When things all seem too much, what better solace than a reminder that they are, provided you’re willing to zoom out a bit, indistinguishable from nothing at all? The anxieties that clutter the average life–relationship troubles, status, rivalries, money worries–shrink instantly down to irrelevance. So do pandemics and presidencies, for that matter: the cosmos carries on regardless, calm, and imperturbable.Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
On a backpacking trip in the Bighorn Mountains many years ago I made my way to the lake you see above, nestled not far north from the summit of Cloud Peak, and surrounded by the jagged peaks that form the center of that ancient mountain range. I pitched my tent above the lake and stayed there for several days. I wanted some time to sort things out, and this isolated and beautiful spot seemed like a good place to do that.
For many years I had carried my heavy pack on these long treks with the same thing in mind, to “figure things out once and for all.” Why is it when we are young we trick ourselves into believing there really is a “once and for all,” some final point when we will suddenly know what we want out of life and how to make it happen.
Fortunately this searching did not get in the way of my real purpose for being in the mountains, which I now know was not complicated at all: to be in a beautiful place and to be alone there with my own fragile being, however flawed, not some “once and for all” life perfected, but the one I had right there in that campsite by the lake.
Usually I would start a trip with some specific problem I thought I needed to solve, nothing particularly exalted like the meaning of life. Often it involved a relationship or a job. I was single until I met my husband in my fifties, and men cycled in and out of my life during those many years, some I wanted there, some I did not.
Invariably what happened was at some point on the trip I forgot whatever it was I thought needed figuring out. Seated by a mountain lake with a cup of tea, it just did not matter very much, maybe not at all.
On this particular trip I spent my extra time exploring the ridge tops you see rising above the lake in the photo. Ascending to their summits is steep but not technically difficult, so it just involved a long walk to the tops of things. There I would sit, surrounded by ancient limestone like rolling waves in a vast ocean. The higher ridge tops would be studded with quartz crystals the size of my fist that sparkled in the sunlight.
I was far above the nearest trail, above timberline, and certainly above the worries and responsibilities I brought with me when I tried to figure out my life with all of its challenges. These bare ridges were all around me, and to the east the mountains unfolded themselves to become prairie as far as the eye could see. I was utterly alone, one fragile middle-aged woman by herself on the highest ridge tops of the Bighorn Mountains, but the feeling I had at such moments was hardly loneliness but exhilaration. There was something immensely comforting to be reminded that my little life did not matter very much. Whatever problem I brought with me into the mountains to solve, the answer was always the same: It didn’t really matter.
In a few days I would pack up my lovely camp at Eunice Lake, hike down the trail to my waiting vehicle, make my way over the four-wheel drive road to the highway, and drive the short distance to my home in Shell, Wyoming, a ranching community at the western edge of the Bighorns, not far from where I had stood a few days earlier on the summits of those ridges I could now view from my home.
The next day I would return to work and see patients all day in my office, where it seemed I mattered, not just to the people I served and to my coworkers but certainly to my family. That first day back to work was always a busy one. I often joked that I had to do penance for being gone from the clinics for a week.
But I always made my way to the end of the schedule, and the last patient in the waiting room had been seen and gone home. Then I would drive home across the Bighorn Basin, no less immense than the mountains on which I had stood just a couple of days earlier, and I was reminded that whatever importance I had experienced that day was transitory. I would never really “catch up” with life, and therefore all I could really do was to live it, to stand on the ridge tops and celebrate my insignificance.
Even now, nine years after retirement, my colorful “To Do” list parades across my laptop screen, red for top priority, due dates in the margins, organized by category. Unlike my schedule at work, I will never get to the bottom of it, and always there will be new and looming tasks to command my attention. They are not important of course. Someday, if I am lucky, I will simply click the delete button and walk off to commune with the ridge tops. In the meantime I have a view of the Kettle River Mountains out my window. And that is why I am really here, remembering that enlightened moment in the Bighorns: a cup of tea, a good book, to be in a beautiful place and to be alone there.