On Confidence: The Mountain (Part I of III)



Confidence and women; women and confidence. Women should lean in; use power poses; not minimize our words or our selves; negotiate; and, above all, be confident! Without, of course, being bitchy or bossy or cold. The internet tells me confidence is “not something that can be learned like a set of rules; confidence is a state of mind.” (www.skillsyouneed.com/ps/confidence.html) Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code, say that confidence is “…less worrying about people-pleasing and perfection and more action, risk taking, and fast failure.” I take their quiz and score “low confidence.” What the hell is confidence, anyway?

We spent the night enduring shallow sleep invaded by the sound of grit hitting our tent at 12,500 feet. Even so, when I finally open my eyes to morning light, I am hopeful we might have a chance to hike to the top of this mountain. We need to descend into the safety of trees before the daily thunderstorms begin to pepper the high elevations with lightning.

Unzipping our tent door breaks the mountain silence; I look out at the rocky flat known as the Boulderfield, the flat area on the north side of Longs Peak, the only 14,000’ peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Outside, long skeins of low-hanging stratus clouds are weaving in and out of the jagged rock ridge above our tent. Turning to the east, far in the distance is a skinny cobalt-colored sliver of sky, the thin layer emphasizing the long stretch of gray cloud between it and me. Clouds this early on a July morning don’t bode well for the day–they will grow into afternoon thunderstorms.

Three years ago I introduced my husband, Chris, to this mountain, but we were forced to turn back before climbing much higher than where we pitched our tent last night. Today we are back, with hopes of making it to the top. Looking at the clouds, we shoot worried looks at each other and postpone deciding whether to go higher. Uncertainty fills my belly.

I emerge from the tent and begin rock-hopping my way to the privy, when another climber approaches me.

“Do you know the mountain well?” he asks.

I consider my experiences on this peak. I’ve spent years here, on and around Longs Peak, both during my work for the park and on my own time. I’ve attempted the summit three times, making it once and turning back twice. I’ve hiked to other features on the mountain multiple times, carried injured hikers down the trail in rescue litters, and loaded injured climbers into helicopters in the Boulderfield.

Do I know this mountain well?

I think of the other more technical routes to the summit, routes that require ropes and rock-climbing hardware. I think of a coworker who has summited the mountain over one hundred times and during every month of the year. I’ve only been on the mountain in the summer months. I’ve never done a technical route.

Do I know this mountain well? I am uncertain.

“Somewhat,” I answer.

Back at our tent, the gusty winds and layers of clouds haven’t dampened Chris’s excitement about today’s summit attempt. I’m filtering water out of a stream hidden underneath boulders when he heads to the privy. I hear the same climber ask Chris:

“Do you know the mountain well?”

My husband answers without pausing.

“Yes,” he says, with certainty.

I look at the water I’m filtering, the clouds overhead, and I’m flooded with emotion. I’m upset when Chris says he knows the mountain well. Every time he’s been here has been with me. Does that mean I also know the mountain well? Is he full of bluster or am I being too modest? How do I know what I know?

In studies, women are more likely to choose “I don’t know” on tests if they aren’t certain about an answer, while men tend to guess. When “I don’t know” isn’t an answer, women guess (and score) equally as well as men. “I don’t know” is scored as incorrect, but there’s no choice for “I’m aware of too many nuances with this question to feel comfortable answering without discussion.”

On a written test, the uncertain option scores as wrong. On the mountain, the score is never certain.

What is confidence? I yearn to acknowledge the wonder of the unknown, embody the confidence of experience and knowledge, and accept mistakes. Yet at the same time, I long for absolute lines demarcating expertise. At what exact point do I know the mountain well? I couch my statements with qualifiers and am cautious not to bluster or to claim I know something I don’t. I downplay my experience, expecting people to be able to separate true expertise from blustery claims.

Then I’m upset when my experience is minimized.

I stare angrily into the stream running amongst the rock of the Boulderfield. Did the climber interpret my answer as acknowledging the complexity of the high altitude environment, or as lacking in mountain knowledge and self-confidence? I suspect he left with the impression that my husband is more competent and confident in the mountains than I am. How do we choose whose judgment to trust?

Chris laughs when I tell him about our differing answers to this climber.

“I have a map and compass. What else do I need to know?” he says.

Is that confidence?

Part II

The Flood: The Flood Shrine

Today is one year from the Flood of 2013. Commemoration events are happening in Lyons and in Boulder County. To commemorate the flood in my own life, I am posting part of my flood story every day this week. This is the last post. Here are the firstsecondthirdfourthfifth and sixth posts. Rather than simply tell the chronology of my flood story, I’m hoping to share some of the feelings I experienced. Down, up, and sideways. 

This is my story, but it is not one of significant difficulty or hardship. People are still experiencing extreme difficulty and hardship because of the flood. Please consider helping through a donation to Lyons Community Foundation.


Fifteen days after the flood began, I wrote in my journal, “Things are moving at breakneck speed around me and I have completely stopped moving.”

External change was rapid. Internal change was exhausting. I needed a deep pause to catch up and mourn. The flood shrine provided that space.

I love that Lyons created a flood shrine.

The Flood Shrine

The Flood Shrine

Here is a piece of Apple Valley Road. Here is a dresser, a mirror, a bowling ball, a stop sign, pink flamingos, a painting, a car grill, metal gas cans, a rifle. All found after the flood.

Flood Shrine 3 -AV road



I loved that it was called “The Flood Shrine.” A shrine combines a place for the dead with awe. It is “a place hallowed by its associations,” according to Websters.  I could leave the old with the flood shrine, revere it, remember it, and know that it had a place to stay as I moved on.

I put myself in the flood shrine.

Flood Shrine with Emily

Flood Shrine with Emily

I left my old, pre-flood self there, and moved into my new, post-flood life.

Today, September 12, 2014, is one year after the flood. Today I need the same pause that I needed a year ago. I need to revere the flood, to fear and respect it.

After a year of rebuilding and accepting, I pause.

As I remember the noise, the confusion, the camaraderie, and the disorientation, it is tempting to tie this series up with an uplifting bow of recovery and a town pulling together. But that is only partially true. My flood experience was relatively mild; my post-flood life is not dramatically different than my pre-flood life. That is not the case for everyone. I look around, and I see roads that are rebuilt and people that are home. But I also see people having to wait to rebuild, people who don’t know if they will ever rebuild, and people who will never be able to return home. Recovery–whatever it looks like–happens at different rates for different people.

Every one of us is called upon, probably many times, to start a new life. A frightening diagnosis, a marriage, a move, the loss of a job . . . And onward full tilt we go, pitched and wrecked and absurdly resolute, driven in spite of everything to make good on a new shore. To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another–that is surely the basic instinct  . . . Crying out: High tide! Time to move out into the glorious debris. Time to take this life for what it is.  

~Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson, Essays From Now or Never

There is no tidy bow. As we continue to integrate these events in our external infrastructure and our internal resilience, I hope we learn from them. My part of Colorado is starting a new life, and, as Kingsolver says, taking this life for what it is.

The Flood: Carpet

Commemoration events are happening in Lyons and in Boulder County. To commemorate the flood in my own life, I am posting part of my flood story every day this week. This is the sixth of those posts. Here are the firstsecondthirdfourth, and fifth. Rather than simply tell the chronology of my flood story, I’m hoping to share some of the feelings I experienced. Down, up, and sideways. 

This is my story, but it is not one of significant difficulty or hardship. People are still experiencing extreme difficulty and hardship because of the flood. Please consider helping through a donation to Lyons Community Foundation.

Hello Linoleum!

Hello Linoleum!

We’re going to sleep at home tonight.

Not for good, only tonight. We can’t drink the water from our well yet, and Chris is still in the middle of moving his shop, so we’re going to keep living in the campground. But tonight, as a treat, we’re going to sleep at home.

Excitedly, I buy a celebratory feast. Grass-fed steaks, horseradish, salad greens, and strawberries. Chocolate: a bar of dark chili chocolate for Chris and salt and almond chocolate for me. Red truck wine and three dog bones. Water–a five gallon container and a pottery crock. I walk out of the grocery store to my mud-splattered, dog-filled truck and hum to myself as I put the groceries in the back seat. A woman walks up to the car next to me; she looks at the mud, the dogs, the “Lyons: We’ve Got Grit” bumper sticker. I can feel her soaking it in.

“You look like you are going on a trip,” she says.

“I am–to sleep at home tonight!” I say, and explain that I’m from Lyons.

“Do you want some dill pickles?” she asks. I am confused and she explains that she cans and sells her own pickles and that she’d like to give me a jar. She has opened the trunk of her car, which is full of boxes of pickles, and is holding a jar out to me.

“Sure!” I say. Today I’m happy. I’m sleeping at home AND a stranger just gave me a homemade jar of dill pickles.

I drive home, through the checkpoint, surrounded by military vehicles and massive trucks. I pass a standup piano sitting in a dirt pile on the edge of the road. Helicopters are flying the river. I take my new, roundabout route home, let the dogs loose in the yard, put the food in the fridge, and watch one mule deer amble slowly across the hill above the house. This almost feels normal.

Chris comes home and we grill our steaks and sit on the deck and drink red wine. The stars come out. A little respite. For a little while, I can forget about the lack of infrastructure in my town and in northern Colorado. I’m home.

The next morning, I don’t want to leave. I pace the house. I bring in the houseplants that have lived outside since we evacuated. I pack up our winter coats, just in case. I’m restless with the need to do SOMETHING.

I look at the carpet.

I’ve hated the carpet since we moved in. It’s old and dirty and catty.

Fine, I think. If everything is going to be turned upside down, I’m pulling up the carpet. And I do. With utility knife, screwdriver, and hammer, I pull up all the carpet and padding in the living room, revealing old linoleum underneath. I make a big pile of rolled up carpet in the garage. I fill a trashcan with dirty, disintegrating padding and sharp tack strips.

With each trip to the garage, roll of carpet on my shoulder, I feel better. I am joining the chaos. The world is turned upside down. Nothing will be the same. Some things might even be better.

Goodbye carpet. Goodbye old roads. Goodbye, pre-flood life.



The Flood: Grocery Store

Commemoration events are happening in Lyons and in Boulder County. To commemorate the flood in my own life, I am posting part of my flood story every day this week. This is the fifth of those posts. Here are the first, secondthird, and fourth.  I’m hoping to share some of the feelings I experienced. Down, up, and sideways. Posts aren’t in chronological order; these posts are about remembering. 

This is my story, but it is not one of significant difficulty or hardship. People are still experiencing extreme difficulty and hardship because of the flood. Please consider helping through a donation to Lyons Community Foundation.

The dogs go everywhere with me.

The dogs go everywhere with me.

I feel like a character in a Gary Larsen cartoon; perhaps a giant spotlight is shining on me, and a neon sign above my head  flashing “Frozen by Confusion! Disoriented! Not Able to Handle Simple Change!” I remind myself: My family is safe; I have a home, vehicles, work. I am lucky.

Since we began living in the campground, we’ve been eating out more than usual. Today my task is to go to the grocery store so that we can stop eating out so much. I take the dogs everywhere I go these days, so I load them in the back of the 4Runner, drive to the grocery store, and find a shady parking space.

I’ve never been in this grocery store; walking in, I am completely disoriented. I don’t know what to buy; I don’t know where anything is, or what makes sense for our life in the campground. I stand glued to one black linoleum tile for too long. We are normally a meat and potatoes family, but how can that work now? We need food that is easy, that will work in the mornings before school and as easy after-work dinners. The decision of which aisle to walk down is almost too much. “Why am I not at my normal grocery store?” I ask myself. Then I remember.

Out of habit I go to the produce section first, but paralysis hits. My normal go-to food for this time of year–spaghetti squash, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin–are unreasonable. I can’t roast anything for two hours. I realize I’m completely missing the harvest season. Last year we canned twenty-two pounds of green beans. It made forty-three quarts and friends laughed that I was going to have to eat a quart of green beans every week for a year. In reality, forty-three quarts lasted our family of five barely six months. We took great pleasure in eating “our green beans.” My aspirations were higher this year but now it is clear we aren’t going to be buying bushels of anything.

I leave the produce aisle with a bag of green apples, a bag of carrots, and a bag of red potatoes. Maybe we can find a grill for the potatoes? A jar of peanut butter will go with the apples and carrots.

I stand in the bread corner for a long time. We’ve been avoiding grains for over a year now, but bagels with peanut butter would be an easy before-school breakfast. At the same time, buying bagels feels like a dirty compromise; an accusatory part of me is loud in my head: Life gets a little difficult and you throw all your values to the wind, it says. That’s ridiculous, I tell myself, but I don’t feel better.

I look around the store for other people with a lost look in their eyes as they stare hopelessly at canned goods, wondering if they have a can opener. I feel completely out of control.

Which, I remind myself, is a basic error anyway, thinking that I have any control over the events of my life. If the flood hasn’t made that clear nothing will, and I should just buy the damn bagels and quit thinking about it. I grab a bag of raisin bagels and a bag of blueberry bagels from the lower shelf. That’s only twelve bagels; three girls and five school-morning breakfasts is fifteen bagels, but this will get us further in the week.

I can’t grocery shop anymore. I pay for my six items and leave, my indecisiveness and inability to do something simple like shop for groceries feeling like a major failure.

I let the dogs out of the back of the truck and we walk up and down the grassy patch next to the busy four-lane road. I am unfocused and confused, completely ungrounded. Adrift. The things I was thinking about and doing before the flood now seem completely irrelevant. I wish I knew how to drive a dump truck or operate heavy machinery. At this moment that seems to be the most useful skill to have.

I’ve never felt as disoriented as I did that day in the grocery store. My anchors washed away and a mundane task felt impossible. I was creating a life on the spot, with no advance planning. But before I could create that life, I had to admit that it was necessary. Huge change was happening; I had to catch up and be willing to change. But I wasn’t there yet.

The Flood: The Campground

The flood of 2013 was one year ago this week. Commemoration events are happening in Lyons and Boulder County. As my own commemoration, I am posting part of my flood story each day. This is the fourth post of the series, here are the first,  second, and third posts. I’m hoping to share some of the feelings I experienced. Down, up, and sideways. Posts aren’t in chronological order; these posts are about remembering. 

This is my story, but it is not one of significant difficulty or hardship. People are still experiencing extreme difficulty and hardship because of the flood. Please consider helping through a donation to Lyons Community Foundation.

Site #38: Adult camper on the right, kids camper on the left.

Site #38: Adult camper on the right, kids camper on the left.

“The campsite was to the flood what the Ewok Village was to Return of the Jedi.”  -Chris


We are scrambling to find a place to camp. All of northern Colorado’s scenic campgrounds are next to creeks or lakes and are now contaminated with sewage, silt, grit, rocks, cars, propane tanks . . . whatever the river washed down. I’ve placed messages on Craigslist and in the Lyons Recorder: displaced family of five with three dogs, looking for a place to put a camper, ideally with an electrical hookup, but with no response. We call everyone we know. There has to be a place we can camp.

At a school gathering, we learn that people are camping at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, in the middle of Longmont. We drive straight there to see if we can get a spot.

“You are evacuees, right?”

The woman behind the window is incredibly nice, so nice that I immediately want to hug her.

“Yes.” What a strange word to identify with. Should I try to explain in a longer sentence? “I have a house but I can’t get there because the roads are gone?” No, I am an evacuee, I tell myself. We are evacuees. I feel like I’m lying, as if I’m being fraudulent  but I’m not, I remind myself, I am an evacuee. We aren’t allowed to go home. We had to leave. That makes us evacuees.

Jarring to my sense of reality.

“How long is your rig?” A perfectly reasonable question, but I don’t know the answer. I look at Chris.

“Probably about thirteen feet,” he answers.

“Okay, site number thirty-eight.” We give her our license plate numbers and she gives us tags for our cars, the code for the bathroom and shower building, and the rules of the campground: dogs on leash, quiet hours from ten to six.

“Where do you live?” I realize in a rush that I haven’t asked her anything about herself or her situation. Her house might be gone and here I am worrying about where we are going to put a camper. I would learn in the coming days to ask this question early.

“I live in Longmont,” she says. “I had a little water in the basement, but my house is fine.”

“Oh good,” I say, genuinely happy for her but also thankful that I’m not in the situation of thinking only of myself when talking with someone in a much worse situation.

Our small camper is the adult and dogs camper, while a larger, borrowed camper is the kids camper. Site number thirty-eight is our new anchor. Each kid has an assigned space to keep her things, an idealistic approach that is only vaguely successful. I piece together walking trails with the dogs and watch hang-gliders in the sky above the mountains. Chris sits at the picnic table and watches the beginnings of football season on his phone. Squirrels run along the fence near the camper and taunt the dogs. The campground host drives up in her golf cart and offers us fresh eggs from chickens, who, also displaced by the flood, are living at the fairgrounds.

We meet other Lyons families, all evacuees. One couple in their seventies isn’t sure if they will rebuild. We have coffee and banana bread at the camper across the way from us. “Don’t cut yourself,” the stern ER-doc Mom tells our youngest. “I don’t want to have to pull out my tools.” Another Lyons family plans to rent an apartment in a few weeks, anticipating not being able to go home for two solid months.

“I don’t even want to take furniture with us,” she says, and I understand.

The fairgrounds lets us use their giant grill pavillion, and the families cook a feast: salmon, steaks, potatoes, roasted garlic, banana bread, and share with each other. The kids run among the trees, playing in the grassy field across the street from Target and Hobby Lobby.

Nothing is figured out; Chris is moving his work, my drive to work has quadrupled, the kids are going to school in a new town, and our town is still in shambles. But we have an anchor, a space with the lightness of the Ewok Village, surrounded by all the doom and gloom. We’re meeting people, making friends, and sharing food. The roots are tenuous, but we are temporarily connected.