Gina’s Review: I can relate to this story having grown up in Florida, where it’s flat for hundreds of miles except for some sand dunes.
I live on a hill. Not at the top, but close to it. I feel a certain amount of loftiness living on this hill. It is the first time in my life that I can see other people’s rooftops from my windows. The height makes me a bit giddy. From my front porch I can also see a mountain ridge to the west where the lights of other houses twinkle after dark. I realize there are other hills taller than mine, but I love my hill just the same.
My house is not crooked, sitting on the side of the hill. It was built into that knoll, so it is level and my first floor is near the ground on one side of the house and way up there on the side that was built in, the downhill side. My backyard, however, has a definite slope to it. It flattens out at the driveway, so I assume that this was an area that was leveled by the builders of my mountain estate so that the occupants of the house wouldn’t have to roll their cars up a wonky driveway. When I look out my front door, one direction of the street goes up and the other goes down. I’ve lived on flat land for the majority of my life, so you can imagine why I am so entranced by the bit of elevation on which I dwell.
At one point I thought of buying a bike and traveling the city without driving or paying bus fare. I was intimidated by all the other hills which surround my own. Would I start riding from the front door going uphill or down? Down seemed good if I didn’t mind going fast and my brakes were in good working order. Up seemed insurmountable. If I started by going down, I would eventually have to come back up the hill to get home. My quads would become enormous. I put off buying a bike. I was already walking the contours of this hill enough to know the challenges cycling would present.
I feel safe on my hill. Water flows downhill; but, sometimes moves uphill if there is enough of it to fill in lower spaces and seemingly defy gravity. I learned this in a flood, an event that clearly displays all the ways in which liquid can behave. Sometimes a hill need only have a few inches of height to save a home from a flood’s surprising destruction. Water, while nice to look at in its proper place, can sometimes cause terror if it decides to go roaming and you are not much of a swimmer. Snug in my nearly-at-the-top-of-the-hill home, when the rain comes, I’m happy to have chosen this spot. Even if my basement gets a bit drippy at times, I feel assured I will not ever find a lake outside my front door.
I came here to my hill from Houston, a place where there are no hills at all, except man-made ones like freeway overpasses. I never had to walk up or down a hill during my daily activities. It was almost always too hot to walk anywhere farther than the mail box at the curb. If we wanted to go hiking, we drove to other flat places nearby, which provided trees and trails and sometimes alligators. If we really wanted to challenge our legs, we would drive three hours west until the ground began to swell and then turn our car north to drive until there were fewer trees, but actual hills. This area is called The Texas Hill Country. We enjoyed many short visits there, hiking up and down the humps of land, but always returned to the level spot we called home.
When I arrived in Asheville, my legs were confused. The amount of work required to walk a short distance seemed incorrect. Just walking to the nearby post office taxed my lungs and fatigued my leg muscles, which had in the past, generally provided me with adequate locomotion. My quads had to work overtime, which then disrupted the muscular balance front to back—quads to hamstrings. I began to condition my legs (and lungs!) for trooping further and further from home and conquering the rises and dips in the road until my legs became stronger and didn’t protest over a short walk to the neighborhood coffee house. Then came The Great Shrubbery Entanglement.
I used to run for enjoyment (crazy to think of it now!) and since I was about to miss my bus, my legs fully believed they could manage that little downhill trot through the low-lying shrubs, which constituted a short cut to the bus stop, at a faster pace than they had recently become accustomed to. They were wrong. My short cut ended up requiring a bit of a leap to the sidewalk from the shrubberies (to avoid falling) and, as a result of perfectly sticking the landing, my knees suffered a great deal of indignation performing that particular maneuver. Shortly after, all my leg parts and I came to an agreement, as a byproduct of inflammation and muscle imbalance–I would tape up my knees when planning long hikes and strengthen up those wimpy hamstrings to be on par with the hard-working quads and they would do their best to keep me upright and ambling in a forward direction.
There are plenty of hills in the city of Asheville and I have walked up and down a few of them with success. Hiking in the mountains provides its own unique challenges. The trails we seek often take us up steeper slopes with knee-busting climbs. When you put your foot on a surface slightly higher than where you are standing, your leg has to hoist your whole body (against gravity) upward and slightly forward until your other foot can step onto that surface to even the load, finishing a process which you might be required to repeat an unthinkable number of times. That’s just at Chimney Rock State Park, where there are actual stairs. Most other trails don’t have such uniform, man-made surfaces for the purpose of propelling one upward.
The majority of trails in the mountains come in the form of a general slope, whose degree of inclination can be determined by looking at an elevation map and then bitching about how steep that bugger is. I’ve learned to avoid this knowledge. I can tell how steep that climb will be just by looking at it. After assessing the path forward, I then say a small prayer (or cuss word) to muster up my gumption, especially if the trail’s general condition is one of roots, rocks, mud and/or scree. I carry a hiking pole to steady my balance and assist me through any hazardous conditions. I could also use it to scare a bear away, but no bears have dared to interfere with my hiking adventures.
The views are always worth the climb!
My general rule of thumb is to start any hike on a trail that goes up, though not all of our treks are so accommodating. I know that I will be tired during the second half of the hike, and my knees will ache coming back to our car, but if that target is downhill rather than uphill, at least I will have the benefit of gravity to assist my descent. You can ask any hiker. Coming down goes a lot faster than going up. If I have to climb up when I’m tired and my knees have had enough, my degree of grumpiness grows exponentially, though I believe all effort I exert along the trail is energy well spent, even if I sometimes seem put-out by the hardships which accompany a trek in the mountains. Spending time outdoors with my fellow hikers, enjoying the beauty of nature and viewing the world from on high are all compelling reasons for me to hit the trail, even if I have to trudge up an unruly hump or two.
The hill we live on appears much smaller once we return from the local peaks. Our perambulations through the neighborhood, by comparison, seem easier than before. The hills both big and small have offered some challenges to this aging body, but since my street is not flat, I have no other option but to meet those challenges by continuing to improve my stride with stronger legs and fewer cuss words. Now when we leave the house, my husband and I ask the question, “Are we starting out up…or down?” It really doesn’t matter since all roads lead to our little home on the hill.
From almost the top of the hill,
Guest Editor Gina is always up to the challenge of editing a story for me, but she would prefer to Defy Gravity while listening to the Wicked soundtrack.