Hill Climb

Len says one steady pull more ought to do it. He says the best way out is always through. And I agree to that, or in so far as that I can see no way out but through. - Robert Frost

Growing up in rural New Hampshire, on a farm cultivated by my grandparents, I learned a lot from my mother, a trained draftsperson turned artisan craft maker. I also learned key lessons through my father, who at the time of this story was a mechanic who specialized in Volkswagen Beetles.

This was the old Beetle, not the new sleek variant. The one designed by a committee of Adolf Hitler and Ferdinand Porsche in 1934. The Love Bug, an air-cooled, rear-wheeled, piece of craftsmanship with the engine in the trunk (or boot, or Kofferraum), designed to carry a family of 5 at cruising speed on the Autobahn without wasting any fuel.

They were beautiful machines, and my father found them worth fixing. He spent years rebuilding them, first for families that used them like a station wagon, and later for car aficionados. The tiny engine compartment required special tools that my father would build by bending or welding yard-sale scavenged craftsman tools, often a wrench that fit a specific purpose like turning a single bolt hidden deep inside the engine cavity, requiring 4 or 5 bends to fit around hoses and alternators.

He loved the bug but it was an import that was being discontinued, and when parts started getting sparse or expensive, he would go to junkyards and buy abandoned cars, bringing home 3 or 4 at at time on a flatbed, parking them out of sight in the woods behind our farmhouse so he could pick parts off of them as jobs required.

As a mechanically inclined family with lots of “bugs” around, we found uses for them, and one of those was woodsin’. I don’t know if we invented this or not, but we would have a few of these magnificent creatures modified for crashing along old lumber trails in the forests behind my family farm. No glass, maybe some chicken wire to keep branches out, heavy shocks, lowered pressure in the tires, removed fenders, extra batteries, sometimes no doors. Removing the doors from a vehicle intended to be whipped by branches at a ridiculous speed may seem counter intuitive, but it became a safety issue that I’ll get to in a minute.

Not content to simply drive through the woods with these vehicles, eventually we discovered that the embankment on the side of a set of power lines that ran through our town provided a near-impossible hill to drive a vehicle up. There was nothing of value at the top, it was simply for the thrill of the climb, and woodsin’ gave way to hill climbin’. A run 200 feet up a muddy 50 degree grade is a very difficult thing to accomplish in a VW Beetle, and it helped me learn two things: The Best way Out is Through, and in life, Timidity will be Punished.

A quarter-mile run up to the hill allows you to pick up enough speed for the first part of the climb. A few honks to ensure anyone foolish enough to be standing in the way would scatter, and you’d hit the climb with a jolting deceleration as the center of gravity of your vehicle dramatically shifts. As the vehicle slows, you can’t just keep that pedal mashed, because overturning wheels will eliminate any grip you have on the hill. But you don’t want to slow down - not even when your stomach turns because of the sudden change in g-forces and the visual confusion caused by the trees surrounding you being in the wrong orientation. You can’t slow down even as your brain starts to wonder if you should be wearing a helmet for this, and you realize that you’re reaching stall, and now you’re going to have to downshift. You know what happens when you downshift.

When you take a rear-engine vehicle up a steep slope, your CG is no longer pulling you towards the earth through the safety of four wheels. Your forward momentum and your will are keeping the vehicle moving forward as downward inertia begins to correct itself to match those weirdly-oriented trees. If you lose that forward momentum because your shifting is off by an eighth of a heartbeat … Well, Mistress Gravity is now pulling you in the wrong direction entirely, and the car fulfills it’s destiny: rolling end over end in a terrifying wheelie that results in you testing both the tensile strength of your seatbelt and the crushing strength of your roof.

When you get to the bottom of this exhilarating, embarrassing, terrifying experience, you’ll find that deformations in the car’s frame require the doors to be removed with an oxyacetylene torch. 15 minutes spent with people cutting hinges and prying while you lay upside down and beat out flames from the vehicle’s padding, trying to avoid blasts as the 3000 degree torch makes it through what used to be your door. For hill climbing, oxyacetylene and removing the doors beforehand is simply part of the mise en place we discussed last week.

But preparation is only going to take you part of the way in this endeavor, because once they cut you out and they roll the vehicle back onto it’s wheels, pull some roots out of the engine compartment and sledgehammer the steering back into place, you’re going back up that hill.

Timidity will be Punished.

Learning how to climb a hill is an iterative method. This is technically a simple procedure. Match your wheel speed to the vehicle’s forward momentum. Reach the top before the two equal zero. The more momentum you start with, the more room you have for mistakes. But that means we revisit that run up to the hill, where you pick up your initial speed. Everyone starts off afraid of the hill. Being afraid of the hill makes you do silly things like touch the brakes. Being afraid of the hill makes you timid. In hill climbing, like in flying aircraft, speed is lift. Speed is life. Speed gives you time to make decisions. Speed can get you to the top.

But hitting that hill at high speed … heck, just driving through the woods at high speed requires boldness. Experience helps you to gather your wits and survive, but only boldness will allow you to perform.

In the real world, Timidity is also punished. It’s punished with mediocre lives spent making someone else wealthy. It’s punished by leaving the potential that exists inside everyone untapped and unsatisfied. If you want to get to the top of that hill, you need to be bold. Not careless, not reckless: boldness can be calculated and careful. It should be guided by experience and expertise. Boldness is taking your skills and applying them with everything you have, exerting a certain level of calculated risk to make the world a different place. Hopefully, a better place for you and the people around you.

Starting a business with a sensible plan is far less risky than anything I’ve described in this post so far. But it can be even more terrifying.

The Best way Out is Through.

I’ve spent time in many shops and factories in my life, and a constant theme is the declaration “safety first”. I’m a staunch believer in safety third. First, we take calculated risks and in so doing allow ourselves to grow and accomplish things. Second, we use common sense to guide ourselves through dangerous waters. Only third do we consider that those risks may not be worth the goals we’ve set for ourselves.

Once your boldness finds you on that hill, timidity doesn’t really figure into it anymore. You’re already moving, and when you get there - at that point where you realize the car is rapidly winning the fight for control, where gravity asserts itself, and you can see a bone-pounding elevator ride in your future, you need to make a decision: Are you a hill climber or not?

If you’re not, there’s this moment where the car almost hits zero speed, as the front wheels lift, and you can unclip your belt and jump. (Luckily, the doors have already been removed.) This maneuver isn’t a lot safer than taking the fast way down, but it can seem that way, and it is over mercifully quick. The worst part of choosing this path is that you are now a pedestrian. Any hope of reaching the top of the hill is over as you watch your unmanned craft tumble back to zero potential energy. If you thought it was hard to overcome timidity before, you may as well just go home now.

When you hit that point, the jump or don’t point, your mettle is tested, and you must decide: Are you a hill climber or not? Because the only way out is through. The only way UP is through. It’s time to put your skills to work and get on top.

We encounter these moments frequently throughout our lives. You’re feeling overwhelmed at work, and you think you’ve got no choice but to quit. You’re feeling the crush of depression while a project drags on and you can’t see completion in sight. You’re reaching the end of your funding, and your customers failed to appear. A storm rises while you are on a vacation sail, and you know you can’t make it back to shore before it hits.

To pull in a few more clichés, these are the moments that try men’s souls. Equally important, remember everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay yet, then you’re not at the the end. Have hope. Nothing you’re doing is original. People have weathered storms forever, and people are still here. If it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger.

Think about the things that almost killed you in the past. That project that almost made you give up architecture, or the bicycle race that you collapsed in the middle of. The hill climb that gave you a concussion. The time you were burning furniture to keep your house warm. Riding these risks are the times we remember. They form us into the people we are and they prepare us for the trials ahead. And the only way out of them is through.

Pulling the ripcord before you get to your target altitude is a quite sensible thing to do. Quitting on that client can make the immediate difficulty go away. Walking away from the forge because you’re just too hot to finish the knife blade you are making is comfortable.

Frequently to grow as a person, to succeed in our goals, we need to accept some discomfort. We need to go against the common sense and find the part of you that makes things work. Stop looking for a shortcut and go through. There is a need to find that piece of steel that runs through our spine - that makes the brain push the pedal.

With every attempt, every tumble, you must and will become better. Pay attention to what happened, and try again. Eventually, you will get to the top. Or maybe you’ll die trying. But you will die a hill climber, not a pedestrian, and you will have lived along the way.

What hill climbs have you made it through in the past? Or what’s making you want to give up now?

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