Photograph by Ellen Smith
Now she walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step she takes
Her sight has turned inside herself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake
Adapted from ‘Rocky Mountain High’ by John Denver
It was the serene, delicately foggy alpine passage on the tundra of Monarch Pass that sticks with me the most. A relatively small series of footsteps given all the miles walked, but ones in which consciousness, the watcher on the hill, swiftly expanded, shrouding me in the feeling of utter peacefulness. It was short but sweet, quite profound actually, one of those experiences that lives on as a visceral memory.
This was immediately preceding the steady descent, during the waning evening light, when my knees gripped my attention and didn’t let go for even a single step in the days and miles that followed. But that’s old news really: knees screaming at the occasional backpacker for reprieve, a reprieve that even the max amounts of Advil and Tylenol doesn’t touch. Suffering can take you to special places. Places where you are given the chance to embody processes like surrender, acceptance, resilience, and perseverance.
Life offers an abundance of opportunities to work through the many forms of suffering that exist. Diving into the details of a backpacker’s discomfort is not exactly high on the list of types of suffering that pull on one’s compassionate heart strings. I do think though that there is one thing about it worth looking at, and that is the uniqueness of having these kinds of experiences out in the awe-inspiring, vast expanse, and deep solitude of nature.
There’s no grasping for modern comforts. There are no real distractions. There’s just you, your pack, and whatever surrounds you. Sometimes it’s stunning and has you feeling exhilarated. Other times it really sucks and you just want to be plucked out of the situation, which of course you can’t so the more likely scenario is that you somehow just carry on until you are emptied enough of defeat to surrender and start letting acceptance wash over you. Acceptance of your situation, your limitations, the shadow sides of yourself, the fact that suffering in all its varied forms is simply a part of the human condition.
The starkness of solitude in nature offers you a reflection of your inner state, and can quickly put things in perspective in a simultaneously soft and harsh way. Harsh in the hardness and unrelenting side of nature, that feels bone dry and unnerving. And soft in the nurturing, fluid demeanor of Mother Nature and all her creatures.
“When, at long last, we gaze into our own depths, we see the same kind of enchantment and resilience we see in undisturbed nature. And when we journey far enough from the routines of our civilized lives – in space or in cultural distance, far enough, that is, into wilderness – we see reflected back to us the essential qualities of our deepest selves”.from Soulcraft by Bill Plotkin
The variety of what each day on the trail can be like is really just like the rest of everyday life. Some are super pleasant, some are extraneously hard, some feel like elation, others like monotony, one hill is like a dance, the next mountain like a wall. I found solace in birds, water, the scent of the forest, a rainfall, the crisp cool air, the top of a pass, really nutritious food, my hiking friend. Solace in the simplicity of choices each day, just putting one foot in front of the other over-and-over, finding synchronicity with nature, just being. These solaces carried me through some tough spots and fueled resilience and perseverance, they did not however help with the fact that I had blown through anything in my first aid kit that would help with blisters.
Joining up at the end of a long hiking day with my faster moving friend to a heartfelt “Hello. Hi. I’m glad you’re here” was the soothing balm I needed. The relief, lightness and absolute joy of finally putting down my pack for the day, taking off my shoes and socks. The routine of setting up the tent and making an absolutely outstanding dinner (seriously, we’ve got the backpacking dinner thing down). Watching my friend lob her rock up hoping for the perfect bear hang. Washing away the salty mixture of sweat and tears in whatever mountain water was nearby. Laying horizontal, finally, in the tent. Listening to the thunder dance around us and the rain knock on the rainfly. Then the silence, maybe a howl from nearby coyotes, the smell of the rich, cool mountain earth and air. In this bliss, I almost forget about my knees and the pain I endured that day, almost.