Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace.Flannery O’Connor
Fellow hikers who read my blog know how much the trail toughens us up for life. Almost every hiker has had that experience, sometimes at the end of a long day of hiking. Out of water perhaps, hot and tired, and then it turns out the campsite we had been seeking has no water or lacks sufficient level ground on which to pitch a tent. On such occasions I have sat down and said to myself, “I can’t possibly go any further.” And then I stand up with my heavy pack and do exactly what I just said I cannot do. I go further. There is no choice really. That is the beauty of it, doing what we think is impossible and “getting the grace,” as Flannery O’Connor has written.
Here in the north country of Washington state we are having quite a winter, as is most of the country this year. Cold winters in a log home present special challenges, and for a variety of reasons I am having to meet them alone. Of course, I am used to that, having been training all my life for that very thing. I hike alone. I know how to do this.
Subzero temperatures require careful attention to the wood stove, inspection of the pipes, and most important of all, warm blankets and a good book. But sooner or later it becomes necessary to go out into the world, the world that is blanketed in several feet of snow, the world that is cold, the world that gets dark at four-thirty in the afternoon.
So it was a few days ago that I set out for the necessary trip to town to stock up on groceries and conduct errands. My snow plow guy had had some equipment problems, so the road had not yet been plowed. He assured me that he would plow it in the afternoon. I could get down the road, and it would be clear I hoped by the time I got home.
Just like on the trail, things do not always go as planned. When I headed up the hill in my dependable all-wheel drive vehicle, the steep road was snow covered and rutted from my earlier trip down the hill. It was one of those “I can’t do this” moments. Yet there was nothing to be done but point my car uphill and give it gas, steady and sure. I made it almost to the top before the car was stopped by the heavy snow. Not to be outdone, I put the car in reverse, which I thought would enable me to gain momentum for a second try on the hill, but instead I began sliding sideways. My panic fortunately was stopped fairly quickly when I came to a sudden stop, wedged sideways on the hill, deep drifts stopping me from sliding any further but leaving me thoroughly stuck.
Another “I can’t do this moment.” Fortunately they do not last very long. I have my hiking experience to thank for that. There was nothing to do but trudge home through the snow, only about a quarter of a mile from where I was stuck.
Lulu, my partner in adventure, was with me, as she is most of the time. Lulu is a two-and-a-half year old standard poodle who accompanies me through life these days, on a mountain trail in the summertime or a snowy walk through the woods on a dark night in January. I opened the back hatch of the car to let her out and watched while she plunged head first into the deep snow bank. If a dog can smile, that is certainly what she was doing. She looked as though it was the most fun she had ever had and leaped ahead of me on the road. I was grateful for her enthusiasm, as it turned a difficult walk into something fun. Lulu and I began the walk to the house, the light just barely sufficient to find our way. When we got close I was pleased to find that I had left a light on in the kitchen, a warm and welcoming beacon.
It was not yet time to linger in my comfortable abode. I had groceries in the car that I wanted to retrieve so that they would not freeze. There was yet another benefit of being a hiker. I had the equipment I needed to venture a trip down the hill in the snow. I grabbed my head lamp so that I could see my way, swung on my backpack for carrying the groceries, put on some warmer socks and sturdier boots, and then Lulu and I headed back down the hill. This was even more wonderful than the first trip. She ran along beside me, sometimes pausing simply to leap into the air as if she had springs on her feet. It was a reminder of where the expression “jump for joy” comes from, and I was glad once again for the way she shared that joy with me, how she readily lightened my dark mood as I made my way down the road in the night.
When we reached the stranded car my neighbor Frank was already there, shoveling away the heavy snow. I finished that job while he went ahead with the tractor and cleared the road. Yet another thing to be grateful for, as if a happy dog is not enough: neighbors. I drove the car up the hill and into the garage.
Once the car had been unloaded and the groceries put away I sat in the rocking chair by the fire. The blanket and good book I had been longing for were with me. Lulu was curled up at my feet. All was once again well with our world. I felt as I often do at the end of a long day of hiking, tired but grateful. Instead of a sleeping bag I had my grandmother’s afghan. Yes, the trail is my teacher. It has taught me how to work hard and not give up. But even more importantly, the trail has showed me how to relax at the end of a hard day and “get the grace.”