Just Another Few Steps

A story about steep climbs, Morocco, and painting heat in the desert.

Yesterday, I took my two daughters, ages 3 and 5, for a walk at Lake Chabot. As it turns out, most of the city decided to enjoy the beautiful day there as well. Alas, there was nowhere nearby to park.

"Road to Iwal" by Kim Vanderheiden   48x36" oil painting, 2003Piles of stones such as this provided landmarks in the Sahara, marking the road and letting our driver know which way to go to reach the village of Iwal.
“Road to Iwal” by Kim Vanderheiden 48×36″ oil painting, 2003
Piles of stones such as this provided landmarks in the Sahara, marking the road and letting our driver know which way to go to reach the village of Iwal.

Now let me give you the lay of the land. Lake Chabot is a reservoir in the Oakland Hills near San Leandro. Ensconced in steep hills and natural California wildlife habitat on all sides, it has a paved path for walkers and joggers that looks out over the lake. Further downhill at the shore are areas for fishing and boating, and there’s a low green grass area for parties and barbeques. To get to the park, you go down a hill to the paid parking lot. If you park for free on the road above the park, you will need to walk up a sizable hill at the end of your hike or workout, or when your children are overtired. Well, I didn’t find $5 in my purse for parking, but I thought the girls could handle the hill at the end. However, when we arrived, the nearest parking we found was up yet another long steady slope that we’d have to trek after we had just climbed up to the road.

Not to be deterred, we went ahead with our walk anyway. The girls did a great job. Lana is strong and active. Lia was tired, having recently given up her afternoon nap, but she was a trooper and kept at it. I brought no stroller, so she didn’t have much choice I suppose, but in any case she did well. We took the hills slowly at the end, stopping to rest when Lia said she was tired.

Eventually, the van came into sight in the distance ahead, but by then, Lia was spent. As I handed Lana the sweatshirt I was carrying and scooped up Lia, I told Lana a story that took place in Morocco, before she was born.

My husband, David, and I were traveling there with a small group. We drove in Land Rovers across the Sahara Desert and into the High Atlas Mountains near Algeria, where we stayed with the Imam of a small village. We slept on the rooftop. I’ve never seen such stars in my life. Absent city lights for hundreds of miles, the sky seemed sprinkled with powdered sugar. We certainly weren’t absent sound however! A veritable cacophony carried on through the night – a donkey would bray and wake a rooster, who would crow and wake the dogs. All the dogs in the village would bark, and then the dogs in a nearby village would pick up the chorus, and the rooster would crow again, the donkey bray again. Then they’d all settle down for a bit, and then the donkey would bray…

"Roadside in the Desert" by Kim Vanderheiden
“Roadside in the Desert” by Kim Vanderheiden 28×22″ oil painting, 2003
This is where we were stopped near the border with Algeria, and asked to provide our passports, shortly before reaching the mountain village.

Well, in spite of this, beautiful, humorous, fascinating night, I had a stomach bug. Half of the people in our group did. It must have been something we ate the day before. The next morning, a local guide was to lead us on a hike to the top of the mountain, Jebel Lekst. I’d always wanted to climb to a mountain summit, and I was sorely disappointed that I was feeling ill. Others who had been feeling poorly that night stayed behind. However, the guide said that anyone who wanted to come along, should. And that if someone was too tired along the way, they could just find a nice spot to rest, and he’d pick that person up again on the way down. And so I went.

I got a fair piece up the mountain before I started feeling tired. But the top looked close, so I kept going. The top was farther than it appeared. I’d hike for a while longer and we’d only be a little bit closer. “It must be very close now,” I thought. So I kept going for a while. Nope, still we weren’t there. I was feeling quite wiped out, and one person had already sat down to wait, but I thought I could at least go a little further. After a while, I started focusing on a landmark several steps ahead of me. “I’ll just get to that spot, and then I’ll sit down to rest,” I would tell myself. As I approached that spot, I’d look ahead several more steps and say, “I can make it to that spot instead.” I played that game for a long time. I was intrigued by it, because I was really feeling awful by this time, but no matter how bad I felt, I could always keep the bargain with myself to just go a few more steps. But I did finally come to a point where I stopped. I felt I just couldn’t take another step. The guide looked surprised. So did the rest of the group. “We’re nearly to the top!” someone said. I shook my head no. I had no breath to talk anymore. I couldn’t keep going. The  group decided to rest a few minutes, suggesting that maybe then I could go on. “How many minutes to the top?” my husband asked. “Seven,” the guide replied. Seven minutes? I went all this way to miss the top by seven minutes? No way! So on I walked. For twenty more minutes. I played the game again. Just take a few more steps. Finally, we made it to the top.

I wonder if my five year old will remember this story. I’ll probably have to tell her again another time. It’s one I want my children to know about.

When we returned home from the trip, I made a number of oil paintings based on our time there. Two of them are featured in this article. The series was an important step towards knowing my own artistic voice. The hot colors and saturated palette that were used to convey the heat of the desert continue in my work today as an expression of intense energy. I’m fascinated by energy – in a physical sense, the energy of stars, Einstein, and black holes; – and in a human sense, the energy of a billion people living their lives, of cities of bustling people, and freeways loaded with zipping cars; and in a personal sense, the energy to get up after two ours of sleep to nurse a baby, to carry through the day on four hours of sleep in order to keep your life afloat, and the energy of three energetic children chasing around the house just before dinner.

David on a Mountaintop
A picture I took of my husband, David, after we reached the summit of the mountain together.



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