It is March 2009 and I am about to embark on a 6.8 mile hike all the way down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with my big sister, Val. We planned this as part of a special sister-bonding spring break trip to Arizona during her senior year at the Naval Academy and my junior year at Johns Hopkins. After visiting our cousin Penn in Tucson for a couple days, we were ready for our grand adventure down the Grand Canyon to stay overnight at the famous Phantom Ranch and then hike all the way back up the next day. This is not your typical beach Spring Break trip most college students take; not with Val.
As we’re about to begin our descent we go through our final checks. Hiking shoes? Check. Camera? Check. Layers of clothing for unpredictable changes in weather? Check. Snacks? Check. CamelBaks full of water? Hang on. Mine isn’t working. Even though the sac is filled with water, I can’t get any to come out through the straw. I’m flustered and frustrated, trying to do something to fix it. Val’s starting to get impatient and her Taurus horns are coming out (as our Papa would say). She blurts out something like, “You have the water, you don’t need the straw to work. Adapt and overcome, Alli. Let’s go.” I whine a little bit more, we bicker a little bit more, and then we forget about it and start our trek.
After about three and a half hours of unbelievable scenery and downhill hiking, we made it to the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Wow. We enjoyed the most amazing beef stew and cornbread at the Phantom Ranch, where we dined with other fellow hikers from all over, sent out postcards via “mule mail”, and slept overnight in a cabin of bunk beds, just like our old camp days.
Let’s just say I never really knew I had calf muscles until I woke up the next morning with the back of my legs burning from all the downhill hiking. Val, having gone through plenty of Navy physical training by this point, didn’t seem to mind and basically just told me to suck it up. So we took off bright and early to begin the 9.8 mi hike back up the slightly longer trail with more shade and rest stops, thank goodness. I struggled. Val encouraged me to keep going, and kept saying this new “Adapt and Overcome” motto of hers probably five more times over the next eight hours as we were trying to make our way back up. There were a few times I actually threatened to push her off the trail back down into the Canyon if she didn’t stop saying it. I can be annoying and whiney, and Val can be tough and bossy, especially to one another, in a loving sisterly way. Needless to say, I didn’t push Val off the cliff and we made it to the back up to the top in one piece. Even with our few tiffs along the way, we accomplished an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list-worthy feat… and we did it together. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own, and there is no one else I would have wanted to do it with.
Fast forward six years and I am now writing this story, reflecting back on these memories as we approach the two year anniversary of Val’s passing. After graduating from the Naval Academy, pursuing her dream to become a Naval Aviator, marrying the man of her dreams (also a Navy pilot), and building the home of her dreams in Washington State – all by the age of 26 – God called her up to fulfill a higher heavenly mission and left all of us back on earth devastated, questioning, missing her.
Two years later I am still devastated, questioning and missing her, but I am also rebuilding and learning to honor her life by living mine to the fullest. Among so many other memories, I hold closely to my heart the memories of our trip together to the Grand Canyon. It was on that trip that we bonded for the first time in a deep, meaningful, adult sort of way as I was just approaching my 21st birthday and she was getting ready to begin her military career post-Academy. We were always close growing up, but during this precious one-on-one time we talked about big girl life stuff – family, school, boyfriends, marriage, religion – that had such a profound effect on my very impressionable self.
Her words “Adapt and Overcome” that she kept saying to me definitely stuck and became not only an inside joke between us and our family, but also a true motto we all embraced. We think she picked it up during her previous summer’s “Leatherneck” training program with the Marines, who use “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome” as an unofficial slogan made popular by Clint Eastwood’s movie, Heartbreak Ridge. Regardless of where she learned it or why she decided to repeatedly blurt it out to me in the Grand Canyon, all I know is that it stuck… so much that in a book put together at my bridal luncheon with thoughtful marriage advice from my bridesmaids and close family and friends, Val simply wrote “Alli, Adapt and Overcome. Love, Val”
I believe in these words. I believe that we, as humans, can overcome obstacles – whether they be big or small or in the form of fear, tragedy, shame, injury, trauma, guilt, loss, etc. And I believe in order to overcome our challenges, we must learn to be flexible, resourceful, creative, persistent and quick to make the necessary adjustments. Everywhere you look there are ordinary and extraordinary stories of humans adapting and overcoming, whether out of necessity to survive or out of a conscious choice to thrive. This isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot since being presented with the devastation of Val’s death, one of the hardest struggles I’ve ever faced. What I’ve realized is that in order to truly “adapt and overcome” one must first make the conscious decision to surrender.
This may seem counter intuitive to most people, especially military personnel, who are taught never to surrender. During the same scene in Heartbreak Ridge, Marine Gunnery Sargent Highway (Clint Eastwood) teaches his deadbeat recon platoon to recite, “Surrender is not in our creed.” While I agree that we don’t want our troops be taught to roll over and waive the white flag to our enemies, I also think that there is a deeper, more powerful meaning of this word that we can all take to heart. It relates more to the internal battles we each fight and our willingness to relinquish the desire to be fully in control. As hard as some of us may desperately try, we are never fully in control and we don’t always have the answers… Bad things happen; The weather changes; Plans shift; Our loved ones die too soon. Instead of continuing to fight ourselves and others over what we cannot change, what if we were to just learn to accept and to surrender our false sense of control? Faith teaches us this exact principle – that we must place our trust into God or a higher power in order to experience true freedom and salvation. This is the act and the art of surrendering – our control, our fears, our worries, our anxieties – to something larger than ourselves. And we first have to make the conscious choice to let go in order to free ourselves from our inner demons, to make a change, to adapt, to solve problems, to overcome hurdles, to achieve our goals, and to live out our unique God-given purposes. Simply put, to adapt and overcome, one must first surrender. This realization and my renewed journey of faith are Val’s gift to me, and I hope, to all of us.
In January 2014, my husband’s family started what has become a new tradition of everyone choosing one word as a theme for the coming year, as opposed to resolutions, which are often quickly abandoned. I chose the word “surrender” for all the reasons above and to help guide me through the chaos and life transitions that occurred in the months following Val’s passing. During this time, I have learned to let go of the railing I clung to so hard as a child and to throw my hands up proudly in the air so that I can fully experience this roller coaster of life, wherever it takes me. It’s terrifying at times, but I’m mustering up more courage everyday and drawing on Val’s exemplary strength and perseverance to fulfill my own life’s mission while carrying hers forward… sans peur et sans reproche.
What did I choose as my word for 2015, you ask? Express. Here’s to many more opportunities to be bold, to share stories, to convey feelings, to reflect, to grow, and to honor an incredible life by living ours to the fullest.
Allison Righter 3.11.13