In all my planning for our section hike of the Appalachian Trail last week, I apparently only read the blogs that talked about the incredible views I would see along the way. Mountain peaks and rolling hills. If folks wrote about their physical maladies and emotional challenges hiking the trail, I clearly glossed right over it.
We approach life the same way sometimes, don’t we? Anticipating the vistas. We focus our energies preparing for the successes, the celebrations, the beauty. Framing the snapshots we hope will tell the story of our journey. And that’s a good thing.
But if you’ve lived much life at all, you know the days will also come when you find yourself trying to walk with throbbing, blistered toes wrapped in black duct tape, certain you can’t take another step. When you wish your leaky bladder was a personal hygiene problem and not your water reservoir running out with 2.4 miles still to go. When you wander defeated in the blustery rain at the top of the mountain, unable to find the path down to the road.
To my friends who are on some rugged sections of the trail of life right now, concerned about what is over the next ridge, carrying a pack that’s far too heavy, I offer these words for the journey.
Be kind to yourself.
Hiking steep climbs in August with 30 pounds on your back and temps in the upper 80s is a special kind of fun. Every inch of me was soaking wet for three days straight, and it also rained. Mercifully, there are no mirrors in the woods, though I’m pretty sure I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the puzzled, horrified faces of two teenage girls who yielded the trail as this dripping Quasimodo dragging a mangled foot behind her passed them on their descent of the mountain. Fresh. Dry. Chipper.
Don’t judge yourself because you think you should be able to handle the journey like someone else does. It’s your mountain, your climb. Your struggle is not their struggle. Trust me, they have one of their own.
Life is hard where you are right now and you are awesome because you get up each day and put one foot in front of the other. You amaze me with your perseverance.
Lay down your burden regularly.
There are two things that are critical when your journey is stressful and the road is long — pace and peace. Muscle strain needs a rhythm of rest and recovery. The spirit and the mind, even more so.
Maybe it was a rookie move, but Wes and I decided we would stop every 30 minutes and take off our packs, which is no small task, loading and unloading that kind of weight. Just a few minutes to sit on a log, wipe off your face, drink some water, and maybe have a snack. Turns out it’s not so easy to walk and eat at the same time. Trail mix has an irritating capacity to get caught in your windpipe when you’re panting heavily.
In those few minutes of rest without the weight of the pack I was able to look around me. To notice the beauty of the tree canopy. The peaceful stillness of the forest. To appreciate where I was and who I was with. You lose sight of that when each step seems to demand your total focus. It was important to remember that my life was not waiting for me on the other side of this struggle. It was here in this moment in the challenging mix of beauty and strength and hope and trouble that is life.
Don’t wait until you “have time” to take care of yourself. Schedule times to lay down your burden. Often. Take a walk. Have a frappuccino. Laugh with a friend. A break to look forward to. A Sabbath rest where God can renew your spirit for the journey.
Let others help you.
Trail angels are said to abound on the Appalachian Trail, offering unexpected acts of kindness to hikers along the way. Their timing is uncanny, showing up most often when a hiker’s spirit is reaching a breaking point.
We overdid it on our first day. The first five miles were straight uphill and 14 miles was too long in the heat and the rain. I ran out of water at mile 12 and was an emotional puddle by mile 13. The last stretch was a steep gravel road with a hostel at the end where we would spend the night. Another tenth of a mile, or so, we thought.
When the driver of a Corvette stopped and yelled, “Cheer up! You’re almost there. Just a half mile left!” and drove away. I was done. I would just lay on the side of the road in the rocks and it would be fine. Or it wouldn’t. I didn’t care.
Then a pick-up truck came along and offered to drive us the rest of the way up the hill. I could barely say thank you, or even speak, when he let us out at a cabin where three of the Darlings were sitting on the front porch, rocking. Staring.
Cobb broke a smile and rushed to welcome us, saying he and Clyde and Lou would grab our packs. Carry our burdens. He got us a cold Pepsi and pointed us to a hot shower.
“Relax,” he said. “Just rest.”
There are moments when you just want to stop. When you have nothing left and you are empty. Trust that God will give you what you need when you need it. It may come in unexpected ways through unexpected people. Trail angels, even.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”( Joshua 1:9)