The green was missing. In its place, black charcoal, burnt wood. The steps remained the same. The distance to cover unchanged. Progress seemed slower. No cover from the sun. Stark. Bare. In its perverted burnt beauty the forest had changed, turned unforgiving, no longer a flow of life and motion pushing and pulling us along our path. Now a slog.
It’s hard to get going some days. Depression at times pays a visit and brushes my cheek. It’s slight, but my outlook does take on a dark cloud and the tasks of life, not to mention accomplishment, take on a weight greater than their own. The touch of darkness passed down from father to son I suppose, darkness so indulged by the father that it left an indelible mark on the son, and perhaps an indelible awareness. I know what’s happening, can step outside my thoughts and identify them, at times. Not enough to immediately lift the clouds, clouds that filter all that is so good, but enough to not get lost, enough to make my way out of the black woods. At those times motion is the only medicine and yet motion is what is most laborious, one foot in front of the other requiring outsized portions of will.
As we hiked through a burned out section of backcountry forest on the John Muir trail last summer, mile after grinding mile of charred trees and ground, I wished for it to end long before it was reasonable to expect an end, and wished for change when none was in site. Wish in one hand, shit in the other…. At some point, focused on the thought of each tedious step, a concept occurred to me: I was walking through aspects of my own psyche.
I believe people who go on an adventure of some sort are seeking the unexpected challenge that will show itself, and it is this challenge, or these series of challenges, that become the story and the takeaway of the trip. Maybe the seeming predictability of every day life leaves a void deep within us, and the ever present challenges of every day survival (not being hit by the random distracted driver a mile away that’ll wind up running that red light) reside so far beneath our awareness as to not exist unless they pop up to maim, kill, or scare the shit out of us. We can spend unlimited time making sure nothing goes wrong, and that’s time well spent within reason, but I believe the challenge, the event, the crisis, the problem to be solved, and the revelation, is deep down what we seek.
It doesn’t have to be life threatening. Big or small, external or internal, the only requirement is that it be true.
If I could muster putting one foot in front of the other consistently enough, I would leave the parched black coal remnants of forest and see hints of green and renewed momentum. Surely I would. It was hard to move, harder than it was in the lush sections of any other day; as it is when the black clouds descend. Truthfully there was no other choice, given location, and there was no reason anyone on the trip couldn’t keep walking until the surroundings improved. But it felt hard. It sucked. How sad it would be to give into that. To give in to stasis. I’ve seen how that looks. I’ve seen it through a child’s eyes, watched as night after night it sat at the kitchen table, in the dark, lost in itself. A man who for some reason and at some point had taken his pack off and decided to sit on a sooty stump of his burned out forest, flailing from time to time, pacing in circles, cursing the black trees and soot-filled ground, yet never leaving them.
That’s never been me.
The story of one particular day on the John Muir Trail, as much as climbing Half Dome, dealing with altitude sickness, and completing a first family multi-day backpack, is the story that stuck with me. It is imagery I’ve come back to from time to time. That walk through a consumed forest was by far my least favorite moment on the trail, but it was probably my most valuable. One walk, over several miles, had a direct effect on what the next year would be. Half Dome, altitude sickness, completion: those are our stories of the adventure. One day amongst blackened trees: that is my story of the adventure.
On the eve of another trip into the High Sierras, I remain grateful for it, and for revelations to come.
Get out there.