Mid September. The parking lot is jammed. Hikers of all descriptions empty from their vehicles, start preparing for an afternoon’s exercise. High above, a pale sun weaves between the wispy clouds. Still, the flags atop the nearby park ranger’s shed snap and crackle in the gusting wind. I am thankful for the protection of a warm fleece jacket.
The fall normally means the start of new high school year. Yet, following four decades of teaching and coaching, retirement sees me, along with my wife, holidaying on the Isle of Skye. A few miles north of Portree, the island’s main town, we plan to climb the iconic Old Man of Storr. It is just one of the numerous rugged vistas that characterize the natural grandeur of the Scottish Highlands.
I look up. Way up. Note the rough and raw landscape of the Trotternish Ridge. Various routes to the top feature a combination of undulating terrain, gravel paths, stone stairways and bare rock. A number of them look formidable. The “Old Man” himself is one of several jagged outcrops which tower some 2300 feet over the Sound of Rasaay. All provide stunning panoramic views of the water and surrounding mainland.
We set off. Scramble over a fence at a makeshift stile, navigate a steep section of loose rock. After a summer of training, I fancy myself in reasonable condition. But before long, I am huffing and puffing. The summit seems a good deal farther away than I envisage. Enthusiasm and energy levels dip, the topography as much responsible as the jaw dropping scenery for taking my breath away.
Fortunately, an attitude adjustment comes in a nick of time. From a compelling source. From Terry Fox.
Indeed, starting in September 1981 and every year since, I would speak to students in the opening weeks of school about the legendary Canadian. Then, with them, take part in the annual Terry Fox Run. It seems strange, after 42 years, to not be doing so this time round.
Fox certainly passes on unparalleled gifts, as an athlete, activist and national hero. Osteosarcoma results in his right leg being amputated in 1977. Remarkably, rather than bemoan his situation, with the aid of a crude prosthetic and after months of training, he embarks on a cross Canada run. An unimaginable 26 miles each day, to raise money and awareness for cancer research.
This incredible feat, duly named the Marathon of Hope, begins with little fanfare but eventually unites the country as never before. Though the spread of the disease eventually forces him to end his quest early and results in his untimely passing at age 22, his astonishing courage, complete lack of self pity, and unyielding determination leave a lasting, worldwide legacy.
Suitably chastened, I resume the ascent. My wife and I are now part of a group gazing up at the Storr’s eastern cliffs. The path levels off to a degree, a stretch of the route appropriately labelled the Sanctuary. We take one last mini break, then clamber up the final section to the summit.
Reaching the top makes the climb more than worthwhile. As if on cue, the wind drops. There is a haunting silence. The surrounding views, surely among the most photographed landscapes in the world, awe and amaze. No wonder that Storr, the looming outcrops that include and surround the Old Man, derives from the Norse word for “Great Man.”
Eventually, it is time to retrace our steps. Perhaps not surprisingly, the descent presents its own difficulties. The pathways are narrow, at times awkward, often unsteady, the endless bracing required for each downward step producing its own form of fatigue.
It is then, somewhere near the halfway point on our return, that I see him. I literally do a double take, memories of Terry Fox, no more than an hour ago, now a jarring reality.
The man in question stops at the bottom of a haphazard set of stones. Eyes up the uneven staircase, plots his route. Moves forward.
I note that, like Terry, he has an artificial right leg. Executes the same quick hop on his left leg, then a careful step with the prosthetic. And repeat. Two walking poles assist with balance. Progress may be slow and deliberate, but he seems undeterred. As we ease past each other, going in opposite directions, I can only nod in admiration at his bravery and steely resolve.
Twenty minutes later, my wife and I reach our rental car. I turn one last time to survey the Old Man and the route we walked. In particular, as my eyes sweep across the paths and pinnacles, I search for the one-legged hiker among the many others dotted along the ridge. I finally catch a fleeting glimpse, as he creeps gradually towards the summit.
The outing provides several important connections and timely reminders. My own aching feet and tired body reduce to complete irrelevance as I consider the sheer majesty of the setting in which I find myself.
I reflect equally on the will, sterling example, and staggering achievements of a Canadian hero. Qualities then reinforced by my chance meeting with a fellow hiker. More than likely, in the manner of Fox, he too a great man whose strength, fortitude, and tenacity clearly make light of a significant physical handicap.
With an attitude that doesn't do regret, takes nothing for granted. Just seeks opportunities, seizing the day and living in the moment.
Lessons for all.