at dawn, carrying light packs with a minimum of emergency gear and walking briskly from the campground to the head of the trail we had chosen for our hike up Mount Elbert near Leadville. The air pushed cool against my face; my steps stretched long and loose; my breathing flowed effortlessly — a silent, automatic companion. Feeling alive and invigorated, I flashed a grin at Joel. As we started the ascent, I began breathing through my mouth to accommodate my need for increased oxygen, smooth inhalations that tasted fresh.
The trail steepened. My breathing quickened and grew heavy, as though a doctor had told me to breathe deeply, again and again, while he listened through his stethoscope.
The trail drew up even more. The swoosh of my breath became a soft whistle on the inhale and a slight moan on the exhale. I slowed, became deliberate with my foot placement, wiped my face with my sleeve. Soon the path veered and revealed an incline ahead of at least 80 degrees — a zigzagging line of lightning. As I climbed, the sun-warmed air began to sob in and out of my lungs, each gasp fighting its own passage. My eyes watered. A ground troll seemed to have latched onto my feet, determined I shouldn’t pass. I promised myself that for every 20 steps I managed, I could rest. Step … huff …
An obstacle course blocked my way — large, sharp rocks requiring arduous steps up and over. Now my exchange of air sounded like a shrieking teakettle at full boil, my tortured lungs insisting that nothing in our 63 years of co-dependency had prepared them for this task. I considered discarding a tissue, thinking I would rather litter than carry the heavy thing another step.
I tried not to look ahead, but I