Hiking is the perfect teacher for understanding a life well lived. Each hike begins with enthusiasm and naivete` about what lies ahead. For those first few steps, one is filled with energy and the hope of discovery.
Trail descriptions never match reality, much like one’s plans for the future. Soon the trail turns rocky and muddy, slick and slippery with gnarly roots grabbing at your feet. As the mountain looms off in the distance, peeking over the tops of impossibly high-trees, the trail now steepens. Legs strain, lungs work to keep up with the higher oxygen demand, and the heart pounds in your chest. One’s thoughts turn to self-recriminations, questioning your decision to follow this desolate, lonely, and painful trial.
After willing oneself onward, a slow, almost imperceptible change takes place. The heart adjusts, the legs find a rhythm, and the trail effort takes a less severe toll. This is the learning time. You come to understand a slow, steady pace, ever forward, with the occasional rest, is the way ahead.
You put trail miles onto your boots and hike on.
On the peaks of New Hampshire’s mountains, the dreaded Whites so infamous to those who hike the Appalachian Trail, it is the last mile that tests a hiker’s mettle. For some peaks, there is a 100, 500, or 1000-yard scramble over boulders as you pull and push yourself, ignoring your screaming leg muscles and pounding chest.
For those who harbor a fear of heights (why are you hiking?) there is the added terror of looking back down over boulders that would hardly notice your tumbling body, should you lose your balance and bounce down the mountain.
But you carry on. Any goal worth pursuing comes with doubt, difficulties, and despair. To succeed on a hike, as in life, you must accept that nothing is easy. Also, understand there are no insurmountable obstacles unless you convince yourself to give up.
Just when it seems you cannot take another step, the trail levels out, the view opens up, and the pain and sweat of the effort fade from your thoughts.
To stand where only your feet can take you. To look down on the immense beauty of the forest, rivers, valleys, and mountains of New Hampshire, Tennessee, Virginia, or any place in the world is to achieve a measure of success.
This is the earning level. Your efforts to climb the mountain, like your efforts to achieve something in life, offer a reward. During the hike, you learn. Summiting the peak, you earn. But, the lesson of the mountain is not over yet.
After enjoying the moment on the peak, you must complete the journey. Hiking down a mountain has its own challenges. You’re tired, aching, and looking forward to a rest. Yet, on the way down an opportunity opens to encourage those you meet on their own way up.
Here is the part where you return to others what you’ve learned and earned.
A simple, “you’re almost there,” “the view is worth it,” “keep going, you’ll make it,” can offer so much to those still making their way on the trail, and through life.
When you reach the end of the trail, you’ll understand, in a microcosm, what a successful life is. Hiking a mountain, as in life, you learn, you earn, and you return. That is as it should be.
At the end of your last trail, if you can say you followed those simple rules, you’ll have lived a full life.