Silver Linings and Life Lessons from a terrible hike

Posted: 11/16/2020

I hiked sixteen cold, muddy miles into a cloud to see absolutely nothing. 

I woke up at 5 AM, drove over an hour, couldn’t stop for longer than ten or fifteen minutes due to the cold, slipped and fell into a mud puddle, and when I finally reached the summit, I was completely socked in by a cloud. Why in the world would I do such a thing?

After several rescheduled attempts to get up to the mountains, I had Mount Colvin and Blake Peak on the docket for the day, #22 and #23 in my quest to hike all 46 High Peaks. It was a cold November day – my car registered at 27 degrees Fahrenheit when I started out at 7:40 AM – but the first few flat miles were relatively uneventful, till a scenic trail alongside nearly a dozen waterfalls began to build my excitement for the summit. Colvin was reputed to have excellent views. Blake was a wooded summit with no view, but at least was only a mile and a half from Colvin’s summit – after the six miles to Colvin, that would be a piece of cake. I was even entertaining the thought of tacking two more mountains on to my trek.

Then I hit the cloud.

I’d seen it coming for a while. I’d noticed that the surrounding peaks were pretty misty. But I got fully into it around 3,000 feet of elevation, right about when the most intense part of the ascent began. As a result, the rocks became wetter – multiple hazardous spots slowed my ascent. My breaks had to become shorter even as I became more tired, since the cold would set in much faster. And of course, when I finally hit the summit, I could not see a thing. The wind howled at me, all alone at my lonesome summit, with trees and dense white all I could see. My upper body held up, but more thinly layered lower body began to shiver. I didn’t even have time to eat my sandwich. And Blake? Well…let’s just say the out-and-back trip there took just as long as the whole trip to Colvin, even though it was half as far. Though I was right about the snow melting, I had neglected to consider what snow leaves when it’s done melting…mud. Astonishing amounts of mud. Blake, apparently displeased that this wasn’t enough of a deterrent, hurled sleet and snow and wind and ice at me till it finally chased me off its summit after ten more miserable minutes.

I began to envy the couple I had seen go down to Indian Head – a much lower mountain with gorgeous lake views, low enough to be out of the cloud. I’d done a much harder hike for far less reward. Why in the world would I do it – sixteen miles of hard, cold, muddy hiking for no view?

As I went back over Colvin, swathed in clouds a second time, I began to wax philosophical. Because I couldn’t help but admit…despite it being an objectively terrible hike, I was having a great time.

There was something about the cloud. Watching the wispy clouds blown past me by the raging wind. Sitting in pure solitude accompanied only by my thoughts, my meandering prayers, and the noise of the gusts. There was something about the mud and snow and ice – fighting tooth and nail to climb up this stupid mountain, growling at it and heaving my body up ridiculous alternative routes. There was something about the pure adrenaline of the cold and wind. Sure, I missed the views – the sun – the company – but being alone in the clouds brought its own gifts.

And that’s when it clicked –

2020 is a cloudy year.

I had great anticipations heading into my second year as a pastor, second year of community building, first year of marriage. Places to go, things to do, family to visit, church events to plan – and then the pandemic came and slammed everything. My wife and I have chosen to remain socially distant, at times to the disappointment of people around us. Leading a church of diverse opinions, navigating social networks with different approaches, and just longing to go out for a milkshake – the year certainly hasn’t brought some of the great views I expected.

Often, like longingly watching the couple go down to Indian Head, I wish it were different. I try to wish the pandemic or the frustrations of this year away. But as I sat and hiked in the cloud, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a lesson for me to learn.

Yeah, I love the views of the hikes. That’s what drives me to the high peaks – the breathtaking glimpses you can get from the top of the world are unlike anything else. To lose them is a huge bummer. But there are other things you get from the clouds that you just don’t get on the sunny days…the solitude, the challenge, even a unique beauty. I caught a glimpse of one snow-covered tree on Mount Colvin’s summit – a tiny, insignificant beauty that I hardly would have noticed if my eyes were intoxicated with sweeping views.

Could it be that a cloudy pandemic year also has its benefits? Could it be that there are things to be seen that would otherwise be unseen, challenges to be relished and character built that would otherwise go unchecked, even a gift in the quiet and solitude that has driven me back to prayer the same way the solitude did in the mountains? 

Cloudy hikes are hard, and sometimes disappointing. So are cloudy years. But I discovered on my cloudy hike that there was a lot of beauty to be found, a lot of joy to be found, once I was willing to accept my decision to tackle the high peaks and forgo Indian Head. I couldn’t help but wonder if, maybe instead of wishing away the challenges that have come with the year, I might eventually discover them to be their own beautiful gift – with all the mud, ice, solitude, and cold that they bring. No, it’s not a pleasant season, and it can’t be survived forever. But maybe it will be looked back at one day, maybe even with a strange fondness.

On my way down, I finally emerged from the cloud, after five frigid hours and a few grueling miles. I checked the time. If I hurried – or “hurried” as best as I could twelve miles into a tiring hike – I could still catch a view of Indian Head before it got dark, even though it meant hiking down in the dark and maybe driving back in the snow and adding time onto my already exhausting day and missing more time with my wife at home.

Instead I looked out over the partially-obscured, tree-covered mountains with the sun beginning to poke out, and decided that, rather than long to be somewhere else, I would appreciate the sun from where I was.

And I hope I can do the same in my cloudy year, too.

Am I moralizing my hike so I feel better about hiking sixteen miles through mud to see nothing but trees and clouds? Quite possible.

But maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow to start another week of a couple virtual meetings that we wish were in person, a church service that we wish felt more normal, in a world we wish weren’t so broken, and I might find a few more things to cherish in it.

And if that’s the result – then it’s worth hiking sixteen miles in a cloud.

~Pastor Steve

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