TO STOP STRUGGLING, PAY IT FORWARD – The Learning Lessons Series

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My energy is high, as I leave the Bear Lake parking lot, heading to the Fern Lake trailhead, 9 miles away. Walking along the eastern portion of the lake, I feel relieved to get away from the people who are milling around the trailhead. Wanting to be alone, I energetically, and often rudely pass by less-adept hikers.

An ever–so-gentle breeze caresses my hair, forcing me to look up. There, hands cupped over my eyes to protect them from the morning sun, I see three popped-corn shaped clouds floating lazily above Flattop Mountain. I am grateful for this moment, and look forward to many more of them today. If only people would leave me alone.

Sounds of my size-15 hiking boots crunching the small rocks on trail interrupt the moment. Each crunch awakens my muscles. Every step activates my lungs. The fanny pack—containing a jacket, windbreaker, lunch, and water—settles on my hips. I am energized, and eager to hike. At a fork in the trail, I head eastward to Fern Lake. I am alone, finally.

The trail steepens. As it does, my cadence slows, breathing intensifies, and leg muscles burn. One switchback follows another, each steeper than the last. My shirt becomes wet from exertion. Sweat stains the brim of my hat. It runs down my forehead, mixes with the sunscreen on my face, and drips into my eyes. Making them burn like hell.

I pause to tend my eyes, breathe deeply, and drink water. Looking down, over the edge of the trail, I know I should appreciate the majestic view below of Bear Lake, but do not care. Miles to go, I forge on…alone.

Up another switchback, then another, alone, I trudge on ever so slowly. My head throbs, back hurts, and legs ache. Doubt joins me. Why am I hiking this trail? What am I trying to prove? Can I even make it to the Fern Lake Trailhead? What if I do not?

I am pondering these questions when the trail narrows as it crosses a field of boulders. They are still with me when the trail takes a sharp rightward turn. On one side is a massive granite wall, the other, a precipitous drop. The footing is treacherous. Mind numb, I slip, but catch myself. Damn, that was close.

Scared, depleted, no energy to spare, little hope, I seek comfort on a rock. Sitting there, I drink water. Eat four fig bars. Rub my forehead. As I do, doubt keeps me company.

What to do? Should I turn around? Thump, thump, thump beats my heart. Every breath is like sandpaper on my parched lips.

pay-it-forward-images-002Crunch, crunch, crunch… the sound of boots on the narrow trail. I look up just as a man and woman come around the granite wall. They are from where I am going. As he squeezes by me, he smiles then nods. Following closely behind him, she proffers a “nice day to hike”. As quickly as they showed up, crunch, crunch, crunch, they are gone. Reflecting on what just happened, I think, “If they can do it, so can I.”

Standing up, I feel a twinge of energy. My steps seem lighter. Breathing is less strained. As I forge on, hope joins doubt and me.

Further ahead, I see a large olive-colored snake winding along the trail. As the snake gets closer, I am relieved to realize that it is seven girl scouts, each in an olive-green scout uniform, each wearing a large, same colored backpack. All are whistling, a happy tune. Stepping in perfect cadence.

As I pass the first girl, the tune jumps into my head. When I pass the second, the tune goes from my head to my lips. By the time I pass the seventh girl, I too, am whistling a happy tune. I notice that hope is also whistling, and doubt is lagging behind. They, like the other people I encounter on the trail, come from where I now go. Their tune and lively steps lift my spirit.

Whistling, with renewed energy and a lively cadence to my step, I come upon a young man resting against a rock. I can tell from his countenance that doubt has found him, his energy is spent, and he is confused about what to do next. Whistling the happy tune, I walk by him. Our eyes meet. I give him a big wink, nodding my head in his direction as I do. He nods back. Then sits up. In this moment, I feel the commonality of our respective journeys. Understand that he is me. Our struggles are the same.

pay-it-forward-images-003Walking on, I look at the majestic mountains. Catch a glimpse of Lake Odessa, far below the trail, in amongst the trees. Listen to the roar of a nearby stream. Let the shimmering leaves of the aspens mesmerize me.

A strange, warm feeling—unlike anything I have ever felt before—arises from deep within me. It permeates my being, rejuvenates my legs, relaxes my mind, soothes my lips and eyes, and helps me see clearly. I look around. Doubt is gone. And hope is heading back up the trail toward the young man whom I just left.

From this point on, every hiker I encounter along the final stretch of the trail gets a smile, nod, or kind word—sometimes, all three—from me. I have learned the lesson of this trail. I now see that each gesture, however small, is a conveyance of hope, an antidote to doubt, a soulful balm. Each encounter is part of an intricate, yet ever-expanding web of positive energy. All fuel the warm feeling within me.

I understand that a nod received leads to a nod given. A smile begets other smiles. On it goes, endlessly, hopefully. What you need, give. What you get, pay forward.

Driving away from the trailhead, I look at Flattop Mountain in the rearview mirror. I think about the mountains I am meant to climb. That many of them are within me. The trails to their peaks often wind through valleys of despair, across streams of struggle, and have dark clouds of doubt. Having learned the lesson of the trail, I now understand that while my mountains are unique, my struggles are not. Struggle is common. It is, when we connect others, where we find hope. Let’s pay that forward.

Mark 


Note: This is the 15th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

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