When the question is about a preference between mountains or the ocean, mountains are my immediate choice every time. I loved the Smoky Mountains when I first saw them as a child, and I’ve spent countless pleasant hours in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The first time I saw the mountains of Colorado, I realized there was a kind entirely different than the more gentle versions in the South – those with a harsher, more majestic beauty.

Mountains have been especially important to me as a metaphor for life’s challenges, which have felt many and arduous for much of my life. Mountains equally move me as embodiments of strength, of endurance, of God’s steadfastness. I started hiking a few years ago as I wrestled with a huge life transition, and I came to favor the local trails that wind through strenuous hills. (I spent almost a year slowly working up to them.) Eventually, in 2021, I challenged myself with hiking LeConte, a peak in the Smoky Mountains that is one of the tallest in the southeastern US. It’s a demanding hike, and many people stay overnight at a rustic lodge at the top before hiking down the next day. I was aware that option was closed for the winter, and I (along with a guide) chose to go ahead with the venture – eleven miles roundtrip up and down in the same day. Making it to the LeConte summit was a thrilling celebration of moving from survivor to thriver after a very difficult season.

On that blustery peak, I started to dream about hiking the quintessential mountain that doesn’t require technical climbing skills: Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest point on the African continent. In late 2018 a friend had mentioned his plan to hike Kilimanjaro, and I have been captivated by the idea ever since. One of my first purchases when I began living alone in 2020 was a huge poster of the mountain, and it came to represent summiting the challenges that brought me to that place.

Often through the years I toyed with the idea of hiking Kili, but it felt like a dream too big. Just the expense was daunting, and I eventually prioritized another significant purchase, one more practical and still nurturing, over the possibility of climbing Kilimanjaro. Then as I dealt with the diagnosis of cancer in 2022 (which after several months turned out to be inaccurate, although the ailments were quite real and difficult), I faced the reality that the Kili trek seemed beyond the reach of my physical capabilities. I decided that I had climbed my own emotional Kilimanjaro multiple times in the last several years, and that I didn’t need to climb a physical mountain to prove my strength. I reasoned that those internal and relational mountains were more than enough. I buried the Kilimanjaro dream.

The unexpected challenges of 2023 proved as difficult as the prior years of life transitions, and I grew increasingly spent. When one of Bethesda’s workshop leaders said he was climbing Kilimanjaro in September and had space for me to join the group, I even bypassed that chance. The required training process, preparations, and physicality felt beyond overwhelming.

To my surprise, retirement and its gifts have shifted my thinking and my body this year. I’m coming out of the exhaustive stupor physically as well as mentally and emotionally, and I’m feeling like my old energetic self. Unexpectedly, the thought of tackling Kilimanjaro again took root in my mind and would not let me go. The idea has grown and sprouted and blossomed and now is firmly established. This summer, in an act of self-celebration and further self-exploration – of the physical kind, for once – I am climbing Mount Kilimanjaro! I’ve booked the trek, paid the deposits (I’m staying for a safari afterward to celebrate the accomplishment), and started training. Within a few months at age 68, I’ll stand on the “roof of Africa”!

A standard piece of advice about achieving a goal is to talk about it, to share it with others, which solidifies the plans and motivates the process. In that vein I’m sharing my plans about Kilimanjaro, and I thank you for being one of my supporters!

I’m also writing about the in-process fulfillment of this dream because I expect that you have some buried dreams, too. What have you given up on? Is there anything you’ve decided is too much of a stretch or too far out of your reach? What might you shift to replant what you once hoped for? Which small steps can you take to start on that path?

Upward! You’re not too old or too tired or too broken or too alone or too whatever to pursue something that’s meaningful for you. I hope you’ll go for it. Sometimes, cast-aside dreams can still come true.

Marnie C. Ferree