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Tuesday, July 07th, 2015 | Author:

storyofjo Joanna O'Hanlon Mt Quandary Peak, CO

I wanted to climb another 14er. And I wanted to climb it alone.

Colorado calls mountains above 14,000 feet in elevation “14ers” and they have many of them in the state.

The previous fall I had climbed my first — Mt. Bierstadt, 14,060’ at the summit, 2840’ elevation gain from the trailhead, and a 7-ish mile trail. I say “ish” because Kate and I climbed it in the first weekend of Nov. 2013, and snow covered the entire mountain. There were many times where we had no idea where the trail was, let alone if we were near it.

A mountain that normally has thousands of hikers ascending and descending at a time in its summer days sat solitary and snow covered. We saw 6 other hikers on the mountain the entire day.

But we made it to the top, and back down again, despite very serious thoughts from Kate on how I was going to have to cut her frostbitten toes off. And despite the fact that my lips were literally blue by the time we got back to the car, and took about an hour of full-blast heat to get them to purple. All in all though, the trail was manageable for us (because we were in good shape to prepare for it), but the snow had made it difficult.

It had been a year since then and I’d wanted to hike another 14er, but had been told I shouldn’t go by myself. So I’d waited and tried to find times when Kate or someone else could go with me when there wasn’t snow on the roads and wasn’t too much snow on the mountains. But the season winded down and I still hadn’t gone, so I decided I wanted to go it alone.

I’d read “Wild” (which I would highly recommend, both the book and the movie) where she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail alone and it’s a soul journey for her as she works through her grief, through her brokkenness, and does hard things with her body as she processes the hard things of her heart. I’d thought about it and I really wanted that physical hardness to accompany the hard stuff I was wrestling through.

So I decided to climb Quandary Peak, 14,265’ summit, 3450’ elevation gain, and 6.75 mile trail. I thought, OK this mountain looks like it doesn’t have too much snow on it right now (which it didn’t for much of the trail, thankfully), and it looks like a similar kind of climb to Bierstadt, so I should be fine.

I knew I wasn’t in as great of shape as I had been. I’d been running much less since arriving in Colorado and I knew my lungs had still not really adjusted to exercising at the higher altitudes. But I had to have acclimated somewhat, right? And I’m a generally fit person. So I decided one night the next day was it. I packed myself some snacks, some warm clothes (which I didn’t need), and I went.

The parking lot had one other car in it, as it was again, one of, if not the last week of the season. That car had 2 hikers in it that I passed back and forth, leap frogging one another for the first mile or so, and then I said, “I’m gonna sit and take a break,” and they went on ahead. I wanted to be alone.

IMG_2717I saw one other hiker, a woman photographer who I passed about 2/3 of the way up the trail. She was distracted and hanging out photographing these beautiful mountain goats that were right there next to her. She stayed there the entire time it took me to summit and come back down.

Which was a long time. The last mile or so was extremely difficult. The trail up until that point had been fine, I’d even say easy. But the last mile is where you gain the majority of that elevation. Steep rocky step after steep rocky step led to me having to stop for breath every 15 or 20 steps. The last half mile was downright suffocating. That last bit felt like I was just going straight up. At that point I was stopping every 3-5 steps to bend over briefly trying to catch my breath. I hadn’t eaten since leaving the car and my plan was to eat my lunch at the summit, and then eat a snack on the way down.

This part being as difficult as it was, was taxing me though. Thoughts of “I don’t know if I can do this,” started to crawl into my brain as my throat began to feel swollen from all the wheezing I was doing. Soon I began to cough, and my throat went raw. Each breathe was laborious and painful. I finally compromised, I’d stop there where I was, near to the top, and I would eat my lunch there, take a bit of a break, and allow myself to get some energy to get the rest of the way up.

But when I opened my backpack and started rummaging around, I realized there was not a single ounce of food to be found. Before I had left the car I had taken my bag of food out to remove some of the excess warm layers I’d stored in the bag underneath the food. I knew I wouldn’t need those layers, but somehow I’d managed to accidentally not put the food back in.

I was most of the way up a mountain, exhausted, wheezing, starting to shake from hunger and low oxygen, and I didn’t have any food. And like I had set out to be — I was alone. No one was there to offer a part of a power bar or a stick of sugar-filled gum.

Despair and a bit of panic started to rise in my hurting throat. My raw, red nose ran as I was now in the snowy part of the mountain, and my head pounded from the cold. A single tear rolled down my cheek as I thought, “OK. I guess I’m not going to do this.”

I took a couple minutes sitting there on a snowy rock, watching a couple of mountain goats on a ridge farther down, and decided I’d at least take in the view before admitting defeat and beginning my shaky decent.

But somewhere in those moments, I started to think of the hard life journey I’d been on over the past 2 years. About the nights where breathing under the weight of grief was harder even than it was now. When I was alone for days on end, feeling shaky. Feeling dizzy. Feeling defeated. And I thought about the long, hard, arduous task of pulling myself out of the hole of brokenness and starting to rebuild. And how much of that — most of that — I had had to do alone.

And I looked up at the rest of that mountain, all the way to the summit, and I said out loud, “I have done harder things alone than this. I can handle a little mountain.”

Which was probably not wise. Emotionally, it was true. I had handled harder. But I may have been a little more driven than I ought to have been.

Either way though, I found a piece of sugarless gum and hoped maybe it would trick my mind into thinking that it was some sort of food and have it summon some energy. I took one treacherous step after another. By the end of the ascent I was taking a short pause after every single step to breathe. And then All of the sudden, I was there. At the top of the mountain. It was done.

It was also freezing, and my body was still wanting to shut down, so I only stayed a few moments. There was nowhere un-snowed-on to sit, so I crouched for a minute by the summit placard, I looked around at the 360 degree view, and let my breath finally, finally catch up with me, and then I did what you have to do in life — I got up, took another deep breath (as deep as I could) and I put one shaking step after another and started walking again.

The way down the mountain was much easier, but still not easy. I ended up rolling my ankle on a large rock and spraining it pretty badly about a half a mile down. That slowed me quite a bit.

By the time I had gotten back to the car, I was down at a warmer elevation and had been moving briskly enough that I was hot. I got to the car and stripped down to nothing and just sat there for a second. No one else was nearby and the one other car in the parking from earlier had left already. I took a drink of water. I ate a bite of salami. And then I redressed in fresh clothes I had brought along.

I was still shaking, but I felt good. My body had caught up to my heart, and together, they had proved that I somehow, deep down in the places you don’t want to have to summon strength, I have the strength to do hard things alone.

People may pass you or leap frog with you on the journey. They may even walk with you for a while. But there are some paths in life that you are forced to walk alone. It is those paths that reveal our deep guttural reserves of strength and resilience.

Should I have climbed that mountain alone? Maybe not. Was I in good enough shape and prepared for it? Definitely not.

Physically, nothing had changed, other than my throat being sore and having to cough often for a few days after. I walked with a slight limp for about a week. But it got my heart and my body back on the same, resilient page. It changed me. It reminded me that when I have to, I can climb the hard mountains of life, even if I have to do it alone.

Jo O'Hanlon storyofjo.com


If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015 | Author:

Dear Denver,

I came to you 8 months ago with my life packed into my Toyota Camry.

It was a long drive. 18 hours of leaving my past behind. My own tears surprised me as I drove away from my family standing on the porch of my parent’s house, waving as they watched me go. That’s become our tradition. And I’m always the one on the leaving end.

I was ready for you, for this new, temporary chapter of life. I was excited to leave the past.

But while it was a new town, I wasn’t a new me. I quickly realized that by changing states I was not changing stories. My past was mine to own. My story was mine to tell. My life was mine to live.

So I came to you, and I told you who I am and where I have been. I told it to church members in diners. I told it to distant family members in the mountains. I told it to dates in bars. I told it to neighbors in hot tubs and living rooms. I told my story to you, and you didn’t grimace. You didn’t run away. You listened and you welcomed me.

You let me play on your trails, exploring your mountain peaks and your forests and your waters. You let me make friends in fun restaurants and pubs and venues. You let me sit in peace, overlooking a lake with the mountains beyond, and the setting sun beyond that.

You have given me the space and time to become more myself. And while I’ve always known you would be a temporary dwelling place, you’ve been a good one. Most importantly, you’ve given me an atmosphere to learn how to be at home within myself.

Aside from your horrible drivers, you’ve been nothing but lovely to me. Thank you for being such a big playground for life. Thank you for housing me while I felt at home here. I’ll come back to visit.

-Jo

(I’ll be on the go for the Story Project for all of May and then moving to Wichita, KS Beginning of June)

Favorite Denver/CO things:

– Hiking

  • Mt. Bierstadt
  • Mt. Quandary
  • Colorado Trail
  • Hanging Lake Trail
  • All of the trails during fall
  • Paddle boarding on our lake and slack lining in our “yard”
  • Food/Drink
  • The fries and cocktails at Williams & Graham
  • The atmosphere at Linger
  • The atmosphere at Crema cafe
  • The chocolate at Dietrichs
  • The eggs benedict and the beignets at Lucilles Creole cafe
  • Blackeye coffee
  • Pie and cocktails at the Green Russell
  • Cheap movies at the Century Aurora 16 Theater
  • Eggs benedict and sweet potato pancakes at Snooze Eatery
  • Burgers & Brews deals during MNF at Stoney’s bar & grill
  • Atmosphere & coffee at Roostercat
  • The view from outside the dome on the Capitol building
  • Being at Redrocks/ the view from Redrocks
  • The river in golden
  • Stranahan’s whiskey (both the product and the free tour & tasting)
  • The Denver German Christmas Market on 16th St. mall
  • Even though it’s not just a Denver thing, I discovered & fell in love with it here: Waffle House

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If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015 | Author:

“Do you know of any churches in Denver?” I texted a pastor I know from California when I had just moved to Denver last fall.

He texted back right away: “Scum of the Earth Church. Pastor is Mike Sares. We went there last summer. If you want to go, I’ll let him know you’re coming.”

“It’s f—ing hard to find a church when I don’t trust the church,” I thought to myself, frustration welling up.

“Thank you. I’ll go tomorrow,” I texted back.

Then I found the tears rolling down my cheeks as I sat at the table alone in my new apartment, overwhelmed at the thought of trying another new church. Getting to know people who would eventually have to know my story if I was to be known. And knowing that with telling my story, I might be judged, outcast, burned again.

I pulled my laptop out right then and wrote the blog post from last fall that I titled “I don’t trust the church (but I wish I did).” Many of you have read and commented on that blog post, and in the responses, I have realized that I am not alone in my distrust of the church, of religion, of pastors.

But I went to Scum of the Earth church the next day after I first typed out that blog post.

While driving by where it was supposed to be, I did see one church kind of looking building between a dirty alleyway and a house, it didn’t have any sign saying “Church” or anything at all, actually. No signs. So I wasn’t sure that was it.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetI parked and walked back, asking the people in patched vests smoking on the steps if this was the “scum of the earth church.” It was, so I slipped in and found a seat while the folks inside were singing in the dimmed light. A little girl, maybe 6 or 7 years old, danced barefooted and beautiful in the open space in front of the worship band.

Soon, a big, white-haired Greek man got up to the microphone at the front.

“We have something we do a few times a year here at scum, and it is consistently one of the most important things we do. That’s tonight. Tonight we are having our “story night” and we have a few people who will share their stories with us.”

I was interested, immensely, because I love stories. But also somewhat skeptical — I had images of “I was doing bad stuff, and God saved me, and now my life is awesome and I have no problems” testimonies. I was prepared to discretely walk out if that was the case.

But instead, three or four people shared their scarred stories, and none of them were just about some sort of conversion of how they “came to Jesus.” Rather, they were their personal stories. Stories of them as whole people, not as “good christians.” Stories that didn’t have pretty bows to tie around them at the end.

The stories did involve their relationships with God — sometimes how they started to get intrigued about God. Sometimes how they met him. Sometimes how they wanted to follow him, how they wanted to accept His love, but how the dark draw of cocaine, of men, of alcohol, of resentment and pain over the wrongs done to them made it a rocky pursuit at best.

Not that their pursuit of God used to be rocky but now was great. But the fact that one woman still was fighting the urge to not go out and F— some random man a few weeks ago after church to temporarily fill that void, that ache. The stories felt real. And in the midst of conflict. In the midst of wrestling. In the midst of the battle between I-want-to-love-and-follow-God and this-world-has-screwed-me-over-and-it-sometimes-feels-like-I’m-dying.

The church itself is not what I’m used to. It’s a conglomeration of church styles and ideologies, not many of which fit what I’ve grown up in.

But what I found during story night was a church who was willing to be honest about the struggle. Not the I-used-to-struggle-but-now-God-has-saved-me, but the I-am-currently-struggling. A church that is willing to be honest about the messes of life, and be a safe place for people to admit that they are sinners, that they are hurting, that they are doubting, that they are wrestling.

And I have never seen another church like that. I have never seen an entire church that can be honest about flaws. That can be honest about life. That enables the people in it and around it to not pretend to be better than they are.

There are still challenging messages about how we can and often should do things differently. How we can allow God to better us and heal us. But the bleeding wounds of the church people’s souls don’t have to be ignored or hidden there. And that is the most important thing I need in a church right now.  That’s why I stayed.

I sat down with Mike, the pastor, the other day and he asked, “did you ever go check out other churches?”

I told him the same thing: No. I saw that you could handle struggles in honesty. And that’s the most important thing I need right now.

Though I think I told him then, as I told them the very first night 7 months earlier: I like this church. But I hate the name. Scum of the Earth? Really? That’s not how God sees us. But I’ll overlook it because of your church’s honesty about life.

I went to dinner after that first church service with Mike and his wife and several others from the church. And I told them my story. “So, I don’t really trust the church, or pastors right now,” I said.

And without missing a beat, Mike, this new Pastor I had just met said: “I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t trust the church or pastors either.”

Again, he and the church seemed willing to have people be honest about where they were on the path. Not just in a general message from the front, but at dinner at Pete’s Greek Town to me, specifically. They were giving me permission: I didn’t have to pretend to be better off, or farther along than I was. I was welcome. And I was welcome to be honest. As was the rest of the church.

When you look around the church, about half of the people look like the outliers of society — the punks, the goths, the homeless. They have different colored and styled hair, lots of large plugs and piercings, tattoos galore.

The other half of the people look like they’d fit in well in clean, professional social circles. You could find people who look like them in bulk in any church on a sunday morning — well dressed, they sit up straight, speak with an educated tone, and their classic-ness gives them the “good church people” air. I’ve always found this mix of the type of people in Scum curious, but valuable.

And as I sat in the back of the church on Easter sunday, I noticed that someone a few seats down from me smelled heavily of BO. And I noticed that a woman across the aisle smelled freshly of sweet perfume. And I realized as I looked around, as I’ve gotten to know peoples’ stories there, why it’s called Scum of the Earth church.

Because it is for those who society thinks, the church thinks, or they themselves think that they look like scum on the outside, or that they are scum on the inside.

And it was the first time I realized and admitted how scum-like I have felt over the past few years.

This church, it has brought me up a bit farther out of the cesspool. It has given me space to be honest from day one about who I am, where I have been, and the fact that I’m still wrestling. That I’m still doubting and questioning. That I’m still distrusting, and they said, “you’re welcome to be all of those things here. We are and have been all of those things, too.”

I get it now.

I’ll be sad to leave Scum as I move on in a few weeks. They have taught me that it is not a sin to be honest about life and struggle in the church. They have restored some hope to me about what a church could be.


If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

storyofjoblog@gmail.com