There are people who joyfully strap on a 40-pound backpack and charge up the mountain. I am not one of those people. But with the support of family and the desire not to be left behind in the heat of a Tidewater summer, in August 2005 I found myself walking next to the Merced River heading toward a 10,000-foot pass. That was our family’s first backpacking trip along the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevadas in California; four more followed, and with luck and health there will be more to come.
On the trail you have a lot of time to think. The trail is life’s journey in miniature, sharpened and simplified. Here is what I have learned.
1. Travel light. As newbies, we grievously miscalculated how much food we would need. This is not surprising because our approach to packing food was to avoid the fate of the Donner party. On one memorable trip, we left about seven pounds of assorted dried fruit, gorp and Cliff Bars at a trail camp for others. There are profound questions here: What is enough? What do we choose to carry with us? What can we lay down? Why did we pack enough gorp for the cast of Glee?
2. Maps are good. But they don’t tell the whole story. The undisputed leader of our trips is a cousin who has been hiking the Sierra Nevadas for about 30 years. He NEVER leaves without his maps, which are now covered with notes about various trips, such as Carole did a face plant here. He is the first to admit that while maps are a key part of preparation, they don’t tell you about how high the streams will be, how much bear activity there is, if the mosquitoes have been doing yoga all winter to make sure they can get under your face net, or what to do if you need to change plans suddenly.
On one trip we hit unrelenting bad weather and decided to exit the trail early. We opted for a shortcut on an unmaintained trail that included a 12,000-foot pass and a brutal descent. No map could have prepared us for 13 hours of boulder-hopping, rocky ledges, and countless stream crossings. We may have a life plan, we may have prepared carefully, but there might be a giant, difficult detour to be overcome —one step at a time.
3. Help people along the way. Okay, we never have mastered the food thing. On our trip last summer, one member of our party made it to the top of a pass before we did. He met two high schoolers and one youth group who were running out of food. This person, who was fully aware that my husband was carrying his customary overload of gorp, offered the excess to this group in advance of our arrival. Coming up the trail to the pass, I was momentarily nonplussed by the Donner-like stares of the groups awaiting us. You share what you have.
4. Learn from your mistakes. You can get in trouble despite experience, proper equipment, and a plan. On another memorable trip we stopped to have lunch next to a stream. The clouds gathered and we packed up quickly. Thinking that this was going to be a brief shower as all of the others had been, we didn’t put on rain pants. Sixty seconds after we were on the trail, the skies let loose with a combination of hail and rain. In no time the trail was a deep slurry of hailstones and icy water. We still didn’t stop to put on the rain pants, which while they couldn’t keep us from getting wet – our pants were already soaked – they would’ve have provided some insulation. And, we slogged right through the many stream crossings, which meant that now our boots were soaked, too.
Our leader charged on thinking that the effort would keep us warm. We hiked through the cold rain for a couple of hours until it let up and we found a place to pitch our tents. Hypothermia is a real danger in the Sierras year round and our trip could have ended badly. When we stopped my hands were shaking so energetically that I could not take off my pack or help set up the tent. I have thought a lot about this episode. It is easy to miss warning signs and to compound one bad decision with another. We plunged ahead and did not give ourselves time to fully consider what was happening. Making good decisions may be the hardest thing we do in life besides loving unconditionally.
5. Reaching your goal means looking back, too. The good and bad thing about hiking in the Sierras is that while you have incredible mind-bending vistas, everything looks ridiculously far away. I’ve lost count of how many times I have thought, “There is no freaking way we are getting there today,” and then once we have arrived, looking back to where we had come from with awe and appreciation. Besides the fact that it is true that every single muscle in your body can hurt at the same time, I have learned that appreciating how far we have come is just as important as reaching the goal.
Being on the trail and learning its lessons, reinforces for me that we are on this unpredictable life journey together. When Lutheran Family Services went through a soul-searching rebranding last year, what we discovered is that our value is in helping people find a better path and restoring to them life’s rich promise. That’s a hike that I am proud to be part of.
Carole Todd, the director of marketing and communications for Lutheran Family Services, made it to the top of Mt. Whitney in 2011.