Dear Chris (age 36),
There are treasures hidden in the rocky places.
I don’t know if you’re like me but I’ve come to realize that I can expect major life lessons when I do anything scary or difficult or outside of my comfort zone. And I seem to take a lot of scary or difficult or outside my comfort zone “vacations.” I could do another (shorter) blog series on the life lessons of travel.
In the summer of 2012, I was helping a friend move. She assigned me to UHaul duty because she also assigned a guy friend of hers and thought we might hit it off. He was pretty adorable and we were having a nice conversation as we navigated the cube truck through the streets of Los Angeles. He was an avid backpacker/hiker and told me about having hiked Mt. Whitney a few years back with his mom and some family friends. It had been a six-day trip and he wanted to do it again. He wondered if my friend and I would like to go and if we could gather some other people. I immediately said yes, up for a new adventure. (And also cuz he was cute. Duh.) He warned me that if we went, there was a portion of the trail on which you have to poop in a bag and carry it out with you. But how bad could that be, right?
I was all in. Of course we would want to go on a hiking/camping/backpacking trip with you. Of course pooping in a bag is no big deal. After all, I’ve pooped in a pit toilet on the side of the road in Tanzania. I do my best to be open to trying anything once in life. We gathered a group of friends to go.
Here is a list of things that I did not know when I said, “Yes! All in!”:
- Whitney is not a friendly little camping/hiking trip. Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the continental United States. Elevation: 14,505’
- The weather in the middle of summer can be in the 40s or lower at night.
- Distance backpacking, including cold weather requires quite a bit of weight on your back.
- My body does not create enough heat for a mummy bag to keep me warm in cold weather camping.
- I do not sleep well while camping when exhausted and cold and way above sea level.
- My body does not like exertion about 11,000’.
- Hiking Mt. Whitney with the guy in the UHaul would not produce the desired results…you know what I mean and you can just stop laughing right now.
We hiked a lot that spring. I was hiking 2-3 times per week. My legs looked awesome (first and only time in my life if I have been in that decent of shape.) We climbed Mt. San Jacinto (10,834’) together and braved a night of mid-20’s degree camping that we were grossly underprepared for and thought we might freeze to death. We day hiked Mt. Wilson, a steep 14 mile round trip. We did our best to pack light and distribute the weight evenly across our bodies. But the truth is you don’t know what you know until you know.
Day 1 of our trek was a lot of fun…and mostly flat. We hiked about 8 miles that day and hunkered down to camp. This wasn’t going to be so bad!
Day 2 was more difficult but still handle-able. The girls hiked steady as she goes while the guys veered off and climbed an additional couple of peaks. 10 miles for us, 15 miles for them.
Day 3 started so well. There is a lovely little video somewhere that shows how much we loved each other, all with smiling faces at 6am. We woke up in good moods and ready to face whatever came. Except we (the ladies) weren’t really prepared for what was coming. We caught a glimpse of Mt. Whitney that day a couple of hours before I discovered that my body hates altitude. By the time we took a break for lunch, I felt like shit, but I just figured that it was because I hadn’t slept well the three nights before. The guys decided to be helpful by grabbing our tents and hiking on ahead faster to get to camp and set it up by the time we got there.
I ended up feeling progressively weak and getting progressively slower all the while claiming that I was “fine.” Talk to my girlfriends and they’ll describe that “fine” looked a little bit more like a shuffling old man about to teeter off the side of a sheer rock face.
One of the guys, on a gut feeling, decided to come back down the trail and wait for us.
I would not have made it if, after several of my protests that I could “carry it myself”, Glen took my 30 pound backpack from me and put it on his front while he carried his on his back. I have a tendency to want to do things on my own and life consistently schools me about how I need other people.
Lesson #1: Most of the time you should carry your own backpack…but sometimes you can’t.
If Glen had not decided to pause and wait, we would never have made it to the other guys. When we reached the point where the ladies thought we were supposed to stop for the night, the guys weren’t there and we realized (mostly because some other people told us they had seen them) that they were farther down the trail. And by “down”, I mean a couple miles farther and hundreds of feet higher elevation. What was left of good cheer disappeared, and fear and physical agony turned to anger. It was too much. We had pushed too hard. We needed to rest but there was nothing to do but to keep going…because our gentleman friends had our tents…because they had run ahead to set up camp for us.
Lesson #2: Sometimes you just have to keep going but you’re probably capable of more than you think you are.
It did not help that we had run into a group of quite charming gentleman that referred to us along the trail that day and the next as “the abandoned girls” and claimed that they would never have left us alone to hike without us and offered for us to stay at their comfy, already set up camp site when they found that we had to hike on farther. Can you say “fuel on the fire?”
Some cussing out may or may not have occurred (not from me…but only because I was barely speaking at that point) as we rounded a bend and found our friends…
No tents set up yet. And it was getting dark. And I thought I might die.
Lesson #3: Sometimes you feel like you’re going to die…but you probably won’t. Try taking a nap and maybe eat something.
I did my best to shove in a few bites of food and crawled into my tent, shivering from cold and fatigue and lack of sleep. Glen boiled water, filled a Nalgene and handed it through the tent door. It was the first night of the trip that I stayed warm…and I slept like a baby.
Day 4 was the day we would summit. I woke up feeling much better than the previous day, strong enough to carry my pack again, and famished. There is no video from the beginning of day 4 looking like we love each other. Day 4 was hard, it was steep…and it was ugly.
The men didn’t seem phased by the miles and miles of rock, but I think we ladies were disheartened. It hadn’t occurred to me what life would be like above the tree line. It’s desolate and it’s cold. We have lots of photos from this trip with big smiles…but it was so hard. The most physically difficult thing I had ever done up to that point in my life. I didn’t like it, but there was nowhere to go but to keep going. (See Lesson #2)
I wanted to quit, and there is a point where you have a decision to do so. When you reach Trail Crest, you can choose to go the rest of the way or you can choose to descend the mountain. But quitting wasn’t really an option. I knew if I didn’t make that summit, I would regret it…and I also knew there was no way in hell that I would try to do it again. Onward.
Let me take a second here to let you know that day 4 is also when that whole pooping in a bag thing happens. Yes. Yes, I did.
Exhausted, frustrated, cold, at the end of myself, carrying a bag of my own poop.
We got to the top and to be entirely frank, I’m not the only person on that hike whose reaction was, “This is it? It’s just more rock.” I’m extremely proud of the fact that my name is in a visitor’s book up there but standing in the majestic beauty of the highest peak of the Sierra Nevada, all I wanted to do was go home. Well, really all I wanted to do was sleep but you can’t sleep at the top of the mountain. We took pictures, giggled at the marmots and rested for a bit before heading back down the mountain towards where we would camp for the night.
That was day 4.
Except it wasn’t all of day 4.
In addition to conquering a pretty admirable physical feat that day, I also got a much smaller, quieter and more precious gift that will last me for a lifetime.
Lesson #4: Keep your eyes open. There are treasures hidden in the rocky places.
On day 4, there were little purple flowers along the trail growing heartily out of the rock. There are no trees. There is no vegetation. There are hardly any other people on the trail that seem to notice them, but there are these perfect little purple flowers. I paused to really look at them, to really take them in. Where did they get any nourishment? Where did they get any water? How were they alive?
I’ve spent a lot of time in my life feeling like I was in rocky, desolate terrain. Though I’m in a really good place right now, a variety of very difficult life experiences and a struggle with depression often made me feel like I was trudging up an unconquerable mountain only to get to a peak and ask, “This is it? It’s just more rock?” So on day 4, I had a deep sense that the presence of these flowers was a gift to me. A tiny glimpse of beauty that I would never have been able to see had I not been willing to embrace an experience of pain.
The flower is called a Sky Pilot. It only grows in the Sierra Nevadas, primarily between 12,000’ and 14,000’. It mostly grows in rocky crevices where there is no soil so that it might survive the intensity of the mountain’s sunlight, wind and cold. It only grows from June to August right after the snow melts and when it blooms, the blooms are full for only one day.
And there they were, full blooms waiting to be seen all along the trail.
Most of my best learning moments come at times and from places that I least expect. They are the quiet whispers of God to my soul when I am at the end of myself, when I see no purpose, when I have tried to accomplish something grand and am disappointed in the journey.
On day 4, the tiny purple flowers on the side of the mountain whispered to me…I see you. Even when you feel like your life is full of nothing but rocky terrain, beauty will rise up from the ground.