The World Needs More People Like Ann

My friend Ann is dying. She had breast cancer about 10 years ago but it came back. In her spine. Containable but not curable, the drugs held it back for about a year or two. I hadn’t talked to her for a while and last fall I had a very strong sense that I needed to get in touch—and not just by email. Something told me I needed to pick up the phone and call her. She was happy to hear from me, but had some not so happy news: The cancer was growing.

In early December, I started getting emails from Ann’s brother. I was on a mailing list, one I’m sure is a very big list because of the number of Ann’s friends. In the past several months the chemo was affecting Ann’s nerves to the point she could no longer use her hands or feet. She couldn’t write or walk. But there was the possibility, the hope, that the neuropathy could depart in the same quick way it began.

The updates kept coming.

Ann is being moved from the hospital to the rehabilitation center for physical therapy.
Ann is making progress and determined to get home.

Ann is going home, but will need 24-hour care. A nurse will be there during the day but we’ll have friends stay with her overnight, so let me know if you would like to come for a few days or a week.

I volunteered to spend a week with her in March. (She lives in San Francisco.) Given her loving friends I’m sure she has enough caregiving volunteers to get her through the next five years. But I will not be going to San Francisco to help because Ann won’t make it five years, or even five months.

I woke up to an email update from her brother.

Ann received news yesterday that her battle with cancer is quickly coming to an end. Ann has in mind to say her goodbyes in the coming days and weeks. Then it seems she will be ready to depart on her next adventure. She seems to have no regrets and accepts that this is her time. She has great care and love of those around her. And wishes you and us all great happiness, love and peace.

And so the grief begins.

Ann is just three years older than me. She has been a mentor, a role model, a big sister, a grief counselor after Marcus died, and a true and loving friend.

Like me, she lost someone she loved who died suddenly and unexpectedly, so she already knew the ropes of this kind of grief. (The cliché is intentional; her love was a rock climber.) She was there for me—to listen, to coach, to refill my wine glass, to just be. She was there for me a few years later when Daisy was killed by a coyote. Ann, a dog lover herself, was once again a step ahead of me as she had lost her dog Shayla (an Airedale terrier) not long before Daisy died.

Ann’s dog, Shayla, was one of the most remarkable dogs I’ve ever met. I tell the story of her often, how, when Ann worked from home, Shayla would come to Ann’s desk to remind her to get off the phone and take her for a walk. After a few minutes, if Ann was still talking, Shayla would go get her leash and present it to Ann, standing there with it dangling from her mouth which, with her tall size, was level with the desktop. And when that still didn’t work, she would go get Ann’s fleece jacket off the hook by the door and drop it onto Ann’s lap, signaling that, “Excuse me, you really need to hang up now. It’s time to go out.” If that cuteness couldn’t make you end a call, no matter how important the business discussion, nothing could!

Ann and Shayla

Shayla was only 7 when she died. She got sick and Ann did everything she could to keep her dog healthy, happy, alive. She even stayed with Shayla at the animal hospital, because she believed—she knew—her presence would help the dog recover. And, with Ann’s affection, Shayla did recover (from an illness of leptospirosis.) Shayla’s recovery, which even her vet attributed to Ann’s love, was so remarkable that a magazine did a story featuring Ann on how spending time at the vet with your sick pet helps it heal.

I have followed Ann’s example of animal bedside care—many times now—whenever Jack is at the vet for his various health issues. (I did with Daisy, too.) Each time I sit on the cold cement floor of the vet’s office, gently stroking my dog’s fur for hours, I always think of Ann and Shayla and it keeps me going.

Ann talked with a pet psychic after Shayla died and the psychic told her Shayla was doing okay. When Daisy died, Ann gifted me a session with the psychic who told me Daisy was doing okay. (When your heart is THAT broken, any little bit of reassurance or affirmation is helpful.) It is one of the most heartfelt gifts I have ever received.

Lately I have been experiencing a period of turmoil—depression and despair over a combination of things: the current battlefield of politics, climate change, gun violence in schools and, more personally, what it means to be 55 and all the upheaval that goes with it: menopause; muffin top; loss of libido, bone density, and muscle tone; the seemingly limited future of my career; how to manage my finances; how to balance the solitude of the farm with my need for city; and the sobering reality that I now qualify for senior housing. But all of my worries seem so trivial now, my whiny first-world problems thrust into perspective by the news that Ann, who is just 60, is preparing to take leave.

Now I am asking:

    What really matters?
    What do we leave behind?
    What are we most proud of?
    What did we accomplish?

Ann hasn’t squandered away her time in the existential wasteland of turmoil and despair. She has been too busy, spending her life helping others as well as the environment. She has been:

  • Advocating for women in the outdoor industry
  • Serving on boards of environmental non-profits
  • Mentoring teams of young people to help them grow in their careers
  • Overseeing a foundation’s endowment allocating grants to wilderness conservation and outdoor education
  • Building public speaking careers for adventurers, enabling them to share their risk management lessons learned from Mt. Everest, El Capitan, Antarctica and beyond 
  • Building an outdoor clothing brand into an internationally recognized and highly respected name
  • Organizing a film festival featuring the feats of extreme athletes who have triumphed over tragedy
  • And, in her earlier career, producing music events

She has traveled the world, spending a lot of time in the mountains—in the Himalayas, in Yosemite, in Muir Woods.

She has nurtured friendships that span the globe, often hosting those friends in her home, their sleeping bags and backpacks turning her living room—an otherwise cozy and elegant sanctuary filled with Buddhist art and Tibetan prayer flags—into a climbers’ base camp. I have been one of those lucky friends, sleeping bag in tow, treated to her home cooked meals (my favorite being grilled tilapia with sautéed mushrooms and puréed cauliflower, and a bottle of Malbec) and waking up on her couch to a view of the Redwood forest, talking with Ann for hours over coffee.

And yet, when the time comes—and, sadly, it is coming too soon—what will Ann be remembered for most? Not for her grilled tilapia and comfy couch. Not for her career and for her many, many accomplishments. Not even for her recent, wholly deserved Outdoor Industry Lifetime Achievement Award. All of that is impressive and important, yes. But what she will be remembered for most is her kindness. Her generosity. Her humility. Her love. Her spirit, a spirit so bright and beautiful its light will keep shining long after her physical form can no longer contain it.

May we all be so lucky to be remembered that way.

May Ann’s legacy serve as a guide for those of us still here, and for others yet to come. May we model her values and her examples of honesty and integrity, to make the world a better place for as long as we are here.

We will miss you, Ann, but know you will be there with all of that kindness, generosity, humility, and love when we see you on the other side. And we will all get there eventually. Thank you for being in my life and for all the goodness you have contributed—to me and to so many others. Wishing you peace on your new journey, my friend. I look forward to meeting up with you in the next one.

With all my love and deepest gratitude,

UPDATE:  Ann Krcik passed away on February 28, 2018. She told her family the day before her departure, “I feel so happy and free.” I imagine her now, soaring in the winds, her soul so light, her joy boundless. Fly high, my friend. Fly high.

Tom Howard’s Last Piece of Pie

My dad and me. Photo taken on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2017

Two months ago I lost the person I loved most in the world. I lost my dad. He died on March 9, 2017 at 6:30 AM, of metastasized melanoma.

The spot on his head first appeared in 2015, a raised and rough growth, a pebble of a thing that took up residence on the otherwise smooth and shiny surface of his skull. He had it removed in July of that year (while I was traveling around the world) and when they didn’t get clean margins they removed more from this delicate, non-elastic region, borrowing skin from his thigh to patch the missing piece of scalp. He had been so pleased with the plastic surgeon’s reconstruction that he called him “an artist” and wrote him a thank you note. The scar was barely visible.

Last family photo, taken February 25, 2017

Life went on. For the next year and a half he read books—spy thrillers mostly—washed his car, played Solitaire, went on daily lunch outings with my mom to El Pollo Loco where they shared their favorite taco salad, attended U.S. Coast Guard Auxillary meetings, and drank his daily martini at 5:00. But behind the scenes, lurking under the skin’s surface, the cancer was spreading. Like a nest of newborn snakes, it ventured forth, slithering into his lymph nodes, his prostate, throughout his entire skeletal system. It went into his lungs, creating such a deep and growing colony of tumors that he was coughing up globs of blood.

On a mid-January morning this year, when I was visiting for my mom’s 80th birthday, when I watched him cough into a tissue, leaving a dribble of bright red blood on his chin, I knew it was bad. I didn’t know how bad. We wouldn’t know the full diagnosis until after his PET scan a month later. But I knew, in the way a twin can sense their sibling a thousand miles away is in trouble, that his life as we knew it was over. That the cancer would take him. And, by the looks of the blood clots, soon.

No one coughs up that much blood and lives.

After my mom’s birthday, after the Women’s March in Washington, and after a few weeks back in Iowa where I was getting updates from my sister as the oncologist appointments got underway, I flew back to California. I could have saved $150 if I bought a ticket for three days later. My instinct told me every day counted—or maybe it was the news from the oncologist who said there was “no treatment for this” and “We will do everything we can to make you as comfortable as possible”—so I booked the earlier, more expensive flight. Paying that extra money was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I packed a mammoth suitcase thinking I might be there for more than a month. I was prepared to stay six, whatever it took, however long I was needed. I know now I could have just packed a carry-on.

And so, I was there.

I was there in Redondo Beach in my parents’ apartment, the sliding glass doors letting in the ocean breeze, the sun’s blinding late afternoon glare reflecting off the dark blue sea, the surfers catching the last waves before sunset.

I was there because my latest book proposal— about how to stay optimistic in this political era—was turned down. I was so damn lucky for the rejection. With a looming book deadline I would not have been able to spend those three and a half weeks of February into March with the father I loved. The last three and a half weeks of life of the man whose seed created me. The dimming, dwindling last days of the man who loved martinis, hot fudge sundaes and banana cream pie. The man who loved me. Who understood me like no one else. Who could solve every problem I ever had with his laughter. Even if I had gotten the book deal, I would have been there. I would have walked away from the offer. Family—my dad—came first.

I was there, sitting by his side every one of those remaining days, every morning stretched out on my mom’s side of the king size bed, careful not to get my dirty feet on the bedspread, playing Clair de Lune for him—his signature piece he played so well on the piano—on my iPhone from YouTube, drinking my café lattes and listening to him breathe—or struggle to breathe. I repositioned his oxygen nosepiece, making sure the prongs stayed in his nostrils, and watched his chest closely, making sure it was still moving up and down. Making sure he was still with us. I listened to the rhythm—four or five breaths, then a pause. The pauses were so long I found myself holding my breath along with him each time he stopped. When he coughed, as he inevitably did from the growing number of nodules that choked his lungs, he woke himself up and began breathing again. And I, too, would begin breathing again, not realizing I had stopped.

I was there to rub lotion on his bald head, now dotted with moles and rough spots and scars. I was there to massage his feet, to give him some semblance of comfort, the way the hospice pamphlet suggested. I was there to hold his hands, studying his age spots and fingernails, memorizing the heft of each digit, including the digitus medius manus, as he taught us the Latin term for “the middle finger”—as in giving it. They were strong yet gentle hands that had healed so many people. As a dentist, a holistic one who truly cared about his patients overall well being, he helped improve not only their smiles (and in turn their confidence) but also their health. He understood how every part of the body is connected to another, that through orthodontics (without pulling teeth unnecessarily, mind you) the curvature of the mouth’s palate would change and, thus, this would change—improve—the structure of the cervical column and that would affect the entire spine for the better. His hands had practiced therapeutic massage and cranial osteopathy. His hands had played Clair de Lune just a week earlier, shocking us all when we thought he lacked the strength to get out of bed, let alone sit at the piano to serenade us with classical music.

The dying process is like that. Death can come slowly, gradually, and just when you think the final hour has arrived life can burst forth again in unexpected, fleeting fragments. These energy bursts, confusing as they may be, give bystanding loved ones a tidal wave of hope that perhaps, hey, wait, he’s not as sick as we thought. Maybe he is not going to die after all. And then, no, the terminal, evil, motherfucker of an illness sends him back to bed, weaker than ever, and you call the hospice nurse to increase the morphine.

I was there to make him his favorite dessert, banana cream pie, the pie that prompted my dad to propose to my mom when she made one for him six months after they started dating. I made the pie just the way he liked it, with a graham cracker crust, made-from-scratch vanilla pudding, and meringue topping. I made three banana cream pies in three and a half weeks, wondering, worrying, if each pie would be his last.

I was there to spoon feed him bites of the pie when this once robust man no longer had the strength to lift even a small fork, cutting the sliced bananas into miniature sizes he could swallow. With his appetite diminishing by the day, we had to ask him what, if anything, he was hungry for. His big blue eyes would brighten and he would say with a smile, drawing out the syllables, “Piiiiiie.”

The day before he was moved to the hospice house—euphemistically and somewhat disturbingly called a “transition center”—he couldn’t finish the tiny sliver of banana cream pie I had served him on a cocktail plate. The plate was part of a collection of four, each decorated with a different martini-themed design. Martini glass-emblazoned items could be found in every corner of the apartment—a cutting board, cloth napkins, coasters, a decorative plaque that read “Martini Bar,” a flag that had hung on his old sailboat but now waved on the balcony to signal when it was Happy Hour. Anything with a martini glass on it was an obvious gift for the “man who had everything”—as long as said martini glass contained three olives.

I left the martini plate, with the remaining piece of pie and the teaspoon still on it, in the refrigerator, in case he would want to eat more later.

There was no later.

Tom Howard’s last banana cream
pie, his favorite.

When I came back to my parents’ apartment from the hospice house (er, transition fucking center) the morning of March 9—after he was gone, after our family had gathered around his hospital bed with his body still slightly warm, after saying our final goodbyes before he was placed in the lime green body bag (so thoughtlessly, so visibly the only item in the clear plastic bag marked “Patient’s Personal Items” even though he was wearing a grey Washington State University t-shirt when he arrived), before he was sent over to the crematorium—I went to get something out of the refrigerator. I was looking for milk or cheese or juice or something, who knows. I was so numb I can’t remember. When I opened the fridge door the remains of his last slice of pie stared back at me. The bananas had turned brown, the crust soggy, the meringue sagging and weeping. The martini design on the plate, which had previously looked so cute now seemed offensive as the day’s approaching Happy Hour would be anything but happy.

I was there, sleepless the entire week after he died, in my bed that looked out over the King Harbor marina. I stuck earbuds in my ears and listened to Clair de Lune, the extended play version, over and over. Gone was the humming, hissing and pumping sound of his oxygen machine. Gone was the moaning and crying sound of his pain from down the hall. Gone was the beloved man whose spirit had been so big and so vibrant. To fill all that empty space I played the music at full volume for hours while the moon rose—and then set—and the rest of Redondo Beach slumbered.

I was there to clean out his closet with my brother, even when it felt way too soon, helping to load the SUV with my dad’s sport coats, sweaters, t-shirts and trousers, ties and belts, and a surprisingly extensive collection of size 12 shoes, including several pair leather loafers tucked so far back in the closet they were covered in a layer of light green mold, such is the humidity living by the ocean.

I was there to write the obituary and place it in the Ottumwa Courier and the Quad City Times for $156 each, editing down the word count to save money from the original $300 quote each. I didn’t know obits were so expensive. And I didn’t know I would find myself arguing with the editor over AP Style Guidelines—over the correct placement of commas, semi-colons, and parentheses—after she changed my format, which I had spent hours so carefully crafting.

I was there to design the memorial card, collecting photos from my four other siblings, sorting through 81 years’ worth of memories and culling them into the mere four photos the online template would allow. I was there to buy stamps and place them on the pile of 150 cards so that when my mother felt well enough to create a mailing list and address the envelopes it would be one less thing for her to do.

I was there. And now I’m not. And he’s not. He has “transitioned.” To where—well, isn’t that is the ultimate nagging billion-dollar existential question? To a “better” place? God, I hate it when people say that. At least he’s in a place—or space—free from pain.

It was so good yet so hard to be there. It made my heart physically hurt listening to him cry out during the night, in distress from the cancer that terrorized his bones, cancer that caused unimaginable pain, cancer that according to the PET scan—which he never read because he was determined that he wasn’t that sick, that he was going to get better—had deteriorated his left ribs, clavicle, and humerus (the shoulder head, a term I had to look up among many other body parts listed in the report.) No one, especially not my dad, should suffer like that. Ever.

It was so fortunate to be there. I will forever be grateful for that time—those last three and a half weeks—I had with him. Even when it meant cleaning the commode, wiping the urine off his private parts, holding him up in the shower. Even when all that tore at my heart so badly and squeezed my chest so tight I laid on the guest bed thinking that I was the one who was going to die. (I found out later, after my doctor sent me to a cardiologist, that I was suffering from Broken Heart Syndrome. It’s a real thing, caused by trauma and stress.)

I am thankful I could be there to give back to him, to have had even the smallest chance to repay him for all that he gave me, the many, many gifts that have made my life so rich—a healthy childhood, a college education, trips abroad to give me a bigger world view, a feisty and generous spirit, and above all, a mandate to be positive, to see the good in people, and to be of service to others.

He was there to bring me into this world. I was there to help him out of it.

He said just three days before he died, “Words matter.” I write these words for him. I write these words so I don’t lose him.

But I haven’t lost him. He is always with me. His spirit lives through me. I carry on his values. I carry his DNA. And for as long as I live I will continue to carry on his love of nature and cocktail hour and banana cream pie. He had a good, long life, sticking around longer than many humans do—longer than my husband who died at 43.

When Marcus died I was annoyed when my dad said, “We all have to die sometime, Boo.” But he is right—was right. We are all like a juicy novel with a beginning, middle and end. Our lives unfold like turning pages of a book, each varying in length. We are just passing through, each of us contributing our own chapter to the bigger story, and as such our purpose should be to live—and die—as gracefully (and painlessly) as possible, striving for a happy, morally sound ending.

My dad also said, in one of his ever-surprising nuggets of wisdom doled out over the years, “When I die don’t mourn for me. Just go out and have a hot fudge sundae.” Another thing he would say, especially during times I was down, was, “Onward and forward.” I have never been as down as I am now.

So in the spirit of my dad, the Great John Thomas Howard, I am going onward and forward—straight to Dairy Queen.

I love you, Dad. And I miss you.
(For more about my dad, read my Father’s Day post from last year.)

The Shoes of Palos Verdes

Is this Hawaii? No, it’s Palos Verdes (California). My new neighborhood.

I read an essay about 15 years ago titled “The Shoes of Kilimanjaro” by Cameron Burns. In the story he describes his climb up the towering volcano in Tanzania and how he felt bad for the guides whom he assumed were so poor they had only flip flops to wear for the trek through the jungle and, as they got higher, tattered leather dress shoes with slick soles to tackle the steep scree and snow-filled slopes. When he saw the guides in town a few days later they were traipsing around in brand new, ultra-expensive Koflachmountaineering boots. When asked why on earth they didn’t wear the climbing boots on the mountain they answered, “Because we’re saving them for good.” The story and its irony has stuck with me all these years. While this story has little to do with the one I’m about to tell you, my story is indeed about the significance of proper footwear.

I just moved back to LA after four years in Iowa. And when I landed here and moved into my tiny-but-nice apartment I was not in great shape emotionally. After losing my dog Daisy—and almost losing my other dog Jack—to a coyote attack, I was tossed straight back into the Grief Pit, the one I had just spent the past five years climbing out of. I returned to LA broken-hearted and vulnerable.

My new place—a serene, immaculate guest house with a skylight and an exceptionally comfortable bed—was a good place for both Jack and me to recover and rest. But eventually, after two months, I crawled out from under the covers (who can stay in bed when it’s 75 degrees and sunny in January?!) And Jack, well, even with his neck wounds still healing, a Jack Russell terrier is still a Jack Russell terrier. We had come from living in Iowa with endless open space to run and landed in the middle of upscale suburbia with nothing but picket fences and heavy traffic. Some room to breathe and run free would do him—no, both of us—a world of good. What we needed was a beach.

My guest house is located on the Palos Verdes peninsula with horses, orange groves and—oh, yeah, baby—beaches. Dog-friendly beaches. But here’s the catch: the only reason they are dog friendly is because it is impossible to patrol them with a car, almost impossible to get to them period. These little snippets of sand are wedged into isolated coves. At the bottom of sheer cliffs.

I discovered one particularly inviting stretch of sand after leaving a yoga class (where I spent much of the class curled up in child’s pose trying to contain my tears—there’s nothing like a twisting triangle or a pigeon pose to wring out raw emotions) and pointed my car toward the ocean. Every time I ventured out of my house I made a point to explore a little more of my new neighborhood. On this day, however, my Mini Cooper took over like a divining rod, and steered me down one road, then another, and then came to a stop at the top of a grass-covered bluff. I spotted what I thought was sign for a trailhead so I got out to investigate.

I stood on the grass and as my eyes took in the sweeping view for a moment I thought I had just landed in Hawaii. The water was 50 shades of tropical blues and greens—or as my friend Dave would say, PMS 299 and PMS 306. (I am always amused when artists describe the world in paint names.) The waves were peeling evenly and the sun was reflecting like a rain shower of diamonds off their spray. Palm trees and pine trees dotted the skyline. And if all that wasn’t magical enough, I peered down over the edge of the cliff and below was a sandy beach—with a dog running on it. The dog’s owner was shooting pictures of her canine companion as he swam out to fetch a ball she had thrown. I wanted that to be me with the camera and Jack with the ball.

Staring into the abyss.

The question was, How the f*ck did she get down there? I studied the cliff. It was a sheer drop off of at least 300 feet. I walked along the entire length of the bluff looking for a trail. There were little gullies where maybe someone with suicidal tendencies might scramble down, but these paths were better suited for ground squirrels or geckos. I finally found what looked like an established trail at the south end of the cove. I stood at the top of it and stared down into the abyss. The trail snaked down the vertical wall of a canyon, formed by a creek that flowed out to sea. Just imagining myself going down that trail made my stomach seize up into a knot and my heart rate double. That could not possibly be the way that woman and her dog got down there. It just couldn’t be. Who in their right mind would want to be on that beach so badly as to endanger their life—and, as I was picturing—their dog’s life?

Me. That’s who.

Seriously, how could anyone get down this?
I had to know if that was indeed the route to get down to the beach, that pristine, isolated, beckoning strand of irresistible untrammeled sand. So I waited. I waited for the woman and her dog to see if they were coming up the cliff. I waited at least a half hour, watching them frolic and laugh and splash in the surf as I stared down at them with envy. Finally, they made their way out of the canyon and back up to the top of the bluff. As she neared the top I leaned over the cliff and called down to her, “Is this the same trail you took to get down there?”

She looked up at me, breathing heavily, and kept climbing. Her Weimaraner breezed up to the top and ran past me, wagging his tail and dripping with sea water. “Yes,” she finally replied.  She was blond and fit, wearing jeans and some kind of trail shoes. She appeared to be around my age—which is, um, 52 but who’s counting. In sizing her up in a she reminds me of me kind of way, my desire and determination only deepened. If she can do it, so can I. A little competiveness can serve as a good motivator. Especially when a Jack Russell terrier’s happiness is at stake.

I waited until she got to the top before accosting her with more questions. “Is this the only way down? Isn’t it dangerous? Would it be safe for my small dog?”

She caught her breath and answered. “The trail is fine,” she said. “But there are a few tricky spots where it might be hard for a small dog to jump.” Jump? Good God, what was down there that I couldn’t see? How could the trail be even worse?

Then it was her turn to size me up. She looked down at my feet. “You wouldn’t want to go down in those shoes,” she said, referring to my Converse Chuck Taylor’s. I lifted my shoe, noted its smooth sole, and nodded. “I got these specifically for this trail,” she continued, holding up her foot for a better look. Our eyes locked onto her shoes. Bright pink with neon yellow soles, their tread was a collection of little spikes that covered the entire bottom. They looked more like soccer cleats than trail running shoes. “I got them at REI,” she added. And then she kept walking, her camera dangling from one shoulder, her dog’s leash from the other, her water bottle in her hand.

I watched her and her happy dog walk across the grassy bluff. I don’t like talking about God and woo-woo stuff, but I could swear meeting this woman was a message sent from heaven, an angel of inspiration, and a reminder that I needed to do more than look longingly at that beach from above. I needed to tackle my fears and find my old self again.

My old self could—and would—tackle something as simple as hiking down a beach trail. Even one with a little exposure. But in my vulnerable state that “little exposure” might as well have been 3,000 feet and not 300. My old self was a strong and fearless athlete who could ride her bike up mountain passes and come screaming down the other side. My old self was the brave girl who competed as the only woman on a five-person team in the 10-day, 300-mile nonstop Eco-Challenge adventure race across the Utah wilderness. My old self was the restless soul who graduated early from high school to spend 3 months on a NOLS course building igloos, sleeping on rock ledges, climbing granite walls, and exploring underground caves. My old self was the determined young woman who traveled Kenya to work on a coffee farm at age 24. My old self would have scrambled down the side of that beach canyon, even in her Chuck Taylors.

I didn’t need shoes, I needed climbing rope and crampons. But screw it, “Whatever it takes” is my motto. I may not have been my old self but I had not lost my determination. And after everything Jack had been through, I cared more about his happiness than my fear. Steep and scary trail, be damned. I went home, changed out of my yoga clothes, grabbed a carrot muffin, and drove straight to REI.

These shoes are made for walking — in the water.

I now know the price of courage. It is $130, which is to say $120, plus California sales tax. I bought the Brooks PureGrit trail running shoes in all their hot pink and neon yellow glory. I went back to the trail wearing my new shoes, comfortable as bedroom slippers, far lighter than any Air Nikes I had ever owned, ready to conquer my fears.

I left Jack at home for the first outing. First I called my mom to let her know where I was and that if she didn’t hear back from me within an hour to send help. Then, taking a deep breath, I descended over the edge of the cliff and gingerly made my way down the cliff, keeping my knees loose, my stride short, and continued to focus on my breathing to stay calm.

Baby steps. You just take one baby step at a time and once you have strung all those baby steps together, guess what, you are at the bottom and sprinting toward the beach with tears of joy and relief springing from your eyes. And ready to do it again. With your dog.

If a song could be a caption it would be Pharrell William’s “Happy.”

Doesn’t look so menacing from below, does it?

I brought Jack the second time, and third, and fourth, and now whenever the car gets near that cliff his mood picks up and he can’t wait to get out of the car and onto the trail. Once we are on the beach I throw the Frisbee for him, he digs huge holes in the sand, he sprints through the surf, and he barks his little heart out with happiness. While he is doing his thing I am doing mine. Instead of going to the dark and sad yoga studio I do my yoga poses in the sunny cove, while looking for breaching whales out on the water, meditating, and just being grateful in general that we can access this beauty and space right here just ten minutes from our little house.

If you are ever in need of motivation to get active and get past your fears, get a dog like Jack. Here he is, wet, sandy, and half way up the trail.

When I go up and down that steep trail now I see it a little differently. Yes, it is exposed and risky, not for the faint of heart or unfit, but it is no longer the terror-inducing, stomach-knotting obstacle it appeared as when I first viewed it. Now Jack and I scramble up and down it faster than that photographer woman and her Weimaraner. Moreover, now I see the trail as the path to my old self. I may be a little older, more cautious, and bruised by the disappointments and tragedies of life, but I am still that woman, brave and bold, determined and adventurous. I just needed the proper footwear to be reminded.

And they hiked happily ever after.