I remember bumper stickers folks had on their cars when I was a child that said “This car climbed Mount Washington.” I need one that says “This car was on Wolf Creek Pass when it closed.”
On a recent Wednesday, I thought we could get to the National Character & Leadership Symposium at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs if we headed out early during a lull in the storm. Students thought we could, too. We met up in Durango and headed out at 9 a.m., with roads clear and visibility good all the way to Pagosa Springs. Then, we headed up Wolf Creek Pass. It was the one pass we would need to get over on the drive.
The pass was open. Visibility was fine, until it wasn’t fine. We didn’t make it over the pass. Instead, it was a day of being in the now. We declared it our own personal leadership conference. Decisions made collectively, supportive of all.
There was a moment, on Wolf Creek Pass, when I said, “Wait a minute. Let me think. I haven’t been in this situation before”. Stuck in snow and high winds on a mountain pass. I’m a mountain scientist. I’ve been stuck in mud and fog, lightning too, and faced the choice to evacuate a remote field camp in Alaska’s Brooks Range, on a moment’s notice. Though this situation was new, I knew we could get unstuck.
I also know that we can get unstuck from a warming planet and from not enough snow in most years. But, the way out of the climate crisis is not what most folks think, at least not what most folks think a scientist would recommend.
We need to focus not on science, but values — love, kindness and connection. We need to believe that another world is possible if we let go of hierarchy and power, victimhood and despair, and work toward communities, a democracy, a nation in which we each feel a part. If we believe that action is essential, and each of us are co-creators of the new world, of heaven here on earth.
Soon after we were stuck, a guy drove up and kindly let us know he couldn’t help, but a state Trooper was at the top of the pass and would be by soon.
The Colorado Department of Transportation got to us first. A big, orange plow appeared ahead of us and paused in the road for an uncomfortable three minutes. Were they coming? They were, though in recollection I think the plowman was holding back the line of cars to provide a window in which we could get us out.
When this didn’t work, the plowman made the decision to drive by us and park behind my car. Then he came up to our car in the cold and biting wind, and said he’d pull us out. We weren’t in far. We’d been driving slowly when a whirl of white washed over us. Snow, sky, and road were indistinguishable ever so briefly. That’s when the car met the snow.
During that window, I’d tried to dig and had a good shovel with us, but it was tough to get at the snow behind the front tires. The angle was awkward with little space between the car and the wall of this winter’s accumulated snow. The back tires were easy to clear. We were stuck just enough to need help from someone not in our car.
The plowman connected a tow strap. I started the car and got it in neutral. The storm eased its winds. We could see around us. And in an instant we were out, turned around and headed back down the pass to Pagosa Springs and home to Durango.
“Calm amid storms” was one of the first characteristics students noted of leaders at the beginning of the semester in my environmental leadership course at Fort Lewis College. I’ve had the opportunity to practice this often in life. I’ve learned there are many situations in which I can stay calm. Some that I can’t.
I’ve learned that this, too, is okay. They are moments of knowing myself better. Of being human with a physiological and neurological system geared for survival.
For me, physical storms are easy. Human storms can be tough. You know the kind. When folks shout, blame, shame, note your limitations and believe the problem is you. When hierarchy fools us into thinking we are powerless. When we forget to take a moment to think.
I’m learning to navigate these hierarchical spaces better. Speaking about them is one way to do so. Because what we can speak of can be addressed, not alone, but instead in community.
In my environmental leadership course, we’ve been doing just this — talking about tough moments and what we can control when they happen. We’ve been caring for one another and investing in new habits — things like taking breaks and meditating — that rest ourselves so when tough moments arise we can take a moment to think, and trust.
During that moment on Wolf Creek when I wasn’t sure what to do, I trusted — myself, the students, and a plowman I did not know who kindly offered help. And the Divine. I think often about how we are all leaders. We can all be the person with a tow strap who offers kindness and love amid the storm, whatever form those storms take.
Heidi Steltzer, of Durango, is a mountain scientist, speaker, writer, and professor. She is the founder of the Heidi Mountains Cooperative. Twitter: @heidimountains
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