Each year I take my own journey with a hiking friend on the Appalachian Mountain trail. While I would never claim to be hardcore or an expert at these quests, each Fall we make a point to meet up and spend at least a day or two hiking. It’s a time to walk in silent contemplation or friendly companionship while following the ever-present white blazes along the trees. Not always easy, sometimes grindingly difficult and boring, the trail still surprises one with small moments of calm and beauty. As fall arrives and the weather turns cool we clamor to return wearing heavy boots and often 25 plus lbs on our backs.
This year we had the grandiose notion of spending a whole two weeks on the trail - even mailing a box of food to a PO box midway (somewhere deep in Connecticut.) We are pumped up and cocky. We are strong and nothing can stop us, not even the ninety-degree weather when we to head out for a July jaunt instead of our usual one in October. It is our first real bid to claim the dream of one day “through hiking” the Appalachian Mountain Trail -or the “AT” as it is known- from Maine to Georgia. We are going to do this the right way – even taking the train to the trailhead – using the smallest carbon footprint possible.
This is what we thought. Well by the time the flash flood warnings had cleared for Connecticut and we got a lift to the trailhead, instead, we had shaved four days and about 30 miles off of our goal. Nonetheless, we headed out determinedly from Rt. 20 in Lee, Mass under overcast skies, plunging into the woods toward Dalton and Mt. Greylock in North Adams. When we reach our first shelter we are sweating, and grungy; exhausted and bitten by midges, which have followed us in a swarm up the mountain. But we were exhilarated by our accomplishment and just dirty and burdened enough to be mistaken for “through hikers” instead of two middle aged ladies out for a jaunt. We’d finally made it into what seemed the secret society of the trail. We learn from a “real through hiker” that he has just returned after 7 days off because he developed Lyme disease and was too weak to even stand. Although ordered to rest for three weeks, he is back after three days on medication and determined to do 23 miles the first day! The lure of the trail is that strong.
So just what is this lure? What makes otherwise sane adults, who own cars and houses and have jobs and mortgages, want to strap all their personal belongings on their backs and hit the mud and rock strewn path for weeks on end? That’s just what I began asking myself the next day. The 90+ weather did not abate and the uphill trudges were accompanied by long and slippery downhill slides, separated only by endless marshy bogs where one had to teeter along wooden planks balancing the load on the back in order not to fall into the muck. Sweat, thirst and heat were incessant, but there was no question of stopping. If you did you were eaten by the bugs. You had to continue trudging one heavy step after another, mile after mile, gulping as much tepid water as you could to keep from dehydrating and swatting the gnats, which went for eyes and ears like pin sized missiles.
I kept asking myself, ”Why am I here?” and “Do I actually think this is a good time?” As the through hikers zoomed past us on the slippery stretches, carrying almost nothing in their tiny packs - I began to fantasize and then perseverate about what was actually in the behemoth pack I was carrying. Tent – check, sleeping bag – check, water filter – check, food – check. What could I get rid of? Maybe I could just go without eating? And then the dehydration hallucinations began to set in no matter how much water I consumed. So after five days and 45 miles we booked a hotel room and called it quits.
And what did I have to show for my journey? Raw holes in my shoulders where the pack straps had dug in, a spreading poison ivy rash and 3 pounds of water weight gain. My companion fared worse with a stress fracture to her tibia from coming down the brutal 45-degree slope on the backside of Mt. Greylock. We were exhausted and beaten, certainly humbled and slightly demoralized. Yet oddly, we were still exhilarated and then almost at a loss the next morning when we had to put our packs (or the “beasts” as we had affectionately come to call them) in the trunk of a car rather than on our backs.
Reiki is a form of meditation and energy healing I have engaged in my daily life for many years. I have used it to help friends and family who were sick or stressed. Only recently have I been attuned as a Reiki master and yet with this greater capability for healing, I came to doubt the role Reiki played in my life. I felt a lessened presence of it in my life. It seemed almost as if in trying to force this skill the energy had dissipated.
While hiking the trail I had plenty of time for contemplation and yet very little of it was of a spiritual kind. It was more concrete – “If I eat half of my trail mix now then I won’t have to carry it up the next mountain,” or “Gee that hot spot on my foot is really starting to hurt – do I even have another Band-aide?” But when we scaled Mt. Greylock on our fourth day, more tired yet also more capable of endurance, the trail, which at times had seemed brutally punishing and downright ugly – seemed to take on a dewy glow – all beautiful moss and breeze filled vistas. When we reached the shelter, I lay in my personal little haven (a one person tent with sleeping pad under the trees) utterly spent, with no strength left and dozed off into a twilight sleep before dinner. During that sleep I had the distinct impression of a presence bearing the message to, “Leave behind the burden. Let it go here on the top of the mountain.” I woke from my nap with a strong feeling of energy and a memory of the message, which I knew was not literal or referring to the “beast” on my back, but rather figurative referring to the “beasts” I carried up the mountain in my heart. I went through my Reiki meditations in a manner more profound than I have recently experienced and ritually cleansed myself of various hurts, injustices and trials I had been holding onto. I literally dispelled these problems through my fingertips into the wind on top of Mt. Greylock.
Despite the scars and the toil, the grueling hours on the trail had taught me. They had brought me to centered place in my mind. Three months later, I am no longer so daunted by tasks that confront me whether they are walking 3 miles to the local store or negotiating difficult emotional tangles that occur with clients, students or my own family. My hours on the trail have taught me that “one foot in front of the other” eventually leads you to the goal if you can just believe in your ability to get there. I can literally walk from one mountaintop to another and see the valley below me in between. I am stronger and more capable of weathering highs and lows and much more capable than I imagined myself to be. And that has been enormously empowering.
Those of us who work in the mental health profession, with clients who are often over whelmed by the chaos of their lives and bewildering, debilitating symptoms, do well to remember the metaphor of “one step at a time” or even “baby steps” toward change. Every step counts and should be applauded. Each leads to another, and another and then eventually to forward movement. Dr. David Burns, author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy – a self-help guide for Cognitive Behavioral techniques, describes exposure therapy this way, “Patients with anxiety or phobias confront their greatest fears and realize they can survive and thrive” (Strauss, 2013). Recently I attended training for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, a meditative technique pioneered by John Kabat Zinn, which reminded me of the purpose of being in the moment and being really present in your body. He speaks of walking meditation, which makes one mindful of each step and our connection to the earth. Getting myself out on the trail – even a daily run around my block where I can attend to the steady beat of my heart and sound of my breath, has changed the rhythm and focus of my life. It does not have to be a hike on the Appalachian Trail or El Camino de Santiago, but a habit of physical journeying, can provide emotional and spiritual space. I highly recommend it.