I was recently in Guatemala scouting an upcoming Heritage Journey for my family. Just before I left, my ten-year old son placed a small red and yellow marble in my hand and whispered a very private message in my ear. With his big brown eyes tearing up and a very serious demeanor, Jac (who was born in Guatemala) asked me to take his marble and his message with me to the top of Pacaya, the volcano I intended to climb . . .

Volcan Pacaya sits on the edge of Lake Amatitlán in Guatemala. The town of Amatitlán is the town where my son was born. From the top you can see the lake, the town and its surroundings – the home of my son’s ancestors.

I woke up anxious, not because the climb would be difficult but because the climb would be an emotional journey for me. There is something about climbing that has always captured me. The challenge of every mountain is different. The environment, the weather, the level of difficulty, and the people you are with – everything contributes to the success or failure of a climb. For me, however, the most important factor is my willingness to overcome the odds on that particular day. I love the energy a mountain has – it’s so powerful. I love the way the air gets thinner as I climb, making me work hard to draw it into my lungs. I love the way every step is different. I am engrossed by the newness of the terrain. I rarely talk when I climb because I love experiencing the environment – taking it all in — the peace of the trees, the shapes of the rocks, the way the gullies interrupt the trail, the wildlife, the people you might pass (or that might pass you) and, beyond the tree line, the summit. Just visualizing the summit is awe-inspiring for me. I look at pictures of every mountain I will climb so I can visualize the summit. I love reaching the top and before I climb I am ALWAYS anxious. My mind races with questions. Can I do it today? Am I strong enough? Is my mind in tune with my body? Will I be able to take it slow enough to reserve energy for the final pitch? I love everything about mountain climbing but today’s climb is more important than most. I have something to deliver.

The sky is blue. The trail is rugged. The mountain is relatively steep, but it is not a long climb. I feel strong. My odds are good today. As I climbed, I passed several families carrying children and goods for a picnic at the lookout – what a fun way to begin the day. I also passed and was passed by several caravans of horses assisting other climbers. At one point I passed a group of blind climbers. Those who climb blind always inspire me. What an accomplishment. I climb for the challenge as well, but I find the view from the top mesmerizing. If I did not have that visual reward, I might question my physical desire.

Because Pacaya is an active volcano, few people actually climb the true summit. I was destined for the lava dome opposite the summit. When I reached the first big overlook (also a lava dome), I could see the lava field and the true summit. I was instantly drawn to it. I held my breath for a few seconds just so I could feel the power. I reached down and touched the ground. I wanted to feel it rumbling and although I could not, it is a very intense and spiritual moment to see such magnificence in nature.

I began a short descent into the scree fields (broken up lava) before the final push to the summit. Scree can be quite deep, so it’s more of an uncontrolled skip, slide, skip, slide motion. I was making my way to the lava field, which was fascinating. I could see smoke billowing out of several vents as we approached and I could feel the heat of the lava underneath me. My guide and I decided to take a quick break. While he began roasting marshmallows over an open vent, I was taking in my surroundings, already feeling antsy. I could see my summit AND I had this ache in my throat. That feeling you get when you might cry if you try to talk. In my backpack was the small red and yellow marble I was carrying for my son. He asked me to leave it on the mountain, as a token of our extended family’s love he called “the circle of love”.

I was focused, scanning the environment for the marble’s resting spot and there it was . . . just shy of my summit was a beautiful little oasis in the midst of this harsh, barren landscape. My guide led me up a very steep pitch. We scrambled using a few plants as hand holds. For every two steps I went up, it was one step back in the scree. It was exhausting but didn’t take long. It led straight to the ridge where my oasis was!

As I climbed toward this oasis, I realized I didn’t want to talk about what I was doing with my guide. This was a moment between me and my son. I slowed down and when I arrived at the oasis my guide was about one hundred yards beyond me scouting for a place to have lunch. He was around a bend in the trail so I wasn’t completely visible to him. I had a couple of minutes totally to myself.

I saw my spot almost instantly. Although the landscape was ravaged by an eruption 2010, there was a beautiful, strong, little tree with a crook in the middle that seemed to be calling to me. It was the perfect resting spot for Jac’s marble. There was a small bed of green moss growing in the crook of the tree so I pushed the marble into the softness of the moss – only about half of it was exposed. I scanned the area for something to place on top of it so passersby could not see Jac’s token of love and remove it from its nest. I found the perfect sized rock that fit snuggly into the crook of the tree and covered the marble perfectly. I said a couple of words for Jac, for our family and for his birth mother that lives nearby. I whispered to the universe my love and devotion for this beautiful child with his old soul. I asked for forgiveness from his ancestors for taking him from his homeland and I promised my devotion to him always. I told his birth mother how much I loved him and I promised to care for him and love him unconditionally. I closed my eyes and visualized my son standing on top of that mountain looking out over Lake Amatitlán, the home of his birth mother and his ancestors. I visualized his face and the emotion I could see in his eyes as he considered the life he left behind. I internalized the love of my child and his love for his birth country, his birth mother, his heritage as well as his life with his family in Colorado. I felt his love seep into my veins.

Although we will retrieve that marble when we return as a family in a couple of months, it will have served its purpose. It gave Jac a placeholder for his circle of love while he readies himself for his upcoming heritage journey. And it gave me a reason to climb — not just for Jac, his birth mother, his heritage or even for our family and what we have created. Most of all — perhaps selfishly, I climbed for what I gained — my beautiful son, Jac.

Bambi Wineland is a mother of two internationally adopted children (her daughter is from China and her son is from Guatemala). She is also the Executive Director of Motherland Travel. Motherland Travel designs customized Heritage Journeys for families with internationally adopted children. Motherland Travel also specializes in helping families designing their own Heritage Journeys The emphasis of these birth country journeys is to strengthen family bonds, build self-esteem and cultivate pride in a family’s multi-cultural heritage.

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