Every time I think I’ve hit the prettiest stretch of trail, I turn a corner and discover something even more beautiful, stunning, and / or life-affirming ahead.
I remember visiting Wales with my sister, Tammie, my Aunt Barb, and my mom a few years ago. As we drove south down the western border through the Snowdonia National Park, I (the designated wrong-side-of-the-car sitting, wrong-side-of-the-road driving driver of the trip) took a wrong turn.
My hyper-critical perfectionism kicked in and I immediately began berating myself: “You had one job, Knucklehead.”
My companions were more than understanding, but my own inner voice is my worst critic.
But then, as I drove farther up into the mountains (the wrong way) trying to find a place to turn around, I was overcome with awe at the stunning beauty of the mountains surrounding us.
I felt safe winding through those gorgeous, rocky mounds on the perfect sunny day. They hemmed us in on all sides like royal guards protecting a queen.
How now I would have been to have missed that view.
I eventually got turned around the right way and we continued our motor-meandering down the coast to our little Air b & b cottage in the hills.
No harm done, and in fact, some amazing unscheduled scenery enjoyed.
Now, when things seem to go awry, I try to remember that day, driving through the Welsh countryside.
Mistakes can lead to some beautiful unforeseen consequences as easily as they can lead to negative ones.
Many times, here on the trail, I’ve headed out of camp in the wrong direction, gotten the names of the gaps confused, and gotten turned around while slackpacking.
Again, my inner voice’s first instinct is to condemn myself: “Who do you think you are out here in the wilderness alone? You’re never going to finish if you keep fucking up like this. ” Thankfully, though, this trip is changing something in me. The negative voices installed in my head over the years are getting quieter, and some unrecognizable ones are seeping in. Voices born from surviving (conquering?) Days like yesterday are suddenly speaking up: “You are at least part human, you know, and human beings make mistakes,” “Mistakes can lead to beautiful things,” “Would you berate a single one of your kids or your students for making a mistake like this? ” “Talk to yourself the way you’d talk to anyone else.”
The more mistakes I make, the more grace I offer to myself and the more practice these new voices get. They are getting stronger and louder all the time. Maybe they’ve always been there, and the quiet of the trail just makes them easier to hear.
Equally, it can sometimes be difficult to leave a beautiful or serene space.
I instinctively want to hold on. I linger in beautiful spaces and keep mementos of pleasant times. The souvenir industry makes a fortune off of me for this reason. Coffee just tastes better in my Walden Pond mug because it brings back such fond memories.
Maybe American Consumerism is driven too deeply into some of us. We want to gather and keep pleasant experiences — lock them up in a box or put them on a shelf somewhere.
Perhaps we want to consume our happiness rather than experience it.
Last summer I took a driving trip by myself from the Chicago area to California and back.
I needed to hug a redwood tree (“Tree Hugger” really is the perfect trail name for me — thanks, Mulligan).
And here’s what I learned on that trip: Experience the beauty, but don’t be afraid to keep moving, because more beauty awaits.
Every time I found a stunning place, I wanted to stay. I camped at Medicine Bow campground in Wyoming, for example, and it took my breath away. The colors of the pines, the ruggedness of the rocks juxtaposed with the bright blue sky, and the sound of the raging river below the campsite were exquisite.
I felt like I was in an old Western movie.
It didn’t seem possible that such a place existed, nor that I had it all to myself! (The rain overnight had washed out the road, so no one else could join me for a day or two).
I hated to leave. What if this was the high point of the whole trip? Would I wish I had stayed longer?
But I packed up and continued West.
And wouldn’t you know it? I drove up into the Tetons and found a quiet campsite beside a river with giant mountain goats running on the cliffs beside me and cows coming up to drink beside my tent. It was completely isolated.
I bathed in the creek and did my laundry, hanging it to dry on my Subaru, and felt completely relaxed and happy.
What followed were more stunning, life-altering, fantastic experiences — one after the other, with some remarkably boring driving in between.
The Loneliest Highway in America is aptly named.
But I had to leave one place to get to the next. I had to go through the doldrums to get to the next busy port.
I had to believe in the unknown and the unseen and trust it would be equally, if not more, beautiful and peaceful.
That’s what it takes to walk away from something wonderful on a journey like this one — a trust in the unknown.
I believe even more beauty exists in the world, if only I’m strong enough to get myself there.
These lessons have proven useful here on the AT. I have to say, hiking the AT is very often more difficult than serene, more demanding than rewarding.
Yesterday, I hiked a mile in the wrong direction before I realized it, then hiked back to where I started and hiked another 12 miles in a torrential rain storm.
For the first time of the entire trip, my Merrell Gore-Tex boots could not keep my socks and feet dry. The puddles were to my ankles, and I slipped and slid both up and down the mountain. The trail was a running creek. The top of the bald brought sideways, needle-like rain drops pelting my face, and the wind gusts nearly pushed me off my feet. And every time I looked up? There was just more empty “up.” No trees or shrubs to block the wind, and nothing but cloud and rain before me.
I’ll tell you what there definitely is wasn’t: views.
All that climbing and slogging and trudging — 14 miles total — for what? Character building?
Miles back, I had left a most stunning spot — Big Bald — which has 360 degree views of the surrounding mountain ranges.
It was a clear, sunny day, and I had set my tent right up on top and opened both vestibules so they faced East and West. I watched the sun set on one side, then rolled over and waited for the sunrise to wake me. It was magnificent, and I’m glad I lingered and experienced both.
This, after a 24-hour stay with my in-laws, Fran and Stan, who had picked me up trailside, pampered me, and fed me my body weight in great food.
It was hard to leave Big Bald. Just look at the pictures!
But it had also been difficult to leave my in-laws, and if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have experienced Big Bald.
And so I hiked on.
And here I was, hiking in a Scottish Highland-like rain and wind storm with “rain gear” on. I could have hiked barefoot in my under-drawers for all the good the rain gear did. Drenched to the bone, head to toe. Rain was dripping off the end of my nose, running down both my face and the front of my shirt. For hours.
It was good weather for ducks.
Now I understand this costume choice:
Though, the only actual Scotsman I’ve met on trail looks like this:
But, anyway, the slogging through the rainstorm had to be done.
It had to be done because it’s all part of a larger journey.
Life can be difficult, boring, frustrating, and even depressing, but those difficult paths are a necessary part of life and will always lead to another high point — another stunning vista.
We must believe that.
We must have hope in ourselves and our futures. Life will be grand again, even if it isn’t grand right this moment. And the storms we walk through to get to those beautiful, peaceful spaces? They make us stronger, less fragile-feeling.
I tell you, I felt like Superwoman on that windy, rainy bald. “My goodness,” I thought, “I really can fucking do anything. ”
Don’t get me wrong. I was mainly daydreaming about getting into some dry clothes and crawling into my warm sleeping bag, but in between I felt pretty invincible; I’ll try to hang on to that feeling — to remember it when it feels like the world is falling part again: I have survived worse and come out stronger for it.
Enjoy the high points.
Linger a bit if you can.
But don’t be afraid to let it go, keep the memories, and trust good things are still ahead.