ride of shame, I addressed the hill one last time.  Feeling broken and humiliated, I said, “I guess you want me to know that I’m not as powerful as I thought.”  Like my son eighteen years ago, I expected to hear nothing but silence in response.  That’s not what happened.  To my surprise, the hill spoke to me a new message, “There is a different power in you now!”  

Immediately, the meaning of this cryptic message was clear to me.  A smile broke out across my face.  As if I had just received my morning cup of coffee, I woke up.  “I’m riding!”  I exclaimed.  With my water bottles replenished, and a phone tucked into my saddle bag, I assured my cohorts that they should go on ahead of me.  On the next hill, as they spurted forward, I dismounted and began the first leg of my biathlon.  I would walk whenever I needed, and ride when I could.

Within the very first mile, I discovered the new kind of power that the hill had described.  Off to my right, I looked deeply into the lush Midwestern forest and saw how light was cascading through the canopy, dappling the waxy leaves of the forest floor with warm iridescence.  I listened to the musical accompaniment of a thousand insects, and exotic birds that never once have found their way into any city or suburb.  Occasionally, sightlines would open up to reveal the breathtaking Mississippi river valley spread out below me. 

As a younger man, the hills taught me important lessons for that time of my life.  Now that I have summited the mile marker of fifty-five-plus years, the hills are saying something brand new.  During one season of life, I was Miguel Indurain (five time Tour de France winner) climbing hills with speed, sinew, and strength.  In this new season, I have learned that I am to approach hills more like Gerard Manley Hopkins, reveling in the ever-present beauty of God’s grandeur.  

It seems to me that the decision to live a wholehearted spiritual life is not made once and for all.  Living a wholehearted spirituality across the lifespan requires the ability to listen for new messages along the way.  What it means for a newly forming family has everything to do with fashioning bonds of attachment from the matrix of empathy and parental, and spousal self-donation.  In the radically different season of Families Launching Young Adults, that meaning shifts dramatically.  The lessons of the hills in this phase of life have have more to do with embracing impermanence, and striving for egolessness with humor and graciousness.  The super-power available at this stage of life is a new-found capacity to slow down and savor those things that used to fly by in a blur.


This week, could you take the time to have a conversation with a beloved family member, BFF, or mentor?  Would you be willing to discuss, “What is the major hill in my life right now?” “How is it different than the hills of years gone by?”  “What are the lessons this hill is trying to teach me in the here and now?”  “Am I enjoying the scenery along the way, no matter how stout the ascent?”

A Gift for You

Be sure to click on the Youtube link provided here.  You will hear the nonagenarian poet, Stanley Kunitz, reading his favorite poem, “God’s Grandeur,” written by that great 19th Century poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Ask yourself this question as you listen:  “Is it the power of the words, or the power of the proclamation that sends electricity through your body?

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