A Quickie Intro to Low-Carb and Weight-Loss Resources

Between David and me, we’ve lost a tween between us: 101 pounds (about the size of your basic 6th or 7th grader) gone .(That’s 54 for him, 46 for me, plus some ounces on either side).

There is more space in bed and at the dinner table: Whimsically, I wonder where did that 101-pounds weakling go (certainly not out to weed the garden or clean the garage….)?

101 pounds of human matter…. gone, seemingly in contradiction of the law of the conservation of mass! If David and I had to lift a piece of furniture together that weighed 100 pounds, I don’t think we could get it across the living room. Yet somehow, we’ve been carrying that much weigh around — for years.

We’re still in the process of weight loss: We both have more pounds we’d like to shed, and I have no idea how the next stage of the journey will roll out.

Some people have warned me about relapse: how weight loss slows to a crawl, stops, reverses; how easy it is to gain the weight back; how diets don’t work; how everyone who gets thin gets fat again; how failure is inevitable.

Others are asking what we’ve done. I’m not an expert on any of this, and I’m by no means trying to promote a single way of eating — but I have been buried in books and websites, trying to learn as much as I can.  (Check out these low carb forums for resources, support, discussions, and links to websites and youtube videos.)

So in this post I’ll just say six things that I believe to be true and give you some resources I’ve found interesting and helpful, even if they disagree on some points.  You’ll have to make up your own mind and start your own journey. Good luck!

  1.  We are each our own science experiment. Scientists can do all the controlled peer-reviewed studies they want,and there is some value in learning about general patterns. But there is no substitute for learning what YOUR body responds to.
  2.  Almost everything you think you know about what food is and isn’t healthy is probably wrong.
  3.  Most packaged and processed food items sold in supermarkets contain what I call “poison” (sugar, additives, chemical sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, etc.).
  4.  Dieting is a lot easier (and more fun) if you spend the time to find delicious foods that you will love to eat, then focus on them, rather than on the things you can’t eat.
  5.  Moderation is the cheater’s way out:  It leads to slippery slopes, and you know where those take you. Once you find a plan that you believe in and once you find it works for you, commit to it.
  6.  A successful diet is a permanent lifestyle change, not a one-time fix. (Note: I am not an expert on this point: We haven’t gotten to the maintenance stage yet. But I’m pretty sure if we go back to what we were doing before, we’ll have the same results we got before!)

Books on Nutrition and Health

I have never been diagnosed with diabetes — and I don’t plan to start! These books have helped me frame how I think about nutrition, health, and metabolic syndrome/insulin resistance.

The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss
Fung, Jason, Noakes, Timothy

Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution: The Complete Guide to Achieving Normal Blood Sugars
Bernstein, Richard K.


Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, Revised Edition
Atkins M.D., Robert C.

The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living: An Expert Guide to Making the Life-Saving Benefits of Carbohydrate Restriction Sustainable and Enjoyable
Volek, Jeff, Phinney, Stephen

Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It
Taubes, Gary

The New Atkins for a New You: The Ultimate Diet for Shedding Weight and Feeling Great
Westman, Dr. Eric C., Phinney, Dr. Stephen D., Jeff S. Volek



The Road Ahead

I should know better when I reach the high country: On every climb, I expect the view, back to where I started, forward to where I’m going. But mountains are deceptive and it’s not always clear like that. Anything can block the long view: fog or trees or subsidiary ridges. A path that shines clear as a yellow brick road one minute might the next be swaddled in such mystery that you could step of the trail and die of disorientation.

The path ahead is not always clear. (Picture: The Italian Dolomites).
The path ahead is not always clear. (Picture: The Italian Dolomites).

The path to this point in my life has been, I imagine, quite a bit like yours. Often, the mountains we’ve crossed have given us clear views and obvious directions; but other times, we’ve been waylaid by meandering detours, spiking high points, and brooding canyons. Sometimes we’ve been lost for days, or weeks or longer, with no idea which way to turn, or how to go forward.

This place I’m in now? It’s a good one, combining all the things I love: music, writing, travel, nature, outdoor activity, and a beautiful home on a mountain dirt road in the woods. I feel lucky to be here. But that doesn’t mean I’ve always taken the best path to get here. So I’m asking questions:  What could I have done better? What can I do better in the future? What has been consistent the entire journey?

Inertia being what it is, it seems that the things I have carried with me this far will stay with me going forward, that what is important to me now is what has been important to me all along. But will what worked in the past be necessary in the future? Will it even still work? In hiking, technology has lightened our loads, experience has taught us to do more with less, to walk less encumbered by stuff we don’t need. Can the same be true in life?

Paul Simon wrote, “Lord ain’t it strange, after changes upon changes, we are more or less the same?” I am the same but I am also different. My growth rings spread out from the same fundamental core.

But when you get to this age… maybe you’ve made the same mistakes more than once. Maybe it’s time to fix that. Can I be more or less the same, but better? Am I not tired of feeling the same lack of control over how I approach a loaded all-you-can-eat buffet? And looking in the mirror the next day? Do I really HAVE to make the same damn New Year’s resolutions every damn January?

So… Fitness.

As with Tolstoy’s unhappy families, those of us with fitness, weight, and health issues each have our own story. From my metaphorical mountaintop I look back and see a trail of relationship eating, a few silly diets, and roller coasters of extreme activity (walking from Mexico to Canada, say, or running marathons) interspersed with months where I spent days on end doing nothing more physical than clattering away at a keyboard. And a lot of denial. A large frame hides a lot of weight gain, until it doesn’t and you can’t fit into your size extra-large ski pants and have to borrow some from your even bigger partner.

I need to be on a different trail, and this hiatus have given me the opportunity to find it.  I’m in a bit of a home-bound pattern right now – David’s stroke turned everything upside down. He’s recovering, I’m staying home to help (at least, that is what I think I am doing) and what with all the doctors visits and blood tests, we’ve decided to face our issues of fitness head on.

I’ve joined David in his weekly Tai Chi class, and we’re both doing the low carb thing. (We’ve together lost more than 95 pounds and David’s blood work has come back so normal that he is off of virtually all medication; I’ll be writing more about that later). We’re walking every day, and I am hoping to add running to the mix after I ditch the next 10 pounds (I’m being kind to my knees). For the moment, I am telling myself that I want to be ready for a killer ski season, for a longer hike next summer, and possibly for a triathlon next fall with my teenage niece.

This is the path I am following — It’s clear, at least until the pass. Who knows about the other side. As in life, it’s a leap of faith. (Italian Dolomites(

But most important of all is getting ready for ordinary life in the years ahead. I’ve been people watching closely for a few weeks now, and what I see scares the hell out of me.I don’t want to age into a body that waddles and slumps and staggers and huffs and puffs and stoops and falls and breaks.  I will never be younger than I am now, which makes this the best time to insure my future that I will ever have. I want to keep my agility and physical competence and I want to look as young and move as youthfully as I feel.

I have role models:  My amazing neighbors have just turned 90, and  one of them was teaching skiing until just a few years ago. We can’t always choose what happens to us – acts of God and strokes of bad luck can hit anyone anywhere. But insofar as we have a choice, I am making it now.

David doesn’t recommend what he is calling the “stroke diet,” (also known as the “Karen is too fat to go paragliding diet.”) But we play the cards we’re dealt, and David is playing his as well as anyone could. Me, I’m learning from the sidelines, cheering him on, and taking care of myself.  David’s stroke is not the path we’d have chosen, but here we are on it, and it leads to a summit all its own. We both might come out the better for climbing this mountain. At least, that is my hope as I contemplate the path ahead.

Community, Music, Friends, Gratitude

When I decided to add this blog to my website a few weeks ago, I was thinking metaphorically. Navigating the terrain above treeline, it seemed to me, was a not-quite-perfect but good enough way to think about mid-life. The views from a mountain are expansive and reward one’s efforts; one hopes that the perspective of mid-life is similarly far-reaching and satisfying. In both cases, we can look back to where we started. In both cases – one hopes – we’ve learned and changed.

I also wanted a writing home that was similarly expansive. Over the last few years, writers have been advised to specialize, to focus on niches, to showcase expertise. But I wanted a writing outlet where I could bring together disparate elements of my world: hiking, writing, music, adventuring, photography, being an art student and a budding novelist. I wanted a place where I could explore how all these things interact.

As they say, if you want God to laugh at you, tell her your plans.

About a month ago, while sitting at the table for a family dinner, my partner, David, had a stroke.

The first signs were subtle: He seemed tired. He let other people do the chores – which is so unusual I should have called 911 immediately. Then again, when someone doesn’t clear the table, your mind doesn’t automatically jump to “he must be having a stroke.” It was only when David dropped a glass and couldn’t stand up that warning bells turned to sirens. He was the one to identify what was happening. And then he spent the next 20 days in the hospital.

To return to my mountain metaphor: the land above treeline is not all Instagram moments of glorious views. It is also fog and storm and lightning strikes; it is dangerous and unpredictable, and it can kill you. When I landed on the above-treeline metaphor, life had been sunny for a good long time. It was easy to forget that mountain weather can change without warning. And if I am writing about life above treeline, this, too, is part of it.

As I drove the hour, each way every day, to the hospital my mind mostly wandered down the mundane paths of list making, calls, doctor’s appointments, and errands. In between, I had time to consider how lucky we had been. Yes, lucky: If David had had his stroke three hours earlier, he would have been driving my 87-year old mother to our house. Five minutes later, my sister and I would have been driving my mom home; David would have been alone with visiting teenagers who live in a different state, know no-one local, and might not have been able to help the 911 folks find our dirt road. Six weeks earlier, I had been in Switzerland and David had been home alone.


As word seeped out to our friends, I learned that I had even more to be grateful for: A community that has carried us through this crisis in ways we never could have imagined.

The Riverside Jam Band at Dewey Hall in Sheffield.
The Riverside Jam Band at at the benefit for David  at  Dewey Hall in Sheffield.

Every year for the past 18 years, David has been one of the people leading a musical jam that brings together friends and musicians for a weekend of music making. We were scheduled to host that event two weekends after David’s stroke. We had friends coming in from Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Jersey, Toronto, and Chicago. I had to write to everyone to cancel the event.

Only, they refused to be canceled. The jam was one thing, they told me; friendship was another. They might not play music, but they wanted to visit David, help me figure out if anything in the house needed to be fixed or made more accessible, run errands, keep me company.

One of my friends said, “Karen, you’re not going to be doing this alone. You guys have a lot of friends, and people are going to be here for you.” I didn’t know what help I’d be needing…. During those early days, I was mostly in crisis mode and not looking too far ahead. But it helped to hear that our friends had our backs. And they did: Faraway friends offered to use up vacation days to come and visit and shop and clean. Local friends came for visits and offered to run errands.

And then they all came together and created some magic.

It started when one of our local musician friends said, well if the jammers are coming anyway, maybe they could put on a benefit concert? Another friend suggested putting up a GoFundMe page for people who couldn’t be at the benefit but wanted to help.

Our friends were way ahead of us on the issue of money: I was focused on David’s ability to find words and move his arms and legs. I hadn’t even begun to think of the financial implications. As writers and musicians, David and I are both in the leaky boat of creative self-employment. Yes, we have insurance, and yes, we have savings, but holding those up against the onslaught of a major medical event is like looking at an approaching tsunami and congratulating yourself on having installed a sump pump.

Huge medical events hit everyone differently. If you’re lucky, you have a job with generous sick leave, and your position will be waiting for you when you are ready to come back. But many jobs don’t offer that flexibility and stability: For too many of us, the reality is, if we don’t work, we don’t earn.

Being self-employed, David and I both have the option to juggle our schedules and take time off (although too much time off might mean rebuilding our student and client lists later down the road). But the trade-off – flexibility for reduced income – was a good one: It meant that I could spend time at the hospital to participate in the therapy sessions and learn how to help David at home.

But we knew that even with insurance, expenses will mount during the weeks or months when David will be unable to work. Another thing: trying to keep going with work when you are managing a homefront in crisis can be emotionally as well as practically difficult. So although it felt a bit uncomfortable, we said yes to the benefit  and yes to the gofundme page. We had no expectations; we were just grateful to accept help.

Writing this post feels odd because these issues – accepting help, financial realities, friendships – are deeply personal, and I don’t really know who I’m writing to. But I’m going to assume that you’re not a stranger. You could be a high school, college, camp, or work friend, a musician friend, a fellow writer, a current or former student, or one of the thousands of people from all over the world who have learned to play guitar thanks to David’s Internet writing. If you live in the Berkshires, you might be a student, coworker, fellow musician, friend — or all of the foregoing. You could be one of the many people who donated anonymously, and this is the only way I will ever be able to thank you.

Many of you contributed to David’s recovery in so many ways I can’t even begin to list them all: Contributing money, yes, and also bringing food and drink to the benefit, hosting the musicians at dinner, donating items for the raffle, contributing your music to the nearly 6-hour event, helping to get the word out with calls and e-mails, collecting donations at the door, selling food and drink, cleaning up afterwards, sending heartening messages and notes, and coming to visit.

David has received notes from all over the world, often from people who he doesn’t know, but who have told him how much his work (teaching guitar and writing about how to learn to play guitar) has meant to them and how they have applied that knowledge in their lives. Many of these notes came with donations. We appreciated every single one, from friends and strangers alike: For you to follow David’s recovery, write a note, and take the time to send a contribution because his work has touched you in some way has bolstered our spirits in ways you can’t imagine.

On a practical level, these donations mean that we can breathe a little easier as David works on regaining his balance, his hand coordination, his strength, and his endurance. Just now, everything is exhausting and laborious, but the daily improvements continue to be very noticeable and encouraging. The first three months after a stroke are when the most progress is made, so being able to focus on his recovery at this crucial time is a huge gift.

Violin teacher Erika Tludwig leads a string-based ensemble of players of all ages and walks of life in the opening act of the benefit. David regularly plays with this group..
Violin teacher Erika Ludwig leads a string-based ensemble of players of all ages and walks of life in the opening act of the benefit. David regularly plays with this group..

As important is the sense of community you shared with us. The weekend concert turned into much more than a fundraiser: It was an expression of how music brings communities and people together. Event organizer Erika Ludwig picked up her violin to lead the Fiddling Femmes, who opened the show joined by other instruments from flute to tuba. The B.U.B.s (Berkshire Ukulele Band) followed with a 45 minute set that included “Imagine” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (I was able to video that for David, and he got teary viewing it). Next up was the Riverside Jam Band, with two hours of music with Nick Torres lead singer and Jeff Brownstein as conductor, set director, and cat herder. And thanks SO MUCH Fred Shane, sound engineer, for your great sound work! The icing on the cake was Marilyn Miller’s community jam and open mic that featured originals, favorite pop and rock tune, and one of David’s students on classical guitar. I think there were more than 60 musicians from somewhere around age 8 or 9 to 80 (at a guess). And scores of audience members.

The Berkshire Ukulele Band gave us the second set. David has taught many of these players i his uke classes at Berkshire Community College. .
The Berkshire Ukulele Band gave us the second set. David has taught many of these players i his uke classes at Berkshire Community College. .


Even now at home, we continue to receive cards and offers of help and notes and little gifts, some of them anonymous. Who left the little bouquet of wildflowers at my door? How are we going to thank you if you don’t tell us who you are????

I am not usually a “silver linings, the universe has its reasons” sort of person. The universe can be full of love and wonder, but who draws what straws in the lottery of life seems pretty random to me. And that same universe can turn on a dime and be pretty freaking nasty. You just have to look at a news reports (Syria, tsunamis, floods, terrorism, mass shootings) to disabuse yourself of the notion that everything happens for a reason. All of us get sick, all of us die, none of us gets a pass through the hard stuff as we explore our humanity. And sometimes the S&%t hits the fan.

On the other hand, sometimes there ARE silver linings, and when they shine right in front of your face, you can’t pretend they aren’t there. Grace often appears in the midst of crisis. In this case, the silver lining – the grace — is all of you.

We will always be grateful.

Failing, Learning, Teaching: The Cycle of Growth

“Put your weight on your right foot!” my date yelled.

I was teetering on a windsurfing board, trying to make it turn. I may as well have been trying to turn the Titanic.

“I AM!” I wailed, as the board continued straight ahead.

My date yelled louder. “Put your weight on your right foot!”

He repeated that a few more times, his voice fading in the distance as I picked up speed toward the far shore of the Potomac. Finally, I put my left foot clear in the air to prove, once and for, all that my weight WAS on my right foot. The board kept going straight.

Lousy teaching? Lousy learning? Maybe both: I have an astounding lack of talent when  it comes to standing on moving boards (skateboards, snowboards, surfboards; it doesn’t matter which).

The point is not whether I ever learned to windsurf (I did not) nor whether my date was or wasn’t a good teacher. (He was not.) And forget about the relationship. What I’m pondering is the importance of experiencing failure as we journey through life.

When we’re young, we spend most of our time learning, and a lot of that time is spent failing. We try to walk a hundred times before we toddle across the room to mommy or daddy. We sing the alphabet song a thousand timers wrong before we sing it right. But as time goes on, that balance changes. As adults, days may go by when we don’t step outside our comfort zone. We may not fail at something for weeks.

I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately, not only when I’m learning, but also when I’m teaching.
Most of us, when we teach, are sharing our knowledge of something we are good at. We forget what it’s like to not know how to step on a windsurfer and shift three mysterious hidden muscles somewhere in our core, and have the board turn.

Failure reminds us.

A few months ago, I decided to try to sing a song in semi-public after weeks of practicing to an audience of my cats. I must have rehearsed the song 500 times.

The venue was a a small musicale with a small group who met a key requirements: they are astonishingly non-critical, willing to find something to praise in even the most earsplittingly bad performance. As I started, my voice wobbled in an unsettling way, then I fell off pitch — kind of like the sound a train makes as it moves, unstoppably, away from you. And I forgot the words. “I did this better at home,” I wanted to mutter — which is exactly what my students tell me day in and day out.

There is knowing what a student is going through. And then there is KNOWING. As I slunk off the make-shift stage, I KNEW what it felt like for an insecure beginner to get it (sort of kind of) right at home, then fall apart on stage. My days of being a beginning piano player are long behind me, but my days of being a beginning singer are painfully present.

When my students complain “it’s HAAAAAARD!” what are they really telling me? It might be that they don’t understand what I’ve asked them to do. Or that they haven’t yet developed the skills to break a task into manageable pieces. Maybe they don’t yet know how to make intuitive adjustments until some secret neural pathway figures out how to put it all together. Or they may not enjoy tussling outside of their comfort zone.

Failing is a route to understanding the learning process. My inability to balance on a surf board while putting weigh on one foot and trying to change direction is not all that different from a student’s inability to relax the wrist, support the bridge of the hand, and turn one finger under the other while moving to a different place on the keyboard. In recent months, I’ve tried to rock climb, ski moguls, sing into a microphone, build a better website, speak Italian, and play the bass.

Each time, my success, or lack of it, has taught me something about teaching, even if it’s only to remind me, once again of this:

The most important part of being a teacher is creating a space where it is okay to fail.

Right now, I’m taking an art class. We’re supposed to draw things — so far, I’ve tried lots of vases and flowers, some seashells, a few faces, a cow bone, a gourd, a seed pod, and a skull.  My first skull looked like a wax model that had melted in the heat.

Alas poor Yorick... your portrait is being done by a student.
Alas poor Yorick… your portrait is being done by a student.

The seed pod presented a whole universe of challenges: its delicacy and translucence, the shadows, the lights and darks, the edges, the angles and dimensions. I didn’t get it right; I may not have even gotten it recognizable (I’ve stared at it so long I can’t tell any more). “This is hard!” I found myself saying as I started a third attempt to make the seed pod three-dimensional.

Such a little thing, so many problems....
Such a little thing, so many problems….


But I was laughing as I said it. Maybe this is the lesson you learn about learning when you fail: Hard is good. Failing is on the road to succeeding. And the whole process means there are whole new worlds ahead to explore — one wobbly attempt at a time.


The Low-Carb Weight-Loss and Paragliding Adventure

The e-mail was short and to the point: “Would you prefer to go jet skiing or paragliding?”

It’s one of the perks of travel writing: At conferences and such, we often get invited to participate in fun activities — anything from ice climbing to hot-air ballooning. The reason:  Hosts hope that we’ll be able to cover their activities in the articles we write about a destination.

I sent back an immediate reply: Paragliding, of course.

I mean, soaring over Switzerland and the Alps…  How was that even a question?

2016-05-17 18.51.37-2

At 3 a.m. the next morning, I awoke with a start. I’d be flying thousands of feet in the sky. Dancing with gravity. Hanging from a giant kite.

Physics is a fact. Physics has laws.

Surely, there would be a weight limit?

And yes, this could be an issue. A similarly proportioned woman of average height would have no problem with the weight limit, but I am tall. I have a large frame. And even when I’m in good shape, I constantly hang out at the high end of those height-weight charts This had not been a “good shape” year. In fact, my go-to strategy for dealing with bad news being avoidance and denial. I hadn’t stepped on a scale in the last 10 months.

I could think of nothing — NOTHING — more embarrassing than being forced to stand on a scale in front of all my travel writing colleagues — me, Ms Adventure Travel Writer — and being told I was too fat to fly.

Long story short: I checked the weight limits, and yes, the paragliding companies all  had them. Then I checked my weight.

The first number was lower than I’d hoped, The second number was higher than I’d feared — 17 pounds above the weight limit, and that was buck-naked before breakfast. If I wanted to account for clothes, shoes, a cup of coffee, and the fact that I’d be in Prague on a food tour the week before paragliding, I’d need a safety margin of another 10 pounds.  Which meant losing 27 pounds. In 7 weeks.

While I like a challenge as well as the next adventure traveler, this was one I could do without. Indeed, I wasn’t sure it was even possible.

I dithered. Maybe I should give up the idea gracefully and  just go jet-skiing? I pictured all my adventure-loving colleague heading to the sky while I stayed below trying to look cheerful about my “choice.” It was just too pathetic.

On-line research told me that people often lost a lot of weight quickly on a low-carb diet. I was dubious, but I also really really really wanted to paraglide.

Long story short:..   I followed the plan I chose almost to the letter — meat, fish, fat, eggs, cheese, salad veggies. After two weeks, I’d lost 13 pounds.  After another four weeks, on the morning of my flight to Europe, I weighed exactly 27 pounds less than when I’d started.

Now I just had to keep it off for the week I’d be spending in Prague, a city known for dumplings, desserts, and hundreds of kinds of beer. Travel is at least in part about cuisine, and I’ve always been glad I wasn’t one of those travel writers with complicated dietary restrictions. Now I was (although I’m hoping I can do it quietly, so no one will be inconvenienced by it.).

For the Prague food tour I decided to eat my strudel and have it too:  I figured my 10-pound buffer would allow me to sample a few carbs — so in addition to apple strudel (my favorite desert in the world).

Apple strudel,. Yes, I cheated. No, I'm not sorry.
Apple strudel,. Yes, I cheated. No, I’m not sorry.

I sampled Czech knedlicky (dumplings), poppyseed kolaczki, (cookies), and of course, a couple of locally brewed pivo (beer). But mostly, I skipped the carbs; carried some sausage, cheese, Brazil nuts, and pumpkin seeds around for snacks on the fly; and stayed on plan  — leading one concerned waiter to inform me that my meal would not be “complete” if I didn’t add dumplings or potatoes.

When I arrived in Switzerland, I skipped breakfast before going to the paragliding office — I didn’t want the weight of breakfast to tip me over the limit.

As it turned out, there was no weigh-in: The weight limits are written on paper, but not in stone. One variable is the customer’s perceived fitness (you have to be capable of running or jogging to pull the kite up and get airborne). Conditions like air pressure and winds factor in: Weight limits are lower in winter and  when winds are quiet; higher in the summer and when winds are gustier.

No one looked at me twice.

Which meant:

  1. I didn’t look like I’d fall out of the sky.
  2. I could have had breakfast.
  3. I got to fly.
Finally aloft over Interlaken
Finally aloft over Interlaken

So thanks to Swiss tourism — and to the threat of a weigh-in and public humiliation — I’m now 30 pounds lighter, healthier, and on a path to stay that way.

And the weight I’m not carrying around is going to make my life climbing to the treeline a heck of a lot more fun in the future.

Growing Above Treeline: The Blog

DSC_0491 (2)

Tree line: “The edge of the habitat at which trees are capable of growing…. Beyond the tree line, trees cannot tolerate the environmental conditions.” (Wikipedia).

I have always been drawn to high places. From my first foray above treeline at the age of nine — to the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire,  where my attention was directed to the plaque commemorating all the people who had died on the mountain — I have relished the mind-bending views, the lung-cutting air, the clarity and the perspective. The muscles in my face relax and I can feel my eyes focusing differently, like a camera lens moving from a close-in macro to an all-encompassing wide angle.

It’s harsh up there: As you climb, temperatures drop and winds rise. The trees stop crowding each other out, and they get thin and short and twisted, and then they disappear leaving only shrubs and the alpine grasses. Height is not something to aspire to if you are a plant growing  above treeline.

The descent is inevitable, I suppose. You can’t actually live among rocks and ice with only the occasional lichen to munch on. There is the climb, then there is the summit, and then you are over the hill. All downhill from here.

That’s the clichéd metaphor, isn’t it?  You spend the front end of life   climbing toward some goal — a bank balance, a job, a second home with a pool and a caretaker — you achieve it (one hopes) and hang out a while buying a Maserati or ordering people around or courting skin cancer. And then it’s time to descend, before you have to be carried away. You get to tell stories and share pictures on Instagram, and it’s someone else’s turn to actually slog uphill and savor the view.

But that begs the question: If life is a mountain, what kind of mountain would it be? An active volcano, with huge temper tantrums and unpredictable eruptions and steam coming out of its head?  A giant slab of granite being raised at the rate of an inch a year by tectonic plates? A former towering giant being lowered by wind and water and time? A mondadnock, standing all alone, unconnected to any other peaks? Or one of those endless flat ridges where you almost can’t tell where the summit is?

Above treeline in Italy's Dolomites
Above treeline in Italy’s Dolomites

It’s hard to see,  when you are struggling over rocks and boulders and fighting  for breath,  the exact shape of a mountain.  What is its temperament? How will you feel at the top — Exhausted? Exhilarated? Sick from the lack of oxygen? Will you say “I conquered” — or “I survived”?  And it’s hard to know what lies on the other side. Will the descent be sharp and steep, or long and slow and almost imperceptible? Or will the mountain blow up right when you are standing on the top?  Which trail down would you choose, when it’s your turn to go over the hill?

I live on a mountain these days, and this time I’m talking literally. It’s not a very big mountain;  even so, at the summit, the forest canopy is gone, leaving only stunted dwarf pine and scrub oak interspersed with blueberry bushes and mountain laurel. My life here is a balancing act of travel, writing,  hiking, skiing, playing and teaching piano, photography, and attempting to learn to draw and paint. If that’s hard to fit in one sentence, it’s even harder to fit into a day.

Join me as I explore the treeline… the high places at the edge of comfort. The mountains we climb may be solidly literal, or they may be the airy towers of art and the imagination: Either way,  they offer clear air, challenge, the perspective of horizon-bending views, and the potential to nurture a different kind of growth.

Growing Above Treeline