The bitter November wind thrust its cold breath towards me, breaching my layers of clothing. Dry flakes drifted down from an overcast sky coating the stone steps with a thin layer of snow. I stood on the ground and gazed up at sharp peaks that looked as if they could pierce the cloud cover. A steep grade of granite steps twisted up the mountainside; history loomed before me with hundreds of stories concealed in the stone walls.
I strutted around on the frozen ground, testing the elasticity of my knees, determined to make it to the first plateau. I started my ascent at the first set of stairs, keeping a steady pace, clinging to the railing that jutted out from the low stone wall. I stopped occasionally, checking for any pain or twinges in my body. I took a break halfway up the first set of stairs; through the lens of my camera I watched teenage girls giggling as they took pictures of each other; I saw families, some with young kids, bumbling their way up the mountain; I watched couples embrace beside the chain of heart-shaped locks that stretched up the side of the wall, a symbol of ever-lasting love; I captured pictures of the maroon rutted crags that rose and fell on either side of the stone barrier.
At the first viewpoint, I turned and looked down to where I started; I was surprised by how high I climbed. A wave of vertigo overwhelmed me and I swayed for a moment; I plunked down on the steps, allowing myself to get used to the elevation. Roads twisted like snakes in the deep valley; the traffic that clogged the highway was almost unnoticeable. Eventually, the dizzy spell passed, and as I continued upward, I noticed the winter chill had been replaced by the heat of my blood churning through my veins.
The wind whipped the loose strands of my hair as I approached the top – Mother Nature’s blustery warning that she possessed the strength to push me over the side, sending me tumbling to the earth below. I clambered skyward, avoiding the snapping cameras of the tourists, up to a towering structure topped with a boat-shaped roof that waited at the peak of our hill. A surge of energy flowed through my body – this was, by far, the largest set of stairs I had overcome since the arrival of the old lady. I looked out over the valley – the mountains stretched for miles in both directions. I pranced along the wall, admiring the labour of such a tremendous task. I ran my hands over the rough sparkling stone, elated that I pushed the old lady aside long enough to achieve this goal.
My triumph was short-lived – climbing up was one thing, going down was a different story. I clung to the metal railing, trying to keep the weight off my knees. My legs trembled when I stopped to rest, threatening to collapse beneath me – I had visions of tumbling down the steps, knocking people over like dominoes. I grabbed the railing and concentrated on each step, pushing through the pain and arriving at the base. I took one last look at the mountain before boarding the bus – I had left the old lady behind and taken on the Great Wall of China.
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J.G. Chayko is a writer, actress, and international arthritis advocate who’s been involved in theatre for more than 30 years and has published poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction.