I open the van door. The cold of the morning slaps me in the face. Thank God for layers. There is one other vehicle spilling hikers into the gravel parking lot. Isolated sounds of maneuvering packs, zippers, shoes grinding pebbles. We mechanically strap on our packs, grab our poles and set off towards the trail head. I am not fully awake but neither is the woods. We are in that special silence, the space before the world wakes. When the sun has yet to rise but it is no longer dark.
We are intruders – we did not knock first. But we move forward, silently, light footed, as if we all share this feeling of intrusion.
The only sound — our hiking boots scratching the earth in a messy, out of sync tempo. We march forward.
Gradually the sun begins to rise, specks of light begin to make it through the branches of this dense valley. I imagine we have entered the land of the fairies. I see little moss houses that make up their village. Rocks maneuvered just so to designate the tribes of the fairy world. I tread even lighter and silently beg my fellow hikers to do the same.
My mind flashes back to the past. I’m sitting on the floor watching Fern Gully with my sons. The movie is about a fairy land invaded by bulldozers and tree cutters clearing the land for houses and, in my imagination, the same strip malls that repeat themselves across America. The tree fairies unite to save their magical world. It is a touching story. I can’t help but feel there are 20 of these little tree spirits under the shadow of my foot — right now fleeing for safer ground. I begin to tip toe. The person behind me must think I’m daft.
Back to the present.
We come to an opening and the light is so brilliant I have to close my eyes and allow them a moment to adjust. When I re-open I am dazzled. Before me is a pond covered in a blanket of midst magically lifting as we stand witness. The warmth of the sun pulling the midst up as the earth loosens its grip on the roots, inviting them to release. And the lighting. Oh man. It’s like jazz music. The first notes of muted pinks and then a twang of orange followed by the sweet smooth sound of blue.
We stop here to have a snack and a drink. Still no one is talking. Funny to me. As if we all made a secret pact to be quiet and allow the world to wake up in peace. Giving ourselves and each other the gift of connecting to nature, just for a moment. Awkward silence normally beckons me to chatter. Not today. Almost on queue we begin to pack up our snacks and stand, stretch, and fall in line, merging back into a light-footed chain up the mountain.
Without warning it begins to steepen. I am no longer looking for fairy villages. I am looking straight down at my feet. I take in the six feet in front of me so I know where I should land my next step. I focus on the laces of my hiking boots. How many steps these Merrill’s have cradled my feet in. Steps multiplying into miles. Miles of the different terrain they have walked me. I notice the color of my socks — striped blue, indigo, purple, and gray. They make me think of the landscape we took in so calmly a short time ago. There is no calm landscape here. It is steep. Rocky. Roots jutting out as if to interrupt my foot asking – are you sure you want to keep going? Do you really have it in you to make this climb? Hell, yeah, I do.
I can hear the heavy steps of those around me. We are marching in sync – with the gravelly sound of rocks disrupted. We no longer care if we are waking the earth beneath us. Our awareness has moved inside.
I notice the burning in my lungs as they inflate. The scream of my IT band connecting my right knee to my hip. I grip the handles of my walking poles sending a subliminal thank you to my fellow hiker that insisted I take them. I want to stop, fall back in line and let the others pass me, but I don’t. I am held in the momentum and support of the group. Propelling me forward. Just one foot in front of the other. That is all I need to do right now.
The pitch begins to flatten out and I find a cadence to my breath slowing to a more manageable speed. I am grateful for this reprieve. We take a thousand steps to adjust. I know this because counting steps is something I do to stop my mind from wandering into dangerous territory. Ruminating on my past or petrifying myself about my future. No. No. Not going there. One. Two. Three. Nine Hundred Sixty-Two…
It was at step 1046 that I bumped mindlessly into the person in front of me and felt a little nudge from behind. I looked up. Our leader was smiling and broke our silence with a heavy laugh “feeling awake mates?” He was from Australia. But this southern island of New Zealand was his playground. I loved his jagged accent and my attention to it veered from my ears to my eyes as I took in the rickety rope path hanging over the endless drop just behind him. This looked to be the only way forward. Thankful I only had a Lara Bar in my stomach. I wanted to puke.
“Okay. Only one person at a time on the bridge. Not because it can’t handle more than one (he laughs) but it begins to sway with more people and that tends to make some uncomfortable.”
Seriously? You are freakin’ kidding me. Simultaneously we give up our secret pact of silence and began talking. There is fear, elation, boasting, and then there is me – my silence speaks louder than any other voice. I am contemplating the hike down on my own. I decide I will just meet the group at the van — wait for them to finish. The leader is oddly able to read my mind.
“You know you can do this, right? I have watched you tackle stuff this week that you did not believe you could. And you did. This is just one more thing to help you realize you are stronger than you think. It only takes one foot in front of the other. Take as long as you need.”
I was aware of the group energy focused on me. “Kathy, you go in the middle. That way you will see half of us over there ready to receive you and the other half behind you prodding you along.”
The confident ones go first. Whether this was choreographed or just happened, it was the right thing. They made it look enjoyable and easy. No big deal. Then it was my turn. Amelia was singing to me. The song from Hoosier that we were belting out on yesterday’s hike, “Take me to church….” Oh, good song choice Amelia. I need the help of God right now for sure.
My first step sent the bridge shifting, adjusting to my weight. My other leg, my left, just hung in the air not daring to incite more swaying. “Two. Two. Two.” The group was aware of my counting steps obsession. I lowered my left foot and then my right. I dug deep into my very being to magically raise all the knowledge I have accumulated in my years of yoga, Pilates, and meditation. Balance, surrender, core power. I counted. I could hear laughter before me and encouragement behind. At step one hundred and seventeen my foot hit solid ground. I exhaled in delight as the pack embraced me. Instantly aware I held my breath for 116 steps, I finally exhaled. My knees were shaky. I sat down. As I did the circle of cohorts broke away to cheer the next person across. As they pulled away I looked to where I had come from and my eyes filled with tears. It seemed that this moment was the culmination of the journey I have been on for months. I crossed over a deep dark abyss. Peering down to see a raging river dotted by sharp large masses of rock and ledge. Before me a precarious bridge weaved and strengthened by rope and wooden slats. But here I am. On the other side.
On the bridge stood my friend Maria, frozen in fear. “You got this. Just one foot in front of the other.” I yelled.
The sun felt warmer. The earth smelled sweet and fresh. The sky was a mystical blue. I was able to tune in emotionally to the people around me ignoring the words they spoke. We were all high from our accomplishment. I felt myself falling back in love with life.
On my hike down I took a moment. A few waves of wisdom…
There are times we just need to dig in and go inside for a while. Take care of ourselves. Feel out lungs inflate and our IT bands scream. We are alive and sometimes being alive just hurts.
Count the connections that surround you in times of need. Be mindful. The connections are not always from your inner circle. They may be in the form of a meme on social media, reminding you that you are enough. Or a license plate in front of you announcing OL GOOD.
Allow yourself to look back and see how far you have come.
Perhaps your journey may not be over. Know you have crossed over some dark spaces, and survived.
Wherever you stand on your path – hiking a steep incline, crossing a black abyss, on a straight wide swath – know that to get through them takes one step forward. That is it.
Glance back and see how far this journey has allowed you to travel. Any valuable lessons learned?
“Backward steps are not always negative ones, as usually it’s the universe’s way of holding us back, as we just aren’t quite ready to enter into new dynamics or commitments—and often, the challenges we face are what we have magnetized toward us, as within them holds everything we need to heal and change.”