I was in the midst of the longest and hardest hike of my life; lost, beyond frustrated, and hurt from slamming my knee into a rock on a steep downhill.
I had started this hike at eight-thirty in the morning, thinking I would arrive at my destination before four in the afternoon. This was only my third time venturing into the backcountry and my first time solo hiking. To say I was a ball of nerves would be an understatement.
One Foot In Front Of the Other
Parking my car near Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, I fought with my feet (to keep them moving) as I made my way nine miles (with a 40 pound pack) to David Lessor shelter, a three sided shelter in the middle of the woods.
Among 260 shelters along the Appalachian Trail (AT), built for thru-hikers, David Lessor is one of a few shelters that has a swing. Ah, the simple pleasures. It’s also the first shelter on the north side of what is known as “the roller coaster” — one of the hardest sections of the AT, infamous for its punishing climbs and descents.
Not knowing much about the AT or what was in front of me the next day, I listened as several thru-hikers complained about intense soreness. One hiker lamented, “Why couldn’t they have made the trail to go around the mountain?”
Getting to the Rollercoaster
Feeling fresh the next morning, I thought I had what it took to rock this fourteen-mile hike to Sam Georges (the next shelter on the trail). My perspective was admittedly a bit cocky, but hey, it was that cockiness that got me out there in the first place. I set out with an aggressive pace, putting on some music to distract myself from the rain, which had started before I even left the shelter.
Three or four miles into the hike, I kept thinking, Is this what they were complaining about? I mean, it’s tough, but not that tough.
A couple of miles later, I came across a sign that said, “Welcome to the Roller Coaster.”
Wait, what? I thought I had been on the roller coaster. Before I could think too much, I turned my music back on, and quickened my pace.
Warning: Upping Your Pace May Increase Exhaustion
By noon I was spent. Plunking down for lunch, I started to wonder where on earth I would find the energy to make it another ten miles.
Exactly thirty minutes later, the time I had allotted for rest, I hoisted my pack onto my back and plunged ahead, imagining how good it would feel to get to the shelter and relax. Just a little longer, I said to myself, ignoring the fact that I wasn’t even halfway there.
I hardly looked up, much less stopped to say “hello” to hikers I passed (which normally is one of my favorite parts of hiking the AT). I was so focused on getting there that I missed a turn and wound up hiking an extra mile in the wrong direction. Frustrated, I upped my pace again, determined to get back on trail quickly.
Overcoming The Gremlins of Self-Criticism
Seeking to overcome the gremlins of self-criticism — “This was stupid,” “You should have known better,” “Turn back and go home” — I started repeating to myself, It’s okay, Misti; everyone makes mistakes. You’ve got this!
While positive thinking was helping me on the hike, pushing harder was not. Trying, once again, to make up for lost time (and wanting to get out of the rain, which was now coming down in sheets), I carelessly bounced from one rock to another until I slipped and slammed my knee, forcing me to take another break.
What Are You Reaching For?
On the verge of tears, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the only thing that’s guaranteed to make just about anyone feel better: Chocolate! Ten minutes later, with a belly full of chocolate, I was back at it, pushing to get to the shelter.
With just over two miles to go, I heard thunder and looked up to see yet another storm moving in. This one brought dark gray clouds, driving more fears that I would have to set up camp in the rain and the dark.
Reaching Toward Something Greater
I started praying…
God, please hold off on the rain. Just let me get to the shelter before it gets too dark.
Ready to be done with this stupidly humbling hike, I fixed my eyes on the trail and soldiered on.
That’s when I heard a voice that seemed to be inches from my ears, speaking directly to me. What I heard comforted me (and still comforts me in the midst of this pandemic) in a way words cannot adequately convey.
Here’s What I Heard
It’s not about the destination, Misti. It’s about the journey.
Can you smell the rain? Can you hear the thunder? Can you feel the rain dripping off your fingertips?
In that moment, I got it. I had been pushing, trying, and forcing myself, miserably, to get there; to get to all the “theres”.
Of course with every “there” comes a “next,” which quickly removes our ability to truly arrive and be present for the moments we’re in: As soon as I get set up, then I’ll enjoy, I thought. As soon as I heat up my dinner, then I’ll celebrate. As soon as I finish this challenge, then I’ll rejoice. As soon as… then…
Getting From The Experience Vs. Getting Through The Experience
Ever find yourself in a perpetual loop of striving, fighting, and wanting to just get through this pandemic, election cycle, and the social unrest it’s causing, unwilling to slow down and experience it? I surely am. Are you trapped in relentless doing, avoiding this experience of life?
Just as I was a ball of nerves while not knowing what awaited me, many of us are currently a ball of nerves in what feels like an unending state of global alert due to Covid19. Hearing our own thoughts is nearly impossible as we trudge forward, committed to getting through this pandemic.
The same was true for me in 2019 as I ventured into the backcountry.
What’s Helping? When Will It End?
Distractions (music, sports, comedies, games, etc) are an excellent tool for getting through pandemics and political unrest too.
Are we to the halfway point of this pandemic? Who knows. Though I’m not sure it really matters. As demonstrated by hikes, pandemics, and politics, life is ripe with uncertainty.
In the midst of the experiences 2020 has brought, many of us have “upped our pace” to the point of exhaustion; unable to relax, create, or connect with the people who matter most, just as I did on the trail.
At the time, I didn’t know that the only way to choke out negative thoughts would be to replace them with positive ones. As it turns out, negative thinking will always continue until acted upon consciously and intentionally with positive thinking — like Newton’s first law of motion.
What are you repeating to yourself daily as you wade through the uncertainty of Covid19 and political unrest? Here are a few I’m using:
There’s no rush. Everything is coming to you in good timing.
You’re doing great.
Just for today.
All is well.
What rocks are you running into in this global pandemic? Are fear, uncertainty, and doubt pushing you around, disturbing your much-needed rest, and threatening your relationships?
Experiencing the Moment Brings Peace
Feeling the rain drip down my arms, breathing deeper, fully experiencing the scent only rain reveals, and listening intently to the crack of each thunderous boom, time stood still. The more I focused on all my senses, the less I noticed my pain. Fear evaporated in the presence of the present moment, and I knew right then the real secret to living life fully: accepting all of it, as it is, not only as I wish it to be.
While I would love to tell you that I now spend all of my time fully consumed by the experience I’m in, not wishing for anything to be different, I would be lying to you if I told you that. Instead, I’ll tell you that I am spending a little more time accepting each experience as it unfolds, seeking to discover the beauty in each moment.
Dancing In the Rain
Throughout this pandemic, I’m learning to…
…trust in the dark clouds, rain, and thunder.
And, I imagine a day I’ll be able to dance within the various textures, colors, and smells that are a part of the experience of being human. The dark places and cold, rainy days interspersed with the sunshiney magic of meaningful conversations, and warm, dry blankets.
Even as I hear about the tragedies of wildfires on the west coast, experience disturbing messages coming from the President of our great country, and witness first-hand what isolation can do to a person’s well-being, here are a few things I’m doing to help me dance a little more:
- Celebrating progress over perfection. “Oh, look at that,” I say to myself, “I was able to see fear arise inside of me without being taken by it.”
- Saying Thank you. Everyday there are countless good deeds happening all around us. The challenge is that our brains are primed to look for the negative. The key is to set your sights on looking for the goodness happening all around you.
- Saying “Yes.” It’s too easy to let impostor syndrome rob you of opportunity when fear is gripping. Say “yes,” and then watch as the resources surface.
- Smiling, with intention. Smiling for just twenty seconds is proven to release happy hormones.
- Using delightful distractions. Dance, sing, whistle, run, walk on the beach, say “hello” to a stranger, listen to something positive and upbeat, chat with a friend, write, do yoga, or simply sit and read a book.
Above all else, when you’re struggling (and we are all struggling in various ways – especially in 2020), remember that joy and happiness are not reserved for the destination; they are in the journey itself.
Here’s To Your Greatness,
Misti Burmeister has been solving people problems and empowering leaders for nearly 20 years, increasing engagement and productivity across generations. Help your team reach its highest potential at https://MistiBurmeister.com