Three years ago I lost the weight of the Christmas tree at the top of our stairs. The box went right as my leg tried to pivot left towards the attic, and two seconds later I grimaced in pain as I felt my knee pop out of then quickly back into its socket. A few months later, the orthopedic surgeon removed 60% of my meniscus. To this day I still think I can still play tennis, jog, etc., until my knee not so subtly reminds me it has less than half of its cushion remaining between my femur and my tibia. Admittedly I am a stubborn learner who has to be reminded of this point several times, but I am learning to work around it. That is why when my 13 year old son and I went on vacation in Colorado last week, I figured I could do the rafting, the ride in the glider plane, the horseback riding, and even the ziplining. But what I did not plan on doing, in fact what I had conveniently left off of the itinerary, was the hike.
It was the first full day of our trip and we were driving back to our hotel from Estes Park. The majesty of the Rocky Mountains surrounded us and filled us with awe, and eventually my 13 year old says, “I want to climb a mountain.”
“What do you mean you want to ‘climb’ a mountain,” I asked nervously, knowing that in Colorado that can mean either hiking up a trail or scaling the side of an edifice.
“I just want to walk up to the top of one,” he said.
I breathed a slight sigh of relief. At least I wasn’t in for a trip down Acrophobia Lane.
“Come on, Dad, just pull over. I can climb that one right there.” He pointed across a field to a large peak in the distance.
“I can’t pull over,” I said. “That’s somebody’s farm.”
He was unfazed.
“So just pull off onto one of these side streets. I’m sure we could park and climb at least one of these.”
“Those aren’t side streets. Those are driveways, son.”
Really long driveways with potentially big dogs or shotguns at the end of them.
And so the conversation continued off and on for the next 90 minutes.
When we finally sat down in our hotel room, two things were imminently apparent: 1) My son wanted to go on a hike and 2) My knee thought that would be a bad idea.
But I’m a dad. A fixer by nature. A man of strength and endurance. A problem solver. I figured there had to be something we could do whereby he got in his fix and I did not become a cripple. So I began to pray. Ten minutes later, I saw this flyer in the hotel lobby.
Thus began the lessons I would learn from this hike about life, pain and process.
After studying the flyer for a few seconds, I took a brief consultation with my knee and got the thumbs up. We can do this, I thought. One and a half miles up. One and a half miles down. No problem. So, I took a picture of the flyer and went back upstairs to show my son the good news. He was, of course, ecstatic and asked to leave immediately. At that time it was 5:45 pm. We would be back in time for a later than usual supper, but no harm, no foul, I figured. After all, it’s vacation. And what’s vacation without a little spontaneity and adventure, right? Thus, we drove over to Boulder and began to make our ascent, never realizing we would not get back until after 9 p.m.
At first, the path started out muddy and no wider than our shoes, but it eventually opened up. It was always ascending and at times it looked like this
But through it all, my knee held up splendidly. Plus, we were having a great time together. The only concern I had was the setting sun and that we may need to turn around before we reached the summit. But if he wanted to get to the top, I would not complain. We were MEN, and we would get there one way or another.
Two hours later, I wasn’t so sure.
Now, I want you to go back and look at the flyer again. Beside the word Distance, what does it say? It says that the hike is 3 miles roundtrip, correct? Now I don’t know what that means to you, but to me that means that the hike is a relatively small one. 1 1/2 miles up and 1 1/2 miles down. There and back constitutes the meaning of the word roundtrip, just like my airline tickets. Apparently, though, someone at the hotel is grammatically impaired. According to my phone, this trail was not 3 miles roundtrip. It was 3 1/2 miles ONE WAY. Making the roundtrip 7 miles!
Thus, lesson #1:
Life May be a Journey, but The Journey is Never “As Advertised”
You may think that it will be short. You may think that you can easily accomplish it. But the journey you are on will always test you. It will push you to accomplish new heights, and it will always involve more than you originally anticipated. Like late night infomercials, life is continually promising us ease and delivering hardship. The journey is rarely the three mile trek you envisioned.
Still, after discovering that our hike was going to be twice as long as we thought, we pressed on. The summit was our goal and although we did not know how far we were from the top, we decided that we could conquer this mountain, if we just took our time. Even though fatigue was increasing and our Texas lungs were not accustomed to the thinner Colorado air, we followed the trail. It was our path to glory, success, and accomplishment. In fact, to keep myself motivated I kept trying to envision what the view from the top would look like. I had seen the panorama from the halfway point and it was spectacular; so I used an imaginary scene of mountains and vistas laid below me like a tapestry to motivate each successive step.
Then, twenty to thirty feet off to our left, grazing mildly on the hillside we saw this…
There were three others, two more on our left and one on our right, and they were not intimidated at all. We stood on the hillside snapping photos of them grazing in the setting sun. Occasionally, they would look up from their supper and observe us, but they never ran away. They just casually strolled on the mountainside, like a person moving from room to room in his home.
When they finally had walked far enough away, my son turned to me and said, “Ok. I’m done. That’s all I needed.”
And with those simple words I realized lessons #2 and #3:
It is okay to descend without reaching the top, but if I make the summit my goal, I may miss the breathless experiences of life along the way.
We knew that the top of the trail was only 1/4 of a mile away. A fellow hiker had told us that only 5 minutes before we saw the deer. But somehow they changed all of that vigor and determination, much like how the birth of a child reorients a parent’s perspective from a life filled with self-centeredness to one full of selflessness. Summiting the mountain suddenly felt small in comparison to the experience we had just had. My son was right. It was time to go home.
And so we began the 6+ mile descent to our car. That’s when lesson #4 hit me:
The Journey is Never Over Until You Descend.
Regardless of what you call it, Joseph Campbell had it right. The Hero must complete the circle, often by returning home at the end. The journey cannot be complete until descent has occurred, even if this is only to provide a comparison/contrast to who or what you were before starting on your path. Change cannot be understood any other way. Unlike the beginning of our journey, which felt intimidating and daunting, we can only see how far we have come by standing at the bottom again and looking up.
The descent, however, was not as easy as we imagined it. Although familiarity with the path bred speed, the pain increased greatly with each step we took. It was at this time that I found myself turning sideways, like an octogenarian on the stairs, trying to minimize the pain in my knee. Many times I had to rest or allow my son to scamper on ahead, so that he would not hear me sucking air between clenched teeth as I moved ever downwards.
He knew I was in pain, though. He’s not an idiot.
That’s when he, the 13-year-old boy, began to give me, the 45-year-old therapist, encouragement. He would frequently say things like, “We’re almost there, Dad. Just a little more.” Or he would point out a landmark we had passed on the way up and say, “Hey, look! We’re closer than we thought we were.” Or he would turn and say, “Are you okay? Do you need to rest a while?” He metaphorically put his arms around me and carried me down that mountain with each successive statement. And not once did he stop talking. Not once did he suggest we couldn’t make it. His philosophy was always, “Look how far we’ve come. If we have done that, we can do this!”
And that’s when I realized my final lesson of the hike:
The Pain May Be Greater on the Descent, but Every Pain Needs a Partner. You CAN endure it. But no successful hero travels alone.
I don’t know where you are on your journey. At the bottom, looking at the long trail ahead of you, believing it to be shorter than it actually will be. Pushing forward with an unusual drive to reach the top. Admiring the breathtaking scenes and wildlife along the way and realizing that the summit is not as important as living the journey. Or descending and facing pains and injuries you never imagined you would endure. Regardless of your position, take it from someone who has been there. The hike is worth it, even if you have not planned for it.