I wrote a story when I was younger in which a character found clarity by physically climbing to a high place. From there, it seemed she could see all the possible paths of her life stretching out in front of her. From there, she could choose clearly and with purpose, walk on in peace, with perspective that would not have been possible in the flat, Midwestern town she’d called home to that point. It was a simple metaphor of landscape, clear and uncomplicated. It spoke to me at the time.
For the last two months, I’ve been planning a backpacking trip with a good friend. Last week, we finally set out to hike a short section of the Appalachian Trail. Our plan was to start at the highest point, along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, and continue from there to a point we had chosen, where we’d parked the car ahead of time.
At several points in my life, I’ve felt like that character wandering in the confusing flatland. The physical sacrifice of climbing upward has often led to revelation of one kind or another. And lately, since things have been feeling as flat as can be, as confused and lost, such a climb seemed the perfect remedy. I so wanted the perspective. I so wanted the familiar process of revelation and the subsequent downhill momentum where epiphany makes the path seem easy for a time.
There were some clues early on that it wouldn’t turn out that way. There were transportation issues, last minute logistical problems. Approaching the climb we realized coming down would be harder than we anticipated and would take more time. My friends knees ached on the downhill stretches while I struggled under the weight of my pack on the uphill. Eventually my body launched a full out rebellion. Feet blistered, muscles tightened, and food turned my stomach, making it hard to replace the energy I was losing on the day’s hike. I didn’t sleep. Sleet came on our first night and rain all the next day. Things took longer than we had anticipated, and our trek quickly turned into one long and arduous must-do list with a tight timeline.
It seems no matter how much I tell myself that what I want is peace, clarity, and gentleness, what I construct for myself is an incredibly difficult and urgent road. I convince myself that the clarity I need is over the next mountain and run to meet it, only to find another peak a little higher, a little farther off in the distance. In some ways, it’s easier to keep climbing than to just sit still.
Fortunately for me, there were others on my path who showed me more compassion than I was showing myself – my hiking companion who led the way and carried more than her share when I was too sick and exhausted to think clearly, the incredibly kind hiker who helped us find a simpler way down than the one we had planned, and my Aunt Sara, who provided impromptu assistance and a wonderful, peaceful place to recover.
Today I read a post by my friend, Wrensong, who wrote, “How faithful the trees are as they continue in their work in spite of us.” I considered the stillness and patience of these wisest of teachers, their willingness to stand still, through sleet and rain, through seasons, through decades and centuries, their faith in drawing nourishment always from this one place, and when more nourishment needed, in simply going deeper to find it. How brave this seems compared to my habit of arduous climbing. How faithful.