There is always a way to look at the world that can make you happy.Orville
There was never a time in my life when I made a conscious decision to make hiking a central focus, though there were many scattered moments, beginning in childhood, when I knew that a mountain trail held something special for me. As a young woman I learned that the trail was my most dependable tool for soothing the troubled soul. My troubles were probably no worse than anyone’s, but like the trail, life brings its bumps and bruises no matter how carefully you plan your route.
Beautiful vistas are hard to beat when it comes to trying to figure things out. There is nothing like a view from a mountain peak to give one perspective on life, and mostly what those “mountain top experiences” do for me is to remind me that my troubles are minor in the grand scheme of things. As long as I can put one foot in front of the other, it seems I always know what to do next.
On a section hike of the PCT a few years back I met a man who carried with him the largest first aid kit I have ever seen on the trail, even bigger than my eight pound monstrosity I wrote about in a post several months ago. He explained to me that he had been an Army medic in Afghanistan and carried his well supplied kit because he regularly met hikers who carried minimal supplies and were in need of serious first aid. He wrapped ankles, mended lacerations, and dressed blisters every day on the trail. We commiserated awhile on how poorly prepared many hikers are these days, and then, for reasons I did not quite understand but can only trust, he began to tell me about some of his experiences in Afghanistan. I will not go into detail about these stories. They are not mine to share, but it was not hard to figure out that patching up blisters and wrapping aching ankles was nothing compared to what he had experienced in the Army. Caring for injured hikers, however minor those injuries, appeared to be an act of love but also a kind of healing for him. They were injuries he could actually fix and was able to send the hiker back on her way with a well supported ankle.
Here I would like to share a little information about myself that will be new to most of my readers. In a previous life, otherwise known as before retirement, I worked as a shrink, actually a psychiatric nurse practitioner. I do not know how it is that people sense a listening ear is nearby, but it has happened to me on multiple occasions, and though I no longer work for a living, I am glad that listening with compassion and understanding is something I can still offer to the world, especially on the trail. Just as he found satisfaction in mending the minor cuts and scrapes of hikers, it was healing for to listen while surrounded by a copse of dwarfed subalpine fir trees. There were no comfortable chairs facing each other, no prescription pad on my desk, just two strangers sitting in a meadow sharing their stories.
In a world before cell phones, going for a hike literally meant getting away from it all, including the challenges we all face in our daily lives. On the trail there are also challenges. . .a steep climb to a mountain pass, a rain storm, a long hot stretch of trail without shade. I would not ever say these trials are easy, but they are at least unambiguous. There is only this solution, and it is always the same: shoulder the heavy pack and put one foot in front of the other.
Then there is this. . .that feeling you get when you reach the summit, take off your pack, and look around you at the world from on high. It is the feeling you get when you are on top of the world. . because you are. . . and the pain you cannot see or feel suddenly falls away. What you can see is just as it should be. . .rare and sparkling and lined up with jagged peaks that are snow capped and pointing towards the heavens.
There is the feeling you get when you set up your tent in a downpour and crawl into your sleeping bag, which has somehow remained dry. You are surrounded by a world that is wet and cold and wild but is just as it should be, a world where new rivulets of water are now making their way down that trail you just ascended, where mud sucked each footstep, and yet you find your safe place in this storm. Yes, there is a storm out there, but here in you sleeping bag, camped at the edge of a meadow, sheltered beneath the spreading boughs of a mountain hemlock, you are safe and warm and dry. Sleep well.
I am grateful to Sarah Wilson for suggesting the topic for today’s post. When I read her message I thought, “I can’t possibly write about that!” As always, the trail pointed the way.