The ten-thousand-foot volcano leered at me those first three days my friends and I spent rafting, horseback riding, and resting in the hot springs of Pucón, Chile. On our fourth and final day, we would climb it.
I must have been asleep or trying to remember how to conjugate verbs or peeing in the hot springs when my friends decided we would climb the volcano (volcán, as it’s pronounced in Spanish, which I feel more accurately portrays its personality). Because, honestly, climbing a volcano sounded about as appealing to me as ripping off my eyelashes with hot wax.
But climbing volcán was the thing to do in Pucón, according to the posters plastered across the storefronts of the various tour companies we kept walking past, each of which offered its own guided all-day hike to the top. Once in a lifetime views! An incredible experience you will never forget! If the point of these posters was to make me feel as though not climbing this one volcano in this one particular tourist town in Southern Chile would be the biggest regret of my life, then they were working. Suddenly my entire life’s worth seemed to depend on conquering volcán.
But when I thought about actually climbing it, panic and dread consumed me.
On one hand, I knew that I absolutely hate climbing things. This fact is as true about me as anything: I used to have an extra bone in my right foot, MTV’s Carson Daly was my first true love, and climbing steep landforms makes me want to set my legs on fire. I know this, because every time I find myself accidentally climbing a mountain or hill or particularly nasty wheelchair ramp, I make a point to stop and make a mental note: YEP, THIS STILL SUCKS. NEVER AGAIN!!
But on the other hand it was a volcano, and a volcano is practically a mountain, and we live in a society that is completely saturated in metaphors that equate mountain climbing with courage and integrity and success. Julie Andrews says Climb Every Mountain. Miley Cyrus says It’s the Climb. If an alien plopped down in the middle of an American high school and read nothing but the inspirational posters on the wall, it would come to the conclusion that our entire worth as human beings is based solely on our willingness to persist in climbing protruding objects into the sky.
It’s a lot of pressure.
Every voice in my head chimed in that week as volcán continued to taunt me.
My Don’t-Miss-Out-on-Anything Voice said, “You will only be here once! Do you really want to be known as the only young person who came all the way to Pucón and didn’t climb volcán? You will spend the rest of your life thinking about what might have been!”
My Die-Alone Voice (which traces my every decision back to how it could possibly result in me dying alone) said, “What if your friends have the best time of their lives climbing volcán? What if the experience bonds them so profoundly that they forget about you and you never make new friends and you die alone?”
My I’m-on-Vacation-and-I-Just-Want-to-Be-In-A-Pool-Dammit Voice said, “You don’t have to take your own life into your hands just to have a memorable vacation, you know. You could just go to the pool. Pools are so fun and safe! Hardly anybody falls off of them and dies.”
My voices and I clearly couldn’t resolve this on our own, so I decided to consult TripAdvisor.com. I really, really hoped that I’d come across some jovial reviews from senior citizens stating that the climb was “surprisingly easy!” despite their asthma/lung cancer/amputated limbs.
What I found instead were a slew of reviews with titles like “Beautiful, but not for the faint of heart” and “Holy heck batman that was steep!!!” all of which emphasized that the climb was difficult not only on the body, but also on the psyche. (My personal favorite: “Many people giving up in the middle of the way… you feel cold… some pain in your back… fast breathing… your feet, hands and nose freezing…”)
Two hundred and twenty seven reviews later, I announced to my friends that I would not be climbing volcán.
Bevin looked confused, and disappointed. “Why not?” she asked.
“Because it sounds scary and not fun.”
“It doesn’t really sound fun to me either,” she admitted. This startled me. She’d been the one really pushing it.
“Then why do it?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I guess I just want to prove to myself that I can.”
And then I suddenly realized something so simple and obvious that it had evaded me completely: climbing a literal volcano is completely irrelevant to exactly 100% of my life goals. Climbing it would prove absolutely nothing to myself.
Maybe, for me, climbing a volcano meant trusting my gut enough to be able to silence all the voices that tell me my life will be meaningless if I opt out of certain experiences or that I have to do things I hate so that I don’t die alone or that I have something I need to prove to myself or anybody else. Maybe “climbing the volcano,” for me, meant not climbing the volcano.
That moment was the most freeing moment I’d had all vacation.
I was absolutely giddy at dinner that night. I was completely loopy and drunk with the joy of having conquered volcán. I felt like dancing and singing and throwing all my clothes into the river. After dinner I packed lunches for my friends to take with them the next day and wished them an amazing day of climbing before slipping off into the most peaceful sleep I’d had all week.
And as I waded in the pool the entire next day, I knew for sure that I was the happiest person who ever came to Pucón and didn’t climb that ridiculous volcano.