When I was younger, my family would every so often head out for a weekend hike. My little cousin spent most of the miles perched on my uncle’s shoulders, enjoying the best view with the least amount of work. But when he got too tired to carry her, he would plop her down on the ground and say, “Just use your legs until we reach the next tree,” or, “until we stop and have an M&M break,” or, “just a little longer.” The miles became measured by these conversations—by negotiations that would somehow, eventually, and always lead us to the top of the mountain.
As I boarded the bus from New York City to Bear Mountain, these conversations fluttered back into my mind. This time, I would voluntarily be heading out onto the trail. No one was insisting. No one was bribing me with hot dogs and Hershey’s Bars. No one would hoist me up onto their shoulders if I decided I needed a break. In short, the only person I would need to negotiate with for the coming hours would be myself (and my sweet friend Caitlin who agreed to tag along).
About an hour into the drive, the bus commenced a very precarious climb up the steep edge of a mountain. For a hot second, we were fairly certain we would topple over the edge of the road and meet a scenic death. But we lived. And twenty minutes later, we arrived at Bear Mountain State Park. No skyscrapers, no sirens, no stench of mystery meat leaking from falafel carts. We’d left the city buzzing somewhere distant and unimportant. The mountains stretched tall above us, shattering the outside world all together. It was pretty goddam beautiful.
We were lost the second we got off the bus. No clear marker showed where the trails began, so we stood dumbfounded until a group of hikers with a legitimate air about them began walking confidently down a gravel path. We stayed a few steps behind the group and their walking sticks, hoping to God that we weren’t accidentally leaving our fate to a clan of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. As we continued down the path, we reached a white pop-up tent with a sign that read, “Ask us about your hike.” Don’t mind if we do.
We consulted with a kind-hearted woman who surmised the somewhat-valid truth that Caitlin and I have some measure of athleticism. Or at the very least, bravery. She recommend a 4-mile hike promising a fantastic view, only warning us that the rocky, jagged climb up the mountain would be somewhat rigorous.
About a quarter mile into the hike, we hit a shaft of rock that seemed to move straight upwards into the thick tree-line above. There was no end in sight. We began the trek upwards, gripping the stone with our fingers. Hiking requires a kind of scrupulous, yet playful concentration. While you puzzle your way upwards, you disappear into the activity. It’s only when you stop to pause that you realize you’re sticky with sweat, desperate for breath, and wobbling on the motionless earth beneath you. It’s miraculous.
As we made our way ever closer to the top, I thought about how much time I spend negotiating with myself during the day. You can get a chocolate chip cookie later if you go on your run. You buy those yoga pants you’ve been looking at if you don’t eat out this week. And so on. I thought about an “Invitation” I’d read earlier that morning, written by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, that reads:
“I want to know if you can be with the joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, remember the limitations of being human . . . I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.”
Oriah’s words asked me to consider what might happen if I greeted those ifs with silence. What would happen if I met those moments of desire with a soft curiosity that paralleled the obstacles I embraced on the hike? What if I sat with the feeling of yearning without moving to fulfill or extinguish it? The ecstasy of the hike isn’t really making it to the top (although that is spectacular).
The joy, for me at least, arrives in each micro-movement, each instant I come face-to-face with myself. I’m not hiding or trying to fulfill any goal that lies outside my own skin. I’m moving deeper into myself. And honestly, it might be more mysterious, more gorgeous, and more wondrous than anything I could find at the peak of a mountain.
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