(originally posted 9/4/2012)
It’s either TNT or TBS … one of those TV stations tends to run movies into the ground a little. They did that recently with Rocky. It was on like twenty times in four days… at some point they actually started a new Rocky before the last Rocky was even finished. Problem is I love that movie and have a hard time not watching it when it’s on. It’s not as big an issue as The Shawshack Redemption, which I am unable to physically move away from the screen or change the channel if I happen to stumble upon it during my channel surfing. Don’t ask me why. So I’ve seen it quite a bit lately. It then occurred to me that one of the most powerful scenes in the movie is one I could duplicate: his ascent of the front stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I live just outside Philly so I got very excited about the possibility of retracing the steps of a cultural icon. Doing some homework on it though made the task seem a little more daunting. Construction of the stairs started in 1919 and didn’t finish up until 1928. Damn that must be a lot of stairs! Turns out, and it says this right on the webpage, you can actually see the Washington Monument from the top of the stairs. What have I gotten myself into here?
Obviously I wanted to duplicate the Rocky run as close as possible so I wanted to climb the stairs without the aid of oxygen and unencumbered by the people and equipment of a large-scale expedition. Setting off the next morning bright and early I carried with me only a tent, some basic climbing equipment and food. Obviously I had no idea of what the next four days would hold.
Day 1: Arriving early at the base of the Philadelphia Museum of Art I craned my neck upwards to glimpse the top. My plan was to spend the day hiking to base camp, roughly 30 meters from where I now stood shivering in the early morning cold. I couldn’t help but get a feeling of grief as I passed the spot where a Sherpa was killed only two weeks ago by a runaway hot dog cart and it was with some relief that I started my journey up. I noticed quite quickly the disrepair that some of the stairs had fallen into, deep cracks that made the footing dangerous and slow. Discarded gum and newspapers also add to the treacherous conditions. I am quickly exhausted and it’s not until 14:00 hours that I reach base camp, much later than expected. Although I am still committed to reaching the top today’s unexpected slowness, dangerous conditions and my exhaustion have shaken my confidence. Rude children touching my tent are not helping either.
Day 2: After spending a restless night explaining myself to various representatives of Philadelphia’s law enforcement community I start the day poorly by badly twisting my ankle by slipping on an empty box of Good ‘N’ Plenty and decide to spend the day resting in my tent. As I gaze out of my tent upon the sight of the Philadelphia Museum of Art I can’t help but think about the quote from T.S. Elliot “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Day 3: Time to get cracking! I get an early start and temperatures feel like minus 20 centigrade… or maybe Fahrenheit… whichever, it was quite nippy. You could say it was downright brisk. There is a heavy fog and visibility is so poor that I feel that if I was not clipped securely to fixed ropes I would have surely become disoriented and lost. Soon after I was walking in the blazing morning sun and so I stripped off to my “It’s always funny until someone loses a weenie” t-shirt. The good weather has made my spirits soar! I make great time and I’m well past 130 meters when I decide to set up my tent and rest before the final push. It’s 21:00 hours when I lay down to rest and rehydrate.
Day 4: I wake at 02:30 hours. I aim to reach the top by 10:00 hours. Bring it on, I’m ready! I am above 200 meters now and I am beginning to wish I had brought oxygen. Looking out I still cannot see the Washington Monument … I can barely see City Hall from here. The next nine hours prove to be the most difficult in my entire life. I am suffering from headaches and stomach aches and my appetite is almost completely gone… which is lucky as my supply of Hot Pockets is running perilously low. I also believe that I have only a limited sense of smell left but as I haven’t showered in some time it’s probably for the best. It’s almost noon when I finally place my foot on the top step of the stairs in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So many feelings. I want to raise my arms above me head and dance around like Rocky but I am just too tired. I settle for a long gaze out over the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Eakins Oval. Suddenly, nearly 250 meters from where I set off only four days ago I realize that I forgot my camera but luck is firmly with me as two older ladies agree to take my picture and promise to e-mail me a copy when they get home. Some people might ask me why I did it. How do I explain the feeling of accomplishment? Life is too short to live with boundaries.
I mull over the decision to start back down but decide instead to walk around to the back of the museum and catch a cab ride home. I hope you find this inspiring. By the way, the two older ladies explained that the Washington Monument that the website mentioned is actually a sculpture in Eakins Oval and not the one in Washington DC. A little disappointing but in retrospect it does make more sense. That would make the stairs up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art as tall as Everest or something …