Breathe. Step. Breathe.
Maria Gregorish (+Video)
In Romania, Maria Gregorish prepares to climb the country’s highest peak with her hiking club. Her gear is ready – except for her boots. As the climb begins, she realizes that she has forgotten to break in her new boots. Her feet blister and throb, but she works through the pain. But she realizes that Romania’s political corruption is too steep a mountain to climb. Instead, she packs her boots and moves to the Rockies.
The journey is more important than the destination. I learnt this simple truth from a pair of hiking boots.
Back in Romania, I was part of a mountaineering club. A team of twelve was leaving on an expedition to the Carpathian Mountains. Their goal was to climb my country’s highest peak, Moldoveanu. I joined at the last moment. We were to be above the clouds for nine to ten days, and we had to carry everything, from tents to dried food, in our backpacks.
The morning of our departure, I stepped into a sports store to acquire the last item for the trip: the hiking boots. I paid more than half of my monthly salary as a teacher for them. They were totally worth it! I liked everything about my new boots: their strong presence, their austere brown beauty, their new-arrived-in-Romania-but-already-legendary-among-climbers Vibram soles. To me, they seemed like the Marlboro men of the shoe world—and I almost expected them to light a cigarette.
As we started the climb, it became painfully obvious that I had overlooked one essential detail: my boots weren’t broken in. Their new, unyielding leather quickly covered my feet in blisters, some of them bleeding. I didn’t want to go back, though, so I had to develop a new routine to help me get through.
Every morning, the darkness still thick around me, I washed my feet in cold water. Sitting on a rock, I examined my blisters in the flickering light of my head-lamp. I cradled one foot, wrapping it in bandages, then the other. Afterwards, I slipped them gently inside my boots, oh, so carefully pulling the laces, not too tight, not too loose, until my feet felt just snug inside their leathery cocoon. Then, taking a deep breath, I stood—at the same time as the rising sun.
The mountains exploded in colours while my feet exploded in the first and most fierce stab of pain. Gasping, I focused on my daily mantra.
“Breathe. Then, take a step. Breathe. Then, take a step.”
And so the climb began. “Breathe. Step to that round stone, right in front of you. Breathe. You can reach it. Breathe.”
My mantra worked. I focused on walking, on pushing through the other side of pain until the pain dimmed and didn’t matter anymore. I became more attuned to the mountain, my senses heightened. I observed and absorbed more: a ripple in the air, the blades of grass calling out like crickets, the vertical slices of stone surrounding me, their vibrant energy. I was suddenly aware that I was climbing my way up a living mountain and that I had never before felt so alive.
We made it to the peak, and there I stood, 2544 metres tall, feeling proud of myself. But my real reward was that crystalline focus on every detail, on every passing moment.
We climbed down and went back to the realities of post-communist Romania. The corruption was rampant, disease-crippling souls, but we kept hoping for young leaders and a clean start.
One day, my friend was elected to the local council. Good news—but soon rumours spread. He was taking bribes. “How could you?” I asked him. “You would do the same if a guy slammed a pile of money on your desk,” he answered.
This was a mountain I couldn’t climb. When I decided to leave for Canada, I grabbed my hiking boots first. And here I am, in the Rockies. Breathe. Step. Breathe.
Maria was born during Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime in Romania, where she trained as a historian and archaeologist. She made her way to Canada in search of a fresh start. She lives in Canmore with her husband and son, where she writes and works at artsPlace.