Lessons from the Trail: Never Evaluate the Journey in the Middle


When I Forget Why

We’d been trudging onward for what seemed like hours, switchback after switchback, up and up with the same rocks and trees and dry pine on every side. It had been difficult to leave the valley floor that morning from our lilting meander down from Mystic Camp. We’d been led from our campsite through a pleasant wood that opened up when we crossed the riverbed flowing from Mineral Mountain, and then along a curious ridge down into a valley. The open sky and short pines accompanying us on each side felt like a welcome break from the previous day’s unending ascent up to Dick Creek.

The morning’s landscape was full of foliage, but so low and friendly and uncluttered, it felt almost sparse. New growth invited us along its sloping walkway that led us to a brilliant view of Mount Rainier and a glimpse of Winthrop Glacier. Soon enough though, the trail had to lead upward, like the Wonderland Trail is wont to do over its 93 miles. But this ensuing stretch felt like another never-ending push, and now instead of a varied landscape and bright sky, a chill wind had come in, clouds had covered the mountain face, and the trail offered no new delights along the way, except patches of snow and deeper cold as we climbed.

It was not nearly as grueling as our previous day when we slogged out 14 miles and conquered one of the longest and steepest ascents of the trail. Then again, yesterday’s stresses piled themselves on top of today’s and it was only day two of nine. I was beginning to feel it and there was nothing to distract me but to put one foot in front of the other. All I could think was, “Do I really like doing this? Is another tree, another rock, another bush really that enticing for me to put myself through this?”

We reviewed the map numerous times as we went, anticipating the elevation gain and approximate mileage to our next landmark. We had heard of Skyscraper pass, the highest point on the trail, but I was more focused on how far up we were having to go to get there than think about what might await us. I tried to remind myself that the one of the greatest rewards of discipline was to finish something when we didn’t want to do it.

It wasn’t helping.

“Do I really like doing this?” came the thought again, “Why am I doing this?”

I tried once again to bolster myself. “When we get to the end of nine days, I’m going to look back at that line on that map encircling the mountain, glance up at its peaks, and think, ‘It was worth it.'”

It was a noble thought, but it still didn’t quite work. But then, the tree line began to disappear, and a meadow opened up into a serene sprawl. At the edge was the trail that branched up off and up the barren slope of Skyscraper Mountain. Oh finally.

But then we turned around back toward the mountain that was no longer hidden from view.

There it stood, brazen and glorious, wrapped in clouds like a majestic robe, appearing and disappearing in and out of their folds, with lesser mountains attending like courtiers, Mount Rainier unveiled before us. This was one of the grandest moments on our journey.

Another thought came, “Never evaluate the journey in the middle. Always wait until you’ve finished.”

Hope Worth Persevering For

The beauty of discipline and perseverance is their foundation in hope. We begin with a task because we hope for its end goal, but when the road is rough and the outcome is far from view, it is easy to forget the fervent desire that sparked the motivation to move toward that goal. The worst time to reevaluate our task is when, inevitably, harsh reality or difficulty rears its head. This is not to say that a change or at least a slight alteration in course is never wise, or that it is never an option to abandon the journey altogether; carefully recounting the cost in the middle can prevent us from making costlier decisions. However, more often than not, our reevaluation is born of discouragement detached from the original vision. Our reevaluation diminishes the value of the end goal, and underestimates the power of the process to transform us. Persevering through these moments raises the standard of hope over our progress, proclaiming that the end goal is worth it.

For how can we know how we will grow or what we will learn? How can we estimate or foresee what will transpire, not only resulting from our present course, but the myriad ways this journey will impact the remainder of our lives? As we look back upon our lives, we remember brief moments where an off-chance conversation inspired the next step, where a new viewpoint changed our perspective, and where an unexpected meeting turned into a valuable connection. These are the millions of moments we have almost missed.

As I stood on the sub-alpine plain surveying the landscape, I breathed in a deep sigh. Oh right. This is why I do this.

And not just for the view, but the pain and process it took to get here. Now I know something about myself — that I can do it.

And it was worth it.


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