Courage: a New Paradigm


A few modern dictionaries have at least one definition all wrong. defines the word “courage” as “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.” I respectfully disagree.

Courage is not about facing danger without fear, but about facing danger in spite of it. To be fair, other dictionaries define courage with greater insight, but a more sensible definition of the word is in order, especially as used by mass media.


My current concept of courage evolved over time as I considered the emotions of individuals such as the firemen who entered the burning towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. News reporters portrayed them as people conducting heroic acts without fear, but in my mind, something was very wrong with that paradigm. Veteran firefighters are not naive; they know an extreme situation when they see one. I believe they knew the dangers, but entered the buildings in spite of fearing they may never see their families again.

DSC_0019-crop-webFast forward to 2007 when my ex adopted Delilah, a bulldog-beagle mix. Lulu, as we call her, was about 14 months old at the time, and had already been through the trauma of being placed in an dark overnight deposit box (like the ones used for donating clothes), giving birth to a litter of puppies while institutionalized in a shelter, and in our best estimation, physical abuse as a puppy at the hands of one or more young women. Watching Lulu transcend one challenge after another with trepidation was a lesson in life.

I recall, for example, her reluctance to using the doggie door. After a week of being left outside during the day, she overcame her fears and triumphantly burst through the doggie door late one afternoon. Feeling quite proud of herself, she conducted a brief “victory trot” around the house in celebration.

In 2009, Lulu had reconstructive surgery on a rear hip joint. Doctors’ orders were for her to be walked every day following surgery to keep the joint limber, and I was the designated physical therapist. Her leg was black and blue, red and purple, and still quite swollen.

We started with a modest 100 feet the day after surgery. Lulu followed slowly as I led her just past the house next door before lifting her head and looking at me with a facial expression that was simultaneously trusting yet pleading. Despite her obvious pain, she reluctantly took a few more steps because she wanted to please me, and in that instant, I recall thinking my little bulldog was one brave little girl.


imagesFinally, my concept of courage was cemented in 2010 when I saw the movie Gran Torino. Character Walt Kowalski is telling neighbor Thao about receiving the Silver Star in the Korean War for taking out an enemy machine gun nest. “Here, I want you to have it,” said Walt as he pins the medal on Thao’s shirt. … “Why?” says Thao. … Walt: “Because we all knew the dangers that night, but we went anyway … and that’s the way it might be tonight.” I could not have said it any better.

Per, the 13th century origin of the word “courage” is attributed to the roots “heart” and “age,” so it is unclear how and why it became defined as action without fear. Perhaps the tough and “fearless” male warriors of that era played a role. In any event, the existing definition of courage was already a media constructed reality by the time I started watching television as a child, but I believe most people would agree that the fearless denotation of courage has no basis in human emotion because it reduces its meaning to the mindless actions of a detached individual.


Descending the Labyrinth: Cataract Trail

Mt. Tamalpais State Park

Situated in one of the most beautiful places on earth — Mt. Tamalpais State Park in Marin County, California — the Cataract Trail drops from the ocean side of the West Peak down to Alpine Lake, some 1,300 feet below. Making the trek from top to bottom is like descending a wooded labyrinth of waterfalls, rocky facades, and winding staircases that will engage your senses and test your endurance.

The starting point of the trail is near the Rock Springs parking lot (see map below), a rather picturesque location with panoramic views of the brooding Pacific Ocean, from the Farralon Islands down to the misty shores of the San Mateo County coast. This perspective of the Pacific always give me the chills even though I’ve seen it dozens of times. The trail essentially points north as it hugs a cliff above and immediately east of Cataract Creek, but its true personality is all about dropping ever so swiftly into a heavily wooded canyon.

Modest Beginnings

DSC_0015After crossing through a modest grassy meadow surrounded by a plethora of pines, the trail begins to take form as it parallels the infantile beginnings of the creek, a rather skinny four to five feet across at this stage. Fragrances of dried brush and bay trees satisfy the nose while wildlife, wooden footbridges, and an under-story of ferns and other foliage provide eye candy. The elevation changes little as it meanders for about a mile and a half through rocky outcroppings and the occasional uprooted Douglas fir. The level of difficulty at this point is generally moderate, but all that is about to change with a dramatic drop in elevation.

Soon, the trail begins to point downward as it maintains its position on the edge of the canyon above the creek. With the drop in elevation comes some deviation in trail surface. Parts of the path are 100-foot patches of wavy granite while others are reddish clay or bona fide staircases chiseled into the mountain by rangers and volunteers of yesteryear. The stairs are composed of either rock or wooden railroad ties, with some originally cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the middle of the Great Depression. The creek is now starting to gain some “teeth” as the slope works in tandem with gravity to create rushing white water.


DSC_0044What follows is a series of cascading falls, long gradients of packed trail, and winding staircases that will “burn” your leg muscles. As expected, the waterfalls steal the show. If you are lucky enough to be here following spring rains, the creek is full and the falls are at their most profound.

There are railings along the trail and especially the staircases, but there are no rules preventing you from becoming more personally acquainted with the clear, cool water. I should caution you that engaging the creek at this stage is not for the feeble since there is a certain amount of danger in leaving the safe confines of the trail. Nevertheless, I encourage you to find one of the less challenging “side roads” down to the creek to capture its power.

Destination | Alpine Lake

1024px-Alpine_Lake_10160Finally, the falls give way to a gradual softening of slope as the elevation levels off near 650 feet above sea level. Cataract Creek is now about 100 feet across, and it soon merges into Alpine Lake, one of the many reservoirs in central Marin County that supply drinking water and additional breathtaking views. Here, the trail is west of the lake where there are picnic tables, shaded embankments, and exposed rock to rest upon while wetting a fishing line. You will also encounter hikers who parked along the lake and are working their way up the trail. After taking a break, you follow them for a reverse view of the mountain you just descended.

I count the stairs from time to time, but always come up with a different number — was it 450 or 472? … In any event, I encourage you to make your own count as you discover the treasures of the Cataract Trail.