[Started July of 2016]
Pam is on her way to Japan when I meet her in a hotel lobby where both of us are waiting for the shuttle that will take us to Denver. She’s getting ready to climb Mount Fuji—just one of the many impressive peaks that she’s scaled in her climbing career. She is tough and taut and full of young energy, though she looks to be somewhere in her mid-50s, maybe older.
“You know, when you’re young you spend all of your time focusing on a career and gaining status and looking for someone to share life with,” Pam tells me, a southern lilt to her voice. “Then when you get older you realize what really matters.”
Pam didn’t grow up in this part of the country, but she tells me that the Rockies make her feel right at home.
“I’m originally from South Carolina,” she says, “but I’ve been out here so long I’m starting to feel like a native.”
“It sounds like you make good use of those mountains,” I tell her.
“I do,” says Pam. “There’s just nothing like climbing. It’s the best kind of exercise. I tell my friends that if I moved somewhere like Florida I think I’d probably age ten years in a day.”
Pam doesn’t tell me about her professional background, only that she gave up advancement in her career in order to have the freedom to travel and climb. She says she’s given up on the things that people tell her she should want—property, position, a house warmed with pets. She says she’s happy with this decision, only she wishes that life wasn’t so lonely.
“It’s hard when I travel to find older people who aren’t couples,” Pam tells me. I would wager she speaks from a wealth of experience. I make a remark about the serendipity of meeting other travelers, hoping that at times this has been her experience. I’m looking for a story of kismet or kindness and hoping that she’ll see our meeting in this way.
“I’ve given up on people,” Pam says, looking me straight in the eyes before reaching for her bag and pulling out a snack bar.
It sounds like a decision that Pam made long ago. Her resignation from connection isn’t sharpened with pain or spoken with resentment. Yet the words that she shares cut straight to my heart. I don’t want to believe what her message implies—that people will fail you, so why bother trying.
The thought stays with me as I gather my bags and board the shuttle that’s bound for the airport. I sink into a seat in the third row. Pam sits in front of me, next to two women who are closer to her age. Together they talk about aging and people and the shock of reunions.
“They’ve all gone bald or they’ve got beards,” says one. “Their hair color changes and their faces round out,” says the other. They talk about men the way women always talk about men, no matter the decade. One woman has white hair that is swept back in a tortoiseshell claw. The other wears a hat made of blue colored straw. Pam’s pale blonde hair hangs freely in curls.
Over the course of the ride, I learn that Pam used to be a science teacher. She wrote a book about two space cats (catronauts, as she calls them) entitled The Last Launch, which she self-published and sold at the Kennedy Space Center. When Pam was a teacher she saved money to travel. She’s not a materialistic person, she says. She doesn’t need gobs of clothes or make up or other possessions. Pam is an adventurer, and I respect that sort of spirit.
“If I got married, that’d be great,” says Pam. But Pam never got married and she doesn’t plan on it anymore.
I wonder, as she says this, if Pam’s concept of marriage is linked to her beliefs about people. I wonder if giving up on finding a mate was a gateway for giving up on humans in general, a reason to believe that they’ll all let you down.
Months later, I realize that I project when I listen, reading my own fears and desires into others’ conversations.
I have a peripheral friend (which is the best title I know for a “friend of a friend who has a strong online presence and who I sometimes follow on social media”) who has been single for most of her life. Six months after I meet Pam, this friend becomes engaged to the love of her life, and in less than a year they are married. I try to keep myself from reading too much about their relationship because I don’t know how to handle the combination of hope and despair it inspires in me, but I can’t really help it because the story is so profoundly and amazingly beautiful that it brings me to tears, which well up without warning.
It is a later-in-life relationship that has grown into an “I’ve waited so long and yearned so deeply that I never believed this would happen” sort of marriage. It is all of the things that I could wish for this woman, and it cuts me to the core to realize how severely I want this for myself.
Nearly a year since the day that I sat with a middle-aged mountain climber in a hotel lobby, this wedding and this marriage cut to my core, to the same place where Pam’s words still linger—the place where my fierce and frail hope about humans is formed.
In that space there is hope. There is a belief that people were made for connection and that the people I love will not let me down. But also, there is fear. There is the knowledge that humans do not always come through and the realization that love is not always reciprocated.
I don’t want the failure of my romantic relationships to dictate the measure of my worth or to set the default for my expectations of human interactions. I don’t want to believe that people will hurt me before I even give them a chance, or to live under the assumption that those I love will ultimately fail me, even if they have and even if they will.
I want to treat people as though they are worthy of love and belonging and to contribute to restoration with the belief that it is not only possible, but inevitable. I want to offer myself to the people I meet and give freely without expectation. But these are difficult things to hold to and practice as fidelity slips through my fingers. It is hard to believe that the world has your back when time and again you feel lost and alone.
I think of Pam on the mountains, scaling the peak of Mount Fuji or moving on to the Andes. I wonder if she is happy. I wonder if she is whole. I wonder if she has found others to climb with her, or if she hikes up those mountains feeling all on her own, having once and for all given up on people.