personal

3 lessons from my grandfather

Instead of building homes for those poor Guatemalan children or “teaching” Laotian villagers English, I’m going to be seeing my grandfather back in China in a few days. It’s always the highlight of my year since we’re so similar, and since he likes to show off the English he has learned over the past year to me. I’m thrilled to see what I’ll look like in seventy years–complaining about my back every morning, walking around a tiny courtyard over and over, and feasting on any greasy dish I can get my hands on. Recently, I’ve thought about what I have learned from him, and here are three lessons I’ve come up with.

  1. Learn to laugh a little, and play the cards you’re dealt.

My grandfather’s only child is half a world away; he lives right next to the bathroom of his nursing home (he tells me he finds it convenient) that releases putrid odors on an hourly basis; he can barely walk; he eats food that may be the worst I’ve seen in my life. However, he isn’t one to complain. My grandpa enjoys whatever life throws at him. He finds joy in the simple tasks he still can perform, such as reading the news every morning, watching TV shows about health and international affairs, and brushing up on his English by reading some books my mom brought over. He takes quick walks whenever he can, watching the laundry gently bristle in the breeze and hearing the birds chirp life-affirming morning hymns. From him, I’ve learned to appreciate whatever I have, because it could be much worse.

2. Move on, move on, move on.

When my grandmother passed away five years ago, he remained calm, yet I had nightmares for a month straight. If I were in his position, I don’t know how many chocolate bars and soap operas I’d go through as self-imposed therapy, how many tissue boxes I’d use up in my daily bouts of tearful remembrance. My grandfather took it quietly, slowly. He began to re-arrange their shared room, stored some of their mementos from years past under his bed, and started going about his daily routine. Even when faced with his own eventual death, he remains effervescent, hopeful, and sagacious. It’s amazing to see someone so cool-headed that’s related to my mother, whose caprices I can barely handle at times. I truly admire his resilience to adversity–he remains my muse to this day.

3. Don’t bother others.

One of his defining personal philosophies was to not bother others. He never asked anyone for help with errands or events he could take care of himself. If he fell down, he picked himself back up, no matter how painful or how slow it took. He’s always been a fighter: daring, self-reliant, boldly independent. It’s this trait that has permeated throughout our entire family. In this way, I’ve learned to solve my own problems, find out my own answers, and see things for myself before I believe them. My grandfather has molded me to become a more inquisitive, thoughtful, and reliable person, for which I am forever grateful.

These days, I’ll keep on thinking of the inconspicuous, comforting grin he bears daily; the methodical way he darns his socks; his dazzling eyes that scan the paper for interesting articles to discuss with us. I can’t wait to be home.

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*Junior Reflections!

What a year! I haven’t been blogging lately because I was crushed under a mountain’s worth of homework and activities. Now that AP exams are over, it’s time to dissect this year, one piece at a time. An overarching buzzword to describe this past school year: fatigue. I have thoroughly enjoyed everything that I have done, from AcDec to UIL science to schoolwork (yes, I enjoy school), but there is such a thing as too much. I constantly felt the burden deep down within my heart of overloading myself. Maybe six AP courses were too much to bear in one year! However, I can’t imagine myself in a different lifestyle in terms of my academic load; I can’t stand being bored in class, filling in inane worksheets and completing using bubble maps or outlines or annotations. Perhaps I would have toned down my involvements outside of school–only through the agony of junior year have I figured out the ineffable, inherent beauty behind reading endless articles on

An overarching buzzword to describe this past school year: fatigue. I have thoroughly enjoyed everything that I have done, from AcDec to UIL science to schoolwork (yes, I enjoy school), but there is such a thing as too much. I constantly felt the burden deep down within my heart of overloading myself. Maybe six AP courses were too much to bear in one year! However, I can’t imagine myself in a different lifestyle in terms of my academic load; I can’t stand being bored in class, filling in inane worksheets and completing using bubble maps or outlines or annotations. But perhaps I would have toned down my involvements outside of school–only through the agony of junior year have I figured out the ineffable, inherent beauty behind reading endless articles on The New York Times, drinking a cup of tea on the balcony, munching on a five-dollar picnic on a breezy lawn, or stargazing on the high school track. The beauty of life lies in its simplicity.

I’ve met some truly wonderful people this year. AcDec has proved to be even more rewarding that I would have thought. The ironclad bonds that I have formed with my teammates and coaches will last a lifetime; in the deepest of despondencies, I found laughter, joy, and hope through our various shenanigans. For this, I missed Area C (a local classics competition) and prom, but AcDec was definitely worth it. There’s something about a week-long “hotel arrest” that creates friendships and memories any other activity will never even begin to attempt. Within school hours, I sought refuge in the Davenportian cove on a daily basis. Those dim lamplights harbor me from my worst anxieties and fears, my problems and conflicts on the outside world. Inside lies a comforting, motherly warmth, stocked with wit, sarcasm, and empathy. I’ve been shaken to my core time and time again from the conversations, some more profound than others, that took place in WC105. Nothing else has made more of an impact on my transition into adulthood.

Friendships: some wither, and some grow. It was only natural that I strike up new camaraderie with completely new peers and lose the kinder that lighted my past few years. I not only kept up but also strengthened my relationships with most of my peers, and this provided solace for the torturous path of high school. One remarkable shift is my detachment from the drama of my peers; this change has improved my mental health and my outlook on the future. Fewer love triangles and catfights mean less myopia obscuring my vision of the world around me.

Some lingerings of apprehension about the summer ahead haunt me: I’m doing a lot. Research daily for 8 weeks, once-a-week hospital volunteering, Camp CAMP… I am not afraid to let some of these commitments grow in order to more passionately pursue a few interests. There need not be a sampling plate of amuse-bouches, but rather a hearty steak to dine on. Regardless of what I manage to do, I remain optimistic about where I am heading.

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“Breakfast / Desayuno”

Whoa! I’m back!

It’s been a rough semester, and I haven’t had the time to blog until now, so I’ll try to compensate this unplanned hiatus by blogging more frequently than normal during the break.

Back when I had free time, I used to write short stories in my free time. I didn’t develop them well enough, but here’s to it… I just hope a future English professor doesn’t find this!

Breakfast / Desayuno
“Hija, cómetela!”
“Sí, mamá.”
Right before the microwave oven, who had a severe case of arthritis, popped out my cinnamon Pop Tarts, my older brother walked into our kitchen. We could barely fit in the closet-sized room–it was meant for three pairs of shoes, not people. A single lightbulb hanging down on a single copper wire flickered as we walked past each other in silence, already accustomed to bumping our heads. He grabbed a slice of pound cake. Seizing his weary, wrinkly backpack from the ground, Pedro startled it from its easy sleep and ran off to the high school two blocks down the street. “Don’t be like your hermano when you grow up,” my mother used to say. “Not even a word to his own mother todos los días!”
“Sí, máma.”
That day I had just started second grade. They said that I was the smartest one in my family, destined for great things outside of our dingy subdivision in East Harlem. They said that I wouldn’t have to beg the supermarket ladies to let us use our expired food stamps or eat Uncle Ben’s rice and canned beans for three weeks straight or have to be late to work because the buses weren’t running on time. With this hope, after brushing my teeth and putting on my uniform, I let mi mamá walk me to school.

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“Hija, cómetela!”
“No, mom. I’m already late!”
Now it was tenth grade. With much difficulty, I had tested into Stuyvesant High, some two hours away by subway. I rattled my way around the box for the last Pop Tart, still in its shiny wrapper napping comfortably, and gripped my backpack before slamming the door shut and hopping down the stairs two at a time, all while peeling away the wrapper and voraciously biting into the cinnamon filling. My mother, with a vacant look in her eyes, stared out the window onto our ever-so-familiar 132nd Street we knew and loved. Facing away from me, she always held her daily companion, a mug of watery coffee, and said not a single word for four years as I did this todos los días.

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“Hey, wanna grab a bite at the commons area?”
“Sure.” I shut my Macbook and went downstairs.
Maneuvering through the chairs pulled out, I swiftly headed toward the usual line, now snaking around the breakfast nook. It was a typical Saturday morning. Pajamas replaced the usual jeans and sweatshirts. Thick gusts of syrup and jelly circulated the room, and the old-fashioned heater in the middle smiled with his orange glow.
“The usual, Marcia?”
It was then that I noticed a new offering. Hiding in the very back of the kitchen, I could barely make out the blue box, coyly tucked behind some neon-green Nutri-grain bars. There he was–cinnamon pop tarts. My whole childhood, with Pedro and mi mamá and that pesky light bulb, flashed before my eyes.
“I’d like those pop-tarts, please.”
That night I called my mother for the first time. After a short pause, I spoke my first “hola” since I started college. My heart fluttered when I heard the tears streaming down her worn face, the wrinkles carved in stone now dancing in delight, smiling at the crackling sound of my familiar voice.
“Te extraño, hija.”

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It’s been three months since my mom moved to Florida, twenty since I graduated from college. When I got the word that she was nearing her end, I flew down to Miami immediately.
My flight was delayed for three hours, and when I got to Miami, my phone experienced the worst seizures in its life, all from phone calls from family members worried sick.
Some time later, I rush into her room straight out of a cab. The driver’s still yelling at me, insisting that I give him a tip.
She says nothing, her face a crossword of multifarious expressions and her body a raisin in the sun, and slowly lifts her hand up to reach for a box of dulce de leche Pop Tarts on top of her drawer. I carefully cut open the wrapper and place them into a brand-new microwave oven Pedro bought her the other day, just like how mi mamá tucked me into bed each night.
After a suspenseful few minutes, the oven, in its last call to duty, enthusiastically shouts out, “Ding!” My mother, hands shaking with every inch closer to the radiating oven, lifts out of that time machine the pastries of my long-gone years. Carefully, the capsules glide onto the small table next to the dense forest of translucent orange medication bottles. The brilliant rising sun beams down into my mother’s room, the effervescent scarlet and honey and fire heralding a new era.
Finally, with one last breath of air and a slight smile, my mother set her hands on her laps and forcefully whispers, “Hija, cómetela!”
“Sí, mamá.”
I couldn’t help but smile as well.

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Pop! goes the bubble

I’ve lived in a bubble for most of my life–first in an Asian bubble in my old suburban town, then in my current top 1% community. This summer, I’ve had the chance to escape North Texas and headed for a camp down south near San Antonio.

The two weeks I have spent there were at first incredibly scary, as the prospect of a sea of strange faces daunted this little introvert. Out of my emotional destitution, I clung onto my classmates, who also went to my camp, like algae on a rock. I believed that I was inept at making new friends; others counselors’ smiles morphed into jeers in my mind.

However, as I slowly started to become weary of my old friends, my self-induced paralysis lost all its power over me. I started sitting next to new people during lunchtime and introduced myself. Through this, I found out that new doesn’t have to be bad, that familiar warmth can burn. I broke free from my own trap and stepped into the cold water whose waves were greeting me the whole time, nipping at my reluctant toes. The new friends I’ve made are similar to some of my friends here at home, but it’s nice to meet new people nevertheless.

The second week went by much smoother after I learned my lesson the week before. I immediately opened myself up to others and their weird inside jokes (which I also got into). Even though we were all counselors, we had two breaks throughout the day, and through these precious few hours, we got to know each other a bit too well. We shared ramen. We found a bucket of ice cream together and shared with everyone in the dining hall. We laughed. We cried. We learned to love one another.

One moment that I remember right now is the last few moments of my first week. The dining hall was filled up by a tortuous snake of eager counselors ready to feel some real AC. I pulled out a deck of playing cards that I stuck in my pocket since the first day of camp and asked someone I met the day before to play a game of cards with me. She called some of our fellow counselors, and we settled down and started to play gingerly. It wasn’t until fifteen minutes into the game that all the walls between us were finally smashed down; we let loose and ended up staying until the last of the last finally checked out for the week. It’s moments like these that I’ll keep in my pocket… along with a deck of cards.

 

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*KD Dallas–Singin’ the SAT Blues

Karen Dillard’s College Prep–THE SAT, ACT, and college preparation company that’s been in the DFW area for more than 20 years now. A staple in the eyes and ears of the blessed children of Plano, Dallas, Colleyville, and Frisco. The ubiquitous yellow binders signify an era of intense competition in the noxious college app environment, the pervasive anxiety in middle-class circles, and the indelible socioeconomic inequality in the US that starts from the womb and ends at the grave.

It’s been around a month since the KD Dallas office closed. I started going to this location since the summer prior to freshman year. Although it seems ironic that I’ve developed such an attachment to this tiny elitist prison (Lilliputian doesn’t even begin the description of each room), I have made new friends, both peers and teachers. I’ve matured mentally here, grown up here; and learned just a bit too much about the state of standardized testing here. At this turning point, I’d like to take a wandering stroll down Memory Lane for a second or two.

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My first day is hard to remember. It all started out with the view from the picture below. The “Command Central” consists of two to three people standing at the front desk ready to help, albeit usually talking amongst themselves most of the time. (This desk seems cute in comparison to Plano’s.) On that fateful day, I coincidentally saw two of my classmates, which helped soothe my nerves. After getting set up, I headed down the hallway shown below to my first ever experience here: orientation, which took way too long for a restless middle-schooler. Workshops? Practice Tests? Classes?? Vocab “lab???” I felt even more enervated. All I could do was read each email KD sent me over and over again. I hoped for the best.

Unexpectedly, I did receive the best. That summer I started classes at KD. They were rather uneventful; however, the school year brought new friendships with the instructors and strengthened old ones with classmates from school. Sometimes after workshops, my friends and I would go to Subway, where we would laugh and talk until our parents grew antsy and picked us up.

Sophomore year came along; these are the times that I remember most clearly. I got to know more of my instructors even better and gradually began to joke around with the “command central” (i.e. front desk) workers and even directors. Waking up early Saturday mornings to eat breakfast at the nearby Einstein’s and later to attend two-hour workshops and became a part of my weekly routine.

One day, I was mindlessly working on the vocab lab, which I had already completed through once, when I bumped into one of my closest friends–surely enough, as in a chain reaction so familiar to us chem geeks (we met in freshman chemistry), more and more of my classmates started to come to KD as well (probably just part of the mold we’re subjected to in HP)! I realized that workshops were so much more bearable with friendly smiles, so we created a group text to coordinate our attack on the SAT. The hours spent in this prison (Exhibit A: grey-painted brick on the interior) turned around from near dread to delight.

(Side note: this place reeks with the stench of the classic SAT: the restrooms are decorated with erudite vocabulary words that high school students used to memorize. Glad those days are over!)

 And here we come to this day, a new leaf has turned… or more accurately, has moved twenty miles north into the heart of Texas-sized suburbia. Ever since the Dallas KD location closed, I’ve been stuck at the Plano location–a giant icebox full of teenagers on the brink of bawling out the next Biblical flood, according to one of my Dallas instructors who moved with me to Plano. (A note about the temperature: when I say it’s freezing, I mean you could store ice cream and it wouldn’t melt. In each room, the AC is cranking out a cool 60 degrees, and a ceiling fan AND sometimes a side fan are on full power. If they paid less for their energy bills, maybe we could pay less as well!) Every so often I get to see a familiar face: ANYONE from Dallas I welcome with a smile, greeting, or even a warm hug. It’s hard to find sane people in that strip mall, but we’ll deal (hopefully) until the end of this year.

To end on a positive note, I have met some amazing and über-qualified teachers, whose professional experience ranges from copy editor to mechanical engineer, some of whom have been teaching for decades now. I’ve met even more great people on my test prep journey… and perhaps a penguin here and there.

-MX

Note: Some of my favorite teachers include: the WS game lady who lowkey got fired and who I saw at Einstein’s more than once; Bryn, whom I am friends with on Snapchat and who carries a sizzling watermelon purse; York, the one and only chill teddy-bear; Donna, my lovely Southern jean-jacket wearing snail; Debby, the one with no chill whatsoever; Michael Wang, who’s lowkey intimidating 🙂

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*Sophomore Reflections

It’s been two weeks since school ended and a week of Latin summer school completed; now is a good transition–a time to reflect on what happened this last year at HP.

First impressions? The most conspicuous difference from freshman year to sophomore year was the addition of AP courses. I took four this year (Biology, Chemistry, Calculus, and World History), which wasn’t as bad I thought it would be. Along the way I’ve met great teachers who go beyond what is called for in order to instill a newfound understanding and appreciation of the classes they’re teaching: Mr. Sanders made sure we were awake first period by telling the most *dad* puns I’ve ever heard in my life, Ms. Leediker roasted us from the first core lab (which actually involved a titration, so it’s not exactly biology) and never stopped, Mr. Chuang burnt sugar on fire for us in Chemistry, and Dr. Wright greeted our Calc BC class with a smile every day. The teachers in my life have continued to make a difference in all of the students’ lives (including me!) and have inspired me to give back to my community as they have. I’m now interested in taking a few classes in history or linear algebra two years form now in college, even though it has nothing to do with my planned major (biophysics? biochemistry? chemistry? something like that).

Another wonderful addition to my life this past year was participating in my school’s U.S. Academic Decathlon program, endearingly referred to as “AcDec.” AcDec was another very conspicuous addition to my already-hectic schedule (I only go home at 3:30 on Fridays >__<). On top of Monday afternoon meetings that regularly go to 5, AcDec required me to read at least 1 to 2 hours a day outside of other homework from my other classes. On top of all of this, the overarching topic was “India,” something I knew next to nothing about (I probably know more about you than I did about India before this year!) However, I can say that I’ve truly enjoyed every minute absorbing more foreign culture than I could’ve ever hoped for (except Social Science: that was a pain). I also memorized a painfully-awkward speech, wrote numerous bland essays that somehow scored well, and took part in interviews with deceptively-friendly faces. The best I got out of this program so far is definitely the new friends I’ve made for a lifetime! I’ve never met such a concentrated group of smart and funny people in my life. Go Decathletes!

This was also my first full year of Student Council (last year I was stuck in Latin most of the time). Every day I looked forward to meeting with this lovely bunch, especially the freshmen (freshmen!!?! We’re supposed to avoid them like the plague, but some of them are better than what you’d think). We started and supported many projects, old and new, especially Project Purple, which seeks to reduce alcohol and drug use among the high schoolers in our community. I’m also really proud that we’ve paired up with many wonderful organizations, some of which have been started by HP alumni, including Bonton Farms, Project Starfish, and One Million 4 Anna. What I enjoyed the most was my “family,” composed of two seniors (our “moms”), one junior, two sophomores, and one freshmen. We got to eat off-campus and hang out, and I’ve never felt so carefree and relaxed. I’ll hold these memories dear to me for a lifetime!

A last note about the club with the most explosions: Applied Science Club. To be honest, initially, I was afraid the hours I spent on my cathode ray tube would be wasted, time that could have been spent on AcDec (I’m totally not a nerd..psh…). Instead, opening myself up to the club and its members have been wise choices, as I’ve gained hands-on knowledge on building my own gadgets and have had some interesting, memorable experiences.


Finally, less formal than a school organization or club, my “squads” have been there for me! I loved solidifying our bonds and making a few new friends as well–they make life in high school much better than it seems. They’re glial cells to my axons, peanut butter to my jelly, vitamin D to my calcium. Graduation was especially bittersweet, as in a few months, I won’t see some of my best friends lurking the hallways of this high school anymore. One senior said to me, “See you in the afterlife,”… I hope to see them before that!

P.S. I’ve just thought of another observation: compared to last year, even though this year’s teachers were fantastic, I still feel that I haven’t connected as much with my classmates, teachers, and courses. I distinctly remember one day in second semester of WHAP that I thought to myself, “When will I stay becoming conformable with this class? I still feel like it’s the first day of school.” Maybe it was just the unadulterated fascination with high school as a freshman last year… all I hope for next year is a renewed sense of belonging.

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Alaska ’16

This past April, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to Alaska for USAD Nationals. Although the competition itself was also exciting (I met fellow decathletes from around the world, all of whom were very nice), the few days we spent before and after the actual testing days were most invigorating.

“The Last Frontier:” Right from arrival, I could feel the majestic land living up to this state nickname. I first noticed that my cell signal was provided by GCI, a company unique to Alaska, and not the typical T-Mobile (however, sometimes T-Mobile showed instead). Second, there are operating Blockbusters in Alaska! In 2016!!!

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The afternoon after our arrival, our team took a “wilderness trip” to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. As the age-old adage goes, the journey is more important than the destination; it definitely applied to this trip! The breathtaking Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm (named as such when one of Captain Cook’s fellow explorers was disappointed in the dead end and decided to turn again) kept me awake–monstrous mountains jutting right out of the ocean spanning miles, further than the eye can behold, a fierce rain slamming against our poorly-dressed bodies, the deadly coolness and stillness lingering in the air–brought out a distinct first impression of Alaska.

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Guiding us was Kevin, a very knowledgeable Wisconsinite (albeit without the adorable accent that typically accompanies), who definitely treated us kinder than the weather! (Fun fact: Prior to guiding tours, he was a German teacher.) From him I learned that the murkiness of the waters wasn’t from light effects or typical sediment, but rather from a special glacial silt that inhabits the Cook Inlet and its many arms and sells for high prices due to its cosmetic effects. He also told us about the best restaurants in Anchorage, including the Moose’s Tooth, Simon Seaforts, and Crow’s Nest, the restaurant on top of Hotel Captain Cook that used to be the only establishment in the area to require a dress code. The drive was fun and informative, a combination the world needs more of. Even though the sun was not to be seen behind all the grey clouds and dreary rain, Kevin shone on.

As any Discovery Channel junkie may know, there are a plethora of shows filming out of Alaska, and those of us in the lower 48 most want to see large wild animals when we are watching about Alaska. Therefore, it comes to no surprise that Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet was filming the day we came to the center, and so we were the only general visitors admitted. No wonder the animals seemed extra lethargic–there were no innocent tourists to flaunt to!

We saw many different animals, some of whose names I can’t recall. My favorite by far was Hugo, the female grizzly bear. Even in this grim weather, she decided that she needed a mental health day and gave herself a nice bath in the stream.

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Later on in the week, at the Egan Convention Center, where all the testing and subjective events occurred, our team met Keith Cox, a professor at University of Alaska Southeast (UAS), alum of our high school and co-owner of Seafood Analytics, which tests seafood products for quality of fatty acids, how long the product will last on shelves, etc. It is the first company to offer such technology! He was actually an Interview judge for the competition, for which we are eternally grateful.

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After the competition was over, the Saturday and Sunday we had left was for natural excursions nearby, the most vivid of all being Flattop Mtn. At 3,510 feet, this mountain soars into the sky. Climbing this beast was quite the challenge, the most physical exercise I have exerted in years; through this experience, I’ve learned a few lessons…

  1. Life can become difficult unexpectedly: The first few minutes of the hike were relatively easy-going, with gentle slopes, cleared paths, and a cute husky trotting back and forth. However, after this portion came a steep hill that I chose to climb (who knows why). All of a sudden, tiny pellets of snow came hurling down forcefully, and the slippery snow on the ground was no help either. The howling wind ripped at my face, clawing and scratching… like a “hangry” toddler after his Cheerios spill. Nevertheless, I persevered, only to meet another, even-larger challenge ahead of me.
  2.  One can make life more difficult than necessary: As in the little knoll, on the actual mountain, I most certainly chose paths that others did not take–the snugly-placed footsteps were wooing me to walk away from my current path, but to no avail, as I was too far away from the beaten path. Thus, I continued, but it was truly painful, especially if you’re afraid of heights and barely hanging onto a near-90-degree-gradient cliff like me! Going down, I chose easier paths and had a better time climbing down… But, that isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy my way up. Sometimes the hardest paths are the most rewarding. I’d say, if I hadn’t taken such an arduous path up, I wouldn’t be writing this blogpost at all!
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  3. As true to the byline of my blog, take life one step at a time: on my way up Flattop, I couldn’t help but plan only my next few steps. It was painful to see so much ground ahead of me, but as I carefully managed to take the journey step-by-step, sooner than later, I reached the top of the peak, which took my breath away literally. 3,510 feet dwindled down to a few inches by using this technique.

As you can see, the trek was definitely worth it! These views will stick with me for a lifetime. I undoubtedly enjoyed my few days in our 49th state and hope to come back again.

Cheers,

MX