What 2016 Gave Me

Note: This is a great submission from our
January 2017 Scribble writing exercise.

By Jason Spraitz

Maybe I’m to blame. As 2015 became 2016, I made a single plea, “Please let the new year be better than the one just completed.” How could it be worse, I thought.

Professionally, 2015 began with a state budget proposal to slash $300 million from my employer; this was reduced to a cut of only $250 million. Personally, 2015 ended with the Black Friday revelation that my mother-in-law was battling Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. My wife spent the final five weeks of 2015 traveling from our Eau Claire home to her childhood house in western Pennsylvania. I was alone in my living room with a shihtzu on my lap and crumpled McDonalds wrappers at my side when I made my New Year’s Eve proclamation.

One month later, January 31, 2016, I received the call from my wife – my mother-in-law died in her sleep after a short valiant fight. Personal tragedy gave way to professional loss in March when a gubernatorial-appointed board voted to strip true tenure protections from all Wisconsin state university faculty. My colleagues across the state responded by declaring no confidence in system leadership.

All of that happened before the end of May. At that point, I was certain my wish for the new year wouldn’t come true. And, as 2016 concluded, that mid-year intuition was proven correct, thanks to Mariah Carey, no less. I even apologized to a friend for my awry request from a year prior.

But, in 2016, one moment of pure beauty gave me pause and allowed me to forget personal and professional tribulations, if only for a few fleeting minutes.

In early June, I visited Rocky Mountain National Park with my wife and a close friend. We spent a sun-soaked morning hiking short trails near the Bear Lake Trailhead. We circled Nymph Lake and ascended the trail to Dream Lake. At Dream Lake we paused so our friend could cast a few flies, much to the delight of families and young children who passed by us. Continuing past Dream Lake at more than 9,900 feet of elevation we encountered a deepening snowpack, for it was still fairly early in the season. We decided to turn back and meander up a different trail to Alberta Falls.

The trail leading to Alberta Falls peaked at 9,400 feet. Just above the tree line. With the falls rumbling through the gorge to my right, I sat perched on granite that had taken millions of years to get to that moment with me.

Looking north, over the aspen groves and pine forests, to the snow-capped mountain ranges, I forgot about everything. I was caught in a moment in time; entranced by the wonder of the expansive vista in front of me. I felt grand yet small. Inferior as a single speck in 265,000 acres of pristine wilderness. But, powerful for being able to traverse this landscape at this altitude. And grateful, to that place, for its infinite power.

I return to that memory often. When morale drops at work. When elected representatives aren’t representative. When Thanksgiving gave way to Black Friday and the one-year anniversary of my mother-in-law’s diagnosis. Or, when I just want to smile.

It’s during these times that I remember: despite loss and disappointment and anger and sadness, there are places that have withstood all that pain – for millennia – and continue to inspire and provide opportunities for reflection and escape, if only for the briefest of moments.

Despite taking so much, 2016 gave me that, thankfully.