One step at a time

Lakshmi Jagannathan at the top of Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park.

By Lakshmi Jagannathan

One step at a time… 

A sound like thunder rents the air. The blue green ice crackles. Water pours down as if from a grieving eye. Giant stones, some the size of refrigerators and patterned with colorful mosaics lie in an untidy heap. Some perfectly cubical, neatly laid out as if a Pharaoh had been building a pyramid. Except that it’s Mother Nature who is building a mountain with stones gathered in fury, rudely breaking a wing of the glacier “Angel”.   

We are in Jasper National Park, in western Canada, on a mountain named for a British nurse, Edith Cavell, who had been executed for helping Allied prisoners escape during the First World War. The boulder trail soon gives way to one lined with sub-alpine pine trees that look like bonsai, straight out of some ancient children’s fairy tale. Any minute you expect a gnome to pop out. Pink heather covers the ground  

Cavell Pond at the bottom on Angel Glacier. The trail starts here.
Angel Glacier is rapidly melting. You can see it has lost its wing.

It’s a 5 mile trail with 1,650 foot elevation. Not a killer, but not trivial either, especially if you have various physical ailments. I am also sleep deprived from a hacking cough. But the air is so fresh I feel rejuvenated.

We walk to a viewpoint where we run into a couple. When they find out we are from the U.S., they ply us with questions. “Do you discuss climate change in California?” they ask with an urgency that is puzzling.  Turns out that they live in the area and have come often to the mountain. They are appalled by the glacier receding, but Alberta is such a conservative province that they dare not talk about it.  The province has also been at war with neighboring more progressive British Columbia over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. They want to keep talking, but we have to go – mosquitoes are attacking us. When we spray natural repellent, they double up laughing and attack with a vengeance. I have to pull out the big guns, and try to restrict the DEET to my backpack and shoes.  

Alpine sorrel and groundsel give way to low-lying shrub and moraine. This would be a good point to turn back. The view of the glacier is spectacular. We have had a good hike. But this feels like a metaphor for my life. When most of my friends are stepping back to relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor, I am inflicting a steep climb on myself.  

My calling had chosen to arrive – a day late and a dollar short – at a psychology class at a local college. I was amazed to see how the field had advanced since the days of Freud and Jung. I realized this was my Hogwarts. This Fall, I will start studying Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University. Three years, 30 courses and 3,000 hours of internship await me.    

I look at a yellow flag in the distance, so high that people look like ants.  My husband and I nod and say – Yes, we can.  The trail becomes so steep, my backpack makes me unstable – dragging me back. My nose is dripping like a leaky faucet. At one point I feel that if the trail were any longer, I would have to stop. At a time like that, the only thing you can do, is take a deep breath, hold on to the stick and take it one step at a time. The switchbacks seem to stretch forever, but I can see people near the top.  I keep going, sometimes sidestepping, when it’s slippery, with one sip of water as a reward for reaching the next rock. 

When we reach the top, it’s windy, but there is a 360-degree view. A spunky marmot races out to greet us. We savor the view and eat our energy bars, stunned at how high we have climbed.  You can see the trail stretch down below – a small thread. And this is only the top of the mountain. Going down is much easier, and we see some bear tracks along the way. It’s late and we get the feeling that the animals are watching us.  

Does it even make sense to launch a career pathway so late in life? I don’t know. All I know is that it feels peaceful studying in the library. I still don’t like tests, but I do like getting a note from the teacher saying she loved my paper on Culture and OCD. Later, I meet her at a coffee shop and, since she is retiring, give her the book that launched me on this path: “It’s Never Too Late To Begin Again” by Julia Cameron (author of “The Artist’s Way”).  

A friend of mine just became a grandmother. But on the other hand, another had twins just a few years ago. I am not sure how I will do as a full-time student after so many years. Will I reach the yellow flag? I don’t know, but at least I’m not having a baby. I may have to face horrendous pit toilets, but, hopefully, there will be poppies and primroses and an inquisitive striped squirrel along the way. 

I just have to take it one step at a time.  

Even though she has a California driver’s license now, Lakshmi Jagannathan will always be an Oregonian. At a time of turmoil in the world, and great change in her life, she is grateful for some constants – like decaf coffee, trees and now, after a one-year hiatus, Voices of August. She is hoping against hopes that “Yes, We Can” in 2020.  

Editor’s note:  I met Lakshmi in the fall of 2007, when she was one of a dozen people selected for The Oregonian’s Community Writers program. If you’re counting, that makes three CW alumni in this group of VOA writers. Lakshmi personifies intellectual curiosity and a sense of adventure. Both attributes are evident in her international travels and her return to the college classroom.

Tomorrow: George Rede | The ‘other’ Thames

8 thoughts on “One step at a time

  1. I’m so excited for you! You’re going to crush it. And you’ll be a gift to your profs, as I find the adult learners to be in the college class I teach.
    I loved this line, which painted the picture perfectly for me: “Any minute you expect a gnome to pop out.” Way to put me in the place.

  2. Lakshmi, kudos for aspiring to life’s multiple summits! I find that my aging brain is no longer capable of retaining theoretical facts and information so I envy your pursuit of the educational yellow flag. I felt for those local hikers who live in a place of beauty and talking about climate change is socially taboo. Guess there are too many places where contrary opinions are stifled.

    • Thanks Al! It was a challenge for me as well to memorize and reproduce stuff, but I’ll see how it goes. The only thing I know is I enjoy wallowing in all that material. Yes. I was surprised to learn about how those people felt that there was a gag order on them.

  3. Good for you, for reaching the summit of your climb, and going back to school. I think it is a great idea! While you’re doing both, I’m going to stretch out on the couch with the cat. She says hello.

    • That’s another dream of mine – to have a cat and just hang out at home – with maybe a cauldron and a broom as well. I’m learning that my reverence for nature is actually a reflection of my inner Wiccan. So we’ll see…Good to hear from you John!

  4. Climbing a mountain is akin to returning to school later in life, isn’t it? I love that you experienced the Canadian Rockies, one of my very favorite places (in spite of the mosquitoes!). And the wonder of you going to school to be a counselor … you emanate such compassion, wisdom and light that I know you will be magical in the role of counselor.

  5. This is so beautifully written, and much admiration for going back to school. (I’m doing the same! But on a much smaller scale.) You got this.

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