LINKS
2016-10-01 / Go Pink Boots

Starting to Climb

Jill Gleeson


The day after I turned 50 I took off to Canaan Valley Resort, a little slice of paradise tucked away in north-central West Virginia. It’s a wild place, ensconced as it is within a 6,000-acre state park, its next-door neighbors a nearly 17,000-acre wildlife refuge and a 10,215-acre wilderness area. Canaan Valley is primordially verdant; the second-highest wetlands in the United States, it’s crossed more by hiking trails than roads. The stories go that no poisonous snake dares to slither within its realm, and ticks are likewise nowhere to be found. There are animals galore, however, including deer so tame they nonchalantly dot the grounds at dusk and mountain lions elusive enough that park rangers swear they don’t exist.

There is much to do at Canaan Valley Resort, from sporting clays to geocaching, but I was uncharacteristically languid during my first days there. I lazed by the pool, taking also to some of the more gentle of the property’s 18 miles of trails. And I spent plenty of time simply gazing out of the lodge’s picture windows at the lush vista unspooling for miles.

Despite the beauty surrounding me I was struggling, sad. Hurting so badly and in such desperation, searching for something to grab hold of, a shipwreck victim looking for a bobbing piece of flotsam in a cold, oil-slicked sea. That’s the only way I can explain my decision to climb two of the Seven Summits next year, as the tallest mountains on each continent are collectively known. Just a few weeks earlier, my longtime love had left me. Despite our pledge to spend the rest of our lives together, he’d packed up a moving truck and fled back to his native Georgia. He hadn’t just broken my heart. He’d ground it to dust beneath his boot heel.

This event capped off several years of tragedy that had included the sudden death of my brother and my father falling and breaking his neck two days after last Christmas. When Wayne left, I thought there was a good chance I was going under for the last time. Instead, I decided to go up, to ascend Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua in Argentina, an idea inspired by my long fascination with mountain climbing. I began keeping a blog — gleesonreboots.com — charting my emotional and physical progress. And I hooked up nearly immediately with trainer Steve Jury at Victory Sports and Fitness. He’s summited Kili himself and knows how to fashion my body into a machine that will be able to climb nearly 23,000 feet into very thin air.

And yet despite knowing I was choosing the right path, the one that, though fraught with peril, was filled with the best possibility of finding real happiness again, I began to reconsider. What the hell had I been thinking? I was a half-century old. Although I loved hiking, I’d never summited even a short peak before. Was this something I really wanted to do, even if I was able? I learned the answer in the place where I’d always been able to center myself. In the mountains, of course.

It was in this melancholy mood that I took the resort’s ski lift up to the Bald Knob trailhead, the beginning of a 2.5-mile loop path that slowly ascends through quiet hardwood forest and sun-dappled meadow to the well-named rocky protrusion that hovers at 4,308 feet. The view of the surrounding valley was stunning, but what moved me even more was simply walking the mountain, feeling my feet making contact with the eternal earth. As I descended, butterflies and dragonflies floated before me, coasting on a breeze scented sweetly by wildflowers.

I realized that for the first time in quite awhile, I felt joy. This West Virginia slice of my beloved Appalachians was whispering to me, telling me what I already knew but had forgotten in my fear and pain. The mountains are my home. Small or very tall, they are where I belong. This new path — which led to the renaming of this column — wasn’t quite so crazy after all. •SCM

For more information about Canaan Valley Resort, visit canaanresort.com.


Jill Gleeson is getting set for the biggest adventure of her life. Follow her journey at gleesonreboots.com.

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