I keep thinking about Freedom of Speech – how the world needs words, images, dialogue, differences of opinion to save it. Yes, I know it is a difficult concept and painful reality but I had an experience where words saved me.
A few years ago, I flew half way around the world to meet my college boyfriend in New Zealand. We had talked over college wounds deciding, “We had loved each other the best we could at that age.” Admittedly I had not thought of him much in the past decades but I was excited to further heal the breach with a seminal figure from my past.
It was a long flight to end up living for three weeks on a damp, cold boat with a man of minimal words. Within the first week, he told me I talk too much. Okay. I remembered that talking was not our strong suit. We had explored other things. Hormonal activities that … uh hum, kept my mouth occupied. On the boat, being censured for talking left me feeling lonely and confused. So we got active, tramping the various treks of the South Island.
One tramp was along Avalanche Peak. 2000 meters up. The steep, rocky trek along the peak is named for its many avalanches in winter. We were going in New Zealand’s fall. Websites describe it as ‘tragic’ and ‘dangerous’ and ‘with sheer drops.’ Bill did not tell me any of this. The night before our trek, we had checked into a hotel, ate a hot carb-laden meal, checked our boots and clothes for the morning, and climbed into bed.
As drifted off to sleep, Bill looked at me and said, “You need to gain 10 pounds. You were so pretty in college.”
“Why in God’s name would you say that?”
“Well it’s true.”
“That’s not the point,” I said.
I didn’t get much sleep that night as I stewed on his hurtful words. Hearing the rain beat down and the wind howl. Somehow, I managed to curb my urge to smother him with a pillow as he slept peacefully beside me.
The next day, bleary-eyed, I dressed in fleece tights, double layer waterproof and thermal hiking pants, sock liners and hiking socks, two tops, one silk and one wool, a climbing jacket, scarf, gloves and hat. No way in hell was I talking to him so that left climbing the peak.
We got to the visitor center and the ranger suggested we put off our tramp. It was still raining and they were expecting strong winds further up the peak. I was ready to find a warm fire and have a hot toddy, maybe nap on a sofa away from Mr. Hurtful Words.
“Let’s go check it out,” he said. I didn’t say anything.
The trailhead was a vertical climb, pulling oneself up a streambed. Using the tree roots as handholds.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said mouth open, staring up a small river cascading over a sludge of mud, stones, and hard looking scrub.
Hurtful Words said, “We can always stop. Once at the top, it’s a great view and an easier trek over the other side.”
“Fuck,” I said.
“You know I don’t like swearing,” he said. “I’ll go first.” So he started. All 200 plus pounds of him moving all the footholds and loosening the tree roots so I had to forge another path up the bloody mountain.
“Shit,” I said as my foot slipped and I dropped ten feet.
“Fuck,” I said as a tree root came away in my hand slicing it open through my gloves.
“Damn,” I said as a cascade of pebbles from steps of Hurtful Words thundering on above me pummeled my face.
I used the mantra of “Shit, fuck, damn” to make it up the streambed. Then we emerged into a torrential rain. Blindly I followed him. There were some vague screeches floating in the air – I thought they were from me. When the rain stopped, we reassessed. I was standing on a rim twelve inches wide with a sheer drop on one side and a roll and drop on the other. Great view of death. I sat down tears rolling down my face. Snow started.
“Let’s go back,” I said. The snowflakes grew fatter, colder, harder like pretty hail.
“You can but I want to go on,” he said. I knew he had the car keys so pushing him off the mountain was going to be counterproductive.
We kept putting one foot in front of the other. Abruptly, the snow stopped. Next came the gale force winds that almost pushed me off the mountain. Dropping my center of gravity, I scurried hunched over along the foot-wide ridge. Hearing some swooping and keening sounds again, I moved my eyes without moving my head. Swirling in the air were enormous birds with curved beaks, like out of Jurassic Park.
“They’re called sheep killers,” he said. “They eat the fat on the back of the sheep driving them crazy so the sheep throw themselves off the mountain.”
“Oh shit, shit, shit.” I sat down on the mountain to cry. Hail crashed my face.
“Don’t face into the wind, your tears will freeze on your face and you’ll get frostbite.”
“Fuck you asshole,” I said. All out of niceness. “I don’t think frostbite matters if I die on this godforsaken mountain.”
“You need to eat.” He gave me a gummy worm. I threw it at an approaching bird. Periodically, he gave me gummy worms and I threw them at the birds. They followed but kept their distance. Then came the horizontal sleet.
“I need to get off this fucking mountain,” I yelled into the icy bath.
“It’s approaching whiteout. I can’t see the trail. We should go back,” he said. I couldn’t see a thing. I sat down on the ridge.
“I’m not strong enough. I’m going to die up here. Shit, fuck, damn,” I cried.
“I hate it when you swear,” he said.
“That’s the least of our problems.”
“It isn’t helping.”
“The extreme probability of dying on a fucking mountain makes me want to swear,” I yelled at him.
“We have to start back now,” he said.
I followed him back through the sleet, birds, gale-force winds, snow, and torrential rain, to the streambed. He went down first, backwards. I followed slipping, sliding and swearing. Landing on my ass. Tearing my clothes. Somehow we made it back to the visitor center where, from relief, I promptly threw up gummy worms.
“This was a good day,” he said. “The only thing that spoiled it was your swearing.”
“My words kept me going. Your words last night weren’t so helpful,” I said.
I would not have survived Avalanche Peak without using my words, swear words, to generate the anger and energy for the trek. I will never be sure of the intent behind his words. Words have consequences bringing us together and pushing us apart.