During my recent stay in Colorado, I was able to check off a bucket list item that was long overdue. I hiked a 14-er. Those of you who are not familiar with that terminology, a 14-er is simply a mountain that exceeds 14,000 feet in elevation. This sounds like an impressive and even impossible feat to some. It is an impressive feet but to be clear no one hikes all 14,000 feet. From my understanding the most one has to physically hike to mount one of these beasts is around 5,000 feet. But to add some perspective, that is double the highest peak from my home state. I’ll repeat for effect: 5,000 feet is double the tallest “mountain” where I’m from! More altitude perspective: that is still less than the elevation of Denver. So as you can imagine the 4-5000 feet one climbs to conquer a 14-er is quite laborious due to the cold, thin air and other such conditions. I have always been up for a physical challenge and have wanted to hike one of those bad boys for quite some time. My brother-in-law and I decided that there was no time like the present and we chose the 13th highest peak in the state: Mt. Quandary.
If I were to hike a 14-er in a previous summer I doubt the experience would have had such a profound effect. However, given where I find myself at present, hiking a mountain called “Quandary” seemed poetically appropriate. This was going to be an experience to remember, this was going to be one giant metaphor. I could sense that as early as the drive to the trail head.
Setting the Stage
Let me start by saying that I am not an experienced hiker. Neither is my bro-in-law. We showed up unfashionably late (we lacked all the cool gear and thought that hiking boots were for sissies). Apparently you are supposed to be at the peak when the sun comes up because most of the hikers were coming down the mountain as we began our ascent. We had to park pretty much right off the main rode forcing us to participate in a warmup hike as we walked what seemed like a half mile just to start the trail! Upon reaching the trail head, the first thing we read was a weathered missing persons sign. Talk about a downer. Our boyish enthusiasm was quickly tamed as we were reminded that what we were about to embark on is serious business and can be dangerous and down right deadly if things go poorly. We set off on the journey not quite knowing what to expect but with a healthy fear of the monstrosity we intended to climb.
Top Ten – 14-er edition
I am a sucker for a good top ten list so I’ve compiled a list of my own that attempts to reflect on my experience hiking Mt. Quandary. The list is entitled, “The Top Ten ways hiking a mountain is a life metaphor.”
10. Getting lost can easily happen.
I’m not sure exactly how it happened because for the most part the trail was well-marked and pretty self explanatory. But we did it. We got lost. Within the first 10 or 15 minutes no less! We weren’t lost for long and found the trail eventually on our own but it was a tad embarrassing. I mean I even remember thinking, “How did that perfectly healthy small tree get bent over to the ground like that?” Someone did that on purpose to prevent idiots like me from getting lost. But alas even their efforts could not keep me on track. I was destined to find my own way, got lost and had to backtrack which needless to say was a blow to my pride. Hmmm that sounds familiar. I was reminded once we were on the right path again how easily it is to lose focus in life and suddenly find yourself lost. My goal moving forward especially with my recovery is that I will never get complacent or lose focus. That is where we are the most vulnerable. I need to be on guard, always reading the signs, always alert to any distractions the Devil may throw my way.
9. Pacing yourself is important.
Hiking a mountain is definitely not a sprint. It’s not a marathon either but certainly requires a lot of endurance! A big part of that endurance is finding the right pace. A sustainable pace. I quickly found out during the early goings of our hike, that my pace was not the same as my Brother-in-law. As the hike continued I observed that people were hiking at many different paces and that was the beauty of it, really. Also, there is absolutely no shame in taking breaks. It makes the hike more enjoyable and gives you more energy in the long run. Hiking a mountain is not a race. It’s a journey and no two people will hike it the same way. Such is our life. Our struggles will be different than our neighbor and the pace we set needs to be sustainable and it needs to be the best for us. Trying to follow the same path or the same pace as others will ultimately lead to a loss of identity and will diminish the individuality of our life journey.
8. Comraderie builds morale.
I am a very social person by nature and I love being part of a group or community. Growing up I was constantly plugging into social groups whether it be youth groups, sports teams, clubs, etc. Being a member or leader of a group, team or any other type of social setting is very satisfying for most people. We need to feel like we belong. We need to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves, something we can believe in. Trust me on this one, when you climb a 14-er you feel like you are a part of something significant. At that moment in your life, climbing that peak is the most important thing in the world. Then you realize that you are not alone. Everyone else that you see and greet along the way has the same goal as you do. They have the same purpose for being there as you do. On the mountain there is a really strong sense of unity. It’s like you are all on the same team. You all are in it together. You greet fellow hikers not like you would a normal passer-by on the street. You greet them like you know them. You greet them like you would a friend, a teammate. You comment on the sports team that is represented on their hat, with an enthusiastic, “Go Wildcats!” You at the very least give a hearty, “Good morning!” to those you see on the trail. There is a connection to those who have chosen the same adventure as you. I even saw a guy that went to the same tiny liberal arts university as I did! Talk about a morale booster.
7. It’s wise to heed the warnings of others.
If you are hiking up a mountain, and someone approaches you that has already successfully hiked it, you listen to what they have to say. You especially listen if they are giving you a tip. We got all kinds of little pointers the higher we climbed and believe me I appreciated every single one. We were given hints on the terrain, wildlife (ornery mother goats), and weather patterns (it was threatening to storm a good bit of it). This added to the comraderie aspect mentioned earlier but also gave me a sense of humility. These folks have already accomplished what I seek to accomplish and instead of keeping tricks of the trade to themselves, they chose to help out strangers. Why? I don’t think it’s because they were trying to show off. I believe it’s because they had compassion and empathy because they were on the same, difficult road not too long ago. We all have people in our life that have traveled longer than we and are willing to give us some much needed advice and counsel. We should always listen.
6. That look from a fellow traveler can sometimes speak louder than words.
On more than one occasion I got a certain look from a fellow hiker. It was usually accompanied by a nod. It was a look that communicated respect, empathy, encouragement and compassion all in just a few seconds. It was subtle but given the environment, it was obvious. Most of the time the looks and nods came from older gentlemen who were traveling back down the mountain. I imagine they were thinking, “Hey young man, this isn’t as easy as you might have thought, huh? Well if I can do it, you can do it.” It’s a look that, if I were in their shoes, I would choose to make it often to the other inexperienced, laboring and weary travelers. I’m sure you feel that you have earned the right to make it! In life sometimes all the encouragement and support you need is that certain look from someone who has been exactly where you are. Maybe they also know how it feels to lose a loved one. Maybe they also come from a broken home. Maybe they struggle with the same issues. A look of compassion goes a long way and can spur us on to keep climbing the mountain.
5. We all need a cheerleader.
Subtle looks of encouragement can be nice but sometimes we need a cheerleader when we are hitting a wall. The higher I climbed the tougher it got. The tougher it got the more I wanted to quit. And right when I was on the verge of throwing in the towel, someone would say, “Keep going, it’s totally worth it!” Or “You got about a half a mile left, you can do it!” That was all I needed. Now I’m not saying that I couldn’t have climbed the mountain without those encouragement words. What I’m saying is that it made it a whole lot easier. Amidst my own physical and mental struggles going up the mountain, I was able to inspire two young men who were also hiking their first 14-er. We made it to the top together and they admitted they would have probably turned around if I didn’t come up behind them and urge them to go to the top with me. I guess I was paying it forward. As I walk the difficult road ahead in my life, I know I will rely on the words of encouragement, wisdom and positive thinking of others. I will not be able to fight the battle of addiction alone. I also know that there will be times that I need to be the one that is the cheerleader, urging my brothers and sisters onward as they fight their own battles.
4. The road of solidarity seems lonely but we are never alone.
Most of the journey up Quandary I was accompanied by a close friend, a brother. I’ve already gone into great detail about all the other hikers on the trail that we encountered as well. The path was very long, however, and there were times I couldn’t see anyone except a few mountain goats. When I made it to the top, there were only four of us total. I waited the longest to go down. Partly because I wanted to give my bro-in-law enough time to make it and partly I wanted time to pray. I was the only person at the top of Mt. Quandary for several minutes. It was more than a bit Erie, it was kinda scary. And definitely lonely. Those few minutes seemed like hours but eventually I didn’t feel alone at all. I felt God. His presence and His peace. What did Rich Mullins say? “It’s okay if you’re lonely as long as you’re free.” It was lonely at the top but it was incredibly freeing at the same time. There will be lonely days and nights ahead. I will possibly feel even more lonely around others. The realization that possibly none of my friends truly understand what I am going through. But that’s okay as long as I walk on freedom.
3. The journey is long and difficult, and there are no short cuts.
Treacherous. That is the best way to describe the final mile or so going up Quandary. And going down for that matter! By the time the rain came, I was heading down the steepest and rockiest part of the descent. It was not fun. At all. Every step caused jarring pain to shoot up my knees into my thighs. I can remember thinking to myself, “This is more painful than climbing up!” That hike did not let up and my body felt it every step of the way. There were times I scanned ahead for an easier way but to no avail. This was going to be tough any way you cut it. The old cliche that says there are no short cuts in life is very true. When we start trying to make short cuts is when we find ourselves in trouble. It’s best to approach life like climbing a mountain. Accept its going to be difficult but doing things honestly and genuinely is the most rewarding in the end.
2. Expect the unexpected.
I thought I knew what to expect as we set off on our hike that morning. After all, I have hiked mountains before; I did the four day Inca Trail that ends at Machu Pischu. I have to say that I was surprised by more than a few things on the hike up Quandary. First of all, we were not quite prepared for how quickly the trail turns into a steep grade, rocky terrain. We had no clue that we would encounter several families of maintain goats. Also, the temperature drop was a bit of a surprise. I mean consider this: when we started, we were warm in a t-shirt and shorts and on the top of the mountain it was literally snowing! Speaking of snow the final push to the top involved plunging through about two feet of snow. That was unexpected to say the least. I’m sure the couple that witnessed me essentially skiing down said patch of snow weren’t expecting to see that either. We think we have this life figured out. We think we have all the answers. Then the curve ball. Cancer. A death in the family. Divorce. Life is full of surprises and many of them are not the fun kind. The key is to go through life not dreading what’s around the bend but being cautious at the same time. And when that curve ball is thrown, we will have a plan of how to react.
1. Take the time to celebrate your accomplishments.
This is not just about celebrating the feat of climbing a mountain. We celebrated each step of the way. When we found the trail after getting lost, we celebrated. When we got our first glimpse of a breathtaking view, we celebrated. When we got above tree line, we celebrated. You get the idea. Life is all about the little things and working toward goals and measuring your accomplishments in increments. For me when I made it 30 days sober, I recognized that as a big accomplishment. Not that that is where it stops and not to say I am complacent with just that. But celebrating the small victories help motivate to keep working toward bigger goals. In other words, the mountain is not conquered overnight. It’s conquered one step at a time and each step is a small victory.
My apologies for the longest blog ever. If you are still reading this then you have achieved the literary equivalent of a 14-er.