15: From Thin Air

15: From Thin Air

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Here Comes the Bride

From Thin Air

It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.

~Edmund Hillary

In December 2010, my then-boyfriend Dale and I flew to Ecuador for an eighteen-day backpacking trip. We were thrilled and terrified to be spending so many consecutive days together. Having a 2,200-mile, long-distance relationship did not allow us to spend much time together, and the short trips we had gone on so far had involved a few nights’ stay in comfortable hotels in the U.S. and Canada. Thus, our developing-country backpacking compatibility was a scary unknown.

Our first three days revealed that we largely agreed upon the activities we wanted to do and the parts of the country we wanted to visit — hallelujah! So, on the fourth morning we set off to make reservations for a two-day mountain-biking trip and a three-day jungle adventure. Being the consummate consumer that he is, Dale insisted on doing due diligence before purchasing either trip. That involved an arduous three hours of talking to different tour companies and strategically discussing our options. Finally, at one o’clock, we walked out of The Biking Dutchman, our second and final reservation having been made.

Next, we bought sandwiches and flagged down a taxi driver to take us to a gondola that we would ride to the 13,000-foot trailhead of our 2,400-foot vertical climb for the day. The problem was, it was already two o’clock by the time we exited the gondola. The hike to the 15,400-foot peak was supposed to take three hours, and the sun would set at 6:12 P.M. Dale didn’t seem concerned about our situation. I, on the other hand, realized we couldn’t dilly-dally if we were going to reach our intended destination, which I fully intended to do. I had never been above 11,000 feet before, so this would be a momentous first for me.

Setting a quick pace, which likely wasn’t the wisest thing to do at that altitude since we were breathing forty percent less oxygen, we managed to reach the top by about 4:50 P.M., ten minutes shy of the forecasted three hours — score! However, we weren’t quite at the peak. Somewhere on a treacherous mound of rock there was allegedly a path that would lead us up the last one hundred feet to the peak. After diligently searching for the path for a few minutes, I suggested that we give up and start our descent. Unwilling to admit defeat, Dale insisted on continuing the quest.

“Okay,” I said, “but we need to leave in ten minutes because a thick fog is rolling in, the temperature is dropping, the path is very hard to follow up here, and I don’t trust them to keep the gondola open after sunset.” Hastily agreeing to the somewhat prolonged search time, Dale continued to wander about until I finally had to tell him it was time to go.

My Girl Scout survival instincts kicking into high gear, I was ready to book it down the mountain. Dale, on the other hand, wanted to savor the moment. He pulled me against him so we could look at the foggy view together. Wondering why my affectionate boyfriend would choose this less-than-ideal moment to be close, I patiently humored him for about five seconds. Then, just as I was ready to explain, again, why it was important to head down the mountain, he said, “Being that this is the highest point in your life so far, I thought I would make it the highest point in another way.”

My eyes grew to two times their normal size and my heart skipped a few beats as I realized what was about to happen. Although we had talked about marriage, I wasn’t expecting him to propose in Ecuador. If he had been carrying an expensive engagement ring on our backpacking, hostelling adventure, he would have nervously monitored his belongings and likely would not have let me get close to his things. Since he had been doing neither of these things, I was convinced we would still be boyfriend-girlfriend when we returned to the States.

Turning me around, he managed to get down on one knee despite the uneven, rocky terrain and asked me to marry him. He slid a ring onto my finger as I kissed him and accepted his proposal. As we savored the moment, he explained that he had wanted to propose at the peak, which explained his persistent search for the apparently nonexistent path, but decided that one hundred feet shy of the top was just as good. We then took a few quick pictures to memorialize the beginning of our engagement and immediately began our descent.

As we hiked, I periodically glanced at the ring he had bestowed upon me. I should have been ecstatic that I had finally found the love of my life and had just been proposed to on top of a mountain in Ecuador. Instead, I was crestfallen because the ring was nothing like what I had wanted. The month before when Dale had prodded me with questions as to what type of ring I wanted, I responded by saying I wanted an ornate, antique band, and the size of the diamond didn’t matter to me. I refused to say anything further because I wanted to be surprised. However, just to cover my bases, I e-mailed my younger sister, Holly, a website that had ring styles I liked. I figured that if Dale were to ask anyone what kind of ring I wanted, he would likely ask Holly during our Thanksgiving visit to my family in Iowa.

Contrary to my desires, the ring I wore had a thick, plain band and a massive solitary stone without any side diamonds. I tried to keep my tears in check. It’s only a ring, I repeated to myself with every passing step. I would learn to love and appreciate it. His love and our life together were what mattered. By the time we reached the gondola, well after the sun had set, I had managed to convince myself that the ring was indeed a special item.

Settling into the gondola, Dale tentatively stated, “I should tell you how much I spent on your ring.” Based on his tone, I slowly turned to face him, not wanting to know how far we would be set back by the mammoth stone I was sporting.

“I spent twelve.”

“Dale,” I responded in a state of shock, “$12,000 is a lot of money.”

“Twelve dollars,” he said with a goofy grin.

My clever sister had suggested that he get an imitation ring for proposing so he would not have to carry the real ring! For the remainder of the ride, we laughed as we recounted our separate stories about what we had each been thinking as we descended the mountain.

Upon returning to the hostel, Dale logged onto his e-mail account and showed me pictures he had sent to himself of the real ring. With tears running down my cheeks, I told him it was perfect — and I meant it.

~Heather Zuber-Harshman

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