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Lessons in “Can Do”

Founder Alison Wright recently hiked to the highest point in Panama. Thanks to Boquete Outdoor Adventures for supplying a great guide!

“Maybe I don’t want to do this.”

This was the thought that went through my head about four minutes into my hike up Volcán Barú, the highest point in Panama – 11,400 feet. It was slightly after midnight on Sunday morning. I hadn’t slept well the last few nights. But here I was, on a surprisingly steep and rocky dirt road, on the side of a volcano in Central America, with a 19 year-old guide named Jonathan, setting out to ascend 7400-something feet. “Is it going to be like this the whole way?” I asked. “Well yes, we go all the way to the top.” Yeah…maybe I don’t want to do this.

I was in Panama to visit my grandparents, who chose to start a new adventure a dozen years ago by relocating to the town of Boquete, near the Costa Rican border. Having come to Boquete with my mom many times over the years, hiking the volcano had been on my mind for a while. As I’m told, Barú is one of only two places in Central America from which you can see both oceans on a clear day. This sounds worth an overnight hike, right? It was time to finally do it. I was excited.

The mountains below Volcan Barú.

Given this anticipation, it was surprising to almost immediately think to myself “Maybe I don’t want to do this.” I kept walking. I tried to find a rhythm. A surface of loose, softball-size rocks made that challenging. I thought of the last biggest hike I’d done; it was in Montana, last summer. I thought to myself “This is like crunching two of those days into a single night – this is totally manageable. Just do it.” I forced a stop and asked Jonathan an open-ended question about his background, hoping to elicit an answer that would give me a chance to get my head in the game. I was in luck! It took a solid five minutes to talk through all of the places he’d called home.

We continued on. After the first kilometer or so, the road seemed to flatten out slightly, and I felt a bit more warmed up. The moon was almost full, and while it didn’t provide much additional visibility on the trail, it was beautiful to look up at, hanging in the sky. “Maybe I don’t want to do this” was still turning over in my head, but I kept walking.

We reached the third kilometer mark (of a total of about 13.5 to the summit), and Jonathan said that we were doing well. He told me that at kilometer 9, things would get much easier. This was helpful, but vague. I didn’t know what “easier” meant to Jonathan, so I asked. “You get to go downhill for a while,” he said. This was troubling. The point is to reach the top. Going downhill means later retracing portions of ascent. I kept my doubts to myself and said “Sounds great! Let’s keep going.”

My guide, Jonathan, doing his best Spiderman impression and pointing out landmarks – after the sun came up.

Over the next six kilometers, we kept a pretty good pace. We leap-frogged with a couple of groups of Panamanians who, as has been true on almost any hike-like activity I’ve done in Latin America, made me feel totally over-geared with my trekking poles and stockpile of Patagonia insulation. With surprising speed, these young guys were carrying six packs of beer and two-gallon jugs of water up the volcano. In jeans and t shirts. They were, plainly, unfazed by this whole Barú undertaking. I asked Jonathan another open-ended question, this time about Central American politics, and we pushed on.

My adrenaline boost lasted for a couple of hours. By the time we reached kilometer 9, it had waned, but the prospect of reaching the top with time for a nap before sunrise was a fairly good motivator. Barú houses a number of radio and cell towers, and as we wound our way around the side of the mountain, they came into view, bright orange lights blinking in the dark. Out loud, I said “We’re almost there!” but internally, I thought to myself, “Yikes. We still have a lot of climbing.” And it was true – it was another 2000 feet or so up this endless dirt road, some notably steep even within this context of relentless steepness, before we would finally reach the top.

We arrived at the summit at about 4:40 am. The top of Barú was a strange landscape of low-slung cement buildings, a couple dozen tents, and many radio towers. Jonathan led me to the small bunker of a policeman he knew, who beckoned us inside and pointed at an upper bunk. “You go there.” I climbed up and lay awake, listening to the muffled voices of hikers and campers outside.

Summit tents.

At 6:15 am, the bunker came to life, and I piled on my layers to go take in the sunrise. In the light of early morning, the relief of the landscape came into view, and I was surprised to discover how much lower the surrounding mountains were. Jonathan guided me to a spot away from the crowd, and I watched the deep cobalt hues of the sky gradually warm with the rising sun. After those hours of hiking in the dark, with visibility reduced to the scope of my headlamp, the expansive 360-degree view zapped some of my tiredness. I walked in circles around the broad summit, watching as the foothills and valleys rolling down to the oceans slowly soaked with color on this clear, sunny day.

After a few more photos and a grilled cheese sandwich, we began our descent. Early morning adventurers were still making their way to the summit, and the road was dotted with Toyota pickups ferrying non-hikers up.

Within minutes, the benefit of having hiked up in the dark became imminently clear: this was a nasty road. The steepness was even more extreme, and the rocks and ruts more plentiful, than I’d realized during the night. Having hiked up in blind, dark ignorance, the only focus had been to simply continue forward, to get to the end. Now, in daytime, with my surroundings teeming with plants and birdsong, I realized that the darkness had had the effect of keeping me in the present, my attention centered mostly on trusting my feet as I took each next step.

Jonathan brought a Panamanian flag for me to wave triumphantly. Of approximately 20 takes, this was the best it ever got – clearly, I don’t have a future in flag waving!

Hiking down 7400 feet takes a while – Jonathan and I got into a zone and spent a couple of hours in almost complete silence. My mind returned to the doubt I’d had at the outset. Having reached the top, I could now acknowledge that “Maybe I don’t want to do this” had a decent dose of “Maybe I can’t do this” in it. I could now admit that despite all of my knowledge of my ability to hike long and hard, a piece of me still doubts myself when I come up against an unknown.

The only antidote to that self-doubt is more challenge, I think. When things get hard, we look back into our experience to conjure up similarly hard moments, to reassure ourselves that the present is manageable. The “Maybe I can’t do this” moments are the ones that stick with us, propelling us to push further next time. This hike was now officially banked in my memory of “Can Do.” My mind jumped ahead to the future, to a big hike Sarah and I are planning in the Maroon Bells, in Colorado. I smiled with the thought that at some point during that epic day, I’ll get to reassure myself by conjuring up a vision of this rocky, dusty road in Panama, the one so steep that some trucks have to get towed up the final section below the summit.

When my grandparents first moved to Boquete, I probably couldn’t have climbed Barú. It was physically within my ability, most likely, but I didn’t have the “Can Do” reference points to get through the mental challenge. I hadn’t yet discovered my penchant for 30-mile hiking days; there were no John Muir Trail moments to conjure up as reminders that I can, in fact, do some tough things. I probably would have hit a wall around 3 am, told myself that it was crazy anyway, and turned around. My grandparents and my mom would have let it be; no one would have told me I was missing out on something that would feel fulfilling. And having turned around once, I might be too embarrassed or full of self-doubt to ever try it again.

I’m privileged to spend a significant amount of my free time hiking and backpacking, and yet that self-doubt is right there, lurking on the edge of my consciousness, waiting for its moment to divert me from a goal that feels scary.

So, I’m grateful for the chance to reflect on the value of my “Can Do” reference points – for all of the moments I can fall back on when things get hard. More than anything, this particular summit was a reminder of why I founded The Cairn Project. The outdoors is great at dealing up “Maybe I can’t do this” moments – as is real life. More young women getting the chance to push through that self-doubt, to reach the other side, to bank a “Can Do” memory, to feel the fulfillment of achieving a challenging goal – all of that means that next time, the goal can be bigger. And among so many hopes, we want our young women to be striving for big, scary goals: we all win when they do so.

The reward: sunrise over two oceans.
Aw Cf Sup
Alison Wright
Founder - The Cairn Project | Read More Posts

A San Francisco native, Alison grew up in a family that enjoyed the privilege of outdoor access – many memories were made in California’s iconic mountain and coastal landscapes. Alison has spent her career in the philanthropic sector, advancing initiatives for justice and empowerment internationally and closer to home. In addition to her leadership at The Cairn Project, she directs the Environmental Defenders Collaborative at Global Greengrants Fund, channeling support to frontline environmental activists around the world.