Coliseum

Every so often something happens in your life that's so perfectly-timed and apt for the occasion that it must have been scripted.

(Or, I guess, it's just well-timed coincidence.)

I've been thinking a lot lately about one of those such occasions. It happened about a year ago, and for a while, it stuck with me, and then I kind of forgot about it.

But I guess because in some ways I haven't been feeling that I've made much progress in the last year, it's come back to me.

I think it was a Thursday. I'd taken the day to tackle the Coliseum Mountain hike in North Vancouver, because my assault on the Golden Hinde was coming up and Coliseum seemed like a good way to prep for it.

It's a strenuous day-long hike, listed at about 24kms with a 1245m elevation gain, and the payoff, as with most of the hikes in this area, is spectacular.

What makes the Coliseum unique is that it begins with a pretty easy 7km walk up the Lynn Headwaters before the trail branches off on the Coliseum route and you actually start climbing.

Essentially, this means you have a long prologue to the actual work of the climb, and--at the end of the day--an equally long epilogue.

I wasn't in a very good headspace when I tackled this hike. I was only a month removed from my partner and I breaking up, and I was still trying to cope with the shock and sort out a new path for myself.

Frankly, I was still trying to decide if I wasn't just better off dead.

The hike itself, objectively speaking, was lovely. It was gruelling, but not unpleasantly so, a challenging climb through the rainforest punctuated by small waterfalls and brief overlooks out across the Lower Mainland.

And the alpine was wonderful. I find it impossible to be unhappy up there; the barren rock and stunted trees and vast, breathtaking vistas.

I made the summit in good time and had lunch with a spectacular view, and then wandered around the alpine tarns taking a metric ton of pictures.

Then it was time to descend. And with the descent came, I guess, fatigue and hunger and a worsening of morale. Or certainly the opportunity to ruminate more on what awaited me at the bottom of the mountain--which is to say, the same problems I'd left there that morning.

So I was thinking about my partner and thinking about how I couldn't afford to stay in our apartment and worrying about my career, too, as I descended from the alpine and back into the forest and, as, in the late afternoon, I reached the easy path along the river that would take me back to my truck.

About halfway between the Coliseum branch and the parking area, I became aware that I was overtaking someone. By and large, I'd been alone in the woods, but I could hear them ahead of me, and what I heard made me dread having to pass them.

They walked heavily through the forest, and breathed heavy, too. And as I approached, I could see it was a single man, middle-aged, walking with an awkward, limping gait.

For all of its beauty, Vancouver is something of a cold city, in personal terms. I daresay many Vancouverites will recognize the feeling of irritated suspicion that takes over whenever anyone we don't know approaches us.

What does this person want from me?

In large part, this is because our mental healthcare programs have failed our most vulnerable citizens, turning many of them out onto the streets to live in poverty and deal with their challenges as best they can.

I took this man to be one of their number. And I simply wasn't in the mood.

So it was to my chagrin that he struck up a conversation--in a kind of awkward, stilted voice--as he stepped aside to let me pass.

In fact, he apologized for walking so slowly and, then, for speaking so awkwardly.

Nonsense, I replied. And then either I asked, or he volunteered, that he was coming from Hanes Valley.

Now, Hanes Valley is a crazy rough hike, so my interest was piqued, and I slowed to walk beside him for a few steps (I thought).

He was an avid hiker, he said. He'd hiked more in these woods, it turned out, than I had. And even more so before he'd been diagnosed with Parkinson's.

He said he was about fifty, and he'd been dealing with the disease for a couple of years now, but that he liked hiking too much to give it up, even as he was slowly being robbed of his mobility.

The thing is, he was cheerful. Far more cheerful than I was, and we'd both just about finished challenging hikes.

By rights, he could have been miserable, and I certainly wouldn't have faulted him.

By rights, he could have stayed home.

(I don't want to reduce this man to the role of a VALUABLE LIFE LESSON for some self-pitying fool.)

(I don't believe he was put on the trail JUST TO HELP ME SEE THE ERROR IN MY WAYS.)

But I really enjoyed talking with him. The disease had given him perspective, and it was a perspective I needed to hear. He was open about the challenges he faced. He didn't sugarcoat his story, but he'd kept his sense of humour.

Hiking didn't solve all of his problems, but it made him happy, and so he hiked.

We walked together to the trailhead, a distance that would have taken me a half hour but took us together double that.

I don't think either of us minded; I sure didn't. We said goodbye happily and went on our separate ways. And I drove home feeling a little bit sheepish and a little bit grateful.

I don't want to ascribe to this guy anything more than just the serendipitous value two strangers can provide to each other when they cross paths unexpectedly in the wilderness.

But I enjoyed our conversation. It was the highlight of my day.

Boy, I hope he's still hiking.